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So… what did I think of Series 10 so far?

Posted on April 27th, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Series 10 feels like an event for all sorts of reasons. Twelve years after the triumphant return of Doctor Who, we finally reach our tenth set of episodes, with Capaldi following the now-established pattern of lead actors doing three-seasons-over-four-years in the part. So, it’s the last set of episodes with Malcolm Tucker at the helm of the TARDIS, and it’s the last set of episodes with Steven Moffat at the reins behind the scenes.

And despite, or maybe because of that, the avowed intention for the first episode is to provide a new jumping-on point for new viewers, with the cheeky title given to the season opener making this even more obvious.

In keeping with his notion of the War Doctor being a Doctor we, the viewers, somehow missed in 1996-2005, Moffat allows that more time has passed since Christmas 2016 than was seen during The Return of Doctor Mysterio. So, while we’ve been away, the Time Lord has stopped his wandering, taken up residence as a university don, and taken to guarding a mysterious vault. Only Matt Lucas’s Nardole represents an explicit link to episodes past.

So we get the repeated pleasure of seeing the Doctor through fresh eyes, those eyes this time belonging to Pearl Mackie’s amazingly winning Bill. To be sure, the companion part is fast becoming one of BBC television’s plumb roles and the producers no doubt had their pick of fresh young British talent, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have come up with an immensely charming and skilled performer here, who will brighten the TARDIS considerably for at least these twelve episodes (rumours are that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall wants to cast his own companion as well as his own Doctor).

That’s despite the fact that the writing is by-and-large twisting itself into absurd pretzels to make her as appealing across the board as possible. After Billie Piper’s defiantly chavvy Rose and Catherine Tate’s abrasive Donna, the TARDIS was subsequently inhabited by the rather more middle class Karen Gillian and the very plummy Clara The Impossible Girl. Where to put Bill on the social spectrum? Her speech is highly articulate and yet her accent contains frequent glottal stops and rough edges. She’s serving chips, so she’s common, but she’s attending lectures so she’s upwardly mobile. She’s upper lower working middle class and it’s a testament largely to Mackie that she emerges as a person and not as a bundle of unrelated characteristics.

The story meanwhile is largely a remix of familiar elements, including such old favorites as the possessed body, the pool of alien goo, the remnants of alien visitors and – a peculiarly Moffat one this – the inconsequential tour of the universe. In the context of the episode, this last one works fine (it’s partly there to show Bill and therefore the new viewers what the TARDIS is capable of) but it’s symptomatic of a nasty habit of the outgoing head writer – taking gigantic ideas and treating them trivially. The TARDIS’s ability to flit across all of time and space is utterly remarkable. Any opponent which can match it point-for-point should be an absolutely colossal threat. But here it just gets talked to death as if it were barely even a problem. Still, nice to see the Movellans again.

Still as remixes go, this was well enough-paced and witty enough to keep me happy. It’s worth three-and-a-half stars, but I’ll give it four because it’s the season opener and I think the rules are a little different for first episodes – but I’ll need next week to considerably up the stakes.

4 Stars

 

Of course, next week has already been-and-gone and rather than taking the ground-work laid by The Pilot and building on it, Smile simply repeated achingly familiar tropes from Doctor Who and other series past, while committing many of the same rookie mistakes as Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previously limp offering.

Some writers just aren’t suited to Doctor Who. Now, I’m fine with people like Richard Curtis and Simon Nye being given the chance to try their hand because one of the advantages of the anthology nature of the series is that it can effectively reinvent itself every week if it chooses. But once someone has shat the bed as comprehensively as the writer of In The Forest of the Night then there’s simply no need to give them another go, regardless of how much the show-runner likes them personally, or how heavily-laden their awards shelf is.

To be fair, this isn’t quite as bad as the previous offering, but it’s pretty soggy, generic stuff, suffering from poor pacing, rotten characterisation, a lack of new ideas and stupid costumes. The earlier scenes with the colonists set up both the problem and its solution too clearly for the Doctor’s laborious discovery of the same to hold any interest at all. And it really doesn’t help that while Mina Anwar is remixing – of all classic era stories – The Happiness Patrol, she appears to be wearing a costume made out of bubble wrap. For a moment I thought I was watching a Victoria Wood or French and Saunders spoof of the unloved and under-budgeted 80s programme, with ludicrous technobabble and silly plastic robots, not the BBC’s now much-feted and well-loved flagship family export.

Then the script can’t make up its mind whether there are colonists here or not. Instead of the Doctor arriving in time to save the last remaining embattled survivors, when he and Bill show up, the place is deserted. Now it can be argued that deserted corridors are spookier or more atmospheric, but it makes it much harder to establish a world, or a society when there are no other people around. Either way, it’s undeniably cheaper to do it this way, and that’s what these early scenes looked like – done on the cheap.

The Doctor first deduces that the colonists are on-their-way, then that the advance guard has already been killed, then that the colonists are here but in suspended animation – and then he decides to wake them up first and solve the lethal problem later. That’s after he’s decided not to blow the place up of course – a spectacularly stupid and reckless plan for the world’s smartest man, which sits very poorly with the overall morality of the series. The sense of a script desperately spinning its wheels isn’t helped by the Doctor repeatedly trying and failing to leave Bill behind, which is fair enough as the story would have unfolded in exactly the same way if she’d never set foot in the TARDIS at all.

And as well as being over-familiar, the central idea doesn’t really makes sense either – in two different ways. The silly plastic robots (hereafter referred to as SPRs) are so keen to make the humans happy that they murder anyone who is miserable. Surely this is a glitch which a) can be corrected by their human masters who – as the teaser makes perfectly clear – know precisely why the robots are killing them all; and b) which could have been found during early field trials and corrected then?

