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REVIEW: Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn (2012) June 30, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews, Television Reviews.
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HALO 4: FORWARD UNTO DAWN

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Among television enthusiasts our times are often called the “Golden Age of Television”. Gamers could also talk about “Golden Age of Video Games”. Both media have, in the past decade or so, experienced dramatic increase in quality, and that increase becomes even more spectacular compared to the general state of feature film industry. Video games have especially matured in a way that allow gamers to enjoy not just spectacular action, but also intriguing plots and characters. That might explain why all attempts to exploit popularity of certain video games through their feature film adoptions are almost always doomed to fail. High expectations accumulated through the days of immersive game-play simply can’t be met by standard ninety minutes of conventional film-making. Non-gamer viewers, on the other hand, might avoid being disappointed simply by judging video game adaptations on their own merit. One of such opportunities was presented by Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, 2012 feature film produced in 2012 by Microsoft in order to promote Halo 4, next instalment in its series of Halo sci-fi first person shooter games.

The plot of the film begins in the same moment as the plot of the game. In year 2527 wrecked United Nations Space Command vessel Forward Unto Dawn sends distress signal, which is picked by UNSC Infinity and its captain Tom Lasky who begins to remember the events from his youth three decades earlier. Young Lasky (played by Thom Green) is on Corbulo Military Academy, training facility for children of high-ranking UNSC officers on planet Circinius-IV. He is not happy there, partly because intense training have negative effects on his physical health and partly because he believes that the war against insurgents, in which his older brother died, should stop. Soon he and his comrades are embroiled in even bigger and more devastating conflict when the planet and facility are attacked by mysterious, deadly and seemingly unstoppable race of aliens. Lasky must use all of his abilities to survive and is aided by equally mysterious super-soldier known simply as Master Chief.

Forward Unto Dawn originally appeared as five-part web series and the episodic nature of the plot is quite apparent. Script by Aaron and Todd Helbing tries very hard to portray futuristic society through diverse set of characters; however, they and their stories are often nothing more than a distraction. The only depth is given to Lasky and, to a lesser degree, to character of female cadet Chyler Silva (played by Anna Popplewell) who, predictably, becomes protagonist’s love interest and has even more predictable fate later in the film. The actors try their best with rather limited material but their efforts can’t overcome clichés and slow pace. The film becomes interesting only in its second half when the drama turns into more conventional action. Relative lack of budget is apparent with woods of British Columbia again doubling for alien planet and all of the action taking place at night, which makes CGI more convincing. Director Stewart Handler is, however, capable enough to advance this section quickly and provide intriguing live action versions of Covenant aliens, Warthog vehicle and other fan favourite details of the original game. While Forward Unto Dawn is functional and quite successful as product promotion, it is less successful as live action film by itself. For those who aren’t fans it looks nothing more than an average failed television pilot.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: 12 Monkeys (Season 1, 2015) January 14, 2016

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12 MONKEYS

SEASON 1 (2015)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

The author of this review often experienced his own tastes and opinions clashing with those of his fellow cinephiles. One of the most extreme examples is Terry Gilliam’s filmography. For me, many of Gilliam’s most beloved or cherished films often look like a grotesque exercise of style over substance. This is one of the reasons why I consider 12 Monkeys to be the best of all Gilliam’s work and one of the best 1990s films in general; in it Gilliam was actually restrained and didn’t allow himself to endulge in unecessary spectacle at the expense of David and Janet Peoples’ script. That script was so good, so intelligent and so coherent that it is rather unsurprising to see it as a basis of a television remake.

The show, produced by Syfy Channel, in broadest terms follows the basic plot of the film. In 2017 cataclysmic pandemic, caused by ever-mutating viral strain, wiped out almost entire humanity, reducing survivors to barbarity in post-apocalyptic wasteland. In few little pockets of civilisation one small group of dedicated scientists managed to build a time machine and in 2043 launched a project with the aim of stopping the plague before it even begins. The mission is given to James Cole (played by Aaron Stanford) who travels back to 2015 and tries to locate the genetically engineered viral strain and stop the people who deliberately released it from their labs. Cole’s main clue is connected to virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (played by Amandas Schull), who is, at first skeptical towards the claims of an obviously unsophisticated and unpleasantly violent stranger. Her doubts quickly dissipate and she begins helping him, having to deal not only with the often confusing side-effects and paradoxes of time travel, but also with increasingly complex mystery and sinister organisation called Army of Twelve Monkeys.

Inevitable comparisons between acclaimed feature films and television shows usually tend to favour the former. In case of Twelve Monkeys passage of two decades helped the show creators by setting new standards of special effects, production and storytelling. The show might not look like much, especially during first episodes, but the impression steadily improves. The plot takes place during two distinct periods – pre-plague (or “past”) and post-plague (“the present” or “future”) – with latter taking place mostly in interiors and the exteriors being the usual bleak post-apocalyptic settings that could be recreated without much use of special effects or some futuristic props. More problematic comparisons, at least during the first episodes, are between two casts. Aaron Stanford simply doesn’t have the same charisma and stature Bruce Willis had and it takes some time for his non-sympathetic character to develop. Amanda Schull, former ballerina best known for her role in Center Stage, is, on the other hand, looks too beautiful to be taken seriously as major scientist, which is the problem Madeleine Stowe didn’t have in the film version. However, by the end of the season, both those characters develop enough depth and chemistry for both actors to deliver credible and, at times, very powerful story.

