DVD review: Ghosts – Series 1

BBC Studios Home Entertainment, Out: now

Lolly Adefope, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Charlotte Ritchie, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Ben Willbond, Katy Wix

The spirit of Rentaghost is resurrected in this recent BBC sitcom, the highest rated British TV comedy series of 2019 thus far.

Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe play Alison and Mike, a young married couple whose lives are transformed when Alison unexpectedly inherits a large, but dilapidated rural manor house, following the death of an unknown elderly aunt.

The house contains many secrets, however, not least a large party of ghosts who dwell within. All are from different historical time periods and all are invisible to most normal humans, ensuring their initial attempts to haunt the house’s new owners all in vain, rather like the Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice. This changes when Alison (Ritchie star of Fresh Meat and Call The Midwife) bangs her head in an accident. Soon, she alone, can see the home’s phantom residents, whether she wants to or not.

The ghosts – all played by the former cast of the acclaimed Horrible Histories and Yonderland and who, mostly, also wrote this – are, of course, the chief source of fun here. Mathew Baynton (The Wrong Mans, Quacks), for example, plays a romantic poet hopelessly besotted with the still very much alive and married Alison, while Katy Wix (Not Going Out) plays the ghost of a slightly charred 17th century peasant woman apparently burnt to death for witchcraft.

Most hilarious are the great Simon Farnaby (The Detectorists and, appropriately, the man who sang ‘Stupid Deaths’ on Horrible Histories) as a disgraced 1990s Tory politician, still massively pompous, despite now being permanently trouser-less having died in some unspecified sex accident. Laurence Rickard also works wonders as Robin, (“bum and chips!”) a caveman, who lived on the grounds of the estate, long before it was built.

How did such a random assortment of characters ever come to live in the same house, even at different times? Why does every one of the Ghosts seem to have died prematurely? Doesn’t it all feel a bit like a children’s programme? Ultimately, none of these things really matter. Were it not for the presence of a few deliberate adult references (including a brief appearance by a genuinely scary child ghost), this would fit in perfectly well on CBBC.

Again, though, this hardly matters. Occasionally, Ghosts’ large regular cast works against it and the show is overwhelmed by chaos and silliness. But overall, this is good fun from a talented bunch of actors and writers. If your mansion house needs haunting, look no further.

A second series is on its way, in 2020.

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The BFJ (2016)

People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ, otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody understands, ” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “Like ‘rambunctious’ and ‘flibbertigibbet’. I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world, really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically by leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely NOT been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some have claimed.

Other, less popular recent characters from the same stable include Danny Alexander: Champion of the World, James Brokenshire and the Giant Speech, George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

A Star Is Born: A poem and a film review

Meet Jack: a country music star,

He can sing and play guitar,

One night, he walks into a bar,

And sees Ally (Lady GaGa).

She’s soon singing La Vie en rose,

She’s has lots of talent (and lots of nose).

He steals her eyebrow: they have quite a night,

She hurts her fist during a fight,

He puts peas on it to ease her rage,

(Later he pees himself on a stage).

You may have seen this tale before,

For this is version number 4,

And here’s a very important thing,

Both stars can act as well as sing,

He: the voice of the racoon from space,

She:  with her p-p-p-Poker Face.

And credit where credit is due,

Bradley Cooper directs this too.

The Oscars preferred the film, Green Book,

But this film too, is worth a look.

DVD review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story


Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes
Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.
Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.
He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.

Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom go to his head.
Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Collection

Carlton Publishing Group. RRP: £30. 1,096 pages. Approx 40 black and white illustrations. Out now: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thirteen decades after he first appeared, Sherlock Holmes is alive and well. The 21st century has already seen the arch sleuth successfully reviving director Guy Ritchie’s career with two enjoyable, if not too faithful films (there is soon to be a third) while the BBC’s modernised slick version of the stories made stars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Then, there’s the long-running US series, Elementary starring British actor Jonny Lee Miller which transposes Conan Doyle’s concept to 21st century LA. And that’s not even mentioning ‘comic’ interpretations such as Sherlock Gnomes and the truly disastrous “what on Earth were they thinking?”recent parody starring Will Ferrell and the usually excellent John C. Reilly.

