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new year 2010

That Day Happy New Year, and welcome to 2011, and spending the next twelve months coping with a date that has just one too many syllables when you say it out loud. Yesterday marked the breaking of The Opinion Engine which I hope you all enjoyed with apologies if it was a bit threadbare towards the end and for the generally melancholic tone which at times meant it was about as friendly as being locked in a room with a projection of Tarkovsky's film Mirror for company. Just be pleased it wasn't Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. Or something by the Wayans brothers. Feedback is welcomed, if not demanded.

Christmas was as usual quiet and entertaining and quietly entertaining. Main present was a new mp3 player, though the gift that's kept on giving is a boxset of the 1960s version of the BBC's attempt to film all of Shakespeare's history plays, An Age of Kings, with Sean Connery as Hotspur, Robert Hardy as Henry V and a teenage Judi Dench as the object of his desire. Most of the costumes and sets look like they were later employed in classic Doctor Who a few years later, not to mention Julian Glover who is playing about ten different roles and would later embody Richard I on Who a few years later.

New Year was New Year with all that implies, perking up considerably later on in the evening when we realised that BBC Scotland's Hogmanay was appearing on Freeview's red button and for all the stereotypical features was a far jollier, far more authentic experience than anything the English versions of the television channels had to offer.  You can see what I mean here, and watch out for the entertaining public display of affection towards the end.  That page links to a rather good archive page of previous broadcasts, though isn't brave enough to feature the notorious Live into 85. Thank goodness for Youtube. "It make me mad, when I get sad, because I know I should be gey, I know I should be gey ..."

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 31/31: "I read the news today, oh boy." (suggested by Kat Herzog)

"everybody needs a place to think"

That Day We reach the time when I assess how well I predicted the ups and downs of the year and look forward to the next. And oh, boy:

The Beatles back catalogue will officially be made available for digital download.
The first of the wilder stabs in the dark which turned out to be true. Sadly Apple coincidentally scheduled the announcement on the same day as the the royal engagement of Kate and Wills and slightly misjudged exactly how excited the web would be, which wasn't much, especially since, due to a technical cock-up, the albums were posted on iTunes half an hour early thereby busting any potential surprise generated by the fairly enigmatic announcement advert. Phew. One mark.

Hung parliament at next election, with the Lib Dems gaining real political power (Vince Cable chancellor?)
Aah, the good times, when I still thought this would be a good thing. For all the obvious benefits the Lib Dems have brought to the government and I do believe that they've tamed somewhat the Tory beast, there are still plenty of decisions which have been rushed through and ill considered which I simply can't defend, not least in the area of media and the academic and arts cuts (and oh Vincent).  We keep seeing the least cost/biggest public benefit mistake being repeated.   One mark, nevertheless.

Blu-Ray "fails". Remains a niche consumer item like laserdisc.
I still think this is open to conjecture. The sale of discs is on the up but the price of players has dropped which suggests that people aren't buying them. I asked my twitter followers if they owned one and the overall impression was middling at best (and thank you to all those who replied). The problem is the leap in quality from DVD to BD simply isn't as startling as that from VHS to shiny disc, especially with up-scaling and a properly set up flat screen. I watched the dvd of Inglorious Basterds the other afternoon and it looked as good as some of my blu-rays. Half a mark.

BBC Two's remit changes to something akin to BBC Four, which in turn pushes BBC Four farther upmarket to become even more like a tv mashup of Radios 3 and 4.
Again, this is open to conjecture. The various reports produced by the BBC Trust throughout the year said much about increasing the impact of both channels and the controller of BBC Four Richard Klein has certainly signalled his intention to move away from general entertainment and comedy towards documentaries and drama with a more curated approach -- there has been an increase in themed "seasons" under his stewardship. Since BBC Two hasn't noticeably changed I'll award myself half a mark.

Carey Mulligan will be nominated for an Oscar. I hope that hasn't jinxed her chances.
She was, bless her, for An Education. One Mark.

