DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

Out now

Directed by: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski, Rory Scovel, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) struggles in life. Working in the basement of an office block, running the website of a major cosmetics firm, she aspires to apply for the position of receptionist. But, crucially she lacks confidence. She is in fact perfectly attractive but being slightly overweight she feels anxious about her own appearance, a feeling re-enforced by the large number of models who are cast in the film alongside her.

She’s so big that she actually breaks the exercise bike she’s pedalling on in the gym. This sequence is played for laughs but completely fails to amuse. For one thing, the accident – were it real – looks quite painful. For another, Renee immediately walks out humiliated, as if it’s her own fault. Although it’s quite possible she might feel like this, nobody challenges this view in the film: clearly the accident was her own fault. She was too fat to go on an exercise bike. Stupid girl! In reality, she’s nowhere near overweight enough to have broken a fully functioning exercise bike. She should be suing them.

Later on, guess what? The same thing happens again. It’s still not funny, but this time has plot implications. Having just watched the bit in the fairground in the film, Big, Renee has desperately wished under a fountain, not to be “big” (quite the opposite) but to be beautiful. Now, soon after, thoroughly concussed after her second accident, she becomes convinced she’s very beautiful. In fact, no magical transformation has occurred. She’s physically exactly the same.

The film really isn’t very funny at all. That said, it is mildly amusing seeing Renee convinced she has been suddenly radically transformed. For a while anyway. She grows confident enough to land her dream job and make a big impression on the boss of the cosmetics firm (Michelle Williams – atypically annoying in a sub-Marilyn Monroe performance). She also lands a boyfriend – a genuinely nice guy (Scovel) – although a surprisingly ordinary one in the circumstances. She ultimately ends up getting too snobby and alienating her friends (Bryant and Philipps).

Amy Schumer is a major name in comedy these days and one senses I Feel Pretty has good intentions behind it. But it misdirects its fire somehow and, crucially, for a comedy,  just isn’t funny.

Worst of all: it doesn’t even have the song, I Feel Pretty, in it.

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DVD/Blu-ray review: March of the Penguins 2 – The Next Step

Release date: November 5th 2018

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The penguins are back. And this time, they’re mad as hell…
Thirteen years ago, the United States went penguin-crazy as the documentary film, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’Empereur) waddled to considerable box office success. It was a nicely made film and many people undeniably have a soft spot for these particular flightless birds. Despite this, many Britons were probably baffled by the film’s success which inevitably spread to the UK too. It is easy for us to forget that the US does not have high quality nature documentaries on TV fairly regularly. We have, in many ways, been spoilt by the licence fee and David Attenborough. We don’t know how lucky we are sometimes.
The film produced some odd side effects, however, with many eccentric American conservatives bending over backwards to find reassurance in right-wing lessons which they imagined the film had taught them as if it turned out an episode of Pingu had been secretly written by Ayn Rand. It is surprising that they were not put off by the fact the film was French, the French nation being held in even lower than usual regard by the US at the time after they’d sensibly avoided the Iraq War which both the US and UK had foolishly become embroiled in. The film’s success also led to a spate of slightly bizarre penguin-themed animations: Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two and Surf’s Up (although the last two of these flopped at the box office).
For various reasons, this sequel seems unlikely to set the world alight in quite the same way. It’s pretty similar to the first film. It looks nice. The English language version is again narrated by Morgan Freeman. The penguins are praised for their “good manners” as they walk along neatly. They do walk along neatly. It is nothing to do with “manners” though. That’s a human quality. It’s that sort of standard.
This was shown on a TV channel in the US, here it’s gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray. But don’t be fooled: if you saw March of the Penguins, rest assured: this is every bit as boring as the original. I pretty much forgot I’d ever seen it even before I finished watching it.

“Psst! The secret’s out…”

 

Welcome to Exeter: a city of witch trials, civil war sieges, uprisings, thwarted conquests and World War II bombing raids…

At least it was once…

Today Exeter is a modern, thriving and pleasant city, known for its cathedral, university, busy array of shops, cafés and restaurants and historic quayside. However, beyond its sometimes quirky, narrow streets, hide many lesser-known aspects in its history, those forgotten fragments of the city’s past that have thus far mostly eluded twenty-first-century attention.

