Archive for the ‘Television reviews’ Category

TV Review: In the Line of Duty.

May 4, 2017

In the Line of Duty.

9/10 Stars

(Police Thriller)

Capsule Comment: Police thriller Line of Duty follows the work of AC-12, the Anti-Corruption Unit of the East Midlands Police Force in old Blighty, and after week we are treated to dense story lines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms’ as Superintendent Ted Hastings and his team root out the ‘bad eggs’ perverting the course of justice from within. Ok, sometimes the series stretches the limits of credibility but never at the cost of its overall sense of authenticity. Long after the mounting piles of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives this show will live on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular. Thrilling and exciting, Line of Duty is an absolute winner.

 

From the moment it hit the screen back in 2012 Line Of Duty has been star performer for the BBC and it’s easy to see why. This show is explosive from the get go and from seasons one through four the pace never lets up.

From the pen of wunderkind writer (and ex-RAF man) Jed Mercurio Line of Duty is police thriller based around AC-12, the Anti-Corruption unit of the East Midlands Police Force (The East Midlands is one of nine official administrative regions of England). The premise is lifted directly from landmark 2002 Hong King film Internal Affairs (directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, remade in 2006 by Martin Scorsese as The Departed) and seasons one though three follow a groomed copper manipulating things from the inside for a nefarious criminal organisation, an unresolved story arc that is still ongoing in the latest season, 2017s four.

DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cotton (Craig Parkinson) nicknamed after an iconic character from Coronation Street was recruited into a shady criminal organisation as a kid and later joined the police as per instructions and has risen up through the ranks. He provides information back to his masters, destroys evidence and makes the appropriate payoffs. It’s a delicate and dangerous business but his triumphant recruitment in to AC-12 means he now has the ability to manipulate the system as never before. Watching Dot undermine his colleagues is narrative gold and makes for riveting TV. As for the man himself he is beautifully written as both tragic and sinister and later, as his life is revealed in more detail, pitiful.

DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) is a whistle blower, a former specialist anti-terrorist copper who refused to keep his silence on a mission gone wrong and found himself ostracized. AC-12 offered him a new start. Like the man who recruited him (Ted Hastings) he is absolute in his pursuit of justice but unlike Hastings he is prepared to push the envelope to get the evidence he needs to prove his case. Steve is all white-hot intensity on a humid summers day.

Police Superintendant Ted Hastings’s (Adrian Dunbar) is probably the surprise package of the series, a square portrait of integrity whose virtuous world-view is almost a moral crusade. For Hastings’s victimised women are ‘poor wee girls’ and the men that hurt them are ‘now you listen to me fella’. Says season four AC-12 recruit DC Jamie Desford to a colleague “It’s Jamie not James. How do I get him to call me by my proper name?” The reply sums up the Hastings’s method succinctly: “It’s hard to turn that freighter around once it has set sail”.

When the lawyer representing a suspect suggests he pull back on the Paisleyism’s (Ted is Northern Irish) he response is typically “You think this is a joke fella?” Hastings is as solid as solid can be and his manner is one of those oddly eccentric methods that help make this a series as special as it is.

“I can’t be seen alone with a pretty young lassie like her,” he tells DS Arnott after he turns down an invitation for a drink at the pub from DS Kate Fleming who is putting herself forward for a promotion. This proprietary is mostly mistaken for gender bias and is often used against him. Otherwise Dunbar’s lines are an endless seam of gold and with each episode comes the expectation of some new fantastical Hastingsism to mull over.

Season ones Detective Inspector Tong Gates (Lennie James) is black and Birmingham’s most successful detective or as Hastings is thinking: too successful.

Hastings “No one is that successful.”

Gates “If you are black you have to work twice as hard as they next man.”

Hastings “I am a Catholic from Northern Ireland so don’t you go telling me about being black. No ones blacker than me and I got where I am the right way.”

