Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reasons To Be Fearful 2014

This was the cherry on the cake of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe Review of the Year which was broadcast on BBC2 last night. Brooker and The Blockheads take their old Ian Dury Reasons to Be Cheerful and tailor it to some of the more dispiriting moments of the past year.



So long, 2014!

2014 : Page by Page

Here's a list of books I read this past year

January

1. Becoming Johnny Vegas by Johnny Vegas 3.5/5
2. Autobiography by Morrissey 4/5
3. Bonkers by Jennifer Saunders 3.5/5
4. A Spectacle of Dust by Pete Postlethwaite 2.5/5

February

5. Driving Miss Smith by Warren Lakin (Linda Smith's biography) 3/5
6. The Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin 3/5

March

7. How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring 3/5
8. Gilliam on Gilliam edited by Ian Christie 3/5
9. Scott and Bailey: Bleed Like Me  by Cath Staincliffe 2.5/5
10. I'll Never Give Up On You by Becky Hope 2.5/5

April

11. White Teeth by Zadie Smith 5/5
12. Different For Girls by Louise Wener 4/5
13. Going To Sea In a Sieve by Danny Baker 4/5

May

14. Edward Heath by Philip Ziegler 2.5/5
15. A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney 3/5
16. The Gangs of Manchester by Andrew Davies 2.5/5
17. Awaydays by Kevin Sampson 4/5

June

18. 1980 by David Peace 5/5
19. The Ragman's Daughter by Alan Sillitoe 4/5
20. Mr Wroe's Virgins by Jane Rogers 5/5
21. Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam McQueen 5/5
22. 1983 by David Peace 4/5
23. Field of Blood by Denise Mina 5/5

July

24. Anthem by Tim Binding 5/5
25. Moranthology by Caitlin Moran 5/5
26. How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran 5/5
27. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom 2.5/5

August

28. Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel's West Bank Barrier by Mark Thomas 3/5
29. Trust Me, I'm a Junior Doctor by Max Pemberton 3/5

September

30. Adventures with the Wife in Space: Living with Doctor Who by Neil Perryman 4/5
31. The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen 4/5
32. Class Actor by Phil Daniels 4/5
33. The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club by Peter Hook 4/5
34. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs 3.5/5

October

35. The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman 3.5/5
36. A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin 3.5/5
37. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S Thompson 2.5/5
38. Welcome to Biscuit Land by Jessica Thom 4/5
39. Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard by Kim Newman 3/5

November

40. Watching by Jim Hitchmough 3.5/5
41. Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn 4/5

December

42. Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse by David Mitchell 2/5
43. How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee (re-read) 5/5
44. Hospital Babylon by Imogen Edward-Jones and Anonymous 4/5


As you can see 2014 was largely the year of the biography/autobiography and factual books dominating over my fiction reads. Interestingly, many of the fiction books rate highly with 5/5's such as Mr Wroe's Virgins, Anthem, Field of Blood and White Teeth. Some of the books listed here have been reviewed on these pages under the thread Rapid Reviews.

Wordless Wednesday : New Year


Tower Block (2012)




Half kitchen sink, social commentary drama and half action thriller, Tower Block has a concept  that immediately pulled me in. A ragtag, mixed bag of top floor residents living in a grim, crime ridden and soon to be demolished inner city tower block, wake up one morning to find themselves under attack by a ruthless assassin with a high velocity assault rifle. As the unseen attacker picks off the residents one by one, the motivation behind this deadly onslaught is initially unclear, but slowly the disparate band led by plucky Sheridan Smith realise it may have something to do with the 19 year old boy who was beaten to death in their block several months earlier, a crime for which no witnesses came forward. 



Including the poster for Screwed (the previous film of co-director Ronnie Thompson's novel, an alleged memoir of his prison warder days) however may have seemed like a cheeky, harmless in-joke during production, but only served to remind this viewer of the poor track record the filmmakers have. It was only a brief moment but it pulled me out of the proceedings somewhat, in much the same way that some subsequent CGI and green screen effects would also do.

