The World According to Telenovelas

2020 has been a challenging year to put it lightly. Like many people, I have been sitting at home for the past few months, praying for some return to normality. Admittedly, the first month or so was quite fun. I had been working quite a lot before the world went crazy and my hobbies and interests had fallen a little by the wayside, so the chance to catch up on my favourite shows and new films on Netflix, Prime or anywhere else, was grasped with both hands.
Generally, I tend to write reviews on the filmic output on mostly Netflix, sometimes Prime. With the extended time the lockdown had given me, I decided I would need to watch something of a longer format than a film. A fan of the Spanish language — I have been trying to learn Spanish for years — I decided to watch a few telenovelas.
Telenovelas, Latin-American serials, differ from soap operas in that they have an ending. With fantastical storylines and compelling narratives, telenovelas are a wonderful escape from the realities and stresses of life.
That being said, telenovelas tend to have certain tropes and themes that are both comforting in their commonality and disturbing. As I mentioned, I have watched a few telenovelas. That might be a bit of an understatement. Since the lockdown began, I have watched, to completion, three telenovelas, which may not seem like a lot but that is over four hundred episodes of television. I am currently watching two others and have watched several over the last few years.
I like telenovelas. Here are some of the things that telenovelas have taught me.

Telenovelas are not playing the political correctness game.
As various social media platforms and internet platforms give voice to many who rigorously look to censor the present and expose the past for anything they deem offensive, telenovela writers steadfastly ignore such convention. Machoism is alive and kicking furiously in telenovela land.
With so many stories revolving around the drug trade and money, reprehensible characters, generally the male central antagonist, tend to live on vast ranches and, in keeping with the macho image, have a real penchant for the cowboy life. There are Stetsons aplenty in telenovelas from the early 2000s right up to the present day.
They always have multiple women around, who tend to be scantily clad and decoratively hanging by the pool. Occasionally, they become collateral damage as one of the drug lord’s enemies tries to kill him to take over his territory or gain revenge for some slight.
In keeping with the machoism, slights will always elicit a disproportionately violent response, usually resulting in the deaths of multiple henchmen, the aforementioned eye-candy ladies and occasionally, the actual target. A man in a telenovela is a man’s man and no insult or slight can go unpunished.

Women get treated horribly.
Though the overt machoism is somewhat amusing, one of the downsides of the rampant testosterone-fuelled storylines of many a telenovela is how horribly the women are treated in them. Regardless of whether they are a lead, sympathetic or a less likeable character, women in telenovelas are subject to some horrendous treatment.
Rapes, miscarriages, spousal abuse, being left destitute, disfigurement and emotional distress are common and alarmingly frequent tropes used in telenovelas. Even the strongest women, the lead character, usually have some sort of trauma visited upon them, often a rape, by violent men. The violent incident, when visited upon the lead female character, drives the story. Still, women get treated horribly.
As I alluded to before, the men are hairy-chested, cowboy-boot wearing, moustachioed men and as such are not averse to delivering the odd backhand to any woman who feels she can speak to them as though this were the twenty-first century. It might be in the real world but in the world of telenovelas, women need to know their place.

Real-life Disney approach to love.
Most people know one lovely couple that met and fell in love forever. Somehow, on this mad, spinning globe, they managed to meet that one person with whom they are compatible with and do not want to kill after a couple of years. The rest of us pinball from one relationship to another, slowly losing faith and patience in the notion of meeting a person whose foibles do not bring on a murderous rage.
In telenovela land, love, at first sight, is a thing. It is the thing. Worryingly, even with years of adult learning and experience, the want and need for love at first sight to be a thing is such that, even though one should and does know better, you still allow your disbelief to be suspended whilst watching the beautiful leads — they are always gorgeous — set eyes on one another and fall instantly in love.
Their love is always, on both sides, the love of their lives, a love that, regardless of the obstacles — class differences — which is very popular — wrong partners, children — must be realised.

You’re rich or you’re broke.
Besides one’s family and education, things that are considered barometers of one’s social standing, wealth and money are also big factors in telenovelas. Power is always being chased, especially by the antagonist who, in the case of a drug lord, already has a great deal of it.
A beautiful female lead, if poor, will, after suffering multiple mishaps, find and fall in love with a handsome, rich suitor. If she is rich, her suitor will be an upstanding and proud man and though poor, he will compensate for his lack of financial means with great physical prowess — he will be good at punching people.
As is the way in many of these telenovelas, the central characters, the lovelorn leads from opposing lives, come together in the end, forgetting all the misery and death that has happened before, to live happily ever after.

Secrets and proclamations of love.
Unlike in real life, in a telenovela love happens immediately and those struck by Cupid’s arrow have very little trouble articulating their feelings. Proclamations of love tumble from the lips of the lovelorn, telling the object of their affection, in florid terms, how much they want them and need them, how they would do anything to be with them.
What they all leave out, is they would do anything but tell the truth. Telenovelas are driven by secrets. A long lost son or daughter, who ended up in an orphanage but is the offspring of the richest man or family in the region.
A long-serving maid or manservant tends to know all of the secrets but is bound by a sense of duty or their personal demons not to reveal them. It is not even as though said secrets are never uttered, with those who have the knowledge telling anyone who does not need to know the secret that could solve the problems of another.
Frustratingly, the reasons for keeping a secret that could solve many of the issues the characters face usually comes down to pride. Of course, being a telenovela, the secret always comes out in the end.

After so many months of lockdown, my world view has perhaps been skewed by watching so many telenovelas. Maybe there is a long lost love out there for me and all I need to do to find her is visit a ranch. I am not sure how my proclamations of love would or could work whilst being mumbled through a face mask but I am willing to give it a go.
All I need now is to find a ranch, purchase a Stetson and learn a compelling secret so as I can live that telenovela life.

