The Crown – Season One (2016)

crownAnother Elizabethan drama about a young Queen in a man’s world whose reign marks a turning point for the British Empire and the dawn of a new era. We’ve seen this before, right? Not exactly- we’re not going back to the 16th Century for one thing; this is far more recent history, for this story is about Elizabeth II, and the (miss)fortunes of a fading British Empire following the Second World War, and the role of the modern monarchy in this new world.

I will say this- I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did. As an historical drama recreating the 1930s/1940s and 1950s Britain, this is a very accomplished effort, not withstanding historical accuracy regards the Royal Family etc. It is clearly drama more than documentary -although there is some surprising truth in what it portrays- but it is very accomplished technically and the ten episodes are well written. For a modern epic drama it is pleasantly restrained regards graphic indulgence or sensalitionism. More Downtown Abbey then than Game of Thrones, to be sure, and none the worse for that. The contemporary tendency for television dramas to go for excess and strain credibility (as Hard Sun recently did) is in little evidence here. While it may seem more establishment fairytale than council estate reality, Americans lap this stuff up and us Brits often like to lose ourselves in Downton dreamland in the face of the present-day soap opera of Brexit Westminster.

Personally speaking I’m far from a Royalist and have little affection or interest in the modern generation of  privileged Royal elite that ‘graces’ our Isle, but all my life I have lived during the reign of Elizabeth II and its difficult to ignore the fact that she has been this constant figure in my lifetime, for good or ill.  She represents the England of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly her Jubilee of 1977 when I was in the Scouts – we had a street party and felt a real sense of community that feels as long gone as, well, my childhood. The inevitable pangs of nostalgia mean something I guess, but in any event, I have, if not affection, then some grudging respect for her if only for what she represents of my childhood: those rose-tinted images of simpler times, less murky politics and social responsibilities. Certainly it is clear from the ten episodes of this first season (of six, apparently) that she has lived through historic times and seen/met many historic figures: perfect recipe for historical drama on television, anyway.

Claire Foy is excellent in the lead role (it seems such a long way from Little Dorrit) , though Dr Who seems rather bereft of his Tardis as the Duke of Edinburgh, but the real surprise is John LIthgow as the raging-against-ageing Winston Churchill, whose story proves just as interesting and involving as that of the Queen. If anyone were to tell me that Lithgow could pull off Churchill I wouldn’t have believed them, but he manages with considerable aplomb, damn near stealing the show. The strangest casting decisions sometimes work.

As a whole the rest of the cast manage well enough in fairly routine character roles that seldom really surprise but it is all very entertaining. In the old days this would be the staple of BBC drama and watching this I always had a nagging feeling that this sort of thing is exactly what the Beeb should be doing, but considering the cost and scale of this enterprise perhaps it’s just another sign of the changing times this being a Netflix production. It’s certainly is much better than I had originally expected and I quite look forward to seeing season two.

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Hard Sun – Series One (2018)

hard1.jpegPre-apocalypse crime drama Hard Sun is so much of its time its quite fascinating. To manage budget etc the series is a co-production between the BBC and Hulu in the United States, and while it is being aired weekly as tradition, when the first episode aired the full series was put up on iplayer so that viewers could binge-watch it if they wished- not the first nod by the BBC towards how people seem to be accessing content theses days.

So while I’ve just watched the full six episodes I’m also fully aware that some may be waiting for the weekly episodes to air, so will keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice to say after a rocky start the series found its footing with episode three and to my surprise actually delivered a really good ending, leaving me hopeful that we’ll see series two. Writer/producer Neil Cross has stated he hopes the show will run for five series (a number that will seem obvious/fitting for those that watch the show) so with a little luck, who knows?

(On the one hand I enjoy these ‘long’ sagas but on the other, I’m a little contemptuous that I’m expected to wait several years to witness any ‘full’ story to its conclusion- JMS and his Babylon 5 have such a lot to answer for, sometimes).

Another aspect in which Hard Sun reflects the current time it is made in, and negatively in my eyes, is the current post-Game of Thrones trend for shock -for-shock’s sake and sudden twists in plot and character behaviour which is intended to keep viewers on their toes but which also can undermine credibility. In just the same way as foreign crime dramas like The Bridge or Cardinal have done, events and circumstances are just pushed too far into the sensationalist realm for real credibility, if only to keep viewers attention away from the remote. For instance, during the second episode our heroine is sitting in a car with a fairly minor character, chatting, when she suddenly jumps on him for casual sex. It’s so out of leftfield, and has no impact on anything that follows, that it’s surely just a sudden twist of spice to shock/entertain/wake up the viewer.

Restraint, in my eyes, should have been the order of the day. The basic premise -in which government intelligence agencies are murdering/disappearing/ruining whoever stumbles upon the shocking truth that the world is doomed- is fantastic and Orwellian enough without graphic violence/murders and complicated protagonists with bizarre life histories. But of course, that’s all so very 1970s and this is the wild 2010s and our tv is edgy and shocking and fast-paced.

