Friday, 31 July 2015

Review: The Walking Dead: Season Two

Written between 19th March and 31st July 2015. Spoilers. 

Ask a Walking Dead fan about Season Two and there's likely to be some grumbling about "that damn farm," and "they should just kill Sophia already." After the relatively brief first season, the show's sophomore outing got a double-length season of 13 episodes, split in half (of course, this is US TV). While Season One had been an interest to critics, Season Two is where the show began courting some mainstream popularity. Which is confusing, given this is a season full of frustrating character decisions, a long-winded and dry storyline and, true to what I mentioned earlier, that damn farm. Season Two does have a few cracking episodes and it gives us some fairly interesting and long-lived characters, but at the same time it takes a certain amount of commitment to keep coming back each week.
     One thing to bear in mind about these infrequent Walking Dead reviews: I haven't seen these seasons in about two or three years. And I really don't know if I can set aside the time to go back and watch 10-12 hours of television. I'm not entirely sure why this show's season length increases so dramatically from the initial mini-season to 13 and then 16 episodes, but it doesn't actually help the show that much. We do get some more character beats for that extra time, but in Season Two those beats are focussed on one or two characters - which, for an ensemble piece, means that most of the cast has to deal with obnoxious filler. Examples of which include: Andrea shooting Daryl because she thought he was a walker; Lori crashing her car on an empty highway; Daryl being taunted by a hallucination of his brother, and Carl having a teenage strop which inevitably leads to Dale's death.
     Maybe the filler isn't the best place to start. This season's main developing storyline sees our survivors, having escaped from the CDC, attempt to travel to Fort Benning. Along the way they are forced to stop by a traffic build-up on the highway, and a sequence of events leads to them staying on the Greene Family Farm and the disappearance of Carol's daughter, Sophia. While Hershel Greene and his daughters are initially quite friendly and helpful in the search for Sophia, the survivors soon discover that he refuses to see the Walkers as anything less than human, and so has been keeping a herd of them (including, unfortunately, Sophia) in his barn. After the group slaughters the zombies kept in the barn, the group is forced to deal with infighting and the threat of another, unknown group of survivors. Eventually, the Atlanta Herd from the pilot episode works its way over to the farm, and the survivors (+ the Greene family) are forced to escape. Shane and Rick confront each other, and Shane is killed.
     The thing that Season Two does get right is the development of Shane and his decent into pure hatred and villainy. Robert Kirkman used the series to keep the character alive longer and flesh him out, and Jon Bernthal more than rises to the challenge. Shane is a pragmatist; he genuinely believes that he can lead the group and keep them safe more than Rick can, and he's prepared to kill/threaten anyone who gets in the way of that vision. On a moral level Shane lost me the moment he tried to rape Lori at the end of last season, but that doesn't really get brought up this season - probably so that the more sympathetic moments he gets this season actually ring true.
     The nature of the season means that there's lots of weird filler in almost all episodes. Even my favourite episode of this season, the stand-out 18 Miles Out, is 60% a brilliant two-hander character piece between Shane and Rick and 40% weird sub-plot where Lori argues that women should stay in the kitchen and Andrea tries to help new character Beth Greene commit suicide. Season Two stands out as a sort of teething stage as the show developed from its original miniseries format into its eventual style, and the two forms really do clash, leading to a season with good storytelling and characters in some areas and pointless filler and stupid decisions in others. It's an uneven, wandering season, but it certainly points the show in the right direction.

Thanks.

P.S. This isn't my best work. But it'll be better when I look at Season 3A some time in the future. :D

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Review: Voyager 3.2: Flashback

Over a year since my last Trek review... they're back!

