Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Picture special: Dr Who and the Radio Times

Almost as traditional by now as the ratings-bustin' Christmas night episode of 'Doctor Who' is the just-before-Christmas edition of the esteemed Radio Times which tends to boasts a glorious pictorial cover previewing the episode and an inside feature just to whet the appetite. With December issues of Radio Times appearing almost daily at the moment in the rush to get to the Christmas double edition it's hard to keep up with what's out when but the issue appears to be hitting the shops on Thursday 2nd December and here's a preview of the cover to keep an eye out as you scan the shelves at WH Smiths (other newsagents are available...but not many)

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Coming soon....Primeval season four!

Yes, yes we all know it's ITV's answer to Dr Who/the poor man's Dr Who (delete according to opinion) but it was good news indeed last year when reality-obsessed ITV decided to enter into a co-financing deal to allow production of a further 13 episodes of their entertaining monster romp drama 'Primeval' despite disappointing ratings for season three back in 2008.

Due to screen early in 2011, the first half of the season will debut on ITV1 and the second raft will screen later in the year first on non-terrestrial channel Watch (which not many people do). The first trailer has been released and it's looking good, if more of the same. Here's star Andrew Lee Potts getting all excited about still being in employment as he 'bigs up' the new season. RAAARGH!!!

Dr Who Christmas Special...the first official photo

Christmas is coming and so is the 2010 Dr Who Christmas Special. The BBC's publicity machine is starting to crnak up now with the episode's transmsision just four weeks away. You'll have seen the official trailer which debutted during the BBC's Children in Need marathon last Friday and now the first publicity stills have been released (nicely timed to coincide with the show's 47th birthday today - 47!!!). The episode is entitled 'A Christmas Carol' and stars Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins as well as the usual TARDIS trio of Matt Smith as the Doctor, Kary Gillan as Amy Pond (Williams?) and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams. Transmiion date and time yet to be confirmed but from past experience we're looking at either 6pm or 7pm on Christmas night. Here's the main publicity shot to whet your appetites....if that atmospheric, Tim Burton-esque trailer hasn't whetted it enough already...click on photo to embiggen!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Listening Post: Progress - Take That

Let me make one thing quite clear; I've never knowingly bought a Take That album. Honestly. No, wait...I bought their first 'greatest hits' collection years ago, but that was purely for professional purposes during my days s mobile DJ. I certainly never played it all the way through, oh no. 'Never Forget' now and again maybe (awesome song). Soon after firebrand Robbie Williams left the group and set off on his own meteoric, unpredictable solo career back in the mid-1990s at their height of the band's powers, Take That called it a day and only reformed a few years back when, ironically, Robbie's own career was on the wobble a bit. In the intervening period we've all been a bit bored witless, let's face it, by Robbie whining about Gary, by Take That whining about Robbie and yada yada repeat to fade. It was years ago, guys, get over it. Now, it seems, they have. After two successful but (probably) very saccharine Robbie-less albums, the hatchet has been buried and with the Robster's career having perked up a bit in the last year (if hardly touching the heights he scaled a few years before) old grudges have been swept aside, the boys have kissed and made up and they're all back together in one big happy pop family and they've made a new CD together as a five-piece. Popular wisdom might have expected a few more sloppy lurve ballads with Robbie doing the odd vocal and maybe a couple of harmless pop boppers guaranteed not to frighten the horses. No way. No way at all. The result of this unlikely and potentially unholy reunion is 'Progress', a startlingly good album of generally-uptempo pop tunes which, to all intents and purposes, is the new Robbie Williams album with a few familiar voices sharing vocal duties. 'Progress' is a daringly-different album, its influences laying deep in the world of the electro-pop confusion of Robbie's least acclaimed album, the misunderstood 'Rudebox', marrying some shimmering and urgent pop tunes with Robbie's often-manic vocal contortions and little bits of the other nice lads thrown in for good measure. Quite what the Mums and their older daughters who've taken the band back to their collective bosoms again these last five years will make of these jangling, angular songs remains to be seem. In many ways 'Progress' is the album Take That needed to make if they weren't going to tumble into the easy listening abyss. Whether their fanbase will be prepared to make the leap of faith and take the journey with them remains to be seen...

Ladies and gentlemen, I am hear to tell you that 'Progress' kicks some serious ass. In a pop year horribly dominated by samey, mid-tempo r'n'b or, worse, grisly rap nonsense, proper pop music - you know, songs with words and stuff - has had trouble get a real look in. Hopefully 'rogress' will go some way towards reminding the easily-led Britsh public of the importance of craftsmanship in music, creative lyrics and intelligent musicianship - not just nicking bits off old songs and shouting over them or else borrowing the same old rumpty-tumpty r'n'b rhythmn. So there. 'Progress' kicks off with lead single 'The Flood' (see the promo video below), a powerful majestic track which evokes 'Rule the World' and some of the band's more recent ballads and yet, thanks to Robbie's distinctive vocals, it's got a bit more bite than normal. Clearly Top 40 and the boys have had to make do with a number two position whilst number 1 is occupied by something forgettable by Rihanna. Umber-ella indeed. The gloves come off as 'The Flood' gives way to 'SOS', a thumping, urgent cry for help powered by Mark Owen's child-like vocals duelling with Robbie's gutsier tones. 'The Wait' seems to return us to safer territory with a gently tinkling paino intro before a big crunching bass roars in dragging a gloriously rolling chorus with it. 'Kidz' rattles along with a crunching miltary beat with Owen and Williams spitting out the song's cautionary lyrics. A gentle synthline, evoking early Depeche Mode/Erasure, underpins the charming and delicate 'All the Pretty Things' and my own favourite track, the skewed and not-quite-right 'Happy Now' with its irresistible chorus is followed by Robbie at his most swaggering on the driving 'Underground Machine.' On 'What Do You Want From Me?' Mark Owen comes clean about his "difficult year" and clearly and very publicly declares his devotion to his wife and his acceptance of his own very public stupidity - "I still think I'm in love with you, I still think you're the one for me." 'Affirmation' is urgent and pumping electronica and the album closes off with a couple of concessions to fan expectations as the band dial it down a bit in 'Eight Letters' and the bonus track, Jason Orange's rather delicate 'Flowerbed.'

No doubt about it, 'Progress' is just a great pop album. It's already selling by the shedload - fastest-selling album of the century, I understand - and it'll be interesting to see how well-received it is once the fans have settled down to listen to it because it really won't be what they might be expecting or even wanting. But the return of Robbie has clearly been a shot in the arm for the band and for Robbie himself. 'Progress' is a real and much-needed shake up for the band who were in danger of drifting into Westlife territory. The future's looking good. But is Robbie back for good? Only time will tell. One thing's for sure, if the fans give the album a chance and have patience - and I pray they will - they'll find it's a collection of songs they'll never forget and despite the fact it doesn't contain a million love songs, they'll most likely agree that it's probably Take That's greatest day. Could it be magic? Hang on...can't think of any more Take That songs so I'll just leave it there. Who'd have thunk I'd be so unreservedly recommending an album by a former boy band as quite possibly the defining pop album of the year? World's gone mad, I tell you.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

TV Review: The Sarah Jane Adventures - season four

So that’s another series of junior Dr Who spin-off ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ done and dusted, polished off across six weeks in twice-weekly instalments. And what a series it’s been. Any drama series can be expected to be showing a little bit of creative fatigue if it’s fortunate enough to survive to a fourth run but instead of wandering into televisual senility, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ has blazed through its fourth year with renewed energy, creativity and vitality in what’s become the best the show’s been since its first year in 2007 and very probably its most consistently enjoyable and accomplished series to date.

Series four of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ has been all about growing up and, to a lesser degree, about growing old. This year it seems as if the show’s writers and producers (Russell T Davies keeping a steady hand on the ship and even contributing a two-part script) have been conscious of the fact that the show’s intended audience is growing up and that some of the slapstick the show has indulged in in the past is unlikely to wash with a more sophisticated and maturing young audience. So the Slitheen, a constant in the show since year one, get a quick cameo in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’, quickly turned to slime as if to acknowledge the fact that gunging is no longer going to be a major feature of the show. even in series finale ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ the audience’s expectations are confounded when Ruby White’s stomach doesn’t explode in a shower of coloured liquid but just burps out a little splodge of gunk. The show’s telling its audience that it’s no longer concerned with covering people in slime for the sake of it, and neither should they be. Series four recognises that its core characters – Luke, Clyde, Rani – are getting older and each of the stories addresses the consequences and difficulties of coping with growing pains, difficulties exacerbated by the outlandish lifestyle the trio enjoy due to their relationship with Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane, too, given a new lease of life courtesy of her ‘adopted’ son Luke, has to learn to let go too, as Luke moves away to Oxford (with a robot dog for company and a disturbing taste for inappropriate neckwear) and, at the end of the series, is apparently forced to face the prospect of her own faculties diminishing.