But this is a much better affair than Screwed, a tense and atmospheric film that knows - much like John Carpenter, a past master at this kind of thing - keeping it simple is the key ingredient. It's just a shame that the characters in our motley band aren't very well sketched out in James Moran's script; if it wasn't for the likes of Smith (slowly and steadily securing national treasure status with each role and diverting nicely with some proactive Bruce Willis style moments!) my mate Ralph Brown (seriously, we used to exchange emails donchaknow), Jill Baker, Christopher Fulford, Russell Tovey, Julie Graham and, best of all, Jack O'Connell as the scumbag who has been collecting protection money from the residents and now finds out that he does have to protect them in some way, the film would completely fail in its characterisation. You can almost forgive the casting director for hiring some actors who are clearly a little older than the characters they are designated to play (Smith and her old Love Soup costar Monserrat Lombard, virtually unrecognisable here as a useless, abusive young mother and Social Services magnet, Tovey and Nabil Elouahabi) when the talent is clearly there and much better than the script requires. 



The levels of tension are quite high throughout, though experienced viewers of this kind of survivalist cinema will find few surprises in store and the mysterious assailant's ID is pretty obvious too and the denouement quite risible and Scooby Doo-ish, but I personally would have preferred just a smidgen more bite to the social commentary as it would at least have helped to imbue some characters with depth as well as give the film some statement beyond the thrills and chills and add more oomph to the message of looking the other way.



Tower Block remains nevertheless an interesting and effective slice of British urban chiller and far better than Last Passenger the last film I saw from this niche genre. 


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (2014)




Sky One's festive treat was this adaptation of MC Beaton's 1992 novel which introduced the world to her retired amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin.

I've never read the novels but I know that in casting Ashley Jensen, the folks at Sky have gone for a younger heroine than the novel's starting point of a 50 something woman. Whether that will be considered sacrilege to Beaton's readers I do not know but I will say they went all out in terms of casting, gathering together a host of familiar and likeable TV faces who could do this sort of thing in their sleep...and some of them seemed to be doing just that!

Essentially, you only need to look at the plot synopsis of this to know that it's Bridget Jones in Midsomer Murders and that will either mean fabulous or excruciating depending on the type of person you are. For me, it fell between the stools; it started off incredibly naffly showing Agatha on her last day at work in her high powered PR job diverting some One Direction alike band from disaster before retiring to her dream home in the Cotswolds. I think I cringed throughout the opening five minutes and nothing from those moments endeared me to the central character. However, once she arrived in the village it was amusing enough to spot all the fight out of water cliches - how having a dream doesn't mean you can fit the reality of it - and the familiar faces of the supporting cast, especially Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris playing husband and wife once more so many years on from Cold Feet, and Katy Wix the true star of the BBC sitcom Not Going Out. Sadly once the necessary issue of the murder reared its head things started to unravel rather quickly and the whole thing became rather underpowered, running out of steam far too early. 

I also didn't really get how a successful professional like Raisin could turn into such a ditz overnight in her move from the city to the country, even though that character trait was most welcome. Jensen struggled gamely enough with the role but there was little in the script to make her totally likeable or three dimensional and the direction by TV film and mini series veteran Geoffrey Sax was flat and formulaic. Whether this will be a series of films for Sky I do not know. If that is the case then maybe they can iron out those character wrinkles to create something more satisfying, but overall I fear this is yet another misfire in her attempt at finding life after Extras.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Air Force One (1997)



You know what it's like; it's Christmas and you're stuffed to the gunnels with nibbles and beer but you're still going on both and what you really want to do is watch some dumb action movie. Naturally, Die Hard - with its festive theme - is the way to go, but isn't that a bit obvious? And besides the DVD is upstairs and you really can't be arsed getting off the sofa. You want your festive thrills though and ever since Bruce pulled on that grubby vest there's something about terrorism that goes hand in hand with Christmas, just look at the hapless underpants bomber of Christmas '09.

Thankfully the cable station Watch knows just what you're after and decided to broadcast Air Force One, Wolfgang Peterson's cheeky riff on Die Hard which substituted Bruce's all American average Joe hero for the all American President of the USA a good sixteen years before White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen



Was this the last truly decent Harrison Ford star role? I rather think it was. It's in no way a great film, but it was a great vehicle for him, something which he seemed to have lost the knack of picking come the end of the 20th century. Everything else after this is a dismal roll call of ill advised earring wearing tosh. The role of the President called to action ideally suits Ford at this stage in his career, trading on his natural stately respected presence as well as his action man screen persona. It's the kind of film that could only be made during or post the Clinton administration; could you imagine how laughable and galling this kind of thing would have been if Reagan was in power at the time?



