Monday, 9 March 2009

Review: Watchmen


Okay, if you've read a few of the many reviews of Zack Snyder's Watchmen adap, then you probably won't find much in this review that differs from what you already know. As a fan of the comic, I knew all too well how difficult it would be to distill Alan Moore's dense, politically-charged, brutally violent epic into two-and-a-half hours-plus of screen time. After all, there's a lot that anyone taking this on has to get right: they have fans to appease and newbies to convert, whilst still making a stand-alone film that works whether you're a fan or you aren't. Plus, adapting a comic is even more problematic than adapting a novel; comics have a completely different rhythm than that of film, doubly so with Watchmen and its original 12-issue run. There's a rising/falling, episodic nature to a comics run that has to hit beats at certain points that films do not. There's a problem transposing a comic too faithfully to the screen then, that it may come over a little too fractured and awkward.

There's also a look and a feel that you get from a good comic or graphic novel that may seem a bit gimmicky in the multiplex. So really, you need a director who has as canny a grasp of dramatic structure as they do stunning visuals. So, was Snyder up to the job? Yes and no, would be the easy answer. There are things that Snyder gets as right as he possibly could, but there are times when he drops the ball completely.

Gripes first then. The casting could have been better; Malin Akerman is way too lightweight to play a character as scarred and complex as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II. Spectre's an emotional fuck-up in the comic with mummy and daddy issues, who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown at any point where she's not cathartically kicking arse, vigilante-style. Akerman looks pretty perfect but there's no depth at any point, which leads to Spectre coming off a bit prissy and hard to root for.

Matthew Goode does the best with what he's given as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias but I don't think Snyder and screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse really got what makes Veidt such a compelling character in the comic. Not to be too spoilery but Veidt has to be charismatic and altruistic from the get-go to make the ending work, but he was pretty much a sneering prick from start to finish. That said, the reading of Ozymandias serviced the film pretty well.

Snyder fluffs the action occasionally too. His tendency to be a little heavy-handed and overly-stylised means that some of the set-pieces lose a bit of the comic's brutal realism. Specifically, a scene where Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II beat a gang of muggers to death in an alley. In the comic, they're obviously shaken by the reawakening of their bloodlust, but here it's exacted so nonchalantly that it just falls flat.

Snyder's edit function is a little off too. There are things excised from the comic that would have worked so brilliantly on the big screen (Rorschach systematically turning a happy-go-lucky psychoanalyst into a suicidal depressive; the obvious money shot that would have been New York strewn with corpses) and conversely, Snyder needlessly keeps other things in that just don't make sense (without the genetic engineering angle, Bubastis' inclusion is pointless; dropping Ozymandias' punchline from the bullet catching scene).

However, Snyder should be praised from the heavens for what he's done here. This is, essentially, Watchmen on film. He's a little too faithful to the source material perhaps and this means that those going in without any foreknowledge may have to work a little to follow it and invest in the characters emotionally. There's an argument that, dramatically, Snyder's a hack but due to his love of the comic, a lot of its heart makes its way to the screen. Even the tweaked ending has pretty much the same outcome as that of the comic.

During the film's torturous development, there've been so many disrespectful story changes mooted (an ending where Ozymandias and Dr Manhattan die for example) and supposed casting gaffes (Arnie as Manhattan ) that the fact Snyder has made something so close to the comic is nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps he was the right man at the right time, having made megabucks with his last film, also a comic adaptation and, while its tempting to wonder what kind of film a better director with just as much freedom and fanboy love for the material (Chris Nolan, maybe, or Paul Greengrass) would have made, let's just praise the movie gods for the film we now have.

Let's just have a look at what Snyder hits out of the park. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect as Rorschach, nailing the human side of this unremitting psychopath with unerring precision and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II both deserve tons of praise also, the former being the right combination of venality and charm, whilst the latter pinpoints the nerdish shyness of Dan Dreiberg and the derring-do of his alter ego brilliantly. Billy Crudup is also fantastic as Dr Manhattan, the Watchmen's only real superman, perfectly essaying the big blue guy's detachment and aloofness, distracting blue cock aside.

A lot of internet whining has been directed at the soundtrack choices and while some of them are jarringly anomalous - 'Sound Of Silence' during The Comedian's funeral - most of the time, they're in keeping with the comic's merciless skewering of pop cultural mores and, in the main, are meant to raise laughs.

