The US through a TV lens.

 

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

I was watching an episode of “NCIS” recently. You know “NCIS”, right? Actually, chances are you flicked through an episode if you were watching TV because it seems to be perpetually on one of the murder channels, yet have never watched it. 

A regular staple of American pensioners, “NCIS” can be watched as an intriguing insight into how mainstream middle America sees itself.

Every week is a collection of pre-baked tropes: a body is found, with some tenuous connection to the US Navy (NCIS is the Navy’s detective division). The victim used to be a marine or is wearing Old Spice or something.  

Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate. 

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A Great Movie (and book): The Day of The Jackal.

Repost.

jackal bookFrederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel “The Day of the Jackal” has already secured its place in novel history. The concept, about right-wing French fanatics hiring a professional assassin to murder President de Gaulle in 1963 is daring for two reasons. The first is that it reads pretty much as a cold heavily detailed step by step almost journalistic expose of the plot rather than a thriller. The second is that we all know the outcome: President de Gaulle survived a number of assassination attempts, but died peacefully in an armchair in his home. In short, not as much a Who-Did-It as How-They-Did-It.

It shouldn’t work, yet it does, and brilliantly. So brilliantly in fact, that one finds oneself reading it again despite knowing the outcome and pretty much every twist in the story. Forsyth’s great success is his ability (honed as a foreign correspondent) to communicate great detail in a absolutely readable and enjoyable manner. For years later many believed it was a true story.

The book (and even more Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 masterpiece movie) also conveys nicely the Europe and France of its day. The shadow of the war still there, yet a continent on the verge of huge integration.

The movie is a stylish joy to watch. Cold and methodical, with minimal use of music, Edward Fox as the Jackal and Michel Lonsdale as the French police chief pursuing him steal the movie. A wealth of British TV stars of the 1970s fill the background.

Both the book and the movie are an absolute treat.

https://youtu.be/dusBnj4bYnA

Review: “No time to die” and the future of James Bond.

Farewell, Commander Craig.

*SPOILER ALERT: YOU KNOW THE DRILL. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN “NO TIME TO DIE” STOP READING NOW!

OK? Right, we’ll continue.

I really enjoyed “No time to die”, despite some things that annoyed me. But first, the positives:

  1. This is Craig’s best performance as Bond. He comes across as a human being, and the realization that he is a father affects him. It’s also the movie where Bond has actual friends who genuinely care about him. When he and Moneypenny turn up at Q’s house, their comfort with each other (and Q casually outing himself to the audience) has a hint of Scooby Doo to it. Even M’s response on hearing they’ve been secretly working with Bond “Oh for fuck’s sake!” is more “I knew it!” than anger.
  2. There’s genuine humour in the movie of the non-clunky variety. I can’t help thinking Phoebe Waller-Bridge played a role in that. In particular the “I have something to show you.” “Is it another child?”
  3. The nods to previous movies were beautifully done. The portrait of Judy Dench evoked an “aww!” in the cinema I was in. Lesser noticed, but equally relevant, was the portrait of Robert Brown who had played M in the 1980s. The use of music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a nice touch, as well as speeding on a road in homage to the final tragic scene in OHMSS (where Blofeld murders Bond’s wife Tracy). Portentous, as we all realize later. One other thing: the scene when Bond kills Felix Leiter’s murderer Ash by crushing him with a car harks back to a scene in Roger Moore’s 007 days in “For your eyes only” where he cold bloodily kills an assassin by kicking his precariously balanced car off a cliff.
  4. Lashana Lynch does a solid job as the new 007, even getting the prized Use The Movie Title In The Movie scene, but the real and unexpected breakout star is Ana de Armas as Paloma, Bond’s CIA contact in Cuba, who deftly mixes dizzy almost goofball comedy (“I did three weeks training!”) with superb action scenes. The producers should use both characters again.
  5. The scenery and the stunts are superb. I personally find car chases quite boring but the ones in this are genuinely thrilling, especially the one with a bike Bond steals and pretty much drives up a wall. I almost puked.

As for the negatives:

  1. The Billie Eilish song did nothing for me. Overall, whilst I really liked Adele’s “Skyfall”, my favourite Craig song remains the late Chris Cornell’s brassy “You know my name”.
  2. Rami Malek is a fabulous actor, but his character is just a McGuffin here. Even the bio superweapon is under-utilised as to what it could do. How or why he’s doing what he’s doing is very much of the “Will that do?” variety. I was always waiting for him to look into the camera. Also, his character is given that awful thing that appears in many modern thrillers of having these long ponderous scenes where he just talks meaningless psychobabble to make the character seem deep? The film to too long, and you could edit a lot of this out without ruining anything plot-wise.

And finally, we have to address the Octopussy in the room…

There were people crying in the cinema at Bond dying, and even I got something in my eye at that exact moment. The audience was in shock, keeping waiting for him to return, to pop out of the water, to do a Sherlock and peer from behind a tree, but he didn’t. He’s dead, and the closing scene of Madeleine driving and telling her daughter about her father to Louis Armstrong’s “we have all the time in the world” left rubbing my eyes. A beautiful ending.

