Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 31/31: "I read the news today, oh boy." (suggested by Kat Herzog)

"everybody needs a place to think"

That Day We reach the time when I assess how well I predicted the ups and downs of the year and look forward to the next. And oh, boy:

The Beatles back catalogue will officially be made available for digital download.
The first of the wilder stabs in the dark which turned out to be true. Sadly Apple coincidentally scheduled the announcement on the same day as the the royal engagement of Kate and Wills and slightly misjudged exactly how excited the web would be, which wasn't much, especially since, due to a technical cock-up, the albums were posted on iTunes half an hour early thereby busting any potential surprise generated by the fairly enigmatic announcement advert. Phew. One mark.

Hung parliament at next election, with the Lib Dems gaining real political power (Vince Cable chancellor?)
Aah, the good times, when I still thought this would be a good thing. For all the obvious benefits the Lib Dems have brought to the government and I do believe that they've tamed somewhat the Tory beast, there are still plenty of decisions which have been rushed through and ill considered which I simply can't defend, not least in the area of media and the academic and arts cuts (and oh Vincent).  We keep seeing the least cost/biggest public benefit mistake being repeated.   One mark, nevertheless.

Blu-Ray "fails". Remains a niche consumer item like laserdisc.
I still think this is open to conjecture. The sale of discs is on the up but the price of players has dropped which suggests that people aren't buying them. I asked my twitter followers if they owned one and the overall impression was middling at best (and thank you to all those who replied). The problem is the leap in quality from DVD to BD simply isn't as startling as that from VHS to shiny disc, especially with up-scaling and a properly set up flat screen. I watched the dvd of Inglorious Basterds the other afternoon and it looked as good as some of my blu-rays. Half a mark.

BBC Two's remit changes to something akin to BBC Four, which in turn pushes BBC Four farther upmarket to become even more like a tv mashup of Radios 3 and 4.
Again, this is open to conjecture. The various reports produced by the BBC Trust throughout the year said much about increasing the impact of both channels and the controller of BBC Four Richard Klein has certainly signalled his intention to move away from general entertainment and comedy towards documentaries and drama with a more curated approach -- there has been an increase in themed "seasons" under his stewardship. Since BBC Two hasn't noticeably changed I'll award myself half a mark.

Carey Mulligan will be nominated for an Oscar. I hope that hasn't jinxed her chances.
She was, bless her, for An Education. One Mark.

Which is four out of five. I think that is my best showing yet.

Right (cracks knuckles). Next year:

There will be a UK general election.

A lost episode of Doctor Who will be found.

A scientific discovery will revolutionise philosophical thought.

BBC Four will begin showing theatre on a regular basis.

A major high street entertainment retailer will close.


See you on the other side.

James Shapiro on Hamlet on BBC World Service

James Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare talks to the BBC's Witness programme about the play and the political environment at the time he thinks it was written.

It's only very short -- about ten minutes -- but manages to include clips from seven different Hamlets including the recent Rory Kinnear and Jude Law (which confirms that both have been recorded in some format).

Also downloadable as a podcast.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 30/31: Some things I've enjoyed watching on television this year.

On Location 1f

TV It’s still strange to me that Sherlock on BBC One was considered the surprise hit of the summer, given the writers, the cast and the directors involved. Steven Moffat once again produced a classic from his fingers, aided and abetted by Mark Gatiss with Benedict Cumberbatch somehow embodying Conan Doyle’s anti-hero within a modern setting and Martin Freeman managing to find a new nobility in Watson, a character previously given even less respect than the average 60s Dr Who companion. If the middle episode was generally considered middling, the first and third were two of the best dramas on television this year, as, like Inception in cinemas, they refused to talk down to viewers and welcomed us into the afoot game.

Virtual Revolution on BBC Two achieved the somewhat impossible task of making me excited about the web again after months and months of creeping boredom. Across three episodes, Aleks Krotoski revealed the history of the internet, her methodology to tease out the slightly less well known stories, demonstrating that such things as social networking are not new phenomena, it’s simply that new technologies have made them easier and less niche. The result is that over time geeks, nerds and dork have no longer become marginalized by society. They are society. And I decided that blogging wasn’t just a hobby but a mission.

The TV Election Debates were thrilling television. Not particularly because of what was happening on screen, but because they confirmed that the likes of twitter have essentially changed the way some of watch tv and how tv and in this case politics works. Within seconds of the previously tried and tested anecdotes emerging in the debate, parodies were appearing within a hundred and forty characters to the point that by the end all three candidates were looking somewhat ludicrous. So ubiquitous has this hashtag approach to television become, it’s entirely possible to know exactly what’s happening in a programme without even turning on a television. To boycott The X-Factor now, I don’t just have to have a different channel on, I have turn off my twitter client too.

The Pacific on Sky Movies HD was the kind of television which used to be given pride of place on a national channel but now finds itself in one of Murdoch’s televisual ghettos. A ten part epic from the same stable as Band of Brothers, this took three US army officers through the World War Two campaign demonstrating the ease with which humanity loses its humanity within extreme circumstances of peril and there were few more memorable scenes this year than of men stealing the gold filling from their deceased colleagues. Employing interviews with the real soldiers depicted in the series gave the drama extra weight and suspense too, not least because we weren’t entirely sure who had survived until the very end.

Mentioning The Ascent of Man is a bit of a cheat since it’s older than I am, but BBC Four did repeat an episode recently which sort of makes it count, and after spending the best part of a month watching The Wire, I then spent half of the next month letting Jacob Bronowski explain a history of scientific thought to me. As ever, some of my favourite shows this year have been these presenter led documentaries, but what Bronowski was able to do was describe extremely complex ideas with few of the flashier excesses which distract the viewer now. One of the episodes seems to take place entirely between three rocks in a desert with only a Neolithic skull as a prop. It was one of my big televisual experiences of the year and I’d recommend it be one of yours in the next.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 29/31: Also I'd love to hear what you think of Alan Moore from your perspective (if that means talking about his Doctor Who comics so be it...) (suggested by @linkmachinego)

Alan Moore

Comics That Alan Moore wrote any Doctor Who comics demonstrates both just how wide and flexible the franchise is and also how Moore bestrides the British and global comics world like a giant bearded colossus. In truth his Who work consists of five back-up strips in the 1980 version of the comic featuring spin-off stories for some of the supporting characters, Cybermen, Autons, Sontarans and timelords and were more in-keeping with his concurrent work on 2000 AD than anything else, the most notable creation, the Wardogs being resurrected by Moore to reappear in his work for Captain Britain.

So he didn’t actually write for the timelord himself which is a pity since the anti-authoritarian themes in much of Moore’s work chime well with the Doctor’s own philosophy and though the timelord would never indulge in the violence inherent in the character of V, there is still some crossover in their methodology, not least in taking full advantage of the element of rumour and legend. As the series has gone on, the "oncoming storm" moniker has been just as potent a weapon against his adversaries as his sonic screwdriver (cf, The Silence in the Library).

But Moore’s work work did go on to influence the series in other ways. Script editor Andrew Cartmel was a fan of The Ballad of Halo Jones and apparently showed the comics to his scriptwriters during the latter days of the classic series as an example of the direction in which he wanted the series to develop and clearly elements of that strip show up in the whole of his era, with Paradise Towers in particular even allowing something of the aesthetic to spill out onto the screen, in the costumes and souless tourism.

Most recently, Alan’s daughter Leah co-scripted the best comic to come out of the US Who license with IDW, The Whispering Gallery, in which the TARDIS lands within rooms upon rooms of talking paintings on a world that’s outlawed emotion which captures the sadness inherent in the Doctor’s eternally long life and even manages to add a whole new companion to the mythology within its twenty-odd pages. Perhaps sadly this will as close as we get to seeing a Moore writing for the timelord, not least because as he says in this clip from 2001, he’s a purist who thinks it wasn’t the same after the 60s:

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 28/31: My year in films that aren't Inception. Part Two.



I Am Love

Few directors have rarely known what to do with Tilda Swinton’s unique aristocratic exoticism. Most often she becomes the forbidden magical object of desire or else the wicked queen. I Am Love combines the two and also notices how sexy she is. To a degree this is simply a modern Visconti film (thankfully without the weird dubbing) and pornography for us cineastes who like our cinema with long expositional scenes filled of people eating, random intercourse and a pulsing John Adams soundtrack. But it’s impossible not to become wrapped up in the class politics and the atmospheric photography that favours the master, preferably if the characters are hidden within.

