100 Greatest TV Episodes: Pilot (s1 ep1)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

sopranos

By Dr. Pangloss

I had to write this entry early, if only to preclude someone else inevitably chiming in with “Pine Barrens is the best episode of The Sopranos”. For sure, ‘Pine Barrens’ is an immaculately realised vignette with some of the deftest comedy to be seen in such a high minded drama, but it can hardly be held aloft as representative of a show best described as a sprawling narrative, drama in the most literal sense that is patiently grown over hours of screen time.

In that sense, it is almost impossible to pick one episode of the show to champion, as the intricate intertextuality (and obscenely consistent high quality) of the episodes which build on one another make it difficult to wrest one out of context as the best. But as the title of this post suggests, I’m going to make a case for the ‘Pilot’ episode nonetheless.

While inevitably not as layered as subsequent seasons, the first is (perhaps because of the fact) the show’s most complete. Each piece fits neatly into the next, inexorably leading towards the intense finale – which itself sets into motion the events of the next season. And, working backwards, it is the Pilot which sets the foundations for all that follows.

Like all essentially true revelations, the central concept behind The Sopranos seems so inevitable, so intrinsically true, that it is a wonder it had not been done a thousand times before. In a Postmodern world, of course a mob boss would suffer from stress-induced panic attacks and be forced to visit a psychiatrist.

It is from this one simple, delectable idea that the entire show is built. Throughout the six seasons, Tony’s struggle with identity, both as an American, a father and an alpha male, his attempts to reconcile obligations to Family and family, his fractured relationships with friends, family, women, colleagues – all are thrown into stark relief through his sessions with Melfi. Never has a TV character been so impeccably recognised, and deeply explored, as Tony Soprano.

The show displays levels of subtlety, subtext, immediacy, depth, visceral fear and even empathy that no other before it or since has come close to matching. Not only that, the series operates within one of the most hackneyed, over-saturated genres in film and TV and one over which The Godfather films bestride, unmoveable. And yet, not only does the show, and the pilot episode, confidently operate within this sphere, it has the the audacity to incorporate countless elements, references, quotes, impressions and indeed actors from the genre’s most famous examples, in effect negating their power and excavating a space in which to operate. “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type” – he grew up, he got in touch with his feelings. His type is gone. Never had a TV show interacted in such a sustained way with its bigger Hollywood brothers; not even as their equal, but as their superior.

Pilots are often a test run, something to be changed and adapted according to executive and viewer feedback in order to reactively shape the future of a show. This was no such thing. ‘Pilot’ was a fully-formed, fully realised 54 minutes which was to act as a blueprint for every episode that followed. The seeds sown, narratively, thematically, stylistically, take root throughout the rest of the season and sprout over the course of the show’s course. This is why, were it not for seasons 3-15 of the Simpsons, The Sopranos would be my favourite TV show of all time and why I think comparisons with shows like The Wire etc to which it is often subjected are belittling.

While an unconventional choice (Whitecaps, College and Made in America usually feature prominently in such lists), the first episode may also seem a bit like a cop out. But before you flee in your white robe, consider just how revolutionary ‘Pilot’ was, and how utterly essential each aspect of it was for both the original season’s arc, the five seasons that followed and indeed its place at the vanguard of HBO’s drama production, which revolutionised how audiences perceived TV and what such programmes could achieve.

It’s no stretch to suggest that without ‘Pilot’, we would have no The Wire, no Six Feet Under, no Band of Brothers, no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men – in other words, nothing produced after the year 2000 that will appear on this list.

And that, quite aside from its own considerable merits, is enough for its inclusion.

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

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Failed Critics Podcast: COP – Arnie

Arnold Schwarzenegger CigarOn this week’s podcast we review Zero Dark Thirty, Flight, Hyde Park on Hudson, and The Possession  We also induct the second member of our Corridor of Praise. Let’s hand over to Gerry to introduce him…

Murzzuschlag, Austria. The Second World War is ending. Aurelia Jadrny, a clerk in her early twenties whose husband was killed just eight months after their wedding, is working at her desk when she spots a tall, good looking man in his late thirties walking past. He’s wearing the uniform of the gendarmerie, Austria’s rural police, and she likes a man in uniform. Over time, they talk through the window – she works out when his shift is so she’s always at her desk. His name is Gustav and when they marry late in 1945 he is thirty eight, she is twenty three. He is assigned to Thal, a tiny village, and they live in a simple stone house at the top of a hill, 100 yards from a ruined old castle, on the single unpaved road in the village. There is no plumbing, no shower, no flushing toilet, and the nearest well is a quarter of a mile away. They make do, scraping by on his meagre wage through hard work and thrift – an ethic they will instil in their children.

They quickly have a son, Meinhard, and struggle along despite the widespread famine in newly-occupied Austria. In 1947, with the famine ongoing and at its worst, they have another son. In this small, impoverished stone house in rural Austria, one of the 20th Century’s greatest stars has just been born. Gustav and Aurelia name him Arnold, and their big, broad genetics and hard working nature will combine to make Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the most influential men in modern American culture.

Both boys are encouraged by their father to frequently take part in sport, particularly football. As the children grow up, they start to do sit ups to earn their breakfast as well as doing a lot of chores. At 15, Arnold decides to take up weightlifting over football, attending a gym in nearby Graz. The dedication his harsh father has drilled into him leads him to break into the gym when it is closed on weekends. At 18, he serves in the army as part of his military service. During basic training, he goes AWOL to take part in the Junior Mr Europe bodybuilding contest – the week he spends in military prison is made worthwhile by him winning the competition. In 1966, he takes a plane for the first time to go to London for the Mr Universe competition. He comes second but a judge spots his potential and invites him to live with his family in London to train him. A year later, age 20 and with a slowly improving grasp of English, Arnold wins the Mr Universe title – the first of three. He moves to Munich and goes to business school, recognising that his Mr Universe titles are the way to achieve his long-held ambition of moving to the US.

