Westworld, Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in Westworld

Who am I? Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores

Holidays from hell in this imaginative update of the 1973 movie

★★★★ HBO and Sky Atlantic, starts October

OK, it’s science fiction and this is a crime site – but Westworld is also a thriller. We don’t often stray from the beat of cops and criminals, but occasionally there’s an intrigue with speculative elements such as Utopia or The Frankenstein Chronicles that we need to investigate.

'Westworld' is a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin. The one-hour drama features actors Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Woodward, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Angela Sarafyan, and Simon Quarterman.

Playing god – Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright as Dr Robert Ford and Bernard Lowe

And having seen a couple of episodes of Westworld, it’s been a delight to get away from the more mundane fare (Lewis, DCI Banks, anyone?) for something this absorbing.

Westworld is based, in case you didn’t know, on the fondly remembered 1973 Michael Crichton movie, which starred Yul Brynner. Like Crichton’s blockbuster Jurassic Park, this was a yarn about a futuristic theme park gone lethally haywire.

Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris

Westworld is the western-themed virtual-reality holiday camp where the rich go to indulge their dark desires, such as shooting villains or bedding prostitutes. This new TV version from HBO is much more sophisticated and beautifully realised than the original (watch a trailer for the movie here).

Thandie Newton as Maeve

Thandie Newton as Maeve

On top of that it has attracted the kind of brilliant cast even the movie could not (Brynner was on the wane in 1973 and Richard Benjamin was not quite A-list). Now we have Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Borgen‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen.

Where the movie was told from the vantage point of the two average joes on holiday in Westworld, the series focuses on the scientists and the artificial beings who populate the theme park. We first encounter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who wakes everyday and goes through the same narrative for the guests, or town ‘newcomers’ as she believes they are.

Who – or what – is the Man in Black?

Dolores’s life is on a Groundhog Day loop, only when she wakes every day and greets her homesteader father, she has no recollection of the day before. When she sleeps, her dreams are probed by the boffins – ‘Ever feel inconsistencies in your world?’

'Westworld' is a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin. The one-hour drama features actors Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Woodward, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Angela Sarafyan, and Simon Quarterman.

Off script – the Man in Black

In 30 years there have been no critical failures at Westworld. Until now.

One cowboy, Walter, seems to have got tired of ‘buying it’ – or getting shot by the guests. And when Dolores’s father finds a discarded photo of a guest in modern-day New York, the image does not compute and sends him into meltdown.

Dolores herself even seems to finally be picking up on ‘inconsistencies’ in her reality. As for Ed Harris’s menacing Man in Black, he’s totally off script.

It’s a bold idea to take us into the minds of artificial beings who seem on the dawn of breaking free of their bonds, and adds a fascinating dimension to the original story. The story also breathes modern norms of computer technology, talking the language of program updates, new builds and system bugs.

Artificial Intelligence, sex tourism and sin

Which could be behind the malfunction. Anthony Hopkins plays the equivalent of Jurassic Park‘s Richard Attenborough character, Hammond, the brains behind the games. He’s been perfecting the software, which seems to be allowing the artificial beings to retain some memories.

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores

Memories are made of this – Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores

Is he playing a dangerous private game? Or is he and his team just not as ahead of the curve as they have always thought?

The movie was certainly ahead of its time and today the ideas behind it are even more resonant. It looks into the worlds of artificial intelligence, sex tourism (with fembots), consciousness and even the idea of sin. It’s going to be intriguing to watch this unfold over 10 episodes.

There are even reports that HBO is already planning five series of Westworld, according to The Verge. With Game of Thrones reaching a conclusion, Westworld is apparently being lined up as heir apparent.

In a shootout between the two, I think Westworld looks the more provocative and engrossing.