Joseph Lidster’s brilliant opening two-parter, ‘The Nightmare Man’, may well be the best story of the series because it deftly balances some genuinely disturbing stuff – Julian Bleech’s creepy and unsettling vaguely mid-European turn as the titular villain, a creature who exists and feeds on the subconscious – and some great character stuff as the super-intelligernt Luke is fast-tracked to Oxford and his friends Rani and particularly Clyde have to cope with unfamiliar emotions as their cosy friendship is threatened. How will Luke cope on his own? What will happen to his friendships with Rani and Clyde? The Nightmare Man himself is very much a metaphor for growing up and dealing with new and unfamiliar and very real problems and, in Luke’s final confident confrontation with the Nightmare Man, it’s about rising above your fears and doubts and showing that you’re strong enough to survive even the greatest of adversity. As Luke toddles off to Oxford at the end of the story it’s the start of a new era for the show and when he returns in the second part of series finale ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ both Clyde and Rani have grown and developed so much as they take centre-stage that he almost seems surplus to requirements and a throwback to a more naïve era in the show’s history.

‘Vault of Secrets’ is a nod in the direction of the more pantomime stories of earlier series, with its bumbling comic UFO conspiracy freaks, Rani’s Mum Gita’s comedy gurning and those always-unconvincing body-swap moments where returning bad guy Androvax (from series three) possesses Luke, Rani and Sarah Jane. But even here the show reigns back its earlier instincts for knockabout fun. The mysterious ‘men in black’ brought to life from the David Tennant ‘Dreamland’ animation last year, are a formidable presence with their wrist machine-guns and even Androvax is given a bit more light and shade as the story centres around his desperation to keep his species alive and find a new home for the last of his race. Some good FX work (a particular feature of this series) and some well-staged action set pieces kept ‘Vault of secrets’ pacey and enjoyable without ever being hugely memorable.

In any lesser series of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ a story like ‘Death of the Doctor’, featuring current TARDIS incumbent Matt Smith and a special reappearance by 1970s companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) who preceded Sarah Jane aboard the TARDIS, would be a centrepiece, a real flagship story for the whole series. But so strong are the rest of this year’s serials that ‘Death of the Doctor, a gift to us from Russell T Davies himself, is fifty-odd minutes of glorious, joyous fun. Davies grafts a simple but effective story to his typical beautifully-paced character moments, scenes which seem to slow down the action but in reality add some wonderful light and shade and serve as reminder of why Davies got what modern ‘Doctor Who’ should be. It’s probably fair to say that Davies was ‘Who-ed out’ by the end of his run but the break has done him a power of good. He grabs Matt Smith’s Doctor and just seems to instinctively grasp the character but ultimately the story exists as a glorified piece of fan fiction as Davies gets to do what he couldn’t really do during his time at the helm of the parent show; he just shows off. Davies fills his scripts with fan-pleasing continuity references as Jo Grant (now Jo Jones, of course) swaps TARDIS anecdotes with Sarah Jane and later, as prisoners of the Shansheeth (not the show’s finest monster hour, being lumbering vulture undertakers redeemed by suitably funereal voice-over work), the two recall their past in a string of fan-pleasing flashback sequences which recall their experiences with earlier Doctors. Random dialogue references obscure stories like the appalling Colin Baker 1984 story ‘Timelash’, the girls delight in discovering they both visited medieval planet Peladon and Davies gets to drop in references to Metebelis 3 and briefly fills us in on the fates of a number of fan favourite former companions, right back to Ian and Barbara who started it all back in 1963. Typically, Davies depicts Jo as being as scatty as ever; but, contrary to popular fan opinion, he sees her as still happily married, with a stream of children and grandchildren, still boldly travelling the world fighting for the planet’s rights just as the nascent environmentalist Jo did back in her last regular appearance in 1973. ‘Death of the Doctor’ couldn’t help but bring a little tear to the eye of anyone who ever watched ‘Doctor Who’ back on the 1970s and, if we don’t get Davies back to write the odd script for ‘Doctor Who’ in the future, can happily stand as a wonderful full-stop to his work on the show, a little coda to the character he knows and loves so well.

After such ‘fan-squee’ delights the rest of the series might have been expected be have been a bit of an anti-climax but not a bit of it. ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ picked up its metaphorical skirts and reached even higher. This year’s Lis Sladen-lite yarn, ‘The Empty Planet’ may have been written just for me, still suffering withdrawl symptoms from the premature cancellation of the BBC’s reboot of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ and still morbidly fascinated by the idea of a world without pesky people in it.. Phil Ford’s script, in which both Clyde and Rani wake to find themselves in…well, the title gives it away, I suppose… is cleverly constructed to give the two youngsters a turn at talking centre-stage and crucially and fundamentally, to allow them to develop as young adults rather than children. Faced with the prospect of living on an a depopulated Earth the pair have to face the daunting prospect of starting humanity again; it’s a thought Rani doesn’t take to kindly too but Clyde seems quite pleased at the prospect.. With Luke out of the way, the viewer’s forced to see Clyde and Rani almost as a ‘couple’ the only two youngsters left in Sarah Jane’s immediate world and drawn together because of their shared experiences. It adds a new dimension on the ‘friends’ relationship the show has traded on previously and builds nicely on a few subtle suggestions of a potentially-deeper relationship between the two in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’. ‘The Empty Planet’ shows the pair raving around the deserted streets of Ealing (but to a fairly local boy it’s painfully obviously Newport City Centre) and the story is enlivened by some zingy dialogue between the pair and two impressive robots which are stamping about the place. The story even takes advantage of story elements from previous years – Rani and Cllyde haven’t been ‘evacuated’ because of the ‘banning’order placed on them by the Judoon last year, prohibiting them from leaving Earth (although quite how we reconcile this with Clyde’s bodyswap with the Doctor in the previous story, I’m not entirely sure just yet).

‘Lost in Time’ a thoughtful and mature two-parter which more than adequately fulfils the BBC’s Reithian principles of “educating and entertaining” as, through the handy convenience of a time portal conjured up by the mysterious ‘Shopkeeper’ (former ‘The Bill’ star Cyril Nri), Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani are dispatched into three different time zones to recover three artefact upon which the fate of the world depends. Oo-er. This is basically the ‘Dr Who’ ‘Key To Time’ season across fifty minutes but it pitches Clyde into a World War 2 scenario and a close encounter with racist Nazi invaders, Rani gets to know the doomed Lady Jane Grey and Sarah Jane enjoys a more traditional supernatural adventure where echoes of the future impact upon the past. Moody and slower-paced than much of the season, this is deep, intelligent thought-provoking stuff and a reminder of how far the show has come so quickly from the Mona Lisa with a space gun and the Judoon driving a Police Car.

So to the season finale and ‘Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith’ (just screened on the CBBC channel, where the show has been pulling in close on a million viewers per episode, far better than most of the weekly output of the higher-profile Sky 1) which really piles on the emotion and evokes a real sense of closure for the whole series. If we didn’t know that half of the next series is already in the can it’d be easy to believe, from part one at least, that time’s up at last for Sarah Jane. In part one the gang meet up with Ruby Anne White (played with real power and malevolence by Julie Graham who’s so clearly having the time of her life here) who is everything Sarah Jane is only younger and with better tech (she has a palmtop version of Sarah Jane’s redoubtable but clunky Mr Smith supercomputer). There’s something wrong with Sarah Jane; she’s forgetful, distant, not quite in control. Mr Smith diagnoses that she’s “very ill indeed” and Sarah Jane, not one to outstay her welcome, decided to do a moonlight flit and leaves it all – the house, the supercomputer, everything to the entirely-plausible Ruby who has wormed her way into all their affections. But is Ruby all she seems? Can Clyde and Rani find out what’s become of their friend and find out Ruby’s secrets…if she has any? The episodes are yet to screen on BBC1 where many of you may be planning to watch so I’ll say little else about the story other than to say that it’s another rousing romp, packed with more tear-jerking moments, big set-pieces, great FX and assured performances. It’s probably not really spoiling anything to divulge that the story and, indeed , the fourth series, ends in its usual upbeat “there are wonders out there in the Universe” fashion but this time it’s not quite as cloying as it has been in the past because this year the show has earned it.

Series four of ‘The Sarah jane Adventures’ has been pretty much an unparalled success. I’d go as far as to say that, on many levels, I’ve enjoyed it more than the most recent run of ‘Dr Who’ episodes but maybe that’s more to do with heightened expectations for the parent show as well as a few misjudged creative decisions in Matt Smith’s first year which knocked the edge of the show a bit.. Four years in, Sarah Jane’s show is on top form, a show with enough depth and maturity now to please even undecided adult who won’t come close because it’s a kid’s show. I said it about series one and I’ll say it again here; can we have a few more adult shows with the chutzpah of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ please. Bring on series five; and I for one wouldn’t object to a series six and seven too. Terrific stuff,

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

World of Stuff - reborn and refreshed!

