Perry Mason S1 E23 – The Case of the One-Eyed Witness

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And now after that little Oscar frenzy, back to what this blog should be about – quick reviews of things. You’ll be getting used to the idea that I really like vintage 50s and 60s TV dramas, and here’s further evidence of that with the selection of a 1957 episode of the all-time classic crime/lawyer show Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr as the legendary defence attorney who never loses a case.

These days, such shows are sadly deemed too old to air on TV anymore (there’s an idea – if I were a millionaire I could set up a cable station to air round-the-clock vintage TV shows) so most people today will only know the character through the series of formulaic, bland 1980s TV movie revivals starring an ailing Burr just before he died. If that’s the case it’s a shock to see these 50 minute gems – sharply written, with Burr a man of action able to outwit the opposition in some incredibly complex, twisting plots. Although filmed 5 years before UK television did The Avengers, the production values are head and shoulders better: where the British were still grappling with just how to film theatrical rep plays for the screen, the Americans simply diverted their B-movie machine with decades of screen experience toward the television medium instead, and the professionalism shines through at all levels.

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness is a mid-first season instalment when the series was really finding its feet. It was adapting the original stories from Erle Stanley Gardner and so here you get a 240-page novella packed into a single episode and it moves at breathless pace, so much so that despite that fact the episode plays absolutely fair and leaves all the clues right there in plain sight, you still have to be going some to figure it out in time. It almost manages to sneak past one of those cardinal rule “don’t believe anything until you’ve seen the body” twists, and then audaciously parks the Big Reveal right there in public in the courtroom for a 10 minute scene that no one notices. Few modern shows would have that sort of patience or subtlety, or confidence that it could get away with it.

What makes the story so delicious is that absolutely everyone is lying, deceiving and plotting against everyone else – sometimes for good reasons, often not. Even Perry’s secretary Della Street (the classy Barbara Hale, one of the show’s real assets) is put in a situation where she had to hide facts from her boss, while meanwhile the DA and lead cop on the case are seen to commit what can only be described as blatant witness tampering. Even Perry’s hiding things from us: he seems to commit a blunder in court (asking a witness a question that leads to the direct implication of his client) before suddenly revealing that he was just laying a trap to which we were not privy in a bravura climax.

If you like 1930s and 1940s film noir films and B-movies then the Perry Mason series will be a little gold mine of treasures for you, and you could do a lot worse than start with this episode or the 4-5 that precede it. Or, to be honest, most of the episodes so far in season 1 – it really is great stuff.

Oscars night 2011 – in the rear view mirror

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So the Oscars came, and the Oscars went, and the most surprising thing was perhaps how efficient but airless it was: it got the job done, but it was a mainly joyless affair with the two young actor hosts notable only by their near-invisibility in proceedings. Things only really picked up when former host Billy Crystal made a cameo appearance and showed how to fill the room with some energy; and while Kevin Spacey and Robert Downey Jr auditioned for the gig next year.

Looking back, I think I did reasonably well with my list of predictions, although to be honest they were all pretty obvious selections for the most part. What really came across was just how ‘safe’ the Academy were playing it this year: faced with a selection of good and some really interesting films, they seemed to make a reflexive grasp for something cosy and familiar. How else how to explain the Best Director award going to a young British TV director only just starting to get a sense of his cinematic style and vision, than as a sign that the Academy panicked, didn’t know who else to vote for, and went for the security blanket of a classy, old-fashioned British drama that reminded them of cinema’s undoubted glory days? Or that the two Best Supporting acting awards went to the most clichéd Oscar-baiting displays of ostentatious acting of the year? It seems you only stand a chance of winning an acting Oscar if the audience is allowed to clearly see you acting your socks off – which is not how it’s meant to be. At least Natalie Portman won despite the divisive Marmite feel of the film she starred in, Black Swan, which was clearly too way out for the Academy’s overwhelmingly ageing demographic.

It’s a shame that the “safety first” decisions got in the way: frankly, The Social Network still deserved far better than it got but it was simply too fresh, too new and too stylised for the Academy or else Jesse Eisenberg’s mesmerising central performance in a unique part would have beaten Colin Firth’s obligatory “Oscar for playing a Member of the Royal Family.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Brit I’m absolutely delighted for Firth (and indeed for Christian Bale as Best Supporting Actor) and they both gave two terrific acceptance speeches – I just think the Academy went for the ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ Oscar route in both cases.

