Danger Mouse

September 27, 2015 by  
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Danger Mouse 1

The inherent problem in reviewing a remake (the new Danger Mouse) of a retro classic (the original Danger Mouse) is the ‘Nostalgia Factor:’ the knee-jerk reflex to be unfairly harsh on a recreation of a treasured childhood memory. But, in this case, I’m compelled to adhere to the ironically classic formula: the new Danger Mouse doesn’t reinvigorate the original.

Nor does it provide a fresh perspective on even a small segment of the original. The new, bright, and perky visual style feels insubstantial and unfinished. There are some boxes that are satisfyingly ticked: 4th wall breaks, self-referentiality, a strong role for the narrator; check, check, check. But overall, it feels splintered. Rather than the passionate vision of a cohesive team, it comes across as a highlights reel of the last 20 years of animation. Some elements, like the Looney Tunes influence, are worthy additions but this is the exception.

The voice acting is mostly great, Danger Mouse (Alexander Armstrong) himself sounds grandiose, unflappable, and engaging. Stephen Fry is warm, charming, and amusing as Colonel K. The narrator (Dave Lamb) successfully establishes himself as a character involved in the action but also standing outside of it. But the new gadget maker/’Q’ (Shauna MacDonald) stand-in feels like a regular person that wandered onto the DM set and doesn’t add a whole lot.

Finally, the length has been increased from a 10-ish minute canapé to a 22 minute Greek Salad of confusion. Perhaps a return to the more succinct length of the original would help the new DM find focus, pacing etc. but as it currently stands it makes me miss the original rather than revel in what should have been a competent homage.

Danger Mouse starts on 28th September, and is on every weekday on CBBC at 18.00.

Don’t Panic – How to End Poverty in 15 Years

September 23, 2015 by  
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Don't Panic 1

In terms of factual presenters my personal favourite over recent years has been the Swedish scientist and statistical sword swallower (that last bit really is true) Prof. Hans Rosling. His programmes such as BBC Four’s The Joy of Stats and BBC Two’s Don’t Panic – The Truth about Population make for eye-opening viewing.

His latest Don’t Panic episode, How to End Poverty in 15 Years, looks at the proposal by the United Nations to eliminate extreme poverty across the entire globe by 2030 – “extreme poverty” meaning the state of living on less than $1.25 a day. Rosling investigates if such a thing is possible and if so how it can be achieved. He does this by looking at the statistical information and presenting it in a clear and entertaining way, using a mixture of real-life footage from people living in both extreme and relative poverty in Malawi and Cambodia, and the use of animated and entertaining graphs and charts, ranging from computer animated models to a hand-crafted self-assembly graph (cue the custom Ikea joke from our Swedish host).

Rosling also tests his studio audience and viewers at home by asking them questions on poverty, resulting in the fact that what we generally believe is far worse than reality. This one of the joys of the professor – his shows are not doom-mongering scare stories. Rosling shows, using statistical evidence, that not only is the situation in the worst parts of the world improving, but also by how much, and how just simple changes in areas such as international aid can make the UN’s goal achievable.

It is also useful to see how the figures break down. Rosling for example shows a graphic of how extreme poverty has fallen from 1800 to 2015 in terms of the percentage of the world’s population, but then makes his graph more accurate by show his figures relative to growing population of the planet over that time. For me, the most shocking thing in the show was that in 1800, 80% of the world’s population, one billion people, were in extreme poverty. By 2015, only 12% of the world’s population is in extreme poverty, but because the world population is now over seven billion, the total number of people alive today in extreme poverty is one billion – the same as it was back in 1800.

Rosling also tries to make the viewer change their clichéd view of poverty, change the way that many richer people have that everyone in poverty is in the same state of poverty: not everyone is in “extreme poverty”. Lots of people, such as those earning $10 a day, are in “The Middle”, and are starting to make good progress.

Programmes such as this one remind us that while the world still faces many problems, many of them can be solved if we work hard. We should be happy with our progress so far, and keep up this progress. We should not just think the world is all doom and gloom. In terms of the phrase “Don’t Panic”, this programme would definitely have those words written in large friendly letters on the cover.

Don’t Panic – How to End Poverty in 15 Years is available on the BBC iPlayer.