It’s good to see amidst all this, that the original stories still hold up very well and remain popular. They are all presented in a high quality package here, in a fine cover with occasional illustrations throughout.

What else is there to say? Watson first meets Holmes in A Study In Scarlet, one of four long Holmes stories (including The Hound of the Baskervilles) amongst many short ones, themselves all spread across five books, all included in this one volume. Holmes frequently demonstrates powers of deduction so acute, that it seems unlikely they would work in real life. “I see from your steamed up glasses and muddy shoes, that you have a sister-in-law called Elsie who enjoys Gilbert and Sullivan and that your dentist once lost his hat to a swan in Stibbington,” is just one example, which I made up.

But these are great stories. Cocaine, violins and Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft appear very infrequently: the deerstalker and the phrase, “elementary, my dear Watson” never at all. One story relies on the reader not knowing what KKK stands for. But generally, they’ve aged well.

Hercules Poirot. Jane Marple. Lord Peter Wimsey. Father Brown. Reg Wexford. John Rebus. Endeavour Morse. Perhaps they all owe their existence to Sherlock Holmes?

Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle famously tired of his most famous character who he felt distracted from his other accomplishments. These included his attempts to prove conclusively that two Bradford schoolgirls with a pair of scissors and some copies of magazines with holes cut out of them, had uncovered the existence of fairies. Spoiler alert: they hadn’t.

One wonders: if Conan Doyle really wanted to destroy his hero forever, why did he “kill him off” in such an inconclusive way? Perhaps he couldn’t really bear to get rid of him. Millions of readers have felt similarly affectionate about his marvelous creation in the years since.

Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

A quick survey…

1.            Hello.

a)            Hello

b)            What?

c)            Yes, I am actually.

2.            Do you consider yourself to be psychic?

a)            No.

b)            Yes.

c)            I anticipated your question and have already answered it in question 1.

3.            Imagine the following scenario. You are completing an online survey when the following question arises. Is this…?:

a)            True.

b)            False.

4.            Which of these fictional characters best characterises your leadership style?

a)            Animal from The Muppet Show.

b)            Flipper the dolphin.

c)            Skeletor from He-Man.

d)            Donald Trump.

5.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

6.            You have survived a plane crash in the mountains. Everyone else on board has been killed. In addition to the human cargo, the plane had been transporting a large consignment of hazelnuts. Unfortunately, you are allergic to hazelnuts. You are starting to starve. What do you?

a)            Take a chance and eat the nuts. You have an epipen anyway.

b)            Start eating one of your dead colleagues. Hopefully, they won’t have been eating any nuts recently. If they have, it doesn’t really matter.

c)            Reject the whole question as being in rather poor taste. Although if I found out the person framing the question had a nut allergy himself, that would make it okay. Even if he hasn’t been in a plane crash.

7.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

8. You think you’re pretty clever don’t you? With your degree and everything. Well, I don’t think you are. In fact, I reckon I could have you. Do you want to have a fight?

a) Don’t be absurd man. We can resolve this like adults.

b). Yeah, alright. Do you want some? Come on then? Outside now.

9. Why do birds suddenly appear, every time that you’re near?

a) To be honest, I do always keep lots of bird seed in my pockets. That might be it.

b) I am Tippi Hedren.

10. Why?

a) Why not?

b) Why what?

c) Because.

d) Because because because because because because of the wonderful things he does.

11. You have arranged your perfect dream dinner party featuring a range of guests both living and dead, real and fictional. However, Trotsky has totally let you down by forgetting to bring the salad he promised to make for starters. Churchill seems to have been drinking before he even arrived and is in heated discussion with Napoleon, even though neither understand can each other as they both speak different languages. Alexander the Great is chatting to Stephen Fry but looks bored. Brian Cox the actor is proving much better company than the TV astronomer who you meant to invite would have been but Penelope Cruz and Uncle Bulgaria have already left together. Do you like Pepsi more than coke?

a) No.

b) Only if I am blindfolded first.

c) Aren’t they both coke anyway?

12. When will I be famous?

a)            I can’t answer. I can’t answer that.

b)            How old do you think I am? First, Tippi Hedren and now this. What’s the next question going to be about? Juliet sodding Bravo?

c)            I was actually still thinking about Uncle Bulgaria and Penelope Cruz from the last question.