 

DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure – This is England and Broadchurch) is the team’s undercover operative/specialist whose job it is to get close to suspects and observe them closely feeding necessary information back to AC-12. Ambitious and career focused (her drive has cost her a marriage and relationship with her son); her steady and thoughtful manner is the perfect foil for Steve Arnott’s more aggressive headlong tendencies.

Her turn hunting down Dot with a high powered rifle at the end of season three is as intense as it is it outlandish and might just be a classic in the making, like something right out of The Professionals (1977-83) with a splash of Get Carter (1971) for that extra bit of madness but that’s Line of Duty for you. It stretches the limits of credibility (like when Steve Arnott is beating with a baseball bat in season four and is thrown down three flights of stairs and is back to work a couple of days later albeit in a wheelchair– hmmm) but never seems to loose its authenticity. It certainly makes the East Midland look a lot more exciting than it probably is.

To say that AC-12 is not well regarded by their colleagues is an understatement. Viewed with suspicion and treated with callous mistrust these coppers are to the general force as the Stasi was to the people of East Germany – an all pervasive system of spying and authoritarian overreach that undermines the ability of the force to properly conduct its business. Of course Ted Hastings argues the point quite differently: “There’s a line. It’s called right and wrong and I know on which side my duty lies.” 

While AC-12’s main objective is ensuring that police conduct is above board and beyond reproach as leads are followed up so are stones overturned and all kinds of cellar dwelling shenanigans exposed, paedophile rings and the like included (season three is mostly a critical analysis of real life paedophile investigation Operation Yewtree) and week after week we are treated to dense story lines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms’ and not an episode goes by without your expectations being turned inside out and upside down.

While Line of Duty is a thoroughly contemporary police thriller that pays due homage to the BBC’s social mandate (gender parity and multiculturalism) its also pays fair reverence to what has gone before. Classic police shows like The Professionals and The Sweeny are often referenced, both in style and tone. Mercurio really knows his stuff and it’s this kind of loving craftsmanship that help make Line of Duty as good as it is.

One of shows great strengths is this attention to detail. Every character is richly coloured making it hard not to become emotionally invested in the proceedings. These are desperate people trying to stay ahead of events spiralling out of their control, good and bad guys both and as for those bad guys – they are never quite as black and white as many shows would paint them.

It is never clear if disgraced detective DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes – seasons two and three) is guilty of the crimes AC-12 has nailed her for and while we are that on that subject, what a superbly drawn character this woman is. Cue the scene when she has had about all she can take of her neighbours loud music and hefting a wine bottle proceeds to haul said neighbour into line with a nicely placed blow to the head before adjusting the volume.

Is this the action of a corrupt officer or that of a person under duress? She is all shades of grey and a brilliant with it and as for her final scene, well my-oh-my, what a dazzling piece of television that was.

As for the leader of an armed Police unit, the deeply wounded Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays – season three), he is as much a victim as the perpetrator, a case that could also be made for Dot Cotton though Danny’s crimes turn out to be understandable whereas Dot eschews each and every redemptive possibility out of fear and a misguided sense of loyalty to the wrong people. DCI Roz Huntley however (Thandie Newton – Westworld), season four, may just be the best villain yet.

A manipulator extraordinaire she is misguided in her judgements and seriously unhinged with it (but gets away with thanks to a her sexually smitten senior whose own questionable integrity is a another swelling pile of steaming shit) and her calculating wit is turning out to be a swamp for everyone who dares venture there including Hastings and co. Even season ones bent detective Tony Gates was worthy of some empathy but it could be that there is nothing redemptive about Roz in anyway at all. Or is there? One can never tell with this series and this is a rare and wonderful thing. As for season four, ok I have a few quibbles with some of the scripting but damned shame it was over so quickly. A sly hint about Ted Hastings was also dropped at the last moment……. or was it? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Line of Duty is sharp, subversive, bonkers and action packed and if not for some incredulous narrative leaps, it is almost perfect. Long after the records of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives will this show continue on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular.

 

 

 

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TV Review: The Handmaids Tale (2017).

