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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 1 – The Impossible Astronaut


I was blown away by last night’s opener to the new series. It has once again confirmed my belief that Steven Moffat is an absolute, scientifically certified genius. He joins the handful of men whose lives I would like to steal, perhaps via some sort of wickedly clever sci-fi device, that of course, damn him, only he could probably dream up.

I was always a fan of Russell T. Davies and both Eccleston’s and Tennant’s Doctors, but for me there’s no doubt that Davies was always playing things safe now. Moffat has grabbed the nation’s beloved Timelord by the lapels and thrown him headlong into a series of interlinked stories, that are simultaneously the same and completely new. By taking risks Moffat has shown just how masterfully clever, funny, scary and gripping Doctor Who can be. People really ought to see that this is Television at its best, and writing at its best. If they don’t they are dullards with tame imaginations and bland dreams. When they blew out birthday candles as a child they probably wished that the trains would run on time. I’m sticking my neck out here.

But I’m being so uncharacteristically passionate and assured of myself for good reason: The Impossible Astronaut was an impossibly confident and swaggering opening to any series in the world. It wasn’t trying to please or conforming to any tried and tested formula. It was the realisation of playful ideas and desires formed in Moffat’s marvellous head. As several commentators have remarked, this is probably how Moffat always wished Doctor Who should be. He loved it but he knew it could be better. With all of time and space to play with, Doctor Who should never be safe, never be predictable, and never be limited. It should always be surprising and inventive. Moffat sees this.

And how I missed that music! The bow tie, the tweed, that blue box and Doctor Who Confidential!

With last year’s climatic two parter, Moffat showed he could do story arcs, drama and spot on contrast better than his predecessor. This time he’s once again wonderfully flipped expectations on their heads by beginning his second series at the helm with all the secrets and emotional punches of a series finale. And he set it in glorious 60s America!

FROM NOW ON THE SPOILERS BEGIN

He killed the bloody Doctor! In the first episode! And in all interviews he insists it’s real death, seemingly inescapable death, an end beyond even the healing powers of regeneration. All the clues within the show suggest it’s the actual end of the Doctor. Knowing Moffat, the answers to this, the biggest question of all, certainly will not be resolved in the second episode. Of course there’ll probably be a get out but knowing Moffat, not an easy one. The implications will hang over the entire series. And given the way he ended the last series, with the mysterious manipulator of the Tardis still hidden, and the half built Tardis in the Lodger unexplained (it turned up last night though!?), he could well carry the question of the Doctor’s death over to his third series.

 After all the Doctor we’re left with is two hundred years younger than the one so thrillingly and absorbingly killed. Moffat sent him gallivanting through history at the beginning, something Davies would never have done but is far truer to the potential of the character. He is not hopelessly tied to companions; he can travel in time for god’s sake.

The Silence are brilliant monsters. In appearance they pay gothic homage to the classic Roswell alien, but their defining ability is so very Moffat; you look away and you forget you ever saw them. Hence the tagline: “Monsters are real”. The image of them in Secret Service suits was so iconic and striking and scary, but not all that original. Crucially with Moffat it’s the ideas that have to be good first and foremost.

All the performances are improved from last time out, and in particular Smith as the Doctor himself is now completely confident. The role is his own. Moffat’s more intriguing Doctor is his Doctor and vice versa; the writing makes him so good, but Moffat’s writing also needs talented interpretation and portrayal.

So many questions were raised; I worry for even Moffat’s genius as to how they are resolved. The impact of any story arc will be diminished if every episode is so packed with “what ifs” as this one. It can’t maintain such a pace and accommodate endless secrets too. But obviously if I see this, so does the wise one. He’ll have more hints than previous series, rewarding the diehard viewer, but each episode will stand alone and grip in itself. And as I said earlier, Moffat’s disregard of convention will ensure that he doesn’t feel he has to resolve every question in this series. Why shouldn’t he throw all his good ideas at us at once and string them out tantalisingly?

I would now only begin to repeat the more eloquent words of more qualified commentators, so I shall stop and treat myself to watching the episode again. In the meantime check out The Guardian’s excellent, weekly post-show blog and feel free to check back here regularly for my own thoughts.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2011/apr/23/doctor-who-the-impossible-astronaut

All hail Moffat! Long live Who!

