Saturday, 17 September 2011

Of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow paced movie.

Not that I mean that in a bad way at all.

Of course, a film with a running time of two hours and seven minutes built upon moments of silence was never going to be as fast paced as any number of modern spy thrillers. But Tomas Alfredson (last seen directing the brilliant Let The Right One In back in 2008) has created a film that harkens back to the spy thrillers of yesteryear, and does away with the need for non-stop action.

Based on the 1974 novel John le Carré (as well as the 1979 BBC miniseries), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is heavily influenced by 1970s conspiracy thrillers. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired M16 operative is called back in to the spy world, to investigate who within M16 is a Soviet mole. Playing the four suspects are Toby Jones as Percy Alleline (Tinker), Colin Firth as Bill Haydon (Tailor), Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland (Soldier) and David Dencik as Toby Esterhase (Poorman). From there, the plot gets understandably more complex.

It is here, however, that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy runs into its biggest flaw. Whilst the plot may seem to drag at times (particularly during its first act), it would have been greatly improved if it had had more time to play-out its ideas. This is not to say that it should have been longer, more-so that maybe it should have been adapted as a miniseries, like the 1979 original. It would have given more time for actors such as Colin Firth and Toby Jones to make more of an impact, and to add weight to some suspects (such as Ciarán Hinds) who are sidelined for the majority of the film More time spent with the suspects would have allowed more chance to surprise the audience, rather than having it be one of two characters on whom the most time is spent.

But making it as a minseries would have probably acted as a double edged sword, in that whilst obvious improvements could have been made in terms of depth, the quality of actors would be almost sure to decline.

Whilst many of the film's actors are relegated to a single scene, these scenes are uniformly fantastic. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) relating the events of his time to Russia to Smiley and Peter Guillam's (Bendict Cumberbatch) reactions as he is interrogated by the top members of Circus, being some of the best examples of the great acting work that is at hand in this film

This is of course probably Gary Oldman's strongest chance of winning an Oscar in years, and he is given ample opportunity to lay down his claim. This is particularly true in the scene where he recounts his sole encounter with the Russian spy, Karla, by re-enacting it to a distressed Bendict Cumberbatch. An utterly compelling scene that manages to shine in a film filled with so many of them.

Despite reservations at the films length, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a triumph. It's pacing may be a turn off to many but Tomas Alfredson has continued his sterling work from Let The Right One In and made another fantastic film. With the sheer strength of the acting talent on display, in particular the performances of Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and the sure to be award winning performance by Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is simply put one of the best films released in 2011.


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

X-Men: First Class Review

It's been almost 5 months since I last posted a review, but that's not to say that there haven't been films that I've wanted to review. I loved Black Swan (someday I'll copy my review for the uni paper and stick it up here), Thor was great and Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger's Tides was as mediocre as the last two. But X-Men: First Class is the first film in a while that has exceeded my expectations. I have hated the last 2 X-Men films, with Last Stand being, quite possibly, my least favourite super-hero film ever and Origins: Wolverine just completely failed to bring the character of Wolverine to life. But X-Men: First Class is exactly what the franchise needed to resuscitate itself.

I don't think it can be understated just how much of the films strengths lie on Matthew Vaughan (director of last year's brilliant Kick-Ass) who brings so much to the franchise (after dropping out of directing Last Stand). Gone is the darker tone of the X-Men films of the last decade, instead settling on a far more fun tone that goes hand in hand with the 60s setting. The sets look brighter and more colourful, as do the costumes (including Emma Frost who seems to only wear lingerie....not that I'm complaining) and there are obvious James Bond parallels that can also be levelled, particularly at the early scenes featuring Michael Fassbender. Matthew Vaughan was exactly what the franchise needed two films ago, but now that he seems to have full reign of the franchise I couldn't be happier.

The anchor to this film is, of course, the relationship between Michael Fassbender's Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto and James McAvoy's Charles Xavier/Professor X. Luckily, both are absolutely fantastic. Quite easily they are able to live up to the performances given by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen in the older X-Men films, whilst also appearing to having more fun in their roles than those veteran actors.

X-Men: First Class's Charles Xavier feels more human than before, actually spending his time drinking, womanising and just having a good time. Of course we still have to see his more serious side and driven nature, but at least we get to see a refreshing new side to the character. But the true revelation here is Michael Fassbender (also fantastic in 2009's Inglorious Basterds), his Magneto is utterly tormented by his childhood in a WW2 Concentration camp and yet is a completely relate-able character despite the audience knowing what Magneto will eventually become. It becomes clear from early scenes that Fassbender shoulders a large piece of this movie on his own (and would make for a fantastic James Bond) but it's the scenes between Charles and Erik that make 'X-Men: First Class' as great as it is.

Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is the villain intrinsicly linked to Magneto's past and shown to be an instigator behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. His aims might seem oddly cartoonish, especially in context of the rest of the film, but the anguish that he has caused, make him a compelling force throughout. Particularly in any scene when he is paired with Fassbender. The chilly January Jones plays Emma Frost, carrying over almost the exact same performance from Mad Men, but it's good one so we ignore that. Sadly though, some of the other villains in the Hellfire Club just aren't serviced in the plot well enough at all, receiving maybe a half dozen words between them. And it's here that the main weakness within the film lies.

Whilst James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are clearly great as the leads, the other X-Men are left with minimal screen time, with only Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Beast getting any time to themselves. It helps that Hoult and Lawrence are good, but characters such as Lucas Till's Havok and Caleb Landry Jones' Banshee are short changed. The film does a great job at creating these characters and setting up their world, but it's the sequel that's going to be the one that is able to take full advantage of it.

Apart from some dodgy special effects and the obvious growing pains that come with having to introduce an entire universe within two hours, X-Men: First Class achieves what it sets out to. At times it might bite off a bit too much, but it all goes towards creating this new cinematic world. If you were left disappointed by the last two X-Men films, then this will almost certainly make you happy. In many ways it does a far better job at introducing the X-Men than 2000's own 'X-Men' film, and apart from those teething problems, this is a world that I want to spend a more time in. It's good to see that the franchise has once again found it's feet (although I am disappointed that Darren Aronofsky dropped out of The Wolverine*). 'X-Men: First Class' is a great first step to rejuvenating the X-Men franchise and I can't wait to see where Matthew Vaughan takes them next.


*speaking of Wolverine......

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Top 10 Lost Episodes - One Year Later Edition

So yesterday/today (depending on where you live) marked the end of the sixth season of Lost and so I wanted to do something to mark the occasion. Yesterday, after finishing my final exam of the year, I watched the final episode of Lost, 'The End' and now I've decided to mark the day the actual finale aired in the UK (at stupid o'clock in the morning) by revisiting a post I did last year before the sixth season had even aired. So after 113 episodes and 121 hours of television, here are my picks for my favourite episodes.

Honourable Mentions:
Season 1: All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues / Deus Ex Machina / Exodus
Season 2: 23rd Psalm / The Long Con / Lockdown / ? / Live Together, Die Alone
Season 3: Flashes Before Your Eyes / The Man From Tallahassee* / The Brig / Man Behind the Curtain / Greatest Hits
Season 4: Cabin Fever
Season 5: Jughead / LaFleur / Dead is Dead / The Variable / The Incident*
Season 6: LA X / The Substitute / Dr. Linus / Happily Ever After / The Candidate / What They Died For

And now on with the list (and of course SPOILER ALERT for all 6 seasons of the show:

10. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham - Season 5 / Locke centric
Written by: Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof / Directed by: Jack Bender

We all knew that this episode was coming. Since the season 3 finale, this episode was almost a necessity to explain who was in that damned coffin and why exactly they ended up there. We already knew Locke was in there, and we'd already seen him walking around after having being killed so what was left to shock the audience? Well that scene where Ben convinces Locke to not hang himself and then almost immediately strangles him using the very same rope he would have hung himself with. And of course the added poignancy that this episode really was the last time we saw Locke alive. One of the best bait and switches the show has ever done, and it pulled it off superbly.

9. Ab Aeterno - Season 6 / Richard centricWritten by: Melinda Hsu Taylor & Greggory Nations / Directed by: Tucker Gates

After 4 seasons of getting to know the character of Richard, we still didn't know all that much about him. We knew he didn't age and that he had close ties to Jacob, but we didn't find out his backstory until this amazing Season 6 episode. Not only did we finally get an answer to the mystery of how exactly the Black Rock ended up in the middle of the jungle but also what destroyed the Four-Toed Statue and probably the most definitive answer we'll ever get as to what exactly the island is. All this, as well as getting to know the characters of Jacob and The Man in Black a little better. This could have turned the episode into an info dump, but a fantastic performance from Nestor Carbonell helped salvage it and he gave his best performance of the entire show, proving that he earned that regular credit far more than say Ilana .

