Friday, 26 February 2016


Mr Darcy, Regency ninjas and the undead. What's not to like?

Steady, ladies... (Image: Screen Gems)

There’s something really appealing about taking (out of copyright) respectable, literary classics – Little Women, Anna Kareina et al – and adding fantasy elements like werewolves and vampires. The book that apparently started this craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen with additional text by Seth Grahame-Smith, came out in 2009. Since then it’s become a graphic novel – the natural form for it, I’d say – but was beaten to the inevitable live action version by the film adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s follow up novel, 2010’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). It saw a step forward in the of the ‘mashup’ genre, as it was presented as the fictional diary of the 16th President of America’s battle against vampires, conducted against the background of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

Sadly, the film wasn’t as much fun as that description makes it sound. Time Magazine had a very good point when they said in their review of the novel, ‘neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.’ That’s why the film of the premier novel of genre mashup is much more successful. The idea of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters and Mr Darcy, now ninja-style warriors, conducting their drama of social manners in a Regency England overrun by brain-eating zombies, is so triumphantly ridiculous – and fun – that it would take an extremely bad director to cock it up.

Burr Steers’ film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly great fun. It’s at its best when it mixes pure Austen with the new scenario, such as in the famous scene where Fitzwilliam Darcy (an impressively repressed Sam Riley) and Lizzie (Lily James, the very definition of well-bred but feisty) confront each other. This time their argument is accompanied by giving each other a kicking and wrecking a vicarage. The contrast between the two genres also works particularly well in the scene where a ballroom dance, lit with the same painterly care and attention to detail as anything in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), abruptly gives way to a zombie attack and the Bennets slash, cartwheel, kick and slice as well as anyone in The Walking Dead.

You can tell all the actors are really into the mashup idea – Riley and James particularly – with John Huston making a superb job of the caddish Mr Wickham, his social villainy in the original novel given a new slant as he becomes the leader of the undead. Proving there is indeed life after Doctor Who, Matt Smith is genuinely funny in quite a grim film as Parson Collins, the effete and unworldly-wise husband of Lizzie’s sister Charlotte (Aisling Loftus). In fact, I haven’t enjoyed such a vibrant display of classical, British ensemble thesping for a quite a while.

Which is just as well, as when the film doesn’t work, as with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter you feel like you’re waiting for a punchline that never arrives. The idea of doing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a film in the first place might be the problem: there’s so much potential in the vision of an 18th century England where young ladies train to be warriors in China and Japan, London is surrounded by a huge canal to keep the zombies out and the undead are a metaphor for the working class, that a TV series is just crying out to be made.

The idea of broadening out different, but overlapping, fictional universes into a television format has been taken up by the makers of the horror fantasy Penny Dreadful (2014 - ) with some success. In the London of Jack the Ripper, Dr Frankenstein and his monsters, Dorian Gray and Dracula’s Mina Harker co-exist with vampires, werewolves and new characters, and their stories all interweave beautifully. Some people might think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies too one-joke to work in the same way, but since the original mashup novel was written, we’ve had the BBC’s series Dickensian (2015-16), which is essentially the Charles Dickens version of Penny Dreadful. Why not open up Grahame-Smith’s Regency zombie land to characters from Austen’s Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey? It could work.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the film adaptations of Little Vampire Women and Android Karenina.

Monday, 15 February 2016


Or, as a rather less influential songwriter put it, what is love anyway?

It's Valentine's day. So there. (Image copyright: Freemantle Media)

Love. On the face of it, I think I’ve always found it hard to get a grip on. Once when I was going out with an old girlfriend, in the early stages of the relationship she said she was looking forward to being taken out and wined and dined in the best restaurants in London. I suppose I admired her directness, but even for a mild cynic like me, this seemed to be putting the materialistic cart before the romantic horse. It didn’t last.