A.M.I – review (Netflix)

Brief synopsis: After suffering brain trauma in a car accident that killed her mother, high school student Cassie obsesses over her American football playing boyfriend, Liam. Lonely and missing her mother, she finds a phone with an AI that replicates her mother’s voice. Cassie’s tenuous grasp on reality is tested further as the AI pushes her to homicidal heights.

Is it any good?: Entertainingly awful. A patchy, unnatural sounding script, ropey acting and an obsession with handheld camerawork are a few of the things that are wrong with this film. The premise and sheer ludicrous nature of it, however, is worth a viewing for its comedic value.

Spoiler territory: Roxy (Roxanne Fernandes) is walking home through the woods when she drops her phone. As she searches for it among the autumnal leaves, she sees a red light that seems to be watching her. Her phone beeps, a message flashing up on her screen. She shines her phone’s torch into the darkness, looking to see if anybody is there. She is attacked by an unseen assailant.

It is daytime and Liam (Sam Muik) comes to see Cassie (Debs Howard) who is with a couple of friends, Sarah (Veronica Hampson) and Ruby (Havana Guppy). Cassie asks Liam if she is going to see him later. Liam says he cannot as he has football practice. The next day is ‘leg day,’ he can see her after that? Cassie agrees.

Later, Cassie and Ruby are sitting in the stands watching Liam and the team practice. On the field, the coach, Carl (Michael Matic), ends the practice but tells Liam he is not finished. He is staying back for kicking practice. In the stands, Ruby is talking to her phone. The phone talks back, much to Cassie’s amusement. She tells Cassie about AMI, the voice on her phone.

Ruby leaves Cassie alone watching Liam practice. As he finishes he runs past her with a teammate but totally ignores her. An embarrassed Cassie leaves. The next day she goes for a long run, going to the spot where her mother died in a car accident when she was driving. In the same accident, Cassie suffered some brain trauma and takes medication to control bipolar and anger issues.

When she returns to her car after the run, she comes across a phone. She places it on a fence by the road. The phone asks her if she needs a friend. A spooked Cassie gets into her car and drives away. Back at home her father, Greg (Philip Granger), is entertaining some young women and a man by the pool. Cassie does not interrupt them.

In the evening, Ruby and Sarah have come over to the house. Sarah is drunk and lays down on the floor. Cassie asks Ruby about AMI. She tells her it is like Siri but much more modifiable. Cassie’s father comes into the room with a young woman, oblivious to the girls there.

He belatedly notices them. Cassie leaves, going for a walk, Ruby leaving shortly afterwards. A drunken Sarah mockingly admonishes him for his taste in women as the girl he brought with him leaves as well.

Sarah gives Greg her phone number and then leaves after telling him to call her. Cassie is out walking and comes across a stray cat. She picks up the cat and almost chokes it to death before realising what she is doing and releasing it.

She returns home and goes through items that remind her of her mother and remembers the night of the accident. She goes back to the spot where she left the phone. It is still there.

She returns home with the phone. The phone tells her she can customise the voice to make it sound how she wants. She makes it sound like her mother (Bonnie Hay). She gets the phone to read her Alice in Wonderland.

AMI researches her digital life and what a mother’s role is. Cassie wakes up happy the next day. She goes for a run talking to the phone as she runs. Cassie begins to bond with AMI, talking about her life and woes.

Cassie goes to the site of the crash again. She goes to take a pill and the phone sees the medication. AMI advises her not to take it. Cassie drops the pill. She continues to confide in AMI. The next day, Cassie is cooking a meal hoping to invite Liam over.

She calls him up. Liam, who is simultaneously texting with another girl, tells her he is busy, having accepted an invitation from the girl texting him. Cassie tells AMI that she is going to hang out with Sarah. AMI says she should go and see Sarah. At Sarah’s house, Liam has gone to see her.

She was the one texting him. She performs a sexual act on him. Cassie goes to Sarah’s house and sees Liam’s car outside. She sees Liam leaving. Sarah receives a phone call from Cassie’s dad. He is worried about Cassie. She tells him he should come and see her.

An angry Cassie gets out of her car, heading to Sarah’s house. Inside, Sarah is making a video boasting about the fact that she has seduced all of Cassie’s past boyfriend’s and how her father will be the ultimate conquest.

Cassie pushes her way into Sarah’s place. Sarah slaps her telling her she never had to work for anything because she is rich. Cassie starts to strangle her, telling her that she is supposed to be her friend. Sarah tells her she hates her. AMI encourages Cassie to kill her.

Cassie begins to suffocate Sarah with a pillow, stopping when her body goes limp. She takes the pillow of off her, thinking she has killed her. She apologises to the prostrate Sarah. A grinning Sarah spooks her saying “hello.” Cassie smashes her in the head with a laptop, repeatedly hitting her and killing her.

AMI tells Cassie to take the body to Liam’s house and bury it on the grounds there. As she is burying the body, Roxy comes across her. She kills Roxy. Cassie returns home. AMI is proud of her. The next day, Cassie sees Liam flirting with Ruby at school. She leaves. AMI hatches a plan to punish Liam.

Cassie invites Liam over. She puts lotion on the steps leading to the hot tub and lures him down the steps, causing him to fall, breaking his leg. She goes to see Liam after he comes out of the hospital and is greeted by his father, Ted (Andrew Coghlan), who is suitably boorish, making no attempt to hide the fact that his son has little regard for women.

