iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
imageA while ago we watched the recently rediscovered Second Doctor tale 'The Enemy of the World' on DVD (a present from my wonderful wife). Since my Hartnell and Troughton knowledge is shamefully poor compared to my knowledge of later Who, I had no knowledge of the story except for the 'high concept' premise: world dictator Salamander is a dead ringer for the Doctor. I don't even remember reading the novelisation. I suppose I was expecting some kind of Man in the Iron Mask storyline in which The Doctor must impersonate the dictator, but - although much of the story is driven by this concept - it seldom actually happens. What we get instead is a very enjoyable spy thriller, quite tightly edited and pacey in contrast to much 1960s Doctor Who (we get next to no recaps at the start of most episodes).

Episode one is particularly action-packed, with a helicopter and hovercraft providing probably the greatest concentration of real hardware in one episode until Pertwee's swan song 'Planet of the Spiders'. Subsequent episodes are more studio-bound (with some of the most painfully cramped 'outdoor' scenes ever committed to videotape.) But despite that the story fair barrels along without the usual quagmire of capture-escape-recapture that plagues six-parters - partly because of the slightly bizarre left turn it takes around episode 4. (The worst I can say about the pacing is that the Doctor spends too much time sitting on his hands, but given that Troughton is pulling double duties that's understandable). It's a highly melodramatic story, and the late plot twist involving Salamander's buried secret stretches credibility almost to breaking point, but David Whitaker's deft script never loses control of its pulpy twists and turns. Unlike some Who from the era, this holds your attention right to the end.

Troughton's performance as would-be dictator Salamander is broad, particularly the 'interesting' choice of a thick Mexican accent, but he's utterly unlike the Doctor and really shows his versatility. (It's notable having seen Orphan Black that the two Troughton characters don't share the screen until the finale, presumably a by-product of production constraints). In fact Whitaker crafts several strong characters who transcend their various 'types' - notably including an extremely capable female character in Astrid, and a rounded black female character in Fariah - with the help of a mostly excellent main cast.

It all wraps up a tad swiftly and conveniently, hinging on one too many character reversals and convenient coincidences, but not enough to mar a thoroughly enjoyable serial.
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Since I'm on the LonCon panel to discuss the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees I thought It might be helpful to get my thoughts in order. And in the case of Orphan Black, actually get around to watching the show. That always helps.

Orphan Black, Season One: 'Variations Under Domestication'
Read more... )
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
My wife and I have seized the opportunity to attend WorldCon while it's in London this August. It took some determined childcare planning (and our daughters have been duly bribed/compensated with a family holiday) but it's happening!

Not only that, but I'm delighted to say I've been invited onto a panel at LonCon:

2014 Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Saturday 11:00 - 12:00

The actual nominees under discussion are here.

Having never done this before, at this stage I'm feeling slightly under-qualified, but since a few people may be wandering over to this fairly moribund blog, here's a quick roundup of my published reviews.

Film Reviews

V for Vendetta

X-Men: The Last Stand

Spider-man 3

Iron Man

Star Trek (2009)

TV Reviews

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Season One)

Torchwood (Season One)

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

Primeval (Season One)

Doctor Who: School Reunion

Smaller contributions

SF Signal - Mind Meld: Battlestar Galactica Series Finale (waaay down at the bottom)

Strange Horizons: 2007 in Review

Strange Horizons : 2006 in Review

--
Yes, my eldest daughter is currently obsessed by Frozen, why do you ask?
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
"We come from the lowlands / Dream of high ground."

On first impressions From the Lowlands ('Being the second part of The Alphabet of Hurricanes') feels like a perplexingly spare, small record. An EP with ideas above its station. Certainly not the same kind of diverse, confident affair as its predecessor.