Even the outrageous sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre feels about right. The choice of song - Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah - is a bit odd, but it makes sense that these two, who are vulnerable as Dan and Laurie should fuck like tigers when indulging their alter egos. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are a way for Dan and Laurie to act out their extremest desires after all, so their sex should be porny and athletic. I'm just saying what you're all thinking!

The nerds will carp and bitch and moan til the cows come home, but fuck it, Snyder has made quite possibly the best Watchmen film that any of us could dream of. It has its faults, but hell, just think how much worse it could have been.

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Thursday, 28 August 2008

Film Review: The Promotion

As it stands, seasoned writer, Steve Conrad's (The Weather Man, The Pursuit Of Happyness) directorial debut, The Promotion doesn't have a UK release date. Due to poor Stateside business and reviews that ranged from lukewarm to savage, it looks unlikely to see British cinemas. If that is the case, then The Promotion will be one of the best straight-to-DVD films of recent years.

A low-key tragi-comedy centering around an escalating tussle for the titular leg-up between two borderline-desperate schlubs, The Promotion recalls the works of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, only with more heart than the former and less misanthropy than the latter. Doug (Seann William Scott) is an assistant manager at K-Mart-alike, Donaldson's, an unrewarding job made all the more frustrating by his lackadaisical manager, Scott (Fred Armisen), strange customers (one of whom takes to tormenting Doug with frequent bitch-slap bouts) and the youth gang problem in the parking lot which leads to terrorised customers filing less-than-positive feedback cards that are kicked upstairs for the board members to read. Then Doug hears about a new Donaldson's opening across town and spurred on by his boss' claim that he'd be a "shoo-in", he decides to apply for the manager's job. Cue recovering drug addict/alcoholic, former-biker and all-round nice guy, Richard (John C. Reilly) from a branch of a sister-store in Canada to vie for the same job, making Doug's position as shoo-in increasingly precarious.

What develops is an often painfully funny, frequently childish game of one-upmanship with the upper hand constantly switching between Doug and Richard, occasionally within the same scene. Writer-director, Conrad never plays it for easy laughs although there are some pretty big chuckles here. Reilly, in arguably his best comedic role to date, is the source of most of them - the scene where he has to explain why he neglected to take down a pun-based poster about "cutting the cheese" hung at the delicatessen counter to board chairman, Mitch (Gil Bellows), is a masterclass in the comedy of embarrasment and awkwardness, with Reilly wringing more mirth out of a series of variations on the same explanation, complete with facial expressions that barely conceal the crying, confused child behind his eyes, than any number of fart gags would.

Scott plays against type as a man struggling vainly to coax some dignity out of his glorified McJob, never once resorting to the mugging and wise-cracking we expect of his roles. This is one of The Promotion's problems; although we're supposed to (I think), we never totally get behind Doug as a protagonist until the final reel (some may even find it difficult then) and by that point, we're too busy rooting for the far more flawed and likeable Richard to even care. Doug comes over as, at best, an impotent man-boy and at worst a petulant jerk and it's apparent that Scott was too busy trying to play it subtle to remember to inject any pathos into the role and the Doug's last act redemption seems too little, too late. I guess that ties in with The Promotion's message that being the better man comes not from what you do, but the way you do it (Fun Boy Three were right all along), but you can't help but occasionally pine for a little bit of Stifler mixed in with the Joe Schmo routine.

The Promotion isn't perfect. Conrad doesn't give the very able female support (Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor play Doug and Richard's respective wives) much to chew on at all, turning two talented actresses into emotional ciphers. Also, the tone is pretty uneven, wavering from broad comedy (the bitch-slapping Teddy Grahams customer again; a parking-lot girlfight between Doug and Richard) to corporate satire (lacking the bite of, say, Office Space) to squirmy schadenfreude (the company retreat concentration skills game) and Conrad sometimes mistakes quirk for realism, giving his characters odd traits that you want to be explained away by a funny reveal, only the punchlines never come - I was waiting for Lili Taylor's terrible Scottish accent to be the butt of a joke at some point, but alas, I guess the girl was giving it her best Highland brogue after all.

In the end though, the pluses outweigh the minuses, largely thanks to Reilly's pitch-perfect, heartbreaking performance (leading to two contenders for the best funny/sad scene of the year involving Richard breaking down in tears after small talk with a Down's Syndrome colleague and tap-dancing alone in the store after closing) and some nifty scene-stealing from Saturday Night Live regular, Armisen (worth whatever he was paid for the hot coals scene alone) and Bobby Cannavale as a smarmy doctor. Steve Conrad will make better films, but he'd have to go a way to writing a better, more textured character than Richard Wehlner.