P.S. He’s put the Who back in Doctor Who and he says this is intentional. Thank goodness, let’s see more of the dark side to such a powerful and fascinating character!

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Source Code


Source Code is being compared to almost every film under the sun. It’s Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Final Destination meets Moon meets something totally awesome by Hitchcock. If you have a goldfish memory then you might appreciate being told that it’s a bit like this year’s The Adjustment Bureau, but better. It’s an unconventional and emotional sci-fi.

Duncan Jones, apparently the offspring of David Bowie no less (I actually do some minor research for my reviews!), has followed up his 2009 critically acclaimed debut Moon with another “certified fresh” hit. His direction in Source Code is assured and you wouldn’t guess this was Jones’ first big budget feature; there’s nothing tentative about his approach. The camerawork and characterisation for a film that constantly relives the same eight minutes needs to be intricate and skilled; it remains exemplary throughout, making Source Code an irresistibly stylish and satisfying watch.

For me though it’s Ben Ripley’s taught, clever and zippy script that’s the real masterpiece. It tantalisingly drip feeds the audience information on the central premise of the Source Code; technology that allows the military to send someone into the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens must find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train before he strikes again, from inside the body of a teacher he’s never met, as he simultaneously tries to figure out what happened to him after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.  

The genius of the script is that it brilliantly builds tension and fully formed characters on top of an ethically fascinating central idea, despite being predictable on a few occasions. I guessed fairly early on, for example, who the bomber was. I could pretty much work out where things were heading for Gyllenhaal’s character. But I was still hooked and I was still knocked sideways by the surprising emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.

For some the film’s life affirming and rather cliché ending might be a turn off given the originality and sharp execution of what went before. Perhaps it’s just that my emotions are in tatters and unusually receptive to sentimentality. But for me everything that made up the thrilling ride that was the first part of Source Code, added to the emotional effect of its climax. It didn’t feel fake and soppy, but raw and real.

Gyllenhaal convinces completely as confused everyman, then as determined hero and finally as grief stricken and resigned to his fate. The film would have fallen apart had his performance not matched the material and direction. Michelle Monaghan plays fellow passenger Christina as the sort of woman you could fall for in eight minutes. The chemistry between the leads is as convincing and addictively sexy as that between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but the writing and the story as a whole here is far superior, much more intense, despite similar themes of fate and free will.

If I could explode two myths about Source Code it would be these; that it’s the best action film of the year and that Jeffrey Wright gives an awful performance. Firstly Wright simply looks poor in comparison to the other actors, Vera Farmigan, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, because he’s given the worst of the script’s dialogue; technical babble to explain the Source Code. He’s also the only two dimensional character in the whole thing, but with the exception of one particularly expositional passage his performance never spoiled things.

To its title as “action film of 2011” then. I would not describe Source Code as an action film. It is thrilling yes, it’s full of gripping drama yes, but these elements come from characters and the pacing of the plot. Fight scenes, gun fights and chases are minimal and restrained. This is not a film reliant on explosions (despite one devastating and recurring blast). If it’s stunts you’re after there will be better ones in cinemas this year. It enthrals without the set pieces.

 But if sleek, modern and thought provoking storytelling is your thing then see Source Code. It will be the best sci-fi film of 2011. It might make you cry and in the warm afterglow of this film in the spring sunshine you’ll look at everything in your life more closely. It’s unlikely Source Code will change your life but for as long as it lingers fresh in the front of your mind, you’ll appreciate it more.

BlogalongaBond: Thunderball


http://theincrediblesuit.blogspot.com/p/blogalongabond.html

I only discovered BlogalongaBond recently. But blimey what an excellent idea. Talking about 007 once a month for two years, and each film in turn; blogging bliss for Bondian fanatics like me.