Back! Back! Back! Yep, it's been a month since I posted anything new here but that's all about to change. New TV, Film, books, music and more reviews are on their way. Up next; full review of the latest (and best) series of Dr Who spin-off 'The Sarah Jane Adventures', review of the new CD by Take That (no, really...), Skyline movie review and much much more as they saw. Don't go away!!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Look Who's Going To America...

There's been some internet buzz for a while now but the BBC have just confirmed, courtesy of one of their ever-effusive Press releases, that the first two episodes of the forthcoming sixth season of Dr Who, will be filmed over in America, for broadcast next Spring. The episodes, written by showrunner Steven Moffatt, will again star Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillen as "feisty" Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill as her long-suffering new husband Rory Williams. Making an early reappearance in the series for these episodes will be Alex Kingston reprising her now semi-regular role as the mysterious Professor River Song. The episodes, co-funded by BBC America (where the recent season achieved consistent record ratings for the channel), will be shot in and around the plains of Utah and are set in the 1960s in a story which will take the Doctor deep into the heart of the American administration, into the Oval office itself.

With the fourth series of 'Torchwood' due to film Stateside from next January, can we reasonably expect Sarah Jane Smith and her Bannerman Road gang to pop across the Atlantic to battle the Slitheen atop the Empire State Building next year? Can we have our sci-fi shows back when you've finished with them please, Uncle Sam, you've got enough of your own?

Here's a teaser...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures - Season Four...the official trailer

She's back! The fourth series of the BBC's popular Dr Who spin-off starring Elisabeth Sladen starts next week on the CBBC Channel (screening on BBC2 on Wednesday and Thursday, oddly). The official 'web exclusive' trailer has just been released and it's looking like a big, loud, brash and colourful twelve episodes. Episode five and six, of course, feature the much-antipated appearances of Matt Smith as the Doctor and Katy Manning as returning 1970s companion Jo Grant. Here's the trailer to whet your appetites...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

.Coming soon....new drama from the BBC...

Just in case you were wondering if or why the BBC is still one of the best TV broadcasters in the world you are cordially invited to do one of two things. Firstly, you can turn on ITV on almost any night of the week and...just despair. Or you can spare three minutes of your time to look at this rather nice preview trailer of some forthcoming BBC drama attractions. There's some rather tasty stuff here, from the BBC's new sci-fi series 'Outcasts', a gritty new thriller called 'The Accused' starring Chris Eccleston, four-part drama 'Single Father' starring David Tennant as...er...a single father (screening very soon), a biopic starring Ruth Junes about the life of Carry On legend Hattie Jacques, a mini-series reboot for 'Upstairs Downstairs' (due to screen over Christmas)...oh, and the first quick clips of Katherine Jenkins,Michael Gambon and a certain Mr Smith in action in this year's still-untitled Dr Who Christmas Special. The BBC is presently getting all worked up about 'Strictly' (hours and hours of the cheesy stuff until Christmas...save me!) and 'The Apprentice' ("you're fired!" ad infinitum...yawn) but this is the stuff I pay my licence fee for. Bring 'em on.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Coming soon to BBC4...First Men in the Moon....

Stuff would just like to draw to your attention to a forthcoming TV attraction which you really need to keep an eye out for. BBC4, increasingly home to some damned fine TV drama (the recent 'Road to Coronation Street' was probably the best UK single drama I've seen in years), is due to screen what looks like an extremely promising (and surprisingly spectacular) adaptation of H G Wells's fanciful sci-fi drama 'First Men In The Moon', adapted by and starring Mark Gatiss, former 'League of Gentlemen' star whose increasingly-impressive CV includes writing and appearing in the recent BBC smash 'Sherlock' as well as continued contributions to Dr Who (his fourth episode has been filming recently...fingers crossed it's an improvement on his third). Anyway, courtesy of t'BBC, here's a jolly exciting trailer from 'First Men In The Moon', coming your way in October...

Stuff Goes Graphic: Dr Who and the Walking Dead...

You may have noticed, across two glorious – if haphazard – years of my World of Stuff, that I’m not really big on comics. It wasn’t always so; back in the 1970s and, as far as I can remember, into the early 1980s, I was seriously into the mighty world of Marvel Comics (and, sometimes, the slightly less upmarket DC Comics, always ITV to Marvel’s classier BBC1) until, literally overnight, I just lost interest. Just like that, as the other man with the fez used to say. Oh I’ve gone back now and again, tempted by a few of the comic books (or graphic novels as they were dubbed in an effort to make them seem less like...well, comics) which, it was said, raised the form into something a little more respectable and, indeed, respected. But, admirable as they might have been, stuff like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and even the legendary ‘Watchmen’ left me a bit cold. Nowadays my only real contact with the four-colour world of comics is via occasional perusals of the strip in the monthly ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and, in all honesty, I can take ’em or leave ‘em.

Two things, though, have conspired to drag me back into the world of comics – albeit, I suspect, very briefly. Both of my recent comic book experiences have a strong connection with the world of TV; one of them’s inspired by a long-running TV show, the other has, conversely, inspired what it’s hoped will become a successful genre series. Allow me to introduce you to the BBC’s first full-length ‘Doctor Who’ graphic novel, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ and Image Comics’ ‘The Walking Dead’. Created and written by Robert Kirkman ‘The Walking Dead’ is a dark and brutal zombie apocalypse strip which is about to become a short-run US TV series (although a second, longer run is pretty much guaranteed before the first even airs) masterminded by Frank (“The Mist”) Darabont and starring Britain’s own Andrew (This Life, Teachers, Afterlife) Lincoln.

But let’s look at the good Doctor’s latest comic strip romp first. Because a ‘romp’ is what ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is. Writer Justin Richards has taken the Doctor and, more especially the Daleks, back to the 1960s. In doing so he’s created a bit of a nirvana for long-time fans of the series as the storyline references long-forgotten concepts and creatures from the so-called ‘classic’ series but, to be fair, he manages to do it in a way which doesn’t necessarily alienate newer fans and many of them are throwaway references and foreknowledge isn’t a requisite to enjoying the rather simple Doctor vs Daleks adventure as it rattles across nearly 130 pages. So when the TARDIS pitches up in what appears to be the petrified forest of the Dalek planet Skaro (complete with fossiled Magneton creature), the hardcore will squeal with pleasure – and I shudder to think of the ecstacy overload they’ll experience when Varga plants, Slythers, Robomen, Mechonoids and Ogrons turn up further into the adventure. The adventure itself is as traditional Dr Who as it might be possible to get away with nowadays; this is pure Terry Nation through and through, the Daleks portrayed as the Galaxy-conquering army of thousands with their armada of flying saucers as seen in the legendary old TV21 comic strips, fighting against the black-clad forces of the Special Space Security squad (also a throwback to the 1960s TV show). The story it simplicity itself and that’s its strength. At a remote and secret spaceborn installation called Station 7 humanity gathers and examines Dalek technology collected during Mankind’s unending battle with the might of the Daleks. Station 7 is also home to something which the Daleks themselves are desperate to get their plungers on and even the Doctor becomes alarmed by the nature of Station 7’s research. Is it true that the only good Dalek is a dead Dalek? Or is there another way?

There’s really nothing much wrong with ‘The Only Good Dalek’ – but there’s also nothing at all exceptional about it. It has none of the wit and character nuance of the current Tv series – this is all black-clad soldiers and bearded scientists and they’re all pretty much indistinguishable and they mostly end up as cannon fodder. Station 7’s tough-as-nails Commander Tranter has a prosthetic eye and a secret even he doesn’t know about, and Amy spends a lot of her time in the company of feisty SSS agent Jay. Matt Smith’s Doctor is fairly generically-characterised with only the odd snap of dialogue evoking his TV portrayal and whatever character Amy has on TV (and I’m still not sure what it is) is entirely missing here and Amy could be replaced with any girl’s name you might care to think of, whether it’s one from the history of the TV show or not. The story features the new, squat, multi-coloured Daleks catastrophically introduced in this year’s terrible ‘Victory of the Daleks’ episode and while they work a little better in comic strip form and in greater numbers, they just don’t look right. I still don’t understand why a race of creatures determined to wipe out everything in the cosmos which isn’t them would want to inspire terror and fear by colouring themselves like party balloons (“Argh, look at those Daleks...ooh, doesn’t that bright red colour look lovely??”) and even in strip form the new design is fat, ugly, awkward and angular with those jutting-out shoulder panels and clumsy scart-studded back panel. The Daleks just don’t look scary any more despite the fact the basic shape remains and no matter how many swathes of them we see in ‘The Only Good Dalek’, they somehow don’t quite seem like Daleks any more. Artist Mike Collins, however, does the best he can and manages to give the new Daleks at least a bit of their former status in some dynamic, ferocious action panels highly reminiscent of the classic Dalek strips of the 1960s.

