November 15, 2017

DVD Review: Rake: Series 4

Cover Rake sm.jpg Rake: Series 4, from Acorn Media, begins right where the previous series ended. Lead character Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) is dangling by his foot from a rope underneath a hot air balloon floating over Sydney Australia's famous harbour. Like the proverbial chaos butterfly that he is, everyone of Greene's actions has consequences. Some funny, some sad, and some just completely unpredictable.

For those who haven't had the privilege of meeting Greene before, he's a criminal lawyer whose behaviour on occasion crosses the line into the criminal, both legally and morally. It seems no matter how nobel his intentions, and he really does try to do the right thing, events always seem to spiral out of his control and things happen. Of course he also has a slight problem with drugs, alcohol and fidelity, as any number of ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife can attest to.

So while taking his best friend Barney (Russell Dykstra) for a hot air balloon ride seemed like a good idea at the time, the results ripple through Series 4 like a small tsunami. Barney ends up stranded in New Zealand and has to be rescued by the Australian Navy and Greene crashes through a plate glass window only to see an ex-client who was supposed to be dead.

The warrants for a wide variety of crimes against this ex-client precipitate Greene first going into hiding and then being disbarred. Homeless and unemployed he seeks refuge with one of the few people who haven't completely given up on him, the mother of his son, his long suffering ex-wife Wendy (Caroline Brazier). In spite of still having her son living with her, and trying to start a new relationship, she not only takes in her former husband, but Melissa (Adrienne Pickering) writer, ex-prostitute, now drug addict, and one of Greene's ex girlfriends.

In order to try and remove Greene from his wife's house, and life if possible, Wendy's new partner offers to get him elected to the Australian national Senate if he agrees to finally move on. The campaign turns into a brilliant piece of satire as Greene initially runs on a platform of appealing to the lowest common denominator and immediately attracts phenomenal polling numbers. One of his best bits was suggesting government could save money on health care costs by encouraging people to drink and smoke more so they'd stop living so damn long.

Unfortunately his conscience, Wendy, calls him on his shit and he starts to seriously address the issues and his poll numbers start to go south. Meanwhile he and Barney are contesting the massive bill the Australian government is trying to saddle them with for rescuing Barney, in spite of the fact, as Cleaver points out, Barney technically rescued himself by landing on a beach in New Zealand.

Just to add a little spice to the dish, Greene's son and Mellisa begin an affair with the result Wendy and Cleaver discover they will soon be grandparents. In other words everything is just about proceeding as normal in the life of Cleaver Greene.

While this may sound like a lot, and there's more believe me, spread over the 8 episodes in the series, it doesn't seem like too much. In fact it all fits together nicely with what we've come to expect from the previous 3 seasons of Rake. As usual there are moments of incredible humour but these are leavened by the times of genuine pathos.

In some ways Greene might not seem like a very attractive character on the surface, but in spite of his flaws he's compassionate and cares deeply about those around him. He might on occasion need a reminder to get his head out of his ass, but when he has it together he can be as good a friend as one could hope for.

However, the show does benefit from having Roxburgh as the central character. He continues to deliver a tour de force performance which gives Greene the multitude of dimensions he needs to be more than a one note joke. While all the actors in the show are wonderful in their own way, the show wins or fails on his abilities; and it continues to win big.

Sometimes a show can go on just too long and risk becoming a parody of itself. Rake: Series 4 is one of the best examples of how to keep a series fresh and intelligent over the long haul. If the small documentary included as a special feature is anything to go on, the actors involved in the show feel the same way as they all continue to rave about what a good time they're having. The acting, script writing and direction are all superb and the show is as brilliant as it was in the first season and makes it as enjoyable as it ever was.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Rake: Series 4)

October 2, 2017

Blu-ray Review: Loch Ness, Series 1

Cover Lock Ness .jpgThe Loch Ness Monster may or may not exist, but Loch Ness, Series 1, released by Acorn Media on Blu-ray October 3 2017, shows us that monsters come in all shapes and sizes and are usually human. A small town in Scotland bordering the infamous Loch is rocked by first one, then a series of murders.

Being the local cop in the above mentioned town hasn't prepared Detective Sergeant (DS) Annie Redford (Laura Fraser) for dealing with one murder, let alone what looks to be a series of murders. So a team, headed by Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Lauren Quigley (Siobhan Finneran) is brought in from the nearest city, Inverness, to head up the investigation. While the two officers get off to an initially rocky start, Redford's knowledge of the local geography and the people in her community prove to be too invaluable a resource for Quigley to ignore.

The six part series takes the viewer down the same path the villagers and police end up travelling. From the first body being discovered and the ensuing grisly details revealed by the pathologist's examination (part of the brain had been removed using the time honoured method of pulling it out through the nose) to the show's conclusion we follow along as the police bounce from suspect to suspect. While it turns out more people than you'd think in a town this size have secrets they want to hide, that doesn't necessarily make them murderers.

Well paced over its six parts Loch Ness not only does a great job of allowing the story to unfold gradually, it also does a fine job of showing how the worm of suspicion can affect a community. At first there is only shock at the sudden death of a well liked townsperson. However, as subsequent deaths come to light, and the police investigation progresses, we see how people begin to wonder about each other. Any doubts they may have had about a person's character are blown out of proportion, until the only answer must be they're the guilty party.

While the show does a commendable job of character development over the course of the series, the main focus is naturally on Redford and how she interacts with others. We see her as mother of a teenage daughter, wife, and cop, and how sometimes those three roles don't exactly mesh.

As a cop she is naturally excited by the opportunity to be part of something bigger than the usual run of the mill crime she deals with in a small town. However, these feelings are tempered by fear as more of the people she knows and cares for become embroiled, in one way or another, by events.

One of the better aspects of the show is the interactions between the two lead female characters. DCI Quigley has obviously become used to having to put up a hard exterior as a woman trying to climb the promotion ladder in the police force. However, as the case progresses and her relationship with Redford improves, she begins to let her guard down, even to the point of revealing personal secrets from her past.

Watching Fraser and Finneran work off each other is a delight. They are both highly gifted actors who can always find the right tone to make all their scenes completely believable. However, in the special feature included in the Blu-ray on the making of the show, we find out they had a serious problem with sending each other into fits of giggles when they did scenes together. Fraser admits they had to take turns looking at each other, because anytime they made eye contact they'd break up laughing.

Loch Ness, Series 1 is a wonderful piece of television. Not only is it an extremely well done police procedural and murder mystery, but it manages to recreate the atmosphere of fear that would surely stalk an isolated and close knit community under these circumstances. The combination of great acting, wonderful script and incredible cinematography make this a mini-series well worth watching. We can only hope the Series 1 in the title indicates there is more to come.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Loch Ness, Series 1)

September 13, 2017

DVD Review: Rake: Series 3 - The Original Australian Version

Cover Rake Series 3.jpg As we pick up the progress of Australian lawyer Cleaver Green, played with admirable panache by the wonderful Richard Roxburgh in Rake: Series 3, released on DVD by Acorn Media on September 12 2017, it's hard not to feel like you've been sucked into a hurricane. With Green as the calm within the storm, it's no surprise everything around him is just as out of control as it was in the previous two seasons of this beautifully scatological television show.

For those who've not seen the previous two seasons (both of which are also available through Acorn Media) it might take a bit to sort out the various ongoing plots and the assortment of characters who make up Greene's circle of friends, work associates, and enemies. However, if you just sit back and enjoy the ride you'll soon figure out what's going on. It might get a bit bumpy at times, but that's half the fun.

What's wonderful about this series is how it can transition from absurdist comedy to moments of pathos with perfect ease. Of course some of this is due to the quality of the show's writers and directors, but a great deal of the credit has to be given to entire cast. As the central character most of the onus for carrying the series is on Roxburgh. However, not only is he up to the challenge, he seems to revel in playing his character. This is as perfect an example of a tour de force performance as you'll ever see on television.

Of course he doesn't work in a vacuum - and those surrounding him are equally brilliant in their abilities to bring their roles to life and how they relate, and react, to Green. However, unless you've watched any other Australian television, you won't recognize either their names or faces. (With the exception of a hysterical cameo by Roxburgh's buddy Cate Blanchett in episode three) Rest assured, you've not seen such a fine ensemble cast outside of the glory days of shows like Murphy Brown and the work of Norman Lear.

However, be also warned, you'll also have never seen or heard this amount of drug use, nudity, sex, or swearing on television over here outside of deep cable. This is definitely not a show for young children. That being said, there is nothing gratuitous about anything depicted in the show. Remember this is a show about a man fighting his demons and trying to find the calm place in the storm he's made of his life.

There aren't many television shows which can have you pissing yourself with laughter one moment and close to real tears in the next. Moving from the incredibly absurd, Green's ex-wife's attempt at getting married ending in a hostage situation, to the very real sympathy and compassion Green has for his clients and those he cares for, the show covers a ton of ground with a gritty reality and light touch that make it a wonder to behold.

The special features included in this set is limited to a five minute gag reel (consisting mainly of watching everybody else trying to keep a straight face when Roxburgh blows his lines) but that's not what you're going to watch this series for. Rake: Series 3 continues down the path of excellence established by the first two seasons of this great television show. With scripts that continue to be both topical and intelligent, and brilliant acting from all involved, this is a show that shouldn't be missed by anyone.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Rake; Series 3 - The Original Australian Version)

July 24, 2017

Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World

Rumble Poster.jpg It's common knowledge popular music in North America has deep roots in Africa and other countries around the world. What probably isn't so well known is the influence the indigenous people of the continent have had on the music we've listened to and continue to hear on our radios. A new documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, from Rezolution Pictures, being released in select theatres across North America on July 26 2017, is a big step towards opening people's eyes to this massive omission in the history of popular music.

Taking its name from the infamous song "Rumble" by Link Wray through interviews and film footage the movie traces indigenous influence on popular music from its earliest beginnings to today. The first rock and roll song by a Native American, "Rumble", as well as being one of the songs which inspired Pete Townshead, Jimmy Page, and countless others to pick up a guitar, was also one of the first instrumental songs banned from the radio. Maybe it was the title or maybe it was the sheer threatening sound of the guitar, but somehow it was deemed too dangerous for the delicate ears of the American radio audience of the 1950s.

However, although the movie starts with rock and roll, it also reveals the roll indigenous people have played in the development of country, blues and jazz. Blues musicians Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf had native blood. Not only did the latter create great music in his own right, but he was one of the musicians who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones. In fact, aside from the obvious like Robbie Robertson and Buffy St-Marie, what will really surprise you is how many musicians from across different genres are Native American or First Nations from Canada.

The movie travels across North America from the Grand River Six Nations reserve, home to Robertson, in Southern Ontario Canada to the Mexican Native roots of Black Eyed Peas vocalist Taboo. It takes us down to New Orleans where it reveals the Choctaw roots behind the elaborate Native style costumes seen in Mardi Gras parades each year. Cyril Neville, of the Neville Brothers, (Choctaw himself) put it simply; run away slaves were given shelter on reserves and the next thing you know - black Indians.

We also travel up to the Carolinas where we talk to Pura Fe Crescioni (Tuscarora) about her group Ulali and the influence her people had on early country and bluegrass music. Over in Idaho is the home of early jazz singer Mildred Bailey of the Coure d'Alene nation.

We hear a native woman singing a traditional Coure d'Alene song and then listen to Bailey and hear where her vocal styling and intonation came from. Everyone from Tony Bennet to Frank Sinatra have talked about Bailey being an inspiration to their singing careers. Listen to any Billie Holiday song, her vocal trills in the high registers, and you're hearing Mildred Bailey and by extension the Coure d'Alene.

Some of the names mentioned in the movie are probably not going to be familiar to contemporary audiences. But guitarists like Jesse Ed Davis played with everyone from Taj Mahal to Rod Stewart and the Faces and sat in for Eric Clapton at George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh. He also was the one who convinced the late activist and poet John Trudell to set his words to music on albums such as Graffiti Man. While Trudell appears in the movie, to talk about Davis and other musicians, his influence can't be underestimated either as he went on to inspire a new generation of bands including A Tribe Called Red.

Of course no movie about indigenous rock and roll musicians would be complete without mentioning Jimi Hendrix and the first Native American band to have a hit single, Redbone. While the connection between the band who recorded "Come and Get Your Love" (One of the first songs heard in Guardians of the Galaxy) and the guy who seared people's ears with his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" might not be obvious it was there.

For it was Hendrix who advised them to "Do the Indian thing", which resulted in Redbone showing up on television shows like The Midnight Special in full regalia and starting their set with traditional dancing. There's a lovely moment in the movie where Taboo and Pat Vegas of Redbone meet up and the former tells the latter how the beat from "Come and Get Your Love" influenced a Black Eyed Peas track.

With contributions from Buddy Guy, Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer, Iggy Pop, Steven Tyler and other non-Native musicians, the picture developed by this movie is of a population widely unrecognized for their contributions to popular music. Not only have indigenous musicians been some of the most influential of their times, but so much of "our" music has its origins in Native traditions.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is an exhaustive and exhilarating ride through the music of the modern era. While there have been other movies and TV shows which have taken us on this journey, this movie tells a familiar story from a perspective we've never seen before.

By times heartening and other times heart breaking for a variety of reasons, this movie will open your eyes and ears in a way few music documentaries have done in the past. If you have any interest in the popular music of the last hundred years, than this movie is a must see. It will make you listen to everything from country to jazz, blues, and rock in a whole new way.

(Article originally published at as Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World)

July 11, 2017

Movie Review: American Valhalla - Iggy Pop & Joshua Homme

America Valhalla sm.jpg On the surface American Valhalla, now showing in select theatres across North America from Eagle Rock Films, is the story of the collaboration between Iggy Pop and Joshua Homme that led to the production of Pop's 2016 release Post Pop Depression. While it does an admirable job of detailing how the project came about it also does far much more.

For not only do we learn about the record, the recording process, and the subsequent tour, we gain insights into both men; their thoughts on music, the nature of art, and an occasional glimpse into their own insecurities. Pop and Homme's exploits, deeds, and lives, have probably been over exposed in the music press for as long as their respective careers have existed. However, here we hear them talking about themselves in as real a fashion as possible in front of a camera.

Each of them kept a journal recording their feelings and thoughts about the project recounting both the initial approach from Pop to the time spent recording the album and then rehearsing with the full band for the tour. Initially the movie moves back and forth between the two men - Pop at home in Miami and Homme in California - as they read from their respective journals and then elaborate on their written words.

I've seen many an interview with Pop - dating back to the 1970s - and have always appreciated his almost ruthless ability for self analysis. Here he continues to display a wonderful self-deprecating humour (who else do you know would describe their singing voice as sounding like Bugs Bunny on Quaaludes?) while at the same time having a very real sense of who he is and what he still wants to accomplish.

The name of the movie, American Valhalla comes not just from one of the new songs on the record, but from Pop's feeling of being a warrior all these years and looking for a place where he can rest and celebrate his accomplishments. He's almost 70 years old and he's been through more wars than any of us can probably understand. However, that didn't mean he was done or ready to, as one person put it, "Put on slippers and sing Jacque Brel songs for the rest of his life".

Enter Homme - the man behind Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal and Arctic Monkeys, to name only a few of his more well known rock and roll projects. For me he was the real revelation in this movie. Articulate, intelligent, and very self-aware, he goes way beyond the surface of "oh how exciting it is to work with a legend" shit you'd expect in this type of movie. His remarks on Pop move, perhaps unintentionally, into an exploration his own fears and insecurities when it comes to music, and perhaps life.

His comments on the need to enjoy moments as they happen, because they fly by far too quickly, are some of the most insightful I've heard on the intransigent nature of music and performance. You can almost feel how much he strives to hold onto the "high" that comes from the moments when an audience and band have formed a perfect connection and how easy it would be to crash when its gone.

Homme and Pop, along with guitarist Dean Fertita and drummer Matt Helders, went into the desert and Homme's home studio at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, California to record Post Pop Depression. Homme describes his studio as a handbook for everything you shouldn't do when a making a home studio, however "if two wrongs don't make a right, forty wrongs make it incredibly interesting".

While there's no actual footage of the four working together, Helders took plenty of still photos and each person's description of events gives us a good idea of the process. This was a true collaboration as neither Pop nor Holmes had come in with finished songs. They had sent each other incomplete lyric sheets and rough demo tapes prior to starting recording, but waited to actually meeting up to start creating the finished product.

The film does a remarkable job of capturing two incredible personalities on screen. It also does one of the best jobs of any film in capturing a creative collaborative process. However, this is not your typical rock and roll documentary. There are no "experts" telling you what you should think about what's happening. Instead we just hear everything from those involved and are left to form our own opinions.

This is cinema vérité at its best, the reality of the event as seen through the eyes of the participants captured on screen for all of us to see. The emotions are raw and real, the people are exposed and nothing is being held back. This is probably one of the best rock and roll movies you'll ever see as it peals back the masks for us to see the real people who give us the music that has shaped our lives. If this is to be Iggy Pop's last hurrah, and let's hope not, than he has picked fitting people to go a Viking with before he rides off to his Valhalla.

Article originally published at as Movie Review: American Valhalla - Iggy Pop & Joshua Homme)

January 2, 2017

DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard

Cover Jericho of Scotland Yard.jpgFrom its title you'd expect Acorn Media's new DVD, Jericho of Scotland Yard to be your typical police procedural. However, while the action in the series' four feature length episodes does revolve around police solving cases, the show is so much more.

While the series originally aired on television in 2005 there is nothing dated about it 11 years later. Set in London of the 1950s the show creates a dark and mysterious world through which the lead actors move through. Inspector Michael Jericho (Robert Lindsay) is the new darling of the media for his exploits in capturing notorious criminals. We're introduced to him via a news reel informing us he's been awarded a commendation for bravery.

The opening of the first episode also introduces us to his long suffering Sergeant, DS Clive Harvey (David Troughton) and his new, very green constable, DC John Caldicott (Ciaran McMenamin). While the latter comes on the job idolizing his new boss, Harvey has worked with Jericho long enough to know his boss's demons and his flaws.

While each case the three officers deal with is a distinct investigation and interesting in their own right, just as intriguing is the continuing story of Jericho's life. The London he moves through is a dark and mysterious place. He lives in a three story walk up above a local store in Soho - a seedy part of town in the 1950s - and seems more comfortable with the jazz musicians and prostitutes who ply their trade in his neighbourhood than with any other class.
Robert Lindsay - Inspector Michael Jericho.jpg
The creators of the show made the decision to mix location and studio shooting together for the exterior shots of London. This has allowed them to create a Soho of shifting colours and moving shadows which not only reflects Jericho's moods, but creates a noir ambiance that suits the sleazy underworld he and his team have to trawl through in their investigations.

With the majority of location exteriors being shot either in overcast conditions, if not raining, or at night, this is a city where the sun is rarely seen. This moving through darkness is further stressed in the final episode set in the famous fog of 1952 which resulted in so many deaths and almost completely closed the city.

The writers have also done a wonderful job in creating stories which reflect the turbulent times London was beginning to experience in the 1950s. Everything from post war immigration from Jamaica and the rise of British neo-Nazis to soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to homosexuality are dealt with intelligently. Even more importantly the subjects are dealt with appropriately for the time period.

Of course one of the great pleasures of watching a show like this is seeing all the different people who make guest appearances as villains and victims. Some of them are fairly instantly recognizable, but a few might drive you crazy as you try to figure out where you've seen them before. It helps to remember this one was shot more then a decade ago and they all look a lot younger than we're used to seeing them.

Jericho of Scotland Yard is a well written and intelligent police procedural with some wonderful added twists to take it out of the realm of your typical cop show. Highly enjoyable, and very entertaining, this two disc set containing all four episodes of the series will make a nice change from the average murder mystery.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard)

December 28, 2016

Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy

CloseToTheEnemy_DVD.jpg In the days following the end of WWII both the Americans and the British scrambled to obtain help from their former enemies in Germany for what they saw as an upcoming conflict with a new foe, the Soviet Union. In some cases this meant ignoring individuals' war records, up to and including involvement in war crimes. The new mini-series, Close To The Enemy, being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Acorn Media, on December 27 2016 is a beautiful and sad examination of those difficult times.

Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) has been given the assignment of ensuring a German jet engineer helps the British not only develop their own jet engine, but break the sound barrier before either the Americans or the Russians. He is given carte blanche from the army and the intelligence services as to how he accomplishes this task.

Aside from any patriotic reasons for doing his job, Ferguson is driven by the need to make sure England is prepared for war with the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of how Britain had been woefully unprepared for WWll and is determined to prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.

He and his charge are set up in a once grand hotel which had come through the bombing of London almost intact. Intelligence services of all branches have been making use of the hotel as a way station for their clients since the end of the war. With Ferguson having to reside in the hotel until his job is done, it quickly becomes the main setting for the story. In this way we are introduced to the various characters who will impact upon his job and his life.

The three who have the largest effect upon him are his brother Victor (Freddie Highmore), a disillusioned ex-Foreign Office employee named Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), and a close friend's new American bride Rachel Lombard (Charlotte Riley).

Young Victor Ferguson did not make it through the war with his mental faculties intact. He's severely traumatized and has great difficulty in dealing with the day to day realities of post war life. However, he's also extremely intelligent and cares deeply for his brother. This leads him to find out information crucial to Callum's work, information that many would have probably liked left undiscovered.
Freddie Highmore & Jim Sturgess.jpg
Lindsay-Jones has a secret. His secret concerns the activities of the Foreign Office in the days just before the war and how there were those at the highest level, who while not actively working for the Germans, were at least not working against them. It had tortured him for the entirety of the war and in Callum he sees a chance for redemption.

Finally, Mrs. Lombard, is Callum's chance for a life beyond war and politics. She represents an escape from all that he sees as evil and dirty in the world and his job. Unfortunately she's also married to one of his oldest friends. It's almost as if nothing can come without some kind of moral or ethical cost - even love.

This is a beautifully acted, written, and directed mini-series. Set against the backdrop of an England trying to rebuild from one war and preparing itself for what it thinks will be the next one, we are thrust into a world where nothing is at seems. There are no longer any certainties about what is good and evil which makes everything complicated.

Individuals who should be charged with war crimes are being sheltered by Western intelligence services for the information they can provide about the Soviets, while those trying to bring them to justice are being treated as nuisances at best and dangerous enemies at worst. The lead characters try to navigate through these muddied and dangerous waters as best they can, but it's inevitable they will run aground.

The Blu-ray version of Close to the Enemy comes with bonus features including a 30 minute documentary about the making of the series and interviews with various cast members about their experiences on set. The video and audio are of the usual high quality one would expect from this format, and the show sounds and looks great played through a home entertainment system with 5.1 sound.

Close to the Enemy is another example of the potential for an extended mini-series to produce great drama. Not only are the characters developed to their fullest, but the plot unfolds before us slowly and elegantly. This is a wonderful and intelligent piece of work that shouldn't be missed.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy)

September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?

American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

July 7, 2016

DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken

The Family Fang, being released on DVD July 5 2016 by Anchor Bay Entertainment isn't a movie about a stereotypical family. Sure there's two kids and a mom and a pop, but any similarities between them and the idealized world of American fantasy, ends with that equation.
Cover Family Fang  copy.jpg
The movie is told through the eyes of the Fang children, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman). Annie and Baxter are both struggling to come out from under the shadow that was cast on them by their parents. While both children have grown up to have success in their chosen fields - she's an actor he's a writer - they are both currently having troubles.

Through a series of old film clips we begin to understand how their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken ) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) used the children as props in their experimental performance art pieces. They would stage events in a public place in order to provoke those watching and film the resulting mayhem and reactions.

While initially the children were in on the plans, as the movie develops, we see how as they aged their parents would start using them without their knowledge to make the "moment" more real. While the children know they didn't receive what would be called a normal upbringing, it's only when their parents are reported missing and they start watching old footage are uncomfortable memories triggered.

However, it all comes to a head when Annie and Baxter, Caleb refers to them as A & B, meet with an old colleague of their parents. He gives them a rough cut of a documentary he was making about the Fangs and their work which contains a very disturbing revelation about how Caleb viewed his relationship with his kids.

Adapted from Kevin Wilson's book of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire The Family Fang constantly takes you by surprise. Initially the movie is quirky and funny as we're introduced to some of the family's movie projects starring the young Annie and Baxter. They are genuinely funny and provocative, just what good performance art and happenings should be. Even the opening scenes with Annie and Baxter as adults are quite funny.

However, both of them are pushing the limits of their existences, and what we're laughing at is other people's reactions to the damage they're inflicting upon themselves, both literally and figuratively. The pathos revealed by these scenes gradually helps us to develop a truer picture of what both of them are struggling to overcome as adults.

Bateman's direction throughout the movie is spot on. Not only does he set each scene wonderfully, he also allows the story to develop at the perfect pace. Viewers are given the right amount of time to absorb the information they need to understand what's going on beneath the surface for each character. However, he never lets anything drag. What's nice is how when the pace speeds up it seems to be a reflection of the characters' needs - not an attempt to force something to happen for the sake of have something happen.

As you would expect from quality of the cast the performances are wonderful. Bateman and Kidman have managed to create the perfect brother and sister chemistry on screen and their scenes together are wonderful. There is an ease about them together on screen which speaks to a long familiarity - not always friendly, but able to know how the other person is going to react - that you only find between siblings.
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As the parents, Walken and Plunkett are equally good. Walken is of course ideal for the role of the driven artist who has forgotten something about humanity - nobody else has as an intense a stare. However, he also manages to instil a degree of humanity into his role - we may not feel any sympathy for him, but we do come to understand him and how he thinks in sort of a round about way.

Plunkett makes a good foil for Walken. For, while she is caught up in Caleb's artistic ambitions she has not completely lost sight of her humanity and the fact her children aren't merely props. However, this doesn't stop her from going along with his plans to the extent she even curtails her own artistic ambitions. There's is an undercurrent of fear to her performance which gives the viewer clues there might be something more than what we see on the surface for all the characters.

The Family Fang does a magnificent job of exploring the delicate dynamics of art and interpersonal relationships. Can you really justify anything in the name of art - or is there a line if crossed which turns behaviour into abuse? We also see, with beautiful subtlety, how adult survivors of abuse learn to take control of their lives. There's no big moment or blinding revelation, it's just a process of acceptance and then learning how to get on with life.

The Family Fang is funny, poignant, and a little disturbing. It will make you think about life, art, and the human condition - which when you come to think of it is the purpose of art. This is the best kind of art film - it has no pretensions to anything beyond telling its story and does so in the simplest and most straightforward manner it can. However, the sum of its parts add up to something beautiful that moves us as only art can.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken)

June 29, 2016

DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6

Vera Sets 1to5 sm.jpgNow available on DVD Vera: Sets 1 -5 Collection and Vera: Set 6 from Acorn Media are something of an oddity in the police procedural canon. While we're all used to the eccentric and rumpled detective, the idea that a woman can be just as disheveled but brilliant is not a concept most are used to seeing on television.

Well, meet Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) of the Northumberland and City Police based in and around Newcastle on Tyne in Northern England. She lives alone in a run down farmhouse and drives an old fashioned Land Rover. Both used to belong to her late, and mostly unlamented father. In the series's first episode, and when we first meet Stanhope, she's dealing with the disposal of her dearly departed's ashes.

Not your typical grieving daughter, she enlists the aid of her aide, Detective Sergeant (DS ) Joe Ashworth David Leon, for the job. This is our first indication Stanhope might not be either your typical police officer or have had what would call a normal upbringing. However untypical she may or may not be, we soon find out Stanhope is a brilliant police officer capable of combining an uncanny ability to reason with natural instincts in order to find solutions to the murder cases that show up on her desk.

It's a good thing she's good at her job, because her interpersonal skills aren't what you'd call great. Abrasive and quick tempered she bullies and inspires her staff in about equal measure to get the job done. While not all those who work with her respond well to that form of motivation, she does manage to earn the respect and loyalty of those who work with her the longest and closest. The main reason being is they see no matter how much she demands of them, she demands even more of herself, and they end up not wanting to disappoint her.
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Of course those joining her team have to go through a period of adjustment as we see in season 5 when her longtime sergeant Ashworth is promoted and replaced by DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty) and Detective Constable (DC) Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo - most recently seen as Luca in the final season of The Good Wife) join the team. While the latter was with the team for one episode earlier, (in Season 4) watching them become acclimatized to the atmosphere created by DCI Stanhope is almost as much of an event as watching murders being solved.

Stanhope isn't just some cranky and mean spirited task master. Nobody would work for her if that was the case. However, it takes an actor of the exceptional talents of Blethyn to bring this multidimensional character to life. Blethyn is one of those gifted with the ability to convey incredible depth of feeling with nothing more than a single glance or a look. Watching her as she copes not only with her personal issues, but the lives of the people touched by horrendous crimes, one can't help but see her character's emotional depth.

The compassion she shows for those who life spits upon is about equal to the scorn she can heap upon those whose selfishness causes others misery. Blethyn not only shows us both aspects of her character, but how it makes perfect sense for a police officer of her experience to feel this way. While the plots and shows are wonderfully done, with excellent supporting characters in every episode, watching Blethyn's tour de force performance as DCI Stanhope is enough to keep anyone captivated through all six seasons.

Vera is one of those rare detective shows where what happens almost doesn't matter as much as how the story unfolds. The acting is so superlative you can sit back and watch the same episode over and over again and not be bored. While neither the box set, Vera Set 1-5 Collection or the Vera Set 6 have much in the way of special features - text interviews and photo gallery in the former - the shows themselves are special enough to make these worth owning.
(Article first published at as DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6)

November 17, 2015

DVD Review: Restless

Cover DVD Restless.jpgOriginality in spy dramas is becoming rather hard to find in both television and film. How many ways can you tell the same story anyhow? However, the new DVD of the BBC two part mini-series Restless from Acorn Media, shows how you can put a new twist on familiar themes.

Set in both wartime Europe and North America of the 1940s and 1970s Britain, the show tells the story of a mother and daughter's attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to the former during the war. However, before that can begin, Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) has to convince her daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery) of three things: Sally was a British spy in WWll, her real name is Eva Delectorskaya and somebody is out to kill her.

In order to cure her disbelief Delectorskaya allows her daughter to read the file she has compiled which tells the story of how she became a British spy in the first place. The Delectorskaya family were Russian immigrants living in Paris before the war. Young Eva's (Hayley Atwell) brother was working for British intelligence until he was beaten to death by French fascists. After his death Eva was approached by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) with the offer of British passports for both her and her father if she agrees to come to England and become a spy.

While this information, and further descriptions of her life in WWll, convince Ruth her mother is not the woman she thought she was, it doesn't begin to explain why she thinks anyone is hunting her in the present. That portion of the story is slowly but surely revealed over the course of the two part mini series. It turns out there was a traitor in Delectorskaya's department, who was responsible for the deaths of many of her team, and almost succeeded in having her killed during the war.

While there's no way of revealing much more of the storyline without being a spoiler, the action in the 1970s revolves around mother and daughter searching for her former boss, Romer - played by Michael Gambon in the present. Delectorskaya claims he's the only one she can trust and he should be able to answer the question as to who is after her.

What makes this series work so well is the combination of exemplary scripts and fine acting we've come to expect from these types of productions. As the young versions of Romer and Delectorskaya Sewell and Atwell are wonderful. Underneath Sewell's calm and suave exterior one can sense a well of hidden tensions and stresses. Even when he's supposedly relaxed, his motto of "trust no one, not even me" makes him constantly alert. You can imagine him sleeping with one eye and ear open.

Atwell is particularly impressive. We see her progress from grieving sister to an eager and excited young spy going about her training and her work. However, we gradually see her realize how dirty the job can be as she has to use herself as bait to seduce a top level American civil servant (Before 1941 the British were doing everything possible to convince the Americans to enter the war). However, the scales only really begin to fall from her eyes when she begins to believe there's a traitor on her team.
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Atwell does a wonderful job of showing her character's gradual hardening. We can see it mainly in her eyes, as the excitement at doing her job is gradually replaced by first a guarded watchfulness and then fear. As one by one the rest of her team are killed she must find a way to hide herself away in order to stay alive, her moves become more and more calculated. Everything she does is designed to make sure she won't be found.

In the present Rampling does a magnificent job of showing how this watchfulness has turned into full scale paranoia. She's jumping at shadows, seeing threats in everything. Yet there's a core of steel to her still, and if someone's out to get her she's determined to not go down without a fight.

For those used to seeing Dockery as her genteel character in Downton Abbey Ruth Gilmartin will either be a welcome change or a shock. Here's she's a single mom, and PHD student whose thesis is on the history of German anarchism in post war Germany. The father of her child has connections with the German urban terrorist Badder Meinhoff group and she's every inch the intellectual, free spirited, liberated woman of the early 1970s.

She does a wonderful job of showing someone coping with the fact her mother isn't who she said she was and then steeling herself to helping her track down Romer. Along the way she learns, that no matter how strong she thinks she might be, it's nothing compared to her mother. Learning your mother has killed people, and is obviously capable of doing it again if necessary, isn't easy.

Restless is not your typical spy thriller. Yes there's action and intrigue, but as with other really good British shows of this type there's just as much paperwork and cerebral activity as anything else. However, that doesn't reduce the amount of tension the show is able to successfully build or slow down the pace of the action. Without a doubt this is one of the best shows of its type released in recent years.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Restless)

October 27, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3

Just in time for Halloween everybody's favourite Australian costume piece has a new series out on Blu-ray: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3. Released by Acorn Media on October 27 2015 we're transported back to Australia of the roaring twenties and the escapades of female detective Miss Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis.
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While the third season is shorter than the previous two, only eight episodes, there's just as much action and entertainment crammed within the two discs of this set as there has been in the previous releases. First of all the entire the ensemble of Miss Fisher's friends and family are back again making their own unique contributions to the stories. With each of them being as familiar as people we know personally it's a delight to welcome them all back into our living rooms and watch their relationships continue to devleop.

While Davis' character dominates the screen, it's hard to imagine Miss Fisher without her erstwhile companion Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) or working hand in glove with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) while solving her murder mysteries. Of course where the Inspector and Dot go, the former's chief assistant, and the latter's fiancee, Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) is never far behind.

Rounding out the ensemble are the rest of Miss Fisher's employees; Bert (Travis McMahon) Ces (Anthony Sharpe) and her butler Mr. Butler(Richard Bligh); her best friend, now pathologist, Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh) and last, but by no means least, her formidable Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes).

While the murder investigations they undertake are the major focus of the each episode, as well as the newly introduced mystery surrounding Miss Fisher's ne'er do well father, Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), personal issues between characters are even more prominent than ever. Will Dot and Constable Collins be able to resolve the thorny issues of the Protestant/Catholic divide and her wanting more from life than simply being a housewife to ever make it down the aisle? Will Inspector Robinson and Miss Fisher's relationship finally move past the platonic stage into the romance that's been simmering beneath the surface since Season 1?

What has always made this series special is its ability to switch between the frivolous and serious without missing a beat. Not only do we enjoy the fun and frolic of the roaring twenties as seen through the eyes of Miss Fisher, we also experience moments of real emotion. The most poignant moment in this series features a star turn from Margolyes in the fifth episode,"Death and Hysteria". After opening her house up a visiting psychiatrist and his "hysterical" women patients Aunt Prudence not only has to deal with a mysterious death, but her own repressed grief over the death of a beloved son.
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Margolyes does a magnificent job of depicting this very proper woman dealing with trying to stomp down on her sorrow by ignoring it. Of course this only makes things worse for her. Of all people, it's Miss Fisher's rough and tough employee Bert who brings her around. There's something incredibly touching about watching how the aristocratic Prudence responds to the blunt words of communist Bert. While sympathy hasn't reached her, she takes his bluntness to heart and finally allows herself to grieve.

While the scripts are cleaver and witty, the acting exemplary and the attention to detail in recreating the time period extraordinary, its moments like the one described above which elevate this series to a higher plane. The characters are more than just types; they are multidimensional and complicated. Like Miss Fisher herself, whose extravagant lifestyle hides a complicated and sad past, there's more to each character than meets the eye.

The Blu-ray package features a bevy of behind the scenes interviews and other special features (Be sure not to miss Mr. Butler's "Drink of the Week" or the promotional spots featuring characters from the show) and a gallery of still photos from the show. If you have a Blu-ray player, pay the few extra dollars for this set, because the improved quality of the visuals alone will make it worth your while. This is one show where you'll want to be able to see the fine details in the set dressing and the costumes as they are stunning.

However, when it comes down to it, the show is so good they could be performing on a bare stage with the cast in their street clothes and it would still be great. It's not the pretty clothes or period settings which keep us glued to the television set. It's the scripts and the ability of the actors to bring their characters to life that makes this some of the best television you'll ever see.

While there may not be a fourth series of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (and after how they end Series 3 maybe there shouldn't be) that should not diminish anyone's pleasure with these episodes. A lady always knows how to make an exit. While Miss Fisher may not be the last word in decorum, she's still enough of a lady to know when to take her final bow.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series Three)

October 16, 2015

DVD Review: Chasing Shadows

Chasing Shadows, being released on DVD by Acorn Media October 20 2015, is not your average police procedural. In fact its not really your average television show period. Normally a show's lead character might have a few problems, but usually he or she might be physically attractive or have some other sort of obvious redeeming quality which helps an audience like them.

That's not the case with Detective Sergeant (DS) Sean Stone, Reece Shearsmith. Not only is he socially inept and have the horrible habit of always speaking the truth, he also has the communication skills of a person used to living inside their own head. While he may not have asperger's syndrome, he has an incredibly difficult time communicating with anyone around him.
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When we first meet Stone his superiors are trying to fete him for catching a serial killer at a press conference. Unfortunately Stone has other ideas and proceeds to say he and the whole Criminal Investigation Division (CID) failed as they would have been able to save the final victim if they'd investigated properly. According to him a proper investigation would have liaised with the Missing Persons Bureau in order to identify those people most at risk for being targeted by serial killers.

Naturally this goes down a treat with the brass and Stone quickly finds himself being permanently seconded to Missing Persons. Here he is assigned a new partner, Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) a civilian, who works for Missing Persons. According to Stone, the key to finding those who are being targeted by killers is to identify patterns; patterns that show a common thread between potential victims.

While there's no denying Stone knows what he's doing his difficulties with communication drives both Hattersley and the police officer, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Carl Pryor, (Noel Clarke) assigned to supervise his work, to distraction. However over the course of the two, two-part episodes, this disc contains, both Pryor and Hattersley come to appreciate Stone's brilliance even if his single mindedness drives them both a bit crazy.

What makes this show fascinating is how the writers have been able to integrate the way the three begin to learn to work together as they solve two complex cases involving missing persons. While Stone continues to exasperate both Pryor and Hattersley, we watch as all three of them begin to learn how to work together. While this means the latter two have to start granting Stone some leeway, we also see him making an effort to communicate.

The two cases they investigate, Only Connect and Off Radar, while both involving missing persons, are quite different. In the first a teenage girl has been missing for only a couple of days, but Stone believes she's in danger. Three other teenagers the same age have previously gone missing and turned up dead. When it turns out the others were all found at abandoned buildings owned by the same bankrupt construction company, all had been members of an Internet Chat Room dedicated to suicide and the first three deaths had all been staged to make it look like they had hung themselves; he's sure the latest has been targeted by the same killer.

Off Radar involves a lawyer who disappeared almost a year ago. What piques Stone's interest is the lawyer doesn't fit into any of the accepted categories for a missing person. When they begin to retrace where he was last seen they discover he disappeared exactly where two other people had been killed by a convicted serial killer. This leads them to assume their missing person was murdered by the same man.

In each case Stone, Hattersley and Pryor have to do the kind of meticulous work we hardly ever see in police shows. While there is a dose of action in each episode, much of the case work involves sifting through records, documents and paying attention to the minutest discrepancies in people's habits that might give a clue as to what happened to them. It turns out that breaks in patterns are just as important as the patterns themselves.
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What makes this show work, aside from the great scripts, is the quality of the acting. As Stone Shearsmith gives an amazing performance of a brilliant man with no social skills. Unlike depictions of Sherlock Holmes, another detective who has troubles with personal relations, there's nothing romantic or heroic about Stone. Shearsmith's depiction is so ordinary, so underplayed, we can't help seeing Stone as an object of pity, not as someone to emulate.

While he aggravates Hattersley no end, Kingston does a great job of showing how her character begins to understand how to communicate with Stone and of realizing there's something broken inside of him. Her patience, empathy and willingness to challenge him help open a few cracks in his armour eventually. It takes almost all four parts of the two episodes, but you can see them start to develop a working relationship.

As Pryor, Clarke works sort of as the meeting point for the other two characters. While he and Hattersley build a relationship initially based on their mutual frustration with Stone, he also knows he has to figure out a way to work with his DS. What it comes down to for Pryor is that Stone gets results, which is what matters. He may want to throttle him occasionally, but he knows he can trust Stone to almost always be correct.

Chasing Shadows isn't going to be for everyone. If you like action and shootouts this won't be for you. However if you want wonderfully acted and brilliantly scripted television, you'll love it. The only problem is there's only the four chapters. We can only hope they make more.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Chasing Shadows - A Very Different Cop Show)

July 14, 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1

Ah, the bucolic splendour of rural New Zealand: the rolling hills, the plant and animal life the sparkling waters and the dead bodies. While the surroundings do make for a picturesque backdrop, it's the latter item which is of primary importance in The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1, now available in both Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media. On the surface it may sound like it bears a passing resemblance to the British series Midsomer Murders, but once you begin watching you'll realize there're significant differences between the two shows.

Like most police procedural shows "Brokenwood's" action primarily centres around a supervising detective, Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea and his subordinate Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland). Each of the four episodes contained on the two discs of the Blu-ray set are close to 90 minutes each, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our two leads and for their professional relationship to develop.
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For Shepherd is initially an outsider. Brought in to check into possible police misconduct, a suspiciously botched and mishandled murder inquiry by the current Senior Sergeant in the first episode, Blood and Water, Sims is resentful of the fact he's not only taken over a murder inquiry but seems to be investigating her boss. It doesn't help that Shepherd has a couple of odd idiosyncrasies. The strangest being he talks to murder victims' corpses at the crime scene. After that his habit of playing old country music cassettes in his vintage 1970s car is merely annoying in comparison.

Over the course of the four episodes we see the working relationship between the two gradually develop and strengthen. For once he solves the initial case, Shepherd has himself reassigned to Brokenwood permanently when health forces the previous Sergeant to retire. Sims not only becomes used to his strange habits, but learns to respect and appreciate his skills as a investigator. Shephard has to gradually learn how to work well with others after years of playing the lone wolf. However, he's quick to admit his interpersonal skills aren't the greatest, as he often refers back to his three, or is it four, failed marriages (he never seems quite sure about the last fact).

The next three episodes see Shepherd settling into life in a rural community and solving some unusual murders. New Zealand's wine making community may not be as renowned as Australia's, but Brokenwood has sufficient vineyards, including Shepherd's new home, and winemakers to have their own awards. So it's a small surprise that the second episode, Sour Grapes finds a wine judge floating in a vat of wine; people have been dying in wine since Shakespeare's time after all.

While none of the episodes sound too original, there's also a golf murder, Playing the Lie and a hunting murder Hunting the Stag, what makes them so good is the characterization and the slow pace in which each episode develops. The wonderfully written and acted characters grow with each episode. There are also story lines which carry over from one episode to another, primarily from Shepherd's previous career. A couple of really good continuing support characters provide both comic relief and help to move the stories along. One is a junior detective, Constable Breen, (Nic Sampson) in the Brookenwood force. The other is Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor) who operates on the borders of the law but becomes Shepherd's advisor on all things Brookenwood in the first episode and then his caretaker and vineyard worker.
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Of course they can't go through the season without a nod to New Zealand's favourite son, Peter Jackson. In the fourth episode one character's nick name is Frodo. When he comes into the station to be questioned Constable Breen asks if they should invite him through for second breakfast, only to be put off by the fact Shepherd doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

The show's soundtrack reflects Shepherd's love of country music. However, this is great stuff performed primarily by New Zealand singer and songwriter Tami Neilson who will knock your socks off. Her voice is such she can handle everything from rocking country blues to slow numbers equally well. Not only do the songs work beautifully to fill in the transitions between scenes in the show, they add an extra dimension of depth and character to the settings incidental music isn't usually able to create.

While the special features on the Blu-ray are limited to five minute interviews with the two leads and the head writer, the show itself is the real special feature. Each episode is a well crafted and finally spun story. Like its rural surroundings "Brookenwood's" pace might be slower than other mystery shows, but it seduces you with its quiet nature and before you notice you'll be caught up in an episode and find yourself wanting more.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1)

April 26, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Foyle's War: Set 8

While the end of WWII meant no more war for the people of Great Britain, it was also a time of incredible upheaval for the country. The bombing the country had experienced had ruined its infrastructure and manufacturing base making everything from basic necessities like bread to luxury items like whisky scarce leading to unrest at home. They also had to deal with the slow dissolution of their empire around the world and the emergence of a new enemy in Communist Russia. It's against this backdrop the three episodes of the Blu-ray Foyle's War: Set 8 from Acorn Media play out.

In these the last three episodes of the series former police Inspector Christopher Foyle, played by Michael Kitchen, is still working for the British Domestic Intelligence Service, better known as MI5. Their remit is everything from chasing down suspected Russian spies to dealing with black marketers profiting from the shortages. There's also the reality of Britain as a whole coming to grips with the fact they are no longer a major player on the world stage and their role as empire builder has been supplanted by the United States.

Each of the feature length episodes included in this set bring to life the problems facing Great Britain as Foyle goes about his job. In the first episode, High Castle, an American oil company with a shady past representing British interests in Iran have been receiving threats from unknown sources. Foyle is asked to investigate the matter and stumbles onto something with links back to the war, concentration camps and the illegal selling of oil to the Nazis. The American firm is a family owned business headed up by its patriarch, played by Frasier's John Mahoney.
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Foyle only discovers out about the family when a war criminal is found dead in his cell in Nuremberg Germany. However, when he tries to further the investigation into the family's potential wrong doings during WWII he runs into fierce objections from Britain's foreign office. In the new post war realities, nobody wants to look too closely into anyone's past, especially when they are useful.

In both the second and third episodes, Trespass and Elise respectively, Britain's past, present and future collide in somewhat chilling fashion. In the former we watch as the country, and Foyle, not only deal with the fallout from the collapse of the old Empire, but the spectre of British Fascism raising its ugly head again. As is usual whenever there is want, people look for scapegoats. In the aftermath of WWII in England the easiest targets were refugees from Nazi Germany, mainly Jews. A local politician, recently released from an internment camp where he had spent the war for his fascist sympathies, tries to revive his career by whipping up hatred against them, for "stealing our jobs and being the cause of misfortune."

At the same time England is trying to deal with the "Palestine question". The British had occupied what is now Israel since the end of WWI and had been trying to find a way to extract themselves from the situation since the 1930s. Both Jewish and Arab terror groups were planting bombs and killing British civilians and soldiers in Jerusalem. Notably the Jewish terrorist organization, The Stern gang, had blown up the King David Hotel. London was to be host a high level conference about Palestine with both Arab and Jewish representatives and tensions are high within both the Foreign Office and the Intelligence community. When a noted Jewish businessman who is also a Zionist is found dead in his house, Foyle is asked to investigate.

In Elise the past comes back to haunt Foyle's direct superior at MI5, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) after someone tries to kill her. It turns out the assassin was the brother of one Pierce's "girls" from her days in the British Special Operations Executive (SEO) during the war. The "girls" were french speaking British subjects dropped into occupied France to help co-ordinate British and French efforts against German troops. Near the end of the war the girls were being arrested almost as soon as they landed in France leading everyone to suspect there was a traitor.

After Pierce is shot Foyle starts investigating all the loose threads and finds out more about the security service's history than he really wants. Not only its sordid past but its rather nasty present as well. While he's never found the realities of his new profession much to his liking, these three cases tip him over the edge. As usual Kitchen's performance as Foyle is a masterpiece of understatement. However, this makes everything he does all the more powerful. Even his subtlest reactions are stronger than the emoting most actors splash across our screens.
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As he has been since the series' opening episode Foyle is still accompanied by his faithful right hand woman Samantha Stewart, now Wainwright. (Honeysuckle Weeks) She hasn't let her marriage to a newly elected Labour Party Member of Parliament, Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman) slow her down and is as headstrong and impetuous as ever. However it's through her and her husband's work as an MP, we experience the social problems England was experiencing during this.

As ever with Foyle's War the scripts and acting are exemplary. With each episode being an hour and half in length there is time for plots and sub-plots to be developed carefully and intelligently. While there are points made about social inequalities within Britain at the time, there is none of the knee-jerk reactions you'd expect. Instead everything is placed in its appropriate context so we can see how and why things happened. Of course the quality of the show isn't hurt by the consistent high level of the acting from all involved. From every episodes' special guest to the recurring characters each actor is the perfect compliment for the script and the story.

As with all Blu-rays this set comes loaded with Special Features. There's one which examines the history behind each of the episodes, another gives you a day in the life of shooting and another showing you how they recreated London of the late 1940s in 21st century Liverpool. Finally there's also an interview with John Mahoney about his role and his personal acting experiences. They all make for fascinating addendums to the episodes in this set.

Foyle's War: Set 8 unfortunately marks the end of what was a magnificent piece of television. Not only was it a well thought out and intelligent police procedural, it was also a wonderful history of both war time and post war England. If you've been a fan of the series all along you won't be disappointed by this ending. For those new to the show, I'd recommend starting from the beginning. However, you can still watch these without having seen any of the previous episodes and not feel like you're missing too much information. The only regret anyone will have is there won't be any more after this.

(Article originally published at as Foyle's War: Set 8 - The Final Episodes)

April 2, 2015

TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece - Wolf Hall

While you might think you've seen just about as much as you could want of Henry VIII and his court on television or the movies in the last few years with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, don't let that put you off watching Wolf Hall. Starting April 5 2015 at 10pm EST and running for six consecutive Sundays on PBS Masterpiece (check local listings for times and stations in your region) this mini series brings both the era and the people to life in a way you've never seen on the screen before.

Seen from the point of view of the man usually painted as the villain of the era, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) the series focuses on Henry's (Damian Lewis) efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir after twenty years and he wanted to replace her with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). We also see how this led to England's split with the Pope and the beginning of his dissatisfaction with Boleyn.

Over the course of the series we watch Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rise from being aid to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) Henry's Lord Chancellor to becoming one of Henry's chief advisors himself. Along the way he survives Wolsey's fall from grace, (he failed to convince the Pope to annul the king's first marriage so he could wed Boleyn) the death of his wife and daughters and the enmity of Thomas Moore (Anton Lesser. However, it's the Cardinal's downfall which brings him into contact with Henry and Boleyn and his rise in station and influence. For in trying to assist Wolsey in regaining the king's favour, he impresses them with his loyalty to his master, his intelligence and his abilities to get things done.
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Based on the Booker Prize Winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the series is a beautifully rendered, and historically accurate recounting of one of the most turbulent times in English social/political history. While other productions have been more concerned with the soap opera aspects of the era, here the focus is squarely on the political machinations of the court and the players jockeying for the king's favour.

However, don't be dismayed or put off by what might sound like a dry political drama. The creators have done a masterful job of writing and producing a show which will keep you riveted and glued to your seat. They don't spoon feed you anything, and you have to pay attention, but, in spite of the plot twists and turns and various characters to keep straight, if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the show you'll find yourself swept up in the story.

Some people might take umbrage with the depiction of Thomas Moore in this production. He's always perviously been shown as "the good guy" who was persecuted by the King and Cromwell. Here he's seen as someone who has no problems torturing individuals he suspects of heresy or ordering them to be burned at the stake for the same crimes. In fact there's very little that's saintly about this particular version of the future St.Thomas Moore.

Of course this type of program is only ever as good as the actors playing the roles. Here, even minor roles are played by actors of quality. Of course where it really counts, the leads, the acting is superlative. You might not have heard of Rylance, he's primarily a stage actor in Great Britain, but his performance as Cromwell is one of the most complex and nuanced pieces of work I've seen in years. Look at his eyes during his conversations with other characters. Watch him watching, you can almost see the wheels turn as he figures out how to best manipulate everybody from the King to the lowliest servant.
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As Henry VIII, Lewis is equally remarkable. In fact he probably has the harder role as he has to overcome all of our preconceived notions of the king. Henry was neither stupid nor the callous philanderer he's often been depicted as. Like all royalty of the time he is firm in the belief of his right to rule, but he's also quick to recognize when someone can be of use to him. Lewis does a fine job of showing us both the arrogance and the humanity of the character. We see the petulant child who has tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, but we also see the wit and intelligence of a man who could inspire genuine devotion among his followers.

As the axis around which all action revolves in the series, Foy's Boleyn is more than a match for her male counterparts. Not only does her performance capture the ruthlessnesses the character would need to obtain her goal of becoming queen and that she is every bit as politically adroit as the men around her, we also are allowed to see the human being behind the mask of royalty. Using her family connections, niece to one of the most powerful men at Henry's court the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), and her physical charms she creates her own power base which gives her the power to help bring about the fall of both Wolsey and Moore. Unfortunately it's the latter which helps to create the circumstances required to bring about her own downfall.

It's not often one has the opportunity to see a historical drama not only accurate down to the minutest detail, including table etiquette and manners, but brilliantly written and featuring performances by some of the best actors of this generation. Wolf Hall, airing on PBS's Masterpiece for six weeks starting Sunday April 5 2015 (check local listings for exact times) is not only all of the above, its also intelligent and entertaining. History has never looked or sounded this good on television.

(Article originally published at as TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece 'Wolf Hall' - Henry VIII as You've Never Seen Him)

March 25, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Midsomer Murders Set 25

Most long running television shows tend to end up becoming pale imitations of what made them popular in the first place. Scripts stop being as interesting and characters start to become predictable and boring as they descend into catch phrases and cliche. However, there are exceptions, and viewers need look no further than the Blu-ray package Midsomer Murders Set 25 from Acorn Media to find one of the best current examples.

Set in the fictional English county of Midsomer, the show has not only successfully weathered a changes in its lead character and supporting cast since it first aired in 1997, but has continued to be entertaining and intelligent after all this time. As a police procedural one would think they'd have a hard time coming up with new plots, but this set includes the show's 100th hour and a half long episode, and they don't seem to be running out of new ideas anytime soon.

One major change this time round is Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) has a new side kick, Detective Sargent (DS) Charlie Nelson, played by Gwilym Lee. The second change is Barnaby's wife Sarah (Fiona Dolman) is very pregnant. This allows the show to interject periodic breaks into the murder investigations, with scenes of the Barnaby's domestic life as comic relief. What's nice is while they are almost all expectant baby related, they don't tend to fall into the typical "sit-com" stuff we normally see on television.
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The three disc Blu-ray set contains five feature length episodes, three special feature mini documentaries and a couple of still photo galleries. The special features tend to overlap, excerpts from an interview with Lee and from the piece about the 100th episode both end up in the "behind the scenes" featurette. While they're all enjoyable, they do tend to become a bit redundant after a while - watch the first two and pass on the last and you won't really miss much.

However, it's not the special features you should be buying this for anyway. It's the continuing amazing high quality of the shows. The acting, the scripts and the direction are all of the high standards we've come to expect from watching Midsomer Murders in the past. As Nelson, Lee fits in to the ensemble easily. From his stumbling new beginning moments as he gets to know his new boss and what's expected of him in the opening episode, The Christmas Haunting, to his feeling comfortable enough to take his own initiative in the second episode, Let Us Prey (Yes that's the correct spelling, so you might be able to guess the episode has something to do with a church).

What's great about this series, is while you're pretty much guaranteed a couple of pretty gruesome deaths during the course of each episode, the show is something a family can sit down and watch together without any worries. Those deaths that take place on screen are not overtly graphic - although one in Let Us Prey is a bit grisly - and the scene of the crime shots don't dwell more than necessary on the gorier aspects of an incident. Still, there's enough action to keep younger audience members interested and plenty of intelligent dialogue and twisty plots for the more adult minds.