It is interesting, though, how the awards were rather shared out this year and no film really dominated. Sure, The King’s Speech won the headline awards of Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay, but that was only 4 out of the 12 nominations it went into the evening with; Inception, despite thought-provoking science fiction clearly not generally being to the Academy’s taste, won 4 as well (out of 8 nominations – does that make it “more” successful?) although it was getting its love from the technical Academicians – Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and of course Effects. The Social Network slumped to just three (Adapted Screenplay, Score and Editing) as if the Academy really wanted to stamp home the message “yes – well written, well made, but not a Fincher film.” Heck, even the much-derided Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland came away with two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design) as did The Fighter with its two supporting actor/actress nods, while The Wolfman(!) ended up with one for Makeup – although really that should be seen as a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for the great Rick Baker.

If there is a real loser this year – and a real surprise at that – it’s True Grit. It came in with ten nominations, second only to The King’s Speech, and went away with nothing at all. The shutout meant that two nominees that I really felt deserved an Oscar – Hailee Steinfeld and Roger Deakins – were cruelly robbed. The Coen Brothers have been Oscar darlings in the past (Best Film, Best Director for 2007’s No Country for Old Men) so what have they done to hack off the Academy in the meantime? Or maybe it’s just the genre that the Academy have no love for any more? Personally I wonder whether the Academy didn’t pick up on the underlying feeling to the film that the Coen Brothers just simply didn’t understand the Western nearly as well as they thought they did and needed to, and accidentally ended up making a bit of a superficial pastiche in the process.

And there are some mysteries about the Oscars I’ll never understand: how did The King’s Speech win Best Original Screenplay when it’s based on the diaries of speech therapist Lionel Logue and any number of historical documents and memoirs, when the wholly original Inception goes unrecognised? How can Toy Story 3 be in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay for a totally new story, just because it’s a sequel? Yeesh.

Ahh well, that’s enough. The Oscars are done and we can forget about them all for another 12 months. It won’t be hard to put them out of mind; I can barely remember the specifics already, the morning after the night before.

Oscars night 2011 – roll on up, place your bets

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So it’s Oscar night over in Hollywood, and I think that makes it mandatory for every review-inclined blog to troop out at least one post on the subject of who will win, no matter how ill-informed. Since I haven’t seen most of the pictures that have nominations, my opinion is even more ill-informed than usual – but what the heck, let’s roll into the spirit of the thing and trot out a few guesses and groundless preferences.

Best Actor seems a lock for Colin Firth. It’s one of those ‘perfect alignment’ moments, where an actor is playing the perfect role for an Oscar but also at the moment when everyone’s thinking “y’know, really he should have got it last year for A Single Man” so there’s a sense of obligation to put the situation right. It’s rather like that moment in Just a Minute where Nicholas Parsons redresses an earlier benefit of the doubt, so it would be truly shocking if Firth didn’t win for his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech. Arguably James Franco (the Oscar night co-host with Anne Hathaway) should get it for being the only man on screen in 127 Hours but then if screen time was a decisive factor then where is Ryan Reynolds for Buried, arguably a much more effective film and indeed solo performance? I rather wish Jesse Eisenberg had a shot at the award for his incredibly strong performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but he doesn’t – he’s too new and young, which makes the Academy feel uncomfortably old, so he’ll have to wait a few years and pay his dues. And having actually seen Jeff Bridges in True Grit, all I can say is that it was a decent performance no doubt, but if that’s the Oscar-winning role of the year then Hollywood really isn’t paying attention and certainly not at the level of his Crazy Heart performance that won him the Best Actor Oscar just last year.

Best Actress seems a lock right now for Natalie Portman for Black Swan, which in itself is a bit of a “Marmite” movie (love it or hate it) but at least everyone seems to agree that her performance itself is stand-out memorable and fantastic. Her closest rival is probably Annette Benning for The Kids Are All Right, but Benning seems to have slipped up with her “I don’t care about any of this” early refusal to take part in the Oscar beauty parade and may have left it too late to repair the damage, which is a shame because her performance – rather like Eisenberg as Zuckerberg – takes a hard-edged, initially unsympathetic character and makes it work against expectations. The best performance of all is probably Michelle Williams, but the way that Blue Valentine has been treated in other categories looks like the Academy isn’t particularly well disposed toward it.