While doing so, they are aided by equally powerful cast. Show creators make first major departure by switching the gender of a mentally disturbed character played by Brad Pitt in the film version; instead we get deliciously and, at times, menacingly insane character of literally mad scientist played by very impressive Emily Hampshire. Kirk Acevedo, on the other hand, gives another strong performance as Cole’s best friend and partner who also serves as his moral anchor and whose gradual transformation in the few last episodes of the season represent one of better twists in recent television dramas. The most impressive is, however, Barbara Sukowa, German actress who became famous four decades ago as Fasbbinder’s muse; in the beginning of 12 Monkeys she plays a character of cold, uncaring scientist which is hard to like and only gradually the viewers begin to warm to her while discover some very personal motives for her project. Sukowa is equally impressive while playing decades younger version of herself under heavy make-up, a task required by the script that deals with time travel but that could easily turn the show into unintentional parody.

The biggest asset of the show is, however, the script. It belongs to the “harder” strains of science fiction, or, in other words, takes the concept of time travel as seriously as such concept could be taken. So, time travelers, like protagonist, must act within frustratingly limited parameters of a single timeline; show creators, on the other hand, must pay extra attention to continuity with even the least significant details of each scene being consistent with what was only hinted in the timeline’s past or future. Apart from a single episode that briefly takes a place in an alternate universe, 12 Monkeys doesn’t dare to challenge so-called Grandfather Paradox, even if it means that the protagonists, despite their nominal mission actually can’t stop the apocalypse or prevent their loved ones dying in sometimes quite unpleasant ways (with new and more permissive television standards allowing for explicit violence, as well rather explicit language). Because everything in this show appears to be connected, discovering or anticipating such connections is something that could stimulate the audience and engage viewers’ intellects as well as emotions. 12 Monkeys also fits the concept of science fiction as the genre of ideas, and behind all the drama is eternal philosophical debate between predestination and free will. Rarely, even in today’s Golden Age of Television, we have opportunity to witness such debates in form of television drama. 12 Monkeys used such opportunity well in its first season and we might hope that such opportunity won’t be squandered in the second.

RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Specials, 1995 – 2000) January 4, 2015

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Specials (1995 – 2000)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2015

It is rare to see television drama creators investing significant effort for their show end well, and it is even rarer to see them succeeding in that. Makers of Inspector Morse are among those few who could be proud of such achievement. Beloved British crime show provided its loyal viewers with one of the longest and, in the some time, most rewarding rides into sunset. This happened due to producers’ wise decision not to push its creative and other envelopes and to allow the inevitable to happen at slow pace. So, instead of trying to squeeze the end in the single season, Inspector Morse was ending for more than half a decade – in the form of a television specials, in other words, regular television films being aired made once a year. This allowed actors and staff to unburden themselves while Colin Dexter, the original character’s creator, had opportunity to wrap his story up through couple of novels, later serving as basis for individual “specials”.

The Way Through the Woods, aired in 1995, is based on Dexter’s eponymous award-winning novel. It begins like many Morse mysteries – with brutal incident that actually has very little do with the general plot. Convicted serial killer dies as a result of a prison gang attack, but not before recanting part of his confession and forcing Morse to reopen cold case and try finding the real culprit of young woman’s disappearance. Morse’s efforts not only create friction between him and some of his colleagues who originally investigated the case, but also reveal certain unflattering truths about local community and lead to more bloodshed and mayhem. The Way Throught The Woods is important because it adds another regular character to the show – forensic expert Dr. Laura Hobson, played brilliantly by Clare Holman. The most impressive part of the episode is the ending; it is extremely violent, uncompromisingly dark and utterly harrowing for protagonists, requiring the best performances from both John Thaw and Kevin Whately. Younger viewers are, however, more likely to notice Michelle Fairley, who plays character that could be in the same time described as very similar and quite different from Lady Cathelyn Stark in Game of Thrones.

The Daughters of Cain, aired in 1996, is one of the episodes with the least satisfactory ending. The actual murder mystery is never properly solved. The script by Julian Mitchell covers some important and rather dark topics like domestic abuse, terminal illness and inappropriate teacher-student relationships, but their general treatment is so casual and at times so lighthearted that it makes the episode look like a parody of Morse. Certain subplots and scenes actually don’t make much sense and appear to be in the show only to provide adequate running time. The only thing preventing complete disappointment and rising the general quality to proper Morse standards is acting. Tony Haygarth is impressive and menacing as violent husband, same as Brenda Brooks as his long-suffering wife. The best is Phyllis Logan, who plays one of the more unusual characters of the show, successfully making delicate balance between pathos and comedy.