The role of chief baddie does little to stretch the talents of Gary Oldman as it's essentially just Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber revisited, but there's enough scope for his natural edginess to flourish and it provides a neat and palpably dangerous contrast to the wholesome heroics of Ford even though this kind of disgustingly patriotic gung ho 'Yankees good, Russkies bad' shite was truly passe by this time, some eight years after the Berlin Wall fell. It' all very well saying these Russians were terrorists rather than figures indicative of the general former USSR itself, but try telling that to the average Joe, all American or otherwise, buying his ticket. 

Meanwhile Glenn Close played possibly the best Veep we had before Julia Louis Dreyfuss came along.



Lauded in the 90s as one of the decade's most successful action movies and earning praise from Bill Clinton himself, Air Force One hasn't really aged all that well. The formulaic, rehashed Die Hard style ingredients now seem so familiar as to feel like a knackered old pair of slippers whilst the narrative's vast plot holes - so big you could fly the real Air Force One right through - continued to grate with me on this rewatch; how did the terrorists pass as the TV news crew they had slain right down to their fingerprints and photo ID's? What was the motivation of Xander Berkeley's traitor?!  These kind of glaring omissions in terms of motivation and plotting are frankly inexcusable, both then and now. Peterson's nailed the authenticity of the US military, it's hardware and Presidential security machine but we need some depth to go with this 'look at our toys' showboating.  

For some reason, on this rewatch, I found Jerry Goldsmith's score to be the most familiar thing about this entire movie. I haven't seen this in some years yet as soon as I heard that score I was whistling and humming along to it.

This was passable enough dumb shoot 'em up entertainment for a greedy Christmas night, but maybe I really should have got off my arse and found Die Hard.

Bumday



Hunky Dory (2011)



Set in a Welsh comprehensive school during the famed long hot summer of 1976, Hunky Dory sees keen drama teacher Vivienne (Minnie Driver) fighting sweltering heat and general teenage apathy to put on an end of year rock and roll musical version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, that David Bowie would be proud of and, to engage her students, she uses hits of the time with the cast delivering pleasing covers.




The Radio Times reviewed this as 'Glee directed by Ken Loach' and I can totally see why; there's a hefty dose of social realism to get you thinking alongside the attractive teens singing classic songs that get your toes tapping, but the emphasis is firmly on the realism and not the perfect stage musical moments.  Director Marc Evans, who gave us the wonderful Snow Cake and the interesting but bloody Resurrection Man, delivers an underplayed take it or leave it style coming of age drama that totally nails the blistering, almost somnambulant hot summer vibe and is rich in nostalgia for the mid to late 70s thanks in no small part to the hipstamatic texture of cinematography. 




It's just a shame that there's not enough to invest in the characters and story; it's eminently watchable but I never truly felt emotionally attached to the characters despite great performances from Driver and Aneurin Barnard to name but two in a cast full of familiar faces - in fact I only really felt a connection when Evans employed a series of 'what happened next' captions for each character over the closing credits.



Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Hunger Games : Catching Fire (2013)

I was pleasantly surprised to read the first Hunger Games novel in the summer of 2013 (blogged about here) and just as surprised to see the first big screen adaptation which not only did the source material proud it actually improved it in some areas (blogged here)



This sequel, Catching Fire, is an adaptation of the second novel which I haven't read. I had intended to get round to it but I have a 'to read' pile that would make Hercules think twice about taking the task on, so when my sister bought me this on DVD for Christmas (along with The Inbetweeners 2), I decided to go ahead and watch it on Boxing Day.



As with many sequels the tone is one of a more intelligent, deeper and darker hue. Much of the first film concerned itself with the horror of teenagers killing teenagers for the entertainment of the masses, both the sadistic rich and the cowed proletariat, which left us with two survivors Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. Catching Fire expands on the theme by exploring the appeal the masses have for Katniss in particular, and increasing rebellious spirit her single minded, anti-authoritarian success has helped sow the seeds of. The film's baddie, President Snow, naturally cannot allow such agitation thrive and so he proposes another tournament which this time features veteran contestants.



The fly in the ointment continues to be the love triangle narrative, something which I think is supposed to appeal to the Twilight accustomed teen audiences hungry for such angst ridden romance. Katniss loves Gale but must pretend to love Peeta for their public image....*yawn* This narrative really doesn't do anything for me and neither Liam Hemsworth (Gale) or Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) can offer any interest here. Granted as a straight man and one who is in his mid thirties I'm not the target audience here I know, but whilst I can appreciate there is probably some aesthetic merit to both male stars I find nothing of merit in the deathly dull moping performances from either of them. Thankfully Jennifer Lawrence's admirable Katniss largely leaves them to it and continues to thrive as an independent proactive female role model.



