Nick's reviews blog

Doing exactly what it says on the tin.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

On albums

I was watching the BBC's new Culture Show the other night, which is a real curate's egg of a programme - some good parts like Robert Hughes on MOMA and some really poor, like the report on the Contemporary Arts Society where the presenter seemed amazed to discover that there were arts galleries outside London - but it was one of the more average stories - on downloaded music and the changes to the singles chart it's causing - that got me thinking.

It's interesting that downloading - and the emphasis it places on single tracks, rather than entire albums - is effectively sending the music industry back 40 years to when the single was king, and albums - when they were released at all - were just two or three hit singles with a bunch of other filler put on to bulk it out to 30 minutes or so (40 if you were lucky). It wasn't until Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper and the like that making an album in itself became an aspiration for artists.

What disappoints me is not that pop acts are abandoning the album - after all, the world isn't crying out for more pointless covers and filler from the latest poppets to trickle off the music industry's production line - but that the supposedly serious music press are encouraging this as well with magazines like Q now, as well as rating albums as a whole, suggesting which tracks are worth getting, effectively encouraging listeners to ignore the concept of an album as a single entity and breaking it down into just a collection of tracks. I'm not denying that there are some albums that would benefit from having the crud taken off them, but I think this trend is starting to discourage artists from trying to produce good albums - after all, what's the incentive when no matter how good you make it some heathen reviewer is going to ignore your carefully created track order, forget the effort you've made to have tracks balance each other and dismiss your attempts to create a theme just to list the two or three songs on it he likes?

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Currently floating my boat

Do Me Bad Things' single Time For Deliverance - the Polyphonic Spree, Electric Six and White Stripes get together for an orgy. Probably sounds nothing like this, but you get the idea. If the KLF reformed and went on tour, they'd be the support. Unfortunately, this is the real world so they have to go on tour with The joke's not funny any more and it wasn't as amusing as Spinal Tap in the first place Darkness.

The Daily Show's website - full of all the Jon Stewarty goodness doctors recommend for a balanced diet.

The Flaming Lips and Doves websites.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Consumer reports

Quick tip for you: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is out on video, and you can get it at Tesco for just £11.97.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Spooks Series 3, Episode 1

It's always hard to resolve a cliffhanger over a year later, as the audience's memory of what happened to cause the tension at the end of the last series will have all but disappeared (especially when the previous series hasn't been repeated or released on DVD) and all your clever attempts to reveal just what was going on are lost in the cries of 'eh? what? who was that? what's going on?'

Cleverly then, Spooks doesn't really bother. After all, Matthew McFadyen's been on all the trailers, all the posters, so it's obvious he's not dead, and there's no real attempt to convince us otherwise. Instead, Howard Brenton's script (and had I realised he's written it, it might not have been as much a surprise) goes off on a completely different tack, instead using the fallout from the events at the end of Season 2 as the basis for a much more political story.

Interestingly, a couple of reviews in the papers have suggested - and I tend to agree - that Spooks much touted links with MI5 (after all, it's helped to boost recruitment for the Service) have meant that Brenton got the information to write a much more interesting story of political intrigues, rather than just a standard spy story. But then again, I must be wrong - after all a story that features references to a Prime Minister who loves anyone who proposes 'modernisation' and wants 'unambiguous intelligence' from a unified service has no relation to anyone in reality, I'm sure. One gets the feeling that many of Harry's complaints about Mace's plans was perhaps copied almost verbatim from complaints Brenton heard in reality, which is interesting in itself, setting up the supposed secret police amongst those who'd oppose such a thing.

Still, such matters are for another time, or hopefully no time, and instead we've got one of the BBC's top series back, and back on top form. Let's hope the rest of the series - which, it seems, has to replace most of the series' lead actors, a tough task at any time - keeps up the standard.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Edge of Darkness Episode 4 "Breakthrough"

This episode was the most like a conventional thriller so far, but as everyone's allegiances have started to come into the open, that's probably to be expected. It's interesting to note how economical the writing is - you don't feel that it's rushing through the plot and scenes are given the time they need, but there's a lot of plot going and a lot of ground gets covered.

Craven does seem to come out of the hospital a changed man, suddenly much more willing to do things, rather than just see what's happening. You can see it as perhaps a response to the shooting - he knows now that the only way to find out what he wants is to go for it head on, as all the subtle approaches he's tried mean people keep winding up dead.