Iron Man 2

Since Christopher Reeves pulled on his tights and flew, superhero comic book adaptations have been fundamentally insubstantial because they transplanted the character from a complex multi-creator mythology and made them a unique figure within a relatively realistic universe. Finally, Marvel are doing something about that and though I can understand the frustration of some fans that IM2 spent too much time setting the ball rolling towards The Avengers, isn’t it just fun to finally to have Tony Stark in a universe with Shield, Black Widow et al and judging by the closing scenes of this a panoply of other heroes. It’s just a pity that some of the crown jewels, Spiderman, Fantastic Four and the X-characters don’t exist in this version of the Marvel Universe because of prior arrangements.

Letters To Juliet

Since gorging on the sleuthing series in a week earlier in the month, Amanda Seyfried has now in my brain become “Lily Kane off of Veronica Mars” and she’s done rather well for herself since that happened in 2006. Like Frozen, Letters To Juliet should be horrible with its one dimensional characters having the kind of problems most people would kill for and though it's crying out for Robert Riskin to drop through a time/space wormhole and give it the kind of polish he gave Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, somewhere between the Italian landscapes and Vanessa Redgrave I was enchanted.

Of Gods And Men

Four teenage girls attended the screening of this at the Cornerhouse at Manchester. They’d stocked up at the Sainsburys opposite beforehand an proceeded to masticate through four large bags of Doritos and assorted or crunchy goodies and then at the end when I turned around I could see them shrugging at each other in as much as to say “I don’t get it.” Not even these minxes could really spoil this tough but deeply moving mediation on rebellion in the face of absurdity, of fighting for what you believe in. Probably the perfect companion piece for Agora, in that it shows the flip side of religion, the one that’s the conscience of society. The Swan Lake scene is one of the greatest of all time.

Salt

Well, yes. Easily dismissed as Bourne-lite there’s still a certain manic excitement to Salt which is replete with the kinds of moments I love when even a jaded film viewer like me who thinks he’s seen enough films now that he can predict which direction a narrative is heading to scream with delight and there are few actresses who could pull of the emotional misdirection which Angelina Jolie is called upon to provide here at least not with the indefinable complexity which goes beyond the script. Like the Millenium trilogy, I can’t wait to see all of the dvd, which contains two other versions of the film which take much the same footage but spin it into two substantially different stories, which sounds like a full length version of Run Lola Run.

A Christmas Carol.


TV Happy Christmas!  How are we all?  Still suffering from mince pie indigestion and an overabundance of alcoholic cheer?  Good, good.  Let’s begin.  Where was I?  Right, that’s right, Christmas Doctor Who!  Hooray!  Now, you might remember that for a good long while this blog had the tag line, “A vast archive in place of an imagination.”, which is used by the narrator in the Italian film Il Divo to describe its subject, former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a cold, callous, meticulous, unfeeling man without a shred of warmth.  A bit like Donna Noble at the beginning of The Runaway Bride.

 Previously I’ve employed it hopefully ironically to describe myself, but during the emotional crescendo of Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol, as the older Kazran embraced the younger version of him, my fan gene was screaming “Blinovitch! Blin-oviiiiitch!” instead of the misty-eyed recognition that my favourite tv rendition of Charles Dickens’s original tale from ’77 with Michael Horden as Scrooge, always brings as the mental documentation I have of Doctor Who’s mythology asserted itself.

It’s that COPAC of the mind which throughout also led me to wonder exactly how the Doctor could be changing history to such a degree and not be creating cataclysms in the web of time all of the place making The Waters of Mars look like the dodgy banger in a Christmas cracker and how Kazran could have two sets of memories babbling about in his head when causality itself was being messed with, and why the Doctor hasn’t employed this methodology before, on, I don’t know, Davros?

Then as the night draws in I’m visited by three ghosts (Twitter, Gallifrey Base and the TARDIS Index File) and my imagination kicks back in.  This is a whole new rebooted universe, time can be rewritten, who’s to say what’s up or down and if the Amy can play au pair to the younger version of herself in The Big Bang then hug away Kazran and let all those frozen people live again, keep Christmas well, and all the other stuff you’re going to do after the temporal duration of the episode.

Because come Boxing Day, come the second viewing, I’m delighted, beguiled and all the things writer Steven Moffat probably hoped I’d be the first time around.  This is Moffat’s answer to Davies’s previous argument (from about the time of Voyage of the Damned) that the British public can’t handle anything too complex on Christmas Day, that something like Blink couldn’t work and what you really want is Who as blockbuster movie with faux Dickensian trappings like The Next Doctor, rather than emotional chamber piece about the timelord making someone less grumpy.

In actuality, the Doctor has used a similar methodology before, in Moffat’s only 90s Who fiction, Character Pieces from the Decalog 3 Virgin Books anthology in which the Seventh Doctor also changed history to help deal with an obstinate librarian and Paul Cornell's Telegraph short story "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years".  But the clever aspect of this story was in making the Doctor fully aware of his borrowing from literature.  I don’t remember that happening much in the Hinchcliffe era.  It’d be like the Fourth Doctor saying “Elementary my dear, Leela” in Talons.

It’s that self-awareness that stopped this from being the simple cover version it could have been and created an extra tension as to who the various ghosts would be.  A lesser writer might have employed Rory somehow as the future ghost instead of what was the rather marvellous twist that originally led to me contracting Blinovitch syndrome and indeed more clearly insert some kind of Marley figure (though there’s probably an argument that the Doctor embodied him too).  Where Dickens employs his ghosts as a device to allow Scrooge to visit various points in his own timeline, Moffat deploys the Doctor to create memories instead.

Just as years ago, the casting of Simon Callow as Dickens demonstrated this new version of Who meant business, the glinting eyes of Michael Gambon as Kazran shows how ambitious the show has become.  Oddly enough, this is the first time he’s Scrooged.  He played the Ghost of Christmas Present to Callow’s Scrooge in the animated Carol in 2001, the one were Kate Winslet sang, as well as Jenkins actually, but in fact he’s barely done any Dickens on screen so no wonder he took up this opportunity.

Gambon’s modesty in Confidential suggested that all he did was see in which direction Toby Haynes pointed and went there, but this was about as layered a performance we’ve seen from a Who guest star, utterly captivating especially in the scenes when he was called upon to remember fondly the memories captured photographically even though this was the first time the older Kazran was remembering fondly those memories, scene which themselves were reminiscent of his long term collaborator Stephen Poliakoff.

His performance might have been enough had the actors playing the younger Kazran’s not been up to the job, but luckily both Laurence Belcher (whose making quite a career from playing smaller versions of our greatest actors – he’s the teenaged Xavier in the X-Men prequel, understudying Patrick Stewart) and the new to the IMDb, Danny Horn, were more than capable of carrying the collective emotional weight of the single character, this was no Matthew Waterhouse turning into Andrew Sachs (cf, the Big Finish audios).

Matt clearly enjoyed the challenge of slightly pitching his performance differently with each of them and like Death to the Doctor we can clearly see now that he’s worked out how he wants to play the character and how Moffat wants to write it.  His petulant reaction to all the kissing and marrying Marilyn was just perfect, and more importantly very specific to him, though it does explain somewhat how Tenth might have nabbled Liz I.  Nevertheless, David Tennant seems like a very long time ago.  The End of Time was only a year ago.  Amazing.

The strength of the episode even managed to soften my heart towards Katherine Jenkins, a figure I usually have a snobbish enmity towards because of what she represents in the classical crossover market as I watch her compilations massively outselling the likes of “proper” singers like Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu, Classic FM to Radio 3, Classic FM Magazine to BBC Music, Pip and Jane Baker to Robert Holmes, David Gooderson to Michael Wisher.

Moffat somewhat protected her by making Abigail Dickens’s Belle figure, an obscure object of desire, Mulveyian projection of male desire only now and then allowed her own emotional beat.  But in places, Jenkins melted my heart, especially when she sang as in the goofy coddling of the shark (Spotify link) and in the Murray Gold rush job that played out the episode (and how demeaning for the rest if us under achievers that Gold can knocking something like that out in a couple of days).