I haven’t heard much chatter about Best Supporting Actor which probably means it will default to The King’s Speech nominee Geoffrey Rush, although Christian Bale’s flashy performance in The Fighter stands a chance because the Academy can’t resist an ostentatious display of overacting and some good old fashioned method weight loss. Over in Best Supporting Actress the scandal of the year has been Melissa Leo’s over-zealous self-promotion for her role in The Fighter against co-star and fellow category nominee Amy Adams. The controversy and film duplication will probably knock them both out, leaving it to Helena Bonham Carter – admittedly fabulous as the Queen Mother (to be) in The King’s Speech and frankly long overdue an Oscar; and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit who absolutely deserves it – and at 14, she is under that age that makes Academy members jealous and instead makes them go “awww, isn’t she terrific for a kid?”, so she may pull it off. I certainly hope so, but I have to confess Bonham Carter wouldn’t be a bad choice either.

In other categories, hard to believe Toy Story 3 won’t win Best Animated Picture rather like The Return of the King got the best picture nod for The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole; I’ll be cheering Roger Deakins for his brilliant work on True Grit in Best Cinematography; I’ll be hoping the provoking, controversial and important Inside Job wins Best Documentary, and I’ll be speechless if Inception doesn’t at least win Best Visual Effects for its brilliant, fascinating dreamscapes.

Talking of Inception, the Academy has already blighted this year’s nominee list by the omission of Christopher Nolan for Best Director which is just shocking given that one of the year’s biggest and best films was such a personal project and vision and which would never have been made without him. I hope at the very least they’re embarrassed into giving him Best Original Screenplay for the film – and as for Best Adapted Screenplay, as far as I’m concerned that just has to be Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, no question.

As for the the director award, I’d say that it’s a three-way fight between Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, David Fincher for The Social Network and the Coen Brothers for True Grit – I’d be surprised if British director Tom Hooper stood a chance for The King’s Speech, and David O. Russell will only win if we’re in the middle of a landslide evening for The Fighter. Oddly, Fincher doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on winning the Oscar for his film: as a renowned control freak he probably isn’t wild about the amount of control and attention writer Aaron Sorkin’s been getting for the film, and given that The Social Network has become a “tale of two auteurs” it’s probably not right that he should win for this and not for, say, Zodiac which was much more of an authentic “Fincher” film. I would be happy to see the Oscar go to the Coens for True Grit, but as my review a couple of days ago said, I tend to have “issues” with Coen Brothers films and so I’m not entirely sold. Instead, I have a sneaking feeling that this category is Aronofsky’s to lose.

And finally to Best Picture. The category’s been expanded to ten nominees to crank up the tension but really most of these don’t stand a chance – Inception in particular is a lame duck, unless everyone’s feeling very, very guilty about the Nolan omission indeed. Early on in 2010 this seemed like a shoe-in for The Social Network; then True Grit came along, and then the betting flirted with 127 Hours. Black Swan has rarely featured because of its divisive Marmite taste. Right now it seems like a lock for The King’s Speech. Personally I hope it defaults back to the first of those films and that Fincher/Sorkin’s collaboration walks away with the top prize, but I suspect the betting is right and that king trumps billionaire.

And now we can all sit back and see how completely wrong I am.

True Grit (2010) – a bleak sunset in the West

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I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.

It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.

But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.

Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)

Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.

Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.

At the Mountains of Madness – BBC Radio 4 Extra/ Spokenworld Audio

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I’d better start off with a potentially sacrilegious confession: I’m not a fan of HP Lovecraft’s writing. To me, it comes across as wildly overblown purple prose that has aged really badly since it was originally written in the 1930s, often as contributions to then-rather lurid pulp magazines such as Astounding Stories. That overheated style has been mocked and lampooned for so long that it’s impossible for me to take this deathly humourless high-horror style seriously these days. And yet I’m aware that Lovecraft has a huge fan following – including horror giant Stephen King who credits Lovecraft with sparking his own love of the genre and his entire subsequent career – and that his Cthulhu Mythos is a cult in its own right. The guy must be doing something right. Still, I rather suspected that this audio production of At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous novellas, would not be for me at all when I first heard it aired on BBC Radio 7 (now BBC Radio 4 Extra) spoken word digital station late last year. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found how much I loved this new adaptation and was totally drawn in.

