The Time of Angels.

TV When the BBC often says “Viewers in Wales will get their own programme” I didn’t think it would ever apply to Doctor Who (with the exception of Torchwood). I gather that the English broadcast of The Time of Angels experienced its second ever Norton invasion with an animated version of the character (presumably the one from the tacky new ident) turning up to trail the series long advert for a musical during Matt’s final, amazing hero speech. Living in Liverpool where the Welsh Freeview signal has overwhelmed Winter Hill since the switch over for some reason I was able to enjoy the cliffhanger perfectly unfettered with the exception of the usual squeeze but Twitter is apoplectic as is Gallifrey Base as is anyone else who saw this common sense malfunction. As @charltonbrooker noted, “Why don't the BBC just wipe shit all over the screen during the final scene of Dr. Who next week?” Now back to my original opening paragraph, which is a bit of an abridgement, but has some useful circular logic and an only half decent joke at the end.

From the off The Time of Angels was something special, something cinematic, something you’d expect, to paraphrase, to be "too broad and deep for the small screen". From the misdirect of what looked like a man lost in time but it turned out in reverie through to the manic slipping between time zones leading to River and the Doctor meeting for the fnargth time we were presented with what might have been the most kinetic episode teaser in quite some time which challenged the viewer to keep up with the narrative in that way that only Moffat firing on all cylinders can. We’ve only just about grasped the idea of a museum hewn into an asteroid and the concept of the Doctor keeping score before we were whisked to that doomed ship, whatever Song’s story was, space and well we’re back were this synopsis began. This is confident, muscular storytelling, perfectly executed visually, of the kind that classics are built on whilst building on classics entirely justifying the return of Professor Bernice Summ… Doctor River Song.

The rest of this first parter was indeed, as Moffat suggests in Doctor Who Magazine, Aliens to Blink’s Alien following much the same quest discovery narrative with the Doctor in the Ripley role and are we to expect River as Carter Burke seeking to aid in weaponising the weeping angels? Of course, it’s retrofitted with Moffat’s fantasy features. The mission briefing is given by the dusty poetic rambling of an apparent madman printed in some old manuscript, the marines are clerics (perhaps a nod to the original concept for Alien 3 which was set in a monastery?), naturalistic catacombs instead of the decaying metal of LV-426’s harsh colony and Amy filling in for Bishop, I suppose, though like Kane in the first film, something is happening inside of her and with that amount of dust dropping from her lacrimal gland, some Optrex and an eye bath from Boots aren’t likely to save her. Like Aliens, it makes use of our familiarity with the monster, then adds a range of new terrors and abilities, to keep us guessing as to what else they might be capable of.

You could argue that it was the simplicity of the slow death which gave the angels their original menace and that piling on other random bedevilments lessens their impact (not least because as we watch Blink we'll be wondering why they weren't used then, why Sally Sparrow wasn't turned herself into a statue). But whilst this story too does have something to say about life and longevity, this time in the relationship between the Doctor and River, as a more straightforward thriller Moffat needed to make them a much more immediate and tangible threat. As well as (surprise!) varying their design, this reproductive method suggests something akin to the old Tenth Doctor novel The Stone Rose in which a mediocre Roman sculptor was gifted the abilities of Medusa through his hands; that Greek legend returns again here as a look in their eyes leads to much the same fate, albeit slower than in Clash of the Titans. Their new found ability to speak suggests the device employed by Moffat and Vashta Nerada though it's matter of fact appropriation of a squady/cleric is chilling.

Throughout the episode we’re reminded more than ever that it’s taking place in a much wider story, in a larger universe. Whereas in the previous few television series visits to other planets were rationed and always treated with some reverence, here we find a matter of fact approach to the ruins of Alfava Metraxis, archaeological aspects and the process of time travel and indeed, the Doctor and River. Perhaps surprising some, this is not their first meeting. Perhaps we’ll never be told that story. Perhaps Moffat’s ironic idea is that River’s first meeting with the Doctor is his last. Perhaps as is my suspicion there are far less meetings between the two of them and (sorry) that she’s some kind of confidence trickster and if the timelord had opened the diary after his first meeting with her he would have found hundreds of blank pages or a facsimile of the Journal of Impossible Things (“borrowed” from an archive) accounting for why she couldn’t tell that it was Tennant’s face that she gazed into during the picnic at Asgard given that she was supposed to have images of all their faces so that she could keep track.

I’ve already weirdly seen odd criticisms of Alex Kingston’s acting online and though it’s true she seemed to channelling Joan Collins in this opening few scenes but Kingston’s a good enough actress for me to think that it’s a feature rather than a malfunction. This is supposed to be a much younger woman than the version we’ve already met and she’s no doubt keen to delineate the two. There’s a casual ease with which she speaks to the Doctor and confidence trick or not this is the kind of larger than life character which lends itself a certain comic book portrayal. It’s a challenging role; we’re effectively watching a prequel wrapped in a sequel and though it’s not unknown for actors to be called upon to play younger versions of themselves (see the entire mad cast of Lost) it’s fairly unusual to do so in these circumstances with so much brain-jangling wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff.

The companion triangle was handled – well – though clearly Moffat had to steal himself from concentrating on the dialogue between the two Doctors and giving Karen something to do. Moffat being Moffat, he’s well aware of the how fans viewed the previous episodes, and in this celebratory death match between two of his previous best loved characters and monsters he effectively turns Pond into a sort of walking Gallifrey Base, voicing our ideas of who River Song is and how to beat a weeping angel. And so there she is pointing out the possible Audrey Niffenegger intertextuality (albeit without an on the nose namecheck) ribbing the Doctor about his future whoopee making and winking away at the onslaught from the simulated statuary. In an episode which relies so much on past glories, Amy fulfils the traditional companion role of being an exposition conduit for the casual viewer, but through the sparky dialogue and Karen’s perfectly pitched confident performance you simply don’t notice it until you have to sit down and put it into words and sentences like these.