And at the end of the day, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is clearly designed to absolutely evoke the space opera ethos of the 1960s Dalek adventures both on TV and in comic strip form. In that respect it offers nothing new, it’s highly retro and, despite the relentlessly one-note nature of its storytelling, it’s huge fun and, if nothing else, it’s a real rattling page-turner.

‘The Walking Dead’, however, is another matter entirely. This is tough, bleak, dark and brutal stuff – but then we’re in the ‘adult’ world of the real graphic novel here, where blood is spilt and swear words abound. We’re also in the familiar territory of the zombie apocalypse in a continuing story – the comic book itself is at around issue 75 now, I understand – designed by its creator Robert Kirkman who, as fan of zombie cinema, became frustrated by the fact that zombie films, however good they may be, just end when their story’s told. Kirkman wanted to know what happened next, what further trials the characters might endure. So he created ‘The Walking Dead’ where the familiar zombie Armageddon is just the jumping-off point for stories of human survival in adversity, how the human spirit struggles and thrives when all around has fallen to pieces. I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of stories, of course – from ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Survivors’ on TV, through movies like ‘I Am Legend’, ‘Book of Eli’ and the desperately-bleak ‘The Road’ and any number of literary apocalypses courtesy of writers like John Christopher and Simon Clark to name just two I can remember because I can’t be bothered looking up any others. Tell it like it is.

‘The Walking Dead’, with its stark yet oddly-realistic artwork by Tony Moore, kicks off with Atlanta cop Rick Grimes, injured in a highway shoot-out, waking up in a desolate, deserted hospital. In the best traditions of ‘Triffids’ and ’28 Days Later’ Grimes stumbles about trying to orientate himself and finds that the world’s a very different place from the one he was last conscious in. Yep, there’s been some sort of zombie virus – the strips’ a bit vague on that one – and humanity has been routed, the dead have risen and they’re munching on the survivors. Grimes, bewildered and afraid, sets off to find his wife and son, making his way to nearby Atlanta where, he’s told, other survivors have congregated for protection. When he finally gets to the city he’s in for a bit of a shock...

Now it’s early days for me and ‘The Walking Dead’. The first graphic novel collection, ‘Days Gone Bye’, collects just the first six issues of the comic and so far the story’s not really done anything new with the genre beyond fleshing out its core characters and confronting the reality of trying to keep the essence of humanity alive in a world where it’s pretty much gone for good. Rick pitches up with a group of survivors in a rickety settlement just outside the city and here we meet a disparate cast of supporting characters all of whom have their own stories to tell and their own human dramas to come to terms with. There’s gore and adventure too; at one point Rick ventures into the city for supplies, smearing himself in bits of decaying zombie corpse to distract the zombie hordes wandering the streets of the city. Plus there’s plenty of biting, chomping and shooting – the stuff of your traditional zombie apocalypse yarn.

‘The Walking Dead’ is an impressive piece of work, though. Moore’s style is hugely visual (early trailers for the TV series – there’s one down below, incidentally - recreate memorable images from the strip) and expressive and Kirkman’s powerful, unpretentious writing means it’s easy to become involved with the characters and their crises and, by the end of the first graphic novel, I think I was sufficiently hooked to want to come back for more.

While I’m on a zombie ‘tip’, as it were, just time for me to give a bit of a ‘shout out’ for a new DVD release. ‘The Horde’ is, in fact, a French zombie horror, given a brief cinema release before making its way onto DVD. ‘The Horde’ is frantic, mental stuff. A crack troop of elite cops infiltrate a staggeringly-rundown block of flats somewhere in Paris to break up a brutal bunch of drug-dealing gangsters. Wouldn’t you know it, it all goes horribly wrong, not least in the sense that there’s suddenly a - gasp – zombie apocalypse and the block is suddenly under siege from hundreds of fast-moving, ravenous undead looking for a quick bite. It’s a veritable horde of ‘em, in fact (hence the name). ‘The Horde’ rushes along at 100 mph; it’s barking mad, with virtually non-stop zombie slaughter, machine-gun action and, most curiously, hand-to-hand zombie combat. It’s more of an action film than a horror movie and the publicity describing it as the ‘Die Hard’ of the zombie genre probably isn’t too far from the truth. It’s fair to say there’s been a bit of zombie overkill in the last few years and I’m really not sure how many more zombie movies we can be reasonably expected to tolerate but ‘The Horde’ is super-adrenalized stuff from start to finish and if you’re in the mood for some blood-crazed nonsense, it’s worth 90-odd minutes of your time, it really is.

Coming soon to the FX Channel in the UK: The Walking Dead...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Stuff's back...summer movie round-up!!

Hey, it's been a long time. How you doing?? Stuff's back from its summer holidays - an entirely unplanned one, as it happens. Rest assured I've not just been sitting around in my pants watching old TV shows on DVD (well, not all the time) but circumstances have kept me away from posting for a while. Having just notched up 2 years of Stuff (albeit a pretty quiet second one) it's onwards and upwards now with far more regular psoting throughout the autumn and winter. To get us back up and running, a quick rundown of some of the big (and not so big) summer movies, the films you'll be snapping up in time for Christmas if you missed 'em on the big screen. 'ere we go...

Of course I’ve seen ‘Inception’. What sort of a cinematic equivalent of a luddite do you think I am?? In fact, I saw ‘inception’ twice and there’s every possibility I’ll see it again when it arrive son DVD. I’m very glad I saw it twice because first time, frankly, I was scratching my head after thirty minutes and pretty much lost by the time we reached the shock ‘twist’ ending – which left the audience gasping and oohing and ahhing and me just going “What just happened?” Second time’s a winner though; this is where ‘Inception’ starts to make sense (only starts, mind you). I remain a bit ambivalent about Christopher Nolan, the director touted by many as the Great Saviour of modern cinema. His ‘Batman’ films leave me cold, I loved his version of ‘Insomnia’ (the Nolan film most cinephiles are coldest about) and admired ‘The Prestige’ and I’ll admit my three-disc ‘Memento’ DVD stares balefully at me from me shelf demanding that I take up the challenge and actually just watched the damn thing. but I’m scared of it, it’s all backwards apparently! So I’m wary of Nolan’s movies, and maybe, to my own shame, it’s because I know I’m going to be challenged and expected to use my grey matter in an era when lots of CGI and blowing stuff up is thought to be enough to tell a story. Nolan doesn’t play those games; he uses those toys but he has his own rules.

‘Inception’, then, is a real mind-mangler. You’ve surely seen it so I won’t bore you with the details of what I’ve gleaned of the plot but it’s built upon the tantalising premise that it’s possible to infiltrate someone’s dreams and steal their ideas. Loenardo DiTitanic plays Cobb, an intense and troubled ‘corporate raider’ who is hired to do something rather different; he’s charged with planting an idea into a business rival’s mind through dreams. Like some warped ‘Oceans 11’ Cobb sets about assembling a team of experts to help him, including new girl Ariadne (Ellen Page, thankfully far less irritating than her smart-mouthed turn as ‘Juno’) who, by being new to the technology and the concepts, acts as our “But what…?” girl throughout the movie although even she has a moment where she’s required to ask “Whose dream are we in now??”

It’s when the mind-heist starts that the film really starts to get brow-furrowing as Cobb and his gang penetrate deeper and deep into their victim’s subconscious until the audience is never really sure which unreality they’re in and how far away from the real world they’ve drifted. Along the way the film is punctuated by bravura action sequences – ferocious gunbattles (one of which is an achingly-loving homage to ‘Oh Her Majesty’s Secret Service’) and some astonishing special FX as cities fold back in on themselves and landscapes collapse like decks of cards.

‘Inception’ is as multi-layered as the minds its characters invade and, unusually for a modern multiplex movie, it demands your absolute attention from start to finish; anything else means you’ve lost your way and once you’ve lost your way in ‘Inception’ it’s the Devil’s job to find your way back. Yet again DiCaprio reaffirms his position as one of modern Hollywood’s most intriguing star names and ultimately ‘Inception’ is a broad, intoxicating, intelligent and yes, a sometimes frustratingly opaque movie. But it’s a movie like no other and it’s one you’ll find yourself revisiting rather more than the more obvious blockbusters of the last few years. Film of the year? Well, not for me…that’s still either ‘Kick Ass’ or ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ but in a year punctuated by stale warmed-up sequels and misfiring action movies, ‘Inception’ is a breath of fresh, if somewhat occasionally foggy air.