I can only hope that the majority of the target audience ie teenagers and early twentysomethings can look beyond the naff wet blanket romance and open their eyes up to the real message of The Hunger Games; the inequalities within society, the war and suffering being masked and smothered by incessant 'celebrity' triviality to stop us all from seriously considering the injustice all around us that allows the few to prosper over the many. If just one impressionable viewer (or reader) realises the facade we live in then The Hunger Games will have done its job. 



It's a shame this is writer Simon Beaufoy's only foray into the series of films as I found his script to be a strong one and cannot shake the suspicion that his successor, Danny Strong, will be a step down, especially having witnessed his work on the turgid and laughable would be thought provoking epic The Butler. Given the so/so reviews for the next chapter, the first half of the conclusion to the franchise Mockingjay 1, one can't help but feel I may be right to have such qualms.

RIP David Ryall


Further sad news; the actor David Ryall passed away on Christmas Day aged 79.

Ryall enjoyed an eclectic career on stage, screen and TV that spanned fifty years and was someone I enjoyed watching greatly. As the cast card pictured above shows he enjoyed a brief but fondly remembered stint in series eight of Casualty in the early 90s as wise locum consultant Tom Harley, but he also appeared in several of my favourites including Jack Rosenthal's excellent TV play The Knowledge, To Play The King, Enemy at the Door, The Singing Detective, Inspector Morse and Goodnight Sweetheart to name just a few. The older he got, the twinkly he became and the roles seemed to become kinder and more jovial. He most recently he is perhaps best known for his roles in the Harry Potter film The Deathly Hallows Part 1, the Sky sitcom Trollied, the BBC drama Our Girl and as the grandfather in the sitcom Outnumbered. He also played the elder Bert, Britain's oldest man, in Peter Moffat's excellent saga The Village, recounting his life in a series of flashbacks.


RIP

Silent Sunday : Kiss


Saturday, 27 December 2014

That Day We Sang (2014)

Boxing Day primetime TV; BBC1 had the network television premiere of the hugely successful Marvel's Avengers Assemble, which sees a gang of superhero comic book legends joining forces to save the world, whilst BBC2 had Victoria Wood's musical comedy drama That Day We Sang which was about two middle aged former choristers falling in love in 1969 Manchester.

No prizes for guessing which one I watched.




As a Victoria Wood fan and proud Lancastrian, I was as happy as a pig in sherbet to watch this sweetly told delight. Adapted from Wood's own stageplay from the Manchester Festival, That Day We Sang is the story of the Manchester Children’s Choir and their recording, in 1929, of ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ alongside the Halle Orchestra. As a girl in the mid 70s, Wood saw a TV documentary film which reunited the former choir and was struck by how sad the now middle-aged Mancunians looked. For her, they represented ordinary people who had a brief moment to shine in the sun before settling back down to the everyday and missing the boat completely. Some forty or so years after the TV documentary, Wood used her playwright skills to tell a fictionalised story about the choir, focusing solely on two members; Tubby and Enid, played by West End musical legend Michael Ball and the great Imelda Staunton. Capitalising on that sense of mundanity and melancholia in Manchester she felt as a girl, Wood depicts the lives of two loners who feel they both haven’t lived up to the potential they had during the recording. 


The real Manchester Children's Choir and the Halle Orchestra on the day of the recording of Nymphs and Shepherds, Manchester Free Trade Hall 1929


The film is set in two specific times; 1929, the time of the recording and 1969, when Tubby and Enid are reunited after forty years apart. Wood's script is a fine mixture of humour and pathos with musical interludes akin to the finest from the golden age of Hollywood (or akin to Dennis Potter's classics, given that they were played out on cobbled streets by distinctly unHollywood looking performers) but with distinctly parochial humdrum and humourous references; one particular song details the 'delights' of the then faddy 60s dining chain, The Berni Inn (“It’s wrong to brag / It’s just cake in drag / But it’s g√Ęteau at the Berni Inn”) and Wood continues to delight in pricking the pompousity of the snobbish middle classes here with characters portrayed by Conleth Hill and Sophie Thompson (her second appearance on TV this Christmas, having been in The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm on Christmas Eve too).