Death Is Now My Neighbour, aired one year later, again shows that the plots were secondary ingredients to Morse formula. It begins with a seemingly random and senseless shooting and develops into investigation that reveals most bitter fight for the prestigious Oxford posts, blackmails and corruption that taints modern media professionals just like anyone else. The audience would probably pay little attention to the scheme which is both complicated and forgettable at the same time. Instead, it is the acting talent that glues them to the screen. The best example is veteran actor Richard Briers which portrays one of the most evil characters of the whole show, with impressive scenes in which he revels in his wickedness; yet he is not actually the conventional main villain. The episode also features Roger Allam in a smaller role; the very same actor would years later appear as Morse’s superior in Endeavour. The audience would also pay more attention for certain scenes that they waited for in previous thirty or so episodes. At the end, Morse, after many failures and disappointments, actually gets the girl and enjoys his long-deserved R&R. Most importantly, viewers finally get to know protagonist’s unusual first name.

The Wench Is Dead, penultimate episode aired in 1998, represents the greatest departure from the usual content of the show. There were episodes set outside Oxford, in different cities, countries (Italy) and continents (Australia), yet none of them was set in different century. The plot provides opportunity for that in a meeting between Morse and American historian (played by Lisa Eichhorn) leading to Morse’s investigation into 1859 murder and his attempt to prove that two innocent men had been unjustly hanged. This rather odd episode features some interesting and times delightful, albeit rather brief scenes of period reconstruction; the mystery is rather weak and quickly solved by Morse. Another unusual detail is absence of Lewis. The viewers would, however, pay more attention towards the reason which allows Morse to spend time researching ancient murder – his deteriorating health that would be the most important issue in the last episode.

The Remorseful Day, aired in November 2000, is the last episode of the show and one of the few that was actually conceived and meant to be the last. It is based on the novel in which Colin Dexter did what few of his fellow crime authors had done – actually killed his most beloved character. The fans of the show were most likely quite familiar with this detail, with the novel being published in 1999, a year before its television adaptation. The script by Stephen Churchill actually pays little attention to the murder mystery involving nymphomaniac (played by Meg Davies) who might had some prior relationship with Morse. Everything in this episode is under the shadow of the inevitable end of Morse – either through impeding retirement, in which he would be joined by his superior and friend Chief Superintendent Strange (played most movingly by James Grout) or through the years of alcohol abuse taking their final and brutal toll. Direction by film veteran Jack Gold is superb, and it could be best seen at the very end. The few scenes, during which actual police investigation suddenly loses importance compared to what happens to Morse, are among the most effective in the television history. The shot  during which Lewis departs from his superior with a simple gesture and few words is heart-wrenching, especially considering that the life in this case followed art and that John Thaw died in February 2002. The end of Inspector Morse has set a high bar for memorable endings,  just as the show in general has set a high bar for quality television.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 7, 1993) October 18, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 7 (1993)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

One of great things about UK television shows is their flexibility, not only in a ways they are created and aired, but also in a way they tend to end. In case of Inspector Morse, the ending appears to have less to do with decreasing ratings or popularity and more with the general fatigue of the cast and crew. From 1987 to 1991 number of episodes per series was rising, making the task of maintaining high quality increasingly difficult. Seventh series, originally aired in the beginning of 1993, proved to be the last regular season of the show. Only three episodes were made, but those three kept the general tone and high standards nowadays associated with Morse.

The first episode, Deadly Slumber, is one of the more straightforward murder mysteries of the show. Although beset with usual red herrings, the case of a murdered physician is actually quite simple and Morse doesn’t have to work that hard in order to find the actual suspect. Brian Cox, actor who never fails to leave the impression, plays rather complex character – rough man with terrible personal grudge and who appears capable of a homicidal act, yet at the same also happens to be dedicated family man and prone to generosity. The rest of the cast is also quite up to the task. After the case is finally resolved – in rather simple way, uncharacteristic for Morse – writer Daniel Boyle and director Stuart Orme still have time for one of the most poignant scenes of the entire show. Because of that, Deadly Slumber is the best episode of the series.

Second episode, The Day of the Devil, is as close as Inspector Morse ever comes to “jumping the shark”. The beginning actually reveals the main villain who also happens to be one of the most frightening and the nastiest characters of the show. Devil-worshipping convincted serial rapist, played by Keith Allen, escapes from psychiatric hospital and makes his to Oxford, using carefully planned disguises. For most of the part John Thaw looks like his character was accidentally teleported into another fictional universe, one belonging to 1990s Hollywood thrillers about unstoppable and seemingly all-powerful serial killers. However, the episode gradually shifts to more familiar territory of red herrings and less obvious plots and motives. Allen, one of the more colourful British character actors, leaves quite an impression as embodiment of diabolical evil. His performance is, however, well-matched by actors in less flamboyant roles. Harriet Walter is very good as prison psychiatrist and villain’s presumed target, same as Richard Griffiths who plays very convincing priest and expert for the occult. The episode could have been much better if not for the ridicoulously over-the-top black mass scene that looks like it was borrowed from cheap grindhouse horror film. Thankfully, very interesting twist improves general impression, just like the ending that, together with the character of tough female policeman played by Katrina Levon, looks like homage to Silence of the Lambs.

