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bob the moo

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S12E04: The Clocks: Good humored and with plenty of colorful characters – but almost too many red-herrings and clutter to make it really engage (SPOILERS), 29 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Pursuit of a spy ring brings Lt. Colin Race comes to Wilbraham Crescent, where he happens upon a woman fleeing in terror from a house containing the blind owner, and a dead man. The house contains clocks all stopped at the wrong time – which the owner insists are not hers, and nobody seems to know who the dead man is. The police get involved in the shape of Inspector Hardcastle, but so too does Race's family friend of Hercule Poirot. The potential for witnesses to the crime in the small contained Crescent, means a door to door investigation, during which time the many odd characters are revealed – but what does it all mean? Does it link to the suspected spy ring? What do the clocks mean? And where did one of them go? And was it really Mr Tinkles who wee'd on the sofa? Poirot investigates.

The play that this film opens with is noted for containing many red herrings (or whatever it is called in Finnish); I thought this was maybe a reference to such a scene in Appointment with Death, but the author Ariadne Oliver was not in that story. Anyway, what this reference does link to is the rest of this film, because it is noteworthy for how convoluted it is, but yet how (comparatively) simple the actual solution is. Indeed my own experience with it rather fits with this since I spent most of the film trying to align the many, many moving parts and red herrings, but yet at the same time I always suspected Martindale on the simple basis that she was the gate- keeper to one of the key events that put Webb into the house at the right time (the supposed phone call requesting her services); so all at once I had one of the perps but yet nothing by fog as to how it all would work out.

There is a certain amount of pleasure in this mess of clues and irrelevant detail, and it helps that the residents of the Crescent are colourful – it is nice to have some comedic touches back in the film after the rather more brooding Orient Express. However, at the same time it is difficult to fight your way through any of it since there is a lot going on. This limited how engaged I was in the mystery, even though I was still interested enough to keep up and keep fighting to put things into the right slots. The colourful characters are ell delivered by the colourful cast, with Sharp, Winstone, Massey, Wicks and others all do good work, with plenty of energy and intrigue; special mention to Edney's cat woman for comedy effect. The period delivery continues to work, although it does not feel as precise and focused on period detail as maybe it once did, but it is broader and more sweeping in scale than the original episodes. Suchet is on good form and, even though he lacks any of his usual companions, he works well with Daniels (even if personally I found Burke to be a bit dull).

The Clocks is a double-edged sword then; the convoluted and colorful nature of the mystery and characters manages to both engage by virtue of its complexity, but yet also make it harder to really be engaged since it is so deliberately filled with the famous red fish. So as a mystery I did not find it to be as rewarding or intriguing as the stronger films in the series, but as entertainment it still very much worked for me.

Season 6: At times it stretches a bit to keep the main show in the distance, but is still a satisfyingly tough and pulpy season with a good ending (MILD SUGGESTIVE SPOILERS), 29 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

By chance on the same day I happened to watch the series finale of two shows I liked, one being Justified and the other being Mad Men. In a way both series went out in a similar vein, by reinforcing what they had done before and delivering a good take on it, rather than going all out for a big finish. In the case of Justified I found it to be mostly pretty satisfying across the season, with a particularly strong conclusion (aside from one aspect perhaps). The much-trailed confrontation between Raylan and Boyd is the centerpiece of the season, but understandably it cannot just be so simple or it would struggle to last a full season, so there is a wider plot with more characters and moving parts.

At times the viewer does feel the weight of this, particularly with this season having quite a few charismatic characters drifting in and out around the central drama; it does occasionally feel like padding, but only occasionally. Mostly the plot works as well as previous seasons, with a tough brooding pulpy delivery which allows it to sell many of its more flamboyant moments (most of which are bloody). The consistent sense of macho posturing in the characters and the plotting is something I very much enjoy, and as much as it seems unrealistic, I always go with it. A big part of this is the writing – particularly of the dialogue; although most characters seem to speak with variants of the same voice, it does work well and it has a great pulpy lyricism which would never work in the real world, but is like music within the delivery of Justified.

The slow drawl and atmosphere of violence is matched by the technical delivery, which makes great use of location and pacing throughout. The cast are equally good with Olyphant being consistent and engaging with his performance. Goggins delivers on the promise of the confrontation and his performance is brutal but yet still true to his character through the seasons; the show gives these two a good handful of moments where they face off – all of them are great, and the final scene in particular is engaging, rewarding and very responsible in what it does with the two characters. Carter has a good season too, even if not all of her character actions ring true. Pitts, Tazel, and Searcy have their continued smaller roles but bringing good support, while it was pleasing to see Burns, Kowalsky, and Herriman get good moments in this final season. The season has some strong additions in the shape of Elliott, the ever- reliable Dillahunt, Fahey, Tucker, Grimes and others – okay at times their characters feel like they are filling out the season, but they all give strong performances in the context of the show, and they make it work.