In brief, the plot is about a scientific expedition to an Antarctican mountain range. One team discovers the deep-frozen remains of a previously unknown creature, and then contact with the team is lost. A follow-up team heads into the mountains and find the impossible: the ruins of the city of a long-dead Antarctic civilisation, pre-dating humankind…

The production’s first strength is the selection of Richard Coyle as the reader. He’s got one of those rich, deep rolling voices that earns a sincere “would listen to him reading the phone book” accolade from me. Strangely, Coyle is one of those actors who never seem to get star ‘name recognition’ despite appearing in hit shows such as Coupling, and he’s been wonderful even when the show or film itself has left much to be desired (hello, Prince of Persia!) He was actually my preferred choice for the Eleventh Doctor Who until Matt Smith popped up and stole the show.

But the real triumph of this adaptation is in Neil Gardner’s production and sound design: while this is an audiobook reading and not an original full-cast production, you’d be hard-pressed 10 minutes in not to think that this wasn’t a fully realised drama. The effect of a full cast is achieved part by the Coyle’s reading, of course, but crucially also by the skilful use of minimal sound effects and background ambience that make this light years away from listening to a man merely reading a book into a microphone. It’s very atmospheric, and totally pulls off selling some of the novella’s more creaky and clunky conceits. Quick mentions also for composer Jon Nicholls who supplies a simple but effective musical score that really adds to the feeling of dread; and also to Paul Kent who abridged Lovecraft’s text skilfully and who manages to cut away a lot of the sprawling verbosity that frankly makes reading the original rather like wading through treacle. (Again, I know this is just my reaction to Lovecraft and won’t be shared by everyone, but I can’t help how I feel.)

In fact, it’s the Lovecraft original story that is the production’s only weak point for me. It’s all build up and tease, and then at the last minute the protagonists scamper away and run and hide without resolving any of the questions, making for a strangely deflated climax. It’s not the production team’s fault, of course – they can’t rewrite the source material when making an audiobook adaptation without angering the fans. If you’ve already read Lovecraft’s original then you’ll know what to expect and undoubtedly be entirely happy with the plot and hence the production’s fidelity to it.

About the best recommendation I can make is to put my money where my mouth is, and sure enough after hearing the BBC Radio 7/4 Extra broadcast, I went off and bought the “director’s cut” audiobook (a version extended by an extra 30 minutes). And if even I can get this excited over Lovecraft and Cthulhu …

Hawaii Five-O – all pumped up and nowhere to go

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Although I was too young to be interested in the original series of Hawaii Five-O, like everyone else the iconic theme and title sequence are seared into my memory and I was keen to see what they would do to it with this reboot helmed by many of the people behind the recent successful reinvention of the Star Trek franchise. Happily the theme tune is present and correct, nicely spruced up; and the title sequence has some similar nice updated touches where new shots of familiar tourist sights from the original series’ credits are to be seen; but sadly they botch the iconic “fast zoom” to the lead character standing on a tower block balcony, which is eviscerated and lost in otherwise clichéd hyperactive titles. And there’s no canoe.

The show’s undoubted strength is Hawaii itself, and the locations are gorgeously photographed; some scenes seem to exist just to fulfil an obligation to the Hawaiian tourist board, but what the heck when it looks this good. And there’s an impressive cast with strong cult credentials – Alex O’Loughlin (Midnight), Scott Caan (Ocean’s Trilogy), Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, 24, Crusade) – but unfortunately they’re rather lost in the programme’s bombast. This is a show with the volume constantly turned up to 11, with colleagues yelling at each other as fiercely as they scream at the criminals. The McGarrett/Danno relationship is meant to be a budding bromance but despite some genuinely funny lines (“What’s with aneurysm face?”, Danno asks his terminally constipated boss) the exchanges are shouted so humourlessly that it’s like being forced to watch a particularly acrimonious parental divorce. The plots, too, suffer from the same overdose of testosterone and gym time as the main characters and have ended up similarly pumped up and misshapen as the show trudges through an hour with much the same strange, lumbering gait as McGarrett and Danno use to galumph through scenes.