Which is four out of five. I think that is my best showing yet.

Right (cracks knuckles). Next year:

There will be a UK general election.

A lost episode of Doctor Who will be found.

A scientific discovery will revolutionise philosophical thought.

BBC Four will begin showing theatre on a regular basis.

A major high street entertainment retailer will close.

See you on the other side.

James Shapiro on Hamlet on BBC World Service

James Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare talks to the BBC's Witness programme about the play and the political environment at the time he thinks it was written.

It's only very short -- about ten minutes -- but manages to include clips from seven different Hamlets including the recent Rory Kinnear and Jude Law (which confirms that both have been recorded in some format).

Also downloadable as a podcast.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 30/31: Some things I've enjoyed watching on television this year.

On Location 1f

TV It’s still strange to me that Sherlock on BBC One was considered the surprise hit of the summer, given the writers, the cast and the directors involved. Steven Moffat once again produced a classic from his fingers, aided and abetted by Mark Gatiss with Benedict Cumberbatch somehow embodying Conan Doyle’s anti-hero within a modern setting and Martin Freeman managing to find a new nobility in Watson, a character previously given even less respect than the average 60s Dr Who companion. If the middle episode was generally considered middling, the first and third were two of the best dramas on television this year, as, like Inception in cinemas, they refused to talk down to viewers and welcomed us into the afoot game.

Virtual Revolution on BBC Two achieved the somewhat impossible task of making me excited about the web again after months and months of creeping boredom. Across three episodes, Aleks Krotoski revealed the history of the internet, her methodology to tease out the slightly less well known stories, demonstrating that such things as social networking are not new phenomena, it’s simply that new technologies have made them easier and less niche. The result is that over time geeks, nerds and dork have no longer become marginalized by society. They are society. And I decided that blogging wasn’t just a hobby but a mission.

The TV Election Debates were thrilling television. Not particularly because of what was happening on screen, but because they confirmed that the likes of twitter have essentially changed the way some of watch tv and how tv and in this case politics works. Within seconds of the previously tried and tested anecdotes emerging in the debate, parodies were appearing within a hundred and forty characters to the point that by the end all three candidates were looking somewhat ludicrous. So ubiquitous has this hashtag approach to television become, it’s entirely possible to know exactly what’s happening in a programme without even turning on a television. To boycott The X-Factor now, I don’t just have to have a different channel on, I have turn off my twitter client too.

The Pacific on Sky Movies HD was the kind of television which used to be given pride of place on a national channel but now finds itself in one of Murdoch’s televisual ghettos. A ten part epic from the same stable as Band of Brothers, this took three US army officers through the World War Two campaign demonstrating the ease with which humanity loses its humanity within extreme circumstances of peril and there were few more memorable scenes this year than of men stealing the gold filling from their deceased colleagues. Employing interviews with the real soldiers depicted in the series gave the drama extra weight and suspense too, not least because we weren’t entirely sure who had survived until the very end.

Mentioning The Ascent of Man is a bit of a cheat since it’s older than I am, but BBC Four did repeat an episode recently which sort of makes it count, and after spending the best part of a month watching The Wire, I then spent half of the next month letting Jacob Bronowski explain a history of scientific thought to me. As ever, some of my favourite shows this year have been these presenter led documentaries, but what Bronowski was able to do was describe extremely complex ideas with few of the flashier excesses which distract the viewer now. One of the episodes seems to take place entirely between three rocks in a desert with only a Neolithic skull as a prop. It was one of my big televisual experiences of the year and I’d recommend it be one of yours in the next.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 29/31: Also I'd love to hear what you think of Alan Moore from your perspective (if that means talking about his Doctor Who comics so be it...) (suggested by @linkmachinego)

Alan Moore

Comics That Alan Moore wrote any Doctor Who comics demonstrates both just how wide and flexible the franchise is and also how Moore bestrides the British and global comics world like a giant bearded colossus. In truth his Who work consists of five back-up strips in the 1980 version of the comic featuring spin-off stories for some of the supporting characters, Cybermen, Autons, Sontarans and timelords and were more in-keeping with his concurrent work on 2000 AD than anything else, the most notable creation, the Wardogs being resurrected by Moore to reappear in his work for Captain Britain.