But let’s not forget that the whole complex, including the SPRs, has actually been constructed from swarms of nano-bots. This tedious science-fiction cliché seems to be everywhere at the moment, from Disney’s Big Hero Six, to this week’s episode of Supergirl, to – let’s not forget – Doctor Who’s own The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. The nano-bots can construct anything – walls, floors, ceilings, kitchens. So, why do they need SPRs at all? What can a SPR possibly do that that nano-bots couldn’t do far more easily and conveniently without assuming that clumsy form?

And when the generic band of colonists are inexplicably defrosted at the least convenient time, not one of them can summon up an ounce of characterization or interest. Instead, the Doctor actually literally pushes the reset button to solve the problem.

This is very, very thin stuff, which fails to play to any of its writer’s strengths, gives two brilliant lead actors almost nothing to do and fails to add anything at all to the body of Doctor Who ideas. I can only assume it was commissioned a very long time ago, before Nardole was added to the TARDIS crew, because the solution to the problem of how you stop Matt Lucas being so annoying was solved this time by leaving him behind. A better solution might be to give his character an actual stake in the narrative.

So, far from my favorite, but not quite as suffocatingly poor as Forest. I’ll scrape together two stars for it, and then knock half a star off again for this being yet another Automated System Gone Awry. It even looks like The Girl Who Waited. Was it shot in the same location?

1.5 Stars

 

Next week, we complete the new companion trifecta of Earth-bound adventure, far future space fantasy, and creepy historical. Hopefully, these two episodes represent a slightly wobbly take-off and not a fatal collapse of the whole infra-structure.

So… what did I think of Heaven Sent?

Posted on December 2nd, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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5 Stars

Let’s have another talk about formal constraints. In my review of Sleep No Bore, I referred to the handful of classic series episodes featuring only the regular cast. I could also have mentioned episode one of The Ark in Space or even episode one of The Space Museum. At this moment of course, the regular cast is only Peter Capaldi, so also relevant to this week’s episode is The Deadly Assassin. Tom Baker had “inherited” Lis Sladen but by the time she had decided to go, he was supremely confident in the role and had begun to wonder whether his next companion could be something other than a spunky young girl (most sources say he suggested a talking cabbage among other notions). Or whether in fact he needed a companion at all. Yes, of course you do, argued producer Philip Hinchcliffe, with one eye on the door marked “Exit” and to prove the point, commissioned a story with no companion. Unfortunately, he asked Robert Holmes to write it who was absolutely at the peak of his powers, and the story which resulted (although hated at the time for its revisionist attitude towards established continuity) is now seen as a stone cold classic. We will return to the subject of how to depict Gallifrey next time…

However, 45 minutes with only one actor (depending on how you count) is hard enough if the goal is something like Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads, but to attempt the same thing in an action-adventure-sci-fi drama is little short of insanity. But Steven Moffat can never be faulted for lacking ambition, and is hugely interested himself in structural devices and formal games, so this is another intricate puzzle box of a script.

Let’s have a talk about those. The potential drawbacks of puzzle box stories are two-fold. Firstly, they are very hard to pull off. Like a good joke, their purpose is to guide you towards a moment of insight where various elements of the narrative suddenly coalesce. If you fumble that moment of insight (either because the resolution is very easy to see coming or because it’s just complete gibberish, or both as in The Wedding of River Song) then the whole construction of your story starts to collapse. But even if you do pull this off, there’s the danger that the experience is rather an empty one, because the need to preserve the twist has distorted the story in so many other areas, and there isn’t room for any emotional catharsis or the usual thrilling-escape-from-death stuff. Blink is the perfect example of the form, and as this blog has previously noted, rather a millstone around the show-runner’s neck.

Returning director Rachel Talaly certainly makes the most of the visual storytelling which the script requires of her. The shots of the castle stranded out at sea, and the underwater material are particularly striking (even if I’m absolutely sure that Capaldi never even got his hair wet). And if the Veil is a bit of a standard issue shambling man-in-a-suit monster, well this is Doctor Who after all. The problem-solving monologues in the imaginary TARDIS are a neat spin on Sherlock Holmes’s mind palace, and I will accept the memories of Clara as falling short of her resurrection, so Face the Raven keeps its four stars for now.

As the final pennies drop, and the reason for the Doctor’s seemingly demented physical attack on the azbantium wall becomes clear, the solution to the puzzle box is married with an appalling sense of just what an enormous cost this victory has come at. Fans of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day may be interested to know that in Danny Rubin’s rather darker original screenplay, it was clear the Phil Connors was trapped not just for a few decades but thousands or even millions of years.

Just before we move on to the final scenes, a few quick points. Firstly, as with the Chronolock last week, the rules aren’t especially clear. It’s established fairly early on that everything in the castle resets itself, but the skulls in the sea outside don’t (so after two billion years, they should be high above the water-line, surely?) and neither – luckily for the Doctor – does that azbantium wall. Secondly, I’m not sure what the second law of thermodynamics has to say about each of the Doctor’s bodies containing enough energy to generate the next one, but with a skull left over each time.

Finally, as well as liking puzzles more than dramatic resolutions, I’ve also taken Steven Moffat to task this year for storytelling loops or narrative vamping. Pages of script which might be full of jokes and incident but do nothing to advance the plot, because they keep one or more characters in a “holding pattern” or return them unchanged to their starting point. I will be very interested to see just how relevant this episode is to next week’s, or whether in fact one could go from the end of Raven to the beginning of Hell, apparently missing nothing.

What makes me suspicious is the reveal that this castle of horrors was the Doctor’s own confession dial. This is presented as an explanation but in fact it is anything but. It raises far more questions, chiefly if this was the Doctor’s own confession dial, then why are its workings a mystery to him? And we still don’t have an answer to the question of why he sent it to Missy in the first place.

