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REVIEW: Gomorrah (Gomorra – La serie, Season 1, 2014) August 6, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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The Wire is among few shows that ares supposed to serve as a gold standards of television in early 21st Century. There are many other shows that might try to repeat its formula, success and accolades, but few such attempts are as authentic as Italian TV series Gomorrah. It is inspired by book by Roberto Saviano, journalist whose “street cred” would put David Simon to shame. Saviano’s 2006 bestseller, that would later serve as a basis for 2008 feature film, exposed the activities of Camorra, criminal organisation of Naples in such way that their leaders had Saviano sentenced to death and forced to live under police protection to this day. Success of film version led to creation of television series popular enough to warrant second season.

The first season, like the film, has plot inspired by real events, namely the bloody war between two rival Camorra gangs that raged on the streets of Naples between 2004 and 2005. The series, unlike the film, has much tighter narrative structure. It begins when Camorra clan led by don Pietro Savastano (played by Fortunato Cerlino) gets into conflict with rival clan led by Salvatore Conte (played by Marco Pavletti). Savastano’s clan is the most powerful in Naples and the killings seemingly end with Conte being forced to exile in Spain. Although victorious, Savastano’s clan is weakened by bloodshed and had brought unwanted attention of authorities on itself. The middle-aged patriarch plans to hand over control of the organisation to his son Gennaro (played by Salvatore Esposito). Young man is, however, spoiled and inexperienced and someone would have to be his guide and mentor. Ciro di Marzio (played by Marco D’Amore), experienced street soldier and one of clan’s most capable members, happens not only to fit this description but also happens to be Gennaro’s close friend. Unfortunately for Ciro, he is distrusted and despised by Gennaro’s mother Imma (played by Maria Pia Calzone), who takes over the organisation after her husband’s arrest.

Gomorrah has relatively simple general plot whose authors don’t try to reinvent the wheel and keep things simple and, to a degree, even predictable, right to the season finale that ends with bloody and spectacular cliffhanger. The audience cares less about what would happen and more how would it happen. Its authors show great skill in making all of those 12 episodes into coherent units, often with shifting perspectives and using opportunities to show various aspects of Camorra activities. That includes episodes dedicated to life in prison, every-day street drug trade that fuels Camorra’s coffers, the way people with “proper” backgrounds launder its money and, last but least, way it manipulates votes and keeps local and national politicians in its pockets.

Gomorrah, like The Wire, is also very good in captivating the audience despite almost complete lack of characters with positive moral alignment. The closest thing the season has for hero is Catholic priest who in one brief scene uses young man’s funeral for anti-Camorra sermon. All “normal” people have either learned not to have any business with Camorra or are too young, naive and inexperienced to know any better. And the characters who the audience is supposed to root for prove capable of some extremely vile acts. The series is full of scenes depicting killings, but some of the more disturbing are alluded off-screen. The most disturbing among them is portrayed indirectly – through the physical and moral transformation of a major character who was forced to witness it. Gomorrah, nevertheless, looks and sounds authentic. It might lack the epic scope and structural ambitions of The Wire, but it shows that, just like some unpleasant realities of modern urban crime, good talents in depicting them aren’t limited to US.

RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 3, 2009) May 20, 2017

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The author of this review lives in a country where politics revolves around what apocalyptic year things began to turn for the worse – 1990, when Communism collapsed paving the way for chauvinism and cleptocracy under the banner of democratic capitalism; or 1945 when Yugoslav Communists took over under the banner of anti-fascism. For American babyboomers the answer to that question is simple and, thanks to their dominance over global popular culture, quite familiar to the rest of the world. It is 1963 or, more precisely, one Friday in November when earth-shattering news from Dallas brought the end of an era retroactively named “Camelot”. Mad Men, the show made in order to present 1960s changes, showed the last gasps of that era in its third season.

The assassination had occurred at the year’s end. That proved beneficial for the creators of the show, allowing them to copy the narrative structure from past two seasons and build plot in the months preceding it. The season begins in Spring, when the things seem normal, and actually better than when the previous season ended. Cuban Missile Crisis is long over, the apocalypse didn’t happen, and previously troubled marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to his glamorous wife Betty (January Jones) is supposed to be rescued with an arrival of a third child. Draper continues to thrive professionally, yet not everything is rosy among his colleagues at Sterling Cooper advertising agency. New British owners were brutal in reducing staff, and those remaining are increasingly aware of precariousness of their position. That includes some seemingly irreplaceable characters like art department head Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who experiences professional disaster despite and not because of his hidden and self-suppressed homosexuality. Those expected to stay might find the price too high, just like young accounts executive Pete Campbell (Vince Kartheiser) who finally began to accept that he would match Don Draper nor receive his treatment. Those who leave of their own find another forms of disappointments, like former head secretary Joan Harris (Christine Hendricks), whose life of perfect housewife crashes with the reality of her handsome and much younger husband lacking professional skills of a perfect provider. At the same time Draper continues to his old philandering ways, this time risking his adultery too close to home in a form of his children’s teacher. While this happens, after years of innocent and not so innovent fantasies, Betty indulges in adulterous affair of her own.