Overall, this is a show that resembles a compilation trailer of all those 80s actions films, but lasting a full hour. My brain starts to ache and my suspension of disbelief collapses after around 20 minutes, at which point I tend to wander off and do something else with the TV on in the background; I really don’t think I’ve missed anything important yet as a result.

Sky One have paired this up with NCIS:LA on Sunday nights, and it’s an interesting comparison. The NCIS spin off inhabits a similar all-action world of gunfights, explosions and chases and has its own line-up of bromance (and indeed another of budding romance); and yet here’s a show that knows how to do humour, how to vary the pace, how to create likeable characters that can bicker and argue and yet that you still feel like each other underneath. Most of all it’s a show with plots that are worth watching and even raise interesting issues (this week’s featured a secret Navy project to chemically ‘tag’ people with an isotope so they can be tracked from orbit – only to find it used on Americans by an expert convinced the US is soft on terror.) Hawaii Five-O could learn a lot from it if it wants to have a longevity anywhere near that of its illustrious predecessor (12 seasons, since you ask!)

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E9+10

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There was a moment at the end of episode 8 of this series where I suddenly started to fear that the surface of this perfect gem of a show had started to crack. It was when the show all-but-repeated the cliffhanger of two episodes previously where one character seemed on the verge of extracting bloody retribution on another. Surely, I thought, the show can’t have run out of steam and ideas already?

Fortunately episodes 9 and 10 didn’t disappoint and were the show’s best yet. Almost as if the frustrating dead end of both the previous episode and the stalling of the police investigation itself had pulled the pin on things, this week’s instalments catapulted the series off onto an entirely new trajectory. It was almost all down to the lead character Sarah Lund’s following up of a seeming bureaucratic anomaly in the evidence: suddenly we have a whole new set of main suspects, a whole new chronology for the crime – and at last, a primary crime scene. We also have a fundamentally altered view of the victim from developments in the heartbreakingly gripping strand featuring the bereaved family, and some fine political bloodletting going on in the city hall strand featuring the character of Troels Hartmann. And all of this came over as a natural progression of what had gone before, of plot strands knitting together, of seeds long sown coming to flower, rather than the ad hoc “make it up as you go along” feel of similar high-concept US shows like 24 and Lost.

The one potential problem with the new scenario is that it seems to be forcing Lund to become that hoary old Hollywood cliché, the lone maverick cop going rogue against her superiors’ wishes. The joy of the character to date has been her extraordinary ordinariness, so this is potentially a problem. Fortunately the show is playing it in an interesting way so far: instead of raging against the system, Lund seems merely to be ignoring it all and just carrying on with the same intensity as before, almost as if she hasn’t noticed. And that intensity, initially so admirable, is increasingly the source of her problems as the relationships all around her fall apart: I’m actually starting to feel sorry for the dislikeable partner, Jan Meyer, because of how poorly Lund is treating him now. I never expected that!

As episode 10 came to a close, there was a shot – not lingered on by the director – of a now-familiar item that had become ubiquitous to us over the course of the show to date: but this time, splattered with blood. The symbolism of it, and what it portends for characters in the second half of the series, genuinely sent chills down my spine.

(With apologies to returning to the subject of this show so soon after my initial short view.)

Tate Modern – Photographic Typologies

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If it hadn’t been for the recommendation of a friend via Twitter, I would have been completely unaware of this exhibition of photographs on the fifth floor of the Tate Modern – the museum doesn’t seem too interested in promoting this display and I couldn’t even find it on the building’s floor signs.

It’s an interesting idea in which photographs that themselves are not intended to be ‘artistic’ per se are given greater value and indeed beauty by being part of a wider set with common characteristics. There is a large set of black and white high quality vintage portrait photos of various German citizens taken over decades, from rural brides to Grand Dukes; shots of Palestinians, many posing with their guns in a pose chillingly similar to the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald; shots of buildings all digitally altered to remove doors and windows; and most interestingly of all, shots of random living rooms in homes across Malaysia using only the available natural light. The artist knocked on doors at random and asked if they could come in and take a picture; amazingly most people said yes. Wouldn’t happen in London, you suspect.

