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bob the moo

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Zero Days (2016)
Important, but also accessible and fascinating, 22 January 2017

I watched the BBC Storyville version of this film, which appears to run about 20 minutes or so shorter than the feature currently in cinemas; not sure what was lost in that, but I mention it for context. At the start of the film we have several talking heads who refuse to even respond to a question regarding the computer virus/worm which attacked Iran's nuclear centrifuges; this opening sets the stage for a documentary where a lot has to be pieced together, or cannot officially be known, but yet manages to do it in a way that gives the viewer a broad view, with enough detail to aid understanding, but nothing likely to lose you (I say this as someone who can setup his wifi but not much more).

The film starts after the fact and works backwards. In doing this it allows to do enter the subject via the security companies who found this virus and started trying to figure out what it does. This is done in a way that is engaging and accessible, even though you are talking about guys reading screen after screen of code. From here the film starts to draw in the politics, to explain Iran, and as it does this, the pieces fall into place – just as they did for the security guys. This framing helps make the film clear to follow, but also builds the tension in the film as we go from the unknown, to the understanding, and then are left with what it means for the road ahead.

The film's ending doesn't really do a good job of leaving us with that chill (I think the drawing in of the Iran deal didn't really work), but mostly it still does leave the viewer thinking about how much could go wrong if key infrastructure elements were switched off or controlled to do harm. Watching it a few days after the inauguration of Trump only makes it more chilling, since the only time I have heard him speak about this he said "So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is — it is a huge problem. I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable". Hardly oil on troubled waters.

S5: Morbidly topical, and a lot of threads. At heart it is 24, but it feels a lot more grounded in ways that add to its dramatic clout, 22 January 2017

As much as I enjoyed the fourth season of this show (freed up from its ties to its origin plot), the final episode (and scenes) was so weak that it put me off returning. Ironic then that the same situation repeats itself in that the fifth season is really engaging for what it does, but then delivers a final episode which is anti- climactic at best, and befuddling in its content at worst.

To give context to this fifth season, there is a lot about it to dislike, or at least be a little put-off by. The most obvious is that it has found itself becoming increasingly timely – even to the point that it had to put up warning text before an episode which paid respect to the victims of the Paris attack before showing an episode featuring the planning of such an attack (and what an awful time when I saw that episode ages after I had taped it, and wondered "which Paris attack?"). This timeliness does occasionally feel like opportunism, and for sure it is not shy about using radical Islam as an all-present and ominous baddie. It only highlights itself doing this further when it has some non-radical characters, as if to say "some, we assume, are good people". The second thing to deal with is that, despite this timeliness, it is not as nuanced or as filled with commentary as it would like to think. For sure it is more balanced than Fox's 24, however at its heart it is essentially 24 but dressed up a bit to get the BBC4 crowd to cast an eye its way.

These things in mind though, this season does deliver in a way that engages. It is a little awkward in the set-up, and in how it gets all the characters back in play, but once you are through this, it all starts moving pretty nicely. Whether or not you want to accuse it of being prescient or opportunistic (I think it is a bit of both), the real life echoes do add to the drama – although of course the portrayal of a world filled with Islamic threat also feeds back into the real life, which is why people have issues with the show. The various threads do not always convince, and for sure there is quite a smack of convenience about some of it, but it moves forward with grit and determination that makes the viewer go along with it, and buy into each twist as it goes.

As I mentioned, the final episode has the slight feeling of anticlimax as the various threads are resolved with reasonable ease and cleanliness; and the 'personal' character stories are for some reason brought to the fore again. However it doesn't diminish an enjoyable season, which is more real with each passing attack, and as a result has a lot of heft even though it does channel 24 in its heart.

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S4.3: The Final Problem: Keeps it (comparatively) tight and disciplined so that the excessive narrative manages to deliver (SPOILERS), 22 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The final episode of Sherlock (for it surely is) involves a girl on an airplane full of unconscious people; a dangerous prisoner who has taken over her captors by mind control; a fiendish plan concocted in 5 minutes and delivered with the assistance of someone long dead; and many other really elaborate and unbelievable things. And with all of this it says a lot that the episode manages to feel tight, restrained, and justified in what it does. I really struggle with this not being the return of lowered expectations, but then at the same time I did enjoy the episode and found that it kept me engaged in the way the last handful have not (although they all have had some positives).

The Final Problem benefits from feeling like it has a point, and that the point is not just "we got everyone together so we might as well do something". Here the flamboyance and the excess feels connected to the narrative – it isn't just having someone drive a speeding sports car for the sake of it. Of course around the edges there is still plenty to frustrate those that hope for some sort of logic or narrative cohesion (why was Moriarty trying to get Sherlock to kill himself all that time ago if he was just also part of this plan?), but as legitimate as that complaint is, I think the previous episodes have told us that they shook off any such cohesion about 4- 5 episodes ago. The production values and cast are as good as ever, with only one pretty dodgy special effect (which they decided to deliver in slow-motion so you could be sure to catch it). The performances are as solid as ever. In particular, the work of Siân Brooke is really impressive; partly because she delivers on the OTT aspects which makes her fit in with the show, but at the same time she manages not to push that so far that she loses some sort of heart to her character.