So he didn’t actually write for the timelord himself which is a pity since the anti-authoritarian themes in much of Moore’s work chime well with the Doctor’s own philosophy and though the timelord would never indulge in the violence inherent in the character of V, there is still some crossover in their methodology, not least in taking full advantage of the element of rumour and legend. As the series has gone on, the "oncoming storm" moniker has been just as potent a weapon against his adversaries as his sonic screwdriver (cf, The Silence in the Library).

But Moore’s work work did go on to influence the series in other ways. Script editor Andrew Cartmel was a fan of The Ballad of Halo Jones and apparently showed the comics to his scriptwriters during the latter days of the classic series as an example of the direction in which he wanted the series to develop and clearly elements of that strip show up in the whole of his era, with Paradise Towers in particular even allowing something of the aesthetic to spill out onto the screen, in the costumes and souless tourism.

Most recently, Alan’s daughter Leah co-scripted the best comic to come out of the US Who license with IDW, The Whispering Gallery, in which the TARDIS lands within rooms upon rooms of talking paintings on a world that’s outlawed emotion which captures the sadness inherent in the Doctor’s eternally long life and even manages to add a whole new companion to the mythology within its twenty-odd pages. Perhaps sadly this will as close as we get to seeing a Moore writing for the timelord, not least because as he says in this clip from 2001, he’s a purist who thinks it wasn’t the same after the 60s:

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 28/31: My year in films that aren't Inception. Part Two.

I Am Love

Few directors have rarely known what to do with Tilda Swinton’s unique aristocratic exoticism. Most often she becomes the forbidden magical object of desire or else the wicked queen. I Am Love combines the two and also notices how sexy she is. To a degree this is simply a modern Visconti film (thankfully without the weird dubbing) and pornography for us cineastes who like our cinema with long expositional scenes filled of people eating, random intercourse and a pulsing John Adams soundtrack. But it’s impossible not to become wrapped up in the class politics and the atmospheric photography that favours the master, preferably if the characters are hidden within.

Iron Man 2

Since Christopher Reeves pulled on his tights and flew, superhero comic book adaptations have been fundamentally insubstantial because they transplanted the character from a complex multi-creator mythology and made them a unique figure within a relatively realistic universe. Finally, Marvel are doing something about that and though I can understand the frustration of some fans that IM2 spent too much time setting the ball rolling towards The Avengers, isn’t it just fun to finally to have Tony Stark in a universe with Shield, Black Widow et al and judging by the closing scenes of this a panoply of other heroes. It’s just a pity that some of the crown jewels, Spiderman, Fantastic Four and the X-characters don’t exist in this version of the Marvel Universe because of prior arrangements.

Letters To Juliet

Since gorging on the sleuthing series in a week earlier in the month, Amanda Seyfried has now in my brain become “Lily Kane off of Veronica Mars” and she’s done rather well for herself since that happened in 2006. Like Frozen, Letters To Juliet should be horrible with its one dimensional characters having the kind of problems most people would kill for and though it's crying out for Robert Riskin to drop through a time/space wormhole and give it the kind of polish he gave Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, somewhere between the Italian landscapes and Vanessa Redgrave I was enchanted.

Of Gods And Men

Four teenage girls attended the screening of this at the Cornerhouse at Manchester. They’d stocked up at the Sainsburys opposite beforehand an proceeded to masticate through four large bags of Doritos and assorted or crunchy goodies and then at the end when I turned around I could see them shrugging at each other in as much as to say “I don’t get it.” Not even these minxes could really spoil this tough but deeply moving mediation on rebellion in the face of absurdity, of fighting for what you believe in. Probably the perfect companion piece for Agora, in that it shows the flip side of religion, the one that’s the conscience of society. The Swan Lake scene is one of the greatest of all time.