In 1968 he moves to LA, training at Gold’s Gym and embarking on the path to being an American legend. He wins the first of seven Mr Olympia titles in 1970, but his brother Meinhard dies in a drink driving accident in 1971 followed by his father a year later. Arnold doesn’t attend his funeral, and by this stage he’s had his first film role in Hercules in New York…

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The Queen of Versailles

David Siegel and his wife Jackie The Queen Of VersaillesIt’s your birthday. You want to celebrate in the best possible way. So you arrange a party at the top floor of the Gherkin, with Girls Aloud playing a set. Oh, and it won’t cost you a penny – your employer is footing the bill, as it’s being classed as an industry event.

Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? But it happened, to celebrate the birthday of a big name in the mortgage market back before the credit crunch hit. I started in financial journalism in 2007, a year or so after this particular shindig, but it wasn’t that unique.

There was the invite to be flown down to a day at the races in Cheltenham by helicopter, the three-day ‘summit’ in Monte Carlo, the all-afternoon (and sometimes evening) lunches in London’s best restaurants. Nobody batted an eyelid.

That almost innocent attitude towards the most excessive of spending dominates the first half of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary by Lauren Greenfield, which follows billionaire David Siegel and his family as they attempt to build the largest single-family home in America.

It’s fair to say that, at the outset, none of the protagonists are that likeable. David Siegel is, genuinely, one of the most loathsome figures in a film that I’ve ever seen, a man able to say with a straight face that all of the people in his life are better off as a result of knowing him.

His wife, Jackie, doesn’t fare much better. An engineer turned beauty queen, she totters around talking the viewers through her grand ideas for the new home, inspired by the palace of Versailles. If you manage to tear your eyes away from her ridiculously oversized boobs, you subject yourself to having to hear her prattle on about how much this chair cost, or how the home is going to have its own spa and bowling alley.

This is a woman who lives to spend.

Both are asked separately why they are building such a vast home, and the answers are very telling. Jackie says that her husband has worked very hard to be worth so much money and so deserves the largest home in America, like it’s some sort of reward. David’s answer is much more succinct: “Because I can.”

Worst of all though is the look behind the scenes at Siegel’s timeshare business. We get to see David’s son, Richard, giving the sales team a pep talk which is genuinely beyond belief. I’ve worked with some bullshitting salesmen in my time – hell, my dad’s an estate agent – but this guy was something else, emphasising that by selling timeshares they were saving lives as people that go on holiday more often are less likely to suffer serious illness.

The contrast with the family’s home help, a collection of Asian nannies and housekeepers, tells its own heart-breaking story, particularly the nanny who hasn’t seen her child in two decades, instead having to work thousands of miles from home in order to send money back.

Her living quarters? A giant dolls house that the Siegel children no longer want.

Then the credit crunch hits. And it all goes to hell.

Suddenly the cheap credit that had been the foundation of Siegel’s business isn’t there anymore. Thousands of staff are made redundant, the purse strings are tightened, and the Siegels are forced to put their unfinished dream home on the market.

The way they deal with this situation is fascinating. David becomes a recluse, locking himself away in his office or study, desperately trying to find backers for his Las Vegas project. His disdain for those around him, his wife, his children, grows by the minute. Suddenly the cost of the trophy wife and family seems a little steep.

In contrast, Jackie goes on something of a journey. She flies economy class to visit friends and family she hasn’t seen in years, goes back to her roots to reconnect with where she came from.

She begins to realise that the crazy spending of the past is over, and while she has an awful lot of trouble adapting to her new financial realities, you can see she has a good heart and wants to help both the family she loves and those former employees who are suffering as a result of her husband’s greed and ambition. The tension when they are on screen together is compelling viewing.

I spoke with countless Davids and Jackies in the days and months after the credit crunch hit. Plenty of businesses whose models were now entirely obsolete reassured me that they’d be back, they just needed to sort out some funding. I don’t hear from them anymore.

I do hear from the Jackies though. The firms that got caught up in the world of easy money, who have had their fingers burned and learned a few lessons. There’s still plenty of lavish spending going on, but there aren’t too many birthday parties on the top floor of London monuments this days.

The Queen of Versailles is an excellent documentary, almost by accident, a fluke of timing. It’s also the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen of the madness that led to the financial crisis in the first place.

The Queen of Versailles is BBC4 at 10pm on Monday 28th January, and released on DVD the same day.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Spielberg and Day-Lewis combine to produce a worthy, in every sense, Oscar-contender.

Another week, another film about America’s murky history of slavery. Although Lincoln touches on similar themes to its Oscar rival Django Unchained, it is as far from Tarantino’s exploitation Western as you could possibly imagine. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the eponymous president, and tells the story of his struggles to end the American Civil War and abolish slavery.

A week is a long time in politics, and while Lincoln doesn’t feel quite that long, its 150 minute running time is going to be a sticking-point with some members of the audience. Especially as the film is less an epic biopic of ‘America’s greatest president’, and more a political procedural that spans a mere few months after Abe is re-elected for a second term. Lincoln best describes himself, and the film, early on when telling a young black soldier who has just fought at Gettysburg, “I’m used to moving at a deliberate pace”.

Thankfully, the slow pace of the film gives the performances time to breathe, like a fine red wine. And make no mistake; this film is packed with excellent performances. Day-Lewis is far more introspective and restrained as Lincoln than in his Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood; the subtlety and exhaustion he brings for the part is arguably even more impressive than his turned-up-to-eleven histrionics as Daniel Plainview. The supporting cast are also very impressive; particularly Tommy Lee Jones as the radical who has to compromise his beliefs for a smaller victory in the House of Representatives, and James Spader as the oily lobbyist demonstrating that politics has always been a dirty game of favours and threats.