8. Man of Science, Man of Faith - Season 2 / Jack centric
Written by: Damon Lindelof / Directed by: Jack Bender

The premiere of the second season was probably the best episode of that entire season, not only did it offer a statisfying answer to the cliffhanger at the end of season 1, with quite possibly the single best scene that Lost ever produced, but also came at time where Jack centric episodes still felt fresh and needed rather than the jumbled mess that they would become later like in Season 3's 'Stranger in a Strange Land'. It also marked our introduction to the character of Desmond, who became one of the shows strongest characters in later seasons. Yes the Swan hatch may have been a small waste of an entire season in hindsight, but at the beginning this was a fantastic opening to that chapter of the Losties island quest and still contained some of the best acting that Terry O'Quinn gave on the entire show. But yeah, I'm all here because of the Mamma Cass song that opened the season. "But you've gotta make your own kind of music, sing your own special song. Make your own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along"

7. The Shape of Things to Come - Season 4 / Ben centric
Written by: Brian K. Vaughan & Drew Goddard / Directed by: Jack Bender

The first episode back after writer's strike really set Season 4 up to have a mind blowing ending (which it did). Despite Ben still having a very rich past to delve into, this episode delved into his future and showed us what exactly he was doing off the island after it was revealed he was Sayid's employer in 'The Economist'. What followed was an hour filled with taut conversations between Ben and Sayid or Ben and Charles Widmore, and that's forgetting the island half of the story where shit was getting real. The mercenaries had killed Rousseau and Karl and kidnapped Alex and I don't think anyone was expecting Keamy to shoot Alex point blank so coldly after Ben tried to manipulate him into letting her go. This was one of Ben's greatest failures and he paid the price dearly. Michael Emerson sold the hell out of every scene in this episode, showing the pain he felt at causing the events that led to his daughter's murder. So he sets the Smoke Monster on them. Any episode with fantastic acting and an epic smoke monster attack is going to rank highly, and this one is probably the best of those in the entire series' run.

6. There's No Place Like Home - Season 4 / Oceanic Six centric
Written by: Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse / Directed by: Jack Bender & Stephen Williams

Remember how I said Season 4 ended in a big way? This is that big way. Filling in the blanks of how exactly that mind blowing twist that concluded Season 3 actually happened by showing us who got off the island and how they did. Throughout there were noble sacrifices on the behalf of Michael and Sawyer, tragic seperations with Jin being left on the Freighter as it exploded and Desmond finally reuinting with Penny (yes I cried). Oh and the twist which was codenamed 'Frozen Donkey Wheel' which little did the fans know was a very literal interpreation of what the twist was. All three hours of Lost's Season 4 finale were just jam packed with so much action, and brilliance that it could have felt overstuffed but it didn't, instead it was just a fantastic capper to a season which many agree ended the first year of Lost's incredible mid-life renaissance. And that's not even mentioning the fact that we fianlly found out that it was Locke who was in the coffin at the end of Season 3...

5. The End - Season 6 / Everyone centric
Written by: Damon Linedolf & Carlton Cuse / Directed by: Jack Bender

Perhaps a controversial decision? But I don't care. I loved the ever loving shit out of this episode. After spending the vast majority of my teenage years obsessing over the show, 'The End' did not dissapoint. Yes, in retrospect the flash-sideways were perhaps a little pointless and not every question that the show ever posed was answered, but as the last 2.5 hours we were ever going to spend with Jack and Hurley and Sawyer and Kate and Locke and Ben and Juliet and everyone else, it was perfection. Everyone involved in the production was on the top of their game, with special shout-outs going to both Michael Giacchino for his brilliant score and Jack Bender for his tireless work behind the camera. We had a chance to say goodbye to nearly every character the show had let us grow attached to over the years, we (I) cried, we (I) laughed and we (I) were (was) blown away by the pure adreneline rush of the whole episode. This was the only way that Lost could have possibly ended and I'm pleased as hell that I got to be there to watch it happen.

4. Pilot - Season 1 / Jack, Kate & Charlie centric
Written by: J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof & Jeffrey Lieber / Directed by: J.J. Abrams

It's very apt to have this episode directly follow 'The End', not only because of the amount of similarities between the show's first and sixth seasons, but because they mark the beginning and the end of the phenomenon. Back on the 22nd September 2004, Lost began with one of the best television pilots that has ever been produced. The fact that the show was only able to surpass this episode three times throughout it's run (in my opinion of course) is a fundamental statement behind just how much this episode got right. So much of what made Lost amazing was already present in this episode, the fantastic on location shooting, the original score, characters with actual depth and mysteries that pervaded the show throughout it s entire run. Whilst the show only expanded from this point and the show that concluded last year was a fundamentally different beast to some of the seeds sewn in this first episode, that does not stop this episode from being fantastic. It's main aim was to hook people from the beginning, and it did that, and then the show kept me hooked for the entirety of its time on the air.

3. Walkabout - Season 1 / Locke centric
Written by: David Fury / Directed by: Jack Bender

Whilst 'Pilot' had me hooked for a little while, it was 'Walkabout' that made me know I'd be sticking with this show for its entire duration. The previous episode 'Tabula Rasa' still had all the signs that this show was going to initially be about Kate, but 'Walkabout' was where we got a true sense of the ensemble and the true acting might of Terry O'Quinn. O'Quinn would go on to become the show's MVP during its low points but here is the episode which began to scratch at the surfact of his character. 'Walkabout' superbly introduces the tragic character of John Locke, still probably the greatest acheivement of the entire show, and gives us a compelling on and off island narrative. On island we are introduced to John Locke, a man with no fear whereas off island we meet the fundamentally broken John Locke, the contrast between these two was one of Lost's most compelling uses of the flashback format making the audience want to know what in that plane crash changed this man so much, then we found out. HE WAS IN A FREAKING WHEELCHAIR OFF ISLAND?!?!? Still standing as one of the most compelling story threads throughout all of Lost focused on John Locke and that wheelchair and this is where that was introduced, and it still stands tall as one of the best single episodes of Lost.

2. Through the Looking Glass - Season 3 / Jack centric
Written by: Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof / Directed by: Jack Bender

The Season 3 finale had to be on this list because this the episode where Lost probably started to run head first into it's endgame. Of course, overwhelmingly, it is remembered for that final twist and a bearded Jack yelling at Kate "WE HAVE TO GO BACK!", which remains one of Lost's most quotable lines, but there's so much more to this episode. There was the complete decimation of the Others, the 'villains' of the first three seasons of the show, getting to see Rousseau's radio tower mentioned all the way back in Season 1 and the answer to what that wire was that Sayid found in Season 1. We have the beach assault with the "FUCK YEAH" moment when Hurley ran other one of the Other's in a Dharma van, closesly followed by Sayid breaking a guys neck with his FREAKING LEGS!! Sawyer killing Mr. Friendly in retaliation for kidnapping Walt in Season 1. Locke's ghostly visit from Walt leading to him knifing Naomi in the back. The whole idea of a Freighter coming to the island to take them home! And of course the events down in the Looking Glass. Charlie's conversation with Desmond's girlfriend then realising that she wasn't the one who had sent the boat which was closely followed by his death at the hands of Mikhail (still one of Lost's saddest moments) and of course "NOT PENNY'S BOAT". 'Through the Looking Glass' was a jam packed 2 hours of entertainment, something that rivalled movies in terms of production, and yet it's better than movies because it was preceeded by 70 hours of getting to know these characters. 'Through the Looking Glass' is just a breath taking acheivement in television and not many episodes of television can top it...

1. The Constant - Season 4 / Desmond centric
Written by: Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof / Directed by: Jack Bender

...but one episode has. 'The Constant' in many ways is the opposite of 'Through the Looking Glass'. Focusing almost entirely on Desmond (another of the show's best characters), 'The Constant' creates a far more intimate feeling. First and foremost 'The Constant is love story, the greatest love story that Lost ever told, between Desmond and Penny. Desmond quite literally has to battle against time itself to reuinte with his love or else he will die. Whilst some may be turned off by the overt sci-fi nature of the episode, what really grounds is the work that Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger put in to really ground the emotion. The sense of elation that is felt during the final phonecall is incredible. To put it simply 'The Constant is the best writen, directed, acted and scored episode of the entire show. Despite in many ways being a stand-alone episode it just works. There's a reason that Desmond and Penny were the couple that fans of the series rooted for the most, and 'The Constant' is the purest distilation of the chemistry that made that so. 'The Constant' might be marked as the point where Lost began to show it's true science fiction colours, but it did so in one of it's most emotional and intimate episodes ever and it's a true testament to the cast and crew that it worked. Some of the other episodes might be truer reflections of what the show was, but 'The Constant' stands as my favourite episode of the shows entire run.

