Autodidact: self-taught

Aug
11
2015

Grace and Frankie

by V. L. Craven

Grace and Frankie

Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein (Lily Tomlin) have been married to their husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), for forty years.

The husbands in question have been partners in the same law firm for that length of time, as well, and the women are ready for them to retire. They hope the men in their lives are going to announce their retirement (finally) at the fancy schmancy dinner they’ve invited them out to.

Or they could announce they both want divorces because they’d like to marry one another…because they’ve been having an affair for the previous twenty years.

That’s the other thing that could happen.

Like Transparent , Grace and Frankie is about what happens when an older person decides to start living their life honestly. The fallout, as it were, in regard to their family–their spouses, kids, lifelong friends, etc.

There are some very honest moments. There are also some rather contrived moments. Overall, though, the show is entertaining. It’s certainly nice to see people over 40 dealing with life (and technology) and sex and dating in a realistic way. More of that, please.

Netflix is on a roll with excellent shows. Last week I reviewed one and now this. (I promise I’ll return to films soon.) And they already have Orange is the New Black and I understand House of Cards is rather all right–no I haven’t seen it, give me a break.

Grace and Frankie can be a little uneven at times–the dialogue can go from laugh out loud funny to bad sitcom–but the cast makes it worth the watch.

4/5

Aug
04
2015

Wet Hot American Summer

by V. L. Craven

Wet Hot American Summer Film

At the weekend I watched all of the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer, but it’d been awhile since I’d seen the film and so rewatched that first.

It’s a spoof of the teen sex comedies of the early eighties and captures every trope beautifully. It’s also just… bizarre and hilarious.

The actions of the film take place on the final day of camp when the slack counselors are doing their level best to not counsel any of the campers, choosing to try to have sex with whomever they have their eye on for the final (or first) time.

The day is ridiculously long and the number of things that occur are impossible, but the cast (a mashup of SNL and The State with Christopher Meloni, Elizabeth Banks and David Hyde Pierce for good measure) play it with the perfect amount of seriousness and self awareness. These people inhabit a cartoon world and we accept it because they accept it.

The film was released in 2001 and people didn’t get it. The budget was $1.8 million and the box office was a little under $300.000. Ouch.

Still, it became a cult hit because it’s a riot. Which brings me to

Wet Hot American Summer TV

Fourteen years later Netflix has released a TV show–eight episodes–that take place eight weeks prior to the film.

All eight episodes take place eight weeks prior to the film–on the first day of camp.

The first day of camp is also insanely long, but this time it seems a bit less nutso, as several episodes follow certain characters on their separate journeys.

It also explains certain things that are established parts of the universe of the film–like the talking soup can.

Incredibly, they got the entire cast back together–more than a few of whom have gone on to be rather well-known. So it must have been a fun time they wanted to re-live. They certainly looked like they were having a blast.

The TV show brings in Jon Hamm and he and Christopher Meloni have a scene together that made my day (and probably made theirs, too).

Generally, I dislike goofball comedy. I don’t get it and think it’s juvenile. (I know, I’m a curmudgeon.) But this bunch of doofuses paired with the script were great. I was constantly laughing out loud and saying, ‘What is WRONG with these people?’

It’s a great time if you like weirdness or implausibility.

My only question is this: If all of this happened on the FIRST day and then we’ve seen the FINAL day, which really seemed to pick up where the first day ended… Was every day in between really long re-set days, where you end up where you started each day until the last day of camp?

I suppose I do have one other question: how is it that half the cast looks exactly the same fifteen years later and the other half actually looks fifteen years older? Talk about ouch.

One more question because it’s my site and I can ask as many as I’d like: Do they have a warehouse of 80s crap for these sorts of things? The cars and clothes and those braided bracelets and the giant boomboxes. It was so authentic and…painfully accurate.

The film is a 4/5 the TV show is 5/5. You can watch all of it in a day, though and laugh and laugh, which I recommend.

Jul
07
2015

American Horror Story: An Ode

by V. L. Craven
Jessica Lange laying down some truth for the baby witches.

Jessica Lange laying down some truth for the baby witches.

I’ll be taking my first trip to New Orleans in September and, in preparation, decided to rewatch my favourite show set there: American Horror Story: Coven.

Now. I love the entire AHS series. Murder House was mind-blowing because I didn’t know what to expect and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And Jessica Lange.

Asylum was outstanding because I’ve always liked creepy asylums and I’ve had a thing about sadistic nuns as long as I can recall. And Jessica Lange.

Then Coven came along and ruined the rest of the run of the show because nothing will live up to it. Witches are my favourite supernatural thing. And Jessica Lange.

And holy hell, can we discuss Frances Conroy in each of these series? Just amazing.

I cannot tell you how pleased I was upon receiving this result from this test :

Also disturbingly accurate. REDHEADS FOREVEEEEEEER

Also disturbingly accurate. REDHEADS FOREVEEEEEEER

Coven of course, also introduced Kathy Bates, be still my dark heart , as a regular and Angela mofoin Bassett.

