My low-down on lock-down TV
Babylon Berlin - probably the best thing on telly. Ever.
Hello Internet Land. I've decided to blog more and use social media less, as I'm bored of being told what I can and can't say by an algorithm. Anyway, how's that whole lock-down thing working out? I don't think I've ever watched so much TV in my life, nor drank so much beer or eaten so much pizza. You've got to look on the bright side of this half-arsed apocalypse.
I like TV and movies. A lot. So I thought I'd write about some of the stuff I've watched over the past few months - from the excellent, the so-so and even stuff I didn't like at all. Maybe you'll see something here that whets your appetite, or disagree so furiously that you write me a strongly-worded rebuke.
Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86 (All 4)
Martin and the Worst Auntie in the World, Lenora
I grew up during the 70's and 80’s – ‘Protect and Survive’, Ronald Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech and Sting reminding us ‘The Russians love their children too’ (who suggested they didn’t?). And as a young army reservist I dug pointless trenches in Germany, in case the Soviets decided to cross the Weiser. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, I felt compelled to visit the city, to witness Communism for myself (note to Gen ‘Z’ – it was shit. Don’t believe the ‘they-didn’t-do-socialism-properly’ hype).
So, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed Deutschland ’83 very much. Our hero, Martin, is a workaday GDR border guard, confiscating forbidden literature from students. Unluckily, his aunt is the cynical, chain-smoking Lenora – a Stasi agent who persuades him to go undercover in West Germany. What follows is a blackly comic espionage drama / coming-of-age story of love, ideology and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war… all set to an awesome 1980s soundtrack.
The sequel, Deutschland 86, is partly set in South Africa and Angola. The Stasi are covertly funding the ANC's paramilitary wing (we’re asked the question – were they on the right side of history?), Lenora on point, slipperier than an eel dunked in olive oil. Enter Martin, as usual up to his neck in scheisse thanks to his aunt. Meanwhile the GDR crumbles, Chernobyl smoulders and the Stasi are forced to indulge in capitalism to support their socialist nirvana. A third season, Deutschland 89, is due for release later this year.
Condor (Amazon Video and Sky One)
Condor - the CIA is full of good-looking people, except the bloke with the glasses
There’s no shortage of drama about the CIA; off the top of my head I can think of Bourne and its spin-off series Treadstone, Jack Ryan, Hanna, 24 and the awful Taken TV series adaptation. With that in mind, I didn’t expect much from Condor, loosely based on the 1975 movie ‘Three Days of the Condor’ with Robert Redford. Surprisingly, Condor is a decent enough slice of espionage hokum. It helps the series has a trio of veteran actors anchoring the piece, warhorses who’ve re-blossomed in this Golden Era of streaming TV – the gravitas-laden William Hurt, the criminally underused Mira Sorvino and the paunchy, oyster-eyed Brendan Fraser (turning in a great performance as a baddie).
Condor’s star, Max Irons (son of Jeremy and the actress Sinead Cusack – and blimey he looks like his mum!), plays Joe, a CIA computer wunderkind (I warned you no new ground was being broken here). Joe is a tortured Millennial who wants to change the CIA from the inside – as the kids say nowadays – LOL, SMH. Instead he discovers (da-da-daaaaa!) a conspiracy by the toxically-male military-industrial complex to destroy the Muslim world, which feels strangely quaint in these China-as-bad-guy / COVID-anxious times.
The plot is preposterous, nor is there is any attempt at realism in its portrayal of espionage. So why is it fun? The answer is tight, well-paced plotting (which owes much to ‘24’), good characters, snappy dialogue and an epic kill-count by showrunners happy to slaughter the entire cast – Condor makes Game of Thrones look tame. Don’t expect too much and enjoy.
Fauda (s3) (Netflix)
Fauda (Arabic for ‘Chaos’) is the story of an undercover Israeli army surveillance unit, who specialise as disguising themselves as Palestinians. Wildly controversial, it's predictably loved and loathed in equal measure like anything else linked to the Middle East (which is why my favourite movie on the subject is 'You Don't Mess with the Zohan').
Doron is pointing guns at people. Again.
Season 3 builds on the themes that made the first two so powerful – the dehumanising nature of covert operations. Most notably, Doron (played by Lior Raz, himself a veteran of IDF Unit 217 on which Fauda is based), whose Dante-esque descent into ever-riskier missions serves as a distraction from his crumbling personal life.