Rick & Morty: Season 2

September 9, 2015 by  
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Rick and Morty 1

I have a confession blah, blah, blah. I haven’t watched Rick and Morty before. All of its apparently impressive first season: zero familiarity. But I’ve slunk onto the band wagon at the beginning of season 2 (the first three episodes to be exact) and I’m seriously considering exploring the backstory.

I feel like this review should be in the form of an amorphous blob or a version of Connect-4 in which ants battle a particularly aggressive shade of blue. That’s the kind of show Rick and Morty is in season 2: unexpected, open to interpretation and just non-preachy enough.

To return to my earlier point about considering a backstory exploration, I think that’s one of the best indication of quality. If jumping in halfway through something is sufficiently easy and enjoyable, you end up wanting to give more of your time to appreciating it.

Plots include: eccentric/mad scientist Rick rekindling an old romance with a hive-mind. Fun and games with alternate timelines and a daycare centre for Morty’s dad(s). Full disclosure, I had to triple check the above use of the names ‘Rick’ and ‘Morty’ because I couldn’t remember which was which. Not relevant to the review, just a thing.

Rick and Morty quite obviously belongs to that new ripple of animated shows (Regular Show, Adventure Time, Aqua Teen Hunger Something Something) that have loose ties to reality and wield creative plot twists like a magician’s attractive assistant. But I think the advantage that shows like Regular Show and “Rickles and Morticai” have is that they utilise firmly structured chaos. Ludicrous things happen but the plot develops in much the same way that a brick wall develops as its being laid. Except the bricks are slabs of butter, made from the milk of a sentient tree, on a far distant understanding of space and time.

Rick & Morty season 2 is broadcast in double-bills on FOX at 11pm on Thursdays.

Bollywood and Beyond

September 6, 2015 by  
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Bollywood and Beyond 1

It would be remiss of the BBC not to shine a spotlight on one of the world’s largest film industries as part of their India Season - which is set to take an insightful look at the cultural diversity and splendour of the subcontinent – and film-loving comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, OBE, duly obliges with a retrospective 90-minute documentary on the past one hundred years of Bollywood.

Tracing the course of his personal relationship with Indian film, which began with weekly family visits to cinemas in Southall, Bhaskar charts the rise of the all-singing, all-dancing, not necessarily all-action medium from its humble beginnings during the silent era, through the diversification of ‘parallel cinema’, to an embrace of modern day technology in films such as S. S. Rajamouli’s colossal, CGI-heavy epic Baahubali.

The pre-eminence of either Bollywood or Hollywood on the world stage is a point for debate depending on which side of the fence you sit but the meteoric rise of Mumbai as the epicentre of both cinematic enterprise and the nation’s global economic ambition is unquestionable. From here, Bhaskar travels across India interviewing screenwriters, critics, actors, producers and directors on a journey that will lead him back to London, the reach and influence of Bollywood now spreading to wherever immigrants with Indian heritage – like the presenter himself – have settled around the world.

One of the most intriguing moments of Bhaskar’s doc is conversation with Asha Bhosle, a “playback” singer who has the most recorded voice in history. Even in her 80s she retains the dulcet tones which covered over the cracks of less gifted vocalists over years and years of film: 12,000 songs and counting. Extraordinary.

The films covered by Bhaskar, emblematic of the time and place they were made, are as diverse as they are plentfiul: Gods and goddesses, colonialism, love stories, poverty, community, the changing representation of women and sexuality, and even superheroes. Bollywood has something for everyone and continues to go from strength to strength but importantly retains the one vital ingredient which has characterised its now rich history since the very beginning – hope.

Bollywood and Beyond: A Century of Indian Cinema, is broadcast on BBC Four at 21.00.


Revenge Porn

August 23, 2015 by  
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Revenge Porn with Anna Richardson 1

If the Twitter response is anything to go by, Revenge Porn scared the crap out of a whole load of people last week. The Channel 4 documentary sees Anna Richardson investigate the truly 21st century phenomena, in which scorned exes maliciously share intimate pictures of their former partners online, without their consent – and its on the rise.