Then I realised I had just missed the boat for writing about Goldfinger. My first contribution to BlogalongaBond would have to come hot on the heels of a month’s glowing discussion of the world’s most famous franchise’s most iconic entry. How was I going to compete with that? I couldn’t rant and rave about every single classic scene moulded into cliché by endless reference and repetition. As many bloggers said when reviewing Goldfinger, it was THE Bond film and in the eyes of many every one since has aspired to its formula and fallen short of its magical mix.

After watching Thunderball though, I remembered why it’s always been more than the shit part of the National Lottery to me. I loved Thunderball growing up as a boy, and I love it now. For me it is better than Goldfinger. Aside from From Russia With Love, Thunderball is the film that best captures the origins of the character; Ian Fleming’s James Bond transplanted onto the screen.

Thunderball the novel was a return to form for Fleming, who had taken a break after Goldfinger to produce a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only. The book introduces the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time and provides Bond with an excellent enemy for two other brilliant novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Of course the films made Blofeld Bond’s ultimate nemesis from the outset, whereas prior to Thunderball, in the literary world of Bond his primary foes had been unorthodox Russian organisation SMERSH. Lampooned in the 60s by Bond spoof Casino Royale, SMERSH sounds unavoidably silly compared to the sinister SPECTRE headed by mysterious Blofeld.

Interestingly the physique of Blofeld in the novels is quite different to that presented in the films. The most memorable portrayal of Blofeld is perhaps Donald Pleasance’s scarred little bald man in You Only Live Twice. In Roger Moore’s time the character is reduced to being dropped down a chimney in a pre titles sequence. Thunderball showcases Blofeld at his best; unknown, all powerful and faceless.

Thunderball also shows off Bond at his best. In a PTS far superior to the aforementioned Roger Moore effort in For Your Eyes Only, we learn everything we need to know about 007. In my view Thunderball’s PTS is also better than Goldfinger’s despite the prevailing view being that Goldfinger’s is the most flawless of the series. As several bloggers pointed out, Bond’s ridiculous duck disguise in Goldfinger spoils the other elements somewhat and to me Thunderball’s PTS is a stronger standalone mini-story, which also ties back to the main adventure.

Steven Spielberg once said that to him, James Bond was a detective, a suave Sherlock Holmes with a gun. For the directing legend Bond was at his best when distilled to this level and he tried to replicate elements of this when creating his Bond equivalent, Indiana Jones. I certainly think that description is a simplification of Bond’s character. But the mighty Spielberg has a point. There’s plenty of sleuthing and relying on Bond’s instincts in Connery’s early films, and particularly Thunderball. It’s something the modern films lost sight of and need to get back to.

Bond is certainly knowing and observational when he unmasks the widow in Thunderball’s PTS as an enemy agent. Connery’s charm, charisma and comedy are turned up to the max and the whole sequence looks stylish. Bond quips and flirts with his female assistant. Then in a brutal, ahead of its time fight scene that the likes of Jason Bourne and the modern 007 are returning to today, Connery kicks his opponent’s ass, savagely strangling him to death with a poker.

The PTS then ends with an outrageous escape via jet pack and gadgets galore on the sleek Aston Martin. These tongue in cheek gizmos aside, the gadgets in Thunderball are at the pitch perfect level. There’s a wonderful scene with Q in which sensible but clever gadgets are introduced that will return to prove vital in the plot. Connery’s sparky dialogue with Desmond Llewelyn is the best in the entire series.

So after the PTS we know who we’re dealing with; James Bond 007, licence to kill, with girls, guns, gadgets and grisly action galore. It’s then that the film introduces the masterly plot that remains durable, relevant, captivating and even slightly plausible today. Goldfinger took Fleming’s immense imagination and made his ideas work better on film than they did in the novel. In Thunderball Fleming’s fantastical schemes once again marvel and delight, and shock and scare, this time sticking closer still to the original story. It’s a testament to the story’s selling power that a major legal tussle over the rights to a remake led to the 1983 unofficial entry starring an aged Connery, Never Say Never Again.

The legacy of the nuclear arms race remains an issue today and the power of rogue atomic weapons to frighten certainly endures. The enormous importance and scale of events adds terrific drama to the story. It’s a drama any Bond film needs and thrives off of; the global significance bearing down on 007’s shoulders as he conquers personal hurdles to unravel it all. Coming up with the perfectly judged plot remains the biggest challenge for those behind new Bond films today because they can’t compete with Fleming.