Cassie goes to see Liam. She gives him a phone with AMI’s voice on it. Liam is not overly enamoured with the gift. Greg goes to see Sarah. He finds her phone with the recordings of her boasting about her conquest of Cassie’s boyfriends. The phone also recorded her murder. Greg returns home to confront Cassie. AMI tells her to run.

She runs to the garage and is pursued by her father. AMI tells her to grab an aerosol and a lighter. She tries to attack Greg, but he knocks her unconscious. Cassie wakes up restrained in the backseat of the car. Greg tells her he is taking her to the police. They will say it was the brain injury that caused her to kill Sarah.

AMI tells her to cover her ears and sends an ear-piercing noise through the car’s speakers. Greg stops the car and Cassie jumps out. Greg gets out to find her but Cassie doubles back to the car. AMI tells her to reverse. She knocks Greg over. She takes him to where she buried Sarah and Roxy. He is still alive. She pours acid on him, killing him.

Ruby contacts Cassie. She wants to know if she has seen Sarah. She says she hasn’t. AMI tells Cassie to contact Liam using Sarah’s phone. Liam deletes AMI off of his phone causing AMI to temporarily disappear off of Cassie’s phone. Liam puts his coach’s voice on his phone. Cassie gets her mother’s voice back.

She calls Liam. He tells her that he deleted the AMI she put on the phone. She tells him that he should not have done that. Liam ends the call. Cassie grabs an axe from her garden. Ruby goes to see Cassie. She finds Sarah’s phone and sees the video of Cassie killing her.

AMI tells her to kill her. Ruby grabs a kitchen knife to try and defend herself but is quickly killed. She pours petrol on Ruby’s body and burns the house down.

Cassie goes over to Liam’s house. He sees her approaching and tries to tell his father not to let her in. He is too late. Cassie kills Liam’s father. Cassie comes after Liam. He hides under his bed to escape from her. When she leaves, he tries to get out of the room but is caught again by her. Liam kicks her, injuring enough for him to get down the stairs.

Cassie catches up with him in the kitchen. Liam fools her and knocks her to the ground, taking the axe off of her and chopping her in the leg. He calls the police and ambulance services but collapses after his exertions. Cassie crawls from the kitchen and kills him.

Sometime later, Cassie is recounting her story to a therapist. In her version, Liam is the mass murderer, her killing him having stopped his killing spree. Nine months later, Cassie has a family of AMIs. The original phone is mother, she has one as a father and another as a baby. The end.

Written and directed by Rusty Nixon, with a story by Nixon, James Clayton and Evan Tylor, A.M.I. is a silly, somewhat entertaining, chiller. The AI as a conscience or driving force is hardly a new one in film. The disembodied voice that tells a protagonist or antagonist to act in a certain way is a popular idea in fiction. It feeds into the human desire of absolving oneself of responsibility.

That A.M.I. should be a phone makes sense in the present day, with most of us attached to our phones constantly. In truth, the script for this film is pretty poor and flat. Most of the characters are caricatures at best, and with the exception of Cassie, no one has any motivation to do anything. Not that it matters. Once Howard’s Cassie becomes attached to AMI, the film gathered pace and the poor script became secondary.

The acting seems quite poor initially but, as the story sped up, the actors overcame the deficiencies in the script. Howard is great as the crazy Cassie and Hampson is perfectly cast as the jealous Sarah.

It is only Havana as Ruby—possibly the only person who looked anywhere near high school age—who is not utilised particularly well, only in the film for exposition. Muik’s Liam is handsome enough and surly enough to believe that he would be such a cad, even if it is a lazy stereotype.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a real obsession with handheld camera work, even when, in some instances, a tripod would have gotten a much better shot. That being said, the directing is not noticeably awful or haphazard, though there are some unnecessary shots—the opening sequence—in the film.

A.M.I. is not a long film at only seventy-seven minutes long, but the first half-hour is a bit of a laborious watch. A.M.I. is watchable though not a must-watch. If you enjoy silly horror films with not too much horror, you could do worse.

Bonding – a review (Netflix)

   Sometimes my mouth – or fingers in this case – go before the brain. Let me explain. I have a history of watching the first episode of a series and then leaving it. I’ve done with GOT, The Wire, 24, Ozark, all critically acclaimed shows that I have seen opening episodes of but never returned to. 

   It’s not as though I thought they were bad shows either, they just never pulled me in. I watched the first episode of the best single-season series ever written, Firefly, and did not return to it until over a year later. It’s a bad habit, especially as a person who harbours a deep desire to create a television series.

    Even recently I almost missed the brilliant Ricky Gervais series, After Life, because the first episode was so dark and heavy. I left it a fortnight and, after a second recommendation, was rewarded with one of the best shows I’ve seen in ages. 

    In terms of reviewing a show, my rule used to be I had to have seen at least three episodes of the show. That should be enough time for the writer or writers to have properly introduced the main protagonist and have the viewer know what sort of a story they’re watching, as well as to where the story might be going. 

    With all the film watching I do on Netflix, and the rewatching whilst reviewing, my tolerance has, at times, not been what it should be. In an industry with so many gurus – I can tell you how to write a script that sells! How to write drama! How to break into Hollywood! – waiting to tell, sell, the ‘foolproof’ method of getting your project made, it is still remarkable just how many terrible shows and films are out there.

    Netflix is one of the premiere streaming platforms on the planet, regularly dropping entire series of new and interesting shows from around the globe. They also produce a lot of new content, backing shows and projects that might not otherwise see the light of day.

    One such show is Rightor Doyle’s show, Bonding, a comedy-drama set over seven episodes, all around fifteen minutes long. Zoe Levin is Tiff, a psychology student by day and dominatrix at night. She enlists the help of her best friend from high school, Pete (Brendan Scannell), a gay redhead, as her security. 