HBO’s Westworld coming this October

HBO’s sci-fi thriller Westworld will be on air this October (on Sky Atlantic in the UK) – and it looks a bit special. Inspired by the classic 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, which was written and directed by Michael Crichton, this 10-parter has a terrific cast – Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton. You know the story – nutty scientist (Hopkins) sets up a theme park where all human desires can be indulged. Now check out the trailer…

The Sopranos — Killer TV No 2

the-sopranos-blu-ray-finally-arrives

HBO, 1999-2007 (six series)

‘What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?’ – Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano), Peter Bogdanovich (Dr Kupferberg)

Identikit: A mobster in therapy balances problems at home with running a New Jersey crime empire.


CREATOR David Chase had worked in network TV for 20 years (Rockford Files, Northern Exposure and others) before pay channel HBO came along offering the freedom to make this bold and multilayered chunk of television brilliance. The Sopranos was the first of the non-network series to show that TV could be better than the movies given the artistic scope and freedom from network TV’s puritanism and advertiser-sanctioned wholesomeness. From its opening moments it was clear The Sopranos would break and toy with mobster-genre conventions. Tony Soprano – the late James Gandolfini was shrewdly and bravely cast – has a panic attack and secretly starts seeing a shrink, a chink of potentially lethal vulnerability in a mob boss, but one allowing viewers to watch him go on to balance his criminal empire with the demands of family life – troublesome kids, ballsy wife and psychotic mother. Brilliant writers (Terence Winter, Robin Green and others), directors (Tim Van Patten, John Patterson) and guest stars (Annabella Sciorra, Ben Kingsley, Annette Bening, Steve Buscemi, Lauren Bacall) came together to magic up a drama that was controversial, parodied, analysed by academics and given a glut of awards – including 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes. The Sopranos became the show everyone in the mainstream networks wanted to work on, but despite the great talents who came on board, the prime influence was always David Chase’s. Tony’s monstrous mother, being in therapy, the New Jersey setting – all reflected the showrunner’s own experience. The result was a series of extraordinary episodes, such as College (Tony is shown to be no hero when he brutally strangles a former wiseguy), Pine Barrens (Paulie Walnuts and Christopher lose a ‘dead’ Russian and get lost themselves in the snowy forest), and Whitecaps (Tony and Carmela’s toxic break-up). It had superb dialogue and direction, surreal dreams, great music, tears and black humour – but ultimately The Sopranos served up a radical new style of weekly TV drama. It also finished with a dazzling, ambiguous flourish, with Tony and his family in a diner after a mob war has just concluded, causing the death or injury of his top lieutenants. A man who’s been staring at Tony in the diner then goes to the Gents, and daughter Meadow Soprano enters the restaurant as the screen abruptly cuts to a long black silence – and an unknown fate for the Sopranos. The fate of TV was known, however. It could be more complex, audacious and involving than it had ever been.

Classic episode: Long Term Parking – Adriana, Chris’s wife, was developed throughout the series. However, when she was forced to become an FBI informant, Chris was tempted to run away with her, but finally decided to tell Tony about her new friends. This led to her heartrending demise at the hands of Paulie.

Music: Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) by Alabama 3

Watercooler fact: The Sopranos shared 27 actors with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, including Lorraine Bracco (Tony’s shrink Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos, and Karen Hill in Goodfellas), Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo/Billy Batts), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti/Spider), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts Gaultieri/Tony Stacks), Suzanne Shepard (Mary DeAngelis/Karen’s mother).

The Night of, Sky Atlantic

The Night of

Light touch – the cops spot Naz

Taut, detailed and gripping account of a young New Yorker accused of murder

★★★★ HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK, coming in September

THE PREMISE is nothing to write home about. Young guy on a night out ends up being accused of a murder he may or may not have committed. 

What makes HBO’s new series so compelling is that it is superbly written and acted, and very tense. It’s created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, which is a formidable team, with Zaillian having won an Oscar for his Schindler’s List screenplay and Price being a superb novelist (Clockers, Lush Life) who’s also written for The Wire.

Price has done the teleplay for the extended opening episode of The Night of, in which we meet Nasir Khan, a young guy who ventures into Manhattan from Jackson Heights in Queens to go to a party. Naz comes from a Pakistani community in the neighbourhood and his parents are not happy about his going.