This is Spielberg’s best film in years, in no small way due to his decision to treat his audience as adults who can follow a convoluted political plot with a host of characters. At times Lincoln feels like an educational history programme with exceptionally high production values. Lincoln’s predilection for solving arguments in his cabinet by telling folksy anecdotes never tires, and one in section he quotes Euclid’s first common notion that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. A lot of credit should go to screenwriter Tony Kushner for allowing the audience to make the comparison to equal human rights without it being spelled out to them.

However, the film is not flawless. Sally Field feels wasted in an underwritten role as Lincoln’s wife Mary, and the role of women in this film generally seems to be one of quiet obedience. It also suffers from bouts of sentimentalism which has long been a problem with Spielberg’s work, and which reach their nadir in an epilogue with more endings than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Minor issues aside, this is a welcome return to form from one of Hollywood’s great directors.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: The Cold Open (s1 ep2)

studio 60 matt albieTime flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show The West Wing could have been. Aaron Sorkin’s 2006 offering, set behind the scenes of a live TV comedy sketch show (so, SNL basically) was cancelled after a single season. The blame for its demise can be placed on the debut of similar in subject matter only 30 Rock the same year, the expense of such an enormous production, or just the fact that it wasn’t good enough. Indeed, there is much criticism on the internet. It took the haters five years to move on (and only then because Sorkin incurred fresh wrath by making Newsroom). Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of those 22 episodes of television.

My tastes are perhaps a little niche. But any show willing to ditch the three main characters and dedicate an entire episode to reuniting Allison Janney and Timothy Busfield, The West Wing’s second best on screen couple, is alright with me. Add to that all the usual Sorkin walking, talking, calling each other ‘sir’ shenanigans, a guest appearance by John Goodman, and the fact that it’s about a television show, and it’s guaranteed to be one of the first box sets I turn to when asked to contribute to a list of greatest episodes. Sadly, these days, television networks tend to base their renewal decisions more on Nielsen and less on my own personal preferences. For shame.

The pilot opens with the executive producer of the sketch show (which is also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – huh!) doing a Network live on air, and the subsequent return of former employees Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Trip (Bradley Whitford) to take over. Maybe it was the use of Under Pressure as the closing song, or just the way Matt & Danny jumped onto the stage at the end, but never have the final scenes of a pilot inspired such a squeal of anticipatory delight in me. It’s fair to say I went into this second episode with sky high expectations.

The Cold Open charts the new executive producers’ struggle to put together their first show in five days, in the face of huge media attention and sponsor pressure, with specific focus on creating a cold open. After the pilot, in which we mainly meet a bunch of characters and listen to Queen, it also acts as something of a cold open to the rest of the series. You see? It’s a show within a show!

Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) is the newly appointed president of entertainment programming. I’ve never wanted anyone as a boss more. Jordan is hugely successful, fiercely loyal, devastatingly attractive and makes really appalling jokes at all the worst possible moments. She is pretty much the perfect woman. While she jokes about being high at press conferences, and battles with affiliates about the Rapture, back at the studio, Danny tries to coax Matt into writing their first episode. Danny is just the right mix of disciplinarian, mother hen and cocaine addict to make the perfect executive producer for a live prime time sketch show. I imagine. I mean, I’m no expert, but the show gets made, so I’d call it a success. And, if you were one of the few who watched the entire series, Danny utters an important line during the press conference that comes back in the last few episodes. I love that kind of shit.

Matthew Perry originally turned down the role of Matt Albie, but apparently Sorkin was insistent that no one else could play him. Understandable, since Albie is fairly obviously based on Sorkin himself; from the feuds with other writing staff, to the righteous indignation, and even the devout Christian ex-girlfriend. We all know that Matthew Perry can play neurotic, but this time he’s freaking out over a digital clock and some index cards pinned to a wall, rather than house-mate related mishaps, and he really is a delight to watch. Within five minutes of meeting his new writing staff, he’s giving them a lecture on clothing ‘Couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth, but apparently I felt pretty strongly about it.’ and is anal enough to appreciate that 17 is a much funnier number than 15. Hero.

Of course, the real star of the episode is the cold open itself. From its office based conception to the final closing performance, it is the perfect blend of big band musical number, Gilbert & Sullivan, and words. Glorious, Sorkin shaped words.

We’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show,
Each time that we walk into this august and famous studio,
We’re starting out from scratch after a run of twenty years and so,
We hope that you don’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow.

A Decade in Film: The Sixties – 1961

A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

We return after the Christmas break with Editor James Diamond’s favourite films from 1961; the year that gave us Michael J. Fox.

5. The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone“First, you’ve got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you’ve got the bloody cliff overhang. You can’t even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And anyway, we haven’t got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that’s the bloody truth, sir.”

This is exactly the kind of movie Hollywood used to do well, and with regularity. A big ensemble war film with big stars (Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn), and a story so heroic it bathes in the blood of its defeated enemies. It tells the story of a crack group of soldiers and specialists who set out to defy all logic and destroy the eponymous Nazi cannons that are making the rescue of British forces from the island of Crete impossible.

Directed in style by J. Lee Thompson (who made one of the great war films in Ice Cold in Alex, and went on to direct Peck in Cape Fear), The Guns of Navarone is a classic example of the stories that the victors of horrific wars have been telling for thousands of years. It’s important to remember that this was made only 15 years after the end of the Second World War; a conflict that many of the cast and crew had fought in. By the end of the decade though Hollywood had a new war to obsess over, and the triumphant tone of their WWII films gave way to the self-doubt and self-recrimination of their Vietnam films.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at TiffanysWe’re alike, me and cat. A couple of poor nameless slobs.

