Archives for June 2012

HBO’s “Entourage” Ends on a High.

Entourage came to an end this year with its eighth and final series. The show revolves around up and coming Hollywood heart-throb Vince and his motley crew. There’s his best friend and manager E, his less successful actor brother Drama (played by Kevin Dillon, the less successful actor brother of Matt), his friend and gofer Turtle, and his agent Ari, and his wife, assistant and various love interests.

It’s Mark Wahlberg’s baby, and all of the characters are based unashamedly and far from loosely on his own real life cast of characters. It could easily have been insufferable, like watching one of those never-ending in-jokes that Sinatra and his rat pack used to make in Las Vegas and release as a movie. As with drugs, fun to do, oh so tedious to watch.

But thanks to its clever plotting, gentle banter and pitch-perfect performances it managed instead to be irrepressibly effervescent. Basically 30 Rock for boys, it was impossible not to be charmed. Or at least it was for its first few series’.

American TV series are written in the spirit of un-diluted capitalism. Once a show has got beyond its pilot and graduated into its first and second series, its numbers are relentlessly poured over. And the writers are called back in and told which of their storylines have and have not worked, and which elements of the show need to be dialed up and which ones quietly shelved.

So that frequently, later episodes in a series have been completely re-imagined in response to how the audience reacted to the different storylines in the first few episodes.

Unsurprisingly, this can sometimes be disastrous. Series 2 of Twin Peaks, and much of the latter half of Lost being obvious examples. But here it has to be admitted the system has undeniably worked.

What had been so endearing about the troupe initially was that, despite all the outward appearances of living the wet dream in an endless reel of uninhibited debauchery and unrestrained hedonism, all of their lives sucked. Every one of their relationships was a complete disaster.

But by the time we get to series 5, and especially 6 and 7, they have each become so garishly successful, that everything else about their lives has been drowned out. You’d have episodes in which one character gives the other a Maserati, and then later they race one another at the traffic lights.

Nobody minds seeing success, in fact we love watching pretty young things living the dream, so long as they are all profoundly and visibly unhappy. Thankfully, the homework was done, and the writers duly responded. And accordingly, come series 8 absolutely everything is going wrong for each and every one of them, and in every conceivable way. It’s great.

There’s talk at the moment of a movie follow-up. Let’s hope they hurry up and script it. They’re back on a roll.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Dexys’ “One Day I’m Going To Soar” Triumphs.

When news surfaced of the return of Kevin Rowland and Dexys, they of the Midnight Runners, there was an understandable air of scepticism. Not another middle-aged has-been trying to relive past glories and cash in on a dusty back catalogue. But very quickly, word got out that this was the real deal. An actual return to form.

One Day I’m Going To Soar is the fourth album from Dexys and their first since Don’t Stand Me Down in 1985, the inevitably doomed follow-up to the all-conquering Too-Rye-Ay 27 years ago.

The latter had produced the world-wide sensation “Come On Eileen”, the best selling single of 1982. Not to mention of course the Van Morrison cover “Jackie Wilson Said”, another hit single which they performed so memorably on TOTP while holding a portrait of the Scottish darts heart-throb Jocky Wilson.

Incredibly, to the complete shock of everyone working in the music industry, as soon as they had achieved their overnight success Dexys promptly imploded.

In fairness, of all the people suddenly thrust into the limelight, Rowland was probably the least well equipped to cope with its glare. And after the traditional sacking of band mates, falling out with record labels and descent into drug addiction, he eventually produced the questionably honest solo album My Beauty for Creation Records (immediately before they imploded) in 1999. That’s him on its cover sporting a fetching dress.

So it was to everyone’s amazement and, frankly relief that the British music press began to report in May that the new Dexys tour was something of a sensation. The shy but ever reliable Simon Price summed up their reaction in his Independent On Sunday piece here.

And what all the fuss was about became blindingly obvious when they appeared on Later with Jools Holland where they began, ballsily, with a performance of “Come On Eileen” which you can see here. That’s how you take the dry air of a television studio and set the building on fire.

