More TV and movies! Will I stop this nonsense and talk about something else? Eventually!

Chuck

Chuck’s third season has been intense. When a show is popular, it tends to end up in a stasis – plots circle around each other over and over, climax at the season’s end and then reset when they come back a few months later. Conversely, shows about to be cancelled pull out the stops to draw viewers in, changing and adapting and offering increasing craziness as a lure. Based on this idea, a part of me is glad that Chuck is seemingly on the permanent cusp of cancellation since it has made for a more adaptive and energised story. Chuck has gone from the nebbish wannabe with a supercomputer in his brain in season 1 and the more engaged and competent protagonist in season 2 to a driven and active hero in season 3, and now steps into season 4 as… something even more. It’s a great dynamic, enabled entirely by the need to draw in viewers. Had it been successful from the start, we would still have Chuck pining for his disinterested handler Sarah while hiding behind desks and everything explodes. The net result is a fantastic and rarely observed sense of motion to events.

[As an aside I should say that the ploy has also worked, more or less – Olivia hated Chuck when it started, having long since tired of the geeky protagonist type (preferring his more active rival, Bryce). Now, with Chuck putting his man-pants on, she’s an avowed fan.]

What’s really delightful is that the Intersect 2.0 did not, as would be easily and reasonably feared, disrupt the nature of the show. Chuck may now be able to fight hand-to-hand, but it was very rarely the major solution to any situation so much as a pleasant way to transition the story with the main character rather than via his proxies. The show instead chose to emphasise Chuck’s natural talents – most notably his brain – in resolving the majority of crises (which would prove quite vital since the new Intersect is affected by emotions, an area in which Chuck significantly lacks control). The new Intersect instead added its own plot complications which enhanced the drama rather than undermining it (seeing Chuck be overwhelmed by combat programming and begin to strangle someone was one of the most chilling elements of the season).

The series was not without flaws: The Ring never felt quite so epic as FULCRUM did, in part as they had notably less episodes in which to establish and use them; their targeting of Shaw also made them seem more myopic. The technical benching of Sarah was not quite as efficiently done as the creators intended – while it made sense to give the newly empowered Chuck room to show off his new fighting skills and put Sarah into Chuck’s old position of wary witness, it mostly translated on-screen to her becoming increasingly passive. It’s reasonable for Sarah to be disturbed by the increasing compromise of Chuck’s integrity, but it came at the cost of weakening her as a character (which they did at least recognise and rectify for the second half of the season). The show’s reduced budget was also unfortunately noticeable in places, even if they did their best to hide it (and in some cases were able to make a great plot point out of it).

It’s weird – in many ways it was the most emotionally satisfying season, but it lacked a little something for the loss of style and glamour that the first two seasons had. It’s entirely a superficial element, but given that it’s a rather glossy show that’s probably the point. The season 2 and season 3 finales sum it up in a lot of ways – 2 ended with a huge shoot-out, 3 with a deeply personal and emotionally charged brawl. Both were great, but you kind of wish they had elements of the other. Hopefully, season 4 will be that very synthesis.

Doctor Who

Unique among what I’ve been talking about by dint of the current season not being finished yet, it’s getting a mention in brief because it has been my favourite of the revamped Dr Who series thus far (I’ll probably take a look at it as whole when it’s done, including the Ecclestone and Tennant eras).

Matt Smith’s tenure as the new Doctor has been interesting watching so far – crashing into the life of Amy Pond at a very early age, he has been creating a rather new dynamic for a companion (typically meeting them as adults, he instead pops in and out of Amy’s life from age 7 onwards) which has so far been concerned with sowing seeds for the overall story arc rather than creating any major revelations in and of itself thus far. That said, it has been careful to point out that a relationship with the Doctor is not necessarily benign – while the matter of the jeopardy the Doctor places his companions in has been raised before, it has never been so on the nose about the often unrealistic expectations and skewed viewpoint that can be created by the relationship.

Overall, it’s been a strong show – thus far, most episodes have been good-to-great, with one ‘meh’ (the Winston Churchill episode) and one outright clunker (the Silurian two-parter). The real strength of the show has been in the character moments – the weeping angels two parter had wonderful interplay, even if it wasn’t necessarily consistent with the mythology of the show, and the Vincent van Gogh episode gave a good insight into the nature of depression for an audience that is often not properly educated on the matter (the show is, after all, aimed at families as a whole, not just the adults). Smith has been excellent as the Doctor, settling into the role faster than most, while Gillan has been entertaining in her position as the most confident companion in many a moon. I await the finale with glee.

Four Lions

Ah, the new Chris Morris movie about a group of wannabe muhjahadeen suicide bombers. I have to admit, this movie is not as funny as people have been making out in the press. It’s hilarious in places, this is true, but it’s disingenuous to say that that is all the movie is. It’s a film about suicide bombers after all! But the vital thing to remember is that it’s a movie which tries to explore and comprehend what that means in a way that a reasonable audience could find palatable.

Four Lions is, by turns, funny, serious, understanding and tragic. As it follows the protagonists from the beginning of their designs to become suicide bombers standing up to their enemies (perceived or otherwise), it moves by increments away from hilarity to a deeper pathos. What’s interesting is that our sympathies are held for them – it would be easy to dislike men who are planning destruction, but it’s harder to do that when they are trying to explain to their child what they hope to achieve by using the Lion King as an example. They are presented as real people with real issues – frequently, the presentation highlights the hypocrisy of their intent, but it is not afraid to create a moral grey area (one of the best examples being the traditionalist brother of one of the bombers who refuses to speak with the bomber’s wife on religious grounds, but nonetheless pleads with his brother not to follow a violent path).

It also somehow manages to look at its subject without histrionics, bile or overt pity, instead leaving these feelings to be decided by the audience. It’s an unbelievably subtle and confident work which also underscores the creative growth of its creators (who were responsible for often-times excessive Brass Eye). A definite film to watch, if you get the chance.

How to Train Your Dragon

This is probably long since out of the cinema, but it’s worth mentioning as it’s the best family movie to come out in a long time. Hiccup is the prototypical outsider and viking village reject who is unable to prove his worth. When one of his inventions miraculously takes down a dragon, he sets out to find the body as proof of his dragon-hunting prowess. What he finds however is not yet dead…

HTTYD is simple and straightforward, but what it does it does well. The dialogue is fun, the characters are likeable and the action is delightful. It’s also one of the few times that 3D has worked in the favour of the movie, rather than as a distraction, this being most evident when Hiccup flies his dragon out of dense forests and villages into the vast, liberating open sky. It’s a lovely effect that doesn’t take you out of the story.

What’s really great is that there is a sense of cost in all actions – it’s not much of a spoiler to say that good wins out, but what really gives it that extra oomph is that it’s victory with a price. Not everyone walks away from the final battle intact, and it’s good to see the idea being shown to kids. If it’s still on, you really should make an effort.

Iron Man 2

1. If you follow Marvel comics, you will probably like this more than normal people.

2. If you liked the first one, you’ll probably like this one.

3. If you didn’t like the first one, you will probably not like this one.

4. Scarlet Johansson is very attractive.

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