Speaking of Confidential discoveries, how have we only just employed Michael Pickwoad, a man who looks like he should be revealing how he created an entire Cyber-battlefleet in the 60s from a contemporary lunch budget not taking over now and showing the previous comparative youngsters how these things should be done?  Pickwoad is of course a legend; his first proper prod. des. job was Withnail & I and he’s been providing drawing rooms for corsets and bow-ties on tv for years including The Old Curiosity Shop a few years ago.

His design work in A Christmas Carol was stunning, nodding not just to a kind of Dickensian steam punk aesthetic but also the soulless interiors of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the same kind of soulless privilege born from a heartless past.  He’s brave too; obviously Moffat’s detailed script would have suggested the classically futuristic interior of the spaceship, but Pickwoad pushed it further than we’ve yet seen in nu-Who, as close as we’ve been to the plastic polish of some 80s Davison stories (in which a bridge would often be left to suggest the contents of an entire ship).

All of which didn’t seem to leave much room for Amy and Rory.  Typically Arthur Darvill finally receives an opening credit but is barely in the episode but it certainly explains their absence from the cover of the Radio Times.  They received a few good moments, not least the unspoken explanation for why they were in those costumes (not the timey-wimey reason suggested by the trailers) but essentially they were in the classic companion of waiting for the Doctor to save them.  There’s a longer discussion to be had about this with reference to The Christmas Invasion, but I’ve been writing for three hours and five years already and it's time to wrap this up.

A Christmas Carol hasn’t convinced everybody but Moffat’s achievement has been to soften the heart of us Scrooges who too easily look to the details when it’s the emotional sweep that is important.  Davies was capable of that too, though arguably most of his specials overeggnogged the Christmas pudding too much not least in the ghostly resurrection of Astrid.  Unlike Dickens even, who at the end of his tale makes it plain that Tiny Tim didn’t die, there’s no cure for Abigail, who’ll pass away in Kazran’s arms once their shark-ride is over.  We’re left with the message that sometimes we can fight, but sometimes the courage is in our acceptance, and that’s well worth ignoring five or fifty years worth of mythology for.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 26/31: My year in films that aren't Inception. Part One.



Agora

Astonishing film that deserved to be seen far more than it was in the UK (especially since it was Spain’s biggest film in 2009) and was perhaps suppressed somewhat due to its politically sticky subject matter, the rise of Christianity including the sack of the library of Alexandria and the assassination of the Greek philosopher Hypatia because of her scientific and pagan beliefs. Rachel Weisz's fleet footed performance as Hypatia is the backbone of a film which meditates on the eternal struggle between belief and reason. The production design harks back to the old Hollywood classics by creating huge sets in Madrid rather than employing CGI which gives the piece a bags of authenticity, even when the work being carried out by Hypatia on the structure of the solar system is entirely conjectural.

The Concert

Probably the best place to see The Concert was at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall during one of the “Classic Film” screenings with the sound of the on-screen orchestra reverberating around a real venue. Somewhat dismissed on release as something of a Cinema Paradiso for classical music, there’s a stronger political thread running through Radu Mihaileanu’s evocation of censorship in the Soviet Union and some pleasingly ramshackle storytelling which gives the piece bags of character. The face of Mélanie Laurent is most associated with the film because she’s on the poster and she’s very good, but the emotional heart of the piece is Aleksey Guskov’s conductor boldly holding his own against each set back.

Daybreakers

Or Gattaca 2: It Bites or The Matrix with vampires. An entertaining attempt at something interesting and new with vampires, a Soylent Green style allegory on our morally ambiguous reaction to the scarcity of natural resources, ultimately handstrung by following the hero’s journey story structure beat for beat. Not without some decent scares, especially in Sam Neil’s executive’s treatment of his daughter and it’s good to see the undervalued Claudia Karvan in a reasonably big release. Though to be fair, Toy Story 3 would probably in this slot, but I've not been able to see that yet.

Frozen

Open Water on a ski-lift doesn’t sound like the most enticing pitch and indeed to an extent the three kids trapped on the chair in the sky during a cold snap are fairly annoying and the kind of victims of the week that might wander through an episode of Veronica Mars. William Goldman suggests that films are rarely about dialogue, which is lucky because most of the dialogue in Frozen is in the order of "Are you ok?" "It's cold." What Goldman doesn't mention is the dialogue coming from the viewer and Frozen is all about that. I swore, I screamed, and director Adam Green understands that the best way to creep the audience out is to concentrate not on event but reaction, all adding up to oddly, one of the most satisfying film experiences of 2010.

The Millenium Trilogy

Sadly for her, Noomi Rapace may never be as good in her future Hollywood career as she is as Lisbeth Salander and these “films” would not hold together as well without her. She has the relatively unique ability to underplay everything whilst still retaining incredible charisma, not unlike Clint Eastwood in his cowboy days – well at least until Paint Your Wagon. I’m still reserving proper judgement on these adaptations until I’ve seen the full television versions; the first was choppy and structurally suspect and though the second had a clearer through line (I’m yet to see the third) both seemed to contain lesions, bits of exposition left hanging here and there. The extended versions will apparently be released onto the home market on 14 July 2010. Can’t wait.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 25/31: "Home" and the farthest you've ever been from it (suggested by Kat Herzog)

RAF Bruggen

Travel One of the reason I’m probably such a fan of international cinema because I’m much less travelled than you might expect. Despite having seen much of the north of England and bits of the south, I’ve only been abroad twice (three times if you include Ireland) and only then for about two weeks altogether. Stick a compass in Liverpool and draw a circle, though Paris seems far away, the absolute farthest is Bruggan in Germany were my uncle was stationed before he retired from the RAF and were I spent a week at his base in the mid-80s.

In writing about the trip, we come up against the somewhat fractured nature of my memory. At the age of thirty-six, I still feel as though I should be able to remember more about myself at the age of nine than mere images, the odd smell. But as I type, all I have are pieces of something, disjointed echoes of what my subconscious has decided are the most important incidents, dumping the rest to history. A sign that I’m getting old, but I’d be interested to know if the memory of other people's childhood equally dimmed.

Having reached Dover by train then coach we discovered our overnight Townsend Torenson ferry to Zebrugger (yes, that route) had been cancelled and so spent the night sleeping on the floor of a Sealink France ferry to Dunkirk, my head resting underneath my Mother’s shoulder. The smell was horrible, a mix of booze and cigarettes, and I wasn’t old enough to know that this wasn’t just how ferrys smelt but something brought (and bought) on them. I was fascinated by the concept of Duty Free even though I didn’t really understand what it was.

I dozed through most of the rest of the journey to Bruggen, though I must have woken up briefly during disembarkation because I saw another set of passengers waiting to board the ferry who at the time I thought were refugees. I have an image from waking up early to see a classic landscape of fields full of tulips and windmills and of guards checking passports, which was the moment when the driver realised that he was taking us to the wrong destination, having reached one too many international borders.

Even at that young age I was fascinated by the continental differences. Visiting the NAFI supermarket in Reindalen was much the same as attending a Lidl now, familiar products, different company labels. Everyone seemed to drink Fanta Orange, far more than at home and chocolate treats were in the form of Milka in the violet-coloured packaging. There was also the sense of scale, giant supermarkets having not reached Speke in Liverpool yet, a couple of years even before the Asda in Hunts Cross opened.

Everything else is very vague. One day we took a bus into Elmpt in Holland, where I was excited to buy a Disney comic translated into Dutch at a department store, skipping over the Spiderman because it hadn’t been reprinted in the UK yet (even then I was avoiding spoilers). On another I was taken swimming at the base, which was oddly deserted. And there was a call home at an isolated phone box (my Dad didn’t travel due to work) when we discovered that we’d missed that last episode of the tv version of Fame.

None of which will get me an invite onto Radio 4’s Excess Baggage, no swapping tall tales with Sandy Toksvig. Mum says that when we reached London, because we had some time to wait, she took me on a promised visit to Hamleys but she couldn’t afford the left luggage and presents and so she nearly killed herself carrying our bags too and from the toy store. I feel guilty that I don’t remember that act of kindness either. Which rather suggests that in 2011, I do need to get out and travel more, finances permitting and luckily I already have a road map now.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 24/31: "Tidings of comfort and joy" (suggested by Kat Herzog)



Music One of the reasons Christmas is considered a children’s holiday is because so much of the build-up to the day, the markers, are only really part of the school calendar. There’s the nativity and Christmas sales and carol concerts and because I was part of the school choir, it’s the carol concerts which really put me in the festive mood. Thirty or forty of us scrummed together in the alter area of the school chapel entertaining parents by candle light, listening to see if, as our music teacher suggested, all of our efforts to create volume were really just being absorbed by the "women in big coats".