I did have some reservations on the plotting but mostly the season works consistently very well to deliver what I watch the show for. The finale itself is very well balanced and I liked that it mostly dodged the obvious; personally I did not care for the "4 years later" jump and the resolution regarding Ava, but the final scene was very well done and was true to the two pulpy characters right till the final line.

Honest approach which rewards with good subjects to deliver on it, 29 May 2015

With 3 cameras, 2 chairs, 1 thin table, and a stack of question cards, two people sit for a frank discussion. This short film is apparently part of a series, although thus far I have only seen this one. The idea is pretty simple and, as such, it really depends on getting good characters; it is not an idea that would work with someone who is awkward or is unable (or unwilling) to articulate themselves or at least make the effort to push for answers from themselves. With Marcela and Rock, they have been married for 7 years but it seems together in some way for much longer than that. They are importantly very open with each other and themselves – but, just as importantly, not in the way where you feel they are playing for the camera or looking for attention.

What happens is a very well edited short film, where the discussions gradually fold out the relationship, not just in terms of background information, but also in terms of its depth and complexity. It helps that both of them come across as interesting people – not necessarily "nice" people, or people you would hang to grab a beer with, but interesting – their discussions do not centre around "the time you forgot to pick me up after work" but much deeper stuff, and it shows they work though (and carry) a lot.

There are no fireworks, or waterworks; nor is there anything that spills over into extreme emotion or reaction; instead it is steady and balanced – very much like a well controlled couples' therapy session. The two people and their relationship are interesting, and the film is well edited to provide a structure where the viewer is drawn into the discussions, learning more and caring more as the film moves forward. In the end it amounts to little more than a view into this relationship, so it is good that the relationship is rewarding to look into.

(Null) (2013)
Cleverly delivered, 29 May 2015

The plot in this short is about a woman who goes through her daily grind but then at night breaks out of that convention and, well, enters another one (although that is not the point of the film). At night she parties hard, with drinks, drug and casual sex being all part of a night. This is the narrative, however really (Null) is more about the visual realization of that and the delivery. I will not pretend to know how it was made, but essentially we have the dual devices where we never really see the character (often seeing her view) but more important, the screen is really just a circle of vision in the middle of it.

As a result we tend to focus on circular items, like clocks, coffee- cups, eggs frying, car wheels, a manhole cover, and so on. The vast majority of the images we see complement the shape in which they are presented, and in their rapid fire delivery they do help make the telling of the tale more interesting. Although it is live action, it does feel a lot like an animation project with the focus on the editing and images presented; this is a good thing and gives it a flowing sense of energy. Ultimately it doesn't amount to a great deal more than a clever piece of delivery, but for what it does, it is well done and creative.

Season 7.2: Goes out with the high quality, but yet also sense of familiarity to the characters and their narratives (SPOILERS), 29 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On the same day recently I watched the series finales of two shows I have watched from the start; one being Mad Men and the other being Justified. I did not plan it this way, just happened, but it did strike me how both shows bowed out with less of a "big finish" and more of a consistent reinforcement of what had gone before (albeit also giving some closure or forward vision to the various plots and characters). With this second part of season 7 of Mad Men, there is a certain feeling of familiarity that is welcome but yet at the same time doesn't totally work. The Agency us under threat, Peggy struggles with her life and career, Joan tries to be seen as more than first look would suggest, and of course Don continues to have everything but yet be self-destructively selfish in what he does.

As the narrative plays out, there is a lot that seems a bit rushed and is used as a narrative device to get the characters where the writers want them to be. Don's obsession over a waitress, or Joan's new relationship both seem sudden and also disposable in terms of the narrative arcs they are part of. That said the various threads do play out reasonably well and there is a certain amount of satisfaction from where they end. In some ways they are unconvincingly tidy, but in others there is a rewarding sense of cynicism there too – in particular relating to Don. I end the show still not entirely sure what we are meant to make of him as a person – do we root for him, or do we hate him for his weakness? I guess the answer is both, and neither. At the end, rather than giving us an obvious moment of despair or dramatic death (which I did expect), the show reminds us what a rather empty but yet creative character he is; he accepts the loss of his loose family unit and turns to new age means to find himself and find peace – but the smile that we briefly take to mean that he has grown or is really on the path to something, is actually revealed (or suggested) to be that he has had a "big idea", and the show ends with an advert for Coke which adopts the new age ideals and "one world" dreams and packages them as a glossy piece of salesmanship for a fizzy drink. I would not rate it as highly a closing as some other recent shows, but it is nicely cynical and honest to the character and the viewer.