John Thaw in prevous two episodes actually didn’t have much opportunity to display emotions. In the last episode, conveniently titled Twilight of the Gods, Morse’s character is again given opportunity to express his love of opera. This is provided by Welsh diva, played by Sheila Gish, who arrives to Oxford University in order to receive honorary degree only to be shot by a sniper during the public ceremony. Morse quickly overcomes the shock and uses his academic connections and experiences to determine possible motive and perpetrator. Just like in many previous episodes, he discovers that actual motive for the shooting have very little to do with the actual victim. Despite that, the audience, especially those familiar with certain traumatic chapters of 20th Century history, will relatively quickly connect the dots and solve the mystery. The episode is the best when it shows how the characters come to such conclusions, and the script by Julian Mitchell provides plenty of opportunity for lighter, humourous scenes, especially those dealing with members of diva’s entourage and their implied or explicit homosexuality. Acting is generally good, whether it is old John Gielgud in rather not that important role of university chancellor and very young Rachel Weisz whose character mostly amounts to nothing more than eye candy. Robert Hardy, on the other hand, is slightly over the top as vulgar media tycoon, although it could be said that his character was based on real-life (and equally flamboyant) Robert Maxwell. After this episode, Inspector Morse continued through television specials instead of regular seasons; however, if Twilight of the Gods should be seen as the finale of regular series, it should also be said that Morse ended on positive note.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 6, 1992) October 13, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 6 (1992)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Even the most successful television shows don’t last forever, and their creators and producers should be aware of it. Those among them who are truly responsible, sooner or later, begin to prepare audience and themselves for inevitable end, or, at least the major transformation that could be interpreted as such. One of such examples could be seen in the sixth series of Inspector Morse. Despite previous seasons never shying away from showing the private life of title protagonist, many details – his name, his past and his background – remained a mystery. Sixth series began to answer some of audience’s questions about their favourite television detective, probably reflecting creators’ view that there will be less and less opportunities to do that in the future.

Dead on Time, first episode of the series, explains why Morse, despite being, sometimes dangerously, attracted to women, ended alone instead of securing permanent female company through marriage. The answer to that question is given in the form of middle-aged, yet attractive woman (played by Joanna David, whose eyes and other features might be familiar to fans of her daughter Emilia Fox of Silent Witness fame), who happened to be Morse’s fiancee three decades ago. Occasion in which Morse meets his former flame isn’t the happy one – she happens to be involved in the case of suicide which, later, turns out to be staged, and reveals the series of tragic events and general misery that makes Morse’s lonely life quite happy in comparison. Despite high amounts of melodrama, Daniel Boyle’s script manages to make plot and characters quite believable. The acting is top-notch, especially in the case of John Thaw whose character finally snaps in one scene forcing Kevin Whately as his loyal, clear-headed and always dependable Sergeant Lewis to save the day. Dead on Time, despite its general bleakness, is one of the better episodes of the whole series.

Happy Families (whose title is more than obvious node to famous opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) looks much worse in comparison. It begins with a rich industrialist and his dysfunctional family, made of characters – with exception of mother played by Anna Massey – who try very hard to make themselves as unsympathetic to the audience as possible. Viewers won’t be surprised nor displeased when they find most of them suffering violent ends before closing credits. However, just like most other Morse episodes with high bodycount, Happy Families is of inferior quality. The motives for murder, the actual murderer and violently melodramatic finale provide plenty of “deja vu” to experienced viewers. The general impression is helped only by superb acting.

The Death of the Self tries to repeat previous series formula by providing Morse with spectacular change of a scenery. This time, the trip abroad is more to Morse’s liking and the snobbish opera-loving detective not only has opportunity to visit pretty sights of Northern Italy but also to meet British expatriate opera singer played by Frances Barber. Unfortunately, the plot that provides an excuse for Morse’s adventures in Italy – possible murder among rich clients of British self help guru and former criminal – is rather weak and the characters look almost parodical. Not even the talents of Michael Kitchen, who plays Morse’s manipulative adversary, can’t help this episode.

Absolute Conviction brings the audience back to Britain, and actually begins in one of its less pleasant locations – a prison. Beginning, in which character played by young Sean Bean gets mysteriously trapped in his cell, clearly indicates that something bad and violent is about to happen. When it does, Morse is forced to investigate murder surrounded by some of the people he had put behind bars. Script by John Brown nevertheless uses opportunity for some socio-political commentary – the prison is minimum security, run by kind-hearted  and socially conscious reformer who happens to be a woman; Morse has to deal with over-zealous subordinate who thinks little of bending law or respecting people’s rights; the criminals are fraudsters who symbolise the greed of Thatcher’s Britain. Just like in many Morse episodes, the trigger for violent events has little do with the obvious and the ending is melodramatically violent. The audience, however, might enjoy great directing by Antonia Bird and some fine acting, especially by actors who only later became famous, with Jim Broadbent as the most recognisable example.