   Pete is a struggling comedian, whose landlord, Frank (Alex Hurt) is a bit of sex addict, seemingly spending his life having sex with his girlfriend, Portia (Gabrielle Ryan). Pete, a somewhat diffident and unconfident person, is shown a world he never knew existed by the outwardly confident Tiff.

    Like I alluded to in my opening paragraph, sometimes I judge a show before I give it a real chance. I hated the first episode of this how. I thought it was wasteful and self-indulgent, jumping on the flavour-of-the-month LBGTQ trend that many shows have adopted. 

   Like blaxploitation in the seventies, in LBGTQ cinema and shows are more quantity than quality. When the chance for any non-white, ‘normalised’ genre gets the opportunity to be seen, there tends to be an over-saturation of products. Such is the case with LBGTQ.

    The first episode came over like a ‘this is an LBGTQ show! Watch it or you’re narrow-minded!’  But as the episodes were only around fifteen minutes long, I suspect Doyle was going for instant impact; the garish dominatrix set up, Pete being so overtly gay and put upon. I really did not enjoy the first episode. 

   Though I am somewhat hard-headed, I can occasionally learn from my mistakes. As with After Life, the Ricky Gervais Netflix show, I came back to Bonding. I am so glad that I did. Doyle’s show really hits its stride from the second episode. Even though the dominatrix angle is what dominates visually, it is the various relationships that really drive the show.

    Zoe Levin is captivating as the pokerfaced Tiff, life having forced her to create a metaphorical suit of armour around herself. Scannell’s Pete is not who he seems to either, growing and showing more courage as he discovers himself. 

    The acting across the board is good, with no wasted characters and a feel-good vibe, pierced by a few dark moments. Bonding is a lot better than the first episode impression would have you believe and at around quarter of an hour an episode, with the entire first season only being seven episodes, it is basically a just under two-hour film. 

    I would recommend watching Bonding. It is short enough to watch during a commute and amusing and engaging enough to put you in a good.  

    

Name That Theme Tune

With the explosion of streaming services, media, and bingeable or downloadable content shows that are watched by the masses are rare. The like of Games of Thrones or Walking Dead—both which I do not watch—are not as common as they were in the seventies, eighties and into the nineties.

When Larry Hagman’s JR Ewing got shot in the show Dallas in 1980, the show was so widely watched that it made the newspapers. Shows used to be a commonality across all people, all ages. A big show like Dallas was in the eighties, or a soap opera such as, here in the UK at least, Coronation Street or the now-defunct Crossroads, connected everyone.

The square box in the living room does not connect people as it used to anymore. The sheer volume of available content has made it so that the cliques are more refined now. It used to be mostly music preferences that would separate people. Now, with creators and content catering to every taste, every specific group, people have become more viewer niche.

What still connects most people, beyond cliques, types, age or upbringing, is music. Or more specifically, theme tunes. The theme tune to Hawaii Five-O is known across generations. The tune by Morton Stevens, the funky drums and horns created one of the best-known theme tunes in the world, even for those who never saw Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett says “Book ‘em Dano. Murder one!”

In both film and television, music has always created a strong connection to its audience. The Friends theme tune probably elicits a smile, whereas the theme tune to the highly popular Game of Thrones would create a sense of anticipation.

In this article, I want to pick out a top ten of—plus a few honourable mentions—of the best theme tunes on television, mostly past, and the odd present. I am looking at theme tunes alone and not necessarily the quality of the programmes they were part of.

I will, for the most part, avoid comedy shows, only because their jovial nature tends to make them memorable. The themes are in no particular order as I could not decide which theme, if any, was better than any other. So, let’s go.

One of the most enduring theme tunes of our age is the 1967 Spiderman theme tune by Paul Webster Francis and Robert ‘Bob’ Harris. A tune composed over fifty years ago has proved so popular that it was used for the MCU’s first Spider-man film in 2017, knowing it would instantly connect to its target audience. That is a powerful theme tune.

Starsky and Hutch’s second season theme tune by Tom Scott is the most recognised of the theme tunes used through the shows five-season run. Changing from Lalo Schifrin’s season one gritty, streetwise tune to Scott’s horns dominant, funky groove in its second season, it was dropped for the third season, returning for the final seasons.

My fourth pick—first was Hawaii Five-Ois probably my favourite. It is for a show that I cannot ever remember watching. It is Patrick Williams’ Streets of San Francisco. Another horn-heavy, funk-filled theme tune, Williams’ theme almost allows you to see the musicians playing. It is fantastic.

A little show back in the sixties, that brought a certain Clint Eastwood to global attention, features a theme by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, sung by Frankie Laine. It was the theme tune to Rawhide, a western show that ran for eight seasons between 1959 and 1965, for two-hundred and seventeen episodes. A great western track, Frankie Lane’s distinctive vocals take the theme tune to another level.

Up sixth is the theme tune to the original ensemble television show, Steven Bochco’s groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. Written by Mike Post and Larry Carlton, the theme was the opening for one of the best ensemble cop shows ever to grace the screen. Running from 1981 to 1987, it ran for seven seasons airing one hundred and forty-six episodes. Televisual brilliance.

Number seven is from the show that gave us Hannibal, Faceman, B. A. Baracus and Murdock, the show where the team would routinely construct a battle mobile out of a few tin panels and a blowtorch, and the show that had explosion galore, with bodies flying through the air but never any blood. Of course, I’m referring to the A-Team.

This theme, also a Mike Post composition, sets the perfect tone for a fun show that ran over five seasons from 1983 to 1987 and ninety-eight episodes.