When was the last time you shared a sexy selfie with a partner? It’s a pretty commonplace occurrence nowadays – run of the mill, even – and chances are most of us don’t put a great deal of consideration into the decision, save for how to achieve the most flattering angle. But more and more men and women (overwhelmingly women, really) are living to regret those decisions, or at least to regret trusting the person they shared their photos with, when their photos wind up on revenge porn websites to be potentially viewed by tens of thousands. What’s more the victim’s personal details – names, email addresses, social media accounts and locations – are often shared too, leading to droves of unwanted solicitation from horny perverts the world over. These truly are some terrifying times we live in.

Overall Revenge Porn does a good job of highlighting this new and most heinous of crimes, but it is certainly not without some serious missteps. Time spent speaking with real life victims is a bit thin on the ground, and Richardson sidesteps the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the consequences that many of them resultantly suffer from, with many in reality having to leave their homes or jobs, or else falling prey to physical assaults.

The time spent with victims focuses mainly on the emotional impacts they suffer – the humiliation, the distress and the betrayal – but ultimately this is compromised by Richardson’s unconvincing attempt to step into their shoes by uploading her own pornographic photos to one of the most well-known revenge sites. This stunt becomes the central theme around which the rest of the program seems to revolve, with Richardson claiming it would allow her (and supposedly us) to get a flavour of how it feels to be exposed in such a way.

Potentially this feels rather insulting to true victims of revenge porn, when you consider all of the differing factors – the fact that Richardson had control over her own pictures, posting them under false contact details and editing her face to hide her true identity. As one member of the public rightly put it when speaking to Richardson, “it’s the trust thing” that makes this crime so deplorable. Richardson may have experienced the sexual harassment and body shaming sent her way by the viewers of her photos, but ultimately it is preposterous for her to claim any kind of solidarity with true victims when her own experience was devoid of any aspect of betrayal or helplessness. It felt far more like an exercise in self-absorption than a serious attempt to connect with the heart of the issue, and unfortunately drags down the investigative tone.

In any case, Revenge Porn still packs some punches – particularly of note are interviews with some unapologetic perpetrators, which will no doubt leave you open-mouthed. Whilst some will criticise the focus on female victims, the segregation is in some way necessary due to the different nature of revenge porn committed against men. When directed against women, an element of power and control is central; the harassment is a frenzy of misogynistic ‘slut-shaming’ and threats of rape, which don’t often find their equivalent across the gender divide.

Revenge Porn does the proper thing in choosing to focus on women, and should leave every one of us with a visceral sense of mortification and empathy for others of our sex. Anna Richardson really shows us that we are all potential victims, and the realization is not particularly pleasant.

Revenge Porn can be watched on All4.

Suits: Season 5

August 12, 2015 by  
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Suits USA-Harvey & Mike

Suits season 5 opens with a refreshing new direction. Rather than continue to labour the indigent efforts of Mike Ross, Suits has finally decided to give Harvey Specter some backstory, depth, and, most importantly, tangible flaws.

I should probably justify that ‘Mike Ross bashing’ above. After 4 seasons, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering why Mike hasn’t made any progress towards resolving his dark secret. For a guy with an eidetic memory he’s continually forgetting how inconvenient it is to live with his burden. Why not do a law degree online? He could claim that the law has changed a lot since he graduated and he simply wants to brush up. If that seems too close to the bone he could do a PhD in Law, using the authenticity of his doctorate to distract people from the fakery of his actual Law degree. Or they could have continued to pursue the show’s previous direction of having Mike move into investment banking, an area that doesn’t require his fake degree. He even had a sassy assistant that could have made for some great confrontations with Donna.

Way back at the beginning of the series I thought we were free of Mike’s burden when his hacker friend puts him into the Harvard Law system as if he’d truly graduated but, alas, we’re stuck with the perennial plot point.

It’s understandable that a show wants to cling to its prime complication, its conflict, its raison d’etre, but simply resolving a tired old problem doesn’t mean the show can’t take on a brand new prime complication! Anyway, back to Harvey. Episode 1 of Season 5 finally shows a vulnerable Harvey, indicating that the show has realised that a tough, cocky, competent character can still be thoroughly flawed. In fact, the more untenably bad situations a character suffers through, the more we want to see how they’ll react; how the depths of their character will endure or break.

