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!

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!

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!

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!