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…

Upstart 3

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

English Scandal dvd

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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