I'm not sure if it was during this episode or the one before, but I realised just how much the mobile phone has changed the nature of the thriller. It's interesting to see police officers have to go into phone boxes to make calls, and people being able to put themselves easily out of contact.

Craven and Jedburgh now have potentially conflicting orders for when they go into Northmoor, but as neither have shown that they're the type to take orders willingly, it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Right, time to watch the last two episodes, I think.

Edge of Darkness Episode 3 "Burden Of Proof"

One of the things I like about Edge Of Darkness is Troy Kennedy Martin's clever - and ironic - use of episode titles. There are lots of questions of fact here - the inquiry, how Lowe came to make his sudden plunge from six floors up, who killed Shields and why (in an interesting coincidence, Tim McInnerny turns up in Spooks tomorrow night) but the real burden of proof is suddenly on Craven. He's gone from being the bereaved father to crazed conspiracy theorist in the eyes of colleagues, refusing to accept an open and shut case and finding his sanity under question very publically.

Many thrillers with deal with the secret services have the participants treating the whole thing as a game, and there is an air of that here, notably in the little pattern of relationships between Harcourt, Pendleton, Jedburgh and Clemmie, all seeming to have switched sides at will. But there's also the air of a player suddenly raising the stakes, with whatever's going on at Northmoor a dangerous gambit that puts the play into a new arena.

Jedburgh does have ties with Gaia, as I suspected, and seemingly very deep ones. It's interesting to look at what he says earlier in the episode about terrorism and going 'into the darkness' in the light of that later revelation - who's game is he playing? Is it just CIA orders, or is he playing his own game in the middle of the bigger one. The question of motives hangs over a lot of people's actions - who's being ordered, and who's just doing what they think is the right thing?

Interestingly, the imagery of the nuclear trains disappears in this episode - will it come back, or was that merely foreshadowing before the inquiry put IIF centre stage? And Zoe Wanamaker seems to be another actor with Jeff Goldblum Syndrome - she looks like she's hardly aged between 1985 and now.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Edge of Darkness Episode 2 "Into The Darkness"

Curiouser and curiouser...

So, Jedburgh's working for the CIA (does Joe Don Baker ever play characters who aren't CIA agents?), but which side are they on? What do Harcourt and Pendleton want from Craven? How did the police track a getaway vehicle and identify Lowe so quickly as the suspect? Who's pulling their strings? Is/was Gaia connected to the CIA?

It's a real little rabbit warren that Craven's found himself descending into, and the confusion that he seems to be showing is reflecting the position of the audience, not knowing exactly what's going on and who's behind whatever it is that's happening. Interesting to see Sue Cook turn up as herself after Michael Meacher's appearance in the previous episode, though Socialist Advance is obviously a made-up organisation, though with close parallels to ones that do exist.

One bit I forgot to mention last night is the soundtrack, which is one of the few things that dates it (well, that and Ron paying less than £10 to the taxi driver) - the Clapton twangy guitar is a very eighties sound.

They could have anticipated DVD while filming this - I just went back to the killing in episode 1 and you can't really see who it may be, besides dark eyes and a moustache that's probably a disguise.

There's a couple of interesting narrative devices - the use of Emma as Craven's conscience is a clever way of getting the viewer inside his head without voiceovers, and also shows us how dedicated a father he was. There's also the regular imagery of the trains moving though the city with nuclear waste containers on the back, and it seems to me that they're becoming more frequent as the series goes on.

There's a good Wikipedia article on Edge of Darkness, by the way, which reveals that John Thaw was Troy Kennedy Martin's original choice for Craven.

Edge of Darkness Episode 1 "Compassionate Leave"

A few weeks ago I picked up a DVD of the 1985 TV series Edge Of Darkness in the HMV sale. At a loss for anything to do tonight, I decided to start watching it. I think I'll give it a full review when I've watched all six episodes, but I wanted to just note down some thoughts on each episode after I've watched it, partly so I don't forget them, and partly to see how my thoughts change as I watch it. I didn't see it when it was first on TV - mainly because I was only 13 at the time, and such things didn't interest me - so this is the first time I've seen it, though I've heard a lot about it.