Janeway and Tuvok relive his time upon the USS Excelsior.
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Two - Flashback
Written 29/7/15

At the time of Star Trek's 30th Anniversary in 1996, the two shows currently on air were Deep Space Nine, in its fifth, phenomenally successful series, and Voyager, in its third, less successful one. In order to celebrate this anniversary, a special was written for each show, both with flashbacks to moments in the Original Series' run, both reflecting on the progress that had been made in the succeeding years. Whereas DS9 gave us the brilliant Trials and Tribble-ations in which Sisko and the crew actually time-travel back to meet Kirk and the Enterprise, Voyager takes every opportunity to be the mediocre sibling and so gives us an obscure reference to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, complete with retconned backstory for Tuvok and a villain almost designed to be forgettable.
     Voyager enters a technobabble nebula and Tuvok begins having traumatic flashbacks to his childhood, in which his childhood self accidentally lets a child fall from a cliff-edge. In order to help locate the crux of the memory, which The Doctor says appears to be a foreign object in his mind, Janeway agrees to mind-meld with him, taking them both back to Tuvok's memories of serving with Captain Hikaru Sulu in 2293, slap-bang in the middle of the sixth Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country. This seems confusing, because they're trying to find the memory of him dropping the girl off the cliff. By coincidence, it seems that the memory takes place at a time when Sulu's ship, The Excelsior, encountered a very similar technobabble nebula to the one they've just found in the present. The Doctor realises that the memory is in fact a mental virus which passes between hosts, and manages to kill it before it migrates to Janeway.
     This episode exists primarily in order to bring up nostalgia about TOS, and in that aim is does succeed. The main problem arrives in comparison - Trials and Tribble-ations actually puts us inside a TOS episode and thus can give us all of the major cast. This episode is exploiting nostalgia for a film which came out in 1991. Michael Dorn was a cast member! I don't like to keep on making comparions to DS9 here because that's not really fair - they were made by different people looking for different things. But here the anniversary-ness falls flat for two important reasons: the place it's going back to isn't as timeless as in the DS9 anniversary, and is thus less recognisable; and the fact that it's shoved into the plot, it's purpose for being there being weakly explained five minutes before the end.
Tuvok faces his most terrifying moment - an unhappy Janeway.
     Because, behind the presented facade of being an anniversary episode, the episode is a lot more suited as a Tuvok-centric character piece, shedding some light on his history in Starfleet and what he was getting up to before joining Janeway's crew. This was actually fairly imporant - most of the other characters had had episodes explaining their backgrounds, while Tuvok was just "Janeway's friend" who had spied on Chakotay's terrorist cell for her. Here we find out that he's been serving in Starfleet for over ninety years, and left at one point due to developing a prejudice against humans, spurred by the incident he remembers in the episode. It's nice to see that Tuvok is not the perfect being he often pretends to be sometimes, and it's so fun to see him as a relatively young 29 year-old. (I'm not sure how Tuvok hasn't aged at all in 86 years, but it's sci-fi, so whatever.)
     Flashback, the first of many Season Three episodes defined by vague, single-word titles, feels very unnecessary. Its nature as an attempt at an anniversary special is both its only virtue and its major downfall. The anniversary stuff doesn't work because if the audience hasn't seen Star Trek VI it doesn't bring any warm, fuzzy feelings, and the character study feels less believable because the minor, forgettable plot about the mental virus doesn't compare to buzzing around in the past with Sulu. I knew there was a reason I'd stopped reviewing Voyager here - but I know there's still some awesome episodes to come, so I'm sure this will be the first of many new articles. Shame it had to be on one so disappointing.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Oh, Harry. Poor, poor Harry. We find out just how bad he can have it in Chute.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review: Humans (C4)