1963 represented a challenge for Matthew Weiner and the rest of Mad Men creative team. Apart from its end, it was relatively uneventful year with relatively few pivotal moments or pop culture references. So, in order to season to play in “real time” the plots and character development had to continue, but it had to be natural, without interference of grand historical events or soap opera narrative tricks. At the same time, Season 3 had to be clearly different from Season 2. First step in that direction was introduction of the first true historical character in the show – famous hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton (played by Chelcie Ross). His presence, started by a chance encounter with Don Draper in country club bar and continued through business relationship and something resembling friendship, was good opportunity for Don Draper to find surrogate “proper” father he never had and the reflection of his own future as confident and successful self-made man. Screenwriters used this opportunity with mixed success – it allowed Drapers to spend vacation in Hilton Hotel in Rome and the audience to experience Betty as early 1960s fashion icon; on the other hand, old tycoon was eccentric enough to pester Don with late night meetings and provide Don an excellent excuse for late night adultery. The relationship between Hilton and Don conventiently ended before the season’s end, but not without providing catalyst for a plot twist in the final episode.

Season 3 is more successful in using Dallas events as the elephant in the room – something that the audience is aware of, but characters aren’t. All their grand plans and strategies, and all their problems, seem delightfully petty compared with the event that would force them to reevaluate their world; and the approach of dreded November 22nd creates suspense in seemingly banal events. Some other hints of the future might appear – like word “Vietnam” that begins to creep into casual conversations – but few are as ironic as the unfortunate date Roger Sterling (John Slattey) has set for his daughter’s wedding, when he thinks that the bad blood between his current and ex-wife is going to be the most serious issue. The most brilliant way Mad Men plays with history, however, happens in episode Guy Walks into Advertising Agency, which brings the most shocking event of the show until that point. The incident in Sterling Cooper offices provides not only the most explicit, but also the most effective use of black humour, but also serves as some sort of comical foreboding of similar, although more serious event that is about to happen in Dallas.

Mad Men was window in the past, but in Season 3 it became also reflection of the present. In 2009 America and the world entered, or was supposed to enter, new era under the leadership of Barack Obama, young, charismatic first African American in White House as the embodiment of everything 1960s American progressives in 1960s dreamed of – world peace, social justice, equality between races, genders and sexual orientations. The great change and hope of 2009 found its version in surprisingly optimistic finale of Season 3. In the last episodes characters – until that time separated by their genders, backgrounds and age – found not only reason but effective ways to work together and face brand new world of 1964 . Real life might be very different; 1963 might not be the year when things began to get worse just like 2009 might not be the year when things began to get better. But in the universe of Mad Men and for its viewers the end of 1963 looked like a very good beginning.

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 2, 2008) May 7, 2017

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Last year plenty of people interpreted slogan “Make America great again” as a return to a mythical better past that never existed or was better only for tiny minority of Americans. Most of such interpretations have set on 1962 as the last identifiable year of such “greatness”. This is hardly surprising, because even Hollywood leftists tend to watch selective chapters and periods of history through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. In case of 1962, it was a year when many Baby Boomers, generation that shapes today’s perception of 20th Century, lived the last years of their childhood, unburdened by some unpleasant challenges and responsibilities that come with maturity. In some strange way, 1962 was the last “good” year both for conservatives who didn’t know how dramatically the world would change in next few years and for idealistic progressives who didn’t know that some of those changes would be for the worse. It is also a very good year for shows like Mad Men if their creators want to show that those dramatic changes slowly began in a subtle way.