Amazing considering that due to the vagaries of television production these were the first couple of episodes filmed; if the scenes on the beach are so familiar it’s because in still form, they were our first images of Matt and Amy and the new TARDIS and the spoiler of River’s return. How we commented on this Matt Smith bloke looked with his bow tie, his stance and hands evoking Troughton (a premonition born out by his love affair with Tomb of the Cybermen), the set-up screaming classic Who. If we didn’t know this, if every aspect of the production wasn’t under this scrutiny, we might imagine that over the past few weeks we’d been watching an actor developing into his role but in fact it was all here already fully formed, the humour, the petulance, the unpredictable line readings, the chemistry with Karen. When he re-greets River we see the implications in his eyes, it’s as though Tenth is still in there somewhere looking out and remembering her fate and knowing that for all the history of his future she has literally in her hand, he sees her final end each time he looks at her but mustn’t offer any spoilers.

The problem is, in the future, even when everyone has watched the blu-ray release a couple of dozen times, diddy Norton will be one of the reasons people remember this broadcast of the episode with is an utter tragedy because it was fairly bloody fantastic. I’ve tried to spend the past four hours and eight paragraphs not looking for some deeper meaning, because until the results of next week’s poll are in, sorry, we’ve seen next week’s episode (the election is getting to me) with all of its Moffatty twists and turns, as ever its impossible to really say what this story is about. Silence in the Library was good, but it was Forest in the Library which made it special and though it’s certainly true that across new aand classic Who if a story is rubbish to begin with its rare to see a massive increase in quality and vice versa, The Space Museum also starts well in a museum (obviously) and look what happened there. We fans don’t forget.

Just you remember that BBC presentation.

Next Week: Everybody must get stoned …
Politics The full transcript of Thursday's debate is online including Clegg's rousing closing speech which may have had more of an impact on the polls if Sky hadn't kept cutting away to the audience all of the way through (having given Cameron the luxury of a slow push-in) and the pollsters hadn't begun gathering their data in the middle:
What I have tried to do tonight is to show if we do things differently, we can be a force for good in the world. We can lead, we can shape the world around us, not complain about the world around us.

We have talked about a number of things this evening. We've talked about Europe, Afghanistan, climate change, the Pope. We've talked about things closer to home as well, immigration, MPs' expenses, pensions.

I believe, on all those things, all those issues, we can act differently.

There's still some way to go before this election is decided, but I hope that whether you're going to vote in the next few days by post, or make up your mind in the ballot box on May 6th, you agree with me that something really exciting is beginning to happen.

People are beginning to believe, beginning to hope that we can do something different this time. Of course there are people who will try to block change, of course there are people who are spreading fear to stop the change you want.

I think they're wrong. I think if we do things differently, if we stand up for the values that have made our country great, then we can be proud again, proud of greater fairness here at home, and proud also, of standing up for the things we believe in, in the world.

We don't simply need to choose from the old choices of the past, we don't need to repeat the mistakes of the past. Don't let anyone tell you this time it
can't be different.

It can.
Cue The West Wing music and CJ wiping back the tears.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Then Having missed it's tiny release at British cinemas, the first opportunity I had to buy a copy of the film was at the Virgin Megastore in Paris whilst I was visiting at 11pm at night for the novelty of shopping that late. But I’d vowed to pick something French so left with a copy of Gilles Mimouni’s brain twister L'Appartement instead (later remade/ruined in the US as Wicker Park). Then a UK dvd release wasn’t forthcoming, so the first time I saw the film was on a US edition ordered through Amazon I think, which was eventually replaced with an ex-rental from the ill-fated Choice Video shop on Smithdown Road next to Tesco.

Now Well, colour me surprised. On first viewing The Curse of the Jade Scorpion on the 22nd July 2004 (see here), I was bored and annoyed and that was the impression which stayed with me right through to writing my film review of the noughties, where I said, along with Hollywood Ending that I thought it looked “cheap and rushed” and that Woody’s “own on screen comic timing was very clearly faltering”. The director himself apparently thinks it's his worst film, that he let the rest of the cast down by playing the central figure himself and that he wanted to reshoot whole sections of it but couldn’t afford to because of the price of the sets.

This time about, and I don’t know if this is because I’m watching it in context, I’m in an unusually good mood because Doctor Who is back or if I’ve simply caught up with what it’s trying to achieve now that I’m in my mid-thirties, but I found it really very engaging indeed. It’s not a classic by any means and I do think there are problems with those sets which make the film more claustrophobic than it should, but it’s genuinely funny and charming in places and I gave out an audible giggle at the end. Film critic Mark Kermode has a six laugh test to see if comedies have succeeded and it certainly attracted that from me.

All of which is quite a surprise – I’d expected to go into this with the same tone as I did for Company Man – cruel and unusual and unusually cruel. The key to the film’s success is the central relationship between Woody, who is really starting to look his age but in fact hasn’t lost much of his timing, and Helen Hunt who I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for and has the capacity to make even a dud like What Women Want (shivers) half-watchable. Their dialogue crackles with the screwball comedies of the 1930s (rightly given the setting) and though not all the jokes stick ("A lot of women have passed through this apartment. I can't say they were all winners, but...") there are certainly more hits than most comedies.

The story is the stuff of old Hollywood noir thrillers, Allen works in an insurance assessors office which investigates stolen property and are called in to look at the work of a jewel thief. Hunt is an efficiency guru who’s been called in to see if his activities could be farmed out to alternative agencies. The twist and the element of comedy is introduced by the world of magic and hypnotism, a subject which recurs throughout Woody’s career from Radio Days through Oedipus Wrecks, Shadows and Fog and much later Scoop and which leads to Allen becoming the prime suspect of his own case.

There seemed to be three main criticisms of the film on release.

(1) That it’s not as original as some of Woody’s earlier works – and that’s true though to an extent he’s working within a particular genre and genre work by its nature is never original.

(b) That it’s not as thematically complex, though it’s clear that he’s making a featherweight comedy, and is perhaps conscious of not trying to ladle in the morality that ruined Small Time Crooks.

(iii) That he’s simply too old to be seen chasing after all of these young actresses particularly Charlize Theron, who’s young enough to be his grand daughter, that there’s something creepy about him writing a script in which she throws herself at him. Well, apart from the fact he comes across as complete jerk for much the time, he’s clearly playing below his age.