Quite apart from delivering a delicious kick of voyeurism, the living room photos show ‘typologies’ at their best and most interesting. Individually they are just shots of empty rooms; but the repetition allows us to see both what is common (sofas, religious icons; depressingly, big screen TVs more often than not) and what is individualistic (the grand piano, or the massive record collection.) The same is true of the German portrait photos – the pictures are usually posed and lit the same way, and yet each person retains their own character. The attempt to impose a uniformity on the subjects ultimately only succeeds in showing how each person, and each picture, is indelibly unique and different in a myriad number of ways.

One artist, Thomas Ruff, has two works on display that he intends should prove his thesis that photography can only ever depict the surface of its subject and never any underlying ‘truth’, contrary to the sort of pretentious guff artists have spouted over the centuries. His photographs of two blank-faced friends have all the personality of passport photos, albeit blow up to six feet high. And yet as you look at the photos, the observer can’t help but start to fill the information vacuum with thoughts and guesses about the personalities of the subjects anyway, whether accurate or wild inventions driven by their own internal preconceptions. In other words, all this artist has demonstrated is a universal truth that artists have known for centuries: that a piece of art can only ever display the result of a complex function comprised of what the subject chooses to reveal, with what the artist chooses to depict, ultimately filtered by the viewer’s own perception. Reality is rarely as ‘real’, as fixed, or as knowable as we like to think, but is instead as varied and as disparate as the number of subjects, artists and onlookers as there are in the world.

Tate Modern – Gabriel Orozco

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Thanks to a wonderful Christmas gift of a Tate membership, I’m able to visit exhibitions that would not normally be ‘my sort of thing’ that I would choose to spend money on, and it’s a wonderful liberation to be able to go to a show that one might really hate and not feel bad tempered about it if you do. Hence I went to see the work of Mexican modern installation and photographic artist Gabriel Orozco.

Modernist installation art is something that frankly I tend to find rather pretentious and vacuous, and there are certainly moments that came close in this exhibition. However I found Orozco’s overriding theme of using found objects from the environment around him to be interesting and powerful enough to win me over more times than not with the quality of the idea and the inspiration behind them, although I had problems with the execution of them at times. Apparently he often arrives at a museum where he’s been asked to exhibit his work with no actual art accompanying him, preferring instead to make it there and then form the environment and materials he finds there, to produce a truly localised installation.

Going into the exhibition in any more detail requires more space than is available in this “short view” format, so I’ll hand you over back to my main Let Me Think About That … blog article on Orozco for the lengthy version.

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E5+6

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A couple of years ago, BBC4 had an unexpected hit on its hands when it screened four episodes of the Swedish TV detective series Wallander as part of a “support package” for the launch of the British version on BBC1 starring Kenneth Branagh. It was so well received that the rest of the Swedish series was picked up and shown in its entirety; and continued to prove so popular that it was repeated again while the second season was snapped up and shown as soon as it was produced. Finally, BBC4 even went back to the older, original Swedish film adaptations of the Henning Mankell novels and showed those as well, even though they duplicated the Branagh productions.

But having mined the Wallander seam to extinction, BBC4 needed some new blood to fill its Saturday evening crime spot – and turned to Danish television’s International Emmy-nominated series The Killing (Forbrydelsen, in the original Danish), which follows the investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a schoolgirl. I decided to try it out, but I’ll admit that the last thing I wanted was another long-running (20 hour-long episodes shown over ten weeks) heavy series commitment to a subtitled show. Hopefully I would not like it all that much.

Unfortunately The Killing turned out to be utterly brilliant. I mean, utterly. I’ve said it on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: I reckon it’s the best drama on television at the moment. In fact quite possibly the best thing I’ve seen in years. It’s completely magnetic, utterly absorbing, a compelling mystery with edge-of-the-seat moments of suspense, political conspiracy and heart-wrenching depictions of domestic loss and bereavement.

It makes The Wire – which it resembles in the way it cross-cuts the various sectors of society with its intelligent strands of storytelling – seem rather ordinary by comparison, while the central character of Detective Sarah Lund who is intelligent, insightful, low-key and committed makes Wallander (in both British and Swedish guises) look a bit of a doddering old fool.