It's not long before those first impressions are confounded. Ruthlessly stripped-back tracks such as the opener, 'Lately's All I Know', worm their way into your brain with melodic hooks that belie the starkness of the production (or indeed its subject of bereavement). The cover of 'Sloop John B' counterpoints a melancholy take with rich harmonies, the beautiful title track blooms into a choir of voices, and when 'The Alphabet of Hurricanes' finally makes itself known as a song rather than an album, it's as an epic 8 minute affair heralded by lush string arrangements. Lyrically it's also one of the strongest compositions on a collection of sincere songwriting that's almost painfully confessional, even for Tom McCrae. Two tracks, the perky 'Fuck you, Prometheus' and the maudlin 'All That's Gone', confront failure to achieve success: "time has worn a hole in me /the place I keep my dreams". Another two tracks, the opener and the lovely 'Ship of Blue and Green' contemplate death and loss. And yet the overwhelming impression is not of gloom but of melancholy beauty.

It's not the most commercial of offerings; as an introduction to Tom's music it's unlikely to convert the unfaithful. The closest thing to a single here is 'Belly of a Whale' which is very agreeable but never quite soars, or the sprawling closer. The actual single, or at least the one with the online video, is the low key 'Nothing on the Dry Land', my nomination for the least remarkable song on the album.

Ultimately this album has an intimacy that means it never quite escapes the feeling of a maxi-sized EP, but with a full-band album already recorded for release next year maybe that's exactly what this wants to be. It's certainly a more addictive experience than it may first appear.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

TV roundup

Jan. 20th, 2012 11:13 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
It's ages since I said anything about any television series that doesn't involve Time Lords, so here goes.

Eternal Law )

Castle )

The Big Knights )

Sherlock )

Books meme

Mar. 5th, 2011 08:08 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Books I am currently reading:

'Confessions of a Conjuror' - Derren Brown. I'm not very far through it, but so far it's part autobiography, part free association -- an intriguingly stream of consciousness collection of thoughts and observations on magic, life, art and Brown's own past. The observations are framed by a well-written, painstakingly detailed account of an evening spent roving a restaurant as the house magician.

I've been reading a lot of non-fiction recently. The last fiction book I read was probably 'The Naming of the Beasts' by Mike Carey, the fourth in the enjoyable and intelligently pulpy Felix Castor series.

Book I am currently writing:

None unless you count my twitter account. (I did once write a fantasy novel in my teens, but the least said about that the better.)

Books I love most:

Tough call this. There are books I read and re-read obsessively in my youth, books that have moved me to tears, and books that have dazzled me. But the one that made the biggest impact on me in the last decade was undoubtedly 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark' by Carl Sagan. It's a book about open-minded skepticism, the spirit of scientific enquiry and the debunking of pseudoscientific thinking. It chimed with my views on the Universe so precisely, and helped to crystalise them. I've read other similar books since, but none that bettered it.

The last book I received as a gift:

'Why Evolution is True' - Jerry A. Coyne, probably the best pop science book I've read on evolution. Some of Dawkin's evolution books (such as Climbing Mount Improbable) are more rewardingly in-depth and feature more mind-blowingly complex examples. However as a comprehensive introduction to, and collation of the evidence for, evolution by natural selection this is far superior to Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. It's just a shame it's unlikely to ever be read by anyone who isn't already convinced.

The last book I gave as a gift:

'Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency' by Cressida Cowell. A gift for my daughter whose seemingly inexhaustible thirst for 'stories' is highly pleasing (even if she's more than slightly obsessed with Miffy at the moment). We saw David Tennant read this book on CBeebies Bedtime Hour over Christmas, which he did brilliantly, subsequently dipped our toe in the water with the other books in the series, and followed up this one. A droll and witty book full of surreal imagination and a firm 'self-rescuing' type of heroine.

The nearest book on my desk:

'Servant of the Underworld' by Aliette de Bodard. It belongs to my wife whose seemingly inexhaustible thirst for books of all genres out-strips even our daughter's. According to the cover quote it's about an Aztec priest of the dead who tries to solve a murder mystery so I'm guessing it's the pre-Columbian equivalent of Cadfael.

Last book I bought for myself:

'The Final Solution' - Michael Chabon. A spare, elegant tale of Sherlock Holmes in extreme old age, and the spectre of the Holocaust.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Last night we went to the soon-to-be-refurbished Newcastle Theatre Royal to see Yes, Prime Minister, a new stage play from the original TV writers. With an all new cast, naturally.