The selection of carols changed from year to year. There’d be the classics, O Come All Ye Faithful and Good Kings Wensleslas, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night and I still have the descant parts for them all ringing in my ears. As with our other efforts, such as singing at Liverpool Cathedral, we’d rehearse for weeks beforehand and though I couldn’t read music (still can’t), I just about managed parrot fashion, miming when necessary usually when as Eric Morecombe would say, I was in danger of giving all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. I suspect my choir mates were very tolerant.

In my memory, the choir had a definite audio punch and were certainly loud enough that the big coats didn’t matter much. But subtle. These were classical arrangements and the music teacher was obviously keen to stretch us with his selection always drifting beyond the mainstream. Torches was a particular rarety, (“Torches, Run with Torches, All The Way To Bethlehem”) with its proto-polyphony in which the base parts create an aural landscape for the trebles to play in creating the illusion of a crowd truly running towards the nativity, a kind of upmarket Row Row Your Boat.

So used did I become to singing some of these arrangements, that I still find it impossible to let them go even if they don’t quite match the version everyone else knows and not just when I’m fighting against nature in an attempt to get to the high notes in the aforementioned descant parts. Thank goodness we didn’t ever try Allegri's Miserere with its haunting top C, presumably because it’s not really a Christmas tune and also because we lacked the rehearsal time or anyone in the choir capable of reaching that top C.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is prime example of the variation between the average choir and what’s happening inside my brain, especially since in recent years even professional choirs have been replacing “Ye” with “You” which is just wrong, not least because it sounds wrong, ignoring the assonance of the “e” sound in the line. My memory of singing the final three key lines, “O Tidings of Comfort and Joy / Comfort and Joy / O Tidings of Comfort and Joy” is that we sang and I do sing, a kind of syncopated beat that stresses the “and”.

Needless to say these were magic evenings. If I’ve one regret it’s that I didn’t continue singing, at least not like this. I did flirt with joining a choir when I reached university, even attended a few performances, and though the person who was encouraging me knew I couldn’t read music, I wasn’t confident enough yet not to care about feeling like a bit of a fraud next to these smart people with their clean suits and good voices so I joined the college theatre instead. Anyone want to join me in murdering “O Come! O Come! O Come! All Ye Faithful!” (cough, cough, cough)? Perhaps not.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 23/31: What events will define 2010 for a) you, b) the UK, and c) the world? (suggested by Ben Skinner)

paranoias 009

Life If twenty-ten has proved anything, it is that not every year does have a defining moment at least on a personal level. If you’d asked this question in 2006 I would have offered graduating from my MA or last year, well last year was all about Shakespeare pilgrimages and standing on the fourth plinth. Apart from finally watching The Wire, Veronica Mars and all of Woody Allen’s films in order, decorating the living room, visiting acres of the Biennial, winning that big screen tv and giving the recent talk at the social media café and generally keeping myself busy, there have been no matches or hatches, nothing specifically which I could say left me a changed person, redefined me.

For the other sixty-odd million people in the UK, the defining event will be the general election and the ensuing cuts, oh the ensuing cuts. Even taking into account that many of the measures aren’t due to implemented for a couple of years, the palpable sense of fear which has permeated society either because of the announcements themselves or the opposition reinterpretation. It will effect all of us to some measure, but it’s also replete with known unknowns, the sense that we, none of us can really be comfortable with our routines. Even in applying for new jobs, a seed of doubt has crept in, not just about whether this new position being applied for will exist in six months, but whether even the company or organisation will too.

Suggesting the news whirlwind that’s defined by the name of a single organisation – Wikileaks – was the defining moment for the world seems too easy. Isn’t it, after all, just reminding us of what we already know? That there are two different total information streams, the truth and the version handed down to us? If nothing else, it’s made us all decide where we stand on the issue, if it’s important that much of society continues to exist in a state of ignorance as to the decisions being taken on their behalf or, as I’ve decided, if the decisions are valid, full of merit and not for want of another word, embarrassing in a humanitarian sense, they wouldn’t need to be hidden and wouldn’t need to be leaked in the way they have through the publication of diplomatic memos.

In other words, despite the sense of renewal a new decade brings, we’re essentially continuing the general sense of paranoia which has otherwise defined this century so far. Paranoid about finances, paranoia about safety. Of course some of this paranoia is artificial, the product of propagandists, but some of it is very real for us rationalists because we can’t control the irrational because obviously you can’t have a rational argument with them. Instead of Christmas cards this year, I bought my parents some small, hand carved soap stone angels. Guardian angels. Even as I handed my money over at the stall in the festive market in Manchester, I wanted to imbue them with spiritual or mystical powers, for them literally to keep my parents safe because we don’t really know what’s to come.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 22/31: Heat (suggested by @linkmachinego)

Scene Unseen


"I say what I mean, and I do what I say."


Film At twenty-two minutes and twelve seconds into Michael Mann’s Heat, there’s one of the most interesting cuts in the film. We’ve just witnessed an argument between Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s husband and wife over the inconsistency of their life and how, because of his gambling and well, being a crook, she’s left looking after their child. Angrily, Kilmer speeds away from their house through the suburbs at speed and then the cut happens – to the interior of Al Pacino’s car, as his cop character, Vincent takes a call from his department with disappointing news of an evidential dead end.

This disorientating cut is curious because it breaks most of the rules of classic Hollywood continuity editing in which an establishing shot leads to the subject of the scene. Mann’s motive seems to be to fix the idea in the viewer’s head that Kilmer and Pacino are one in the same person, although not in the literal way that some directors, Lynch for example, might suggest that Kilmer has somehow transmogrified into Pacino. This is reinforced in the next shot which is another tracking shot of a car, this time Pacino is heading along the freeway at a similar speed to Kilmer, though with perhaps less anger.

The next scene has Pacino ferreting through the kitchen area of his apartment. He selects a cold chicken leg and bottle of Jack Daniels and as he settles at the kitchen table, his wife Justine, played by Diana Venora with a Audrey Hepburn hairstyle (see above), hammers down the stairs and the two have a passive/aggressive discussion about yes, Pacino’s inconsistency, his lateness in coming home, the inconsistency of their life and how, because of his being a detective, she’s left looking after their child (well, his step child). Their exchange lacks the anger of Kilmer and Judd’s and ends with a measure of understanding, if frustration.

In the next few scenes, we’re shown the genesis of one of these relationships as Robert De Nero’s robber baron bonds with Amy Brenneman over books in a bar, and though it’s a fairly typical meet cute, there’s a discordant note, not just in the music but in the fact that the whole thing is built on a lie; De Nero offers a false name and occupation and as the scenes continue onto the balcony of her apartment and into her bedroom, for all the tenderness of the mood, there is an ever present sense of dread as we know that even though some of his barriers are down, the central lie within their relationship will see its end..

In the midst of what’s ostensibly a heist picture, Mann’s showing us the progression of a bad relationship in reverse; the destruction of Kilmer and Judd’s coupling, the acrimony of Pacino and Venora and the tender beginnings of De Nero and Brenneman. Which demonstrates the brilliance of Heat. Despite selecting this section because of today’s date, basically at random, I’ve stumbled upon three scenes that exemplify Mann’s big theme, that in his cops and robbers world no one can have a “normal life” and that unlike the citizens the cops protect and the bodies which impede the robbers, some of whom they’re married to, there’s no such thing as a work life balance and relationships rarely work.

Read LinkMachineGo here.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 21/31: My Year In Magazines.