This is the first of four adaptations from novels in my list, and it’s interesting to note that Hollywood has always been a magpie of stories. At least the audiences of the time can count themselves lucky that the studios only had books and stage productions to bastardise for their enjoyment, unlike today where films take their ‘inspiration’ from sources as diverse as television shows, computer games, and even board games.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based on a Truman Capote novella, and directed by Blake Edwards (who would go on to direct The Pink Panther). The reason it’s in this list though, and the reason for its enduring presence in poster form in homes across the world, is down to two words. Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn’s iconic Holly Golightly is the ridiculously beautiful peg on which this film hangs. Sure, Hannibal from The A-Team does a good job as the struggling writer who falls in love with Holly, and the source material is transferred to the screen with care, but without Hepburn this film is forgotten within a few years. Her dizzying ability to flit from extrovert socialite to vulnerable country girl is at the heart of this film; the highlight being her rendition of Moon River, which shows you don’t need to be an incredible singer to break hearts with your voice. Something Russell Crowe could’ve learned before filming Les Miserables.

Ironically, Capote never wanted Hepburn for the role, and pushed very hard for Marilyn Munroe to be cast. Munroe’s agent thought the moral ambiguity of the role would damage her career (in the original novella Holly has a lesbian affair, takes drugs, and acts more like a prostitute at times) and persuaded her to pass. The rest is history.

Just don’t mention Mickey Rooney’s Chinese landlord character…

3. 101 Dalmatians

101 Dalmatians Cruella De Vil

“My only true love, darling. I live for furs. I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”

I have been umming and ahhing about putting this film on my list. My childhood memories are of a great Disney caper film, with cute talking dogs, and a terrifying villain in the shape of Cruella De Vil. That was enough to earn it a spot on the list. Then my two-year-old daughter became obsessed with it, and we watched it every night for a month.

I’m pretty sure than any film subject to such intense interrogation would start to reveal some flaws (except maybe Back to the Future), and sadly this is the case with 101 Dalmatians. It’s not perfect, and it’s not really that brilliant. It does however still feature a fantastic villain, and it heralded a sea change in animation technology which dominated the industry for the next twenty years.

The story is simple enough, with Pongo the dog playing cupid to fix up his bachelor owner with a mate, and snag himself a bitch in the shape of Perdita. Their resulting litter of puppies becomes the envy of Cruella De Vil (the prototype Patsy Stone) who wants to make a fur coat out of them. So far, so grim. The puppies are kidnapped, and Pongo and Perdita venture off to rescue them. It’s pretty standard stuff if I’m honest but, thanks to my daughter, it will forever be etched into my brain.

2. Pit and the Pendulum

Pit and the PendulumYou will die in agony. Die!

This is another of those films I discovered in doing the research for this series. Quite why I hadn’t chanced upon it before I’m not sure. After all, any film directed by the legendary Roger Corman, and starring the national treasure that is Vincent Price is fine by me.

Very loosely based on a short-story by Edgar Allen Poe, Pit and the Pendulum is set in 16th century Spain at the time of the Inquisition. Price stars as Nicholas Medina, an uncharacteristically (for Price, at least) meek and humble lord who has recently lost his wife, Catherine. John Kerr is the unapologetically American-sounding brother of Catherine, who visits Medina to investigate the circumstances of her death. Over the first hour spooky things start to happen in the castle, and Nicholas reveals that he saw his father torture and inter his mother over an affair. Then Price finally gets to cut loose, and the last act is far more shocking, entertaining, and genuinely ghoulish.

Shot in only 15 days, the film is a remarkable testament to what a talented director and magnetic screen presence can achieve on limited resources with an average script.

1. Yojimbo

Yojimbo“I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first”

Akira Kurosawa is the missing link between the classic Western genre and the Spaghetti Westerns that became popular in the 1960s, with Sergio Leone arguably perfecting the genre by the end of the decade. Without Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo though, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in America.

Kurosawa applied his cinematic filter to the work of John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) to produce a film that is not only a homage to a genre, but adds something entirely new to its ecosystem. The themes and plot of the film are familiar, and the shots are ‘classic’ Western framing; but the editing, the violence, and the anti-hero nature of the protagonist were new to Western audiences. By the time Leone remade this as A Fistful of Dollars, the landscape of Westerns had already morphed into a more ambiguous, revisionist tone.

Toshirô Mifune plays the Ronin, a samurai whose master is dead and who now roams the lands of feudal Japan looking for freelance work where he can find it. He wanders into a town beset by violence, run by two opposing war lords who make plays to recruit the powerful stranger. The Ronin has other plans though, and conceives a dangerous game to play the opposing factions off against each other.

As is common in all of Kurosawa’s films, the violence is brief and is never needless or gratuitous. At its heart this is a film about human nature, greed, and the power of fear. Make no mistake though, there is still some kick-ass sword-fighting. It’s also very funny in places and its position in the IMDB Top 250, and at number one in my list, is fully deserved.

Failed Critics Podcast: Django Unchained

Django Unchained Waltz FoxxThe Failed Critics are back, and we’re here to SHUT YOUR BUTT DOWN! This week we review Quentin Tarantino’s latest blood-soaked and highly controversial (no change there) epic, Django Unchained.  One of us wasn’t that impressed. We’ve got your curiosity, but do we have your attention?

Also this week; James reviews a history lesson with exceedingly high production values in Lincoln, Owen talks (but not much) about The Village, and Gerry finally gets round to seeing Magic Mike (the horny devil).

We’re back next with reviews of Zero Dark Thirty, The Last Stand, and we induct a very special Austrian ass-kicker into our Corridor of Praise.

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Judgement time. Sentence: my favourite movie of 2012

Dredd Karl UrbanYes, yes… before I get into the nitty-gritty, it’s not ‘The Best Film of 2012’, certainly at least from a technical standpoint, and it won’t even make a blip on the radar of the Academy. That said, it fared very well in the Failed Critics end of year reviews for 2012, but I felt it was under-represented. As the movie has just had it’s home-release I decided to give it a 2nd time viewing and provide my thoughts to the masses. I am of course talking about Dredd 3D.