How many people today, for example, know of the devastating Victorian theatre fire, the mass executions or of the multiple sieges that the city has endured during centuries of warfare? In Secret Exeter, local authors Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam attempt to shed light on the neglected corners of Exeter’s past.

From the introduction of Secret Exeter:

“Exeter is a fine place to live. Like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, it is neither too hot or too cold, but just right, (although it is admittedly sometimes too wet). It is the perfect size: it is not too big and not too small. Exeter is just big enough to be practical but not so gigantic as to be overwhelming. It is neither Brobdingnag or Lilliput. Assuming you are reasonably fit, it is easy to walk into the countryside from virtually anywhere in the city…

“But this is not a tourist brochure. The aim of Secret Exeter is to shed light on the hitherto less renowned aspects of Exeter history. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. On the one hand, Exeter’s history is very apparent. It’s hard to walk very far at all without seeing some reminder of it: a cannon on the Quayside, a statue of a soldier on a horse, a section of the city wall. On the other hand, these are all arguably so well-known and obvious as to not really qualify as ‘secret’: surely everyone knows about them? But while many people pass them by, few know their real history.

“Another factor is the surprisingly large number of obscure and sometimes incredible facts in the city’s history. Ultimately, we’ve decided not to try and second guess what people know, as it is impossible for us to know what you, the reader, is aware of. One person’s revelation is another’s hoary cliché. We hope everyone will find something in here that they didn’t know before, whether it’s murderous mayors or evidence of bomb damage that residents of the city may have walked past hundreds of times without knowing that’s what it was.

“Indeed, our particular interest isn’t only in telling the history and stories of Exeter past, but how hints and evidence of the city’s history still exist around every corner in buildings, place names and in the ground itself – as long as you know what you’re looking for.”

Secret Exeter

By Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam

Published by: Amberley

September 15th, 2018

96 pages

100 pictures

£13.49

https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/local-history/area/devon/secret-exeter.html

Author information

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough in 1976. He moved to Exeter in 2005 to write for a monthly DVD review magazine which Tim Isaac was the editor of. He has since written for the Exeter Express and Echo, Geeky Monkey, All About History, Best of British, Yours and Yours Retro magazines and has written several children’s annuals. He is married, lives in Exeter and can recite all the kings and queens back to 1066 in order.

Book review: Fighters and Quitters by Theo Barclay

Book review: Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations, by Theo Barclay. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell is often quoted as saying. Not all end in dramatic frontbench resignations, however. Except for those included in this thorough and entertaining collection by barrister Theo Barclay. Fighters and Quitters fills in the blanks on some of the great ministerial resignations of the last century. In most cases, transcripts of the resignation letters (and their replies) are included in full: a nice touch.

The selection process to decide which resignations should be focused on in the book does seem to have been a bit odd though. First up is the Duchess of Atholl, who resigned over Munich: an interesting case, which I knew little about. The Duchess should not be confused with another famous Atholl who resigned too late for this book: notably the total Atholl who resigned as Foreign Secretary last month (JOKE).

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We then jump to 1963 and John Profumo: undoubtedly a massive resignation and the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, skipping over Hugh Dalton’s “Budget leaks”, Nye Bevan’s “false teeth and spectacles” and Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, in the process (the Long Knives admittedly were more blatant sackings than resignations admittedly). Callaghan’s 1967 resignation over devaluation, George Brown’s 1968 departure as Foreign Secretary (after numerous empty threats to quit) and Reginald Maudling’s exit over the Poulson affair are all missed out.

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John Stonehouse and Jeremy Thorpe are covered. Both remain remarkable stories, but neither were particularly characterised by the resignations of the key participants.

The three big ministerial resignations of the Thatcher era (aside from the Iron Lady herself) do feature here: Heseltine, Lawson and Howe, the last two sharing a chapter. Other potentially interesting cases up to the present: Lord Carrington, John “here today, gone tomorrow” Nott, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffery Archer, David Mellor, Norman Lamont and David Blunkett are missing too. Probably I am asking far too much to expect all of these to be included. Nevertheless, the selection process does seem inconsistent.