Standing alone from the rest of the season, this is a mighty achievement. Funny, excited, impossible to get ahead of, and with a resolution that actually makes sense, while proudly brandishing its absurd ambition. It’s clearly worth five stars if only for Capaldi’s titanic performance and if next week’s episode ends up tarnishing it a little, I will take my disappointment out on the story total score rather than downgrading this one.

Eleven down, one to go…

So… what did I think of Sleep no Morezzzz….

Posted on November 16th, 2015 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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2.5 Stars

I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.

Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).

In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.

So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?

From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.

What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.

When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!

Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.

And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.

All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.

Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.

So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.

Posted on May 8th, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Bugger

Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).

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Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.

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The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.

So… what did I think about Series 7b so far?

Posted on April 23rd, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I have actually had complaints on Facebook about the lack of Doctor Who reviews on here. And quite right too. There won’t be time (or recall) for any in-depth analysis of the first four stories – sorry – but here are some capsule reviews to stave off the pangs.

The Bells of St John

bellsAn evocative title which turns out to be essentially irrelevant to the story, being simply the ringing of the TARDIS telephone. Following in the footsteps of RTD new companion stories Smith and Jones and Partners in Crime, this is a very silly but hugely enjoyable story. Had this been mid-way through the season, or – god forbid – the finale, I would have been rather harder on it, but as a “welcome back” it functions beautifully, even if it does feel like a Moffat spoof of RTD’s style at times – London landmark, check; vertical chase sequence, check; evil matriarch, check…

Jenna Louise-Coleman makes an instant impression as new/old companion Clara and the story is rather better than the one-line pitch sounds. “Ghosts in the Wi-Fi” really didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, but in fact this is perfectly fine possess-the-mortals stuff with some whizzy visuals in the shape of the spoon-heads and the Doctor’s demented motorcycle ride up the side of the gherkin.

Moffat’s script manages to be clever without being clever-clever which is a huge relief. The Doctor’s neat trick of skipping ahead a few hours is very nice and gives rise to one of the best jokes in the show – Earl’s Court. It’s not all fizz and sparks and fun and games though. The final fate of Celia Imrie’s Miss Kizlet is genuinely shocking.

Aiming low but hitting a bullseye, I will happily give this four-and-half stars.

Stray observations

The Doctor’s new togs are fine, but threatening to go a bit “fancy dress” as a BBC big-wig described Paul McGann’s outfit during RTD’s interview for the show-runner job. They look like the kind of thing Doctor Who used to wear as opposed to defining a new iconic appearance as David Tennant’s stripy suit did so brilliantly.

Was there any particular reason to wheel out Richard E Grant again? I suppose this is the 7b arc story gearing up, but really The Great Intelligence is just fanservicing without the Yeti (or arguably even with).

That book written by Amelia Williams (aka Amy Pond) is also presumably significant in some way.

The Rings of Akhaten

ringsThe 21st century formula dictates that having met a new companion in contemporary Earth, their first trip in the TARDIS should be as outlandish as possible. Generally speaking, this means an all-pile-on alien extravaganza (although celebrity historicals are also permissible). But whereas Bells felt like a David Tennant episode at its best, this felt like all the least interesting bits of The End of the World and The Beast Below put into a blender with an overdose of Love Conquers All.

The opening segments with the Doctor creepily spying on young Clara have next-to-nothing to do with the main plot, except to delay its arrival. Neither Neil Cross’s script nor the production design can summon up a proper sense of time, space or urgency. From the early shot of the pyramid… thing… I was almost permanently confused about who was sitting where or where things were in relation to other things, and that’s after a second viewing.

Time and again, we are told in dialogue that terrible things are happening now or soon, but people just wander about unconcerned. The Doctor vanishes early on for no discernible reason, except to give Clara a chance to give unwise advice to a moppety singer, and plays almost no part in the resolution of the plot.

Technical standards are very poor – an all-time low for the revised series. Compared to the motor-cycle in the previous episode the space bike… thing… is amazingly unconvincing, and the poor director is constantly forced to cut away from it landing or taking off. Took me right back to the 1970s that did. The plot meanwhile lurches from supposed crisis to supposed crisis until Clara gives the planet-killing god a leaf and suddenly that’s that.

Genuinely poor stuff, hugely disappointing, easily the worst story since Victory of the Daleks or The Soggy Pirate Rubbish. Two stars. One for Matt Smith, spouting the most appalling rubbish with complete conviction and one because, you know, it’s Doctor Who.

Stray observations

Apparently, Neil Cross got the gig for this one because the producers liked his script for Hide so much. Doesn’t bode well…

Just how long was that black… thing… pawing at that glass? I’m surprised everyone didn’t pop off for a cup of tea and come back when it had finally decided to pose a legitimate threat.

Is it me or do no-one’s reactions in this story make the slightest bit of sense?

Cold War

coldHaving been burned by Akhaten, I turned on the TV with not a little trepidation. Immediately, a turn for the better – as the sub starts to sink, there is a feeling of genuine urgency. People in this story do seem to have reactions to events. Basic narrative cause-and-effect is present in the script and the director seems capable of distinguishing dialogue scenes from suspense scenes. So far so good.

The pitch for this one is instantly compelling – Ice Warriors on a submarine. But the Ice Warriors are not the most well-defined of foes. In their first two appearances, The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death they are pretty much indistinguishable from any number of Troughton-era lumbering baddies who put bases of various kinds under siege. Their popularity probably stems from the fact that the in first of the stories, everything else was so well done. When they returned for the two Peladon stories with Jon Pertwee, their individuality as a race was subsumed by the script’s need to satirise the then EEC and so some business about “honour” was grafted on, which the Sontarans later adopted to rather better effect.