Read more... )

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
On Friday we went to the beautiful and impressive Sage in Gateshead (i.e. South Newcastle but don't let them hear you say that) to see Tom McRae supported by Brian Wright. It's by far the nicest venue we've ever been to, all glass and aluminium and polished wood and airy spaces. Maybe we've been going to the wrong gigs.

Steven Moffatt describes Doctor who star Matt Smith as an "elegant shambles". That pretty much describes this gig. Almost from the word go the bassist had problems with his amp, and Tom was forced to extemporise with a version of I Ain’t Scared Of Lightning (read from his own tea towel merchandise) while Things were done, none of which appeared to make much noticeable difference. Then it turns out cellist Oli Kraus had been urgently recalled to the US where his wife was having a baby, resulting in a large cardboard standee of Captain Jack Sparrow acting as hilarious stand-in for the whole gig (ably supported by the stylings of Brian Wright on his slide guitar). And just generally there was a spirit of fun, constant messing about: trying to get the drummer to crack up when the entire band was singing close harmonies; Brian whistling cheerfully during Still Love You; seguing from Still Love You into a version of Rihanna's "Umbrella" ("Tombrella"). Tom was in a chatty mood and it was a hugely enjoyable, relaxed occasion, and the bad were so tight and well-rehearsed they rose above every disruption.

I'm terrible at remembering the order of a setlist, but the songs were:

Mermaid Blues
Me and Stetson
I Ain’t Scared Of Lightning
Walking 2 Hawaii
Dose Me Up (End Of The World News)
Summer Of John Wayne
Streetlight
Please (up tempo version)
Still Love You (plus 'Tombrella')
Karaoke Soul
Silent Boulevard

(encore)
Draw Down the Stars (The Girl Who Falls Downstairs)
Bloodless
Boy With The Bubblegun

Given that we saw the opening gig of the Alphabet of Hurricanes tour, it's both remarkable and pleasing how much variation there was between the two shows. I got to hear a number of personal favourites, including Mermaid Blues, Walking 2 Hawaii, Bloodless, Karaoke Soul and Summer of John Wayne. There was also a lot of variety. Mermaid Blues was a stunning 'cold open'; pure A Capella, just Tom's soaring voice in a silent room for the entire song. Really great. Streetlight used the whole band in close harmony for the chorus. Draw Down the Stars was sung solo but with looped backing harmonies and lyrics from The Girl Who Falls Down Stairs near the end. Bloodless was sung entirely acoustic and off-mike, resulting in the audience spontaneously singing along to almost the entire song (something I don't normally like as the crowd invariably expect the album version note for note, but which really worked here).

Brian Wright provided some superb and at times frenetic guitaring, and sweet backing vocals. He opened the gig with a solo acousitc selection of some of his own fine songs, including one of my favourites, Radar, plus Former Queen of Spain, Striking Matches, and War on Wilcox and a newer song I liked but can't name.

If I've a complaint about the evening, it's that the room could have taken many more people, and those missing people really missed out on some good music. But the sound system was perfect, the view was perfect, and the audience were appreciative. A great experience, warm and inclusive, in a stunning venue.

I also picked up 'The Streetlight Collection' containing 18 of Tom's b-sides & rarities, only about seven of which I'd heard previously. 'Out of This' is outstanding and should definitely have found its way onto an album.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Finale)
Frankly if there weren't a few plot holes in THAT there's no justice in the world.

Spoilers for Doctor Who - The Big Bang )
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
We went to see what turned out to be the inaugural date of Tom McRae's Alphabet of Hurricanes tour last night, in the reasonably tiny upstairs room of the O2 Academy2, Newcastle. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, although the fact that the doors opened half an hour late did result in moderate hypothermia. Sadly no-one has yet invented Warm Mulled Guinness1 so I was forced to warm myself on regular Guinness. You can't beat the taste of beer out of plastic2.

Brian Wright provided a really fine support act with a stripped down one-man-and-guitar (and-beard) performance. It's also possible he was stoned. Although I'm allergic to country I can generally suppress my immune reaction if it's blended with healthy doses of blues, rock and folk, and it helps that he's a deceptively intelligent writer. Of the new material I think Queen Junk (or whatever it's called) is borderline genius. Great to hear Radar too.