May 4, 2017

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dystopian Thriller)

9.5/10

Capsule Review: In 2004 the odious Brian Tamaki rallied his Destiny congregation for a march on Parliament to oppose Civil Unions. Some two thousand Evangelicals turned up (he had promised ten thousand) and dressed in black t-shirts pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Enough is Enough”. Somewhat emboldened Tamaki predicted the Church’s political arm would triumph in the following years general election and turn New Zealand onto gods path. Want some idea of how that might have turned out? The Handmaid’s Tale will tell you all you need to know. One of the most potent and important stories ever conceived about the dangers of ideological theocracy (a system of government in which the religious rule in the name of a god) it has been turned into a TV series and the result is gut wrenching. Essential viewing for those concerned with liberty, freedom and justice. Otherwise The Handmaid’s Tale is brutal dystopian drama of the first order.

 

 

I didn’t want to watch this because knew what was in store: a horror of epic proportions (I have not read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel but I have seen the very excellent 1990 film twice). Psychopaths, sadists and bestial violence – yes that and more, all of which I am pretty loath to tackle these days (as I get older I am discovering that I am les able to cope with the stress) but it is important, I told myself, to be reminded now and again of just how badly things can go wrong given the right set of circumstances.

The most glaring example of how a society can be hijacked by psychopathy is Hitler’s Germany but this is only one example out of the recent past that includes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hoxa’s Albania and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Then there is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of the Argentinean Generals, Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid era South Africa to name a few worthy contenders not to forget the subjection and genocide of the American Indian and the brutal slave system in the American South………. but I digress.

In a future that is only moments removed from now, America’s second Civil War is set in motion by an infertility crisis and with the exception of Alaska and a bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Union is in ruins. A fundamentalist Biblical religious movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ have managed a successful coup and have renamed the USA ‘The Republic of Gilead’ achieving something very similar to what we saw the Taliban enable in Afghanistan for a time and what ISIS is trying to facilitate with its ‘pure’ Islamist Caliphate in parts of the Middle East at this very moment.

The result is a nightmare for women and male non-believers as the Constitution is suspended and a new ‘moral code’ is enacted. The ‘Eyes’, a secretive police force charged with enforcing the strict new laws based on old Testament biblical morality, are everywhere (akin to Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad – Moral Police) and brutal with it. People are hauled off the street for minor and serious infringements and punishments ranging from eye removal to arbitrary hangings are now normal.

The judicial system could easily be compared with the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ where the accused are formally charged and penalties are handed out with no right of redress. Otherwise society is confined to a series of strange and perverse rituals designed to appease god for the moral waywardness that has resulted in the fertility crisis. The Handmaid’s of the title are those few women still able to conceive and thus blessed are set aside for mating with high-ranking officials. They are both treasured and jealously despised. They are also slaves.

Of course this society is immensely sadistic, punitive and corrupt as all extremist ideologies are and those at the top of the hierarchy pay due tribute to the law but behind closed doors they live as they please. The philosophy of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is well-examined, reinforcing age-old warnings about those who flaunt their piety. These sort are often not pious at all, more like opportunists in search of the main chance. Images of American Republican notables like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruise on their knees and praying in public outside the White House come to mind.

 

We first met actress Elizabeth Moss in the groundbreaking TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) a few years back and latterly she has appeared in hit Kiwi mini-series Top Of The Lake (Directed by Jane Campion -2013). In The Handmaids Tale she tackles the complex lead role of June (later renamed Offred), a woman struggling under a kind of duress that is almost impossible to fathom.

A student, wife and mother with a job, she is a fairly standard representation of the modern American woman and through a series of flashbacks we examine her life in the ‘time before the fall’. An especially chilling scene is early on in the piece when June’s credit card is declined. “But I have four thousand dollars in my account” she says.

Yes she does, except the new laws enacted that day restrict a woman’s right to an independent life and require that a close male relative manage her finances. Besides “We don’t serve sluts here” she is incredulously informed. The next day all female employees at her work place are laid off and sent home ‘where they belong’. This brave new world is a man’s one and you conform or die. Simple as that.