Having enjoyed Jade Scorpion, I now have higher hopes for Hollywood Ending. Perhaps it isn't the dud that I remember.

Plug!: Ben Lewis TV

Plug! You might remember the incisive and fun author-led documentaries from Ben Lewis which have appeared on BBC Four over the past few years and in particularly The Great Contemporary Art Bubble which carefully demonstrated how prices in the art market became inflated (with some emphasis on Damien Hirst) only to inevitably go in the opposite direction during the recession.

His publicist has been in touch to let me (and so us) know that Ben’s back catalogue is now available on dvd from his website and that his concurrent series Art Safari will have a third series should funding be in place. Here is what the press release has to say:
BLTV is a UK based production company, headed up by award-winning documentary film-maker, author and art critic Ben Lewis and producer Fiona O’Doherty. Our documentaries which include the Grierson Award winning “The King of Communism: the pomp and pageantry Nicolae Ceausescu”; “ Blowing Up Paradise” an environmental feature uncovering 40 years of French Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific, won audiences and Awards across 4 continents; “Hammer and Tickle: the Communist Joke Book” premiered at Tribeca and won Best Documentary at the Zurich Int Film Festival 2006. Bens’ latest film “ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble” is has been broadcast throughout Europe, having won Best International Documentary at the Foyle International Film Festival it continues to blaze a trail on the International festival circuit.

Ben is probably best known for the ground breaking contemporary arts series “Art Safari”. Art Safari broke the mould of Contemporary Arts Documentary when it was first launched in 2003. Co-Produced with BBC, ZDF, Arte, TV2, YLE and NPS, The original 4 x 28" Contemporary Art series presented by self confessed Art Geek Ben Lewis was an instant hit with viewers delivering quality profile documentary with a fresh, quirky and inquisitive approach.

Series 2 followed soon after, winning the prestigious Grimme Sonderpreis Kultur 2007 and the NY Festivals, World Bronze. Art Safari series has broadcast in over 24 countries worldwide and continues to sell in primary and secondary markets. The series DVD is stocked in Museums and Galleries including The Tate Modern, The Saatchi Gallery, The Serpentine Gallery (UK) The Pompidou, The Palais de Tokyo (France) , Palais des Beau Arts (Hungary) Stedelijk Museum, Museum Boijamans Van Beuningen (Netherlands), Noderna Museet, Stockholm (Sweden) The National Gallery, Hugh Lane Gallery (Ireland) Amos Anderson Art Museum (Finland) amongst others.

Art Safari is a quality brand. We are working to push the brand out with a new 8 x 30' series, which we hope to produce later this year. The new series will launch in conjunction with, a global Arts web portal.
Politics Having had a bit of a Sam Seaborn kind of a day in relation to smears and polls, I was pleased to have a West Wing moment in the back of the taxi home:

Me: Um, do mind if I ask you a question?
Driver: Yes?
Me: Who do you think you'll be voting for?
Driver: Well, I've always voted Labour before but I quite like the Liberal Democrats. That Nick Clegg talks a lot of sense.
Me: [grins]

And W. Snuffy Walden's music floats through the air as I look out of the window as the taxi dodges through the streets towards home.

It's all about tonight (ish).

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Picking Up The Pieces (2000)

Then Picking Up The Pieces is a staple of the cheap dvd boxsets which appear in remainder shops the like The Works featuring Hollywood actors in tv roles from before they were famous, indie films that failed to receive proper distribution or grindhouse style horror. Usually its in a double bill with some early Jim Carrey or a quadruple bill next to the courtroom period drama Darrow with Kevin Spacey. I somehow managed to track down an earlier release ex-rental of the film on its own in Cash Converter on Allerton Road a few years ago.

Now Picking Up The Pieces is a bit of a curates egg and Woody’s participation is just plain weird. It’s not offensively bad, it’s not brilliant, it’s just not particularly inspiring (which probably explains why it received its first showing on cable tv in the US). He plays Tex, a butcher who takes exception to the infidelity of his wife (Sharon yes indeed Stone) and chops her up into pieces, one of which, her hand, goes astray on the road when he heads to New Mexico to bury her.

When said anatomical subsection is found on the road by a blind woman miraculously regains her sight, the local and somewhat morally ambiguous priest played by David err-aha-yeah Schwimmer takes advantage and soon his church is besieged by disabled tourists with lots of money seeking their miracle too. Meanwhile, Keifer Sutherlands Texas cop and former lover of Tex’s wife is on the butcher’s trail as he roles into town searching for the dismembered digits. Which hopefully untangles the mangle of the trailer which also has most of the good jokes.

Director Alfonso Arau’s previous film Like Water For Chocolate was one of my favourite films of the nineties and the first time (and I think only time) I was actively shushed in a cinema as I became very excited with that Romeo & Juliet style tale of star-crossed lovers. That was oddly edited and weirdly paced and tonally all over the place which explains why Pieces shares many of the same problems/opportunites – there are elements of Arau's style or varying styles.

If the Tex material has elements of Chaucer in its comic treatment of a cuckold and spousal homicide, as the village is engulfed with people and the locals making the most of their good fortune I was reminded of the Capraesque Magic Town or an Ealing comedy. It seems to be attempting to say something about faith and how God moves in mysterious ways and the treatment of the miracles firmly puts it into the divine intervention genre.

The essential problem with the film is that can't quite decide whether it's a black comedy, morality tale, religious allegory or western (I suppose). I tend to hate genre labels and like films which flout the rules but without a concrete tether story wise and actually a single point of view character (if we're being really technical) everything just meanders between some nice moments (Maria Grazia Cucinotta dancing in the rain and Sharon Stone's ghost spring to mind) without really engrossing properly.

Like Company Man, I can’t find anything online explaining what Woody Allen is doing in this but he’s certainly one of the highlights and though it’s difficult to tell, seems have been given some latitude to improvise, which means that his dialogue is often funnier than anything happening elsewhere. Plus there’s an unexpected delight to see him working with the likes of Sutherland who doesn’t seem like the kind of figure who’d ever turn up in one of Woody's own films, two acting worlds clashing.