So, they’re a chilly cross between Cybermen, Yeti and Sontarans, with lately some of the latter’s issues about war being a glorious thing and the nobility of a soldier and so on. Quite a good mix with the setting of Cold War Soviet sub? And look, there’s Tobias Menzies clueing us in what the Cold War was all about. Entertain, educate and inform indeed.

Skaldak’s escape from his armour is a shocking development, and it’s great – in theory – to see new spins on old monsters. But if you are going to bring back an old monster surely they should do at least some of the things they are known for? As soon as Mr Frosty is able to scamper about the ducts of the sub, we are in Alien territory, as the script is at least self-aware enough to acknowledge.  It could have been any old monster. More pointless fanservicing I fear.

And, despite a couple of desperate lines trying to make sense of it, making Ice Warriors able to leave their suits at will is completely idiotic. As depicted, without the armour, they are lithe, deadly, near invisible and not noticeably any more vulnerable. So why would they ever fight with it on?

If you can overlook all that, then the actual sequences are rather fine, neatly balancing suspense with humour, although the shooting of the fates of Stepashin and Piotr is so PG as to be incomprehensible. Where it starts to really come apart at the seams is the very end, where the Doctor’s clever scheme to prevent the Ice Warriors from condemning the world to nuclear armageddon is to, well, hope that they don’t.

Three-and-a-half stars. Good, solid stuff, but too many bumps in the narrative.

Stray observations

David Warner will do just about anything won’t he? It’s a fun part, to be sure, and he does live to the end, but – Christ – how many other past Hamlets would have taken it?

Technical standards still a little ropey. The CG ice warrior’s lip-sync is never convincing and the whole thing looks like a video game. A Neill Gorton rubber suit was definitely the better way to go here.

It’s not really clear what Skaldak thought he was trying to achieve beyond Being Scary. Oh well.

I’m starting to lose track a little bit of just who Clara is. It’s true Doctor Who girls have rarely been all that clearly delineated, but after Rose, Martha, Amy and especially Donna got some actual character development I’ve been a bit spoiled. Clara so far isn’t much more than a very pretty face.

Hide

hideFor the second time in as many weeks, we get a period Doctor Who story set within Doctor Who’s own lifetime – the series has gone all Sam Beckett on us. Oh boy. The set-up is a sort of cross between Quatermass  and Sapphire and Steel and since those are both very fine things, I’ve no objection to dropping Matt Smith into the middle of them. It’s a bit perplexing that the Doctor seems to have a very clear mission in mind from the off, but that we don’t know what it is until very late in the day, but maybe the intention is to play the first half from the point of view of Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling, in which case fair enough.

Although this is miles and miles better than the horrendous Ringpiece of Akhaten, there are still a few oddities. The ghost is clearly manifested as a woman with a distended jaw and one hand raised, although when she is made to manifest, she takes the form of a weird spinning disc thing. We are told again and again that the pocket universe is collapsing, but what we see is it never collapse or shrink or diminish in any way – it’s just a bit blowy in there. And just what is “the crooked man” (only so-named in the titles) and how did it get there?

What elevates this is the elegant way in which the puzzle is solved and the lovely perspective we get of the Doctor, who has to turn all of Earthly (let alone human) history into an enormous cosmic flip-book in order to understand the nature of the apparition and who does so in the manner of a man sorting a hand of cards. A shard of ice in his heart indeed.

It’s a shame the script doesn’t have time to give the rescued Hila Tukurian any characterisation or even any lines to speak of. She’s the answer to a riddle, a macguffin to be acquired, and a means to move on the Alec/Emma story, but I can’t help feeling that with Rusty at the helm she would have been something more. In the more rarified atmosphere of a Moffat-era story, it’s up to the bogeyman to have a more thorough characterisation than might be expected. This is a steal from Encounter at Farpoint (if not earlier) but it’s neatly on theme – as the Doctor says, this wasn’t a ghost story, it was a love story.

Another fair-to-middling effort then. Lots of good atmos, some lively banter and some nice surprises, but not entirely solid. Three-and-a-half stars once more.

Stray observations

The TARDIS locking Clara out feels grafted-on, as does her being presented with a hologram of herself. If that were Tegan, I would be going “oh yes, of course, perfect”, but I simply have no idea of who Clara is, so I wonder if this is just saving on actor fees in a show which already had a very very small cast.

I am prepared to assume that Moffat missed the read-through and wasn’t present on the set on the day Matt Smith said “Meh-TEH-beliss”, but surely he was in the dub or the edit and could have had the actor loop the line? Is he too busy on Sherlock these days? Steven Moffat must go now! Worst show-runner ever! Et cetera and so forth.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted on January 17th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

To The Hobbit last night, in the relatively luxury of a Vue cinema, where I found (as I generally do there) comfortable seats, ample leg room, a decent rake with good sightlines, a nice big screen with accurate masking and an enthusiastic sound system. This all compares very favourably to, say, the modest wardrobe with a small screen in one wall which whispered The Master at me at the Panton Street Odeon.

That aside, the big question of course is can you make a film version of a 250 page book run as long as the film version of a 1200 page book without major compromises? Well, it won’t be possible to definitely answer that until late next year when part three of The Hobbit is released, but on the evidence of the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, my answer is… maybe.