Magazines Some magazines you buy simply because they're consistently good and that's the case with BBC Music and SFX Magazine. For different reasons. The former continues to suggest some of my listening habits and has simply been very consistent across the year not having changed much editorially since its inception (and I should know). A couple of months back they collated fifty of their composer biographies in a special, the essential works sections of which are a useful way of dipping into an ouvre -- though I'm still unconvinced by Messian. SFX retains its sense of fun and history and its chameleon-like ability to shift its tone depending upon which area of the genre is in the ascendency. This month Primevil is on the cover and there's a definite sense of shifting back towards British sci-fi because of the many genre cancellations in the US. The Spoiler Zone also still proves invaluable for sniffing whether a series is worth being patient with though it does feel too late now to be starting on Smallville and Supernatural.

My love and hate relationship with Empire continued through 2010. To an extent it's become rather redundant in the face of the web but there’s no denying that it still retains a certain standard in relation to set access and has some excellent archival features, the twisty turny interviews with the masters of horror (Landis, Carpenter and Dante) especially entertaining. My problem lately has been with its unwillingness to engage or criticise the film industry in ways which it so effortlessly did in the past, really questioning how the more commercial end of the market is changing. Their argument is that they need to sell magazines and that putting Harry Potter on the cover rather than Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone adds several thousand sales; I’d counter that by suggest if Empire really cared about film, it would be publicising some of the smaller releases as well as joining the Potter marketing machine.

In other words, do for commercial cinema what Sight and Sound does for everything else. Last month they put director Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the cover and inside had a page long review of the late Arthur Penn’s comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed. Which is astonishing. Having also refocused itself in recent years to cover international cinema and smaller releases in even greater detail, S&S will become vitally important as governmental changes are brought to its publisher, the BFI, with editor Nick James and columnist Nick Roddick well placed to comment on what it means for production in this country. S&S also supports the BFI Southbank’s seasons and these articles have proved invaluable as I’ve followed their curatorial choices through Lovefilm. The undoubted highlight though has been their coverage of Metropolis's restoration, the process and the effects its had on how view the narrative and Lang's intentions.

The Christmas Radio Times was late to visit the north again this year but that only went to increase the sense of anticipation. Though other listings magazines are available, there’s something particularly authoritative about the most expensive, especially in its eagerness to highlight the digital stations ahead of the soaps and more populist fare. Mad Men even appeared on the cover for the new series launch on BBC Four. One major disappointment has been the redesign of the listings which have pushed some of the non-primetime, and so more interesting, elements of the schedule literally to the margins and so it's easier to miss some good bit of old Hollywood on daytime tv. Given the title of the magazine makes it the journal of record and the popularity of the medium, the squeezing of the radio coverage too is an area for concern; much as I enjoy Eddie Mair’s column it does leave even less room for publicising content across the channels.

Doctor Who Magazine has gone from strength to strength in 2010 due to the decision by the latest editor, Tom Spilsbury, to take a more wide-ranging approach to the franchise and being just as likely to run material on the classic series as the new (in keeping of the approach of the series under Moffat which has been replete with back references). That’s resulted in some superb retrospective interviews with the likes of Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker that have still, somehow, after all these issues managed to find something new to talk about, especially the extent to which their public and private faces differ. The year’s triumph was a soap special that appropriated the design of Inside Soap Magazine and featured a wonderful piece by (until recently resident reviewer) Graham Kibble-White and Chris Hughes from the website TV Cream.

Around The Globe is DWM for Shakespeare fans. Almost. Published seasonally by the Shakespeare Globe Trust, the bulk of the magazine contains background articles supporting the theatre’s latest season with academics writing accessibly about their thematic or historical details, with a review section at the back highlighting important new publications. It’s well worth the £12 per year subscription as it stands, but what I’d really like and in my dreams would really like to edit, is a proper glossy news stand magazine dedicated to the bard, with features on new productions across tv, films and theatre (this month’s cover would be Patrick Stewart in Macbeth), news about the plays and his historical world, a massive review section for books, dvds and cds and depending on the cost, a cover mount containing some old audio production. You’d buy it wouldn’t you?

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 20/31: The most beautiful thing you've ever seen. (suggested by Kat Herzog)

M45 widefield 15.10.10

Science When I was much younger, my Dad was a scout leader and one night he took me to one of his meetings. I don’t remember anything about the meeting itself but afterwards we stood outside, three of us, we were waiting for one of the scouts to be picked up by his parents, and in the idle moment for reasons I again can’t remember, Dad pointed to the night sky and began to identify the constellations.

The original Clash of the Titans had not long been released, I think, and so perhaps it was because I’d asked one of my hundreds of questions. But I still have a vivid memory of his finger tracing the line of Orion’s belt, of trying to find the North Star, of listing the exotic names which were gifted to the various clusters. Pegasus. Perseus. The Plough. Oh.

It was and still is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Remember this would have been on a clear night in early eighties, still a time when the flood light that is the millennial city hadn’t get blanketed the sky with luminosity and so even the smudgiest of star groups, such as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters would still have been visible.

Not even the Liverpool Planetarium feature in which the lights in the room are dimmed as far as health and safety will allow and the dome is filled with stars as way of showing what the sky would have looked like before the invention of electric lighting can really capture that version of the sky I have locked in my memory, overwhelming to the younger version of me.

Astronomers often talk of similar experiences as the catalyst for entering their profession but at the time, the night sky was just one small part of geography lessons at school which concentrated on the planets rather than the stars beyond. My natural tendency has been towards the arts which is probably why I remember the visual experience so vividly.

I don’t look towards the sky at night much now. There’s little point. Even from within Sefton Park, only the brightest stars are perceptible. We city dwellers have now lost the ability to see the biggest, most frightening and most spectacular free light show, one that draws together science and history and art. Perhaps I should go and find my cottage so that I can see it again.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 19/31: So, Stuart, please be very specific in describing how good a writer you consider yourself to be, highlighting both your strengths and weaknesses, plus any stylistic devices you feel you regularly use (i.e. I rely too much on ellipses and sub-clauses within a sentence... like this one) (suggested by Graham Kibble-White)

Fog in Sefton Park

About My inability to write is matched only by my inability to accept praise for my writing. Without wallowing in self pity, there’s been quite enough of that already this month, my reach has rarely matched my ambition, my ideas rarely reaching what might be their full potential. Though I generally obfuscate when asked why I’m still writing this blog after nearly ten years, the truth I’ve probably been hiding is that it’s because I continue to be under the delusion that at some point I’ll be able to write the perfect blog post, an act of Platonic perfection with all the hallmarks of God’s final message to his creation. Since I’m not God and a negligible writer expect me to be still posting here in another ten years.

If I do have a strength, it’s my ability to fill a blank page and work through seven paragraphs on a given topic even when I’m not really in the mood. That’s why I keep setting myself these challenges, on filmographies and television series, art festivals and these annual reviews, to keep my brain working, to let the words pour out of me and hope they make some sense. The best part of any piece is the moment before I type, looking for the killer first line, hoping against hope it will set the tone for what is to come. Sometimes it will take hours, days even, and sometimes as on this occasion it popped into my head while I cleaning my teeth. I grinned just long enough for the toothpaste to dribble out of my mouth onto my t-shirt.

My weakness is an inability to plan ahead. My writing tends to be fairly shapeless because too often, after pouring myself into that first paragraph, I’m spent, knowing that there’s still many more sentences to come and because I’m such a slow writer, hours and hours spend working through about seven paragraphs or a thousand words, I actually become quite angry with it before the end. Time and again I’ll reach the fourth paragraph and scream in frustration because nothing before it makes any practical sense or even flows from idea to idea. Even one of my best pieces of writing, my MA Dissertation, which I spent an entire summer writing, got lost somewhere in the second chapter before making a break for freedom in the third.

Which is why so much of my writing tends to be so self-conscious, referring to its own construction or making jokes at the expense of itself, because I’ve never quite developed the knack of structuring an argument properly. Most often, there’s a concertina effect in which paragraphs can be added and subtracted from the middle without doing much to the overall structure of the piece when the best writing I’ve seen is intricate enough that the sense is destroyed by the loss of a single line. This also has the effect of making some of my writing far longer than it needs to be because my internal copy editor retired many years ago due to overwork. I believe she’s living in Southend now in the guest house set up by her friend, my vocabulary, which absconded in 2005.

