Red Oaks and why I don't like the Amazon Pilots initiative


The Amazon Pilots initiative, which sounds like something that might be coordinated by S.H.I.E.L.D., rather than the shopping giant, has hit upon a potential gem with Red Oaks, a light-hearted, coming-of-age Drama-Comedy, in which Craig Roberts's David interacts with a range of people at the titular country club during the 'go-go' 80s, whenever they were.

The 30-minute pilot has all the hallmarks of something that could last and either be binged on during the course of the weekend or form ideal Friday-night tea time viewing. It's more bawdy and adult-centric than Friends but its drawn in the same broad characters and joke cycles. Nash (Ennis Esmer), the club's tennis pro, is a riot as David's guide through a crooked microverse; his role model, line manager and romance guru. 'How's your wife?', David asks as he approaches Nash playing strip golf with two of club's staff. 'Dead', comes his instant response.

The problem with the future of Red Oaks, a series with some promise, is that it might not have one, which is where the Amazon Pilots initiative falls down and falls down severely. 'Call the shots. Watch. Rate. Review', encourages the Pilots homepage on Amazon. But what if people don't? What if they prefer Hand Of God, a vigilante Drama with Ron Perlman or - God save us - Hysteria, a Mena Suvari-fronted Thriller where Suvari's doctor is researching an epidemic which may be linked to - wait for it - social media.

The problems with Amazon Pilots extend further than the fact that Amazon have opened up my Friday night TV choice to be a democracy decision. It's only 16 months since the very first Pilots piloted. Of those, Alpha House got a first season and then a second, whilst Betas got picked up but never developed. A second round of pilots did little to catch my attention but Amazon apparently liked pretty much all of them, though we're still waiting to actually see any of the shows on offer. So, after two rounds of pilots, what have we actually got? Two seasons of Alpha House, a show not watched by anyone I know. I can't put the situation any better than Alan Sepinwall does, in the blog with all of the above details and the following gem of a description:

'At this rate, they may be ordering some shows before a word's even been written, and traveling back in time to cancel others before the creator has even thought of the idea.'

Red Oaks, for example, stars Roberts, a man on the rise. Whilst he may have some scheduling problems to skirt around if the show does get a full order, surely they'll be nothing compared to show's producer and pilot's director: Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green. There appears to be a plausible scenario whereby Red Oaks gets ordered, waits for ages to actually have time to film and then disappears because Amazon are on wave seven of Pilots and have unearthed the next Breaking Bad.

Which makes Amazon Pilots a little bit of a pointless tease. Red Oaks is good, really good in fact. It has good people behind it, it clearly has a good script and a good plot and it has a pilot deemed good enough to produce and stick on Amazon Instant Video. Which sort of begs the question: why not just make it?



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Lucy - Cinema Review

'How does Besson choose to utilise Johansson as Lucy? Simple: by regularly equipping her with twin firearms and wasting both actress and character through empty-headed and derivative action clichés'.

As the title character, Scarlett Johansson is regularly Lucy's strongest asset. Johansson has spent this year marking herself out impressively through somewhat leftfield sci-fi roles in the likes of Her and Under The Skin; her performance as Lucy feels like a continuation of this trend to an extent, particularly when Johansson is given the freedom to stretch her dramatic capabilities. The contrast between the actress' terrified and emotional turn during the film's opening act, and her increasingly dehumanised character as the film progresses, demonstrates just how capable Johansson is in roles that demand something more challenging from her.

With his leading lady's strong performance at his disposal, and having created in his eponymous heroine arguably one of the most superhumanly powerful characters in recent memory, how does Besson choose to utilise Johansson as Lucy? Simple: by regularly equipping her with twin firearms and wasting both actress and character through empty-headed and derivative action clichés. Whilst more female action stars will always be welcome - and whilst watching Johansson plough through anonymous bad guys is entertaining to a point - Lucy in the end squanders much of the potential undoubtedly held by both its title character and the actress behind her.

Heading up a decidedly mixed supporting cast, Morgan Freeman adds yet another disappointing turn to his post-Dark Knight trilogy output, barely even creating a character and firmly on autopilot from his first scene to his last. Amr Waked is better, consistent throughout despite his character having very little of interest to do. Delivering a performance during Lucy's opening act reminiscent in intensity of his defining role in Oldboy, Choi Min-sik is ultimately misused by Besson, becoming a disappointingly generic and unmemorable antagonist for the vast majority of the film.

