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.

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.

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

DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

DVD review: Wanderlust

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Joy and Alan’s marriage is in trouble. Joy (Toni Collette) is a relationships counsellor but has recently (ahem) enjoyed a mutual masturbation session with a man she met during swimming class. “You’re terrible Muriel,” indeed!
Alan (Stephen Mackintosh), meanwhile, is a schoolteacher who has boffed a younger attractive colleague (Fresh Meat star, Zawe Ashton).
Both tell their other half straight away. But can their marriage be saved? Joy thinks so. She has a radical solution: why don’t they continue their external relationships and just be completely open with their partner about what’s going on?
Will this ever work? How will it affect their three teenage children? And what exactly did happen on the day of Joy’s biking accident?
Wanderlust suffered a little from over-hype about its sex scenes on TV. It’s not that rude in truth and much of the cast particularly Collete (convincingly English-sounding, despite her antipodean background), Ashton and the talented Andy Nyman, in a small part, are great. Ultimately, however, the pace does rather slacken and like Joy and Alan’s sex lives at the start, it does rather run out of steam.

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: 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.

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 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 feared his personal life was erupting into scandal. Grant captures this dark side of Thorpe too.

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Ben Whishaw is also great as Norman Scott, the troubled young man who came perilously close to becoming the victim in the farcical dog shooting incident on Dartmoor. In court, the real Scott was grossly mistreated by both Thorpe and a legal process skewed against him by the unscrupulous but brilliant lawyer, 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 comedian. 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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DVD review: Inside No.9 – Series Four

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Cert: 15. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Kevin Eldon, Emilia Fox, Bill Paterson, Sian Gibson, Noel Clarke, Nicola Walker, Nigel Planer, Helen Monks

Four years after the series launched with the hilarious but increasingly sinister wardrobe-based adventure, Sardines, former League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to astound with six more often funny, frequently sinister half hour comedy dramas. As before, all are linked by the fact they involve the number 9 in some way.

Despite the fact its story-line incorporates murder, adultery and suicide, the first episode Zanzibar is positively cheery by Inside No. 9 standards, a breathtaking, star-studded hotel-based farce with strong Shakespearean overtones. The whole thing is written entirely in iambic pentameter and is quite, quite brilliant.

Even so, the series highlight might actually be the second episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Detailing a heartbreaking and seemingly ill-advised reunion between two Eighties comedians, it manages to be both funny and desperately moving.

Like the early Christopher Nolan film Memento, the third episode, Once Removed gradually unravels its clever homicidal story-line by showing its scenes in reverse order. To Have And To Hold, meanwhile (an episode which, it must be said, rarely even tries to be funny) presents an uncomfortable portrait of an unhappy marriage. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Finally, And The Winner Is… takes a look behind the scenes at the judging process of a major TV award while Tempting Fate focuses on a clear-out following the death of a local hoarder.

These last two episodes are probably the weakest. But this is not a major criticism. Inside No.9 remains head and shoulders above virtually everything else on TV.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

The Green-Eyed Monster

A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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DVD review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

CLINTON GLOBAL INITIATIVE, 092309

It’s often tempting to speculate what might have happened had Al Gore won the 2000 presidential elections instead of George W. Bush. Until we remember: he actually did.

Cheated out of the presidency by voting irregularities in Florida and a conservative supreme court, Gore (a politician with long standing environmental interests) then addressed the issue of climate change in the 2006 documentary hit An Inconvenient Truth.

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Eleven years on, this follow-up perhaps inevitably has slightly less of the impact of the first film. But it’s still a good message to be getting out there, partly because the most convincing counter-argument the Right have thus far come up with seems to be little better than “how can global warming exist when it’s occasionally slightly cold in parts of my house?”

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And partly because the Trump administration’s blinkered attitude to climate chain makes Bush look like Captain Planet  in comparison.