While not a Tolkein scholar, I did think it worthwhile reading The Lord of the Rings before seeing the movie versions. I had enjoyed The Hobbit as a child (book and ZX-Spectrum text adventure game) but had never got through the first of the sequel’s six sections. Having read the literary version (except for all that doggerel poetry obviously) I actually thought that the movie versions short-changed two of the most successful elements of the books – the growing affection between Legolas and Gimli, overcoming their natural antipathy, a relationship which is in some ways deeper and more affecting than that between Frodo and Samwise; and the scouring of the Shire, without which the whole adventure has no context and few ramifications.

So if nine hours of screentime isn’t quite enough to encompass the whole of Rings, maybe, just maybe, it will suit the far more slender and simplistic Hobbit quite nicely. Certainly, after an opening 30-40 minutes which is a little on the sluggish side (two prologues?), Jackson never lets the pace slacken, throwing incident after incident at our merry band of dwarves. As they ricochet from trolls to orcs to goblins, the only potential problem is whether the film will ever stop and pause for breath. When it does, first in Rivendell and then, most successfully of all for the famous Riddles In The Dark sequence, it’s arguably at its most effective.

It helps that there’s a marvellous gang of character actors essaying the dwarves and managing to give each of them a distinct attitude and characterisation, while also providing them a unity as a pack. As well as Ian McKellan as Gandalf, we also have a host of Rings actors returning for an extended curtain call – reprises from Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett are all fine I suppose, but none adds much to the story. The introduction of Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy is more welcome, turning a brief mention in the book into a memorable character in the film (although McCoy needs to learn that his trick of going cross-eyed isn’t as amusing as her thinks).

Shouldering almost the entire burden of the film though, is Martin Freeman as fussy hero Bilbo Baggins. It’s a marvellous performance, drawing on all the actor’s strengths from his other famous roles in The Office and Sherlock but managing to find something new as well – a sort of unassuming steeliness which is absolutely fascinating to watch.

It’s not perfect. The humour is a little too broad at times, and the effects work is so effortless now – it’s so easy to transform a live actor into a CGI avatar seamlessly – that the temptation is to keep ramping the action up and up and up. I had my doubts as to whether anything made of flesh and bone could survive the ride on the stone giants, but that every dwarf could have escaped intact from the goblin’s hopelessly precarious underground city absolutely beggars belief.

It’s also worth mentioning that I watched the movie in the HFR 3D format. My thoughts on 3D are available elsewhere. Here it’s largely used fairly tastefully and it wasn’t a distraction. High Frame Rate is another matter entirely and this has caused a good deal of confusion, so let me try and clear things up…

When a movie is shot using a traditional film camera, film is advanced through the mechanism, brought to a stop so that one frame is behind the lens, then the shutter is opened to briefly expose that one frame, the shutter is closed and the film advanced another frame and so on. Clearly there are some physical limitations to how fast this can be achieved, since if you yank the film on too quickly and stop it too suddenly, you will start to shred the celluloid. The “shutter” by the way is usually a rotating disc with one missing section, generally 180 degrees.

When the movie is projected, a similar system is employed to show one steady image every 24th of a second. This is just about fast enough for persistence of vision to take over and for the succession of still images to be perceived as a moving picture, especially if each image is shown twice so that the rate of flicker goes up to 48Hz (48 times per second) which is standard.

Returning to the filming process, some of the time, when the shutter is open, the camera will be recording an object which is moving and this will result in a blurred frame. This blur is something we are used to seeing when watching a movie and generally we think nothing of it. In fact, we are more likely to notice it when it’s missing, as when footage is sped-up to give it more excitement or when stop-motion animation is combined with live action (think of those Ray Harryhausen skeletons fighting Jason and the Argonauts). Some directors will also create this strobing effect deliberately by using a camera shutter which is open for less time, 90 degrees, or with very fast film, even less. Think of the Normandy Landings sequence in Saving Private Ryan, shot with a 45 degree shutter.

Video is another matter entirely. Wanting a flicker rate of around 50Hz (which is also conveniently the usual mains electricity frequency, at least in the UK) but not having physical film which must be held still and then briefly exposed, standard video recording exposes a whole new frame fifty times a second, with the result that there is less motion blur – the images have a smoother and more fluid look. (This is a slight simplification which ignores interlacing, but we don’t really have to worry about that for the purposes of this explanation.)

Devotees of vintage television will remember that the standard model for filming both drama and comedy in the seventies and eighties was to shoot on location with 16mm film cameras, one set-up at a time. This allowed for better lighting, more dramatic angles and so on, but it was slower and more expensive and so tended to be kept to a minimum. This location footage would then be combined with studio footage, shot with three or four or five cameras all following the action as it unfolded like a play. This often meant blasting the studio sets with light to make sure that the actors could clearly be seen by all cameras and in all positions. This flat, over-lit, smooth video look became associated with cheapness. The bigger your budget, the more location filming you could afford and the more cinematic your show seemed. But switching between film and video created a jarring shift in image quality and texture which some viewers and some directors found offputting and so in the late eighties and early nineties, it became more and more common to take video cameras out on location too, to ensure that everything looked the same.

But the film “look” was still felt to be more prestigious, to have a more high-quality “feel” to it, so with digital post-processing it was possible to “filmise” video footage, artificially transforming footage shot on video tape to give it movie-like motion. At around the same time, researchers were discovering how to add extra computer-generated frames to make film footage look like video, in order to restore old episodes of – you guessed it – Doctor Who, which had been originally shot on video but now only existed as 16mm film recordings, back to how they would have looked on transmission.

So, when watching The Hobbit in 48fps, we are undeniably seeing more detail. Twice as many distinct images flash before our eyes watching the HFR version as opposed to the standard version. And there’s no lack of quality in these images, captured as they are with the very latest Red Epic cameras, shooting preposterously high resolution. So this way of shooting is far more like how our eyes perceive the world – there’s no celluloid in my skull and no shutter in my eye-socket, and so therefore no motion blur. But it’s also true that The Hobbit‘s smooth motion, lacking the motion blur associated with the prestige of film, tends to remind older viewers of video tape and younger viewers of video games. Indeed, during the first prologue I could have sworn the image was speeded-up, but of course I was just seeing the lack of motion blur.