Which brings me neatly to Valentine’s Day. It seems strange to have a day where you’re made to feel you have to make a conscious effort to tell your nearest and dearest how much you love them, via flowers, cards and/or a meal, with accompanying prices cranked up just for the occasion. Shouldn’t you be telling your loved one every day without prompting how much they mean to you? The same goes for Mother and Father’s Day: are we that far gone emotionally that we have to be reminded by consumerism to express what we should naturally feel? The bugger of it is, even if you disapprove of all the commercialisation, if you don’t join in on these occasions you either think you should be on The Undateables or feel a bit miserable. Or both.

This sort of love I’ve been grappling with lately is a long from synthetic schmaltz. Going into a relationship where there are two children involved hasn’t been easy for me, I suppose because I’ve never had any of my own, and because I’ve spent such a long time as a single man; I think you get to a point where you grow some kind of protective emotional crust. Then there’s my mental health issues: for someone who’s got low self-esteem and suffers from a lack of confidence, the thought of being responsible for two children is sometimes enough to make me want to run for the hills. I have a father who suffered from depression and I have it too. At some level, I think I was terrified of being a bad example and passing the predilection for it on to any kids that I had.

Yum yums.
So here we are on Valentine’s Day. Me and the girls aren’t doing much. Poppy’s on the sofa opposite, with a bit of a temperature. Me and her mum Dawn, my partner, were going to see a film later but obviously we can’t leave her. Every so often, we ask Pops if she wants anything and I’m keeping an eye on her. Rose is playing computer games in her room. Dawn’s working on some of her art next door. This morning, she prepared a lovely healthy breakfast for us and, for a lunch-time snack, cooked some heart-shaped pizzas (above). Yesterday, we spent most of the day not doing much except watching stuff on Netflix. It’s all fine.

So, if I’m to stumble towards an answer to the question, love is, obviously, whatever makes you happy. If that means spending a rainy Saturday afternoon and evening tucked up watching Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and The Flash, that’s just fine. Me being me, more than once I asked Dawn if she was bored. She said she wasn’t and cuddled up a bit more warmly.

This calm, content days is a long way from trying to impress someone by wining and dining them in one of London’s best restaurants. Realising what’s really important has taken me a long time, but I’m glad I finally got here.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

THE X-FILES mini-series review


The X-Files is back and time has stood still. Sadly.

The band is back together. (Image Copyright: 20th Century Fox)

Ah, the 1990s: Britpop, The X-Files, New Labour, Ben Sherman shirts… Out of that short list, the last one I’d have expected to be revived fourteen years on is Chris Carter’s series about two FBI agents, the unlikely named Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who investigated the paranormal phenomena concealed in the dossiers of the show’s title.

Not that The X-Files didn’t have its moments. It’s hard to imagine now, but prior to the year 2000, the sci-fi conspiracy thriller successfully tapped the zeitgeist of pre-millennium unease about what might be round the corner. By 1998, The X-Files was bloody huge, and that was the year the first X-Files movie, Fight the Future, became a box office hit. The two leads were by now international stars: Anderson was on the cover of every lad mag going and Duchovny was apparently a sex addict (nice problem if you can get it). At the same time, the duo’s appearance in The Simpsons and in the lyrics of a hit single – yup, you guessed it, ‘Mulder and Scully’ – showed how much of a pop culture phenomenon the series had become.

Interestingly, the film represented the show’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the mixture of crime procedural and alien incursion was as gripping, and as original and witty, as it had been on television. On the other, Fight the Future – a direct continuation of the TV series – offered no resolution to the ‘alien conspiracy’ story which, by 1998, had been running for five years and had become ever more convoluted and complicated. Following this anti-climax, it wasn’t surprising that interest in The X-Files slowly began to wane after the movie’s release.

Here’s the paradox: The X-Files was excellent as a ‘monster of the week’ chiller or black comedy – remember Tooms? Luther Boggs? Jose Chung’s From Outer Space? Pusher? – but, after Series 3, was at its weakest with the clearly made-up-as-it-went-along ET conspiracy story arc. For some reason, head writer Chris Carter thought it was the main reason that people watched the show, and it didn’t help that this massively unwieldy mythology brought out the worst in his scripts, namely sledgehammer subtle info-dumps and unconvincing and frustrating story twists. When The X-Files finished in 2002 (Duchovny had bailed in 2000), it had run out of audience goodwill at least two years before.