Freak Show, yeah yeah, it was whatever. I liked the musical numbers. Freaks and sideshows have held only a passing interest for me so meh. I enjoyed learning more about Pepper and Edward Mordake was a real person so that character was fun. It was okay.

But it came after this. And after this... Well.

But it came after this. And after this… Well.

In terms of the show overall, though, the entire ensemble is incredible.

Lily Rabe is versatile as can be and I hope she’s in more of this next series than the one episode of Freak Show. Evan Peters somehow manages to look completely different in every series and Sarah Paulson is as solid of an actor as you could want–holding her own against some true giants. No more Lange, unfortunately, but with Bates on board and, hopefully, the rest of the regular crew, the ship will keep sailing.

(And they always bring on boggling guest stars. Patti LuPone?! Patti LaBelle?! STEVIE NICKS! omgomg)

Rewatching Coven has been a treat. They always have clues to the theme of the next series in the first episodes of the current one–the first episode of Coven has the phrase ‘freak show’. The fifth series is supposed to be ‘Hotel’.

And of course there’s a guide to the filming locations in the show so I can see some of the places from the episodes when in NOLA. Madame LaLaurie’s house is already on my list, as is the cemetery. Well…several cemeteries, this is me we’re talking about.

'Have you accepted Baphomet as your lord and saviour?'

‘Have you accepted Baphomet as your lord and saviour?’

The dialogue always sounds like a bunch of bitchy gay men sniping at one another. It was the same with Murphy’s show Popular, which was cancelled too soon. It’s a hallmark of his shows to have teenage girls saying things more suited to a bunch of queens in the back room at the Chubb Clubb. I love it.

But I digress.

They had Ryan Murphy on The Writers’ Room  between Asylum and Coven. It was an excellent episode worth watching if you can find it. He said he’d never do a series about vampires (thank you, Ryan!) When they asked what the final one would be about he said (jokingly) AHS: Mime. Then we learned that Jessica Lange trained with Marcel Marceau.

So maybe she’ll come back for that final series.

Jun
16
2015

Fresh Meat

by V. L. Craven
I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

Fresh Meat follows the exploits of a group of awkward students as they awkwardly make their awkward way through uni in Manchester. None of them got into halls (the dorms) so they’re sharing a house. It’s a mish-mash of personalities. Let the good times roll.

The main cast:

Josie: (Kimberley Nixon) Bubbly, Welsh, naive and seemingly kind. People really aren’t what they appear sometimes. All of these people put on fronts to appear to be cooler than they are to their peers, but this one… Wow.

Oregon: (Charlotte Ritchie) A literature swot who makes poor life choices in terms of married professors and, you know, sleeping with them. Particularly when their wife is also in the English department.

Vod: (Zawe Ashton) Far more interested in drinking and drugging than studying, Vod, also isn’t a big fan of the Establishment. Go anarchy!

Howard: (Greg McHugh) Scottish, socially inept but kind, Howard is older than the others, as he changed courses from philosophy to geology. If this show were made a few years ago this character would be played by Nick Frost.

Kingsley: (Joe Thomas) Bog-standard English guy. Awkward in the typical way. Just wants to be a good person and get a nice girlfriend. That doesn’t mean he’s not a tit sometimes.

And J.P.: (Jack Whitehall) Complete posh-o who’s in Manchester because he couldn’t get into a ‘proper university’. This was Whitehall’s acting debut and though his character is absolutely dreadful, he’s still my favourite. He’s condescending and arrogant, but also a loser with women and can be genuinely kind.

There is not one cast photo where he's not pulling a face. This man.

There is not one cast photo where he’s not pulling a face. This man.

There are currently three series with a fourth being filmed this year. Each year there are recurring characters that are more or less successful, but it’s the main cast that makes the show.

A standout character from the second and third series (and hopefully the fourth) was Sabine, a Dutch PhD student. She’s very straightforward and doesn’t particularly care for the kids because she sees them for the self-absorbed not-yet-fully-formed humans they are. There’s a hilarious scene in a pub where the British group are asking her how she talks/bonds/gets off with people if she doesn’t drink. I mean…that’s the only way British people can loosen up enough to be social.

It is NOT perfectly natural, you weirdo!

The show was created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the people behind Peep Show. Robert Webb was in series one and two as Kingsley, Howard and JP’s geology lecturer. (And I felt it right in the age bone when I realised that Peep Show is twelve years old. It’s nearly a teenager.)

If you enjoy shows like, well, Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Bad Education–ensemble casts of disparate people getting themselves into and out of trouble and being awkward in the process–you’ll enjoy this one. 5/5

Jun
09
2015

Penny Dreadful

by V. L. Craven

Penny Dreadful

Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein and Abraham van Helsing walk into a pub in Victorian England. Everyone’s got consumption and there’s an ancient evil or three afoot.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Penny Dreadful is a Gothic drama, fantasy nightmare concoction.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s great fun. Just difficult to categorize.