As would be expected from the confident to a fault Harvey, his first reaction to cracks in his armour is to cover it up with something, quickly. In this case, it looks to be medication. Despite the fact that it’s taken Suits a long time to get to this point, they’ve set up a very satisfying arc for Harvey. His progress will be slow but hopefully infinitely interesting in what it reveals about a character made more of marble than flesh.

Suits goes out on Dave at 22.00 on Monday nights.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Series 12

August 12, 2015 by  
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Who Do You Think You Are 1

With Who Do You Think You Are? returning to our screens, I have a confession to make – I have never seen an episode of The Great British Bake Off. I know I am perhaps one of only several people in the country to be in this position, and I say this as the first episode of WDYTYA? follows the family tree of GBBO judge Paul Hollywood, a person who I knew almost nothing about.

The route taken in this first episode of series twelve follows Paul Hollywood’s maternal grandfather and his service during the Second World War, and further back along the same line to his family history in Scotland.

This series will also traces the ancestry of Sir Derek Jacobi, Jerry Hall, Mark Gatiss, Anne Reid, Jane Seymour, Gareth Malone, Frances de la Tour, Anita Rani and Frank Gardner.

I absolutely love WDYTYA? and will watch every episode in the series, regardless of the person whose family tree they are following. As we are shown the lives and hardships faced by these past generations, we also see the joy in these celebrities finding out about these individuals and their stories, and often the comparisons to themselves and their own lives.

One aspect of knowing that WDYTYA? is returning to our screens that can be an issue is the trailer for the series, which can often contain spoilers. Thankfully, the recently released trailer for this series seems to be mostly spoiler-free. A great part of the show is following the events alongside the person on screen, rather than already knowing what is going to occur, so we have the same emotional impact when a new piece of information is discovered.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a wonderfully produced show, and can influence us all into looking at our own family tree. The various international versions which it has spawned confirm its success, and I hope the BBC has many more series lined up for the future.

Who Do You Think You Are? will begin on Thursday 13th August at 9pm on BBC1.

Treasures of the Indus

August 10, 2015 by  
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Treasures of the Indus 1

In a three-part voyage of discovery into the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, art historian Dr. Sona Datta, former curator of the South Asia collection at the British Museum, travels 5,000 years into the past along the arterial Indus River. Giving its name to the region, the waterway flows from Tibet, through India and Pakistan as far as Karachi on the Arabian Sea. From an extremely well informed viewpoint Datta highlights how the changing course of the Indus has shaped the artwork, architecture and people of an area long-riven by religion over the course of millennia, now all too frequently associated with the Taliban and the export of Islamic extremism.

Ali Sehti, a young writer and musician interviewed in Lahore, states that his native Pakistan is “politically very young and culturally very old”. The country gained independence from British rule just a little over 70 years ago and Datta is acutely aware of the effect that the past continues to have on the present in the Indus basin and its millions of inhabitants.

The first installment, which begins and ends in the vibrant and spiritual Punjabi provincial capital, looks into the changing perception of Buddha and representation of Buddhism in antiquities and architecture. We travel by train to the ancient City of Harappa, which dates back to the time of the pyramids; to Hund and Sirkap – where the Hellenic influence of a conquering Alexander the Great altered the physical image of Buddha we are familiar with to this day; and lastly to Taxila and a monastery used as a centre for learning.

Just as the river continues to flow, works of art destroyed by ISIS demonstrate how history has a tendency to repeat itself – conflict and religious discord remain intertwined. Dr. Datta’s ‘Treasures of the Indus’ promises to provide viewers with an element of adventure and wanderlust as well as engaging historical, anthropological and cultural material which lifts the veil on this region’s past and proves you must know where you have been to know where you’re going.

Parks and Recreation: Season 4

August 5, 2015 by  
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Parks and Recreation 1

The first two episodes of Parks and Recreation (Parks and Rec) Season 4 aired on Dave over the weekend. Rarely has a show deserved Dave’s particular brand of endless repetition more.

By Season 4, Parks and Rec was well and truly in its groove. The first episode of Dave’s ‘double bill’ quickly introduces the next stage of Leslie’s inexplicably inexhaustible career. But weaving throughout Leslie’s imminent campaign for public office are two of the most infamous plotlines in Parks and Rec history: Ron’s sudden, violent, and hilarious departure from the Department and Tom’s vague business, Entertainment 720.