Matthew Weiner and the rest of creative team were very wise to avoid having Season 1 – which had described the “old” and “established” world of Mad Men in 1960 – followed by a season set in 1961. The new episodes begin more than a year after the end of Season 1. It is February 1962 and the America is still strong, confident and optimistic, and this confidence is embodied in JFK as new, attractive and youthful president, more suitable to the role of the leader in a brave new world where astronauts in Earth’s orbit and amazing new technology turn yesterday’s science fiction into reality. Even Bert Cooper (played by Robert Morse), old patriarch at the helm of Sterling Cooper ad agency, is aware that the change is inevitable, and the rest of his partners are trying their best to adapt to new generations by hiring new and younger creative talents. The main protagonist and his subordinate, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is also faced with changes, both in his professional and private life; while in the office he too tries to connect to brave new world of 1960s youth, his marriage to Betty (playey by January Jones) is in deep crisis, marred by his own reckless infidelity and Betty’s own psychological issues. Don’s former secretary Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) continues her transformation from lowly office help into highly regarded and respected advertising talent, while trying to reconcile her professional triumphs with private life revolving around unwanted single motherhood, embarrassed family and sympathies towards young Catholic priest (played by Jonathan Hanks). Not all changes are for the better, and Don’s former office rival Pete Campbell (played by Vince Karthesier) experiences family disasters that could ruin both his career and marriage.

The idea to push another season one extra year forward was wise, because it allowed clearer picture of changes, both in lives of show’s characters and in the wider world they inhabited. Again, Mad Men takes subtle approach, trying its best to avoid spelling out the obvious; the show doesn’t show the history and instead it shows how that history reflects on some private and seemingly ordinary lives. There are many scenes in which characters won’t say or do much; instead of that, modern audience is left to connect the dots and thus paint the picture of 1962 being very different in attitudes towards issues of race, gender or sexual orientation. One of such examples could be found in scene that deals with homosexuality – again, this is a taboo subject which is not only deeply uncomfortable, but in many ways also incomprehensible to early 1960s characters. When someone finally not only says those dreaded words but actually clearly identifies with them, Mad Men clearly points that times have indeed changed.

Yet, Season 2 is inferior to the Season 1. This has little to do with general quality of writing or acting, which is superb. For example, the episode titled The Jet Set is one of the best-written, best-directed and best-acted in recent television history. The main problem is in 1962 being more eventful year than 1960, and the history revolves too much around iconic images, words and events that define that era in today’s popular culture. Perhaps the most problematic is Cuban Missile Crisis, which just happens to occur at the same time as protagonists face some serious business and professional issues; the season finale occurs while the crisis is not yet resolved and thus brings rather disappointing cliffhanger. Even those viewers unfamiliar with history probably know how such event ended, because our world obviously looks different than the world of Fallout video games.

At the same time, Season 2 is something of refreshment compared Season 1. Just like Don Draper, the show takes long vacation in California, and uses it as an opportunity to give some hints of both protagonist’s future and present. There are actually fewer flashbacks compared with Season 1; with the mystery of Don Draper’s origin resolved, viewers would probably be less interested in otherwise prosaic portrayal of his early career. More interesting is the future set in sunny and “hip” California, so far away from the suffocating corporate offices of “square” New York and its suburbia. In couple of episodes set there Don experiences shape of the things to come during the brief but seductive encounter with a group of rich world travelers that enjoy nomadic free love lifestyle not very different from hippies. Yet, this new seductive utopia might be an illusion just like those Don sells his clients, and Cold War threats to end is just as violently as Don Draper’s new identity was created. By again reminding Don and the modern audience of all those uncomfortable truths, Season 2 more than justified its existence. Some may argue that America might have never been great. Mad Men has.

REVIEW: Prisoners of War (Hatufim, Season 1, 2010) April 28, 2017

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Israel is young and small country, which, until recently wasn’t much of a player in international television business arena. Recently, Israel joined the ranks of United Kingdom and Nordic countries among major non-American contributors to the Golden Age of Television. The most successful and best known title of them all was BeTipul, drama about professional and private life of a psychotherapist, remade in USA as In Therapy, and later under different titles in many other countries. The other, similarly successful show is Prisoners of War (“Hatufim” in original Hebrew, meaning “captives”), which was remade in three different countries (Russia, India, USA), best known as Homeland in American version.