13. You walk down a narrow corridor and come to a cavernous poorly lit room. As you advance forward you see hear a loud snoring sound. As your eyes adjust the sleeping body of a huge malevolent green OGRE homes into view. As you attempt to run away, the ogre’s eyes flick open. It is clearly angry and wants to fight. Do you…?

a) Roll a dice. Get a 6 and you successfully kill it and thrust a sword into its evil still beating heart. You get to carry on with the survey. Get anything less and the ogre bites your head off and you die. Redo the survey endlessly from question 1 until you can advance beyond this question. Good luck!

b) Pretend to roll a dice and get a 6. Way hey. You win. That’s what everyone else does. I bet you don’t know where your dice is anyway. Or die. Whatever.

14. Look at these words. Do they look better…like this? Or like…this?

a) The first one.

b) The second one.

c) They are both about the same.

d) Er…not sure…could you do it again please?

15. Have you ever attempted to conduct a citizen’s arrest on a serving police officer?

a) Yes.

b) No.

16. Which is scarier?

a) The Laughing Cow

b) The Jolly Green Giant.

c) Being sued for copyright infringement

17. You accidentally phone your old telephone number by mistake and inadvertently get through to a ten-year-old version of yourself from the past. What advice do you give to your young self?

a) Don’t bother watching Lost.

b) Buy some shares in mobile phone technology.

c) Don’t believe what people tell you. Father Christmas is real. Your parents are the ones who don’t really exist.

Thank you for your time…

Film review: Begin Again (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, November 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener Directed By: John Carney. Running Time: 104 minutes. UK Release Date: November 10, 2014 . Certificate: 15. Your Rating: 4 out of 5

Gretta (Knightley) is young, English and has some talent as a musician. She also has a good comedy sidekick/friend in Steve (James Corden). But her dreams of musical success in New York lie in tatters. After her recent break-up with boyfriend and collaborator Dave (Levine), she is bound for the next flight home.

Dan (Ruffalo), meanwhile, is middle-aged and seems to be on the way down after both a successful producing career and his marriage come to an end. He happens to see Gretta performing at an open mic session on her last night in town. Could this meeting be exactly what these two lost souls need?

Admittedly, this film from Once director John Carney sounds predictable as hell on paper and to some extent, this is true. But Ruffalo is great, making a potentially sleazy character likeable. Knightly can sing and has some nice scenes bonding with Dan’s teenage daughter. There are no real villains here – even Gretta’s ex has redeeming qualities and yes, this is relentlessly feelgood. But it’s not stupid either. So what’s wrong with that?

There is a “making of” featurette and some music videos on the DVD/Blu-ray. Haters of James Corden or Keira Knightley (and, yes, such people do exist) will want to steer clear and the music might repel some. But everyone else should find this an uplifting and rewarding musical treat.

Overall Verdict: The Hulk and Anna Karenina: together at last and unleashed on New York.

Special Features: The Making of Begin Again Featurette, Music Videos

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

Film review: Calvary (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, August 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed By: John Michael McDonagh. Running Time: 100 minutes. UK DVD Release Date: August 11, 2014. Certificate: 15

Your Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: Father James (Gleeson) is a priest. Once driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife, he appears to have found solace in his vocation, living a peaceful existence with his dog in an apparently serene Irish coastal village.

Or at least that would be the case if the villagers ever left him alone. Chris O’Dowd’s local butcher Jack, for example, has serious marital problems, his wife “sharing” him with another man. Then there’s the local millionaire Michael, played by Dylan Moran. Prone to alcoholism and urinating on priceless Holbein portraits, he is just one of the village’s many eccentrics whose grievances range from sexual frustration to an elderly American man (M. Emmett Walsh) who wants Father James to shoot him to death

Things get more personal, however, when the priest’s daughter (Reilly) turns up after a suicide attempt and Father James soon finds himself and his church subject to a series of threats and outright attacks from foes known and unknown.

Initially, it appears we might be in for a tale of whimsy and humour with the populace resembling the eccentric Craggy Islanders of Father Ted. But McDonagh (director of the lighter although similarly excellent The Guard, also starring Gleeson) makes it clear we’re in for a much darker adventure from the very first scene. There is humour here, yes. But all the characters seem deeply troubled, often by unspecified problems in their past. Moran’s Michael clearly has serious problems while some such as the doctor played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen seem to be positively evil. Although a genuinely good man himself, Father James soon faces the wrath of a very angry community reflecting an Ireland still scarred by the after-effects of the numerous real-life scandals concerning paedophile priests.