So, here we are in 2016, with ‘My Struggle’, the first episode of a new mini-series. It was a strange experience watching it. Time had clearly passed for Mulder and Scully; they were no longer a couple, Scully had gone back to being a doctor and Mulder was depressed and hiding at home. It was great to see them again – and, happily, the publicity photos showed that the resumption of their FBI partnership wasn’t far away – as well as their reliably truculent (now trendily bearded) boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi).

Behind the camera, though, with Carter in the writer and director’s chairs, it felt like it was still the 1990s, as suggested by the use of the original title sequence. The show runner seems to take it for granted that as it’s The X-Files, an audience will show up and watch, a complacent attitude that also afflicted The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), the second feature film. Despite a gap of six years, that felt like watching an average stand-alone episode of the TV series, with an uninspired story and flat direction.

Lax direction was also the problem with ‘My Struggle’. However, what’s most noticeable about it is that Carter seems to have learnt nothing from all the innovative TV drama that built on the groundwork The X Files laid. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Lost, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Colony, Boardwalk Empire, Mr Robot, among others, together with the seminal Breaking Bad – significantly, created by ex-X Files writer Vince Gilligan – have all refined the art of storytelling on television, and all of them have let the characters drive the story rather than the other way round.

Not so in The X-Files 2016. Last night, after everything he’d seen – numerous close encounters, a shape-shifting assassin and living oil, to name a few examples of alien life – Mulder was easily convinced that a secret organisation had been using plundered alien tech and no living ETs had been involved. As before, this cavalier plot-driven approach made a nonsense of the storytelling and had the protagonists acting out of character, which in turn tests the audience’s patience. You could sense that Duchovny felt that too, as his revisionist info-dump about the nature of the conspiracy wasn’t exactly delivered with enthusiasm. No wonder Gillian Anderson, used to better in the last few years at the BBC, looked uncomfortable.

Despite the sequences of a crashed UFO at Roswell in 1947 – the best thing about the episode, for me – a key plot point was given away in a casual aside: apparently the Roswell crash was a faked alien landing by Soviet Russia. How, exactly? That seemed to contradict everything we saw in the 1940s scenes. OK, we might learn more about this as we go along, but going on past experience, I rather doubt it.  

(Image Copyright:
20th Century Fox
What else was good about it? I really liked Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, left), a paranoid but slick, PR savvy conspiracy theorist with his own internet show. McHale clearly relished the role, and there are plenty of story ideas to be mined in this new area for The X-Files. Despite all the drawbacks of the script, as a duo Duchovny and Anderson remain highly watchable, even when they’re up against clunky lines like ‘I’ve been led by the nose through a dark alley to a dead end.’

Next week, it looks like Mulder and Scully are back on their paranormal-phenomena-of-the-week beat. If this revival is going to work, that’s where they should stay.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

MR ROBOT Series 1 review

Elliot Alderson is mad as hell, and he's not gonna take it anymore. Very luckily for us.

Live in New York long enough and this is what'll happen.
(Image copyright: USA Network)

In terms of TV drama, the start of this year has been a bit meh: there seems to be nothing worth watching on the terrestrial channels, unless you fancy obligatory Sunday night costume pomp, this time around with the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Increasingly, it seems, online is the place to look for challenging new fare. Even so, it’s not very often that a drama comes along and has me sitting up straight and wide-eyed from the opening minutes.

At my bleakest, usually when I’m on the top deck of a bus on Monday morning looking out at a rain-sodden Welling high street on the way to the Job Centre, I despair at the grey, faceless, exhausting sludge contemporary life seems to have become (at least, if you’re consistently broke and can’t get back into a decent paying job). Thank God, then, for Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot, which completely nails that contemporary sense of dislocation, alienation and frustration.

