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Review: In The Loop (2009)

June 29th, 2010 Comments off

I kind of wish there had been a bigger media push for this film. It really could have taken off in theaters.

Quite simply, there are a handful of movies that manage to just make one laugh out loud uncontrollably.  It’s more common that you run across those comedies in a theater when mob mentality has you rolling in the rows.  I last experienced this with The Hangover and, before that, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  It is that more rare comedy that can have you rolling with laughter when watching at home.  I present to you one extraordinary example of that in In the Loop.

Based on the British TV show “The Thick Of It,” the political drama is one-third The Office (UK version), one-third Curb Your Enthusiasm and one-third The West Wing.  In other words, it’s freaking brilliant, even though its not for the faint of heart when it comes to language.

The BBC program it was based on focused solely on the antics of Downing Street enforcer Malcolm Turner (Peter Capaldi, a veteran of Brit TV shows such as Torchwood: Children of the Earth, which I reviewed yesterday).  Turner is the Machiavellian, potty mouthed king of communications and the show follows his interactions with the team at the Ministry of Social Affairs.  There he deals with MP Hugh Abbot and his right hands Glenn Cullen, Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan)  and Oliver Reeder (Chris Addison).

In the film, director and producer Armando Iannucci keeps Capaldi’s Malcom Turner in place and reshuffles a few actors like Addison into new characters who retain some of the characteristics, despite different roles.  As impish aide Oliver Reeder, Addison plays Mr. Fix-It as a transfer into a dysfunctional foreign development ministry and its incompetent MP Simon Foster (Tom Hollander).  The story follows Foster’s role in the run-up to a UN resolution to declare war in a situation that is a thinly veiled stand-in for Iraq.  No Qumar here, either.  They just don’t overtly reference the country.

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Review: To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995)

December 21st, 2009 2 comments

Much as with real life, the most exciting moments in British politics take place during Questions to the Prime Minister.

I was amused and entertained, but not wowed, by the 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards, the first installment in the Ian Richardson-led the House of Cards Trilogy (House of Cards / To Play the King / The Final Cut).  After my enjoyment of the BBC political miniseries State of Play and the HBO-BBC miniseries Five Days, I was intrigued to see House of Cards, which was a widely regarded television event in the UK – even if it wasn’t terribly high brow.

It was a true political thriller, and I reflected as much in my review of it; however, where I appreciated the depth of character development and multiple, fully detailed plot arcs in State of Play (reviewed here) and the subtlety of Five Days (reviewed here), House of Cards really featured neither.  It seemed rushed and really focused solely on Richardson’s Francis Urquhart and his relationship with reporter Mattie Storen.

Unfortunately, the second and third segments of the series don’t really improve on things.  The best that can be said of them is that they took up only two discs in total on the Netflix queue, even though they pack in a combined seven hours of telly over eight episodes.  Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, as they are entertaining… just not great.

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Review: Five Days (2007)

December 10th, 2009 Comments off
Five Days covers five separate days (over an 80 day span) of the disappearance of Leanne Wellings.

Five Days covers five separate days (over an 80 day span) of the disappearance of Leanne Wellings.

Continuing with my recent theme of burning through BBC miniseries, I shuttled quickly through a joint venture production with HBO.  Five Days is a five part, five hour miniseries featuring an ensemble cast that addresses, first and foremost, how a fractured family deals with crisis.

The cast is quite stellar, headlined by British television actors with strong resumes, though not much exposure to the United States.  Leanne Wellings (Christine Tremarco) is the mother of three who goes missing off the side of a road while stopping to buy flowers and leaving her two youngest children in the car with their newly obtained dog, Gem.  Leanne is married to Matt Wellings (David Oyelowo), a former soldier and current personal trainer.  Together they have two children, Ethan (Lee Massey) and Rosie (Tyler Anthony), while Leanne had a prior daughter from another marriage, Tanya (Lucinda Dryzek).

Joining this mixed family is Leanne’s grandfather Victor (Edward Woodward), with whom she is quite close.  More uncertain is Leanne’s relationship with her parents Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and John (Patrick Malahide).  Barbara and Leanne struggle at times, while Barbara barely has a relationship with her father Victor.  John, on the other hand, has a strained relationship with Leanne’s husbands (both the initial one and Matt).