The film was shot in the interesting experimental 2.00:1 or Univisium aspect ratio designed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to bridge the gap between television and the cinema with their inherent framing problems (and which he’s controversially used to reframe his earlier films like Apocalypse Now) which explains the slightly odd look of the film – it has even less depth of field than typical 35mm. I wonder what he thinks of Avatar, which was released globally in a hundred different versions.

Public Art Collections in North West England: Bury Art Gallery and Museum

Museums My luck in relation to visiting these art galleries and museums and being able to see their fine art assortment hasn’t always been spectacular; from venues in which the permanent collection is rarely on display to buildings which are largely closed for refurbishment, it’s taught me that website aren’t always accurate and that you really can’t always get what you want.

So I was unsurprisingly unsurprised when I stepped up to the information desk at Bury Art Gallery and Museum and asked about their collection, only to be told that most of the galleries were closed for a rehang and that in any case over fifty paintings, the cream of the collection, were on loan for a tour around Japan and Korea due to finish in October to complete in 2010.

Manchester Art Gallery was apparently supposed to be the main source of paintings for the exhibition but when they couldn’t fulfil their requirements and withdrew a month beforehand, so Bury agreed to pick up the slack. The first venue is the Toyohashi City Museum of Art and History in Japan and the press release for the exhibition features images which I recognise from Bury’s own catalogue.

So there go the Landseer, the Constable, Arnesby Brown, Fred Hall, Sit George Clausen, the Turner, Miles Birket Foster, William Henry Hunt and Samuel Palmer. A shame that I’ve missed them but exciting for Bury and regional art galleries in general that they’re reaching this international acclaim and opportunity. Plus I’d much rather have them being seen by someone rather than sitting in the store room for whatever reason.

The building itself, was designed by Woodhouse and Willoughby of Manchester, the style adopted according the them and quoted by Edward Morris in his book Public Art Collections in North-West England (seems important to keep mentioning the source of this adventure) “the English Renaissance of the eighteenth century, freely treated” and despite its municipal origins on the inside resembles an old fashioned town house, albeit on a grander scale, of the kind that a hero from a Dickens novel might aspire towards with its marble floors and sculptural friezes.

The process of setting up the museum and its collection is much the same as Blackburn, Blackpool or Bolton. Local philanthropist and mill owner Thomas Wrigley (born 1808) amassed a collection of work across his life and after his death, his children (in 1897) presented that work to the town council on the condition that they build an art gallery within which to display them as a memorial to their father which they unanimously agreed to and within two years began work.

The swiftness was partly due to the local MP, James Kenyon offering a thousand guineas a year earlier towards such a building which he guessed would quickly be filled with paintings. He was correct, though official approval was only granted (as was so often the case) if a public library was included as part of the plans (see also Liverpool, Southport et al). The arts centre opened by the turn of the next century and the internal structure still stands, library on the ground floor, art gallery above (with a tiny museum and archive room in the basement).

With so much of the main exhibition area closed off, it’s difficult to know exactly how grand a building it is; with so much of the collection it’s equally impossible to say if I agree with Edward’s sentiment that it’s “probably the best single surviving collection of Victorian paintings formed by the Lancashire Merchants and manufacturers of the later nineteenth century” comparing it favourably to Sudley House. Though I’m sure he’s right. He’s the expert. Plus it’s certainly good enough to be travelling here there and everywhere.

For the moment, what’s left of the collection is being displayed in the main stairwell and smaller room on the top floor with the exhibition “Big Art: Big Ideas” which focuses on large canvases filled with dramatic stories. The space seems necessarily too cramped for them; like a Robert Altman film, it’s difficult to concentrate on one of these stories when there’s another one happening close by. It’s also less fair on those pictures which haven’t been cleaned or have a muted pallet as the eye is drawn to primary colours or visceral action.

Visceral action like the undoubted highlight Jack Cade’s Rabblement by Keeley Halswelle inspired by the rebellion scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Two, specifically the moment when Cade’s severed head finds itself jammed atop a spear. All of the action in the painting and so our eye is drawn towards this point, but the nearly abstract shapes of the soldiers generally ignore its presence because the fight continues. Paint is slapped about the canvas though the angles are precise. It’s a curious mix.

On a similar theme, Anna Lee Merritt’s War depicts in piercing technicolour a group of women on a balcony as a victory parade passes by, as they realise that some of their husbands will not be returning home. It’s a refreshing contrast to the number of these late Victorian paintings depicting the fog and smoke of war, of men in battle. The figure who is clearly widowed shows little emotion, perhaps for the sake of her children which makes the scene all the more tragic.

Cleverly nestling between these two paintings is Drawing For the Militia by John Philip which is also a painting despite what the title suggests. In the foreground, the militia is being signed up, measured, questioned whilst in the far background we see the families of these men, crying, unable to cope with their spouses and father’s taking this step. It’s a clever use of a kind of cinematic deep focus to demonstrate both sides of the story, of the two paintings on either side.

The other of the room’s superstars which isn’t currently lost in translation is The Cruel Sister by John Faed which I’m sure I’ve seen elsewhere before. Illustrating a ye olde border ballad, it’s the story of a knight who enters the life of two sisters, one virtuous, the other cruel and the tragedy that ensues. There’s a pantomime element to this – the cruel sister wears black and a scowl, nothing subtle here, and the overcast landscape underscores that the knight has stepped into the wrong domestic situation.

Back in the stairwell, there are some other notables: JR Herbert’s The Crusader’s Wife which shows in profile a woman with a very robust, angular face, almost male in some ways, but with startling realistic brown hair falling down the sides of her head and down her back. Daniel MacLise’s The Student, a Shakespearean story of boy meets girl, she deeply touched by his gift of a daisy symbolic of their collective innocence which is a good as many pre-Raphealites. Rather underscores (alongside a glance through the accompanying catalogue) what else I missed.

Let's add this to the list of potential revisits.