This is a superb film which benefits from all the cast truly giving their all even to the tiniest role.

Overall Verdict:

Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Just Like Heaven (2005)

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The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.

Sub-heading suggestions: Reese almighty/High spirits/Spirited away/While she was sleeping.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman

Director: Mark Waters

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures Original Release: 2005

The Lowdown: When ER doctor Elizabeth’s overworked, socially undernourished existence is brought to an abrupt halt by a wayward truck, she soon finds her spiritual form sharing her flat with lonely semi-alcoholic, widower architect David. But is Elizabeth really dead? Why can only David see her? And can stoner bookshop employee Darryl help?

Review: While few men would balk at the prospect of suddenly discovering Reese Witherspoon was their room-mate, Just Like Heaven is a rom-com with a supernatural twist. For as with Brad Pitt at the start of Meet Joe Black, here we’ve barely had a chance to get familiar with the overworked singleton lifestyle of Witherspoon’s medic (a sort of cross between Bridget Jones and the one of the cast of ‘ER’) before she has a close encounter with a runaway lorry and is killed.

However, as with the unfortunate couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment and railing against the intrusion of new resident David.

We’ve been here before, of course. In addition to the films already mentioned, Just Like Heaven draws on everything from (most obviously) Ghost, to the 1930s Topper movies and even has shades of While You Were Sleeping. But happily Just Like Heaven is (just) cute enough to get away with it’s somewhat less than groundbreaking premise.

Partly this is down to Reese Witherspoon. While (as with Sweet Home Alabama) she’s clearly working with less incisive material than in her best work (Election, Pleasantville) she is never less than her usual luminous and quirky onscreen self. As David, Ruffalo is less good, never really proving that he has the aptitude either for physical comedy or for the dour ‘sad Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle’ type romantic lead role the screenplay demands of him, though this isn’t a serious problem.

Indeed, comedic honours probably go to Jon Heder who as semi-psychic alternative bookshop assistant Darryl is good in his first significant if small post-Napoleon Dynamite role, a sort of stoner answer to Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost.

The film has its problems. For one thing, it’s rarely that funny. The early scenes detailing Elizabeth and David’s fractious first encounters wherein both argue vigorously over who is intruding upon whose flat are fine. Elizabeth (who like the ‘dead people’ in The Sixth Sense doesn’t know she’s a ghost) reasons that the drunken David is a vagrant who has wondered in off the streets. But the film gets funnier once David recognises Elizabeth is more than a product of his lonely alcoholic mind and enlists a range of solutions to vanquish her from the flat: namely a New Age guru, some amateurish ‘Ghostbusters’ and a priest who repeatedly intones “The power of Christ compels you!” to no discernible effect.

Some too, might lament that Waters, who did, after all, direct the dark edged Mean Girls in addition to cheerier fare such as Freaky Friday hasn’t produced a blacker film. But darkness and romantic comedy can be uneasy bedfellows and it’s probably to its benefit that Just Like Heaven is good-natured to its core.

Sadly, the extras never really rise above the average. The ‘Making Of’ featurette is the usual promotional fare and is supplemented by a similar and fairly unnecessary ‘Meet the Cast’ featurette (high court judges aside, even before Walk The Line was there anyone out there unfamiliar with Reese Witherspoon?). And despite the slightly surprising revelation that the film is based on a French novel (Marc Levy’s ‘If Only It Were True’), you’ll soon find your attention wandering during the filmmaker’s commentary.

Although in fairness this isn’t really the sort of film that readily lends itself to hours of dissection and analysis. For make no mistake: while this won’t linger long in the memory, Just Like Heaven is against all odds, one of the better romantic comedies of the past year. It’s just that as with ‘Great Films Starring Hilary Duff’ and ‘Intelligent Statements Made By President Bush’ this isn’t exactly an overcrowded field.

Final Verdict It’s not going to change the world but if you do fancy a Friday night date movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating FILM: 6 EXTRAS: 5

Text By Chris Hallam