See ya in another life brother.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Favourite TV Shows 2010 - Favourite Episodes 10-1

So here we are, my list of my 10(11) favourite episodes of television from 2010. Ranging from 10 minutes to 2 hours, these were, in my opinion the finest episodes that the medium of television produced between 1/1/2010 and 31/12/2010.

10. Sons of Anarchy - 'NS'
Despite the unevenness of the third season of Sons of Anarchy the finale was an absolutely superb way to end the season. 'NS' was a culmination of three seasons worth of story-lines, most notably all the drama involving Stahl and Jimmy O'Phelan. Yes the central drama to the show surrounding Clay and Jax still remains but the outside forces which had plagued the show for three years were wiped out in one tremendously suspenseful episode. When the club finds out that Jax has turned snitch you being to legitimately wonder how on earth SAMCRO is going to get out of it and then the double bluff is revealed. Maybe it was a little too neat an end, with SAMCRO ultimately taking very little fallout (beyond the 14 months in prison) but this episode makes the list purely for the scene where Opie shoots a weeping Stahl in the back of the head to avenge his dead wife Donna. Beautiful scene and a perfect way to end a season which was plagued by disappointments.

9. Adventure Time - 'What is Life?'
'What is Life?' was the first episode of Adventure Time that I ever watched and from that a magical friendship was born. Think Spongebob Squarepants but instead of being underwater it's set in a post apocalyptic world where quite literally ANYTHING can happen. The world of Adventure Time is wonderfully surreal and despite what could just be a funny concept the characters are legitimately well written and relate-able. 'What is Life?' focuses on Finn the Human trying to out prank his friend Jake the Dog by building a Never Ending Pie Throwing Robot (NEPTR for short) and here things go off the walls. What kind of kids show would have a robot where only one of his wheels works causing him to go round in circles and then ask his master 'Why do you forsake me?'. Or the pies which contain boysenberry....and poison. Or the balloons who fulfill their BLOOD OATH, cheer and then happily float up to the mesosphere in order TO DIE. Yes Adventure Time has enough jokes for adults to appreciate it but it's also wonderfully colourful so that kids don't get bored. Whilst there are many other episodes of Adventure Time I'd recommend to people ('The Eyes' is fantastic, as is 'Tree Trunks') 'What is Life?' is a fantastic place to start.

8. Parks & Recreation - 'Sweetums'
There were many episodes that I could have chosen from the second half of Parks & Recreation's second season such as 'Telethon', 'Freddy Spaghetti' and 'Park Safety' but I went with 'Sweetums' for two reasons. One being the fact that we got an amazing public forum, where once more we get to spend time with the amazingly insanely stupid residents of Pawnee (hell and Ron's face when he looks under his chair expecting to find a prize is golden as well) but the second reason is of course DJ ROOMBA. This ingenious idea takes an already great episode and raises it to amazing levels. It might not be a very Ron heavy episode, but it's an episode that uses all of the ensemble well, which lead to some of the very best episodes of Parks & Recreation. It's also helpful that we get to see the entire Parks department suffering from a sugar rush, because sometimes people being stupid is just funny dammit!

7. Terriers - 'Change Partners'
Whilst the pilot episode of Terriers was fantastic, it took until 'Change Partners' for me to realise was going to be something special. The episode starts quite low key with Hank looking for a bank loan to pay for his new house which then spins off into him being offered a job into looking into the bank manager's wife and whether or not she is cheating on him. And this is where the episode kind of gets fucked up. Particular needs to be made of Olivia Williams' fantastic guest role as the wife and playing her exasperation at the weird fetish her husband has of making her live out this faux-lifestyle of infidelity. By the end of the episode we realise that Olivia Williams' character Miriam has never actually been unfaithful but is driven to actually sleep with Hank by the end of the episode. This sets off the chain of events causing the bank manager to commit suicide and Hank to, instead of helping, forging his signature so that he can pay for his house. It's a fantastically dark moment and one that could have made the lead character seem unlikable but Donal Logue's performance just makes him so damn likable as Hank. Then as a cap to an already fantastic episode, we end with a shadowy figure crawling into Hank's attic whilst he's not looking. Utterly gripping stuff.

6. Doctor Who - 'The Time of Angels'/'Flesh and Stone'
Steven Moffat might just be my favourite TV writer currently still making TV shows. Whilst I quite often find the standalone episodes of Doctor Who to be somewhat lacking, a Steven Moffat script is almost always guaranteed to be fantastic. and the same can be said of this two-parter. Whilst maybe not scaling the same heights as 2007's fantastic episode 'Blink', 'The Time of Angels' and 'Flesh and Stone' serve as a fantastic reminder that the Weeping Angels are probably the best creature that Doctor Who has introduced since it came back in 2005. Along with the Weeping Angels, Moffat also brings back another of his fantastic creations with River Song from his own 2008 two-parter. Over the course 90 minutes Moffat slowly ratchets up the tension and questions and whilst some were disappointment I thought it was fantastic. With story beats that wouldn't pay-off until 'The Big Bang', Moffat showed all the writers of Doctor Who how to conceive a two part story and that he is quite definitely a genius that everyone should pay attention to.

5. Party Down - 'Steve Guttenberg's Birthday'
Party Down ran for two terrific seasons and this episode might just be it's crowing achievement. Maybe it's just because I've always been fascinated by the work that goes into screen writing but Martin Starr and Christopher Mintz-Plasse working together on an horrific screenplay was a fantastic idea. The two completely different read througha were hysterical in their own ways. From the over the top scientific vocabulary that littered the first draft to Henry's amazing overacting during the second, there was almost always something to love about this episode. And that's discounting how weirdly lovable Steve Guttenberg's house is. Filled with crazy memorabilia, thousands of DVDs, a home cinema, a fountain filled entirely with water from a iceburg and of course the picture of a guy fucking a porcupine. Party Down shall be missed, but I'm glad that it lasted long enough to give us the comic genius of this episode.

4. Lost - 'The End'
I've written far too much about Lost over the years so I'm going to make this a short one. Have all the issues with the final season you want. Have all the issues with the final 20 minutes as you wish. But those first two hours of the Lost finale were pretty incredible. Everything that came to represent Lost over it's six years came crashing together in one hell of a satisfying way to way to send of the Island in style. From the sentimentally moments of bringing back nearly every single significant character that appeared over those six years, to Jack Bender's fantastic direction or Michael Giacchino's award worthy score. 'The End' was a microcosm of pretty much everything that made Lost so great. Maybe the trip into theology at the end rubbed people the wrong way, but it was an apt ending to a show which was so much about the characters and their relationships. It might not be the best finale for a TV show ever, but it's a damn good one.

3. Community - 'Modern Warfare'
During it's first season was a very funny show about about the lives of a group of people who went to a Community college. Occasionally it would dip into meta references of the larger plot at hand (mostly given to the audience by Abed) but I don't think anyone expected something as amazing as this. In it's first season on the air Community brought to the table a pantheon level episode of television. Something that will through the ages as one of the greatest episodes of television ever. 'Modern Warfare' was a quite literally a perfect pastiche of so many fantastic action movies. With overt references to films such as 'Die Hard', '28 Days Later', 'The Matrix', 'Hard Boiled', 'Scarface' and 'The Warriors' this episode was a smorgus board of geeky references. It managed to nail the cheesy lines of dialogue ("Check mate bitches" whilst shooting a member of the chess club in the back) and overall feel of action movies with aplomb (thanks to the sterling work of director Justin Lin). 'Modern Warfare' is an episode for the ages, and the fact that it's only number 3 on my list shows just how strong the remaining episodes truly were.