One of Fauda’s strengths is it’s sense of place, taking us into dusty, teeming shanties and through barbed-wire border checkpoints. It’s a world of snipers and ambushes and abductions, of nervy coffee-drinking and chain-smoking. Meanwhile, kids wearing suicide vests pray in the shadows. We learn of Israelis with Arab heritage, Palestinians who choose to become informers and of Druze Christians serving in the IDF. And of Palestinian Authority security officials, stuck with the Gordian knot of pleasing both Hamas and the Israelis. It was also a revelation (to me) that Gaza is seen as a totally different world, by both sides, from the West Bank. You might even feel a sense of unease, as I did, that drama based on such tragedy should be this good.
Babylon Berlin (s3) (Sky Atlantic)
Season 3 of this 1920s detective drama is less visually ambitious than the previous two (I suspect for budgetary reasons, Season 1 is an amazing spectacle, worthy of any Hollywood movie). I don't mind, though - as a long-time fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels it was almost as if this series was made for me and I’ll admit to being completely smitten. Weimer-era Berlin is lovingly realised, in what is Germany's most expensive TV drama.
Okay, this scene is from s1 but it's one of my favourites
Alexanderplatz homicide detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and his trusty sidekick Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) investigate a murder at a movie studio – cue homages to Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and Avant Garde cinema. But why is the film studio linked to the Edgar Kasabian, Berlin’s gangster overlord? Gereon and Charlotte end up involved in a plot involving secret cults, organised crime and conservative politicos who think they can bind the up-and-coming Nazis to their will. A noirish delight, Babylon Berlin boasts a fantastic cast, bleak humour, compelling plot and obsessive attention to detail. The sadness of knowing Berlin’s fate within a decade only adds to the drama. Heavily, heavily recommended.
White Lines (Netflix)
Spoiler - Boxer and Zoe trash the *fuck* out of this vintage Golf
And now for something completely different – an Anglo / Spanish crime drama about a group of washed-up Brits in Ibiza. Back in the 90s, a group of young Mancunians left for a life of hedonism and clubbing, led by DJ genius Axel Walker. Axel’s a thoroughly unlikeable brat, but that’s okay because someone murders him. This isn’t a spoiler, as the series concerns his sister’s investigation to find the killer 20 years later. And so Zoe (played by Laura Haddock) finds herself embroiled in drugs, organised crime and the complicated lives of Axel’s old friends.
White Lines strongest point is perhaps the Spanish characters, including hard-man-with-a-heart-of-gold Boxer (Nuno Lopes, in what I suspect is a breakout performance) and the brilliantly dysfunctional Calafat family. A favourite scene turns on the Calafats attending a Oedipal counselling session with trippy-hippy washout David (Lawrence Fox), which is hilariously uncomfortable to watch.
The rest of the piece? It’s lovely too look at (Ibiza looks mouth-watering) and I learnt why Ibiza was centre of the dance music universe. All told, this is easy-to-watch, undemanding fun. Solid lock-down entertainment, I’d be tempted to watch a second season simply to see what happens to Boxer and the Calafats.
I’ve watched many, many movies during lockdown, from old favourites to new releases. Midsommar seemed to be the kind of movie that would float my boat – allegedly a psychological horror with dark humour and pagan undertones. I loved Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man… surely I’d love this too? Turns out I didn’t.
This is how I felt watching Midsommar, but without the flowers on my head obvs
Indulge me – have you ever seen Heston Blumenthal’s food on TV? Heston comes across as a passionate, personable food-genius. His kitchens are intriguing, the ingredients exotic and the presentation beautiful. But I wouldn’t like snail porridge or egg & bacon ice cream, and so it is with Midsommar.
Here we have super-hot director Ari Aster and starlet du jour Florence Pugh in possibly the most Millennial movie ever made – a lushly shot, glacially-slow pantomime of navel-gazing ennui. Magic mushrooms, spooky Swedish cults, the world's un-sexiest orgy, people being sewn inside dead bears and… what? I don’t mind movies where I’m invited to make my own mind up about what’s happening, but find myself unimpressed when the director doesn’t seem to know either.
Anyhow, this is destined to be a cult-movie for the next generation of Mark Kermodes.