Strangely the show that The Killing most reminds me of time and again is Twin Peaks. Not, I hasten to add, the bizarrely quirky and humorous side of that show (such as David Duchovney as a transvestite FBI agent and director David Lynch on-screen as his stone-deaf boss) but those times when Twin Peaks was very, very dark and chilling, when there was real sense of terror about characters going into the woods: for example, the moment at the end of the pilot episode when a hand reaches out of the dark to unearth the just-buried necklace of the murdered girl made me jump out of my seat at the time.

The entire series had an atmosphere of doom and menace, which The Killing shares: in both shows much is implied but little is shown, compared with a great many modern detective shows that spare the audience nothing. There is also the way both series involve the investigation into the life of a popular schoolgirl who, as the layers are peeled back, is shown to have ever-darker secrets. The moment the cops find a hidden room in the school basement where the students went for sex reminded me strongly of the boxcar scenes in Twin Peaks – it’s just that now the students are recording it on phone cameras rather than the handheld video cameras of Twin Peak‘s day. The victim’s flight through the forest in her underwear with airplanes coming into land overhead evoked much of the cinematic Lynchian style of that 1990s show.

I hear that American cable channel AMC is producing a remake of this, but I’d be amazed if it is anywhere close to being as good as this quite brilliant original production, or that anyone can compete with the astonishing Sofie Gråbøl in the central role.

As you can tell, I can’t praise this show enough. Please don’t miss out – watch it on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC4. It’s not too late to start – all episodes to date are available on the BBC iPlayer through ‘series stacking’.

Outcasts S1 E2 – outlook improves

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I was, let’s be honest, not entirely complimentary about the BBC’s new science fiction drama series Outcasts after seeing the first episode on Monday, which seemed confusing, laden with unintelligible exposition, and poorly written, directed and played by almost all concerned.

Well, what a different 24 hours makes, because episode 2 started to get all those things right where episode 1 had got them so badly wrong.

There was, for example, much less world-building exposition, and what there was came in naturally as part of realistic discussions and situations. It didn’t feel the need to tell us the entire backstory in one infodump, but just what the characters needed to say for their own development in that scene and to move forward the immediate story. The story was also much stronger, being essentially an A-plot hostage crisis, and a B-plot introducing bad guy Julian Berger (Eric Mabius, whose American leading man looks and charm are too perfect for a British -produced series and therefore make him the perfect sinister presence for the show as their equivalent of Battlestar Galactica‘s Gaius Baltar) – all of which keeps it simple and allows the characters to register and start to grow.

In hindsight, I now realise that the biggest problem with episode 1 is that it was trying to pack too much in: establish the series, ram in the backstory, have a crisis with a freighter in trouble, and a character we don’t know apparently going psycho and killing other characters we don’t know for reasons that are screamed but not explained. No wonder that first episode left everyone confused and alienated. Ironically the series woud have been better to boil down the events of episode 1 to a five minute slam-bang FX teaser and then refer to the rest of it as backstory as needed. It would have made for a stronger opener if they had: how much more effective would “Mitchell” have been if both he and his death had been a budding myth, referred to but never seen for sure.

The show continues to plant some nice seeds for the future (a mystery virus; the moving child’s drawing on the President’s desk) but surprisingly it also throws away potential plots far too fast: the whole story of the true outcasts on Carpathia was thrown away in a few lines of exposition when a US drama series would have been able to milk the mystery for a good half a season, to great effect. Secrets won too easily are simply not valued so highly. The series could do with a little more subtlety and patience at times rather than making major plotlines so damned obvious: the Deep Brain Visualiser is threatened so often that it’s like the old axiom of “if you show a gun in Act 1, someone has to get shot in Act 3.”

Anyway, episode 2 certainly did enough to convert my “watch first two episodes out of duty” into a series pick-up, just to see where it goes. If nothing else then the South African locations are simply breathtakingly gorgeous; as are the opening credits, which is one of the most beautiful title sequences I’ve seen in a while.