Wright also provided guitar, harmonica, backing vocals and the occasional banjo for Tom's six-piece band, the largest group he's ever toured with and one that kicked out a lot of good noise. Tom played for about an hour and a half and delivered some powerful singing and his usual self-deprecating banter between the tracks. As near as I can remember it the setlist (in approximate order) was:

an alphabet of hurricanes can't blow this drifter homeAlphabet of Hurricanes
Me & Stetson
Summer of John Wayne
End of the World News
A&B Song
Please
Walking2Hawaii
American Spirit
One Mississippi
Still Love You
Silent Boulevard

(encore)
My Vampire Heart
Draw Down the Stars
Boy with the Bubblegun

I can't begin to imagine why Alphabet of Hurricanes is not on the album which bears its name. It's a lovely song and if it's worthy of starting the new tour it's surely worth a place on the record. I was surprised that the new material didn't dominate more, although the choices were undeniably the right ones. Summer of John Wayne is one of my favourites from the new album and Please was the superior downtempo version from the Recorded at Gunpoint EP, while Still Love You's spare charm was boosted by a bigger finish and plenty of audience participation, plus a valiant attempt to get the venue's mirrorball working.

The benefit of the bigger band was really felt on the pacier tracks. Me & Stetson really rocked with a six-piece band behind it, as did End of the World News, A&B Song, Silent Boulevard and Boy With the Bubblegun. Brian Wright knows his way around an electric guitar. The sound was comparable to the Tom McRae Live album with a couple of notches more oomph and the benefit of an actual drummer.

The other tracks were a mix of familiar standbys but nonetheless I was very glad to hear One Mississippi, Walking2Hawaii and My Vampire Heart. Draw Down the Stars was an absolutely beautiful interpretation with some great harmonies.

We had a really fun night. Janet picked up a couple of t-shirts (the McRae one bearing a quote from that title track that's not on the album3), and I picked up Brian Wright's new one House on Fire which is setting off my country allergies but has some interesting material when I can stop sneezing.

As for the album, I had the benefit of Amazon's snafu when they briefly released it on 1st Feb so I've lived with it a while. I really like it. Economical, bleak and uplifting it's a throwback to McRae's debut sound but also absorbs some americana to surprising effect. One moment he's croaking along to plucked strings, the next delivering a soaring ballad, then singing the blues by way of The White Stripes. It feels like a moonlit walk after the expansive highway of King of Cards. Although it slowly reveals itself to be less sombre than it first appears, it's as uncommercial as anything he's ever done. It's good, but it's tough to see this being his breakout success.
--
1 And by 'sadly' I mean 'mercifully'.

2 And by 'can't beat' I mean 'should never willingly experience'.

3 Okay, I'll let it go.
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Tomb)
Eleventh Doctor and AmyA new teaser image from the upcoming Doctor Who season, featuring the Doctor and Amy in silly poses, some returning and new monsters, and a swirly blue time vortex that looks like the Tom Baker credits reimagined in computer graphics. Wonder if the background is part of the new credits sequence...

We also caught up on some ye olde Doctor Who recently. City of Death is a serial I have very vivid memories of watching as a child in the 1970s: Scaroth revealing his one-eyed face, his spaceship exploding, the trip to renaissance Italy, the multiple Mona Lisas, the time bubble that accelerates egg into Chicken, and vice-versa. It's all there in my mind's eye. Fortunately this one holds up surprisingly well, even going back to it after all this time. Although we're moving into his later, less uniformly successful, years in the role Tom Baker is a joy. The location filming in Paris is effective (even if it gratuitously packs in every Paris cliche going, and seems to feature endless shots of the Doctor and Romana aimlessly wandering), and the pacing is snappy, particularly for vintage Who. Douglas Adams' (pseudonymous) witty script doesn't hurt, either. It's not an absolute classic, and in common with a lot of old Who there's a certain sense of gabbled exposition and rushed anticlimax, but it's very solid.