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DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

Cert: 18. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Tamzin Outhwaite, Peter Kay

Continuing in the richly darkly comic vein of the previous two series, onetime League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith write and perform in six more one off stories, all linked by the fact that they involve the number nine.

For the 2016 Christmas special The Devil At Christmas, we join the Devonshire family (including Pemberton, plus his pregnant wife played by Jessica Raine and mother-in-law Rula Lenska) as they embark on an alpine holiday in 1970s Austria. Ingeniously, the episode is presented in the form of a 1970s film apparently being accompanied by a DVD audio commentary supplied by the production’s director (voiced by Derek Jacobi). There’s thus more than a shade of Acorn Antiques or perhaps Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as continuity errors within the slightly shoddily made film within the film abound. But this not detract from an undeniably dark undercurrent. As local guide Klaus (Shearsmith) tells of the legend of Krampus (a sort of demonic anti-Santa), it becomes apparent something very sinister is going on both within the film but also behind the scenes. Ironically, this episode also comes with its own audio commentary on this actual DVD.

The second episode, The Bill deals with a perhaps more familiar setting as a group of businessmen including two played by Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins, meet for dinner. Matters escalate dramatically and alarmingly during negotiations over payment of the bill at the end of the night.

Series Two’s third episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith was the standout episode and the same may well be true of The Riddle of the Sphinx in Series Three. Both terrifically clever and ultimately quite horrific, the story sees Pemberton playing a legendary puzzle compiler known as “the Sphinx” tutoring a wayward student (Alexandra Roach) who has broken into his quarters in the ways of the cryptic crossword. Like most such crosswords, nothing is quite what it first appears to be.

Empty Orchestra is, of course, as cryptic crossword fans will know, the literal meaning of the Japanese word karaoke. Set at a somewhat turbulent office party situated in a karaoke bar, the increasingly acrimonious mood amongst the work mates, all under threat of redundancy, is cleverly matched by the selection of songs.

To say the penultimate episode of the series Diddle Diddle Dumpling dealing with a husband (Shearsmith’s) obsession with a stray number nine shoe which he has found, is the weakest of these six episodes is no insult. The standard is very high.

Finally, Private View  set in a sinister art exhibition features the distinguished likes of Morgana Robinson and Felicity Kendall, plus a bizarre cameo from Peter Kay. It combines horror and comedy just as brilliantly as Series Two’s finale Séance Time did and satisfactorily brings to an end another superb series.

DVD review: Sing Street

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Dublin, 1985 and teenager Conor is having a tough time. His home life is hell as he and his older brother and sister are forced to support each other as their parents are totally distracted by an ugly break-up. What’s more, Conor is forced to attend a tough new school where he faces a daily battle to avoid being beaten up by the other pupils as well as by the priests who are supposed to be running it. As if all that wasn’t enough, the Irish Republic is in the doldrums with many young people pinning all their hopes on escape to the UK, itself experiencing record breaking levels of unemployment under Margaret Thatcher at this time.

Thankfully, Conor has two great comforts: firstly, his love of music, encouraged by his brother (US actor Reynor), who though only slightly older seems to have otherwise already given up on life and secondly, his passion for attractive local girl Raphina (Boynton). He attempts to fuse these two interests together by forming a band in a bid to win his girl over.

It may seem bizarre to describe Sing Street as a feelgood film, given this review’s first paragraph, but though it has a harder edge to it than John Carney’s Once and Begin Again (the last of these is reviewed here http://bit.ly/2abGb3M), this is still generally uplifting stuff. The generally young cast is great, particularly Walsh-Peelo as Conor/Cosmo. Particularly amusing is the band’s tendency to instantly transform their image according to the fashions of the day: New Romantic one minute, Goth the next.

Criminally overlooked at the cinemas, this is one of the most charming, enjoyable films of 2016.

And the soundtrack is awesome.