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Review: House of Cards, Season One (1990)

December 8th, 2009 Comments off
Richardson's Urquhart and Harker's Storin are at the heart of the storyline.

Richardson's Urquhart and Harker's Storin are at the heart of the storyline.

On Netflix recommendation by virtue of the degree to which I enjoyed State of Play (BBC miniseries version), I rented another BBC miniseries involving political intrigue and backroom scandal.  House of Cards was based on the Michael Dobbs book by the same name.  Set in the late 1980s at the end of the Thatcher era, the plot follows a majority, Conservative Party whip in his attempt to wrest political position and power.

Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart, the whip who keeps the “back bench” in order — in other words, he’s the guy that keeps the party regulars in the House of Commons in line for the party leadership.  The whip is an essential role in any parliamentary structure, including the House of Commons and the US Congress.

The portrayal of the whip’s traditionally unexercised power is convincing and believable.  Urquhart has dirt on just about every other character and beats them into line for the party leadership.  Where things start to skew toward dramatic intrigue is set off by Urquhart being turned down for a promotion to Home Secretary upon the election of a new PM who relied heavily on the whip’s support to get elected.  Urquhart launches a grand and well thought out scheme to destroy the PM and become the front runner to replace him.

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Review: State of Play (2009)

November 25th, 2009 Comments off

On my flight down to Houston Friday night, I carried my Audiovox personal DVD player and my Netflixed copy of the US adaptation of the BBC miniseries “State of Play.” Through being kicked by some French four year old sitting, sleeping and being a general pain next to me, I did my best to appreciate and not simply identify the ways in which this film fell short of the miniseries.

Ultimately, it’s hard to not compare the two because this is hardly a reimagining. It’s a near true copy (with Americanized characterizations) of the UK roles, plot lines and mannerism. The main differences are really quite simple:

  • the black victim killed in the opening scene is an actual junkie, as opposed to a falsely accused innocent (hardly a spoiler there);
  • there is less depth to Dominic Foy’s character;
  • Della Frey and Cal McCaffery aren’t truly co-workers;
  • Hellen Mirren‘s editor has no hotshot reporting son as was played by James McAvoy in the BBC version; and
  • the corporation being investigated by Stephen Collins’ subcommittee, Pointcorp, is a thinly veiled version of Blackwater, whereas the BBC version condemned evil oil conglomerates, in general.

Oh, and another difference is that the miniseries is actually good.

There are some strong updates to the UK story. Most notably, the use of a Blackwater proxy proved topical and a more natural fit for misdirection and demonization. It was a solid update over the miniseries’ oil company.

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Review: State of Play (2003)

October 29th, 2009 Comments off

Yesterday I finished up watching the BBC miniseries drama “State of Play”, a 2003 production featuring the following IMDB tagline: A thriller set in London, in which a politician’s life becomes increasingly complex as his research assistant is found dead on the London Underground and, in a seemingly unrelated incident, a teenage drug dealer is shot dead.

Featured in the miniseries are David Morrissey and John Simm as the male leads of MP Stephen Collins and Cal McCaffery (an investigative journalist who had served as Collins’ campaign manager and friend back in the day). Supporting are Kelly Macdonald and a very young James McAvoy as journalists, Bill Nighy as their very British editor and Polly Walker as Collins’ wife.

This is one of those miniseries where discussing it too much will just give away plot twists and turns, so I’ll stay somewhat general and discuss the nature of the production.

Ultimately, it is a classic investigative journalist drama… harking back to the early 90s and late 80s themes I recall from my youth. But it’s rather sophisticated in its masking. You don’t really see the various twists and turns coming… as the storytelling is quite first (rather than third) person. You’re seeing what the investigation sees, without having those limitations be so overt as to annoy. You can tell the screenplay was an adaptation of what must have been an engrossing novel of political and journalistic intrigue. [OK, wordy praise now out of the way]

The cast does a knockout job with their performances. Simms and Morrissey are each excellent and McEvoy and Nighy play off each other very well. Also outstanding is Marc Warren in a supporting role. MacDonald is very engaging as what constitutes the female lead and I’m somewhat surprised she hasn’t made a bigger impact on this side of the pond.

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