This then is the crux of the matter. Is a preference for 24fps cultural, due entirely to decades of having been exposed to prestige material shot in this format, compared to less fancy material shot at higher frame rates? Or is there something about a lower frame rate which is intrinsically more appealing? My subjective response to The Hobbit at 48fps is that I didn’t hate it, but I did notice it and when I noticed it I found it distracting. But who’s to say that sixty years from now, 24fps footage won’t look like black-and-white does to us – or worse?

Why I bought an iPad – and you shouldn’t

Posted on January 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So I bought an iPad. I seem to be going through the following three phases with new technologies, to the irritation of my friends who ask me for advice about these things.

Phase one: anticipation. “Have you heard about X? It looks really interesting.”
Phase two: dismissal. “I’m not planning on buying X, for the following reasons.”
Phase three: purchase. “I’ve just got myself an X.”

In the wake of, at the very least, Palm Pilots, the iPhone and Blu-ray, the Apple iPad followed the same rather predictable pattern. On its first release, I was fascinated by the unveiling of this “breakthrough”, “magical” device. The leverage which Apple was able to achieve by releasing a tablet computer which on launch day was able to run hundreds of thousands of apps specifically designed for the touch interface I thought was staggering. But as clever as the idea was, as slick as the implementation was, and as desirable an object as it was, I really couldn’t think of where it could fit in to my existing lifestyle.

I’m a slave to my iPhone 4. It contains my calendar (shared via Google with my work colleagues and across several computers), it’s the only camera I’ve used in years, I check my email on it with neurotic frequency, I read books and newspapers on it, I walk around London staring at the map, and travel on the tube listening to podcasts and audiobooks on it, I’ve got three stars on every level on Angry Birds and I’ve achieved all the achievements on Plants vs Zombies. It also make phone calls. Given that I’ve already shelled out for this device, which slips into my jacket pocket and which I always have on me, why would I want an iPad?

Well, I’ve also watched a number of movies and TV shows on my iPhone, typically on long train journeys. With the iPhone 4’s super-duper high-resolution “retina” screen, this isn’t too bad at all. But it’s not exactly ideal, even if you find a comfortable place to sit and a convenient way of propping the phone up. Even while promising my friends I wouldn’t be buying an iPad, I mentioned that if I was habitually making long plane or train journeys, I might reconsider. Well, I’m flying to Brisbane at the beginning of February, and then to Moscow almost as soon as I get back. I recently took the train to Birmingham and back and Stockport and back on consecutive days, and I may have to revisit both locations – Birmingham maybe quite frequently. What clinched it was seeing a 64Gb 3G model going on eBay for the about price of the regular wi-fi only model (not quite sure how this was achieved, but I didn’t get a box of used pinball machine parts for my money, so I assume it was all perfectly legal). Okay, I thought, I’ll get it now, load it up with games, movies and TV shows for these long journeys and if I get back from Moscow and find it’s gathering dust in a drawer, I can sell it and I should get back at least as much as I paid for it.

Why am I even thinking about selling my new toy? Because only an idiot would buy a new iPad in January. The original iPad was announced on 27 January 2010 and was available for sale (in the US) on 3 April. At their recent quarterly earnings call, Apple confirmed what we all knew already – that an iPad 2 of some kind is in the works. With a regular pattern now established of iPhones announced in June and iPods announced in September, Apple is sticking to an annual product cycle. So the new iPad will likely be announced in a matter of weeks, if not days, and will be available in a couple of months. If you’re considering buying an iPad – wait!

What might such an iPad 2 bring with it, to tempt me away from my new toy? I imagine there’ll be a be at least two out of the following four: a speed bump, a slimmer design, a longer battery life and an increased capacity at the top end. None of these is much of a dealbreaker for me. It’s fast enough and slim enough, the battery life is stunning and 64Gb is spacious compared to my 32Gb iPhone 4 (and I’ve kept all the audio on the iPhone and put all the video on my iPad which effectively balances the load).

A front-facing camera seems likely, as Apple continues to push FaceTime, although I regard a rear-facing camera as less likely and certainly less useful. Who the hell is going to try and take holiday snaps with an iPad, or use it as a barcode scanner? Fucksake. The Internet is also all a-flurry with reports of an iPad case which seems to include extras slot for an SD card, or a USB device or an extra dock connector. I don’t really care about any of these.

I’m chiefly using my iPad to consume video – on trains or in bed – and so I care most about how this kind of content looks and sounds. Let’s take sound first. The iPhone has two identical-looking grilles at the bottom edge. To the confusion of some users, one is a mic and one is a speaker. Try covering one with your thumb while playing music to see which is which. The iPad has a similarly-positioned speaker. Holding the device with the home button at the bottom, the single speaker is on the bottom edge, towards the right. This is fine if watching video in portrait mode (which almost nobody does), but in the more usual landscape orientation, with the button at the left (which is how my Jack Spade case prefers things) all the sound comes out from the left. I’d dearly love stereo speakers, one on each side. Of course, if I were watching video in portrait mode, I’d want the speakers to be in the long sides instead of the short sides, so we’d actually need four speakers, triggered by the accelerometer. As far as I know, no such innovation is planned. Bah!