Than, there's the show's sense of humour. Perhaps I've a slightly twisted bent to my humour, but comments like "Cause of death a large sharp object pushed through him tearing some essential organs" by the pathologist when observing a corpse which has been impaled by a cast iron lighting fixture are funny. Alright, it doesn't sound particularly rib tickling out of context, but the combination of the line's dry delivery and the subtle reactions of both Barnaby and Nelson made it priceless.

This set, as mentioned, includes the show's 100th episode. There have been plenty of these landmark type episodes in other series, and unfortunately a lot of them fall flat. The usual problem is other shows go for the cheap sentimentality by bringing back old characters or other cliched plot devices. In The Killings of Copenhagen, the creators of Midsomer Murders have done something much smarter. Instead of deviating from their usual structure, they've simply added some special elements.
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First and foremost is the inclusion of a foreign location, Denmark, and two police officers from that country's police force. When a British subject is found dead in a Copenhagen hotel room and Danish police ascertain the murder had its origins in Midsomer County, they contact Barnaby and Nelson to investigate the English angle. When a second body, the brother of the first corpse, also shows up in Denmark, the British detectives travel to Copenhagen. The dynamic between the two Danish detectives, both female, and the Brits adds a new and fun dimension to the interplay between Nelson and Barnaby.

The second is of course the impending birth of baby Barnaby. With Sarah expecting to deliver at any moment, travelling off to Denmark has left DCI Barnaby a little on edge. While this is sort of your typical television husband being more nervous than the wife about an impending birth, there aren't many husbands who will have the foresight to give their wives the name of the best police pursuit driver under their command if she needs a quick ride to the hospital.

Midsomer Murders is one of those delightful shows which, while not necessarily improving with age, shows none of the signs of degradation one usually associates with long running programs. "Set 25" not only integrates a new character into the mix with pleasing results, it proves the show's creators are still committed to producing a police procedural of the highest quality, while maintaing the human element which makes it so popular.

(Article first published at as Blu-ray Review Midsomer Murders Set 25 - Celebrating A Hundredth Episode)

February 22, 2015

DVD Review: The Last Pogo Jumps Again

When people talk about the early days of punk rock London, England and New York City (NYC) always feature prominently in their conversations. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City in New York and the 101 in London are club names spoken of with almost as much reverence as the names of the musicians who made the venues famous. However, in 1976, about twelve hours north of NYC, across the border in Canada, the sleepy little city of Toronto, Ontario was starting to wake up and discover it wasn't just a cultural outpost for Europe and the US. In a country with no record labels of its own, where theatre performances were primarily touring road shows from England and the US and the only films being made were deliberately awful so they could be used for tax write offs by their investors, an explosion was needed to jump start its circulation.

That explosion was punk, and the epicentre was a few square blocks in the city's downtown core. From 1976 - 1978 the first wave of punk hit Toronto with all the grace and power of a beer bottle thrown from a fire escape exploding on the street below. Sure there were casualties, but the aftershocks sent reverberations through the cultural make-up of the city, and by extension the country, which helped to redefine the arts in Canada forever. Those who didn't live through the times, or even the six or seven years following them, might not realize the impact punk and its Do It Yourself ethos had on Canadian culture.

The documentary film, The Last Pogo Jumps Again (named for an infamous concert in 1978 called The Last Pogo which gathered a number of local bands together for a final two day blow out concert at the immortal Horseshoe Tavern after the owners balked at letting promoters book any more punk bands - it ended with the police shutting the bar and fans smashing the furniture) directed by independent directors and producers Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts does an amazing job of not only recreating the atmosphere of the times, but also in depicting the scene and its major players warts and all.
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Probably very few outside of Toronto have ever heard of Nazi Dog (Steven Leckie) and The Viletones, The Curse, The Demics, The Diodes, The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, The B-Girls or many of the bands who appear in the film. A couple of them managed to attain some status beyond the city's borders; Martha and the Muffins were fortunate enough to sign with a British label. (The irony of having to buy a Toronto band's album as a British import was a sad commentary on the state of the Canadian record industry at the time) Those few bands, Teenage Head and The Diodes, who did manage to get record deals were screwed over by the industry. In spite of the former selling over a 100,000 copies of a single album, they never really made it big or any money.

Through present day interviews with former members of the various bands, the promoters who booked the spaces for them to play and various others who were part of the scene, the film makers chronicle the key years of 1976 - 78, punk's fermentation in Toronto. At three and a half hours (cut down from its original five) you'd think this movie would be over long, but you don't notice the time passing at all. The people, the subject matter and the way the movie has been pieced together pulls you in so beautifully you're completely involved with the story. For those of you who want even more, there's a DVD of special features included in the package which is the over 100 minutes cut from the film.

What makes the movie so fascinating, and so poignant, is the wonderful mix of personalities and people we meet. Some of them remain the defiant and witty selfs they were nearly forty years ago. They are still working on their own terms as artists but not hanging on to whatever brief glory they had in the past. They have obviously moved on with their lives but continue to draw upon the same creative energy which fuelled them in the beginning. Unfortunately others haven't been so fortunate. We see men who have obviously had their lives ravaged by booze and drugs. Guys who once lit up a stage and a room with their presence who now look like wrecks of their former selves.
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It's unfortunate because these were the men and women who were directly responsible for bands like Arcade Fire and The Metrics being able to forge careers. Without them there wouldn't have been an independent music scene in Canada. Back in the 1970s the major labels, CBS, RCA and the others, all had affiliates in Canada. However, none of them, save CBS, could sign a Canadian band without approval from head office in Los Angeles. While they might have all been signing New York punk bands, none of them were interested in Toronto. This forced most of the bands to form their own labels and produce their own records. Heck The Diodes even built their own club, The Crash & Burn, as there were almost no venues initially for the bands to play in.

One thing the documentary makes clear, is that the punk scene in Toronto wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful as it was without the men who became known as The Garys. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier got seriously into promoting music when they took over operation of a run down cinema on Toronto's main drag, Yonge St. In 1976 they booked The Ramones into The New Yorker for their first ever Canadian concert. They were followed by The Talking Heads, Wayne County, The Cramps and Tom Waits. When the New Yorker became too expensive, they moved onto the Horseshoe tavern and threw it open to local as well as international bands. They went onto to open The Edge, which continued to mix local talent with out of town groups like Gang of Four, B-52's, XTC and even Nico - former Velvet Underground singer.

However, concert promoters can only nurture a scene, they don't create it. Without the individuals who had the nerve to want more than what was on offer at the time and to do something about it, there wouldn't have been anything to promote. The Last Pogo Jumps Again delves into the heart of that scene and tells us the stories of the people who made it beat to its unique drum. The legacy of Toronto's punk scene can be heard and seen in everything from cover bands in Japan playing songs by Teenage Head, Nirvana's cover of a Viletones song and a thriving independent music and arts scene in Canada forty years later. As Steve Leckie says near the end of the movie, "Punk maybe dead but its still bleeding". You can buy this fascinating piece of music history through its web site's shop. Its worth every penny and more.

A version of this review first appeared at as The Last Pogo Jumps Again: Punk Toronto Lives)

November 3, 2014

DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders

It's been a long time since the hay-days of punk rock in New York City, and even a longer time since the original line up of the New York Dolls took to the stage. Yet that period, since the dolls formation in 1972 and the subsequent punk scene centred around the East Side of Manhattan starting in 1976, produced some of the most influential and controversial pop music artists of the late 20th century. One of the most enigmatic and talented figures of the era was the Doll's original lead guitar player, singer songwriter Johnny Thunders

Born John Anthony Genzale in 1952 he died under strange circumstances in a New Orleans Hotel on April 23 1991. Known for his heroin habit and hard living it has been generally assumed he died of a drug overdose. To those not familiar with his story Thunder's life and death can be dismissed as just another case of a rock and roller wasting his life and potential via a needle in his arm. However, as the documentary Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders from director Danny Garcia recently released on DVD and distributed through MVD Entertainment Group shows, there's more to his story than you'd think.

The documentary is the usual mix of interviews and archival footage we've all come to expect from this kind of film. However, director Garcia and his editing team have done a great job of seamlessly cutting the interviews and other footage to give us a chronological account of Thunders' life. They've also done an excellent job of establishing the background against which his early career played out against. New York City was a much different place in the 1970s and early 1980s than it is today. Close to bankrupt, crime riddled, Manhattan, especially its Lower East Side, was a haven for drug dealers and struggling musicians needing cheap housing. It was here, in old warehouses and cold water walk-ups the new music scene developed.
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As the movie follows Thunders' musical trajectory over the course of his life, from high school bands through his membership in the New York Dolls, the seminal punk band The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell and his attempts at a solo career, we learn how he was not only a dynamic performer, but also a prolific and accomplished song writer. As his former bandmate in The Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain says when talking about arguably Thunders' best known song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory", when someone like Bob Dylan says they wish they wrote a song, you know its great.

However, even more importantly we learn how much he was loved and/or respected by those who knew him. While he might have careened through most of his adult life addicted to drugs, the majority of those interviewed in the movie only speak of how much he meant to them. Sure, he pissed them off at times, and he was impossible at other times, but they still stuck by him and remember him with affection and or sorrow. The impression we are left with is of a vulnerable individual who was his own worst enemy, but was deeply loved in spite of his faults.

While there is no escaping the fact drug and alcohol abuse was responsible for killing his potential for a financially successful career, there's also no denying the influence he had on popular music. He might never have achieved fame in North America save as an underground star, he toured extensively through-out Europe and Japan both as a member of his various bands and as a solo act and his music influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols to Morrissey. Any question you might have about Thunders' abilities will be laid to rest by the archival footage of his solo acoustic performances. There is something so incredibly raw and vulnerable about the sight and sound of him standing on stage with his guitar it can bring tears to your eyes.

When he was able to open himself up to his music, rid himself of the demons which tormented him and drove him into the arms of addiction, he shone with the light of true inspiration. It would be easy to dismiss Thunders as another example of a great talent gone to waste through the deprivations of drugs and alcohol, but as the movie makes clear his death was more than a case of another guy simply overdosing. Garcia and his crew were able to obtain a copy of the coroner's report on Thunders' death and it puts things in an entirely different light as it indicated his body showed all the signs of him being in the later stages of leukaemia.
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Interviews with friends who saw him in the months leading up to his death confirm they were worried about his health. He had admitted himself to a detox centre and was on a methadone program in an attempt to get himself clean, yet he looked to be sicker than ever. Phyllis Stein, the former partner of his long time friend and fellow Doll and Heartbreaker, the late Jerry Nolan, talked about the last time Nolan saw Thunders before he left New York City for New Orleans. She says Nolan came home shaken and described Thunders as being covered with bruises where there shouldn't have been any. Stein then tells us how her mother had died of leukaemia when she was a child, and how in the later stages of the disease she displayed the same symptoms.

Yet in spite of knowing he was very sick, and probably knowing he was dying, from all accounts Thunders was doing his best to get clean. Instead of doing his best to continue with his seemingly endless quest to escape reality, he seems to have in the end resolved to at least attempt to meet his death face on. Nobody knows for sure what happened the night he died in a New Orleans hotel. The police never looked into why his room had been picked clean of all his money and possessions, or why riga-mortis had frozen him in a foetal position when they finally found him. They just dismissed it as another junkie death.

As Searching For Johnny - The Legend of Johnny Thunders makes perfectly clear, Thunders was more than just another junkie. Nearly 25 years after his death he is still remembered and talked of fondly by his friends and those he played music with. Music he wrote more than thirty years ago is still being played and sought out around the world. You might not be able to put your arms around a memory, but this movie helps to keep the memory of Johnny Thunders alive and reminds us of what he meant to both popular music and those who loved him. If you've never understood what all the fuss is about, watch this movie and it will give you at least a glimmer of understanding into the life and times of one of rock and rolls' great talents. If you did know of him, or know him, watching this movie will break your heart all over again.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders)

August 2, 2014

DVD Review: Secret State

Intrigue, adventure and mystery - it sounds like the promotional line for a new adventure story or action film. However, your average Hollywood big budget extravaganza has nothing on a well told story of back room political manoeuvring for covert action, intrigue and the well placed knife in the back. If you think monsters from space or mysterious creatures from the depths of sea are frightening, they're nothing compared to the political operative who can smile to your face while contemplating your downfall. While American television has recently seen its share of political scheming, very few can compare to the British when it comes to depicting the machinations behind the scenes in government.

Of course it helps they have a few more centuries of experience to draw upon, an Officials Secrets Act which would drive conspiracy theorists on this side of the Atlantic crazy and a Old Boys network based on class which still believes in the right of titled to rule. Stir that pot of ingredients in just the right manner and you come up with something terrifying in its believability. The recently released DVD package of Secret State from Acorn Media combines the above elements with an amazing script and an impeccable cast to create almost two and half hours of spell binding television.

Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is sent out to give his government's response to an explosion at a petrochemical plant which not only resulted in worker fatalities, but destroyed the surrounding neighbourhood. His job is to assess the damage and reassure the population his government will provide appropriate compensation. With the Prime Minister meeting with the American company who owns the plant in Huston to negotiate compensation, Dawkins is the one taking the heat from press and citizens alike. When reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) lets him know the company who owns the plant had known about the problem which caused the explosion he is livid. He phones the Prime Minister on board his plane returning from America for reassurances about compensation, but during the conversation their call is cut off and then the plane vanishes.
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When the wreckage of the plane is found Dawkins is declared interim Prime Minister until a new party leader can be selected. This is where the first rounds of what will be an ongoing political battle are fought. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ros Yeland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Treasury Minister Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves) want the top job. However, party whip (the guy who makes sure all party members toe the line) John Hodder (Charles Dance) thinks their best bet for re-election is Dawkins.

The infighting leading up to the choosing of Dawkins as new leader is fun, but it's nothing compared to what happens after he's chosen leader and leads the party to an unexpected re-election. For while there's no denying Dawkins' appeal to the voters, he has one flaw that alienates the movers and shakers in industry, financial circles, the military and the intelligence community - he speaks his mind. Even worse, he usually tells the truth to people who don't want to hear it. Things start to really become interesting when he not only pushes to find out the truth of what happened to the Prime Minister's plane, but tries to pressure the American Petrochemical company into paying compensation to the victims of the explosion.

When Dawkins attempts to do an end run around the financial and military establishment by reaching a deal with India for financing and firing the head of military intelligence for provoking a war with Iran the moves against him go into overdrive. He is now considered a threat to the established order and in a move spearheaded by Durrell and Yeland his own party seeks to have removed from office. His life is complicated even further when the military leaks confidential information about a mission he was involved with while a peace keeper in the Bosnian conflict to the reporter Kane where half his squad was killed.

This attempt to discredit him personally is a relatively minor incident as we watch the full weight of the spy industry in Great Britain be brought to bear on him. The threads of plot and intrigue twist and turn in ways that might leave you gasping for breath. However, what will really take your breath away is how believable the show manages to make all of them seem. These aren't the rantings of some conspiracy theorist, they are stark realities about how the world works and how a few powerful people can bring down governments and orchestrate events to suit their needs.
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What's wonderful about this show is no matter how convoluted the story might sound most viewers should have no trouble keeping up with its sudden twists and turns. While there's nothing simplistic about the script, nor does it condescend to its audience by leading them around by the nose, it doesn't make make things unnecessarily complicated. It takes sufficient time to not only introduce the various plots, but also the characters involved in each strand. Once we are familiar with which characters are associated with each strand of action we can quickly identify what's going on and why. By keeping everything tightly compartmentalized until the end when everything converges we have no trouble keeping track of the net which is slowly closing around Dawkins.

What helps keeps us riveted to the screen is the cast led by Byrne. As the ex army officer who almost unwillingly steps into the job of Prime Minister, he gives one of the best performances I've seen from him. The supporting cast of Drance, Le Touzell, Graves and everybody else involved, are equally convincing. While the reptilian gaze of Drance's,character as he plots his every move to Le Touzell's and Grave's elegant way of smiling to someone's face while plotting just where to put the knife in their back are frightening, all of the performances are also realistic and believable. What's truly terrifying about most of what you watch is how matter of fact everybody is while going about the business of putting their own interests above those of the people they supposedly represent.

Chris Mullen's novel A Very British Coup was first adapted for television in 1988. In the special features included on the DVD Mullen explains why he and the producer's decided to create a new adaptation now. He's updated the story line to reflect the changing world political climate and the new pressures being brought to bear on politicians. However, as the story makes clear, as far as he's concerned some things about the British political system have never changed.

Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, Secret State is a compelling argument that there is always more going on behind the scenes in politics than any of us will ever know. Beautifully acted, elegantly written and seamlessly directed it is probably the best tale of political intrigue you'll ever watch. One warning, allow yourself time to sit down and watch all four episodes at once, you're not going to want to wait to find out how it ends.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Secret State)

July 19, 2014

DVD Review: Case Histories, Series 2

Some detective stories are primarily character driven while others are driven by their plots. While both ways of approaching a story can be interesting and provide satisfactory viewing for an audience, the best shows not only find a balance between the two, but somehow manage to integrate them. The term pathetic fallacy is a literary device wherein the author uses natural events to reflect what's happening in the plot of their story. In detective stories the best marriages of plot and character are those where the former holds a mirror up to the latter, reflecting some aspect of his life back at him. It might not be exactly the same as a thunder storm indicating a world out of joint, but it does help to create the kind of emotional and psychological depth required to make a show all the more realistic and intriguing.

In the second instalment of the mystery stories inspired by the writer Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Series 2, now available on DVD from Acorn Media we see just how effectively this technique can be utilized to make gripping television. Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) is a former cop turned private investigator. Driven off the Edinburgh police force for turning in crooked colleagues he now makes his living doing everything from finding lost dogs to tracking down missing persons and solving murders. As the lead character in the series we not only follow him as he works his cases we also delve into his emotional and mental state.

He might start out with every intention of being professionally detached when investigating a case but inevitably he not only becomes emotionally involved but is reminded of his own troubled past. He can tell himself all he wants that he won't take a personal interest, but in each of the three episodes in "Series 2" (Started Early, Took My Dog, Nobody's Darling and Jackson and the Women) it doesn't take much for him to cross over the line and open his heart.
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While the first two cases begin innocuously enough, a daughter seeking out her birth mother and a young woman wanting him to check up on her fiancee to make sure he's not having an affair, in each instance his natural empathy leads him to places he doesn't necessarily want to travel. In Started Early, Took My Dog he finds himself once again immersed in uncovering the dirty laundry of the Edinburgh police as the search for the birth mother leads him back to an old case involving a murdered prostitute, the officers involved with the original investigation and the mystery of what happened to the child who was found in the apartment with the dead woman. How this case from the past relates to both his client and the death of another prostitute in the present forces Brodie into making a decision based on what he deems best for the parties involved rather than what the law and his own financial considerations demand.

In Nobody's Darling Brodie's life is complicated by his daughter's return from Australia where she had been living with his ex-wife. With her living with him temporarily we watch as he tries to negotiate both raising a girl entering adolescence and once again finding himself involved in a case which turns out to be far more complicated then he first thought. What starts out as a simple checking up on a possibly unfaithful partner, turns into an investigation of a suspicious death. Along the way Brodie also finds himself becoming the suspect in a murder inquiry when a bookie who hired him to investigate why money was going missing from his shop turns up dead. It doesn't help Brodie any that he won 60,000 pounds from the same bookie the day he was killed by placing a 1500 pound bet on a 40-1 long shot hardly anybody else had backed.

The title of the final episode of the series, Brodie and the Women, refers not only to the case he take on, but to the complicated relationships he has with the women in his own life. While a young man asks him to re-open the investigation into the death of his mother, she was originally thought to have been the victim of a serial killer, he also has to deal with the fact his assistant, Deborah (Zawe Ashton) has finally had enough of not being paid and quit, trying to reconnect romantically with his one friend on the police force Detective Inspector (DI) Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbignton) and his ex-girlfriend, Julia (Natasha Little) turning up very pregnant.
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Playing a character with as many complexities as Brodie requires an actor of singular quality. A person who can not only show subtle shifts of emotion merely with his eyes and face, but who can also wear his heart for all the world to see without descending into melodrama. As Brodie Isaacs not only allows us to witness the character's inner turmoil play out behind his eyes, he also shows us there is more than one dimension to this man. Too many actors will fixate on one aspect of their character and ride it like a wave, but Isaacs understands there is more to a person than simply their past or one emotion. Empathy does not mean just be able to feel people's pain, it also means having the ability to share joy and other positive emotions. When Brodie is happy, his whole face lights up as if he's illuminated from the inside out.

However, while Isaacs performance is enough to make the series worth watching, its more than just a one man show. The scripts work to bring out the many facets of his character through his interactions with both the people in his life and the way he reacts to the situations in his life. From the over protective father learning how to let his child grow up, the man frightened of committing to a relationship, to the person with a sense of justice based on the needs of the individual rather than what others might demand of him, the scripts allow us to see all sides of Brodie while also telling three great stories.

The special features part ot the DVD set include some fascinating interviews with the cast and crew. Of most interest is the one with Isaacs, for not only does he star in the show he is also one its producers. He's able to to give viewers a perspective on the show from both sides of the camera we don't normally hear. He covers everything from the choice of music in the film to how they developed new scripts not based on books by the author while attempting to stay true to the characters and themes she developed.

It's not often you'll find any television show, let alone something as genre specific as a mystery show, where plot and character are as seamlessly integrated as they are in Case Histories, Series 2. Not only are the mysteries Brodie attempts to solve intriguing to watch, they are a reflection of the inner turmoils he's constantly dealing with. Whether it's a case of him deliberately seeking out this type of work as some sort of redemption or whether the universe is just messing with him doesn't really matter. The result is some of the most well acted and beautifully scripted television you'll see this year.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Case Histories Series 2)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London

Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

June 24, 2014

Television Preview: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacobi

Mainstream television and film's depiction of homosexuals has always been tentative at best. While openly gay characters have been showing up more frequently on both screens in recent years, too often the characters in question have been used as comic relief or the sensitive friend, instead of being fully developed people in their own right. The idea these people might be either sexually active or involved in long term relationships is something nobody seems to want to admit. This is especially true for gay male characters. While there are some shows which make a big deal out of having sexually active lesbians, they seem to be more about fulfilling heterosexual male fantasies than actually being about the lives of gay women.

The few times attempts have been made to honestly depict the lives of gay men the backlash against the shows in question has been swift and cruel. (A television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, depicting life in San Francisco in the 1970s aired in the 1990s and resulted in some of the Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) stations airing it receiving bomb threats and other forms of intimidation) To think the atmosphere might have changed since then is to be incredibly naive. Just look at the opposition to same sex marriage in the US and the laws being passed in other countries making homosexuality illegal.

So it takes a certain amount of courage on the part of PBS to decide to pick up the British made situation comedyVicious whose main characters are a gay couple who have been in long term relationship for nearly fifty years. Airing for six consecutive Sunday nights at 10:30pm EST starting June 29 until August 3 2014 the show not only features two gay characters, but stars two openly gay actors in the title roles, Sir Ian McKellen (Freddy) and Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart). Freddy is a moderately successful actor who occasionally still receives small roles on television shows, but they are both pretty much retired. However, the show deals mainly with their rather tempestuous personal life and the friends who become caught up in the cross fire.
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The two men seem to be in a constant state of open verbal warfare with almost every word they direct towards each other being an insult. While some of the exchanges verge on cruel, McKellen has the memorable line "I'm never quite sure when I've gone to far, but I'm always happy when I do", they are obviously born out of habit and long familiarity. However, it's not just each other they treat with apparent disdain, as their long time friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) comes in for her share of insults from both men during her frequent visits to their flat. While the insults are initially shocking, we quickly become as inured to them as the characters as we realize how little impact they have.

The first episode introduces a new diversion into their lives in the form of a new neighbour. Ash (Iwan Rheon) gives whole new meaning to the term "straight man". For not only is he straight, he's also a new audience for the boys and their friend, and they can't help putting on a show for him. At first non-plussed by walking into an apparent free-fire zone, Ash soon figures out what anybody with eyes can see. That beneath the caustic comments flying between Freddy and Stuart lies genuine love and affection. He also proves he's not the oblivious young man they've taken him for. Unsure of his sexual orientation ("You just can't tell these days") Freddy tries with an increasing lack of subtlety to get Ash reveal his nature. As the episode ends he pauses before leaving their apartment and, with a big smile on his face, tells them he's straight.

As Freddy and Stuart, McKellen and Jacobi are magnificent. They manage to walk the fine line between caricature and character beautifully. While part of the fun is listening to these two classically trained actors deliver lines like "bollocks that was a bitch" in their beautifully modulated voices, it's also a delight to watch them having so much fun creating the relationship between the two men. For over the course of the six episodes they gradually reveal the depth of feeling which exists between the two men. They might snipe at each other constantly, but let anybody else treat one of them with anything less than respect, and each will quickly rise to the other's defence.
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As their sex-starved and lonely friend Violet, de la Tour manages to take a character who in most people's hands would have been flat and one dimensional and turn her into a funny and real person. While she flirts shamelessly with Ash, loading her conversations with enough sexual innuendo to make a teamster blush, she also manages to show us the loneliness lying beneath her rather carnivorous exterior. The boys tease her mercilessly about her countless disastrous relationships, but she's part of their extended family and trusted and loved accordingly. You have the feeling they wouldn't put up with each other's behaviour if there wasn't a genuine bond between the three of them.

Initially viewers might be confused as to why the young man Ash continues to hang out with these people who seemingly have so little in common with him. However, Rheon does a very credible job of showing how his character sees Freddy and Stuart as a mixture of surrogate parents (his father is serving a ten year sentence for armed robbery) and friends he can come to for advice. He looks at them and sees the genuine affection they feel for each other beneath the bitchy comments and can't help but admire and envy them their closeness. The episode where he brings a girl friend over to dinner with the boys is priceless. Not only is it hilarious, we watch as Ash's relationship dissolves over the course of dinner, it also throws in stark relief the difference between a real partnership based on trust and love, and one based on nothing more than wanting to be in love.

While Vicious is a brilliant show filled with great acting and genuinely funny dialogue, I'm sure there are bound to be plenty of people who will find it offensive. Both those who object to positive depictions of homosexuality and the politically correct who don't have a sense of humour will find something to object to. However, they should all just grow up and learn how to be more accepting. The latter might decry how unrealistic the show is in its depiction of gay couples, but I've known plenty of couples, both straight and gay, who act just like the two main characters. For those of you not so full of yourself and able to see past this type of crap, this show will delight you. Vicious airs on PBS Sunday evenings at 10:30 pm EST from June 29 to August 3 2014 - check your local listings for times and stations.

(Article originally published at as TV Review: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi)

June 22, 2014

DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set 2

The troubled Private Investigator (P.I.) or police detective with a dark secret has started showing up in so many television shows and movies the role has come close to being a cliche. Troubled marriages, drinking and drug problems, intimacy issues and the old favourite post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the job seem to abound on both the big and small screens. It's to the point where they play as big a part in the stories as the actual crimes being solved these days. It's as if after years of ignoring the fact cops and P.I.s are humans, scriptwriters and producers are making up for lost time by giving them as many foibles as possible. Unfortunately this means it has now become somewhat difficult to take all these variations on the same theme seriously. They've too obviously become just another plot device.

In fact it takes a very special performance to make this type of character and the show he's featured in believable. Jack Taylor, Set 2, being released by Acorn Media on Tuesday June 24 2014 not only contains just such a performance, the three feature length episodes contained in the set create the perfect context for the character in question. Jack Taylor (Iain Glen) is an alcoholic former Garde (police officer) in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Thrown off the force for drinking and punching a politician, he's now struggling to keep his head above water taking on cases privately.

In "Set 1" we discovered he came by most of his problems because of a dysfunctional home life. His mother was a survivor of Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries, work houses for "fallen" young women run by the Catholic Church, and had been badly twisted emotionally by her experiences. This affected not only her own behaviour, but the way she treated her son and husband. In the first episode of "Set 2", The Dramatist, Taylor and his mom are trying to reconcile. She is recovering from a stroke she he's been on the wagon for six months. There's a beautiful scene with the two of them sitting by the water's edge, him eating yogourt for his stomach and her laughing at the idea of him trying to eat healthily.
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However, this one bit of brightness in his life is soon eclipsed by a case he's drawn into involving the apparent overdose/suicide of a young theatre student at the local university. Aside from his friend Garde Kate Noone (Nora-Jane Noone) the local police believe the death was an accident or at worse suicide. The one disconcerting element is a quote from a play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, by Irish playwright John Synge found on the girl's body and the fact she was dressed in a costume and make up. One of the professors at the university isn't convinced it was a suicide and hires Taylor to look into the matter. Along with his assistant Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) Taylor starts to investigate the young girl's life at university and the people she associated with. When a second young woman turns up dead with in a similar fashion - overdosed, dressed in costume and a quote from the same play carved into her back - the police realize the first girl was murdered as well.

While there's nothing straightforward about the case, the almost ritualistic aspects of the girls' murders bears all the indications of a serial killer at large, it takes a bitter twist at the end and dregs up some of Taylor's sordid past. However, while this case might be personally haunting for our PI, the second one in the series rips open the scab on a society wide problem in Ireland, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The Priest starts with Taylor being asked to investigate when the body of a decapitated priest is found kneeling in front of the alter in a church. He discovers that not only had the dead man abused alter boys, he had also raped a nun. Through investigation he also discovers the horrible truth about child abuse, the crime doesn't usually end when the abuse stops and the victims are scarred for life.

This is quite a disturbing episode and probably shouldn't be watched by those recovering from abuse as it could trigger some nasty responses. However, like the entire series the episode is also handled with intelligence and compassion. It might be difficult to watch, but it makes clear the horrible nature of the crime committed against the children who suffered at the hands of those who were supposedly responsible for keeping them safe. It also shows how when the problem is ignored and the victims not treated, the repercussions can last for generations.
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The final feature in the set, Shot Down, has Taylor on the run from his guilt over something which happened in the previous episode. He's pretty much living rough and taking work where he finds it while travelling across the west of Ireland. Which is how he stumbles onto a young girl running through a forest covered in blood. It turns out she had found the body of her murdered mother and has blocked out most of her memories of the event. Taylor suspects she's also a witness to the events of her mother's death and worries her life might be in danger. He convinces her extended family of Irish travellers (gypsies) that he should hang around and try to figure out what the girl witnessed.

In dealing with helping the girl remember what happened to her Taylor is also forced to confront his what's happened to him recently. The relationship which develops between him and the child helps him overcome his guilt about those events and allows him to achieve a kind of redemption. While it's hard to describe the essence of what Taylor goes through without giving away key details of the stories being told, the arc his character travels over the course of the three episodes describes an emotional and spiritual roller coaster which has to be seen to be believed.

It takes a special kind of actor to bring this life and Glen, with his craggy face and whisky steeped voice, is phenomenal in the role of Taylor. He's not afraid to show us all aspects of the man he plays, his weaknesses and his strengths. While we are able to sympathize with some of the things Taylor goes through, Glen also manages to show us how he has a drunk's penchant for self pity and denial. However, there has to be a reason people like Garde Noonan and his assistant Farraher don't give up on him, and Taylor also manages to show us the heart of the good man who beats beneath the crumpled, slightly degraded exterior.

Jack Taylor, Set 2 might be shy on special features, an interview with one of the directors about the show and some photo galleries, but its compelling and well acted television. The stories are drawn from the gritty realities of Irish life, not from the romantic notions of green hills and folk songs. They might be hard to watch at times yet there is no denying the power of the stories and the strength of the cast. While all the actors involved do a wonderful job in their roles, the reality is they are merely satellites in orbit around Glen's stellar work in the lead role. There aren't many opportunities to see a tour de force performance these days, but Glen as Taylor will have you leaning into the screen watching his every move and listening to his every word.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set Two)

June 4, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2

While some countries are known for exporting raw materials and others for manufactured goods, Australia is rapidly becoming known for the fine crop of actors it produces. With amazing numbers of quality performers at their disposal, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise they also produce an incredible quantity of great television. Even television studios in the US have started taking noticeby paying them the ultimate compliment of making their own version of one Australia's funniest shows, Rake.

While some of the actors in the various Australian shows are unknown to most North American audiences, Jack Irish Set 2 stars an actor who has been popping up on North American movie screens for quite some time now, Guy Pearce, in the title role. Released by Acorn Media, this second Jack Irish release comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with each disc containing the feature length episode Dead Point.

For those who missed "Set One", Irish is a former barrister who quit practicing the law after his wife was murdered by one of his clients. He now works as a mix of private investigator/fixer who finds peace of mind working in a carpentry shop as an apprentice. While still haunted by images of his wife's murder, he's doing his best to get on with his life and has begun an on again off again relationship with a journalist, Linda Hillier. (Marta Dusseldorp) As Dead Point begins they are in the process of trying to restart their relationship and wondering about making a commitment to each other. However, no matter how much he wants it to, the past just won't leave Irish alone.
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His former father-in-law, Justice Logan, (Barry Humphries) is being blackmailed in an effort to ensure he doesn't release a report on the connections between drug trafficking and the Melbourne shipping yards. Initially Logan had asked Irish to find the person blackmailing him, but when that guy turns up dead, Irish then has to try and track down the incriminating evidence. The trail leads Irish down some very twisted paths into the seamier side of Melbourne society and private clubs catering to the very rich.

At the same time Irish is also trying to solve who tried to rip off his horse racing associates, Henry Strang (Roy Billing) and Cam Delray (Aaron Pederson). Strang and Delray play fast and loose with the racing laws and are a far different breed of people than Justice Logan. Strang is an old school crook, lives and works to a code based on respect, while Delray is his muscle. So when a woman who works for them is robbed and badly beaten, they enlist Irish's aid in tracking down the men who assaulted her and stole money she had been carrying for them.

Strang and Delray not only act as a sort of comic relief, they also serve as a contrast to the sordid nature of the other case Irish is working on. For while they might be crooks, they make no bones about who they are and make for a refreshing change to the filth Irish finds himself swimming in trying to track down Justice Logan's blackmailers. Billing and Pederson manage to strike just the right tone in their portrayals of Strang and Delray respectively to make us both like and enjoy watching them onscreen. You can see why Irish, the former lawyer, appreciates their company in spite of their profession. Not only do they pay well, he knows he can trust them completely and they can be counted on to be there if he needs help. Two commodities that have been in short supply in his life recently.
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As Irish Pearce does some of the best acting of his career. Perhaps it's because he's finally been given a role which allows him to show off his depth and range as a performer. Irish is a multifaceted and complex character dealing with a multitude of issues. Pearce does a great job of managing to bring out all aspects of his personality, allowing us to see both the darkness he's carrying with him from the past and the hope he has for the future. Pearce has gained a certain amount of gravitas as he's aged, and this imbues his performance with an emotional depth that was missing from his work when he was younger. Watching him in this series is to see an actor who is completely comfortable in his own skin delivering an apparently effortless performance that's a joy to watch.

The great thing about these feature length episodes is how it gives the creators of a series plenty of time to develop a show's characters and plot lines. In Dead Point they've done a fine job of balancing and weaving together Irish's personal life and the two separate cases he's working on. None of them are given short shrift, and each make a significant contribution to our understanding of Irish and the world he lives in. It might be dark and seedy in places, but its not without light. The show's plots mirror the contrasts in his life and through solving the crimes he's asked to investigate he also seems to be resolving his personal issues.

The Blu-ray disc of Jack Irish, Set 2 is up to the format's usual high audio and visual standards, so looks and sounds great through a home theatre system. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray contain the same special features, a series of behind the scene clips of various scenes from the show. If you're interested in that sort of thing, watching how scenes are set up and filmed, than you will probably enjoy them, but they don't really give you any information about the making of the show. However you shouldn't let this deter you from buying this disc, as the quality of the show far outweighs anything special features have to offer.

In recent years the world has begun to discover just how much talent resides in the island country of Australia. Their actors have been gracing stages and screens around throughout the rest of the world for the last couple of decades. Now, more and more of them are returning home to take part in movies and television shows being produced in their own country. With great acting, amazing scripts and production quality second to none, some of the best television is being made Down Under. Jack Irish, Set 2 is the latest example of how good television can be when people put their minds to it.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2)

May 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2

At the end of WW l a great deal of the world seemed to decide the time was right for a very large party. The decade that followed, which has since come to be known as the "Roaring 20s", was not just a time of wild abandon and decadence, although there was plenty of that, it was a period of increased liberties both socially and artistically. Having seen the ruling classes push them into a conflict which caused so much death and carnage, the younger generation rebelled against the standards which their parents had lived by. Life was far too precious to be wasted on worrying what others might think of you.

This era is brought to life in all its flamboyant colour in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 from Acorn Media. Another of the great series being produced by Australian television, the show follows the exploits of one of the new breed of women the 1920s threw up, Miss Phyrne Fisher (Essie Davis) Lady Detective. Independently wealthy, all the male heirs to the family fortune were killed during the war and she inherited, she devotes her life almost equally to enjoying herself and solving mysteries. If along the way she also happens to open people's minds to the fact a woman is every bit as capable as a man, well that's just a bonus.

While each episode in the series is nominally about solving a murder, they also manage to address social issues particular to Australia at the time. Whether a veteran suffering from what was then know as shell shock, what we'd call post traumatic stress disorder, post war anti-German sentiment, temperance, or the rights of women, they are each dealt with in a serious and compassionate manner. What's even better is how the show's creators have managed not to impose an early 21st century morality on the issues, but are able to make the character's perspectives and observations realistic to the time and place.
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However, what really distinguishes this show from other detective/mystery shows, are the characters and the continued development of their interrelationships. Not only are the characters well written, each of them continue to evolve as the series progresses. As main the foil for Miss Fisher Inspector Jack Robinson Nathan Page of the Melbourne police not only has to deal with her involvement in the various crimes they wind up investigating together, he also has to come to grips with their developing personal relationship.

In the first series we saw the beginnings of their relationship, and now the writers have taken it a couple of steps further. First of all we meet people out of Robinson's past, his ex-wife and ex-father-in law, who also happens to be his direct superior in the police force. When a couple of cases, including a superb one dealing with the issue of a Melbourne based Madeline Laundry (basically a world wide series of workhouses run by the Catholic Church for "fallen" young women) bring Robinson and Fisher into contact with these people from his former life it creates a different level of tension in their relationship then had previously existed. There relationship is further complicated when Robinson is forced to confront the depth of his feelings for Fisher because of an incident which occurs during the investigation of one crime in particular.

What's wonderful about all of this is how the writers have both characters handle the changing circumstances. Neither of them change their behaviour or their approach to life, but they develop an increased respect for the other's feelings. Watching this progression over the course of the thirteen episodes of Series 2 is an example of the show's quality. It's truly remarkable to see how these changes are incorporated effortlessly into each murder investigation without ever taking away from the action or plot at hand.

Of course both Robinson's and Fisher's able right hands are still around. Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Dorothy (Dot) Williams. (Ashleigh Cummings) Like their bosses both their relationship and their characters undergo a substantial development over the course of the second series. While they are both far more conventional than either of the people they work for, we watch as they both grow as people based on the experiences they've gained.
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It may sound like the actual murders of the title "Murder Mysteries" might be secondary to the drama among the show's lead characters. However, while there may be some truth to that in a couple of the episodes, the writers have managed to create the perfect balance between the sub-plots involving the characters and the actual solving of the various crimes. Even in those episodes where the plots seem a little weaker, the actors' abilities and the force of their character's personalities makes each one a pleasure to watch. Davis and Page in particular give wonderfully multi-layered performances. I think you could watch them recite the phone book with pleasure. You'll definitely find yourself wanting to see more of them in the future.

The three disc Blu-ray edition of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 also includes special features which will delight fans of the show. Of special interest are interviews with most of the cast during which they talk about their characters and what it's like to shoot the show. At one point Davis confesses to being terrified of some of the jewellery she wears as her character as they are genuine pieces worth a small fortune. (Those are real emeralds she's wearing, not fakes made for the show) Being a Blu-ray of course means both the audio and video are wonderful and the show looks and sounds great through a home theatre system.

Everyone knows Australia and New Zealand are capable of making great films (Lord of the Rings, Picnic At Hanging Rock) but we're just beginning to find out the same goes for their television productions. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a great example of how they manage to create shows which are not only technically on par with anyone else, but can also match up artistically with what the rest of the world has to offer. In fact, judging by Miss Fisher and other shows I've seen, they usually outshine most of what we see on our televisions on a regular basis.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2)

April 17, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Philomena

Up until as late as 1996, when the last one was finally closed, The Magdalene Laundries were the dumping grounds for any young woman considered "fallen" by Irish society. Most of these were single mothers whose family had discarded them. They were forced into the various abbeys and convents where the Laundries were located and after giving birth had to work as slave labour for the nuns as payment and penance for the delivery and the sin of having a child out of wedlock. The children of these young women were taken from their mothers and "adopted" (sometimes this meant sold) by the nuns to couples from all over the world - usually Americans. Further compounding their crime the so called laundries conspired to keep records of all adoptions from both the birth mothers and the adopted children through convenient fires and other means.

While the Irish government has finally agreed to compensation for the victims, the public at large still knows very little about what the women who survived these horrific conditions experienced. While facts have been reported in various newspapers that might have explained things intellectually, they fall short in being able to reach people emotionally. Well, that's about to change with the release of the Blu-ray version of Philomena by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment. Adapted from the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, the movie tells the story of one woman's search for her son who was given up for adaption by the nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundry where she had been confined.

Under normal circumstances this is a movie I probably would have avoided like the plague. Usually this type of story is handled in such a way it ends up manipulating the audiences emotions with sentimental tripe instead of simply allowing the story to speak for itself. However, the combination of a cast starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the roles of Philomena and Sixsmith respectively, the fact Coogan wrote the script and it was directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity and The Queen), made me think it had a chance of avoiding the pit falls this type of movie would normally fall into.
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On the surface the story sounds like some standard TV Movie of the week put out by Hallmark Cards. If it were to follow the typical cliches the movie would have the cynical journalist, Sixsmith, meeting the elderly Irish woman, Lee, and in the course of helping her discover what happened to her child rediscover his own heart. Not having read Sixsmith's book I can't speak for how he approached the story, but Coogan's screen adaptation never once descends into the world of cliche or mawkish sentimentality. For while the two very different characters do manage to find enough common ground for friendship, neither really make any fundamental changes in each others character.

Sixsmith is a highly educated intellectual who served in Tony Blair's government as Press Secretary for the Ministry of Transport. He went to Oxford University and served as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Russia during the end of the Cold War and in the USA during the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency. Most importantly he's also a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in God. Lee, on the other hand, remains a devout Catholic with a firm belief in God and has worked as a nurse all her life. She's kept the story of her lost child secret from her family as she was too ashamed to admit she had sex prior to being married let alone had a child out of wedlock. Like other young women of her generation she was firmly convinced that she had committed a sin through both acts. While it hurt to lose her child, she had willingly signed the papers giving up her rights to him as she had been convinced it was the right thing to do.

This dichotomy is one of the constant strains between the two main characters as Sixsmith can't understand how Lee can still have respect for the institution which treated her so badly. Lee, on the other hand, can't understand why Sixsmith expresses so much antipathy for the church and God. In one of the funnier parts of the movie after Sixsmith makes one too many comments about God and the church for her Lee retorts by calling him a "fecking idjit". While neither character changes their opinions, they do manage to learn respect for each other's beliefs and values. Sixsmith can't understand how Lee is able to forgive the nuns for what they've done to her, yet he has enough respect and compassion for her to stop questioning her beliefs and to respect her strength. When he tells her he'd never be able to forgive them, she turns to him and says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.

I've deliberately not gone into any of the details of what they discover about Lee's missing son as I don't want to spoil the actual story. However, in a movie like this what's just as important is the way in which the story is told. Casting Dench and Coogan in the lead roles was inspired as both are able to make both characters not only alive, but believable. Coogan is perfect as the world weary and cynical ex-political spin doctor who originally dismisses Lee's story as Human Interest fodder for the non thinking masses until he becomes almost her champion. Yet, they continue to be on opposite sides of the issue as his righteous indignation on her behalf is diametrically opposed to Lee's more passive attitudes. She only wants to find out about her son and doesn't care about retribution or vengeance.
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Dench's performance is all we've come to expect from her. She manages to give us a complete picture of Lee as a human being even while expressing what seem to be a set of conflicting emotions and beliefs. For on the one hand she misses her son horribly and desires nothing more to find out what happened to him and find out if he ever thought of her or Ireland. However, at the same time she refuses to blame anyone for what happened. Even when it's revealed the nuns kept her whereabouts secret from her son when he asked about her nor told her he was looking for her, she refuses to change her mind.

While the special features on the Blu-ray edition of the film are minimal, they are interesting as they include in depth interviews with both Coogan and Dench, plus a nice feature on Philomena Lee herself. The Blu-ray edition also comes with a code so you can download a digital version of the movie to your computer or mobile device. However, what makes Philomena special is the movie and the way the story is told. If you desire you can do a search online and find out the story in advance as its public knowledge now and all the events and characters described in the movie are based on reality. However, if you plan on watching the movie, don't deny yourself the pleasure of watching the story unfold in front of you on your home theatre system. It does the nearly impossible of going behind the facts and figures to get to the emotional heart of the story without ever descending into sentimentally.

Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Philomena)

April 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6

There are occasionally those really good television shows which manage to not only capture the spirit of the times they're set in, but also create within their world a microscopic environment reflecting the world around them. In classical theatre, Shakespeare for example, when the natural world reflected the action on the stage it was referred to as pathetic fallacy. You know, things like when the horses start eating each other on the night Macbeth kills the rightful king of Scotland. Talk about the world being in a turmoil.

Now there's not many television shows these days I would even think of mentioning in the same breath as the works of Shakespeare. However, reflecting on the newly released George Gently, Series 6 from Acorn Media, and the way the internal turmoil of the lead characters reflects the ongoing societal turmoil of England in the late 1960s it's hard not to make the comparison. For those of you who haven't yet watched "Series 5", I'd recommend you stop reading now as I'll be referring back to events in its final episode from here on in.

Both Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his second in command, Sargent John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) had been wounded during a shootout in Durham Cathedral. "Series 5" had ended leaving the two men lying in their respective puddles of blood, with us uncertain as to their fates. The question of their condition is answered very quickly in the first of the four episodes contained on the two discs making up this set, Gently Between The Lines.
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The great thing about this show is with each episode being an hour and a half in length, it not only allows the detectives to solve the case they are working on but it allows the script to develop sub-plots associated with the lives of the police officers. In Gently Between The Lines we are given a perfect example of how they meld the two worlds together. The episode starts with DCI Gently travelling to visit Sargent Bacchus in the convalescent hospital he has spent six months recovering from the bullet wounds he suffered in the last episode of "Series 5". However, this is not just a social call as Bacchus has handed in his letter of resignation and Gently has come to find out why he's decided to quit. When Bacchus insists he's not coming back to the police, Gently reminds him he has to give four weeks notice, and he wants Bacchus to serve them out on duty with him.

This is probably not the best frame of mind for Bacchus to be in when he and Gently have to investigate the mysterious death of a squatter in police custody. In 1969 city councils across England were razzing the old worker's housing left over from pre WWll days and replacing them with apartment blocks. However, not everybody who lived in the old neighbourhoods liked the idea, and in Newcastle, where the death took place, the police were having to forcibly remove people from their homes. This naturally led to anger on the part of the local populations, resentment towards the police and demonstrations protesting the plans. One such demonstration degenerated into a riot in which a police officer was severely injured and numerous people were arrested, including the man who died in custody.

Seeing how the public has turned against the police only feeds Bacchus' resolve to leave the force. Except there's more to it then that, and Gently keep pushing him until he gets him to admit what's really bothering him. In the late 1960s there was no understanding of post traumatic stress disorder, so all Bacchus is able to articulate is his wonder about how many more times he'll be lucky enough to walk away from a dangerous situation in one piece. When Gently goes into an abandoned building to rescue a young boy Bacchus freezes, unable to put himself into a potentially dangerous situation.

However, it's not only Bacchus who has a rough time adjusting. In Gently's case it's not the trauma of injury he's having to come to terms with, it's the way the world around him is changing and his own sense of what's right and wrong. While we see some indication of this in the first episode where he pushes the investigation into the mysterious death far harder than his superiors like, it really comes to the fore in both the third, Gently With Honour, and fourth, Gently Going Under, episodes. In the former their investigation into a murder in a gay bathhouse leads them onto a trail which ends with them uncovering drug testing performed on soldiers by the British army. However, it's not just the drug testing which rocks the ex soldier Gently, it's the fact the army has covered up abuse at the facility where the experiments were carried out led to the death they had been investigating and a soldier was being made into a scapegoat.
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In the final episode of the series Gently comes face to face with changing realities in both his world and the world around him. He and Bacchus are called in to investigate the death of a coal miner whose body has been discovered underground. With the mine in question on the verge of being shut down due to it being almost tapped out emotions are high and there are any number of possible suspects. While the case takes a number of complicated twists and turns revolving around various people's motives, Gently also finds himself having to deal with pressures from his superiors. His refusal to only go through the motions when it comes to what his superiors consider delicate matters has finally reached a head and they want to promote him away from dealing with criminal cases.

Gently own personal code of conduct has brought into conflict with the police establishment in the past. It was his insistence on investigating police corruption in London which had him transferred up to Northern England in the first place as he was rocking too many boats. In the final episode of this series he tells his superior officer point blank if they want to get rid of him they'll have to shove him out as he's not going to take the promotion and make it easy for them.

George Gently, Series 6 is not just an exemplary police show, its also an example of the potential there is for character development in television. Not only do the two main characters work to solve the various murders they're confronted with, we see how they have to develop and adopt to the world around them and their own personal changing circumstances. While the Blu-ray edition doesn't have many special features, there are a couple of interesting behind the scenes interviews with both Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby in where they discuss their characters and the time period the show was shot in. This edition also conforms with the high technical standards we've all come to expect from Blu-rays as the sound and video quality are superb. However, this is one show that doesn't need any technical enhancements to make it great. This is by far still one of the best police procedurals being aired today.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6)

March 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

I remember asking my mom as a kid in the 1960s why we didn't ever have Granny Smith apples in the house. She replied that she refused to buy anything from South Africa because of what the government did to its people. As the years passed and I became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand why my parents refused to buy anything which came from South Africa. However it wasn't until the 1980s I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. By the time he had become the rallying point for anti-apartheid activists around the world he had already been in jail more then 20 years. For us living outside South Africa he became more than a man, he was a symbol of all that was wrong with what was a corrupt system.

When he was released and began the slow painful business of trying to rebuild his country he became even more than a symbol, he rose in status to that of almost an icon. While the transition from white majority rule was not without violence, somehow, through force of personality and leadership he was able to make it far more peaceful than anyone could have had a right to expect. After more then fifty years of oppression African anger at their former rulers could have spilled over into horrible acts of vengeance.

Yet, after all his accomplishments and his extraordinary life, few of us know much about Mandela aside from those bare facts listed above. The movie, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, now available on Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, and based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, attempts to fill in some of the blank in our knowledge and give us a more complete picture of the man.
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Starring Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Haris as Winnie Mandela, the movie traces his life from childhood through to his election as the first African president of South Africa. While there are some noticeable gaps in the story, there's nothing about how he managed to do the next to impossible of gaining a law degree, the movie does the best it can to show us how he went from being a lawyer to becoming one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of the most wanted men in South Africa.

We also see how he made a mess of his early personal life. His political activism ended his first marriage when his wife became sick of his never being home and his occasional affairs with other women. However, it also shows us how as he became more committed to the cause of working for the freedom of his people, he also began to mature as a person. So when he met his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the relationship was initially far smoother. It helped that Winnie was just as committed to the cause of African freedom as he was, and supported his efforts.

In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was its depiction of Winnie Mandela. There were a lot of things said about her and her split from her husband in the early 1990s that weren't exactly pleasant. However, in the movie we see the torments she was subjected to by the South African police while her husband was in jail. We see her being beaten, tossed into solitary confinement for sixteen months and left to wonder what has become of her children. Harris does an amazing job of portraying Winnie's transformation from a loving wife and fun loving woman into an angry and vengeful woman who desires only to fight back against those who took her life away from her. As she says to her husband upon one of her rare visits to the Robben Island Prison, "it's my hate that keeps me going".
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As Mandela Elba, does a magnificent job of capturing both the man's humanity, and his amazing charisma. Even in his early days as a lawyer defending his black clients in the white court rooms we see how he uses a combination of intelligence and humour to fight an unjust system. We also see how he gradually transforms from working towards a peaceful resolution to the problems of his country to taking up arms against the government. While you can see a gradual build up in his anger, the tipping point for him came during the demonstrations against the imposition of the pass laws in 1960 when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville killing 69 unarmed people.

After three years of planting bombs Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership were caught and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island in 1963. While the movie does bog down a bit during his term in prison, how much can you say about the interminable boredom and misery of hard labour and prison life, it tries its best to give an accurate depiction of the life these men had to endure. Cut off from their families and outside world almost completely they know almost nothing of what's happening in the world beyond their walls. While the movie does try to keep us informed, the clips they use aren't really enough to give us more than a general impression of violence and upheaval. I know the movie is supposed to be a history of the man, not the struggle, but as the two became inseparable in most people's minds it might have been good to show a little bit more of what was happening while he was in jail.

However, in spite of some minor drawbacks, the movie does a remarkable job of depicting Nelson Mandela as a man and not just an icon. I think a lot of the credit for that must go to Elba, who manages to not only imbue Mandela with the indomitable spirit the world came to recognize and admire, but the humanity few of us ever saw. Elba is shows us how Mandela was able to overcome his personal pain and anger to see the need to create a country where all were treated the same no matter the colour of their skin. It is a remarkable performance, and combined with the work of Harris as Winnie, more than compensates for any weakness in the script.

The Blu-ray edition of the movie (the package I was sent includes Blu-ray, DVD and a code to download a digital version) comes with the usual compliment of special features; director's (Justin Chadwick) commentary, a making of featurette, and a tribute video gallery. While the latter doesn't really add much to our knowledge of the Mandela, the featurette has some interesting interviews with Elba, Harris and director Chadwick which tell how they felt about making the movie and the process they each used in its creation.

Nelson Mandela was the face of the fight for freedom in South Africa. Turning that kind of icon into a human being is a nigh on near impossible job. However the movie Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom comes as close as is probably possible. This is a man around whom the whole world rallied, and this movie helps fill in some of the blanks in the picture we have of who he was and how he became the revered figure we remember today.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Come Back Africa, The Movies of Lionel Rogosin Volume 2

Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.

The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.

But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
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Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.

In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).

The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the films creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.

Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
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Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.

They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.

Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.

These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)

January 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Harder They Come

While it might surprise some people, there was a time when hardly anyone in North America knew what reggae music sounded like. Of course this was back in the dark ages of the early 1970s. For most people in North America their introduction to reggae came via Bob Marley and the Wailers. However, some us discovered its joys from an another source, the soundtrack album from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come. While some of the songs were in mono, and some of the recordings weren't of the highest quality, the music represented a broad cross section of music that had been or was being produced in Kingston Jamaica at the time.

Names like Desmond Decker, Toots and The Maytels and others with equally exotic sounding names, some whose music would never be heard again (according to the liner notes on the LP one of the artists on the album was in jail and one was on death row at the time of its release). However, the man whose career both the LP and movie really helped kickstart was both the movie's star and the singer and writer of the best songs on the soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff. Ironically, while the soundtrack to the movie has been fairly easy to come by since its release, actually seeing the movie has been another matter all together.