Without his father’s permission, Naz borrows his dad’s taxi to get there. However, he gets lost and keeps being flagged down by would-be fares because he doesn’t know how to turn off the for-hire light.

Riz Ahmed as Nasir

The night takes an unforeseen turn when a young woman jumps into the yellow cab and asks to be taken to the beach. The woman is beautiful and says cryptically that she can’t be alone on this night. Naz – played with great appeal by Riz Ahmed – is somewhat innocent and gobsmacked by her.

His muslim background also ensures that he does not take drugs or drink alcohol, but before the night is done he has indulged in both back at her Upper West Side apartment, along with having sex with her.

In time-honoured fashion, when Naz comes to he discovers that the young woman has been stabbed horribly to death. Having done as much as possible to incriminate himself, he eventually crosses paths with a police patrol.

It’s a tense watch as the guileless Naz slowly collides with the callous justice machine, the cynical cops, brutalised arrestees and hard-bitten detectives. He’s going to be mincemeat – all because he wanted to go to a party and meet girls.

John Turturro as Jack Stone

About an hour in, we have the drama’s star turn as John Turturro shambles into the precinct as Jack Stone, down-at-heel jailhouse lawyer on the lookout for clients. He recognises a lamb to the slaughter when he sees one and foists himself on Naz, who desperately needs an ally. First bit of advice: don’t say anything to the cops (he already has).

The role of Stone was originally to be played by James Gandolfini, and, following his death, by Robert De Niro. Both would have been superb, but Turturro still sets an already fizzing story alight when he appears.

Richard Price is renowned for doing his research, and here it is the details that bring Naz’s predicament to life. The bickering between the station sergeant and the forensics guys, the lazy detectives trying to get out of attending the murder and so on. All of which makes Naz’s nightmare seem more haphazard and cruel.

The Night of, an eight-parter, is based on a 2008 BBC series from writer Peter Moffat called Criminal Justice, which was also very good and starred Maxine Peake and Ben Whishaw.

However, the new version is a terrific reinterpretation and should become one of 2016’s outstanding crime series.

Boardwalk Empire — Killer TV No 11

BoardwalkEmpireS306-power-2

HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2010-present

‘Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.’ – Jimmy

‘This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?’ – Nucky

Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham

Identikit: The rise and regime of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the corrupt Treasurer of Atlantic County, who exploits the corrupt possibilities of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.


logosRichly textured and ambitious epic about that unhinged, thrilling period of Prohibition America in the 1920s. It’s the kind of show only HBO and the American cable networks could make, tackling a cast of real characters and big subjects that dwarf any and every series made in the UK. Steve Buscemi is the focus as Nucky Thompson, based on Atlantic City’s real corrupt political figure of Enoch L Johnson, who sanctioned and cashed in on the bootlegging rackets in cahoots with the most lurid gangland figures in US history – Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. The series was adapted by old Sopranos hand Terence Winter from a book by Nelson Johnson. It’s a huge story melding Nucky’s back-room dealings and private life with the quiet but determined Margaret, along with events such as the Black Sox Scandal, the rise of Capone, presidential elections and gang wars. Oddly enough, it is occasionally criticised for its slow pace, but it remains psychologically sophisticated and a mesmerising portrait of a wild age. Winner of 12 Emmys, two for Outstanding Drama Series, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

Classic episode: Two Impostors (ep 11, series 3). Nucky, Chalky and Capone line up against Sicilian psycho Gyp Rosetti, who’s threatening to dislodge Nucky from Atlantic City. An attempted hit on Nucky, car chases, shootouts. After a slow build, the series delivered full-throttle gangster mayhem. Even Nucky was blasting, and Capone was cool amid the bloodbath – ‘I’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies.’

Watercooler fact: The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and reputedly cost $18million to produce.