Let’s ditch the 3D moniker right away, it’s both pointless and adds little to the splendour of this film. The film is the fan’s realisation of a dream almost condemned to eternal humiliation thanks to the 1995 Stallone dirge. That said, I’m not a comic book fan, I never read the Dredd comics so I owe no loyalty to the franchise so I feel I’m in a position to give this movie a glowing review without being seen to be unfairly pay homage to the legacy of the ink-work.

The movie is based in a non too distant future whereby most of the United States are barron and large Cities are joined together to form Mega Cities. There is little respect for the stature of law or morality in this image of the future and justice in the form of ‘Judges’ is dished out in an equally nonchalant manner. The movie follows a day in the working life of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) as he takes rookie psychic Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a live-assessment of her capabilities as a Judge. The assessment leads them to investigate a triple homicide at a run-down Apartment Tower occupied by the city’s leading drug cartel, lead by the cruel and violent Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).

As you’d expect, either as a comic fan or a casual viewer, the violence is dished out willingly and readily during the movie. That said it somehow manages to do an excellent job of not making it over-kill. The deaths come with somewhat purpose and they have impact, either in the visceral sense or in the development of the story. Karl Urban does an incredible job with such little real-estate in an acting performance to convey emotion and even intimidate with only his chin on show at all times. Yes, fans…. he never removes the helmet!

Thirlby plays an excellent green and naive heroin but develops nicely into a more confident and even sexy character as she is exposed to the real harshness that she has likely been shielded from before joining the Department of Justice. The show stealer goes to Lena Headey as the psychotic Ma-Ma, who is really building a reputation for herself as a powerhouse female lead on the back of her performances in 300 and more recently as the self-serving Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. She takes that quality to an all new form of dementia in Dredd and provides a terrifying crime-boss with zero empathy or consideration for human-life which see expends rather casually and somewhat joyfully.

The action never runs dry in Dredd, the dialogue is economical (as it should be) and delivered with tremendous authority, particularly by Urban. A particular highlight comes during the set-piece where by Dredd & Anderson avoid total annihilation when their floor of the building is subject to heavy Mini-Gun fire, the bad-guys expect zero survivors  including the inhabitants of the apartment block. Ma-Ma waits anxiously as he troops plough through the carnage to find the bodies,   yet we only here 3 short single gun-shots and the silhouette of Dredd emerging to toss a bad-guy from the balcony.

Dredd is pure entertainment. It doesn’t have the greatest depth of story or character development, it doesn’t have the very best acting and it doesn’t even had the best effects (although the Slow-Mo drug scenes are quite pretty). But what it is, is a triumph for adult film making. It’s a care-free 18, it’s a barely financially viable proposition these days. I compare it much to the original Robocop, whereby it features nothing of interest to anyone who does not have an interest in on-screen violence. Perhaps this is also a weakness as it maybe threatens the possibility of a sequel.

However, Dredd for me was the film that I most wanted to discuss immediately after leaving the cinema, more than any other film in 2012. It’s entertainment at the detriment of its commercial potential, sacrificed to deliver a fully adult cinema experience. I think the tide of mass-entertainment is creating a niche for this kind of product. The recent success of highly graphic television such as Game of Thrones suggest that the masses do not only want their episodes of Friends rinsed and repeated several times daily and maybe a little Breaking Bad to satisfy their subliminal criminal urges; they actually want violence, bad taste, cruelty and a fucking good anti-hero.

I hope more studios are brave enough to create more films of this ilk, and that we get the Dredd sequels that this movie and its thoroughly adult audience deserves.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of SushiThe Sukiyabashi Jiro is not a relaxing place to eat. The Tokyo-restaurant only has ten seats, and you get to eat your meal under the stern, watchful gaze of the owner of the place, legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono. It’s also not a cheap night out, with prices starting at ¥30,000. That’s just shy of £210. Oh and the loos are outside.

Despite all that, the restaurant is one of the few in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars. According to the Michelin judges, that means it is worth travelling to Japan, just to eat there. High praise indeed.

The man behind the restaurant, 85-year-old Jiro, is the subject of David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it’s a fascinating watch. Cutting up raw tuna is not an obvious visual treat, yet it’s handled masterfully here. Combined with a fantastic score, you find yourself gazing adoringly as an octopus is massaged to death. Seriously.

In truth, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not really about fish, cooked or otherwise. It’s a tale of drive, obsession and ambition. Jiro was left to fend for himself from the age of nine, and it’s clear throughout the piece that this is a man with no time for those who are not prepared to scrap and claw their way to the top. He only takes time off for national holidays and funerals, and still talks of finding sushi perfection. An incredible man.

What’s most interesting though is not Jiro himself, but the effect he has on those around him. There’s the food critic who speaks of Jiro with the kind of saintly reverence of a true believer. He admits that he gets nervous each time he eats there, even now, decades after his first visit. There’s his former apprentice, a man who must be in his 60s and runs his own restaurant, but speaks of the great man with such respect and fear it reminded me of the way former Manchester United footballers talk of Sir Alex Ferguson.

But the most absorbing subjects are Jiro’s two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. As the elder son, Yoshikazu knows that it is his duty to take over the restaurant when his old man finally retires. Takashi, knowing he would never get to run the place, has broken out on his own with his own restaurant, which is the mirror image of the Sukiyabashi.

It’s clear that Yoshikazu is desperate to take over, ready to break out of his father’s shadow and make his own name. He’s also clearly envious of his younger brother setting up his own restaurant, which itself has now won two Michelin stars. It seems to have all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. But because this is Japan, where duty and responsibility weigh heavy, Yoshikazu simply soldiers on, waiting for his day in the limelight.