Thunderball is the first of the films to deal with Fleming’s fascination of the sea and the underwater world. Today it is increasingly difficult to find exotic locations for Bond when holidays can whisk you practically anywhere in a flash. But the colourful realm beneath the waves, glowing in a turquoise tint, remains another mostly inaccessible world. There’s something alien and yet attractive about the monstrous creatures living amongst the sand and sun rays. There’s something dark about anyone who can master this environment and exploit it for his own gain. Something secretive about the tropical depths.

Emilio Largo had a tough act to follow. Auric Goldfinger is the master villain to beat with his distinctive characteristics and fondness for a verbal duel prior to some ghastly fate waiting for our hero. Largo also struggles to impose himself when the magnificent early scene, with one of THE Ken Adam set designs, showing the SPECTRE meeting makes it clear that he is merely a puppet and drone himself. The true power lies elsewhere. This definitely makes him a different kind of villain. He doesn’t compete with Goldfinger but he doesn’t lack menace or do a bad job either.

What about the girls then? For me in Domino and Fiona Volpe we have two of the best Bond girls ever. Pussy Galore, as played by Honour Blackman, is iconic for sure but mainly because of Fleming’s outrageous name. Domino comes across as one of the most beautiful girls that even Bond himself has ever seen in the novel, and Claudine Auger doesn’t do a bad job at all of visually representing this on screen. As for Volpe, she is incredibly sexy and seductive. Her bright red hair set her out as dangerous, but also as red hot. The scene where she is waiting for Bond in the bath and he offers her merely shoes to put on, and the dancing scene at the Kiss Kiss club where she dies, are two of the most memorable in cinematic history for me personally, never mind the Bond series.

During Bond’s scenes with Volpe there are some cracking Bondian quotes from the script and Connery also delivers some of his best lines in the role sparring with Largo: “Do you know a lot about guns?”, “No but a little about women”, for example.

Another reason for Bond’s scenes with Volpe being so memorable for me, particularly the ones at the Mardi Gras, is the film’s score. I think Thunderball is the first time Barry uses the “00 theme” and his variations on the Bond theme itself to provide tense music are catchy and complimentary to the action throughout. Even when the film has aged less well, for example the scene in the health club on the rack and the unintentionally comedic speeded up careering of the boat at the end, the music remains superb. Tom Jones’ title song is no Goldfinger, but it’s undoubtedly addictive and Bondian. And besides I hear poor old Shirley so much that her voice starts to grate.

In the end it’s for those moments in which we see what purists call the “real Bond” that I remember Thunderball. When Connery calmly kills the Professor in Dr.No after he’s had his six shots I knew that was a truly Bondian moment. It marks out the detached killer in Bond’s character so well. He is so used to living his work that he carries it off with a ruthless efficiency that looks effortless and irresistibly cool. There’s another moment like this in Thunderball. When Largo’s chief henchman Vargas is sneaking up on Domino and Bond on the beach, Domino spots him. Bond turns, almost nonchalantly rolling over, to fire a harpoon through his chest. This is the assassin in Bond. The moment’s slightly spoilt by Connery’s quip, “I think he got the point”, but even this dark humour becomes part of the character that fans can love.

Watch Thunderball and you’ve hit the 007 jackpot; never mind the riches of Goldfinger.

Burke and Hare/Shutter Island


A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.

The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.

As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.

However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.

If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.

Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.

It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.

Peaceful Protest or Manic March?


And of course, following on from my last post, those that died for our country died to preserve democracy, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

If you weren’t marching yesterday the impression you will have gained from the national media is one of troublemaking tearaways, descending on London with their purposeless, ignorant views, intent on causing damage and achieving thrilling highs with each frustration filled kick at the establishment, at unprepared police. If you were at the protest, as I was, you would have seen in excess of 50,000 perfectly peaceful but passionate people with a clearly shared general aim. I say “seen” but really you couldn’t see a lot beyond the immediate placards in front and behind you, but you could sense and feel the masses. My friend described it as a “sea of placards”. I went the whole day blissfully unaware that anything truly violent had taken place. The headline of The Times today reads “Thuggish and disgraceful”, in what I view to be a disgraceful piece of reporting. Of course for the media the story of the day was the eruption of rare violence but it is wrong to falsely brand such a vast swathe of respectful young people as “thuggish”. For one thing The Times headline takes out of context a quote from a police officer who had actually praised the majority of those attending the day, whilst condemning the minority his men were consequently surprised by.

