While X2 remains the defining film of this increasingly diverse franchise, First Class is a cut above the tedious Wolverine and the overstuffed Last Stand. Essentially playing the same riffs as the first film- even starting at the same point- the narrative zips about satisfactorily introducing everybody without making it seem like too much exposition. Tying the action into a real life scenario- the 1962 Cuban missile crisis- is a clever move that adds considerably to the threat in the second half while keeping the number of mutants we meet to the minimum keeps things snappy. A light hearted training sequence tells you enough about each in time for the climax and ensures the film never takes itself too seriously.
There are two stand out set pieces; one sees the mutants under attack in their supposedly secret CIA base (lots of fast cuts, smashed glass and jeopardy), the other multiple battles at the climax. Matthew Vaughn brings gusto to these and other action sequences yet also manages to focus on the friendship and diverging views between the young Xavier (a lively, convincing James McAvoy) and Lehnsherr (a less riveting Michael Fassbender), bringing the subtleties of the mutant debate to the fore. That Lehnsherr is more or less proved right near the end only strengthens this strand.
While the 1960s look seems authentic at first- and the cinematography is Mad Men style washed out style - there are aspects that never really feel as if we are in that time. The young mutants for example look and behave as if they are from the later 1960s; the US command centre set too is more 1968 than 1962. The mixing in of real archive footage only serves to undermine the staged conferences the film shows. Sometimes even the dialogue seems a little too present day as well. Having said that, there is a definite 60s James Bond feel to proceedings especially when it comes to villain Sebastian Shaw’s hideouts.
By and large its well cast- stand outs are Rose Byrne’s gutsy CIA agent who helps the mutants and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, Xavier’s sort of adopted sister whose struggle with her mutant identity is a strong part of the plot. She even manages to emote under a ton of blue make up! Also very good are Nicholas Hoult as the conflicted Hank and Kevin Bacon who savours the opportunity to make Shaw as suavely vicious as possible. Its James McAvoy’s film though as he brings intellectual energy and likeability to a role that could easily be pious. Michael Fassbender makes a fair go of Lehnsherr but never quite captures the intensity of previous incumbent Ian McKellen.
First Class is a strong re-boot though suggesting that the next one could be the new X2.Back to top
Lead Balloon is one of the best of the recent post-Office spate of comedies and despite this fourth season emerging after a lengthy break the standards of the opening episode `Pig` suggest that the standards of the excellent first three will be maintained.
Jack Dee’s Rick Spleen is a traditional comedic character inside a modern style production and this opening episode’s plot is an example of how it is the presentation rather than content of TV comedy that has altered. Rick’s wife Mel is about to be interviewed for a magazine piece and naturally he thinks it’s all about him, refusing to acknowledge her career is the more successful and buying a pet pig in an attempt to make their lifestyle seem more arty.
There are lots of funny moments, the interview itself sees Rick make toe curling embarrassing attempts to promote his flagging career and not yet started novel while Mel - sublimely played by Raquel Cassidy- pulls a series of wryly amused expressions. It would have been easy to have had them bickering as many comedies seem to do with married couples, but more subtle and ultimately more amusing is the way Mel accepts Rick’s self centred foibles and even expects them. It is a shame this is the last series because Dee has found a niche that plays to all his curmudgeonly strengths and the rest of the cast offer delightful comedy vignettes each bringing simple but effective characters forward. There’s Magda (Anna Crilly) his dour East European cleaner whose deadpan responses will always be a highlight, his grabbing daughter Sam (Antonia Campbell Hughes) who manages to regularly empty his wallet along with her vacuous boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker) who contradicts his initial denials that he didn’t do something immediately by then saying he did. Rick’s sarcastic American agent Marty (Sean Power) and café owner Michael (Tony Gardner) who is like a child in a man’s body complete a line up of character who could probably each lead their own series.