Cherubim & Serafim, the final episode of the series, clearly puts the Morse in 1990s and shows how the world changed during previous seasons and it also provides so far the greatest insight into Morse’s past. The audience finally meets some members of Morse’s family; again, the occasion is not a happy one – suicide of his beloved 15-year old step-niece. Morse’s attempt to informally discover motives for such unexplainable act only leads to formal investigation, when similar cases point to experimental drug being distributed at popular rave parties. The plot is actually weak, but it serves as a good opportunity for Morse to reflect on his own youth and how the culture and general mores drastically changed, yet the adolescent angst remained the same. Morse’s musings on the subjects are presented through conversations with his trusted Sergeant Lewis, whose own children have grown and must face the same teenage ordeals. The plot resolution is weak, although it literally “goes with a bang”. The audience will, however, be pleased to find that scriptwriter Julian Mitchell recognised that Lewis can’t remain Morse’s subordinate forever and the scenes dealing with his Inspector’s exam clearly point that he would pick up Morse’s torch and become protagonist of his own show.

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 5, 1991) September 13, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 5 (1991)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fifth series of Inspector Morse faced show’s creators with the another challenge of sticking to the familiar and popular formula while providing audience with something new. The answer to that was apparently very simple. They decided to make Morse “bigger”. This was achieved in two ways – by increasing number of feature-length episodes from four to five and through larger budgets, that would become apparent in the last episode of the series.

The series begins with Second Time Around, episode that could be described as “standard” Morse mystery, with rather simple plot but very well-written and, what is even more important, well-acted characters. Violent death of veteran police official leads Morse to re-open the investigation of unsolved child murder and also gives opportunity to display protagonist’s liberal views on law enforcement and criminal justice (which could be interpreted as creators’ attempt to atone for Morse’s Dirty Harry-like antics in Series 4). Those views are highlighted thanks to the presence of Morse’s old and more conservative colleague, played by Kenneth Colley (best known as Admiral Piett and original Star Wars trilogy). His presence makes the episode interesting, together with dependable character actor Oliver Ford Davis (another Star Wars veteran) as one of murder suspects. Young Christopher Ecclestone also does very good job out of otherwise thankless role of a disturbed youth.

Fat Chance provides the series with one of the weakest script, at least to those who watch the show while expecting something like complex and intriguing murder mystery. It is also an episode in which the authors try very hard to wear left wing and social liberal views on their sleeves. It reflects in plot that connects struggle for female priesthood in Oxford with slimy entrepreneurs who exploit frustrations of overweight women and peddle dodgy slimming products. The way those two plots are connected is rather easy to guess and, actually, nothing much happens in the episode. The fans of the show, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t mind much. The acting and direction is very good and the episode turns to be one of those rare occasions in Morse when the titular character actually gets the “girl” – in this case played by charming Zoe Wanamaker.

Who Killed Harry Field? is an episode title that suggests lack of inspiration. Despite that, the script by Geoffrey Case successfully connects the subplots involving world of art with subplots of political corruption. The episode is also one of the first to acknowledge that Oxford with its ancient architectures and traditions didn’t completely stick to the past, and that at least some of its citizens got involved with Swinging Sixties. Much of the plot actually deals with the way baby boomers had to abandon bohemian lifestyle and anti-establishment ideals of their youth and had to (or failed to) conform to 1980s realities. Like in many Morse episodes, murder mystery is not as interesting as characters; the latter again provide opportunity for some fine acting. The most memorable is Freddie Jones as murdered victim’s father. On the other hand, the subplot dealing with Morse’s loyal Sergeant Lewis seeking promotion and transfer from his boss looks more a way to fill running time and ends rather predictably, since most fans of the show also happen to be fans of Kevin Whately.

Greeks Baring Gifts is a superb example of a murder mystery that allows scriptwriters to cover many different social issues. Script by Peter Nichols begins with a killing of a Greek immigrant cook that hints at multiculturalism in modern Britain and related conflicts to be the main issue. After a while Morse’s investigation and the plot makes a different turn and plot explores the conflict between the “old money” establishment and self-made entrepreneurs from working class. Experienced Morse viewers know that the resolution of murder mystery has little to do with both subjects, just like the presence of dark and sinister-looking James Faulkner (now best known as Pope Sixtus VI in Da Vinci’s Demons) as the most obvious villain points towards someone else as actual murderer. The end of the episode is one of the more melodramatic and one of the most disturbing; despite that Greeks Baring Gifts is one of the better written, directed and acted Morse episodes.

The season finale, Promised Land, represents greatest departure – both for Morse and its titular character. Death of imprisoned gangland boss and possible judicial review send Morse and Lewis to Australia in order to protect key witness who lives under new identity. This plot allows the most spectacular change of scenery – small town in Australian outback proves to be very different from Oxford, and the script by Julian Mitchell uses opportunities to explore many cultural differences. The best thing about the episode is a way it highlights differences between Lewis and his superior – while Morse, being high culture snob, doesn’t like common Australian cuisine or country music, his loyal working-class sergeant appears more in tune with the locals and their way of life. This also allows for a rare scene of male cop bonding between Lewis and his local colleague (played by John Jarrat). The acting in the show is great and the most recognisable face belongs to young Noah Taylor playing one of the more straightforward characters of his career. The episode ends with one of the more spectacular shots of the entire show, that connects the Australian setting with titular character’s love of opera.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 4, 1990) August 31, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 4 (1990)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fourth season (or series) of popular television drama is usually the point when the show “jumps the shark”. The creators and producers are burdened with increasingly difficult task of satisfying the target audience with familiar  plots and characters while avoiding repetition and boredom at the same time. Some shows avoid this trap, while some don’t. Inspector Morse, juding by its fourth series, did it only partially.