True Detective — Killer TV No 29

HERE’S the latest in our series of Killer 50 crime dramas…

True Detective Series 1.Episode 05 "The Secret Fate of All Life"..Charles Halford as Reggie Ledoux and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle..?HomeBoxOffice

Backwoods terror – Charles Halford as Reggie Ledoux and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle

HBO, 2014-

‘Who’d want to bring life into this meat grinder?’ – Detective Rust Cohle

Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles

Identikit: We see Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle investigating the ritualistic murder of a former prostitute in Louisiana – and then discussing the case 17 years later when another body has been found posed in a similar style.


logosDARK AND unsettling, True Detective is a powerful, beautifully acted eight-part drama from HBO. Its A-lister stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson pin the audience to their sofas and play out a troubling story across several time frames, beginning in 1995 when they are teamed up to investigate the murder of a former prostitute in south Louisiana. The crime scene, in a field, is staged like a ritualistic killing, with the victim wearing deer antlers. While the investigation of the grisly crime is engrossing, the drama is really centred on Detective Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson). Cohle suspects the killer has acted before, Hart is not so sure. But the fractiousness in their relationship goes deeper. Cohle has a bleak outlook on life, while Hart is more of an average stressed cop with kids and a wife, to whom he is unfaithful. Cohle is damaged by the death of his own daughter, which led to a reckless time as a narco cop. The 1995 investigation takes them into underbelly of the Bible belt, and is intercut with interviews with the detectives 17 years later, when a similar murder is committed and they are asked to review the case. Detectives Gilbough and Panania are interviewing them now, and Cohle and Hart are talking to a digital camera, documentary style. By this time Cohle has succumbed to his alcoholism and is a long-haired has-been, who hasn’t seen his old partner since 2002. Was he more damaged by the investigation or the road death of his daughter? He was always aloof and unpopular with his cop colleagues, often fell out with Hart, who admired his intelligence but couldn’t stand his pessimism. ‘You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your partner,’ Hart tells his modern-day interviewers. But do Gilbough and Panania in 2012 actually suspect Cohle of being involved in the killings? Why did Cohle and Hart fall out irrevocably? And if the case was closed in 1995, how can a similar crime have now been committed 17 years on?

[Read more…]

Oz — Killer TV No.34

1997-2003, HBO
‘The worst stab wound is the one to the heart. Sure, most people survive it, but the heart is never quite the same.’ – Augustus Hill
Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau Jr, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, John Lurie, Terry Kinney, Betty Buckley, Kathryn Erbe, Lee Tergesen, B. D. Wong, JK Simmons, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters, Edie Falco
Identikit: At the Oswald State Correctional Facility, the Homeboys, Muslims, Wiseguys Aryan Brotherhood, Latinos and other groups mark out their territory and live on their wits, while the authorities try to keep control.

logos

The revolution wrought by subscription TV in the US has its roots here, with HBO’s first one-hour drama series in 1997. Set in Oz, aka the Emerald City, a penitentiary turned ‘correctional facility’, it follows the daily machinations of dangerous and lesser criminals just trying to get by, told in stark, brutal detail. The story is cleverly opened up when the usually law-abiding Tobias Beecher finds himself behind bars for a drink-driving killing – a lamb among slavering wolves, forcing audiences to think, ‘There but for the grace of god…’ Having been roomed with one of the more vicious inmates, he is then ‘saved’ by Aryan inmate Vernon Schillinger, and his life goes from bad to worse under the thumb of the predatory racist. Episodes are narrated by wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (shot by police during his arrest), who offers insight and some wry humour, and the style is gritty cinéma-vérité. The show took advantage of the freedom in storytelling offered by premium cable, creating plots that were taboo on mainstream TV – male rape, drug use, ethic/religious intolerance, violence and homosexuality, while featuring full male nudity and bad language. The show was raw and gripping, but never captured the haul of gongs that later successes from HBO would – The Sopranos, The Wire etc. However, it lasted for six seasons and won a devoted fan base of viewers who were captivated by its freshness and honesty.
Classic episode: A Game of Checkers (season 1, episode 8) – first series finale during which an argument over a board game flares into a full-blown riot in seconds. Breathtaking episode that put all the tensions and conflicts among inmates and staff into hyperdrive.
Watercooler fact: Luke Perry, Eric Roberts, LL Cool J all made guest appearances, while cast regular Edie Falco went on to some great performances as Carmela in HBO’s The Sopranos.