Next up was Masque of Mandragora, an earlier Tom Baker story featuring Sarah Jane Smith as the companion. In contrast to 'City of Death' I seem to have no memory whatsoever of watching this when I was younger. All my vague recollections come from the target novelisation. That makes watching it slightly surreal since I broadly remember key elements from the book, but imagined them completely differently. Viewed with modern eyes this one has a script, acting and production values that feel significantly above the baseline standard for 70s Doctor Who. There's a vigour to the characterisation that reminded me of a Robert Holmes script, and the renaissance setting really works; the Doctor fits in seamlessly into an era poised between superstition and scientific discovery. Seeing actors like Tom Piggott-Smith in essentially Shakespearean garb helps my suspension of disbelief immensely, and the setting is aided by unusually convincing location filming in Portmerion (looking not too much like The Prisoner). The set-up also feels unusual, with the Doctor being essentially responsible for the threat. There are a few wobbly sets and creaky special effects, and like 'City of Death' the denouement is rushed, but there's a lot to enjoy. Plus there's a blatant sequel hook at the end. Come on Mr Moffatt, you know you want to...

Star Trek

May. 20th, 2009 08:33 am
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Serenity)
My review of the new Star Trek movie is at Strange Horizons today. I can't make up my mind whether I let it off the hook -- see what you think.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Serenity)
CBR has good interviews with creator Josh Friedman and Brian Austin Green (Derek Reese) about the very nifty Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. SPOILERS aaaalll the way to the second season finale. I hadn't realised that it was almost cancelled 13 episodes into Season 2.

Vague spoilers for the end of Season 2 )

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Serenity)
I'm a contributer to the latest Mind Meld article over at SF Signal along with many others including [livejournal.com profile] wrong_questions and [livejournal.com profile] saxonb. My bit is allllll the way down at the bottom. Take that however you wish. ;-)

The rather leading question at hand is this: BSG has ended, and no one appears to be thrilled with the finale. What would you have done differently, if you could run the show?

It's a question I singularly fail to answer, on the grounds that it's much easier to complain and point fingers than to offer solutions *cough*. In fact I quite enjoyed the Battlestar Galactica finale, on just about every level except logic. I've been known to forgive a lack of logic when a) the writer is Joss Whedon, b) the characters and the emotion hit me the right way, or c) both of the above (e.g. Buffy's 'The Gift'). There are certainly some fine and poignant moments of character and emotion in the BSG finale, but somehow along the way I stopped caring, enough, about these particular characters.

I think BSG and I parted ways emotionally and intellectually at the end of Season 2, when I stopped my reviews, but the rot certainly set in before that.

January

Feb. 1st, 2009 09:52 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
Films 1 to 5 of 2009 (Defiance, Persepolis, Frost/Nixon, Valkyrie, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) are reviewed here.

Bookwise I've completed His Dark Materials but that's it so far. Reviews to follow.

Film 2008

Jan. 5th, 2009 05:32 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
Yes I'm still doing reviews of 2008. I only managed 28 films last year, as recorded on 52 Film Challenge. Barely over halfway!

1. I Am Legend - Misjudged CGI but darker and less linear than expected.
2. Charlie Wilson's War - Political black comedy with Sorkin's trademark wit.
3. No Country for Old Men - Quiet, deliberate and gripping. Great dialogue.
4. Sweeney Todd - Every inch a traditional musical, just a really macabre one.
5. 3:10 To Yuma - Interesting characters but the ending feels unearned.
6. Flags Of Our Fathers - Thoughtful but meandering.
7. Letters From Iwo Jima - Beautiful and powerful though not quite a classic.
8. The Lives of Others - Bleak yet life affirming.
9. Iron Man - Effortlessly propped up by Robert Downey Jr.
10. Michael Clayton - Numb but quietly satisfying thriller.
11. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull - Nostalgic but misjudged.
12. Cloverfield - More like a First-Person Shooter than a film.
13. Jumper - Even more under-developed than you'd expect.
14. Enemy of the State - Flips from conspiracy thriller to actioner much too abruptly.
15. The Wind That Shakes The Barley - Strong IRA tale with an awkward second half.
16. Hollywoodland - Noirish and melancholy. In a good way.
17. The Bourne Ultimatum - Consistently entertaining but never raises your heart rate.
18. The Dark Knight - Hardboiled organised crime flick with supervillains.
19. The Searchers - Stunning cinematography but dated and uneven.
20. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army - Fantastic art design, cartoonish characterisation.
21. Transformers - Moronic.
22. Them! - Admirably naturalistic, but very slow.
23. Pi - a deeply weird, stylistically beautiful movie.
24. Futurama: The Beast With A Billion Backs - hilarious in places, but runs out of steam.
25. Wanted - so hugely over-impressed with itself you just want to slap it.
26. Seraphim Falls - a sparse Western about vengeance and forgiveness.
27. The Day The Earth Stood Still (the remake) - preachy but still interesting.
28. Quantum of Solace - Decent Bond flick, but always in the shadow of Casino Royale.