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Statement If you're reading this post on the website "Social Arts Network" please be advised that as far as I remember, I haven't given permission for them to borrow my content (however dynamically). I have tried to contact them to remove my content from their website but my email was ignored. If you are from the Social Arts Network and reading this, then I think my feelings about what you are doing are implicit. My content is copyrighted to me and I did not give you permission. Please remove now, or at least reduce to preview only now, thanks.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Small Time Crooks (2000)

Then The copy of Small Time Crooks I’ve watched then and now was bought at Music Zone in Williamson Square, Liverpool. For younger readers, Music Zone was to the early noughties what Fopp is now – good dvd and cds from alternative genres and distributors at unbelievable prices. Ironically Fopp attempted to rescue Music Zone before going to the wall themselves and were later bought out by HMV. Always a bigger fish. In terms of the music retail business, it was the canary in the cage for this recession (Tower Records UK and Andy’s Records being similar terminal birds for previous economic dips). Zavvi was quick to follow.

Now Not too long ago I was talking about this endeavour to a friend and said that I was soon to reach the noughties. “Ah – the wall.” He said grinning. I laughed it off but sadly we’ve reached the millennium and Woody makes his first proper stumble. The reasons are quite complex and I’ll talk about those in a minute, but it’s the first occasion when I’ve become bored and tetchy and frustrated. This must be what it feels like when London marathon runners hit the cobbles of Cutty Sark and realise they have nineteen miles to go, or in my case eight or so films.

The film opens very well, hilariously in fact. We’re introduced to Woody’s character Ray, one of those small time crooks who has a big scheme – he’s going to rob a bank by renting a shop just up the street and digging underneath the shops between. His wife, Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) is initially reticent but is eventually convinced, she loves him and trusts him. His pals Denny (Michael Rappaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow) are in on the deal and eventually fellow jail bird Benny (John Lovitz in a low key performance for him) who they have to enlist because he’s rented the shop from under them.

There’s an Only Fools and Horses vibe to this opening section. Like Del Boy, Ray is apparently the clever one (he’s the one with the glasses anyway) and thinks the next scheme will be the one to make them rich. Frenchy, like Raquel, rolls her eyes and is clearly the cleverer of the two and like John Sullivan’s sitcom, it’s the incidentals of the plan which gain in importance to the point of overwhelming everything. Hollywood writer Elaine May turns in a sterling performance as Frenchy’s cousin May, the Trigger of the group whose random approach to logic threatens to derail everything (she continues to be one of the few reasons to continue watching).

This section is hilarious and up there in terms of quality with some of the anecdotes in Radio Days and has elements of The Marx Brothers in its approach to slapstick. The problem is that when one of these random variables leads the couple to become rich, the film makes the same mistake as late Only Fools And Horses in thinking that turning the piece into a class culture clash story equals comic gold. In order to accomplish that, Woody effectively has to become the intellectuals in Interiors and make fun of his underclass characters because they stock their home with vulgar acquirements, don’t know who Tintoretto is or don’t want to sit through an opera.

He does make some attempts at balance. When the English art dealer played by Hugh Grant (that’s Hugh Grant!) takes Frenchy under his wing there are some on the nose references to Pygmalian and a demonstration that his motives might not be entirely honourable. All the rest of the so-called culturally aware figures are interested in is seeing how they can exploit the couple’s new found wealth in arts projects, take advantage of their minimal understanding of the arts. But too often, and this is unlike Woody, he goes for the easy joke, the mobile phone ringing in a classical music concert, financial ignorance at inopportune moments and the farce of being chased through rooms.

There’s nothing wrong with the way the film is shot; Fei Zhao in his second and last work for the director offers some beautiful compositions, not least an early magic hour shot taking in the roof of an apartment and the city which is as good as anything Gordon Willis produced in the seventies. The performances are superb even as the script is falling apart with only Grant looking slightly incongruous and out of sorts at a moment when he was at the peak of his fame largely reacting to whatever Ullman and Allen are doing. It’s simply that, when the caption One Year Later appears, the film falls apart and Woody seems as unsure in his writing as he’d been in years.

The Swingometer

Politics The BBC Archive has posted material related to the election night swingometer with plenty of clips of past glories.

My favourite is this discourse from a couple of weeks before my birth in 1974 in which Sue Lawley looking like a sexy young Doctor Who companion from the period, casually, one hand in her pocket, explains the results of the overnight poll.

Full clip is here and you can't tell me something hasn't been lost in the wizbit pacing of the new news. Especially the final moment and the smirk. Now it's Jeremy Vine in a holodeck waving his arms around.

Another draw is the list of candidate names which demonstrate that all of the fiction figures that turn up on comedy series from the Python to The Day Today, all have their roots in fact.

I've listed them after the jump because they do sound like the stuff of another era and I really can't believe that these people existed. Especially Margaret Thatcher.

And low, the crack in reality continues to make its presence felt ...

TV Straight from our Auntie's house ...
"Sarah Jane Smith is reunited with another of The Doctor's former companions, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), in a new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, set to air on CBBC this autumn. They'll be joined by The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), in special editions penned by executive producer Russell T Davies.

The two episodes will see The Doctor and his two former time-travelling partners caught up in an alien-busting adventure that will entertain Doctor Who fans of all ages.
It's interesting. Just when I think I've run out of squee I'm still able to produce some on command. Will this be why RTD had to watch an episode of the new series of Dr Who, as revealed by The Grand Moff on Radio 4's Front Row the other week? (episode still available)

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Company Man (2000)

Then First time, this time, only time. See below.

Now About the longest eighty minutes of my life – and that includes the time I was stuck at Manchester Piccadilly at five in the morning waiting for the first train back to Liverpool with nothing to read and no one about – Company Man by any measure is a horrible comedy, unfunny, often offensive so. The story of Douglas McGrath’s Alan Quimp, a school English teacher with a grammar fetish who “lucks” himself into the Cuban wing of the CIA and causes the Bay of Pigs, everything you need to know about the sensibilities of the film makers can be found in a single sentence on its wikipedia page: “Bill Murray had a cameo appearance in the film, but his appearance was cut.”

Enjoying a 15% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the few positive reviews may have been written in the kind of LSD haze that McGrath presents us with in one of the film’s low points. Flatly shot on economical sets that barely explain the film’s $16 million price-tag and poorly edited, it seems to be attempting to resurrect early Woody Allen, specifically Bananas, but lacks Woody’s pacing and timing, largely falling back on reverse reveals in which a character says that something won’t be happening and in the next scene it is revealed that it has. A running gag of Alan incessantly correcting the grammar of his colleagues is so irritating at one point I was actively swearing at the screen in desperation for it to stop.