Now let’s talk about the screen. What made the iPhone 4 a must-purchase for me, more than anything else, was the astonishing screen. The original iPhone, and the first two revisions had a screen resolution of 320 x 480. Given the size of the screen, this works out as around 163ppi (pixels-per-inch) which was relatively high for 2007. The iPad has a resolution of 1024 x 768 (so it’s a little squarer than the iPhone screen) with a pixel-density of 132ppi. Given that one typically holds a larger screen further away, the iPad screen tends to look as good if not better than the iPhone screen, and obviously feels more spacious, having more physical room and more pixels.

“Native” iPad apps obviously tend to take up the whole screen, but apps originally designed for the iPhone sit in an iPhone-sized oblong in the middle of the screen, unless or until you tap a little 2x button in the corner of the screen, whereupon the iPad doubles all the pixels, so you get a 960 x 640 oblong taking up most of the 1024 x 768 space available, but all looking rather blocky. The iPhone 4, released after the iPad blows all of this out of the water. It already runs at double the resolution of previous incarnations, with older apps looking blocky (but no worse than on the old models) and newer apps written to take advantage of the whole 960 x 640 space, with its eye-watering 326ppi.

Amazingly, even after the recent software update, bringing to the iPad iOS 4 features such as multitasking, unified inbox, folders and so on, full-resolution iPhone 4 apps still run at the old resolution on the iPad, which is a horrible and pointless compromise. I can only hope that this will be corrected before iOS 5 comes out, presumably in June or July. The eye-popping screen of the iPhone 4, and the convenience for developers of a screen resolution exactly double (or half) that of another model has led many pundits to the conclusion that the iPad 2 will also come with an upgraded display – 2048 x 1536 which would work out to 260ppi.

But it’s not pixel-density which is going to be the issue here. 2048 x 1536 is over three million pixels, which is a staggering amount. All MacBooks sport 1280 x 800 pixels (about a million pixels). The 21.5” iMac has a 1920 x 1080 screen (about two million pixels). Only the very top-end 27” iMac has more pixels, and then only just – 2560 x 1440 which is about three and a half million pixels. Those who imagine that a 2048 x 1536 screen will be found on the iPad 2 are imagining that – without sacrificing battery life, speed and all-important responsiveness – about the same number of pixels found on the 27” screen of a top-end $1700 desktop will be found on the 10” screen of a $500 tablet. Some very significant breakthroughs in processor speed and efficiency will be required to bring this to pass.

And if it did – what would we use it for? All of Apple’s “HD” content on iTunes is 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels. This doesn’t quite fit onto the iPad, but video content scaled down generally looks okay. On the proposed iPad megascreen, 720p content floats around the middle or is stretched out to fit – and scaling up makes content look blocky. True HD is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 pixels. Today, that only really means Blu-ray. Remember, no iTunes content is currently available at this resolution – the file sizes would be much bigger for only a small visible increase in picture quality. And yet even images at this size would have to be scaled up, or float around in the middle of the 2048 x 1536 screen.

Given all the foregoing, I don’t think a 2048 x 1536 iPad is likely. I can’t rule it out, of course. No-one expected a 326ppi resolution from the iPhone 4, and Apple is certainly prepared to push the envelope. If they do it, I’ll probably upgrade. If not, I’ll probably stay put or even sell my existing model. So far, my assumptions have been pretty much correct. For watching video, it’s great (and if, like me, you have a big networked hard-drive with lots of video content on it, then the Air Video app is a must). I do use it and prefer it to the iPhone to read Kindle books, or The Times newspaper (there’s no Guardian iPad app yet), or flip through RSS feeds (I like Reeder). Given the choice, I’ll use the iPad to check my email or look at my calendar. But when, as today, I go for a meeting without it, I’m perfectly happy to do all those things on my iPhone.

Meet me back here when the iPad 2 is announced…

“The Comic Strip Presents…” episode guide, part two

Posted on August 3rd, 2010 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Part one is here.

SERIES 3

NOTE: “Series 3” is in fact three specials shown over a three year period, which also saw the production of two feature films. The new title sequence with a drawing of a village rather than a map makes its debut.

3.1 The Bullshitters: Roll out the Gunbarrel 3 Nov 1984, C4 Sat 11:00pm (50 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Keith Allen. Directed by Stephen Frears
Featuring Allen, Coltrane, Richardson
Plus: Alan Pellay, Fiona Hendley, Al Matthews, Malcolm Hardee, Elvis Costello
In a world where TV detectives solve real cases, Bonehead and Foyle reunite to solve a kidnapping armed only with tight Y-fronts and a sack of 10ps for the phone.
Bracingly original mix of drama school satire and TV spoof, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but suffering from too many winks at camera (especially the ending). The names “Bonehead” and “Foyle” are dreary, sub-Mad Magazine placeholders and are typical of the occasional laziness which mars this entry.
NOTE: No “Comic Strip Presents” title sequence as Allen wanted to distance the film from the others in the sequence, but has all the hallmarks of one and led to a sequel (“Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown”) which is unarguably a “Comic Strip” film. It is included on the C4 DVD box set.

F.1 The Supergrass 1985 Feature film. (103 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Peter Richardson
Featuring Allen, Coltrane, French, Peacock, Planer, Richardson, Saunders, Sayle
Plus: Michael Elphick, Ronald Allen
Desperate to impress his girlfriend, Dennis boasts to his girlfriend that he is involved in a major drugs-smuggling operation. Before long, he has agreed to turn Queen’s evidence and finds himself in a hotel room with a beautiful police officer and her ex-boyfriend.
The story sustains itself admirably and the characters are well-drawn, but only Alexei Sayle’s motorcycle cop is really funny enough. Coltrane’s walk along the pier is staggering though and there are other pleasures along the way, such as the uniformly strong performances, with Saunders and Richardson in particular happily inside their comfort zones (which they aren’t always).