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Saturday, 6 October 2007

Live every week like it's Shark Week.

There are two new (to us Brits at least) American comedies starting their runs on Five this coming Thursday (11th October), Californication, starring David Duchovny as a serial-shagger in Hollywood and 30 Rock, which details the goings on behind the scenes of a fictional TV comedy sketch show. I haven't seen the former, but it sounds terrible. I have no interest in seeing Duchovny (fine actor though he can be) fuck his way through a succession of starlets week after week. That kind of show would have to be, like, Seinfeld-funny for me to even give it a second look and notices from the states, whilst reservedly favourable, suggest that it ain't no Seinfeld. The latter, however, I have seen and it's quite possibly the funniest network sitcom since, ooh, Arrested Development.

Created by and starring former Saturday Night Live regular, Tina Fey, the show obviously draws on her experiences on that show but goes off on a whole 'nother, pleasingly surreal tangent. Fey plays Liz Lemon, the headstrong, yet repeatedly put-upon creator of The Girlie Show (30 Rock's show-within-a-show), who is quickly established as a highly-relatable New York singleton and career woman. She's smart, funny and unconventionally sexy, which obviously means that her love life swings between disastrous and non-existent.

If that all sounds a bit rote, well, I guess it kind of is, but the strength of the show is that, even though later episodes do focus on this, it never relies on Lemon's personal life as a plot device crutch. What makes 30 Rock a real winner is in its supporting cast. In the first episode, Lemon finds out she has a new boss, "non-genius" Jack Donaghy (the excellent Alec Baldwin), who has no background in television but doesn't let that be a bridge to him meddling as much as he can. Meddling that begins when he decides that the show needs a "third heat", aka troubled (read insane) Hollywood star, Tracy Jordan (the equally-excellent Tracy Morgan, ostensibly playing himself).

Rounding out the cast are Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal) as The Girlie Show's neurotic, insecure, ever-so-slightly dim star, Jenna Maroney, Jack McBrayer (Talladega Nights) as irrepressibly nice, naive NBC page, Kenneth, Scott Adsitt (Moral Orel) as producer/perennial straight man, Pete and Judah Friedlander (American Splendor) as slobby, sexist writer, Frank.

The show doesn't exactly hit the ground running, but it hits a frequently hilarious stride about three episodes in. Baldwin gets most of the best lines as the ever-professional, slightly odd Donaghy and the scenes in which he verbally spars with Fey are the show's strongest. Baldwin has a too-often-untapped flair for screwball comedy which he flaunts liberally here. Always in a tux after 6pm, his life micro-managed to OCD levels, he plays it like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, crossed with Ed Asner in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Working with a character that could have easily been a cipher, Baldwin delivers every line with unbelieveable relish. He's a revelation but he isn't 30 Rock's only one.

Tracy Morgan is winningly bananas as himself/Tracy Jordan. His character seems to exist on his own plane from the rest of the cast, which suits the character well and Morgan has as much fun with it as he can, without giving the show an uneven edge. Whether it's trying to stab Conan O'Brien, stealing a boat or drawing a tattoo on his face with a Sharpie pen, Morgan is repeatedly watchable and hilarious.

Also great is Jack McBrayer, a real star in the making. As is Adsitt, Krakowski, Friedlander, Dean Winters as Liz' on-off boyfriend, Dennis, Chris Parnell as Tracy's whacked-out doctor, Dr Spaceman (pronounced Spa-che-men), the list goes on.

The Arrested Development comparison isn't a wild one. 30 Rock shares that show's freewheeling, zany, machine-gun rapid gag count and poor ratings/hot critical reception combination. It's probably as doomed as that show too, but here's to 30 Rock burning bright for as long as it's allowed to. Just watch it, alright?

30 Rock debuts on Five, Thursday 11th October at 10.45pm.

Coming soon: my thoughts on Flight Of The Conchords and the new series of Prison Break.

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Saturday, 21 July 2007

"The king stay the king".

Just a note to let you know that FX are screening The Wire, in its entirety from the first episode, starting on Monday 23rd July (10pm). You have absolutely no excuse not to watch it now. Regular readers will know how much I love it - a love that will become more apparent once I start reviewing each episode pretty soon (seriously, I'm going to do it!) - so I don't need to go on about it here.