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Director:John Carney

Special Features:

Go Now by Adam Levine

The Making of Go Now Featurette

A Beautiful Sea Live Performance

Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Ben Carolan

Lionsgate. Release date: August 8th 2016

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Blu-ray review: High-Rise

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith. Director: Ben Wheatley. Released: June 18th 2016.Studio Canal

Anarchy has often made material for some surprisingly dull films.

As exciting (or depending on your viewpoint) terrifying as a good riot may be, its difficult to maintain the sustained energy of a genuine rumpus for long on screen. It’s true Quadrophenia was enlivened by a memorable battle between Mods and Rockers while Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was essentially all a big build up to an urban riot. But JG Ballard’s celebrated 1975 dystopian drama High-Rise is all about a riot: essentially a sky rise building’s not so gradual descent into violence and barbarism. How long can a film continue to shock, titillate and surprise you over a two hour period?

Quite a lot as it happens. Hot British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) is in many ways a perfect fit for this sort of thing and ably assisted by a cast of beautiful and not so beautiful people, this just about works while never quite scaling the heights of a novel which has influenced everything from the Blockmania of Judge Dredd to David Cronenberg’s early tower block based horror Shivers.

Indeed, as the accompanying featurette on author JG Ballard reminds us, Cronenberg is one of a number of directors (along with Spielberg) to tackle the late author’s books before. Set in a futuristic version of the Britain of the 1970s and featuring audio commentaries and interviews with cast and crew, High-Rise probably won’t be your favourite film of this year. But it will probably be one of the more interesting.

 

 

DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Blackadder’, indeed, the three best series of ‘Blackadder’. The ghost of ‘Blackadder II’ hangs over ‘Upstart Crow’ which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as ‘Blackadder II’ (few things are), but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of ‘Raised By Wolves’ in an underwritten part) and two elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act, a profession not then open to women, his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played as an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of ‘Blackadder’ in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of ‘Blackadder II’s final episode ‘Chains’.

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‘Upstart Crow’ goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (‘Spaced’, ‘Friday Night Dinner’) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny in his portrayal of Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss-take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but the co-creator of ‘The Office’ has seen his stock fall while Ben Elton’s has risen since then. ‘Upstart Crow’ is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

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DVD review: This Life: The Complete Collection

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BBC Worldwide

Out now

Cast: Amita Dihri,  Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini, Ramon Tikaram

It has now been twenty years since we were first introduced to the five twentysomething London lawyers who made up BBC drama, This Life.

Who could forget them?

Anna (Nardini): perhaps the most memorable character, sharp tongued feisty, yet ultimately vulnerable and totally fixated on her end of term one night stand, Miles (Davenport), posh, misogynist, homophobic and snobbish, but one senses, as human as anyone else underneath. Then there’s Egg (Lincoln), perhaps the nicest character in the house although clearly not as cut out for a career in law as his sexy, ambitious girlfriend Milly (Dhiri) seems to be. Last but not least comes gay Welshman, Warren (Hughes), inclined towards  regular visits to a therapist and occasional moments of madness. He is later joined by troubled bisexual, Ferdy (Tikaram).

The show did not really catch fire during its first eleven-part run in 1996, perhaps because many episodes were written by Amy Jenkins, who despite receiving much acclaim for creating the series was never actually one of its strongest writers. But during its longer 20 episode second series in 1997, something magical started to happen. This Life grew to be cult viewing: totally unmissable and was much mourned after its spectacular Series 2 finale.

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Has This Life dated? Yes, of course. It would be odd if it hadn’t. Everyone seems to smoke more than they do today (at least on TV) and the house enjoys a constant backdrop of music by the likes of Radiohead, Suede and the Sneaker Pimps. The internet is spoken of only as a distant futuristic thing as demonstrated when Miles becomes one of the last people on Earth to post a dating ad in an actual magazine.

On the other hand, the “shaky” naturalistic camerawork much commented on at the time is barely noticeable now (though the camerawork remains interesting and occasionally prone to close-ups). A young, then unknown Martin Freeman crops up in one episode, as a party guest who won’t leave. But the show was ahead of it’s time in its attitude to gays and drug use and one suspects it has dated far less than a 1976 drama series would have had that been screened twenty years later in 1996.