So I may seem rather disparaging- it’s perfectly fine for what it is, but yes, the Game of Thrones dynamic seems to be infecting everything these days and I think it’s a pity. A calmer, more level-headed, down-to-Earth series may have seemed less exciting for today’s audiences but it would have been more effective, for me anyway. What’s wrong with normal characters, normal relationships, why spice it all up with bad cops/murderers/rape victims etc? Isn’t the End Of The World enough?

Still. I do hope we get another series.

Eric, Ernie and Me

eric1Another shade from Christmas immediately past. Eric, Ernie and Me is a BBC drama concerning the relationship between Morecambe and Wise (played here surprisingly well by Neil Maskell and Mark Bonnar) and writer Eddie Braben (Stephen Tompkinson), whose creative vision pretty much defined the duo during their BBC heyday. Another show I stumbled upon, it seemed rather timely as I had recently seen their spy spoof The Intelligence Men just a few weeks before, and watched a few of their Christmas specials on DVD in the run-up to Christmas (the things you do to try get the festive spirit going, eh?).

For several years, Morecambe and Wise were synonymous with Christmas, a national institution back when there were only three channels and families used to sit around the goggle-box together, with no distractions from videogames or smartphones or tablets or 200 other channels. Indeed, this time around looking through the Christmas Radio Times, an annual tradition I cannot shake off, it was obvious that Christmas television has completely changed. Films for children -usually Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks animations ad infinitum- were the order of this season, with original specials thin on the ground, mostly because the old comedy stalwarts that had seasonal specials simply don’t exist now. The time has long gone that 28 million people -over half the nation- shared a communal experience watching the same programme at the same time. I think the last such programme anything like that was the heyday of Only Fools and Horses and its Christmas specials, nd that program could never dream of approaching the numbers of that 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. Can you imagine 28 million people sitting down to watch the same programme on Christmas Night?

The trick of Morecambe and Wise is how effortless and unrehearsed much of their routines seemed- but of course this was far from the truth. Eric’s comedic adlibs enlivened much of the gags but the majority of the comic sketches were deliberately scripted and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed to perfection. And coming up with those scripts and jokes was never easy, as this drama shows. The relentless demands of such a popular national institution, and the desire by the duo to top themselves every series, took a terrible toll on Braben who was twice driven to nervous exhaustion. It was fascinating to see that the duos incredibly popular musical routines were a gambit to take up screen time and ease the strain on Braben.

A window on a time lost to us now, this programme was a lovely and heartfelt recreation of 1970s Britain, a land so distant from the one we now live in that it might as well be science fiction. Watching pieces of popular routines of old recreated here was a warm element of nostalgia that was made all the more poignant when seeing all the effort behind the scenes and the strains on everyone. A glimpse of Eric and Ernie at odds over their career path, and indeed the persistent spectre of Erics health hanging over everything,  are telling reminders of the real drama that was hidden behind the facade of their television image/personas.

Great stuff.  Hidden away on BBC4. Go figure.

 

The Detectorists, Series Three

detect3Here’s another recording from over Christmas (I don’t think I actually sat and watched anything ‘live’ on the telly at all over Christmas, certainly nothing worth mentioning). I noticed by chance on New Years Eve whilst over my in-laws that BBC4 was showing the complete third series of The Detectorists that very evening. In the old days of analogue watches and Radio Times tv guides I would have cursed my failure to pick it up in the schedules earlier and muttered vain regrets about missing it, but through the miracle of technology undreamt of by Star Trek, I was able to go on my Virgin Anywhere app, and tell my Tivo back home to record the six episodes. So whilst I was over my in-laws ‘watching’ a Carry-On movie (that proved incomplete thanks to the failure of ITVs digital schedules to tie-in with anything approaching the real running-time of the film- never made cock-ups like that in the analogue days of do-it-yourself timer recording) my trusty Tivo was doing me a favour.

I’d never watched The Detectorists, other than the 2015 Christmas special which had been aired a few days earlier over this Christmas Hols. Certainly I never saw series one and two, so the third series when I eventually got to watch it proved a very pleasant experience, albeit a tiny bit confusing as I’d not seen those two prior series. Those two series are high on my to-watch list now though (hey, my birthday is coming up next month and that complete DVD box set looks a good bet if I drop enough hints).

Because The Detectorists is sheer joy. Its as near perfectly pleasant, calm and enjoyable experience as anyone could wish for. Simply brilliant. How in the world this series ever slipped me by over its run is both bewildering and worrying, really. To say it’s simply a comedy would do it a disservice. Its charming and witty, yes, but it’s also heartfelt and poignant with some lovely characters and moments and is such a gentle, wonderfully relaxing experience, that thinking back to that New Years Eve airing, well, I can’t imagine a better way to see 2018 in than to have spent an evening watching the series straight through.

Sadly though it appears series three is the last of The Detectorists, so while I will have the pleasure of watching series one and two in the near future, I will not have a series four to look forward to beyond that. So this discovery is rather bittersweet.- I’m not just late to the party, the party is over.