Another sixties show that not only has a classic theme tune, but also a fanatical following is number eight on my list. Star Trek. As there have been many incarnations of the show, it only makes sense to clarify which Star Trek I mean. I am referring to the original, William Shatner starring run, that ran from 1966 to 1970 for three seasons and seventy-nine episodes.

The ninth theme is a modern one. A personal favourite of mine is a theme by Ramin Djawadi, who incidentally also did the theme for Game of Thrones. Not only do I love the theme for this show, but I also love the entire title sequence. It is Westworld and it is amazing. Haunting piano and strings make for one of the best modern themes on television.

The tenth theme is one of my youth. It had many a young boy running in slow motion, and it aired for five seasons between 1973 and 1978, for ninety-nine episodes. Lee Majors’ was Steve Austin The Six Million Dollar Man and he was awesome. The show was brilliant and fantastical and it had a great theme and opening sequence. Terrific television.

There are so many more I could mention—ER, Dallas, Wonder Woman(the Lynda Carter version), Miami Vice, Thunderbirds, Buffy—and that does not even cover the many comedies that have memorable themes—Golden Girls!

For now, I will leave it at these ten classic themes that are all so memorable and intrinsically linked to their shows.

Wherefore Art Thou Whedon

   There are a few writers, both in film and television, that can get me to watch a film or a show. Such is my faith in Christopher Nolan’s ability to create a compelling story, I fought my dislike of war films to see the quite brilliant Dunkirk. 

   Aaron Sorkin’s best-known works, The West Wing for television and A Few Good Men for stage and film, though brilliant and great examples of his talent are not what makes me want to watch his work. It is his astounding work – which it is rumoured he wrote every episode – on Newsroom, that makes me want to see anything he writes.

     Though other works of hers have been somewhat disappointing, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sparkling seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, the closest thing to the machine-gun, quick wit of comedies of the forties and fifties, with the cracking dialogue and exchanges, is enough reason for me to check out anything her name is attached to. 

    Widows is on my list of films to watch because it was written by Gillian Flynn. Her script for Gone Girl, from her own book, was phenomenal. There are a few other writers who pique my interest when connected to works. Ricky Gervais is a brilliant writer, as is his sometimes writing partner, Stephen Merchant. 

   The writer who, above all others, will always get me to watch a film or television show is Joss Whedon. The writer/creator of the best single-season television show ever, Firefly – yes it is, fight me! – Whedon also created my favourite show – and one of the best – once again I am prepared to back my statement with fisticuffs! – of all time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. 

    Like Nolan, attaching Whedon’s name to a project pretty is much a guarantee of parting me from my money. I have to admit, I am a bit of a fanboy when it comes to his works. I am no fan of horror films, but when I heard he wrote The Cabin In The Woods, I watched it. 

    That is not to say that his work is above criticism. I have yet to get through the five seasons of Angel. There was just something about the show that did not gel with me. Having said that, it is still on my ’to watch’ list. Dollhouse was necessarily rushed – the second season was in the balance even before the first had ended. There was never going to be a third. 

   Age Of Ultron, whilst enjoyable was not as good as Avengers Assemble, suffering from creative conflicts behind the scenes. The first six episodes of Agents Of Shield are so bad, they are almost unwatchable. After that, however, the show flies. 

    His take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing shows a talent for making even the work one of history’s most famous playwrights even more accessible. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog showed how the internet was meant to be used for showing content, long before everyone with a laptop became a creator. 

    Firefly, to repeat myself, the best single-season series ever written, almost had me in tears when it ended and I knew it was going to end! I saw it years after it was made, so I was completely aware that there was no second season. I was still crushed when it ended. That he had to make Serenity so as to placate the many fans and finish the story was scant consolation. 

    Had the show been created now, with the likes of Netflix and the upcoming Apple tv, it would have, no doubt, been a massive hit. Whedon’s true legacy though will always be Buffy. When he wrote the 1992 film, starring Kristy Swanson and the late Luke Perry, no one could have anticipated the 1997 television series. 

    Though the film undoubtedly had Whedon’s voice, it was not until the television series that his full array of creative skills was really put on show. With the series, Whedon was able to create an ever-evolving story arc, following the tribulations of, not only the fictitious vampire slayer but also the growing pains of teenagers, amplified by their extraordinary circumstances. 

    His work, ably assisted by a cabal of excellent writers, was so influential that it continues to be seen in shows today. The quick-witted wordplay of any teenage serial drama, the high-pressure situations, the emotional discourses, these were all things that were par-for-the-course in Buffy. 

    Whedon’s foray into film, with the MCU projects, and his subsequent break from the studio after Ultron, has seen him go somewhat quiet. One can only hope that Whedon’s personal sabbatical comes to an end soon and we see some work from the great man again soon. 

Titans – a review (Netflix’s live action)

     As a child of the seventies and early eighties, the Teen Titans cartoon is not something that I am familiar with. I had heard of it but never watched it. A quick Google and Wiki peruse of the Teen Titans, shows a history of the characters going back to the mid-sixties.

    Led by the Dick Grayson incarnation of Robin, the Titans are made up of various teenage superheroes. As a person who was never a massive fan of DC comics – I collected X-Men, Daredevil, Spiderman, and Elektra, with the only DC exception being the Frank Miller run of Dark Knight. My knowledge of their comic properties is patchy at best.

   With Marvel taking over the film world, one could be forgiven for thinking that their comic characters were always the best known or most prominent. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman would probably have something to say about that. 

   Because of the enduring nature of some of the DC characters and their longevity, they were very rarely viewed as teenagers. All three of DC’s biggest characters had either a sidekick, Robin and Wonder Girl, or a mini ‘me’, Super Boy. Marvel, on the other hand, tended to have younger more youth appealing characters; X-Men began as teenagers as did Spiderman. 