2. Breaking Bad - 'One Minute'
Another series which could have had so many different episodes on this list, from 'Fly', 'Half Measures' and 'Full Measures', Breaking Bad Season 3 was one of the best seasons of television that I have ever seen. But if everything I saw on television over the last 12 months stuck me it was the titular One Minute of this episode. I have never been so tense whilst watching a television series than when I was watching Hank fight for his life against the cousins. Not only did it come as a surprise that such a big moment was coming so early in the season but also the fact that there is legitimately no way to know who is going to make it out of the shoot out alive. Of course one scene does not a great episode make, but the ever brilliant Aaron Paul gave one of his best monologues on the show to date (a feat in itself) and Dean Norris proved that he was more than ready to take on the increased role that was being demanded of him. Topped off by fantastic direction by Michelle MacLaren and beautiful cinematography by Michael Slovis and you have yet another pantheon episode of television.

1. Mad Men - 'The Suitcase'
Despite Breaking Bad having the (marginally) better season, it wasn't going to go down without a fight. 'The Suitcase' is the kind of episode that only a serialised show can do. Working off of three and a half years worth storylines and plot threads, 'The Suitcase' ties everything together seamlessly within one night of the lives of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Anger is vented, truths are revealed and tears are shed. With quite possibly the performance of both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss' lives, 'The Suitcase' is a absolutely stunning episode. After the death of Don Draper's closest friend, the only person in the world who the knows the whole truth behind Dick Whitman, he has no one left to turn apart from Peggy, the girl who all those years ago thought that she would have to sleep with her boss as a natural part of her job. The only man who knows the whole truth about her own hidden pregnancy, the man who gave her such a high placing job in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Almost four years worth of angst came rushing out over the course of one 40 minute episode and it's amazing in the level of catharsis it is able to give. Maybe Mad Men reached its peak in this episode, but it's not a peak that much else on television will ever be able to reach.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Favourite TV Shows 2010 - Favourite Episodes 25-11

This year's list of my favourite episodes is a little longer than it has been in previous years. Not only did I manage to find a fantastic episode in every show I featured on my list, but also a couple of shows which didn't feature also get their dues. So onward with the first 15 of my favourite episodes of 2010!

25. Charlie Brooker's Newswipe - Series 2, Episode 2
Newswipe isn't the kind of show which necessarily has perfect episodes, it's just a uniformly fantastic show with moments that stick out more so than actual entire episodes of sheer perfect. I love almost everything that Charlie Brooker has ever laid his hands (particularly the XXXwipe shows) but it's hard to pin point an individual episode as the best of a particular series. So I chose Episode 2 of the second series as a true example of the show at it's best. There was the fantastic 'How to Report the News' segment, the genuinely informative piece on British journalists and the complete ripping apart of the Wooton Bassett story from early last year. Yes I don't like every element of the show (*cough*TimKey*cough*) but the bits I like, I absolutely adore and this episode had that in spades.

24. Modern Family - 'Manny Get Your Gun'
The best episodes of Modern Family will normally have the entire cast in one place (see 2009's 'Fizbo') and whilst 'Manny Get Your Gun doesn't have the cast together for the majority of its run time, when everyone does meet it is literally a collision. Modern Family might not be the most hilarious comedy on TV but this episode was able to have enough funny moments (Phil, Claire and Alex breaking down in the car etc.) whilst holding together the sense of family that makes Modern Family so enjoyable.

23. 30 Rock - 'When It Rains, It Pours'
After the resurgence that the show had back in spring, this episode was the solidification that 30 Rock was back on top form. A fantastic, but not flashy guest appearance by Paul Giamatti, Jack making the video for his future son ("the secret to good hair is dove....blood") and of course Tracey playing Cash Cab in order to see the birth of his child. 'When It Rains, It Pours' played to the strengths of most of the cast proved how 30 Rock can still hit it out of the park.

22. South Park - '200'/'201'
South Park celebrated its 200th episode in 2010 and definitely pushed the show to the limit. '200' and '201' were celebrations of a show that has been on TV for almost 15 years. Almost every celebrity that South Park had taken the piss out of was back, we had Tom Cruise (and more gayjokes), Mecha-Streisand, Scott Tenorman and of course Muhammad. What followed over their combined 40 minute run time was a fantastically hilarious and even thoughtful look at the ideas of censorship. Of course the show ended up getting censored and the creators received death threats for trying to portray Muhammad on TV, showing just how right South Park was in the first place.

21. Futurama - 'The Prisoner of Benda'
Futurama came back to our screens after great anticipation. Whilst it maybe wasn't as consistent as it was back before it was cancelled, there's no denying that Season 7 had flashes of the Futurama we loved, and 'The Prisoner of Benda' was the clearest example of this. Everyone knows body swap episodes, pretty much every sci-fi TV show ever has done an episode about, but what made Futurama's take so great was to the lengths that they took it. By the end of the episode almost everyone was in someone else's body and always leading to hilarity (Scruffy & Wash-bucket Amy FTW). The episode was intricate and even proved how dedicated the writing staff of Futurama are by having the writer Ken Keeler actually create an entire mathematical theorem to have the episode work.

20. Justified - 'Fire in the Hole'
'Fire in the Hole' was a template for the Justified was going to succeed as the show went forward. Based on the short story by Elmore Leonard and developed for TV by Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, The Pacific), the pilot Justified turn out to be a fantastic piece of television. This first episode hinted at a larger plot to the show, but also showed how it could work within a self contained. The fact that the show was buoyed by a fantastic performance by leading man Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) and a fantastic villainous portrayal by Walton Goggins (The Shield), made Justified's first episode one of the most rounded hours of television all year.

19. Rubicon - 'The Outsider'
Rubicon may have stumbled a little out of the gates, especially when compared against AMC's other fantastic shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but 'The Outsider' proved that Rubicon might have had what it took to actually compete with those two shows on a qualitative level (barring that godawful finale). This was the episode was the lose threads started to come together and the show became less interested in the central mystery behind the show and focusing on the characters jobs within API and the moral responsibilities it holds for them. It also Truxton Spangler's fantastic tie speech, one of the best scenes of television all last year.

18. Better Off Ted - 'The Impertinence of Communicationizing'
Sometimes a show is just so damn for funny for reasons that are quite simple to explain. A memo goes around the offices of Veridian Dynamics urging the employees to insult each other and hilarity ensues. Here is a series of hilarious outtakes from the episode. Enjoy.

17. Supernatural - 'Weekend At Bobby's'
I could have quite easily chosen the Season 5 finale 'Swan Song' as the best episode of Supernatural in 2010, but that episode would have worked on a whole other level if it had actually been the final episode of the show. Instead I decided to use this as a chance to speak of unsung heroes. Bobby has been the closest thing the boys have had to a functioning father figure since the beginning of Season 2, and whilst he's been a constant presence on the show since then, it took us until Season 6 to get an episode highlighting his awesomeness. Sometimes moves away from established format can prove to be messy and muddled, but Supernatural offer consistently offer up interesting ways of subverting their format, and 'Weekend At Bobby's' was one of the best.

16. Cougar Town - 'You Don't Know How It Feels'
Cougar Town magically transformed a few episodes into Season 1 and became one of the most consistently funny ensemble comedies on TV. Yes, Courtney Cox is still the obvious weak link and it's a shame the show has to built around her, but even she can't take away from the natural chemistry all the actors have together. Guest-starring Scrubs' Ken Jenkins as Jule's dad, Cougar Town finally strives for some more of the lofty emotional moments that Bill Lawrence's other show so often achieved. But even removed from the most emotional beats there was the fantastic Halloween themed hilarity, with a multitude of fantastic costumes. Ellie and Laurie going dressed as each other was the gift that kept on giving and Bobby's Windy Man is genius on so many levels. If you aren't watching Cougar Town, you are definitely missing out on a very worthy successor to Scrubs.

15. Chuck - 'Chuck versus The Beard'
Whilst Chuck Season 3 didn't quite reach the heights that the show was able to achieve in it's second season, 'Chuck versus the Beard' was an episode the fans had been waiting a long time for. Ever since Chuck gained the intersect, it was obvious it was only a matter of time until it bled more and more into his personal life and his family and friends would inevitably become privy to his life as a spy. First came Captain Awesome and then, finally, in this episode, Morgan found out. Of course this all took place during yet another assault on the BuyMore but what made the episode was Morgan's of sheer elation when his friend told him he was a secret agent. Chuck in 2010 had many great moments, in particular the first episode with Chuck and Sarah as a couple on the train, or Timothy Dalton's fantastic guest appearances, but it shall forever be remembered as the year Morgan found out about the Intersect.