Who knew a documentary about an octogenarian sushi chef could be this tense?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is out now in UK cinemas, and is available on Netflix in the US.

The Sessions

The Sessions Helen Hunt John HawkesAfter winning plaudits from critics and audience members alike at last year’s Sundance festival, The Sessions is exactly the kind of likeable crossover hit one would expect to find packing in the crowds in both multiplexes and arts centres across the country. A heart-warming exploration of love, faith, and living life to the full in spite of any obstacles placed in your way. The kind of film you could watch with your Gran. That is, if your Gran doesn’t mind seeing Helen Hunt in all her full-frontal glory.

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is Mark O’Brien; a 38-year-old man who has lived most of his life in an iron lung after suffering severely with polio as a youngster. Based on a real-life article written by O’Brien entitled ‘Seeing a Sex Surrogate’, the film focusses on his sexual awakening as a middle-aged man, and his desire to lose his virginity. After consulting with his priest (William H. Macy), Mark employs a Cheryl, a sexual surrogate, to help him do the deed. Enter Helen Hunt. Literally.

As is expected in any romantic comedy-drama worth a damn, complications soon arise. Mark and Cheryl’s sessions are limited to six meetings, and she makes it clear that her job differs from prostitution in that she “ isn’t after your repeat business”. Mark inevitably starts to develop feelings for Cheryl, and dares to dream that Cheryl might feel a similar connection. Luckily the film avoids the Pretty Woman trap of glamourizing the commercialisation of sex, while at the same time eschewing a cynical exploration of Mark and Cheryl’s motives. It would be fair to describe The Sessions as an uplifting film, but it manages to avoid the clichéd pitfalls of lesser comedies.

Hawkes and Hunt are excellent in their roles; fully committed both emotionally and physically to their performances. Macy’s role as Mark’s confidant and counsellor is a little paint-by-numbers at times however, coming across more as self-help book disciple than a man of God. Director Ben Lewin (drawn to Mark’s story as a polio sufferer himself) utilises a wonderfully lit California as the backdrop for this film, and as the camera lingers on fleeting glimpses of natural beauty one cannot help buying into the key messages of the film. Life is precious, every day is a bonus, and Helen Hunt looks incredible for her age.

It’s difficult to see where this film fits commercially. It’s a rather sweet and, at times, very innocent look at what it means to love and be loved. A gently funny film that challenges audience perceptions of disability and independence. But it’s a 15-certificate with good reason, and the frank and non-apologetic sex scenes will put off many people who would otherwise enjoy this engaging film.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: You Only Move Twice (s8 ep2)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

You Only Move Twice

By Dr. Pangloss

It’s a pity this series of ‘100 Greatest TV Episodes’ doesn’t come in order. Quite aside from being a sure-fire way to attract indignant comments from readers and bump up page views, it would allow me to make a frankly unanswerable case for the superlative ‘You Only Move Twice’ as number one.

Because as the best episode of the best show to have ever been broadcast, it certainly would be.

If you were to take one episode from the 508 screened so far which encapsulates the show’s intelligence, wit, uncanny ability to provide endless quotable lines and its unique blend of reverence for and irreverence towards popular culture – you could do little better

First broadcast in 1996 (!) the episode displays the staggering ability that is the hallmark of the show’s earlier episodes to send a storyline spinning wildly out of control with divergent storylines, in this case to an entirely new city and with a sub-plot for each family member only to effortlessly draw everything back together in time for a lesson on the importance of sacrifice and family values. This wasn’t the first time The Simpsons had up and moved for Homer’s career (Dancin’ Homer was), but it was the first to have a storyline for each mover. There’s actually a fifth for Grandpa which features on the DVD extras where, somewhat predictably, he is left at home, forlorn and forgotten.

Damn right we’re talking DVD extras, it’s that kind of blog.

Underpinning the episode is the wonderful conceit that Homer has inadvertently found his dream job at the corporation run by a pastiche of a 007 villain more energetic and charismatic than the Blofeld he was loosely based on. From the opening titles, through the Goldfinger, Thunderball, Moonraker, You Only Live Twice and View to a Kill nods, to the closing theme song, the episode is an homage to Bont (for legal reasons). The writers even manage to throw in a parody of a parody in a way only The Simpsons would be able to, with a cameo from Mrs. Goodthighs of Casino Royale fame (1967, youngsters).

And yet its strength is that it manages to retain that unique Simpsons feel throughout, partly in thanks to a cameo from Al Brooks as Scorpio; arguably the greatest one-off character ever and a career-defining performance. And that is a career which boasts appearances in Taxi Driver, Drive and as five other Simpsons characters – bonus points if you can name them all. The writers famously barely bothered to script his lines, as they knew Brooks would improv most of them anyway, often changing tack mid-take. The entire hammock dialogue was ad-libbed on the spot by Brooks in one take; listen and you can hear Castellaneta struggling to keep up.

‘You Only Move Twice’ possesses the multi-faceted, layered script that all of the great episodes of the show have, and that possibly only Pixar at its best moments can match. You can (and I have) watch this show at the ages of 8, 12, 17 and 24 and laugh at different moments with each viewing. From the slapstick throwaway shoe gag (see what I did there?) and a remedial class full of Ralph Wiggums, to the meta-humour of recurring gags like “what lifelong dream?” and the sophisticated, wicked double entendre of “want some cream, too?”, the show stuffs in an incredible number of gags of a hugely diverse range into a mere 20 minutes. The writers also manage to take trenchant swipes at the US Army, the UN and include a rather sad hint at the dark life Marge would have if not for the housework.

And it lovingly references Dr. Strangelove. What more could you possibly want from a TV episode?

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

Failed Critics Podcast: Les Miserables

Do you hear the critics sing?

