McMafia: Series one episode one review

McMafia… he (Alex Godman played by the lovely James Norton from Happy Valley and War and Peace) is the son of a Russian Mafia Boss that was driven out of business and Moscow by a rival. Why the “Mc”? Some unknown Scottish link? Don’t be daft… I only just got it as I typed “McMafia” in the heading of this blog. It is because a character used McDonald’s and Burger king as examples in comparing the size of businesses… but fast food this ain’t! No clowns in this drama! (so far anyway). This BBC drama is 2018’s The Night Manager (which featured Tom Hiddleston auditioning for the role of James Bond, with James Bond reimagined as a hospitality night shift worker). Perhap’s now this drama has aired its first episode James Norton will be the next front runner.

So McMafia, what is it all about? Less burgers and fries and more caviar and er Mafia, Russian Mafia to be precise. So far so good and very current as apparently Russians are the bad guys, just ask Hilary Clinton. So… Alex Godman is the son of a Russian Mafia Boss but Alex is very much British after his familys forced exile. He has lived and studied in the UK most of his life and he now works as an emerging markets fund manager, which translates as ‘banker’ for us normal folk… definately with a B. He is an upstanding citizen and refuses to use any of his Russian connections or money. Unfortunately someone circulates a rumour that is using his Russian connections and then all of a sudden his investors desert. It turn’s out his own Uncle Boris is the one behind the rumours in an attempt to lure Alex back to the family business and it all kicks off from there. His uncle Boris (I recognised as David Dencik from Top of the Lake series 2) didn’t stick around for long as he was murdered (for attempting to murder the rival boss Vadim Kalyagin who had kicked them out of Moscow all those years ago). Boris has a Israeli friend, Semiyon Kleiman, who is keen to use Alex’s firm to launder £100 million in “shipping” proceeds. Alex asks Semiyon for advice on how to keep his family safe following Boris’s murder and he advises Alex to go and speak to the rival mafia boss man Vadim Kalyagin at the Palace of Versailles (but looked to me like Waddeston Manor) who ends the episode by asking Alex if he would like to go to see one of two rooms, the room of war or the room of peace? Which one was it? Ooooh gripping stuff. He should have said “Actually… I’ve already been in both War and Peace”.

This drama is based on a book titled “McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime” which is actually a factual book and not a work of fiction. So the fictional story and characters are a way of exploring a criminal world that is real. So far the script, characters, exotic locations and intriguing storyline make me think this series will be a winner. I don’t mind subtitles and like how international this series will be. There are a lot of crime dramas, some even loosely based around real events (Narcos, Snowfall etc) and lately I’ve gotten a little tired of some of these, but McMafia I’ll stick with, for the time being.

BBC’s ‘Little Women’ adaptation ends 2017 as we enter 2018 ‘the year of the woman’

The best time of year for watching TV is Christmas. It is the only time of year I buy a Radio Times so I can best choose what will be on. I flicked through my Radio Times and picked out Little Women as one to watch this year and I was not disappointed.

I admit I have never read the book, but I do recall seeing the adaptation that featured Winona Ryder. This adaptation was well cast. The most complex character, strong willed Jo, was played by Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s daughter) and she gives an excellent performance. Unlike the Winona Ryder film version the character of Amy being played by one actress didn’t seem strange, at the beginning she was able to seem like a little girl even though being similar size to her sisters, the actress Kathryn Newton had a baby face but mostly was able to portray her characters age just simply through great acting. Emily Watson was a strong matriarch for the family and also Michael Gambon as the wealthy neighbour Mr Laurence and Angela Lansbury as Aunt March provided great cameos.

I felt that the adaptation had a similar feel to Netflix’s ‘Anne with an E’ (Anne of Green Gables) especially with it’s title sequence, which has a modern folky feel to it, but was possibly the only thing I didn’t care for. This adaptation was full of heart and nostalgia. Some shots appear like a Christmas card, but there was a lot of substance. 2018 is to be ‘The Year of the ‘Woman’ and this old book seems to have a strong message of feminism as it portrays all these different sister’s. It is really a coming of age story and ‘growing up’ and I enjoyed the journey with this family of ‘little women’.

BBC Howards End remake: Intelligent and Current.

I remember watching the origional Howards End in 1992. It was shown at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, which is a theatre. They had decided to branch out as a cinema. They stuck a big cinema screen on the stage and I went with my parents and grandparents to watch it, I was about 12. I recall Howards End covered in blooms shot basking in a glowing orange sunset and Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter had huge hair and huge frills. This remake was very different, still obviously Edwardian but so 2017.

This four part series was less period drama fluff and more about ideas. That primarily is the reason why I liked it so much. It was relevant to today to our current issues and debates. It is about social conventions, class, the attitudes of the rich to the poor and race (Leonard Bast’s wife is black and there are other characters of colour in this remake). The three families: the wealthy Wilcox’s representing the English upper classes, the Schlegel family are the idealistic and intellectual aspect of the English upper classes and poor Mr Bast represents the aspirations of the lower classes, he is obsessed with self improvement but is never able to better himself, held back by his class and poverty.