If you don't want to wait until Monday, The Guardian have the first episode streaming right now for your viewing pleasure. Just watch it alright?


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Monday, 2 July 2007

TVOD (2.7.07.)

Your sometimes-weekly guide to what's worth gawping at on the small screen is back. So what is worth gawping at? Let's take a look, shall we?

MONDAY: As always on a Monday, you have Heroes (10pm, Sci-Fi). Last week's was another excellent episode, this time flashing-forward into the future to give us a glimpse of what is to become of our cast (Peter's hooked up with Niki/Jessica! Hiro's lost his sense of fun! (gasp) Nathan's really Sylar!), showing us that it probably isn't going to be a happy ending. This show just keeps getting better and while I've heard murmurs from the States about the disappointing season finale, I'm willing to keep an open mind in the hope that the Yanks are wrong.

Also tonight, More4 are showing the brilliant doc, End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones (10.30pm). This one actually made me cry, but I'm a sentimental fool when it comes to music, especially the tragic stories of Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey, all of whom are interviewed here but are now sadly not with us anymore. Watch it or else.

TUESDAY: The big draw tonight, for me at least and, well, anyone else who likes their comedy with a bit of bite and bile thrown in for good measure is The Thick Of It: Spinners And Losers (9pm, BBC4). After the exceptional Christmas special in which the PM resigned and Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, excellent as ever) seemed to be losing his vice-like grip on parliamentary machinations, the focus this time around is on who is to take over at Number 10 and, more importantly of course, who's side he/she will be on. Expect lots of dazzlingly inventive swearing plenty of allusions to our own real-life government.

Secondly, I'd like to highlight just how deplorable Gillian McKeith's new programme is. 3 Fat Brides, 1 Thin Dress (8pm, Channel 4) is another excuse for the fish-lipped harridan to harangue people into losing weight, but this time there's the added carrot of winning a beautiful wedding dress, should they be able to get into it by the day of their nuptials. Now, I don't think I need to point out that this kind of crash dieting is both dangerous and super-stressful, anyone can see that, but this evil bitch, McKeith, supposedly a qualified dietician, is making a fortune out of making people miserable. Fine, if they lose the weight in the end, then it can only be beneficial to that person, but turning it into a competition is just mean-spirited and grotesque. As for the people out there who find this kind of filmed torture 'entertaining', well then I know a guy who sells bestiality snuff films out of the back of his car that you could probably get your rocks off to as well.

WEDNESDAY: Tonight, another show that just keeps getting better, not that anyone watches it, continues its run. Friday Night Lights (8pm, ITV4) hit a graceful high note the other week with Smash (Gaius Charles) leading a strike with the team's other black players after Offensive (in more ways than one) Coach Mac MacGill's ill-advised comments about the differences between the Panthers' white players and black players. The way the story dovetailed after a highly-charged play-off game was riveting, tense and massively satisfying. For a drama that deals in universal themes to have not descended into soapy melodrama even once yet is astonishing. Long may it continue to surprise and break your heart week-after-week.

Damon Albarn's on Imagine tonight (10.40pm, BBC1), no doubt giving himself a pat on the back for his new venture, the circus-opera, Monkey: Journey To The West. I don't think I'll be watching this one as I can't stand the pompous, self-aggrandising prick but I do believe there are a lot of people out there who disagree.

THURSDAY: Not much on tonight really, other than My Name Is Earl (10pm, Channel 4), in which Earl (Jason Lee) tries to find a cat he once stole. Should be good-natured fun.

Over on Sky One, there's the return of the camper-than-a-row-of-tents, glitz and glam comedy-thriller-drama serial, Las Vegas (9pm). Word is that this series is the last chance we'll get to see Jimmy Caan acting all stoical (or constipated) as President Of Operations, Ed Deline and Nikki Cox' marvellous breasts, ahem, I mean acting talents as buxom and flirty Mary Connell. Don't worry though as it's been picked up for another season at least with Tom Selleck taking over the Caan-shaped void and eye candy, for the ladies at least, and professional boyfriend of Fergie from Black Eyed Peas (how do I know this crap?), Josh Duhamel will continue struggling to act his way out of a wet paper bag for our enjoyment.