Podding the thoughts of angry men,

They are the musings of a people who won’t watch Rock of Ages again,

When the bleating of the fool,

Echoes the bleating of the drunk,

There is podcast about to start when tomorrow comes!

That’s right, James has finally managed to persuade the critics back into the cinema to see another musical, and hopefully this time they won’t want to kill him afterwards. Also on our big return we review new releases Gangster Squad, The Sessions, The Impossible, and Quartet.

Join us next week as we review Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The D is silent, the podcast won’t be…

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

DIRECT DOWNLOAD LINK

The Impossible

The-Impossible

By Mike Shawcross

This review may contain spoilers.

Films depicting real natural catastrophes can be very hit or miss, and mostly they miss. Hollywood disaster movies often descend into melodrama and over-produced stylised action to raise the tension, and flesh out their simple survival plots. When these events are as recent as the tsunami of 2004, which cost the lives of over 200,000 people, and the images are still so vivid in our memories due to the large scale media coverage, is a film what we really need?

Maybe not, but the fact that this is a Spanish film with Juan Antonio Bayona (director of The Orphanage) in charge gave me some hope that the tragic events might be told in a more honest way. It also bodes well that Bayona decided not to specify the nationalities of the main characters, so as to create a universal film in which nationalities were irrelevant to the plot. I can understand the reasoning in casting an English-speaking cast, as if this had been a subtitled film a vast majority of people wouldn’t have bothered to see it. Of course this would lead to the inevitable American remake and the overproduction of the disaster.

Bayona centres his film on one family; a happy, normal family. If there are any tensions we are unaware of them; this isn’t a film about reconciliation or forgiveness. This is a simple story of survival, courage and hope against the odds that the members of the family are still alive. The fact that the film keeps them central throughout  makes it work even more for me. This is their story, their ordeal. It makes no difference that they are not locals, or even that they are Westerners; at the end of the day they were still part of this disaster. They were just lucky enough to survive it.

Maybe that’s why Bayona wanted to take this family’s story, because it is remarkable and it is worthy of being told. I think the director has done an excellent job. It’s an extremely sensitive subject and will invoke quite a few negative feelings and naysayers. I have no idea how survivors will react to it either, but I hope some commend Bayona for his efforts. The scenes of the Tsunami hitting the resort and the aftermath are extremely powerful. I really got an understanding of the force of the water, the speed the wave was travelling, and how helpless people would have been as it hit the land. The aftermath was devastating to look at as well, as Bayona shows us graphic scenes of the victims and the harrowing distress of the survivors from the family’s view point.

Naomi Watts (Maria) in a physical demanding role really delivers. Her emotion never seems false, and she is just superb. Her scenes in the wave are excellent; and we can really see the fear in her eyes. Alongside her, Tom Holland (Lucas) as the eldest son gives a solid performance for such a young actor. This is also the best I’ve seen McGregor (Henry) recently (he was ok in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but here he really impresses). The score is quite simply beautiful, with pieces of music composed by Fernando Velzquez whose previous works include The Orphanage and Julia’s Eyes. He’s also composed the score for the forthcoming Mama, which is released in February.

My final thoughts are about the emotional connection I had with the story. I’m a family man with three kids, and maybe that’s why I was so emotionally moved by this film. That said, I suspect I would still have been moved by this tragedy if I was single. This is an uneasy watch about a disaster of massive proportions, but it is ultimately a powerful and uplifting story.

The obligatory Les Misérables review

les mis anne hathawayLes Misérables is my Lord of the Rings. I’ve been anticipating this film for a long time, simultaneously excited and worried they’re going to balls it up.

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first of all. And no, I don’t mean the actual Elephant of the Bastille monument that the students lark about on in later scenes. I mean Russell Crowe‘s really shit singing. Here’s a little tip for any other theatre producers thinking of transferring their global phenomenon stage musical to the big screen: if there are rumblings about one of your leading actor’s singing not being up to scratch, don’t give him the opening line of the sodding film! My first thought was ‘oh god’. My second thought was ‘I can’t work out what he sounds like and it’s going to bug me for the next 157 minutes’. And my third thought (don’t worry, I’m not going to document every thought that entered my head throughout the film, that would be terrifying) was ‘oh yes, I’ve worked it out’.

The first few minutes are all a bit random really. Crowe’s Javert is great at riding a horse, and being downright menacing, so long as he isn’t carrying a (nasal) tune. Hugh Jackman‘s Valjean looks as rough as someone who’s spent 19 years in prison lugging boats around has every right to and, when he speaks, he sounds like he has a mouthful of spoons. That, coupled with the fact that they’re doing this weird sing/talk hybrid, and I can see why newcomers and reluctant viewers might have been a little put off. I struggled to enjoy it at first, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Les Mis fan. Ideally, they should have swapped it around a bit, and started the film with one of the more solid performances. But I guess they felt that telling the story out of chronological sequence, Pulp Fiction style, was unbecoming. Bloody theatre snobs.

Luckily, while I was still wondering whether this was actually going to be any good, Anne Hathaway turned up, had all her hair chopped off, sang a song, won an Oscar, and promptly died, all within the space of about 15 minutes. Nailed it, Hathaway.

By now, eight years have passed and Valjean’s had a chance to have a wash and remove all those spoons from his mouth, and scrubs up pretty nicely indeed. Hello Mr Mayor! It’s like that bit in Friends where Monica & Rachel mistake some guy for a yeti, but then he cuts his hair and he’s really hot. Or, you know, a reference to something far more highbrow. He sets off to rescue little Cosette (neatly skimming over the fact that he was kind of responsible for her mother’s untimely death) and give her a better life. Which means that she’ll get to wear pretty bonnets and no longer have to fetch water from that scary well, but she’ll never have any mates ever, and will always have to be ready to abscond at a moment’s notice, because her dad’s in some kind of unexplained, self imposed witness protection scheme.