What can you say about a film as dumb as ‘Piranha 3D’? I mean, it absolutely does what it says in the tin and it does it with its tongue lodged so firmly in its cheek it’s virtually breaking through the skin. I’m still not sold on 3D movies because I’ve still not seen one which uses the technology to advance the story; it’s all about throwing things or jabbing things at the audience. No-one’s using it to support the narrative (excuse the pretension) and when, in ‘Piranha 3D’, a killer fish consumes Jerry O’Connell’s bloodied manhood, swims off with it, swims back into frame and coughs it up, burping as the…appendage floats out of the screen towards us, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever will. Notionally a sequel to the two 1980s Piranha movies (the second of which was directed, in part, by James Cameron, fact fans) this is, in so many ways, more of the same with a bit more gore. An underwater tremor opens a sea-floor fissure through which swim shoals of prehistoric piranha. This, obviously, occurs in the vicinity of a breach town on sleepy Lake Victoria. Worried local sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), investigating some grisly slayings on the lake, fails to get the semi-naked party-frenzied spring break teens to “get out of the water” and it’s not exactly spoiling the movie’s great secret to reveal that the kids are attacked by piranhas and ripped to bits – with plenty of blood, exploding heads and severed limbs hurtling across the screen. Elsewhere Julie’s kids (one nervous teen, two yappy under-tens) have somehow become involved with a local pornographer (O’Connell) making the softest of soft-core porn movies on his yacht (the underwater naked lesbian dancing clinch scene is real laugh out loud stuff) and it’s not long before the yacht is breached and starts to sink whilst the piranhas circle hungrily and snappily.

Utter nonsense from start to finish but directed by Alexandra (Hills Have Eyes) Aja with gusto if not much regard for narrative logic. There are some funs cameos amidst the buckets of blood including Eli Roth as a party-goer who gets decapitated, Christopher Lloyd in his default loony scientist mode, and Richard Dreyfuss acknowledging his legendary role in ‘Jaws’ and taking an early, bloody bath.

Tom Cruise can’t do right for doing wrong these days and his star seems to be on the wane moré through a campaign of attrition rather than due to the quality of his movies. he’s back this summer along with Cameron Diaz in the frothy, thrilling ‘Night and Day’ which has been panned to high heaven by sniffy critics tired of Cruise’s wholesomeness (he’s a family man, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t have affairs – shock! horror!) despite the fact it’s been a welcome shaft of good old-fashioned action/romcom adventure in a sadly lacking cinema summer. Cruise plays secret agent Roy Miller who engineers an airport encounter with ditzy June Havens (Cameron Diaz) for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious but soon become clear as we realise that Miller’s on the run from his superiors who have decided he’s outlived his field usefulness. There’s something familiar about ‘Knight and Day’ as it marries elements of films as diverse as ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ without bring much new to the table, it’s true. But Cruise is always good value and here he’s at his best, mixing a twinkling humour with a cold-blooded ruthlessness and Diaz, out of her depth, desperate to get back to her normal life and yet finding herself caught in Miller’s wild slipstream, gives depth to a character which could have been a one-dimensional whining stereotype. It’s a real worldwide travelogue, too, with scenes in Austria, the US, the UK, and most points in between. Great action sequences, stunning car chases, visceral fights – ‘Knight and Day’ is pretty much a perfect popcorn concoction and although it may have sold itself short at the Box office, it’s one worth seeking out when it hits DVD later in the year.

Which is more than I can say for ‘The A Team’. Hollywood’s obsession with plundering tis TV past continues despite the bellyflop of films likew ‘Bewitched’, ‘Lost in Space’, ‘Starskly and Hutch’ and numerous others. The movie versions always miss the point of the originals, jettisoning the charm of a TV show and replacing it with mindless spectacle and tongue-in-cheek scripts. Of course ‘The A Team’ was fairly tongue-in-cheek to start with so it’s hard to work out why the movie version seems to underpowered. Maybe it’s she sheer bloody-minded emptiness of it or maybe it’s just the noise or the idiocy of some of s set pieces – the parachuting tank is one stunt contrary to the laws of phsyics too far for Stuff’s liking. Or maybe it’s just the casting – it doesn’t really work. Liam Neeson looks vaguely embarrassed as A Team head honcho Hannibal Smith, charged with putting together a crack team to liberate some currency printing plates from Iraq only to find themselves framed for something else and imprisoned when they get home. Fortunately they busy loose, kick ass (not in a good way) and clear their names – yet still end up on the run for sequels which, hopefully, will never be made. Smith is joined by Sharlto Copley as the borderline clinically-insane ‘Howlin’ Mann’ Murdock, a character so endlessly irritating you really crave a stray bullet to put him out of our misery. then there’s bland smoothie Templeton ‘Face’ Peck (Bradley Cooper) and, worst of all, a wrestler called Quinton ‘Rampage’ Johnson as the legendary BA Baracus. The original BA was of course played by bling-crazed Mr T whose portrayal and real-life persona were so larger-than-life he’s pretty much irreplaceable. Johnson doesn’t come close. Not much of an actor, he has no real screen presence or charisma and a mid-movie decision to make Baracus discovers religion and eschew violence pretty much robs the character of any purpose.

‘The A Team’ is a mess because it makes the mistake of not even trying to take itself seriously. The stunts and actions sequences are either ridiculous (the tank) or bafflingly pointless (the climax involving all the container crates) and even a bit of knowing self-referencing (an imprisoned Murdock is watching an old ‘A Team’ episode on TV) can’t salvage much from this noisy, raucous, dead-headed piece of trash aimed at the attention-deficit crowd. having said that, like last year’s similarly-stupid ‘GI Joe’ it’s not offensively bad it’s just not a movie likely to enamour itself to many fans of the TV version and it’s certainly not a film you’re going to remember much about three days after you’ve seen it.

Angelina Jolie is back in action-heroine mode in the moody, pacey ‘Salt. another film clearly set up to launch a franchise and, by virtue of the fact that it’s actually quite good, more likely to earn one than ‘The A Team’. The titular Evelyn Salt is clearly being pitched as a female Jason Bourne; she starts out as a quiet CIA agent craving piece and tranquillity and domestic bliss. When an apprehended Russian defector ‘outs’ her as a Russian spy, Evelyn, despite her protestations of innocence, has to go on the run and fast. This involve outlandish chases and escapes – one sequence sees her leapfrogging from vehicle roof to roof across a busy freeway, another has her climbing a lift shaft wall like some human fly – as she keeps one step ahead of her CIA pursuers, particularly the cool-headed Liev Shrieber, her friend and confidant who may have his own secrets.

The sort of action flick is scarcely new territory for luscious, putting Angelina – she’s been here before in the underrated ‘Tomb Raider’ movies and the ridiculous ‘Wanted’. ‘Salt’ is better because there’s some humanity in the characters and the audience is rooting for Evelyn as she tries to evade capture and even when it suddenly becomes clear that there’s more to her than meets the eye. At 90 minutes this is a fast and furious film with no noticeable flab and plenty of bang for your back. Ending with Evelyn on the run, let’s hope ‘Salt’ has left enough Box office flavouring (eh?) to generate a sequel because I’m always up for a bit of Angelina action. If you know what I mean…

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Torchwood: The New World...story news

The long-awaited, hugely-anticipated fourth season of Dr Who spin-off Torchwood commences filming in January 2011 (January!!) for UK transmission towards the end of next year (the end of next year!!) The ten-part series "The New World" is, as you probably know, a co-production between BBC Wales and the Starz network in the US (who, I'd imagine, are coughing up most of the dosh to make what's said to be a big, globe-trotting adventure). News is starting to seep through about the show's storyline so here's this just in from the Starz Network itself.

“When C.I.A. agent Rex Matheson investigates a global conspiracy, he finds himself unearthing a threat which challenges the entire human race. The answers seem to lie within an old, secret British institute, known only as Torchwood. But Torchwood was destroyed, years ago, and the keys to the institute are held by its only two survivors – former Police Officer Gwen Cooper, who has long since disappeared along with her husband and child, and the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness, a man whose history seems to stretch back centuries.

With Rex under attack from all sides, in both the US and the UK, he soon discovers there are forces at work within every level of society, determined to stop Torchwood’s return. As a chain of events across the world links together the most disparate and unlikely individuals – including a surgeon, a killer, senators and CEOs – a new Torchwood team takes shape. But this time, the threat is much closer to home, as they realize that their greatest enemy is mankind itself…”

Torchwood found its feet big style with last year's epic 'Children of Earth' five-nighter and, with the show having shrugged off its sci-fi superbase, its inappropiate sexual silliness and the genre excesses which tainted much of its first two series (fun as they often were) to become a proper gritty drama series 'The New World' looks set to move the show forward yet again. Me can't wait.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Coming soon to DVD...get on board with The Double Deckers!!!

Stuff is unfeasibly excited...well, maybe excited's not quite the right word...to announce that November 1st sees the release of a personal TV guilty pleasure, a cheesy kid's TV show first broadcast in the UK in 1971, a show which came as an unusual diversion from my usual diet of Irwin Allen shows, Gerry Anderson extravagnanzas, Timeslip, Freewheelers and, inevitably, Dr Who. I'm talking about 'Here Come The Double Deckers', a musical/comedy series about a gang of kids whose den is an old London double decker bus (hence the name!) in a remarkably-clean junkyard in a studio set masquerading as London. Led by Scooper (Peter Firth...you know him as Harry Pierce, grizzled MI5 boss in 'Spooks' today) this motley group embarked on all sorts of wacky adventures across 17 episodes, every one of which was either punctuated by or climaxed with a song'n'dance number; the show even spawned an LP which remained wedged to Stuff's dansette for far too long. Anyway, this show may mean nothing to you but it's a bit special to me for all sorts of mad nostalgic reasons. If you vaguely remember it check out the title sequence clip below and if you've never heard of it and think it sounds like a pile of corny old toot then move along, there's nothing to see here for now...