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Despite this, if you do enjoy accounts of ministerial resignations – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this a solid, exhaustively researched read in which Barclay subjects the last thirty years to particularly intense scrutiny. He also redresses the balance in many cases.

Twenty years on, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” and certainly his explanation for it seem madder than ever (overwhelmed by tiredness, he went to stretch his legs on Clapham Common in the middle of the night, met a man and agreed to go for a takeaway with him, before being robbed apparently). Edwina Currie, meanwhile “was the victim of a corporatist stitch-up, but it arose out of a crisis created by her own big mouth.” Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, seems genuinely hard done by. The general view that the late Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq was principled and honourable (he in fact left it far too late to prevent anything) while Clare Short’s was hypocritical and self-serving (she in fact seemed very well-intentioned) is rightly reassessed.

An excellent read.

Edwina Currie launches new British Lion Code of Practice

Book review: Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History

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Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s Story Told Through 50 Important Documents. Carlton Publishing Group. Out: now. RRP: £20

Like a real life, latter-day Henry and Indiana Jones, father and son writing and broadcasting team, Peter and Dan Snow apply their formidable powers to an analysis of our nation’s history through an examination of fifty key historical documents. This isn’t, of course, very similar to ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in most respects (most things aren’t). But what this lacks in machine guns, Nazi airships, cameos by Alexei Sayle and the ghosts of medieval crusader knights, this more than makes up for in incisive and intelligent historical insight drawn from the Snow Boys’ seventy or so years of collective writing and journalistic experience.

All the usual suspects are here such as Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Munich Agreement. There are also a few unexpected treats like the Queen’s chilling ‘speech in the event of a nuclear war’ from 1983.

The documents are reproduced nicely, making this an attractive and readable book: a coffee table read for someone with a huge cup of coffee.

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Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Fido

Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not real.

He seems so fully realised, with his maddening powers of perception and endearing eccentricities (violin-playing, cocaine: both habits which tend to be rather less endearing in reality), that it is sometimes hard to accept that he isn’t, or at least wasn’t once, a living breathing person.

Is it really possible to deduce as he so often does, from say, a dash of baking powder scattered on the front of your shoes that you went on holiday to Turkey last year, or that you work as a tree surgeon, or that your maternal grandmother’s name was ‘Elsie’ or that you voted for the SDP in the 1983 General Election? Who knows? If so, perhaps the web isn’t the greatest threat to our personal data, after all.

Experienced crime fiction expert Martin Fido here provides a thorough guide to all things Sherlock anyway, which should satisfy all regardless of whether your own Holmes of preference is Benedict, Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, Rathbone or Basil The Great Mouse Detective.

Comprehensive, my dear Watson.

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Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes: The Facts and Fiction Behind The World’s Greatest Detective, by Martin Fido.

Published by: Carlton Books

Out: now

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Book review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

 

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“I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open,” writes Matt Haig. “Too much clutter on the desktop.”

He is not the only one.

In recent years, the world has become an increasingly anxious and stressful place. And Haig should know: he has suffered from debilitating attacks of depression in the past himself. This book is essentially a follow-up to his bestselling 2015 account of his own experiences, Reasons To Stay Alive. This book is less about Haig himself though. It is more of a self-help book, divided into short, concise chapters. And I’m well aware the phrase “self-help book” is not exactly inspiring. But this isn’t the usual Eat Drink Pray Shoots and Leaves dross. Haig (a talented novelist) can write and knows what he’s talking about.

So what is the problem? Part of it is down to the rapid rise of technology. At one point, Haig lists a selection of technological developments we have become accustomed to just since the start of the 21st century. It’s a surprisingly long list.

Supermarkets radiate harsh electric light. Twitter debates turn everyone into either a friend or foe in an instant. A simple viewing of a news broadcast can be a harrowing experience.

Haig is certainly not anti-technology per se: he is a prolific user of Twitter himself and recognises the importance of the resources of emotional support the internet can provide. But he cautions against overuse of these medium, such as the endless mindless trawling of the internet, so often carried out on our mobile phones. Perhaps you are even doing this now as you read this. If so, cut it out. Or at least, think about how much time you’re doing this.