The show had relatively few remakes, because it deals with a subject which is thankfully rare among other countries – long, drawn-out low intensity conflict that provide opportunity for its basic premise. In case of Israel there are plenty of situations for the fate that have befallen its three protagonists. In 1991 Nimrod Klein (played by Yoram Toledano), Uri Zach (played by Ishai Golan) and Amiel Ben-Horin (played by Assi Cohen) were three Israel Defence Force reservists captured during the botched raid against militants in Lebanon. The show begins 17 years later, after long and painful negotiations resulting in prisoner exchange. However, only two of three prisoners return; the third had died long time ago. The plot shows how Nimrod and Uri try to adapt to their new life and reconnect with their friends and loved ones while dealing with unimaginable traumas that have suffered during captivity. They soon realise that their families have been captives too and dealt with such captivity in different ways – Nimrod’s wife Talia (played by Yael Abelcassis) remained dutiful and faithful, while Uri’s fiancée Nurit (played by Mili Avital) gave up the waiting and sought comfort in marriage to Uri’s brother Yaki (played by Mickey Leon); Amiel’s sister Yael (played by Adi Ezroni) simply refuses to believe that her brother is dead and clings to the visions of him inhabiting her house. While all that happens, IDF psychologist Haim Cohen (played by Gal Zaid) sees certain discrepancies and similar disturbing details in Nimrod’s and Uri’s testimonies and becomes convinced that two of them hide something and that they might even endanger national security.

The show was created by Gideon Raff, who would later create Homeland. He found inspiration in his own experience of living in two countries – Israel and USA – and  discovered that after each long absence Israel looked increasingly foreign to him. The inevitable comparisons between those two shows indicate strikingly different approach. Unlike its American counterpart, which is firmly set in the realm of espionage thriller genre, the Israeli original functions as “pure” drama. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the traumatic past and the complicated present in that part of the world. Unlike USA, where 9-11 and Iraq War slowly fade from memory, Israel is still burdened with bloody past and often reminded of a precariousness of its geopolitical, demographic and military situation. One of such reminders is a concept of obligatory universal military service, today quite alien to American (and most of the Western) audience; in Israel it is a fact of life and it actually plays part of the plot dealing with Nimrod’s grown children – his rebellious daughter Dana (played by Yael Eitan) is serving, while her younger brother Hatsav (played by Guy Selnik) is increasingly uncomfortable with a prospect of being drafted and risk of repeating father’s predicament. Prisoners of War is best when it deals with those unpleasant but understandable dilemmas.

Both shows, at least in their first season, use plot of over-zealous intelligence/security officials doubting the returned captives’ loyalty and drop hints and red herrings about former captives turned into moles. In Homeland that was the basis of the plot, and the show explored it as high-concept spy thriller would. In Prisoners of War it is a mere subplot, and works as almost apocryphal distraction from Uri’s and Nimrod’s quests to deal with their new and strange present and their unpleasant past.

The Israeli show couldn’t expect big budget of its American counterpart, but is ascetic simplicity – use of interiors and rather banal and unattractive locations – works in its favour. Its main asset is in fascinating characters and skillful actors (among whom Mili Avital is arguably the best known among non-Israeli audience) that easily help the show in crossing linguistic and cultural barriers. The only thing that deflates otherwise excellent impression of this show is annoyingly predictable cliffhanger at the very end, indicating Season 2 much closer to Hollywood than real life.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 1, 2007) April 22, 2017

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So many critics agree that we are all living in the Golden Age of Television. Just like with most of other great historical eras, there is a disagreement over when such Golden Age began. The author of this review likes to think that a precise moment could be found in Summer of 2007. That was the time when AMC began to bust HBO monopoly over quality cable television with Mad Men. Seemingly unattractive period drama covering 1960s New York advertising industry slowly built reputation not only as one of the best US television shows of its age, but also became a popular icon of its own and its title became quick reference for one of the most fascinating periods of American history.

The first season of Mad Men is set in year 1960. This is point of time where Mad Men as a universe is presented in its youngest and purest form, which is frighteningly familiar and fascinatingly alien to contemporary audience. Sterling Cooper, fictional ad agency where protagonist, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) works for a living, does exactly the same thing ad agencies do today. Yet, what goes on in its offices and homes of their employees seem very different; the only people who enjoy wealth, power and respect are rich heterosexual white men; everybody smokes and drinks; racist and sexist attitudes are rampant, even with some antisemitism thrown for good measure. Women fare especially bad in that world; they are usually reduced to secretaries who occasionally provide sexual services to their bosses, like new employee Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), with their only hope of social advancement through marriage, after which they end like Draper’s spouse Betty (January Jones), trapped and unhappy in a role of perfect housewife and parent.

Although Matthew Weiner had written the script for pilot episode years before, only in mid 2000s show like Mad Men became truly possible. Until that time 1960s were portrayed either by Dan Draper’s generation or by Baby Boomers, alternating between rose-coloured nostalgia of American Graffiti and smug progressive triumphalism of Pleasantville. Weiner, by belonging to Generation X, was separate from his subjects and this separation armed him with extra layers of objectivity. Unlike most other period dramas that recreate the past merely through bits of soundtracks, sets, costumes and props, Mad Men was a product of long, through and painstaking research. The audience was introduced not only to the fashion of the past, but the social mores and general worldviews. And it is done in a subtle yet effective ways; the show works best when audience discovers seemingly banal but very telling ways in which America in 1960 differs from America at the beginning of 21st Century.