Thankfully, its now being made available for audiences through the online digital service VHX and i-Tunes through a distribution deal with Syndctd Entertainment. I say thankfully, because I've been wanting to see this movie for decades and having finally been given the chance, I can say not only wasn't I disappointed, it actually exceeded my expectations.
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The movie follows the life of Jimmy Cliff's character Ivan from the moment he leaves his life in the country to try and begin something new in Kingston, Jamaica. While his eyes are filled with stars and hopes for the future, he gets off to a bad start when all his possessions are stolen almost the minute he gets off the bus. It's not a very promising start for the young man, and it also foreshadows much of what will happen to him in the future. For Ivan discovers, no matter what he tries, the odds are stack against him of ever getting ahead.

While he dreams of becoming a famous musician he discovers that's not going to be the road to fame he thinks it is. When he is able to finally record his song he finds he either has to take the record companies lousy deal of selling it for $20.00, or nobody will ever hear it played. Even when he turns to selling marijuana to make a living he finds things just as stacked against him. The system is tightly controlled by the police and their chosen dealers. When he begins to demand more of a share of the profits for himself and his fellow distributers he's branded a trouble maker. He becomes a genuine outlaw when he shoots the police officers sent to bring him in and teach him a lesson. Ironically, as his outlaw/hero status grows sales of his record increase making him even idol for the poor and oppressed of Kingston's shanty towns.

The movie plays out like a cross between the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the day and an exercise in social realism. Cliff's character is not a likeable person. He's not really interested in anything except getting ahead, or as the song "The Harder They Come" says, "So as sure as the sun will shine/I'm going to get my share now of what's mine/And then the harder they come the harder they fall one and all". While the song's lyrics might sound like a rallying cry for the poor and oppressed to demand their rights, in the context of the movie and the character of Ivan it's not quite so altruistic. Ivan wants his chance at the good life, just like everyone else. The big cars, the flashy clothes and the idolization of the masses. He wants celebrity.

While he might not get celebrity, he gets the next best thing, notoriety. When his name is splashed all over the newspapers as Kingston's most wanted for killing three cops his only comment is, "See I told you I'd become famous". What's frightening about this is how much it foreshadows what's to come in the inner cities of North America. How whole generations of inner city young men, and women to some extent, have been forced to follow the same path of greed and violence by a society which offers them no alternatives. How's a person like Ivan supposed to react to a culture which tells him a man's worth is measured by what he is able to amass materially?
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He has a real talent and the hopes and dreams that come with it. When he discovers his talent only exists for others to exploit, and he won't reap any of its benefits, he naturally becomes bitter and looks for a way to get his own. The system seems to designed to keep him and everyone else like him in their place and make sure the wealth only stays in the hands of the few. Ivan's descent, or ascent, depending on how you look at it, into the role of the outlaw, is almost out of his own hands. As soon as he makes the decision to demand a larger share of the pie, whether from his music or from drug money, his fate is sealed.

One thing anyone who watches this newly remastered version of the movie will quickly become aware of is the inconsistency of its quality. Unfortunately we're talking about a movie which was filmed over forty years ago and under less than ideal conditions as it was made on location in Kingston. I've a feeling this cut was pieced together from various prints of the film in order to try and make it as good as possible. However, the final result appears a little piecemeal. For instance, some of the scenes contain sub-titles while others don't (Most of the characters speak Jamaican patois with thick accents) and there doesn't appear to be any reason for their disappearance from one frame to the next. At other times the image quality changes radically from scene to scene, with the picture being washed out in one frame and clean the next.

However, you shouldn't let these technical anomalies deter you from shelling out the few dollars required to stream and download this movie. In some ways they actually give the film a stamp of authenticity. This is a raw and gritty depiction of life in the shanty towns of Kingston Jamaica where nothing is smooth or polished. There's nothing glamourous or sexy about the life these people lead, or the violence they are forced into. The movie's roughness around the edges ensures there's no chance of forming the wrong impression. You won't find any glorification of violence or the accumulation of wealth here, just an accurate depiction of how lives are ruined by both.

Of course, one of the biggest draws of the movie is still the soundtrack. This isn't the reggae were used to hearing either, it's what some would refer to as roots reggae I guess. It's rawer, and more pop influenced than what Marley and others made popular. However, it was the sound of Kingston in 1972. Some of it we only hear incidentally, over the radio, while some of it is played as part of the soundtrack, but all of it helps build the atmosphere of the desperate life these people were leading in the early 1970s. The slums of Kingston were the crucible which gave reggae its shape and its context, and the music heard in this movie shows its birth pangs and what it had to fight against in order to be heard.

After seeing this movie you'll gain a better understanding of just why Marley is such a cultural icon in Jamaica and why Peter Tosh was assassinated by unknown gunmen for being so outspoken. Reggae was the sound of hope for a better future and reflected the fears and ambitions of the poorest people in Kingston. Watching The Harder They Come gives you a pretty damn good idea of how this came about. Not only is it an interesting and well told story, its just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. For all those who wonder where the disaffected youth willing to turn themselves into walking bombs come from, watching this movie will tell you all you need to know.

(Article originally published at as Movie Review: The Harder They Come)

January 24, 2014

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders, Series 6

There's nothing like the beautiful English country side. Rolling hills, farmland and tracts of lovingly preserved forest. How idyllic to live amongst these pastoral pleasures in some quaint village filled with cottages and other old world charm. No sir, there's nothing like the pleasures of the English country life; disembowelment, dismemberment, and all sorts of other fun associated with murder and mayhem. For behind the exterior of village greens and manor houses lurk the same passions, hatreds and greed which lead people into committing slaughter everywhere.

Probably no other television series in recent memory has managed to cash in on this premise with more success than the British TV mystery series Midsomer Murders. Since it first took to the airways in 1997 it has been captivating audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, thanks to the people at Acorn Media its possible for fans of the series to bring home some of the earlier seasons on DVD exactly as they were shown on British television originally. Midsomer Murders, Series 6 is one of only a few of these new packages, and the five feature length episodes contained on its three discs are perfect examples of why the show continues to be popular to this day.

First off, it's hard not to be impressed by the bucolic settings of each episode. The producers have not only been given access to what seems like every stately manor home in and around England, they also have been given the run of almost every picturesque village in the Mid-lands. However, they're also not shy about making sure we see not everyone is living the ideal country life of horse back riding and gardening. No, we see there can just as much, if not worse, squalid poverty in the country as in the city. The contrast being the well off country dwellers and those who are feeling the bite of the new economy is used to great effect in the fourth episode of this series, "A Tale Of Two Hamlets".
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Another reason for the series's continued popularity is how well each episode is written. With each of them clocking in at slightly over 90 minutes, the show's writers have plenty of time to both develop the plot and the characters in each episode. While each show might start off with a murder, there's no telling in which direction the writers are going to take you after that. The show develops in the same rolling, twisting fashion as the roads winding through the scenery. There're sudden curves, hidden stops and even the occasional switchback to be dealt with. With plenty of time to tell their stories the writers can play out sub-plots and scenarios which act as red herrings and throw up many a false trail.

Then of course there's the characters in the series. From the regulars, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his side kick Detective Sergeant (DS) Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Barnaby's long suffering wife and daughter, Joyce (Jane Wymark and Cully (Laura Howard and pathologist Dr. Bullard Barry Jackson to all the special guest stars who populate the various episodes. In fact part of the fun of watching the show is playing "where the hell have I seen that actor before" every time a familiar face pops up on the screen.

This set is no exception as the fun with actors begins in the first episode, "A Talent For Life", as the amazing ageless Honor Blackman shows up as Isobel Hewitt, a senior citizen refusing to surrender meekly to the aging process murdered by someone close to her. Could it be one of her family members wishing to sell off her estate in order to regain some of the money they've lost over the years from her escapades? However, things aren't quite as straightforward as they seem as a second body is discovered, the local doctor, near hers. With his reputation as a "ladies man" could it have been a jealous husband seeking revenge on him, and Hewitt was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was she the target and he was the innocent victim?
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Which is when of course our detectives take over and the real fun of this show begins. It's always wonderful to watch Nettles as the seemingly unflappable and stolid country police inspector play into people's prejudices about "country bumpkin cops". With his headstrong DS running interference, keeping the locals on their toes, Barnaby gradually pulls back the veneer of genteel respectability to reveal all the little secrets they've so carefully hidden. They might not be entirely germane to the investigation, but it's still fun to watch everyone squirm and realize he's not the stupid plod they thought he was.

Episode three of Series 6, "Painted in Blood", has Nettles in fine form, playing up the country cop role, when he and DS Troy are told to stand aside in favour of two officers from the national crime squad when his wife discovers the body of a fellow student in her water colour class lying dead in the village green. It's a wonderful example of how Barnaby plays on people's expectations and uses them against them. He's not even above using his DS for these purposes. For when the members of the national crime squad flatter Troy by including him in their investigation, in order to use him for their own purposes, Barnaby plays along while waiting patiently for his DS to realize he's being used. This not allows him to carry on the investigation without any interference, when Troy comes to his senses it also allows him access to information the others have uncovered.

There aren't many television shows produced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean which have played as long as Midsomer Murders. Even though it has undergone an almost complete cast change from the time "Series 6" aired, the show retains the same appeal it had back in 2003 when these were filmed. However, while many of the same elements are retained, the country setting, the secrets hidden behind genteel exteriors and the remarkable collection of actors who appear in each episode, the combination of Nettles and Casey as Barnaby and Troy and the chemistry the two actors enjoy on screen is something that can't be replicated. The opportunity to watch these earlier episodes again on DVD is something not to be missed. There are many police shows, but it's safe to say there are none quite like Midsomer Murders. While these packages don't have the special features some sets come with, don't let that detract you from purchasing them if you're a fan of the series. The episodes are special enough on their own merits.

Article originally published at as DVD Review: Midsomer Murders Series 6)

January 7, 2014

DVD Review: Broken

There are some books you always remember for the way in which they opened your eyes to the world around you. They might have stripped away your innocence in the process, but they also reassured you that no matter how bad things could get, there were always some people doing their best to bring some balance to the world. The first book I remember providing me with that experience was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Its harsh depiction of the American South in the 1930s of hatred and racism were mitigated by the simple beauty of the coming of age story it told. It's one of those books you can still read today and find it as relevant as when it was first published in 1960.

If anyone had any doubts about the durability of Lee's book and the theme's it expresses, you need look no further than the film Broken which was recently released on DVD from Film Movement. Transferred from the American South to suburban England and from the 1930s setting of the original to the present day, Broken uses much the same form and structure of "Mockingbird". Both feature a single father lawyer raising two children with the help of a live in nanny, and the eleven year old girl, Skunk, (Eloise Laurence) being the main character whose eyes we see the world through.

However, while wrongful accusations of sexual misconduct do play a significant role in propelling the movie's story as it did in the book, the themes the movie explores are quite different from those the book deals with. The movie is also far more complex than the original story and nothing is as cut and dried as we'd like it to be or as first impressions might lead us to believe. As the movie progresses and our understanding of the characters involved increases we begin to understand, as Skunk does, there's a lot more to people than what meets the eye. Actions, which taken out of context might seem senseless, while still not completely rational or normal, are at least explainable.
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Skunk and her family, her father Archie (Tim Roth) brother Jed and au pair Kasia live on a cul de sac in North London with two other families, the Oswalds and the Buckleys. The Buckley's son Rick (Robert Emms) suffers from some undisclosed mental illness. Unlike the other two families, who are obviously professional class, the Oswalds, father Bob (Rory Kinnear) and his three daughters are at first glance, for lack of a better word, white trash.

The movie opens with Skunk witnessing what seems like a completely unprovoked brutal attack on Rick by Bob. Skunk is standing in the middle of the road talking to Rick about washing his father's car, when we see Bob come storming out of his house ripping his shirt and tie off. While completely focused on his target he greets Skunk as he passes her and then proceeds to beat Rick up. The next thing Skunk sees is Rick being taken away by the police. What Skunk doesn't know is what led up to the events.

Bob's fourteen year old middle daughter has been playing with a condemn she'd stolen from her eldest sister's purse. Knowing her father would be furious with her for having a condemn, and not wanting to get her sister in trouble either, when he discovers the wrapper in her room she claims Rick used it when he had sex with her. The recently divorced and overly protective Bob goes ballistic, beats up Rick and then phones the police to charge him with having sex with a minor. When it's discovered the girl is still a virgin the charges against Rick are dropped, but his imprisonment results in him regressing and ending up having to be institutionalized.

Against this background Skunk is also having to negotiate the tricky business of heading into her first year of the British equivalent of secondary school and her first boyfriend, Dillard. She also has to experience watching somebody whose she's come to think of as a permanent fixture in her life walk out as her au pair breaks up with her long standing boy friend Mike (Cillian Murphy). However, the fear and unease she feels about her first day of school is somewhat mitigated when she discovers Mike is one of her teachers. Unfortunately she also runs afoul of an extortion ring run by Osbourne's youngest and eldest daughters, the consequences of which send shockwaves through her entire community.

Like the book it is freely based on Broken is a deceptively simple sounding story. On the surface it can be seen as a coming of age of story in which the scales of innocence begin to fall from the eyes of a young girl. Yet the title itself is also a key to understanding the actions of the film's characters as we gradually realize how most of their behaviour is dictated by how they've been broken by life and circumstances. All the events of the film occur because of a character's fear based on their life experiences which have left them damaged in some way. Those who initially come across as unsympathetic are revealed to be just as damaged as those who we feel sorry for in the beginning.
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What makes this work so well is the universal excellence of the performances. Laurence, who had never acted prior to appearing in this role, is brilliant as Skunk. Her reactions to everything she sees are letter perfect and she comes across as one of the most real children I've ever seen on screen. Gawky, slightly geeky, but excited by life, she does a magnificent job of depicting the child turning into an adult. She manages to bring to life both the anger and fear she feels at the adult world she doesn't understand and her excitement at entering this new world and all the while retaining the enthusiasm and naivety of the child she still is.

As her father Archie, Roth gives one of his most understated and powerful performances. Normally an actor we associate with a variety of twitches and near neurotic behaviour, here he delivers a beautiful and powerful portrait of a devoted father whose life revolves around his children. When his wife abandoned him with two children he obviously poured all his love into them, and shut himself off from feeling anything for anybody else. It comes as a complete surprise to him when he discovers he can actually have feelings for someone other than his kids. However, he doesn't realize the impact beginning a relationship with his children's au pair will have on Skunk. He doesn't realize how much she fears it might end up result in another person leaving her.

One of the best performances in the film comes from Kinnear as Bob Osborne. Over the course of the film our image of him as a violent bully gradually evolves into a man desperate to protect his family from a world he's seen fuck him over totally. Unlike his neighbour Archie who is able to demonstrate his love for his children through affection, Osborne, can only use his anger as a shield to protect them. When they are threatened or hurt he lashes out uncaring of the consequences following his instinct to keep them safe in only way he knows how. Kinnear does an amazing job of bringing all the different facets of this deeply troubled and broken man to life. We might not like his behaviour, but we can't help but be sympathetic to the the depth of his passion and the very real love he feels for his children.

Broken is one of those wonderful movies that come along only once in a while. Not only is it beautifully written and acted it's a multilayered story which works on a number of levels. We see the world from the perspective of children trying to make their way in a strange and sometimes confusing adult world and from that of the adults trying to understand what their children are going through. While there are moments of heartbreak and sporadic violence throughout the film, overall it is also a beautiful story of compassion and love. You might not see a better or more well acted movie this year.

(Article original published at Empty Mirror as Film Review: Broken, starring Tim Roth & Cillian Murphy)

November 26, 2013

Movie Review: The Last Song Before The War

I can't remember when I heard about the Festival au Desert, which has been taking place in Northern Mali since 2001, for the first time. I do remember it was in 2009 I was offered press credentials to cover the Festival, and regretting having to turn the opportunity down. Without a sponsoring media organization to cover my costs of travelling there was no way I could finance the trip. Maybe that's why, even though I've never been, I feel a connection to this event like no other musical event staged anywhere in the world and regret missing it each year more than I've regretted missing anything else.

For those who don't know Festival au Desert is an annual celebration of the music and culture of the people of Mali. Held during the time of a traditional festival of the area's nomadic Kel Tamasheq people, it also commemorates a peace treaty signed between the Tamasheq and the Malian government in 1996 ending years of armed struggle. All of which made the festival's cancellation due to armed conflict in 2013 even more of a bitter pill to swallow. While it looks as if conditions have settled down sufficiently for the festival to be renewed in 2014, for a time it looked like not only the future of the festival was in doubt, but music in Mali period. What had started as a Tamasheq uprising in North Mali had been usurped by fundamentalist Islamists intent upon imposing their version of Muslim law on the region and the country, including the outlawing of music.

Thankfully a combination of French, Chadian and Malian troops have ousted the terrorists forces from Mali. The French then followed this up by brokering a new treaty between the Malian government and the Kel Tamasheq. Unfortunately terrorists are still active in the region, witness the murder of two French journalists recently, which makes holding a festival with international guests and visitors something of a risk. So it might be a while before the festival can return to its home in the north. However, for those like me who can't get there, and those who would like to have a taste of the experience, all is not lost. A new documentary film, The Last Song Before The War, from Thinking Forward Media, is the next best thing to actually attending the festival.
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Technically speaking they shot the film at the festival in 2011, so it wasn't the last festival before the war, but it was the last one before the spectre of war hung over the proceedings like a dark cloud. As the movie details three British citizens had been killed in Mali in late 2011 and the war actually started only days after the festival ended in early January of 2012. There's a very poignant interview with Malian singer Kharia Arbry, a woman who defied traditions to become the first female to perform publicly as a singer in Northern Mali, talking about playing with fear in her heart during the festival in 2012.

However, the bulk of the movie is spent on celebrating the festival and the music and culture of Mali. We start in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, joining organizers for the final meeting before the festival as they iron out last minute details. We then learn something of the logistical problems involved with organizing a music festival in the Sahara desert. As with many developing nations infrastructure, like paved roads and bridges, we take for granted in the West, aren't prevalent in Mali. While it might be a short plane hop from Bamako to Timbuktu, the major city nearest the festival location, it can take two to three days to cover the same distance by car.

We travel north with the film crew over hard packed dirt roads and a ferry crossing through villages and small cities until we finally reach Timbuktu. Everywhere you travel are the signs of a country trying to shake off the chains of poverty. An ex Minister of tourism in the Malian government explains tourism is the third largest sector of the Malian economy. International events like the festival are vital to not just the north, but the entire country, for the spin off effects it has on the economy. We see signs of this the closer we come to Timbuktu as more and more European faces start to appear in the market squares of the towns and a local man tells us the markets are busy today because of all the tourists heading to the festival.

Finally arriving at the festival site, we are struck again by its isolation. While rows of tents have been set up to accommodate travellers and there are other signs indicating something will be happening here, what you notice most is the sand stretching endlessly in all directions. As if to emphasis the point we hear from Festival director, Manny Ag Ansar, the truck carrying the sound system broke down. A replacement truck had to be found and the equipment transferred onto the new vehicle before it continue its journey north. The truck has still not arrived, but is expected soon, after which it will take about six hours for the set up. He hopes to be able to start the festival on time later that day...but... he shrugs and smiles.
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Then the music starts, and you realize why people like Robert Plant and Bono have made the pilgrimage to Northern Mali to attend the festival. Mali is the birthplace of what we know as pop music and to hear what are familiar sounding blues riffs played on an instrument that looks like its made out of a stick stuck into a long narrow gourd strung with four strings (a ngoni) is to understand and appreciate the music all over again. Then when you hear how the Malians, from Kel Tamasheq bands like Tinariwen to the phenomenal guitar player Vieux Farka Toure, have taken guitars, Western blues and rock and roll and melded it back into their own traditions, it's like the music has come home to where it belongs.

While scenes of crowds massed together in front of a stage listening to performances are common, watching massed rows of camel riding turbaned people parading through the grounds is not something you'll see at most gigs these days. It reminds you forcibly you're in another world, another culture, and you're being given the opportunity to experience something rare and beautiful. In a continent which has seen tribal wars escalate into horrible massacres, this coming together of the many tribes and people of Mali, and of different races from around the world, for the sole purpose of enjoying each other's music, is wonderful.

The Last Song Before The War is not only a chance to experience the festival. For, while the film makers have done a wonderful job in letting the beauty and wonder of the spectacle speak for itself, they've also done an equally excellent job of placing the festival in its appropriate context historically and culturally. Through interviews with musicians representative of the various people of Mali and overseas, journalists, organizers of the event and audience members they inform us of the history of the event, what it means to locals (musicians and non-musicians alike) and the impact it has on those who visit.

They've also made the wise decision to let the events of early 2012 speak for themselves. by using feeds reporting on the war's early stages and the later developments which saw the imposition of the invaders' narrow interpretation of Islamic law. One thing they failed to mention which is important for viewers to understand, is over 80% of Malians call themselves Muslim. However, that didn't prevent more than 300,000 people fleeing from the draconian laws being forced on them. From internationally known musicians to poor farmers, they were all forced to flee the cities of the north to seek refuge where they could.

The Last Song Before The War is a beautiful trip to an oasis of harmony and music in a world filled with strife. Far too many documentary movies never give you the chance to experience their subject matter in a tangible enough way to genuinely appreciate what the movie is about. Here the film makers have created the perfect mix of information and example to allow you to understand why music lovers the world over point to Festival au Desert as an example of what music could and should be. At the very least it should whet your appetite to find out more about the music and the people of Mali. Who knows, it might even encourage you to make the pilgrimage to the roots of the music you love.

Currently you can pre-order the DVD of The Last Song Before The War which should be available in early 2014

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Film Review: The Last Song Before The War)

November 20, 2013

Television Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn't, and you didn't particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn't pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.

As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.

As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they've begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I've been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn't tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that's popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn't fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of American, airing on PBS Friday November 22 2013 from 9:00 - 10:00 pm DST (check local listings for air times in your area) as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn't too far off.
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While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn't stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads - it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show - America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.

The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show's crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African American influence there could have been on American music. In fact Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.

Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I've always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think its a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.

While they call the show, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana the real emphasis is on the first part of the title - Nashville. Here the show excelled showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It's a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.

The show isn't hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can't help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren't shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father's latter recordings she doesn't attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
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It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can't help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.

While I'm not in agreement with all that's expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre's seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but its some of the better music being played today. It's real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don't care what you call it, but that's generally a recipe for great music.

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film

When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
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So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
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Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

October 14, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season

I'm not a really big fan of television. In fact I don't even have cable. I have a home entertainment system and watch Bly-rays and DVDs. From what I've seen of what's offered regularly on television, I've no desire to pay the close to $80.00 a month cabal companies in Canada charge for what they call entertainment. The problem I've run into over and over again is any shows I've liked either are cancelled after a year or two, or, even worse, after a couple of seasons the quality deteriorates to the point where they become unwatchable.

However, there's always the exception to every rule. Over the summer I bought a Blu-ray player with wireless capabilities and a free month's subscription to Netflix. Through it I discovered the Fox Network's show Bones. I was blown away not only by the inventiveness of the scripts, but the characters and the careful way the people involved with the show developed the relationship between not only the lead roles, but how the interactions between everybody on the show progressed over the course of the seven seasons Netflix had available. The only question I had was would they be able to sustain this?

Well, after watching the Blu-ray version of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season I can honestly say they not only have been able to sustain what they started, they have actually continued to make it better. Not only do both the ongoing story lines continue to be interesting, but the individual cases dealt with in each episode are just as fascinating, and bizarre, as they ever were. Even more impressive is how they never seem to take the easy way out when dealing with serious issues. Instead of opting for cheap sentimentality to manipulate a reaction, they manage to create situations and scenarios which elicit genuine emotional responses in the audience.
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For those who don't know, the show details the work of a group of forensic scientists who work with the FBI. Led by Dr, Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), a brilliant forensic anthropologist, the team examines decomposed remains of murder victims in order to discover who they were, and who was responsible for their death. Working with their FBI liaison, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) the team from the Jeffersonian Institute: Angela Montenegro, (Michaela Conlin) Dr. Jack Hodgins (T.J.Thyne) and Dr. Camille Saroyan, (Tamara Taylor) have gained a reputation for being able to solve the un-solvable. Along with FBI psychologist, Dr Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) they are the nucleus the show revolves around.

Over the first seven seasons the relationships between these characters has been carefully and skillfully developed, especially the one between Brennan and Booth. While on the surface they are complete opposites, she's rationale and super intelligent while he works on instincts and is very emotional, they compliment each other perfectly. Over the course of the show their relationship has developed from being a great working partnership to being a great partnership period to the point where they now have a child and live together. While the seventh season ended in a crises, with Bones being framed for a murder by a super hacker, the eighth season opens with them solving the crime and then settling back into the regular routine at work with their relationship stronger than ever.

As a way of keeping the series fresh, the creators have come up with a series of rotating continuing characters who make periodic appearances. The most frequent of these are the six interns studying with Bones. Each of these characters bring something different to the show by giving the main characters somebody else to interact with. The character of Sweets even becomes romantically involved with one of them, Daisy Wick (Carla Gallo), in spite of how everybody else finds her incredibly annoying. To be honest I find her character incredibly annoying, and much prefer it when one of the other interns make an appearance. Whether it's supremely depressed Colin Fisher (Joel David Moore), descent Wendell Bray (Michael Grant Terry), the fussy but brilliant Dr. Clarke Edison (Eugene Byrd), serious and intense Arastoo Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) or the Southerner Finn Abernathy (Luke Lkeintank) each are interesting characters who change the dynamic of the show whenever they show up.

One of the highlights of season eight is the episode featuring all five male interns working together. After Bones watches a basketball game she becomes fascinated with the idea of teamwork and brings them in to see if they can work together. We watch as the five men gradually work out how they can best pool their combined knowledge and intelligence to solve a mystery involving a homeless man whose body was found in a parking garage. Not only was the way they were able to overcome their desire to overshadow their fellows depicted with intelligence and humour, but the subject matter of the episode was dealt with admirably. The show ended up dealing with 9/11 and the plane which hit the Pentagon and how the homeless man was involved. Instead of making it a patriotic statement or something equally manipulative, it was a very personal story about this one man and his experiences. It was remarkable for its ability in bringing home both the horror of the event, and how what the homeless man had endured tied in with it.
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While each episode is most often an entity on to itself, with the cast usually dealing with a new set of remains and its accompanying mystery each time out, the various continuing story lines running through this season, and the history of the show, gives the series a substance you don't often find on television. While the subplots of the various ongoing relationships are ongoing (for those of you who haven't watched the season yet there's a surprising new one) and beautifully handled, a new one is added to the mix and one from season seven continues. The new one has Sweets moving in with Bones and Booth temporarily making for interesting scenes of all of them on the home front together. Not only is the situation handled in the show's usual able manner, it also gives us an opportunity to see different sides of both Booth and Sweets. Their friendship, which has sort of been like that of an older brother and younger brother up until now, becomes more one of mutual respect over the course of the season and Sweets staying with them.

The storyline continuing on from the previous season involves everybody's favourite serial killer and computer genius Christopher Pelant (Andrew Leeds). After forcing Bones on the run by framing her for murder he escapes justice when he to erase his identity and turn himself into an Egyptian national. Even though he's whisked off to Egypt in the first episode of the season, you just know we haven't heard the last of him. His obsession with proving he's smarter than the folk at The Jeffersonian, especially Bones, ensures he'll be back. He pops in for a visit in Episode 12, and then is back again to close out the season and wreck his usual havoc on everybody's lives, especially Bones and Booth.

The five disc Blu-ray package of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season comes complete with the usual accoutrement of special features, Even here the producers show their originality. For once the gag reel is more than just the cast hamming it up for the camera, and we see some genuine mistakes and the actors falling out of character. However, the bit I liked best was when the actors answered a series of questions about their characters, the show and other related matter fans had submitted. Each of the questions was taken seriously and answered with humour and intelligence.

While the Blu-ray is high definition all the way with both great sound and video, be prepared to have to update the firmware for your player as some of the menu features require you to have the latest versions. I'm not sure how much I like all these features, or see the need; there's one which allows you to select continuous play so you can remove the disc at any time and it will automatically restart where you left off. However, if you elect to use the single episode option, no matter what disc you insert into the player the menu always reads disc one, episode one and you have to scroll through to find where you left off. Still, that's only a minor inconvenience when it comes to watching a show of this quality.

There has been a disturbing trend over the past little while of depicting intelligent people as freaks and objects of ridicule in popular culture. While the characters in Bones have their eccentricities, they have always been depicted as complete human beings, not much different than the rest of us save for the level of their intelligence and their rather unique skill sets. The series has done a wonderful job of not only bring these people to life, but in allowing their characters to develop and grow. Watching Bones: The Complete Eighth Season one sees the process continue in front of your eyes. What's even better is they grow without ever changing their core characters.

It sometimes seems if a show remains on the air too long the quality will start to fall off. Well as Bones enters its ninth season, it not only hasn't depreciated, it has actually improved. There aren't many shows you can say that of. Through its combination of great scripts, wonderful characters and good acting Bones continues to amaze and astound. If there were more shows like this on television I might actually consider getting cable.

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season)

October 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish

Not very long ago it was quite rare to see an actor who worked in movies appearing in television shows. In the early days of television part of the reason was geography as most shows were shot in New York City, where the networks were based, while movies were of course shot in Los Angeles where the studios were located. However, the real reason was most movie actors would have considered it beneath them to do television, which was seen as something of a second class citizen. Now of course all of that has changed. With the proliferation of cabal channels which specialize in mini series offering actors challenging roles, and the promise of continuing work, we've seen more and more crossover between the medias. In fact there is no longer really any distinction between movie and television actors. You're just as likely to see someone showing up on the small screen as on the big screen.

Well not as well known as some of his compatriots, Australian actor Guy Pearce has become a fixture in American movies over the last decade. However, he recently returned home to play the role of Jack Irish, successful barrister turned private detective, for Australian television. While filmed and originally aired in Australia, the show is now available to North American audiences through the release of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack Jack Irish by Acorn Media.

Over the course of two feature length episodes we follow the lead character as he looks into the mysterious deaths of first a former client and then the son of a friend of his late father. While the two cases aren't related to each other, the two shows are chronological. For unlike other television detectives Irish has a life outside his investigations. While his detective work is obviously what propels the action, the rest of his life is just as important to the story and as interesting to watch as his work. For not only do the lines between the two occasionally blur as one bleeds over into the other, his personal story is the reason he's where he is today.
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When the first episode opens, Bad Debts, Irish is a still a successful barrister with a thriving career as a defence lawyer and a beautiful wife. It all collapses when his wife is killed by a client who feels Irish didn't do his job properly. Needless to say his world comes crashing down upon him. We learn he tried to continue on as a defence lawyer after his wife's murder but he wasn't the man he once was in many ways. In an effort to deal with his pain he turned to alcohol. While it might have numbed his senses, it also reduced his faculties.

When we meet him again, a few years later, gone is the smart suit and carefully coiffed appearance. Instead we see a unshaven, poorly dressed guy acting as a debt collector. While he does give out receipts to those he collects from, it does seem like he's now operating in slightly less of a legal capacity then he once did. The fact he's also working for a rather shady individual helping to drive up the odds on horses during races in order to increase their winningsonly strengthens the impression he's drifted quite a bit from his former life. However, this doesn't mean he's not without a conscience or lacking in the compassion that made him a defence lawyer in the first place.

For when a ex client, whose defence he mishandled badly due to drinking, is found murdered after leaving Irish a number of frantic voice mails, he decides to look into the circumstances surrounding his death. The police claim the man had pulled a gun on a couple of officers and they shot him in self defence. However, the guy had been expecting Irish to show up to meet him at the location where he was found dead and the circumstances don't add up. Driven by feelings of guilt for maybe failing the man twice - Irish's botched work as his defence attorney had resulted in the man going to jail for ten years on a charge of vehicular manslaughter - he begins to look into the man's life to see what he can find out.

With the help of an investigative reporter, who soon also becomes his lover, he begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the man's death. The trail leads him and his woman partner back ten years to the crime the man was originally charged with and into the heart of what turns out to be a political scandal. As the body count mounts among those who could potentially give evidence in the case, Irish finds himself not only on the receiving end of death threats but finally on the run from crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

Both this episode and the second one, Black Tide, are as good as any of the crime dramas I've seen produced on either British or North American television, and far better than most. While the hard drinking private investigator with a tragic past is close to being a cliche, there's far more to Irish than what appears on the surface. When the series opens he still appears to be only going through the motions of living. The wounds caused by his wife's murder have hardened into scar tissue which he wears like armour against emotions and having to care too much. Looking into the murder of his former client begins the process of breaking down the barriers he's erected between himself and most of the world while his new relationship continues the process. We actually see a softness appear on Irish's face which wasn't there at the beginning of the show the more he opens up to the new woman in his life.
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Even in the second episode, when his partner has moved to another city to take a job with television and is rumoured to be having an affair with an on air personality, he doesn't retreat back into his shell. It's like he's remembered what's it's like to be alive again, and even the jealousy and hurt he feels over the problems with his relationship aren't enough to push him back into his life as a zombie. While it's the script which lays all this out for us, without an actor of the quality of Pearce in the title role it might not have been as effective. He does a wonderful job of showing his character's gradual progression as he deals with two very dangerous criminal investigations and ghosts from his past.

In the first episode it's his wife's murder he has to come to terms with, but in the second he has to reach back even further and deal with his memories of his father, a famous athlete, who died when Irish was a child. Pearce has always brought a certain amount of intensity to his roles, but here he allows himself to relax into his character. While the intensity comes through when required, he allows his character moments of repose where what's happening affects him instead of it the other way around. While I've always appreciated Pearce's work in the past, his performance as Jack Irish is probably the most complete characterization I've ever seen from him.

Perhaps it's because, as he says in the special feature about the show included on both the Blu-ray and DVD, the show is being shot in his native Australia and he doesn't have to worry about his accent and is generally more relaxed. You can see in the behind the scenes shots how in spite of the hard work being put in by everybody involved, there's quite a relaxed attitude on set. This same feature also gives you an idea of both the technical knowhow and the talent of the people working in Australian television today, This is the third feature length production I've seen produced from Australian television and they have all been equally impressive in terms of both technical and artistic achievements.

If you make the mistake I did of not realizing this a combo disc and end up watching one episode on DVD and the other on Blu-ray you'll quickly notice the sizeable differences in the technology. Both the audio and the visual quality of the Blu-ray are vastly superior to the DVD and this pulls you deeper into the proceedings. The HD sound and images of the former not only make the action more vivid, they somehow bring a level of emotional depth to the proceedings DVD is not able to match. Blu-ray's ability to capture even the smallest of changes in expression on an actor's face makes it feel like we are seeing deeper into their characterizations then we've ever been able to before.

Jack Irish is not only a great example of the mystery genre, it's also a wonderfully executed character study. Thanks to a great performance from the show's lead, Guy Pearce (The Australian actors in the supporting roles would be unknown to North Americans, but they are every bit as good as anybody you'd see on British television) and an excellent script, both feature length episodes included in the package are that rare combination of exciting action and in depth exploration of a character you rarely see on either the big or small screen. It's no wonder Pearce flew home, half-way around the world to make these shows. Opportunities like these don't come around very often.

Article first published at as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987

I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 19, 2013

Television Review: The Hollow Crown (William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1&2 and Henry V

Probably the hardest theatre to bring to the screen are the works of William Shakespeare. Due to the material's intrinsic theatrically it's almost impossible to escape the fact they were designed to be seen on stage. However this has not prevented many people from attempting to adapt his work to the screen with varying degrees of success. So I was intrigued to learn about a new British mini series called The Hollow Crown being broadcast on the PBS program Great Performances. Comprised of four of Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V the series is an example for film makers to come on how to adapt Shakespeare for the stage.

Being telecast on four successive Friday nights, September 20, 27, October 4 and 11 2013 at 9:00 pm EST (check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your area) each of the four manages the nearly impossible task of bringing the plays to life as films while still remaining true to the spirit of their original theatricality. Of the four, Henry V, is probably the most well known while both Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 are considered two of Shakespeare's more difficult plays. In fact, the former is so rarely performed even on stage I've only ever heard of it being produced once during my lifetime.
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Of course the key to success in any performance of Shakespeare is the cast, and the directors of this series seemed to have suffered from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the actors at their disposal. When even the supporting and minor roles are played by actors recognizable to most of the viewing audience, people who under other circumstances find themselves in lead roles, you know the cast is talented. The standard for all others to try and match is set right from the start by Ben Whishaw as Richard II. His performance as the doomed king is incredible to watch. What does with his voice, the emotional range, the changes in pitch conveying anything from anger to fear within the same phrase, and his control has to be heard and seen to be believed.

As the man who deposes him Rory Kinnear as Bolingbrook, Duke of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, does his best to match Whishaw, but in reality doesn't have as much to work with. His character is ruled by circumstances and he finds himself caught up in the sweep of events. He does a fine job of depicting a man who all of a sudden finds himself out of his depth and struggling to find his feet. You really have the feeling it was never his intent to usurp Richard, but things just spiral out of his control until it's too late.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare gives hints about what will happen during Henry IV's reign. Various characters say things like the land will be steeped in blood or those who helped you to the throne won't be satisfied with what they receive in return. While you might think these are simply the reactions of soar losers trying to unnerve the new king, you'd be wise to heed their words.

Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 are in equal parts about the latter years of Henry IV's reign and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddlestion). In Part 1 young Hal is a wastrel and the bane of his father's existence. He spends the majority of his time avoiding any and all responsibility and in the company of the thief, braggart and drunk Sir.John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). The king (Jeremy Irons) is so disappointed in his son, when he hears of the exploits of the son of the Duke of Northumberland - also named Hal but usually referred to as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) he actually asks God why he gave him the wrong Hal as son.
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However, we discover the reasons for Prince Hal's desolate lifestyle, he's running from the crown. Not because he doesn't care, but because he can see what wearing the crown has done to his father. How the cares and woes of kingship have sickened him and sucked all the joy from his life. Before this happens to Hal he's determined to have some fun, even if its with, and at the expense of, the likes of Falstaff and his nest of crooks and drunkards. Yet when Northumberland and his son Hotspur rise up in revolt, the Prince is quick to return to his father's fold in order to put down the rebellion.

For those who only know Hiddlestion from playing the part of Loki in the movies Thor and The Avengers, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only does he rise to the mark set by Wishaw in terms of his performance, he comes close to surpassing it. He is a central character in both parts of Henry IV and almost singlehandedly has to carry Henry V on his shoulders. He does a magnificent job of portraying the young man desperately looking to cram a lifetime's worth of living into the few years he has before he must assume the burden of the crown, and the ensuing transition from irresponsible wastrel to dedicated King.

In recent years Jeremy Irons has indulged himself with characters like the one he plays in The Borgias, coasting by on his voice and mannerisms, but as Henry IV he reminds you why he is one of the best actors of his generation. You can almost see the weight of his personal history sitting heavier and heavier upon his shoulders - "heavy is the head that bears the crown". Irons does a great job of showing this while still managing to give us hints as to his character's former greatness. The final scenes of Henry IV Part 2 between Irons and Hiddlestion, where the two characters finally come to terms with each other as the prince tells his father of his hatred for the crown having seen what wearing it has done to the king, are simply spellbinding. I could sit and watch those scenes over and over again they are so beautifully acted.

In comparison to the three previous plays Henry V is relatively straightforward, and someways simplistic. In those days England still ruled parts of France. The French, knowing his reputation as the Prince, see Hal's ascension to the throne as the ideal time to try and win back their lands. Rising to the challenge Henry raises an army and departs for France and although severely outnumbered manages to defeat them at Agincourt.
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Hiddlestion's performance again is exemplary as he lets us see the nervousness he feels at the enormity of the gamble he's taking in heading off to war as a newly crowned king that lies beneath his determination to defeat France. England's claim to the disputed territories in France was tenuous at best, and there was no reason save pride for seeking to hold onto them. However, with his country only recently recovered from the divisive rebellions which marked his father's reign Henry V must have felt he needed to prove he was a strong king in order to quell the potential of further unrest.

Throughout the four parts of The Hollow Crown the directors and cinematographers have taken full advantage of their medium to bring the plays to life. They use the camera's ability to capture both wide vistas and intimate close ups to help tell the story and create atmospheres appropriate to a scene. When Richard II returns from his wars in Ireland to be informed the entire country has risen in revolt against him, he is greeted on a desolate stretch of beach by a few aides. Seeing the king against the wide open vista with hardly anyone around him stresses how alone he is in the world. Conversely, in Henry V, when Henry gives his "Once more into the breech good friends" speech, normally staged as some great rallying cry to the troops, he is seen huddled with a few soldiers under the walls of the French castle they are besieging. You can actually feel him willing his men to overcome their fears and find what's necessary to throw themselves back into battle.

Adapting any play to the screen is always a difficult task, and the works of Shakespeare are especially difficult. Too often people either fail to take advantage of the potential the camera has for telling the tale or neglect to find a cast who can properly handle the demands of the text. In the mini series The Hollow Crown not only have they achieved the required balance between performance and media for one play, they have done so over the course of four plays. With top notch performances from every cast member, whether they have two lines or hundreds, and wonderful production values, I have no hesitation in saying these are the best filmed versions of Shakespeare I've ever seen.

(The Hollow Crown will be shown on your local PBS station on consecutive Fridays starting with Richard II on September 20 2013, Henry IV Part 1 September 27 2013, Henry IV Part 2 October 4 2013 and Henry V October 11 2013 starting at 9:00 pm EST - check your local listings for times and dates in your area)

(Article first published at as Television Review: The Hollow Crown)

September 12, 2013

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8

It wasn't until I sat down to write this review I found out the man whose books the main characters in this DVD were based on, Reginald Hill, had died in January of 2012. I had the good fortune to interview him a couple years prior to his death and naturally we talked about his two most famous characters, Detective Superintendent (Det. Supt.) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (D.I) Peter Pascoe. He talked of them with affection and it seemed to me they had taken on a life of their own outside his books. While the television adaptions of his characters were made during his lifetime, seeing them on the TV screen going about their business after the death of their creator makes it even more certain they will live on.

Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8 first aired in 2004 on British television and is now coming to DVD thanks to BBC Home Entertainment. The four feature length episodes included in this series weren't based on any of the books Hill wrote for his characters. However, the characters he created were so strong, and made such an indelible impression on their followers, the creators of the TV series obviously felt as long as they did a good job with bringing the characters to life they would succeed.

When you consider the fact Hill had had no intention of making either character an ongoing feature in his books, and Dalziel had only been created to act as a foil for Pascoe in the original book, it's quite remarkable the life these two characters have taken on. The challenge facing anybody bringing them to the screen is the fact they are competing with every reader's vision of them. Key to success in this is a combination of casting and what you do with the characters. You can find the perfect actors for each role and still fail by giving them inappropriate material to work with.
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Thankfully in this case the casting and the writing work together wonderfully. Warren Clarke as Dalziel is not only physically appropriate for his character, in size, shape and appearance, he also has the ability to give us glimpses of what goes on emotionally under the craggy exterior. On the surface Dalziel is all old school bluster. The type of cop who looks like he's willing to turn a blind eye to a suspect getting a few bruises during interrogation if it ensures he finds the guilty party in the end. However, what we come to realize through watching the four episodes is the bluster and bullying - which also applies to the way he treats his underlings as well as his suspects - are only because he feels personally responsible if he isn't able to solve a crime.

We see a perfect example of this in the episode entitled "The Price Of Fame" on disc one. For while the duo are tracking down the killer of a young woman who works at a holiday resort who had ambitions of becoming a "star", Dalziel is also trying to figure out who kidnapped a teenage girl. He had been taken off the case because he'd been too rough on a witness. However he'd promised the girl's mother he'd find her, and his failure to do so is eating away at him. We watch as events in the murder case trigger fresh perspectives on the kidnapping and lead him to figuring out who actually committed the first crime.

In all four episodes the writers give Clarke ample opportunity to give us a complete portrait of this complex character. On the surface he might appear to be all bluster but underneath lurks an intelligent and compassionate mind. To the casual observer it might appear odd that this rather oafish and old school copper would inspire loyalty and respect in his younger and more sophisticated junior officer, but the more we learn about Dalziel, the more we understand why Pascoe appreciates working with him so much.
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As Pascoe Colin Buchanan is faced with the difficult job of sharing screen time with a character who could easily overshadow him. Thankfully both the writers and the actor recognize the best way to deal with this situation is to make Pascoe the rock upon which the wave of Dalziel breaks. Pascoe doesn't just meekly stand there and let his boss role all over him, but he isn't stupid enough to try and out bluster him. No his weapons are sly wit and cool intelligence, and he uses both to slow Dalziel down and to challenge his more outrageous suggestions.

However, like his boss, there's more to Pascoe than meets the eye. Although he's not given as many opportunities in these four episodes to show his character's depth, as Dalziel plays a larger role, Buchanan does let us see some cracks appear in the calm facade periodically. What's interesting is most of them are related to his boss. Whether as expressions of concern for his well being or frustration with his behaviour, Dalziel is able to create cracks in his junior's equanimity far more often than the job. Which isn't to suggest Buchanan plays him like some cold fish who doesn't show any disgust or anger over the crimes they have to deal with. However, he's able to show how Pascoe brings a level of detachment to the job which prevents it from becoming personal.

The four episodes on this disc are all well written and interesting murder investigations. However, those responsible for the series know people are watching the shows as much as for the way they bring the two main characters to life on the screen as they are for the actual investigations. In response they have created four investigations which allow the actors playing the lead characters to do just that through the course of carrying out their duties. It's this balancing act of story and characterization which made Hill's books more than just the usual run of the mill police procedurals. While the shows might not be based on actual stories Hill wrote, they definitely capture what made his books so popular.

While the two DVD set doesn't come with any special features, like behind the scenes looks at the making of the show, it shouldn't detract from anybody's pleasure at watching them. These wonderfully acted and well scripted shows are special enough in their own right. Anybody who liked the characters on the pages of the books, will take great pleasure in watching them on the small screen at home.

(Article originally published at as DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8)

August 27, 2013

DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition

I remember reading someone describing San Francisco as being a country separate from the rest of the United States. However, not only is it different from the rest of the country, its even quite different from the rest of the State of California. How else could you explain the city home to The Grateful Dead, Grace Slick and City Lights Book Store being part of a system which elected both Ronald Regan and Arnold Shwarzenegger as Governor? To the rest of the country the city has always represented freedom or licentiousness personified depending on your perspective. It was here flower power and drugs bloomed the strongest in the 1960s and the sexual revolution flourished most during the early years of the 1970s.

While outsiders might have had their own ideas of what went on in the city by Pacific Ocean, it took an insider to tell the story of the people and the places where it all happened.Armistead Maupin wrote with honesty and objectivity about an era now coloured by the spectre of AIDS and managed to capture both the innocence and sadness of the times. His books were love stories, comedies and historical records of a time of excitement and exploration which will probably never come again. In 1993 the first of these books was made into a television mini-series. Now, twenty years later, the series is being honoured with the release of a newly packaged and remastered special edition, Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Acorn Media.

As you may have figured out the story takes place in the mid 70s when the sexual revolution was peaking with gay rights. Literally fresh off the bus from Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is both shocked and thrilled by what she sees around her. While she's nowhere near ready for the club scene and the rotating partners that goes with it, she loves the freedom and opportunities the city has to offer. Her entrance into life in San Francisco is eased along when she responds to an add for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. With landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) playing den mother to its collection of tenants, Barbary Lane and its inhabitants quickly becomes the focal point of the story.
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Via Mary Jane we meet the very liberated Mona Ramsey, (Chloe Webb) her gay sometime room mate Michael "Mouse" Toliver (Marcus D'Amico) and the happily straight Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). It's through Mona, Mary Jane lands her first job in the city, secretary to the head of the advertising firm her neighbour works for, Edgar Halcyon. (Donald Moffat)

With Barbary Lane as the nexus for the story we travel all over the city and the surrounding areas, meeting people from all social backgrounds. We watch the central characters' struggles with life and love as they look for just the right person to share their lives with. What makes the show so special is the wonderful depth to each character. From country club going Halcyon to seemingly carefree bachelor Hawkins, there is more to each of them than we first realize. While books are known for the way in which they allow characters to develop, it's rare to see the same thing in a television series. Normally a show like this would be more caught up in what the people do than in who they are. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

The script carefully takes us through each characters' experiences and uses them to give us a more complete picture of who they are. Even better is how each of the actors allows themselves to be guided by the script. As a result watching the people on screen is like getting to know people in real life. The more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand and appreciate them, just like we would with anyone else new in our lives. It's in this way we gradually see the nice man hiding behind the swinger in Brian Hawkins as he shows unexpected compassion and empathy towards the various women he encounters in bars and bed.

We also learn how vulnerable and insecure both Mouse and Mona really are. Webb does a wonderful job of showing the cracks in her character's veneer of coolness and the sense of loss she seems to be carrying with her. D'Amico does a great job of portraying the looking for love in all the wrong places Mouse. Unlike many of the gay men he meets, he's not interested in one night stands, but is looking for his one true love. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be having much luck as his partners keep turning out to be inappropriate or far less interested in commitment than he is.
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Of course at the centre of everything are Dukakis and Linney. While Singleton's brittle innocence is a bit trying at times, Linney does a remarkable job of showing her character's gradual willingness to be more open and accepting. She gradually learns to set aside her Cleveland morality and learn the value of loyalty and friendship, no matter how odd those friends might be. As for Dukakis, she looks like she was born to play Anna Madrigal. On the surface outrageous and eccentric - she gifts each new tenant with a carefully rolled joint made with the pot she grows in her garden - she has a secret buried beneath her poetry quoting exterior and a sentimental streak as a wide as any of the youngsters in her charge.

Watching her gradually developing relationship with Halcyon is a thing of beauty. Both Dukakis and Moffat do a wonderful job of showing how love isn't only for young people. While he gradually reveals the man who has hidden behind propriety and suits all his life, she lets us see the tender heart beating beneath Madrigal's eccentricity. These two old pros steal the show away from the youngsters without even trying, and their scenes together are some of the best in the series.

With the show having been originally aired in 1993 even digital remastering isn't able to compensate for any of the original deficiencies in sound and audio. Still, all things considered, the quality is more than adequate for watching on a home theatre system if you remember to set your system for stereo transmission instead of surround sound. While the special features on the disc are limited to video of rehearsal and a couple of behind the scenes shots, the booklet included in the DVD package provides a great deal of information about the series and the book its based on.

Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition is a wonderful reminder of just how great character driven television can be when performed and scripted well. Its also a beautiful trip back in time. While the show makes no secret of how many people during the 1970s were more concerned with self-gratification than anything else, we also see how there was also a level of innocence sadly lacking today. It was a time of exploration and self-discovery as well and never has this strange dichotomy been captured on film quite as well as is done here. This is one of those rare times when the adaptation does a book proud. It not only captures the action of the original but the spirit as well.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition)

August 6, 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires

Like many other indigenous people the Aboriginals of Australia saw colonizers steal their land and attempt to destroy their way of life and culture. One of the more insidious ways invaders have attempted to carry out cultural genocide has been to steal the children of indigenous people in order to civilize them. In Canada and the US we had the residential schools where we beat the "Indian" out of children in an attempt to make them white. In Australia Aboriginal children who could pass for white were taken from their families and placed in white institutions cutting them off from their communities and destroying connections to their history and culture.

Somehow, in spite of the of the best efforts of their colonial masters, Native peoples in most parts of the world have survived and managed to retain their cultural identity. They have even regained enough strength to begin telling the stories of the people who lived through the bad times. Not all of the stories have had happy endings, but neither have all the stories had sad endings. In fact some of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. One of those stories is the tale of four young Aboriginal women who for a year, 1968, were a singing group who performed American soul and R&B music for troops in Viet Nam. Written by Tony Blair, son of one of the woman in the group, The Sapphires was first a stage play and then a movie and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Miramax Films.

While the majority of the movie is set in 1968 the year The Sapphires were performing, the movie opens in 1958. Four little girls are preparing to sing for their friends and family on the back of a flat bed truck. In the middle of the performance they are interrupted by an invasion of white men in cars come to steal any "white" looking children. The children flee into the woods, the bigger ones helping the little ones, in an attempt to escape. The movie then jumps ahead ten years to three young Aboriginal women leaving their "settlement" (the Australian equivalent of a reservation) to go into a white town to enter a talent contest run by the very hung over, down on his luck, talent scout/music lover/want a be manager, Dave Lovelace. (Chris O'Dowd)
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Even in his rather fragile state Lovelace can see Gail, (Deborah Mailman) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) are obviously the class of the contest. In fact he even manages to stir from his alcoholic stupor enough to provide them with piano accompaniment for their performance. In spite of them being much better than anyone else in the contest, the three lose. Of course they had as much chance of winning as The Supremes would have had at a contest run by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Lovelace and they are pretty much kicked out when the contest is over.

However, Cynthia convinces Lovelace to help them respond to an audition notice requesting entertainers for American troops in Viet Nam. He does so, but only on the condition they stop singing Merle Haggard songs and start singing soul music. He might be a pasty faced white guy from Melbourne, but he's got the blood of a soul musician floating in his veins. After he manages to convince their family to let him take the girls to the audition, and maybe Viet Nam, the scene shifts to Melbourne where it takes place and the trio expands to a quartet. Their cousin Kay, (Shari Sebbens) the fourth girl at the beginning of the movie singing with them, had been stolen by the government and placed in the white world and is now living in Melbourne. They reclaim her for the family and the singing group.

The movie follows the arc you'd expect. The girls experience success as performers in Viet Nam and start to play to larger and larger collections of troops. Of course it's not all smooth sailing with Cynthia resenting her younger sister Julie being the centre of attention as the lead singer and acting out by drinking too much and trying to steal the spotlight. However, it's Lovelace's irresponsible behaviour and drinking which gets them into serious trouble. He drunkenly agrees to take the girls to a base close to enemy lines, but forgets to tell them they will have to make the trip without the military escort they've had previously.

Gail, the eldest, and thus responsible for the other three, had taken the longest to trust Lovelace. However, when she did start to trust him the two became, against her misgivings and better judgement, romantically involved. When she finds out what he did she's furious with both herself and Lovelace. While they make the trip to the base safely enough it comes under attack while they are there. The girls are airlifted to safety, but as they lift off they see Lovelace go down. They arrive back in Saigon not knowing whether he's alive or not, only to find out Martin Luther King has been assassinated.

The Sapphires is the type of movie which in the wrong hands could be maudlin and sentimental trash. Instead, what we are given is a very realistic portrayal of four young women having the time of their lives in the middle of a horrible situation. At the same time it manages, without any overt politicalization, to show the damage done the Aboriginal people of Australia by the policy of taking their children away from them. With the character of Kay we see how these children became both alienated from their people while never really fitting into the "white" world. Putting up with having their land stolen and overt racism is bad enough, but to have your own children turned against you must have been the real knife in some people's hearts.
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In the role of Lovelace O'Dowd continues to impress as an actor. He's one of those people who have the wonderful ability to wear their heart's on their sleeve without ever overplaying a scene. While a natural comic, he's also able to communicate what hides behind his character's bluff exterior and grins. Like his character, O'Dowd has soul, and it shines through in his entire performance. While the four women aren't as experienced as O'Dowd, only Mailman has any real acting experience and this is Sebbens' first movie, they all do wonderful jobs with their characters.

Each bring a level of credibility to their performances which helps make the movie a joy to watch. Mauboy is a professional singer and does all her own singing as the lead singer for the group Julie, but seeing her on screen she does such a good job in her role you think of her as an actor doing some singing, not a singer doing some acting. In spite of their inexperience, neither Tapsell and Sebbens are weak links. As the dispossessed Kay, Sebbens gives an especially moving and strong performance as she attempts to reclaim her heritage.

Seeing a movie like this at home on Blu-ray through a good home theatre system with 5.1 sound makes you appreciate the potency of the music the girls sing all over again. The sound and visuals are as good you've come to expect from the new technology, and thoroughly enhance the story. What's nice, is unlike movies which try and compensate for any weak spots in the script by turning it into spectacle through effects instead of telling the story, here the audio enhances the story and helps set the atmosphere.