3.2 Consuela, or, The New Mrs Saunders 1 Jan 1986, C4 Wed 11pm (45 mins)
Written by Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders. Directed by Stephen Frears
Featuring Edmondson, French, Mayall, Richardson, Saunders,
Parody of “Rebecca” with Edmondson as the upper-class twit who prefers dogs to his new wife and French as the creepily ever-present Maid.
French’s preternatural ability to inhabit every aspect of Saunders’ life works beautifully, but it is often too close to the source to be really funny – an error which would be endlessly repeated in French and Saunders’ TV shows.

3.3 Private Enterprise 2 Jan 1986, C4 Thu 11pm (40 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson. Directed by Adrian Edmondson
Featuring Allen, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Planer, Richardson
Plus: Chris Langham, Roger Sloman, Malcolm Hardee, Simon Brint, Rowland Rivron
A delivery man on parole steals a demo tape from a recording studio and makes the band a huge success without them knowing.
After the hilarious highs of “Eddie Monsoon” and “Bad News”, Edmondson’s next stint as writer (and for the first time, director) is a bit flat with no real sense of jeopardy, especially in the last five minutes.

F.2 Eat The Rich 1987 Feature film (83 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Peter Richardson
Featuring Nosher Powell, Alan Pellay, Ronald Allen
Plus appearances by Planer, Coltrane, Saunders, French, Miranda Richardson, Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman, Jools Holland
Not available on DVD, so I’m relying on my memory of watching it when it first came out, which is of a horrible muddle involving an androgynous waiter, Nosher Powell as the Home Secretary and a Solyent Green ending which was traded-on extensively in the publicity material and yet I fear is meant to be a shocking surprise.
NOTE: No “Comic Strip Presents” title sequence and its status is less clear, especially as it was not included in the DVD box set.

SERIES 4

NOTE: Richardson and Richens take a back seat but the one film they contribute is the jewel in the crown. As other would-be writers step up to the plate, and as the budget balloons, a regrettable tendency to self-indulgence begins to engulf the series. None of the Series 4 films come in at under an hour and most struggle to sustain their length.

4.1 The Strike 20 Feb 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (75 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens
Featuring Allen, Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Peacock, Planer, Richardson, Saunders, Sayle
Plus: Ronald Allen
An earnest script-writer is horrified to see what Hollywood does to his screenplay depicting the miners’ strike.
The Comic Strip’s finest hour (and a quarter), the cross-cutting from finished movie to behind the scenes sustains brilliantly (far better than GLC), the cast all play multiple roles to perfection (Sayle again is stunning) and it’s genuinely funny all the way through. A triumph and well deserving of its acclaim and Montreux win.
NOTE: This episode won the Golden Rose and Press Award at the Montreux Festival

4.2 More Bad News 27 Feb 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (60 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson. Directed by Adrian Edmondson
Featuring Edmondson, French, Mayall, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
The worst heavy metal band in the world reunites at the behest of a documentary crew.
Limp rehash of Bad News redeemed by the insane Donnington sequence.

4.3 Mr Jolly Lives Next Door 5 Mar 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (60 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall & Roland Rivron. Directed by Stephen Frears
Featuring Edmondson, French, Mayall, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Peter Cook, Nicholas Parsons, Thomas Wheatley
A pair of repellent male escorts, in a crazed pursuit of money to buy alcohol, intercept an instruction addressed to their neighbour to “take out Nicholas Parsons”. Not realising that this implies a hit, they take the place of a pair of competition winners who have won a night out with the family entertainer.
Lunatic precursor to “Bottom” which features all of their usual touchstones: light entertainment figureheads, lethal dipsomania and extraordinary violence. Stephen Frears keeps the pace up, Cook is hilarious – as is Parsons as himself – and the gags keep coming. If you have ever liked Mayall and Edmondson, you’ll adore Mr Jolly, but it won’t make any new converts.

4.4 The Yob 12 Mar 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (65 mins)
Written by Keith Allen & Daniel Peacock. Directed by Ian Emes
Featuring Allen, Edmondson, Richardson
Plus Gary Olsen, Malcolm Hardee
During an experiment, a yob switches brains with a pretentious pop video director.
Slick and glossy and boasting some good performances, but the one joke doesn’t sustain and it moves at a snail’s pace. It seems to be a pure expression of Allen’s hatred for both ends of the social spectrum and is consequently thoroughly off-putting as well as being very self indulgent and largely witless.

4.5 Didn’t You Kill My Brother? 19 Mar 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (65 mins)
Written by Alexei Sayle and Pauline Melville & David Stafford. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Richardson, Sayle
Plus: Beryl Reid, Pauline Melville, Graham Crowden, Benjamin Zephaniah, Dexter Fletcher, Mmoloki Chrystie, Mark Wing-Davey
One of a pair of identical twins is released from prison, to find his gangland brother and mother waiting for him.
More self-indulgence, with Sayle constructing a pretty ropey framework for his own stand-up routines, and playing two roles himself – both fairly poorly. After his superb performance in “Strike”, this is a huge disappointment. Only Graham Crowden’s barking mad judge emerges unscathed.

4.6 Funseekers 26 Mar 1988, C4 Sat 10.50pm (60 mins)
Written by Doug Lucie & Nigel Planer. Directed by Baz Taylor
Featuring Allen, Planer, Richardson
Plus: Cathy Burke
A loser’s misadventures on an 18-30 holiday for which he is too old.
The southbound slide of the series continues with this utterly uninteresting entry, which again I couldn’t make it to the end of. Irretrievably boring after 10 minutes, I gave up after 30, fed-up of watching thinly-drawn characters annoy each other in unpleasant surroundings. What the hell is the Comic Strip doing aping “Duty Free”? Dire.