Friday, 30 July 2010

The proudest man in British telly???

Steven Moffat (centre) with the two leading men from the two series he's currently showrunning. Oh, they're the two best shows on British TV too, by the way. Frankly, photos like this make the fact that the likes of Jordan, Kerry Katona and Cheryl Cole are still walking upright slightly more bearable...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dr Who At The Proms 2010

Back in 2008 the BBC put together the very first Dr Who Prom, a live selection of the very best Murray Gold incidental music from the series, with stage introductions by Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate, Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke. Then-Doctor David Tennant wasn't in attendance due to stage commitments but he recorded a special min-episode which was broadcast on video screens in the Royal Albert Hall. But times change and two years later there's another Dr Who Prom, this time hosted by Karen Gillan, featuring more of Gold's music, much of it this time from the recent fifth season. The Doctor put in an appearance too, in more ways than one; here's some footage...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

TV Review: Sherlock (BBC1)

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert or a devotee or an aficionado of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary and, it seems, indestructible Victorian detective – the Great Detective. I admit I’ve seen more versions of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ than may be considered healthy (but then who hasn’t?) and back in the 1980s Jeremy Brett’s Granada TV adaptations of the Holmes canon were pretty much required viewing to the extent that I’ve now got the DVD boxset and, indeed, a boxset of the less respectful but oddly-enjoyable Basil Rathbone movies of the 1930s and 1940s which quickly dispensed with the Victoriana in favour of a more contemporary wartime narrative. Good grief, I even recently watched the cheapo Asylum Studios effort starring Torchwood set dressing Gareth David Lloyd as Watson alongside Ben Snyder as the Worst Holmes Ever in an adventure involving robots, dinosaurs and dragons. Honestly. I haven’t, in passing, yet found time for Guy Richie’s action hero version starring Robert Downey Jnr but it’s on my to-watch list. So yes, in restrospect, I suppose I am a bit of a devotee, albeit more of a casual one. News of yet another BBC Holmes series could well have been met with the usual sighs of ‘Not again’ and ‘can’t they think of anything new??’ and reports that this was going be a contemporary spin on the Holmes myth only raised eyebrows even further as we imagined something arch and knowing, shot through with a bit of ‘look how clever we are.’ I suppose I should have known better. Steven Moffat, current architect of ‘Dr Who’, has teamed up with ‘League Of Gentlemen’ (amongst others) star Mark Gatiss to reinvent Holmes for and in the 21st century and, on the evidence of the just-screened first ninety minute episode, it looks as if they’ve created something very special indeed, a show which looks set to be the drama event of 2010. ‘Sherlock’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is brilliant.

There’s so much to admire in this stylish, witty and imaginative retelling of the exploits of a character we all feel we know inside out that it’s actually difficult to know where to start. Moffat’s slick, tight script sets the scene with Martin Freeman’s Dr John Watson invalided out of the war in Afghanistan (just as the original Watson was) and battling to come to terms with his new life as an invalid and as a civilian. Via a mutual friend – and in search of somewhere to live – he meets up with a very curious man. This is Sherlock Holmes, a freelance (not amateur!) detective and in Benedict Cumberbatch we have as fine an example of perfect TV casting as we’re ever likely to encounter. Cumberbatch just is Holmes, embodying all the fierce intellect and near-supernatural deductive prowess so fundamental to the character and yet creating a contemporary version of the Detective which is at home with mobile phones and computers and forensics as the Victorian version was with hansom cabs and London smogs. Cumberbatch powers his way through the episode the way Matt Smith does in ‘Dr Who’ and, with Moffat instrumental in the casting of both men, the lines between the Doctor and Holmes are more blurred than ever. Both have little time for silly social niceties, both ride pretty much roughshod over those they see as lesser intellects and both burn with a ferocious nervous energy, especially when in confrontation with their enemies. Moffat’s Holmes is a modern man and yet, cleverly, he’s also a man out of time – he’s married to his work, he has no time for relationships, he’s driven by his need for justice and his passion for mystery. Dr Watson, so often wrongly depicted as a bumbling old duffer, is portrayed here as a man looking for direction, looking for a purpose – and he finds both as he inadvertently strikes up a grudging relationship with Holmes. This gives Martin Freeman ample opportunity to demonstrate the bewildered everyman look he perfected back in ‘The Office’ and which he’s been trading on ever since. But here it works and Freeman’s never been better or more perfectly-cast. There’s a subtle and underplayed story arc for Watson, too; depicted as a traumatised war victim who can only walk with the aid of a stick, his own personal confidence grows as he becomes more embroiled in Sherlock’s world and, almost unnoticed, suddenly he doesn’t need his stick and he’s racing along the rooftops and rushing through the streets with a new purpose, his old world forgotten as he embraces a new and much more exciting one.

Moffat’s script cleverly balances its need to establish both Sherlock himself and his new partnership and its low-key, undemanding murder mystery story – here a serial killer on the streets of London apparently inducing suicides in completely random people. Sherlock thunders breathlessly through the mystery, gathering clues, making typically impossible deductions from the minutest of details, leaving the Police – including the inevitable Inspector Lestrade (a suitably exasperated turn by Rupert Graves) – trailing open-mouthed in his wake. And there’s more; Una Stubbs is a fussy and motherly Mrs Hudson, here distinctly not Holmes’ housekeeper but rather his landlady at 221B Baker Street – but best of all perhaps we have Mark Gatiss himself as a mysterious, urbane figure who briefly sidelines Watson for his own purposes and whilst the audience is encouraged to put two and two together to make Moriarty (Holmes’ traditional nemesis and a character who, incidentally, barely figures in Conan Doyle’s original Holmes canon) Moffat’s far too canny for something so obvious and the reveal of the real identity of Gatiss’ character is another clever reinvention breathing new life into an all-too familiar element of the Holmes mythos. And who didn’t feel a shiver of excitement as bad guy Jeff (Phil Davis) expired with the name ‘Moriarty’ on his lips?

‘Sherlock’ also benefits from an astonishing visual style; modern-day London (and even the bits of Cardiff which fill in for it now and again), all dark, damp streets and distant glittering lights, has rarely looked so magical and other-worldly and director Paul McGuigan, determined not to fill the screen with endless shots of people looking earnestly at text messages on mobile phone screens, struck paydirt by deciding to display texts as words floating on the screen; it’s odd and disconcerting at first but after thirty minutes or so you’ll be wondering why every other TV drama doesn’t utilise this simple and yet effective narrative shorthand. This week’s episode two (of only three, dammit!) is directed by Euros Lyn, veteran of many Dr Who episodes and last year’s brilliant Torchwood mini-series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll adopt some of McGuigan’s tricks to create a consistent house style for the series.

‘Sherlock’ attracted an audience of nearly 8 million people last weekend; proof positive that, if you give the audience something good, something intelligent which doesn’t insult them, they will come. If there’s a downside – and I’m not convinced there is one – there may just be a bit of a niggle that ‘Sherlock’ is just a rehash of an old idea. But this is a show done with a real passion – Moffat clearly just gets what Holmes is all about perhaps even more clearly than he gets what the essence of Dr Who is – full of wit, warmth and a genuine sense of excitement. Far better than I dreamed it would be and far better than we could reasonably have expected, ‘Sherlock’ is an absolute triumph and I doubt we’ll see a better, more enjoyable British drama on our TV screens this year. Is it next Sunday yet??

Coming soon: The A Team, Splice, Cult TV - Freewheelers, Curb Your Enthusiasm season 7 and more...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Movie Review: Predators

For reasons I’ve never really fully understood the ‘Predator’ series is a movie SF franchise which seems peculiarly beloved and revered by its fans. In truth the Predator (basically a guttural, dread-locked killing machines with the ability to make itself invisible) hasn’t been hugely well-served by Hollywood. The original 1987 movie was an early-period Arnie classic, a decent if unexceptional action movie. The urban sequel starring Danny Glover has its supporters but is ultimately a bit of a misfire and it’s probably best to draw a discreet veil over the two more recent monster mash-ups between the Alien xenomorphs and the Predators (although they’re guilty pleasures round at Stuff Towers). But the fans really care about and cherish the Predator series and are curiously protective of its rather undistinguished cinematic legacy. With the Predator devalued and undermined by the AvP series, the fans are likely to be rather pleased by ‘Predators’, an unexpected revival for the beasts and casual cinemagoers and fans of SF action movies aren’t likely to be terribly disappointed either. Directed by Nimrod Antal from a script by Robert Rodriguez, ‘Predators’ strips things right back to the bone and dumps the Predators and their would-be human prey back in a jungle setting where it all began 23 years ago.