In a nutshell: New York cybersecurity engineer Elliot Alderson (Rami Malik, above) is recruited by a mysterious older man known only as ‘Mr Robot’ (Christian Slater, in a career-resurrecting performance) into group of cyber anarchists who plan to destroy the corporate giant E Corp – or ‘Evil Corp’ – and eradicate worldwide debt.

It’s a sign of the radical chops of Mr Robot that E Corp’s logo is a lawyer-worrying lift from the emblem used by the Enron Corporation, which used to be one of America’s largest. This energy company based in Houston, Texas, went bankrupt in 2001 due to financial mismanagement, and that had far-reaching financial implications for the world economy. With its direct allusions to the Enron scandal, Mr Robot suggests that what you see in the media may not be the real story, as Mr Robot’s group of hacktivists fsociety – three guesses for what the ‘f’ stands for – incriminate E Corp’s CEO with the financial corruption of his own company. 

The message is clear: this a gloves-off, modern battle between cyber Davids and corporate Goliaths, underlined by clips of Julian Assange, the founder of the classified information-sharing website Wikileaks. The series has a fantastic premise: if all personal and corporate information is now digital, all information can, potentially, be hacked, corrupted and used to blackmail.

What really sets Mr Robot from its cyber thriller contemporaries (such as they are) are the characters. Whereas Breaking Bad began with an ensemble that were, more or less, level headed but went off the rails, to a man and woman Esmail’s characters are dysfunctional, angry or screwed up to start with, all because of modern life. Elliot’s father died of leukemia and he was brought up by an abusive mother; consequently, as an adult, he has clinical depression, social anxiety and can be cripplingly lonely. To cope, he snorts crushed morphine tablets and cyberhacks people he doesn’t like. It’s a remarkable, unnerving performance by Rami Malek, amplified by the way his eyes seem to swell with paranoia at the deplorable state of the world around him.

Elsewhere, his frustrated artist neighbour Shayla (Frankie Shaw) is a drug dealer sexually bullied by her drug contact; Elliot’s childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) struggles with her executive job, while her boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport) is secretly addicted to sex through internet chat rooms. At the other end of the social scale, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), the ambitious Senior Vice President of E Corp, is a sado-masochist who – in shades of Fight Club – copes with stress by paying tramps so he can beat them up.

Put like that it sounds over the top and a bit silly, but the performances are underplayed and totally convincing, not least because the characters always surprise you by not behaving how you’d expect. (The end of the second episode, in particular, will shock you.) You accept it all because, if you’ve lived in a city, you’ll recognise what isolating, socially undermining and brutal environments they can be. The art direction picks up on this by casting everything in the kind of bland, fluorescent, grey light you find in anonymous city office blocks and anonymous city bedsits.

As well as all this volatile content, there’s an extra existential layer to Mr Robot. Elliot is seeing a psychiatrist who warns him about relapsing into having delusions, so as you watch events unfold, the nagging feeling persists that it might all be in his head. Particularly because Elliot’s voiceover directly addresses the audience, drawing them into his world view. Trying to tease fact from fantasy is all part of the twisted fun.

I love it. At last, a series has come along that directly embraces the raging urban malcontent that, at the moment, I’m feeling like. Elliot may be far from perfect – that’s part of his appeal – but, in something of a first, he’s a major TV character who has to struggle with serious mental health issues.

For that alone, Mr Robot is worth your time.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016


Well here's a thing: I enjoyed a Star Wars film. I even felt a twinge when Han Solo showed up.

The boys are back in town. (Image copyright: Disney)

Star Wars: didn’t get it. Maybe I was slightly too old in 1978 to have my imagination fired by Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and co. I was (and still am) a die-hard Doctor Who fan, which back then meant championing the ingenuity of the stories over the sometimes dodgy visual effects, which you nonetheless staunchly defended because they were done on a slim BBC budget etc. etc. So, Star Wars looked great, but production values aside, for me it was a simplified The Lord of the Rings, with lasers and spaceships instead of swords and dragons. A lucky escape from SW: The Phantom Menace’s horribly unconvincing CGI, as well as actors desperately looking for a director, was nearly enough to put me off for life.