The special features on this Blu-ray are much better than usual as they not only give you a chance to meet the actors and learn about how the movie was made, you also meet the original Sapphires. After their tour of Viet Nam none of them continued to work as singers, although one was the first ever Aboriginal model in Australia for a while, instead they returned to their communities and worked tirelessly to help their own people. They are all still alive and the interviews with them in the special features are almost as interesting as the movie itself. They probably won't make a sequel to The Sapphires, as their lives aren't as glamourous now as they were for that one year, but the story of what they've done since is every bit as impressive.

The Sapphires is the story of four women who grabbed a moment and ran with it for all they were worth. It's fun, sad and best of all, very real. For some reason the movie seems to have come and gone without much notice when it played in the theatres and it would be a shame if the same thing happened now that's it out on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a wonderful movie filled with great performances and some of the best soul music to come out of the 1960s - what more could you ask for?

(Article originally published at as Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires)

July 20, 2013

Blu-ra Review: Solomon Kane

In the 1920s a new form of literary entertainment was born. Called pulp fiction for the poor quality of the paper it was printed on, you could literally still see the wood pulp in the pages of the magazines which published them, the stories were high on action and low on any redeeming literary qualities. Whether lurid crime fiction or brutal sword and sorcery fantasy very few of the stories have survived and their authors have been largely forgotten. However, one whose work has lived on long after both he and the magazines have perished is Robert E Howard.

Best known as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian whose exploits have been seen in films, books and comic books on a regular basis, he also created numerous other characters. While there have been attempts to create films based on the adventures of other heroes aside from Conan in the past, most of them have been about as tawdry as their original publications. Even the adaptations of Conan to the big screen, especially the ones staring a certain Austrian body builder, have been a bit of a joke. However, the adaptation of another of his character's adventures, Solomon Kane, to the big screen, now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, is quite a number of steps up in quality from anything anyone has done previously.

For while the story follows along the same rather simplistic moralistic lines of all Howard's work involving the forces of good fighting the force of evil, casting an actor the quality of James Purefoy in the lead role ensures this movie a depth the others have lacked. For instead of the rather cartoonish figure of a muscle bound lout hacking and slashing his way through a world of armed men and monsters, we are presented with a character of complex emotions, motivations and conflicting desires. Purefoy is able to take what in the hand's of a lessor actor would be a one dimensional character and create a truly troubled soul.
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To give you some indication what Purefoy brought to his performance in an interview with the actor included on the Blu-ray edition he talked about his preperation for the character. Not only did he read all of Howard's stories about Solomon Kane, he also read up on Puritanism in England in the 1600s and the various beliefs in witch craft and other black magic common to the era. From this research he was able to understand the mindset of his character and bring a level of credibility to his actions another actor would not have been able to communicate to the audience.

When we first meet Kane he is corsair in the employ of England. Which meant he had a licence from the crown to commit acts of piracy as long as they were against people considered enemies. Unfortunately while the crown was okay with him letting him rape, murder and pillage his soul has no such dispensation. In the midst of sacking a Turkish palace he and his crew are confronted by demons from hell. While his crew is destroyed Kane barely escapes the Devil's reaver who had come for his soul.

When we next meet him he has taken refuge in a church. Kane believes the only way he can save his soul is by never committing a violent act again and he feels he can only do this is by hiding away from the world. Unfortunately God has other plans for him and the priest in charge of the church he's staying in tells him he must seek redemption out in the world. As he's travelling he meets a family of Puritans on the road. While he initially refuses their offer of a ride, they end up rescuing him after he's set upon by outlaws. Refusing to offer any resistance he is struck over the head and left for dead. When he comes to he finds himself in the back of the Puritan family's wagon being tended to by their daughter.

The head of the family, the wonderful Peter Postelthwaite, tells Kane the family is on the way to Portsmouth where they will catch a ship to the New World. Unfortunately that's not to be. For there's something evil afoot in this part of England. Raiders led by a mysterious masked man with strange powers are rounding up people and taking them into slavery for their mysterious master. Naturally Kane and the family run up against them, and when they kill the family's youngest boy Kane makes the choice to fight back. While he's able to defend himself well enough he's not able to prevent the daughter from being taken captive and the father from receiving a fatal wound. With his dying breath the father tells Kane he can save his soul by rescuing his daughter and there is redemption to be found in fighting evil - in being a warrior for good instead of for selfish purposes.
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So you can see where this is going can't you. Kane begins to cut a swathe through the evil doers in an attempt to rescue the daughter. While the story is fairly predictable, filled with all the usual sword and sorcery violence and blood shed one would expect from pulp fiction in all its gory detail, there are some nice twists and turns to the plot which elevate it above the usual slash and chop movie. However, it's the brooding presence of Purefoy at the centre of the movie which really makes this movie worth watching.

In most of the roles I've seen Purefoy he's either been an uncomplicated heroic type or it's been a case of still waters running deep with a rather placid exterior hiding some mystery. Here though he's gone against type and is playing a character consumed by passions. Whether the violent man we meet as the film opens or the man driven by the desperate need to salvage his soul and find redemption. When he finally allows himself to pick up the sword again, although it costs him a great deal, you see how it almost comes as a relief to him to be able to fight back. When he is given absolution to kill in the name of God it's like he's been returned to normal.

The Blu-ray edition of this disc is a great example of the advantages of the new technology as both the sound and the picture are crystal clear and sharp. What I really appreciate is no matter how loud the sound track is, explosions and such, there's never any problem hearing the dialogue. So those of you who like to feel explosions as well as hear them will enjoy this version as much as those who appreciate being able to hear what the actors are saying.

Aside from the interview with Purefoy, the bonus features also include a commentary track with Purefoy and the director (Michael J Basset), an interview with the director, a making of the movie feature and a couple other bits about the special effects for one scene and the original concept art for the movie.

While the story of Solomon Kane follows along the expected path for a sword and sorcery type movie what raises it above other movies of this ilk is the performance of James Purefoy in the lead role. It's not often a movie of this type is blessed with an actor of this calibre, and its much better for it. While it will still appeal to those who like a good chop and hack movie, if you can stand a little gore, those of you who watch movies for the quality of the performances will appreciate it as well.

(Article first published at as Blu-ray Review: Solomon Kane

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn

When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

July 5, 2013

DVD Review: Falcon

The troubled cop with a mysterious past and a serious drinking/drug problem has become so commonplace in television shows and movies the character is now verging on cliche. It takes a script of incredible quality and an exceptionally talented actor to make both the role and the program work. Audiences are no longer going to be satisfied with being shocked by the sight of a cop snorting cocaine, there has to be something more to the character than just his or her addictions or troubles.

For those looking for that little bit extra, they need look no further than Falcon, a new release from Acorn Media. Each of the two DVDs in this set contains a full length, 90 minute, movie set in Seville Spain following Detective Jefe Javier Falcon (Marton Csokas) as he delves into two very delicate murder investigations. While Csokas' character definitely has his problems, he buys mysterious packets of white powder in back alleys and ingests them by mixing their contents into glasses of water and drinking them down, the show doesn't make a big deal out of his drug use. Normally a show will make it furtive and ugly, but here it's all sort of matter of fact. He buys his drugs, goes home, mixes it up and drinks it down.

We don't have any idea when he started doing it, or even any indication as to why. We do know he's had one failed marriage, but he's an obviously well respected and appreciated police officer who seems to get on well with both his co-workers and his superiors. Even his relationship with his sister is perfectly normal and healthy. Then, while investigating the death of a wealthy restaurant owner in The Blind Man of Seville, he comes across a picture of his father among the dead man's possessions.
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It turns out Falcon's father is a famous painter whose works hang in one of the national galleries of Spain. Falcon lives in his father's old house which also contains his father's old studio and paintings never displayed. In his will he had asked Falcon to burn all of the paintings not in galleries. There was no explanation as to why, but Falcon still hasn't carried out his father's wishes even though he's been dead for some time now. However, when the murderer kills the man who used to be his father's agent, Falcon realizes he's going to have start exploring family history to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Complicating matters is the fact Falcon has started an affair with the widow of the first murder victim. Conseulo Jimenez (Hayley Atwell) was the man's second and much younger wife and while a suspect at first she cleared when it became obvious the murders were rooted deeply in the past. Not only is she able to provide Falcon with comfort, but with clues as to what the mystery might be about. When a prostitute her husband frequented turns up dead posed in the same position as the model in Falcon's father's most famous series of paintings there can be no doubt the murders have something to do with Falcon's own family.

When the secret behind the murders is finally revealed it's far more shocking than anything either we or Falcon could have expected. However, not only does it explain the nature of the murders and why the murdere did what he did, the secret also offers some explanation for Falcon's behaviour. His addictions, his inability to form close relationships and his seeming indifference to other people's feelings are all rooted in the events which culminated in the murders.

The second feature, The Silent and the Damned, takes place three months later. Falcon has been off work since the conclusion of the previous case and still might not be fully recovered. This doesn't stop him from throwing himself enthusiastically into the investigation of what looks to be the suicide of a prominent businessman. However, there are those who don't want him looking into it too closely, and pressure is brought on the commissioner of police to have replaced with someone easier to manipulate. His second in command, Jose Luis Ramirez (Charlie Creed-Miles) is put in charge of the investigation, while Falcon is told to look into the death of a vagrant found under a bridge.

Ramirez is considered malleable as his youngest daughter is ill and he can't afford to lose his job as he needs every cent he can make for her treatment. However, this doesn't stop him from realizing something is being covered up, especially when Falcon discovers a connection between the body of the supposed vagrant and the man who committed suicide. As the two men carefully dig deeper into the mess, with Falcon doing his best to shield his junior's involvement in order to protect his career, they discover layers upon layers of corruption designed to cover up the perversions of important members of the business community and government.

The two features included in Falcon are much more than your typical television murder mystery or police procedural. While they contain all the elements common to detective shows as the cops do their best to solve murders, they are also character studies of the finest quality. In particular the character of Falcon is far more complex and interesting than almost any other police detective you'll see on television. As the troubled detective Csokas gives a magnificent and subtle performance. Somehow he's able to convey the emotional turmoil broiling beneath the controlled surface Falcon presents to his co-workers and others only occasionally allowing anything resembling an emotional reaction to show through. Even when something pushes up through the cracks, be it anger or anguish, he suppresses it as quickly as it surfaced.
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With so much time spent alone with Falcon, or while he's working, we only realize how different he is from others when he is taken out of his usual context. Watching him visit with Ramirez at home and seeing the contrast between Falcon's isolation and Ramirez's bustling family life is out first indication of how much he has cut himself off from the world. However, it's only when he visits with Jimenez at home with her two boys, we see how frightened he is of feeling anything at all. He can't even allow himself to stay and enjoy the glimpse of normalcy sitting down to a family dinner would offer and flees instead of joining them.

He literally staggers as he walks away from her house he's so overwhelmed by the fear of letting down his barriers, the fear of letting anyone in and the fear of someone actually getting to know him. He wears his guilt and self-loathing like a shroud. Consumed by his own demons, he can't for the life of him see anyway out or any hope for salvation. Walking the winding, ancient, streets of Seville at night, Falcon seems to be trying to find his way out of a maze which has no beginning or end. Solving murders seems to be almost a form of atonement for whatever it is he thinks he might have done.

The wonderful thing about modern technology is now even at home we can appreciate the production values of movies in ways we were never able to before. In the case of Falcon having a wide screen television allows the viewer to appreciate the amazing cinematography which turns Seville into more than just the backdrop for the shows. Almost a character in itself the city sometimes appears to have a life of her own separate from those who walk her avenues. Streets dating back to when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, barely wide enough for a donkey cart, and the crumbling facades of buildings whose mortar has been baked by the centuries of sun contrast with modern freeways and apartment blocks.

The 16:9 widescreen presentation of the DVD only makes the visual impact of the two features all the more stunning. Those with home theatres will find this plus the 5.1 surround sound make it easy to forget either of these productions were made for television. Included in the package are three short bonus features. While the first is your basic, behind the scenes type thing, the second and third which look at the characters of Falcon and Seville respectively are definitely worth watching. The nine minute trip through the streets of Seville will make you wish you could find your way over there and wander them yourself, but also helps put Falcon's world into perspective.

The two features contained in the DVD set Falcon are far more sophisticated and accomplished than most police procedurals made for television. At 90 minutes each, The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned are able to not only allow their respective stories to unfold at a far slower pace than usual for television detective stories, but give us the opportunity to become for more intimate with the lead characters. In fact, the quality of acting, the artistry of the camera work and the intelligence of the script make both features superior to most of what you'll see in the cinema let alone television.

Article originally published at as DVD Review: Falcon

June 23, 2013

DVD Review: Jack Taylor

The ex-cop, private investigator with a drinking problem shows up so many times in television shows, movies and books the characterization has become almost a cliche. It's unfortunate because the traumas and horrors encountered by detectives who deal with violent crimes could be enough to leave them sufficiently emotionally crippled and psychologically scarred there's a good possibility they would turn to alcohol or drugs to deaden their feelings. Like anyone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder they will never be able to forget what they have witnessed and if extremely unlucky, will be cursed with having to relive experiences we can't even begin to imagine on a regular basis. Trying to deaden the pain or reduce the vividness of the memories would be a natural reaction.

Reducing this type of disorder to a cliche, or making light of it in any way, diminishes the suffering these people undergo. There's nothing romantic or funny about drinking to forget or the lives of quiet desperation lived by those attempting to hide from their pasts. So the way in which the lead character in the three DVD set Jack Taylor, Set 1, being released by Acorn Media Tuesday June 25 2013, is depicted not only adds to the realism of the show, but helps make it all the more powerful.

Set in County Galway on the west coast of Ireland, Jack Taylor, Set 1 tells the story of ex Garda (policeman) turned private eye Jack Taylor, played by Iain Glen. Each of the three discs are a separate 90 minute episode and investigation. This not only allows plenty of time for the plot to unfold, but also gives ample opportunity for us to get to know Taylor. The opening instalment, The Guards, begins with Taylor still a police officer. Even then we see his drinking is a problem as he's sipping from a mickey while sitting in his car with his partner waiting to catch speeders. We also see he has a definite self-destructive bent, as he sets off after a speeding car and doesn't break it off even when his partner points out the car they're chasing contains a minister in the Irish government. He not only continues the chase, but forces the car to stop and when the minister gets out of the car to protest, Taylor punches him in the face.
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Needless to say the next shot we see of Taylor he's no longer a member of the Garda. In a quick voice over he informs us he's become a private investigator and how private investigators aren't common in this part of the world. In fact the impression we receive is the idea of someone doing this kind of work is not looked on kindly by the Garda and part of the reason he might be doing the job is because it will piss people off. While he's obviously still bitter about being tossed from his old job, especially as we find out the politician he punched is currently under investigation for corruption, part of him still clings to his old identity as a member of the force.

This is brought home by his walking around in an overcoat which is official Garda issue uniform and the fact an artist friend of his painted a portrait of him titled "Once A Garda". The implication being while he might not be a member of the force any more, he can't shake himself free of the his old life. We even see him try to cross a police line, as if from force of habit, when he walks by a crime scene on the waterfront.

He still has friends on the force and is able to make use of them to find out information when he needs to. So when a woman hires him to investigate the whereabouts of her missing teenage daughter he makes use of those connections to find out details of the mysterious suicides of four young women, each of whom have been found washed up on shore in the same place, the crime scene he tried to get a closer look at down at the waterfront.

Over the course of his investigation we discover some important details of Taylor's personal life. His childhood had been unpleasant, to say the least, as his mother's oppressive view of christianity had driven his father away when he was young and she continues to make no secret of her disdain for him and her son. Taylor is not only an alcoholic, he's also a binge drinker. He can drink himself into blind stupors which result in him not being able to remember what he'd done or where he'd been. His way of dealing with any extreme emotion is to start drinking and not stop until he's passed out and not feeling anything.

Yet, over the course of the three episodes; The Pikemen, where he comes up against a group of vigilantes going around killing people for crimes they believe have gone unpunished, and Magdalen Martyrs, where he investigates cases of abuse which took place at the infamous Magdalen laundries - Catholic homes for so-called wayward girls, we also learn he has a highly developed sense of justice. He's not one of these people who sees the world as black and white, with good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other. However, nothing sets his back up more, or makes him more determined to find out what really happened, when people in positions of power assume they are able to act with impunity.

Whether its a corrupt businessman using his influence and wealth to ensure people turn a blind eye to his activities, The Guards, a father emotionally blackmailing his son, The Pikeman, or the Catholic church trying to cover up abuses carried out by clergy, Magdalen Martyrs, doesn't matter to him. They all have to be called to account no matter what the cost. Unfortunately it usually turns out Taylor is the one who pays most of the cost. His relentless quest for truth doesn't come without casualties, and unfortunately even when he's not directly responsible for what happens he can't help shouldering the guilt.
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Glenn's portrayal of Taylor is a finely crafted depiction of a man whose desire to right the wrongs of the world is constantly in competition with his penchant for self-destructive behaviour. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the pain caused by what Taylor has witnessed over the years is almost palpable it's so intense. The more we watch Glenn's performance the deeper we are drawn into Taylor's world until we start to see things through his eyes. It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing at times, but it also ensures the show attains the kind of quality and verisimilitude you don't often experience in television police procedurals.

There's nothing romantic about waking up not knowing what you've done and where you've been. However, some people know no other way of dealing with the emotional pain they carry with them. As a cop, and now as a private investigator, Jack Taylor has witnessed the worst humans inflict upon each other. The helplessness he feels at his inability to prevent them translate into both rage and grief which he can only partially assuage by bringing those responsible to justice. Catching the crooks doesn't undo the murders they've committed or the abuse they inflicted and the only way he has of coping is by doing his best to deaden his own emotions.

Jack Taylor, Set 1 is an unflinching look at one man's valiant effort to combat his own demons and to set right as many of the world's wrongs as he possibly can. Taylor is not your typical private eye and this is not your usual police drama. However, it is one of the best and most intriguing crime shows you're liable to see in a long time.

(Article originally at as Jack Taylor, Set 1

June 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Quartet

Far too often films depict the elderly as either dotty, funny or sick. Oh sure, we might get the occasional wise older person passing on sage advice to some youngster, but that's still not much more than another brand of stereotype. How many movies can you name where the majority of the cast are over sixty-five, but the main focus isn't on death, illness or the characters aren't some variation on "aren't they cutest things"? While there might be some out there, they are definitely few and far between. Thankfully, there's a new movie which can be included in that number being released on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday June 18 2013 by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, Quartet.

The premise of the movie is simple enough. Set in a retirement home for musicians, four retired opera singers who had once scored international success together try to reconcile their differences after not seeing one of their members in decades. Three of them have been living in the home, Beecham House for an undetermined time, when the fourth, joins them. Her arrival coincides with the residents preparing their annual fundraising gala. An event which the facility depends on for its survival.

It turns out two of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) had been briefly married, but had divorced when she confessed to an affair. While Paget is obviously less than thrilled by the new arrival, the other two members of the quartet, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) are more than happy to welcome their old friend.
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While Paget eventually is able to find it within himself to reconcile with his ex-wife, tensions arise between the four of them when the director of the gala, Cedric Livingston, (Michael Gambon) prevails upon the original three to try and convince Horton to join them in recreating their success for the performance. He's sure their inclusion would allow the home to charge top dollar for tickets and guarantee its survival for another year. However, Horton thinks the idea of four retired opera singers attempting to perform is ridiculous. She has refused to sing publicly for years for that very reason. Her pride won't let her be seen in public as anything less than the star she once was.

Needless to say there's nothing really original or overly suspenseful about the plot of the movie. We know everything will turn out for the best in the end, it's just the way these movies work. However, sometimes, how the story is told matters far more than what it's about and how it ends, and this story is told beautifully.

One of the wonderful things about the movie is the fact the majority of the supporting cast are made up of retired musicians ranging from music hall performers, former orchestra players to opera singers. They not only bring credibility to the musical numbers included in the movie, it ensures the depiction of the elderly in this movie is nothing like you've seen before. Instead of shots of people sitting around in wheel chairs playing bingo or staring off into space, we walk into rooms filled with vital, animated and active people. Sure they might have to use a cane or a stair lift to get around, but they have more joie de vive than most people half their age.

Watching the four leads work is a joy. Each of them play their characters with an understated elegance which only experience and talent make possible. As the irrepressible Bond, he flirts with pretty nurses and staff and arranges to have pints of whisky hidden on the grounds for him and his friends, Connolly brings a wonderful humanity to what could have easily been a caricature of a dirty old man. Instead we see a man who refuses to believe aging means you must stop enjoying life.

Collins has the far more difficult task of playing a woman in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. She imbues Robson with a sweetness and innocence which make her a delight to watch and those moments when she loses her way all the more poignant. Those times when her face goes slack and she loses track of where she is and what she's supposed to be doing are some of the most powerful in the film. Collins does a magnificent job of not telegraphing when an episode is about to begin making her moments of dissociation all the more moving when they occur.

As the former married couple Horton and Paget, Smith and Courtenayt are wonderful. Watching Smith rehearse what she's going to say to him on the drive to the home in preparation for their first meeting gives us some indication of the state of their relationship. Throughout the movie Smith does a wonderful job of gradually exposing the wounded and regretful person hidden beneath her pride. Courtenay's Paget has held on to his hurt and betrayal for so long it's difficult for him to let go of them. However, the reason he's held on to those feelings is he never stopped loving her. Once they are in each other's company again we watch him gradually warm up to her until he's able to let down his defences. The way the two actors gradually develop the relationship between their characters again is a thing of beauty to watch and as fine an example of acting as you'll see on screen for a good while.
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First time director Dustin Hoffman has done a wonderful job of staying out his actors' way. In the special features included on the disc the actors talk about working with him and say the main direction he gave them was to "stop acting". In other words to be as natural as possible in their performance. By trusting them and their instincts to deliver the performances required to make this movie work, he ensured each of his leads, and the supporting cast as well, gave some of the best and least affected performances I've seen from any group of actors in ages.

Other bonus features included in the disc were brief little asides about the story, the music used in the movie and comments from the actors on the movie itself. One of the most telling comments came from Smith when she said how rare it was to find a romantic comedy with a cast in this age range and what a treat it was to perform in. In fact the actors were pretty much uniform in their appreciation for the way movie depicted aging and older people. In his interview Gambon makes a point of saying people in nursing homes or facilities for the aged should make a point of behaving irresponsibly.

This is only about the third or fourth Blu ray disc I've watched and the quality of both audio and picture continue to amaze me. The music, so important to this movie, is beautifully reproduced, especially those times when the cast themselves are singing or performing. Even more impressive is the balance between incidental music and dialogue making it easy to hear the actors. One might think without special effects or action high definition is wasted on a movie. However, there's a depth of field to the images on screen which brings everything alive and makes the world depicted even more believable.

Quartet is a wonderfully acted, intelligently written and carefully directed movie which has made the transition to the home screen beautifully. It not only is a wonderful story about friendship, love and the passions music can generate, it reminds audiences just because a person is old doesn't mean they have nothing left to contribute or can't have a rich and diverse life. My mother will be turning 80 in July and she just returned from a two week trip to Europe which saw her travel through France and Spain and currently her biggest worry is finding a publisher for her book on Romanesque art. It was nice to see a movie which recognizes she's not a rarity.

(Article first published at as Blu-ray Review: Quartet)

June 13, 2013

Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming

As more and more people are turning their computers into the centre piece of their home entertainment systems there has been a corresponding increase in the number of companies supplying either content or hardware. The Blu-ray player I just purchased not only plays discs, but wirelessly connects to the internet allowing direct access to Netflix through televisions. For the nominal fee of $7.99 (CDN) per month I can watch a wider variety of television programs and movies than I would ever be offered by my local cable company for a fraction of the price. True, not everything on the market is available nor are the majority of the programs current, but having to deal with commercials and being able to watch the shows whenever I want compensates for any deficiencies in content.

However, what if you're interests lie beyond what Netflix has to offer? What if you've grown spoiled watching the higher quality programming that only ever seems to show up on PBS or is only available on DVD or Blu-ray?. Well, Acorn Media, the supplier of great DVD sets featuring the best of British, Canadian, Australian and American programming, has started their own network, "Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming"

Currently Acorn TV runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering 18 separate series a week with a new series being rotated in every week. Each series runs for thirty days giving you plenty of time to watch however many episodes it may involve. For example until June 30 2013 you can watch the complete Doc Martin Special Collection which includes all five seasons of the television show and the movies featuring characters from the show. As this set lists for $124.99 (US) that's quite the deal.

Like most of these services Acorn offers everybody a free thirty day trial, but the $2.99 monthly/$29.99(US) yearly price for the service is quite a bargain. Of course if you want to watch the service on something other than your computer monitor it will cost you a little bit more if you don't already have one of four streaming players the service is currently offered on. The best deal is a combined offer featuring your first year of Acorn TV and the Roku streaming player for $79.99(US). Roku doesn't only offer Acorn TV, it will give you access to a multitude of streaming channels ranging from sports to music. Of course you'll have to pay for each additional channel, but compared to what cable companies charge and the ability to watch what you want when you want it, this is still a much better deal than any provider of regular TV can offer.

As of now you can also watch Acorn TV on your iPhone or iPad, as long as they're equipped with the Safari browser; Apple TV; ( but you also need either an iPhone or an iPad to make the connection) the Barnes & Noble Nook device with an Acorn TV application downloadable from the Barnes & Noble web site or a Google TV Box equipped with Google's Chrome Browser.

Now the technical details are out the way, we can turn to the quality of the programming on offer. First of all you should know while the current format seems rather limited, there are plans in the works to not only increase the amount of content available by five - making 90 different series available at once - they also plan on dropping the thirty day time limit for each program. However, it's not mentioned anywhere if they plan on continuing to add additional shows on a regular basis. Of course, if you have any experience with the quality of programming offered by Acorn Media, you know chances are you'll want to watch the majority of what's on offer. In addition, since many of their packages are complete series, one program can be the equivalent of ten DVDs worth of episodes with each being a minimum of an hour in length. Even my basic math skills tell me that adds up to a heck of a lot of viewing hours.

With quantity covered, what about quality? Judging by what's on offer for the current thirty day period not only will there be something for just about everybody, you can be guaranteed no matter what you watch will be feature some of today's finest actors. This month alone features programming ranging from classics seen on past episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre to items from the current and yet to be released Acorn catalogue. For example you can watch PBS's 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, all 17 episodes of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection with individual segments featuring actors like Colin Firth, the newest instalment of perennial favourite Midsummer Murders: Set 22 and the not yet released on DVD, Falcon, staring Martin Csokas.

Currently the only drawback I can see with Acorn TV is its limited availability. However, its still a relatively new service and they say they are looking into ways of increasing access. If you already have one of the streaming devices mentioned above and you like British television than adding the Acorn TV channel to your system is a no brainer. The cost makes it probably the best bargain going right now. If you need any more incentive, they are also offering free shipping to anywhere in the continental United States if you decide you want to own a DVD copy of the show you've been watching once you've signed up. Three dollars a month is not very much to pay for checking out between 18 and 22 different television programs.

If you enjoy the best television has to offer in drama, comedy, documentaries and history than you can't help but appreciate Acorn TV. It's the specialty channel to end all specialty channels and you don't have to pay a cable company for installation or for a bunch of stations you'll never watch in order to enjoy it. Even watching it on my 17 inch laptop's monitor and listening to the audio through headphones has made it obvious this service isn't like anything else out there. Netflix and the others may offer a few British television shows, but none of them come close to being able to match Acorn TV for variety and quality.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming)

May 31, 2013

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5

1968 was the year unrest crested in both North America and Europe. Riots and demonstrations dotted the landscape of the United States with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy adding fuel to the fire. In Paris France a student led rebellion saw running battles between demonstrators and police continue for weeks on end. Even communist Eastern Europe wasn't immune as the Prague Spring saw the people of Czechoslovakia temporarily throw off their dictatorial rule only to see their revolution crushed by Russian tanks. While most of the protests were taking place in major metropolitan areas, the repercussions of change was felt everywhere.

In Great Britain things never quite reached the boiling point they did in other countries. However it doesn't mean there weren't changes. For those whose jobs brought them into contact with all levels of society the changes were there to be seen if one looked. The time period and situation is brought to life in the new Blu-Ray release from Acorn Media, George Gently: Series 5. Chief Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) not only have crimes to solve but the problems arising from the changes the world around them is going through.

The first three episodes of the four on this two disc set each depict the ways in which English society was either changing or being shook up. Whether something obvious like the issue of race which comes boiling to a head in Gently Northern Soul or the more subtle issue of class as expressed in Gently With Class, each 90 minute episode not only has our detectives doing their best to solve the crime which has occurred but manages to capture the tenor of the times without sentiment or preaching. As we see most of what's going on through the eyes of the two lead characters, their opinions and attitudes are what help shape our impressions of the times.
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In GentlyNorthern Soul when a young black woman turns up dead beside a road near a graveyard, an area where prostitutes often take their clients, Bacchus makes the assumption the girl was "on the game". However, when the officers learn she was dating a young white man, the son of a known racist, and was pregnant as well, their investigation changes. Bacchus is sent undercover to attend a weekly dance party where DJ's play American soul music and attract a mixed race crowd.

In 1968 England's black population was primarily first or second generation immigrants from Jamaica. They had either come over to serve in the British army in WW II or right after the war looking for a better life. While the sitting government was trying to pass equal rights legislation in order to protect people of colour from racial discrimination, the far right, led by a Conservative Party politician named Enoch Powell, were pushing to have all "coloured" immigrants sent back to where they came from. Throughout the course of the investigation into the young woman's death the issue of race continues to raise its head and both officers gain a better understanding of the abuse immigrants are dealing with.

England's class system had withstood civil war, world wars and a stock market crash. The one thing it couldn't stand against was public opinion. By the end of the 1960s fewer and fewer people were willing to accept hereditary titles and land as reasons for anyone to expect special treatment. When a young woman's body is found abandoned in the passenger seat of a wrecked car registered in the name of a local lord suspicion falls on the man's son. Bacchus had tried to arrest the son previously for drunken driving but strings had been pulled behind the scenes and he'd been let off. Deeply resentful of the way the family had used privilege to prevent their son from being charged Bacchus is determined to get a result this time, even if it means stretching the rules.

We can understand his feelings more once we meet the family, especially the young man's mother. A horrible snob who acts like she and her son deserve to be treated differently from others she tries to pull strings to ensure no blame falls on anybody in her family. However, in spite of her trying to suppress the investigation by appealing to Gently's superior officer, neither he nor Bacchus refuse to be cowed and continue on until they discover who was in the driver's seat of the car.
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As in previous seasons of this series the cases the two officers tackle are only part of what the show is about. For with each episode we scratch a little deeper under the skin of each of our characters. While Bacchus always comes across as brash and more than a little cocky over the course of the four episodes in this set we begin to see beneath his exterior shell more and more. Ingleby does a fantastic job of showing us first the cracks showing up in his character's facade and then the vulnerability and strength laying beneath the skin. For not only does Bacchus begin to allow himself to have emotional reactions to what he experiences on the job, he also finds the fortitude to stand up for what he believes in and the strength of character to not let personal ambition blind him to what's right.

While Gently's wife was murdered way back in the opening episode of the series, he's always seemed to keep his grief compartmentalized. However, it doesn't mean he misses her any less then the day he buried her. For some reason a case of a missing child, episode three The Lost Child, seems to trigger his dormant grief and brings the ache to the surface again. Shaw somehow manages to retain his character's stolid exterior while at the same time giving us clues to the extent of Gently's loneliness. It's little things like the way his eye seems to glance at the picture of his late wife on his desk a little more often and linger a little longer and how he has to almost shake himself to escape the pull of his memories and come back to the present that make his performance so believable.

The bonus features included with the Blu-ray version of the series is limited to one short, three minute, behind the scenes featurette. However, the real bonus comes in watching the series on Blu-ray. It was actually an accident I received a Blu-ray version of this set, but through a series of events stranger than fiction I had to replace my old DVD player with a new Blu-ray machine a couple of days after it arrived. The difference in picture and sound quality between watching a DVD and a Blu-ray was astonishing. Instead of the usual battle between soundtrack and dialogue resulting in having to turn the volume up and down in order to hear the actors talking and to avoid being pummelled by incidental music, everything was perfectly balanced. You could not only hear every word the actors were saying, you could hear individual sounds like a match being struck or an actor's feet scraping along the gravel in a driveway. I have to admit I had my doubts about the difference in quality when it came to Blu-ray versus DVD. However, now I've seen something created in high definition specifically for the new technology I'm convinced of its superiority.

Over the course of its life the George Gently series has not only continued to impress, it has continued to improve. The scripts have become increasingly complex as the characters deal with both the cases they are trying to solve and a society undergoing constant changes. We've also seen the lead characters continue to grow and their relationship change as they have developed. However, most of the enjoyment in watching this series is due to the superlative work of both lead actors and the producers' willingness to surround them with a strong supporting cast of special guests and regulars. George Gently: Series 5 proves once again this is one of the best ongoing police procedurals on television today. Thankfully series six is already being aired in Great Britain so we can look forward to seeing more of Chief Inspector George Gently and Sergeant John Bacchus in the future.

Originally published at as Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5

May 7, 2013

DVD Review: Cloudstreet

What do Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the late Heath Ledger have in common? Their all part of the seemingly endless supply of talented actors who were born and started their careers in Australia. For such a small and seemingly isolated part of the world they have a remarkably thriving film and television industry. It hasn't hurt to have their neighbour New Zealand being home to some of the biggest film productions of the past decade. But Australia was doing well enough on its own prior to Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Still, all we in North America usually see are Australia's exports at work in productions over here. The opportunities to see any of the movies or television series made for local consumption are slim. Thankfully Acorn Media has expanded beyond packaging programming only from Great Britain. Recent years have seen some of the better programming from Canadian television show up in their catalogues, and now we're beginning to see shows from Australia. Cloudstreet, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by best selling Australian author Tim Winton was released in the fall of 2012 on DVD in a three disc package. The first two discs contained all six episodes of the original television series while the third is special features.
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The story follows the fortunes of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, over the course of more then a decade. Both families have been plagued by bad luck and poor decisions which at the beginning of the series find them in desperate straights. Things start to look a little better for the Pickles when husband Sam (Stephen Curry inherits a house and some money from his older brother. Number One Cloudstreet has been empty for a while and has its own history of misfortune which we discover over the course of the series, but initially it looks to be an upturn in the Pickles' family fortunes. However when Sam loses the money betting on horses the family is left in almost as dire straights as before they took over the house.

In an effort to help cover their expenses Sam decides to rent out half the house. The Lambs have been having their own run of bad luck. Their middle boy, Fish, had almost drowned, and although they managed to bring him back from the dead, the experience left him brain damaged. Unable to make a go of it farming because of drought they find themselves homeless and living out of their car until they answer the Pickles' advertisement for tenants. To the astonishment of their landlords the Lambs decide to operate a grocery/general store out of their half of the house as a way of making ends meet and turn their half of the grounds into a small farm.

The first two episodes are primarily spent introducing us to the characters who will dominate the rest of the series. Oriel (Kerry Fox and Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell and their six children make for a crowded and noisy house when combined with Sam and Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis and their three children. Aside from the friction created by so many people living in one large ramshackle house, the Lamb's protestant work ethic lifestyle doesn't blend well with the Pickles more relaxed attitudes towards work. While Sam manages to land a job working at the Royal Mint, Dolly prefers to spend her days sleeping and her nights drinking and carousing in bars. A house full of people who rise at the crack of dawn doesn't mix well with her lifestyle.

Aside from the two families, there's another character who makes its presence felt, the house itself. While its been empty for a while, at one point it was some sort of boarding school for young Aboriginal girls. The comment you hear from the lawyer who gives Sam the deed to the place is, the previous owner had tried to "civilize" them, but it hadn't worked out. There's some dirty secret hidden in the walls of the house, and one room in particular seems to be particularly haunted. It sits empty on the top floor of the house its only occupant an old upright piano left over from the attempts at "civilizing" and what appears to be the ghosts of two young girls who lived there. For something drives Fish Lamb to bang at the piano and moan and cry as if he's feeling the pain the room remembers.
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This rather fantastic device of the house being a living breathing thing is reflected in the cinematography of the show. At times the camera operates so we see the scene as if we were a specific character as the angle the camera shoots at reflects his or her perspective. Or there is one scene in which the child Fish and his older brother Quick are travelling in a row boat at night. Seeing the stars reflected in the water Fish pictures them travelling through the night sky and then the boat is floating among the stars. It's a beautiful, almost surreal scene.

It's these elements, and the special effects used to animate the house on occasion to help reflect the emotional depth of the action on screen, which help prevent the story from becoming an exercise in sentimentality. Far too many of these type of programs, where we follow the fortunes of a family, or in this case two families, end up being soap operas which become tedious to watch after one or two episodes. In this case the combination of filming techniques and special effects with superlative performances from every member of the cast and a gritty story ensures it never cross the line over into the mawkishness of a soap opera.

As mentioned earlier the third disc in the set is a collection of bonus materials connected to the television show. While the special features range from what went into the show's making to a copy of the preview used on television to promote the series and are interesting enough, they still only serve to compliment what's on the rest of the discs in the package. As far as this type of short termed series goes, this is one of the best I've ever seen. If you are able to have the opportunity of buying a copy of the DVD set or seeing Cloudstreet in any manner, jump at the chance, you won't regret it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Cloudstreet on Blogcritics.)

April 17, 2013

DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection

Some movies don't age well. You see them twenty, thirty years after they were made and they feel dated. The plot doesn't work, the characters aren't relevant and because whoever was making the film was so conscious of being hip and cool everything sounds and looks out of date. In fact, that's what usually happens when the mainstream tries to capture the underground or outsider subculture on camera. They make something based on trends and fashion and didn't bother to go beneath the surface. However, when a movie is made where those involved understand what's happening in the world they are attempting to recreate on the screen and do their best to bring that to life, you end up with something enduring. It's not a good 80s film or a good punk film, its just a good movie.

A great example of a movie made during the early part of the 1980s that was part of a particular sub-culture and has stood the test of time is Repo Man. Just re-released in a brand new remastered edition as part of The Criterion Collection in a two disc special edition DVD set, the movie sparks with a life and creative anarchy you don't often see in a mainstream movie. It's a reminder of how there was a time when the words independent film meant small budget and experimental, not Hollywood patting themselves on the back at Sundance.

Directed by Alex Cox Repo Man is set in Los Angles of the early 1980s. Not the glamourous LA, or even the fake seediness of Sunset Strip, but the down and out of the dispossessed and directionless. The story follows a young punk, Otto(Emilio Estevez), as he stumbles through life failing at work and romance. A chance meeting with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) draws him into the world of repossession men. Bud takes Otto under his wing and teaches him the basics on how to survive in a job where they basically steal people's cars. If you miss more than three car payments chances are you'll wake up one morning to find your car has been repossessed by these erstwhile agents of finance companies.
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Into this world comes a mysterious Chevy Malibou. With a reward of $20,000 going to whomever manages to repossess the car it quickly becomes the focus of everyone's attention. Both the guys who work with Bud and a couple of mysterious dudes named the Rodriguez Brothers are after it for the reward. There's also a bunch of really obvious government agents, led by a female agent with a metal hand, who are going to stop at nothing in order to get their hands on it. When Otto meets a young UFO enthusiast, who is somehow mixed up with the car, she tells him it is carrying the remains of four aliens a scientist has snuck out of a secret American base. However it quickly becomes apparent what's in the car's trunk is a little more lethal than dead alien corpses.

While in a normal movie the car and its contents would quickly take over as the central focus. Either it would become some sort of race to save LA from whatever was in the car or about a couple of brave people trying to prevent the government from covering up some big secret or other. What we have is the Chevy Malibou careening its way haphazardly in and out of the action and only staying on our lead's radar because of the money its worth. For Bud it represents his ticket to independence and becoming his own boss. For Otto, well, we're never quite sure if it means anything to him. He likes the rush of stealing cars legally and doesn't seem to be thinking beyond that.

The movie depicts an America where all that matters is you make your payments on time. Credit is the glue holding society together Bud intones with great seriousness to his pupil Otto. To him its a sure sign of how badly America has stumbled when people run out on the money they owe. Driving past a street filled with down and outs, drunks and the homeless he wonders out loud how much money they owe and accuses them of running away from their responsibilities. "Most of them don't even use their Social Security numbers" he says to Otto. Of course he's ignoring the fact these people have fallen so far through the cracks it's doubtful they're ever going to be worrying about their credit rating ever again.

Ironically, while the movie is obviously set in a specific era, the message about the dangers of what happens when a society is encouraged to live beyond its means is perhaps even more resonant with audiences today then when it was originally released. With America still recovering from the fallout of overextended banks calling in loans and ruining thousands of people who were living far beyond their means, the picture painted of economic hopelessness is way too familiar. The music, the clothes and the hair styles may be close to 30 years old, but nothing much else has changed.

While previous editions of Repo Man, even those digitally remastered, haven't always been of the best quality that's not the case here. The movie lives up to Criterion's claims of having hand cleaned an original negative of the film prior to digitally to cleaning it up digitally in order to give viewers the highest quality images possible. Not only does it look great played through a home theatre system, it sounds great as well. The balance between soundtrack and dialogue is perfect as everything comes through crystal clear through a 5.1 surround sound system.
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The soundtrack itself is great. With the inestimable Iggy Pop having written the movie's theme song and bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks contributing numbers, its probably one of the most accurate representations of the LA punk rock scene of the early 1980s you'll hear on screen. The music also reflects the general anarchic nature of the film and helps propel listeners along for the ride.

The two disc package the folks at Criterion have put together for this release is much better than the usual special features accompanying films these days. Along with the newly remastered version of the film, disc one contains interviews done in 2012 with cast members and Iggy Pop talking about their memories of working on the film. Iggy Pop is his usual candid self, talking about how grateful he was to director Cox for giving him the gig considering the shape his career was in at the time. The second disc features Cox and his two producers talking about the process involved just trying to have the picture made and an interview with Harry Dean Stanton. Both of these were recorded in 2005 and included on an earlier reissue of the movie. The second disc also includes a version of the movie Cox cut for television. I guess that's there for the morbidly curious, but to be honest I can't see the attraction. I guess the only fun in watching it would be seeing how inventive they were able to be in finding replacements for dialogue not permitted on regular television.

The real treat among the extras is the booklet included with the set. Put together like the underground comics which flourished during the 1980s, it contains all sorts of goodies. One of my favourites is the couple of pages of Repo Man the comic book written and drawn by Cox. He claims to have given up on that project as it was easier to make a film than go to all the painstaking work involved with drawing a comic. The booklet is filled with anecdotes about the making of the moving, the actors and the musicians and is almost worth the price of the set on its own.

It's hard to believe watching Repo Man that it was made by Universal Studios. Not only does it feel more like an independent movie than most of the so called independent movies being made today, it epitomizes the spirit of free wheeling anarchic artistic creation I've always associated with punk rock. It's this latter detail which makes the movie as interesting to watch today as it was when it was first released. In spite of it being set in a very specific time and place there's nothing dated or antique about this film. So, kick back and get ready to enjoy the wild and weird ride and remember: "A repo man's life is always intense".

(Article first published as DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2013

DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien wasn't the first book I read, but it was pretty close. After Paddington Bear, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish companions must have been a close second. To be honest it was so long ago I can't even remember the first time I read the book. I do know, each time I go back to read the book is how surprised I am to discover how much of a children's book it is. For unlike The Lord Of The Rings The Hobbit is written in very simple language and told in the broad tones of a child's adventure story. It's also very British, full of expressions and sayings familiar to any child who had spent time at boarding school or reading boy's adventure stories.

When I heard director Peter Jackson was going back for another kick at the can by directing a movie version of Tolkien's first book I admit to being rather surprised. It seemed like a lot of cost and expense to tell what is a rather simple story. On top of that, it's just not as adult a story as the other books so he'd have to sexy it up somehow to give it a wider appeal.

The initial announcement that Jackson was going to film it in two parts only added to my doubts about the venture, so hearing it was being expanded into a trilogy made me wonder what the heck he was doing. However, I was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all I had been sceptical of the whole Lord Of The Rings trilogy and had then like his adaptation. So when I walked into my video store and saw a copy of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey on the shelves, I didn't even think twice about buying a copy.
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I'm going to try and avoid giving away any of the surprises in store for you if you haven't seen it yet, but I'm going to have to mention some things in passing in order to comment on what he's done with the narrative. First of all he has made the decision to have an older Bilbo writing out the story just prior to the birthday party opening The Fellowship of the Ring. In this way he's able to give the back story of the destruction of Dale and the kingdom under the mountain by Smaug right off the top.

Instead of hearing about the events second hand as we do in the book In this way Jackson utilizes the power of the camera to show us what happened. Of course once you've seen how he's prepared to adopt the narrative to suit the needs of his media, you're not going to be as surprised by some of the other changes he introduces later in the film. The most major change is how some subplots are made more important. In the book the troubles in Mirkwood Forest concerning somebody called the Necromancer are only briefly mentioned and at one point Gandalf leaves the company to go off and deal with the matter.

While we don't hear anything more about it in the book, Jackson is obviously going to be dealing with it on screen as the trilogy progresses. Extrapolating from various tidbits of information included in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the latter's appendixes he not only introduces the sub-plot, but a new character, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown, one of Gandalf's wizard compatriots. While this plot line has little to do with the story being recounted in The Hobbit, it is a piece of the overall story concerning Middle Earth and the finding of the Ring. Purists might decry it as being filler, but if done properly it will help place Bilbo's adventures with the dwarfs in their proper context.

Jackson has also drawn upon the appendix ofLord of the Rings dealing with the history of the dwarfs to create an entirely new subplot. It involves vengeful Orcs and their really nasty chieftain who has a personal grudge against the dwarfs Bilbo's travelling with dating back to a run in with them at the Mines of Moria after they had been evicted by Smaug. It looks like they'll be having meeting up with him all the way through the trilogy. I can see these Orcs being part of the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the story.

I don't know if these two additions to the story are what have caused people to be unhappy with the movie, but if that's the case, they really need to calm down. Not only do they not detract from the story, they help to bring the world the movie is set in to life. For through them we learn more about the history of the dwarfs and events happening in the world beyond their quest. Jackson and his design people have done a wonderful job of bringing this world to life and making audiences believe in the reality of Middle Earth technically. As long as the new information is introduced in the rest of the movies with same effortlessness as it was in this one, it can only make the experience of watching these movies that much more enjoyable.
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As with Lord Of The Rings Jackson has used an international cast of British, Irish, Scottish, New Zealand, Australian, Canadian and American actors. While Sir Ian McKellen reprises as Gandalf, and a few familiar other faces from the other movies show up, the rest of the lead cast are all new to Middle Earth. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins. His transition from the very proper middle class gentlehobbit, who thinks adventures are nasty inconvenient things which cause you to be late for dinner, to adventurer facing down Orcs is perfectly believable. For it's not until the end of the movie he even begins to feel like he belongs with his companions. Up until then he makes it perfectly obvious he has his doubts about the whole operation and given half a chance he'd turn around and go back home.

As the King seeking to regain his grandfather's and father's throne under the Lonely Mountain Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield with the perfect mixture of arrogance, pride and fearlessness. He doesn't ask you to like him, in fact he doesn't really care if you do or not. However, you can't help but respect his bravery and the way he feels personally responsible for his people. You have the feeling while revenge against Smaug is important, it's not the only thing driving him. It's just as important to him for his people to be restored to their rightful places.

Of the other twelve dwarfs, the two most prominent are Ballin, played by Ken Stott and Bofur played by James Nesbit. Ballin is a mixture of elder statesman and councillor to Thorin, having been with him through all his adventures. He is the one who Thorin might listen to when it comes to accepting advice and who the others look to for explanations as to why Thorin is doing something.

Bofur at first appears to be a bit of a clown, always ready with a joke or prank. However, Nesbit is too good an actor for his character to be one dimensional, and we find out Bofur's humour comes from a well of compassion and empathy. He's the one who is the most supportive of Bilbo and pushes him to stay the course. It would take far too long to run through the entire cast of dwarves, but there are no weak links in this chain of actors to drag the rest down. Watching them in action you get a real sense that no matter what, they are each prepared to die for the others and would follow Thorin into a dragon's mouth. Which is a good thing I guess.

A lot has been made of the movie being shot in 3D and at an increased rate of frames per second. (Normally film is shot at between 25 and 29 frames per second while The Hobbit is being shot at 45) Now while I do have a high definition plasma TV, I don't have 3D capability. However, as far as I can tell you don't lose anything by not having 3D, as visually the movie is still stunning. The increased speed of the film seems to make the picture sharper as details and colours stand out more. Comparing it to my extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring I did notice a substantial difference in picture quality.

The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus features. The majority of the bonus features are the video blogs shot by Jackson during filming over the course of 2011. So you actually get to meet actors who aren't in the first film but will be appearing in the second movie and are given some clues as to what to expect in the future. You'll also notice that most of the way through the special features everybody from Jackson to the cast only refer to two films. It's obvious the decision to expand to three movies wasn't made until they had almost finished the editing process on part one and realized how much footage they actually had.

If you've been holding off buying a copy of the DVD or Blu-ray of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because of what other people have been saying about it, do yourself a favour and see it for yourself. Personally I think Jackson has done not only a marvellous job of adapting the book to the screen, but of bringing the world of Tolkien to life. His decisions seemed to be based on how I can make the world and the story more believable for those watching not how can I make this more spectacular. As far as I'm concerned Tolkien's legacy is in safe hands as this is one of the best examples of adapting a book to the screen I've seen.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Blogcritics.)

April 3, 2013

DVD Review: Dirk Gently

Fantasy and science fiction can come in all shapes and sizes. From outer space to inner space they cut a wider swathe through literary creation than almost any other genre. You can usually count on reading some of the most imaginative stories and meeting outlandish and odd characters in science fiction and fantasy novels. However, even by those standards the work of British author Douglas Adams was decidedly eccentric.

Most famous for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequence, Adams' quirky sense of humour and delightful understanding of the absurd made his books a pleasure to read. They also offered a kind of satirical running commentary on life in Great Britain during the 1980s. While the "Guide" captured the most attention, being made into first a television series and then a movie, it was two books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, set on earth which best showed off Adams' ability to stretch the fabric of reality in a truly original manner.

The title character, Private Investigator Dirk Gently, has a firm belief that all events are somehow interconnected. No matter how tangential something appears to be in relationship to the case he's working on, in the end it will prove as deeply significant as if it were the murder weapon. While this allows him to justify rather dubious billing practices, like charging someone for the replacement of his refrigerator while investigating the disappearance of their cat, he also turns out to have a remarkable success rate as well. Even though Adams died in 2001 Gently lives on thanks to the BBC series Dirk Gently now available on DVD from Acorn Media
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The two disc set contains four episodes, each approximately an hour long, with the only draw back being there are only four episodes. For the creators of the television adaptation have done an excellent job in recreating the absurdist atmosphere of the books and taking viewers into the heart of Dirk Gently's universe. After basing the first episode on events in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency they made the wise decision of creating three new cases for Gently to investigate instead of trying to stretch the second book, plus the unfinished third novel The Salmon of Doubt, over three episodes.

Key to the success of the series is the casting of Stephen Mangan in the title role. Not only does he carry off the more extreme elements of his character without overacting, he also manages to make him more than a one dimensional mad scientist. Like many hyper intelligent people, Gently lacks even the most basic of social skills and has difficulty in understanding why certain behaviour might be considered in a) rather bad taste and b) illegal. Most people upon taking an interest in somebody else wouldn't stalk them or break into their house to obtain samples of their handwriting in order to know how to best manipulate a situation to make her interested in him.

This less than endearing habit is complemented by his raving egomania and the deep seated belief that he's always right. His conviction of the latter is so strong that even when he is wrong he manages to find a way to prove he was right. The bending and folding of logic and reason out of all shape are a site to behold when he maps out why his wrongness is actually proof of his being right. Eventually those he's arguing with, usually his stolid business partner Richard MacDuff, played by Darren Boyd, become so frustrated with him they surrender to the inevitable and admit he was right and they were wrong.

In another actor's hands we would have become sick of watching this type of character probably before the end of the first episode. However Mangan is somehow able to inject just the right amount of humanity into his characterization to make him likeable. We see how most of the time he doesn't understand how what he's doing is both wrong and potentially hurtful. There's a strange sort of innocence about him which makes him seem more like a child whose not yet learned the social skills required for smooth sailing among his peers in the adult world than someone who is being deliberately hurtful or mean.

While most of those Gently comes in contact with end up either recoiling in disgust, trying to kill him or arresting him, his partner MacDuff is one of the few who seems to be able to abide his company on a permanent basis. While Boyd plays him as a conventional, not so bright but nice guy, we also see he has genuine affection for Gently. He's one of the few to recognize Gentry's emotional vulnerability and understand how his anti-social traits are actually defence mechanisms.
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Like a concerned parent he monitors Gently's behaviour and tries to smooth over all the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake. This doesn't prevent him from occasionally feeling like ripping Gentry's head off or treating him like a spoiled child. In fact the give and take between the two characters as they attempt to solve the cases crossing their desks over the course of the discs provide the majority of the humour in the series. For in spite of what appears to be his rather callous attitude towards the human race, the cases he takes on are serious and sometimes dangerous.

While the local police think killing Gently would fall into the category of justifiable homicide, that's only because, much to their dismay, he manages to solve crimes which stump them. They might be okay with his success rate if he wasn't so obvious with both his disdain for their methods and the pleasure he takes in proving them wrong. You see, Gently is perfectly serious in his use of the theory of interconnectedness for solving crimes. His ability to see patterns where none apparently exist are helped by his belief in everything being possible. Even when it means in order for events to have played out the way in he envisions them time travel was involved.

For, while we sometimes forget due to becoming caught up in the fun of watching Gently in action, these episodes are a mixture of science fiction and mystery stories. So no matter how outlandish a theory Gently might come up with in answer to a particular investigation, the chances are he's right and everyone else is wrong. Part of the pleasure of watching each episode is watching Gently going madly off in all directions, yet still being able to discover the truth. Even better, he's able to make even the most fantastic conclusions sound perfectly logical and we have no trouble accepting time travel as a fact of life in the world he lives in.

Those looking for any special features with this set will be disappointed as there aren't any. While it's not in surround sound, only stereo, the show is in wide screen and looks and sounds fine played through a surround sound system and on a wide screen television. What's most important though is how well the series manages to capture the spirit of the books its based on. While the scripts reflect both the absurdities and fantastical elements of Adam's stories what really brings the world to life is the acting job of the two actors in the lead roles.

Not only do the two characters compliment each other in the series, but the men playing them do a magnificent job of finding ways to balance the other actor's performance. Separately they might not have too much success, but together Gently and MacDuff seem to be a recipe for success. You might not want them looking for your lost cat, but if there's a strange murder to solve or your husband is acting particularly odd, they're the team for you. Not only will they find out what's going on, but you'll have a lot of fun watching them figure it all out.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Dirk Gently on Blogcritics.)

March 22, 2013

DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1

The end of WWl brought about a mini social and cultural revolution. The old order had proven itself corrupt by embroiling the countries of the world in a war which decimated an entire generation. Even before the war had ended one monarchy had been deposed, Russia, and German's Kaiser lost power with the war's end. However, the biggest revolt was among those who survived the war and were determined to live their lives to the fullest. The Roaring Twenties earned their name from the way those living through them roared through life in an attempt to experience as much of everything as possible.

It was among women the biggest revolt took place as they dared do things undreamed of before the war. In a society where it had been considered indecent for a woman to be seen smoking in public, the idea of one having a career, taking lovers and generally acting like a man would have been especially scandalous. However, in the 1920s women enjoyed freedoms as never before. While some might have disapproved of their behaviour, it didn't stop many of them from having lives of their own. It's one of these independent women of the 1920s who is the lead character of a new mystery series on DVD from Acorn Media, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Series 1.