Well, yes. Easily dismissed as Bourne-lite there’s still a certain manic excitement to Salt which is replete with the kinds of moments I love when even a jaded film viewer like me who thinks he’s seen enough films now that he can predict which direction a narrative is heading to scream with delight and there are few actresses who could pull of the emotional misdirection which Angelina Jolie is called upon to provide here at least not with the indefinable complexity which goes beyond the script. Like the Millenium trilogy, I can’t wait to see all of the dvd, which contains two other versions of the film which take much the same footage but spin it into two substantially different stories, which sounds like a full length version of Run Lola Run.

A Christmas Carol.

TV Happy Christmas!  How are we all?  Still suffering from mince pie indigestion and an overabundance of alcoholic cheer?  Good, good.  Let’s begin.  Where was I?  Right, that’s right, Christmas Doctor Who!  Hooray!  Now, you might remember that for a good long while this blog had the tag line, “A vast archive in place of an imagination.”, which is used by the narrator in the Italian film Il Divo to describe its subject, former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a cold, callous, meticulous, unfeeling man without a shred of warmth.  A bit like Donna Noble at the beginning of The Runaway Bride.

 Previously I’ve employed it hopefully ironically to describe myself, but during the emotional crescendo of Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol, as the older Kazran embraced the younger version of him, my fan gene was screaming “Blinovitch! Blin-oviiiiitch!” instead of the misty-eyed recognition that my favourite tv rendition of Charles Dickens’s original tale from ’77 with Michael Horden as Scrooge, always brings as the mental documentation I have of Doctor Who’s mythology asserted itself.

It’s that COPAC of the mind which throughout also led me to wonder exactly how the Doctor could be changing history to such a degree and not be creating cataclysms in the web of time all of the place making The Waters of Mars look like the dodgy banger in a Christmas cracker and how Kazran could have two sets of memories babbling about in his head when causality itself was being messed with, and why the Doctor hasn’t employed this methodology before, on, I don’t know, Davros?

Then as the night draws in I’m visited by three ghosts (Twitter, Gallifrey Base and the TARDIS Index File) and my imagination kicks back in.  This is a whole new rebooted universe, time can be rewritten, who’s to say what’s up or down and if the Amy can play au pair to the younger version of herself in The Big Bang then hug away Kazran and let all those frozen people live again, keep Christmas well, and all the other stuff you’re going to do after the temporal duration of the episode.

Because come Boxing Day, come the second viewing, I’m delighted, beguiled and all the things writer Steven Moffat probably hoped I’d be the first time around.  This is Moffat’s answer to Davies’s previous argument (from about the time of Voyage of the Damned) that the British public can’t handle anything too complex on Christmas Day, that something like Blink couldn’t work and what you really want is Who as blockbuster movie with faux Dickensian trappings like The Next Doctor, rather than emotional chamber piece about the timelord making someone less grumpy.

In actuality, the Doctor has used a similar methodology before, in Moffat’s only 90s Who fiction, Character Pieces from the Decalog 3 Virgin Books anthology in which the Seventh Doctor also changed history to help deal with an obstinate librarian and Paul Cornell's Telegraph short story "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years".  But the clever aspect of this story was in making the Doctor fully aware of his borrowing from literature.  I don’t remember that happening much in the Hinchcliffe era.  It’d be like the Fourth Doctor saying “Elementary my dear, Leela” in Talons.

It’s that self-awareness that stopped this from being the simple cover version it could have been and created an extra tension as to who the various ghosts would be.  A lesser writer might have employed Rory somehow as the future ghost instead of what was the rather marvellous twist that originally led to me contracting Blinovitch syndrome and indeed more clearly insert some kind of Marley figure (though there’s probably an argument that the Doctor embodied him too).  Where Dickens employs his ghosts as a device to allow Scrooge to visit various points in his own timeline, Moffat deploys the Doctor to create memories instead.