The standout of the show, Anita/Mia (Gemma Chan).
From digitalspy
Artifical Intelligence and Robotics are old, old themes in science fiction, taking a multitude of guises and genres. A small niche genre takes these themes and supplants them into a suburban setting, exploring what life would be like with robots living among us. AMC and Channel Four's new drama Humans, a remake of Swedish series "The Real Humans", does this for Britain, presenting an alternate universe in which human-like "Synths" are in nearly every home, acting as nannies, maids, doctors, call-centre operators and even as sex workers. Through a combination of stellar writing, direction and cast, Humans has set itself up as a clear contender for 2015's best new show, very quickly getting us invested in a universe and a set of characters which take this show beyond a simple execution of concept and into some captivating television.
     The show initially takes its centre from the Hawkins family - workaholic mum Laura (Katherine Parkinson, finally getting a chance to show off her acting chops), work-shy dad Joe (Tim Goodman-Hill) and their kids Mattie (Lucy Carless, in an outstanding second outing), Tobey and Sophie. Joe decides, against Laura's best wishes, to buy a synth, Anita (Gemma Chan), who begins to show signs that there is something more beneath the surface of her programming. Running parallel are the stories of George Millikan (William Hurt, in a similar role to the one he played in A.I.), a retired scientist who is now being brow-beaten by the system, synth-prejudiced cop DS Pete Drummond, and a group of sentient synths led by Leo Elster (Colin Morgan, Merlin). Their storylines eventually begin to crossover and merge as the backstory of the show is revealed, eventually discovering that Anita was once a sentient synth called Mia, and that Leo's group of synths contain a code which can grant sentience to other synths.
     Pretty much any and all concepts regarding the place of robots in our society has been explored in this show, within the first few episodes, as well as the various different ways they're used in science fiction. Synths here are used as substitutes - substitute family members, substitute workers, substitute sexual partners. George Millikan cares for his rundown synth Odi like a son, and early scenes between them often come across as someone attempting to converse with a dementia sufferer - a cruel irony considering Odi's original purpose of helping Millikan remember his life before the stroke which took a great deal of his memory. The rights of human workers are discussed, and the idea of human obsolescence in the face of machines which can replace them in every way, and the threat of synth reproduction.
Watch Humans after A.I. and Millikan is even sadder.
     The show's characters are all developed magically and realistically, there being no moments where I've gone, "Hey, he wouldn't do that." All of the actors playing Synths deserve awards for being able to adopt the mannerisms of a robot without making it corny or weird, with special props to Gemma Chan, whose performance as Anita is a tour-de-force of technical ability, allowing small hints of human emotion to pass between the "robotic" performance, communicating, as George Millikan discusses in one episode, "the things you try not to say, the spaces between words." Speaking of Millikan, and Hurt's performance is one of my favourites. In the past he's been called wooden, and not without good reason, but his performance here really brings out a tired man with nothing left to fear. I'm also going to give props to Katherine Parkinson, who has been criminally underused in her career up to this point, and to Lucy Carless, whom I was astounded to discover has only just started to get work.
     This series isn't quite over yet, but a lot of the show's backstory and mythos has been explored, so I'm wondering where the show will go and if it will go to a second series. Regardless of whether that happens or not, Humans has more than earnt a place in the telly history books. So, if you've never seen it before or just aren't caught up, go out and catch it while you still can. You won't regret it.

Thanks.

Edit (31/7/15): Humans has been commissioned for a second series!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2012) - Directed by Noah Baumbach

In my past two reviews, Into The Wild and Tracks, both of the films I reviewed focused on young people, setting out into the world and taking their desire to leave society to a logical extreme, with tragedy in the former case and future success in the latter. But explorer Robyn Davidson was a member of the Baby Boomer generation, and Chris McCandless was in Generation X. What about the young people of today - the so called "millenials", the "90s kids", the "lizard people"? With this film, starring and co-written by indie actress Greta Gerwing, I touch upon an entire genre of films about semi-rich, obnoxious white kids living in the city and not knowing what to do with their lives.
     Frances (Gerwig) is a 27-year-old trainee dancer who lives with her best friend Sophie. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Sophie ends up moving to a better apartment without her, and Frances spends the rest of the film couch-surfing and moving around social groups, dropping the few opportunities that her life does bless her with. After falling out with and reconciling with Sophie and other friends, she eventually achieves some form of hope for the future, with her own apartment, a potential boyfriend, and a job opportunity.
     Gerwig arrived in the mainstream from a film movement known contentiously as "Mumblecore", an informal collection of films mostly by the same people, following young people through their struggles in post-graduate life, expressing their feelings through naturalistic dialogue and the inanities of modern life. This films feels slightly more focused than some of those Mumblecore films, but the film focusses on the same issues. I've heard the idea of a "quarter-life crisis" often discussed, and this film is an 85-minute essay on that very concept. It's not like Frances doesn't have hopes and aspirations, and it's not like she's completely talentless - it's just that all of the parts of her life don't come together as naturally as we're taught that they will. She doesn't always have a network of friends, even in this age of constant communication and social networking, and she doesn't always have the financial ability to invest in and carry through the things she wants to do. Her life is built upon dreams more than it is resources and ability, something I know I'm guilty of in my life.
Sophie and Frances, in the film's monochrome style.
      But even though I identify with the film and the movement, and its terrifying implications for the future of my life, as I try and reconcile my love of film with my attempt at a Physics degree, I can't say it was all sunshine and roses. Not all films are meant to be entertaining first and foremost, but they have to at least capture one's interest.over the running time. Near its middle, in Frances' most bleak moments, the film risks dragging its audience into a deep apathy at the hopelessness and lack of drive that it possesses. This is not helped by the film's greyscale complexion (the artistic reason for which I can't really place), and the fact we spend good portions of the film with pretentious socialites.
    Frances Ha is not a mood film; it's not a film that you sit down when you want to feel anything in particular. It has its funny moments, its sad moments, but the result is something which manages to be both as naturalistic as it's trying to be and still a little twinged with the air of an artistic movement its lead can't really escape. A lot of the film can be unpleasant, both for parts of its listless dialogue and for the worryingly familiar subject matter, but all of its foibles and plot points come from life itself, and so I can't really fault it. What is life, after all, if not a slightly crappy and less structured form of storytelling, each of us the lead in our own picture? And if that idea is what this film represents, then it did so perfectly.