Phryne (pronounced Frynee) Fisher (played by Essie Davis) is the creation of Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. Each of the thirteen episodes on the four discs in this set are an adaptation of one of Greenwood's novels. Set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties each features the seemingly fearless and indefatigable socialite and heiress Fisher solving a different murder. However, unlike heroines of a similar background who have appeared in other writer's books, Miss Fisher is a completely modern woman. She has a healthy libido with no hesitations about taking any man who catches her eye to bed and a taste for alcohol, cocaine and hash brownies.

We meet her as she's just moved back to Sydney Australia. As the series evolves we learn she had served as a nurse during the war and then settled in Paris when her ambulance group was disbanded. While she had been brought up relatively poor as a child, as a result of extensive casualties within her family during the war she winds up inheriting enough money to enjoy a life of leisure. Her reasons for returning home are tied into events which had taken place during her childhood, events that will come back to haunt her as the series progresses.

Her younger sister had disappeared when they were both children and while somebody was arrested in connection to the crime, it was never proven he was the killer nor was her body ever recovered. He had been charged with attempting to kidnap another young girl who managed to escape before he could do anything to her. The man responsible is about to be released from jail and Miss Fisher has returned to Sydney in part to convince those in charge not to let him out and perhaps find out more about her sister's fate.

Her investigating career begins by accident when she is been invited to lunch at an old friend's house only to discover upon arrival the husband of the house has died under mysterious circumstances. In the process of uncovering the culprit she has time for a fling with an expatriate Russian dancer, expose an illegal abortion ring and a drug kingpin. Flushed with her success she decided to go into business as a private detective.

The first episode also introduces us to the other regular characters in the series. She takes on one of the maids from the household of the murder victim as a lady's companion. Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rather naive and sheltered young woman who has had a very strict Catholic upbringing. While she's uncertain how some of her new employer's behaviour will go over with her priest, she's also slightly in awe of her and her freedom. Over the course of the series we watch as Dot loses some of her naivety and discovers her own strengths and courage.

The other two main characters are members of Sydney's finest. Inspector Jack Robinson ( Nathan Page) and Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Initially Robinson treats Miss Fisher with the condescension one might expect from an experienced police officer confronted with what he considers a socialite out looking for thrills. However, he soon grows to both respect and admire her, both for her skills as a detective and as a person. It still doesn't prevent him from becoming frustrated and annoyed by her, but he does treat her like an equal and learns to trust her.

What makes this series special is the acting and the interrelationships between the characters. Davies and Page as the two leads have a wonderful chemistry reminiscent of some of great screen couples of the past. While Miss Fisher has a rotating series of lovers, her relationship with Inspector Robinson gradually evolves over the course of this first season into something more than just colleagues and friends. However, both of them are hesitant about making any sort of commitment to anybody because of events in the past. His first marriage has just ended in divorce and Fisher, as we learn in one episode, has experienced an abusive relationship. It's obvious they have reached a point where they might have to make a decision about the direction their relationship takes, but what that will be is still in up in the air.

While each episode is a self-contained mystery, as the series progresses the mystery surrounding Fisher's younger sister begins to play a larger role in her life. Although she had ensured the man she believes responsible for her sister's death is locked up for life, Fisher is still haunted by the fact her body was never found and he was never proven to be the one responsible. So when he sends her a letter from jail offering to give her information about her sister in exchange for Fisher helping to have his sentence shortened, she is torn. However, just when she decides to put it behind her, events happen that forces her to deal with the case. The last three episodes of the series see her and Inspector Robinson working together to solve the decades old crime.

Included in the four DVD set are some quite extensive special features as well a the thirteen episodes. There's a look at the work involved in recreating 1920s Sydney, from set, costume and props design to a history of the cars and trains used in the show. As well as interviews with the four lead actors talking about their characters and their experiences working on the show there is also a very entertaining interview with Greenwood, the books' author.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a well scripted and directed set of murder mysteries, but what makes it a joy to watch are the performances of the lead actors, especially Davis. (If you've seen The Girl With Pearl Earring you'll be hard pressed to recognize her as the same actor who played Colin Firth's wife in the movie) She is beguiling and pleasure to watch on screen. Not only does she play the flighty socialite to perfection, but she has the remarkable ability to allow us to see beneath her devil may care exterior to show the vulnerable and sensitive person beneath. It's not often we are treated with seeing such a strong multi-dimensional female character in the lead role of a television series played by an actor more than equal to the task.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1 on Blogcritics.)

March 14, 2013

DVD Review: Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green

When we use the expression never gets old its usually in relationship to a joke or prank meaning its something we're always going to find funny. Of course if you drop the never so it's just "gets old", then the joke has worn thin and is no longer funny. You'd think if you repeated the same joke over and over again, or the same routine, it would eventually get old. You'd think after almost three decades, who knows how many movies and concert films, a couple of books and saturating the Internet with pod casts and Internet Television the duo of Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes and their barely pubescent humour would have gotten old.

Heck, they even admit as much with the title of their podcasts, Jay And Silent Bob Get Old. The show's subtitle, "No Trench Coats, No Hair Extensions, Bound For The Grave", is a not so subtle hint, despite the use of their on screen personae's names in the title, that whatever the show is about it won't feature their drug dealing alter egos. However, judging by the DVD set, Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green from SModcast Pictures and Industrial Entertainment, made during two live broadcasts of the "Get Old" show in Ireland, that doesn't meant it won't feature the irreverent humour which has made them the poster boys for slackers and stoners the world over.

The premise of the show, Smith and Mewes siting and talking, doesn't sound like the makings of great video. Even recorded live in front of an audience in a bar in Dublin Ireland its hard to see how two guys yakking at each other are going to be able to grab, let alone hold, the attention of the attention deficit disordered hordes who buy DVDs. And who knows, maybe it won't, but don't be put off by the apparently static format as our dynamic duo turn chat about Pancake (Shrove) Tuesday into something close to grounds for excommunication. That they happen to be in very Catholic Ireland just adds extra spice to the conversation.
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Of course if you thought them talking about Shrove Tuesday was skirting close to the edge, wait until the second show when they cover Ash Wednesday, Easter, the consecration of the Eucharist and Smith talking about the days when he was an alter boy. (cannibalism and zombies feature heavily) Listening to them talk about this in front of what you know is a predominately Catholic audience has part of your mind wondering how this is going over with the crowd and another part being amazed at their audacity. What's even more astounding is almost the whole crowd is laughing along with them. For in spite of the fact what comes out of their mouths might sound offensive, there is a kind of innocence about them which makes it almost impossible to be insulted by what they say.

There's no other explanation for people to find it hysterical watching Mewes acting out, in incredibly graphic detail, how his attempts to have sex in the front seat of a Cooper Mini resulted in him having to have major dental surgery. The majority of time this is the type of thing I'd find crude and completely lacking in humour. Yet, unlike most people, when either Smith or Mewes do something along those lines we are either laughing at them or the circumstances. They never say or do anything which can be construed as hurtful towards anyone else. They make themselves and their actions the objects of ridicule.

By talking so blatantly about sex they take it out of the realm of being dirty or pornographic and make it something we can talk about everyday. By not making a big deal about it, by making it seem perfectly normal and ordinary to explain how giving oral sex in the front seat of a Mini Cooper can result in broken bridge work, they remove any taint of evil or nastiness people usually hang on sexual activity.
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Of course it's also bloody hilarious to watch Mewes contort himself into the various positions necessary for two people to have sex in the front seat of a Mini. For let's be real, we can make all the philosophical comments we like about the demystification of sex but the reality is Smith and Mewes are funny. I laugh more watching the two of them sitting and talking than I do watching most of what passes for comedy on either television or in movies. I could search for some sort of intellectual justification about what makes them funny, but the reality is I'm much happier just sitting back and laughing my ass off at them.

However, there is a thread of seriousness underlying what they're doing. At one point, and I can't remember if its in the first or second show, Smith brings up the subject of why they began doing this pod cast in particular in the first place. It was designed as a project to give Mewes the means to stay sober and drug free. What's amazing is the fact they treat this subject as irreverently as they do everything else. There's no preaching or self-flagellation - you're not going to get any "Oprah" moments with Smith and Mewes - which makes it all the more honest and real. You also begin to realize the depth of the bond between the two men and the amazing friendship underlying the silliness and banter.

Aside from the two shows recorded live in Ireland they've also included a second disc which contains a recording of the pod cast in Las Vegas featuring a visit from "adult film stars" Kathy Morgan and Cassie Young. That's best left to your imaginations until you've watched it yourself. They've also included an extra ten minutes of the game they play with audience members at the end of each show called "LETUSF@CK". This involves individuals from the audience having theme inspired "air" sex with Jason Mewes. Examples taken from the Irish shows, "Lord Of The Pants" and "When Irish Brown Eyes Are Smiling" should be enough to give you the general idea.

Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green is everything you'd expect from a collaborative effort between Smith and Mewes. It's side splittingly funny, offensive, scatological and an all around great time. It's also a very long way from getting old.

Article first published as DVD Review: Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish - The Swearing O' The Green on Blogcritics.)

February 26, 2013

DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection

There are some actors who have the ability to make everything they do seem effortless. Somehow they manage to make their characters seem like a natural extension of themselves. Whether on screen or on stage they bring a grace and elegance to everything they do that is marvel to behold. As a result their performances are of a quality most actors only dream of achieving. While any role he's ever played would serve as an example, watching Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret in the four DVD set Maigret, Complete Collection from Acorn Media, is a wonderful opportunity to see this in action.

Inspector Jules Maigret was the creation of the Belgian born author Georges Simenon. Setting him loose upon the streets Paris France, Simenon used Maigret to serve as our guide to the dark side of life in the City of Lights. The strip clubs and seedy hotels of Montmartre, the Left Bank, the very proper bourgeoisie and even the world of French politics are all backdrops for the cases Maigret tackles. His occasional sojourns into the countryside outside of Paris reveal that Simenon understood greed, jealousy, fear and mistrust can grow as easily amongst farmland as it does cobblestones and concrete.

While Simenon wrote his Maigret books in the years between WW l and WW ll, this television adaptation seems to be set in post WW ll France. With Budapest Hungary standing in for Paris (Former communist countries haven't had time to replace their old architecture with modern buildings and its easier to find locations which look like mid 20th century Europe there than anywhere else) we are immersed in a world of somewhat battered elegance. Old and new clash with the middle classes and above doing their best to hold off changes being foisted upon them by those who want what they consider their fair share. It's a world drug addicts, prostitutes and strippers move through as easily as bankers, business men and aristocrats with the latter doing their best to ignore the former's existence.
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Maigret, while leading a stolid middle class life with his devoted wife, is equally comfortable moving through the corridors of power as he is strip clubs and seedy bars. In fact one has the feeling he is sometimes more comfortable in the company of those he's supposed to be investigating than those he reports to. At the very least he is definitely far more sympathetic to honest criminals and prostitutes than he is to hypocritical members of the middle class and his political masters who are more concerned with appearances than truth.

A wonderful example of this is seen in the first episode of the series in which Maigret is in the middle of a long term investigation involving a series of jewel store robberies that have been plaguing Paris for years. He is convinced he knows who is behind the crimes, but he has been unable to collect the proof he needs to put the man behind bars. You'd think he'd have a slightly antagonistic relationship with his suspect, yet the two men treat each other with the utmost respect and courtesy. When his long time opponent is found shot to death in his apartment, Maigret treats the case like its an investigation into the murder of a friend.

The cases are a diverse mix of circumstances and locations, and while the majority of them revolve around murder, there is also some political intrigue and corruption included which make for a nice change of pace. What's refreshing about the series is no matter what the crime, the writers have ensured we realize how much of a police investigation is drudge work. Clues are discovered from careful examinations of files, researching a person's history and going door to door to try and talk with potential witnesses. Maigret and his team of three detectives work long hours on a case sifting through evidence and piecing together the facts. This doesn't mean there's no action. Far from it in fact as the boring stuff takes place off camera and we only see them acting on the information they've uncovered.

Still, there's very little of the type of action North American audiences are used to in their police shows. The joy in this show is watching Maigret's interaction with the various characters he interviews and comes in contact with over the course of his investigation. Watching Gambon come to a slow boil and struggling not to let it show when Maigret is dealing with a particularly odious political boss or allowing his incredulousness at someone's obvious fabrication to show through the arching of one eyebrow is more fun than any car chase or gun battle you'll ever see.
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One of the other treats of this series are some of the other actors who show up in various episodes. Most memorably is the episode where Maigret is investigating the death of a young night club stripper. Not only is the stripper played by Minnie Driver but the same episode features a young morphine addict played by the wonderful Michael Sheen and the stripper's boss is played by Brenda Blethyn. The series originally aired in 1992 and 1993 so it was before any of the three had achieved the level of notoriety they enjoy today, but one can see in each of their performances why they have gone on to be so successful.

However this is still Gambon's show and no matter who is playing opposite him he remains the centre of our attention. The amazing thing about his performance is he doesn't even have to be doing anything to command our attention. Yet, even when he's sitting behind his desk he's undoubtedly Maigret. From the way he tamps down his pipe to the how he lifts an eyebrow in quizzical interrogation when hearing something mildly perplexing, he is his character. He's not the type of actor who has to resort to gestures or raising his voice to display emotions. Even on those occasions when he is demonstrative, raising his voice in anger or banging a table in frustration it's never too much or appears to be anything other than the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Gambon as Maigret is one of those tour de force performances which come around far too infrequently and are a privilege to watch.

While Maigret, Complete Collection does not have any of the bonus features most of us have come to expect from DVD sets, it does come with an 8 page booklet which contains a biography of author Georges Simenon, a history of the books the series is based on and information about other film and television adaptations of the Maigret books. However the twelve episodes contained on the four DVDs in this box set already contain one of the best bonuses you could ask for. The performance of Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret. Be prepared to be amazed and astounded by some of the finest acting for television you'll ever see.

( Article first published as DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection on Blogcritics)

February 15, 2013

DVD Review: Bonekickers

There's something British television does really well that we don't seem to do over here in North America. They create a show with a finite number of episodes that not only has the cast involved in different adventures in each instalment but has a through line tying the series together. As a result you have a series with a definite beginning, middle and end instead of shows which continue on long past the time when the writers have stopped finding anything original for the cast to do. There's the added bonus of the show's creators not being forced to write with one eye on the ratings and the other on advertising revenue in order to ensure its continued existence.

A wonderful example of this in action is the series Bonekickers available on DVD from Acorn Media. Told over six one hour episodes we follow a team of four archeologists as they investigate a variety of secrets from the ancient world when faint traces of the past bubble to the surface. History is never buried too far beneath the surface and shows up in surprising places. Out team is based in one of the oldest cities in England, Bath, so it's not too surprising for a builder to uncover rare artefacts in some unused park land slated for a housing development.

Three of the team; the leader Professor Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton (Hugh Bonneville) and Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester) have worked and known each other for years. The fourth member of the team, Vivian Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has been hired on as an intern to help out and gain experience. Right from the start Davis, and the audience come to understand, the people she's working with march to the beat of a very different drummer than most of the world. To say they each have their own eccentricities is putting it mildly.
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One of the wonderful things about this series is how with each episode we find out more and more about the characters. The writers do a very careful and intelligent job of not only developing each of them and the interrelationships among the team, but also revealing bits and pieces of their history as it becomes relevant. We learn fairly early on Magwilde's mother was a famous archaeology professor as well. However something awful happened to her and she attempted suicide and now lives the life of a catatonic in a nursing home. Over the course of the series we gradually learn what happened to Magwilde's mother and the impact it has had on her.

As archaeologists are a type of detective it makes sense for this show to be part mystery, part fantasy and all adventure. The writers also manage to find ways in each episode to show how history is all around us literally by having the finds show up everywhere from the seashore to parkland. They also makes sure we understand how the past and present interconnect. Whether it's somebody looking to history to further their own goals by twisting it to suit their needs or how our lives were shaped by events which happened thousands of years ago, they manage to make us understand we ignore the past at our peril. What's even better is they do this through the action and plots of each episode. You never have the feeling they are lecturing you, instead the shows offer examples of how important it can be to know history and understand it.

Aside from history we also learn a lot about the techniques and methods used in archaeology. A mixture of painstaking detail work and high tech science go into helping our team uncover the secrets stored in a fragment of wood or a piece of cloth. From the site of a mysterious battle field which saw the slaughter of Knights Templer to the remains of what seems to be a slave ship in a tidal estuary they are able to take what looks like scraps and recreate events that happened hundreds if not a thousand years ago. No secret, no matter how well hidden, is safe and no mystery will stay unsolved for long when our team puts their minds to it.

Unfortunately there turns out to be any number of powerful people who either would like certain secrets left buried or want mysteries solved for their own nefarious purposes. While it does require some suspension of disbelief on the audience's part, somehow each find Magwilde and her team work on, ends up having a bearing on the mystery surrounding what happened to Magwilde's mother. Her mother was being used by a very powerful group of people in an effort to find one of England's most potent artefacts, Excalibur, the supposed legendary sword of King Arthur.
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Almost against her will Magwilde finds herself being drawn into the hunt for the sword as well. As more and more evidence accumulates pointing to its possible whereabouts she also begins to receive mysterious messages and packages encouraging her and offering help. As each episode passes, and they uncover yet another link from the past to the sword, the mystery within the mystery grows. Who are these people offering help? What did her mother discover that ruined her reputation and cause her to attempt suicide? Will Magwilde go down the same path of self destruction, or will she be able to find the solution and come out the other side?

What makes this series work is a combination of good writing and acting. The way the scripts have been worked everything that happens seems completely plausible. From the journey our archeologists go on in their quest to discover the sword's whereabouts to how they come across the various clues over the series which helps them solve the ultimate mystery. While it might seem like a string of coincidences that five seemingly unrelated archeological digs should have something in common, the writers have come up with very plausible reasons how each of them connect to the sword.

Complimenting this is the fact each of the actors have created wonderfully believable characters. From Bonneville's wise fool Dr. Parton, Graham's driven Magwilde, Lester's loyal and stolid Ergha to Mbatha-Raw's slightly wide-eyed but never naive Davis, each of them could have easily been types instead of real people. Thankfully both the script and the actors worked together to make them multidimensional people with both flaws and strengths. Over the six episodes we find out just as much about the characters through the actor's performances as we do through the script as they show us as many sides of their character as possible.

Bonekickers comes in a three DVD set with each disc containing not only two episodes, but extensive special features on each episode. In fact there's over 100 minutes of special features which look at script creation, special effects and where the ideas for the stories came from. This has to be some of the more in depth and extensive special features for a television series I've seen in a while and for those interested in what goes into the show's making it will be fascinating watching.

However, the real reason to watch or own this series is not the special features. It's because the thing is so damn good. Not only is it well acted and well scripted, its exciting, intelligent and funny. There some fairly graphic violence occasionally so you might want to screen it before letting young children watch, but it would also be well worth their while to see this because it makes history so fascinating. In this world so obsessed with the future paying so little attention to the past, it's a joy to watch something which recognizes the significance of history. A lesson worth remembering.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bonekickers on Blogcritics.)

February 7, 2013

DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2

What separates the really good police procedural television shows from the rest of the pack? Now a days everyone has a stable of really good script writers working for them and no show would dream of ever just having a straight ahead who done it anymore. However that doesn't mean most of them aren't still following a familiar formulae. A crime is committed and police try and solve the mystery and catch the bad guys. Since they're all doing roughly the same thing with equally well written and directed stores, it usually comes down to the actors to make a show stand out from the rest of the crowd.

At least that's the case with Above Suspicion, Set 2 now on DVD from Acorn Media. As in the show's first season the cast is headed up by Ciaran Hinds as Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) James Langton and Kelly Reilly as Detective Inspector (DI) Anna Travis. Two superior actors individually, taken together on screen they feed off each other talent and energy in a display that makes for brilliant viewing.

The daughter of a late colleague of Langton, Travis was a fresh Detective Constable when she first came to work with him. She was been instrumental in helping him solve two high profile and grisly murders. While he might have initially had a kind of paternalistic protective attitude towards her because of who her father had been, their relationship has gradually changed over the course of the last series into something with the potential for being less platonic. Right from the start of the three episode series on this DVD, Deadly Intent, we can't help notice the amount of tension that continues to exist between the two characters.
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Travis has been assigned to assist in the investigation of a very high profile murder. An ex police officer has been found dead in a drug dealer's apartment. While the priority is solving the murder, Langton and his team also have to figure out what the ex-cop was doing there. When they start checking into his background, what he'd been up since he left the police, they find a rather complicated picture. Not only did the man have a fiancee, but he had also recently married another woman. He had been employed as the second woman's driver for only a month before they were married. On it's own this is suspicious. Added to the facts his wife isn't exactly upset by the news her husband is dead and she's a lot better off than he was, the police begin to wonder what's the secret behind their relationship.

In the meantime the forensics team has turned up some very disturbing evidence at the crime scene. They find traces of the drug fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. According to a cop from the drug squad fentanyl is a death sentence on the street because its so strong. When mixed with cocaine or heroin to increase the former drugs' potency its been the cause of many an accidental overdose. As Langton's team gathers more evidence they discover there were three other people on the scene when the shooting happened. Was this a deal gone bad? Was the fentanyl part of the deal? Were the streets of London, England all of a sudden going to be flooded with this dangerous drug?

The deeper they get into the investigation the more threads they have to follow. With pressure coming from on high for a speedy resolution Langton and his whole team become tenser. Unfortunately this is the type of atmosphere which leads to mistakes being made and clues missed. Recently promoted to DI, Reilly's Travis is much more confident in her abilities then she was when we first met her. Unfortunately this causes her to become a little cocky and headstrong and make mistakes. On top of that, instead of discussing her ideas with her direct superior, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Lewis (Shaun Dingwall), as she's supposed to, she repeatedly goes over his head and goes straight to Langton.

The result is the man who is supposed to co-ordinating the case isn't being given information he needs to conduct the investigation properly. In an interesting transformation from the previous episodes the character of Travis is not quite as likeable as she once was. Reilly does an excellent job of portraying somebody who has gotten just a little too full of herself. She's also appears to be far less innocent in she's not adverse to using her attractiveness to get what she needs from male officers. We see this in the way she deals with the man in forensics who is handling the case and her team's contact in the drug squad.
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This of course leads to increased tension between Travis and Langton. When he discovers she tells the drug squad about the fentanyl before she had let Lewis know about it he has to take her down a peg or two. Unfortunately he also let's his own feelings show by making a snide comment along the lines of "Is there no one on this investigation who doesn't want to go out with you?" when the guy from the drug squad asks her out for a drink. While he's being sarcastic when he makes the comment, from the way both Hinds' and Reilly's characters react after he says it, we know there's a hell of a lot more going on than either character shows.

It comes to the surface late one night when the two are alone in the office. Langton has obviously been drinking, not drunk but loose, and he shows Travis a picture of his late wife. After telling her how devastated he was after his wife died he then starts to tell Travis how he feels. While we're fairly certain she feels much the same way, she retreats behind a smile and almost runs from his office. While it looks like she's trying to let him down gently, much like she's been turning down the other men who have asked her during the show, we also have the impression she's keeping something back. As if she's afraid to admit what she's feeling even to herself.

Both Reilly and Hinds give wonderful multilayered performances throughout the show. On the surface they both come across as hardened detectives intent on doing their job. Both can be cutting and callous, but there's the impression this is a shell they have built up to protect themselves from what they have to deal with in their job. For on the occasions their characters let their guards down we see an incredible amount of vulnerability. In some ways they have both been damaged, by the job and life, and have learnt how to hide their pain from the world. You have the feeling that in each other they may just have found the one person who would understand what they're going through. Unfortunately the opportunity for them to find this out may never present itself.

Above Suspicion, Set 2 contains the three episodes of the series Deadly Intents. Also included on the disc are interviews with the cast and crew who discuss both how their characters have progressed since the first series and the show itself. There is also an interview with Lynda La Plante the author of the books the series is based upon and the screenwriter for the show. To be honest, while I'm a fan of her work, I'm not a big fan of La Plante personally. As I've seen interviews with her before I passed on this one. However, if this interview is anything like others it would be worth watching if you haven't heard her talk about her work before. She is intelligent and capable of offering good insights into her work without spoiling the story.

There are plenty of police procedurals on television that are probably equally well written and directed as Deadly Intent. However it's not often you have the opportunity to see actors of the calibre of Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly performing in them. Even better is the fact they aren't performing in a void and the supporting cast more than holds their own. Still Hinds and Reilly are the stars of the show for good reason. They turn what would have otherwise been a good police procedural into something special.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2 on Blogcritics)

January 30, 2013

DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series

Organizing something as complex and involved as an Olympic Games is a task almost beyond comprehension. Not only do the organizers have to be able to provide venues for all the different sports and accommodate the thousands of athletes and associated individuals who will be participating in the games, they have to also consider the impact of hosting the even larger number of people who will be coming to watch the games. As if this wasn't hard enough, it all has to be done while ensuring they have minimal impact on the daily life of the city hosting the games. On top of all everything there are also the security concerns that are a fact of life in the modern era.

Everything from catering to traffic considerations must be taken care of. The country chosen to host an Olympic Games, especially the hugely popular Summer Olympics, must dedicate its best and brightest minds to the organizational responsibilities. Only those with the ability to cope with the multitude of details needing careful attention in a calm and rational manner will be able to rise to the occasion. At least that's the impression one has when one looks at the sheer size of the job involved in bringing an Olympic Games off successfully.

Is it possible for Games to succeed in spite of those organizing them? No matter how incompetent and ineffectual the collection of civil servants and outside consultants who have been assigned the task of coordinating the millions of details are, can the Olympics come off anyway? Available on DVD through BBC America this premise is fully explored in Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series. Originally aired in England during the two years leading up to London's hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics this biting satire goes behind the scenes at the (hopefully) fictional offices of the ineffectual team in charge of "Deliverance".
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Charged with such tasks as ensuring the traffic lights will work in favour of athletes travelling from one venue to the other, what to do with the various venues after the games have ended, co-ordinating various coincidental cultural events and making certain the opening ceremonies' fireworks don't trigger surface to air missiles, the men and women of the Deliverance team prove how even the ineffectual and incompetent can occasionally do things right. Even if only by accident.

In spite of the serious tone adopted by the narrator of the documentary, we realize early on this is going to be an examination of the ridiculous in action. We're whisked right into the thick of things with quick introductions to the key players as they arrive for their Monday morning planning session. Doing his best to keep this bizarre ship and crew on course is Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher. Played with beautiful low key understatement by Hugh Bonneville, Fletcher is the epitome of the earnest civil servant trying to come to grips with a job he might be capable of doing if only he had competent help. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent his people aren't really sure what they're doing.

They're fantastic at coming up with explanations for why things have gone wrong, or why something hasn't worked out quite as expected, but actually getting things done on schedule and correctly is more a matter of luck than skill. The most commonly heard answer to "Can that be ready for Friday?" is "Oh certainly" (pause) "Do you mean this Friday?". Even the rather simple task of escorting a visiting delegation from Brazil - Rio De Janeiro is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics - on a tour of the Olympic Stadium is fraught with difficulties. In a kind of metaphor for Fletcher's team's chances of success, the bus driver hired to ferry them all to the stadium gets hopelessly lost and they end up driving aimlessly through the streets of London before finally reaching their desired destination.
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While the majority of Deliverance team are career civil servants - the last couple of episodes see them all more concerned with what they're going to be moving onto next rather than making sure their jobs are completed satisfactorily - they have turned to an outside professional to help with promotional events. Head of Brand Siobhan Sharpe, played with perfect borderline psychosis by the hilarious Jessica Hynes, is responsible for communicating the big picture vis a vis little pictures to the general public. Or something like that anyway. As Sharpe seems incapable of speaking in anything other than partial cliches or meaningless catch phrases, we're never quite sure either what she is talking about or her actual function.

It might be something to do with publicity. She does have a team of so called creative people at her disposal from the public relations firm Perfect Curve. However they all do such a grand job of giving new meaning to word vague we're never quite sure if they know what they're doing. For the grand kick off marking the two year countdown until the opening ceremonies Sharpe commissions a conceptual artist to create a commemorative piece of art. He comes up with a functional wide up clock that runs backwards from the date of the opening ceremonies. Therefore, on the date the Olympics are scheduled to open the clock will read a date and time two years in the past. Forced to try and improvise an explanation for the press as to its significance Fletcher is left gasping out words about marking the journey they've all undertaken and similar nonsense.

There are times when watching the series you want to reach into your television and grab people by the throat and shake them. Or simply throttle them they are so annoying. On other occasions you're left stunned by the depth of their ineptitude and wonder how on earth they could have been entrusted with anything as important as organizing something as major as an Olympic Games. However, it gradually dawns on you over the course of the series, they really aren't actually responsible for anything too important. As we hear reports on what other committees are working on we realize our team is responsible for doing necessary drudge work nobody else can be bothered with.

While the included special features are limited to interviews with the primary cast and crew, it's fun to watch the cast talking about their characters and what went into creating the series. Without skillful actors, an intelligent script and tight direction this sort of show could easily have descended into something idiotic and not very funny. Thankfully by having everybody play their roles completely straight, letting the circumstances and their characters create the comedy, the humour is never forced or dumb. After all, these are serious people doing a serious job who take themselves and what they do very seriously - even if nobody else does. If you like satire and enjoy laughing at hapless civil servants than you'll love Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series on Blogcritics)

December 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Point

Quick pop culture quiz. Name the first full length animated feature produced specifically for television. Need a hint? It was based on an album of pop songs and first aired in 1971. Unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard of either the movie or the man who wrote the music it was based on. The Point, based on the album of the same name by American song writer Harry Nilsson and directed and animated by Fred Wolf was first aired on ABC with a cast that included Dustin Hoffman in the lead role.

Like its creator the film has unfortunately almost been forgotten, existing only as a faint memory for those who remember one of the times it was broadcast. However, with the movie being given a new life on DVD by the MVD Entertainment Group hopefully both Nilsson and The Point will gain some of the recognition they richly deserve. After the initial broadcast Hoffman's voice had to be overdubbed out of the production due to contractual conflicts. So the voice you now hear in the key role of narrator/father is that of former Beatle Ringo Starr. Aside from that, you'll be seeing the movie just as it was originally broadcast.

To today's sophisticated audience I'm sure the animation will look excessively primitive. For everything was still drawn by hand in the early 1970s. So instead of the detailed and lifelike cartoons we have grown accustomed to thanks to computer generated animation, this has a very rough sketch like quality to it. Backgrounds are primarily washes of colour while foregrounds and characters will seem like crude drawings compared to today's offerings. However, once you allow yourself to become wrapped up in the story, you'll find the technical details won't matter. In fact, the rather sur-real quality they create actually helps create the fantastical atmosphere which is part of the movie's charm.
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Told as a bed time story by a father (Starr) to his son, The Point recounts the adventures of Oblio and his dog Arrow. Oblio is born in the town of Point, which gets its name from the fact everybody and everything has a point. From the pyramid shaped buildings to the tops of each person's head there's not a round object in the place. That is until little Oblio is born without a point. Naturally his difference is quite the talking point (get used to it, there are any number of play on words around the word "point" employed in the movie) but things only come to a head when Oblio and Arrow show up The Count's son in a game of ring toss. The Count forces the King of Point to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forrest for being in contravention of the law stating everybody in Point must have a point.

So little Oblio and Arrow venture into the Pointless forrest where they meet with all kinds of strange and mysterious individuals. From the beatnik like "Rock Man" - a large creature made of stones who espouses a kind of hip philosophy of acceptance - to the triple headed pointed man, each help the young boy see that you don't need to be pointed to have a point. As Nilsson had originally told the story through song on his album The Point the action of the move is aided and accentuated by his music. Sometimes whimsical and often fantastic, when combined with the animator Wolf's visuals the songs are what give this movie its real magic.

Whether simply expounding on the relationship between a lonely boy and his pet with "Me And My Arrow", expanding on the themes of the story, "Think About Your Troubles", or exploring the differences between reality and fantasy in "Are You Sleeping", the songs both help tell the story and create an emotional bond between the viewer and Oblio. Like the movie itself the music never lectures or pontificates, instead it helps us see there is more than one way of looking at the world. In the town of Point Oblio was subject to the law that different is bad. However, out in the rest of the world he discovers there are all sorts of creatures without points but that doesn't prevent them from having a point.

What's nice about this movie is the time it takes allowing Oblio to make his discoveries. Over the course of the movie we watch as he comes to the realization that different is not bad and therefore he is of worth. Unlike a lot of stuff today where everything is about the quick fix, this movie understands we all need time to accept new things and to learn how to appreciate them. Especially when it comes to learning new things about ourselves that go against everything we've been told. If you've been made to feel different or odd all your life learning to like yourself and understand you have value is not easy. Watching Oblio take this journey will be edifying for anyone, young or old, who has ever felt out of place and different.
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Included along with the movie on the DVD are special features about both the movie and Nilsson. Hopefully the biographical details about Nilsson and the testimonials to his talent included in these features will encourage a new generation of people to explore his music. Unfortunately he pretty much stopped recording after the death of his great friend John Lennon in 1980 and instead worked on trying to get tougher gun laws passed. Still, when he died of heart failure in 1994 he left behind a legacy of 13 studio albums and four movie soundtracks - including the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye starring Robin Williams.

The special features also include an interview with animator Fred Wolf who not only describes the process they went through to create the movie, but how Nilsson managed to convince ABC to make it. After many fruitless attempts to made an appointment with the head of the studio, he found out the man was taking a plane from Los Angeles to New York City. Nilsson proceeded to phone airline after airline until he found out which flight the man was on and then booked the seat next to him on the plane. By the end of the flight he had convinced the man that his station should produce and air a cartoon that hadn't even been filmed or scripted yet.

To eyes used to the high tech computerized animation of today The Point will look decidedly primitive. However the message of tolerance conveyed by the music and the movie are still as relevant today as they were in 1971. There's also a certain amount of charm and wonder to be found in watching something that was entirely drawn by hand and then filmed frame by frame as this was. Take the time and sit down with a child and watch The Point, you might be surprised to find out how much you both enjoy it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Point on Blogcritics

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour

Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
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Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
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While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour on Blogcritics)

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition

I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
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While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72

In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005

It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

October 4, 2012

DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1

How often have you heard two people working together closely referred to as being just like a married couple? It doesn't seem to matter whether they're two men, two women or two people of the opposite sex either. It usually refers to a type of working relationship where the couple have become so comfortable working with each other they can complete each other's sentences or casual bickering hides a depth of feelings between them. These types of relationships often develop in jobs where the two have developed a great deal of trust in each other over the years. It's not surprising to find this type of relationship between police officers who have been partnered for an extended period of time.

Of course this type of camaraderie doesn't develop overnight, and in some instances might not ever develop. Even the most ideal partnerships had to have had their start somewhere and gone through a certain amount of growing pains. Trust isn't earned overnight after all and not everyone who you're partnered with is automatically going to be compatible. In fact, as in any sort of relationship, there's always the chance a partnership between two cops isn't going work out. Vexed, Series 1, released on DVD by Acorn Media, is a British police procedural featuring two officers in the initial stages of a partnership. Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Bishop (Lucy Punch) has just moved to London with her husband in the hopes of advancing both their careers. She's a dedicated, hard working and ambitious officer with hopes of climbing the career ladder. So being partnered with an experienced officer, Detective Inspector Jack Armstrong (Toby Stephens) should fit her plans perfectly.
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Unfortunately she soon discovers DI Armstrong is quite content to coast through life enjoying himself as much as possible. Which means doing his best to make certain police work interferes with more important matters, like being fitted for a suit, as little as possible. While DI Bishop is quite prepared to put in whatever extra hours are required to solve a case, Armstrong works strictly to the clock. He could be in the middle of a murder investigation, but when quitting time comes he's off the case and happily ensconced in his favourite cafe before the clock finishes striking the hour. In fact he's managed to work things so well he almost never has to set foot in the police station and does everything from interviewing witnesses to receiving pathology reports while enjoying a good meal and a glass of wine.

To the highly ambitious, by the book and do everything according to the rules Bishop this type of behaviour doesn't sit very well. Normally in this kind of show it becomes a case of opposites attracting and the two officers, at the least, develop a good working relationship based on mutual respect. They might be different but they sure do work well together. However that's not the case here. Investigating what appears to be the work of a murderer who preys on lonely women, Bishop discovers Armstrong is not only lazy, he's also callous, judgemental and quick to jump to conclusions. However, that doesn't stop her from taking his advice and renting the flat of one of the murder victims. This leads to a very funny scene of her being led around the apartment by an estate agent with the victim's body still laid out on the floor. Armstrong's best contribution involves advice on the placement of the couch and TV so they can be used to cover up the blood stain on the carpet.

However, when you don't have anyone else to talk to, as is the case for the newly arrived to London Bishop, if you spend the entire day in close contact with a person you develop a kind of intimacy almost in spite of yourself. Which is how she ends up confiding in Armstrong her worries about her husband's infidelity. When they discover the murderer has cracked the computer system of a shopping rewards program - earn points and win prizes - by using the shopping habits revealed by people's receipts to pick out targets, they both use the system to find out information for personal reasons. Armstrong wants to find out information about a girl he's interested in picking up while Bishop is hunting for proof her husband is fooling around.

Somehow or other the two still manage to find a way to solve the murders, even though their first two suspects are completely innocent. However, they end up making more than a bit of a mess of their personal lives leaving them both single. While this doesn't necessarily improve their working relationship, they try to make the best of it as neither has anyone else in their lives. The more we get to know both characters, the more we realize they each could stand to learn a little from the other. If Armstrong were ever to start thinking of anything more than just his own personal self-gratification and take a lesson from Bishop in dedication he has the potential to be a decent cop and a good person. On the other hand if Bishop were to take a leaf from Armstrong's book and be a little more relaxed she might not have quite the number of problems she does on the home front.

The three episodes in Series 1 see the two officers solve a series of murders, protect an investment banker convicted of bilking clients for millions against the threat of assassination and deal with the kidnapping of the member of an all girl pop music trio. Somehow they manage to solve each case almost in spite of themselves, and at the same time begin to grudgingly respect each other. At times it seems like the crimes they solve are almost incidental to the action. However, just when you're about to wash your hands of the two of them, they remind you that you have to have some policing skills to have obtained the rank of Detective Inspector. When Armstrong can be stirred from his navel gazing and Bishop can bring her head down out of the clouds they end up working quite well together.

Both Punch and Stephens are gifted comic actors. On top of that they both know how to straddle the line between keeping a character likeable in spite of their flaws instead of allowing them to slip into being insufferable. They are helped by scripts that never descend to the level of having them deliver one liner jokes. Instead the comedy develops out of the interplay between the two characters and their behaviour in given circumstances, Even better is the fact the writers have gone out of their way to give the characters enough material to work with that neither of them are completely one dimensional. So occasionally we see a spark of genuine emotion from Armstrong instead of his usual glibness and cracks in Bishop's veneer of professionalism.
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Even better, is that when it comes right down to it, they are still police officers, and when they have to they take their jobs seriously. While the show is primarily a comedy, it doesn't cheapen itself by taking the subjects of murder or kidnapping lightly by treating them as jokes. We're meant to laugh at the foibles of the two main characters not the victims or the crimes. Even when Armstrong makes demeaning comments about those in the episodes with them, we aren't invited to laugh along with him. Rather we are invited to laugh at him for being so insensitive and rude.

The course of some relationships run smoother than others. In the case of the working relationship between DI Bishop and DI Armstrong in the British police comedy Vexed there are definitely a number of bumps in the road over the course of the three episodes in Series 1. However in spite of the inevitable humour resulting from their clashes, and the occasional bungles they make of their jobs because of them, the seriousness of their work is never in doubt. Not only is this show a lot of fun, but it will also surprise you with its grown up attitude to police work. While there's not much in the way of special features included with the set, a photo galley and the show's trailer, you won't miss them. Watching a police procedural comedy that knows how to take crime seriously is enough of an attraction that you don't need any extra incentives to watch this show.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1 on Blogcritics.)

October 1, 2012

DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1

There was a line in the recent movie Paul which reminded me how wide the cultural gap is between Great Britain and the United States. Two British tourists are talking to an American State Trooper who when being informed they are from London England says,"I've heard of that. Isn't that the place cops don't have guns?" When the tourists answer in the affirmative the cop then asks "What do they do when they want to shoot someone?" and is left speechless when told they try not to. So, if there's going to one thing about British television police shows that will always make them alien to American viewers it will be the almost complete absence of casual gun play.

Times have changed in England and its probably more common for officers to carry weapons then it once was. One of the latest releases from Acorn Media, Special Branch: Set 1, is not only set in the 1970s but was filmed then as well. Those were the days of the unarmed British Bobby walking the beat and even the officers of the British Police force's domestic counter intelligence agency, Special Branch, didn't carry weapons as a matter of course. If they needed them they were available, and they were all trained in their usage, however they could go an entire fifty minute episode without once either drawing a gun or one even showing up in the course of the proceedings. Can you imagine an American show about FBI agents where guns aren't used in an episode?
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It's ironic therefore to find out in the special feature included in this four disc set, interviews with the two lead actors in the series, George Sewell (Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Craven) and Patrick Mower (DCI Tom Haggerty), it's revealed this series was shot in the hopes of selling it to the American market. Unlike most British television shows at the time it was shot on film instead of video and on location instead of in the studio in order to make it more appealing to American viewers. Unfortunately the producers were told it wasn't violent enough for the American market and it was never picked up..

One of the big differences you'll notice between this show and its American counterparts are the two lead characters. DCI Craven grew up in the rough East Side of London and freely admits to having seen the inside of many a police station when he was young. However a stint in the army straightened him up and having served in Military Intelligence on return to civilian life a job with Special Branch was a natural fit. When the show opens he's already a fifteen year veteran of the force. While DCI Haggerty is no less rough around the edges, he's also young and brash and a recent transfer to the department. While he fancies himself a bit of a lady's man and gets under Craven's skin periodically with his occasional relaxed attitude towards regulations, he's as dedicated an officer as Craven.

While both characters have the kind of tough attitude that was often common in police shows during the 1970s, think Starsky & Hutch, they hardly ever go rushing into a room with guns blazing or get into knock down drag out fights. In fact a great deal of their work is spent sifting through evidence, trailing suspects or keeping people under surveillance. Even when they confront a suspect or arrest someone they very rarely employ physical violence. That's not to say they won't rough somebody up on occasion. However, those times are few and far between and usually only because something has happened to make the case personal for the officer. One episode see's Haggerty's father fall victim to a mugger who is preying on elderly people who have just arrived in town by train. Needless to say when they finally track down the assailant he doesn't use kid gloves on him.

There are two other major differences between this show and its American counterparts from the same time period. The first major difference is there are times the episodes end inconclusively, without the matter under investigation being resolved. In one episode they pull a man in for questioning who had been arrested and served time for blackmail. First they want to know why he has a loaded unregistered pistol and a fake passport secreted in his apartment. However Craven is really trying to find out how the man obtained the information which allowed him to blackmail his victim five years ago. But the episode ends inconclusively when the suspect first attempts suicide and then escapes from his hospital bed. While this might confirm he has something to hide, Craven still isn't any closer to finding out the information he's after.
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The other way in which this show differs is the risks it takes with its subject matter. I doubt the topic of homosexuality would ever even have come up let alone be a factor in an American police show from this period, except maybe for bad jokes. Here the subject is raised when a high ranking civil servant has to report secret documents missing and has to cover up they were stolen from him by "gay bashers" pretending to be male prostitutes. Craven and Haggerty have to cross examine the man on a number of occasions to finally get the truth from him. While they are angry with him for misleading their investigation by not being honest in the first place they are remarkably nonjudgemental about everything else. He's still after all a victim and on top of that his career has just been ended in scandal.

This isn't the only time the show takes risks with its content. The number of mix raced couples on television in the early 1970s were few and far between as I remember, but Craven's girlfriend for the majority of the first year is of Jamaican descent. As a nurse her life is almost as hectic as his and there is a certain amount of friction between the two of them because of the demands their jobs place on them. However there's only the occasional reference made to the race issue. During one episode Craven asks her to move in with him and she wonders what his bosses would have to say about him living with a person of colour, but most of the time nothing is made of it at all.

Obviously the show is somewhat dated, there's not a computer to be seen anywhere and the rest of the technology at their disposal is equally quaint to our eyes. However that means they are still reliant on good old fashioned police work to find their answers and we get to watch them out on the streets of London chasing down leads. Although they were using the latest in cameras and sound equipment to film these shows, you'll notice some flaws in both the visuals and the sound. While the job of transferring it from tape to DVD is probably as good possible that doesn't prevent the occasional line appearing on the screen indicative of the age of the original print. However, none of these flaws are going to detract from the pleasure you'll take in watching the episodes from the show's first season.

Special Branch: Set 1 is both an interesting artefact of television from a bygone era and fun to watch. While the episodes are probably more action oriented than we're used to from police shows produced by British television, they still take enough time to allow plots to unfold naturally and for characters to be properly developed. They also change up the way in which the story is told from time to time, so we're not always following the police around. Sometimes the focus is on the subjects they have under observation and the story unfolds by following them with occasional interjections by the officers of Special Branch. All in all this is a lot of fun to watch and well worth picking up.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

September 25, 2012

DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White

London, England in the nineteenth century was a city of contrasts. In the well to do areas the world looked to be a beautiful place with wide tree lined avenues for people to stroll along. Yet travel only a few miles across town and you'd find slums crammed full of people and streets so filthy and dingy you'd wonder how anything could live. Instead of wide open spaces full of light and air, the tenements crowding the streets blocked out the sky and human and animal waste were piled in the streets. Here living was a desperate struggle for survival as men and women fought for whatever scraps of food and money they could lay their hands on.

For a young woman the easiest way to make a living was to sell her body. For the affluent men of the time, the seedy side of Victorian life was an adventure. A place where they could throw off the constraints society forced upon them and pretend to be free. There were even books published for the discerning gentleman informing them of places and people of interest. This is the world we are drawn into in The Crimson Petal and the White being released on DVD September 25 2012 by Acorn Media Group.

We are introduced to the two worlds and their point of intersection by the lead characters in the mini series; Sugar, (Romola Garai) a much sought after prostitute and William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) the upper middle class son of a soap manufacturer who thinks of himself as a poet. When Rackham is cut off by his father for refusing to work in the family business he seeks solace in the arms of Sugar. Her name is much bandied about by men of his acquaintance and she even has her own listing in one of those above mentioned books for discerning gentlemen..
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Rackham quickly becomes obsessed with Sugar and she, seeing him as a potential way out of her life as a prostitute, encourages his interest. He uses her as a means to escape his reality of impending poverty and a wife (Amanda Hale) Agnes Rackham, who suffers from a type of mental illness. In order for him to be of use to her Sugar first must find a way to save Rackham from himself. Through a combination of flattery and encouragement she manages to convince him that he won't be untrue to his "poetic" temperament by working for his father. Soon, not only has he won himself back into his father's good graces, but he's become instrumental in breathing fresh life into the family business. Of course his father would probably be shocked and appalled if he were to find out the majority of the his ideas - including the complete redesign of the company's catalogue - are the work of a prostitute.

With Sugar becoming indispensable, Rackham first establishes her as his mistress in her own apartment by purchasing her from her madame, Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) and eventually moves her into his house to become his daughter's governess. As his mistress Sugar is living the life she always dreamed of, out of the slums and in her own apartment in a lovely part of the city. However, when she's moved into his house as governess, she's all of a sudden reduced in status again to someone of little importance. For not only must she know her place as a servant, Rackham starts to take her for granted, forgetting how much she'd been responsible for his prosperity. She also see first hand that he will never leave his wife for her, no matter how ill she becomes or how much Sugar does for him.

While a bare bones plot outline might make the story sound like some sort of Dickens era soap opera its far more sophisticated and intelligent than not only any soap opera you've seen, but the majority of what you'll see on television these days. From the technical side of the production through the script to the acting, this mini series is special. The first thing you'll notice is the almost surreal way the seamy side of London is depicted. We walk through streets that are universally grey and claustrophobic. Everywhere the camera looks we see people in various states of desperation. The narrow and dirty streets crammed with dirty tenements are filled with beggars, prostitutes, drunks and those who just seem like they've nowhere else to go.

Sugar is the only flash of colour in this dingy prison and as we see the world through her eyes we begin to understand her desperation to escape. The first time Rackham follows her back to her room at Castaway's brothel, she seems to float in front of him. The camera work creates an almost surreal effect by reducing everything around her to a blurry soft focus and exaggerating both the colours and flow of her costume. Through the camera, Rackham's eyes, we see her as some sort of exotic bird with tail feathers enticing us ever onward. Ignoring the filth around him he sees only the promise Sugar represents. The irony is that while Rackham sees Sugar the prostitute as the means by which he can escape the repressiveness of Victorian society and its middle class values, she sees in him her chance for a life of safe respectability.

While the performances of all those involved in the production are wonderful, Anderson is almost unrecognizable as Sugar's Madam Mrs.Castaway, O'Dowd as Rackham, Garai as Sugar and Hale as Mrs. Rackham are superlative. O'Dowd, probably best known to most as the policeman boy friend in the movie Bridesmaids, is a revelation in a serious role. He somehow manages to convey his need for what Sugar has to offer him while simultaneously being sincere in his expressions of love for his wife. For Sugar, who has pinned all her hopes on him rescuing her from a life of poverty, finding out the depth of his affection for his wife is quite the blow to her ambitions. However, she also finds herself thrust into the role of Mrs. Rackham's protector and does her best to help her.
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Lest you get the impression Sugar is the cliched "hooker with the heart of gold", it only takes remembering how carefully Garai's character orchestrated everything to make herself indispensable to Rackham. However, we do see that while she doesn't have much respect for her clients, in fact she dreams of taking murderous revenge on most of them, including Rackham, we also see her compassion for those who she sees as being mistreated by the world. In her relationship with Mrs. Rackham, Garai does a remarkable job of being completely sincere in her feelings of pity for the other woman, while a part of her obviously would prefer if she were to just vanish. There is a blade of steel inside of her from having lived in the survival of the fittest streets of London, and while she may be sympathetic to others, we have the feeling that she's not going to let anybody get in her way of her dream of a new life.

Of course she also recognizes the feelings of being caged that Mrs. Rackham suffers from as being identical to how she felt about her old life. However, as Hale so magnificently shows, Mrs. Rackham's prison is caused by the pressures and expectations of society on her to behave in a certain manner. Hale manages to walk the line between overacting and playing somebody suffering from delusions and extreme nervousness wonderfully. It would have been easy to play this type of character as a single note, in a constant state of hysteria. However she makes her a far more believable character by showing us glimpses of the person she had been before she became afflicted by her illness. This is important because if we didn't see anything redeemable in her, Rackham's love for her wouldn't have been believable.

In the bonus features that are included on the second of the two discs in this package, we hear from both the actors and the technical people about how they approached their job on this shoot. While nobody goes into tremendous detail, the production designers and cinematographer do explain the techniques they used and the effects they were trying to achieve. In their interviews both Garai and O'Dowd explain the approaches they took to try and humanize their characters. I would have liked to hear more of how O'Dowd, whose background is mainly comedy, might have changed his approach for this role from what he's done in the past, but he just talked about how he tried to inject some humour into his character.

British television is no stranger to costume dramas set in the Victorian era as there have probably been adaptations for the small screen of every Dickens novel ever written. However, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other show set in this period. It goes deeper into the darkness that lay beneath the surface of the times including the effects sexual and emotional repression had on people. Through a combination of superlative acting, a great script and inventive production techniques these issues are brought to light through telling the story of the relationship between an ambitious prostitute and an upper middle class gentleman. Less a tale of star crossed lovers and more a story of what happens when world's collide and the upheavals that ensue. While its not something to watch with the whole family, it can be quite graphic at times, its definitely not your typical costume drama, which makes it one of the most exciting television programs you'll see in a long time.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White on Blogcritics.)

September 24, 2012

DVD Review: Bob Dylan And The Band: Down In The Flood

There are some things we just naturally associate with each other in life and pop culture. Just as you can't think of ham without cheese it's almost impossible to think of Lennon without McCartney or Jagger without Richards. The latter being two of the most famous song writing teams in the history of contemporary pop music and the nucleus of their respective bands. While there is precedent for the association of two individuals either as a songwriting team or as a performance group in pop culture the marriage of Bob Dylan and The Band was something unique in the history of popular music.

Since the release of his first record in 1962 Dylan was a highly successful solo act claimed by the folk music community as not only the inheritor of Woody Guthrie's role as voice of the people, but seen by his audience as the guiding light leading the way to a better future. On the other hand, The Band, (Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm) were the creation of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Although Hawkins was originally from Arkansas he carved out a career for himself in Canada and put together a band made up of four young Canadian musicians and a drummer (Helm) from his home state. Under his tutelage The Hawks, the name Hawkins gave to all his bands, learned how survive in bars and play a mixture of rock and roll, blues, rockabilly and R&B.
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A new DVD, Bob Dylan And The Band Down In The Flood, from the Chrome Dreams label of Britain, being released in North America by the MVD Entertainment Group on September 25 2012, purports to take an in depth look at this unlikely marriage of folk and rock and roll. From their infamous tour of 1966, their hibernation in Woodstock, the triumphant tour in 1974 to their final act during The Last Waltz, this documentary picks over the roughly eight years Bob Dylan and The Band were associated with each other in painstaking detail.

Now, don't watch this movie expecting to see tons of footage of Dylan and The Band in performance as it was not authorized by either of them. The movie is primarily made up of interviews with those who either had some sort of association with them or had written about them for the music press. There's Romping Ronnie (Hawkins) himself, John Simon, the producer of their first two albums, 1966 tour drummer Micky Jones, and supposed authorities like Barney Hoskins (The Band's biographer), Sid Griffin (referred to as the archivist of The Basement Tapes) and journalists Derek Barker from Isis and Anthony De Curtis from Rolling Stone

The early part of the film splits between telling us about The Hawks and what Dylan was up to from 1964 until 1966 when he hooked up with the boys. It does a credible job of recapping the basic facts of both their careers but stumbles for the first time when explaining how they found each other. The best they can come up with is that once the Hawks had split from Hawkins and began performing as Levon & The Hawks and that Dylan must have got wind of them somehow.
It goes from there to telling how Robertson and Helm came up to New York City to meet with Dylan and were basically hired on the spot.

I found it hard to believe Dylan would have hired a band sight unseen - or at least without checking them out somehow. Anyway, one thing that we do know for sure is that Levon wasn't thrilled with giving up being band leader and becoming somebody's backing band again and quit. Which is how it came about that Jones was hired as drummer. His main contribution to the film and the history is to confirm that during the 1966 tour they would play louder and louder as the booing became louder. He also recounts what he knows about Dylan's famous motorcycle accident as it affected him directly. After he and the Hawks had returned to the States from England he was still under contract to Dylan and was supposed to be going on tour with them again. However Dylan called him just after the accident to let him know his services were no longer required. According to Jones Dylan had told him he was in traction and all future touring plans were on hold indefinitely.

If you've seen any of the movies made about the 1966 tour, including the superlative I'm Not There, you're not going to learn anything you didn't know already. There's the usual speculations about drugs and Dylan burning out in answer to why the tour was cut short, but the movie doesn't really have anything new to add about what happened. They do show some footage from that time, but again its stuff that has appeared elsewhere first as it all looks and sounds very familiar.
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When the scene shifts to upstate New York and The Band and Dylan settling into Woodstock the movie again stumbles out of the blocks in telling the story. Instead of anybody offering up any sort of explanation of what really happened to Dylan in his motorcycle accident we go from Jones telling us Dylan phoned him to Dylan inviting The Band to hang out in Woodstock to jam and record. For a guy who was supposedly in traction the photos we're shown of Dylan at this time show him looking surprisingly spry. Just the fact he was able to play and record enough music for what turned out to be the double album of The Basement Tapes make you wonder how hurt he really was. However they just skirt over reality to get on with the myth making. It may seem trivial to you, but this sort of stuff drives me crazy and it makes me question people's credibility as "authorities" if they've never bothered chasing down the facts of the matter.