Blasphemy – by Douglas Preston

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Douglas Preston is one of those authors who writes adventure/thriller fiction, but with a central idea drawn from science to make it feel a bit bigger and more important than just the usual Jack Reacher-type shoot-up. This sub-genre of fiction can work very well, with Michael Crichton one of its earliest and best leading lights with tales meshing alien bacteria, nanotechnology, the cloning of extinct animals etc. into compelling and exciting tales. Preston is in that vein, and his previous works include Relic which was made into a feature film in the 1990s.

In this book, first published in 2008, the science hook is the Large Hadron Collider (although for plot reasons this is an American version called Isabella and not the CERN one in Switzerland.) And yes, like all stories from two years ago about the LHR, once running it starts to produce mini black holes and there’s a giant explosion, which will doubtless annoy the heck out of Professor Brian Cox.

But the book’s main focus is less the science than it is faith, and the interplay between the two, which brings it more into Dan Brown country. Here, a group of Evangelical Christians fear that Isabella’s investigation of the Big Bang is intended to disprove God, and so they march on it; meanwhile the scientists find that the mini black holes that Isabella has created is allowing them to talk to … Someone. But who? An extraterrestrial intelligence? God? A computer AI – possible a sentient Isabella? Or is it some sort of malicious hacker seeking to fool them all?

It’s the answer to this that most seems to fascinate Preston, and to be honest his interest in this aspect means that other parts of the novel go underdeveloped: strands set in Washington DC could easily have been done without and seem to be there to take up space and pad the thing out, and the President’s decisions are absurd (casually deploying the army on US soil, which would contravene the US constitution and see him impeached); there are some poorly thought-through details (the story breaks overnight, when most TV channels would take a few hours to rouse reporters and do any sort of coverage, but here’s it’s an instant media storm at 4am …) But the biggest flaw is that the main protagonist (Wyman Ford, who recurs in Preston’s later novel Impact) does essentially nothing. He’s a tourist, someone for the reader to identify with, yet his effect on the story is entirely negligible. Events merely unfold around him, and he reacts.

That leaves the book feeling oddly unsatisfying, which is a shame because the eventual handling of the messages from Isabella is fairly intelligent and thought provoking in aspects of science and the roots of faith. Admittedly some of it is rather sci-fi/70s New Age in its philosophies and it won’t win many friends from the religious groups or indeed the scientists, but if you can stick with it then it delivers a fairly decent resolution. However, by the end my overwhelming reaction was along the lines of: “Oh, is that it, then?”

I’d give it a solid but unspectacular *** out of 5.

The Avengers S2 E1 – Mr Teddy Bear

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(I wrote a longer piece about The Avengers on my main blog that you might like to read first. This is a short review of the most recent episode I’ve viewed from the Season 2 DVD boxset.)

The first episode of season 2 of the classic Avengers series, rebooting after the star (Ian Hendry) left and the production team were still getting up to speed with who to replace him with.

While many of the episodes produced around this time rely on hastily repurposed season 1 material and dumping the old star’s dialogue nearly unaltered into the new character’s mouths, this was an early example of a bespoke script carefully laying out the new ‘vision’ for the show as they saw it. Written quite late, it was rushed on air a month after being completed to make sure that viewers trying out the new season got a proper taste of what to expect.

The difference is immense – it’s immediately more like the show that the Avengers would become, with gadgets, a memorable “supervillain”, and quirky humour such as the villain taking meetings via a toy teddy bear with microphone and camera links. It’s also the first show to have Steed and Gale take equal roles in terms of air time, with Steed gloriously cheerful throughout despite being the target of an assassin (and suffering the indignity of having to strip to some very unglamorous white Y-fronts in a really scary scene!) Only the fact that Steed is quite clearly still ‘tutoring’ Cathy (both in judo lessons and talking her through key moments of action) shows that this is still an early episode, otherwise this could almost be a Diana Rigg story. The duo even clearly have a recognisable boss (in recurring character One Ten) that wouldn’t be the case again until the 1969 series with Mother.

And even the production values are better, with almost no technical mishaps at all and only the odd fluffed line, plus a couple of filmed inserts showing more advanced technique in a few minutes than half the rest of the season put together. No wonder this episode – despite being filmed only three weeks earlier – was rushed on air as the opening episode of season 2 to establish the new tone.