There’s the main character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, who should win all the awards) who has a bit of a possession problem. As in, she’s been possessed by … something. Who knows. But it’s a hell of a thing. Then there’s Mr Gray and Dr Frankenstein (his projects have been going swimmingly by the time we meet him) and Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton.

Sir Malcolm is one of those explorers the Victorians were drowning in at the the time. He’s on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter, Mina. Yes, that Mina. Harker. The Dracula one. We’re hitting all the Gothic greatest hits.

There’s the obligatory prostitute with a heart of gold with harsh backstory (Billie Piper) and an American gunslinger from the Wild West played by Josh Hartnett.

The plot can be a little…meandering at times in a Dickensian sort of way. The show is more about characters, though, and the casting is superb. As are the costumes and sets and everything else.

Though the overall plot tends to take its own path, each episode rips right along, generally, and one never knows what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to.

There was one episode in the first series that was slow and it featured Anna Chancellor. They managed to make an episode with Her Gloriousness drag. That alone is noteworthy. (The episode had a load of useful but dull exposition and she played Eva Green’s mother–a role she also played in the quite excellent The Dreamers.)

Basically, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster (played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear)…and tuberculosis but that makes it sound like Buffy with consumption. I loved Buffy, but… Ugh. This is hard . Do you like American Horror Story? Do you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you like corsets and velvet? You’ll like this. Probably. I’m giving it 4/5.

Apr
07
2015

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

by V. L. Craven

Young Doctor's Notebook

In 1917 Dr Vladimir Bomgard (Daniel Radcliffe & Jon Hamm) was an utter Hermione at university in Moscow and scored 15 5s. Immediately upon graduation he’s shipped to a village on the outskirts of nowhere in Russia (and Russia does nowhere like no other). He has next to no practical experience and was too short to see some lessons so he’s beyond unprepared for life in a hamlet without so much as a shop and in the middle of a Russian winter (Russia does winter like no other).

The villagers are ignorant, the doctor is unprepared, the staff at the clinic are cynical (or realistic, depending upon your view). It’s an excellent combination for disaster and a few miracles.

The show is darkly comic in a very Russian way (it’s based on stories by Mikhail Bulgakov). And it doesn’t go easy on the gore. This is medicine circa 1917 on the outer edge of the end-of-the-world, after all.

It’s the first time I’ve gagged watching anything fictional. And I’ve seen all of the Saw and Wrong Turn films. To calibrate that–I refuse to watch anything by Miike or the Centipede franchise.

I wasn’t paying full attention at the beginning of the first episode because it took me awhile to realise Jon Hamm was playing an older version of Daniel Radcliffe. What with Daniel Radcliffe being 5’5″ and Jon Hamm being 6’2″, this wasn’t apparent otherwise. There’s also only supposed to be a 16 year age difference, but it’s twenty. I’m going to let that slide and focus on the giant height difference (see exhibit A above).

The framing device of the entire series is that Jon Hamm is looking back on his old diaries after he’s being accused of using dead clients’ names to fill morphine prescriptions for his drug habit. The older version of the character often speaks to the younger version–trying to talk him out of taking morphine for the first time, for example–but the younger version also speaks to the older version, which is just… Russian.

There are two series–both are four episodes long. Unaware of this when I started the first series, it seemed to end abruptly. This review is for the first series, which really is excellent, as long as you have a strong stomach. 5/5

Mar
10
2015

Transparent

by V. L. Craven

Transparent

Morton Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) is a retired professor of political science, a father of three, and an ex-husband. He’s also actually a woman, Maura.

How Maura’s dysfunctional family (understatement warning) is going to take this news is anyone’s guess, but after knowing for years she’s finally ready to make the announcement and begin being true to herself 24/7.

About this family. Oy. They are so Jewish. In the most realistic way, which isn’t something audiences get to see on television very often so that alone was refreshing. Also, the characters are very real, meaning they’re not all that likable. (This has nothing to do with them being Jewish and everything with them being like actual human beings with actual human feelings and unattractive traits.)

There’s the eldest daughter, Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker). Her marriage is in trouble (understatement) and she gets involved with an ex who happens to be a woman ( Melora Hardin who played Jan Levinson on the US version of The Office and the transformation blows my mind.) [That character is unlikable, as well. Everyone is obnoxious on this show, but I couldn’t stop watching.] Those two getting together wrecks two households but also kicks off Maura’s coming out process albeit unintentionally.

Then there’s the only son, Josh, who has a  lot of sex on this show. I don’t know what he’s looking for–new sex or new love or both or something else, but he’s doing his level best in trying to find it. Or trying to wreck his life. Perhaps that’s what he’s trying to do.

The third child is Ali, Gaby Hoffman, unable to settle on anything in life, perpetually jobless and dependent on Morton/Maura for money, Ali is also trying to work out who and what she is.