Having said that I did not witness any violence all day, I did make it to Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, scene of the carnage, and the tense atmosphere in the air was chilling. Chilling in an exciting way. I was for the most part not fearful at all during my brief stay at Millbank. High-vis wearing organisers made half-hearted attempts to steer us away from the throng at Tory HQ, but having remembered what it was and just past the MI5 offices (which were apparently locked down at some point), I was keen to get a glimpse. I’d say we got about half way in but there was still a sizeable crowd between us and the doors, so later I could not say if glass had already been smashed or violence was already in progress. There was a fire going though, off to our left over more heads. It was fuelled by placards and the crude wooden sticks used to hold them aloft. Later I would see pictures of Cameron dunked into the flames in the papers, at the time I could only see the glimmer of orange reflected on the roof and smell the thick black fumes. Helicopters swirled past the towers overhead. Enthusiastic chanting, full of essentially harmless vitriol, went on with an endless intensity not noticeable elsewhere on the march. And as we left the sickening boom of an explosion close at hand foreshadowed the grisly scenes I would later learn about.

There was admittedly something exciting and inspiring about the atmosphere at Millbank, something I find slightly shameful having seen the damage caused there at some point during the day afterwards. There was an irresistible sense of something being done, of our indignation and righteousness being more adequately expressed. As someone I saw interviewed later on BBC News 24 said, the coalition now had Thatcher’s riots to go with her cuts. I do not in any way condone the violence, as it has undoubtedly smeared the message the ordinary marcher like myself was striving to hammer home, but there was a feeling amongst us that we ought to do something more than just walk and the added venom at Millbank was intoxicating. The country and the politicians needed to be sent a shocking signal, a wake-up call, which forced them to acknowledge the scale of the cuts was real and catastrophic, and as negative and transforming anything Thatcher or those before her dared to enact. But it’s almost certain the majority of the actual perpetrators were not even true to the cause but the moronic fanatics such large scale protests inevitably attract.

Prior to the seductive feel of the siege at Millbank, the march had been an impressive spectacle but an occasionally tedious and tame affair. The only glimpse of genuine revolutionary zeal before the flickering flames and fists pumping in the air at Millbank, was a red-hatted man with a megaphone in Parliament Square. This extraordinary speaker loitered in the area where protesting banners and signs permanently reside opposite Parliament; the sort proclaiming Iraq to be a war crime and Afghanistan a corporate expedition etc. Like a stand-up comedian he playfully bantered with the crowd, which had ground to a halt so that it was slowly trudging past Big Ben and the Commons at best. Groups were beginning a sit-down protest, with Nick Clegg probably still inside after taking over PMQ duty. Girls mounted traffic lights, litter swirled at our feet and drum beats pounded the air in the distance. He flattered us at first, saying what intelligent students we must be. Then he casually slipped in the conspiracy, urging us to use our intelligence and “connect the dots”. Just as I worried he was getting predictable, came his call to arms: “Think about it there aren’t enough police in this city to stop you all. Marching is good but won’t get it done, join me and occupy the city.” Or something to that effect, but more charismatically phrased. I was struck into excited laughter by the audacity of it. We hadn’t come to occupy London, Hitler and Napoleon had spent an awful lot of money and time and expertise trying to accomplish the same thing. Our spontaneous occupation, led by megaphone man, seemed unlikely to succeed therefore, but at the same time, glancing around me, the sheer numbers told me we would have a good go at it if we all stood together. The fantasy, that of a bygone age of socialist revolution, of people power and the possibilities of sudden change, truly motivated me.