Twenty years on (and ten years after the  underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  which is also included in this DVD set). the saddest thing is that while the principal male cast are all still a regular presence on our screens  – particularly Andrew Lincoln who now stars in hit US zombie drama, The Walking Dead – Nardini and Dhiri have never become stars. Still, the smaller female parts such as Natasha Little (who plays the bane of Milly’s office existence, Rachel) and Luisa Bradhaw-White (sassy office temp Kira, but now an EastEnders regular) have all done well.

And the really good news is that This Life is either a) as good as you remember or b) very watchable if you’ve never seen it before.

As Warren would say: “Hysterical.”

This Life

DVD review: The Story of 2000AD

Future-ShockImagine it’s March 1977, you have 8p and you want a comic. Let’s assume you want a boy’s comic: it was a sexist world back then. There are lots to choose from. Perhaps you want a funny one like The Beano, The Dandy, The Beezer, The Topper, Whoopee!, Buster or Whizzer and Chips? Or something harder edged? Tiger, Battle or a new science fiction comic with a free “space spinner” on the front?

2000AD emerged from the ashes of Action comic, which was withdrawn due to its violent content in the mid-1970s. Did anyone present at 2000AD’s creation, imagine it would still be going in the then far flung futuristic year of 2000AD? A year by which time most of the children who had bought Prog 1 would be in their thirties, many with children of their own? It seems unlikely. It is now 39 years on from that first issue. Those same readers of Prog 1 would now be in their fifties, at least. None of the comics mentioned above are now going with the exceptions of The Beano which began in 1938. And 2000AD itself.

This documentary tells the story of the galaxy’s greatest comic which despite Action’s fate (or perhaps because of it) has always been pretty violent. After an exciting animated opening sequence in which many of the comic’s monochrome heroes – Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, Zenith – move very slightly against a thumping rock soundtrack, it’s perhaps disappointing that most of the film is spent in the company of a group of ageing, sometimes not very articulate men. Some are enthusiastic. Some are quite bitter.

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Pat Mills is the star. Passionate and profane about the early days, angry about the 1990s days of decline, he is still with the comic. Others left during the 1980 s comics “brain drain”. Neil Gaiman seems genuinely emotional about Alan Moore’s failure to complete his brilliant Ballad of Halo Jones a full thirty years later. Some rage at the appalling way some artists’ work was treated. Others praise 2000AD for crediting its writers and artists properly (in a special “credit card” box) something few British comics did up until then. One fan, Ex Machina director and author of The Beach, Alex Garland wrote the screenplay to Dredd, a huge improvement on the disastrous 1990s attempt to film the 22nd century fascistic lawman starring Sylvester Stallone. Other films seem to have liberally stolen from the comic.

None of the writers seem to have liked Tharg the Mighty, the comic’s fictional alien editor very much, presumably because most have presumably endured a stint answering letters on his behalf (including, two from a teenage “C Hallam, Peterborough” in 1993). Tharg also introduced the occasional Twilight Zone-style Futureshock stories, often used as a testing ground for upcoming writers and artists.

A fine tribute anyway to a fine comic. Until next time: Splundig Vur Thrigg Earthlets!

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Blu-ray review: The Walk

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Many people have a hobby. Some collect Smurfs. Others do DIY. Others like to record their opinions of recent film releases for public consumption.

But not everyone’s the same. In the 1970s, Frenchman Philippe Petit directed all of his free time towards achieving one single goal: walking by tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In addition to the obvious perils: the great height, unexpected crosswinds, the possibility that Jeff Bridges might be attempting to climb the towers at the same time to rescue Jessica Lange from King Kong in a poorly realised remake, Petit and his chums also faced the added complication that the WTC was brand new and not yet officially open to the public in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in to do it but risked serious jail-time afterwards.