Four episodes (which are, actually, feature-length television films) continue to stick to the  formula established in previous three seasons. The most noticeable difference in comparison with Series 3 is the absence of pathologist Dr. Grayling Russell; with her gone, fourth season lacks continuity and the main characters loses any excuse for not looking at other women. By that point, Colin Dexter ran out of novels for screenwriters to base episodes on, so it reflected in even more creative freedom. The episodes at times look very different, but their content at times succumbs to unnecessary melodrama and unconvincingly violent resolutions, just like in first two seasons.

The Infernal Serpent, the first episode, begins very promisingly and actually turns out to be the best. Death of an respected environmentalist minutes before the important public announcement leads audience to believe that the subject is going to be major scandal. Director John Madden dutifully plays to those expectations by providing some quite suspenseful scenes in which John Thaw’s middle-aged police official have to deal with black operatives and their rather unsubtle efforts at major cover-up. But, just like in most good episodes of Morse, the thing that triggers such course of events is coincidence. The real mystery Morse has to uncover is much closer to home and related to Morse’s old friends at Oxford University and their dysfunctional family lives. Like in many Morse episodes, music is an important part of background and the acting is superb, especially with Geoffrey Palmer as sinister Oxford don.

The Sins of the Fathers features rather weak and not very convincing “whodunnit”, which is, on the other hand backed by an interesting plot background, providing some insight into class differences and transformation of capitalism in late 20th Century Britain. The murders seem repetitive and too theatrical, but the general impression is again rescued by excellent acting. Veteran Lionel Jeffries gives great performance in the role of old patriarch, but the most impressive is Lisa Harrow as one of suspect’s wives (and not only in scene when she swims in her house pool in front of Morse’s ogling eyes). Director Peter Hammond, on the other hand, tends to show scenes through distorted glasses and lenses, which, at times, looks unnecessary and diverts too much attention from the actual plot.

Driven to Distraction could be best described as Inspector Morse’s attempt to emulate Dirty Harry. Plot, characters and even some scenes tend to resemble Don Siegel’s 1971 classic thriller. Oxford women become prey of a vicious serial killer. Morse, just like Harry Callahan, quickly finds the most likely perpetrator who is, just like Scorpio in original film, obviously and demonically evil (in this case, played by always, Patrick Malahide, always dependable in such roles). Morse during his investigation feels too burdened with paperwork and legal requirements so he decides to simply cut certain corners, even it means obvious breech of law and someone’s constitutional rights. In doing so he receives support from the character of female police detective (played by Mary Jo Randle) who is supposed to represent modern and “progressive” aspects of law enforcement. Driven to Distraction strays from Dirty Harry formula only at the end, in well-thought plot twist which is, unfortunately, wasted in rather directed scene of melodramatic confrontation.

Masonic Mysteries, final episode of the series, begins with Morse  in romantic relationship with a woman who shares his love of opera. Experienced viewers know that this is too good for Morse to last or to be true and Morse’s girlfriend (played by Kevin Whately’s real life wife Madelaine Newton) predictably becomes murder victim. To make even worse for Morse, he actually becomes main suspect, which means that he will be investigated by Chief Inspector Bottomley (played by sinister-looking Richard Kane). To make things even worse, Morse appears to be victim of a diabolical set-up with everyone but his most loyal associates doubting his innocence. Script by Julian Mitchell drops hints about major conspiracy – echoing real life debates about undue influence of Free Masons in British law enforcement – but the resolution of mystery is even less convincing; Morse became target of psychopathic supervillain whom he had put away many years ago. Character, even when played by Ian McDiarmid (best known as Palpatine in Star Wars film series), however, fails to rise over the cheapest comic book cliches and the way episode (otherwise well-directed by Danny Boyle) ends is quite disappointing.

 

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 3, 1989) August 21, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 3 (1989)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Third series (or season) of Inspector Morse shows what a successful television show looks like after reaching maturity. The creators, by that time unburdened with the need to blindly follow Colin Dexter’s original novels, had and with the character and setting already established, had more creative freedom. That resulted in a show  looked diverse than in previous two seasons, while the season worked as much more coherent whole in terms of plot.

The most noticeable change could be seen with the introduction of another recurring character – Dr. Grayling Russell (played by Amanda Hillwood), pathologist who replaces Morse’s old friend Max and who happens to be an rather attractive woman. Morse, being notoriously weak towards the opposite sex, can’t ignore it and the scripts of all four episodes chronicle how their relationship slowly evolves from professional towards something more personal, dropping all kinds of charming little hints about the way they differ in lifestyle, worldview and musical tastes. Third series also introduces audience and fans to some previously neglected details of Morse’s past, namely his Oxford studies and befriending people from academia, while retaining mystery about his first name.