Anyway, kudos to Mackenzie Crook who wrote, directed and starred in the series, with the brilliant Toby Jones co-starring with him (come on, Mackenzie, a season four one day, please?). The supporting cast are wonderful, the setting is beautiful, the photography enchanting, the pacing is dreamlike and gentle… it’s simply, simply brilliant. Possibly one of the best things I have seen on the BBC in, oh, ages.

(And isn’t it simply the strangest experience, in the dead of a miserable British winter, to watch something like this depicting events set during the height of a great British summer, all blue skies, sunshine, idyllic fields, tee-shirts and shorts and cool beers in village pubs?  It’s almost like science-fiction from the vantage-point of this grey January.)

Crooked House (2017)

A recording over the Christmas period that I’ve just caught up with. I’m not familiar at all with Agatha Christie’s work – I’ve not read any of her stories and not even seen any version of Murder on the Orient Express, for example-but I did see The Witness for the Prosecution which starred Toby Jones a few years ago (was that another Christmas special?) and And Then There Were None, which was a two-parter (or was it three?) on the BBC back in 2015 or 2016. I’m not sure if we are in some kind of revival or if she’s been an endlessly steady source of movie and television adaptations and I’ve just stumbled into watching them at last, but I am beginning to see some appeal.

Clearly Christie’s work is the murder mystery genre, in which there has been a murder with plenty of suspects for the reader and the chief protagonist to examine and deduct a likely culprit with an eventual reveal that has some element of surprise. I may likely be doing Christie a disservice with such a simple summary, but that’s my take anyway.  And they do seem to be kind of fun, while its a genre that’s not held much interest for me in the past. Perhaps these most recent adaptations that have turned up around Christmas time are the simplest entry point, as they seem to be very well made with taut scripts, direction amd very good casts.

Crooked House was on Channel Five and seems to be one of that breed of independent movies that are released theatrically in some territories and on television (or Netflix/Amazon) in others. So while it was a Channel Five premiere here in the UK  and may seem to be a Christmas tv movie it’s really got a bigger scale than that, certainly on the evidence of its rather remarkable cast. Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks and Stefanie Martini supply the glam and the bitchiness whilst Julian Sands, Terence Stamp and Max Irons headline the male side of the ensemble. Inevitably with such a cast its easy to say the material doesn’t really do them justice- I suppose only Glenn Close and Terence Stamp really leave any lasting impression, more’s the pity. Watching it, I had the persistent feeling that the whole thing was beneath them.

Its hard not to complain that the whole thing felt rather formulaic, but I suppose that’s inherent in the source material/Christies works in general. It seemed well-intentioned and made with some effort but it didn’t really surprise me or really made me care much about anybody. That was most likely intentional of course, as I don’t think any of the characters were really likeable and by the nature of the genre they had to have motive enough to be a suspect. I think I would have preferred more focus on an individual with a chance to empathise with their singular perspective (like Toby Jones’ character in the much superior The Witness For The Prosecution) but that’s probably just indicating my limitations for this genre.

So as a way to spend a few hours over the festive season Crooked House was harmless enough but I doubt it will linger in any viewers thoughts now that Christmas has passed. I suspect the original book has a far more lasting effect.

A Tarantino Trek?

taratrekRather illogical this one, Captain.

I don’t know, Spock, perhaps if your Vulcan mind could consider a more…. emotive, human, crassly commercial  point of view….

Dang blast it, Jim, I hate to agree with the green-bloodied oaf but this time I think he’s right. I’m a surgeon, not a damned film critic, but the guy behind all those foul-mouthed violent self-indulgent pulp movies putting words in MY mouth? Sounds like I’ll being calling Spock the alien muthaf—–kr we all think he is in every f—n scene.

Gentlemen, Tarantino’s heroes are the very epitome of cool, and I haven’t been cool since the 1960s – he rescued Travolta’s career, after all, and God knows after the past few Trek movies, my career needs rescuing.

Hell with you square cats, Tarantino is a man who knows how to objectify women and I’m tired of this communications console, I so need objectifying. I’m black and sexy, dig, and I want some of that sugar he gave Pam Grier. ‘Uhura Unchained’ sounds groovy.

Ye Canna let him do it, Captain, he’s liable to make some kind of Natural Born Trekkies movie and I dunna think the ship can take it- I can give ye maybe ten more minutes at Warp 7 and then I’m muthaf—-n out of here with Dr McCoy.

Really, Mr Scott, I find your outburst sickeningly emotive and hardly conducive to solving this quandary. Whilst I have my reservations, after what JJ Abrams did to us I hardly think Mr Tarantino could do any worse, I only think-

Dang blast it you heartless muthaf—-kn pointy-eared waxen-faced alien b—d you sold us out, didn’t you?

No, Doctor, I merely thought it’s time I became the star of this show and I’m certain Mr Tarantino will see the logic of my proposal.

Damn it, Spock, I’m your Captain. And I love you.

Out of the seat, muthaf—r, this Vulcan’s taking over.

 

 

 

A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….