But my main problem, other than not being able to find a better way to begin this paragraph than with “but my main problem”, is that I spend too much time comparing myself with other writers, and not being able to calculate how they seem to make their work apparently so effortless, with such wit. Every now and then I’ll see a Deborah Orr in The Guardian beginning a paragraph with “Oddly enough though” and realise that sometimes there isn’t a better way but in the main I’m astonished by how William Goldman is able to find ten different ways of saying the same thing or Charlie Brooker manages to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. My only comfort is that my favourite writer of all, or at least the writer I steal from the most, Douglas Adams, had an equally tortured approach.

My litany of stylistic quirks (which does also include ellipses and sub-clauses) features the deliberate repetition of words in a sentence designed to draw attention to themselves because they’re the deliberate repetition of words in a sentence designed to draw attention to themselves, inveterate use of prop words like probably, actually, though, even, usually, often, because, essentially, generally, seem, nevertheless, but and true, oh and like, and using the phrase “oh and” a lot. I’m alliterative and also apply allusion, anaphora and antithesis whenever possible but generally misuse onomatopoeia and parenthesis. I seem also to employ synecdoche correctly, but most often it's an act of desperation so that I’m not repeating the same word twice in the sentence or even paragraph which I was taught against at school.

Whenever I put finger to keyboard, I’m fighting against two enemies, reader expectation and myself. The former I can’t do much about. After clicking the post button, there's always a moment when I simply want to run far away, which is quickly followed by about half an hour of reading through the piece again and noticing all the painful typos and poor structuring (this piece used to have eight paragraphs but I couldn't find a way of padding out a bit about me not having a recognisably personal style). I’ll probably do this same with this (oh). There’s also the younger version of me, which could be the person writing last month, last year or ten years ago, the one who, whenever I get lost in the archives of this blog, I admire deeply, who I’m constantly surprised by. Over and over I’ll ask, why can’t I write as well as that any more? What happened to that person? Then I correct some of the typos and resume the struggle.

Graham Kibble-White is one of the writers on www.tvcream.co.uk.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 18/31: What three places in the world would you most like to visit? (suggested by Ben Skinner)

Bachhill of the bush mountain bothy

Travel After visiting both the RSC and The Globe last year, the places I’d really like to visit has dwindled somewhat. For all my desperation to stand at the top of the Empire State Building, I know that the romantic notions I have would be broken by how "unlike the films” the experience would be, and the number of tourists, the queues, the weather, the lack of early 90s Meg Ryan. That was certainly the case when I finally stood in front of the Mona Lisa or the Rosetta Stone and had to share the space with thirty other people all of whom were jostling to have their picture taken with these icons rather than seek to treat them as objects of interest and intellectual discovery.

Which is why I’ve lately been hankering after spending a month, perhaps longer, in a cottage somewhere, fairly secluded, basic amenities, with a pile of books to keep me company, a radio, but no television, no internet, no people. Just lots of time to catch up on all the reading I’ve kept putting off and putting off for most of my life. As someone who’s used to the noise of the city (even living on the edge of a park there’s some traffic and shouting) the prospect scares me a little bit, the lack of artificial noise and no interuptions. I wonder how I’d feel at the inevitable end, drawn back into those things. Would I cope? Would I be depressed?

Because really it’s probably that I just need a disconnection, to be able to go somewhere else were nothing makes sense any more, were everything is a challenge. That’s how I imagine Tokyo to be. Photographs of the city are filled with familiar shop names, but the sheer chaos of life, of being part of such a mass of people is equally attractive because I suspect it allows you to be alone even in a crowd. The trick, and this is the case in most large cities, is to not let that tip over into loneliness, and the problem with any city is that unless you live there, work there, you’re only ever a tourist and can never truly be there. It’s all about time, and having the time to become geographically acquanted.

Snowy Evening

Snowy EveningSnowy Evening, originally uploaded by feelinglistless.

Finally Liverpool enjoys the snow. The golden hew seems to be an interaction between my camera and the street lights, though it ironically makes the city look like it's been transported to the surface of the Sun on one of the coldest days of the year.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 17/31: Shanghai (suggested by Alison Gow).

bamboo accumulation

Fiction “Shanghai!”

The Doctor enthusiastically burst out through the TARDIS doorway, arms raised in celebration. “Bright lights, big city!” he shouted, “Population spilling out onto the streets, the smell of commerce, buildings punching into the sky …”

Then he stopped and bothered to look around, “Bamboo huts, mud, mist, the smell of fish … oh …”

Amy stumbled out behind him wearing a now completely inappropriate sailor uniform. “Wrong year then?” She said.

“Yes. Sorry.” The Doctor gestured towards the blue Police Box which had landed incongruously on a getty, looking heavy enough to break through the bamboo but strangely not. “She’s … well … we’re in Shanghai, it’s just …” He glared at his watch. “Hmm … turn of the millennium … about 1080 AD. Early in the morning I think.”

“Only a millennium out.” By now, Amy was standing parallel to the Time Lord. Pushing her long ginger hair back behind her ears, she peering out across a sea which seemed to stretch out into infinity. “Well, you did promise me a harbour view.”

The Doctor grinned. “What d’ya think?”

Amy opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, a scream broke through the fog.

* * * *

The Doctor’s acute hearing followed the noise to one of the huts on the harbour and inside he and Amy found a woman standing on a stool, the palms of her hands pressed against her elderly skin. She glanced about furtively then screamed again as a small rodent scurried past the three of them, cheekily taking a scenic route underneath the woman before disappearing through a vertical crack in the wall.

“It’s good to know some stereotypes are valid no matter where you are in time.” Amy enjoyed the image far more than she knew she should. Then she noticed the Doctor stooped by the crack blaring his sonic screwdriver into the darkness. “It’s not that crack is it?”

“Hmm. Oh no. No." He replied popping the screwdriver back in his pocket. "For a change."

The Doctor then turned and held out his hand, gesturing for the woman to step down. At first she was as nervous of him as the rat but something in his eyes suggested safety so she took his fingers and put foot on the ground for the first time in hours.

“Terrorised by a rat. The rat peril. Well, there’s a first time for everything.” The Doctor was licking his lips like a cheese concessioner within tastebud distance of a new flavour.

The woman, who apparently had no idea what he was saying simply grinned at him, her mouth showing more darkness than teeth. She gestured for the Doctor and his companion to sit down and the Doctor chose the stool that had previously been her safe haven. Amy knelt on the ground nearby, constantly on the lookout for the return of the rodent.

* * * *

Within minutes the three sat drinking saki silently. The woman, who by now was quite calm was staring at the Doctor’s clothing, particular whatever it was he had around his neck.

“Bow ties are cool.” He grinned conspiratorially.

“Yes, right…” Amy coughed changing the subject, “So you have a rat problem?”

“Oh yes, hate the thing, always in and out, can’t sleep most nights” and suddenly words were spilling out of the woman’s mouth. In a cockney accent.

Amy’s eyes popped. “Wow, you’re a loud one.”

The Doctor grinned. “How long has it been going on?”

”Three weeks. Frightened out of my wits I am…”

“So Chinese is …” Amy considered this new quirk of the TARDIS's translation circuit.

“Yes. Have you got any traps?”

“Traps?”

“You know boxes to catch it in? We could scoop it up, take it out of your hair.” The Doctor unconsciously glanced at the woman’s hair. It was snowy white. With a bob.

Linda nodded her head enthusiastically. The Doctor’s eyes followed the bob up and down before focusing on the woman again. He smiled.

* * * *

Minutes later the Doctor was back from a trip to the TARDIS carrying a bundle of humane, bamboo mouse traps.

“So we’ve fought Patient Zero, Daleks, lizard creatures and now rats are our thing?”

”All creatures great and small, Pond.” The Doctor said pointedly. “You could wait in the TARDIS if you’re too frightened.”

“No. Oh -- give it here.” She snatched one of the traps from him and began setting it, pulling the small wooden door up ready to imprison the rat should it blunder in. The Doctor handed her a chunk of Mars Bar as bait. “So Linda?”

The Doctor, who was also busying himself with the traps, looked at Amy then the hitherto unnamed woman.

“We’ve bonded,” Amy smiled. “Do you live hear alone?”

“Oh no, my husband, Jabe, is out fishing. He’s a fisherman.”

“Out long?” The Doctor asked with a slight hint of concern.

”A few weeks. Should be back soon.”

“I think we’ll be finished by then.” Amy noticed the Doctor sounded more relieved than he should and considered briefly if he was keeping something important from her. Again.

Before long all the traps were set. They sat and waited. More saki.