14. The Pacific - 'Peleliu Airfields'/'Peleliu Hills'
Whilst some people don't hold The Pacific to the same lofty heights that they hold Band of Brothers (I cannot honestly say, seeing as I have only seen the first 4 episode of BoB) but I will say The Pacific is fantastic in its own right, dealing fair more with the emotional tole of warfare, rather than its visceral nature. But no episodes were as harrowing as the episodes that dealt with the assault on Peleliu. The men were completely out of their element and completely outmatched. Images from these episodes still float when I think back on the miniseries, from Sledgehammer finally breaking and trying to rip out the teeth of a dead Japanese soldier or Snafu throwing rocks into the blown apart skull of a corpse. They might not be pleasant images, but they came from some of the strongest hours of television I watched last year, and I'm grateful I saw them.

13. Louie - 'God'
It's very hard to describe Louie as a series. Louie takes the form of a series of vignettes, sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 20 or 40. One of the standouts vignettes from it's first season was the episode which dealt with the idea of religion. What starts of seemingly innocently turns into one of the most downright terrifying lessons on Jesus' crucifixion I have ever heard, going into disgusting details of how much pain Jesus would have been on the cross with only the choice between the pain being in his legs or arms, for three days. Even that scene alone would have been enough to earn this episode a place on my list, but the later scene with Louie talking to his mother about religion and the expertly placed stand-up excerpt helped prove that Louie is definitely something very special.

12. Dollhouse - 'Getting Closer'
Dollhouse only aired 3 episodes in 2010 and whilst the final two episodes were a mixed bag in the way that concluded the series, 'Getting Closer' was an amazing penultimate episode from writer Tim Minear (Firefly and Terriers). We got an action packed 40 minutes filled with so many mind blowing twists and revelations that showed that even with only 3 episodes left it was going to be hugely enjoyable. The two big twists of course were Dr. Saunders coming back and then proceeding to shoot Bennett in the head immediately after she and Topher had a moment (a Whedonesque twist on so many levels). But of course the huge twist of the piece was that Boyd had in fact been the head of Rossum since the very beginning. Yes in context it doesn't make much sense, but that doesn't take away from the sheer amount of fun that this episode really was.

11. The Walking Dead - 'Days Gone Bye'
What a pilot episode this was. You can argue as to whether the rest of the show was able to reach the heights that this episode did (I'd say episodes 4&5 came closest) but there's no denying that Frank Darabont wrote and directed one hell of a pilot episode here. Capturing every single beat from the first issue of the comics, The Walking Dead proved that there was still life in the zombie genre. From Lennie James' fantastic portrayal of Morgan to Rick shooting the half Zombie in the face was filled with little moments of sheer brilliance. Compared to other works of Zombie fiction, the pace was positively sedate able to properly explore the toll of being alone in a world infected by zombies. To start a tale of ongoing survival, The Walking Dead couldn't have possibly hoped for a stronger episode than this one.

Of 127 Hours

127 Hours is the new Danny Boyle film and I think it's safe to say that it is pretty fantastic. The basic premise of the film should of course be well known to anyone familiar with the real life story. Aron Ralston goes hiking in Utah and ends being trapped underneath a rock for 127 Hours where he ultimately is forced to amputate his own arm in order to escape. Of course this film isn't for everyone, but if you think that it's just James Franco under a rock for 2 hours then you're wrong, what 127 Hours is far more interesting than that.

That isn't to say the vast majority of the films events don't occur in one very small section of a canyon, because it does, but this film is elevated by an absolutely fantastic performance from James Franco. 127 Hours is the sort of film that lives and dies on the performance of its lead actor and luckily James Franco is superb and really does elevate this film. The sheer range that James Franco is able to portray in this film is extraordinary and shows just how far he has come from his days of playing Harry Osborn in the Spider-man films. Over the course of 93 minutes, James Franco shows the audience sheer joy, sadness, intense anger, pain, hints of madness, exhaustion and a list nearly as long as my arm. Whilst the short run time might not be nearly as long as Ralston's real life ordeal, 127 Hours really places the audience into the canyon with Franco to the extent we feel his pain and every emotion he is going through. 127 Hours is a character piece of the highest order, James Franco's performance is near flawless and really does have to be seen to be believed.

Whilst James Franco's outstanding performance is of course the main reason to go see this film, we must not forget the works of Danny Boyle and the rest of the crew. Special mention must be made to cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak who do an absolutely outstanding job of filming Utah in all of it's daunting glory and the small space that Franco inhabits throughout the film. Again, if you like your films to look good, they don't look much better than 127 Hours.

Then we have Danny Boyle who has done the amazing task of filming the un-filmable. One of the main reasons that people I know have been hesistant to see this film is because they don't know how on earth it is going to work as a film, but Danny Boyle and fellow screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (also from Slumdog Millionaire) achieve this in their script and Danny Boyle in his filming of events. Whilst the majority of the film does take place with that canyon, Danny Boyle portrays the toll that these events are playing on Aron Ralston through the use of such strange and out of place imagery that it feels like the audience is seeing what Ralston was seeing, as he slowly dehydrates and hallucinates.

Really though what I need to talk about is that scene, the scene where after 5 days at the bottom of this crevasse, Ralston amputates his own arm. I don't think it's any surprise that the scene is hard to watch. Films don't portray violence in a realistic light very often which makes a film like 127 Hours that much more stark when it actually does so. What it is about the amputation scene isn't the sight of the desecrated arm (although it kind of is) but the sound of what is happening. The sound of Ralston breaking the bone in his arm in two is one that I will not forget for a long time, nor will I forget the scene where he is forced to sever his own nerve endings.

127 Hours isn't a film for everyone, for sure, but those that do appreciate it will absolutely love it. Danny Boyle proves, once again, how he is one of the best working directors in the world and James Franco puts in a stunning performance as Aron Ralston which has already picked up a lot of buzz as we move into awards time. At it's heart 127 Hours is a very intimate story about a man who wasn't prepared for what happened to him, he isn't some kind of superhuman, but a man who knew what he needed to do to survive. And that makes 127 Hours that bit more outstanding. 9/10

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Favourite TV Shows 2010 - Top 5 Dramas

This is where things get really interesting. If you read my blog regularly, then you'll know that most of passion towards TV is directed towards the more dramatic serialised shows, and it should come as no surprise that all of these shows are exactly that. Whilst I do sincerely love Community and Parks & Recreation, the passion I have for these shows far exceeds them. I might not have seen shows like Treme and Boardwalk Empire and The Pacific may have been fantastic, but the 5 shows I have selected here were my favourite dramatic shows of 2010.
Onwards with the list!

5. Sons of Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy was a show that I actually watched in its entirety this year, so technically this ranking is all 3 seasons of the show (I know, I promised I wouldn't do that again). So whilst if I had ranked this based purely on Season 3 it might not have made it on to this list at all (it wasn't awful, just very deeply flawed) but looking at all 3 shows as a whole, it's utterly fantastic. The show focuses on a biker gang in the Californian town of Charming. It might look from adverts as just an excuse for some guys to get all testosterone-y at each other but it's actually more interesting than that. The show has a lot of similarities with Hamlet, what with the show focusing on Jax Teller, who's father was murdered (?) and now his father's best friend is married to his mother and ruling the Sons of Anarchy, so of course there's a lot of tension between those two. The show touches on themes of family and duty and all kinds of morality themes that make it more interesting to watch. But that's not all, Sons of Anarchy has a sense of "shit is going down" that almost no other sh ow on TV (apart from maybe Breaking Bad) can even match, over three seasons shit ranges from the death of Donna, Gemma being raped and the Irish stealing Jax's baby. Whilst the Jax baby arc in Season 3 was handled badly (mostly because of artificial roadblocks in the story and the fact that the new characters had almost no time to grow), Sons of Anarchy still has the power to punch you gut as you watch these things happen to the characters. Whilst Season 3 wasn't all that great a season, Season 2 was absolutely superb and I regret not having watched it then. Don't be turned off by the fact that Sons of Anarchy looks like a homoerotic mess, it's an incredibly compelling and often fantastic TV show that finished with a terrific finale this year and will hopefully recover in Season 4.