Ironically the one guy interviewed who comes across the best is not mentioned in the liner notes, Robert Christgau. Critic for almost every major publication in the US, including The Village Voice and Playboy he comes the closest to putting the relationship between The Band and Dylan in perspective. For after that period when they hung out together in 1966 they pretty much went their separate ways until 1974. However, that time was instrumental in changing the paths of both their careers.

The final bit of the movie deals with the reuniting of Dylan and The Band. They talk a little about the one studio album they made together, Planet Waves, the tour of 1974 and then finish off with the Last Waltz. They don't really offer any special insights, or any new footage, about any of these events. In fact that's pretty much the case with the DVD all the way through. For those not familiar with the story of Bob Dylan and The Band it does a competent job of telling the history of their association and placing it in its appropriate historical context. While everything the film has to say about the subject has been covered before, this is probably the first time it all has been put together in one movie.

As far as Bonus features go the DVD includes biographies of the various people interviewed for the documentary and the entire interview with Micky Jones from which were drawn his contributions to the movie. It's been over 40 years since The Band broke up yet they still remain linked in the minds of many with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood might have most of the facts about their on again off again nearly decade long association, but at the end you're still left wondering why it is we continue to make this association.

Is it merely the power of Dylan's name and his personal mythology that elevates anybody associated with him to the same near mythical status? Or were The Band that influential a group in their own right? While I have my own opinions on that matter, this movie didn't offer any compelling reasons for either argument. Somehow though, Dylan and The Band, who only released three albums together and really only toured together once, remain as iconic in pop music as others who have contributed far more. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Band, but rather than providing reasons for cementing their place in musical history, this movie left me questioning their significance.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Boy Dylan & The Band by Bob Gruen

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983

It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
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This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
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As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

September 4, 2012

Television Review: Wallander lll

For some reason every time I hear Sweden mentioned I can't help but recall a series of ads that ran in the 1970s. I think they must have been put out by the Canadian government, but they claimed the average sixty year old Swede was in as good as if not better shape than a thirty year old Canadian. I guess the Health Ministry was going through one of their fitness crazes and wanted Canadians to exercise more. How much truth there was in the statement about the sixty year old Swede I still don't know to this day, but for the longest time he, ABBA and hockey players was all Sweden meant to me. Now I can add something else to my wealth of knowledge about this northern Scandinavian country, they've produced at least one brilliant writer of mystery stories.

Starting Sunday September 9 2012 at 9:00 PM and continuing through September 16 and 23 you can see proof of this on your local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) (check local listings for dates and times of course). For those three weeks will see the airing of the latest adaptation of Henning Mankell's novels as part of the Mystery segment of Masterpiece. Wallander lll sees the return of the troubled Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) as he deal with three murder cases, "An Event in Autumn", "The Dogs of Riga" and "Before the Frost", which are not only brutal but wreck further turmoil on his already fragile emotions.
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If you've read any of Mankell's books or seen either of the previous two series, you'll be familiar with Wallander and what he's witnessed in the past. However, even if you've never seen or read anything that's come before, it won't take you long to see the emotional damage he's suffered in the past. Even the hope generated by his starting a new relationship and moving into a house with his partner and her son isn't enough to prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally when partially decomposed body of a young woman is found on his new property. With one wreck of a marriage behind him, and his relationship with his adult daughter tenuous at best, Wallander had hoped for a new start. However, he feels it can't bode well for anything when it turns out the body was the victim of murder.

Things go from bad to worse when a colleague is brutally injured during the course of the investigation. Not only does he feel responsible for what happened to her, when another young women turns up dead, a friend of the first victim, he feels guilty because she wouldn't be dead if he had been able to catch the killer. Even successfully solving the case does nothing to salvage his new relationship. His partner can't understand why he takes everything so personally nor why he can't leave his work at work. He may hate what he sees and the job might cause irreparable damage to his psyche, but his emotional commitment to the job is what makes him such a good cop.

However we have to wonder in watching the ensuing episodes how he'll ever survive without having a breakdown. The episode airing on September 16 2012, "The Dogs of Riga", sees him travelling to the capital of Latvia, Riga, investigating a drug smuggling operation. The bodies of two men bearing tattoos associated with the Russian criminal world are found in an inflatable dinghy adrift in the Baltic Sea separating Latvia and Sweden. Not only did the two men bear the signs of having been tortured to death the raft was stuffed with drugs.

Travelling to Riga Wallander finds himself being pulled into the murky world of corruption which seems to have sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. In Latvia he discovers a country split along ethnic lines between native Latvians and Russian nationals who settled there during the communist era. Not able to speak the language and unsure who to trust, his hotel room is bugged (but whether by the criminals or the cops he's not sure) and one cops doesn't hide the fact he used to be in the KGB.
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While that case is bad enough with its corrupt officials and the brutal indifference to life he is witness to, "Before the Frost", the final episode airing on September 23 2012, is the one which has the most potential to break him. An old childhood friend of Wallander's daughter disappears after showing up at his house one night distraught and emotional. Unfortunately it's no coincidence that a series of fires started by an escaped psychiatric patient are happening at the same time. The fires are the tip of the iceberg as both the escapee and the friend of Wallander's daughter are members of a fanatical Christian cult. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying it's enough to make an atheist of you, or at least turn you off organized religion forever.

While the scripts are uniformly excellent and the support cast is formidable in its talent, if you've seen the previous two series you'll notice quite a few new faces among the detectives working with Wallander, the show is ultimately a showcase for the talents of Branagh in the lead role. I've been fortunate enough to have watched him since one of his first television appearances back in the 1980s. While I've never had any doubts about him being one of the finest actors of his generation, his performance as Wallander still leaves me slack jawed in wonder. He seems hopelessly overmatched by the world around him; rumpled, unshaven and constantly under slept and you wonder how he can make it through a day let alone deal with the cases that come his way. Yet every so often we see hints of the iron will and resolve beneath the surface keeping him going. Unlike others though, he doesn't try and pretend or hide the price he pays for being a cop who cares.

He makes an effort to leave the job behind when he's with those who aren't in the police force, but it's obviously an effort. He's awkward in social situations, doesn't know how to make small talk or be inconsequential. When his phone rings to summon him back to the world of murder it almost seems as though its a relief, as if he back on familiar territory again. Yet such is the mastery of Branagh's performance we can see he knows how wrong this is, but he doesn't know how to change. However, he does give us occasional glimpses of how things could be different. There are two moments, one in "Dogs of Riga" and one in "Before the Frost" when we see the potential for uncomplicated happiness which somehow has managed to survive. The smile that literally lights up Wallander's face on both occasions makes you realize he's not given up hope of there being something better, he just doesn't have many opportunities to experience reasons for believing in them.

Wallender lll is tough and gritty and in some ways as desolate as the Irish landscape that stands in for Sweden. While it probably only feels like it, but it seems as if almost the entire show takes place in overcast weather and the prominent colours in the camera's palate are shades of grey and dank blue. These are difficult shows to watch, not only because of the nature of the crimes being investigated, but because of the emotional toll we seen them exact on the lead character. As the title character Branagh gives the type of performance that is the stuff of legend. Other generations had Lawrence Oliver and Alec Guinness, but we have Kenneth Branagh, and this is some of his best work. Don't miss this opportunity to watch genius at work for three brief Sundays in September; September 9, 16 and 23 at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station.

(Article first published as Television Review: Wallander lll on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax

In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
Ramblin' Jack Elliot From Ballads Blues & Bluegrass.jpg
Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Green Wave

When was the last time a documentary film made you cry? I don't usually cry in most films, let alone documentaries, yet as I was watching The Green Wave, a film by Ali Samadi Ahadi from Dreamer Joint Venture productions, I found myself with tears pouring down my face. Originally released in Germany the movie had its English language premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theatres in North America. With a mixture of animation, interviews and raw footage taken from camera phones and other clandestine means of photography Ahadi recounts the events surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran which culminated in government sanctioned violence against people protesting their results.

Green is the colour of Islam, but in Iran of 2009 it became associated with the campaign to have reform candidate, former Prime Minister of Iran Mir-Hossein Mousavi elected President. The film opens prior to the election. The first things which are established are the fact there was dissatisfaction, especially among the young, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What was especially troubling was how come with billions of dollars in oil revenues during his presidency the economy had worsened and there were fewer opportunities for employment for young people. Then the film introduces us to Mousavi and his campaign for president.
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We learn how the campaign had booked a large sports arena in Tehran for a political rally. The campaign workers were nervous enough people would show up to make it worth while. Then when they arrive at the arena to start setting up for the rally they discover the size of their support. People began showing up hours in advance offering to help. It wasn't just young people or students who supported Mousavi, there were people from all walks of life including members of the clergy and the military. People who had given up hope of there ever being significant change in Iran began to have hope again.

Then came the election. The first nasty shock was the ballots were designed to be confusing. In order to vote for a candidate you had to write a code in the box next to their name. While the codes were posted on the walls of the polling stations, nobody had been prepared for this rather odd practice. Then reports started coming in of polling stations mysteriously running out of ballots with people still waiting to vote and other polling stations closing hours before voting was due to stop. Confusion was high, and then things started to turn ugly. The government cancelled all visas for foreign press, shut down satellite transmission and all other means of communication with the outside world. As one person being interviewed said, they should have known something odd was going on as during the last couple of hours of voting the state television station started showing nature programs instead of election coverage.

The next day with results still undecided people took to the streets refusing to believe the government was really going to try and manipulate the election. They figured they were just stalling as long as they could before surrendering power. Then Mousavi was placed under house arrest and more and more people took to the streets demanding something be done. Unfortunately what was done was not what they wanted. The militia and the police took to the streets as well and began to attack the demonstrators. Troops mounted on motorcycles in two man teams swarmed the streets beating and stabbing anybody they came across whether they were demonstrators or not. They invaded the residence at the university and began randomly beating the students. Police marksmen opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops killing and wounding them. Hospitals were forced to turn wounded patients over to the military and the dead were unceremoniously hauled out of morgues and piled in the back of pick up trucks and never seen again.

As all media had been shut down during this time, Ahadi has very little actual footage to draw upon to tell the story. However, what he does have are people's blog twitter postings from the time. It's these he uses to give us first person accounts of what happened to some people as well as to help establish a timeline for when events took place. In spite of being under house arrest Mousavi was able to somehow access his twitter account to let people know what was happening to him. Ahadi also takes the blog posts and uses them to recreate events with illustrations. While he could have animated the images, he's done something even more effective. Individual panels, like those in a graphic novel, fill the screen freezing a moment in time. So when a doctor is talking about treating those injured by the army, we see her standing in a hospital corridor, hands spotted in blood and eyes filled with pain.
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While these images and the raw footage taken from camera phones and other mobile devices of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators are upsetting, unfortunately this type of footage is depressingly familiar. Soldiers firing upon civilians has been far too common an occurrence these days for it to come as a surprise that it would happen in Iran. It's the reactions of the survivors to these events that wrenched my heart. Naturally they still haven't recovered from the horror of what happened and that's always hard to watch. However what's really heartbreaking is the fact they are shocked it happened at all.

Their sense of betrayal and disillusionment makes you wonder how they could have been so naive as to believe the totalitarian regime they had been living under would not have attacked them for protesting. It was like they had just woken up to the fact their kindly uncle who had been buying them sweets since they were children had been sexually abusing them and the rest of their family. While it's understandable those living under the thumb of the regime might have been indoctrinated to the extent they wouldn't have noticed how harsh conditions were until they impacted on them directly, what was really disheartening was listening to some of the things said by those who should have known better.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, shows what I think is incredible naivety when she makes a comment about how France, Germany, Italy and other European Union nations should remember the dead protestors before conducting business with Iran. When has any nation let human rights abuses by another nation stand in the way of business? Oh sure they might make statements expressing outrage over the events, but stop trading with one of the largest suppliers of oil to the European Union? Not going to happen. If the West was at all serious about dealing with the Iranian regime properly there would have been a complete trade embargo in place ages ago. It's not just Iran either, the West turns a blind eye to human rights abuses everywhere whenever it suits us.

It's heartbreaking to hear such an intelligent and resourceful woman clinging to false hopes. Or to hear some of the young people living in exile talking about seeing the youth of their current home going out and having fun and wondering if they know their contemporaries in Iran don't have that freedom? Or listening to the voice of a young woman asking what is this place which is like a prison where people can be killed or arrested without reason and tearfully answering herself with one word, Iran.

Prior to the "Arab Spring", the popular movement in Arab countries where the people managed to throw off some of the longest serving dictators in the Middle East there was the Green Wave in Iran. For a few desperate weeks in the summer of 2009 there was the whiff of freedom in the air for a people who had suffered under oppressive regimes since the end of WWll. Whether the secret police of the Shah of Iran or the Revolutionary Guard and the morals police of the supposed Islamic Republic there has always been a force present insuring voices of dissent are silenced. Maybe they hoped this time it would be different. However, as The Green Wave makes clear, it might have taken the government a bit longer to clamp down on this occasion, but when they did, it was with a viscousness designed to obliterate resistance and destroy hope. I dare you to sit through this movie without crying. The people of Iran deserve our tears, it's only too bad the world isn't willing to do more for them.

(Article first published as Movie Review: The Green Wave on Blogcritics.)

August 29, 2012

DVD Review: Above Suspicion: Set 1

There are those who because of their position in society, or through personal arrogance, believe they will always be above suspicion. These are the types of people who think they can get away with murder and usually attempt to do so. Haven't you ever noticed how many serial killers are the ones nobody ever suspects of being able to commit horrendous crimes? Of course when it comes to those who believe their position in society allows them to do whatever they want, that's a different story, but the results are usually the same thing; people end up dead and the police are left trying to puzzle out who was responsible.

A new police procedural from British television released on DVD by Acorn Media, appropriately called Above Suspicion: Set 1, deals with just these types of crimes. Like most of these shows from Britain there are only two cases in a series, but in this instance each case is three episodes long. Disc one contains the pilot, simply called "Above Suspicion" while disc two's investigation is called "The Red Dahlia". Both cases involve fairly gruesome murders that display both a horrifying disregard for human life and a very deliberate brutality. Both are the types of cases you feel sorry for any police who have to work on them. Not only for what they are exposed to, but when they do catch the person, having to even be in the same room as somebody who could do these types of things.
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That's especially true for the first episode of the series as the lead character is a pretty young officer just starting out on her career, Detective Constable (DC) Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly). Due to illness in his squad she finds herself temporarily assigned to Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Langton's (Ciaran Hinds) murder team. On her first day working with him she's told to meet him at a crime scene where a body of a young women has been found. Unfortunately for her the body has been on location for quite a while and is a maggot strewn mess. Throwing up at a crime scene is not the best way of impressing your new superior officer and neither is feinting during the postmortem autopsy, both of which DC Travis manages to do on her first day.

Thankfully for the young cop her new boss is willing to cut her a very little amount of slack as he used to know her father. However, as she soon finds out, Langton drives his team almost as hard as he drives himself. The corpse they met over is only the latest in a series of women who have been killed in the same manner over the last twelve years. Each of them were found with their arms tied behind their backs and strangled with their own tights. Even worse is it's obvious from the way the tights are tied the killer strangled them while looking into their eyes. The only difference between this most recent murder and the rest is all the previous victims had been prostitutes while this one wasn't.

What is really good about this series is focuses on the nuts and bolts of police work. The hard slog and drudgery the police have go through to find their suspect. However they at least have a few fresh clues now. A closed circuit camera picked up a picture of the newest victim as she was talking with somebody inside a grey Mercedes outside a nightclub. So you see the police tracking down and talking to anybody who could have seen the car and can confirm whether or not the girl got in. Once they confirm she actually drove off in the car - they then have to try and track down the car. They also find other clues which send them off all over the place to interview potential witnesses, including sending Travis to Spain to interview an ex vice squad cop who might have some information that will help the investigation. While this trip has all the appearances of being a wild goose chase it sets them on the track that eventually leads them to the killer.

In the second case, "The Red Dahlia" we again see how it's the nitty gritty of tracking down every single lead that eventually pays off. This time they are dealing with somebody copying a series of murders that took place in Los Angeles in the 1940s and were never solved called the Black Dahlia murders. At first there's only one victim, but the body has been brutalized. Not only did the murderer cut the young woman in half he's drained all of her blood and removed some of her organs. Even more appalling is the fact the postmortem reveals the victim had been tortured and some of the surgery had been done on her while she was alive. Things start to turn really ugly when the murderer starts to send first letters and then tape recordings to a reporter at a newspaper bragging about what he's done and warning the police he's only just getting started.

However. like all who think they are invincible and smarter than anybody else he makes mistakes. Even though they're minor, they're enough to set the police on a trail that eventually lead them to him. Now, the way the show has been scripted lends the program credibility, however it's the acting, especially of the two leads, that makes this series so powerful. As the rookie detective getting her feet wet, Reilly is wonderful. After her less than auspicious first day on the job we watch as she gradually gains confidence. When she goes to interview the witness in Spain she runs into problems as he refuses to speak to her because he's insulted they sent some "little girl" out to talk to him. The way she convinces him to talk leaves you no doubt as to her toughness and ability to think on her feet. Although, probably the thought of returning to face her boss empty handed was enough to motivate her to try nearly anything.
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For Hinds as DCI Langton doesn't have any patience with people who don't do what their supposed to do. While we find out there are instances when his bark in worse than his bite, it still doesn't pay to have him pissed off at you. However Hinds does a magnificent job of showing what's behind the bark; the human who is sickened by the depravity he sees in his work and his need to bring those responsible to justice. Travis finds that out to her chagrin that pissing him off is still not a great idea when she has a brief fling with the reporter who had received the messages from the killer in "The Red Dahlia". While she's asleep he gets up to get a drink and comes across her notes on the case and proceeds to read and copy them. The first she finds out about it is when Langton shows up at her door the next day brandishing the morning's newspaper containing a lead article filled with information the police hadn't released to the press. She only narrowly avoids being suspended from the investigation because she's able to convince a potential witness to talk over the phone when nobody else is able to get her to open up.

It's interesting to watch how the dynamic between the two characters changes over the course of the two cases. At first Langton treats her in as close to a fatherly manner as would be possible for him. However, gradually you can see that changing as he brings her more and more into his inner circle of trusted officers. Not only does he start recognizing her value as an officer, but he starts seeing her as something other than the daughter of a late colleague. The more Travis starts to get know Langton, and begins to realize what fuels his impatience, the more she begins to appreciate him as both an officer she can learn from and as a human being. It will be very interesting to see how this relationship is developed in future episodes of the series.(Of which one has already been televised in England and another is being filmed so hopefully we will be seeing them on DVD within a year or so)

Special features on the disc include an interview with Lynda La Plante who both wrote the books the show was based on and the screenplays for the show. As she's also the person who created Prime Suspect, the TV show that first brought Helen Mirren to wide public attention, she is able to offer insights into the making of the show that only a person with a lot of experience in the world of television can proffer. There's also an interesting, if rather morbid, bit about how they made the dummies for the corpses in "Red Dahlia". Finally there are interviews with both the cast regulars and some of the special guests who appear in the series, which provide some interesting tidbits of information about the process of making the show.

Above Suspicion: Series 1 is not your typical police procedural. First of all the crimes they deal with are particularly gruesome. (If you have a sensitive stomach or are at all squeamish do not do what I did and make the mistake of watching either episode while eating - maggots don't improve your appetite.) However there is nothing gratuitous about anything they show. It's necessary for us to see what DC Travis experiences in order for us to fully appreciate how she's feeling during the investigation and to understand what it is that drives Langton so hard. It's dark, gritty and not very pleasant at times, but it's also probably one of the best acted and produced/directed police procedurals I've ever seen. You may have to avert your eyes at times, but you won't want to miss watching this and any future episodes that come to disc.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion - Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

August 28, 2012

Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing all of them have had in common, are their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against their makers and far too often ends up rendering even the most interesting subject matter dull. For in their search for accuracy and authenticity many of them end up either being boring recitations of facts or endless interviews with experts. Film is a visual medium and unless there is something incredibly compelling about either the experts or the story they are relating, it can quickly become boring to watch footage of people simply talking.

In watching their most recent documentary movie its obvious to me that the people at Corner Of The Cave Media, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein both understand this and take great pains to avoid falling into that trap. It's no wonder Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story has not only been made an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but been scheduled for three public screenings: Thursday September 6 2012 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 9:45 PM, Saturday September 8 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9 at 9:30 AM and Saturday September 15 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10 at 4:30 PM, with the premier coming on opening night of festival.
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On the surface a documentary about an illustrator of children's books, poster artist and creator of various works of art, doesn't sound like the most stimulating of subjects. Perhaps if it were about somebody aside from Tomi Ungerer it might not have been very interesting. But, not only is the story of Ungerer's life and career fascinating, Ungerer himself is a wonder. On top of that Bernstein understands that even a documentary about a single person needs to have motion, as our focus wanders if we stare at the same thing for too long. So while we spend a great deal of time over the course of the movie with Ungerer, the interviews with him are broken up by animation sequences created from his art work, and by transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time using archival film footage, still photographs and samples of Ungerer's work from various periods in his life.

While over the course of the movie's ninety minute running time we are given Ungerer's life story from the time of his birth in Strasbourg France to the present in his homes in County Cork Ireland and Strasbourg, the narrative somehow defies the constraints of linear time. As Ungerer is describing what his life was like during the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s we are looking at some of the drawings he made during that period. Not only do the illustrations make the memories extremely real, but as you listen to him speak you realize this period of his life is still very much alive for him. This is driven home when he talks about how his personal paranoia leads to him constantly dreaming about being arrested. Not only that but we see how the trauma of this period is reflected in his artwork down though the years, especially his political posters from the 1960s. For Ungerer the past lives on and the film makers have managed to somehow convey this in the way they have narrated his life and career.

What will be a surprise for a lot of people is that they've never heard of Tomi Ungerer. Especially when they find out about his career as a commercial artist and illustrator and writer of children's books in the 1950s and 1960s. He immigrated to America in 1956 and landed in New York City just as the need and interest in illustrations for magazines crested. With television in its infancy advertisers still relied on print media as their primary means of reaching consumers. So illustrators like Ungerer were in huge demand. It wasn't long before he branched out into the writing and illustrating of children's books.

According to his contemporaries interviewed for this movie; people like illustrator, playwright and novelist Jule Feiffer and, in one of the last interviews before his death, fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, Ungerer was one of the most remarkable artists they knew. Sendak went so far as to say, that without Ungerer's influence he doubts whether his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are, would have ever existed. We hear about how Ungerer quickly became a favourite of the influential publisher of children's books at Harper Collins and his books were hugely successful. So what happened?
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What happened was Ungerer was interested in more than illustrating children's books and as the 1960s progressed he branched out to reflect the growing social and political changes that were happening in America. First there were his posters with their blunt political statements about such hot topics as segregation and the war in Viet Nam. However it was interest in erotica that caused the most problems. While the pieces wouldn't even qualify as pornography today, the Puritan streak runs deep in America - one only needs to look at today's Republican Party for proof of that - and when it was discovered somebody who wrote and illustrated children's books was also drawing pictures of naked adults all hell broke loose. His books were removed from the shelves of every library in the country and he was comprehensively black listed. As of 1971he might as well have ceased to exist.

While neither the film makers nor Ungerer make the obvious comparison of likening what happened to him to what happened to work the Nazis deemed unacceptable in the 1940s, the parallels are unavoidable. For the second time in his life he must have felt like he was living in a totalitarian regime which wouldn't tolerate freedom of expression and somebody's work could be arbitrarily deemed "wrong". Is it any wonder the poor man is still plagued by paranoia and dreams of persecution and arrest? What's astounding is how in spite of what he has been through, he not only continues to produce art today, he is still as vital and interested in the world around him as he was when he started.

What's amazing about Far Out Isn't Far Enough is the people responsible for the film have made it every bit as interesting and exciting as if it were a feature film. You become so caught up in the story of this man's life, his art and his way of looking at the world he becomes larger than life. While you can't escape the fact Ungerer is talking into a camera and answering somebody's questions about this, that or the other, the wall that usually seems to exist between the subject of these films and you watching crumbles at some point in the proceedings. Director Bernstein is smart enough to know when you're filming a force of nature like Ungerer, you try to be as unobtrusive as possible and do your best to be nothing more than a conduit between your subject and the audience. Not only has he succeeding in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of this complex and intelligent man, he has done the world a great service by reintroducing us to the work of an artistic genius whose work has been ignored for far too long.

Thankfully Phaidon Press, has taken it upon itself to reissue Ungerer's titles previously black listed in America and not seen in book stores for more then forty years. Ungerer himself recently wrote his first new children's book since the early 1970s. It is to be hopped the combination of this film and his books being made available to the public again in North America will ensure he starts to gain some of the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the world of art. Tomi Ungerer is a brilliant light whose illumination we've been denied for far too long. This film gives us an indication of what we've been missing and hopefully whats still to come from one of the great creative minds of ours or any time.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2012

DVD Review: Injustice

Have you ever wondered how defence attorneys can defend people who are obviously guilty of heinous crimes like murder or rape? Especially when, in spite of all the evidence, they somehow manage to get them acquitted? Some lawyers will tell you that everyone deserves a defence as that's an integral part of the judicial system - people are after all presumed innocent until proven guilty. In fact the prosecution has a far harder job than the defence attorney as he has to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that a person is guilty. If a jury has any doubts about a defendant's guilt they have to find in his or her favour. Yet doubt about guilt is not the same as proving innocence, sometimes it just means the case against a person wasn't conclusive enough for the prosecution to persuade the jury the accused was guilty - even if they were.

So, it's not necessary for defence attorneys to believe their clients are innocent, it's just necessary for them to believe they can convince a jury there isn't enough evidence to find them guilty. However, that's not always the case. In the five part mini-series Injustice, being released on DVD Tuesday August 28 2012 by Acorn Media, we meet barrister William Travers (James Purefoy) who has always believed in his clients' innocence. (In British law there are two different types of lawyer; a solicitor represents a person in all matters outside of court while barristers are hired specifically to represent them in court) Even his opponents in the crown prosecutor's office (British equivalent of district attorney but not a political office or appointment) admit he always believed his clients were innocent.
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All that changed at some time before the series starts. Travers had defended an animal rights activist accused of setting a car bomb which blew up the small child of the scientist it was intended to kill. While the circumstantial evidence was substantial, he was able to get the accused acquitted by giving credence to the defendant's claim the police had coerced the confession he initially gave them. Closed circuit television tapes showed two officers entering his cell but unlike all the other times they had visited there were no audio or video tapes recording what happened while they were in there. When that was combined with the fact there was no conclusive evidence proving he had committed the crime the accused was set free. However, for some reason Travers suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after the trial, left London and his successful practice, and moved with his family to the small town of Ipswich. While he continued on as a barrister, he refuses to handle murder trials ever again.

So his wife Jane (Dervia Kirwan) is surprised and worried when he agrees to defend a friend of theirs from university who has been accused of murdering his much younger secretary whom he had been having an affair with. She had given up a successful career with a publishing house in London in order to help him start over again, and is slightly put out that he's all of a sudden agreeing to go back and work in London again. However, she's mainly worried whether or not he'll be able to handle the pressure of working on such a high profile case again, figuring that was what caused his breakdown after the bombing case.

While we find out what's really troubling Travers through a series of flashbacks (there's no way I'm telling you anything about them) and that he's nowhere near as well as he claims he is, on the surface he seems to be the consummate professional. The one thing he does insist on when he agrees to take his old friend's case is if at any time he receives the impression his client is guilty he will quit immediately. It's while he's preparing to go to London to start work the police discover the body of the man he defended in the bombing case. He had been shot in the head at point blank range and, as the cop heading up the investigation, Detective Inspector (DI) Mark Wenborn (Charlie Creed-Miles) says, it looks like he'd been executed.

While DI Creed-Miles hunts for clues as to who might have killed his victim, Travers is investigating who else could have possibly wanted to kill his friend's secretary. She had been murdered in the hotel room the two of them had been sharing. He had gone out to get her something from a restaurant around the corner and claims to have found her dead when he returned. Closed circuit cameras confirm he had left the hotel and show him going into and out of the restaurant at around the time he claims to have been out of the room. Aside from the secretary being murdered he also claims his laptop computer was stolen from the room, and it contained information about the business dealings of the oil company he worked for. Could there have been something on the computer important enough for somebody to kill the secretary? That's what Travers wants to find out. If he can convince the jury somebody else had a motive for killing the young women, his friend will look less like a suspect.
James Purefoy and Dervla Kirwan in Injustice.jpg
The series is basically split between Travers's and DI Wenborn's investigations. It is an incredible study in contrasts. For while Travers is compassionate, intellectual and sophisticated, Wenborn is his exact opposite. He's not above threatening or blackmailing individuals to get the information he needs and is generally a nasty piece of work. As his superior says to a junior officer whose been partnered with him, don't take it personally, the guy hates everybody. Even their home lives are completely opposite. Travers is a dotting father and loving husband who's happiest in the bosom of his family. Wenborn on the other hand is emotionally abusive to his wife to the extent she's started shop lifting and the only time he pays attention to his infant daughter is to tell his wife to make her shut up. All in all we know which of them we prefer.

So when Wenborn starts to find circumstantial evidence tying Travers to the murder of his former client you don't want him to succeed in building a case against him. For even if Travers is guilty, the idea of this little creep taking down such a nice guy feels wrong. Especially as the man who was murdered could still have been guilty of killing a little boy. For while he was found innocent by the jury, there was still plenty of evidence that pointed to his guilt. Yet, should that matter if Travers is guilty? Where's the justice in somebody taking the law into their own hands?

What's amazing about this series is how it manages to raise these questions about the nature of justice while telling the story of the two investigations at the same time. It's like watching a top notch detective story and a debate on morality at the same time. Even better is how the show's creator's have managed to handle this without ever throwing the subject up in your face. Not once do any of the characters talk about it, yet it's an ever present subtext which comes out through the natural development of the story and the character's behaviour.

Both Purefoy as Travers and Creed-Miles as Wenborn, do exemplary jobs in their respective roles. While it's easy to hate the police officer for the creep he is, we also come to have a little bit of grudging respect for him as he doesn't care who he pisses off, he just wants to solve the crime. While he may have very few redeeming qualities as a human being, as his boss says, he gets results and usually catches the crooks with strong enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Travers on the other hand is someone we like and admire. Yet Purefoy's performance is such that we know there is something wrong with him. He seems like he's holding himself just a little too tight, or saying he's fine as if he's trying to convince himself as well as the person asking him. When we start to see what he's hiding, those moments he lets his guard down, it still doesn't make him any less likeable, and in some ways even increases our sympathy towards him.

While I know most of us have come to expect special features with DVDs these days, don't let the lack of any save for a photo gallery from the show in this set put you off. Injustice is not the type of mini series you're used to seeing as it takes you into very grey moral territory and leaves you stranded there to find your own way out. The acting, script and overall production is everything you've come to expect form this type of show from British television. However, be warned, once you start watching you will not want to stop, so start early in the evening if you don't want a late night. However, its worth the loss of sleep to watch something of this calibre.

(First published at as DVD Review: Injustice)

August 17, 2012

DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6

There are some actors whom you grow so accustomed to seeing in a particular role it becomes hard to visualize them playing anything else. So when you eventually see them in another part you end up spending a lot of time trying to see if they've managed to create a different character for this new situation. In far too many cases these days film and TV actors simply play variations of themselves when on screen and don't bother with such mundanities as creating a character. Sure they may be able to cry or be angry on demand, but they're doing it as themselves not as the person who they're supposedly portraying. So when I sat down to watch the DVD of Judge John Deed: Season 6 from BBC America, released August 14 2012, I have to admit I was initially more concerned with how much of Inspector George Gently I'd see in Martin Shaw's performance as Deed then the plot of the show.

While Shaw had impressed me with his performances in George Gently, I hadn't seen him in anything else and had no idea what he was capable of. Thankfully it didn't take more then about fifteen minutes of the first episode for me to have completely forgotten he'd ever been the other character. Everything from his vocal mannerisms to the way he held himself as Deed was different from what he had done in the other role. What's even more amazing is how subtle all the differences were. It wasn't as if he assumed an accent, limp or other immediately obvious trait, it was just he did a whole bunch of little things differently which when combined added up to being a different character.
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It's a good thing too, for even more then in George Gently, this series is built around his character. John Deed is a high court judge in England. He is also something of a maverick who has no problems with rocking the boat and ruffling the feathers of his fellow judges. In order to rise to the position of a high court judge in England, or anywhere else for that matter, one has to be a pretty entrenched member of the legal establishment. Usually this means you haven't made any waves in your previous career as a lawyer. Judges are supposed to be impartial arbitrators who base their decisions upon the letter of the law. However, as we all know, there are plenty of grey areas in the law which allow judges a great deal of latitude when handing down their judgements. Thus it's almost impossible for a judge's personal opinions not to play a role in their findings. Why else would the appointment of judges be such a contentious issue in most countries?

As we discover in the two episodes in Judge John Deed: Season 6, "War Crimes" and "Evidence of Harm", Deed's reputation for rocking the boat are well known and something of a concern to his political masters. In fact they do their best to try and keep him out of harms way by designating him for assignments like being Britain's representative at an International Tribunal in the Hague. In "War Crimes" he's one of three judges hearing a case against a British soldier being charged as a war criminal for the killing of Iraqi citizens while on duty. Complicating matters for Deed is the fact his sort of ex-partner Jo Mills (Jenny Seagrove) is the soldier's defence attorney.

For some added spice, we find out Deed has also been targeted for assassination by a radical Islamic organization. Prior to taking the case in the Hague he was one of three judges hearing the case of a white supremacist charged with hate crimes against Muslims who ended up being acquitted. Ironically Deed had thought the man guilty, but he was outvoted by the other two judges. As if these factors weren't enough, Deed also has to deal with the fact his government is doing everything it can to coerce the British soldier to plead guilty. Of course the more pressure exerted on him to play ball, the more Deed is determined the soldier be given a fair trial. It almost seems the more somebody attempts to steer him in a particular direction, the harder Deed will attempt to go the other way.

This is reinforced in the season's second episode, "Bodily Harm". This time Mills asks him to look into the reasons why a client of hers was all of a sudden denied legal aid in a case he was pursuing against a pharmaceutical company. He, and other soldiers in the British army, were given a vaccine for protection against biochemical weapons. Unfortunately he and quite a few others became seriously ill after receiving the vaccine. When it turns out the judge who ruled on the decision to withdraw the legal aid has connections to the company in question, Deed agrees to attempt to head a review of his findings. Attempt being the key word because he finds himself running into serious opposition from his judicial colleagues, the government and the company in question.
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It's the latter he needs to worry about the most. For he soon discovers of the two scientists who first raised the question about a connection between illness and the vaccine one has died under mysterious circumstances and the other is too terrified to talk. When his daughter who is doing research for him is robbed, and all that's stolen is her laptop containing her notes, his suspicions increase. What he doesn't know is both he and Mills are under full scale surveillance and every word they say to each other about the case, and more personal exchanges, are being recorded by the same people who robbed his daughter. They've even gone as far as placing a bug on his dog's collar. As in the previous episode, this is a man who keeps a boxers heavy bag in his office after all, we find out the more people try to make him back off, the more he comes out swinging. He takes his role as an arbitrator of justice very seriously. Any attempt to subvert its fair and equal dissemination only increases his determination to see it carried out properly.

While this show is up to the usual high standards one has come to expect from British television when it comes to this type of show in terms of script and overall quality, the show hinges upon its central character. Thankfully Shaw is up to the challenge of not only carrying a series but of making a recurring character with the potential for growing stale always interesting. In this, the series' concluding episodes, we see the many facets of the man. His personal life is complicated due to the fact he has a roving eye, and while his dedication to the ideal of justice is admirable, he also tends to be arrogant and stubborn. While his self assurance might prove initially attractive to some women, the ego accompanying it isn't quite as appealing.

What's amazing about Shaw's performance in the role of Deed is he's able to communicate this so easily to the viewers. While it would have been easy to create a character who is simply a white knight charging off to rescue the world, Shaw manages to show how positive character traits can, under certain circumstances or when taken to the extreme, become negatives. While we admire the character of Judge Deed, we also see him for the flawed individual he is, which not only makes him more human, but infinitely more believable. Judge John Deed: Season Six is a good television series made great by the tour de force performance from its lead actor. Watch it and be amazed at what can be done by an actor at the top of his game.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6 on Blogcritics.)

August 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection

As a writer the origin of words has always fascinated me. In particular I enjoy finding out how words which today appear seemingly unrelated, not only have the same origins, but have similar meanings as well. It was while watching the newly released DVD set of the 2002/2003 remake of The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media that I began to wonder about a possible connection between the words property, proper and propriety. Set in the years spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century through to the mid 1920s among the British upper middle class, to whom property was king and the appearance of propriety and doing what was proper more important than anything else, the series made a connection seem likely. It turns out the three words share the same Latin root, proprietas, meaning one's own, or particular.

In many ways the entire series is built around characters' conflicting attitudes to the meanings implied by those words. While most people might have lived in a sort of grey area which allowed them some room to manoeuvre, there were those who either took them as gospel or rejected them completely. The Forsyte Saga is all about the repercussions of what happens when people from either end of the spectrum are brought into close contact and the damage it does to all parties involved. The Forsyte family are everything one would expect from the upper middle class during the reign of Queen Victoria. While they may not be titled they are wealthy in both cash and property. They are also firm believers in class and people acting in accordance with their station and standing. Any deviation from the norm is dismissed with the ultimate rejection of the era - "It's just not done".

When Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves) makes the mistake of falling in love with his child's governess and leaving his wife for her not only is he is cut off and disowned by the entire family, everyone from his father to his cousins act like he never even existed. As the eldest male child in the family he was to have taken over the family's affairs and inherited the bulk of the money when his uncle died. However, with his banishment role of heir passes to his cousin Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis). While Soames is everything the family could wish for, a successful solicitor who would never behave in a manner that would bring discredit to the family, he's not married. It's no good him being the heir if there isn't anyone to follow in his footsteps.
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Thankfully Soames soon meets the woman he wants to be his bride, Irene Forsyte (Gina McKee), and begins to relentlessly pursue her. Irene is almost everything Soames isn't and has no real interest in him. However her father has recently died and left her and her step-mother with very little money. When her stepmother threatens to throw her out she's left with no option but to marry Soames or to face a life of desperate poverty. Even then, before she accepts his proposal she elicits the promise from him that if she's ever unhappy he will release her from the marriage. He of course readily agrees to this saying he will make her happy. Unfortunately his proposal and her response foreshadow trouble in the future. He asks her, "Will you be mine?" and she replies "I will marry you".

Under British law at the time a wife was considered the husband's property much like a house or any other possession. While Soames does love Irene, he also treats her like a possession instead of a human being. While she might be surrounded by wealth and all the trappings that accompany it, her marriage rapidly turns into a gilded cage. When she approaches Soames to honour the promise he made her before their marriage, he refuses, claiming that he has done everything in his power to make her happy and that divorce is just not done. So it comes as little surprise that she eventually turns to another man, Phillip Bosinney (Ioa Gruffudd) to make her happy. Unfortunately he is just happens to be the fiancee of Soames' niece, the daughter of the man who left his wife for the governess.

As you can see the groundwork is being laid for what could turn into a very convoluted , multigenerational, and typical soap opera. However, this series has a number of redeeming features you don't usually find in soap operas. While I've never read the John Galsworthy books the show was based upon so don't know how the well they've adapted them, I do know this series does a fine job of bringing the era in question to life. Aside from British television's usual talent for dressing a set and its characters accurately, their recreation of Victorian England goes much further than skin deep. It would have been easy to have made the character of Soames a one dimensional villain who we could blame everything on. Instead what the show's creators have done is show how he is merely a product of his times, and that according to his lights and the standards of society at the time, his behaviour was always legally proper.

Right from the start of the series we see what happens to somebody who deviates from the norm in this repressive and judgemental society. There's no way a person in Soame's position could have a chance of knowing how to communicate with another person on an emotional level. At one point his mother says to him, "I'm sorry I didn't teach you how to love", but that's the closest anyone comes to admitting there might be something amiss in their world. Even when the world is changing around them, after WWl and into the 1920s, the Forsytes are still clinging to their outdated code. We see it in Soames' daughter by his second wife in the behaviour she exhibits when she starts to pursue the man she sets her sites on.
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However, what really sets this series apart from your everyday soap opera, is the quality of the acting. In the role of Soames, Lewis, does an extraordinary job. This is a guy who it would be easy to hate, but somehow the actor manages to allow us to see beneath the surface, and in spite of his reprehensible behaviour, we actually end up feeling sympathy for him. McKee, as Irene, is equally brilliant. She's one of these actors who appear strangely luminescent, so the screen literally lights up whenever she's in the shot. Her character could have been played as a wounded bird victim type, but then we would have wondered what the hell anybody saw in her. As McKee plays her Irene is a beautiful, spirited and independent woman. Bright and vivacious she would have shone like a lighthouse in a storm in contrast to the repressed society around her.

Even though Rupert Graves' character is disowned near the beginning of the show, he ends up being central to the plot of the series. As the only Forsyte willing to ignore propriety in favour of following his heart, we already know Jolyon is different from the rest of them. Throughout the series Graves does a wonderful job showing us the type of strength of character it takes to willing accept being an outcast and all that implies . While his father eventually comes around and accepts him again, and in fact ends up thinking he was right not to care what others thought of him, any chance there might have been for reconciliation with the rest of the family is permanently destroyed when he and Irene marry. It seems almost inevitable that Soames' daughter, Fleur Forsyte, (Emma Griffiths Malin) and their son, Jon Forsyte, (Lee Williams) fall in love.

Yet, even here the series manages to avoid being too cliched and does its best to steer away from the whole "star crossed lovers" theme. In fact, they use it to open the way to make Soames more human instead of having him just play the role of tyrannical father opposed to his daughter's wishes. Even better is the fact the two young actors give very believable performances as the respective children of their parents. For it's Fleur who actively pursues the relationship and manipulates events so she can get what she wants. Neither character is your typical ingenue and the series is far better for it.

The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection contains both the first and second parts of the series on six DVDs. The special features included with the set includes a biography of author Galsworthy, it's interesting to note the similarities between his life and the Forsytes, and a short documentary on the making of the series. The short film includes interviews with both McKee and Lewis, who talk intelligently and extensively about their respective characters and the society they lived in, and the show's creators, who outline what they were attempting to achieve and create with the series.

As is the case with other British produced dramas of this type, The Forsyte Saga not only does an immaculate job of recreating the time period the action takes place in physically but in all other ways as well. In particular we are left in no doubt as to the importance property, propriety and proper play in the lives of the Victorian upper middle class. While script, direction and design play a role in all of this, it's the actors which bring it to life. From the leads to those who have minor roles as servants every single actor is not only believable in their role, but brings a depth to their characterization that is a joy to watch. A word of warning - once you start watching its very hard to tear yourself away. Unless you're prepared to have a very late night, start watching early in the day and unplug the phone. You're not going to want to be interrupted by anything.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.

August 15, 2012

DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo

The world of animated cartoons has changed drastically since the days of Walt Disney and his first "live" action film, Steamboat Willie, featuring the character who would become Mickey Mouse. Instead of having to painstakingly draw each frame in a movie, animators have computers which not only "sculpt" images, but also bring them to life. The worlds which their creations move through are no longer hand painted static backdrops, but are three dimensional backgrounds co-ordinated to move in conjunction with the action taking place in front of them. While the ability to seamlessly integrate the animated character's activities with the world surrounding them has resulted in cartoons almost as realistic as live action movies, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes it still can't replace human artistry.

While there wasn't anything artistic about the assembly line conditions under which many commercial cartoons were created in the past either, there's something infinitely more impressive watching a feature drawn by hand than one done on a computer. To today's sophisticated audience used to CGI special effects and 3D rendering it might at first appear primitive and crude. However there is a certain magic to these efforts that will eventually win them over, especially if a film is as obvious a labour of love as Mia and the Migoo. The English language version of the film from French director Jaques-Remy Girerd's Folimage animation studio was released on DVD on August 7 2012 and is being distributed by GKIDS Films throughout North America.
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With every cell hand painted the film took nearly six years to complete from conceptualization to final product. However, when you see the results of this painstaking attention to detail on your television screen, you'll appreciate the care and effort that went into its creation. From the opening frames this movie is a visual feast. The use of colour in the beautifully painted backdrops catches your eye right away. In an interview with Girerd included in the DVD's special features he talks about how his studio works in the tradition of Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and you can see their influence in every frame. Whether a busy street, the interior of a house, a lush jungle or a stark mountain top, each background is a celebration of the shades and hues of colour that go into creating everything around us.

Mia and the Migoo isn't just beautiful to look at it, its an entertaining and thoughtful story. I hesitate in using the word, as people have the impression a movie can't say anything of substance without being preachy, but it also contains some nice messages about respect: self-respect, respect for others, and respect for the world around you. While some might bridle at the rather subversive idea that the environment and caring for those around you is more important than turning a profit, considering how so much popular entertainment aimed at children these days celebrates consumerism it makes for a refreshing change. The only problem is the message is so subtle it will probably be lost on most of its audience. While Girerd and company are to be commended for creating something which doesn't assume its audience is stupid, when people are used to being bludgeoned over the head they might not respond to a gentle tap on the shoulder.

The story is a combination of a classic road trip and adventure as young Mia leaves her village to look for her father, Pedro. He has taken a job far from home on a construction site building a resort in a remote wilderness area. Strange accidents have been happening on the site, cranes have fallen over and there have been land slides. When Pedro hears an odd noise in one of the tunnels they are building on the site he goes to investigate and is trapped by a cave in. Hundreds of miles away Mia wakes up from a dream of her father in trouble. With her mother already dead, she's not prepared to lose her father and after visiting her mother's grave heads out to find him.

Aldrin lives in a world so completely different from Mia it might as well be on another planet. His mother and father are divorced and his father, Jekhide, the businessman behind the development project Pedro was working at, is a workaholic who ignores him. His mother is a scientist studying the effects of global warming on the Antarctic ice-cap, so in some ways Aldrin spends the film in much the same way as Mia, looking for his father. For even though he ends up travelling with Jekhide to the construction site to investigate the mysterious accidents, they might as well be hundreds of miles apart even when they're in the same room. In so many ways Aldrin is the parent in their relationship as he's always having to take his father to task for his self-centred and selfish behaviour. In the end it's Jekhide's acting like a spoilt child which brings about the movie's crises.
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As the movie progresses each child continues on their journey in search of their father. Mia's search is the more adventurous as she must somehow cross great distances on her own. On the way she receives help from some unexpected sources, but it's her own self reliance and bravery that serve her best. One of the secrets to this movies success is the fact that it's through the example of its characters behaviour it gets its message across. While Jekhide's behaviour is slightly over the top at times, it is a cartoon so you can forgive the film makers any excesses that might seem unrealistic. The character's believability is aided by the fact the cast doing the English language dubbing are universally excellent. Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Modine (who also produced) Wallace Shawn and James Woods are given top billing, but all involved manage to make cartoon characters more believable then usual.

Speaking of cartoon characters slightly over the top, the Migoo (collectively given voice by Shawn) of the title are some of the best invented characters you'll find in this type of film. Bumbling, affectionate and slightly silly, they've also grown dangerously complacent in their role as nature spirits tasked with protecting the vital tree of life. The tree grows in the centre of the lake near where the new resort is being built. According to what the Migoo tell Mia, if anything happens to the tree, they will suffer and so will the world.

You can probably see where the plot is heading. Confrontation between Jekhide and the Migoo, as he believes they're responsible for sabotaging his construction site, an attack on the tree followed by its saving and a happy ending with everybody finding what they were looking for. However, as the saying goes, it's the journey that really matters, and in this case that's actually true. For while the idea of a little girl Mia's age travelling hundreds of mile on her own requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, the journey each character takes on the road to the happy ending is far more realistic than what one usually sees in cartoons.

The film makers make sure that Jekhide (and I don't think the combining of Jekyl and Hyde, the most famous split personality in literary history, in his last name is an accident) is shown as being pushed over the edge by circumstances and isn't really evil. His obsession with profit and success narrow his focus so much he loses sight of what was really important. When he thinks he has lost Aldrin he realizes his mistake and while it isn't easy, he does his best to make amends. So, even though his character has to undergo the biggest change, the progression he undergoes is actually quite believable. Naturally as the film is meant for a younger audience, the messages are fairly obvious. However, unlike far too many movies made for this age range it doesn't assume its audience are stupid just because they're young. There is never the feeling the film makers are either lecturing, talking down to or manipulating their audience.

Mia and the Migoo is not only exceptional for the quality of the artisanship that has gone into into its physical creation, but because of the thoughtful and creative minds behind the story it tells. First and foremost its a delightful piece of entertainment with enough humour and adventure to hold he attention of most young audiences. While it lacks the high tech bells and whistles people reared on video games are used to, it has one element those types of entertainment are seriously deficient in - heart. You might not be able to see it, but you certainly can feel it in every frame on the screen in front of you. It may take a while, but I think this movie could eventually win over even the most cynical audiences. A thing of beauty and a joy forever, Mia and the Migoo is a wonderful movie for the whole family.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo on Blogcritics.)

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line

I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

August 2, 2012

Television Review: The Barnes Collection

There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people's collections probably don't exceed a few treasures they've managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that's exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.

The roughly hour long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes' and his collection's legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th century the film makers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs and readings from Barnes's correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you'd expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn't hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It's not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole - although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.

The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation - the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it - and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes' assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags to riches story of the 19th century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.
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We also find out that it was during his time as a student in Europe, he studied physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics in Germany, he first was exposed to the world of modern art. While there's no real explanation for why he became such an avid collector, the documentary does make a point of mentioning his early friendship with American Impressionist painter William James Glackens. It was through Glackens he obtained introductions to some of the biggest dealers in Paris in the early years of the 20th century when he began buying up modern art by the bushel load. The original bill of sales for his collection read like a who's who of modern art at the time. Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Braque, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seurat and Tolouse-Lautrec are just some of the names which show up on receipts and invoices.

After a while he began making trips to Paris himself and buying works directly from the painters. He had no formal training in art, but judging by some of the things he said, that was a plus not a negative. He talked about paintings in terms of them being conversations he could have with the artist and how they were constantly telling him new things. He didn't bring any preconceived notions of what art should be to his evaluation of a work and was able to appreciate them in a way that few people of his time were capable of doing. This was driven home to him when he arranged for an exhibit of his modern works back home in Philadelphia and the paintings were roundly condemned by everyone from academics to politicians as crude, vulgar and obscene.

After detailing how he amassed his collection, which aside from the modern art included Old Masters, Americana, wrought iron, furniture, African sculpture and many other miscellaneous items, the documentary covers what he did with it all. In 1922 he had purchased a large property in Merion, an outskirt of Philadelphia, which he used as a residence and gallery. It was here the collection was put on permanent display and where he began to try and implement the ideas on the role of art in education that he developed. To that end he founded The Barnes Foundation with the purpose of "promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts".
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He began developing educational programming inspired by the idea expressed by American philosopher John Dewey that it was only through education a society could achieve true democracy. It was to that end that some of the first "students" the foundation worked with were the workers in his factory. He discovered they only needed six of their eight hour work day to properly do their jobs, so for two hours a day he'd bring them out to the Marion gallery and began teaching them about art. The foundation continues to do this type of work to this day as we see when the film crew follows some of its members into a Philadelphia school as they teach students about art and how to see what an artist might be trying to say with a work.

The final stage in the history the documentary recounts is what's become of the collection today. When the residents of Marion began to object to having a museum in a private residential area a new home was constructed to house it in downtown Philadelphia. Interviews with the architects of the new gallery show us how much care and planning went into the creation of the new space - with an emphasis on ensuring an ample supply of natural light for viewing the work in the day time. However, what's really fascinating is seeing the care taken by the foundation's employees to ensure the collection would be displayed exactly as Barnes had hung it originally. Prior to packing each room in the Marion gallery they mapped out how everything was positioned. This involved measuring the distance between each work so when they were rehung in the new space each room would look exactly the same as it did before and would have the same visual impact on visitors Barnes had intended.

While The Barnes Collection only scratches the surface of both the man who created the collection and the collection itself, it is a great introduction to both. While its unclear on why Barnes felt the need to amass such a huge collection of art work in the first place, it's what he did with it, and what the foundation bearing his name still does, that's his true legacy. Making this massive collection of great art from around the world, a collection which includes works by some of the most renowned modern artists, available and accessible to the public is in itself a gift whose worth is next to impossible to judge.

However, even more important as far as I'm concerned, was his understanding of the role an appreciation of the fine arts played in education, and how important it was for everyone to have the opportunity to obtain that education. To know this collection exists for that purpose and the foundation continues to carry out Barnes' original mandate is a ray of light in today's otherwise bleak educational landscape. In an era when governments consider arts education in schools a luxury and a waste of money, it's a relief to know there are those in the world who know its true value. So on Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm take the time to see how one man's vision of art and education is still a goal worthy of trying to fulfil.

(Article first published as Television Review: The Barnes Collection on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley

When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

July 4, 2012

DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4

When filming any period piece television and film makers take great pains to make everything as authentic as possible. Whether it's ensuring the clothing people wear or the sets they act on are accurate representations of the period or they're speaking in dialects appropriate to the age, the attention to detail is remarkable. Yet for all the care taken film makers will still slip up in one crucial area by allowing characters to react in a matter reflecting modern attitudes and sensibilities. Perhaps I'm the only who finds it jarring to see anachronisms in behaviour, but when a character in a movie set in the 1950s expresses opinions more in line with the twenty-first century it can ruin the whole show for me.

In fact the closer a piece is to being contemporary the harder it is to ensure characters stay consistent with the tenor of their times. Especially difficult are those eras when a society is going through a period of radical change as it's tempting to allow characters to become caught up in events and ignore the reality of their situation. Like everywhere else the north of England in the second half of the 1960s was a society divided between those hell bent on preserving the comfortable world of their youth and those who weren't going to be satisfied with the world of their parents. While this type of atmosphere could provide complications for a police force, the law stays the law and no matter what's going on it has to be enforced. While that might sound somewhat inflexible, in the hands of Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) in George Gently: Series 4, released on DVD July 3 2012 by Acorn Media, it provides a moral compass which helps him steer a smooth course in turbulent times.

Teamed up once again with his young Sergeant, John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) the two ninety minute episodes of Series 4 bring the two officers face to face with the shifting moral ground of the times. In the first the death of a female secondary school student takes them into the fantasy world of pop music and romantic poems. In episode two the two officers have to deal with a case of local authorities wanting to not only maintain the status quo but turn the clock back in order to keep the peace. While each case is different, the two are forced to put their personal opinions and feelings aside and rely on the letter of the law in order to reach correct conclusions.
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As viewers of previous series are aware despite his youth and appreciation for some of the material changes occurring, flash cars and sharp suits, Bacchus is the more conservative of the two when it comes to social issues. However, this doesn't make Gently some sort of advocate for change. It's just that he's seen more of life than his junior, but instead of it turning him cynical and bitter it has made him more compassionate and understanding of others and their situations. Yet no matter how sympathetic he might be towards a person and their circumstances, he's firm in the belief that nobody is above the law. It was this belief which ran him afoul of his fellow officers when he served in London, he refused to turn a blind eye to police officers on the take, and continues to make him the bane of anyone who tries to obstruct or take the law into their own hands.

While the opinions and views of both Bacchus and Gently might seem a little dated or old fashioned to today's viewers, and the object of some derision among those they end up dealing with in their cases, they are consistent with people in their line of work and background for the time period. In the first episode their investigation takes them into the strange world of teenage girls on the verge of becoming women. Unlike earlier generations whose rebellion might have taken the form of illicit cigarettes, these girls are demanding independence and dreaming of being more than just dutiful wives and mothers. While this serves to muddy the waters of the circumstances surrounding the case of the girl who was murdered by introducing a number of potential suspects, including the host of a pop music show and one of the girl's teachers, it also shows the strength of the series' writing.

