Tidelands (created by Stephen Irwin & Leigh McGrath) Episode 1 [4/10]

TV series Tidelands review

The first Australian high budget series from Netflix, the eight-part Tidelands disappoints from the first scene, an ocean action sequence that promises nothing good. I watched Episode 1 with some anticipation, being an Aussie myself, and I found myself impressed by the sumptuous camerawork and a tight script that moves along. But the basic plotline – an ex-con back home, drug running, and a half-siren gang queen – hardly inspires and all the major characters are woefully miscast. The dialogue has a certain snappiness to it, but it’s unintelligent fare delivered with Australian accents in a way that imbues each scene with the feel of a soap opera. The end of Episode 1 is a cliffhanger that should entice me onwards but I won’t bother. For the first time, I’ll not give a series its full rein… such a shame.

Kin directed/written by Jonathan & Josh Baker [6/10]

Movie Kin review

A mash-up between an alterna-world sci-fi riot-fest and a gritty brother-brother road trip flick, “Kin” promises much, scene by scene, but sat uneasily in my mind after the closing credits. The brain child of the talented Baker brother combo, we see a fourteen-year-old adoptee (played well by Myles Truitt) plunged into the deadly affairs of his much older, just-released-con brother (Jack Reynor, in a mixed performance). They flee, young Eli hiding a strange stocky weapon straight out of video games. Pursued or beset by garishly horrid crims (James Franco hams his heart out) and robotic beings on super-fast motorbikes, the bonding brothers (“kin,” get it?) drive day and night across plain and mountain range. If it sounds like I’m taking the piss out of the plot, that’s what watching felt like on too many occasions. The sci-fi action is cartoonishly blasty, many scenes ring true, and even a strange sequel-beckoning plot twist towards the end entertained me, but my disquiet with the plot’s arc overrode all the pleasures. Oh, I should mention the Mogwai sountdrack, which I’ve reviewed and which lured me to the underlying film – it also disappoints, rarely imposing its grandeur on the scenes, a notable exception being the fabulous driving tune gracing the closing credits. Overall, fab prospects promised but not delivered.

Berlin Station Season 3 Episode 1 [8/10]

Berlin Station review

Olen Steinhauer creates spy thriller magic. His Milo Weaver trilogy finished, he has a new thriller out, The Middleman. But at the same time he’s created two kinetic seasons of Berlin Station, which I loved, and now here’s Season 3. Can it maintain the pace and characterisation verve of the first two outings? I can happily report that it most certainly can. In fact, Episode 1 rushes into the new backdrop, Russian incursions into its tiny neighbor Estonia, with such rapidity that I’m tempted to recommend you ground yourself first with at least Season 2. The familiar characters – spy Daniel Miller (ably portrayed by Richard Armitage, a better actor in motion than in repose), profane spy boss Kirsch (a standout performance as ever by Leland Orser), and spy boss Valerie Edwards (terrifically acted by Michelle Forbes) – are shoved straight into action, along with many regular or new bit players, so you need to pay heed. But the scriptwriting and direction are so assured that I think you can come to this tale with no prior experience. Tallinn in Estonia is a wonderful locale for mysterious nefarious activities (I’m biased, my parents came from there), action shocks abound, and the episode’s climax leaves one gasping for more. Once more a winner.

Upside Down Flowers by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness [8/10]

How on earth did this brilliant singer-songwriter slide past me for so long? Andrew McMahon is an inspired word painter and melody creator and “Upside Down Flowers“ is his third solo after two successful band stints. He looks like full-on American white bread but make no mistake, there’s magic in every one of these eleven tracks. The musical style refers back to classic 70s and 80s high-blown rock, arranged beautifully enough to fit into that old sub-genre of “baroque pop-rock,” but none of it feels careworn, and perhaps that’s due to the way McMahon anchors most songs with his lovely piano figures. Butch Walker’s production (he’s also one of those multi instrumentalists) is sonically intelligent. Vocally McMahon can echo Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, or Billy Joel, but once again, there’s something aching and true about his voice that transcends those cheap “sounds-like” comparisons. Is “Upside Down Flowers“ an ode to lost times? It certainly said that to me, with its songs of family moves, tree houses, Vegas gambles, short-fling heartbreak, and new starts. Amongst the many highlights are “Ohio” with its road trip images and ornately worded chorus; the sweet-but-not-saccharine “Penelope,” and the cryptic, developing, lovely “Everything Must Go.” And if you love rock, I defy you to grace your ears with “Teenage Rockstars” without your heart swelling with half a century’s musical hopes and joys.

Bodyguard (from Jed Mercurio) Episodes 4-6 [7/10]

TV series Bodyguard review

I rated the TV series “Bodyguard’s“ opening episode as only 5/10 but gave 8/10 to the next two episodes, so I had high hopes for the final three chapters. It seems the scriptwriters were determined to not only pile the pressures on bodyguard Budd (Richard Madden maintains his solid centrepiece acting), but to veer the plot in almost unbelievable directions. Me, I rode with the flow and relished the many complete surprises. The bit players rise to prominence over these three episodes; particularly notable is Pippa Heywood as the questioning cop. A finale bomb-related scene ratchets up the tension to screaming point. I rarely binge watch but I slammed the final two episodes. The closing plot wrap-up lets the clever overall script down and the closing scene annoyed me with its vacuity, but overall “Bodyguard” is a quintessential gritty British thriller that should achieve success.