FRIDAY: If you didn't get your fill of music festivals with Glastonbury last week, then you can look forward to BBC3's coverage of T In The Park tonight from 7pm. From what I can gather, only the main stage is open today, so there's sets from Bloc Party, Lily Allen, The Coral and Arctic Monkeys tonight. Basically everyone who's at every other festival then? Great.

Elsewhere, Marcus Brigstocke (way too over-exposed for my liking these days) filmed something at Glastonbury in his Giles Wemmbley-Hogg old-Etonian guise and they're showing it on BBC4 at 10pm. Also, Sean Lock does his best to save the increasingly unfunny 8 Out Of 10 Cats on Channel 4 at 9.30pm. Lock's always worth a chuckle or three but Jason Manford hasn't brought anything new to the table in place of Dave Spikey at all. They should have been a bit adventurous and asked Reginald D. Hunter or Rich Hall or Phil Nichol to take his place, not this Peter Kay clone.

SATURDAY: Well, today it's the big Live Earth gig from Wembley, New York, Sydney, Rio, Johannesburg, Hamburg, Tokyo and Shanghai and it's being shown on BBC1 from 5.30pm. It's for a worthy cause, saving the planet and all, but you just know that it's going to be a bit shit. It'll be interesting to see what the Beastie Boys do though, I guess.

On T In The Park tonight, there's sets from The Killers, Amy Winehouse, Babyshambles, Razorlight and, oh you can probably guess the rest. It's on from 7 again on BBC3.

SUNDAY: After trailing it since late last year, FX finally get around to showing Dexter (9pm), the first post-Six Feet Under vehicle for Michael C. Hall. In it, he plays Dexter Morgan, a forensic blood splatter analyst who also happens to be a serial killer. He only kills bad-'uns, mind, so we'll be rooting for him like we did the Krays in the 60s. Seriously though, this was one of the most critically-acclaimed new series in America last year and it's certainly one that I've been looking forward to. With a concept like that, it can't possibly fail.

Also tonight, there's more sex, swords and sandals in Rome (9pm, BBC2) and T In The Park has footage of Snow Patrol, Scissor Sisters, The Fratell-zzzz..... Sorry, dozed off there for a minute.


John From Cincinnati is the brand new HBO show from David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) and it's fantastic. See lots of promos and stuff about it here and get excited. I'll be writing something about it myself very soon.

Take a look at how you perform at a festival by watching Iggy and The Stooges get loads of people up on stage during 'Real Cool Time' at Glastonbury last week.

And watch him freak out the squares on Tonight With Jonathon Ross too.

That's all folks!


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Monday, 18 June 2007

TVOD (18.6.07.)

Haven't done one of these for a while. Let's see if I remember how to do it...

MONDAY: Well, now that Five have a Prison Break-sized hole in their schedules (plugged tonight at least by none other than Steven Seagal, with the showing of Out Of Reach at 10pm. Apparently, he goes toe-to-toe with a human trafficking network in this one. My money's on Seagal), we can all start watching Heroes at 10, instead of watching it on Sci-Fi's time-lapse channel an hour later. Tonight's episode will show us the outcome of Peter's (Milo Ventimiglia) run-in with Sylar (Zachary Quinto, evil incarnate with a monobrow), that we already know turns quickly in Peter's favour due to last week's "Next week on Heroes" montage.

Peter is rapidly becoming my favourite character which is in distinct contrast with my original thoughts on him. Ventimiglia has somehow turned Peter from mopey wet lettuce to troubled dark avenger in just a few episodes, with a little help from jobbing star turn, Chris Eccleston. It's just another string to the bow of an increasingly impressive mainstream television series that refuses to let up in the action and intrigue stakes but never feels like its straining the viewer's capacity for investing in the characters. Basically, it's done everything that Lost didn't do in the first series. Outside of Battlestar Galactica, Heroes is easily the most consistently entertaining and engaging television series that the American networks have to offer.

Elsewhere tonight, ITV have another new homegrown drama serial starting in the form of The Time Of Your Life (9pm). This one looks like it might be a little different from the rest, coming as it does from the creator of Teachers and imbued with an impressive cast (Geraldine James, Robert Pugh, Olivia Colman and rising star, Jemima Rooper among them). The story even looks interesting for once (girl wakes up from eighteen year coma, having missed out on everything past her school leaving do). It's a six-parter, so you know that ITV, the most attention-deficient of all TV channels, have a lot of faith in it. Just don't expect it to be mind-blowing, although I don't think anyone expects that of ITV anymore.