At one point, Haig summarises a small part of his argument in a poem:

“When anger trawls the internet,

Looking for a hook;

It’s time to disconnect,

And go and read a book.”

Perhaps start with this one. You could do a lot worse.

Notes on a Nervous Planet: How To Survive the 21st Century

Author: Matt Haig

Out: now

Published by: Canongate

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Blu-ray review: Game Night

Game Night

Thirty-something couple, Max and Annie Davis (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) like games. Nothing weird, just simple quiz games, or perhaps charades or Pictionary, usually with a group of friends once a week at their house. Ultra-competitive, the couple first met during a particularly exhilarating quiz session while Gary even managed to incorporate his successful marriage proposal into one of their ‘Game Nights’.

The only awkward point about this arrangement is Gary, their next-door neighbour. An intense and socially maladjusted cop, Gary (Jesse Plemons) is more the ex-husband of a friend than a friend in his own right and with his marriage now a thing of the past, Max and Annie are not particularly keen to invite him over.

The other fly in the ointment is Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s rich, successful and similarly competitive brother. Brooks’ occasional visits have a way of getting under Max’s skin. Indeed, it is during a special “Game Night” apparently initially organised by Brooks, that Brooks is kidnapped. Here the fun begins: is the “kidnapping” just part of a game or has Brooks been genuinely abducted after getting involved in some shady business dealings? And, more to the point, if, as seems likely, Brooks is in genuine trouble, will Max and Annie and his four game-obsessed friends ever realise what’s going on?

Game Night is a good, lightweight piece of evening entertainment boosted by a strong cast which includes TV’s Catastrophe star, Sharon Horgan and a wonderfully intense turn from Plemons as cop next door, Gary. There are lots of fun film references – Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play a couple under strain after she blurts out that she once had sex with a celebrity whose name she won’t reveal – and Rachel McAdams and Billy Magnussen particularly demonstrates again their real comic flair, the latter as Ryan, the least intelligent person in the film.

At one point, it is revealed, Max’s stresses about Brooks are hampering his attempts to help Annie conceive: an unnecessary element in what is essentially a far fetched escapist comedy. This aspect also makes Max and Annie seem even more like Chandler and Monica Bing in the later episodes of TV’s Friends.

But in general, this is an enjoyable, forgettable diversion: a welcome Saturday night alternative to your own game of choice, be it Risk, Scrabble or ‘Naked’ Twister.

Blu-ray: Out now

Released by: Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Bonus features:

Gag Reel

An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night Featurette

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DVD review: A Very English Scandal

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Forty or so years ago, an extraordinary thing happened. One of the leading political figures of the day, was arrested, charged and tried for conspiracy to murder. The recent BBC drama A Very English Scandal based on the recent non-fiction book by John Preston, brings the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott vividly to life on screen. Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and architect of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who, presents the story with clarity, humour but also the appropriate level of drama.

He is helped immeasurably by a near perfect cast. Hugh Grant, for so long the victim of a bullying press, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, his credentials as an actor of both depth and maturity. He captures perfectly the upper-class charm of the dynamic, hat-wearing old Etonian, Thorpe, who between 1967 and 1976 was amongst the most appealing leaders the Liberal Party ever had. Privately, however, Thorpe (who appeared for a short while in 1974 to be close to achieving a position of influence in a coalition government) was a deeply flawed individual, drawn to extreme solutions when he fears his personal life is erupting into scandal. Grant captures this dark side of Thorpe too.

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Ben Whishaw is also great Norman Scott, the troubled young man who came perilously close to becoming the victim in the farcical dog shooting incident on Dartmoor. The real Scott was grossly mistreated by both Thorpe and a legal process skewed against him by the unscrupulous but brilliant George Carman QC (played here by the excellent Adrian Scarborough) and the absurdly biased and pro-establishment judgement of presiding judge, Sir Joseph Cantley. In a notorious eccentric summing up, later expertly parodied by Peter Cook, Cantley said of Scott, “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite…But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”

Scott deserved better. This breezy, watchable and highly compelling drama directed by Stephen Frears and packed with star turns from a cast which includes Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Michelle Dotrice, Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins at least goes some way towards redressing the balance. It is one of the best of the year so far.

DVD: A Very English Scandal

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release: July 2nd 2018

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