Earlier at the march’s official start point on Horse Guards Avenue, speakers had tried to rally the troops. On the ground and in the thick of the towering placards however, the reality was that you could not hear the rhetoric, merely catching snatches of the speech. Each would unmistakeably end with the refrain “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS” though. At times I think it may have been just as well for me that I could not hear the speakers, as I heard a glimpse of something about Trident at one point and there was inevitably other overly idealistic or socialist rhetoric I didn’t necessarily support. The striking white buildings on the avenue, dotted with innumerable windows, looming over us on each side, channelled the wind and the noise so that it was both a loud and cold wait for the off. The time was filled with idle talk about the changes being made by the coalition, its worst effects and the need for an alternative to march in support of.

There is undoubtedly a need for a well thought through alternative if opponents of the government’s scheme are to be credible, but the leading article in The Times today is unfairly harsh about the ignorance of students. It claims that the government system is an improvement in some ways, with the rise to £21,000 salary threshold, and it is only fair graduates pay for their education. However it neglects the deterrent such greater debts will act as to ordinary students from ordinary families, it ignores the fact that £21,000 is still an average wage and will often be earned without the burden of debt by those who didn’t attend university and “benefit” from it and most critically of all The Times ignores the key chant of the protest. We were marching against the absurdity of the government cutting funding by 40% (as well as the vital EMA payment, which needed tightening reform, not abolition) and then raising fees to plug that gap, creating a system which the students effectively pay for themselves and which is no better in terms of quality than the current one. British universities will continue to slide in comparison to international competitors, the government’s key claim, that their plan is sustainable, falls flat on its face.

Having said this I did feel absurd at times, marching alongside some with overly optimistic demands. I also felt bad for the unrelenting criticism coming the way of Nick Clegg. Whilst Clegg clearly made a terrible political miscalculation pledging himself and his party against any rise in fees, I still stand by my view of him espoused on this blog as an essentially admirable politician. As head of the junior partner in the coalition this is clearly one of the decisions that is principally Tory in its motivation. If the Lib Dems had total parliamentary control (an almost impossible to imagine scenario) then the spending could have been structured elsewhere to honour a pledge to students. As it was Clegg opted for some influence rather than none and has to bow to Cameron’s party on the bigger issues. The fact that the violence erupted at Tory HQ suggests the demonstrators and activists know who the real villain of the plan is, but there is still understandable anger about the Lib Dem “betrayal”. Clegg also set himself up for a frighteningly fall with his constant talk of honesty and honour in politics. I’d like to think he would still back a progressive alternative should one be found (hurry up Labour!) and I’m sure he’ll hope to return to the issue, perhaps with different allies. As it is though I did feel uplifted to be marching in solidarity with others against cuts to education; that Clegg should not have accepted so lightly and should have done more about.

When we did finally set off it was at a shuffling, rather than marching, pace. Having built up a lot of enthusiasm standing stationary for long periods, I was keen to stride ahead, but had to be content with feeling part of a massive, snaking entity, writhing through London streets, demanding to be heard. The shuffling continued with the occasional more spacious period, past Downing Street and painfully slowly through Parliament Square, all the way to the drama of Millbank. I took far too much pleasure in muttering to myself that David Cameron was miles away in China, as ignorant students directed personally tailored chant after chant at his famous black doorway as we passed Number Ten. I wished for a widescreen HD overview of events, for an action replay as I always did at live football matches in packed stadiums. It would have been nice to truly comprehend the scale of events from beyond my tiny worker ant perspective; to know where best my many, multiple protesting talents were to deployed. Where did they need me I wondered?

Despite the blinkered vision it was wonderful to feel part of history, to feel part of something greater with meaning, even if in reality it would prove politically ineffective. And as usual I loved wandering around London, seeing the Thames from all angles, absorbing that skyline. I’m getting far too used to and seduced by it. On top of it all I managed to share it with friends, as opposed to my usual solitary travels, some of whom I had not seen in a while. I didn’t get long enough in their company and I didn’t plant my flag within the bowels of Parliament, but all in all me and the beard had a good day out on the march.