Besson's other key mistake is one of control. When focusing on Lucy's miraculous abilities, the director critically fails to achieve any restraint. Lucy's powers are seemingly without limitation, becoming more and more extraordinary throughout the film (think every member of the X-Men rolled into one); but without any restrictions or vulnerabilities, the character simply becomes much less interesting with any suggested threat feeling almost entirely pointless.

Ultimately, two competing ideas uncomfortably co-exist throughout Besson's film. On one hand, there is an intelligent and ambitious sci-fi concept dripping with philosophical and existential questions, as well as some genuinely out-there ideas; on the other, a fairly straightforward action crime story offering very little that hasn't been seen before. Besson consistently comes across as unsure of how to balance these two opposing parts against each other, leaving Lucy feeling somewhat awkwardly composited. During the middle act, the director allows himself to settle more and more for the easier, less cerebrally challenging action option - that is, before throwing the audience a curve in the final act that lands the film deep into the surreal and existential realms explored more often by the likes of Terence Malick. It's a fascinating segment - certainly Lucy's most creatively compelling and thought-provoking - but, sadly, Besson arrives at it too late to undo much of the by-the-numbers action fare that has preceded it.





By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

Trailer Of The Week - Defendor

Birdman has had substantial attention this week, after its première at The Venice Film Festival. It fits loosely into the series of films that could be called 'when superheroes meet the real world' and, though Birdman seems to take a slightly different route to exploring the interaction between the real world and the make believe, it did get me thinking about Defendor. Similarly to Birdman, it's a film in that sub-genre that has a lot of time for the psyche (or psychosis) of a superhero and how that might impact or relate to the real world. It also has a surprising gut punch and when you look at the list of big names that feature in the trailer, it surprises me that it didn't get more attention at the time. One to go back to in the pre-Birdman days.




By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

A Dangerous Method - Blu-ray Review

'By tackling this story, Cronenberg essentially forces himself to remain in control of his subtext. The Freud and Jung story is a very bawdy one indeed if you let the attractive-sounding B-movie-like activities take the focus'

If David Cronenberg was not a difficult director to like during his rise to fame in the late seventies and eighties then I would argue that he has certainly become that over the course of the last few years. Cronenberg's relatively recent output can quite fairly be defined as a selection of productions which, though they may look mainstream, all feature some level of subliminal interest, which then often seeps out over the mainstream narrative. A History of Violence fails for me because it lets its subtext become its text. Eastern Promises is much more subtle in its exploration of sexuality and other themes, hidden behind a gangster narrative. It is enriched by the material Cronenberg really wants to examine, rather than overcome by it. He might not be making things like The Brood any more, but that doesn't mean Cronenberg's material isn't still challenging, and better for it when that challenge is laced subtly into the film.

A Dangerous Method may actually be one of the better examples, certainly in recent Cronenberg, where the director has not only kept control of his subtext but chosen a text that forces him to do so. His story about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) relationship, and how it was coloured by the introduction of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) to their small group, is laced with sexuality, psychoanalysis, gender roles, repression of desires and new ideas in those and other fields. By tackling this story, Cronenberg essentially forces himself to remain in control of his subtext. The Freud and Jung story is a very bawdy one indeed if you let the attractive-sounding B-movie-like activities take the focus, something even Cronenberg, with his interest and background in that genre, does not allow to happen.

Not only does Cronenberg not allow it to happen, he actually laughs at the idea of it during the course of the narrative. Showing up for treatment by Jung, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who in real life became a fully fledged anarchist, invades the narrative with devilish delight. The Lucifer on Jung (and Cronenberg's) shoulder, Gross is an insubstantial riot and as such rightly only partakes in a small amount of the plot. Before he has departed he has though romanced a maid in Jung's garden, something done with both characters looking into Cronenberg's camera, as if to tell us 'this is the film you could have been watching'.

Playtime over, Cronenberg can get on with the very serious business he has convinced three very serious actors to take part in, each brilliantly. Fassbender, Mortensen and Knightley play their roles to perfection; the former unsure if he is tempted by scientific discovery or lust (are we ever sure which?), Mortensen stuffed-up as a Father of something he no longer has control over (how Freudian), Knightley abandoning her usual tempered performance in favour of something much more vicious, jutting and impressive.