We also caught up with a fair few rewatches. Over the Christmas period I ended up watching A Muppet Christmas Carol, Patrick Stewart's A Christmas Carol, and Bill Murray's Scrooged. That's quite enough epiphanies for one year.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Angry Demon)
Watching ITV's Demons, starring Philip Glenister with a dodgy accent, it quickly becomes clear that it is the most original story ever told. No other story has ever had the vision to deal with a lone teenager who learns they are destined to fight the forces of darkness, no other story has ever had a mysterious mentor figure, a secret library, a vampire-killing gun, a blind woman who is a seer, a devoted best friend who is secretly in love with the main character, sinister villains in long coats and wide brimmed hats... So there's this teenager, he's the last heir of Van Helsing, who was real, and he's being assisted by a Mina Harker, who was real too, and an unconvincing American named Rupert who looks just like Gene Hunt. There are demons. There's destiny. There's teenage angst. There's wisecracking. It's not just a riff on Buffy, though Buffy is clearly its main TV inspiration, but a synthesis of every teen-with-secret-powers story ever told. It's also really, really dull.

Crooked House, filling the BBC's traditional 'M.R.James ghost story before Christmas' slot on three consecutive nights, is hardly any more original but still hugely superior. It consists of three new half hour ghost stories set in cursed Geap Manor in various time periods, with a framing sequence in which writer Mark Gatiss plays storyteller with exactly the right amount of morbid relish. The first is an 18th century morality tale about a guilty merchant that's just a little too clever in its parallels to modern banking. The second is a 1920s tale of high society and ghostly brides that's just a little too pastiched. They both evoke a very specific kind of mild nostalgic horror. The third story, however, is one of the creepiest things I've seen in years, finding a present day teacher stumbling into a very sinister past. Every Halloween I look for something that hits me just right to send a shiver of dread down my spine, but I rarely find it. This may have been at Christmas, but it did the trick.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Cat in a Hat)
More books, probably the last of the year.

19. The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell )

20. The Little Sister – Raymond Chandler )

21. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman )

My books of 2009 )

So that's 21 books this year vs. 9 last year. I set the bar low but I'm still pleased to have notched up more than twice as many as last year. I had a bit of a blip after The Little Sister in which I started two1 books2 which still languish unfinished on a shelf, which slowed my pace considerably.

My wife meanwhile notched up 38 books, vastly outstripping me as always and beating her tally of 35 last year.

My wife's books of 2009 )

--

1 Apocalypse How by Daily Show writer Rob Kutner, initially a very funny take on surviving the post-apocaypse, but one where the law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly.

2 Who Wrote the New Testament by Burton L Mack., a scholarly, secular attempt to reconstruct the actual beginnings of early Christian belief through literary and historical analysis, but one that for me feels nearly as much of a conjectural house of cards as the religion itself.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
We finally went to see Quantum of Solace at the weekend. Spoilers... )

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Hurray! My Tom McRae Live 2007 album arrived yesterday. Just listening to it now, and it sounds every bit as sharp and powerful as you'd expect.