TUESDAY: Why, oh why, oh why have Sky One given that smug twat from the last series of The Apprentice, Syed Ahmed, his own fucking television programme?! It shouldn't beggar belief as much as it does from the channel who have been shoving Pirate fucking Master down our throats for the past three weeks, but it makes you wonder if the likes of Syed Ahmed - Hot Air? (10pm) is really the type of programming they should be spending our subscription fees on. In the show, the unjustifiably self-assured oily prick is trying to sell his idea for a 'body drier', which he hopes will make towels a thing of the past, to businessmen like Duncan Bannatyne (a man who I like, yet I have no idea why). Any idiot can see that this is yet another instance of someone trying to make money by solving a problem that doesn't exist (what is the problem with towels, exactly, Mr Ahmed?), but it's just going to be either an exercise in schadenfreude or an attempt to make this annoying cunt more likeable in the eyes of the British public. I'm willing to bet that it fails on both counts.

Seeing as though ITV have already ripped off Dragon's Den with the surprisingly watchable, yet for all the wrong reasons, Fortune: The Million Pound Giveaway, they have now decided to pick up some residuals from Apprentice fans now that that series has finished, with Tycoon (9pm). Dragon's Den mainstay, Peter Jones (there must be some other willing entrepreneurs who haven't been all over television already) has taken it upon himself - read: been commissioned by ITV - to help six small business ventures get off the ground. Cue knuckle-gnawing excrutiation as each of them prove that a 2:1 in Business Studies prepares you for life in the big wide world just about as much as a C in R.E. at GCSE level does, no doubt.

WEDNESDAY: A good night to stay in tonight, all told, with the premiere of one hot new US drama and the return to our screens of another. First up, Rome is back (9pm, BBC2) for the second and, sadly, final season. In its first run, the sword and sandals soap managed to strike a winning balance between histrionic melodrama and blood-pumping, yet intelligent, thrills and reports from the States suggest that this is the case second time around too. The first episode is sure to deal with the fallout from Julius Caesar's assassination and Vorenus' (Kevin McKidd) wife, Niobe offing herself in dramatic fashion. Ray Stevenson's Titus Pullo was the standout from the first season for me, so here's hoping that he survives the incessant backstabbing (both literally and metaphorically) that this absorbing drama has to offer.

Channel 4 are running the ABC hit show, Brothers And Sisters from tonight (8.30pm, with the second episode at 10pm and the third following at 11pm on E4), which looks to me to be a watered-down Six Feet Under. The similarities couldn't be more glaring on first look with the first post-SFU TV job for Rachael Griffiths, the series' family-with-skeletons-in-every-closet focus and the first episode death of the patriarch (Tom Skerritt) leading to hitherto-buried secrets being unearthed. Here's hoping that the similarities are merely superficial as the cast deserves better than to be involved in a second-rate knock-off. Sally Field, Calista Flockhart, Ron Rifkin, Balthazar Getty and the aforementioned Griffiths and Skerritt have all proved themselves to be more than capable actors in the past so fingers crossed that Brothers And Sisters delivers on the promise of its healthy ensemble.

Also tonight, there's Friday Night Lights (8pm, ITV4), the best programme on television that nobody watches. ITV don't help matters though, with its one showing per week policy. To be honest, if you started watching it now, you'd probably just be perplexed as to why everyone who's seen it raves about it so. Wait for the DVDs, should they ever make an appearance.

THURSDAY: Burt Reynolds guest stars in My Name Is Earl (10pm, Channel 4) tonight, obviously trying to prove that he isn't the humourless arse he is often painted to be. Jason Lee is obviously a big fan, seeing as though he tries to sneak a Reynolds reference into nearly every film he's in ("How many times do you get to see Smokey fuck The Bandit?" - Mallrats). The only question is, is Burt a closet scientologist? This article, from last week's Guardian Guide suggests that Scientology doctrines run through the heart of the show, leading to an all-too-clear jobs for the boys scenario (Lee, Ethan Suplee, show creator, Greg Garcia and previous guest stars, Giovanni Ribisi and Juliette Lewis are all known devotees of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard). It's enough to make you reassess your feelings about the show but, hey, funny's funny whether you believe that you're an immortal alien or not.

