Reviews

Dirk Gently

Dirk Gently

Douglas AdamsDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the book, introduced Douglas Adams‘s untrustworthy and other-world-weary detective to unsuspecting audiences, and he followed it up with The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Now, flush with Doctor Who and Sherlock success, the BBC has followed up their one off Dirk Gently episode with three more. If you hurry, you can still just get them on iPlayer. And you probably should.

Before we go any further, we need to recognise that the Dirk Gently of the TV series is not the same as the Dirk Gently of the books. In fact, they don’t even live in the same universe.
The TV-series universe is a naturalistic universe with a teasing take on technological advance, and possibly science-fiction of the plausible kind. There’s already a shift between the one-off and the mini-series. The one-off had time travel, the mini-series has coincidence, a bit of (far-fetched) artificial intelligence, and a proto-House bit of speculative medical diagnosis.
The books, on the other hand, are in at the deep-end of fantasy/science-fiction with multiple-plane existence and the question of what gods do when they retire.
I quite liked the original book. I loved The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, which I regard as the best thing Adams ever wrote. It’s clever, witty, observed in enormous detail (which the Hitch Hiker stuff never was), perfectly plotted and mysteriously elusive in its world of ideas.
So, it’s not to say I didn’t like the TV series, because I did. But they are fundamentally different beasts.
The TV Dirk Gently is really the third in the trinity of Doctor Who — Sherlock — Gently.
To expand: there really is only one detective in detective fiction. It’s Sherlock Holmes. All subsequent detectives take some of his characteristics and vary others. Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, VI Wachowski.
Doctor Who, despite the semi-mythical quality which the BBC has tried to give him recently, is another Sherlock Holmes. He’s the cleverest, most observant, most informed, most athletic and most infuriating person in any situation. Even his mannerisms are getting more and more Holmes.
After many Sherlock Holmes, both more and less successful, the Sherlock take is probably the best return to the original. By keeping the character and ditching the context, Steven Moffat has managed to recapture the sociopathic spirit of the original.
The BBC Dirk Gently completes the set. Like Sherlock he’s a sociopath. Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, he arrives at his conclusions without seeming to deserve them — but he still always wins, though the victory is seldom complete.
Not that this should surprise: the original story on which the first book was based began life as a Doctor Who script which was never filmed because of industrial action. Adams’s surgery on his own plot involved replacing the Doctor with the Detective. In this way, the book is as much a spoof on Who as it is on Holmes.
So, back to the shows. Worth watching? Definitely. In an off-beat, despondent, way, it’s a beautiful tour through the inconsequential bits of our existence, with enough emotional content to slip in something quite profound in each episode, just when you’re not expecting it.
Enough — stop reading the article, and get on iPlayer while the show is still available. If it’s already gone, get the books, and wait for the rerun.
The ten best films to own on Blu-Ray

The ten best films to own on Blu-Ray

The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

We’re at the end of an era. It kicked off with the very first mass distribution of 78 RPM recordings. For the first time ever, it was possible to ‘own’ an artistic performance, rather than listening to it once in the concert hall, or seeing it once in the cinema or on stage, or hearing it once in the radio. Physical possession of the recording gave you the power to experience it whenever you wanted, and then to leave it for years before experiencing it again.

 

After 78s came Long Play records at 33 RPM, singles at 45 RPM, cassette tape 1, and then the big jump: video cassettes on VHS and, for a while Betamax. After VHS there was the ill-fated laser-disc, the equally shortlived ADAT, and then CD, mini-disc, which did almost no better than ADAT, DVD and finally Blu-Ray.

 

Blu-Ray is the end of the line. The future of music and video is already clear: it will be download and store yourself, or experience on demand. Already Blu-Ray is fulfilling a different function from DVD. It is the format for the treasured movie, not for the casual Friday night at home. If you want to see a film once, wait for it to come round on TV, or watch it on iTunes or NetFlix or LoveFilm, or buy it on bargain DVD if you have to. Only get it on Blu-Ray if you know you are going to watch it again, and again, and again.

 

I’ve blogged about it before, but I thought it would be nice to celebrate the passing of physical-format reproduction with my top ten films to own on Blu-Ray — and the great films that really aren’t worth the bother. This is not a list of my favourite films. Rather, it considers how much Blu-Ray is really adding over and above the delights of DVD. Not everything worth watching is worth watching in high definition.

 

 

10 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Coming in at number ten, and the only Western on the list, the rubbish subtitles in Italian at the start notwithstanding, the breadth of the action when it comes to the shooting across the river demands the highest resolution you can get. The true test of ‘should I get it on Blu-Ray?’ is ‘am I left wishing for more resolution whenever I see it?’. The answer here is a resounding yes.

 

9 Blade Runner

Inevitably, Blade Runner has to be on this list. You just want to see more detail on Ridley Scott’s amazing dystopian cities. Why is it not higher up the list? Because it’s not something you can just put on to show all your friends. Blade Runner is a Marmite film (sorry Americans, you won’t get this reference). You either love it, or it does nothing for you at all.