First episode, Ghost in the Machine, is the best. Julian Mitchell’s script begins with rather mundane theft of aristocrat’s erotic art leading to complicated murder mystery which forces Morse to use small army of policemen at victim’s vast country estate (which still doesn’t prevent another murder). The case, which also provides some insight into Oxford University’s inner workings and office intrigues,  is resolved in a simple but elegant manner and features an excellent acting by Patricia Hodge in the role of aristocrat’s “stiff-upper-lip” wife. The colourful locations, which feature old architecture,  also play an important role – not only by providing a specific atmosphere, but also  by being the key for resolving mystery.

Second episode, The Last Enemy, is significantly worse, and this could be, in most likelihood, explained with its basis in Dexter’s novel The Riddle of the Third Mile. Writer Peter Buckman changed the some of important details from the book, yet it retained its complex plot, making it almost incomprehensible for most of the average viewers. Its resolution at the end proves to be quite banal. The general impression of the episode is rescued by fine acting, especially thanks to Barry Foster, one of Britain’s most reliable and most recognisable character actors, as Morse’s old friend.

Third episode, Deceived by Flight, benefits from show producer’s increasing creative freedom. The basic idea for the plot was inspired by Kevin Whately, actor playing  Sergeant Lewis, Morse’s loyal sidekick, and his real-life love for the game of cricket. Dexter devised the basic plot that would revolve around the cricket match and even allow Whately to display some cricket skills with his character infiltrating cricket team as undercover investigator. Anthony Minghella provides good script, yet the most impressive of all is the cast, that, among others, includes Sharon Maughan as murder victim’s wife and one of the most intriguing of all Morse’s women. One of the smaller parts is played by Nathaniel Parker, who could later star in his own British police show as Inspector Lynley.

Final episode, The Secret of Bay 5, is a rather loose adaptation of Dexter’s novel The Secret of Annexe 3. It begins with one of the most intriguing openings in the show – scene of Mel Martin in underwear  suggesting that her character would play important role in the plot, either as victim or femme fatale triggering murders. By the time one of those two assumptions is revealed to be correct, Martin is, for the most part, absent from the screen. The other characters and fine plotting, however, keep audience’s attention. The episode’s ending – which often happens to be weakest element in the show – is here quite satisfying, with mystery being revealed through Morse’s clever trick rather than through convenient coincidences. Although not the best, this episode concludes the general impression of Series 3 as the best in show until that point.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 2, 1987-1988) August 11, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 2 (1987 – 1988)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

 

In the history of most successful or long-lasting television shows, second season often happens to be the most important. Only after the first season, which in many ways serves as prolongated pilot episode, the surviving show is deemed successful, accepted by audience and respected by its creators. That also means that the second season often looks much better than the first. Such examples can be found in non-standard (or non-US formats), and one of them is second series (or season) of Inspector Morse.

The season was composed of four episodes (actually, feature-length TV-films), with first – The Wolvercote Tongue – aired on Christmas Day 1987, while the remaining three – Last Seen Wearing, Settling of the Sun and Last Bus to Woodstock – aired in March 1988. The Wolvercote Tongue had the distinction of being the first Morse episode based on the original television script (by Julian Mitchel) instead on Colin Dextrer’s novels (later being novelised by Dexter into The Jewel That Was Ours). The somewhat greater length of second series, unlike with other TV shows, didn’t manifest itself in poorer quality. On the contrary, Series 2 was better than Series 1. The most important reason for that was greater variety of characters, plots, and most importantly, plot resolutions.

Character of Chief Inspector Morse, played by excellent John Thaw, is, just like  in Series 1, the main asset of the show. In Series 2 he is less annoying than in Series 1, and his flaws – unsuccessful womanising and drinking – play significantly lesser role  in the plot. Mysteries aren’t solved through sudden revelations and those revelations don’t lead to last-minute violent confrontations. The plots seem more realistic – apart from The Settling of the Sun, crimes just happen because of unfortunate yet mundane coincidences rather than because of complex conspiracies or someone’s psychopathic malevolence. Greater variety of the Series 2, on the other hand, also leads to quite different levels of quality for each individual episode.

The Wolvercote Tongue might have been created, at least partially, with international audience in mind. For the first time Morse and his Oxford surroundings can be seen through outsiders’, or to be precise, non-British perspective. It is provided by group of elderly American tourists, which also allows opportunity for some humour based on cultural differences. The episode, that features very good Kenneth Cranham as their unfortunate tour guide, however, fails in its last segment because of unnecessary additions to boycount; the last murder is also directed very poorly.

Next episode, Last Seen Wearing, looks like major improvement. The plot about teenage girl’s disappearance leading to murder investigation might look too conventional and not very interesting, yet the episode was directed by very capable Edward Bennett. Script by Thomas Ellice also allowed enough space to give characters and their situations some broader social context – mainly through display of yuppie culture and “wild” capitalism of Thatcher’s Britain, although subplots dealing with religion and the way it affects some of characters’ lives might seem dated and less comprehensible to today’s, more “hip” and secular audience. The episode features very good cast, including young Elisabeth Hurley as free-spirited boarding school pupil.