First, I hadn't realised (or had forgetten) that Bob Peck died in 1999. Watching it, I was thinking I hadn't seen him in anything recently. That was rather a shock to me. His performance in this, though, is absolutely outstanding so far. He's so still on screen, not seeming to move much of the time, but conveys so much emotion without seeming to try that it's already one of the most realistic pieces of acting I've seen so far.

I think Paul Abbott was clearly quite influenced by this when he wrote State Of Play. That's not a bad thing, as if you're going to steal, do it from the classics, and this feels so out of it's time in some ways, yet also so rooted in them, that it's strange to think it's now almost twenty years old. However, the early to mid 80s were a mini-Golden Age of good TV drama, most of which I missed through being too young, and only recently (thanks to writers like Abbott and Russell T Davies) is it returning to those levels.

There's a lot of plot threads introduced in this episode, beyond just the main story of Craven discovering his daughter was not what he thought, and it's hard to tell which will turn out to be important and which not. For instance, the electoral fraud at the Union could be a red herring included on the grounds of topicality, or it could all tie in at the end. Joe Don Baker only gets a cameo in this episode, but it's clear he'll have a more important role later on - but as friend or foe?

It's a bit too late to watch the second episode now - and if I did, I'm sure I'd just have to force myself to watch the third as well - so time to call it a night and get to bed.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Another quick thought

I haven't seen the film yet - maybe I'll get a chance to catch it next week sometime - but seeing a trailer for Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow - sparked a thought. I think it was the sight of several Union Jack-decorated airships floating across the sky that gave me the idea, but I'm wondering if some bright spark in Hollywood (there has to be one somewhere) has realised that this is the perfect film-making technology for bring some of the more outlandish comic concepts to the screen.

And why the airships? Well, it reminded me of a scene from one of the best series of recent years that featured giant flying craft from an alternate Britain as well as seventeen mile tall spaceship ripping through an island, thousands of force-cloned supervillains laying waste to cities, and was described as a 'wide-screen comic' (by its creator, I believe).

The Authority. Coming to a cinema near you. Well, I can dream, though Global Frequency appears to be coming to TV next year.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Martin Rees: Our Final Century

Being an astronomer gives you a different perspective to life on Earth to the rest of us, as Martin Rees acknowledges in this book. While the rest of us spend our lives surrounded by life, astronomers spend their time staring into and thinking about vast expanses of lifeless nothing, watching stars blow up and seeing the evidence scattered all around us that shows how the Universe just doesn't look to receptive to life in general. We are just a small blue speck in the vast scheme of things, and specks get blown away all too easily.

It's why he's probably better placed than most to write a book like this, looking at the various ways we could wipe ourselves out over the next hundred years, and what steps we could take to increase the chances of our survival. He looks at a variety of scenarios, from 'bioerror and bioterror' through nanotechnology gone wrong to bizarre possibilities in advanced physics experiments that might not just destroy Earth, but could go on to destroy the entire universe - and it would all happen so quickly that we'd never know about it.

Rees is clearly and expert on his subject, and isn't just a mad prophet in the desert calling down woe on the works of mankind. He wants us to survive, wants us to be aware of the risks we face and what we can do to avoid them or lessen the risk. He's careful to end the book on notes of hope rather than despair, like a Nick Ross on a cosmic scale telling us not to have nightmares about the risk of our entire existence being stolen from us in the night.

However, it's not the book it should be, principally because it's too short, often reading as though it's either a precis of a longer and more detailed work or that Rees' editor was convinced by some of his earlier arguments and pressured him to finish the book before Armageddon overcame us all. Or, it may be simply to attract an audience for the book that might be put off by a larger and more complex work, which is a shame as some of his arguments don't carry the weight they could - for instance, there's little discussion of the risk of nuclear conflct beyond terrorism in the next century - if they were at greater length. One also wonders why Rees chose to devote so much space to the so-called Doomsday Argument when its philosophically rather weak (the most glaring flaw I spotted is that it could have been made at just about any time in the last several thousand years to 'prove' we would be extinct 'soon') when other areas are skirted over, but perhaps that's merely personal choice.

However, that doesn't stop this from being a generally interesting and informative book that's well worth reading, though one will have to resort to the extensive bibliography to get the real depth that would make the book a true classic.