4. Lost
If you've been reading my blog or actually know me, then I think you know what my feelings are towards Lost. It will foreve r be my favourite television show ever, it's the show that got me hooked on TV in the first place, the inspiration behind this very list. Without Lost I have no clue what I'd be like today. Maybe less nerdy? Probably not to be honest, just nerdy about different things. But Lost was a special show for me and 2010 was the year that it's last ever episode aired and it's final remembrance might be here (although probably not). I'm going to miss Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Ben, Hurley, Jin, Sun, Desmond, et al. for years to come. It feels weird to me now being in January and not having any new episodes to look forward to. It's been 7 months since the last (fantastic) episode of the show aired and still the emotional resonance of that episode is with me. I was sat ther e at stupid 5 o'clock in the morning crying my eyes out as I said goodbye to some of my favourite fictional characters ever. No, Season 6 of Lost wasn't the greatest season of television ever (hence why it's at 4), the flashsideways won't play as well on second viewing and there were a few narrative dead-ends, but that's Lost in a nutshell. Not every question was answered, but when it came down to it, the focus on the characters was all anyone really watched for and the sixth season delivered on little character moments throughout, making Lost one of the finest shows of the year, but one of the finest shows ever.

3. Terriers
Terriers will go down as one of the most damning cancellation of any show on TV in 2010, in a year we lost fantastic new shows like Rubicon, Party Down and old favourites like 24 and Lost, Terriers still hurts the most. In a single season, that is sure to go down as one of the greatest 'one and done' series ever (a pantheon also hosting Freaks & Geeks and Firefly), Terriers did what so many shows strive for over their entire runs. It created an entire world, it created a stable ensemble of likeable and memorable characters, it was written to perfection and just worked in a way most shows don't. Luckily Terriers tells a complete story, so in years to come people will be able to pick up the box-set and just enjoy what exists of the show. This isn't a Firefly where once you reach the end you want to know more, Terri ers ends on a logical point and whilst you'd love to spend more time with Hank and Britt, it still feels like an end for the show, even if it's not the end that you or the showrunners would have wanted. If Terriers did come back, who know's if it would have been able to maintain that lightning in a bottle, which I guess is the only consolation that fans of the show can hold onto. Terriers wasn't the flashiest show on TV in 2010, it was about scruffy looking people who aren't necessarily leading man material but are just damn likeable. It was funny, light-hearted but it also knew how to punch its audience in the emotional gut, like the culmination of the third episodes 'Change Partners' or Hank consoling Katie after she cheated on Britt. The show was just superb, a show I'm going to try and force onto as many people as I can (if it ever gets aired in the UK) because it's just that good.

2. Mad Men
Mad Men, 2009's best show, aired it's best season in 2010, and yet somehow finds itself at the 2nd spot in my list. Season 4 of Mad Men was a very different season for Mad Men, most noticeably for what the show was doing the charact er of Don Draper. This year he was a wreck, nothing was coming easy to him (not once did the show have one of the famous Don Draper pitches of the past) and he was falling more and more heavily onto drinking. He was sleeping with the wrong people, making the wrong decision and was just an all round wreck. Season 4 of Mad Men essentially became a character study into the mind of Don Draper. It takes a lot for a show to put it's leading man into such a low place but Mad Men Season 4 did it so well. The character of Don Draper was completely broken down, ever single element including Dick Whitman. In the end we don't know whether Don marrying Megan in the last episode will actually be a good decision in the long but knowing Matthew Weiner, it's sure to be interesting. But away from Don the show was still doing interesting things, Betty was no longer such a huge character because of the divorce and Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper really stepped her game up in Season 4 to fa ntastic levels. Then of course the normal fantastic performances from the entire cast (shout out to Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery). Mad Men is still one of the best shows on TV, and Season 4 was easily the show's best season so far. If you haven't been watching, do yourself a favour, Mad Men is nuanced and just an all round fantastic show, but still was not the best show of 2010.

1. Breaking Bad
HOLY FUCK. That is the reaction I had to entirety of Season 3 of Breaking Bad, last year Breaking Bad was the show that came closest to taking the crown from Mad Men with a fantastic second season I didn't think it could top, of course I was wrong. Creator Vince Gilligan came back in 2010 and delivered with one of the greatest television seasons ever, the season that finally allows Breaking Bad to throw it's hat into the ring of all time greats. Most of the praise for the show probably comes off as hyperbole, but believe me when I saw this show is fantastic in every single way. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are two of the best actors working on television currently, the show proves that television really is a visual medium with Michael Slovis's photography and the writing is of the highest calibre. The show constantly leaves the audience guessing where exactly it's going to go, which helps when the show is written with almost no long overarching plan, creating a sense of spontaneity that just drips from the show. This is a show that could just list reams and reams of moments off, the end to 'One Minute' and every single monologue for instance, but that's not experiencing the show. This is a show that should be watched by as many people as possible, Breaking Bad (along with Mad Men) is the current benchmark for what can be done with the medium of television. It allows for far more interesting and nuanced characters and performances than films can ever dream, long form narratives to progress over time rather than be wrapped up in 2 hours. Breaking Bad wasn't just the finest achievement that the world of television had to offer in 2010, it's also fast becoming one of the finest offerings the medium has ever given us.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Favourite TV Shows 2010 - Top 5 Comedies

Well here we go, finally my top 10 (or at least the start of it). If you can't tell this year's top 10 list will be done in a slightly different style to the way that it has been done in the past few years, I'll be doing two top 5s. This first top 5 shall be documenting my favourite funny shows on 2010 (not that all of them are only funny) and the second will be my favourite dramas of 2010 (again not that they're all strictly dramatic). I don't know how long this messing around with the lists will last, but this way seems an interesting way to give people 5 shows if they prefer comedies to dramas. Although really I could have just done two top 10s with my honourable mentions....
Ahhh fuck it, on with the list.

5. Charlie Brooker's XXXwipe
If you know me then you know that I hold Charlie Brooker in the highest regard possible. The pinnacle of this achievement can be found in his XXXwipe shows, ranging from Screenwipe, Newswipe, Gameswipe and this years 2010wipe. Whilst 2009 had more overall episodes, I didn't actually put him on my list last year even though the shows would have been just as worthy then. So this year I'm giving Brooker the respect that he deserves. All of the shows in the XXXwipe vein look at the world of television, news, etc. through the highly cynical eyes of Charlie Brooker who brings the hilarious smackdown like almost no one else. Whether it is pointing the sheer stupidity and hypocrisy that can be found in the news media or just ripping a crap TV show to shreds, Brooker is nearly always hilarious and never not interesting. Not many shows can be this brilliantly funny, topical and just down right fascinating to watch.

4. Cougar Town
This time last year, I don't think I'd seen an episode of Cougar Town. Whilst the involvement of Bill Lawrence of Scrubs had me interested, but the idea that the show would centre on Courtney Cox (from Friends dontcha know) fucking guys half her age just seemed like an awful idea. The first few episodes did absolutely nothing to alleviate these woes with one scene in the pilot focusing on Courtney Cox's character Jules giving a college student a blowjob. This was the kind of thing that happened for about 6-7 episodes, until all of a sudden the show started doing stuff right. Bill Lawrence started using the ensemble in interesting and often hilarious ways. Eventually the show completely dropped the idea of Jules being a cougar and instead focused on the extended family of the cul-de-sac crew. Now the show easily ranks as one of the best comedies currently on TV, a wacky sense of humour very reminiscent of Scrubs (without the hospital drama element) focusing on a bunch of functional alcoholics who come up with hilarious ways to spend their time (PENNY CAN!!!). Any show that pokes fun at the awfulness of it's title every week is worth watching if you ask me.

3. Party Down
Sadly one of the best comedies of the year was also cancelled this year. Luckily there still exist 20 hilarious episodes of Party Down for people to watch and treasure for years to come. Party Down centres upon a catering company called 'Party Down' and every week the show travels to some new function or even that they're hosting. Every week you just don't what sort of event you'll get with parties ranging from orgies (yup, orgies), birthday parties, picnics and funerals. The show thrived on the awkwardness that can be produced from these situations, but the best part of the show had to be the superb ensemble cast. Whilst Jane Lynch left part way through Season 1 to go and do Glee, that came as no harm to the rest of the cast. Adam Scott plays Henry (now of Parks & Recreation) was great as the straight man lead for the show who could also be funny when the time called, and especially worked as a counterpoint to Ken Marino playing Ron (Veronica Mars) who has so much shit happen to him that it's hard not to laugh. There was Ryan Hansen playing Kyle, the aspiring actor and the only one of the team who can get jobs purely because of his looks and not his talent. The superb Martin Starr as Roman, an aspiring writer who writes hard-sci-fi, so woefully fantastic as a completely up himself douchebag who was great in every scene he was in. The show thrived and making it's characters lives awful, such as Lizzy Caplan's character Casey having her scenes in the latest Judd Apatow movie, cut or Megan Mullally's Lydia, be completely oblivious to the actual nature of show business. Party Down was a show that left our screens far too quickly but left 20 perfectly formed episodes that all comedy fans should track down and watch.