There’s a lovely option here for the next Comic Relief of M welcoming Bond to Heaven with a “For fuck’s sake Bond. It’s all drama with you. We could have put you in a space suit and used an electromagnetic pulse to kill the nanobots.” And Felix having a Martini ready for him…

And the future for 007? You can’t just ignore that ending and reset at the next movie, ignoring Bond’s death. It’s true that “No time to die” is mostly set five years after “Spectre”, so there is a window to set a film there, although it would be a bit weird having a different Bond chronologically (although not for the first time). Alternatively, the producers could either reboot back to the 1960s with a new actor. Check out the French OSS-117 comedies starring Jean Dujardin to see what that could look like. Or go for the old fan theory favourite and have M decide that Britain needs a James Bond (as a sort of one-man Trident deterrent) and so recruits a replacement to literally take his place. It’s not as preposterous an idea as it seems, in fact, it was sort of the plot of the 1967 comedy Bond “Casino Royale”. Personally, I think it is an interesting idea. Especially if “James Bond” is essentially a distraction to allow other agents work in the background.

Of course, then you’re into the plot for….eh…”Remington Steele”…

House of Cards meets the Élysée: Baron Noir

If you’re not watching or haven’t watched French political drama “Baron Noir”, you can’t call yourself a political junkie. Whereas “The West Wing” did liberal political fantasy, and “Borgen” did liberal compromise, and “House of Cards” did cynical winning for winning sake, “Baron Noir” does political street-fighting with just a hint of morality.

The series centres on Phillipe Rickwaert, Socialist MP and Mayor of Dunkirk and chief crony of the Socialist candidate for President of France, starting on the eve of the first round. I won’t give anything else away other than the show is about the grubby compromises of politics. And yet… most of the characters, especially Rickwaert played by a brooding but charismatic Kad Merad have a moral centre. Politics matters to them. Nearly all are idealists (some lapsed) and all actually care about what it means to be in public office.

Rickwaert is an intriguing character, at home with the parish pump politics of his local fiefdom as with the battles over what it means to be a socialist in 21st century Europe. Genuine political issues from Marxism to Europe to secularism are debated throughout the show in a way unimaginable in a modern English-language political drama. It shows just how big the gap between Anglo-Saxon and continental politics is: unions still matter, and characters barely bat an eyelid when a prime minister openly advocates a United States of Europe.

There was a time when eyes were rolled at European TV drama in terms of accessibility and production values. No more. This is as good if not better than any political drama on US/UK TV.

All three seasons (it seems there won’t be a fourth) are on Amazon Prime.

Line of Duty: Questions about Buckells.

DSU Ian Buckells played by Nigel Boyce

*Spoiler alert about the season finale of Season 6 of Line of Duty. You’ve been warned.*

I wasn’t that surprised that DSU Buckells was revealed to be H. I can’t claim to be any great detective genius, and he wasn’t my lead suspect (that would be ACC Andrea Wyse). But those of us brought up on modern TV drama and Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects) know that the criminal has to be an onscreen character (although not a major one) and the idea that he was just pretending to be incompetent, to the point of even framing himself by putting files in his own car is credible.

Indeed, the excellent performance of Nigel Boyce playing the out-of-his-league mediocre middle-rank boss made it all the more believable.

Yet something just doesn’t sit right with me. When his cover is blown, he doesn’t reveal a hidden criminal genius. Indeed, his description of the OCG as a loose coalition of criminal gangs for whom he acted, as the last surviving member of the network of four corrupt officers (Hilton, Cotton, Hargreaves), as a sort of clearing house for just doesn’t ring true.

Review: For All Mankind

The road not taken…

There’s a very good chance that you have never heard of Apple TV’s “For all mankind”, given that we live in an age of “silo TV”, where different streaming platforms and an absolute glut (in a good sense) of high quality TV means that a show that would have been huge a decade or two ago instead ends up with a niche audience.

Well, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.

The series, having just ended its second season recently and with a third season already in production, is essentially an alternate history drama which starts with the USSR beating the United States to the moon, and the US responding with a massive commitment to the space programme.

It has a large ensemble cast and mixes the family and personal drama of the astronauts and senior NASA officials with seriously top-class special effects and CGI. In particular the smooth insertion of both historical figures (Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan) and a different spin on real-life events adds an authentic touch.

It also has a social history running through it, talking about the challenges of women and minorities in the astronaut programme, and the weaponisation of space.

I don’t want to make it sound too worthy, because it is also very entertaining with some genuine edge-of-seat and gut-wrenching dramatic moments. I also don’t want to pick out any particular member of the cast (none of whom were hugely famous before) because there is such a generally high quality to the ensemble performance.

This is quality TV. Give it a go.

British spy loses employment appeal over sexually inappropriate behaviour, drinking.

MI6At a special session of the Employment Appeals Tribunal convened in camera under the Official Secrets Act, Commander X, formally of the Royal Navy and Secret Intelligence Service today lost his appeal against dismissal from the service.

