DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

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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

SingStreet

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 his 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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Programme Name: Upstart Crow – TX: n/a – Episode: Upstart Crow – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Greene (MARK HEAP) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Colin Hutton

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 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 as 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 post-Office comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but his stock has fallen and 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.

p03vbsb4Released: BBC Worldwide. Out: now. Starring: David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Tim Downie, Helen Monks, Mark Heap

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 fixated on university 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 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 creating the series was never 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 proven 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 Martin Freeman crops up in one episode. 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 slightly underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  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 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 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 bed in their fifties, at least. None of the above comics are now going with the exceptions of The Beano which began in 1938 and 2000AD.

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 ageing, sometimes not very articulate, often Scots 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, no doubt, two from a teenage “C Hallam, Peterborough” in about 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 not yet officially open in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in 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 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 (Le Bon) and equally temperamental mentor Papa Rudy (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 rubbish 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 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 the forty mark, yet otherwise seem like opposites. John relishes order and claims to like being on his own, after a series of bad break ups. Although pleasant, he is easily riled by pedantic issues such as adults using the lollypop man to cross. 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.

But 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. These are marvellous comic creations (Kayleigh doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and thinks doggIng is something different to what it actually is).

Belter. Roll on Series 2.

 

 

 

DVD review: Ultimate Bill Hicks

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1994 was a real bugger of a year for premature celebrity deaths. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain shot himself, Labour leader John Smith (still too young at 55) died suddenly after a heart attack, motor racing driver Ayrton Senna died in a crash and US comedian Bill Hicks died age 32,

I was 17 at the time but have no memory of this whatsoever. Like many Britons, I would have had no idea who he was. Like many people, I’ve discovered him since his death. Twenty two years on, he is still brilliantly uncompromising, sharp edged and funny.

This set includes One Night Stand (1989), Sane Man (1989).Revelations (1993) and the 1994 documentary It’s Just A Ride. All are worth watching though some inevitably feature the same material and are presented in a dated way. Hicks contained a new topical resonance in 2003 and watching his diatribes against Bush (as in the first one) and the Middle East oil war in Revelations it is easy to see why.

So, at the risk of incorporating a Hicks line into an advertising slogan (a medium hicks always despised): what you reading for? Go out and get it.

DVD release date: November 23rd 2015. Rating: 18

DVD review: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

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Warning: Karl Pilkington does not moan like he used to.

Don’t worry: he hasn’t stopped completely and still retains his distinctive, unique and often hilarious world view. But, on this evidence, his reputation as a serial moaner is undeserved. Pilkington is often understandably bewildered by many of the strange people and bizarre practices he encounters here, but he embraces most of what he sees and confronts many challenges – night club dancing, ironing in a remote and precarious American location and even going on patrol as a superhero, head on.

Probably the main difference from his earlier series An Idiot Abroad, is the absence of the sometimes cruel presence of Pilkington’s old compadres Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Rather than being sent to random locations as to their whim, here Pilkington is able to travel to some marvellous locations to meet some often very odd people in the hope of gaining enlightenment on a range of topics including Art, Identity and How To Live Your Life. Through it all he remains, his usual self: both very ordinary and also unique, devoted to his girlfriend back in the UK and often and seemingly unintentionally, very very funny.

He meets some strange types here including as Utah man who has five wives, an Indian who offers an unconvincing argument on the merits of drinking urine, a 91 year old woman skydiver and a young lady who specialises in vomiting up her own works of art. If some of this sounds crude, well, it sometimes is. The worse thing about the show is that the director seems obsessed with showing someone vomiting at least once in every episode.

But Karl whether railing against solar power, defending Ebeneezer Scrooge or being totally astonished to find that he actually quite likes wearing a wig, is the key to the show’s success.

And despite what I said earlier: her does still moan a bit.

DVD: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

Release date: November 23rd 2015

BBC Worldwide