2. Community
Community for a while had the number 1 spot on this list, based on the pure virtue that it had aired more episodes and that I had seen it far more recently than the show that currently resides at the top spot. But now it must settle for this (equally fantastic) number 2 spot. Community, as almost every show on this list, has an absolutely superb ensemble that it would be unfair to focus on any one character. Community is a show that ranges through so many different ideas that it is easily the most ambitious comedy on television. Whilst not every idea may work to the fullest of it's potential (the space episode, I'm looking at you) but how many other shows can boast episodes ranging from paintball spectacular, gangster movies, zombie apocalypse, stop motion Christmas special, conspiracy movie and religious morality tale. Even at the end of it's first season, Community did two finale episodes in a row. Community completely thrives upon pop-culture references, and if you're a pop-culture geek like me then that kind of thing just appeals to you. Luckily the meta-ness doesn't come at the cost of the shows heart, with the characters still feeling like real people, even amidst the craziness. Community is a testament to the versatilely of television as a medium and is damned funny in the mean time, making the second best comedy of 2010.

1. Parks & Recreation
How could it not be? Whilst there have been no episodes in 7 months*, Parks & Recreation was still far and away the best comedy of 2010. It's amazing to think that every single show on this list made it's début in 2009, but that just proves how fantastic a year for comedy it truly was, but Parks & Recreation still reigns supreme. All I will say about this show is that it really just has to be watched, it has a reached a level of just sheer comedic consistency that it almost never fails to make me laugh. Almost no other show on TV can attest to being as consistent every single episode as Parks & Recreations is. The show is now at a level that the US Office was at during it's 2nd season, and has no sign of slowing up. If you aren't watching this show then you truly don't know how funny TV shows can be. So now I'm just going to list brilliant moments from the show in 2010. DJ Roomba, Jerry falling into the river, every single forum that is held that lets the citizens of Pawnee speak their mind, the entire relationship between April and Andy, Mouserat!, any scene where the characters from the Parks department are in or mention a library, Rob Lowe's character introduced at the end of Season 2 and how he himself introduces himself to people and of course...

...Ron 'Fucking' Swanson. Breakfast connoisseur, wood work specialist, self defence trainer, hunter and jazz musician, Ron Swanson is just a superb character, effortlessly hilarious and played to perfection by the brilliant Nick Offerman. If there is only reason to watch Parks & Recreation (there isn't) it's because of this guy and his epic moustache.

And now I leave you with the single most infectious piece of music I've ever heard.


Of The Way Back

Having just seen 'The Way Back' in the cinema (not sure exactly I'll be posting this review) I wanted to get a few thoughts down whilst they were still fresh in my mind from the experience.

'The Way Back' is a movie that tells the tale of a group of men in a Siberian gulag during World War 2 who escape and decide to make their way south, to escape from Communist rule. This journey spans 4,000 miles of harsh conditions ranging from blizzards to deserts and a general selection of not very nice conditions.

At one point in the movie, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl they find on their journey, asks Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) why the men who escaped from the gulag do not discuss their personal lives and to this Mr. Smith replies along the lines of "in the gulag we learned to keep quiet unless necessary" and it is this exchange of dialogue for me which sums up what worked and what didn't work about 'The Way Back'.

What did work, astonishingly well, is the general tone, atmosphere and look of the entire film. Peter Weir clearly knows how to shoot a scene and Russell Boyd's cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. If there is one reason to go and see 'The Way Back' it is because of how amazing the cinematography is. The shots of the snow racked forests of Siberia, the enormity of Lake Baikal, the heat and vastness of the Gobi desert all look absolutely gorgeous. Many films don't make good enough use of on location scenery, but by the sheer nature of the story that is being within 'The Way Back', it would almost be impossible to not show how awe inspiring these locales are.

Then there was the use of silence, whilst the score to the film isn't exactly sparse, there are moments when there is no sound at all. All that is left on the screen is the image of this small group of people battling against nature so that they might live. Some of the most memorable moments in the film come when everything goes silent and all that can be seen is the silhouette of the haggard band of travels walking across a sand dune. The visuals in this film are some of the best I've seen from a film in a while and show that Peter Weir is a fantastic visual director.

Sadly what let's this film down is the fact that there is almost no characterisation of the people we are following on this epic journey. Beyond the lead character, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), none of the characters we spent the following two hours with are developed at all. In fact when the gulag is left behind, I didn't actually know who had been taken with them on this journey. Maybe it didn't help that I couldn't latch onto names or that because whilst in coats in Siberia, it was difficult to tell the characters apart, I found myself unable to give any personality traits to these characters. Of course it was easy to recognise who and what sort of character that Colin Farrell* was playing in Valka** but the actual attempts at making a fully formed three dimensional character weren't even attempted until half way through the film by which point it was far too late.

However by far the most telling moment of this complete lack of characterisation came a third of the way through the film where two characters are arguing, one of whom had been shown to be an artist (hence why he became known to me as 'The Artist'), the other has had zero screen time at all. During this exchange the character with almost no screen time (apparently named Zoran) proclaims "My job is to make everyone laugh". Up until this point in the film, 'Zoran' had done absolutely nothing funny, there was no scene of him telling an amusing anecdote, it felt like this line of dialogue was there to make us have something to identify him by, but how hard could it have been to have a scene where he tells a hilarious joke.

The main problem with not having compelling characters is that when stuff happens to them, you just don't care. Because this film focuses upon a gruelling 4,000 mile walk, of course some of the characters are going to die. However when there has been almost no attempt to make them fully formed characters, it almost becomes a nuisance. The characters were just there to service the plot in the end. Instead of coming to life as real breathing human beings, they just were. They did what they were supposed to do and died when they were supposed to. The character of Irena played absolutely no role in the film other than to act as a confident between Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris so that later they could have an intimate conversation.

'The Way Back' is a long way from being perfect, mostly due to the fact that none of the characters feel like actual characters. However luckily the rest of the movie is able to compensate for this. I've already stated how amazing it looks, but truly it does, watch the trailer above at the highest quality to get a taste of how good it looks. The characters might not be the most compelling in the world but the plot is interesting on almost a primal level, it might be a shade too long but it's hard not to be interested in the plight of the characters, even if you aren't particularly interested in the characters themselves.

It might have some large shortcomings but 'The Way Back' is still made enjoyable by stunning visuals and compelling narrative. 7/10

*Surprisingly, Colin Farrell isn't in the movie as much as the adverts and billing would have the audience believe.
**I've had to look up pretty much every character's name to do this review.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Favourite TV Shows 2010 - Honourable Mentions

2010 was yet another fantastic year for TV shows, it might not be the golden age that was occurring a few years ago with The Wire, Sopranos, Deadwood etc. but it was still a year that gave us fantastic seasons of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Parks & Recreation. But those aren't the shows that I'm here to talk about, instead I want to focus upon the shows that haven't made it into my top 10. Instead this blog post will be almost an other top 10 (or 12) with shows which whilst more often than not fantastic for various reasons didn't quite make it into my overall top 10 of the year.

So enough with the introductions, here were the great shows of 2010 which didn't make my top 10 (bearing in mind that I have yet to watch some shows like Treme and Boardwalk Empire) in alphabetical order:

30 Rock
30 Rock didn't have a fantastic 2009, there was still a lot to laugh at still but it wasn't as consistent as it was during it's 2nd Season. Then there was the fact that it was having to compete with the new 2009 comedies of Community and Parks & Recreation. But then 2010 gave the show a massive comeback. There were some fantastic guest stars with Elizabeth Banks, Matt Damon, Jon Hamm, Michael Sheen, James Franco and Paul Giamatti and outright hilarious gags. James Franco and his Japanese sex pillow, Tracy remembering his past and having a mental breakdown, Jack making the video to his future 'son' about how to live, Buzz Aldrin shouting at the moon, Tracy making the advert but continually flubbing his lines and of course every moment that Michael Sheen was on screen as Wesley Snipes. 30 Rock might not be my favourite or the most consistent comedy on TV, but when it's on form it rivals the very best the medium has to offer.