In the end it works because it feels like there are consequences; it feels like it is building that it at least has some sort of internal logic that, importantly, it seems to care about. As an ending goes it is probably as good as we were going to get, and it does deliver, albeit very much on its terms – but at least there is a sense of weight and reason behind this episode which has been lacking for many now.

S4.2: The Lying Detective: Flamboyant nonsense which is as entertaining as it is tiresome, 22 January 2017

I'm thinking of going back to the very first episodes of this show to look at it again. I mean, it can't always have been the way it has become, can it? My memory tells me that the first episodes were sharper, more interesting in the construction, and more satisfying in the delivery; but maybe I am being nostalgic. As it is, the last few episodes of Sherlock are hit and miss; sometimes infuriatingly superficial, and other times entertaining in its flamboyant and quite fun. More and more though it is doing it all at the same time, constantly.

The Lying Detective was a great example as it offered so much that is interesting, or 'event' television, or just fun (and it is fun to watch actors chew the scenery), but at the same time it is hard to shake off the constant feeling that it is all just busy nonsense of no consequence. I found this one quite tiresome. The mystery had an interesting construction, however it was built off so much convenience that it really cut its own legs off – and the '3 weeks ago' thing only covered it the first few times they relied on that joke. The sheer energy and professionalism of the production helps it a great deal – indeed it is so well put together in the technique, the performances, and the technical, that one assumes it must be good, because it certainly looks and sounds like it should be good.

I found myself thinking that even as I sat there left detached from the whole thing. The humor is overly smug; frequent moments of excess (in all forms) are overpowering and lose impact – making the whole thing seem silly more than clever or fun. The mystery holds no intrigue because everything is just explained away as Sherlock being miles ahead of everyone, and the very high quality cast (including Jones) is generally wasted in the middle of it all – they enjoy the energy, but there is little of substance to get into for long.

Fairly average fare, but lacking a reason, 22 January 2017

Nothing about this remake excited me enough to make it to a cinema, but on DVD it seemed like a reasonable distraction. In the end this is the best I could say about it – that it was reasonable. The film delivers its simple plot over quite a long running time. Despite being over two hours, the film doesn't really do much to engage us in the characters. They get together with some very simple things to mark them out as different types of cliché, then they go to their destination, then they have the long conflict. It is as simple as that, and it plays out in a fairly ho-hum way for the vast majority of the running time.

Of course it is far too expensive to be totally boring. The set- pieces are expensive and elaborate; the cast features plenty of famous faces who have good presence; and technically it all looks and sounds great. Problem is that none of this is enough to make you care. The film doesn't help this with its tone; it drifts across banter-driven comedy through to glorious emotional deaths, and it doesn't ever seem to be able to nail something down that it does well. As a result it plays out in a way that has a near total lack of soul or heart. This is not to say that going through the motions doesn't have some reasonably distracting quality, but this is really all it does.

Plenty of people have gotten into a tizzy over this film versus the original, and I'm happy to leave that fight to them. As a standalone film, this is fairly average stuff. It is expensive and technically well made, but it lacks a reason, a heart, and a soul. At all levels it is like this, so it is hard to care about any of it, even if many of the set pieces are perfectly fine as spectacle.

A few missteps but generally very funny writing and delivery, 22 January 2017

I caught up with this older outing for Philomena Cunk thanks to seeing her Christmas special this year. The most obvious thing about this episode is how good writers Charlie Brooker, Jason Hazeley, and Joel Morris really are; although of course the variety of Brooker's current output will get him the headlines. Cunk on Shakespeare is filled with great phrasing and nonsense sentences which are as funny as they are pleasing. Through these Cunk is a wonderfully real person, in her sweetly innocent ignorance.

Morgan's performance makes it come alive; she is fantastically empty in what she does, and is convincing in her wide-eyed delivery. That said, I thought the sections where she took the lead were a little weaker than the scripted material. This stood out more than normal because a large chunk of the episode was interviews. So while the 'what words did he make up' section was hilarious, the bits about needing glasses at the theatre, or about him inventing video games, fall quite flat. This is probably because in these sections it is obvious she is pushing the ignorance to get a rise from the expert, whereas the best moments are much sharper and smarter than that.

A few missteps here, but otherwise very funny thanks to the writing, and the delivery from Morgan.

Season 2: A little weaker on the characters in the first half, but still consistently amusing, engaging, and entertaining, 22 January 2017

I enjoyed the first season of this show because, while it had class and a lot to offer, it also seemed uninterested in being cleanly defined or put in a box. It is funny, but for the most part it is not the type of funny that it looks like it will be; it has characters who are flawed and on journeys, but it is not some uptight drama delivering 'actorly' material. It also mixes animal and human characters in a wider world which is equally mixed, but yet it is never silly or feels forced.