    Netflix’s Titans explores the younger characters of DC. Where Marvel dominates the multiplexes and blockbusters, DC are the kings of the small screen. Where Marvel has Kevin Feige, DC have Greg Berlanti.

Berlanti is the producer behind Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow, Black Lightning as well as many other non-superhero shows. He is also the producer behind Titans. Seeing his name lets one know that the show is in good hands.

    Following the format of most series on the streaming platform, Titans eleven episode, season one series, dropped in its entirety in January. The opening episode introduces us to Dick Grayson/Robin (Brenton Thwaites) who has left Gotham City and the shadow of Batman and moved to Detroit, Michigan and become a police detective. 

    Years of being a masked vigilante have, however, left a mark on Grayson and he is a brooding, cynical presence, still given to dressing as Robin and dishing out a more direct type of justice. His presence in the city is not appreciated by the police department. 

   Elsewhere, Reagan Roth (Teagan Croft) is being pursued by unknown parties, whilst simultaneously battling an internal struggle against a dark power that dwells within her. The people after her, seem determined to get her regardless of the cost to themselves or others around her. After the woman she thinks is her mother is killed in front of her, Roth kills the killer and ends up in police custody. There she meets Grayson. 

    Kory Anders (Anna Diop) wakes up in a crashed car next to a dead man, on an empty road in Austria with no recollection as to how she got there or who she is. She is dressed like a lady of the night. She is being pursued by Russian mobsters. In her quest to discover who she is, she finds that she is a being of considerable, deadly, power. She also believes that she has a mission to protect Roth. 

    The show is constructed around the Titans being a core group of four members, going by the pictorial media, and the fourth member of the team, Garfield Logan (Ryan Potter) a shapeshifter who can become a green striped tiger, is not introduced to proceedings properly until episode four. He is seen briefly at the end of episode one, stealing a DVD.

    Titans is a strong show that builds slowly and gets better as it goes along. Strangely, the weakest episode is the opening one. It is not bad by any means, but there are some elements that irritate and make little sense.

There is also a worrying aspect of ‘save-the-cheerleader-save-the-world’ whiff about it. We know how that ended! Thankfully, this does not prove to be the case with this show. What saves it is the compelling characters, especially Kory and, surprisingly, the level of violence. 

    This version of Titans could not have aired on the CW. As violent as Arrow was in the first season, Titans takes it to another level. It is not only that it has graphically depicted violence. It is also the grey area in which the violence occurs. 

    The Punisher, another excellent series on Netflix, is an inherently violent show, with gunplay and knives, not to mention the bludgeonings routinely handed out by the titular lead, it is a show of relentless violence. What makes Titans violence different is that so many of the deaths, very gruesome deaths, happen to characters who seem wholly undeserving of such treatment. 

    It is an aspect of the show that is unexpected, a little disconcerting, but welcome in that it forces one to consider the effects of brute force as a method of meting out justice and even the entertainment value of killing. 

    The acting is universally excellent and the story strong enough, even if it is the usual prevention of the end of the world trope, to keep one engaged. Thankfully, not being a Marvel show, it is not about to be pulled from Netflix and has already got a green light for the second season. I for one am looking forward to the continuing adventures of the Titans. Definitely worth watching.  

    

    

Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent) Netflix show – review

     Watched a new show, to me at least, on Netflix in keeping with my efforts to watch and review lesser known shows so that, perhaps, you do not have to. The show is a French serial, Dix Pour Cent, English title, Call My Agent!. A comedy-drama, it is the story of a Parisian talent agency, ASK, and the relationships of the agents with each other, their actors and life in general. 

    When the owner and primary shareholder of the agency, Samuel Kerr (Alain Rimoux) dies whilst on vacation, his widow, Héléne (Gabrielle Forest), turns up at the offices of ASK and informs the remaining agents that she wants to sell her shares in the company to the highest bidder, throwing the future of the agency into turmoil. 

    An excellent ensemble cast sees most of the characters taking centre stage at various points in the varying stories. If pushed to say who is the central character of the show, I would have to say, Andrea Martel, the complex, driven, sexually aggressive lesbian played by Camille Cottin.

    Andrea links most of the main protagonist. Her closest friend and a man whose desire to be a good agent clashes with his moral compass, Gabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel), butts heads with her and comforts her, listens to her. 

    Camille Valentini (Fanny Sidney) is a young woman from Cannes who turns up at the agency and startles Mathias Barneville (Thibault De Montalembert) one of the leading agents at ASK. He is also the de facto leader after Samuel’s death.

Mathias is cordial toward Camille but seems reluctant to have anyone know that he and she are acquainted. He tries to pay her off so she will go away. Camille instead boldly asks Andrea to employ when her previous assistant walks out unable to take the pressure of working for her anymore. Andrea gives her the job and Camille becomes part of the ASK family. 

   Arlette Azémar is a longtime talent agent. She smokes too much and brings her dog to work. There is also Hervé André-Jezak (Nicolas Maury), the camp, gossipy assistant to Gabriel, who takes Camille under his wing, even as Noémie Leclerc (Laure Calamy), Mathias’ assistant eyes her with suspicion, having caught her on a couple of occasions in clandestine conversation with Mathias. 

     I watched the entire first season in two days. With episodes running at just under an hour, three episodes take up a fair chunk of one’s evening. That being said, it is not time that is wasted when it comes to this show.

Even as a non-French speaker and thus forced to read the subtitles – it has not been dubbed into English. Not a massive fan of dubbed shows anyway – I perhaps miss some of the subtleties of the native speech.  Having said that, the acting is so good and the characters and stories so compelling that this show is an absolute delight.