The quality of the second part of the season remains as high as ever; great design, sound and look for all scenes. The cast are equally strong, in particular Hamm makes it work around him. Moss is enjoyable, has some great moments and is given probably the most sappy but rewarding of endings (which she delivers in a great way with only the phone for company). Jones is not my favorite cast member, but even she is able to do good work with a slightly soapy conclusion but yet kept away from too much sentiment. Slattery, Hendricks, Kartheiser, and others all continue to deliver very good performances, and although some of their material was not ideal, it was not for the want of them trying. Shipka is worth a mention for her good transition work too – in previous seasons as well, but here it hit me the most.

So the show ends with the same feeling it has always given me – that it is not something I get excited about watching and do not think it is a classic, but yet at the same time I consistently enjoy it when it is on. The final half-season does have a bit too much about it that feel familiar, and at times it comes over like the final few lines of Sinatra's New York, New York (slowed down and sung again for emphasis) but still, it ends in a good place – with honesty to its characters, and a nicely black bit of cynicism, which is really what Don has always been about.

Birthday (2015/I)
Speaks loudest when it is silent – surprisingly moving but yet not sentimental, 26 May 2015

With sparse dialogue, this film charts the medium-term life of a young couple whose lives change dramatically when the husband is badly wounded while serving overseas with the marines. With hearing, both legs, and one arm lost to an IAD, many months of rehab and readjustment lie ahead. With such a subject, and with this being an American film, you would be forgiven for expecting this to be a rather overblown emotional affair; it is a comment pitfall, perhaps fuelled by the meaningless "support the troops" propaganda combined with the guilt that often "support" is lacking when it comes to them returning home – leading to such subjects being rather forcefully delivered since they carry a much needed and important message. However Birthday is better than that, delivering in a much more controlled manner.

This is not to say it is not moving, because it is, but it is much more focused and folded in, and less about big emotional scenes, flag-waving, or point-making. Instead it is about the wife and the marine (we never are told their names), and the impact on them – but particularly on her. The majority of the film plays out under typically ambient but emotive music from Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi and his partner Alex. This music sets the tone well, creating a sense of emotion but never spilling into being manipulative. The lack of dialogue allows the cast to play out many small moments within a montage approach; this has the downside of perhaps being a bit obvious a device, but it does mean less pressure to have a narrative structure to create all these moments within. Within this approach it is Mandy Moody that really makes it work. Gouchoe is strong too, but Moody really delivers a sense of real emotional struggle – the feeling of someone who carries sadness and loss even when she is happy with progress; of someone struggling to love the person while also hating what happened to them and what it means for their lives. I found it really overwhelming to be put into her mindset and feelings for the short film's duration – and it was Moody that made that happen.

The direction is strong through with a very natural "documentary" look to the short. I was not totally sold on the montage approach, but it is well edited together with only some touches that I thought pushed the emotion in a way that it really did not need help with. It is a very strong short though, the use of music and the controlled yet moving approach pays off, and in particular Moody delivers an emotive and emotional performance to really explain it to the viewer in a way that works much better than long dialogue sequences could.

Stop (2015/III)
Not without flaws, but presents the stop and frisk moment very well, 26 May 2015

This short film sees a promising African-American baseball player heading home when he realizes he is being followed by someone, who then pulls up and gets his attention. The focal point of the film is this moment, and although it has a start and an ending there too, this is its core. Although much has been said over racial profiling in the news, and in particular the treatment by police of minority men walking home through their neighborhoods compared to white people doing the same walk, this short film does not ever get up on a soapbox but smartly presents it reasonably matter-of-factly.

The opening is natural but a bit too keen to present the lead character as a promising athlete; I guess the point is to make sure we understand how much could be a risk from even a minor infraction on his part, but I think it didn't need to add this element as clearly as it did – ultimately it doesn't matter if he is just a normal kid with good grades, or heading to the Yankees, the risk is the same. The police stop itself is well presented because as viewers we are on edge throughout, not sure what will happen or how it will go. Wisely the film shows it ending like the vast majority do – no issues and the subject sent on his way; and in doing this we understand the impact on a community and individuals, because this tense confrontation is just normal business.

The ending has a nice single-take delivery, but at the same time I think the meaning and what occurs is unclear and ends up being a bit distracting from the rest of the film as a result. This is not helped by the film using natural lighting. On one hand this gives the film a very natural feel, so it does come over like it is real life captured, but at the same time it also makes it very hard to see for a lot of the time – I watched it twice, and the second time I took my laptop to the darkest place in the house, just to try and make the picture as clear as possible. The hand-held camera approach is the same - adds to the natural feel but is not to everyone's taste.

Stop is good in terms of what it does with the police stop, and for this the short is worth a look, however it needed a bit more clarity (in many ways) to allow the key aspects to work in a way that they are not totally able to do here.