Thanks.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Review: Tracks

Tracks (2013) - Directed by John Curran

Following on from Into The Wild in a loose theme, we come across another true-story film about someone travelling through the wilderness. Like that film, this film has amazing cinematography and landscapes, although unlike that film, I don't hate the main protagonist. Starring Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland) and Adam Driver (Frances Ha) the story follows future travel writer Robyn Davidson on her single-minded quest to trek across the Australian desert with nothing but four camels and a dog in 1977, and despite its fairly lackadaisical pace it more than makes up for it with barrelfuls of charm and astounding visuals.
     I'll admit the only other role I've seen Wasikowska in was her American breakout film Alice In Wonderland, where many found her attempt to act unworldly come across as a tad static. I'm convinced now that that was down to the script and not the actress, as Wasikowska's portrayal of Davidson is layered and subtle, capturing her both in moments of dogged determination and strength, and in the journey's low points where, struck by isolation and heat, she begins to lose herself. Which is lucky, as she's rarely ever off-screen, and carries most of the film reacting off of the landscape, and a small cast of side characters devoted to aiding or documenting her journey.The only other standout character is Driver's Rick Smolan, Davidson's photographer and sort-of love interest, who despite less than promising beginnings is able to develop from an annoying presence to a decent guy.
     John Curran treats the story with a great deal of artistic loyalty - he doesn't big up Davidson as some kind of folk hero as Penn did to the subject of Into The Wild - he lets the character more or less tell her own story. An important aspect of this is the cinematography - deserts are at risk of becoming very boring, but Curran manages to make every shot beautiful and uses them to contribute towards the film's amazing otherworldly tone. Borrowing heavily from the culture of the Aboriginal people that Davidson met along her journey, the film's imagery and sound design evokes a spirituality which manages to establish the film's dual nature as both a travelogue of Davidson's journey and as a wider examination of life and culture in the Australian outback.
Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) and her dog Diggity.
     It's hard to pick this out as a thing because of the film's biographical nature, but I seriously love this film's narrative structure. Way before the journey actually begins, we follow Davidson's arrival in Alice Springs and her attempt to set herself up for the journey, learning about camels and arranging funding from National Geographic. In all this she is fundamentally ungrounded - an ethereal girl with a few mentions of a home life, but with that base replaced by her determination to make her trip. But just before she's about to leave, her friends arrive - clean clothed, evidently used to society, they instantly force Davidson into context, both making her seem much stranger than before, and, in my case, demonstrating more than ever why she wanted to make the trip in the first place. Her friends come and they booze and chatter and argue and even though I probably have more in common with them than I do Davidson, the structure just makes me get it. It's genius.
     It's lucky that I'm reviewing this straight after I reviewed Into The Wild. I feel guilty about making the comparison so often because this should really stand on its own, but the similarities between the films are just so striking. This journey is a triumph and not a tragedy - admittedly, you know, Davidson survived and became a writer, while Chris McCandless died on his journey, but the truth is that their journeys are just as ill-advised as the other. The difference is that even in the harsh environment of the Outback, Davidson never fully rejects other people, and one of the lessons she appears to learn in her travels is to value the connections she has with those close to her. She's an inspiring woman, this is an inspiring film, and I'd really recommend it.

Thanks