A mercenary named Royce (Adrien Brody) finds himself parachuting through the atmosphere of a jungle planet where he meets up with a similarly-baffled disparate group who have no idea where they are, why they’re there and what’s out in the jungle determined to pick them off one by one. An attack by vicious hog-like ground-creatures is just the first terror to face them before the Predators themselves, stealthy and invisible (when it suits them) close in for the kill. What starts off looking like a low-budget straight-to-DVD sci-fi cash-in (hello, The Asylum!) develops eventually – it drags for the first half-an-hour – into a desperate battle for survival and a tense cat-and-mouse game as Royce and his reluctant companions realise they’re on a game reserve planet and that they’re the game. The Predators, with their hi-tech heat-seeking vision and laser-guided weaponry, are hot on their heels and, in time-honoured tradition, they start to pick off Royce’s group one by one.

‘Predators’ is a movie which really picks up momentum as it goes along. At first Royce’s group seem like a bland, faceless bunch but the script cleverly and quickly gives them light and shade and one or two characters - one in particular – are revealed to be not quite what they seem. I still can’t quite buy into the peculiar-looking Brody as the action hero (although he’s clearly spent some time at the gym for this one - witness the caked-in-mud sequence, a nod towards Arnie in the first movie) and his Christian Bale gravel-voice is a revelation to say the least. After a series of impressive, yet not ostentatious, set pieces the movie risks losing momentum by the introduction of Laurence Fishburne’s barmy survivalist character but the last act picks up the pace again as the group’s numbers are depleted further and Royce puts into action his audacious plan to use a tortured Predator to pilot the creatures’ invisible spaceship off the planet whilst risking the lives of those still left. If you found the level of gore in ‘A v P: Requiem’ a little over-the-top (and let’s face it, it was), you’ll be pleased to hear they’ve dialled it back a bit in ‘Predators’. Yes, people are blown up, eviscerated and, memorably, one has his spinal column ripped out, but otherwise it’s just the fantasy violence of Predators being beheaded, their green ichor spraying through the air. It’s violent and a bit grisly but it’s comic book stuff, its context and the film’s setting distancing it from reality.

It’s actually refreshing to watch an SF film which isn’t defined by its visual effects and/or swamped by state-of-the-art CGI. It’s not in 3D too, which is a relief. Most of the FX seem to be practical; the Predators are men in suits, of course, and the prosthetics of their mandibled heads are excellent but otherwise there’s just a bit of understated CGI for a couple of spaceship establishing scenes and the usual pyrotechnics which go hand-in-hand with any action movie. Much as I enjoyed and admired the sheer artistry of the brilliant ‘Avatar’ it’s really quite refreshing to watch a genre film which, against all expectations, manages to focus as much on its characters as its visuals and ‘Predators’ is so much better than it could have been by easing up on the special effects and creating mood through creeping horror and claustrophobia and the unease which tends to go hand-in-hand with hot, sticky, clammy jungle settings.

It’s been a rather drab summer blockbuster season this year and there have been no real stand-out movies yet and a few disappointments – that’d include you, Iron Man 2, by the way. ‘Predators’ is a very pleasant surprise from a film which could have been just dismissed as the last gasp of a tired franchise and further evidence of Hollywood’s paucity of new ideas. But Antal has crafted a taut and gripping SF adventure which should more than satisfy the Predator fanbase as well as providing a decent and exciting cinema experience for an audience who just want a good night out with a fast and unpretentious action movie.

Stuff coming soon...Curb Your Enthusiasm season 7 on DVD...Stuff gathers its thoughts on the Dr Who finale...

The Listening Post: New on Stuff's iPod....


After a pair of frankly underwhelming albums over the last few years – the cold electronica of ‘Body Language’ and the bitty ‘X’ – it was pretty important for Kylie Minogue to reclaim her pop crown – and fast – with her eleventh studio album. In a chart climate where pure pop music has been pretty much consumed by endless r’n’b, rap, grime and countless derivative variations, an album full of..you know, actual songs, might have struggled to find an appreciative audience if it hadn’t been a blistering return to form for the woman who, ten years ago, delivered a modern pop classic in ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and has, let’s face it, struggled to find a decent follow-up. Fortunately Kylie has risen to the challenge and, in ‘Aphrodite’, released a blissfully exuberant album which evokes both ‘Light Years’ the ‘Fever’ (her best work) and erases the painful memory of guff like ‘Speakerphone’ ‘Nu-Di-Ty’ and even the frothy but vacuous ‘Wow’ from the last album. ‘Aphrodite’ doesn’t really put much of a foot wrong for its forty-odd minute running time – it’s a glorious love letter to Kylie’s greatest obsessions ; dancing and having fun - and teaming up with Madonna’s former producer Stuart Price (as well as pulling in writing contributions from the likes of Calvin Harris, Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters and Tom Oxley-Price from Keane) has refocused Kylie’s music and given it back its heart and soul.

‘Dance...it’s all I really wanna so, so dance’ sings Kylie on the album’s debut single ‘All the Lovers’, apparently a direct descendant of ‘I Believe In You’ from the ‘Ultimate Kylie’ collection and while it’s easy to mutter ‘Grow up, Kylie, you’re in your forties, there’s more to life than dancing’ I think it’s time to accept that for Kylie as an artist ‘getting down’ onto the dance floor and having a damned good bop is about as deep as it gets. So ‘Aphrodite’ aims itself at the feet – apart from the lilting, mid-tempo ‘Everything is Beautiful’ – and pretty much every track here has the potential to fill the less pretentious dance floor . Next single ‘Get Outta My Way’ has got Top Five stamped all over it and, like the rousing ‘Put Your Hands Up’ it’s pretty much as anthemic as Kylie’s ever been. ‘Closer’ has a sophisticated, sultry groove and the clattering percussions of the title track gives the album a well-placed mid-point kick. The pace just doesn’t let up across the rest of the album from the itchy and insistant ‘Illusion’, ‘Cupid Boy’ which sails close to the Rock Kylie of ‘Some Kind of Bliss’ years ago and ‘Can’t Beat The Feeling’ is a big, powerful, rousing and life-affirming album closer courtesy of Calvin Harris. ‘Aphrodite’ is an astonishing and compelling return to form from an artist who’s not had it easy over the last few years and whose personal struggles seemed to have taken the edge off her music. ‘Aphrodite’ deserves to be the sound of the summer, a genuinely uplifting and joyous pop album – and we just don’t get enough of those these days. Brilliantly simple – and simply brilliant.


The Scissor Sisters pretty much conquered the world three long years ago with their instant classic ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancing’ and their second album ‘Ta-Dah.’ The idiocity of download culture kept their following three ‘single’ releases out of the UK charts and the Sisters eventually slunk away to start crafting their all-important often-difficult third album. So here’s ‘Night Work’. After a false start which included a whole abandoned not-up-to-the-mark album and lead singer Jake Shears upping sticks to Europe to rediscover his musical mojo the band have come up with a big, bouncy album which is hugely out-of-step with current musical tastes in the UK (which have, let’s face it, reached pretty much rock bottom) and yet it’s full of urgent dance floor stompers coupled with the usual slightly risqué lyrics and OTT performances. Lead single ‘Fire With Fire’ sounded like a huge disappointment at first blush but repeated listens reveal its powerful, hypnotic charms as it builds from a slow, acoustic start into a big, lusty, demanding monster which lodges itself in your brain without you even realising it. Like Kylie, the Scissor Sisters have aimed their new album directly at the dancers amongst us and there are no concessions to drippy ballads here. ‘Any Which Way’ the song they so brilliantly debuted at Glastonbury with a guest appearance by Kylie herself is the most compelling disco tune here but the album’s full of good stuff –‘Night Work’ and ‘Whole New Way’ kick the CD off in upbeat style and the pace never flags throughouout ‘Skin This Cat’, ‘Running Out’, ‘Harder You Get’ right the way through to ‘Invisible Light’ featuring Ian McKellen. The songs have the urgent pumping insistence of the best Europop coupled with that slightly seedy,camp theatricality which has always characterised the Scissor Sisters. ‘Night Work’ is an album you’ll be listening to for a few months before filing it away as the nights turn darker and probably never listening to it again. But it’s a belting pop album in its own right albeit one which might not find the audience it deserves to because the kids just don’t seem to go for this sort of stuff at the moment.

Also on Stuff’s iPod...