Most of the actors are trying their best with the meagre material but just sometimes you can see a flicker of fear in the eyes of the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Leary and John Turturro suggesting they’re wondering how they got into it and aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be doing. When Alan Cumming appeared, I shouted “Not you too Alan!” like I’d just heard he’d been shot down in a war zone. For much of the duration I was trying to work out (a) where I’d seen writer/director/actor Douglas McGrath before and (b) how he’d amassed this cast for this failure, even to the point of asking Anthony LaPaglia to don a beard and greens to play Fidel Castro (and must have used only Hitchcock’s Topaz for research so broad is his characterisation).

Quick glance at the imdb and McGrath’s revealed to be Woody’s co-writer on Bullets Over Broadway with small roles in Celebrity, Bullets, Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending. He’d already directed the Emma adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘96 and would go from Company Man to Nicholas Nickelby before redeeming himself with Infamous, the Truman Capote film that wasn’t Capote. I’ve scrabbled about for an interview, some indication of what might have gone wrong here but all I can find is review after interview listing its failures; Roger Ebert attended twice, bless him, just to see if the audience reaction changed. It didn’t. Still silent. Salon says it’s like a life sentence. They’re right. I ended up tidying my tiny blu-ray collection halfway through.

McGrath might have thought himself Woody’s successor and though you could imagine him being an able performer given the right material and director – in a Wes Anderson film perhaps – he’s just not enough of a presence to carry his own film. Perhaps that’s why he’s surrounded himself with so much star power; but all too often he looks like a YouTube editing wizard who’s inserted themselves into someone else’s movie. How else can we explain why the rest of the cast are called upon to simply react as he does his schtick. It’s not until you see an actor/writer/director giving themselves what they think are the best jokes that you realise how generous Woody is in portioning out the humour even in the films were he’s supposed to be the main character.

The actor/writer/director’s previous credits explain Allen’s participation as the head of the Cuban branch of the CIA. Not that you could tell that from the box or the credits were his name is nowhere to be found. Did he see the finished product have his name taken off or did the film as a favour on the understanding that his appearance would be a surprise? Either way his sudden reveal is one of the few good moments as he lounges beneath a beret in the local drinking establishment explaining how he became stuck in what until that point is a backwater position within the organisation. Beyond that he’s largely wasted, uncomfortably handing out exposition and sending Alan out on missions to kill Castro, before the indignity of his final scene in which the virtuoso clarinettist has to mime using a saxophone.

In the absence of a trailer, here's Woody on Moby Dick, Cole Porter & Artistic Theft [via]:

miniblog archive

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  • The 12 Most Tragically Lost Doctor Who Adventures 

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  • Repeal the digital economy act – Nick Clegg 

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  • #spotify #spotifyplaylist Nearly the complete soundtrack to [500] Days of Summer (with added Belle & Sebastian) 

  • Thanks for all the #ffs today. 

  • The Power of Story 

  • US's The Daily Beast entirely misunderstands the Leadership debate. Depicts Gordon as the winner. Ugh. #ge2010 

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  • An amazing photo of the eruption 

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  • Hit Stop -> Stop -> Play and Other Tricks to Skip DVD Trailers and Warnings [DVDs] 

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  • RT @SFXmagazine: Final viewing figures for Doctor Who "The Eleventh Hour" show MASSIVE increase of 2 million - 

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  • #spotify The Plastiscines, female French punk band. Quite extraordinary.
  • The Surge.

    Politics Last night, I nearly burst into tears after seeing some numbers. No, it wasn’t the ratings given by visitors to Gallifrey Base for the Doctor Who episode, though fans really don’t know when they’ve been born when they’re giving Spitfires vs. Daleks five on ten and complaining about the fact that the technology seemed to have been knocked together in five minutes by one of their agents gone rogue.

    No, my near show shower was after seeing the Liberal Democrats ahead of two other parties in the Mail on Sunday poll. A YouGov poll tonight as reported by UK Polling Report offers similar numbers LDEM 33%(+4), CON 32%(-1), LAB 26%(-3). I knew that Nick Clegg’s performance had been good, but I didn’t really suspect that they’d be transferred into these numbers.

    Mad keen on politics, I’ve been following the election since its been called watching Newsnight on consecutive evenings, listening intently to the Today programme and PM and reading my paper of choice. As I joked here, having already decided who I was going to vote for this largely consisted of half listening to the arguments then insulting the people on Twitter. #ge2010.

    Until Thursday there was a quite resignation about being a lifelong Lib Dem supporter and knowing that our polling record would slip in and out of 20% until the election when we would stunningly under-perform, as usual winning some seats but losing just as many others meaning we’d end up back at square one, our only hope this time for a hung parliament and a bit of more influence. Hence my emotion response to some numbers.

    As ever until Thursday, the Lib Dems where considered by the media as the also rans. The election meant some extra focus here and there, but though the Labservative manifestos appeared as headlines in the papers Monday to Thursday, the Lib Dems were reduced to a byline or nestling somewhere in the middle pages, our message lost within the squabbling over the content of the parties that seemed most likely to form the next government.

    Have I Got News For You the week before the debate was making the usual jokes about the Lib Dems being forgettable and not being able to make up their mind about anything – jokes which were repeated the following week in the episode which ran opposite the leadership debate and which look slightly anachronistic now (slightly?). There was an element of motion going to Paxman’s interviews with Clegg and then Cable; they both acquitted themselves well, but with his cold, Paxo didn’t seem to be trying.

    When I wrote my review of the leadership debate with my effusive praise of Clegg, it was still with the slight expectation that since only about a quarter of the country would be watching and since in the days after the chancellor’s debate which Cable won hands down too the polling numbers stayed the same, I expected that we might pick up a couple of points, but people would still keep to their usual expectation that a Lib Dem vote was a wasted vote and that they’d stick with one of the two main parties.