Lead Balloon remains essential viewing.Back to top
If someone says to you there’s a new series called `Vera` on you’d imagine it was a sitcom about a middle aged housewife who gets into all sorts of hilarious shenanigans. You’d be wrong. Vera is the latest addition to the ranks of the TV detective series or, as ITV likes to call them, mystery dramas. Played by Brenda Blethyn, expectations are high till you actually watch and realise- you cannot understand a word of it. When any of the characters speak it just sounds like “mmmmprpfffff, pet” It’s set on Tyneside you see but these Geordies make Cheryl Cole sound as if she speaks RP. Not only that but the sound mix is appalling; most of the scenes are set outdoors with howling wind and echoey echoeness. Yet when the adverts come on, the sound is perfect and you can hear all that is being said. You’d better buy that bed because the sale finishes on Sunday, just like it did last Sunday. Even without the sound problems, the series seems to lampoon all the dowdy detectives minus any charm. Vera herself is a well meaning if sharp woman who seems too old and emotional to be doing the job. Even Frost’s retired now! Why can’t they do a series about a happy detective?
Two similar new dramas have worked well this year, both of them exploring a profession with modern verve. ITV’s Monroe and BBC’s Silk take us speedily into the medical and legal worlds respectively. Monroe is James Nesbitt’s finest hour in some time, while the obvious central premise- a brain surgeon who rarely uses his brain in his personal life – is given a refreshing spin thanks to Peter Bowker’s terrific scripts and intriguing characters. The series also has a fascinating signature look as directors Paul McGuigan and David Moore imbue the hospital settings with an eerie quality. Nesbitt’s surgeon is ably supported by Sarah Parish, Tom Riley and Luke Allen Gale.
Silk is wordier as you’d expect and filmed more conventionally but Peter Moffett writes in a manner that brings the viewer into a tangled web of criminal matters, procedure and a surprising amount of back biting. Anchored by Maxine Peake’s superb central performance the show examines justice, conscience, and trust with freshness. Both series deserve to return.
Leonardo is a new kid’s drama in the MI High / Sarah Jane Adventures slot. Filmed in South Africa and clearly having had a bit of money put behind it, the show has nearly everything. A great cast, lively direction and a wicked playfulness when it comes to historical facts. Unfortunately what is lacks is enough variety in the plots; after just a handful of episodes, similar stories are being played out. Still then cast are engaging and there’s an amusing turn from Alastair McGowan as a villain.
Meanwhile K9 is back. Oh yes, the search for a decent television kennel in which to house our metallic friend continues because this Australian production is certainly not the right one. A more sarcastic incarnation- still voiced by John Leeson- lives in a large house where a dotty professor has some kind of temporal vortex. Outside, in a supposedly futuristic London robot police and aliens that looks as if they have been beamed in from the old Power Rangers shows lurk. With barely 25 minutes for each story and budgetary restrictions, the series is hampered from the start but the characters are so leaden that no actor could breathe the necessary life into them. There’s a curious standoff, too, between the authoritarian government that seemingly feels threatened by K9, knows exactly where it is yet never takes it away. It’s hard to imagine even the most telly addicted child finding much to enjoy.Back to top
This 8 minute long 2 part Comic Relief story is neither totally serious nor out right comedic, (wibbly) wobbling somewhere in between. It’s nice to see the TARDIS trio chatting away without over arcing threats lurking- unless of course there’s a check shirt theme next season. Steven Moffett borrows the Time Ram idea but neglects to utilise all the innuendo you could gain by calling it that, preferring to make Amy’s skirt the main cause of banter. The conceit plays likeably on the actors’ familiarity with the roles and ours with their characters.
Normally we’d think this episode was a diversion but you suspect much of next season will be swamped by this sort of temporal trickery. However, it suits the format here and comes across as fun if not particularly funny. They really should spend more time in the TARDIS next season though, it’s an intriguing environment and all three actors shine when they inhabit it. Prepare for wibbly lever jokes at a workplace near you…Back to top
Not being a fan of either medical dramas or much of James Nesbitt’s output it would seem pointless to watch the premiere of his latest series, a medical drama. Yet the buzz is strong and ITV do seem to have got their act together in the drama department of late so, with hands ready to cover my eyes at the first sight of innards or gurning, I tune in with mixed expectations. And… it’s fabulous, exactly what an opening episode should be (how the makers of Outcasts must be kicking themselves). Full of style, interesting characters, a strong script and a central performance that utilises all the best aspects of Nesbitt’s undoubted skills. It contained much enjoyable witty banter, a lot of potential for character development and a couple of excellent twists that come out of the blue and are too good to spoil here. Go watch it.