Anyway, there was nothing else me and the lady friend fancied seeing at the pictures on Saturday night, so SW: The Force Awakens it was. I allowed my arm to be twisted because JJ Abrams was directing and involved in the writing. This was the man who revitalised the Star Trek films by going back to basics, so at the very least it would be interesting to see what he’d come up with.

As it turns out, the same approach. The Force Awakens reliably familiar story riffs on the original 1977 film and perhaps helps to explain why, when you take away the astonishing VFX and monsters, the Star Wars franchise became so universally popular: two young people from humble origins wrestle with who they are and their place in the world, turning into fully fledged heroes by the final reel. (And it can’t be coincidence that other money-spinning franchises like Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have all used the same idea).

Crucially, the two heroes in question are likeable and likeably played: Rey (Daisy Ridley, whose great uncle, Arnold, was Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army – with that revelation, the film was already winning me over) and Finn (John Boyega). Conceptually, they’re the main innovations, as Rey becomes a female Jedi knight who could out-feist Katniss Everdeen, while ‘Finn’ – his name deriving from the designation FN2187 – is a Stormtrooper who rejects the fascist First Order. I really liked this idea: the white, robotic Stormtrooper uniforms submerge the wearers’ identity so completely that it’s a neat twist to see, for the first time (?), the flesh and blood under the armour. The First Order kidnapping children to indoctrinate them into soldiers suggests current fanatical groups like Islamic State, but that’s as contemporary as the film gets.

Less impressively, a soapy family storyline is again central to events. I wonder how much committed Star Wars fans thought it was pushing it to have Han Solo as the father of Darth-in-waiting Kylo Ren (the disturbingly intense Adam Driver), reversing the villain/father, hero/son relationship of Darth Vader and Luke Sywalker? I didn’t actually mind, as their confrontation is the most dramatically rewarding scene in the film, but it has to be said that this and all The Force Awakens’ major plot beats replicate events from Episode IV: a secret message hidden in a droid which the baddies hunt for on a desert planet, the interrogation of the heroine, a rescue raid on the baddies’ HQ, the final assault by a rebel fighter force on a super weapon… take your pick. Perhaps the idea was to reassure an audience put off by the three prequels they were watching Star Wars again. If so, it worked. Even I felt a nostalgic twinge at the appearance of familiar situations and characters.

In the end this recycling didn't matter, because what Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan – significantly, the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and, less significantly, The Return of the Jedi – have reaffirmed is that Star Wars isn’t really about SF or the originality of the story. It’s not accidental that, as in the original trilogy, the uniformed villains are all played by British actors speaking Received Pronunciation English and being directed like World War II Nazis. At one point, Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux looks like he’s bellowing at the Third Reich, and calling Andy Serkis’ evil mastermind ‘Supreme Leader’ (the Fuhrer, in other words) is a bit of a giveaway. Like the Indiana Jones films, Star Wars is a satisfying distillation of those goodies versus baddies 1930s serials and Nazi-bashing 1940/50s war films, directly implied by the opening ‘story so far’ text and the old-fashioned screen wipes from scene to scene.

This enjoyable self-awareness is also there in the space battles between X-Wings and Tie Fighters, which are clearly modeled on World War II dog fights, and the craggy charm of Harrison Ford’s Solo, who has roguish antecedents in everyone from John Wayne to Humphrey Bogart. The lovely touch of Solo reacquainting himself with the Millennium Falcon was clearly meant to be a metaphor for middle-aged fans of the original Star Wars, welcoming the most cherished parts of their movie series back into the fold.

Cynical manipulation or clever reinvention? It’s up you in the end but for me The Force Awakens can be enjoyed as a rollicking good adventure yarn, rather than that much lesser thing, ‘a Star Wars film’. The CGI is discreet, with models and physical effects foregrounded wherever possible, Carrie Fisher has been allowed to age gracefully and the droid BB87 is so cute I wanted to take him home.

Maybe I get Star Wars after all. Abrams and Kasdan certainly do.