The matriarch of this bunch is the ever luminous Judith Light, who can do no wrong. She plays Shelly, Maura’s ex, and she’s remarried to a man named Ed with whom she lives in a retirement community. He’s lost the ability to speak by the time we meet him, he’s still quite the personality.

There are lots of flashbacks to the 90s when Morton was just becoming Maura, so we get to see her first, tentative steps into finding her true self. Her guide is a cross-dresser named Marcy (Bradley Whitford). It’s Whitford like you’ve never seen him before and it’s  amazing .

The show was created by Jill Soloway and was based on her own father’s coming out as transgender. Soloway also directed.

Everything about Transparent is excellent. Every character is fully-realised. The writing is top-notch and the actors are on top of their game. There’s humour and pathos and pain and joy. And every kind of sex you can imagine. No really.

This show is a must watch. 5/5

Jan
27
2015

Wentworth

by V. L. Craven

Wentworth

Wentworth is a prison drama–as with all dramas (or shows in general)–we are introduced to the workings of this new world by way of a particular character. In Wentworth’s case it’s Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack). She’s on remand for the alleged attempted murder of her abusive husband.

Upon her arrival we learn the rules of prison life and who the major players are on both sides of the bars. The main one to keep an eye on behind bars is sassy, inveterate lesbian Frankie Doyle (Nicole da Silva), who has been in control since mafia matriarch Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) has been out of the picture. When Jacs returns Frankie’s status as top dog becomes tenuous. It’s turf war time, ladies.

The other side of the bars has Governor Davidson (Leeanna Walsman) and her complex relationship with Frankie Doyle. The spouse of one of the officers (who also worked at the prison) is murdered during a riot and the first series is partially about finding what prisoner–or other officer–did it.

Wentworth 1st Series

First series cast

The second series sees the arrival of the deliciously devious Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson (Pamela Rabe) and a couple of other cast changes. The characters that remain grow and the show improves, though the first season was entirely decent. Friction that began between prison officers in the first series continues in the second. Meanwhile, a milquetoast officer from the first season begins to grow a backbone under the sinister tutelage of Governor Ferguson.

One of the officers falls off the wagon, another is playing both sides of the bars and yet another is being stalked by …someone. And paranoid people make stupid decisions. The only thing that separates the screws from the inmates is that the officers haven’t been caught for what they get up to.

I don’t want to say more for spoiler reasons. The third series can roll on any time now.

Series Two Cast

Second series cast

As I was watching the show I kept thinking various story-lines were similar to ones on Bad Girls or Orange is the New Black, but then discovered Wentworth is a reimagining of Prisoner (Wentworth Prison or Prisoner: Cell Block H in other countries), which was itself inspired by a UK show called Within These Walls. The original Prisoner ran for 692 episodes from 1979 to 1986. So it’s more like the more recent shows are the copy-cats, though I suppose there are only so many plots you can have in a prison.

A friend of mine lives in Sydney and she wants to know why I don’t visit. I say it’s because she lives on the moon. Watching this show has proven to me just how distant the country is. Australia is so far away they’ve had to duplicate their own versions of people in the Northern Hemisphere, because I swear half the cast look like actors from up here in the Land of Correct Seasons.

My evidence:

From the first series we have Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) standing in for Jane Atkinson.

Wentworth Kris McQuade

Australian actress Kris McQuade

 

English-American actress Jayne Atkinson

English-American actress Jayne Atkinson

For the life of me I cannot work out who Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) looks like, but she reminds me of someone. Help.

Out of character Nicole da Silva

Out of character Nicole da Silva

When she’s in character & makeup as Frankie/Shane she reminds me of Frankie from Lip Service.

Yeah, she knows it.

Yeah, she knows it.

 

Ruta Gedmintas, English actress, smirking it up

Ruta Gedmintas, English actress, smirking it up

Ditto to Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton)

Shareena Clanton, looking like...someone

Shareena Clanton, looking like…someone

Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements) isn’t around too very long, but she’s doing an excellent job of looking like Valerie Harper.

Antipodean Catherine McClements

Antipodean Catherine McClements

 

American, Valerie Harper

American, Valerie Harper

Special kudos goes to Erica Davidson (Leeanna Walsman) who manages to look like both Ellen Pompeo and Claire King, who played the Governor for some time on Bad Girls .

Double look-a-like winner, Leeanna Walsman. Well done.

Double look-a-like winner, Leeanna Walsman. Well done.

 

American Ellen Pompeo

American Ellen Pompeo

 

English actress Claire King

English actress Claire King

And, as I was looking up photos, I discovered Boomer (Katrina Milosevic) actually looks like Dawn French. They do a good job on the show of making her…not look like Dawn French.

Australian Katrina Milosevic

Australian Katrina Milosevic

 

English actress Dawn French

English actress Dawn French

The only person to whom this rule does not apply is Pamela Rabe, but that’s because she’s from Canada.