Just as years ago, the casting of Simon Callow as Dickens demonstrated this new version of Who meant business, the glinting eyes of Michael Gambon as Kazran shows how ambitious the show has become.  Oddly enough, this is the first time he’s Scrooged.  He played the Ghost of Christmas Present to Callow’s Scrooge in the animated Carol in 2001, the one were Kate Winslet sang, as well as Jenkins actually, but in fact he’s barely done any Dickens on screen so no wonder he took up this opportunity.

Gambon’s modesty in Confidential suggested that all he did was see in which direction Toby Haynes pointed and went there, but this was about as layered a performance we’ve seen from a Who guest star, utterly captivating especially in the scenes when he was called upon to remember fondly the memories captured photographically even though this was the first time the older Kazran was remembering fondly those memories, scene which themselves were reminiscent of his long term collaborator Stephen Poliakoff.

His performance might have been enough had the actors playing the younger Kazran’s not been up to the job, but luckily both Laurence Belcher (whose making quite a career from playing smaller versions of our greatest actors – he’s the teenaged Xavier in the X-Men prequel, understudying Patrick Stewart) and the new to the IMDb, Danny Horn, were more than capable of carrying the collective emotional weight of the single character, this was no Matthew Waterhouse turning into Andrew Sachs (cf, the Big Finish audios).

Matt clearly enjoyed the challenge of slightly pitching his performance differently with each of them and like Death to the Doctor we can clearly see now that he’s worked out how he wants to play the character and how Moffat wants to write it.  His petulant reaction to all the kissing and marrying Marilyn was just perfect, and more importantly very specific to him, though it does explain somewhat how Tenth might have nabbled Liz I.  Nevertheless, David Tennant seems like a very long time ago.  The End of Time was only a year ago.  Amazing.

The strength of the episode even managed to soften my heart towards Katherine Jenkins, a figure I usually have a snobbish enmity towards because of what she represents in the classical crossover market as I watch her compilations massively outselling the likes of “proper” singers like Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu, Classic FM to Radio 3, Classic FM Magazine to BBC Music, Pip and Jane Baker to Robert Holmes, David Gooderson to Michael Wisher.

Moffat somewhat protected her by making Abigail Dickens’s Belle figure, an obscure object of desire, Mulveyian projection of male desire only now and then allowed her own emotional beat.  But in places, Jenkins melted my heart, especially when she sang as in the goofy coddling of the shark (Spotify link) and in the Murray Gold rush job that played out the episode (and how demeaning for the rest if us under achievers that Gold can knocking something like that out in a couple of days).

Speaking of Confidential discoveries, how have we only just employed Michael Pickwoad, a man who looks like he should be revealing how he created an entire Cyber-battlefleet in the 60s from a contemporary lunch budget not taking over now and showing the previous comparative youngsters how these things should be done?  Pickwoad is of course a legend; his first proper prod. des. job was Withnail & I and he’s been providing drawing rooms for corsets and bow-ties on tv for years including The Old Curiosity Shop a few years ago.

His design work in A Christmas Carol was stunning, nodding not just to a kind of Dickensian steam punk aesthetic but also the soulless interiors of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the same kind of soulless privilege born from a heartless past.  He’s brave too; obviously Moffat’s detailed script would have suggested the classically futuristic interior of the spaceship, but Pickwoad pushed it further than we’ve yet seen in nu-Who, as close as we’ve been to the plastic polish of some 80s Davison stories (in which a bridge would often be left to suggest the contents of an entire ship).

All of which didn’t seem to leave much room for Amy and Rory.  Typically Arthur Darvill finally receives an opening credit but is barely in the episode but it certainly explains their absence from the cover of the Radio Times.  They received a few good moments, not least the unspoken explanation for why they were in those costumes (not the timey-wimey reason suggested by the trailers) but essentially they were in the classic companion of waiting for the Doctor to save them.  There’s a longer discussion to be had about this with reference to The Christmas Invasion, but I’ve been writing for three hours and five years already and it's time to wrap this up.