Track list:
1. Walking2Hawaii, La Cigale, Paris
2. For The Restless, The Limelight, Belfast
3. A&B Song, La Cigale, Paris
4. Ghost Of A Shark, La Cigale, Paris
5. End of The World News (Dose Me Up), The Limelight, Belfast
6. Got A Suitcase, Got Regrets, Folken, Stavanger
7. One Mississippi, La Cigale, Paris
8. On And On, La Laiterie, Strasbourg
9. Deliver Me, Shepherds Bush Empire, London
10. Only Thing I Know, Debaser, Stockholm
11. Silent Boulevard, The Limelight, Belfast
12. Boy With The Bubblegun, The Limelight, Belfast

I could obviously suggest many other songs I'd like to hear, but this is a decent spread from his four albums with some material like 'Ghost of a Shark' that I've not personally heard very often (contrasting with songs like 'Got a Suitcase...' that I seem to hear all the time). The interpretations tend towards acoustic but if anything less quiet and sparse than you'd expect from the albums, with rich backing instruments from Olli Cunningham and Oli Kraus and a rounded sound. Tom is in strong voice and belts out some of the more up tempo material like 'A&B Song' and 'End of the World News' and there's some electric guitar in there.

If you've seen him live you'll know what to expect. This brings back memories for me, though I have to say we made a far livelier audience on 'End of the World News' than the shambolic lot on the album.

It has a fairly cheap cardboard sleeve, but since this is a direct release from Mr McRae unmediated by a record contract I assume it means more money gets to the artist. Go buy it! Other than that there's nothing to quibble about. Very pleasing.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Further adventures in book reading.


15. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre )



16. The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall )

17. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown )

18. The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins )

Hard to believe, but this brings me to twice the number of books I read in the whole of last year. Next: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
We just watched part one of the BBC's new Stephen Fry in America. It's an amiable Michael Palin-esque travelogue in which quirky British person Stephen Fry drives a black London cab around every one of the US States. Now obviously Fry is a living man-god who can do no wrong, and his past forays into TV have been some of the best things produced in the last few years, whether delving into hs own mental health, his family history or the invention of the printing press. Which may partly explain my feelings of mild disappointment with this series. The pace of the tour is so rapid, with barely time for a vignette in each state, that it feels like edited highlights of a much better series. The early scenes are also crying out for more linking narration from Fry himself, coming across as a strangely disjointed series of moments with no common thread. Nonetheless he's a very likeable tourist, uncompromisingly English and out of place, but also delighted, interested and non-judgemental. It improved and felt more organic towards the end of the episode, so I hope the later episodes continue to relax into their subject matter. Maybe the book will fill in some of the gaps and add some much needed commentary.

We're not watching a lot else at the moment. The new US TV Season is in full swing, but is so far failing to impress. Bones is shaky at best, but then it was never what you'd call slick or plausible. The device of rotating grad students is at least mildly amusing. Heroes is proving considerably more engaging than Season 2, but is so irredeemably bonkers and that it's difficult to imagine how it can ever recover any plausibility. House is as good as ever, but lacks that single brilliant concept that made Season 4 stand out. Stargate Atlantis is like turning up for a rock concert and getting the hotel band instead.

(I do highly rate The Middleman for those that haven't caught up with it yet.)

Probably the thing that's most grabbed me is The Restaurant, a strange semi-clone of The Apprentice with a big dollop of Masterchef, in which a series of hopelessly inept couples struggle to run a busy Restaurant and repeatedly fail to show any trace of ability to learn or take advice. Like The Apprentice, I can't sit still for squirming in empathetic embarrassment or muttering in barely-suppressed outrage at their ineptness. Unlike The Apprentice, Raymond Blanc is clearly a Genuinely Nice Guy who offers insightful, constructive criticism, and always tries to soften the sting of his remarks. The man has the patience of a saint.

Lastly, I just saw these pics of Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Watson in Guy Ritchie's new movie. I'm unconvinced. In concept I was intrigued by the casting, but Downey Jr looks strangely like Charlie Chaplin. I can see that they're trying to go in an unorthodox direction with the material, and it's not that Holmes can't survive different takes -- I think he's the most played character in history, or close to it -- but at some point the changes will become so great that you may as well call him something else and have done with it. We'll see. A couple of pictures are hardly definitive, but they bode. They bode.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins's three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word "polemic" in my TV guide, noting that "creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don't go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist."

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that's as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as "controversial". Interestingly, the polemic word doesn't seem to have been attached to this one. It's an "investigation".