There is only one Pamela Rabe.

There is only one Pamela Rabe.

There are other secondary characters who are look-alikes, but I think I’ve proven my point. Leave a comment if you recognise other people.

Wentworth is like a Bad Girls in a soapy drama way, but the first series is like Orange is the New Black in that the audience gets to see the characters’ lives and choices that led them to prison.

Bonus: Once you’ve watched the first two series (and you absolutely should) I highly recommend the AfterEllen recaps , which are hilarious but spoil everything.

Bonus bonus: I’ve started watching the original Prisoner and ‘reimagining’ is a good word for it. I’m only a few episodes in, but it currently looks like they’ve taken the characters and plots, put them in a Yahtzee cup, given it a good shake and let them land where they may.

Dec
16
2014

Last Tango in Halifax

by V. L. Craven

Last Tango in Halifax

Sixty years ago, Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) was madly in love with Celia Dawson (Anne Reid). The sentiment was mutual, but due to a misunderstanding neither knew of the other’s feelings.

In the present day, after being pressed to join Facebook by their grandchildren, they find one another again. The misunderstanding is cleared up–it’s something similar to the premise of As Time Goes By–and they quickly realise they feel just as strongly as they did over half a century before so they decide to get married. ‘Quickly’ in this case means the same day they met in person.

Their daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker) arrive at the pub to hear this news and to say they have a rough start of it would be an understatement. Chalk and cheese, as it were. Caroline, Celia’s daughter, is a headmistress at a private school and lives in a house large enough for five families while Gillian, Alan’s daughter, is a sheep farmer who lives, well, on a sheep farm.

Caroline is married to a once-successful author, though that union is falling apart due to his philandering. She’s found an uneasy happiness with a teacher at her school (Nina Sosanya). That relationship’s repercussions affect her sons, as well as her mother’s new love, in profound ways.

Gillian is widowed from an abusive husband. She has the darkest past of the group (though Celia’s first marriage wasn’t a grand one) and, as the show progresses we learn more about just how dark that past was.

Last Tango in Halifax was created and written by Sally Wainwright and it’s based on real-life circumstances–her mother really reconnected with a childhood friend on Friends Reunited and they married six months later. Wainwright has a gift for capturing the complicated way alliances are formed when new groups of people are thrown together, particularly when those people wouldn’t naturally get on. The evolving friendship between Caroline and Gillian is especially compelling to watch. The bond between these two women with nothing in common except thinking their parents have gone mad feels very real. Part of that is down to Lancashire and Walker’s phenomenal acting and the other part is Wainwright’s script.

Though the show could be all twee, happiness and light, there’s a great deal of darkness and drama, as well, particularly in Gillian’s storyline and Caroline confronting her sexuality, which is handled with a deftness and humanity not typical of television today. I highly recommend this one–it’s just excellent television.

There are currently two series with a third that’s been filmed, but no air date announced yet.

I’d give the entire series 5/5, though, as with any television show, some episodes are better than others.

Bonus grumpy note: Because Americans can’t leave anything alone, Diane Keaton (I love her, but really) has acquired the rights to remake the show for U.S. audiences who, apparently, can’t understand a Yorkshire accent.

Dec
09
2014

Ripper Street

by V. L. Craven

Ripper Street transparent

It’s London. 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t struck in a few months and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) is certain he’s gone for good. Members of the public need a bit more convincing when a the body of a woman bearing marks similar to those left by the Ripper is found in Whitechapel–his old haunt.

That’s where the series gets its name, though Jack doesn’t come up again. Rather, each episode is a self-contained one-hour mystery solved by Reid, his Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and his American police doctor–the Victorian version of  medical examiner–Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg).

Each of the main characters (and some of the secondary characters) have their own back stories–tragic, of course–and get their own episode to be tragic at us. While they have their problems, the crime du jour is more interesting, given the means and motives of the day.

Speaking of the day, the show will be of interest to fans of Victorian history, as there are the women’s libbers, the arguments over the superiority of AC or DC current and a rather heavy-handed episode about the sodomy laws. Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man, brilliantly portrayed by Joseph Drake) plays an important role in an episode of the second series.

The Tube was being built in one episode and, my, how it was going to change things. But the show isn’t as pleased with itself about emerging technologies as Murdoch Mysteries . Rather, we get to see the scheming and backstabbing that went into making our present lives convenient.

It’s a good show for people who like to say, ‘Everyone was so much nicer back then.’ Yes, those slums and the way people who lived there were treated was the picture of politeness. And the police! If you were being taken to the police station, you were getting the piss kicked out of you. Everyone was so much nicer back then.

Though the main characters are tragic in their own way they’re both likable and unlikable. They’re human that way. Reid is interesting in that he’s a detective without a crippling vice. He has problems, he’s just not constantly crawling out of a bottle or from under a pile of women for once.

