Solo – A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Contains no plot spoilers

Long time readers of this blog, if there are such things, will know that I rarely go to the cinema these days. The only films that can tempt me back to the multiplex tend to be the latest instalments in the Star Trek, James Bond and Star Wars franchises and then mainly for sentimental reasons – not having missed a new theatrical release in any of the three series since the late 1970s.

I was starting to think that Solo – A Star Wars Story was about to he the one that finally got away. A busy period of work meant I didn’t have time to get to the cinema for several weeks after it came out (and is also the reason for the lack of new posts here, for which I can only apologise), and its growing reputation as a commercial flop for Disney meant that it was already being ushered out of the local Odeon in favour of evermore superheroes and dinosaurs.

This week was probably my final chance to see Solo on the big screen – and to be honest, I was sort of non-plused about the whole idea anyway and not even sure if I wanted to make the trip. But I did, and I’m glad I did, because I can report with no little relief that I enjoyed the film. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (1973) [DVD]

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Sometimes when you’re writing about an episode of long-running TV show, there’s a lot to include: maybe it’s a particularly excellent example of the show in question, or perhaps it does something new and original. Or possibly it’s a particularly poor example of the series in question which gets the blood boiling. But by and large, and almost by definition, most instalments of a show are actually bound to be more or less average: solid, predictable, quite entertaining but nothing to get all that excited about.

When it comes to Doctor Who, the 1973 story “Planet of the Daleks” is one of those that is largely and literally unremarkable – and therefore hard to say all that much about. In fact if you look in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2013 reader poll of the first 50 years of stories, then you’ll find it almost precisely at the midway point of the 241 entries included in the survey. Read the rest of this entry »

The City and the City, by China Miéville (2009)

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China Miéville is surely one of the most distinctive voices writing in modern fantasy today; indeed, to the point where he pretty much defines the sub-genre of ‘new weird’ in order to distinguish his work from the hoards of Tolkien, Martin and Rowling clones occupying the broader uploads of fantasy literature.

Rather than writing about elves, dragons and magicians, Miéville’s stories are based on speculative imagination – taking an idea or observation from today’s world and then twisting it into a bold new take on alternative reality, which is then told in an uncompromisingly modern way. The most famous of his works is arguably the award-winning The City and The City, a book I’ve intended to read for years. With a BBC TV version imminent, I realised I had to get a move on if I was to see it before the adaptation is broadcast. Read the rest of this entry »

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) [DVD]

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It was with some trepidation that I approached the latest big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s seminal Murder on the Orient Express. For one thing, my enduring affection for both the novel and Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film meant I was already predisposed to not liking the new kid on the block. For another, I’d heard some very polarised reactions to the new film with some not liking it one bit. I can’t remember the last time that my father was ever as vitriolic about a film as he was after seeing this at the local Odeon.

Given all that, I was surprised by how much I liked the new film. Its by no means a match to the original version, nor even to the delightful 1994 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation by Michael Bakewell starring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot (the pictures are always better on the radio.) But it’s nonetheless a solid, quality production which strikes a balance between sensible reverence for the source text with the necessary updates to appeal to a 21st century cinema-going audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators (BBC One)

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If you didn’t already know that BBC Daytime’s new afternoon series Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators was from the same production team behind Father Brown, WPC 56 and The Coroner, then it really shouldn’t take you very long to make the connection. The similarity in writing and production house style are a giveaway on their own, and if you don’t get it from that then the delightful-as-ever musical cues by Debbie Wiseman stamp an indelible hallmark on the entire affair.

The new series features comedy actor Mark Benton as former detective turned private eye Frank Hathaway, whose ramshackle business is about to go under. The situation forces him to take on former hairdresser Luella Shakespeare (ex-EastEnders star Jo Joyner) as his partner when she offers to invest her life savings in the firm. Despite her previous occupation, she turns out to have some impressive skills of her own – in many ways more so than Hathaway, who is so slovenly that he makes Columbo look like a fashion model. Read the rest of this entry »

Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Contains some spoilers for both films

It’s hard to believe that when Blade Runner first came out in 1982, it was a major flop. These days it stands as one of the acknowledged great films of the 20th century, but that’s only because history has been reedited in hindsight. At the time it struggled to find an audience, with cinemagoers more interested in the user-friendly likes of Star Wars and ET – The Extraterrestrial than the dark, confusing fare of The Thing and Blade Runner. The very thought that the latter’s reputation would grow to the point where it could spawn a sequel 35 years later could scarcely have been more absurd – which just goes to show how hard it is to predict the future. Read the rest of this entry »

PD James: Death of an Expert Witness (1983), Shroud for a Nightingale (1984), Cover Her Face (1985), The Black Tower (1985) [Network DVD]

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When Britain’s ITV commercial channel was first set up, it consisted of a network of individual regional franchises that between them covered the entire country. Each produced their own output, contributing to the content pool available for national schedules. Pretty soon a number of these franchises became first among nominal equals – Manchester’s Granada and London’s Thames and LWT became powerhouse drama and light entertainment producers, with Yorkshire and ATV (later Central) among those succeeding at a slightly lower level. Scotland’s STV naturally maintained a ferociously independent output of its own, frequently eschewing programmes from other regions altogether in preference to its own. However a number of the more provincial out-of-the-way companies suffered from a lack of access to big budget and talent, and therefore largely stuck to local news aimed at their immediate market. The Norwich-based Anglia Television was one such, and for years its only significant weekly contribution to the wider network output was Sale of the Century hosted by Nicholas Parsons, a sort-of predecessor to The Price is Right. The start of the show was heralded by the station’s quaint ident, a revolving silver desk ornament from a jumble sale depicting a mounted knight flying the Anglia standard.

Anglia was also behind the long-running Tales of the Unexpected anthology show; and another very smart thing Anglia did in the 1980s was to pick up the rights to adapt PD James’ successful series of detective novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh. Both shows became popular staples of ITV’s drama output for the rest of the decade. Ultimately Anglia made ten Dalgliesh adaptations, all of them starring Roy Marsden who had already risen to fame as the lead in the short-lived but hugely popular spy series The Sandbaggers. In this case Marsden was one of those bits of inspired casting which proved utterly perfect – so much so that when the BBC revived Dalgliesh for two further outings in 2003 with Martin Shaw in the role, it never felt quite right. Read the rest of this entry »

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 their 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 therefore 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 »