To be clear, I don't regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant 'controversy' in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a "big freeze" and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth's future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there's plenty here that I hadn't heard before, or hadn't heard in detail. In some respects it's surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a "polemic" if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no "harm" to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I've read other rebuttals, e.g. badscience.com but it's still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden -- in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word -- shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden "tipping point" temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder -- although thankfully 2008 didn't break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it's always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of "controversy" driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.
--

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply 'counting the rings' that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you're likely to find. That's assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong -- which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: "Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven", a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they're bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong -- although, y'know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction -- but because disasters are cool. That's why Iain Stewart's earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don't for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that's just me.

Merlin

Sep. 20th, 2008 08:22 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
Against all expectations I quite enjoyed that.

It's very far from the horrible teen travesty I was expecting, and nowhere near as glib and "modern" as the BBC's Robin Hood. Indeed it's about as literal and sincere a take on an Epic Fantasy novel (by way of Harry Potter) as you're likely to see on TV. The cast is good, and Merlin himself is a nice mixture of wit and self-deprecation. The atmosphere is well-served by some effective digital matte paintings and a rich John Williams-esque orchestral score. Even the dragon is well done, albeit exactly the same as the last few talking dragons I've seen1. I particularly like the fairy tale quality of Gwen-from-Torchwood's plot.

Probably the worst-judged aspect is the Jocks-and-Nerds relationship between Arthur and Merlin, but it's a long way from grating.

Whether the world actually needs "Arthur and Merlin: Before They Were Famous" is another matter, but the pre-Arthurian premise is almost incidental to the fact that this is a surprisingly decent bit of Epic Fantasy2.

--
1 In films I mean. Rumours that I've been seeing talking dragons are scurrilous and should not be listened to.

2 i.e. Entirely hackneyed and predictable, but in a good way.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
My book-reading pace has picked up again since last time.

10. The Lady in the Lake – Raymond Chandler )

11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins )

12. Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins )

13. Dead Men’s Boots – Mike Carey )

14. Sunshine – Robin McKinley )

So there you go. 14 books to date during 2008, precisely half the number my wife has read in the same period. I'd like to say I'll catch up, but it's a bit like Zeno's Paradox.
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (TV)
We just watched the two-parter season opener of Bones. Set in the UK. Oh yes, you know what that means.

Not any UK, of course, but that very specific one populated by red telephone boxes, London monuments, double-decker buses, Dukes, "Gentlemen", Butlers and 'Scotland Yard' detectives. Janet successfully predicted that it would be all tied up with royalty before it even started.

Two of the young characters are named Cyril and Vera. Cyril's favourite food is Eels. Every scene takes place in a stately home of some sort, except the ones with Michael Brandon as an American ex-pat which take place in a gleaming skyscraper. Every single actor, even the British ones, and regardless of their character's background, have that particular "I shall do my utmost to accommodate you, detective" cut-glass accent that only exists in US dramas. Except the rough salt-of-the earth types who all sound like Dick Van Doike. Beer is served in pint glasses with handles, all the cars are boxy and twenty years old, and everyone is terribly concerned about class. At one point someone said "discombobulated" like it was an authentic bit of English slang. It was like watching Three Men and a Little Lady.

If you're actually British it all adds up to a fantastic drinking game.

I shouldn't mind really. For an alleged drama, Bones has a sit-com approach to characterisation. Even its forensics team talk in ridiculously formal, technical ways for no good reason. People suddenly become really dense or really perceptive as the plot or comedy punchline dictate. It's a dumb, amiable show. Being set in the UK just makes it grate that little bit more than normal. :-)

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
I last did a books post waaay back in February. It's fair to say my pace has slowed a bit since then, but I'm still doing much better than last year.

5. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman )

6. Fairyland – Paul J McAuley )

7. Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler )

8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon )

9. The High Window – Raymond Chandler )

Between the two Chandlers and the Chabon I feel like I've been on a bit of a crime kick recently. Since I'm currently reading the fourth Marlowe novel it doesn't look like it'll end any time soon.

(Films 9 to 19 are here.)

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