Howards End is England. This novel was considered E M Forster’s masterpiece and it is about “who will inherit England?”. Mrs Wilcox gentle, selfless, loving and the matriach that all the other Wilcox’s obey (representing England’s past) dies early into the novel and leaves Howards End to Margaret Schlegel (of whom she had recently struck up a friendship). The Wilcox’s decide to ignore her request (after all, it was written in pencil) and throws the letter into the fire. Then it seems that fate would inflict some unfortunate consequences involving all three families and in the end the Schlegel’s do in fact inherit Howards End. If only the Wilcox’s had given it to them in the first place!

There was so much about this adaptation that I loved. I thought the casting was spot on. Instead of Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins we have Julia Ormond and Matthew Macfadyen, a younger Wilcox matriarch and patriarch but Matthew Macfadyen had all the stuffyness and chavenistic required for his character. I was quite amused to see Tracey Ullman as Aunt Julie and did keep expecting her to do her Angela Merkel impression. I absolutely loved Hayley Atwell. I couldn’t get enough of her. She is a talent wasted on Marvel (athough I did enjoy her as Agent Carter). I wish she would come back from Hollywood to make some more period dramas for the BBC. Emma Thompson won an oscar for her role in the origional film of this and I felt Hayley Atwell’s performance was just as good. I actually like that the Schlegel sisters actually looked like sisters. Helen Schlegel played by Philippa Coultard was a breakthrough performance in my opinion. I loved the dialogue. They could have been speaking about whether we should help refugees, in their discussions about whether or not to help Mr Bast. Mr Bast’s dependance on help from the Schlegel’s illustrates the entitled ignorance that many in a better off position have of those in the poverty trap.

So all in all I felt Howards End was spot on. Intelligent and current. Five stars from me. More Hayley Atwell please.

Dive into Blue Planet 2

There is something comforting about turning on the TV on a Sunday night watching the most breathtaking natural scenes on your HD TV and listening to Sir David Attenborough’s voice as he shows you another world, your world, yet it seems like another world. These nature series are one of the BBC’s great achievements. My seven year old son cannot get enough of it. There is so much about our planet that we do not know or are only just learning about and it is presented to us spectacularly.

Each scene makes the television screen come alive with soothing blue and bright coloured ocean life as the deep seas, coral reefs and on tonights episode, green seas are explored. Each week features a first for marine film making history. This week featured an octopus showing us just how intelligent a creature it is. The octopus disguises itself by pulling shells all over it to camoflage and armour itself against a predatory tiger shark (I guess one could call it a shell suit). Then once attacked by the shark it inserts it’s tentacles into the sharks gills to cut off the sharks air supply so the shark eventually has to let go. Clever octopus! As a viewer this is nail biting stuff. I am witnessing animal behaviour before unknown let alone caught on camera.

There is always an environmental message. The damage we are doing to the planet is always evident. One feels that these David Attenborough documentaires be mandatory viewing so that we would be more inclined to look after our planet. This week the hunting almost to extinction of sea otters for their fur meant that sea urchins were able to mulch away much of the kelp forests that made up the ‘green seas’ (sea otters now being protected are able to eat the sea urchins and the kelp able to again florish). It illustrates natures natural balance. Watching this I was reminded to a time a few years back on holiday in Paxos Greece when snorkelling in shallow water I accidentally slipped and embedded sea urchin spikes in my finger. Those pesky sea urchin spikes! I was quite glad the sea otters could reap my revenge on them.

Who would have known that a patch of sea grass is 35 times more efficient at absorbing and storing carbon than the same area of rain forest?! Such a fascinating watch. The effort and expertise it takes to make these nature documentaries is all worth it.

 

The Last Kindgom… real life Game of Thrones…

I have a confession to make… I have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I wouldn’t mind watching it, but I just haven’t. Now one thing that I have really really enjoyed is the BBC’s The Last Kingdom. I love a bit of historical fiction and the best way I can describe The Last Kingdom is Game of Thrones… but real history, which makes it even more interesting. Also in Britain we have so much history it is impossible to know all of it. That is why The Last Kingdom is so compelling, I don’t know what is going to happen, I wasn’t taught this in my school history lessons.