More of the Killer 50

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Boardwalk Empire 5, Sky Atlantic, with Steve Buscemi, Stephen Graham, Kelly Macdonald PREVIEW

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Steve Buscemi
Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson looks out for new opportunities in Cuba. Pics: Sky Atlantic

Rating: ★★★★

Sky Atlantic: starts Saturday, 13 September, 9pm

Story: The series jumps forward seven years to 1931 as the country struggles to cope with the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition looms. Nucky sets his sights on a post-Prohibition future…

THE FIFTH AND FINAL season is back with a bang.

Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams)

Several bangs, in fact. And a stabbing, and a slicing, and… But Boardwalk Empire has always been about more than the bursts of violence, lurid though these can be. It has even been criticised for being too slow during past series.

Its speciality has been its portrayal of a slightly mad era in US history. Prohibition crept in and tipped the whole country into illegality and disregard for law and the Constitution. From the bold and lavish opening episode of series one, directed by Martin Scorsese (still an executive producer), it’s been a hotsy-totsy ride, as they might have said back then.

Nucky Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City – played with relish again here by Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi – was the emblem of bent politics where it met gangsterdom. The bootlegging empires, the rise of mobsters such as Al Capone and the civic venality has all been engrossingly captured in a drama for which history was not a twee backdrop but the whole point of the show.

Nucky goes to Cuba

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Gretchen Mol
Gillian (Gretchen Mol)

As this series begins, the action has sped forward seven years to 1931. Prohibition is on its last legs and Nucky is in Cuba with Sally Wheet, planning to cash on the possibility of shipping Bacardi to the States the second the 18th Amendment of the Constitution is consigned to the bin.

The country is also reeling from the Great Depression, starkly illustrated in a tragic scene where Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret is shown at the Wall Street bank where she now works.

Actually, there’s so much going on in this opener, you need to be more alert that Nucky is in Cuba as he tries to dodge a particularly vicious assassin.

Five storylines unfold in tandem. In addition to Nucky and Margaret, we glimpse Nucky’s musings on his past in 1880s Atlantic City, when as a boy from an impoverished family he came into the orbit of the Commodore.

Chalky and Lucky Luciano

We catch up with Chalky, who’s fallen a long way from his power base, now shuffling along in a chain gang. Then there is also Lucky Luciano, who sets a bloody plan into operation, with

Boardwalk Empire - Series 05 Stephen Graham
Al Capone (Stephen Graham)

Vincent Piazza again a chilling presence as the gangster.

Some people say Boardwalk Empire is more akin to The Wire in its exploration of a society than The Sopranos, but it does look as though this final chapter will be more focused on Nucky than ever. The flashbacks are vivid and finally offer a glimpse into the motivations of the man at the centre of events. As he looks forward, Nucky can’t help looking back.

Boardwalk Empire has been overshadowed in the HBO stable by the likes of Game of Thrones, and has not often been the darling of the awards nights. But it has built into a fine series – season four was the best yet – and will be missed.

Oh, and when the violence comes, it gives you quite a jolt.

Cast: Steve Buscemi Nucky Thompson, Stephen Graham Al Capone, Kelly Macdonald Margaret Thompson, Gretchen Mol Gillian Darmody, Vincent Piazza ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Michael Shannon Nelson Van Alden, Paul Sparks Mickey Doyle, Shea Whigham Eli Thompson, Michael Kenneth Williams Chalky White, Jeffrey Wright Valentin Narcisse, Patricia Arquette Sally Wheet, Anatol Yusef Meyer Lansky, Ben Rosenfield Willie Thompson, Michael Zegen Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel

Also check out…
Boardwalk Empire on the HBO site
Sky Atlantic

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