Settling of the Sun, on the other hand, represents disappointment. The plot, that deals with some unpleasant and apparently unresolved issues of World War Two, is a complete mess. It is incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with 20th Century history; to those who are, some plot issues are telegraphed well in advance. The direction by Peter Hammond is dreadful, especially in the first scene that introduce some characters and never bother to explain why Morse happens to be close to them. As the episode goes on, it becomes less and less believable, most notably with outrageous way one of characters tries to deceive Morse (and the rest of Oxford) about his identity; subplot involving international intrigue is just icing on the cake. Amanda Burton, actress who would later star in Silent Witness, is here wasted in thankless (and rather unecessary) role of eye candy. Settling of the Sun is definitely the worst episode of the series and the worst episode of the show by that point.

Impression of the Series 2, or Morse in general, is rescued by Last Bus to Woodstock, based on the very first of Colin Dexter’s novels. Some might argue that the plot is conventional, generic and quite mundane. Yet the simplicity allows almost every character in the plot to be well-rounded and convincing, together with their motives. It also allows opportunity for some fine acting, most notably by Anthony Bate as emotionally vulnerable Oxford professor and Holly Aird as academically bright yet romantically inexperienced student. Because of that episode, Series 2 of Inspector Morse could be seen as one of rare examples of television saving the best for last.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 1, 1987) August 3, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Season 1 (1987)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

 

Once upon a time there was a huge difference between US and British crime/mystery television shows. The latter were being significantly shorter with greater emphasis on quality over quality. Or, in other terms, instead of having seasons made out of 20+ episodes of varying (and often decaying) quality, British preferred to have a season made of few great episodes, often in formats closer to an average US TV-film or short mini-series. One such example can be provided by Inspector Morse, British TV show based on the novels by Colin Dexter and starring John Thaw as titular character.

The first season (or “series” in British terminology) was aired in January of 1987, consisting of three 100 minute episodes – The Dead of Jericho, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Service of All the Dead. In it the audience was introduced to Inspector Morse, detective of Thames Valley Police. This was not the first major police character in Thaw’s career; he had already gained popularity by playing Jack Reagan, tough leader of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad in 1970s show The Sweeney. Morse was, however, much different – a kinder and gentler policeman working in Oxford, which provided picturesque setting of university town more peaceful and idyllic than mean streets of London. Morse’s character was seemingly in tune with that place – in first three episodes he was portrayed as connoisseur and fan of high culture, including classical music, ancient Greek and Samuel Beckett’s plays. Yet, John Thaw’s Morse was also different from typical British countryside detective by having some character traits hardly in line with “stiff-upper-lip” stereotypes. In first series Morse doesn’t hide his love of bottle, matched only by his love of opposite sex, which often leads him towards dangerous situation and quite unprofessional behaviour, including advances towards female suspects in murder investigations. Due to seemingly low crime rate, Morse can afford such cavalier attitude towards law enforcement, yet it is his blue-collar and by-the-book subordinate Detective Sergeant Lewis (played by Kevin Whately) to whom he must rely to save his career and life.

Those character flaws make Morse more human and more fascinating character. That character is not only the main, but also the only relevant reason why anyone should watch Inspector Morse, at least based on the way first three episodes were scripted. All those expecting some sort of mind games or fascinating display of someone’s deductive abilities are going to be disappointed. Morse is more often wrong than not; murders are solved through mere coincidence, resulting in annoyingly predictable outbursts of violence at the very end. Some of the plots – like in Service of all the Dead – are seemingly complex enough to cause high bodycount, yet they don’t make much of a sense and the audience has to pay extra attention towards minor details to completely understand them. This could be explained by bad direction or bad screenwriting, which, like in many screen adaptations, discarded the complexity and depth of literary source.

The acting is, on the other hand, very good. Thaw and Whately are joined by diverse and talented cast. Most important are roles of women which, in a various degrees, become Morse’s romantic interests; all are played by truly remarkable actresses – Gemma Jones (Hogwarths healer Poppy Pomfrey in Harry Potter film series) in The Dead of Jericho, Barbara Flynn in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Angela Morant in Service of all the Dead. Some other minor roles are also quite interesting – Michael Gough as university official who shares Morse’s love of crossword puzzles and Roger Lloyd-Pack, best known for his role in sitcoms, here playing a man in rather dramatic situation.

First season of Inspector Morse, being produced almost three decades ago, also provides an interesting and, at times, fascinating glimpse in the world quite different from our own, and shows how technology immensely changed not only people’s lifestyles and attitudes, but also the way crimes are committed or solved. Morse, for example, enjoys his classical music only through vinyl records or audio-cassettes in his police car; lack of Internet or VCRs, on the other hand, forces characters to seek certain sort of entertainment in cinemas that show Last Tango in Paris. Even more significant is the lack of mobile phones, computerised databases or DNA forensics that make investigations more difficult; in one case, use of more primitive (and unreliable) methods of identification allows criminal conspiracy impossible in today’s world. Those and other details, together with Thaw’s excellent perfomances, give more than enough reasons for first season of Inspector Morse to be recommended.