X had been dismissed 18 months previously after numerous warnings about drinking on duty and making sexual advances on both fellow employees and targeted individuals. The final incident was a fracas caused by X in the service’s quartermaster branch. The head of the branch alleged that X had turned up after lunch “with the usual four Martinis on board” and proceeded to berate staff for not being able to provide him with a discreet way of carry prophylactics. “You’ve no shortage of lasers n’ shit, but you can’t get me a handful of fucking rubber johnnies! Have you seen some of the quim I have to bang for Queen n’ country? Do you know why they call her Octopussy?”

This had been the second incident involving the Q branch. X had previously been disciplined for trying to use a dart launcher to give himself a penicillin injection. A service doctor later testified that X was “riddled” with STIs.

A number of women, both from within the service and without gave evidence of X’s inappropriate sexual advances, using service equipment to remove their clothing without consent, and searching out particularly emotionally damaged women who were vulnerable and seen as easy prey.

“The man was like a vulture if there was any woman in a 5 mile radius who’d recently lost a love one through violence. I think it got him, you know, going. And don’t get me started on age. 18 and up, he was in like Flynn,” another member of the 00 section said.

The same agent disputed a claim by X that this was all part of “serving Queen and Country”.

“That’s nonsense. The other three of us are all happily married. He’s the only one charging around pissed like a rutting rhino. It’s a complete lack of professional standards. At the MI6 family day he made a pass at my 18 year old daughter. Poured champagne on her and then tried to help her out of her wet things. I mean, does that even work?”

The head of MI6, Alex Younger, admitted that X had not been dismissed earlier because he had been a useful asset in the past. “The man is so conspicuous and incapable of doing anything discreetly that we would use him to distract attention from our real operations. He spends his days driving around in ridiculous cars and trying to bed anyone in a skirt whilst our real operatives are quietly, you know, gathering intelligence. The problem has been that he is so effective at getting attention from foreign intelligence agencies that they immediately go on alert looking for our real agents when he arrives in the f**king airport. Now we just send him to places like Denmark in the hope he might use up someone’s resources following him, wandering between seedy bars, casinos and VD clinics. I mean, who on Earth wears a tuxedo as much as this guy does? And don’t mistake him for a waiter. He’s kicked off on a number of occasions over that.”

The tribunal was reminded that X had been married, but his wife had died in suspicious circumstances, with X claiming that she’d been murdered. No charges were ever brought.

The tribunal ended in a fracas when the presiding chair of the tribunal had to order X removed when he suggested, during her delivery of her findings, that they might like to adjourn to his hotel to “review” her findings. He then physically attempted to stop her talking by forcing himself onto her with a kiss, and was only stopped when she punched him in the penis.

 

Picard: I am enjoying it, but…

Pictured: Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

*Spoiler alert*

“Star Trek: Picard” is the show I’ve been waiting ages for, as I’m always a fan of the What Happened Next genre in fiction I like. I want to know what happened to the characters I like, to the Federation, to the future. I enjoy “Star Trek: Discovery” and roll my eyes at the usual anti-SJW stuff but I have to admit, I don’t really gel with the characters in it. They all look like they’re about to burst into tears all the time, with the exception of Lorca, Pike and (my favourite) Georgiou who basically regards everybody else as a bunch of crybabies. Picard is about my guy, the emotionally retarded stiff upper lip captain of the Enterprise.

What worries me about Picard however isn’t the characters. I get that we live in an age where absolutely f**king everything has to be emotionally over the top. My problem is with a trait displayed by many US TV writers with regarding emotional gymnastics as being all that matters, and non-emotional plot becoming a McGuffin. For the benefit of unfamiliar readers, a McGuffin is a Hitchcock term for an objective/object that matters to the characters but not really to the audience. It’s The Thing they are trying to rescue, recover, destroy, but what it is doesn’t really need to be understood by the audience to follow the story.

And that’s my problem. Entertaining as it is, it feels like the backstory of Picard is just a McGuffin. Take the reason for Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the Federation’s abandoning of the Romulans. It’s a fundamental change to the values of the Federation that we have been brought up to known (and love) throughout the Star Trek franchise. When talking with an admiral about it Picard she informs him that Federation members are threatening to leave if they are forced to help the Romulans after the attack on Mars. This is all quite believable, and not a million miles from the EU and it’s challenges with refugees. But it’s just used as an excuse for Picard to mope around feeling let down. I hope there’s more to it than that, not just another “bloody politicians” get out.

It’s the same with the Romulans. We are led to believe that the Romulan Empire was destroyed by the supernova, yet there is talk of a Romulan Free State and the Tal Shiar still exist. Again, no detail, just a convenient McGuffin baddy.

I get it. Few people want to watch a show about the intricate political debates of the Federation (Although I’d definitely watch Star Trek: Place de la Concorde) but still. Now, maybe I’m doing the show a disservice. Maybe there will be a big reveal at the end. I sure hope so, as opposed to the infamous “Lost” finale and the “They’re all in purgatory or something” ending.