Other than that, there's not a lot on tonight. Keith Allen has his own Louis Theroux-style documentary on Channel 4. Keith Allen Will Burn In Hell (10.30pm) has the Groucho Club emeritus travelling to Westboro Baptist Church, Kansas, in order to meet those foul god-botherers who picket the funerals of dead soldiers with "God Hates Fags" placards. Looks interesting at least.

FRIDAY: If you're not actually going, then BBC is the only place to watch Glastonbury (8pm and 11pm, BBC2, with blanket coverage from 7 'til 11 on BBC3). The usual suspects of Phill Jupitus, Jo Whiley, Lauren Laverne and Mark Radcliffe all sit there on hay bales, wearing wellies you know will never get dirty (in the case of Whiley at least anyway) and looking smugger than all-get-out that they're there and you aren't. 'Highlights' tonight look set to include Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse, Kasabian, Bjork, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, Rufus Wainwright, Super Furry Animals, The Magic Numbers, The Coral and The Fucking Fratellis. Actually, I'm glad I'm not going now.

Have I mentioned how good [adult swim] (from Midnight, Bravo) has been lately? After a few months' lull where there wasn't any new programming at all, they've gone nuts and have been treating us to Afro Samurai, Assy McGee and the patchy-but-occasionally-brilliant, Modern Toss (previously shown on Channel 4). We've also been getting brand new episodes of Robot Chicken, The Venture Bros. (both on tonight), Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Tom Goes To The Mayor, Squidbillies and 12oz. Mouse (Monday and Tuesday). By far my favourite of the new shows has to be Assy McGee (1am), the adventures of a rogue, trigger happy American cop who also happens to be just an arse on legs. A lot funnier than that sounds, Assy McGee has a lot of fun at the expense of the conventions of cop shows and movies (NYPD Blue's Sipowicz and Dirty Harry Callaghan are clear inspirations) and is just plain, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Anyone with any interest in smart, funny animation needs to watch this.

SATURDAY: The sixth instalment of BBC2's outstanding documentary series, Seven Ages Of Rock (9.30pm) airs tonight with a look at the US alternative scene of the 80s and 90s. While it's reductive to look at such an expansive movement in just an hour, the spotlit bands are the most obviously influential ones. Black Flag, R.E.M., Pixies and Nirvana are all under the microscope tonight, so expect insightful musings from the likes of Henry Rollins (always an effusive, entertaining talker), Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Frank Black, Kim Deal, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic and an impeccable, familiar soundtrack. Wouldn't kill them to talk to Sonic Youth and Husker Du too, but we'll see.

Earlier on BBC2, there's a shortened The Culture Show (8pm), which sees the culmination of their search for Britain's most iconic film locations, via the conduit of a mock road movie starring the ubiquitous (this weekend anyway) Lauren Laverne and Mark Kermode. Should be fun. Can't get enough of that chirpy, loveable Mackem? Then, Laverne is back on our screens for more Glasto coverage (4.45pm and 10.30pm on BBC2, with the usual stuff on BBC3 and BBC4), with music from The Killers, Lily Allen, The Stooges, Editors, Paul Weller, Maximo Park, Klaxons, Babyshambles, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and The Fucking Kooks. Seriously, you wouldn't want to get trench foot for that shower now, would you?

SUNDAY: There's yet another new episode of The Simpsons (6.30pm, Sky One), with Bart getting hitched to Natalie Portman. Last week's newie was killer, so here's hoping that the wacky premise of tonight's throws up some decent laughs along the way, which is all you can really hope for from a show that's ran for over 400 episodes now.

Glasto today (5.15pm and 10.30pm, BBC2, with, y'know, shitloads on 3 and 4) promises sets from the likes of The Who, The Chemical Brothers, Kaiser Fucking Chiefs, Manic Street Preachers, Dame Shirley Bassey (honest!), The Go! Team, The Fucking View, The Rakes, Modest Mouse, James Fucking Morrison and Mi-fucking-ka. Pilton seems like a cold, dead place to me this weekend.


Binary solo! Formerly of BBC Radio 4, Flight Of The Conchords, New Zealand's premier digi-folk duo now have their own TV show on HBO in the States. Ingeniously entitled, Flight Of The Conchords, it follows the guys trying to 'make it' in New York. Jimmy Carr isn't in it anymore but Rob Brydon still is and you can watch the first episode online right now. It's really funny, although don't look out for Brydon as he doesn't come into it until later. Do, however, look out for a very funny cameo from upcoming NY comic, Eugene Mirman.