Just as the real life Petit (for this is a true story) faced plenty of obstacles, so too, did onetime Back To The Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis in seeking to dramatise this story for the big screen. For one thing, many people watching will probably know the outcome of the famous walk already, potentially robbing the film of any dramatic tension. The story was also already filmed as the 2008 documentary, Man On Wire. This shouldn’t be confused with Bird on a Wire which is something else entirely.

The film begins rather whimsically with a few scenes filmed in black and white with occasional flashes of colour rather like a cheerier version of Schindler’s List. This doesn’t last long.

Others may start to worry when it emerges that US actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing Petit with a French accent, narrating the film while overlooking the towers from the vantage point of the top of the nearby Statue of Liberty. But they need not worry. Levitt is great. His accent is excellent and as the accompanying featurette reveals he quickly demonstrated a rare aptitude for tightrope-walking himself.

While one would expect all the drama to focus on “the walk” itself, the film does a good job of being compelling throughout its running time helped by a good cast and special effects which recreate the doomed World Trade Centre with a strong sense of authenticity. Petit himself seems to have been a somewhat temperamental character, his desire to complete the walk which he sees as a great work of “art” sometimes bringing him into conflict with his long-suffering girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) and equally temperamental mentor Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley). The latter sees the walk as performance only and urges the younger man to wear a safety harness, to no avail.

In the end, Petit’s timing was unfortunate from a publicity point of view. His exploit was knocked off the world news headlines by the news of the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following day, one of the biggest news stories of the century.

Ultimately,  Zemeckis’s touch is as sophisticated as Petit’s own rare sense of balance, the film only subtly alluding to the tragic events which most of us primarily remember the World Trade Centre for today.

Review: 4 out of 5

The Walk

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running time: Deleted Scenes

First Steps – Learning To Walk The Wire Featurette

Running time: 123 minutes

DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

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DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

BBC Worldwide

Out now

Starring: Peter Kay, Sian Gibson

The year 2015 was, amongst other things, the year it became okay to like Peter Kay again. This was partly down to his recent winning turn as Danny Baker’s cockney father in the Seventies-set Cradle To Grave. But it was also undoubtedly mostly achieved through this, his first ever BBC 1 sitcom, performed with his own accent and the less well known but no less excellent actress Sian Gibson.

Gibson (actually a long term Kay collaborator, appearing as one of Paddy’s conquests in Phoenix Nights) plays Kayleigh, a supermarket sales rep thrown together with assistant manager John (Kay) by the company’s car share scheme. The premise of each episode is simplicity itself. John drives them both to work in the first half, and then drives them home in the second. And everything occurs against the nostalgic sounds of the 80s and 90s provided by the authentically amateurish soundtrack of Forever FM (surely a more sophisticated version of Phoenix Nights’ Chorley FM?) billowing perpetually through the car radio.

Both John and Kayleigh are single and approaching their forties, yet otherwise seem like opposites. John relishes order and claims to like being on his own, having suffered a series of bad break-ups in the past. Although pleasant, he is easily riled by pedantic issues which he deems wrong, such as adults using the lollypop man to cross the road. Kayleigh, in contrast, often seems to live in a state of chaos, insulting John on their first meeting by wrongly thinking him gay and by accidentally spilling a urine sample over him. A later episode where she goes to work drunk seems a little overdone and she is occasionally a bit too squeaky. But this odd couple work together brilliantly: this is ultimately Peter and Sian’s Car Share, not just Peter Kay’s.

There is little to fault here. Even the occasional fantasy sequences, notably a Bedknobs and Broomsticks style underwater imaging set to the tune of Hanson’s MMMBop (which occurs when Kayleigh has a panic attack in a car wash) work even though they feel like they shouldn’t. Kayleigh doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and thinks dogging is something very different to what it actually is.

These are marvellous comic creations.

Belter. Roll on Series 2.