The emergent picture is one which represents an emerging field perfectly through its characters and their actions. The uncertainty in Jung is matched only by the certainty of Freud, who is sure the idea has gone as far as it has only because he himself can no longer take it forwards. It is little surprise to us, though you suspect it is a big surprise to both of the main male characters, that it is actually Speilrein who takes things on during the final reel, perfectly orchestrated by Cronenberg into a position of power, relinquished by competing male ids.





By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Into The Storm - Cinema Review

'Delivers only the occasional gust of excitement when it should be aiming for hurricane force'.

It's difficult to see how a film like Into The Storm managed to get a general release in cinemas, considering so much of what it has to offer feels remarkably close to made-for-TV movie levels of execution. It could even be suggested that it resembles Sharknado but without the sharks. Having never seen Sharknado, I wouldn't feel justified in making such a cutting comparison myself; but, in all honesty, I can't imagine it's far off the mark.

Feeling like something of a spiritual successor to 1996's Twister (which also begs the question if there was anyone out there actually hankering for a new version of that film), the most impressive thing about Into The Storm is arguably its effects. There are some satisfying destructive scenes to be found towards the end of the film when the titular weather occurrence is at its strongest, and an earlier sequence involving the combination of a tornado, a petrol leak and fire is exactly the kind of thing many will have come looking for here. However, most of these moments were disappointingly used during the film's main trailer, leaving precious little extra for the film to offer, especially with several of the other effects-heavy scenes feeling decidedly cheap.

Away from the CGI destruction, Into The Storm consistently fails to deliver. Steven Quale's direction is erratic, never having the confidence to settle on a particular style or feel. The director opts in the end for a disjointed combination of traditionally shot and handheld footage, neither of which manages a satisfying level of authenticity nor ever sits comfortably with the other. Quale's narrative structure is equally all over the place, generally following two separate groups of characters who eventually (and somewhat unconvincingly) cross paths whilst occasionally returning to a scenario where students at the local high school are making films to be placed in a time capsule; this element is so thinly drawn however that it feels more and more awkward each time it is returned to.

Perhaps most damaging to Into The Storm's credibility as an entry into the disaster genre is its consistent lack of ambition. The action never ventures out of the relatively small and remote town of Silverton, Oklahoma, making much of what is presented feel decidedly lacking in urgency, especially when compared to the destructive scale of other weather-based offerings of recent memory such as 2012. Considering extreme weather and climate change are still a relatively hot topic, almost nothing is made of the potential that could be tapped from this area either.

Whilst Quale never gives the impression he was ever aiming for his film to be hailed as a classic, Into The Storm nonetheless feels like a wasted opportunity to make something a lot more entertaining than what it offers, delivering only the occasional gust of excitement when it should be aiming for hurricane force.




By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

The Walking Dead: Season One - Online Review

'The first season's six episodes are simply not sufficient time to make enough of the figures we meet into people we care about'.

If you consider that it's now a series often placed amongst the finest that the US TV drama renaissance of recent years has spawned, the first season of The Walking Dead is in fact somewhat underwhelming. That's not to say it's bad television; on the contrary, what's on offer is regularly entertaining and occasionally excellent. But considering the critical darling the series has become - and the fact that this season's finale drew a record six million viewers when it was first broadcast in America - this is far from a flawless TV season.

In terms of setting up the series' desolate world populated by "walkers", as the zombies are invariably referred to, The Walking Dead does pretty well. There's little attempt to reinvent what is expected from the zombie genre, and some narrative elements are clearly borrowed from the likes of 28 Days Later... and even Shaun Of The Dead, although what is delivered here is largely delivered well. It's also pleasing to find that series creator Frank Darabont never tones down the more gruesome elements of the story for television, with several well-crafted horror scenes littered throughout the season as a whole.

The key strength of Season One is undoubtedly central character Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). If The Walking Dead is one person's story, then it is without question Rick's. We're given reasons to invest in Rick from the opening moments of the first episode, "Days Gone Bye", some of which disappointingly seem to become forgotten as the season wears on. However, thanks to Lincoln giving arguably the strongest - and certainly the most consistent - performance of the cast during the season there's enough of a reason within him to continue watching.

The regular cast surrounding Lincoln are generally solid, but too many suffer from a lack of development for us to truly invest in them. A ragtag bunch thrown together through the undead pandemic ravaging the earth, the group is not dissimilar in feel and circumstance to that seen in the opening season of Lost. However, where that series initially had twenty-five episodes to introduce and flesh out its large number of main characters, The Walking Dead's first season has only six. It's simply not sufficient time to make enough of the figures we meet into people we care about. This in turn has a detrimental effect upon several of the season's more emotionally charged moments, notable in particular during scenes in episode 4, "Vatos", and episode 5, "Wildfire".

