Mini reviews of Television seasons old and new. No fuss. No spoilers. Occasional bunnies.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mrs Biggs (2012)

An ITV miniseries based on the life of Charmian Biggs (played by Sheridan Smith), wife to the most well-known of the Great Train Robbers, Ronnie Biggs (played by Daniel Mays). If you don’t know the historical aspect, in 1963 Ronnie and fifteen other men robbed an English Royal Mail train that was carrying £2.6 million (approx £48 million in today’s money) and they did it without using guns.

The series begins a few years prior to that, though, in 1957. Charmian Powell is an innocent, dependable young woman who holds a steady job and has a strict, controlling father. Ronnie is a part-time petty crook, a Jack the Lad, Jimmy Chancer, etc, and also a bit of a charmer. The inevitable happens.

The journey from youthful innocence to reluctant accomplice avoids pure melodrama. It’s often difficult to sympathise with a criminal and easier to have those feelings for a criminal’s wife, but covering up the truth even for noble reasons is still an immoral act. The series doesn't force you to abandon the judgements you’d naturally have toward that kind of behaviour, so you’re free to dislike Charmian's choices if you choose to and still enjoy the ride.

Sheridan is radiant—when she smiles she lights up the entirety of a scene—but it’s not all smiles and money spending, there’s plenty of tears and hardship too, because they’re on the run from the law every minute of every day. Even when it seems as if they've gotten far enough away, it takes only a knock on the door or a second of doubt to bring it all rushing back to mind.

It drives home the truth that an influx of money doesn't instantly wipe away existing domestic troubles. In some cases it can even cause them. Speaking of truth, the disclaimer at the beginning of each episode tells us that creative licence is in play, so bear that in mind while viewing. However, the real Charmian Biggs was a consultant on the series, so that gives it some credibility.

It’s not the type of series I usually watch, but after taking a chance on one episode there was no way I wasn't seeing it through to the end. It’s a quality Sunday evening style drama that doesn't glamorize its subject matter for extra thrills.

5 episodes, approx 50 minutes each.

4 good runs out of 5

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Andromeda Strain (2008)

At time of writing, director Robert Wise's 1971 version of The Andromeda Strain is one of the better films that I've seen based on the works of Michael Crichton, so there was some trepidation when I decided to watch an updated version made for TV, but curiosity won me over. Happily, it turned out to be pretty good.

The previous film had a distinctly 70s appeal with a fascinating visual look, whereas the new one just looks like every other modern TV show that features shady governments run by self-important, ambitious pricks with more money than morals; but it looks great, if that’s your thing.

The team have a lot more high-tech equipment at their disposal this time and consequently the danger level within the lab is lessened. When you see multimillion dollar mechanical marvels your first thought is no longer, 'That shit could break any minute! Emergency exit, please, timely manner!'

A second story runs concurrently outside the underground lab environment. I can’t say if that was in the original novel or not, because I've not read it. It injects some action scenes into what could've been an otherwise static display of scientific methodology by having a journalist poke his nose into the military’s response on the surface. The aura of secrecy is carried through into the low key way they respond to the external threat. It was my least favourite aspect but that doesn't mean it was in any way irritating, because it wasn't.

My only real dislike was the way the story (or the final cut) neglected to follow up on the human subjects that were held in the lab. Did they survive? Are they still under quarantine? Did they become overnight reality TV sensations?

The music by Joel J. Richard is good on occasion. The action moments in particular reminded me of John Murphy’s work and anything JM gets my attention.

2 episodes, approx 90 mins each. Alternatively, split into 4 episodes, approx 45 mins each in some regions.

3 growing concerns out of 5

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Justice League (2001-04)

Seven heroes fighting as one unit, each bringing individual strengths and weaknesses, creating opportunities and anticipating reactions, kicking villainous ass in dramatic set-pieces that give way to relatable human drama is what made Justice League one of the best cartoons that I’ve ever seen, especially Season 2.