The look brings a Whitechapelesque style to the big old hospital and the operations, while the pace is kept to an engaging canter. Yes, there were a few gory moments where I had to look away but none involved the acting!
People say Monroe is based on House, but having never seen the latter (again due to my aversion to medical drama and also most series that run for 26 episodes a year) I’m none the wiser. And why can’t we have a British series as good as that? People tend to assume that we can’t compete with the US but perhaps we don’t always try.
After such a good opening hand, Monroe has set a high bar for itself but if it maintains anything like this standard, it should be a Downton Abbey sized hit. Let’s hope so.Back to top
Sometimes you wonder whether there are any topics left for television documentary series to cover but BBC2 have come up with this 4 part series examining the nature of the British workplace from the post war years to the present day. A work assessment might declare the result to be mixed. While the narrative mixed with archive footage gave a good impression of the work place in the late 1940s and 50s, the bitty editing barely allows us to stay with any one aspect for more than a minute and gives the impression that the programme is a trailer for a book. The programme makers probably worried about the subject being a bit dull but they cut off as soon as an interesting strand is explored which becomes frustrating after a while. It is worth a look but don’t expect too much insight into a subject that doesn’t really suit this kind of rapid fire style.Back to top
Masterchef has to be the most ridiculous programme aimed at adults since Rosemary and Thyme. In a blaze of anthemic music and sweeping camera angles more usually associated with historical films, we are pulled into an alternative Universe. Here, in a studio the size of a planet, it is clear that cooking is the most serious thing there is. In this week's opening auditions, aspiring contestants literally sweated over their modern stoves to impress the two judges, Gregg Wallace (smiley, loves puddings) and John Torode (serious, loves lemons) perched uncomfortably on tiny stools like predators ready to devour their prey.
The prize is an entry into the competition itself, symbolised by an apron. The ones the judges really liked get handed this apron, others likely to fall early have to come and pick it up themselves. In this sort of febrile atmosphere little things like this count. There’s plenty of time for pleading- one or two of the contestants have already used the word “journey” and they’re not talking about getting the bus from home. Some of them “really want this” apparently.
It is all ridiculous but also, of course, completely magnetic. You should watch every episode. And you could never say that about Rosemary and Thyme.Back to top
This is the most approachable of BBC4’s season of sculptastic programmes, largely because of presenter Alastair Sooke. Relatively new to the job, Sookie can impart the most portentous interpretation of art and make it sound like sweet reason thanks to charm and just enough enthusiasm. And there is a lot to be said about this often ignored art form, which is the original 3D depiction of lives and times. Combining history and art appreciation, Sookie almost brings sculptures to life as well as exposing the vanity that inspired some of them, As always with this sort of programme, the access allowed film crews means we get to see more and that helps too. Another BBC4 triumph - watch the last ep and catch the others on iPlayer as, unfortunately, few of this channel’s programmes get a DVD release.Back to top
So, Inspector Barnaby does not sacrifice himself to save the world, disappearing in a blaze of golden light to re-emerge in a different body. Of course, we never expect such things from this most curious of programmes where the main character’s action sequences largely consist of getting in and out of cars.
The dichotomy between Midsomer Murder’s vicious crimes and its otherwise genteel country atmosphere is as wide as any drama can offer yet has produced some strong episodes. Some have been the most unusual peak time programmes you’re likely to see though it is the case that the series peaked some time ago. That’s not to say it has lost its ability to surprise. Unfortunately this final John Nettles episode is not one of the better ones, showing a propensity to meander despite a laudable effort to introduce some ennui to Barnaby’s final case as he ponders mortality and his father’s death. There is now a new Inspector Barnaby (the outgoing ones’ cousin) in the unlikely form of Neil Dudgeon, best known for appearing in sharp, grittier fare. Does this mean this Barnaby will be beating up suspects, carrying a gun, snapping at his sidekick and having affairs with various women? Unlikely. He’ll probably just spend most of his time getting in and out of cars as the population of these picturesque villagers continues to dwindle and we wouldn’t want it any other way.Back to top