The show does a good job with the guest stars–particularly in the first series. Including two of Jerome Flynn’s Game of Throne’s castmates Kristian Nairn (if you want to see Hodor in a suit saying words, here’s your chance) and Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont).

I’d recommend Ripper Street for Victorian history fans–the sets and clothes and whatnot are lovely. Beyond that, it’s fairly standard in terms of crime shows.

The third series is currently airing. This review is for the first two series, which I’d rate 4/5.

Nov
04
2014

The Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Killing

Rounding out our series of shows about female law enforcement is The Killing, bringing the final count of countries covered to four. Northern Ireland ( The Fall ), England ( Happy Valley ), and New Zealand ( Top of the Lake ). This one is set in the States–Seattle, Washington. Female police aren’t interested in your nonsense no matter the geographic location.

The US version is based on the popular Danish show Forbrydelsen  (The Crime), which ran for three series. Unlike the original, the remake follows one case through the first two series, then one case each for the third and fourth series. Like the original, each episode is one day of investigation of the current case.

The Killing Series 1 & 2

The first two series are about the kidnapping and murder of Rosie Larsen, a 17 year-old girl who goes missing the weekend her parents are on a camping trip. Everyone within fifty feet of the Larsen family seems to have motive and means. It’s more about the way a violent, tragic crime reverberates out like ripples in a pond and how pain turns us into people we may not recognise. The strongest of the three cases, this one keeps the viewer guessing until the end. Of particular note is Michelle Forbes, who plays Rosie’s mother.

The start of the first series also introduces the viewer to detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Linden is told to show Holder around, as it’s her last few days as a detective in Seattle–she’s moving away to get married. But as always happens when detectives try to leave their jobs, they catch one last case, so she and Holder wind up working together.

While Linden is the obsessive type of cop–a previous case nearly destroyed her–Holder has his own problems. Chiefly with drugs, which he got into working with Narcotics. Now he’s newly clean and moved into Homicide, where he works cases his own way. He’s a vegetarian, go-with-the-flow, Buddhist/Christian, laid-back sort of person. Linden is the focused on the case before her to the exclusion of life itself.

The Killing Series 3

The third series concerns the lives of several street kids–one of whom goes missing. In Holder’s search for her, the bodies of several other murdered kids are uncovered. Linden, retired after the previous case, begins to suspect the man she put away several years ago (and who is about to be put to death) has been wrongly convicted. Her investigation reveals chilling information that brings her back into the police department and reinstates her as Holder’s partner, as it becomes obvious their cases are connected.

Stand out performances this series are given by Peter Sarsgaard, as the possibly wrongly-convicted murderer and Bex Taylor-Klaus as Bullit, one of the street kids playing at being tough who befriends Holder whilst trying to find her friend. Sarsgaard’s performance of a man on Death Row is almost difficult to watch it’s so immediate. It’s truly spectacular.

The Killing Series 4

The fourth and final series, which was released in its entirety in August 2014 on Netflix, is about the massacre of a seemingly perfect family, the only survivor being the seventeen year old son who was shot in the head and has no memory of that evening. In the will, the boy, Kyle Stansbury (Tyler Ross), is sent to St George’s Military Academy where his guardian will be Colonel Margaret Rayne (Joan Allen). Stansbury’s classmates–one specifically–doesn’t make his life easy and is the one Kyle suspects killed his family.

Allen’s performance as the only woman in charge of a school full of male cadets, a woman with her own cache of secrets, going head-to-head with strong-willed Linden is compelling to watch. And Ross’ depiction of a boy who lost what little bit he had is impressive. The two main cadets (played by Sterling Beaumon and Levi Meaden) were convincing, if disturbing.

Throughout the fourth series Linden and Holder deal with the consequences of their actions at the end of the third series, and their respective responses are fascinating. Watching that situation play out was anything but boring.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the very end, which dealt not with the case, but with Linden and Holder. That will be the sort of thing that each person will feel differently about. It depends if you need everything to be wrapped up neatly or not.

The Killing end

The Vancouver landscape (where they film the show) stands in beautifully for Denmark (and Seattle) and the cinematography–all blue-greys–sets a chilly, serious tone. It reminds me of Henning Mankell novels, which is definitely a good thing.

There really aren’t any likable characters. Relatable, yes. It’s easy to understand why characters react the way they do to certain situations, but I can’t say I want to befriend any of the people on the show. So if you’re looking for that, go elsewhere, but if you’re looking for character-studies set in a morally (and visually) grey universe, then stop looking and watch The Killing.

Some episodes are hit-or-miss, but overall 5/5.

Oct
28
2014

Top of the Lake

by V. L. Craven

Top of the Lake

Continuing in the series of reviews of shows about female law enforcement taking no guff (previous posts were The Fall and Happy Valley ) is Top of the Lake.