Season 2 continues this and all the strengths of the first season are here. They are not quite as strong in some ways though; in particular I felt too many episodes didn't really build or reveal character, so much as just play out characters in a scenario – sometimes a silly one. In these episodes it is still funny and entertaining, but just that character aspect not being there as I would have liked. The backend of the season is better at this than the first half, and it gives more time to the tragic and the broken, which I enjoy and feel gives the show more about it. The voice work is consistently good, but the part of that which I enjoy the most is that I rarely lose the character in the famous actor. More often than not it is only in the end credits where I remember/realize how many famous actors are involved here. This season it was only Ricky Gervais where it didn't work for me – but for some reason that is often the case with him.

Another enjoyable season, which is so across several aspects.

Cuck (2016)
Nicely honest and awkward (SPOILERS), 8 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

To try and inject some life into their relationship, Emily and Colten invite a third party into their bedroom to have sex with Emily while Colten watches.

The rather arresting title is hard to ignore – and probably it will stand out as more interesting since it is now the go-to insult of choice for anyone whose politics seek middle-ground or put the interests of others ahead of their own. Although it is adult in content and tone, the film is actually much more delicate than the title suggests it is going to be. Throughout it has a well-judged sense of awkwardness, which beds the drama in a certain amount of realism and honesty. This sexual taste seems so unique to me that I doubt both parties in a relationship would often hold it at the same time, so the woman having her reaction is comic and honest. It heads to a place of honesty as well, and although the climax of the film is not a big one, it is downbeat, honest, and still has that oddly comic tone to it.

I got into this film due to the title perhaps, but it surprised me by being much more tender and engaging than I expected.

3.6: Hated in the Nation: Effective as a thriller and cautionary tale (SUGGESTIVE SPOILERS), 8 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the near future life in the UK is not too different from now – pretty comfortable for the majority, with limited risk, and a lot of technology to solve problems of our own making. Of course with this extra comfort we have more to be angry at things and more tools to vent it. When social media turns their hatred to journalist Katie Hopkins (come on, you know it is her), nobody is too sad to hear she died – even if the means of her death was fairly brutal (slashing her own throat with a broken bottle). However with hundreds of thousands of death threats on Twitter to investigate, the team have a challenge on their hands.

Back in thriller territory, this episode makes a jump not only into police procedural, but also into a much longer running time. The feature length episode takes some very present uses of technology (social media as a place for consequence-free witch-hunts), as well as some technology just a few steps ahead (drones filling in the gap left by the reduced bee population). It uses both these things very well to produce a ticking-clock thriller which just about keeps moving enough to stop you thinking too much about some of the holes, or thinking about where it is going.

The result is an effective thriller which works as such, and keeps the tension building nicely throughout. Performances are strong from some well-cast roles, with only some weakness in a few of the supporting ones. The longer running time does put more stress on the concept perhaps, but the pace helps. For sure the better title (suggested by many, not me here) would have been 'Hive-mind' but perhaps Brooker felt that was too obvious or that it would have been a suggestive spoiler since the role of the bees isn't clear for the first wee while. Overall, a strong end to a strong season.

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3.5: Men Against Fire: Dramatic but food for thought too (SPOILERS), 8 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

To jump directly into the spoilers, this episode sees the military fighting a mutated foe of screeching and deformed humanoid creatures. When one character has his implanted enhancements interfered with in some way, it causes them to switch off and he sees that actually these monsters are just people, and that they have been hunting and killing unarmed civilians.

This is delivered in a dramatic way, where we start with the soldiers and quickly come to understand what is happening to Stripe, and therefore what has been decided at a high level. On a near- future level, the episode is interesting in how it sells its own logic. In the same way as the show Utopia was chilling because so much of it ran as logically possible to those with no moral core, so too does this world. Michael Kelly is very well cast as the person to explain it, because he is detached and logical in his justification. This aspect is not as strong regarding the reason they go to war against the roaches, however it works well enough, plus is not as interesting as the concept of helping people kill other people as easily as possible.

I watched this in the first week of 2017, and as a result this episode hit other nerves. These were the way that we already do this without the technology, and so of course we would if we had it. Whether it be the media or the politicians (or more and more, a collusion of both), we already are targeted to not see others as people – and this is not me pushing a liberal agenda here, because it is the same on all sides. However to see Russia, Muslims, white males, feminists, immigrants, and all other groups all being painted as monsters by different groups in order to justify their agenda and goals, it does feel like the same principle as here. This made it seem much closer as an idea and thus more engaging and chilling. The end of the episode is also really good because deep down I think almost everyone would make the same decision that Stripe does – we make it in much smaller ways, so of course we would in that scenario.

Another strong episode of a really good season. When I heard that Netflix had commissioned almost twice as many episodes as Brooker had previously made, I worried that the time-pressure and output would see quality drop but 5 episodes into the 12 and there is absolutely no sign of that.

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