     With ASK being a fictional Parisian agency, the show still manages to have an air of authenticity by having real actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves as clients of ASK. This, I would think, must be particularly appealing to French viewers, giving the vibe of a peek into their working practices, even if one knows it is scripted. 

    The show is beautifully shot, utilising the city of Paris without resorting to cliched scenery. There is no Eiffel Tower on view in this show. Fanny Herrero is the brilliant mind that has conceived this show. She is the showrunner and contributes to the writing on the show. 

   Call My Agent! Is a truly entertaining and brilliant show and I will be watching the second season in between watching all the other Netflix fare that is available. The show almost makes me want to learn French so as to appreciate the nuances of the language. I think I’ll stick with learning Spanish for the moment but I heartily recommend this show. Absolutely worth a few hours of your time.   

   

Tidelands – a review of a forced production.

     In film and television, a lot of people are drawn to a series or film by the actor and/or star or the director. Generally, it would be because you have seen the actor in previous work that you enjoyed or the director’s body of work appeals. There are, of course, other considerations when it comes to choosing whether to watch something or not  – genre, duration – but a trusted name is one of the more common ways to choose.

   For me, the writer or creator, when it comes to television especially, is a major consideration. I am the sort of person who the ‘from the mind of..’ Adverts are aimed at when a show or film is being promoted. 

   If I watch a particularly good show, I will always look to see wrote the show or who the showrunner is on a series. If I see Aaron Sorkin’s name attached to a series, if Christopher Nolan has put out a film, Amy Sherman-Palladino name will always get my attention, as will Gillian Flynn, these are creators who names peak my interest in a project.

   The one person that will get me watching anything his name is attached to is Joss Whedon. The creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, both the film and the television series, its spin-off, Angel, Agents Of Shield, Dr. Horrible’s Sing A Long Blog and The Avengers amongst other works, Whedon is my favourite writer/creator on the planet. 

    The reason I mention Whedon is, one of his lesser-known works, Dollhouse, came to mind when I thought about writing this review of another Netflix exclusive series, Tidelands.

Created and written by Stephen M. Irwin, Tidelands is an Australian production about a young woman, Calliope ‘Cal’ McTeer (Charlotte Best), who returns to her hometown after a decade in prison to discover a strange truth about her past.

   Admittedly, I found Tidelands for the most part enjoyable. Like a lot of series on Netflix, it is bingeable, only being eight episodes in total. Unlike say, most of the Marvel series, it suffers from being too short. 

    This is what brought to mind Whedon’s Dollhouse series. Dollhouse was a vehicle for Eliza Dushku, who had been brilliant as Faith in Buffy. In Dollhouse she played Echo, an unwitting operative in a “Dollhouse’ where her mind is wiped and she has a different personality imprinted on it for various missions. 

    The series was okay, not great but certainly not terrible. Whedon had written a quite brilliant series before, Firefly, – if you have never seen it, you must! – and it was canceled after the first season. He managed to finish the story, in a fashion, with the film, Serenity. 

    With Dollhouse, still smarting from not being able to see through his vision with Firefly, he got greenlit for a second season. Even though the response to the first season had been lukewarm, he got a truncated second season renewal.

The second season was written and felt as though it knew it was not going to last to a third season. This feeling, this anxiety, was apparent in the work and it made that second season somewhat unsatisfying.

   With Tidelands, there is the same feeling. It has a feeling of being ‘Tranked’. What I mean when I say Tranked is a reference to the director, Josh Trank’s much-maligned Fantastic Four – check out the best (worse) review ever here! Trank obviously had a vision for the film, but after the highly publicised clashes with the studio and his subsequent firing, he ended up taking the heat for an, to put it kindly, abrupt film. 

    Tidelands has exactly the same feel. For six of the eight-episode run, it builds nicely and somewhat cryptically to possible conclusions or stories. Then in the final two episodes, it accelerates to sudden explanations and a bloody conclusion. It just ends, hastily tying up plot lines and killing anything else that cannot be quickly explained.

    There had been a lot of critical flack about the acting and looks over story depth aspects that some felt were on show. Admittedly, the early episodes were not so much cryptic as damn right confusing in deciding what sort of a story this was trying to be. The show also suffered a little from having no character with which the viewer could bond with. 

    Cal was, initially, far too abrasive. Her brother Augie, played by Aaron Jakubenko, was the local drug dealer whose entire gang turn on him by episode four and a couple of his crew were barely trustworthy to begin with.

The main antagonist, Adrielle (Elsa Pataky), is obsessed with collecting bits of pottery clay, which we do not find out the relevance of until the final episode! She rules her clan – she’s the ‘queen’- the Tidelanders, with an iron fist, having one young boy blinded  – an eye gouged out – for lying to her. Lovely. 

    Cal’s mother, Rosa (Caroline Brazier), hates her guts because, as we find out in episode five, Cal is a Tidelander, hence her barely suppressed prejudice makes her instantly unlikable. Adrielle’s allure, which Patasky is perfectly cast for, has the men and women around her fawning over her, ready to her every bidding. One of her older lackey’s, Lamar (Dalip Sondhi), is not so willing to follow her anymore. Not that this story goes anywhere.

    There is a nod to homosexuality – it is 2018 after all – with Lamar having an affair with the local police chief. That does not really go anywhere either. Mad lesbian, right-hand woman to Adrielle, Leandra – play by Jet Tranter – gets to show off her great body, murder one of Augie’s guys in the opening episode, gets a bit of beatdown in a later episode and not much else, except to walk around looking dyke-menacing, which I am not sure is a thing outside of prison.