It's Ball and Staunton's show though and they're perfectly cast as two lonely middle aged people who life has passed by. Their chemistry together is very strong (perhaps as a result of previously working together on stage in Sweeney Todd) and they're both very complimentary of one another. Staunton, as the more accomplished dramatic actress could have dwarfed Ball for example, but she does not and the endearing quiet dignity beneath the genial facade he brings to the part of Tubby made me hope he consider more TV roles in future. It’s especially great to see Ball on the small screen and I felt that he brought a quiet dignity to the role of Tubby; a man who was outwardly charismatic but on the other hand was terribly lonely. The 1929 scenes also featured fine turns from Lyndsey Marshal as Jimmy’s mother and Daniel Rigby as teacher Mr Kirby who in WWI ''lost a leg to a sniper on Vimy Ridge'', whilst in 1969 Staunton was wonderfully accompanied by the lovely Jessica Gunning who is set for national treasure status one day you mark my words. It was good to see two of Pride's tremendous young talents on the small screen this festive period; Gunning here and Faye Marsay stealing the show in Doctor Who on Christmas Day. Not forgetting Staunton herself starred in that incredible film too.




Possibly the best festive offering this year, That Day We Sang was a real crowd pleaser - unless you've a heart of stone that is! - and as Staunton said, it's proof that stories happen to real people over the age of 25 too.



I Fucking Love Faye Marsay

If there was any justice in the world, I'd have been watching Pride - the film of 2014 - on Christmas Day. But the film company, DVD distributors whatever couldn't be arsed to pull their finger out and the release date isn't until early March.

Thankfully then I got to see one of the film's stars Faye Marsay appear on TV that day, thanks to the Doctor Who Christmas special, Last Christmas.


I've been a fan of Faye's since seeing her in the BBC period drama The White Queen. From there I loved her in the excellent Fresh Meat and the rather disappointing second series of The Bletchley Circle which she greatly enlivened with her presence. And then she was in Pride, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

But she stole this year's Doctor Who as the character Shona, so much so that fans hope she will return to the series at some stage, ideally as a companion. What's not to love about a gobby little Teesider who dances like this to Slade's Merry Christmas Everyone?!









It was a great Christmas episode for the good Doctor, probably the best since A Christmas Carol Matt's first festive episode. I think it worked because, despite featuring Father Christmas himself (played brilliantly by Nick Frost) its story could have worked at any time of year; it was a great mash up of Alien, The Thing, Inception and Miracle On 34th Street with some proper chills, thrills and spills.


Friday, 26 December 2014

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (2014)



It's with some hesitation that I sat down to watch The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, an adaptation of a childhood literary favourite, but I needn't have worried as Charlie Higson's adaptation of Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm was done with huge affection and an insight into what made the books, published from the 1930s right through to the 1980s, so charming.



This was a real highlight for Christmas Eve TV. Harry Hill was superb casting as the archetypal nutty professor and Higson roped in several of his comedy friends - including Simon Day (superb as Dedshott) Vicki Pepperdine, David Mitchell, Miranda Richardson, Adrian Scarborough (as that comedy staple; the bucktooth vicar - originator Dick Emery)  and Ben Miller - to provide excellent support whilst Higson's script (combined with Sandy Johnson's direction) nailed that idyllic 1930s setting in much the same way Higson's period Young Bond novels were so enjoyable. They really brought to life some of the charm inherent in Hunter's stories and William Heath Robinson's splendid accompanying illustrations. Special mention must also go to Madeline Holliday as young Connie, the film's juvenile heroine. I predict great things for her.



I'm still chuckling at the photograph's coming to life, constantly uttering the words they said at the point of having their pictures taken; "Don't take it for a moment, the sun is in my eyes!" and the Robot Father with his stereotypical paternalistic patter; "Let me give you a hug...How about a game of football? 1- Nil to me...Does anyone know the cricket score?" I loved the little Doctor Who reference, complete with TARDIS.




This was the perfect fun for all the family viewing experience this Christmas. More please!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Out On Blue Six Xmas : The Flying Pickets

Not a Christmas song as such but it was number one for Christmas 1983, this a capella version of Yazoo's Only You is a real favourite of mine. The band's socialist principles saw them donate their royalties to the miners strike fund in '84 and they would attend many picket lines up and down the country showing their support for the miners.


The Pickets join the picket at a Yorkshire power station, 1984

End Transmission