Some might look on this type of setting as an opportunity to make some sort of statement or comment on society. However, in this series they content themselves with depicting as accurately as possible what was happening during the time period and let the police get on with trying to solve the murder. While the plot does hinge on the over heated fantasy of a teenage girl, social conditions at the time have little or no bearing on who the guilty party is. Watching the two officers squirm,, especially Bacchus as they deal with a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality is both funny and consistent with what we've seen of the characters previously. It also makes perfect sense considering the time period. Sex was not something talked about easily by most people during this time, and discussing it in terms of young girls was just not done.
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In episode two we are given an even clearer picture of Gently's strict adherence to his own moral code of nobody being above the law. An informer Gently had used for many years both in London and in his new location turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. With the death occurring outside his jurisdiction he has to rely on another areas police force for information about the death. When he discovers an old colleague from his days in London is in charge he is initially hopeful, but he soon discovers discrepancies in the reports about the death that make him suspect something is being covered up. In spite of attempts to stonewall him, Gently eventually does end up solving the case.

However, while finding out how the victim died is of course the point of the episode, the circumstances surrounding the incident are such they offer a test to Gently's "nobody's above the law" credo. Not only does he pass the test once but twice in this episode. For aside from the coverup surrounding his informer's death there are other abuses of the system going on in the small community. Some might have seen the extenuating circumstances which are revealed as justification for not pressing charges against those involved with both impeding investigations into the murder and the other activities. Bacchus raises the question with his superior only to be told, in no uncertain terms, nobody is above the law, for any reason.

When working on a series set in recent history it would be difficult not to allow contemporary views and opinions to colour either a character's behaviour or their reactions to situations. One of the great strengths of the entire George Gently series is not only how well they manage to depict the way changes in society's attitudes and beliefs have a way of trickling into all aspects of life, but the various character's reactions to what's happening. Whether it's a teenage daughter refusing to conform to her parents' expectations as to what's proper behaviour or the larger issues of the day everything is presented in as realistic a fashion as possible. George Gently: Series 4, while living up to the standards set by the previous Series as a police procedural television show a notch above others of its kind, is further proof, if any were needed, of how well the show's creators have handled this task.

The two disc DVD set not only contains both episodes from Series 4, it also includes a behind the scenes documentary on the filming of the previous episodes. It has the usual shots of the cast members joking around on set and some amusing chatter from each lead about the other. However, they each make a point of talking about the time period the show is set in and how interesting it is to do an almost contemporary period piece. As interesting as it is for them to act in, George Gently: Series 4 is as fascinating to watch. Not only is the show intelligent and well acted its also an unsentimental look at a time which is too often coloured by somebody's personal opinion. For those wanting a detective show with more than just the usual bad guys and good guys, this will make a perfect fit.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4 on Blogcritics)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live

String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

May 14, 2012

DVD Review: Monroe: Series 1

Television shows about doctors have been on the air for decades now. Probably next to catching criminals healing the sick has provided the basis for more shows than any other profession. Unlike police shows where there's the built element of danger our fascination with medical drams is based more on the mystery surrounding exactly what it is doctors, especially surgeons, do. Somehow or other these men and women cut people open and fiddle around with the internal workings of our bodies in order to fix things that have gone wrong. It's no wonder we look on them as part miracle workers and part magicians. They do things few of us have the capacity to understand let alone carry out.

All of which explains why we want to watch shows which not only show them carrying out their duties but depict them in their off hours. What kind of person becomes a doctor? How does their work effect their lives away from the job? How do they cope with the stress of performing life and death procedures or the times patients don't survive? We might look to medical shows for the answers to those questions. but is that really a valid source of information? Television exists to entertain us in the hopes of achieving high ratings so they can sell their advertising space. Out of necessity the scenarios they create for our viewing are going to emphasis the dramatic over reality. How riveting would it be to watch a surgeon performing twenty-five gall bladder removals and then go home to his nice family at the end of the day like any other professional? Therefore, since we're not going to be getting reality when we watch these shows, the best we can hope for is the characters are as believable as possible and their actions and reactions consistent with the character as presented.

Judging by the six episodes of Monroe: Series 1 to be seen on the DVD being released by Acorn Media on May 29 2012 the creators of the show understand this concept far better than most other medical shows I've seen. James Nesbitt plays Gabriel Monroe, a gifted neurosurgeon working in medium sized British hospital. Within each episode we usually watch him dealing with one major procedure, interact with fellow hospital staff - specifically cardiologist Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) and anesthesiologist Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley) and then with what time left over his wife, Anna, (Susan Lynch) and son.
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North American audiences will require a bit of time to get used to the differences between the way hospitals in England work and the way they do here. Surgeons like Monroe only see a patient after he has been examined by an admitting doctor and the surgery scheduled. In some ways they're not even considered "doctors" because they only do surgery - you'll notice that on most occasions Monroe is introduced to his prospective patient as Mr. Monroe, very rarely as doctor. It will seem slightly informal and odd, but once you acclimatize to the new environment (an environment which includes universal health care which explains why the patients come from all walks of life) the patterns of hospital life will take shape quickly enough viewers should have no trouble following the action.

As for the character of Monroe on the surface he seems confident and extraverted. Always ready with a joke or a sarcastic remark, the butt of most of his jokes in the highly reserved and seemingly dispassionate Jenny Bremner. As equally gifted a surgeon as Monroe she keeps her relationships with her patients strictly professional and never communicates anything to them other than information about the procedure she is about to perform. Monroe is just the opposite and does his best to reassure and comfort both his patients and their families. He isn't able to resist making jokes about Bremner, both to her face and to his best friend on the staff, Lawrence Shepherd, about her being an ice queen. It's hard to decide which is greater, his incredulity or his glee, when he discovers Shepherd and Bremner have started a relationship.

Yet, for all his apparent compassion, Monroe isn't able to find time for his family. In fact he's so out of touch with what's going on within his own home that Anna announcing she's leaving him now that their son has left for university catches him completely by surprise. Six years prior something happened which drove a permanent wedge between the two of them. He was able to lose himself in his work and caring for others, but he left his family alone, cut off from the emotional support they needed. For the first few episodes of the series he does his best to avoid dealing with these issues, but then something happens in the last episode which forces him to come to terms with it.
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What I appreciated most about this series was that it managed to avoid the melodrama so many of these hospital dramas seem to rely on in dealing with either the personal lives of the staff or the surgical procedures they perform. Never having been awake in an operating room, I've no idea whether the depiction of what goes on is accurate or not, but everyone's behaviour in surgery is consistent with what we know of their characters. Monroe is driven to try and rescue all his patients, and when a colleague has to undergo surgery to prevent an aneurism he skirts close to the edge of giving her permanent brain damage in order to save her. Yet, even this episode doesn't make a meal of the topic and turn it into something over the top. There's no dramatic recovery or sudden reversals - healing from brain surgery is a long slow process and there's never any guarantees of a positive outcome.

Over the course of this first series each of the main characters and the various secondary characters are gradually filled out. The writers, and the actors, understand there's no way for us to get to know somebody really well in only an hour, so they take the entire six episodes to let us get to know everybody. Even better is the fact that they don't follow the obvious patterns with characters. Bremner doesn't turn out to be hiding a heart as soft as a marshmallow beneath her hard exterior - she might not be the ice queen she pretends to be, but that doesn't mean she can deal with people's overt displays of emotions or has a sudden outpouring of compassion.

As Monroe James Nesbitt does his usual great job. The impish humour of his character is not just something he hides his troubles behind - its a genuine part of who he is. Yet he's more than a one dimensional character and the other aspects come out gradually over the course of the season. As we see in his relationship with his family he can be self absorbed to the point of ignoring everybody and everything save for how things affect him personally. For all his compassion he is surprisingly ignorant of the impact his actions or words can have on those around him. It's this type of carelessness that almost costs him his friendship with Shepherd, ends his marriage and almost alienates his son. As the series ends it appears that's he's beginning to understand this, and it will be interesting to see how his character is developed in any future episodes.

Maybe because Monroe is set in the relatively foreign environment of a British hospital it seems different from most of the hospital dramas that I've seen produced for television. However, the care taken with character development and the ways in which the show handles the surgical procedures its characters deal with gives it an air of realism that I've usually found lacking in other shows of this type. In the past I've never been interested enough in any hospital show to want to watch it on a regular basis, let alone watch six episodes in almost one sitting. This show was so well done I was disappointed there weren't more than six episodes on the two discs and found myself wanting to watch more. I don't know if its an accurate representation of life in a British hospital, but it sure is good television.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Monroe: Series 1 on Blogcritics.)

May 10, 2012

TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two

Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downy Jr. have each taken on the role and brought something indefinable to it. Each actor has brought the same character to life and left his personal stamp on a figure who has become an icon. With each new interpretation another layer has been added to the famous character's mythos until one would think it impossible for anybody to bring something new to the role. At least that's how I felt until I watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock: Season 2 currently airing on the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) program Mystery!.

Although Episode One "A Scandal In Belgravia" aired on May 6 2012 if you missed it you can usually count on PBS rebroadcasting progams or you can wait for them to release the DVD for public sale on May 22 2012 after Episode Two, "The Hound Of Baskervilles" (May 13 2012) and Episode Three, "The Reichenbach Fall" airs (Sunday May 20 2012, 9:00pm on most PBS stations - check local listings). Those of you who saw Season One are already aware that while the titles are the same as the master detective's great cases, there is one crucial difference, instead of being set in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th century England, these take place in modern times.

Sherlock and Dr. John Watson, Martin Freeman still live at 221B Baker Street, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is still their landlady, and Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is still Sherlock's pet police man at Scotland Yard. However instead of his trademark magnifying glass our consulting detective carries a smart phone and uses computers and modern pathology equipment to break down the clues he finds at crime scenes. Oh, and Holmes still has the annoying habit of being able to observe everything that others miss, and has no problems pointing out that he can't see how everybody else could be so blind.
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Now, thanks to press access I've seen all three of Season Two's episodes, but don't worry I'm not about to give away any details. However, if you know anything of the original stories you'll have a fairly good idea how they play out anyway. For although the stories have been adapted to meet the 21st century - in "The Hound Of Baskerville" there is a mysterious government facility named Baskerville where it's rumoured they do genetic modifications to animals located right next to the moors where the hound is supposed to have been seen - they don't diverge too far thematically. One thing that I will tell you is that its important to remember that lurking in the background of nearly every episode is Holme's unscrupulous counterpart, the consulting criminal, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).

He appears at the beginning of Episode One to resolve the cliffhanger from Season One then vanishes from sight until the end of Episode Two and finally takes centre stage with Holmes in the season's finale. All along we are made aware of the similarities between the two men. Each of them have superior intellects which they need to be employing or they become bored. The difference being while Holmes is willing to wait for puzzles to come along for him to solve, Moriarty is completely amoral and delights in creating the puzzles for Holmes no matter what the cost in human lives.

Ever since Moriarty discovered Holmes existed he's been setting puzzles for him as a diversion and to gauge what kind of threat he poses. He could be two, even three steps removed from the actual crime, but if you dig deep enough you'll find he's had something to do with every case Holmes and Watson are involved in right from the onset of Season One. Does he merely enjoy the game, seeing Holmes respond to his moves and attempt to outwit him, or is there some other deeper, more sinister motive, driving him?

While the plots and the scripts are well developed and well written what really matters in any telling of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the performances of the leads. As Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch has to be seen to be believed. Even in repose you have the impression of a coiled spring ready to explode at the first chance. While those around him think he enjoys making others look stupid with his powers of observation and intellect, if they were paying attention at all they would realize he doesn't care enough about what they think to bother wanting to show them up. He might get frustrated with their inability to draw the same conclusions he does from the evidence at hand, and often makes belittling comments about their abilities, but he's so removed from the mundane world he can't understand why people might be offended by his behaviour.

All that exists for him is the puzzle to be solved. He will literally skip for joy at the announcement of a particularly difficult murder enquiry, refers to serial killings as fun and has a nasty habit of making no secret about how much fun he's having even thought lives are at stake. You would think he was selfish and conceited except for the fact in order to be those things you have to think the rest of the world matters, and he never gives the impression they do. Cumberbatch somehow manages to communicate all of this both with his physical characterization of Holmes and his delivery of the lines. There is something about the way he always holds himself which creates the impression all his energy is pointing inward. Even when he's completely still we know there is incredible activity going on inside.

However, Cumberbatch doesn't just play him as a feelingless robot. He clamps down hard upon his feelings as they are a distraction to his intellect. He lets us have occasional glimpses past the wall he's erected around them, and those are enough for us to realize there is a human being beneath the surface. He might not need to give vent to the needless demonstrative displays so many in the world do, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care about those in his life as we find out as Season Two progresses. It's these glimpses he offers us that make the loyalty offered him by Dr. John Watson believable.
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Martin Freeman is the perfect Watson to Cumberbatch's Holmes. Short and rather soft around the edges he offers a great physical contrast to Cumberbatch's tall and sharp Holmes, but it's not only their physicality that sets them apart. Watson wears his heart on his sleeve, cares about what others think of him, and, just as importantly, cares about what others think of Holmes. It's wonderful watching the two of them in public situations with Watson serving as a buffer between Homes' brutal honesty and people's feelings. He doesn't quite elbow his friend in the ribs, but his whispered asides of "Say thank you" or "Maybe you shouldn't smile so much, two children have been kidnapped" serve the same function.

While Freeman frequently allows Watson's exasperation with his friend's behaviour to show through, he also makes it plain he's also having the time of this life being involved with the cases Holmes takes on. Like Holmes it's not because of the attention they start to receive for solving the cases, in fact he could do without people jumping to conclusions about two single men living together, he too enjoys the thrill of the chase and the adventure. While both he and we might occasionally wonder why Holmes involves him in his cases, there is obviously something about Watson he finds invaluable. While he's just as impatient with Watson as witheveryone else, he also seems to appreciate somebody he can talk out loud to and, more importantly, trust. It's a complicated relationship and one that both actors do a remarkable job of making very real and believable.

There have been many film and television adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enigmatic hero Sherlock Holmes, but the one being broadcast on the PBS show Mystery over the next couple weeks of 2012 May has to rank up there with the best. The scripts are well written and the acting is of the highest quality. However, the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martim Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively are what make Sherlock: Season Two probably the best thing currently on television. In the words of one character, "Smart is the new sexy" and this is the smartest thing you'll have seen in a long time.

(Article first published as TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two on Blogcritics)

May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Oka

In North America the coming of Europeans spelled the end for the traditional lifestyle of those already living here. It didn't matter whether people had been hunter gatherers or agricultural what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them taken away and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or reduced in population as their habitat was eroded by civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.

European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn't have dreamed of trying to make a go of "taming" the land. Until late in the twentieth century people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as "civilization's" greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.

Once considered impenetrable and forbidding the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials for cell phones and other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
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Naturally those most effected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it's the Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, they've long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests. A new movie, Oka, shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing them as has happened to so many the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for twenty-five years., the movie depicts the Bayaka's circumstances with both intelligence and humour.

Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual's personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often this type of movie falls into one of a few traps. They will either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren't or become a forum for some sort of new age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much "noble savage garbage. Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn't come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.

Whitman has made its his life's work to record the sounds of the Bayaka's lives including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he's been unable to capture on tape, the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts the people used to conduct. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.

When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he's in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor's warning, "there's no more trips to Africa for you Larry", he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company's desire to harvest the forests in those areas.

Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependant on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There's also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor's edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have. (All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it's obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.)
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When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It's through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.

Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it's obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they've been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn't they hunt it? "Don't you like meat?" they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn't allow for any room to sentimentalize one's source of food.

Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. For not only does it do a wonderful job of telling the story of how Whitman and his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you'll ever see of the effects of displacement upon a people. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they've done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don't need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don't have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn't necessarily for the better.

Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Oka on Blogcritics)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011

The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

April 27, 2012

DVD Review: Terry Pratchett's Going Postal

Adapting a book to the screen, be it television or film, is always a risky business. It becomes especially tricky when dealing with a work that has a huge popular following. Fans of the book will be on the lookout for anything they see as a deviation from a beloved text and take any transgressions personally. In some ways the writer of a work is probably a lot less demanding than his or her fans. To a certain extent a writer surrenders their work once they agree to its publication and don't have the same sense of proprietorship towards it as those who become its devotees. Having to deal with that type of scrutiny on top of the inherent difficulties of bringing a book to the screen it's something of a wonder some movies are ever made.

However, recent years have seen the turning of so many popular books into film it makes you wonder whether directors and producers are gluttons for punishment or are they willing to risk that much on the chance of cashing in on a book's popularity? And it is a risk, for every successful Harry Potter franchise there's disasters like The Golden Compass and Ergaon. The latter saw the first book in each series turned into a film and then nothing - not even word of a sequel. Still if it works, the payoff is obviously worth it, and the movies themselves can end up being wonderful compliments to the books. So when I heard that the two part television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal was being released on DVD by Acorn Media, I couldn't resist checking it out.

Now I'm not an initiate of Pratchett's Discworld, the who know's how many books the author has written set in a fantastical world populated by creatures from all corners of the magical universe. But I have read a couple of his books and liked his humour and sense of the absurd. You only have to read one or two in the series to appreciate the amazing amount of detail that's gone into creating the reality the books are set in. If you can picture a Victorian era with a strange mixture of magic and technology populated by vampires, werewolves, mortals, dwarfs and all the others you'd associate with tales of imagination and fantasy, then you can begin to imagine the difficulties a filmmaker faces bringing it to life.
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Of course setting the stage is only half the battle. Bringing the characters who populate the world to life and telling their stories is the real challenge. On the surface Pratchett's books are humorous escapades populated by flamboyant characters. However there is far more to them than meets the eye and to properly capture the nuances and subtleties on screen would take a great deal of care and effort. I was thrilled to see that the people behind this production of Going Postal had done just that and didn't settle for simply playing it for laughs.

The story is relatively straight forward. Convicted con-man Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle) is given a last minute reprieve from hanging by Lord Vetinari (Charles Dance) on the condition that he takes on the task of rebuilding the moribund post office. The new system of communications, a combination of telegraph and semaphore called Clacks, is not performing as well as it should and is making a hash of the Lord's attempts to play a long distance game of something like chess. Given the option of death or Postmaster, Moist takes Postmaster, unaware the reason the post office isn't doing so well is the previous five people who have held the position have met untimely ends. It turns out the man who runs the Clacks operation, Reacher Gilt (David Suchet) doesn't like competition and has employed the services of a Banshee assassin to shorten the odds in his favour. Initially the job's only redeeming feature for Moist is the head of the local golem union, Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy, who is responsible for the well being of the parole officer assigned to ensure Moist doesn't do a runner.

At first Moist tries his best to see how he can turn this posting to his advantage somehow. Is there some angle he can work to allow him to turn this into just another score? In order to do that he will have to make sure the post office becomes a success, which of course puts his life at risk. While threat of death from Reacher Gilt might seem enough of a problem to deal with, there's also the disturbing fact the post office itself is haunted. Not by ghosts of people, but by the words of thousands and thousands of undelivered letters. They seep into his sub conscience and when he's asleep he has dreams which show him the consequences of his crimes.

Night after night he has nightmares of the people's lives who were ruined by his scams and sees what happened to them. One of those people was Adora's father who had invented the Clacks but had them sold out from under him when banks were forced to call in all their loans because of forged bonds created by Moist. Even before he witnesses Adora's family's misfortunes he was starting to feel remorse for what he had done. Of course when she finds out he was responsible he's even more distraught. However, instead of running away he is determined to prove to her he has changed by making the post office viable and bringing down Reacher Gilt who had squeezed her father out of the Clacks.
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While the people behind the production have done a wonderful job of creating the world in which the story takes place and created a script, with the aid of Terry Pratchett, that allows the story to unfold without feeling rushed or forced, its the acting that really carries the show. You'll never find more unlikely romantic leads as the characters of Moist and Adora, but Richard Coyle and Claire Foy do brilliant jobs of bringing them to life. Foy's characterization is especially well done as she captures both the tough shell Adora has put up to protect herself from being hurt after her family is ruined and the vulnerability beneath it. Needless to say she is livid when she finds out Moist was indirectly responsible, but even then she manages to convey she wants to believe he's sincere in his efforts to save the post office.

Richard Coyle matches her performance as his transformation from the callous con man who initially tries to see how he can turn the post office gig to his advantage to the person who genuinely wants to make it work is very believable. While he might have been initially motivated by a desire to impress Adora and win her heart, we watch as he becomes genuinely attached to the job and the people he works with. Of course there's the added bonus that by making the post office viable again Reacher Gilt will suffer. David Suchet does a beautiful job of making Reacher Gilt the type of character you love to hate. He manages to take his characterization right to the edge of overacting, but never crosses the line. As a result he is delightfully creepy - his smile alone is a thing of absolute beauty/evil guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

The wonderful thing about Going Postal is you don't have to be an aficionado of Terry Pratchett's work to enjoy this adaptation. While the story takes place in the universe of Discworld the author has created, you don't need to have read anything else by him to understand what's going on. Part of that is due to the fact that Pratchett wrote these stories with that in mind, but it's also because the people behind the filming have made sure not to assume their audience know anything about the world it takes place in. As a result even if you've not read any of Pratchett's books you should have no problem understanding what's going on and enjoying this DVD. The acting is superb, its beautifully filmed and its a great story - you really can't ask for anything more from television.

(Article first published as DVD Review; Terry Pratchett's Going Postal on Blogcritics.)

April 21, 2012

DVD Review: In Their Own Words

The invention of first radio and then television should have witnessed the birth of an age celebrating the sharing of ideas. The ability to communicate to a large number of people over great distances was the ideal opportunity to bring the formerly exclusive worlds of art, philosophy and science out of the ivory towers of learning and the salons of the wealthy into everybody's living room. Unfortunately that wasn't to be the case. Instead of presenting a wide range of ideas they've been used mainly as vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda or marketing goods. In fact, if anything, radio and television has resulted in fewer people having access to the arts or being exposed to diverse opinions and ideas as their content bears a striking resemblance to a modern version of the Roman "Bread and Circuses" designed to pacify the mobs and keep them from reflecting on the ills of society.

While nobody seems to question the argument the media are only giving the public what they want, what kind of choice are they offered? Oh sure a few underfunded public television stations in North America offer alternatives to the standard fare, but they spend most of their energies on trying to stave off budget cuts by those whose best interests is served in keeping the public placated and uninformed. What's even more frustrating are those few examples over the years of the media fulfilling its potential with programming exposing listeners/viewers to some of the world's most creative and innovative thinkers. For those who don't believe that television or radio shows consisting of people talking can be as captivating as any situation comedy, soap opera, day time talk show or cop thriller should take the opportunity offered by the Athena imprint of Acorn Media release of the two disc DVD set In Their Own Words on March 13 2012.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have done more to bring the words and ideas of some of the great English language writers and thinkers to the world than other television stations. In Their Own Words is a compilation of highlights of this type of programming from the twentieth century. From the early days or radio comes the only known existing recording of Virginia Wolfe talking about her work and the voice of Sigmund Freud discussing his then groundbreaking ideas on psychotherapy.
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With disc one devoted to English language, predominately British, authors and disc two to great thinkers of the modern world, viewers are given the chance to re-familiarize themselves with the famous who are responsible for not only the development of the written word as we know it today, but the philosophies and policies that have come to form the basis of our society. Economists, social critics and scientists broach their ideas on the welfare state, feminism, free markets, genetics, quantum physics and medicine. We watch and listen to the steady evolution of the novel from the days of the world's recovery from WWI through the angry young men of post WWII and as the joint influences of technology and immigration from the furthest reaches of Britain's former Empire came to bear upon its format and content.

Presented in the format of a documentary about its subject the set is more than a compilation of old recordings and footage of the writers and thinkers in question. What's almost as fascinating as hearing from the various parties involved is seeing the twentieth century being treated like an historical era. Having known people who had lived during every decade in the century I had never really stood back and observed it. Watching this set I was able to see how patterns that have occurred history were repeated during my own lifetime.

You also gain a real appreciation for how the pace of change sped up as the century progressed. On both discs the first two or three eras covered are defined by events. So they start with WWI - the years just prior, during and the years after and then continue with WWII and its immediate aftermath including the 1950s. However from then on change comes fast and furious. While the 1960s are one segment onto their own, after that major shifts in thought and policy seem to be almost yearly occurrences. Is it any wonder there was such an explosion of wildly different world views during this time? You have the rise of Thatcherism in Britain but at the same time there is a new wave of civil rights protests by both women and homosexuals.

It's against this backdrop we witness the changes that occur among both writers and thinkers. In the early part of the century both were still the preserve of the upper classes. Even those considered radical like the Bloomsbury group that produced Virginia Wolfe and others came from upper class backgrounds while the major thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, were all academics with little real world experience. It wasn't until WW II and after that we saw novelists from other backgrounds making their voices heard. While academics still made up the majority of people making contributions to our understanding of the human condition, economics and philosophy, as the century progressed their work can be seen to develop a far more practical application then before. For instead of presenting theories that spoke in generalities about ideas, they started to try and come up with explanations for things that went on in society.

The various programmes from which the interviews that form the basis of the set were culled for the most part allowed each subject to present their ideas and thoughts without challenging them. In some ways this was quite refreshing as it gives the viewer the chance to form their own opinions without somebody else's influence. However, in order to give us a better understanding of a subject's significance the film makers have also included interviews with both their contemporaries and current experts in the field. However they have done their best to keep editorializing to a minimum and restrict the commentary to explanation and comparison to what had come before. We still may not agree with what somebody has to say or believe, but we will gain a much better understanding of why they thought what they did and the process which allowed them to develop their thoughts.

Obviously In Their Own Words is limited as its subject matter is only British writers and thinkers. However, it still manages to give viewers a wonderful perspective on the evolution of thought and literature in the twentieth century. Of course being able to hear first hand from people like Kinglsy and Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Greene, John Maynard Keynes, Jane Goodall, Martha Meade and the countless others who are the subjects of this set is somewhat amazing. The producers have done a great job organizing what could have been an overwhelming amount of material into a fashion that allows us to fully appreciate each voice and mind. Even better is they've taken material that has been stuffed in archives in some cases for nearly a hundred years, recorded on equipment we'd consider hopelessly primitive, and managed to clean them up sufficiently for us to have no trouble understanding those talking. All in all this is a must own for anybody interested in the history of thought and literature in the twentieth century.

(Article first published as DVD Review: In Their Own Words on Blogcritics.)

April 14, 2012

DVD Review: Shades

Most of us still wonder what will become of us after we die. While various religions try to reassure us that as long as we lead a good life here on earth we will be rewarded by an eternity of paradise, only the truly devout accept those promises at face value. What about those belief systems which insist we are destined to come back in different forms until we have gained the amount of spiritual enlightenment required to ascend to another, higher, plane of existence? Than there's the whole matter of ghosts, where do they come from and what's prevented them from either being assigned to an afterlife or taking the next step along the path to Nirvana?

While its difficult to find any religion taking an official line on the whys and wherefores of ghosts, one of the most common theories used to explain them is they are the spirits of people who had unfinished business here on earth. Until such time as they are either able to make peace with themselves or set their affairs in order they are stuck in sort of a half life. Some theories have them wandering among us invisibly, only able to communicate with those they loved indirectly, while other's have them able to appear as spectral type figures who are able to talk to us in spite of being almost transparent.

Ghost are most commonly depicted in popular culture as malevolent creatures intent on causing the living harm in revenge for some crime perpetrated against them when they were alive. Whether in movies or books they are most often associated with old abandoned buildings, long lost treasure or ancient temples protected by some curse or another. However, once every so often, the cliche is ignored and ghosts aren't merely a means to scare an audience, but are characters every bit as substantial as their living counterparts. Such was the case with the British six part mini series, Shades televised back in 2001 and now being made available on DVD in North America by Acorn Media on February 14 2012.

Maeve (Dervla Kirwan) and Mark (Stephen Tompkinson) never knew each other when they were alive but that doesn't stop them from being thrown together when they both die unexpectedly. She was killed by a hit and run driver and he died while undergoing a routine surgery to repair a hernia. While Mark's circumstances seem more poignant, his wife gave birth to their second child while he was dying, it turns out neither of them left behind an idyllic existence.
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Maeve had been having an affair with a married man and had been more focused on her career than relationships. Yet when she finds out her former lover wasn't just cheating on his wife with her, but sleeping with a friend of hers as well she is not only hurt but furious with both of them. Even though she tries to convince Mark she doesn't care what her former boy friend gets up to she becomes obsessed with checking up on him and finding out who he's "cheating" with. Mark, on the other hand, at first appears to have been a devoted husband and father cruelly deprived of the chance to see his son and daughter grow up. However it turns out he'd not been honest with his wife about their financial situation. An independent electrical contractor, his business had been steadily losing money for the last couple of years. The insurance policy that should have provided for his family after his death had been cancelled because he hadn't been able to make the payments. On top of that he had also left them with a pile of debts, including back taxes.

While both Maeve and Mark would dearly love to have direct interaction with those they've left behind, they soon discover anybody who knew them when they were alive is unable to see or hear them. They are able to communicate with strangers, but those people never remember meeting or talking to them. In fact, the second someone turns their back on them, they immediately forget they'd ever met them. This can lead to both amusing and rather sad consequences for both characters, but also means the only people they can rely on for anything are each other. At various times throughout the series they use each other to talk to those they cared for in an attempt to deal with their unfinished business.

Both Kirwan and Tompkinson do wonderful jobs of portraying the two ghosts. Initially their characters follow the same arc as they deal with the traditional three stages of grief; disbelief, denial and then anger, but from the non-traditional stand point of seeing it from the dead person's perspective. As a result they enjoy a sort of misery enjoys comfort relationship for the first little while. However the writers of the series took great pains to make sure that death didn't change them. The only way they're going to be able to correct the mistakes they made during their life is by learning the lessons about themselves they would have needed to learn had they kept on living. In order to do this they won't be able to simply wallow in self-pity or act like they did when they were alive.

One thing that puzzles them for the first little while is why they haven't run across any other ghost aside from each other? Where has everybody else gone? Then they meet an elderly man who is able to remember them from previous meetings. Curious as to why he has this capability they investigate and discover that he only has a short time left to live. As they get to know him they discover he has been keeping a secret from his wife. Finally, just before he dies he tells her and he dies happy. Maeve and Mark see him just after he dies, and he thanks them for giving him the courage to talk to his wife. However, the second they turn their backs on the old man he disappears, and they never see him again.

Now that they understand the only reason they're hanging around is because they have unfinished business to take care of most series of this sort would have Maeve and Mark happily fade away into some sort of eternal bliss by miraculously finding a way to deal with their own unfinished business. However, the writers of Shades haven't been doing the expected, i.e. read sentimental, route throughout, and they don't start now. Just because someone's dead doesn't make them any more insightful then they were when they were alive. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the series for you by telling you how its resolved. However, I will say that it stays true to the way the story has been told all along and it makes perfect sense considering the characters and the plot.

Whether you believe in ghosts or don't, Shades is a beautifully told story about two people thrown together under very peculiar circumstances learning to make the best of it. Well acted and intelligently written, it tackles the subject of death and survival with humour and sympathy without once stooping to cheap sentimentality. Whether seen through the eyes of the two central characters or through those they've left behind, the series never strikes a wrong note. It may not be exactly what happens after we die, but its definitely one of the more interesting takes on the subject you'll see in a long time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Shades on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2012

DVD Review: Everyday Sunshine - The Story Of Fishbone

Documentary movies about rock and roll bands are all the rage these days. The majority tend to be about those who most of us are already familiar with. I mean you have to have been living in seclusion for the past twenty years if you're a fan of pop music and not heard of U2 or Pearl Jam. While there's no denying the impact either of those bands have had, what can we really learn about them or the nature of popular music from a movie about either band? On the other hand, watching something like Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, a new documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler charting the story of one of rock and roll's truly unique bands, gives you insights into the nature of the industry, the dynamics of working in a band, and the sheer, almost perverse, energy required to keep a dream alive when everything seems to conspire against you.

Fishbone, for those who don't know, came out of the thriving Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. While they shared a lot of things in common with other bands of the era, one thing distinguished them from the rest, the fact they were nearly all from South Central LA and all were African American. Even today the idea of an African American rock and roll band is an anomaly and in the 80s it was unheard of. So how on earth did a bunch of guys from South Central end up as Fishbone? The movie tells us how in 1979 the California State Supreme Court decreed that the only way to achieve racial balance in the schools of Los Angeles would be to institute a program of mandatory bussing. Kids from the hood would be shipped by bus to the fancy and well funded schools in the suburbs. It was here that Norwood and Phillip Fisher (bass and drums) Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards) and Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were introduced to Led Zeppelin and other white rock and roll acts by their new classmates, and met Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone and thermin) one of the few black kids who actually grew up in the Valley.

While bussing may not have done much for racial integration in America, when it came to the musical integration of Fishbone, it was an incredible success. Slashing guitar riffs met R&B horns, funky rhythms, gospel tinged vocals and was wrapped up in the anarchic packaging of punk rock to explode all over the bars and clubs of LA. While they were a hit with anybody who saw them, nobody cares what colour your skin in in a mosh pit, when they started to move into the recording studio it was different story. Columbia, the first label they signed with, still had a black music division in those days, but Fishbone weren't Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson - hell they weren't even rap music - and they sure didn't fit anybody's image of what "black"music should sound like. Yet in spite of these obstacles by 1993 the band looked like they were on the verge of the big time. Spike Lee directed their music video, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and signing on for the Lollapalooza tour all seemed like things guaranteed to push them into the spotlight.
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However, coincidence or not, the wheels started to fall off around the time the four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and South Central went up in flames. Growing up black, poor and male in LA they had all felt the sharp end of the LAPD at one time or another and were just as angry as everybody else over the verdict and it came out in their music. Not something a mainstream record label like Columbia was going to be comfortable with. At the same time guitarist Kendell Jones started experiencing personal difficulties, drinking heavily and accusing his fellow band members of being instruments of the devil. When Norwood and a few others tried to stage an adult intervention in order to get Jones the psychiatric treatment they thought he needed, he had them charged with attempted kidnapping. While they were all eventually acquitted, the loss of Jones seemed to signal the beginning of the end as Chris Dowd left the band a year later.

As the movie makes clear, while others had joined the core group who came together in 1979 along the way, when the centre started started to fall apart the band began a long slow decline back from the brink of success. By 2003 only Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore remained of those who started the group, and the strain of holding it all together was starting to take its toll on them. The camera had been moving back and forth between the present and the past throughout the course of the movie as the directors wove archival footage of the band performing, rehearsing and hanging out in the studio with present day interviews, animation and even paintings to bring Fishbone's story to life. As is normal with these types of things we viewers are safe from any direct emotional involvement with the subject matter because it's all stuff that's happened in the past. So when the camera all of a sudden drops us down in the middle of something happening in the present the wall separating the audience from the movie's subjects comes tumbling down.

In footage shot at various points over the last decade we see how the struggle to keep the band going has come to affect the relationship between Fisher and Moore They both begin to harbour resentments towards the other which they start to reveal to the camera i their inteviews. Moore, the mercurial front man, is as potent a force on stage as he ever was and continues to look for new means of expressing himself. Exploding in all directions at once he washes up against the stolid and very grounded Fisher who as bass player has always provided the roots which gave the band its strength. Within the original band their were other members who could serve as buffers between the two with either the force of their personalities or their creative contributions. But the two of them as the only creative engines were gradually being pushed apart like polarized magnets.
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What's amazing about this film is that instead of merely hearing others talking about the problems between the two men, or even just the two of them talking about each other, the camera sits down with them and watches as they attempt to hash out their differences. Both of them are committed to the idea of Fishbone and have made huge personal sacrifices for the band. However that can only keep working as long as its able to fulfill each of their artistic needs. As we've seen from the present day footage showing the band playing for miniscule audiences or attending publicity events which nobody comes to, they're not making the force they once were. Yet in spite of their differences, neither Norwood and Fisher want to give up on the band and still believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. It's that common ground that allows them to work things out and to continue the band. In fact, as the movie ends it seems like the band's future is actually looking brighter then it has in ages. Kendal Jones joins them for a gig and not only appears to have rid himself of the demons that plagued him in the early 90s but also wants to play with the band again. Trumpeter Kibby had left the band in 2003, but came back in 2010 and Chris Dowd - who had been one of the main writers in the early days - plays a couple of gigs with them.

Watching the footage included in the movie of the band performing during their hay days of the 1980s you can see why people like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and others claim that Fishbone were the band who inspired them the most. You can also see how almost impossible it would have been for any record label to cope with them. Their music defies any sort of classification and their stage show would have a straight audience quaking in their boots. Moore thrashing atop the mosh pit, scaling the walls of the concert hall to climb into a balcony and diving into the audience and singing all the while while the rest of the band thrashes out a deadly mix of punk, funk, ska, rock and roll and jazz. What's truly amazing is how tight the band is. This wasn't some group of idiots who had no idea how to play their instruments or who couldn't find their way from the beginning of a song to its end without getting lost. No this was a tight knit and well rehearsed band with incredible skill whose vocal harmonies were as tight as a gospel choir and musical arrangements as crisp as any band.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone does a wonderful job of not only telling audiences who Fishbone was, but who they are today. However, it's not just about a rock band, its about the people who are in a rock band and what it is that keeps them going when times are tough. This is one of the few "rockumentaries" I've seen where which manage to capture the love and pain involved with playing rock and roll when you care about it more than anything else in the world. It can eat at your soul. but the rewards can also be glorious. As this movie shows so poignantly the members of Fishbone have seen both sides of that coin and the long grey areas in between as well.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2011

DVD Review: Case Histories - With Jason Isaacs

The policeman with the troubled past as a plot line for television shows and movies has been used to the point where its coming close to being a cliche. The worst of these has the cop nurturing some dark secret resulting in him bordering on a brooding sociopath who exacts bloody revenge on the criminal class. If I have to sit though one more flashback of a young hopeful cop coming home to find his wife and infant daughter slaughtered by a junkie looking for the money for a quick fix I might explode. You can pretty much be guaranteed at some point finding the cop either sitting in a bar staring into a drink or exploding in a senseless range.

What truly strains my credulity about these plots is in the world of modern policing most forces frown on officers having personal agendas influencing their behaviour. Not only do they now have police psychologists who would be quick to relieve anyone so inclined of their duties, the last thing they want are accusations of excessive force or police brutality screwing up a conviction. Anyway, why is it a cop's answer to his troubled past always violence? There are other ways people react to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Thankfully it turns out there are script writers who understand and have started to create characters who aren't quite so simplistic. As is often the case the best of these characters are being created for British television shows with the most recent example being the six part series called Case Histories. Now available as a two disc DVD set from Acorn Media, it was adapted from the works of British crime writer Kate Atkinson featuring the character of Private Investigator Jackson Brodie.
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Brodie, portrayed brilliantly by Jason Isaacs (Best known as Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) has previously been a soldier and then a cop. While he deals in the bread and butter of private investigation work, checking on cheating spouses for insecure partners, he seems to have a particular affinity for missing persons and cases where the trail has long since gone cold. We also learn early on that he is haunted by a memory from his childhood. It turns out his sister was murdered and his older brother was so guilt ridden he attempted suicide and has ended up catatonic in a nursing home.

While it sounds like we're headed into the typical brooding cop type thing mentioned earlier, the series manages to avoid that pitfall. Instead of having Brodie losing himself in a glass at the end of each day, the fact that his sister's killer has never been caught dictates his choice of cases. The other thing we quickly learn about him is he doesn't wallow in self pity. Instead the memories of his sister's death seems to have increased his sense of compassion towards both those who are victims of crimes and their families. He might never find out who killed his sister or have been able to protect her, but he's not going to let another murder go unsolved, allow someone to be victimized or to suffer needlessly.

While this white knight riding to the rescue sounds like it shortened his career as a police officer, we're never really told why he left the force. However,we do know the only cop he's on good terms with, DC Louise Munroe, played by Amanda Abbington. We do find out during one of his visits to Munroe at work that he somehow managed to have two cops suspended for apparently not pursuing the capture of a rapist as thoroughly as Brodie would have liked. Whether that happened while he was a cop or more recently isn't made clear, however it does explain why uniformed officers casually call him "wanker" whenever they see him.

However strained his relations are with the rest of the police, and no matter how much he might piss her off periodically, Munroe not only has a great deal of respect for Jackson's skills as an investigator, she also covers for him on those times he skirts around the edges of the law. As the series progresses the nature of their relationship actually becomes more not less confusing. Both of them become involved with other people, but they always seem to be drawn to each other, and you have the feeling with a little bit of encouragement they could become a couple. There's very little said overtly, but both actors are wonderful at communicating what's between the lines through the manner in which they each behave around the other.

It's like they both realize any relationship between the two of them wouldn't be casual, and they'd better well be damn sure about it. Both have had previous marriages and each has a child. It's not said what happened to Munroe's, but it's pretty obvious that Brodie's wife just couldn't put up with his work hours. It quickly becomes apparent that as far as he's concerned there's no off duty hours when he's on a case. He even takes his five year old daughter with him when he goes off to interview people, which thrills his ex-wife no end when she finds out.
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One of the great things about this series is the arc we're able to watch the character of Brodie travel. When we first meet him the death of his sister dominates his life. When his ex-wife announces she and their daughter will be moving to New Zealand for a year, he freaks. It's not just because he will be separated from his daughter whom he loves, but because he can't shake the belief something horrible will happen to her if he's not there to protect her. Even after he finally resigns himself to their going, he still can't let go. It hasn't helped that the cases he'd been working on prior to them leaving were two involving young girls who had gone missing thirty and about sixteen years ago respectively and two unsolved murders.

However its the last case he takes on in the series, after his daughter has already left for New Zealand, that helps him to finally begin to resolve his own issues. After a teenaged girl saves his life when he's injured in a train wreck, she convinces him to investigate the disappearance of the woman she baby sits for. It turns out this same woman had only just escaped being murdered as a child after watching her mother and daughter be cut down in front of her by a knife wielding crazy. She had managed to escape by hiding in the the tall grass near to where the murder took place. It was there she was found by a young soldier named Jackson Brodie who was part of the search party looking for her.

Now all these years later he's searching for her again and while he finds her and brings her home, he also sees how she was able to protect herself. Not everybody is a victim, and he begins to realize he can't and shouldn't try to be everybody's saviour. Sure he should do what he can for his daughter, but he also has to let go. Isaacs depiction of Brodie's transformation is so gradual you barely notice it happening over the course of the six episodes. However, when you look back at how he was when we first met him and compare that to the man we see on the television screen in the final frames of the series, it's like a twenty ton weight has been taken off his shoulders.

All through the series we've seen him running for both exercise and an attempt to run away from his past. However hard he runs though, his mind can't help but travelling back to the day he saw his sister's corpse being found. In the last frames of the show we see him crest a hill while running and looking around himself with a smile on his face. Case Histories is not your typical crime show and Jackson Brodie is not your typical private investigator. The cases he takes on are intriguing and following along with his investigations is as interesting, if not more, than any other series of this type. However it's the study of Brodie the character and Jason Isaacs's performance which elevates this show into a category all its own.

The two disc set contains all six episodes of the series plus a fifteen minute bonus, making of , short. While there's no real startling revelations in the feature, the interviews with Isaacs, Amanda Abbington and author Atkinson are interesting for the perspectives they offer on the characters in the show and the author's intent with creating the series. However, it's not the extra features that make Case Histories special, it's the show itself. If you weren't able to catch it on your local Public Broadcasting Station recently, than you need to watch it now. It ranks right up there as one of the best mystery/crime shows to come out of Britain in the last few years.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Case Histories Starring Jason Isaacs on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2011

Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - New Blood Live In London

I have to admit that I've never liked orchestrated versions of pop songs. As far as I'm concerned its usually one step removed from Muzak - pop music for people who don't like pop music. Even worse, as far as I'm concerned, are those times when some performer starts taking themselves way too seriously and decides to use orchestral elements in their music. The results are usually god awful as they simply don't have the talent to make it work, The smarter ones will hire somebody else to do the arrangements, but there's very little modern rock and roll that works orchestrated. One of the worst experiences I ever had in my life was sitting in an all night restaurant at 3:00 AM and hearing an orchestrated version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

After a scarring experience like that you'd think I'd swear off orchestrated pop music for the rest of my life. However I'm a firm believer in the maxim that its the exceptions that prove the rule. If there's one performer of popular music around today who has always been an exception to most rules it's Peter Gabriel. So when I first heard about his deciding to orchestrate a selection of music spanning his career I was intrigued. Last year he released a CD and toured with the equivalent of a chamber orchestra - a forty-six piece ensemble he called The New Blood Orchestra. Now, for those of us who weren't able to attend one of those concerts, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and special edition four disc digital CD versions of New Blood Live In London, recorded over two nights at London England's Hammersmith Apollo concert hall last March, on October 25 2011.

As I had hoped Gabreil has not just pasted an orchestra over top of his more popular songs by having them play the tunes instead of the usual mix of guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboard. Instead he and arranger John Metcalfe set out to reinterpret the material making use of the diversity of sound available with the instruments at their disposal. The name New Blood Orchestra proved very apt, as they have indeed injected new blood into the material in question. Right from the opening number on the DVD, "Intruder", you realize that once again Gabriel has pushed his music in a direction few others would either dare to attempt or have the talent to carry off.
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Instead of simply transposing the music to suit the range of the instruments in the orchestra, Gabriel and Metcalfe have broken the songs down into their component parts of rhythm and melody. Then they designated individual sections within their orchestra to bring them to life. The result is on some songs instruments, like violins, you would normally associate with the melody, are busy performing sequences of notes representing one element of the rhythm while the brass section plays another. The overall effect is stunning, for where you would normally hear these parts being played by two or three instruments at most and not notice the number of elements going into the rhythm, in this case you not only hear the overall pattern, you also hear each of its distinct components. At first it might feel a little chaotic as your mind tries to sort out and separate the sounds from each other because that's how we are used to listening to music. However, in the space of only a few minutes you find yourself starting to listen to the whole, including Gabriel's vocals, and the impact is as strong, if not stronger than anything you'll have heard produced by amplified instruments.

Of course a Gabriel show is more than just the music and the DVD does a fine job of capturing the visual presentations that accompany the songs. A series of screens and scrims - for rear projection - are hoisted in and out, some even dropping down in front of the performers, with various images being broadcast. Initially these consist of primarily abstract visualizations relating to either a song's theme or its musical content. However as the concert progresses they start to include film being shot live on stage by a variety of cameras. Some are in the hands of crew members scrambling around the stage, but others are hung from the grid above and offer the show's floor director what must be a confusing array of shots to pick from for broadcast. One of the cameras is given enough slack that Gabriel is able to swing it in gentle arcs out over the audience and the orchestra. Thankfully, as I would find that sort of thing paling quickly, they only use that technique sparingly - primarily for "Solsbury Hill".

The special feature included with the DVD package is a roughly twenty minute documentary about putting the show together called "Blood Donors" and features interviews with Gabriel, Metcalf, conductor Ben Foster and Blue Leach who directed the filming of the concert. The talk is primarily focused on the process of adopting the music and how their goal all along was to avoid as much as possible slapping an orchestra over top of popular music. It was fun to hear Gabriel talk about the project, because at no point does he ever take himself too seriously. I've found in the past that nothing guarantees pomposity among pop musicians quicker than an orchestra. So it was a delight to hear Gabriel freely admitting to going slightly over the top when they adapted "Solsbury Hill", including throwing in a few bars of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" as a tip of the hat to the old Beatles tunes which would sometimes fade out on classical tunes (Think of "All You Need Is Love").
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It's in the documentary that you also discover the 3D effects in the film were not shot during the live performance, but during the rehearsals with Gabriel wearing a metal harness upon which the camera was mounted. The framework extended in front of him what looked to be about six feet and the camera was focused directly on his head. The resulting shots would obviously be of his head suspended in front of the rest of the performers. During the concert itself Gabriel would augment those shots with ones he filmed while holding onto the camera suspended from the lighting grid that I mentioned earlier. Without a 3D television, and not watching the official 3D release, I can't tell you exactly how the effect worked out. What I can tell you is on my regular television it looked like Gabriel's head and upper torso were distinct from the background and floating around like a balloon. The only thing that saved it from being cheesy was the fact Gabriel was having so much fun with it, making it obvious he considered it a toy.

Aside from "Solsbury Hill", the set list for the DVD includes favourites like "Biko", "Single To Noise", "Red Rain", "Don't Give Up", "The Rhythm Of The Heat" and sixteen more tunes. Like most of Gabriel's work, it's neither an easy listen nor is it the type of thing you can throw on in the background. While there will probably be some dissatisfaction from fans over the way tunes have been changed and how what was once familiar is no longer, I think anyone who genuinely appreciates Gabriel's music can't help but be impressed. The orchestral interpretations bring another dimension to each of the tunes and reveal just how sophisticated the material was in the first place. I've always thought acoustic instruments have a far greater emotional depth than any electric or electronic instrument and hearing these reinterpretations only confirmed that belief.

"Biko", the song in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed in police custody in 1976, has always moved me. Yet it was like I had never heard it before. A bass and floor drum establish the rhythm to start the piece then are joined by bassoon and clarinet which begin to play the melody. Then, as the song progresses, new layers are added to the rhythm as the string sections begin to play the melody in time to the cadence established by the drums. Gradually the volume increases until by the time Gabriel turns the singing over to the audience - the chant which ends the song - its built to a spine tingling crescendo. Then, everything stops save for the two drums which started the song in first place, until they too come to a rest like a heart that's stopped beating.

As you would suspect the sound quality on the DVD is superb, with the option to choose from regular Dolby Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital for the concert footage, and the picture quality is fantastic - I can only imagine what it would be like in High Definition for those with Blu-ray capability. The DVD comes with a booklet containing complete credits, track listing, and includes some nice still shots from the concert. However, it's the contents of the DVD which really matter, and in this case they are spectacular.

In his interview during the documentary, Gabriel said he's already moving on to something else and won't be doing any more orchestrated versions of his material. So this will be the only time he'll be releasing these interpretations of his songs. Don't miss this opportunity to see and hear what happens when somebody makes the effort to take finely crafted pop music and turn them into equally finely crafted pieces of orchestrated music. The results are as truly unique as Gabriel, and prove once again that unlike many of his contemporaries he is deserving of being referred to as an artist.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel -New Blood Live In London on Blogcritics.)

DVD Review: Smiley's People

It's said that nothing can earn you enemies faster than being right. It seems like most people would prefer the status quo be preserved no matter what the consequences. In the televised adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pseudonym for british writer David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we saw how retired spy George Smiley, played by Alec Guinness, uncovered the deeply planted Russian spy, a mole, in British intelligence. In one of the final scenes of the series he tells the upper echelon of the agency, also known as The Circus, that he has been appointed the new head of the service. So it comes as something of a surprise to find out in the sequel series, Smiley's People, now reissued in a new three disc DVD set by Acorn Media Group, as of October 25 2011, that he is once more on the outside looking in.

What you don't know if you hadn't been following Le Carre's books, was another book, The Honourable Schoolboy continued the story of the Circus in the days immediately following the uncovering of the mole. With all his agents known, or blown in the terminology, Smiley was forced to recall everyone in the field and close down every outpost in the Circus' empire. However, after months of pulling in their horns they were finally able to launch one caper in an attempt to recoup some of their lost glory and regain a measure of credibility with the only ones who matter, The Cousins, American intelligence. Even as Smiley is putting his pieces into careful motion, manoeuvring in the corridors of power have started to have him replaced by someone less old school and untarnished by any associations with the betrayer. By the end of the book, in spite of scoring a huge intelligence coup for the Circus, Smiley is out and the new order has taken over.
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Of course as both Smiley and us now realize, there's only so far you can retire from the secret life. In Smiley's People he's once again he's called out of retirement by the Ministry responsible for The Circus. However, this time they don't want him leading an investigation, they want him to cover up something that might be potentially embarrassing; something that doesn't quite mesh with the new urbane image the service has been at great pains to cultivate. An ex Russian military officer, known simply as The General, who had formally spied for them has been murdered. Unfortunately just prior to having his face blown away by a high calibre bullet he had called The Circus requesting an emergency meeting with Max, his code name for Smiley. He told the agent who answered the phone to tell Max he had proof.

Only Smiley is willing to believe there is something behind his former agent's phone call. Everybody else dismisses it as an old man's desire for attention. Instead of following orders and merely making sure that nothing about the man's life can be traced back to The Circus, Smiley decides to investigate and discover whether the proof is what he thinks it might be. As we discover in a flashback years earlier the agent had approached Smiley with information they believed could bring about the downfall of the head of Moscow Centre, Karla, the very man who had recruited the mole in British Intelligence. At the time Smiley had told him that he needed more proof. Was this the urgent message The General was trying to deliver when he was shot, the proof required to bring Karla down?
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Smiley uncovers two pieces of seemingly unrelated evidence. The first is a letter from a Russian emigrant , Madame Ostrakova ( played by the remarkable Eileen Atkins) living in Paris, containing the story of how an obvious Russian spy has approached her with an offer to let her illegitimate daughter, who she hasn't seen in nearly twenty years, leave Russia and join her in the West. All she has to do is fill in an application at the Russian Embassy in Paris requesting she be allowed to immigrate, and the papers will issued. However after months of hearing nothing from either the Russian government or her daughter she is wondering what has happened. Her late husband had always told her if she ever needed any help with anything she should contact The General. The second piece of evidence is a negative that when developed shows two men and two women in bed together.

Watching Guinness make the rounds as George Smiley again, first trying to piece together the two pieces of the puzzle he's been left behind by dead men and then setting an operation in motion in order to snare the biggest prize of his career, is a joy. He's a different person from the rather self-effacing civil servant we met in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There's a layer of anger to him that wasn't there before. Anger at the mole who betrayed the Circus, but also anger at the Circus for what he sees as their betrayal of all his generation stood for. If they had only taken the General seriously he wouldn't have been killed. Even worse, if Smiley hadn't disobeyed orders by investigating, nobody would have followed up and they would have missed out on the biggest intelligence coup of the Cold War.

Somehow Guinness is able to convey all of that within his performance. The slight edge you hear in his voice, the bite of impatience that creeps in when he's dealing with petty officials and the air of overall fatigue he seems to exude at times when he thinks nobody is looking. Everything seems to be weighing on him now; the people he's known who have died and the moral ambiguity of his own work. At the end when he's congratulated by another character -"You've won George" - his half questioning response of "Have I?" makes you wonder what it must be like to have dedicated the majority of your life to something, only to find yourself questioning its validity as your career winds down.
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While Guinness is giving another tour de force as Smiley, the supporting cast is once again universally strong. Aside from Atkins my personal favourite was one of the returning actors from the previous series, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase, ex Circus agent, now dodgy art dealer. In "Tinker Tailor" his character had affected a British accent in an attempt to climb the ladder in the service, but now he's allowed his Hungarian roots to show through in his speaking voice. At first Smiley goes to him for help in tracking down information, then they work together to implement the operation. His character is a delight first as the dubious art dealer he's become after leaving the service and then as the field agent called back in for one last hurrah. He has some of the best lines in the series as far as I'm concerned: "There's Degas and there's Degas, George, it's sort of a grey area" he responds when questioned about a statue's provenance and "When dealing with creeps like that you need a creep like Toby Esterhase guarding your back George" is how he words his request to be included as part of operation. It's the way he says the latter with a note of pride in his voice that makes him so wonderful.