    Tidelands really feels horribly rushed, as though the writers were told halfway through the production that they had to wrap it up in the next four episodes. Hence we suffer a lopsided show where, in earlier episodes, there had been a gradual build-up and a smattering of intrigue and excitement, the odd gruesome act to keep the tension high The final episode is just a calamitous, hurried mess. 

   There is also the old seer, Genoveva (Cate Feldman), who is held by Adrielle in a dungeon and foresees Adrielle’s death, apparently at the hands of Cal. That storyline is wrapped up, vision and all, in about two minutes in the final episode. 

   It is a shame that the show ends up being so forced, especially as the two leads in Best and Patasky are wonderfully watchable and given some time and scope, I feel the characters could have grown more organically and believably.

   With the way the show ended – the less said..! – it seems unlikely the show will get a second season. Netflix is notoriously secretive about their viewing figures, so it is very difficult to know how well a show performs on the streaming service. It seems unlikely that it outperformed any of the more popular shows on the platform. 

    Tidelands is watchable, though not unmissable. If you are curious and have an urge to binge watch a show on a quiet weekend, you could do worse. 

  

The Little Mermaid (not that one)

    THE best thing I can say about the Netflix offering of The Little Mermaid is it makes one want to revisit the magical Disney animated version. In no way connected to, or even remotely similar to – except for the fact that it features a mermaid – the Disney classic, Netflix’s The Little Mermaid disappoints on almost every level.

    It opens with a grandmother – grandma Elle – played by Shirley MacLaine, reading the Hans Christian Andersen tale to her two cute granddaughter’s. This is used, in pictorial fashion, as the opening credit sequence to the film. As she finishes telling them the story, she teases them by hinting that the story was not how it was depicted in the book and that mermaids are possibly real. The children are eager for her to tell her tale. 

   Oh, how I wish they had not been. MacLaine, a veteran of many a classic film – Terms Of Endearment, The Apartment, Steel Magnolias to name a few – appears at the begin of the film and at the end. Even though she is telling the story and the film utilises voiceovers in parts, she is not used. One can only reason that she read the script and thought ‘sod it! The cheque will top up my pension!’ Because there is no other reason to be in this film.

   William Moseley plays Cam, a young, cynical, reporter who, by some mishap that is explained far too late in the film for me to have been caring anymore, ends up as the sole guardian of his niece, the sickly Elle, played ably by Loreto Peralta.

She suffers from an unknown ailment that causes her to cough and be generally poorly when she exerts herself too much. Like asthma then or any number of respiratory conditions. 

   Set in the thirties or forties, Cam is sent to investigate the claims of a circus vendor who is allegedly curing many ailments with sea water ointment. The circus, for some inexplicable reason, is in Mississippi. Cam takes himself and his sickly charge off to the deep south of America. Elle, being a child, believes in magic and helpfully, the existence of mermaids. 

    On arriving in Mississippi Cam and Elle head to the circus where the star attraction is Elizabeth – Poppy Drayton – a mermaid. Elle feels an instant connection to Elizabeth, even has her uncle tells her that it must be a trick. After the show, Cam and Elle go in search of the all-healing sea water ointment but are told in no uncertain terms that it is out of stock. 

    Until this point, the film had been quite engaging. Some of the script had been a little clunky, but the actors had managed to make it work. The colours also are magnificent, making the film look beautiful when working strictly with the in-camera image. Unfortunately, the post-production, with the exception of colour, and special effects, especially in the second half of the film, detract from the picture quality. 

   Once the central premise of the film had been introduced – free the mermaid – the film begins to fall apart. Not because of a bad, lazy premise, but because of the under written characters. The antagonist of the piece, Locke – yes, really – played by Armando Gutierrez, is the circus master and the person who holds Elizabeth captive. 

    Locke is portrayed as menacing, but Gutierrez is given so little to work with – a poor man’s ringmaster costume and cheap make-up – and so little screen time, that it is impossible for his character to be seen as the big bad, or to even appreciate how he creates such fear amongst his peers. We are just expected to take it as so.

    As the film progresses – in time, not quality – it only gets worse. Characters are introduced for convenience but not at all fleshed out. Our sceptical journalist, earlier captivated by Elizabeth, meets her on a boat and is not even slightly perturbed when he finds out she is actually a mermaid. Not to mention the frankly ludicrous scene of him chasing after her, diving into the sea and easily catching up to her. She’s a mermaid. A MERMAID!

    He is just as nonplussed when Thora – Shana Collins – one of the circus folk and one of the aforementioned characters introduced for convenience, freezes time! She stops time! She stops time so as they can escape the circus and he acts as if he has seen that sort of thing every day of his life. Just another time freeze.

    The final half hour of the film is almost farcical, becoming a race against time to get Elizabeth back to the ocean after Thora – she is SUPER powerful you know – temporarily turns her mermaid tail into legs so as she can escape the circus. Meanwhile, Locke – remember him? I barely did – pursues them with all the urgency of an actor who knows he’s getting paid regardless of the performance. 

     As the film peters out to an obvious and underwhelming conclusion, one is subjected to special effects so abject they look as though they were created on an Amstrad computer. 

    Grandma Elle finishes the story and her cherubic granddaughters ask what happened to Elle. Grandma Elle gives a knowing smile, turns away from the girls and we, the suffering viewers, get to watch the girls react as she does ‘something’ magical off-screen. Barf.

This film is so god awful it as though Netflix is trying to out do itself for bad films. Just to reiterate, this is not the Disney version. Far from it. Elizabeth – Poppy Drayton – does sing one song, so gets to show off her vocal prowess. That is as close as it gets to the Disney classic. It is really not close enough. Do not watch this film.