* * * *

And waited. And waited. The Doctor sat fiddling with his sonic screwdriver. Amy was beginning to fall asleep.

“Maybe there are too many of us in ‘ere. Scared him off.” Linda said abruptly.

Then, as if on cue, the three were startled by the sound of a trap shutting. They turned in unison.

The Doctor’s ear knew which trap it was straight away and skipped over to it. He reached down and triumphantly held the tiny prison at eye level, the rat stuffed inside.

“Well, then what have you got to say for yourself?”

The rat’s eyes seemed to widen briefly then boil with anger.

“You can’t stop us!” It squeeked. “Our fleet is massed on the edge of the solar system. Once I’ve reported back on this miserable little mud ball, we’ll take it by force! There’ll be no stopping us!”

“I think I’ll be having words with them.” The Doctor was sterner than you might imagine would be with a rodent. He was clearly very concerned.

Amy’s eyes were fixed on this furry ball of hatred. “Sentient, um, rats?”

“Sentient rats! Ratapharian’s to be exact. I recognised it as soon as we stepped through the door. Not big enough for a sewer rat, too big for a mouse. Ratafarians.” He mock shivered.

“Just get him out of here, whatever he is.” Linda said dryly.

* * * *

Back in the console room of the TARDIS, having stored the Ratapharian's cage safely on a shelf, the Doctor was busying himself with the take-off procedure. The rest of the alien rodent's race were about to get a piece of his mind.

Amy was taking one final look at Shanghai through the viewscreen. By now the mist had lifted and they could see the rump of the bay, mostly huts similar to the one they'd just liberated.

“I think it’s a decent enough place for a holiday, Doctor. But I couldn’t live here. Too quiet.”

“You live in Leadworth.” The Doctor said, pulling a lever with a clunk.

“That’s different. There are people.”

“There over ten thousand people living here. The place was just gained town status.”

“But still China. All those dynasties. Which one is this?”

“Um, Ming? No. Song, Song dynasty.”

“Song dynasty? Not?”

“No. Nooo. At least I don’t think so …”

And with that the TARDIS made a grinding, wheezing sound as it disappeared back into the time vortex.

Follow @alisongow here.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 16/31: 'The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays' by William Goldman.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Film William Goldman sets out his stall early in the introduction to The Big Picture, a collection of articles originally published in the likes of Premiere Magazine and the LA Times: “What you have here is a chronicle of the worst decade in movie history” Those of us who’ve sat through both Transformers films, watched the rise of torture porn and 3D conversions might imagine he’s talking about the Noughties (especially if we’ve skipped the copyright page) but the next sentence elaborates: “If you were to ask me what were the best ten films of the 90s my first thought would be the old joke ‘the girls in my town were so ugly that once we had a beauty contest and nobody won.’

For someone like me who became cine-aware in the 1990s, the decade didn’t seem too bad. As he lists in the following paragraph, it brought The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Babe, Hoop Dreams, Fargo, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Four Weddings and Groundhog Day, which is high praise indeed from someone who delivered the screenplays to All The President's Men, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. But his argument is that in comparison to earlier decades, when the studios were still making thematically strong films for grown-ups and nearly every film nominated for best picture had integrity and would go on to be considered a stone cold classic, in the 90s, Hollywood had fallen back on producing genre based entertainments and nothing more (not something which has arguably changed).

It’s this persuasive argument he returns to throughout the collection which contains roughly three types of essay, previews of coming seasonal attractions, Oscar speculation and ceremony reviews, interspersed with the longer polemicals that create the back bone of his argument with titles like “Who Killed Hollywood” and “Year of the Dog”. Mixing his own opinions and those fielded from friends in the industry, he makes his best guess as to how something like The English Patient will do at the box office and what chances it has at winning Best Picture, all the while pushing against the truism from his seminal Adventures In The Screentrade which has become to most quoted line in film journalism “Nobody knows anything”.

With an extra decade of hindsight (the collection was published in 2001), part of the pleasure of the book is the nostalgia for a time when Apollo 13 was new and exciting release rather than something that not too long ago was repeated once a fortnight on ITV2. Flicking through to the piece looking towards the release slate for summer ’93 and we find Cliffhanger, The Firm, The Fugitive and In The Line of Fire all ready to be obliterated by Jurassic Park, which also left Last Action Hero as a casualty (remember the rocket with Arnie’s likeness on the side?). It’s impossible not to want to line up a day reliving that group (and even Super Mario Brothers which also came out that year, though not Dennis The Menace). Twenty-ten looks weedy by comparison.

His longer essays are best. Goldman’s analysis of Saving Private Ryan is pretty seminal already with a structural deconstruction demonstrating why the last half hour is phoney as hell (who’s flashback is it?) and his neutering of LA Confidential is similarly painful (six minutes too long). He suggests Twister is “the worst movie in the history of the world” then offers some close comparison with Jaws to conclusively prove it which seems a bit unfair until you realise what he’s demonstrating the extent to which computer generated spectacle has replaced proper characterisation. This is exemplified in “And Where Will You Leave Jimmy Stewart?” in which he uses the death of the actor as a jumping off point to list the images which he believe best exemplify certain actors like “Bill Holden, running at the Kwai Bridge shouting ‘kill him’”.

In the end, Goldman was a soothsayer. As he predicted, Hollywood is no longer interested in the middle budget film preferring instead to plough their millions into goliaths like addicted gamblers going all in with the hope of jackpot. Which pays off quite often now because people are still desperate to go to the cinema even if whatever’s on is rubbish or at least that’s the only explanation I have for the aforementioned toy related franchise films doing the business. He’s no longer writing about films in the same way so we won’t know whether he thinks Inception or The Social Network will win best picture. I think he'd go with the former because it would show Hollywood congratulating itself for producing an expensive blockbuster that just this once made the audience think as though that absolves them from churning out the shit they do the rest of the time.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 15/31: Women comedians are not funny. Discuss. (suggested by Zoe Pattullo)

Josie herself

Comedy Just to show some of my workings for a change, the first version of this opinion began with a paragraph which listed a vast range of women comedians, from Maureen Lipman to Shappi Khorsandi pausing briefly to mourn the loss of Linda Smith in an attempt to demonstrate the fallacy that women comedians aren’t funny because there are plenty that clearly are, just as there’s a fair share of awful, awful male “comics”. I don’t happen to like the kind of comedy which seems designed to shock, the Frankie Boyle / Jimmy Carr irony black-hole, but they sell millions of dvds. It’s all about personal taste.

This unfunny perception of comediennes is however perfectly understandable. Much of the time, the history of funny women in the UK is reduced to a footnote in the history books (and I know because I’ve read a couple) were the author, usually male, finds themselves giving grudging deference to Victoria Wood somewhere between offering a justification for the comic genius of Bernard Manning and talking up Harry Enfield’s accomplishments. When they are covered in any detail it tends to be in relation to men, Caroline Aherne being a late rare exception.

It also doesn’t help that less funny comediennes have drowned out the rest. French & Saunders bestrode the eighties and nineties to such a degree that when they lost focus later (at least in relation to performing their own material which at some point became more interested in celebrity cameos and spoofs than saying anything genuinely interesting), I’d argue people assumed that all female comedians had stopped being funny too (even Wood has lately developed the same affliction not helped by turning up in interviews and saying that she knows what’s funny – we’ll be the judge of that).

It’s also not until very recently that comediennes have been allowed to expand their comic repertoire to mirror the men, covering biographical to observational to topical and in the case of Khorsandi all three. Radio 4 in general has been very good at expressing this kind of change, and it’s been gratify to hear The Now Show asking more female stand-ups to cover the news stories of the week, Sue Perkins is especially good on The News Quiz when she’s allowed to take an idea for a walk and even Laura Solon is growing on me. On tv, say what you like about Catherine Tate, but she can bury a catchphrase with the best and worst of the men, though she was still funnier in Doctor Who.