She is now a slave womb in servitude to one of the most powerful men in Gilead the powerful and high-ranking Commander Waterford and through her eyes we examine the ritual, process and fear that makes up the machinery of the Handmaid system. The Commander and his infertile wife are counting on Offred to provide them with the child they need to bolster their social position and salve their precarious emotional state.

Besides Moss’s contained and deeply nuanced portrayal of Offred (whose head is being kept above water out of hope she might find her confiscated daughter) the talented cast includes Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates, American Horror Story) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, Chuck) as Serena Joy the Commander’s bitter wife and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, Offred’s Handmaid shopping partner (shopping for the ‘families’ food is part of a Handmaid’s duties).

Her real name is Emily and she is a ‘gender traitor’, the new term for gay people, and when she is discovered having an affair with a ‘Martha’ (a lowly infertile female household servant) her punishment is genital mutilation. (Her life is otherwise spared because she is fertile – not so lucky the ‘Martha’) but the after Moss, the standout performer is Ann Dowd (a instantly recognizable character actor of roles to numerous to mention) as Aunt Lydia, instructor and guardian of the Handmaids.

Margaret Atwood talked to RNZ Broadcaster Kim Hill recently and in a wide-ranging interview shared her thoughts and feelings about The Handmaids Tale. A child of the 1930s she was born under the shadow of totalitarian regimes of various stripes including fascism and communism. She describes how these regimes happen as well as the personality types that make them work – from the complaint though to the sadistic and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not sadistic. In fact Aunt Lydia is exactly the type who made the Nazi extermination camps work as efficiently as they did.

 

I don’t usually review a TV series until I have seen the first season at least. It’s for reasons of clarity – making sure that I have seen enough so I can provide as substantive review as possible and besides, it hardly matters if you are a bit behind as streaming has changed the when and whys of viewing. A decent series is going to be just as potent in two years from now as it will be tomorrow so there is no real rush but there are exceptions and The Handmaids Tale is one of those because it is such an important and prescient story in light of the ‘populist’ politics at work in the world today.

Here I am thinking of Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, and Erdogan’s Turkey among others and while the series sticks close to Atwood’s sharply drawn premise it manages some decent commentary on the current state of the USA and the growing influence of Evangelical politicians.

 

This is a skillfully conceived production and the attention to detail is astonishing. The camera work in particular needs special mention with every frame being a minor miracle of composition (often like something out of a Vermeer painting) and an example to all about how the lens can be used but so often isn’t. My only quibble is with Moss’s voice over which veers from commentary to diarist. When it is the former it works superbly. When it is the latter, not so much. Here it seeks to explain unnecessarily what the visuals are already describing aptly. In this context it is irritating.

Otherwise this is a gut-wrenching affair. I began this review by calling it a ‘Horror’ and that is what it is and the beast under the spotlight is not something exterior, but something from within – a monster created by the psyche and cast into life by social dysfunction. This is the greatest terror of all, man’s inhumanity to man by way of extremist devotion to belief and Atwood’s story reminds us that that this beast lurks behind every heartbeat waiting for the right moment to appear. This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so important; because it reminds of how easily social cohesion can be undermined in times of stress and confusion. Beware, be wary and be warned.

 

Check out Kim Hill’s interview with Margaret Atwood here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201841216/margaret-atwood-the-resurgence-of-the-handmaid’s-tale

 

Other notable works exploring dystopian political themes include:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (The 1966 film version was directed by French film master François Truffaut and is a lot better than many critics would have you believe)

The Children of Men by P.D James (The 2006 film is well on its way to ‘revered cult’ status)

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison (the very excellent film version is called Soylent Green)

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin (Like Orwell’s Animal Farm this work puts the ideologies of communism and capitalism under the spotlight and finds both wanting)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Giver by Louis Lowry

The Trial by Franz Kafka (The great film director Orson Welles’s 1962 film version is hard work but visually stunning)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (The brilliantly conceived TV series is well worth a visit)