A Christmas Carol hasn’t convinced everybody but Moffat’s achievement has been to soften the heart of us Scrooges who too easily look to the details when it’s the emotional sweep that is important.  Davies was capable of that too, though arguably most of his specials overeggnogged the Christmas pudding too much not least in the ghostly resurrection of Astrid.  Unlike Dickens even, who at the end of his tale makes it plain that Tiny Tim didn’t die, there’s no cure for Abigail, who’ll pass away in Kazran’s arms once their shark-ride is over.  We’re left with the message that sometimes we can fight, but sometimes the courage is in our acceptance, and that’s well worth ignoring five or fifty years worth of mythology for.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 26/31: My year in films that aren't Inception. Part One.


Astonishing film that deserved to be seen far more than it was in the UK (especially since it was Spain’s biggest film in 2009) and was perhaps suppressed somewhat due to its politically sticky subject matter, the rise of Christianity including the sack of the library of Alexandria and the assassination of the Greek philosopher Hypatia because of her scientific and pagan beliefs. Rachel Weisz's fleet footed performance as Hypatia is the backbone of a film which meditates on the eternal struggle between belief and reason. The production design harks back to the old Hollywood classics by creating huge sets in Madrid rather than employing CGI which gives the piece a bags of authenticity, even when the work being carried out by Hypatia on the structure of the solar system is entirely conjectural.

The Concert

Probably the best place to see The Concert was at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall during one of the “Classic Film” screenings with the sound of the on-screen orchestra reverberating around a real venue. Somewhat dismissed on release as something of a Cinema Paradiso for classical music, there’s a stronger political thread running through Radu Mihaileanu’s evocation of censorship in the Soviet Union and some pleasingly ramshackle storytelling which gives the piece bags of character. The face of Mélanie Laurent is most associated with the film because she’s on the poster and she’s very good, but the emotional heart of the piece is Aleksey Guskov’s conductor boldly holding his own against each set back.


Or Gattaca 2: It Bites or The Matrix with vampires. An entertaining attempt at something interesting and new with vampires, a Soylent Green style allegory on our morally ambiguous reaction to the scarcity of natural resources, ultimately handstrung by following the hero’s journey story structure beat for beat. Not without some decent scares, especially in Sam Neil’s executive’s treatment of his daughter and it’s good to see the undervalued Claudia Karvan in a reasonably big release. Though to be fair, Toy Story 3 would probably in this slot, but I've not been able to see that yet.


Open Water on a ski-lift doesn’t sound like the most enticing pitch and indeed to an extent the three kids trapped on the chair in the sky during a cold snap are fairly annoying and the kind of victims of the week that might wander through an episode of Veronica Mars. William Goldman suggests that films are rarely about dialogue, which is lucky because most of the dialogue in Frozen is in the order of "Are you ok?" "It's cold." What Goldman doesn't mention is the dialogue coming from the viewer and Frozen is all about that. I swore, I screamed, and director Adam Green understands that the best way to creep the audience out is to concentrate not on event but reaction, all adding up to oddly, one of the most satisfying film experiences of 2010.

The Millenium Trilogy

Sadly for her, Noomi Rapace may never be as good in her future Hollywood career as she is as Lisbeth Salander and these “films” would not hold together as well without her. She has the relatively unique ability to underplay everything whilst still retaining incredible charisma, not unlike Clint Eastwood in his cowboy days – well at least until Paint Your Wagon. I’m still reserving proper judgement on these adaptations until I’ve seen the full television versions; the first was choppy and structurally suspect and though the second had a clearer through line (I’m yet to see the third) both seemed to contain lesions, bits of exposition left hanging here and there. The extended versions will apparently be released onto the home market on 14 July 2010. Can’t wait.