Which rather demonstrates, it depends on where you’re looking. If you’re looking at some tv panel game like Mock The Week in which “comedy” becomes an intimidating masculine pursuit, then admittedly, the intellectual rigour of a female comedian isn’t necessarily best suited – how often has the seat next to Hislop on Have I Got News For You been filled by a giggler with an XX chromosome? But if you make a point of searching out a Josie Long, you’ll find someone making observational comedy with big heart and emotional weight, that isn’t just funny but memorable. Which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but certainly suits mine.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 14/31: Will the sale of Liverpool Football Club to new owners in America be beneficial to the city of Liverpool as well as the team itself ? (suggested by Jacques Baptiste)

Liverpool FC Official Store

Sport Fighting against the cultural stereotypes of my home city is something I’ve become very adept at over the past thirty-odd years, but it was all for nought during the days or weeks of uncertainty surrounding the ownership of Liverpool Football Club. It’s in these moments, sometimes of success or as on this occasion crisis that I really understand the extent to which team sport seeps into the culture of a city, as it becomes the single topic of conversation in streets and pubs, spilling out of the local radio stations and across the front pages of the newspapers.

In the days leading up to the purchase of the club by John Henry it was as though the buildings themselves held their breath, awaiting combustion should LFC enter administration instead. When the agreement was inked, after the battles in the high court, the streets sighed. This was an event that touched not just Liverpool supporters but us Evertonians too, the interconnectedness of support for the clubs, a kind of collective spiritual and historical responsibility, deep enough for all of us to be on tenterhooks. Could Everton survive without the other large club to fight against?

If nothing else, then, the new ownership cooled the emotional temperature of the city after years of insecurity, fans watching as their beloved was essentially asset stripped and left for dead. With background profiles in the media hyping the positive effect he’s had on Baseball, vox pops with fans on the streets of Boston talked up his accomplishments. Unlike the previous owners too, he’s been especially cautious, dispassionate even, in making outrageous promises, humbly talking about assessing what needs to be fixed in the club, that nothing can be changed overnight.

As for the team: I’m the last person to ask. But glancing through the fan assessments on Just Liverpool Blogs, the away performance that was eluding them the last time I was asked a football question in 2006 still doesn’t seem to have been fixed, or for all I know was repaired but has broken again. The advice offered by these fans is roughly the same. Play better. They all have their own ideas on how that advice should be carried out, but oddly none of them are calling for the loss of the manager, presumably because Roy Hodgson hasn’t been in the job that long. Does John Henry have magic hands?

Macbeth (BBC Four).



Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 13/31: Macbeth (BBC Four).



Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 12/31: Harry Potter (suggested by Annette)

Indian Eagle Owl (star of Harry Potter)

Film On a couple of occasions recently people have asked me where I stand on Harry Potter. The questions seems to be an attempt to divine the kind of human being I am. My initial reaction is that I’m perhaps not as passionate about Potter as some other franchises, certainly not as much as the various Whedonverses, Douglas Adams or Doctor Who.

But I'm certainly not anti-Potter. I just took two decisions early on that have probably effected my connection to the franchise. Firstly, I haven’t read the books. I've decided to enjoy the films as they stood and not have the alternative textual version running in parallel in my head throughout. Second, I’ve only seen everything since Chamber of Secrets once, for reasons which will become apparent.

No queuing at midnight for each exciting hard copy or as I imagine my version would be preordering it on Amazon before Rowling had even finished spell checking (which has to be a nightmare with Potter or has Microsoft supplied her with a special non-muggle version of the dictionary?), so no stories either of dressing as Hagrid and making the appropriate advances to a female peer dress as Herminone.

The most extra-curricular excitement I’ve had is listening to Mark Kermode’s reviews as he comes to terms with the fact that they’ll probably never be as good as The Prisoner of Azkaban but that they’re still rather better than some of the Benjamin Sniddlegrass-like clones, his flappy hands becoming ever more agitated when he's faced with descenting voices. Oh and hello to Jason Isaacs.

Instead, I've spent the past seven-odd years avoiding the tiny spoilers at the expense of the great big ones. With the ever increasing gap between the publication of JK Rowling’s hardcopy and the widescreen version, I’ve often felt like I might as well have returned to source. The unfortunate event at the close of the Half-Blood Prince was broken within minutes of publication, but I managed to avoid hearing about the method.

Which means that when I think about what I love about the movies, I’m mostly trading in faded memories and images in a way which has to be reminiscent of films fans before the home market, remembering vaguely the time travel sequence in Azkaban to the scary search through the swamp in The Half Blood Prince, Hagrid’s laugh to McGonagall glower and only a vague notion of the jargon.

When next Christmas, after nearly a decade, I’ll finally be able to sit and watch these films in a couple of sittings, there will be three elements I’ll be looking out for along with whether it’s possible to enjoy these films as a single story or if they really are just a bunch of episodes. The narrative structure, the actors and the atmosphere. Oh film school, how I miss thee.

I've often pitied Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who's adapted all of the Potter films; like anyone else in his position he's had to deal with the prospect of producing a story the details of which its core audience will already have an intimate knowledge but unlike them, he's had to deal not only with a huge mythology but one which has developed generally outside of his control.

Unlike the Bourne franchise, in which directors Doug Lyman and then Paul Greengrass essentially kept the name of each of the books and then did what they liked, for Potter fans the pictures must ring true to the words. Apparently sections of The Half-Blood Prince had to be reshot in light of revelations from the print version of The Deathly Hallows so that the closing couple of films could still be relatively faithful to the source material.

Most Hollywood franchises also become very bothered with the business of making sure the main character has a goal which is set up at the beginning and is dealt with at the climax. What Kloves has done is appropriate the alternative narrative style of the art house, in which a collection of incidents cumulatively lead to a story, with only the broadest of linking tissue between the scenes.

I love this. If you’re simply keeping with the films they can at times be as entertainingly scatter-shot and obscure as an Andrei Tarkovsky film and all the better for it. I’m frustrated when people complain that they don’t understand some plot element because they haven’t read the book, because it actually allows the viewer to become part author of the work, filling in these gaps for themselves.

* * * * *

Impossible as it is to imagine now, but sometime around the making of The Goblet of Fire, the scuttlebutt was that since the actors were growing beyond their character’s screen ages, the studio was putting some thought into replacing the leads in the Harry Potter films. If ever there was a banner moment as to how proprietorial I was towards the franchise it was this and I was flabbergasted.

A point of difference in the Potter films was the knowledge that we’d be watching these three younger actors grow and develop both into their characters and in their craft and it seemed unconscionable that the film company could even find worthy replacements. Luckily they’ve seen sense and sure enough once the final two films are released, that unique quality will remain intact.

In casting the central trio the producers with very lucky and clever. Just as Grint has grown into a very fine comic actor, Daniel Radcliffe has gained timelord heroism and Emma Watson could become a very good leading lady in the Kiera Knightley mould assuming all three can find some way of respecting the opportunities this franchise has offered whilst simultaneously not letting themselves become synonymous.

The series has also been able to retain the wider cast in their respective roles. With the high profile exception of Zoë Wanamaker (and Richard Harris god rest his soul) all of the adults, a galaxy of British acting talent have stayed in place, as we’re also seeing a whole school full of kids growing into young adults. If nothing else, the Potter franchise has inspired loyalty amongst its cast.

* * * * *

The films have all retained a consistent atmosphere, better even than some television series, whilst simultaneously pushing the feel of the imagery ever darker. After Alfonso Curan abandoned the golden hues of the two Chris Columbus openers, the photography has become increasingly bluer and greyer, with some scenes in The Half-Blood Prince bordering on nourish monochrome.

This could be interpreted as demonstrating the slow maturity of the main characters, Harry’s inextricable journey towards darkness and his inevitable rematch with you know who, but for me it shows that as directors Mike Newell then David Yates see these as valid artistic endeavours rather than simple franchise pictures, eager that what appears on screen has integrity beyond simply reframing someone else’s text.

Even if those first two films were relatively staid and conventional, they set up the world perfectly so that each small and large measure of destruction wrought on Hogwarts is keenly felt because it means we and the kids will no longer be able to enjoy a game of Quiddich for what it is, the main dramatic thrust whether Harry will can goal, or sit in the main hall and cheer Gryffindor’s end of year score.

So here’s to the end of the series, and to next Christmas when I’ll be able to watch the whole thing again. Perhaps after that I’ll understand more of the jokes, be wanting to buy a Hogwarts scarf even read the books finally and hoping that Rowling will indeed succumb to the temptation and write a proper epilogue so that I can stand outside Waterstones at midnight knowing that I won’t be sleeping for the next seven hundred odd pages.