The previous two were set in Northern Ireland and England, but this outing takes us to New Zealand, where a twelve year old girl tries to drown herself. It’s quickly discovered she’s pregnant and soon after she disappears. Sydney detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who is in Laketop to be with her ailing mother, is asked to join the team to find her as well as the person responsible for her pregnancy. The search brings her face-to-face with parts of her past she’d thought she’d left behind.

The missing girl’s father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), is shady as a bank of willows, volatile and entirely unwilling to assist the police, feeling he and his similarly shady associates will be able to find her on their own.

He’s also not above illegally interfering with the real estate concern of an area called Paradise, which has just been bought by a spiritual guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) to be used as a commune for women to heal their psychic wounds.

Robin finds herself once again entangled with Mitcham’s son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), rekindling a relationship from their teenage years. This displeases both their parents, but not for the reasons they originally think.

As time passes, it begins to seem that everyone in Laketop is hiding something. And they still have to find a little girl who only has a few weeks before she’s going to give birth.

And the opening is iconic. Simple but haunting.

Written by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee and directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, this six or seven episode series (it depends where you see it) is dark but beautiful. New Zealand itself is practically a character the nature shots are so gorgeous. The cast is expansive but well used and GJ’s all-female commune is so painfully accurate words fail me.

There are plot twists aplenty, as well as brutality. Trigger warning for a rape scene in the fifth episode of the 45 minute shows. I don’t know when it happens in the 60 minute show–probably the fourth episode. If you know, please leave a comment.

Gripping, it’s the sort of television where you don’t want to stop after one episode. Luckily, the entire series can be viewed in one day like they did at the Sundance Festival. Definitely a 5/5.

Oct
21
2014

Happy Valley

by V. L. Craven

Happy Valley

At the start of the first episode of Happy Valley, no frills police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is called to the scene of a young man doused in petrol, threatening to set himself alight. While she’s talking to him, stalling so the negotiator from the nearest town can arrive, she says:

I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroine addict. I’ve two grown up children. One dead. One who doesn’t speak to me. And a grandson. So…

The guy asks why he doesn’t speak to her and she says, ‘It’s complicated.’ Which is one of those English understatement sorts of things. ‘Complicated’ barely begins to cover her life, as the person responsible for her daughter’s suicide has been released from prison that day and is back in town.

Then there’s Steve Pemberton, in a rare dramatic role, as Kevin Weatherill, an utterly useless sort of individual. When his boss denies him a pay rise so that his daughter may go to a nicer school, he makes a decision that will devastate multiple lives.

James Norton (playing Tommy Lee Royce) rounds out the primary three characters. Royce, an unrepentant, violent criminal, has just been released from prison and winds up being connected to Weatherill’s plan. He is also determined to insert himself into the police sergeant’s life.

These three are the good (Cawood), the bad (Royce) and then the grey area between the two (Weatherill). As the show progresses we watch each character change (some more than others, but there’s change all round). We are reminded that no one is all good or all bad and desperate circumstances make for desperate, and sometimes violent, choices.

Lancashire’s performance is spot on, as is everyone’s, really, but Pemberton’s character was particularly surprising. His growth from nonentity into … well, no spoilers here, but the show is dark and our man owns the role. Lancashire’s Cawood behaves in ways unusual for female law enforcement on television, which was refreshing.

Happy Valley is ultimately about the far-ranging consequences of the actions of the few and the imperfect people trying to right those wrongs. It’s compelling television.

And there’s blood–people get booted in the face and slammed against brick walls and other things I don’t want to spoil for you, but the make up people don’t go easy on the viewers. But it wasn’t gore-for-gore’s sake, either.

From the writing to the directing to the acting it was outstanding television and we need more of it. Happily, it’s been renewed for a second series, though no word yet on when that will air.

Oct
14
2014

The Fall

by V. L. Craven

The Fall

I can be a little slow on the uptake with popular media. Sometimes it takes a prod or two. This article about shows featuring British women taking control finally got me to press play on some television that had been in my Netflix queue for awhile. So that’s what I’ll be reviewing in the upcoming weeks.

First up is The Fall .

DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought in from the Met in London to help the Belfast police on an unsolved murder. The night she arrives there’s another murder, which is initially treated as a separate incident, but which Gibson connects to the original case. When they realise Belfast has a serial killer on their hands she’s assigned the full case and they begin looking for previous killings that could be the work of the came person.

Simultaneously, we watch the killer (Jamie Dornan) living his life, playing with his daughter, doing his job, stalking the next woman. He likes to break into their homes once or twice and hang out, leaving one small thing out of place, before the night of the actual kill. And when he discovers his pursuer is an attractive woman he becomes intrigued and wants to engage.

Stella Gibson is the coolest detective on television. Not sunglasses and leather coat cool, but never raising her voice no matter the situation cool. Utterly unflappable. She has her one big fault, though, as all television detectives do. I’ll not spoil it for you, but it’s not something I’ve seen before. She’s also operates within a moral grey-area, which is refreshing to see in a woman, as usually it’s male leads who get to decide they’re not going to operate within social mores. Gibson lives her life and eloquently calls anyone on their double standards.

Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector, is chilling in that dead-behind-the-eyes sort of way. He plays the part well and there are moments it’s clear ice water runs through his veins. But the more Gibson pushes him–even without knowing what he looks like–the more his exterior begins to crack.

The secondary characters are also used well-enough, though I would like to see one in particular, PC Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), developed more in the next series. The relationship between the two women is a dynamic that could be something viewers don’t see every day.

It was interesting to watch something set in Northern Ireland that wasn’t entirely based around politics. They were always questioned as a motive, as would be expected, but when you live in a place where there’s a constant threat of violence it becomes more commonplace and The Fall shows that. During a scene when people are throwing glass bottles at an ambulance trying to save someone’s life, Gibson comments to a police officer, ‘This is one fucked up city you’ve got here.’ And by the time she says that you’re right with her, as the show does rather paint most people from Belfast as violent lunatics just looking for a reason to turn someone into a stain on the pavement, including some of the police.

Nevertheless, it’s compelling watching and I’d recommend it to fans of Prime Suspect, though it’s less gritty.

The second series is due to begin in November, so roll on November.

[Vulture also has a longer list of places to stream shows about British women getting things done –not just on crime shows.]

Apr
10
2014

Inside No. 9

by V. L. Craven

Inside No 9

Inside No. 9 is the newest show from two of the four members of the League of Gentlemen , Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

Each episode is stand-alone and, being a British show, there are only six episodes. The action of each episode occurs in a different place with the address of No. 9. All are residences save one, which is dressing room number 9.

As you’d expect from these two, there are a host of creepy characters–some are in bizarre situations, others in are seemingly ordinary situations that turn surreal. All of them are original and surprising. The second episode was particularly creative, as there’s no dialogue.

Inside No 9, Sardines

The first episode ‘Sardines’, concerning a party game in a mansion that seems just a bit…off, dragged a bit, but turned out to be a nice start to the series. It fell firmly into the average people in a slowly devolving into a sinister situation sort of episode. It was also one of the funniest of the lot. Some of the guest stars in the episode were Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Katherine Parkinson and Anne Reid, which kept things interesting.

Inside No 9 A Quiet Night In

The second episode ‘A Quiet Night In’, as mentioned above, has no dialogue. Background music supplies all of the commentary about what’s going on. It concerns two hapless criminals (Sheersmith and Pemberton) who are trying to steal a piece of modern art from a house whilst the owners are in and out of the room and also in the midst of a domestic crisis. Tension is built nicely and the viewer finds themselves rooting for the ‘bad guys’, as their evening is definitely not going to plan.

Inside No 9 Tom and Gerri

The third episode ‘Tom and Gerri’ (‘her last boyfriend was Ben’) was the strongest both plot-wise and in terms of characterisation. Sheersmith is a teacher who really wants to be a writer. One day when his actress girlfriend, Gerri (Gemma Arterton), is at an audition, he has an interaction with the homeless man (Pemberton) who lives across the street. Then everything goes a bit funny and not in a ha ha sort of way.

Inside No 9 Last Gasp

This is followed by the weakest episode ‘Last Gasp’ about a little girl with a terminal illness who has asked the Wish-Maker charity for a visit by her favourite singer (David Bedella) for her birthday. When he dies while blowing up a balloon for her there becomes a power struggle between the adults (Pemberton, Tamsin Grieg, Sophie Thompson, Adam Deacon) over what to do with his last breath. This one never comes together. The characters felt incomplete. But I’ll forgive anything with Grieg in it.

Inside No 9 The Understudy

‘The Understudy’ was the penultimate episode. The titular character (Sheersmith) is hesitant to push his luck with the overbearing lead of the company he’s in (Pemberton). His girlfriend (Lyndsey Marshal) is more ambitious for him–knowing he has more talent than he gives himself credit for. When Pemberton breaks his long sobriety our man assumes his girlfriend is to blame, but as with the play the company is performing–Macbeth–things do not go well and there is blood indeed. Julia Davis is hilarious as the lesbian stage manager.

Inside No 9 Harrowing

I think my favourite episode was the final one, ‘The Harrowing’, which was of the extraordinary characters in a surreal situation type. It was about a teenage girl asked to baby-sit for an evening whilst two Poe-like characters (this is even acknowledged, much to my delight) have one of their very rare evenings out. The female character is played my Helen McCrory, who played Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films and was perfectly cast in the Madeleine Usheresque role. The girl brings her friend along, which is fortunate because the house is absolutely terrifying, with art depicting all the torments of hell. The girl is informed that she’s really there to house-sit as their older brother doesn’t actually need anything most of the time. But she’s there ‘just in case’. It was somewhat less developed in some ways, and the only one that seemed like the main characters could go on to be in other sketches. Or perhaps that was my wishful thinking.

Whether they appear in the next series or not–bring on series two, please.

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