There are also a number of characters here we are given frustratingly little time to get to know. Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) are introduced creditably in "Days Gone Bye", but then never seen again. Jim (Andrew Rothenburg) is set up as potentially one of the most interesting members of the group, before being whipped away from us just as we begin to invest in him. Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich, giving perhaps the best performance of the whole season) is teased as a late addition to the survivors, but again we are denied the pleasure of his extended company, seeing him for barely more than one episode.

In the end, The Walking Dead's opening six episodes do enough to entice you back for more - even if that will be equal parts desire to continue your enjoyment, and curiosity to see how successfully the issues within the first season are resolved as the series continues.




The Walking Dead: Season One is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video now.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

House Of Cards: Season Two - Online Review

'Within the first episode of Season Two, all of the shows apparent desire to keep Underwood believable seems to have gone out of the window.'

It's difficult to remember a more obvious change in approach during a series than the switch that happens somewhere between House Of Cards Season One and House Of Cards Season Two. Whilst the first series of one of Netflix's flagship shows felt as though it was constantly managing to reign in renegade politician Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) just enough, the second series appears to have absolutely no intention of doing so. The first might not have been steeped in realism, but you could at least just about buy most of Underwood's political manipulations, supplemented with extra marital activity and occasional endeavours that had even more significant consequences.

Within the first episode of Season Two, all of that desire to keep Underwood believable seems to have gone out of the window. The much-discussed event that happens within the opening episode is followed quickly by an ever-more unpredictable sex life and an increasing level of conspiracy that, at times, involves the press, the FBI, the president (Michael Gill) and others. Perhaps the change from Season One to Season Two can be summed up most accurately in one character: Michael Kelly's everyman chief of staff, Doug Stamper. In this series, Stamper is a far cry from he of old, increasingly, bizarrely attached and attracted to Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), in a story that frequently induces cringes and that culminates during the final episode.

That final episode is a big part of the reason why House Of Cards' difficult second outing wins out. Tense, fast and focused, it's no coincidence that its the episode during which Frank has the most time for us. Having opened the series with Frank letting us know that he's still going to be taking us through the action (the near-iconic 'you thought I forgot you?' line is a startling wake-up call to audiences and screenwriters everywhere) showrunner Beau Willimon then does rather let our relationship with the Vice President go a touch cold. The finale picks this up, putting us uncomfortably into Frank's lap as the series' grander machinations come to fruition and close. It's satisfying, horrifying and compelling in equal measure: everything this series should have been and that the first one was.

The problem with the rest of this version of the show is that it attempts to juggle too many balls, many of which feel vaguely unplanned and inconsequential and are thus justly picked up and dropped with a dishevelling frequency. The opening returns us frequently to the upwardly-mobile Freddy (Reg E. Cathey), going as far as to introduce his errant son and grandson. It feels like the story might go somewhere but the way it is dropped hints at the conclusion that Freddy has exited this narrative for good. Claire (Robin Wright) gets significant screentime on some important and emotive causes but do any of them get the conclusions they deserve? Perhaps that is part of the Underwood story, as both partners pursue one ultimate goal, but it frequently feels clunky narratively.

Perhaps the most egregious example is that of Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), bizarrely suggested as a major character early on where he didn't seem to have the importance or the acting chops to be so, before Willimon decides that that is actually entirely correct and drops him for the rest of the season. A narrative with Christina (Kristen Connolly) gets the same treatment. Jimmi Simpson's character is from a different series all together: more The Matrix than a political drama. It just doesn't feel as structurally well managed and there's a frequent feeling that time is being wasted, backed up by the tremendously tight final episode, which relies on none of the above threads.

Even when this series is treading water it is watchable (it has Spacey, after all), but under the auspices of a lead character like Underwood, you would have thought House Of Cards would have recognised that treading water isn't enough. This is a show with ambition but in its second season it appears to have started applying that ambition in all of the wrong places. Even the best shows cannot afford two consecutive seasons that are this sloppy and, suddenly, House Of Cards third outing becomes make or break, in an arc surely made for a four or five season run.




House Of Cards was playing on Netflix.


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.