"We went for that like thirsty people in the desert seeing a Coke machine". Watch clips from this week's Seven Ages Of Rock online. Rollins is always worth listening to, but I was surprised at how nice Kim Deal came over as.

"I'm going... to shoot you". Watch a full episode of Assy McGee while you can.

Think that went alright,


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Saturday, 9 June 2007

Review: Hostel: Part II

Okay, I know that this is primarily a TV blog, but no matter what the size of the screen, we don't discriminate. With that in mind, here is a review of Hostel: Part II.

Eli Roth, the director of both Hostel films, is a sick fuck. The inside of his mind would surely be a nightmarish place to reside. While science does not yet permit us to view just what goes on in that diseased brain of his, his films afford us a peek at his most nihilistic, basest desires and fantasies and it is not a pretty place at all.

With hindsight, Roth's feature debut, 2003's Cabin Fever seems tame now, despite the lashings of outlandish gore on display in the flesh-eating virus splatterfest. The Hostel films are where Roth has really cut loose with the head-wrong "torture porn" stylings, but to be honest, the commercial success of the original Hostel says more about the audience who lap up every slash of a tendon, every eyeball being cut out than it does about Roth himself.

I didn't enjoy (frankly, who could have?) the first Hostel film one bit. I found it to be a soulless, relentless nasty, joyless piece of snuff and this isn't because I'm some reactionary, Daily Mail-reading, ban this sick filth merchant. On the contrary, I like my gore, but the numbing effect of the bloodletting (inventive though some of it was), coupled with the lack of any emotional investment in the victims (they had it coming), left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, so it was with one part trepidation and two parts morbid curiosity that I approached the sequel.

I'm pleased to say that Hostel: Part II is a more successful, altogether more enjoyable and satisfying movie than its progenitor. Starting things off with one of the creepiest credits sequences I've seen in quite some time, with the torture resort's furnace operator ritually dispensing of recent victims' artefacts (passports, driver's licences, clothes etc), we then get to find out just what became of the original's 'hero', Paxton (Jay Hernandez, looking more existentially puzzled than frightened for his life). This feels like a concession to the fans of the first Hostel or aimless preamble than any kind of foreboding prologue however and the film only really starts to get interesting when we meet our heroines.

Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, not a million miles removed from the weird kid she played in Welcome To The Dollhouse) are travelling through Europe, striving to strike some kind of balance between youthful kicks and cultural enlightenment. They happen upon a helpful stranger who suggests they make the trip to Slovakia to check out the beautiful spas they have there (in actuality, the hostel of the title).

You can probably guess what happens next. You'd be surprised however at Eli Roth's brave attempts to eschew any re-hash accusations. For starters, the victims are female this time around, but more interesting is the sub-plot - which neatly and naturally dovetails with the main story - which involves two American businessmen, Todd (Richard Burgi - bullish and cocky) and Stuart (Roger Bart - reserved and apprehensive) hooking up with the elite hunting cabal to illegally and vicariously indulge their fantasies of killing their wives.

In showing the other side of the original's story in an unjudgemental fashion, Roth adds a new depth to the ensuing thrills and spills. TV stalwarts Burgi and Bart both relish their roles, veering wildly between underplaying and shameless hamming as the plot dictates. Of the female leads, Lauren German (previously seen in the Texas Chainsaw remake) treats the scream queen role with a winning gravitas, while Matarazzo plays it kooky without descending into annoyance. It's Bijou Phillips who impresses most however, bringing naturalism and light-and-shade to what could have easily been just another 'silly bitch' role, much like she did in Larry Clark's Bully.

BUT (the caps are necessary, as it's a big but), despite the fact that it's a leap forward from the first Hostel film, you will still feel a little dirty afterwards. There's still the overriding feeling of "should I be watching this?". It's obvious that this is Roth's intention - to make the audience hate themselves for enjoying this - but does that make it something of a noble cause? Not really, but in scenes like the chilling round-the-world email bidding war for the girls and the showdown between the hunting club president and the bubblegum gang from the first film, Roth shows a deft touch and sensitivity that he wilfully and gleefully negates with his tendency towards snuff-like set-pieces.

When Roth shows a bit of restraint, it's clear that he's starting to mature as a director, but for now, we have to counterbalance that growth with the juvenilia we've come to expect from him. Here's to Roth moving out of the Hostel and into the big leagues. Whether I'd want him to bring his twisted brain with him however, I'm not all too sure.

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