The series is based on Bernell Cornwall’s novels The Saxon Stories set in late 9th century AD when Anglo Saxon lands are eventually attacked, plundered and ruled by invading Viking Danes. The protagonist is Uhtred of Bebbanburg (played by German actor Alexander Dreymon who provides some serious eye candy). In the first episode Uhtred is a boy and is heir to Bebbanburg. His Father the King is then murdered by the invading Danes and Uhtred is then adopted and raised a Dane. When Uhtred then enters a river as a boy and then emerges as a seriously hot adult buff topless man who is able to rock the whole fashionable beard and man bun thing. Being raised as a Dane he is able to pull off the wearing fur and weilding a sword look (I wonder if the costume department also used IKEA fur rugs like they did in Game of Thrones?). Describing the story is difficult as it is a bit complicated, hence why I recommend watching this. But basically the Dane Vikings seem to attack, plunder and rule most of the different kingdoms that make up ancient England apart from one Kingdom, Wessex (hence… that Last Kingdom) and Uhtred eventually ends up there and is able to use his Danish skills help the King of Wessex (Alfred, who later becomes Alfred the Great) against other groups of Danes. He is constantly conflicted as he chooses between a kingdom that shares his ancestry and the people of his upbringing. His loyalties are constantly tested.

An interesting portrayal of a time in history we don’t know much about. It is good to see it brought to life. Quite often in the past BBC Anglo Saxon’y TV dramas seem a bit budget and everyone just looks a bit miserable and dirty and battle scenes lack real drama but The Last Kingdom is really well put together. It is not for the faint hearted. The first episode shows just how brutal an invasion by the Vikings was as you see a young Uhtred talking to an elderly man whilst his fellow Anglo Saxons are being strung up in the background. What is compelling about this series is you don’t know where the story is going to take you, you also have no idea who is going to live or die. The second series was as good as the first. I hope they make a third series.

 

Loving Vincent is spectacular!

I went to watch this in the local Cinema with my husband’s colleague and she had not seen the trailer. When the film began she practically had her chin on the floor. She was not expecting it to be like watching a moving Van Gogh painting but that is exactly what watching this film is like. I felt like I was immersed into Van Gogh’s hyper sensual world of moving brush strokes. It always felt to me like his paintings have motion and give even more life to the life of the objects and scenes he has painted. What a homage to a great artist!

The film was followed by the Q&A broadcast from the National Gallery. Knowing this would follow the film I expected the film to not be a feature length film. Also knowing each frame was painstakingly hand painted in Van Gogh’s style I thought it would be shorter than a feature length film. I was wrong. Not only was the film feature length all appearing like a moving Van Gogh painting but there was an interesting story taking place.

The story takes place after Van Gogh’s death and a character Armand Roulin (actor Douglas Booth) tries to deliver a letter from Vincent to his brother, Theo. When Armand discovers that Theo is also dead it sends him on a quest to discover the truth behind the artists demise. All the characters in the film are characters featured in Van Gogh’s paintings. The characters all acted their parts with a blue screen behind them and then a team of 125 artists painted over 62,450 frames to reflect Van Gogh’s style. It was a little funny to me that two of the actors were from Poldark, the fact I recognised some of the actors was slightly distracting but only slightly. This is the first ever hand painted feature film and I am sure it will not be the last! I found this film to be beautiful but also compelling and just simply breathtaking.

The Q&A broadcast at the end revealed that some of the painted frames that made up the film were for purchase. It was a genius way of helping finance the film. Everything about this film was fresh and ground breaking.

I am a huge fan of Van Gogh. I myself studied on the London Institute of art and design many years ago so this was typically something I really enjoy. My favourite painting of Starry Night obviously was depicted, where the sky seemingly comes alive, and in this film it literally does. Definately for arty types like me, I couldn’t recommend this enough.

Stranger Things

I wasn’t sure about this to start with. When I read there was a missing child that put me off watching it to begin with. I have young children and the thought of anything happening to them is unbearable. However… when we did finally watch this we thoroughly enjoyed it. I am a child of the 80’s, this reeks of 80’s nostalgia. The gang of cute geeky outcast kids riding their BMX bikes and communicating with their walkie talkies. Some scenes look like they are taken straight out of Stephen Speilburg’s ET. The good old days when you played outside riding you bike and your parents had no idea where you were, that basically was my childhood. It is as if the creators of Stranger Things have some kind of 80’s nostalgia checklist and they have put everything in it. That is what makes this so brilliant and watchable. Yes, it is scary, but there is just enough light relief that it doesn’t give you nightmares.

Recently decorating my daughters bedroom we had sanded down most of the room and patched up the wall which had previously been painted a dark blue. The window was open to let the polyfiller dry. I walked into the cold, dark and dusty room and thought “this is like the upside down?”. Such a good name for the Stranger Things parallel universe. I love how much of the supernatural in Stranger Things is explained by their school science teacher. Such great characters and each have their own interesting story.

When the second series came out my husband and I binge watched it. I think we watched the whole series in two evenings. We even used the extra hour we got as the clocks changed to watch another episode. We enjoyed it so much we didn’t even skip the opening music. Thankfully the second series was not a disappointment. The pairing of different characters made it interesting and they introduced some new characters and set some new themes that can be explored in another series. After it was all done my husband was like, “do you want to watch series one again?”. Now that is a great indicator of good television. It was great watching it in the run up to halloween.