Until they went all stadium-rock in the mid-to-late 1980s, Glasgow’s Simple Minds were one of my favourite bands and the brilliant ‘New Gold Dream’ is still capable of sending a shiver. The band have had a minor renaissance lately with a Top 10 album last year and the decent single ‘Rockets’ (despite lead singer Jim Kerr’s embarrassing lumbering Dad-dancing in the promo video). But Kerr’s got some solo stuff to get off his chest now in the guide of Lost Boy! and this first album (there’s another on the way) harks right back to the early days of Simple Minds with big, rousing choruses, chiming guitars and dense bass-lines. This is, simply put, Kerr’s best work in over two decades and probably my favourite album of the year. ‘Refugee’ is a big, crashing album opener, ‘She Fell In Love With Silence’ rattles along and the first single ‘Shadowland’ could, in all honesty, have been lifted from any Golden Era Minds album. ‘Remember Asia’ pulsates urgently and ‘Bulletproof Heart’ showcases the strangely lilting purity of Kerr’s vocals with its soaring chorus. It’s not all good news though; ‘Return of the King’ is a bit forgettable and the album fizzles out with the crashing ‘Soloman Solohead’ and ‘The Wait parts one and two’ which seems a bit tuneless and meandering. But there’s more than enough meat here to satisfy any fans of classic Simple Minds and I await the next delivery from Lost Boy! with more anticipation than I might for any new works from the band itself. Bit of a result.


Weller’s been around for so long now – over thirty years – that he’s pretty much part of the British musical landscape and it’s not easy for him to be noticed these days. This latest CD is an attempt to not only ‘wake up the nation’ but to remind his audience of the ‘angry young man’ persona which characterised his early days in the Jam. The CD is full of short, sharp punchy songs – some of them often sounding like little more than short fragments of songs, in all honesty – but when it’s on a roll it’s as good as Weller’s ever been on stuff like ‘No Tears To Cry’, the title track, ‘Fast Car/Slow Traffic’, ‘Find the Torch/Burn the Plans’, ‘In Amsterdam’ and a handful of others. Powerful, urgent stuff which demands and deserves to be heard.


Recorded on the road during their world tour last year to support the ‘Perfect Symmetry’ album this eight-track mini-album continues and develops the band’s sunnier disposition with a clutch of upbeat, 1980s-influenced pop songs including ‘Back In Time’, ‘Clear Skies’, the rather beautiful closing ballad ‘My Shadow’ as well as ‘Stop For a Minute’ which, despite the dreary rap by K’Naan (which, hilariously, rhymes ‘beautiful’ with ‘cuticle’...come on, get a grip!), really should have been a Top Five single and ‘Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got To Help Yourself)’ which, despite the fact only the chorus is in English,is one of the catchiest things I’ve heard all year. ‘Night Train’ is a welcome treat and bodes well for the band’s next full-length opus.


Hardly a household name, singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt has built up a loyal fanbase over the years and remains best known for his 1990s album ‘Here Be Monsters’. He’s been an acquired taste because he’s never really courted the mainstream but ‘Lustre’ sees him drift perilously – and hugely successfully, creatively at least – towards the populist on an album of beautifully-crafted pop songs which are sometimes lilting and atmospheric but occasionally – in the title track and the stunningly-catchy ‘Heart of a Wolf’ and ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do’ – pretty much perfectly-formed nuggets of pure pop. ‘Lustre’ is worthy of your time if you’re looking for something which combines the popular and the left-field.


The Radio 2 listeners amongst you may have heard the station’s support of Reed’s recent single, the retro title track, and the album is pretty much more of the same. It’s an album full of gutsy, authentic classic 1960s/70s soul numbers characterised by Reed’s powerful, heartfelt vocals and whilst the tunes are solid and catchy – ‘Young Girl’, ‘Name Calling’ and ‘Pick a Number’ and the brilliant final track ‘Explosion’ are stand-outs – it does get a bit wearing and samey. But Reed’s a real talent and it’s an album worth dipping in and out of if you want some good, snappy soul songs sung well and with a real passion.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

DVD review: Dr Who - Kamelion Tales

Listen...that strange rasping noise you hear is undoubtedly the sound of 2 Entertain, purveyors of all things classic Dr Who on DVD, scraping the very barrel itself as they unleash upon an unsuspecting public surely the least essential Dr Who boxset – nay, the most inessential boxset of anything ever in the shape of two deadly-dull 1980s stories lumped together under the ‘Kamelion Tales’ umbrella Both yarns feature the only two televised appearances of a would-be TARDIS robot companion so inept and clumsy it’s hard to believe, twenty-seven years later, that anyone sane could ever have dreamed that including him in the show could ever be construed as a good idea. Neither story, in truth, cover themselves in glory and both pretty much represent Dr Who at its very nadir.

Incredibly, having learned nothing from the problems caused by K9 just a few years previously, then-producer John Nathan-Turner allowed himself to be creatively seduced by a rudimentary real-life robot pieced together by some techno types who really thought they were at the cutting edge of contemporary robotics by creating a tall, rather ugly gleaming man-machine which could – gasp – move its arms about a bit and flap its mouth. Nathan-Turner was convinced that, programmed correctly, the thing would be wandering all over the set, inter-acting with the human cast and adding an interesting new character dynamic to the show. Has anyone ever been more wrong? Introduced in this boxset’s two-parter ‘The King’s Demons’ Kamelion (fruitily voiced by Gerald Flood) Kamelion – a shape-changing robot acquired by the Master (Anthony Ainley) and used here to...er..double for King John in some rather low-key plot to sabotage the signing of the Magna Carta Kamelion just sort of...sits there. Its mouth flaps open, its hands move about – but it resolutely refuses to stand and perform properly because there was, in truth, no way it ever could. Kamelion opts to join the TARDIS crew at the end of the story and, once its shortcomings became evident, it was sidelined and/or forgotten until near the end of the following season when, just for the Hell of it, it was resurrected just to be killed off in Peter Grimwade’s dreary ‘Planet of Fire’ four-parter. In a story already over-burdened by the need to introduce Peri (In Her Bikini!), write out Turlough (the schoolboy assassin who’d been travelling with the Doctor since the previous season) and possibly the Master, set itself in Lanzarote and a volcanic planet,. Grimwade’s to be admired for having crafted a story which at least manages to put Kamelion’s shape-changing abilities at its core even if it’s got little else going for it. Kamelion is put out of its and our misery at the end of the story when the Doctor (Peter Davison) is forced to use the Master’s tissue compression device on it.

Combining these two stories not only underlines what an appalling idea Kamelion was in the first place, it also reminds us that in ‘The King’s Demons’ and ‘Planet of Fire’ we have two of the blandest and most boring Dr Who stories in the show’s five decades. And yes, I have seen ‘The Sensorites’. Curiously both stories have largely impressive production values; the location filming in ‘The King’s Demons’ creates a real sense of the 12th century even if the irritatingly-clumpy wooden flagstones of the studio castle sets rankle and ‘Planet of Fire’ impresses with its lavish location filming in the Canary Islands (even though suspension of disbelief is ruined as soon as the ‘holiday island’ is identified as Lanzarote and we’re later asked to believe that the all-too-obvious volcanic terrain of the island is really the planet Sarn). But both stories are, in themselves, just crushingly dull. There are no monsters here – no quivering rubber claws, no screeching robot killers, nothing slimy lurking in the shadows. The Big Bad of both episodes is the Master; in ‘The King’s Demons’ he adopts one of Ainley’s infamous disguises – here as Sir Gilles Estram (geddit??), the King’s Champion – and Ainley plays it with an often-incomprehensible cod French accent which would today be considered borderline racist. A clumsy, stagey swordfight between the Doctor and Sir Gilles rounds enlivens part one and it’s a real chore to keep the interest up in part two where really nothing of consequence happens. ‘Planet of Fire’ is duller still and by the time part three rolls around, complete with all its nonsense about the shrunken Master, Kamelion-as-Peri’s camp Stepdad, berobed locals led by Peter (Jason King) Wyngarde moaning about their God Logar, you’ll be willing it all to end quickly and painlessly or, in reality, you may well just switch off and never go back.
Classic Dr Who releases are winding down now – there are some gems still left (‘Day of the Daleks’, ‘Seeds of Doom,’ ‘Terror of the Zygons’) to see the light of DVD day – and I suppose stuff like this has to be released eventually. I have a fairly low opinion of much post-Tom Baker Dr Who, if I’m honest (and I am) but there are a few gems dotted about here and there. ‘Kamelion Tales’ are very definately not amongst them and, unless you’re a completist (or a masochist) you really don’t need this boxset in your life for anything other than the extras...

Speaking of which, a nice, low-key bunch here, the best of which are the features on the making of ‘Planet of Fire’ (where the cast and crew clearly had a much better time making the episodes than is evident from the tedium on screen), designer Malcolm Thornton talking about production design, Thornton and director Fiona Cumming revisiting the Lanzarote locations, a wry look at how Kamelion found his way onto the programme, a frustratingly-brief tribute to the late Anthony Ainley, and the usual bouncy commentaries. On a third disc, Fiona Cumming has re-edited ‘Planet of Fire’, much as she did with ‘Enlightenment’ on last year’s ‘Black Guardian trilogy’ boxset and this particular re-edit, new CGI and all, is final, absolute proof of what they say about silk purses and sow’s ears.