This subtlety and the need to introduce characters and the world they inhabit are the reasons why Season 1 uses very slow tempo. There is actually very little plot and it mostly serves as an excuse for fascinating character studies and opportunities for previously unknown actors to shine. One such opportunity was provided to Jon Hamm in the role of a complex and multilayered protagonist. Don Draper is introduced as an apotheosis of America at the height of its power, which is, naturally, quite masculine. Draper is, just like James Bond, someone every woman wants and every other wants man to be; an attractive alpha male able both to charm cynical clients and bring women to bed; successful self-made man who reached upper rungs of corporate ladder out of nothing while completing American Dream with a luxurious home at the suburbs, glamourous perfect wife and adorable children. The show, however, quickly portrays all that as an illusion. Draper is far from perfect husband, with infidelities in form of “crazy” beatnik girlfriend Midge (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and rare female client Rachel Menken (played by Maggie Siff) being the most obvious and most expected; his entire career is based on a lie, and Draper is actually a coward, unable and unwilling to face the ghosts of his traumatic past, while his cowardice and willingness to escape responsibility create devastating havoc around people around him. The genius of Mad Men is in such antihero actually being the perfect protagonist for the show about 1960s ad industry; just as Draper’s new life is based on lies, so is the industry in which he works. The first season uses this theme near its end in one of the most brilliant plot twists in the history of television.

Another brilliant aspect of Mad Men is its villain, or, to be more precise, the best equivalent of villain this show might have. Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Karthesier, is not evil per se; moral parameters of his behaviour are, more or less, the same as any other character. His greatest flaw is in desire to become Don Draper, a desire that is bound to be unfulfilled because of the obvious lack of talent. Campbell throughout the season is becoming aware of this, while the audience has opportunity to find parallels between Campbell and Draper. They are both frauds in their own way, but, Campbell is unsuccessful fraud who only managed to delude himself; his position within company is based on family connections instead of a talent; his wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie) and her rich parents dominate the household and of the entire potential harem of office secretaries he is able to bed only the least attractive. When Campbell slowly realises that he would never match his idol, his anger reflects in petty and childish office intrigues.

World of Mad Men, despite being male-dominated, has more than fair share of strong and impressive female characters. There are three women, each dealing with it in their own way. Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), an experienced secretary who seems to be both most aware and most comfortable with moral and professional confines of Steling Cooper, as well as most adept in exploiting it through office romances. Betty Draper is, on the other hand, increasingly frustrated with confines of her Stepford-like existence and that reflects in subconscious and seemingly irrational acts of rebellion, mistaken by her husband for neurosis that could be cured through fruitless and ultimately counterproductive psychoanalysis sessions. Finally, Peggy Olson is there as woman who has both of those avenues blocked due to her lack of physical appeal; she is forced to fulfill her dreams the hard way, by challenging expectations and actually pursuing career of a copywriter.

While the show portrays one of the most “interesting” periods of American history, marked by deep cultural and political transformations, the first season, by its nature, doesn’t show such transformations. It only drops hints of future events and leaves blanks to fill by viewers more familiar with history. Some of those hints could be found in scenes where Draper encounters first seeds of counterculture among beatniks or in a scene where The Exodus by Leon Uris is described as “America’s love affair with Israel” (thus reminding audience that the American descent into Middle Eastern quicksand had origins many decades ago). But the most interesting is way the show sets his historical benchmark around the most important event of 1960 – presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, two persons that symbolised the struggle between Old and New that is supposed to be the major issue in future episodes. Weiner, belonging to new generations, less affected by JFK mythology is among those authors that presents history closer to actual facts. The race was actually quite close and, furthermore, many people, including protagonists until the last minute believed (and had good reasons to believe) that Nixon would ultimately prevail. The episode near the end of season, where the election is watched during office all-night party, is brilliant, and even more so in 2017 than 2007. When we watch dedicated and experienced professionals being genuinely surprised and completely baffled by actual result it is very easy to imagine similar scenes in New York offices during 2016 election. Perhaps the world haven’t changed that much. If it didn’t, we should hope that what comes next is less “interesting” that some of the events that come in later seasons of Mad Men.

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 Amanda 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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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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 in order for their shows to 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 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.