Quite often it’s the City of Metropolis under threat, but, while not explicitly stated, the War of the Worlds style attacks in the very first arc make it clear that the danger isn't just going to be of global origin, it’ll be intergalactic. The typical focuses are there, of course, such as the folly of those with power, the corruption of the weak-willed in the face of that same power, and the way in which good intentions ill-conceived can be catastrophic to all, but like the comic from which the show took its name the stories aren't unwilling to stray into surreal situations in its exploration of such things. JL is storytelling without constraints.

Superman and Batman will be the big draw for most people, but not all heroes have an active role in every episode. The writers were wise enough to know that specific character-centric episodes would suffer if someone who adds nothing of value to the story was shoehorned in for appearances sake. Hawkgirl is somewhat underused in the early episodes, but they make up for it in spades as things go on and she develops into one of the most interesting of the seven.

Each personality is unique: Batman and Superman are similar to how they were in their respective series; Flash is impetuous; Green Lantern is tactical; Hawkgirl is hasty and combative; Jonn is resourceful; and Wonder Woman is inexperienced because, unlike in the comics, she’s new to the whole superhero thing, having left her home just prior to the team forming. Despite the differences and personality clashes, a mutual respect and well-placed trust binds them (and everyone who isn't Batman likes to laugh at the Dark Knight’s Mr Serious attitude).

What’s equally as exciting is that, with the exception of just one episode, every story is at least a two-parter! The one standalone is a Christmas episode that’s more entertaining than anything 'festive' has any right to be.

52 episodes, approx 22 minutes each, split over 2 seasons. The show changed name to 'Justice League Unlimited' the following year, but I consider it more of a sequel than a typical next season, so it's not included here.

5 chest-emblems out of 5

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Stephen King’s The Shining (1997)

A TV miniseries directed by Mick Garris, based on Stephen King's 1977 novel of the same name. It's essentially the story of a family forced to confront the underlying feelings that threaten to tear their already not very happy home apart. The addition of a supernatural aspect turns the process dial up to dangerous levels.

Jack Torrence (Steven Weber), a struggling writer, ex-alcoholic and regular screw-up takes a job as caretaker of a remote hotel that's routinely closed over the winter months. He brings his wife, Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay), whose over-protectiveness of their seven year old son, Danny (Courtland Mead), is justified somewhat because young Danny has a gift, or a curse depending on your point of view: he can sense emotions, danger and even occasionally see the future.

The quiet, creative retreat for three that Jack was hoping for turns out to be more eventful than he'd predicted. The Overlook Hotel has many ghosts and they'd just love to get to know the Torrence family better.

The teleplay was written by King, so all the little things carry over in a natural way, such as Jack telling people what he thinks they want to hear because it helps him stay in the game; the accusatory glances and subtle, snide remarks orchestrated to recall lingering guilt; a mother's jealousy of the bond between her son and his undeserving father; and the changing mannerisms of each family member as the story progresses and obsessions take over.

The boiler room gets the attention it deserves; the actual boiler being symbolic of the raging monster inside of Jack, building in force until the pressure is so great that it needs to be manually released or the whole thing will explode. Jack's fury is vented in much the same way. He needs to 'blow off steam,' as the expression goes, or his anger will consume him.

The biggest change to the story is during the finale; questionable coda aside it's not radically different from the original but it's been rewritten, making it tighter and more interesting. It's one of the things that help keep everything from falling foul of the usual third act plummet in quality.

I'm not going to add to the 'which filmed version is best?' debate other than to say if you want an unsettling, finely-crafted cinematic vision then the Kubrick film fits the bill, but if you'd rather see a more faithful adaptation of the novel, with intricacies of character intact, then the miniseries will provide it. If you're open to the possibility of one thing evolving into two uniquely different things, get both.

3 episodes, approx 90 minutes each.

4 party invites out of 5