Bodyguard (from Jed Mercurio) Episodes 2-3 [8/10]

TV series Bodyguard review

I rated the TV series Bodyguard’s opening episode as only 5/10. Plenty of mood but just mood. Well, by the middle of the six-episode series, the plot explodes, with twist after twist, so I recommend you plough on after the opener. Richard Madden sheds some of the stodginess of his initial portrayal of bodyguard Budd, and Keeley Hawes is terrrific as frosty Home Secretary Montague. The scriptwriters get more and more daring with each fresh episode, and the closing scenes of Episode 3 are stunning. The motives of the police and the security services grow to be gratifyingly murky, and all the supporting characters are well nuanced and credible. Will the second half continue to grip? The signs are auspicious.


McQueen directed by Ian Bonhote & Peter Etedgui [8/10]

McQueen directed by Ian Bonhote & Peter Etedgui review

Never been to a fashion show and never will, so a documentary on the life of designer Lee Alexander McQueen hardly beckoned. Luckily I embrace risk, for from the first frame, the co-directors (and Etedgui wrote the script) of “McQueen” gripped me. With no fancy back and forth, just a chronological telling, they employ an artful mix of interview, fashion show footage, and family-style footage to chart McQueen’s rise from Brit youth to Gucci-owned superstar, and then to his untimely demise at age 40 (that’s not a spoiler, this is a doco, right?). Quite what converts a boring documentary into compelling drama is never clear to me, but I commend this magic to you. The ancient theme of the fraught flip side of genetic creativity is handled without express messaging. The visuals are, of course, vivid. Even Michael Nyman’s music, which I’ve gotten sick of in movies, suits the moody ambience. All in all, McQueen is an expertly paced, absorbing documentary paean to an exhausting talent.

Natural Causes by Kelley Stoltz [5/10]

Kelley Stoltz Natural Causes review

Kelley Stoltz is one of those hardworking studio-bound singer-songwriters in the field of DIY melodic pop rock who operate in obscurity, occasionally experiencing rays of light when discovered afresh. Listening to “Natural Causes,” one can almost imagine him noodling in the studio, constructing in all manner of polished but low-key styles, from the soft jangling chug a la Real Estate (the title track) to the Buggles-reminiscent “Static Electricity.” Stoltz’s previous release, “Antique Glow,” hit the mark, but this release, though listenable enough, contains too many tracks with poor melodies and patchwork lyrics. One for the completist only.

Lean on Pete directed by Andrew Haigh [8/10]

Lean on Pete review

How wonderful the world of movies! Released last year, Lean on Pete only made it to Australian cinemas now. I’ve been hanging out for it. I don’t know author Willy Vlautin well, having only read one of his novels (and not Lean on Pete), nor was I a rabid fan of his prolific band, Richmond Fontaine, but his stature has grown and this American adaptation to the screen had a solid reputation. The wait has been more than worthwhile: this is a pitch-perfect low-key stunner. Charlie Plummer transcends the role of Charley Thompson, a slender, likeable fifteen-year-old living with his struggling dad in Portland, Oregon. Charley picks up a stable roustabout job working for an irascible trainer (a great role for Steve Buscemi) and falls under the spell of Lean on Pete, a fifteen-year-old quarterhorse racer in decline. Nothing is over dramatized and it takes the viewer some minutes to appreciate how dire young Charley’s situation is, and then, of course, the bottom falls out. Simple, raw scenes of the rural and city fringes of the United States, carefully centered around the plucky figure of Charley, are filmed with crystalline intensity. Vlautin is famed as a chronicler of the American down-and-out, and the relentless assault, in growing crescendos, on Charley’s humanity and pride are almost unbearable to watch. I found the final third a ratification of film’s grandeur and I’m sure you will too. Watch Lean on Pete, would you?

Maniac directed by Cary Fukunaga – Episodes 6 to 10 [9/10]

TV series Maniac review

I rated the first episode of this stellar TV series as 9/10, then watched the first half of the season to accord 8/10. Well, the final five episodes of “Maniac” ratchet up the weirdness and atmosphere even more. Jonah Hill in particular amps up the theatrics as he plays characters inside Owen Milgrim’s head and Emma Stone, as Annie Landsberg, remains flawless. The pharmaceutical trial spirals out of control as strange and wonderful fantasies seem to draw Owen and Annie together even inside their heads, while Dr. Fujita, Dr. Mantleray, and the latter’s mother play out another drama altogether. Sumptuously filmed and precisely choreographed, the series finishes on a high. Oh, and I roared with laughter during one scene with Owen as a high-pitched Icelandic spy.