    You know the narrative from there. The wacky polls on Friday with massive numbers which turned out to be the product of voters who’d actually watched the debates and knew they were going to be asked. Then into yesterday polls from typical samples began to show and the Lib Dem numbers were higher but not steller, which it then transpired were from surveys taken before the debate and showed a manifesto surge. Now the real post debate numbers are appearing and well, we know the story of that:

    LDEM 33%(+4), CON 32%(-1), LAB 26%(-3)

    Liberal numbers which haven’t been this high for decades, Labour numbers lower than Michael Foot, the Tories holding steady. If this is just a flash in the pan, if by the end of the next week the hype will have died down and the Lib Dems have returned to their old stomping ground of 20% at least we have this moment to point to and show that we can be relevant.

    Except, and this is why, quite frankly I’m brainfried, people with an opinion are suggesting that this may not be a flash in the pan, that these numbers may be sustainable. Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report thinks (and he isn't the only one) that they could well be if the “wasted vote” people switch back to their natural opinion and I’d add if the non-voters in a similar category make the time.

    I’m under no illusions about this. The chances of the Lib Dems winning the election are slim unless they can start picking off the Labservative vote in greater numbers. Most projections suggest that the support is too diffuse and there aren’t enough true marginals to be relevant. This would have to be 1997 scenario with shell-shocked young Lib Dems picking off cabinet ministers and us asking each other the next morning if we were up for Milliband.

    Both of the other two parties (it feels wrong to call them the “main parties right now) will be heading after the Lib Dems with greater force. We can already see the new Conservative strategy at work with there persistent suggestions that voters will change their tune when they scrutinise the “eccentric policies” going on to purposefully misrepresent those policies (see Bob Ainsworth fudging Trident yesterday morning).

    Plus there’s two more leadership debates and Cameron and Brown are bound to be sharper having been rocked out of their complacency. The next, on Foreign Affairs will be a real test for Clegg, though his anti-war credentials and general internationalism (what’s the word for someone who speaks five languages?) may stand him in good stead.

    And neither of the other leads will want to come across as bullies, the conundrum which faced John McCain and look what happened to him. I don’t think Gordon will be agreeing with Nick as much and David will cut back on the anecdotes but since those seemed to be the well honed strategies, both may come across as nervous as they try desperately not to fall back into those old modes and risk looking like fools.

    The only problem may be that it’s on Sky News which, apart from the potential for bias in the moderation, means that many people will rely on clips (despite the reach of digital television people can’t seem to find the top of the dial). If he makes any major gaffs they’ll be repeated over and over and over again. It just depends on the narrative and how fair the media wants to be.

    But as we’ve seen by the sudden appearance of Nick on the cover of newspapers (unthinkable before Thursday), there’s a buzz around him of the kind that sells newspapers or makes people visit websites; the last thing they may want to do is piss off their potential readership by suggesting their new golden boy is no good, a flash in the pan. We’re uncharted territory now.

    So that could be my natural pessimism. For the electoral polling map to change overnight like this feels unprecedented and like 1997 there is something in the air. Search for Clegg or “Lib Dems” on Twitter and watch the general outpouring of good will; if that is being replicated in the real world, and the polls suggest it is, anything could happen.

    Anything is possible.

    Cue late career, but not Deborah yet, Debbie Gibson:

    Yes, indeed.

    Victory of the Daleks.

    TV New New New Doctor, New New Daleks. There was fascinating article in the party newsletter (or Doctor Who Magazine to the rest of you) last year at about the time Steven Moffat had been announced as show runner about the treatment of mythology in the series which spent much of its duration underscoring that the show has been at its best when its ignored what has gone before and that it was up to poor souls online and in books to try and rationalise it all should they feel the need to. It speculated on how Moffat could proceed once he took over, would he choose to forget everything essentially producing his own Rose, offering us the people of Earth enjoying first contact once again, new new versions of old monsters unaware of the previous few years and what not?

    Eventually, the conclusion the article came to (if I remember rightly) was that this would be more difficult to do with the spin-off shows spewing extra continuity all over the place and that Moffat would have to offer a continuation of some sort because soap-addicted/addled viewers can’t accept massive changes in continuity (just small ones possibly like the uncertain age of Ian Beale in EastEnders) but that he was unlikely to want to carry on with any of Davies’s characters or designs. What Victory of the Daleks does, aptly given the atmosphere in the country at the moment (and I don’t mean as a result of the Iceland volcanic ash which is clearly the result of Pyrovile barbecue) offer a third way, mixing elements of old and new Who more clearly than before. I mean look at the majesty of that title.

    Firstly, a new design of Dalek. At some point in the future someone will write a longer essay on what the different Dalek designs say about each of the men in charge of the series. Briefly, Davies’s brief had been to “beef up the design” according to Gary Russell’s The Inside Story, make it look like a tank, with its rivets and whatnot. But despite the later revisions its always seemed a bit – anonymous? Is that the word? -- only really gaining individuality in the Cult of Skaro. But with the exception of Dalek, the pepperpots on mass have really just had the same function as the Orcs in Lord of the Rings, giant indomitable army offering “insurmountable” odds.

    In the Moffat/Gattis model, there’s a new individuality (of sorts) up front, with a return of the big primary colours not just from the Cushing movies but they're also heavily influenced by the 60s TV-21 strips. That’s where their commanding presence comes from and like those stories, as Confidential revealed, he and Gattis were keen to see the return in the television series of these hierarchical versions with a proper chain of command and model codes like “drone” or “eternal”. Not just a fabulous merchandising opportunity, their new bulk gives them even greater weight and menace within the studio, and it was rather amazing to see so many practical examples spinning around in one shot, this half dozen having more substance than a thousand computer generated versions.

    The basis of the story was once again to show the clash between our humanity and the pluralism of the Daleks. Like Power of the Daleks (also referenced in dialogue), Time of the Daleks (the Big Finish audio) and the Kit Kat commercial ("Peace and Love!") this was initially achieved by having the ring modulator speak all too human phraseology to underscore the wrongness of it (“Would you like a cup of tea?”). But later, once inside the Dalek ship we could see the contrast between the empty cold lifeless interior they called home and the map room in the allied bunker with telephones and cigars and life strewn everywhere. Standard sci-fi trope to be sure, but the rapid cutting between the two was very evocative. Plus they’re bobbing their heads again when they talk. I’ve missed that.