Adventure Time
Adventure Time is a show that you wouldn't expect to be on any other critical TV list for 2010, but personally I think that this show is fantastic. Adventure Time is a Cartoon Network (yes THAT Cartoon Network) animated series about Finn the Human and Jake the Dog and the adventures that they have. That description doesn't highlight just how insanely surreal this show is though. It's the kind of thing that just appeals to university students in the same that Spongebob Squarepants is so appealing. But Adventure Time is something special, every episode is only 10 minutes long but you'll get vignettes dealing with a zombie invasion, pie throwing robots, how Finn deals with being turned into a foot and the art of imagination during a knife storm. It's hard to describe what makes this show so wonderful but it is, quite definitely one of the best new shows of 2010, if only for Lumpy Space Princess.

Better Off Ted
Better Off Ted is the first show on this list that was cancelled in 2010 (and sadly not the last). Better Off Ted was a comedy show set inside the fictional multi-national corporation Veridian Dynamics and dealt with the work force who helped create the inventions that they use to shape the world, which also gave birth to some absolutely fantastic fake adverts for the company ("Friendship. It's the same as stealing"). Better Off Ted was a fantastic satire of large corporations and how they deal with people. The ideas ranged from sending out a corporate memo encouraging the employees to swear (the fantastic outtakes can be seen here) and turning an employee who died on the job into a Jesus figure. All of this is topped off with a great ensemble which also gave fresh work to the Arrested Development alum Portia De Rossi as well as Jay Harrington as the titual Ted andJohnathan Slavin and Malcom Barrett as the wonderful Phil and Lem.

After the fantastic Season 2, I think that most fans were just thankful that Chuck managed to survive being cancelled, twice I might add. Chuck is still a great show, maybe not quite as good as it was in Season 2 (although it quite often gives episodes of that level) but still one of purest blasts of fun to be found on TV these days. In season 3 the show maybe got a little too dark for what it was but that's forgetting what was great about Season 3 and the first half of Season 4. We got more Jeffster, Brandon Routh (Superman) put in a great performance as the villain of Season 3, Chuck and Sarah finally consummating their relationship and Morgan and Ellie both finally found out that Chuck was a spy (as well as a great plot featuring Awesome being brought into the spying life). Then there was the continued fantastic guest casting the show does with the crown jewels at the moment being Timothy Dalton as Volkoff and Linda Hamilton as Chuck and Ellie's mother. Timothy Dalton, especially, has been fantastic as the possibly insane but increasingly scary Volkoff and I can't wait to see where this goes in the second half of Season 4.

Doctor Who
2010 and the fifth season of Doctor Who was possibly the most important year for the show since its rebirth in 2005. Not only David Tennant leaving the show after four years of inhabiting the role of The Doctor but so was Russell T Davies the man who had sheperherded the show into coming back. Luckily Steven Moffat and Matt Smith stuck the landing in what was one the better seasons of the show since it's return. There was the normal wavering quality between certain episodes but the charismatic Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were great throughout and finally the audience was getting more than one or two Moffat scripts a year. A lot of what made 2010 great for Doctor Who must be laid at Moffat's feet (not counting David Tennant's goodbye which January 1st 2010) with the terrific two parters of 'The Time of Angels'/'Flesh and Stone' and 'The Pandorica Opens'/'The Big Bang' as well as a superb Christmas special with 'A Christmas Carol' which closed out the year and left anticipating Season 6 even more.

Justified could have just turned out as just a show which let Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) take out bad guys in a cowboy hat, but instead it became so much more than that. Whilst the pilot was based off of a Elmore Leonard story, the rest of the show expanded to the point where it existed on it's own away from that story. Whilst not every episode was great, Justified was a show that put out some fantastic stand-alone episodes such as the fantastic 'Long in the Tooth'. Eventually the show achieved that hard sought balance of procedural and serialised story telling putting a great compelling overarching narrative which was frequently backed-up by a series of very well done one and done plots. Justified might feature as strong an ensemble as other shows but Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder put in two of the best performances of any actors this year something which just makes the show that much more compelling. The final 'Bulletville' might not have been the best way to end the season, but the first season was more often than not great and I can't wait for Season 2 in February.

Louie is the reason why I haven't this blog post up sooner, because I wanted to watch the complete season to make sure I was right about putting it on here. Luckily it is and if I'm perfectly honest, probably completely worthy of making the top 10. Louie is the brainchild of the hilarious comedian Louis CK (Parks & Recreation) and is one of the most difficult shows to pigeon-hole. On face value it would appear to be a sitcom, but really it's more a collection of vignettes with a loose continuity between them all bookended by some stand-up from Louie himself. The fantastic thing about Louie is that in any given episodes it's almost impossible to guess what might happen. Some episodes have downright hilarious moments, such as Louie's trip down to the South or the heckler during one of his shows, others will poignant such as the poker episode which turned into a discussion of homosexuality or just intentionally unfunny such as the fantastic episodes 'God' and 'Bully'. Not every bit or episode will work but it never tries one thing for two long and it's nearly always refreshing to watch.

Modern Family
Modern Family also made the honourable mentions last year, and that isn't to say it isn't any worse than it was last year, it just isn't up to the level of the shows I selected for my top 10. The main problem with Modern Family is one that pervades many shows with ensembles, that some plot lines just might not work in some episodes, and the episodes that do work have a meeting of all the plot-lines. Luckily the cast for Modern Family is one of the most likeable on TV with great performances from Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet and Ed O'Neill. Modern Family is definitely not the most experimental or ambitious comedy on TV, it's just an incredibly reliable, often hilarious family sitcom which is more often than not just what you want.

The Pacific
Say what you will about The Pacific being "just another war show/movie" and you're probably right, but that doesn't stop it from being any less fantastic. At 10 hours long, The Pacific offered one of the most psychologically draining shows on all of TV last year. In it Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks offered yet another superb war drama on par with Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and it was an entirely different beast. Instead of being based on the western front, The Pacific, as the name suggests, focus on the far less reported by far more gruesome Pacific front. What was a delivered was a 10 hour tour de force that looked into the psychological nature of being a soldier in the war and what exactly it puts you through without every shying away, which as a result meant that The Pacific had a far darker tone than Band of Brothers. Bolstered by amazing production values and fantastic performances by James Badge Dale, Jon Seda and Joseph Mazello, The Pacific was one of the best shows to air on TV in 2010 and only just missed out on the top 10.

Moving from one show that starred James Badge Dale to another one. Rubicon was an entirely different beast to The Pacific, but was just as great and despite numerous early problems a great addition to the AMC line-up. Sadly though Rubicon was cancelled after it's first season but that still doesn't make enjoyment of that season any less. Rubicon was a show that started out as in the same vein as 70s conspiracy thrillers but eventually found a far more comfortable setting focusing on the moral ambiguity that goes into researching terrorists and appropriate responses. It was fascinating to watch what was essentially four people in a room reading files, but it became compelling viewing. If only episode 12 'Wayward Sons' (Journey reference FTW) had been the finale, Rubicon would have been one of the best shows of the year, sadly the far more conspiracy centric 'You Never Can Win' served as the finale and sadly focused on the weaker elements of the show. Luckily the first 12 episodes of the show were still uniformly fantastic especially with great performances from the likes of Arliss Howard and Michael Cristofer.

It wasn't the best year for Supernatural mostly due to the fact that the show is never as good as when it was as focused as it was in the early parts of 2010 but it's still just a great show. Whilst I might have been happier if 'Swan Song' had indeed been the last episode of the show (I'm a sucker for when shows end when they feel like they should have ended) I'm still getting new episodes of one of my favourite shows. Season 6 at the moment is only half way through and therefore it's almost impossible to make any snap judgements so all I can say is that I have no fucking clue where it's all going, which is interesting if slightly worrying at the same time. Season 6 might be slightly muddled, but has still been made enjoyable by the occasional fantastic episode ('Weekend At Bobby's), the usual great performances from Jensen, Jared, Jim and Misha and the fact that the show week-in, week-out puts out a great and interesting take on the Supernatural.

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead makes it onto this list almost entirely because of the potential it holds to become fantastic. Season 1 seems far more like a prologue to a far more fantastic second season than anything else. Because of it's incredibly short length (only 6 episodes) there wasn't any real room for the show to breathe, it was in those moments in Season 1 that the show was fantastic. Whilst the show does need to work on certain characterisations, overall it's found a very sturdy foundation, especially when it comes to the divergences that it has made from Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series. The Walking Dead has probably the most promise of all the returning shows this year to improve, and it when it does come back in October I know I'll be waiting with bated breathe to see what Frank Darabont and the rest of the team will deliver.

So those were the honourable mentions, feel free to weigh in with any of your own thoughts and be sure to check back over the next few days for Top 10 favourite shows, my favourite episodes and my biggest disappointments of 2010.