Origin, by Dan Brown (2017)

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Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code caused a storm when it was released and was the runaway bestseller of 2003. As well as three sequels, it spawned a thousand wannabe copycat efforts and a trilogy of motion pictures starring Tom Hanks as Brown’s main protagonist, Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon.

Critics derided the literary merits of The Da Vinci Code, and not without reason. But Brown had found a way of successfully combining serious academic research into topics that people wouldn’t ordinarily read about, with a fast-paced page-turning conspiracy thriller style that sold by the million. While I thought Da Vinci was itself a bit pompous and self-important, I really liked the first book in the Langdon series – Angels and Demons – despite the wildly improbable helicopter-flying, skydiving would-be pontiff saving the Vatican from nuclear annihilation. Read the rest of this entry »

Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Death on the Nile (1978), Evil Under the Sun (1982)

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We all have our favourite films which are indisputable classics – Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, The Godfather, The Third Man for example – and find I have to ration them out and not watch them too often, lest there appeal becomes faded by too many viewings. That’s happened with Star Wars: A New Hope, a film that I know every beat, every line, every music cue so well that it’s hard to sit through it these days, or see it with properly appreciative fresh eyes.

But there is a strange sub-class of favourite films that I find I can watch endlessly. They’re not necessarily great films – indeed, part of the appeal seems to be that they’re quite ordinary and flawed. For me, the exemplar of the sub-class is Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it’s not for nothing that it’s been dubbed “the slow motion picture.” Even so, I have to keep a look for it in the TV schedules so that I know when it’s on and can avoid it, because if I happen across it while channel-surfing them I’m liable to stay as stuck to it right to the end credits much as a fly is unable to free itself from flypaper. Other examples of the type are a number of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s, and several of the dodgier James Bond films of the mid-Roger Moore period.

Death on the Nile is another of those motion pictures with the weird, inexplicable alchemy enabling endless rewatches. Read the rest of this entry »

McMafia S1 E1-5 (BBC One)

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After the overload of confectionery sweetness of light entertainment and festive specials over Christmas, the television networks have decided to serve up something more substantial for the New Year with a veritable glut of prestige drama series on offer. ITV has old favourites Vera and Endeavour back on our screens, together with the new offering Girlfriends from the prolific and ever-reliable Kay Mellor.

Yesterday we looked at the high concept offering Hard Sun. Meanwhile, over on Sunday nights BBC One has inserted a bold, uncompromisingly gritty drama about international crime rings. Based on a novel by Misha Glenny and adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, McMafia is the story of successful banker Alex Godman. Read the rest of this entry »

Hard Sun S1 E1-3 (BBC One)

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Hard Sun is one of those complicated ‘high concept’ affairs, which should make it a much harder sell than most of the prime time drama fare currently on show on TV.

It’s created and written by Neil Cross, who brought us the similarly ‘heightened/hyper reality’ drama Luther. Both series feature situations that are amped up to the point where you know the whole thing is too over-the-top to be true, but it’s both ludicrous and ludicrously entertaining even as you delight in pointing out all the myriad plot oversights. Read the rest of this entry »

Spiral S6 E1-8 (BBC Four)

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It’s been almost seven years since I last tried unsuccessfully to dip into French police procedural Spiral. I did a review at the time and was upbraided for trying to get into the show at the start of the third series instead of starting at the beginning – which is a fair point, even if I’d been acting on advice from another fan of the show who said that the start of series three would be an ideal point to jump on board. Either way, the series didn’t take and I haven’t tried again since; but a paucity of TV options at the start of January made me decide to give the latest run a go. Read the rest of this entry »

Twin Peaks: The Return (DVD) [2017]

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Undoubtedly one of the television highlights of 2017, the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has also been one of the most divisive. It’s appeared on both ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists of the year in roughly equal measure, and it’s easy to see why.

Attempts to recap this mini-series in any detail is doomed to failure; there are single scenes that would defy any worthwhile coherent synopsis in the space of one post, so I’ll keep things simple: the new series (written by Lynch with original collaborator Mark Frost) starts off at pretty much exactly the same point that the original run left off in 1991. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) remains trapped in the supernatural realm known as the Black Lodge with its impressive red drapes and white-and-black zigzag flooring, while his evil doppelgänger is loose in the real world. Cooper does eventually manage to escape, but his mind is shattered in the process. He finds himself living a life as a downtrodden insurance agent in Las Vegas married to Janey-E (Naomi Watts). Read the rest of this entry »

Father Brown S6 (BBC One) [2018]

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It’s that time of year again! The end of the Christmas and New Year holiday season means that Father Brown is back in business once more, with a new series in the daytime schedules on BBC One.

Last year’s run proved quite contentious, as a quick look back at the comments on our series five review will confirm. Many fans were deeply disappointed by the departure of two of the series regulars, Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (Alex Price) and found it hard to warm to newcomer Bunty (Emer Kenny). Read the rest of this entry »

The Orville S1 E1-3 (Fox)

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I have to confess that The Orville has left me somewhat confused. As a drama, it’s got too many silly gags in it to be taken seriously. But the jokes are too few in number and not nearly funny enough to qualify the show as a sitcom. It has an earnestness that suggests it wants to be a proper grown-up show, but an insecurity that suggests it feels it can only get away with the attempt if it also laughs at itself. The end result is a show that feels like it wants to be more homage than spoof, only to find itself more of a pastiche than satire.

Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane (famous for Family Guy, American Dad! and Ted), the show is set onboard a 25th-century space exploration ship named the Orville. MacFarlane plays Captain Ed Mercer, whose first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) is also his ex-wife whom he divorced after he found her having an affair with an alien. Much of the early ‘humour’ in the series comes from Mercer’s continual sniping and point-scoring about their acrimonious split, while of course it’s clear to everyone that the two are still somewhat in love. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Shada (1979) [DVD]

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Christmas Day was a very Doctor Who affair this year. Not only was there the official Christmas special in which Peter Capaldi handed over the reins to Jodie Whittaker, I also spent the afternoon watching the latest Blu-ray release direct from 1979 – “a little later than planned” as the introduction wittily explains.

The six-part serial “Shada” has legendary status among Doctor Who fans. Intended as the final story to season 17 of the classic series, it’s the only one in the 54 years of the show’s history to fail to make it to air. Of course there have been all manner of story ideas that even made it as far as being commissioned as scripts, but none have actually started filming only to be abandoned midway through.

That’s what happened to “Shada”. Industrial action saw the plug pulled after initial location filming in Cambridge and the completion of the first of three recording blocks back at BBC Television Centre. All the extant footage was carefully stored away, but with series stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward departing the show the following year there was no opportunity to go back and remount the production in order to complete the missing scenes. The existing material has been released in various forms over the years, including a VHS version with linking narration covering the missing scenes supplied by Baker. There was an animated version rewritten to star the Seventh Doctor (Paul McGann) and more recently a novelization of Douglas Adams’ scripts by Gareth Roberts. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time (2017)

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Contains spoilers for the 2017 Christmas special

The Twelfth Doctor has left the building. And in a passing of the flame ceremony not seen since New Years Day 2010, we also say farewell to much of the creative talent that had been driving Doctor Who forward for the last seven years, including series star Peter Capaldi, regular contributor Mark Gatiss, composer Murray Gold (or so it’s rumoured) and last but by no means least showrunner and main writer Steven Moffat.

They sign off with “Twice Upon A Time”, which is a love letter from them to the series itself. As well as characteristically outstanding direction from Rachel Talalay, it features performances of the highest order from Capaldi and Gatiss, from Pearl Mackie as companion Bill Potts, and especially from David Bradley as the First Doctor who was originally played by William Hartnell and who briefly returns here in archive footage from 1966. It’s also an example of Moffat’s writing at its highest quality, providing a thoughtful character-driven drama that delivers a perfect Christmas message while signing off an era of the show and clearing the decks for what’s to follow in Autumn 2018. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

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It’s been a while since I’ve been to the cinema to see a fim on the big screen, and I was shocked by how much ticket prices had risen. They’re now the same as a new-release Blu-ray, which at least has re-watch and re-sale value. Small wonder then that these days I limit my theatrical outings to three specific categories of films – new James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars instalments – which I’ve been faithful to ever since the Seventies.

Somewhat to my surprise I duly made it to see Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi before Christmas, and without having suffered any spoilers. I’d even kept away from official trailers in the build-up to the film’s release. I had seen the reviews, and noted that they’d started with euphoric raptures before curdling somewhat with criticism from fans who weren’t happy with the direction the series was going, but I made sure to avoid any details of either praise or gripes until I’d seen the film for myself. Which I now have.

Before I go on, a word about spoilers. I don’t intend to reveal any here – I’d rather everyone saw it in the unsullied state that I managed for myself – but inevitably there will be comments and hints in this review that betray more than a given reader might like. So if you are staying clean and pure from all spoilers, then perhaps it’s better to look away now just to be sure. And just to add, some elements of The Force Awakens are also discussed here since the statute of limitations on spoilers from that film has now expired. Read the rest of this entry »

Passengers (2016)

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Without a doubt, Passengers is a beautiful film to look at. Great care has been made by director Morten Tyldum and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to ensure that every frame is a joy, and the human stars are just as pretty and perfect as the set design and the special effects. But underneath the polished surface veneer there are problems to be found, both in the story by Jon Spaihts and in its on-screen execution. Read the rest of this entry »

Vintage crime round-up: Scotland Yard (1953-1961), Crown Court (1972-3)

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Earlier this year I wrote about a series called Colonel March of Scotland Yard which was effectively a 1950s version of The X-Files starring Boris Karloff. I found it on Amazon Prime but it’s subsequently been on local cable station London Live, and then had a full transmission on the really rather terrific classic TV and film archive channel Talking Pictures.

The same channel followed that up with a daily run of the similarly-named but otherwise quite different Scotland Yard. This consists of a series of almost documentary-style dramatic recreations of cases ostensibly from the records of London’s police force. The whole set is also available on DVD from Network. Read the rest of this entry »

The Farthest (2017)

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Today it seems like we have always known what Jupiter and Saturn look like close-up. Open up any book on astronomy, or watch any TV documentary about space, and their iconic appearance is readily available in up-close high definition detail, as familiar to us as any holiday beauty spot on Earth. Read the rest of this entry »