    And they’re, as Moffat and Gattis have observed, “crafty”. This whole story was the scene in the sewers from Daleks in Manhattan in which a couple of members of the cult decided to gang up on Sec extrapolated across forty-five minutes. The plan was typically convoluted. The last remaining time-travelling members of the race create an android shaped bomb to infiltrate the allies during World War II so that the appearance of two Daleks in disguise makes sense so that Winston Churchill is impressed enough to invite his friend the Doctor along to help make some more, knowing the timelord wouldn’t believe it enough for them to have a reason to have his desperate voiceprint identify himself and them so that they could convince a new Paradigm generating doo-dad to produce a brand new species.

    Phew. It’s ingenious and no less incredible than scooping out the centre of the planet in order to turn it into a space ship. Of course, it’s perfectly convenient that they should choose a time period that provides the opportunity to see spitfires in space attacking a Dalek ship, Independence Day-style, but like the city of the back of a star whale, this version of the series is revelling in its curious visuals, its Josh Kirby approach to plotting. I stand by my assessment of the new era as a huge fairy tale, with the addendum that I might need to apply the Britannica definition from time to time: “Fairy tales may be written or told for the amusement of children or may have a more sophisticated narrative containing supernatural or obviously improbable events, scenes, and personages and often having a whimsical, satirical, or moralistic character.”

    None more improbable than keeping the Daleks at bay with a Jammy-Dodger. Matt beat the Dalek test hands down capturing all of the fear and violence inherent in Eccleston’s performance from the seminal interrogation room scene in Dalek with the sarcasm of Tennant’s first meeting (somewhat thrown away) in Doomsday. Granted much of his time with them was spent waiting for information and watching impotently as the game changed, but he was entirely magnetic and certainly had those moments Troughton was so good at, in which he stood perfectly still and even without the aid of editing we watched his mind deducing what their plan would be and the horrible consequences even though in this case it was to escape and regroup. When he later said that the Daleks had beaten them, it was the quite resignation that it twas and will forever be thus.

    As the first piece by a non-Moffat it's our first chance to see his methodology for the series in the wild. How different was this to The Unquiet Dead? The episode did offer a new approach to the celebrity historical (based on Moffat's suggestion) as the Doctor and Winston are old sparring partners (beautifully underscored by the chemistry between Matt and Ian McNeice standing for Robert Hardy) whereas before, it was the first time he’d bumped into Dickens or Queen Victoria. Except the Doctor has always waxed anecdotally about this or that historic figure and what we have here, finally, is an example of that within a story. If you take a full franchise view of their previous encounters they originally met when the Doctor looked like Colin Baker to foil the Players in a Terry Dicks novel (wikia for more details) which seems to fit somehow, two brash personalities butting against one another (with some added interested that the Seventh Doctor spent a lot of time around Hitler).

    The episode was also not about Churchill particularly learning anything about himself. He found aliens a perfectly natural happenstance of life, approaching the Doctor and the TARDIS openly and mostly coming across in narrative terms like a historical version of the Brigadier sending a message to the Doctor when he was particularly required. In a Russell T Davies guided version of this story, I’d imagine Winston becoming increasingly desperate to have his hands on the Doctor’s technology or for the Doctor to take sides in the war with an added meditation (ala the Larry Miles’s novel Interference) on why he chooses to become involved with some conflicts and not others (only briefly touched on towards the end) and what gives him that authority with a side order of ‘web of time’ style rationalisation and an explanation as to where the fuck he was during Children of Earth?

    Or was it simply that with the Dalek material, the episode was stuff already and that's whey decided to go the other way? Oh the joys of auteur theory. The episode did end on an emotional beat. Handed the usual moral conundrum of saving the Earth or destroying the Daleks, the Doctor chose us again allowing his mortal enemy to skip off again (with a fabulous shoom into hyperspace). The ensuing scene offered another example of Amy filling in for the newly divested human part of the timelord, realising that the way to a man’s oblivion continuum is a woman. Once again, we’re seeing the Doctor following Amy’s lead as though the spirit of the Tenth Doctor has spread between the two of them. Bill Patterson was predictably extraordinary here, realistically capturing his robotic skip between the pain of grief to the tragedy of unrequited love.

    Finally, the clearest indication that Moffat has thought about potential for a mythological reset is Amy’s inability to recognise the Daleks. There’s a certain vagueness to this. We don’t know yet if it’s just her that doesn’t remember the events of Journey’s End or the whole planet; certainly she seems quite comfortable with the idea of aliens in general and the implications of the universe teeming with life so she might have experienced one of the dozens of other invasion events. She can’t have been picked up before Journey’s End was occuring because the Doctor would surely have known about this and wouldn’t have decided to turn it into a plot point. But he doesn’t seem particularly perturbed at least not in the same way Eighth did in the second series of his Big Finish audios when it became apparent neither Orson Welles or Charley had heard of Shakespeare and went off to investigate. It’s not like she can claim to have been scuba diving.

    Perhaps I’m reaching, but what if the crack that’s either following the Doctor around or as I suspect the Doctor is following around (A month later? Really?) is a revisionist switch, a chance for Moffat to pull back on some of the more eccentric mythology from the Davies era or even eep, the nu-Who equivalent of the Faction Paradox, a way of explaining some of the inconsistencies? Three episodes in there are mysteries afoot and they’re character based, not disappearing bees and planets. My brain, so full of stuff, is now casting about and wondering if he’s even reaching as far back as The Next Doctor, when Tenth wondered why a giant Cyberman stomping London isn’t in the historical record or if Churchill’s apparent ignorance of Torchwood is also connected. Probably not. Either way, it's an indication that Moffat isn't ready to put a lid on his predecessor's work just yet, not completely ignoring continuity or totally embracing it but something else. Good here, init?

    Next Week: Let the River RUN!
    Politics I'm part of The MSN Voters Panel. We're being asked about party affiliation and what we think are the main issues. My contribution (which is typically long) is towards the bottom. Note this was written before the Leadership debate, which has completely changed the complexion of the election.