First aired back in 1982 Smiley's People is just as potent a piece of television today as it was back then. It not only features fine performances and a great script which brings the book it was based on to life wonderfully, it does a fine job of showing just how little separated one side was from the other during the Cold War in the world of espionage. Special features on this three DVD disc set are again limited to filmographies of the cast members and an interview with Le Carre about the series. However, nothing can detract from the fact this is another fine example of how to adapt a book to the small screen and somebody fully realizing television's potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Smiley's People on Blogcritics)

October 26, 2011

DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Television has often disappointed me as a media because of both its failure to live up to its potential and its willingness to sink to the the lowest common denominator. Unlike movies which are limited by time constraints and the need to make huge returns at the box office, television productions are relatively inexpensive to produce and can be released episodically in order to tell a story properly. Unfortunately this capability is mainly wasted now on so-called reality shows or glorified talent contests. The occasional gems produced by cable stations have become fewer and fewer as the years pass. Even British television, once far superior to its American counterpart, is no longer the reliable source for great television it once was.

Of course memory can play tricks on you, and it's easy to deceive yourself into thinking the past, or the good old days, were better then what's on offer today. So when I requested a copy of the newest DVD version of the television adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pen name for British author David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being released by Acorn Media Group on October 25 2012, I hoped it was as good as I had remembered it being from watching it on television some thirty years ago. I needn't have worried, its not only as good as I remembered it being, its even better.
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For those of you somehow unfamiliar with John Le Caree, he pretty much single handed changed the face of spy fiction as we know it today. Instead of James Bond style sex, glamour and violence he gradually introduced us to a world of furtive observers, back room manoeuvring and the faceless civil servants who were the backbone of British intelligence during the height of the Cold War. George Smiley, the quintessential faceless civil servant, was first introduced as a minor character in one of his early works, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His first "starring" roles were in Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, but these were just warm ups for his taking centre stage in what is probably Le Caree's most well known book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

When a loose cannon field agent shows up after mysteriously vanishing spinning a tale of a Russian agent highly placed in the British intelligence agency known as The Circus, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate whether or not there's any truth to the man's claims. Through a series of flashbacks we see how both George and his former boss and mentor, Control, were forced out. The Circus had been suffering from a series of failures. Agents captured in the field, spy networks arrested and sources of information going dry. All of a sudden a new source appears promising to deliver the innermost secrets from the Kremlin and Moscow Centre, the Russian equivalent of the Circus. Control smells a rat and sets out to prove the information is false and that one of his senior agents is a mole - a Russian spy who was recruited when he was young and has gradually worked himself up into a position of authority. Unfortunately the mole is one step ahead of Control and sets him up for one more disaster. As a result a British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and worst of all the events make the newspapers. When the dust settled Smiley and Control were out, and those who supported the new source were in.
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Once brought up to speed on the events of the past, we then follow Smiley as he begins the painstaking process of tracking back through the files, interviewing other former agents about what happened on the night the British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and finally tracking down the agent in question and hearing his story. At every step he discovers somebody has been doing a very careful job of trying to cover his or her tracks. Agents have been warned off and fired who had any information that either lends credibility to the mole theory or discredits the new wonder source.

What's remarkable about this televised version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is how beautifully it manages to translate the process of Smiley's investigation from the book to the small screen. Instead of rushing the information out in blurts and speeded up chunks, we are allowed to witness the whole story unfolding before our eyes. From the whispered instruction Control gives his chosen agent before sending him off to Eastern Europe in the hopes he'll come up with the name of the spy, the agent eluding possible tails on his way to meeting his contact and his eventual capture, to each step of Smiley's path on his way to pushing the mole out into the open, in one way or another the entire book ends up on screen. Very smartly the scriptwriters, Le Caree being one of them, make use of visuals to tell the story when able, and fill in whatever blanks that might have been left behind further on down the line. So if you are confused by what's going on at anytime during the show, don't worry, it will all come clear in the end.

However, the best thing about this series are still the performances. Simply put, Alec Guinness delivers one of the best performances of his career as Smiley, if not one of the best performances ever seen on television. In television everything takes place in a very tight focus, there are no vast vistas like film and very few long shots for an actor to hide in. Almost the entire time Guinness is on screen, he occupies the centre of the frame if he's not in a close up. The slightest twitch communicates volumes, and Guinness never over or underplays his performance. From the polishing of the glasses that was Smiley's most famous characteristic to his sudden displays of authority while conducting interviews and interrogations, he works with the camera to create one of the most fully realized characterizations I've ever seen on television.
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Of course Guinness isn't the only actor in the series, and the entire cast is a wonder. Ian Richardson and a young Ian Bannen (you might just recognize him as the same actor who played Jackie in Waking Ned Devine) in particular do stand out jobs as the intellectual and urban Bill Haydon and the agent Jim Prideaux, who was captured in Eastern Europe, respectively. You'll also notice Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame in a small but important role. No matter how small the role, each of the actors involved with the production are letter perfect. They go about their business calmly and sedately, lulling one into believing they are all simply minor functionaries in some obscure branch of the government. Yet every so often you are reminded that what they are so casually discussing over tea and biscuits around the board room table are things like Russian troop movements in Eastern Europe or reports on the inner workings of the Russian secret service.

The three disc DVD set contains all six episodes from the television series first broadcast back in 1979. Naturally the sound and visual quality are not quite what were used to, but that is more than compensated for by the quality of what you see on the screen. While the bonus features are primarily limited to things like cast filmographies, there is a wonderful interview with John Le Carre, in which he discusses everything from his experiences helping write the script for the show to his memories of Alec Guinness preparing for the role of Smiley.

This adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when television lives up to its potential. No movie could afford to take the nearly six hours required to create such a stunning adaptation. The series might have been first broadcast more then thirty years ago, but it's still by far some of the best television you're liable to ever watch.
(Article first published as DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection

I'm sure many have noticed how some actors seem better suited to one type of role than another. It's like they are only capable of handling a certain range of emotions, or playing a certain type of person with any credibility. However there are some actors whose talents are such not only are they perfectly capable of handling any role offered them, the characters they play come to life on screen or stage. Mainly this is due to their ability to render them as multidimensional and multifaceted as real human beings. Somehow they are able to not only enact what is required to tell the story being presented, they are able to tell the character's story simultaneously.

As we go through our daily lives each of us carries around an involved personal history which impacts our decision making process. Even though it very rarely bubbles through to the surface, the actor who is able to bring that sense of personal history to their portrayals, is far more convincing in his or her performance than another. Whether an audience is aware of them doing it or not, they recognize something in the character that helps them identify with him or her. Instead of being merely a one dimensional figure, they are fully developed characters who are far more believable than most of the ones normally seen on screens.

After watching the box set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection, being released by Acorn Media on August 31 2011, what sticks out the most is the quality of the acting of everybody who appeared in the series, and especially James Nesbitt's performance in the lead role of undercover police officer Thomas Murphy. Over the course of the five seasons the series ran we watch as Murphy's job evolves from being undercover as an observer in an effort to find answers to a crime (In the first episode of Series Two he pretends to be a homeless man in an effort to find the person who killed a fellow officer) to acting the role of a hardened criminal in order to gather evidence against various crime figures. As this involves winning the criminals trust, there are times when he has to play fast and loose with the laws himself and observe things that sicken him without reacting.
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While he lays on the stereotype of the comical Irishman, always ready with a joke and a laugh, to cover over any of his reactions to what he observes, there are times when the veneer cracks. Sometimes it's nothing more than him having to state into a mirror to make sure his mask in place, other times it's a certain deadness in his eyes and, when he's off duty, he'll go on drunken binges in order to dull his pain. By the time the fifth season comes around he's barely able to hold it together. Two fellow undercover officers, he had been their contact on the "outside - their cover officer, go missing on the job. The guilt and anxiety he feels over their disappearance manifests itself in anger and frustration at his fellow officers, the amount he drives himself to find them and the depth of his emotional reactions as he uncovers some of the secrets behind their vanishing.

While Nesbitt is wonderful, the rest of the actors in the various casts are equally as talented. While the first two seasons had each episode being a complete investigation onto itself, which didn't allow for much character development among the criminals, the final three seasons were each made up of multi-part episodes dealing with one case. In each we become as close to the criminals as Murphy does. While there are those who you're not going to spare any sympathy for, Series Five in particular deals with smuggling people in from Eastern Europe and trafficking young women as prostitutes, there are also times when even when we don't like the person in question we learn enough about them to understand how they ended up being the people they became.

Series Four in particular is wonderful for this as we are introduced to two brothers. Both former Loyalists - Protestant Irish who carried out terror attacks against Catholics - Drew, (Liam Cunningham, and Billy Johnstone, Brian McCardle, have left Belfast Ireland and moved to England upon being released from jail. As they had both been violent criminals into drugs, robbery and assault before they were jailed, when violence starts to erupt in the housing estate they now live in they are immediately suspected. However, the elder brother Drew claims to have converted to Muslim in jail and renounced the ways of violence and crime.

Ironically, while initially the police don't believe in Drew's conversion, it turns out to be genuine. It also turns out to be one of the reason behind the recent crime spree as his younger brother Billy longs for the days when it was him and Drew against the world. He gets it into his head if he can drive a wedge between Drew and those people who have "taken his brother away" everything will go back to the way that it was. It's only when we learn that Billy's mom, dad and sister had all died when he was ten we begin to understand the level of his panic at losing the only world he'd ever known. What he does might be reprehensible, but he ends up being so pathetic we almost feel sorry for him. The real victim of the series is Drew, who was genuine in his desire to turn his life around. We see him struggling with his demons and look to be winning the battle, but history and circumstances tear his dreams apart.
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Of course in order for there to be such good characters the writing and direction of the series have to be excellent. While British television excels at this sort of thing, Murphy's Law set's a new high water mark in crime dramas for others to reach for. While the episodes are always intense right from the start, over the course of the five series they become progressively darker and more involved both in their plots and character development. The more we learn about the lives led by undercover police, men and women, the more it makes us wonder why anybody would take on the job. For months on end they have to live completely isolated from their families, not able to trust anybody. Never able to let their guards down they must always stay in character and occasionally run the risk of, as one officer puts it, "going native", or crossing the line from doing what's necessary to get the job done to becoming who they're pretending to be.

While we don't learn the exact reasons why others do this kind of work, what we know about Murphy's past offers some insight into what could motivate an officer to take it on. His daughter had been killed by the IRA when they kidnapped her in an attempt to make him bomb his own police station. He loses himself in the danger of the work and the different people he portrays in order to run away from his feelings about what happened. Unfortunately he doesn't count on the fact there are just as many opportunities for emotional upheavals that only increase the amount of pain he feels. The work also prevents him from functioning in the "real world" as he's become so used to hiding behind masks he no longer knows how to deal with real individuals. This is depicted beautifully in Series Four where, when he's not dealing with the Johnstone brothers, he's trying to help his father cope with his mother's Alzheimer disease. It's heartbreaking to watch him attempt to offer comfort to his dad, hesitantly reaching out his hand to touch his shoulder as if he's not sure that's what he's supposed to do.

While the nine DVD set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection might not contain much in the way of special features - a written out biography of James Nesbitt and his notes on Series Four - the material is so brilliant that it is sufficient reason in itself to own the set. The writing, the direction and acting are of a calibre that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Even the musical score, especially Edmund Butt's for series 1 through 4, are amazing. Instead of overwhelming the action with melodramatic music that only points out the obvious, it compliments everything that happens on screen. So subtle you barely notice it, the music is like an extra actor who somehow adds atmosphere and colour to each episode. It all adds up to, with Nesbitt's performance leading the way, to being not only one of the finest police dramas ever made, one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen, period.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law - The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.)

June 21, 2011

DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3

While there are a number of difficulties facing any film or television company who sets their project in the past, most of them are easily overcome with just a little research. How did men and women wear their hair, what were the clothes like and questions about interior design can all be answered through a few trips to any library or museum. Shows set in recent history have it even easier as magazines and other media can usually be counted on to at least give an idea of what was fashionable during the time in question. However, while there is usually no problem in dressing a period piece, other, less tangible aspects, of recreating an era present far more difficulties.

Probably the most difficult of these is to try and recreate societal values and present them without comment, no matter how different they might be from those held by contemporary society. The more recent the history, the more difficult the task becomes as the differences become less cut and dried as attitudes evolve towards ones closer to our own. Complicating the matter even further is having to take into account how the pace of change came at different rates of speed to different areas. This was especially true in a country like England in the early 1960s where the impetus for change ran into into the stone wall of propriety and tradition. While there were some voices calling for change, many, from all walks of life, were happy to maintain the status quo.

However, change can't be put off, even in the remote areas of Northumberland where Inspector George Gently, former London cop, has settled in an attempt to start over again after the death of his wife. George Gently: Series 3, being released on June 28 2011 by Acorn Media Group finds Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) having to navigate through uncharted waters as they investigate two very different murder cases. In both Gently Evil and Peace & Love they are forced to deal with issues which to us might seem run of the mill, but in that era were barely heard of, let alone dealt with publically.
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In Gently Evil a young woman of questionable reputation is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Just prior to the murder neighbours heard voices raised in argument and one even witnessed a man running from the apartment. Unfortunately his eyesight is unreliable and can't be positive about what the person looked like, only that he sounded like he had a Scottish accent. The murder victim turns out to have been a mentally unstable young woman whose family had committed her at one point. In her small flat they discover a birth certificate for the woman's daughter on which she has crossed out the father's name and replaced it with Satan. Both the daughter and the woman's ex-husband were in town that night, and while the daughter was forbidden to visit her mother, it soon comes out that both husband and child had been at the apartment. When the husband confesses to the murder, angry at his wife's promiscuity and taunting he claims to have killed her in a fit of passion, the case seems closed.

However, there are too many loose ends for Gently, and as he starts to follow some of these threads to their centre the picture that begins to develop is hard for him to believe. First the case starts tie in to the mysterious death of a young child a year earlier. Then, first one child almost wanders off and another disappears, from a local camp ground near where the previous child's body turned up dead. When it turns out the murdered woman's brother has some connection to each case, Gently and Bacchus come to the obvious conclusion. Yet how does all this tie into the woman's death? Even when they discover the ex-husband wasn't the child's natural father it doesn't get them any closer to discovering the real culprit or uncovering the horrible secret behind the murder of the young woman, the missing child and the dead child from the previous year.

The remarkable thing about Gently Evil is not just the way the case is handled without sensationalizing the circumstances, but in the reactions of all those involved with the case as it unfolds. Ingleby, whose character's marriage has fallen apart and is only able to see his young daughter once a week, does an especially fine job depicting the anger of a man riddled by his own guilt over being a negligent father when he questions people about the children who have disappeared. In fact, from beginning to end, the reactions and actions of all the characters to a set of circumstances (unfortunately I have to be vague or I risk giving spoiling the story) beyond anything they've previously experienced, are as multilayered and complex as the situation deserves.

While Peace & Love, the second episode of series three, is not as complex as the first, it still deals with a couple of the cans of worms which were being opened during the era. Protests against nuclear weapons started as early as the 1950s in England so a demonstration against submarines armed with nuclear missiles being docked in the local shipyards is almost to be expected even in Northumberland. What's not expected is the murder of the university professor responsible for organizing it. However, the more Gently and Bacchus find out about the victim, the longer the list of possible suspects. There's any number of young female students he'd slept with, especially the most recent who he's just dumped and who is pregnant with his child. There's also a fellow professor who was once his lover who has any number of reasons for being pissed off at him.
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Spending time on campus bring Gently and Bacchus face to face with the societal changes which has barely rippled the surface of the stolid Northumberland waters until now. Free love, open dissent, revolution, ban the bomb and all the baggage, including soft drug use, are not what either man are used to. While Gently is old and experienced enough to look on most of it with a rather benign amusement, unless it contravenes a law or results in people being hurt, Bacchus is nowhere near as sanguine in his reactions. In fact, despite his youth and supposed "hipness" the younger officer is far more conservative and easy to shock than his superior. Again Ingleby does a wonderful job with Bacchus. Confronted by a young woman who takes the initiative, in any way that you can imagine, he is quickly thrown for a loop and left retreating in confusion.

As the two officers wade through the maze of university, sexual and radical politics in order to solve the murder of the much hated professor and the subsequent murder of a young man who had been an early suspect, they discover no matter how many changes take place in society, the motivations for murder remain the same. Blackmail, guilty secrets, ambition, thwarted desires and moments of blind passion have stood the test of time and no amount of sexual liberation or demonstrating against Polaris missiles are going to make a difference. Once Gently and Bacchus discover which of the above ties in with the murder, discovering the murderer isn't far behind.

The fascinating thing about both episodes of George Gently, Series 3 is how well they have managed to recreate the time period they are set in. The two cases under investigation delve into areas which might seem commonplace to our eyes, but in the early 1960s were either not talked about or would have been considered too far fetched by most to be believed. Part of the key to their success is how well they've managed to avoid imposing twenty-first century standards on the characters as their reactions to what they see are not only completely in character, but are also in accordance with the beliefs and prejudices of the times. We might be a little appalled by what they say or how they act, but to have them be otherwise would have made the show far less believable.

George Gently, Series 3 comes in a two disc DVD set with 5.1 surround sound. (Its also available as a single disc Blu-ray as well) As has been the case with the previous two seasons of this show the acting from the leads down to the smallest parts is impeccable and the scripts are both attention gripping mysteries and revealing looks at a society in the midst of change. England in the early 1960s was just starting to recover from the trauma of WW II and the split between those who lived through it and those who were born after was just starting to come to a head. It was a messy time with one side desperate to throw aside the conventions of the past and the other just as keen to hold on to them. Watching George Gently and John Bacchus navigate through this world is a treat you really shouldn't deny yourself any longer. There's only one shortcoming in this year's version; only two ninety minute episodes, which while wonderful, leaves you wanting more. Thankfully Series 4 is scheduled to start airing August 2011 in England, so hopefully it will end up on disc over here soon after.
(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.

What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

April 28, 2011

DVD Review: Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4

When people think of small town doctors the usual image that comes to mind is of a kindly old gentlemen who has known most of the people in the vicinity since he helped usher them into the world. He always has a friendly word of encouragement for the young person with the broken arm, can be counted on to make house calls in the worst of weather, and is generally considered to be one of the pillars of wisdom in the community. While it's a lovely image, the person probably never really existed outside of the minds of screenwriters and other Hollywood types.

If for some reason you've been hanging on to that image a sure fire cure for it is now available through Acorn Media in the form of the nine DVD box set Doc Martin Collection: Series 1 - 4. Doc Martin, (Martin Clunes) is the antithesis of the genial country doctor. A former London surgeon he was forced to give up his practice when he developed a phobia which would cause him to vomit and feel faint at the site of blood - a decided weakness in somebody performing surgery. Not wanting to give up medicine entirely, he applies to take over the practice in the village of Portwenn, Cornwall, the same village he used to summer in as a child.

Neither the good folk of Portwenn nor Doctor Martin Ellingham are quite prepared for each other. Ellingham is used to the highly impersonal world of a big time surgeon where patients are usually unconscious and a bed side manner is something you leave to the underlings and nurses. Portwenn's inhabitants, on the other hand, are used to a doctor, who, while he might not have been quite the stereotype described earlier, came pretty darn close to living up to it. He'd known most of those in the town and surrounding area since birth and leavened his health care practice with his knowledge of the individuals in question. In his time the doctor's surgery (In England a doctor's office is referred to as a surgery) was not just a place to go when you were feeling sick, it was also a social event with tea, cookies and chat on offer.
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To say that Doc Martin has a few issues when it comes to interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. He's rude, blunt, intolerant of those he considers fools (most of Portwenn) and is completely useless at small talk. These deficiencies are compounded by his stubbornness, the absolute belief in the fact he is always right and the fact that he's emotionally repressed to the point of being crippled. While he's obviously a brilliant doctor and over qualified for the work required of him as a General Practitioner in a small town, after only a few days in Portwenn he just about manages to alienate the entire town with his behaviour.

Now if this were your typical sit-com or even drama series you could predict what would happen. Eventually the town would come to love Ol' Doc. Martin and learn to see the soft-hearted man hidden beneath the crusty exterior. In his turn the Doc would learn to appreciate the spirit of small town life and come to respect the inherent wisdom of his neighbours. Well don't hold your breath waiting because over the course of the four years of the series so far the Doc is just as patronizing and condescending as he was on the day he arrived and would no more look to his neighbours for advice than he would the fish so many of them catch. For their part the villagers do come to appreciate the fact they have a top notch doctor, but don't go looking to him for the milk of human kindness or a sympathetic ear.

How is it than that as viewers we can stand watching the doctor in action? Wouldn't one season of watching him bully his clients and generally being an arrogant prick, let alone four, be a little too much to bear? It would if it weren't for the fact there is more to Martin Ellingham than what he shows the world. Thankfully the writers are smart enough to ensure we see far more of the Doc than just his attitude towards the fools surrounding him and also gradually fill us in on his history. We learn why and how he developed into the person he is sufficiently to appreciate his character more and more as the series develops. There's also the fact that a good deal of the time the people he treats are as big as fools as he thinks they are and we can't help but sympathizing with him for having to put up with people who wonder why they are sick after living on a diet of roadkill.
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Of course the series wouldn't be complete if there wasn't some sort of romantic interest. In this case its provided by the local school's headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz) There on again off again romance not only keeps the locals wondering, but the viewing audience as well. While for the villagers it might be what the hell does she see in him mixed with will they ever get together, for us at home its wondering whether Doc will ever find the courage to overcome a lifetime of repression and fear to tell her how he feels. Their relationship is marked by his mishandling of any moments of intimacy that do happen. Instead of allowing himself to experience and enjoy them he barricades himself behind a wall of medical professionalism that allows him to ask her about her dental hygiene after a particularly passionate kiss.

Her natural reaction of storming away - actually chucking him out of the cab they're sharing at the time - is completely understandable to everybody except poor Martin. Yet neither of them can deny they are attracted to each other. Like magnets who keep switching their polarity they push each other away periodically only to feel the pull of attraction to the other just as strongly, if not more so, as before, and come back together again. The best thing about their relationship though is how while there are moments that are genuinely funny, the writers of the series never play it for laughs. We want them to succeed and end up as a couple, but we can also understand why they just might not ever manage to.

It's this adherence to reality that makes the series so effective. It would have been easy to populate the village with types with stock phrases guaranteed to fetch laughs or write episodes which ended with warm hearted feel good moments that unite the town and the doctor. However the people who live in Portwenn have to work for their living and while they may come up with inventive ways to hurt themselves and illnesses that are occasionally off the beaten track, they are true to their environment and real people. Which means that while they may be grateful to Doc for saving somebody's life or figuring out why a person is sick, that doesn't mean they have to like him any better than they did before.

The myth of the small town doctor has been perpetuated to the point of nausea in films and television. Doc Martin is not only the perfect antidote to all that saccharine, its funny, thoughtful and a pleasure to watch. It doesn't hurt that the series was shot on location in Cornwall so the scenery serving as the backdrop for the stories is breathtaking. The new nine disc set containing all four seasons, Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4 (A fifth series is currently being filmed) might not keep the doctor away but it will make you very happy. The special features include some behind the scenes footage and written cast biographies. The discs are set up for 5.1 surround sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired or those who trouble with some of the thicker regional accents in England.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Complete Doc Martin Collection - Series 1 - 4 on Blogcritics.)

March 31, 2011

DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series 1 - 40th Anniversary Edition

My parents finally broke down and bought a colour television in 1973. At the same time they also decided that in order to get full value for the set they would try out what was still a new concept, paying to receive television channels, and signed up for cable television. Prior to then television had been free to everyone and with a good enough arial you could bring in all the stations you wanted. However, there was never any guarantee of quality, or of being able to receive certain channels all the time. Cable, on the other hand, assured us we would not only have consistent picture quality, but we would always be able to receive the stations they offered.

Naturally, as a kid I was thrilled. It opened up a whole new world of television. Living in Canada we were pretty much limited to what was offered on the two Canadian stations of the time and what could make it up from the States via the antenna. However, I soon realized I wasn't the only one who was receiving benefits from the increase in service. What I hadn't known was my parents had very sneakily purchased cable television not with my best interests in mind, but for their own selfish reasons. They wanted to be able to watch Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) from the United States without having to worry about service interruptions.

It was an appalling predicament, as all of a sudden I was in competition with my parents for use of the television. It never seemed to matter if there was something on that I wanted to watch, no priority was given over to what they wanted to watch. To make matters worse, the damned PBS station always seemed to be running something they liked during prime time at least one or two nights a week. However, the night I came to dread most, and basically gave up on ever being able to watch anything ever again on, was Sundays. How I came to loathe Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre.
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Although it wasn't the first show broadcast on the program, the one I came to identify most, and by extension loathe the most, with it was of course Upstairs, Downstairs. To a twelve or thirteen year old male the program was almost incomprehensible. First of all the women were not only all clothed, they were covered from the neck to the feet, secondly nothing ever seemed to happen. It was close to an hour of people seeming to do nothing but sit, or stand, around and talk about, well, nothing. Yet my parents were glued to the television almost from the moment it began broadcasting in North America until it went off the air five years later.

Of course in latter years I discovered what all the fuss was about and now in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the show's first airing Acorn Media is releasing box sets of each year's episodes, starting with Upstairs Downstairs Series 1: 40th Anniversary Edition March 29 2011. The 4 disc set not only contains all thirteen episodes from the first year, it also offers viewers a chance to see an alternative pilot episode that never aired in North America, and the first part of the documentary The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs. For those of you who have somehow still not managed to see any of this classic piece of British television, this set will get you well on the road to discovering why people would be riveted to their television sets every Sunday night for weeks on end when it first aired in North America.

On the surface it might not sound like much; a show set in the first years of the twentieth century that deals with the goings on in the very wealthy Bellamy household in London England. The Upstairs of the title refers to the aristocratic family who owns the house, while Downstairs is in reference to their servants, who live and work behind the scenes making sure everything is just the way it should be. Like I said, doesn't exactly sound like very entertaining stuff. However, unlike the majority of what is aired these days, instead of relying on flash and bang to draw an audience in, the show's writers and directors assumed their audience not only had a brain, but an attention span which could focus on something for more then thirty seconds.

The combination of superlative acting, intelligent scripts and careful attention to historical accuracy - including social mores, dress, behaviour and, most importantly, the British class structure of the time - works together to create not only a fascinating portrait of a bygone era, but wonderful theatre. The two worlds, the Upstairs and the Downstairs, are so far removed from each other, that neither really has a hope of understanding the other's reality. Even though they both occupy the same geographic territory, they live in separate planes of existence. For members of the Bellamy family can easily sit in a room and treat any servant sharing the space with the same amount of regard as they would the wallpaper or a piece of furniture until they require them to perform some task for them. The servants don't exist as individuals when they are Upstairs, they are defined by their function.
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However, appearances are deceptive, and as we discover the deeper we go into the series, it only seems like the Upstairs and the Downstairs are separated by an insurmountable divide. Aside from the fact that the Bellamy family depends on their servants to do everything from feeding to clothing them, and the servants depend on the family for their livelihood, we begin to notice there is another type of bond holding them together. While mutual respect might be stretching things to describe how they feel about each other, there's a sense that both groups are aware of their interdependence, which in turn breeds a certain level of trust between them. Certainly there's something paternalistic in the way Upstairs treats the servants, as they will often talk of them in the same manner as they would children. However their concern is genuine, and taken in the context of the times is more than enough to explain the servants loyalty.

The episodes in this first season do an excellent job of bringing to life both the lives the servants and the family and the relationship between the two. It's interesting to see how the only times conflicts develop between them is when the barriers separating the two worlds come down even a little. You can't be a master and a friend, as the family's son, James Bellamy (Simon Williams) discovers. Unfortunately he's not the one who suffers as he is protected by his position and his class, while the servants could end up not only losing their jobs, but their home. So when the older servants in the household, the butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) or the cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) offer the advice of "know your place" to younger servants, it's not just to keep order, but is sage advice on how to protect themselves.

In part one of The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs series co-creator and star Jean Marsh, she played the house maid Rose, tell us how the series came about and the story behind the extra pilot included in this collection. At the time the pilot was being shot television in Britain was just making the switch to full colour. Camera crews had been given pay increases to reflect the extra work they were having to do with the new equipment and the sound people all of a sudden they needed more money as well because, as Marsh says, having to record in colour. So in order to prevent a strike and get the pilot shot, it was originally filmed in Black and White. However that episode was never shown in North America, because it was decided to re-shoot it in colour before broadcasting it over here.

While the show is brilliantly acted and wonderfully written, and the producers obviously spared no expense in recreating the era through sets and costumes, forty year old television is still forty year old television. So the quality of the picture and sound aren't going to be what you're used to. However, whatever technical deficiencies the set might suffer from, they are more than offset by its substance. Upstairs, Downstairs was shot in the days when television had to rely on scripts, directors and actors to hold an audience's attention instead of special effects or pseudo reality/voyeurism. While it may take you a while to get used to the slower pace if you exercise only a little patience you'll discover this fiction is probably one of the most realistic programs you'll ever watch. It still might not appeal to twelve your old boys, but for the rest of us Upstairs, Downstairs remains one of the best examples of television living up to its fullest potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series One - 40th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.)

March 22, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3

Your life is a lie. Each day you wake up is another day you continue to live that lie, and if somehow you slip up and make a mistake you'll die. For weeks, months even, you pretend to be someone else and are constantly in danger of being found out and killed. Even worse are the things you have to do in order to preserve that lie. Watch with approval as people do things that all your instincts cry out for you to interrupt. Sometimes it's not enough to just sit back and watch, you have to join in, and tear another hole in your soul.

When does the lie cease to be a lie and become reality? Does there come a point when you cross the line and become who you're pretending to be? How do you hold on to the vestiges of yourself when everything you do is in direct opposition to what your conscience tells you is right? Do you ever find, to paraphrase Frederick Nietzsche, that by staring into the eyes of the dragon too long you start to become the dragon? It's hard to imagine there are people who would willingly put themselves into the type of position described above. However, as is brilliantly depicted in the Tiger Aspect production Murphy's Law, Series 3, now available on DVD from Acorn Media, that just about describes the life of an undercover police officer.

Detective Sergeant (DS) Tommy Murphy, James Nesbitt, is an undercover officer for the National Crime Squad working in London England. Those who have seen previous episodes of the show will know he's pretended to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic in the course of his operations. While he's had to deal with difficult situations in the past, the six episodes making up Series 3 take him down roads that are darker and more twisted than any he's walked before. Unlike previous years where each episode has been a stand alone story, on this occasion the operation he's involved in is spread out over the course of the season's six one hour shows. As a result we watch everything he has to endure in order to get a result.
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What starts off as a simple attempt to catch people willing to buy illegal firearms, Murphy is posing as a supplier and armament expert, gradually turns into a far more elaborate sting operation. When the person who shows up for the initial meeting, one Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender) tells him the gun will be used for a murder, Murphy refuses to sell him a gun but offers his services as a contract killer. It's hoped that by doing this he'll not only be able to prevent a murder from taking place, but be able to bring down not just Miller but whoever is responsible for ordering the hit as well. It's this spur of the moment decision that begins his long and dangerous journey of the soul.

It tuns out Millar's boss is somebody the police have been trying to catch for a long time, but have never been able to accumulate sufficient proof to nab him. Dave Callard (Mark Womack) is a known cop killer (A frustrated senior officer says "Two hundred witnesses just happened to be in the loo" on how Callard was able to get away with beating the cop to death in the street), and drug dealer who has been gradually giving himself the gloss of legitimacy through front operations. When the connection between Millar and Callard becomes clear, those higher up in the force decide this might be the chance to bring him down and direct Murphy to start infiltrating his organization in order to accumulate evidence against him.

They first fake the murder of Collard's target by bringing him into police custody and offering him witness protection in return for supplying them with evidence of Callard's illegal activities. After proving his worth as a hit man, Murphy is gradually drawn deeper into Callard's operations and starts to gain his trust. However, just as he thinks they're about to pull Callard in for possession of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Euros, a bigger fish appears on the scene and the officer in charge, Detective Superintendent Reece (Michael Feast) insists they put everything on hold so they can check out the nature of the new arrival's involvement.

While a good deal of the action takes place with Murphy undercover, the show also does a great job of showing the amount of work going on behind the scenes in this type of operations. One of the more interesting characters is DS Paul Allison (Owen Teal) Murphy's "cover officer". His job is to ensure Murphy's fake identity can stand up to any digging the target might do into his background. In this case that includes creating and entering into the system a false criminal record in his name, finding him a place to live, creating ID and coming up with any sort of documentation he might need at any time, for any occasion. Including a program for a funeral when Murphy has to come up with an excuse for missing a meeting and says his uncle died.
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Even more fascinating is the relationship between the two men. While the two characters are old friends and Murphy trusts Allison completely, it doesn't stop the latter from being a mixture of parent and confessor for the former. When Murphy sleeps with the wife of the man he supposedly murdered and looks to be developing feelings for her, Allison gives him holly shit for his unethical behaviour then lies to Reece in order to prevent him from finding out about the incident. When Murphy starts to go off the rails because the case is dragging on for far longer then was anticipated, it's Allison who both brings him back on track and convinces everybody else that Murphy is up to doing the job. In many ways Allison is the only real friend Murphy has, and knows him better than anybody else. He is Murphy's life line, the reminder of who he really is and what he really stands for.

Most police procedurals seem to think a one hour time slot is more than enough time to solve a crime no matter how complicated it might be. If you're lucky you may get a two or even three part special. Spaced over the course of six full one hour episodes (that's no commercials and about fifty-five minutes a pop) Murphy's Law, Series 3 gives the writers not only time to allow events to unfold in a much more naturalistic manner, but allows them to spend plenty of time with Murphy himself. Given that type of latitude, an actor of James Nesbitt's quality can't help but give what can only be deemed an incredibly special performance. While everyone in the cast is remarkable his performance is simply one of the best I've seen in a police television series before.

While he rarely allows Murphy to show any moments of weakness, even when he's off the job, things come up through the cracks periodically, He lives a life of almost complete isolation with no family nor friends outside of whomever is on his team at the time and the criminals he's associating with. His sleeping with Ellie, (Georgia Mackenzie) the wife of the man he "killed", is brought about by his genuine feelings of affection for her and his loneliness. Of course it also makes him hate himself for doing it, as he knows she would never have slept with him if she thought her husband were alive, and he's taking advantage of her grief. The layers of lies he is forced to live while undercover takes him places that tear him apart inside, and Nesbitt's depiction of what Murphy goes through because of Ellie, gives the viewer a clear indication of the effects this can have on a person.

Murphy's Law, Series 3 is not only an excellent police drama, it is also an incredible peak behind the scenes into the life of an undercover police officer. I've never seen another show on television to compare to this for the starkness of its depiction of the life people like Tommy Murphy have to lead in order to do their jobs. On top of that the show makes no attempts to hide any of the moral ambiguities associated with this type of work and in the process reminds us the gap between those who commit the crimes and those who prevent them isn't as wide as we'd like to think. For while there's no doubt who the good guys are, they tend to think a little too much the same as the bad guys for comfort. You might just end up agreeing with Callard when he tells Murphy at the end, "I could have been you and you could have been me". Only a really good television show would be brave enough to say that, and only the best of those have the ability to create a world where it is believable. This is one of those shows.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion on Blogcritics.)

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

(Article first published as DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet on Blogcritics.)

December 28, 2010

My Top Ten DVDS 2010

This is something new for me, in fact its a first. In all the time that I've been critiquing I've never put together a list of the movies/DVDs which have appealed to me most in a year. So what's so different about this year that all of a sudden I feel compelled to inflict my opinions on you? Looking over the list of movies I've selected the only reason I can think of is because none of them are ones that are going to be getting much, if any attention, elsewhere.

Let me be clear, I've not put this list together just because they are the ten most obscure movies of the year, they just happened to be ones that I've liked the most from those released this year on DVD that I've reviewed. There are other movies I've watched this year I might have liked more, but they weren't current releases or I didn't review them. (Primary among those was the film adaptation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books set in 17th century Spain, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen in the title role. It's taken me nearly two years to find a copy of the movie as its never been released in English speaking North America, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the South American DVD do so as its a brilliant film) However, that does not diminish the worth or quality of the titles listed below as each has something of value to offer an audience.

You might not necessarily be entertained, and I wouldn't recommend sitting down and watching all ten of them back to back, but the viewing will never be boring. I've never been a big fan of the passive entertainment that's normally on offer in our multiplexes and cinemas, and the list below is reflective of my tastes, so my choices aren't likely to have much in common with similar retrospectives. Hopefully you will be intrigued enough to follow the links to check out the full reviews and maybe even watch one or two of them. They may not be what you're used to, but they're all fine examples of the art of film making and the power of visual communication.

Che: The Collectors Edition. This three disc collection contains both parts one, The Argentinean and two, Guerrilla of the movie tracing Ernesto "Che" Guevara's life as a revolutionary. From his success in helping Fidel Castro overthrow the American backed Batista government in Cuba to his death in Bolivia, we follow him through the jungles of South America. While there're obviously going to be disputes over his place in history, hero or villain, there can be no disputing this is an excellent movie and that Bencio Del Toro gives the performance of the decade in the title role of Che. Complaints have been made that the movie ignores the executions he ordered and is biased, but after more than a century of a pro American bias in history books, the media and film when it comes to Latin America, isn't it about time we see and hear something representing another opinion?

The Yes Men Fix The World. About a month ago the mighty oil company Chevron was publicly embarrassed when their new ad campaign was subverted by press releases under their logo announcing they were taking full responsibility for all the environmental damage they've caused. Naturally they were outraged and said they would never admit to any wrongdoing or take any responsibility for any actions they may or may not have done. The Yes Men had struck again. Andy Bichlbuam and Mike Bonanno have been doing their best to take the corporate world to task for decades. They've done everything from go on live television as representatives of Union Carbide Chemicals promising to finally clean of and provide proper compensation for the disaster in Bhopal India to appearing as representatives of HUD in New Orleans after Katrina announcing the government had changed their mind and would rebuild all the public housing destroyed in the hurricane.

This movie documents the various actions they have taken around the world, showing us how they go about preparing for events, and just how gullible most of the corporate world really is. Unfortunately, as they are the first to admit, while they may be having a good deal of success increasing public awareness of what corporations like Chevron are up to, they're not having much success in stopping them. While corporate America might claim to be victims after a Yes Men prank, after watching this movie you have to wonder how that's possible. A multi billion dollar corporation on one hand - two guys, some friends, a good graphics program and a whole lot of chutzpah on the other hand, and the former are the ones crying foul because they're being called on their failures to take responsibility for destroying the world and the deaths of thousands of people? After watching a documentary like The Yes Men Fix The World you begin to understand why the world is in such a mess and how much work we still have to do in order to have a hope in hell of fixing it. At first this is a bit of a laugh, and although it ends hopefully, the overall impact is the realization we need millions of Yes Men if we ever hope to change the world.

Lost In La Mancha. Anybody who has any illusions left about the film industry will quickly have them dashed after watching this documentary about Terry Gilliams attempts to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. What was supposed to have been a project on the part of two film students, follow the director of a major motion picture through the process of making a movie from pre-production to screen, ended up becoming a record of the insanity involved in producing a film in today's market. As Gilliam discovers there is little or no room for artistry or imagination in this world as all anybody is worried about is the box office after the fact, not how you get there. The truly depressing thing about this documentary comes at the point when you realize the potential being lost with this movie remaining unmade. Without being overt, but just by letting the facts speak for themselves, Lost In La Mancha shows just how far removed film making has removed itself from anything close to representing an artistic vision.

Black White & Grey. I'd wager that most Americans who even think they know something about the visual arts wouldn't be familiar with the name Sam Wagstaff. However if you have any interest in photography as an art form, according to this DVD, its Sam you have to thank for it being considered something other than a poor cousin to painting and sculpture. The movie traces Wagstaff's career in the arts from a curator who championed experimental art in the early 1960s, an independent collector of first objects d'art and then photographs, to patron of the arts through his championship of his lover, the brilliant but controversial photographer, Robert Maplethorpe. As is usual with this type of film a great deal of what we learn about the man comes from other people's opinions, and some of the talking heads are just a bit catty and should be taken with a couple of tons of salt. However, people like poet and rock singer Patti Smith not only provide a good deal of insight into Wagstaff's motivations for collecting, but go behind the rumour and innuendo in describing his and Maplethorpe's relationship. While remaining relatively unknown outside of those active in the art world, without people like Sam Wagstaff it is impossible for a country to reach its potential culturally. Not a visual artist himself, he had an eye for knowing what was real and the courage to champion unpopular work. This is a moving portrait of one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary art in North America.

The End Of Poverty?. Anyone out there who still doesn't consider the economic imperialism of the developed world to be the root cause of poverty in Africa, South America and Asia needs to watch this movie. Interviews with economists, historians and individuals from various countries whose lives have been effected by the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show both how the system works and its results. When a country is forced to allow foreign corporations to develop their national resources so they receive little or no economic benefits and have no say in how the development takes place the situation is bad enough. When the raw product is then shipped overseas for processing and then sold back to the country again at usurious prices the effects on their economy are crippling. It's more than obvious after watching this movie that the answer to the question of the title is, there is no end in sight when it comes to poverty. You may want to deny what your hearing and seeing at first. but the arguments and testimony are too compelling to be ignored. By the end of this film you will have to agree there is a serious problem and the only way it can be addressed is if we radically change the way we treat the developing world.

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam. This is rock documentary with a difference. Inspired by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacore he and a collection of Islamic punk bands head out on a barnstorming tour of the US with their ultimate destination being the Islamic Society Of North America's national convention. When the tour is over, the cameras and Knight then follow one of the bands over to Pakistan where they are attempting to start a punk movement in their parents' homeland. For Knight it is also a chance to re-visit the mosque where he first studied after converting and to continue his exploration of his new faith by visiting the shrines of various Sufi saints. While a bit rough around the edges the movie does a good job in not only capturing the excitement felt by the young people involved in the tour and their fiercely independent attitude - best expressed by Knight as giving the finger to both Bush and fundamentalist Muslims. The movie also introduces us to Knight, a figure of interest for having converted to Islam at seventeen, and we learn he is a very complex and intelligent man not afraid to take responsibility for past mistakes and willing to accept the challenges converting throw at him. A fascinating portrait of a man that will also offer viewers a far different view of Islam than is normally seen in popular media - a view that as many people as possible need to see.

A Single Man. Aside from being one of the most beautiful examinations of life and death ever depicted, a wonderful script, and amazing cinematography this film should be compulsory viewing because of Colin Firth. Maybe there have been more flamboyant performances by an actor in a movie before, but this, to my mind, has to have been one of the most complete I've ever seen. Everything, from his body language to the way he uses his voice conveys something of his emotional state every step of the way through the movie. Their is such grace and economy of movement in everything he does that you almost forget he is acting. It's still beyond me how he could have failed to win the Oscar for best actor. If you haven't seen this movie yet, do so now as its brilliant.

Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire. In 1972 Leonard Cohen was probably at the height of his international popularity as a singer/songwriter. On his twenty concert tour of Europe that year he was joined by documentary film maker Tony Palmer who followed him with cameras on and off stage from Dublin Ireland to Tel Aviv Israel. For various reasons the film was never released and it was only in 2009 Palmer was informed the raw footage had been found in a warehouse in Los Angeles. After a year of restoring and doing what he could, he came away with this remarkable portrait of both Leonard Cohen the individual and Leonard Cohen the performer. You'll be surprised at both Cohen's sense of humour and the intensity of his passion. While there are obvious deficiencies in the sound quality, the tour was plagued by equipment trouble, the concert footage is wonderful for its intimacy and the way it captures the connection Cohen has with his audiences. While one movie will never be enough to reveal Leonard Cohen, this one does a remarkable job in peeling back some of his layers.

Infidel. There are occasions when a little irreverence is a lot better than a ton of seriousness, and this movie is proof positive of that. Completely without shame this movie makes fun of fanatics on both sides of the Muslim Jewish divide without ever losing sympathy for the individuals caught in the middle. Omid Djalli plays a British born man who is the son of immigrants from Pakistan. Naturally he has always assumed he's a Muslim, but when his mother dies he discovers not only was he adopted but he was born to Jewish birth parents. At first he tries to overcompensate, making blustery anti-Zionist comments, but soon he decides he must get in touch with his real roots. He turns to a Jewish taxi driver, Richard Schiff, who teaches him dance steps from Fiddler On The Roof, how to shrug and say Oi-vey and other essentials of Judaism. This movie is bound to offend people on both sides of the issue who take themselves too seriously, and brings a much needed human face to the divide between the two faiths. People tend to forget that Jews and Muslims are kin from way back, and its politics which truly separates them not religion. Hopefully this movie will help us all remember the things we have in common are more important than those which divide us.

Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother If you ever needed proof that notoriety is probably the worst enemy of art, this two DVD set is a perfect example. Each DVD contains footage from one of the last two public readings American poet Charles Bukowski ever gave. Over the years his rough and honest poems and his vivid descriptions of the rough life of an alcoholic garnered him a literary reputation as a great writer. Unfortunately far too many people were unable to separate the man from his work and would show up at his readings in the hopes of seeing some "action". So while the record of the two readings does give us a great idea of his abilities as a writer, we also quickly see why he stopped giving public readings more then fifteen years before his death. He can barely get through a poem's introduction without being heckled, and is reduced to having to yell at the audience to shut up so he can keep reading. Even his occasional reminders that they paid for him to be there, and he'll happily sit there and say nothing if they don't shut up, doesn't stop them from acting like idiots. It's a real pity, because if they bothered to listen they would hear between the lines the real beauty and pain that he describes in his poems and might just realize he's not anything like they think or expect. Watching these movies lets you know just how much our expectations of those we call celebrities can actually destroy the art we claim to appreciate.

(Article first published as My Ten Best DVDs Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2010

DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou - 1971 - 1973

The death knell for the innocence of the flower power years of the 1960s was first sounded by the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy in 1968 wiyh the latter resulting in the eventual election of Richard Nixon to his first term as President of the United States and an escalation of the war in Viet-Nam. With Nixon in office, and the body count rising in South East Asia, the non-violent protests of the 1960s were soon a thing of the past. In 1971 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students demonstrating against the war at Kent State university resulting in the deaths of four protesters. All of a sudden music about love, peace and LSD making the world a better place wasn't such a good fit for the times as people didn't really want to be reminded about what was going on around them but preferred entertainment which would help them forget their troubles.

The Glam - short for glamour - Rock movement which saw rock bands doing everything from wearing their girlfriends clothes on stage, (The New York Dolls) wearing elaborate costumes, dying their hair and slathering on the make-up, was, on the whole, escapism to the max. More concerned with style than substance the music was a harbinger of what was later to become known as the ME decade. Self indulgent, flashy and quite often musically simplistic, Glam Rock wasn't about social change, it was about everybody having a good time and rock and roll superstars preening in the spotlight. Of course that wasn't true of all those at the time, there are always those who find a way to transcend a genre and make a definitive statement about themselves and their music at the same time.
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According to a new documentary, The Sacred Triangle: David, Iggy & Lou 1971 - 73, being released on DVD November 23/10 by Chrome Dreams on the and distributed by MVD Entertainment, three such exceptions at the time were David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. While these three men are now well known singers and songwriters for a variety of reasons, the early 1970s saw each of them at a crossroads in their respective careers. Bowie was still looking to breakthrough as a popular performer; Reed was looking to start a solo career after his break with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and Pop was trying to recover from the excesses of the original Stooges.

The movie provides the usual rock and role documentary mix of talking heads, period concert footage and pop culture history lesson to tell its story. Although Bowie ends up being the pivotal figure, we learn that the impetus for his shift to the theatricality of Glam Rock, and by extension the Ziggy Stardust album which catapulted him to fame, was the work being done under the umbrella of Andy Warhol's Factory in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While The Velvet Underground's music and gritty lyrical content were responsible for his shift from being a solo performer on twelve string acoustic guitar to fronting a hard edged rock band, it was the outrageousness of Pork, a theatrical performance produced by Warhol in 1971, that inspired his stage shows and encouraged him to create the androgynous character Ziggy Stardust.

While the movie never says so overtly, one also gains the impression that Bowie also liked the idea of being an impresario along the lines of Warhol. For shortly after his initial success he formed MainMan Management, a production company. In fact, from information given in interviews, Bowie's ex wife Angie in particular, the feeling is that at that point in his life he was more interested in being a star first and a musician second and the latter just happened to fulfill the former goal. Former Factory denizen Leee Black Childers, who was later a vice-president of MainMan, is also interviewed, and explains how Bowie became the producer of record for Transformer, the album that brought Lou Reed into the public eye as a solo performer. He also talks about MainMan's attempts to work with Iggy Pop at this stage and how the one album they produced of his pretty much sank without a trace.
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The Sacred Triangle does a good job in bringing the history of the era and the key players to life. Those interviewed, including Jayne, (Wayne) County, were all able to talk intelligently and informatively about the three men and the events surrounding the period in question and to explain how the careers of Bowie, Reed and Pop ended up intertwined at this critical juncture in all their careers. However, what it doesn't do is live up to its title. While I've been an admirer of all three men at various points in their careers, the movie failed to convince me that there was any justification in referring to their collaboration at this time as the most dramatic shift in musical style since the beginning of the rock age, as the blurb on the DVD's packaging claims.

In fact, while there is no denying the music produced at the time was interesting, the lasting impression created by the film was of a movement based on titillation and a desire to shock rather than any great artistic motivations. There is something almost superficial about the way the movie treats its subject matter with the result at the end you're left saying, so what? If you were looking to gaining any new insights into either one of Bowie, Reed or Pop, you will come away disappointed. I've always considered Glam Rock to have been one of the symbols of how far rock and roll strayed from its roots in the 1970s by the way it seemed to celebrate fame and the cult of personality over the music. While that might be an unfair assessment on my part The Sacred Triangle did nothing to change my opinion. As far as I'm concerned, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie succeeded in spite of their association with Glam, not because of it. In fact, as it becomes clear in the movie, Bowie was the only one of three who even was part of the genre, and by 1973 he had divorced himself from it by retiring his Ziggy Stardust persona.

As for the technical quality of the movie, little attempt was made to re-master any of the original concert footage so the sound is only basic stereo. While some of the older clips are a bit fuzzy, the producers have done a good job in searching out pieces of as high a quality as possible. Unfortunately their flaws are obvious when they are compared to the material shot specifically for the movie and makes for some rather jarring transitions. It also only serves to emphasis the dated quality of the material, and making it seem even less significant in terms of its importance in popular music's evolution.

Those who are die hard fans of the performers under discussion, interested in background on Andy Warhol and The Factory, or who like early 1970s rock music will probably find The Sacred Triangle interesting. However, the rest of you can probably find better things to do with a hundred plus minutes of your time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Reed 1971 - 1973 on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2010

Movie Review: Reel Injun

I don't normally write articles that receive a lot of comments, but twice I struck enough of a nerve with people that they responded in the hundreds. One was on everyone's favourite topic, gun control, and the other was on the use of Native Americans, First Nations in Canada, as mascots in sports teams. I was astounded at how many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that a race of people would be offended by being equated with the San Diego Chicken or other figures of ridicule that dress up in costume and generally run around making fools of themselves at public events.

The most common argument I heard was these mascots were honouring the brave fighting spirit of Native Americans and how it should be taken as a compliment not an insult. What these people seemed to forget is that when you reduce a people to one characteristic they lose their humanity as we ignore every other aspect of their culture. If you want to honour Native Americans maybe you should teach students in schools how one of the models for the American Constitution was the Iroquois Confederacy and their system of governance, instead of creating cartoon figures who have little or no bearing on the realities of Native American life across North America.
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You can't really blame the sports teams and fans though for the mascots. These representations are merely an extension of the way in which Native Americans, and indigenous people everywhere, have been portrayed in popular media since the 19th century. From Buffalo Bill's depiction of the slaughter of men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek as a glorious triumph for the 7th Calvary to contemporary New Age books selling "Native wisdom" the culture of over five hundred different nations has been exploited and distorted with depressing regularity and with little concern for reality. Now Canadian film maker Neil Diamond, a Cree Indian from Northern Quebec near the Arctic Circle, has made a documentary tracing the history of Hollywood's representations of Native Americans. While its already made the round of Film Festivals last year, Reel Injun will have its American television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) show Independent Lens November 02/10.

A mixture of film clips from the earliest silent movies and interviews with film critics, actors, directors and Native American activists, Reel Injun not only shows how Native Americans have been depicted on the big screen over the years, it also explores the effect these negative stereotypes had on Natives. It seems like the camera has always loved them, as the first films ever made, Thomas Edison's back in the late 19th century, were of Laguna Pueblo dances. They were also the first peep shows to be shown in Times Square in New York City; put a penny in the slot and watch the savages dance; and there is something almost pornographic in the lurid black and white images of the dancers caught by this early camera.

Still, the early days of silent film, when technology was simple and cheap, actually saw movies being made by Native Americans about Native Americans depicting the realities of their lives at the time. It wasn't until the "talkies", and more specifically Westerns, came along that the problems began. Diamond himself talks about how as a young kid the only movies he saw on his reserve were the ones shown in a church basement on Saturday afternoons and how he and his friends would never identify with the Indians on the screen when a Western was shown. First of all none of them wore feather head dresses or rode horses, and secondly who'd want to be the bad guy?

Ah, but that's the past you say, and things have changed since then. Look at Dances With Wolves with its sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota for example. While its true, according to some of the film critics interviewed in Reel Injun that it was a watershed in the way it depicted Native Americans as multi-dimensional humans, it was still an outsider's view of what Native life was like, and a distorted one at that according to some. Russell Means, a Lakota and former leader in the American Indian Movement, was offended by the depiction of his nation requiring some "white guy with a mullet" to teach them how to fight. The people who defeated Custer at Big Horn didn't need "Lawrence of the Plains" to teach them anything.
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In fact, while most interviewed agreed, including Clint Eastwood, John Trudell, and Native film critic Jesse Wente, individual performances by people like Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, were invaluable in changing people's perceptions of the one dimensional stoical Indian, it wasn't until Native Americans began making films about Native Americans that real change occurred. Smoke Signals, based on a story by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, was set on the Spokane reservation in the state of Washington. Nobody was wearing feathers, riding a horse or talking in pidgin English, The characters lived in the modern world and dealt with the day to day shit that concerns most Native Americans today.

However, even Eyre says that his movie was made with the wider world in mind, and it wasn't until the release of The Fast Runner by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk was there was a film by, about and for Native people in North America. Winner of the Camera d'or for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Fast Runner was set a thousand years ago among the people of the far north. Shot entirely in the language of the people, it was a gritty and real representation of what life was like in the days before contact with Europeans. There was nothing glamourous or holy about the life depicted - it was just who they were and what they had to do in order to survive.

That's a long way from the days of Chuck Conner playing Geronimo or Native actors being told they didn't look "Indian" enough to play themselves. However stereotypes die hard and its going to take a lot more movies along the lines of The Fast Runner before the image of noble savage is erased from people's minds. Perhaps the days are gone when young Native boys are going to be beat up after Saturday afternoon matinees like Russell Means and his brother were for being Injuns, or be made to feel ashamed of their heritage because they only see themselves as villains on the screen. However movies like Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and their honest depiction of Natives are still in the minority and reach far fewer impressionable minds than Disney's Pocahontas with its depiction of a real woman as a Barbie Doll Indian Princess.

Reel Injun might be light hearted in tone at times, but it tackles a serious subject with directness and courage. Many people who watch this movie aren't going to be happy as it cuts the legs out from under American icons like John Wayne and Western movies in general. However there were lots of people who thought segregation was a good thing too and we know how that turned out. Not all Native Americans are noble, great horsemen and very few of the ones I know talk to animals anymore than I do. For those who don't understand what all the fuss is about when people complain about mascots or how Natives are depicted in films, if you keep an open mind when watching this film, you'll come away at the end of the hour with a far better understanding of why it hurts so much.

(Article first published as TV Review: Reel Injun on PBS on Blogcritics.)

October 14, 2010

DVD Review: The Infidel

People are always surprised at how many similarities there are between the Hebrew and Arabic languages: the word for pea