Essentially a concept album, One Day I’m Going To Soar centres around the five tracks that chart Rowland as he falls hopelessly in, and then just as unexpectedly and as inexplicably out of love with the object of his desire.

Lyrically, it’s reminiscent of Dylan in the early 70s. But when the latter sang love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round, it was easy to miss quite how profound a realization this was, despite coming from one of the most sophisticated lyricists of the 20th century as it was delivered in such an off-hand manner.

There’s no mistaking the pain and heartache that have led Rowland to exactly the same conclusion. You can hear it in that still remarkable voice, and it’s made all the more palpable by his apparent inability to hold and hang on to love.

Brutally honest, but gloriously expansive musically speaking, there are any number of echoes of the early and mid 70s throughout, from the Stylistics and Sylvester to Sly and The Family Stone. But the principle constellation is still Van Morrison. And it’s one that Rowland and Dexys are comfortably capable of living with. A triumphant return and a stellar album.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

BBC2’s Superb “Afghanistan: The Great Game, A Personal View by Rory Stewart”.

Rory Stewart is the perfect guide to walk us through the last few hundred years that the people of Afghanistan have been forced to suffer through.

Not yet 40 and currently serving as a Tory MP, he was a star pupil at Eton where he actively supported the Labour Party, and then at Oxford and Harvard, before working as a diplomat in the Balkans, and as a senior coalition official in Iraq between 2004-5. But he is probably best known for his award winning book The Places in Between, which charts his 32 day trek across Afghanistan in 2002.

So he is naturally reluctant to draw any obvious parallels between the disastrous campaigns conducted in Afghanistan in the past, and those that the people there have been subjected to more recently. Which only serves to make those comparisons all the more conspicuous.

The first part of his BBC2 programme focused on the British and Russians as they fought for influence in the region during the 19th century, in what came to be known as the Great Game. Whilst the second looked at the Russians and the Americans as they fought for exactly the same reasons, in exactly the same region, and with exactly the same results, in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

One of the more interesting elements in Stewart’s measured yet impassioned programme was that, far from stumbling blindly into the region both the British and especially the Russians knew perfectly well how fraught with danger, politically and militarily, meddling in Afghanistan was. But they felt obliged to do so anyway, for fear of appearing weak to the competing superpower on the other side of the fence.

The results were, almost needless to say, disastrous. You can practically trace the dotted line linking the CIA’s clumsy and staggeringly miscalculated attempt to make up for the shame of Vietnam by arming the mujahedeen to the teeth in the 80s, and the destruction of the Twin Towers 20 years later.

America’s response of then stampeding blindly back into, where else, but Afghanistan was as predictable as it was, from America’s own perspective, tragic. That, of all things, a British prime minister should have been so impervious to history to have so willingly followed them in there is, again, almost beyond belief. God save us all from conviction politicians.

One of the things that this programme was particularly good at was reminding us all that, as bad as it was for the powers engaged there in their vain pursuit of influence, it was of course immeasurably worse for all the actual Afghans there caught in the resulting crossfire.

This is the sort of thing that the BBC still does so well. And Stewart is, demonstrably, something of a star.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

“The Raid”, Cracking Blockbuster, Shot For Barely $1m.

 The Raid is, to say the least, something of an oddity. An Indonesian martial arts film made by a Welshman, and shot for just $1.1m. But what renders it especially odd is that it’s really good.

Essentially, it’s Die Hard re-imagined as a Bruce Lee film. Our hero is a young, honest and therefore world-weary cop who arrives with his unit at a derelict housing block to take on an underworld drugs baron holed up in one of Jakarta’s most notorious slums.

The whole thing takes place in the building they try to storm. And it’s exhilarating. It just builds and builds. It’s as unrelenting an adrenalin rush as you’re likely to get short of turning to the sorts of people our hero is trying to rid the Jakarta streets of.