At this point you should insert a new song, which we all know was crowbarred in to add one more Oscar nomination to the haul. The lyrics should be reminiscent of something Westlife would sing, while perched atop stools on a Top of the Pops stage.

Another nine years pass and, while the French revolution rumbles away in the background, Javert is still hunting for Valjean. Tip: he’s the one lugging the giant candlestick wherever he goes. Meanwhile Cosette falls in love, Valjean prepares to do another runner, and some students get pissed and shout ‘red’ and ‘black’ over and over again. This is all leading to the most rousing, and my absolute favourite, song of the stage show, One Day More. On screen I’m not entirely sure it meshed perfectly, but I’d have to see it again to be sure. At the theatre, this juncture would be your interval. But there’s no time for a gin & tonic at the cinema, people. The bleakness is unremitting as we immediately plough on with act two.

The thing is, I don’t actually find it all that gloomy. Within the context of 19th century France, I’d say they’re quite a cheery bunch really. Nonetheless, the Thénardiers are important for the purposes of comic relief. You would have thought that noted comic actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter would have pulled this off with aplomb. But I’m sad to say they did not. Master of the House felt like a dress rehearsal of something that could have, eventually, been great; while other killer lines are lost in the direction altogether. Shame, really.

While I don’t want this review to be entirely about Russell Crowe’s singing (I only want it to be 95% about that), his performance of Stars cannot go unmentioned. Stars is Javert’s big moment. His Anne Hathaway, if you will. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that the director was more concerned with having him balance along the edge of a really tall building than hitting some/any of the big notes. But Stars has been dumbed down so much it is rendered almost meaningless. And I know these songs, let me tell you. I’ve seen Les Misérables probably five times on the West End, plus a couple of school/college performances, and have driven the length of the M5 listening to the CD on more than one occasion.

There is plenty of enjoyment to be gained for fans of the show. The always ridiculous runaway cart becomes the fallen cart, seemingly because they couldn’t even be arsed to push it down a hill this time. The obligatory Cockney kid screaming ‘Vive le Francais!’ is good for a wry smile. And Enjolras pulls off a very fine version of the barricades death back-flip. There is also the amazing moment where, after dragging his future son-in-law (rather than just a bag of shoes and some money laundering paperwork) through endless sewers, Jackman emerges covered head to toe in shit, save for his beady white eyes. It’s brilliantly horrific.

I’m a fan, I’m predisposed to like it. There is good (outstanding) and bad (embarrassingly disappointing). But, ultimately, Les Misérables is more than the sum of its parts. Even if one of those parts is a New Zealand-born Australian actor who sounds like he’s making a three pints down attempt at “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears on Sing Star.

One final note of thanks to the impeccably behaved audience of the completely sold out 8pm showing at Leicester Showcase on Friday night, who watched the film in total silence and applauded at the end. You restored my faith in cinema-going.

And the Oscar doesn’t go to…

oscarsYesterday saw the delightful Emma Stone and the diametrically opposite Seth MacFarlane announce the contenders for this year’s Academy Awards. By the time you read this, countless actors, directors, producers, and especially agents and assorted hangers-on will be knee deep in champagne, cocaine, and hookers in celebration. But let’s spare a thought for those who will have seen the nominations and gone home to kick their cat and/or personal assistant.

Join us on the Failed Critics Podcast later this week as we discuss the list in full, as well as offering our thoughts on Les Miserables which garnered eight nominations for the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, which takes place on Sunday 24th February.

The following contains a The Dark Knight Rises spoiler.

Paul Thomas Anderson

The mercurial director who has been nominated five times in the past was ignored in the Director category, and the Academy even went as far as nominating nine films for Best Picture and leaving out The Master. After being marked out as the early rival to Spielberg’s Lincoln it seems that while the emperor isn’t naked, he’s certainly getting a few odd looks on his attire.

Marion Cottilard

The Oscar-winning actress redeemed her appalling death scene in The Dark Knight Rises with a stunning turn in my favourite film of 2012, Rust and Bone. Although Rust and Bone lost out on France’s nomination for the Foreign Language category (to the admittedly excellent The Intouchables, which sadly also failed to make the final short-list), there were rumours Cottilard could receive a nomination in the Best Actress category. That’s my £1 bet at 25/1 down the drain.

Kathryn Bigelow

Another Oscar-winner to miss out on a nomination this year. Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty may have made it onto the Best Picture list, but her absence from the Director category was a surprise. Her achievement in becoming the first woman to win the Oscar  for Direction with the Hurt Locker has often been overshadowed by accusations that she won it precisely because she is a woman. Despite the fact that she beat James Cameron’s pretty mediocre Avatar, and Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (far from his finest film). This year was her chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke, with arguably a better picture. It appears America isn’t willing to condone torture in its prison camps, or its cinemas, any longer.

The Imposter

The best documentary of the year doesn’t get a nomination. Hopefully director Bart Layton is already working on his next incredible story; how the Academy managed to fuck this up so badly.

Matthew McConaughey

Okay, so he would have been a left-field choice, but what more has the man got to do to get a nomination? He’s already won over his harshest critic with fantastic roles in Magic Mike and Killer Joe, and he’s even given up leaning against women on the posters of trashy rom-coms. After seeing him sleaze it up in Magic Mike, a lot of people laughed at me for suggesting an outside chance of an Oscar nomination. Well who’s laughing now? Oh.

Ben Affleck

Makes twice the film that Good Will Hunting is, and gets none of the personal nominations. Maybe he should have directed it with Matt Damon? If we’re not careful we’ll push him right back into the arms of Daredevil!

Failed Critics will be live-blogging the Oscars Ceremony on February 24, and discussing the undeserving winners and unlucky losers in our podcast the next day.