Rotor (2014)
Stylishly delivered, but far too familiar to avoid being derivative (TOTAL SPOILERS), 26 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A security guard is alone in a deserted factory when a sudden power failure and a sighting of a figure on the CCTV, draws him out into the dark corridors.

To be direct, this short film is one of a very a busy genre which is the time-loop device; it is one that can work very well but is hard to do since it is so familiar now, and increasingly popular in short films as a plot – indeed even this very week by coincidence I watch a short called Möbius which does the very same thing. To its credit, Rotor does deliver with good style; it is very stripped down, with very little dialogue and no time wasted in getting down to the business. As such it is punchy and has an engagingly dark aesthetic, so that it is dark but yet still clear – I am not a technical person but to me as a layman I do find that impressive, that a film can be dark but yet lit in the way so that we have good visibility without losing the sense of darkness.

Anyway, the downside is that, even with this quick pace and short running time, the viewer will be way ahead of the narrative. Showing the coffee cup probably was a mistake, because it was too obvious what was happening, and the figure on the CCTV was far too obviously the same security guard. This means that we pretty much know what is coming, and the "reveal" of the multiple bodies also carries that familiar feel, perhaps not due to time-looping, but more to do with the film The Prestige. There is a question to be asked over which version of the guard killed the other one, however asking this exposes too many unknowns and questions which the stripped down short is not able to stand up to.

It is delivered with style and it is punchy, but it is far too familiar in what it does and how it does it, and it loses a lot by the viewer being 3-4 minutes ahead of the film (which is a bigger problem when your film is only 6-7 minutes long).

God View (2011)
Doesn't wholly satisfy as a narrative short, but is pretty intriguing in terms of how it is filmed and delivered (V MILD SUGGESTIVE SPOILERS), 26 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A man walks round his old neighborhood of Hackney, recognized by a few old friends, but seeming to be pretty unresponsive and appearing to be struggling with his emotions and anger at something. We follow him through this journey with an unusual view – with the camera directly above his head and fixed to his movement, essentially the "god view" used by many strategy games. In this way it is hard not to focus on the manner of delivery first and foremost, and it is certainly memorable. Some viewers may find it a bit too dizzying and unfamiliar a viewpoint to stick with for the whole film, but it is arresting and the detachment from the character does make it intriguing as a form.

That said, I am not sure what it adds to the film apart from taking away our ability to read the situation by seeing the character's face. The short has a dramatic conclusion, and one that again is impacting and memorable, but like the camera – I'm not entirely sure that it works in terms of a narrative. As such it is an odd mix of a film – one that doesn't wholly satisfy as a narrative, but that is actually pretty intriguing in terms of how it is filmed and where it ends up. So not an overall success, but one worth seeing anyway.

S12E03: Murder on the Orient Express: Rushed but the darker focus on Poirot helps cover this (SPOILERS), 24 May 2015

Even if you have never seen the film version from the 1970's, or read the book, this is probably the Agatha Christie story that you already sort of know the conclusion of; it is nearly one of those things that is generally known even if you are not sure why you know it. This was the case with me; I think I had seen the film, but for sure I knew who did the murder and how it was resolved – and I guess this is the case for many people coming to this 2010 television event. So the question is what would be done with a mystery that has no actual mystery for the majority of viewers?

The answer is that actually the mystery is almost pushed to second billing behind making Poirot the focus of the whole film. Despite having let people get away in the past, this film portrays Poirot as having an unshakable faith in justice, and in his Catholicism; this is seen in an impacting opening sequence, and his cold acceptance of a barbaric stoning of a woman. The setup and the interviews are delivered briskly – perhaps a bit too quick to draw the viewer into the mystery, but again I think this was deliberate since the assumption was made that most fans of the series would already know where this was going – and to change such a fundamental part of the book was obviously not an option. So while the supporting characters perhaps do not make as much of a mark as one would like, Poirot himself is given plenty of time to think, to react, and to struggle. This aspect makes for an engaging film because it does open up the character by making us see the weight of his years and experiences; in some ways it is a bit sudden, but in others it is logical and links to previous films in the series.

Suchet benefits greatly from this material. Previously I have enjoyed his comedic timing and light touch, but here he makes the most of a brooding character – not all of it makes sense perhaps (as mentioned, he has let others go before) but he sells the internal struggles well. The supporting cast may not have as much to do as Suchet, but ironically it is probably the starriest cast yet; Jones, Morrissey, Chastain, Hershey, Bonneville, and others all provide good presence and a sense of quality, and this does rather cover up for how little they have to do.

It is not the most gripping as a film, and I think for those not familiar with the plot then it is not a good adaption to start with, simply because so much about it seems to assume you will already know the ending; however the brooding air, and the focus on a struggling and weary Poirot is what makes it work, while the famous supporting cast provide quality in the small moments they have.

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