Written, directed and edited, brilliantly, by Gareth Evans, this is the second time he has teamed up Iko Uwais, his leading man, and a figure apparently revered in the sorts of circles where the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat is practiced.

They’d previously made Merantau together in 2009. And thanks to the buzz generated by The Raid, they’re likely to be working together for the foreseeable future.

Hollywood has already picked it up and entrusted them both to oversee the remake, together with their chief choreographers. And the same team are busy at work on what will now be the sequel, Berandal in what looks sure to be (at the very least) a trilogy.

It seems unlikely, judging from what little there is in the way of conventional characterization, that Evans will be graduating to more traditional story-telling any time soon. But why would he want to? He’s the natural heir to John Carpenter.

He looks at what all the big studios try to do with their leading men. And marvels, as we all do, at how inexplicably dull and dreary the results, and at how staggeringly inept they are at it. And says, I could do that, only much, much better, for a fraction of the cost, and with somebody much more interesting. This is the result.

This year’s surprise package, The Raid has been wooing audiences the world over. It won the Best Film and the Audience award at 2012 Dublin film festival. And, to pick just one example, the five star review the Guardian gave it here, summed up most people’s response to it.

And if you’d like to get a quick feel for how they made it, have a look at the five minute making-of vimeo clip they posted on the film’s blog, here. 

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

The Antikythera Mechanism; Another Superlative BBC4 Documentary.

We are exceptionally lucky to be living at this moment in time. We have a staggeringly privileged view of who we are and where we stand. We know more about the human body, the size of universe and what atoms are made up of than ever before.

But the corollary of all this is a tendency to view what was known in the past with faint derision. This is grossly unfair.

To take a simple example. For a long time, right up until the 16th century, it was assumed that we were at the centre of the universe, and that everything else revolved around us. But this wasn’t something that had been casually concluded.

If the Earth was moving, as Philolaus had suggested as early as the 5th century B.C in Greece, then why don’t we feel any wind resistance? And if we drop something from the top of a building, shouldn’t it fall at an angle, as a tennis ball would if you dropped it from a moving car?

The most sophisticated argument the Greeks produced against a moving Earth was the absence of stellar parallax. If we were moving, then it should look to us as if  the nearby planets were moving from our (moving) perspective, relative to the distant (and fixed) stars. But that, to the naked eye, doesn’t happen. So clearly, we are not moving.

Eventually, by the early 3rd century B.C. Aristarchus put forward two possibilities. A universe with the Earth at its centre, a geocentric one, or one that resolved around the sun, a heliocentric one. We know from Archimedes that he himself favoured the latter.

The extraordinary devise at the heart of the BBC4 documentary The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer very probably originated in Archimedes’ workshop. And it illustrates yet again quite how knowledgeable and ingenious the ancient Greeks were.

Incredibly detailed analysis of this small devise, discovered in 1900 in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, has shown that what it seems to be is an incredibly intricate astronomical mechanism.

It was designed as a means of illustrating the movements of the planets (no mean feat in itself), and as a way of predicting the solar eclipses that were so much a part of their Metonic calendar. This was a 235 month cycle that was the equivalent of 19 solar years.

In other words, it was how the ancients grappled with the problem of the leap year. For despite their increasingly elaborate attempts to counter it, their seasons were continually falling out of line.

This programme brilliantly illustrates quite how knowledgeable they were then. But conversely, as much as anything else, it encapsulates quite how much we know today compared to any other era in human history.

Because it is only now that we have the capacity to use all of the different scientific strands that we now have to examine and unlock the devise’s extraordinary secrets. In any other era, it would have remained a small muddy lump of ancient metal. Only now were we able to microscopically examine it to reveal the breathtakingly intricate mechanism within.

And it is only as a television documentary that all this information and research can be amalgamated and presented in such an accessible, immediate and enjoyable way.

What this shows once again is that television is the most powerful educating force since the invention of the printing press. And both of course have now been augmented by the arrival of the internet.

If you’d like to know more about this extraordinary devise, go here. Better still, if at all you can, watch this programme.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.