Up/The Other Guys


I saw both Disney Pixar’s Up and the latest comic offering from Will Ferrell, The Other Guys this week. Needless to say these two films are poles apart in many ways, but they are also both funny, entertaining and worth a look.

Up first is Up, then. I was keen to see this simply for the renowned beauty of Pixar’s animation. I had absolutely loved the look and style of The Incredibles, a Pixar picture based upon ordinary humans as opposed to toys, or fish, or cars. I liked seeing ordinary suburban objects vividly rendered in marvellous colour, as well as the wonderful expressions upon a human, animated face. Up follows elderly widower Carl Fredricksen from the very ordinary start point of his home on a varied, beautiful, unpredictable adventure to South America. At first Up really does dwell on the perfection of its visuals, with a dialogue-less montage depicting Carl’s entire married life feeling like a work of art; a mini-film in itself showing off the talents of the team at Pixar. However as always with these films there are dollops of sentiment that wedge lumps firmly in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. As with The Incredibles the action sequences are also genuinely gripping and jolting as well as visually stunning. Perhaps most impressively these action set pieces fit into a unique and original story and don’t feel out of place. Carl steers his house, elevated by numerous multi-coloured helium balloons, all the way to Paradise Falls, the destination of his and his wife’s childhood dreams, negotiating bruising storms and encounters with strange creatures along the way.

For a children’s film, Up is incredibly touching and engaging. It is not surprising that the film is often funny given its intended tone and audience, but it is impressive that the gags roll alongside a heart-warming story of an elderly man looking for purpose in life and not expecting to find it. The whole thing uses the nostalgia of its central character and the soundtrack often sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear on a ride at a classic, retro fun fair, with clever variations on a repeated main theme for sad or happy, wondrous moods. The film rarely drags, despite there being few actually hilarious moments and this may be due to the overall gloss of the visuals, as well as some excellent voice acting. There is a point where you fear the narrative may fizzle out, but some superb climatic action sequences resurrect things. Overall Up is a tender tale, with some occasionally insightful dialogue and a healthy sprinkling of originally executed ideas, such as the stream of consciousness talking dogs. And of course it looks marvellous.

The Other Guys is not heart-warming and indeed relies more upon cringe inducing humour at times, but it shares with Up a feeling of originality in its storytelling, along with some riveting action scenes. For me the strongest point of The Other Guys was its ability not to take itself too seriously. It was simultaneously a cop movie, an action movie and a comedy movie, as well as aiming piss taking swipes at all these genres and more with some brilliant gags. I cannot usually tolerate the onscreen presence of Will Ferrell and I do my best to avoid his films like the plague. But alongside tough guy Mark Wahlberg, brilliantly embracing a comic role, and outside of a sports setting, I bought into the guy as a comic genius at times. I cannot remember all the successful jokes in the movie but amongst the best was a silent fight at a funeral, a hilarious, not at all subtle exchange about a mug with the label; “FBI-Female Body Inspector” and a “bad cop-bad cop” routine. All of these moments and more had me and others in the cinema laughing loudly.

Unusually for such a film the plot to The Other Guys doesn’t feel completely redundant either, which is an added bonus for a film brimming with hilarious moments and ensures it is something more than a collection of comedy sketches. Admittedly lingering flashbacks on both Wahlberg’s character mistakenly shooting a star baseball player and Ferrell’s college career as a pimp do feel a little like detached sketches, but all in all they just about masquerade as relevant back-story, especially when funny. The action sequences are either big, brash and completely ridiculous, as with the car chase at the beginning featuring “the guys”, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. Or they are big, brash and slightly less ridiculous, vaguely fitting into the plot and wowing the audience, for example a climatic, clichéd gun fight is followed by a “grand theft auto” inspired car chase with an impressive, destructive collision. A somewhat baffling credit sequences detailing the excess and waste of the world’s bankers belatedly aims to give The Other Guys a moral compass. Steve Coogan’s amusing financial swindler was certainly not treated as some evil tycoon within the film, but simply as an idiot. In many ways The Other Guys is an idiotic film, which idiots and those who enjoy the mishaps of fools alike will be able to enjoy and find hilarious. However I think it’s a cleverly composed piece of stupidity.