Firstly: Ron’s departure. Ron learns that his ex-wife, Tammy I, is drawing nearer. What follows is one of the finest scenes of character development and comedy that has ever been written and performed. It was and is so thoroughly appropriate a reaction for the character that Ron Swanson remains the inimitable source of countless quotes and memes even after the series has ended.

Not wanting to spoil the details of Ron’s exit any further for those that will be lucky enough to see it for the first time, I’ll move on to Tom Haverford.

Entertainment 720 is just as thoroughly ‘Haverford’ as Ron’s exit was ‘Swanson.’ The scenes focusing on Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s company are filled with satire pushed beyond the limits of absurdity that demonstrate the childish nature of corporate culture and marketing. Just one example finds two professional basketball players shooting mindless hoops in a corner of Entertainment 720’s lavish Headquarters. Parks and Rec strengthens this joke by casting the actual players the script mentions rather than distantly visible lookalikes.

The difficulty in reviewing this episode is that it demands detailed appreciation but also a degree of preservation, as the jokes are each precious and shouldn’t be squandered in the dim glow of a lonely computer screen. As such and once again, I will move on before I spoil anything.

Episode 2 of Parks and Rec Season 4 is a ‘Symphony of Swanson’. Regrettably, that phrase was necessary because the episode is a symphony in the true sense of having much light & shade, dynamism, and range. However, in this case the traditional four movements have been replaced by a classically satisfying 3 acts and the music has been replaced by comedy.

After the ominous hinting of Tammy I in episode 1, her tyranny is in full swing by episode 2. We see a new side of Ron, again I apologise for the cliché but sometimes, if rarely, such descriptions are accurate. In addition to a new side we also see considerable back story unfold forming a partially completed origami cube of three-dimensional comedy.

That’s it! I will say no more; just watch them, watch the whole box set, laugh heartily.

Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure

July 30, 2015 by  
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Joanna Lumley 1

Joanna Lumley’s three part series charts her journey through China, Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. The adventure spans 6,400 miles and takes her to places as varied as 5th century Buddhist temples, Mongolian goldmines and icy Siberian deserts. Her final destination is Moscow – a place Lumley hasn’t visited since her modelling days during the Cold War.

Lumley has already visited some of the places and indeed lived in some of the places in the series and her insight on how the environment has changed is genuinely interesting. Her father was stationed with the Ghurka regiment in Hong Kong when she was four years old and upon returning to her family home decades later she discovers that, in her words, the city has ‘altered its whole nature’.

The highlights of the first episode include the properly bizarre Chinese restaurant with entertainers similar to Butlin’s redcoats (if the red stood for Communism) and Lumley’s car ride with a lady I imagine is basically a Real Housewife of Beijing, who constantly takes selfies whilst driving as Joanna politely and repeatedly asks her to stop. Most interesting is the bizarre paradox of China’s obsession with consumerism and designer brands existing alongside its Communist ideals. As Lumley says, ‘you can buy a Prada handbag but you aren’t allowed to access Google or Youtube’. Similarly in Russia, she finds the best shops to be located on Karl Marx Street. Much of the show is entertaining fluff but Lumley does take time to mention, though not quite delve into, Tibet and Tiananmen Square amongst other politically charged areas.

Lumley is an incredibly cosy presenter, presenting a mixture of historical background and anecdotal information. The series presents fascinating juxtapositions of landscape – from the soaring skyscrapers lit up like the Aurora Borealis and the remote nomadic farmlands. The themes of warring ideologies and tradition vs modernity reoccur throughout the series and across the countries she visits. This is echoed by Lumley’s journey – retracing old steps and exploring new locations. When describing an old photograph of herself, the always eloquent Lumley makes the pleasantly philosophical remark: ‘you never lose who you were. You just grow round [yourself] like a tree’. Similarly, this is repeatedly proved by the landscapes she visits.

Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure is a worthwhile watch and Lumley, herself, is a very pleasing tour guide. Ultimately, it’s an entertaining, easy-going holiday to some of the most mysterious cultures on earth with a kindly and knowledgeable travel companion.

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