 

8 Last of the Mohicans

The film really opens out in the final scenes, but that’s the point — when the three layered score comes together, pinning the drums that represent the Indians, the jig that represents Nathaniel, and the orchestral score which represents the land — when you are desperate to see more detail in the epic landscape.

 

7 The Lord of the Rings — the Fellowship of the Ring

You remember it in the cinema — the moment when the fellowship reaches the gates of Moria, and, high up, water pours down from a ruined aqueduct. It just isn’t the same on DVD, and it carries on not being the same from then on.

 

6 Dick Tracy

At the other end of the scale, the hyper-saturated, perspective altered scenery of Dick Tracy is a treat for the eyes, and deserves maximum resolution. Sin City might have gone here instead, but Sin City doesn’t have the family appeal, and the plot is more disjointed.

 

5 The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s space romp, betraying his love for classical music and for stories about taxi drivers, fills every inch of the screen and the imagination. If there was a beyond 1080p resolution, The Fifth Element would be an excellent candidate for the first transfer to the new format.

 

4 Who Framed Roger Rabbit

A labour of love and Disney’s first foray for a long time into state of the art mixing of cartoon and live action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film you can watch with anyone, over and over again, and still keep seeing new visual details. Great storyline too.

 

3 Gladiator

By the time he made Gladiator, Ridley Scott was clearly well aware that his CGI would be scrutinised by legions of fans in the finest detail possible. Gladiator sums up the premise of almost all the sword-and-sandals epics, in terms of the grandeur, the violence, and the sweep of great events which (almost) happened in the formative days of Western civilisation.

 

2 The Illusionist

Also made with a clear understanding of the HD market, The Illusionist is sumptuously detailed, and improves every time you see it. The choice of copper-tinted film stock reminds somewhat of Quentin Tarantino, but without the self indulgence.

 

1 Stardust

Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece Stardust is a fairytale that completely satisfies down to the last pixel and the last viewing. The visual moments, especially the Iceland-shot scenes, are superbly made with the grandeur of Last of the Mohicans and completely compelling CGI which never feels like it’s anything but real, even though you know it can’t be.

 

 And the ones not to

The films not to get are all of them (in their way) great films, or at least great fun. Some of them simply gain nothing by being seen in HD. Some of them are much the worse for the process.

 

10 The Princess Bride

Brilliant on VHS, The Princess Bride does not improve on DVD, nor on Blu-Ray. There’s a certain children’s TV style to it which gives the impression that nobody thought that hard about the tiny visual details. It’s a wonderful film, but that’s not because of its production values.

 

9 Conan the Barbarian

For bonkers mayhem madness, Conan the Barbarian is a great late night film, possibly for the after-pub moment. The visual details are superb, but some of the scenes with large casts slightly give the impression that not everyone was acting to the same script.

 

8 The Blues Brothers directors cut

The Directors Cut is essentially a mistake. It should have stayed the way it was. Even so, this is a film which works because of the riotousness of its plot and the amazing musical performances. It doesn’t gain by more detail. If you have it on DVD, stick to that.

 

7 Casablanca

With Casablanca, more resolution means more film grain and more obvious plot holes. Casablanca is best experienced in the cinema in flickering black and white.

 

6 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Smeagol-Gollum was hailed as a triumph when this first aired in the cinema. Even at the time I had my doubts. The CGI which enabled his creation may have been a triumph of its day, but it has dated incredibly quickly. The rest of the film is visually excellent, and the pitched-battles of The Return of the King even more so. Someone should go back and do the Gollum bits properly. In the meantime, savour it in your memory.

 

 

5 Macbeth (Ian McKellan Judi Dench)

Utterly, utterly compelling, the Ian McKellan Judi Dench Macbeth was great on VHS, ok on DVD, and, as far as I know, not slated for appearance on Blu-Ray. A wise choice. The greatness is not in the visuals, but in their absence.

 

 

4 The Seventh Seal

Arguably one of the greatest films of all time, The Seventh Seal also reveals its flaws rather than its qualities when over subjected to high-pixel density examination.

 

 

3 James Bond boxed set

Ever wanted to own all the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond films? You can get the boxed set on DVD, but, even at that resolution, you’ll probably find the Roger Moore years disappointing. Some of the classics make Blakes 7 look polished and Thunderbirds like a documentary.

 

2 The Dambusters

The one film you should never, ever watch again in any resolution or on TV is the Dambusters. Keep it in your memory. Keep the story alive in your heart. Or just walk out of the room before the bombs are actually dropped. If remember the scene I’m talking about, you’ll know what I mean.

 

 

1 Star Wars

If there’s one argument for denying directors any access to their films after the first showing, it’s Star Wars. Tinkered with over many years, George Lucas has succeeded in making it more flaccid (the extended Canteena Band sequence, with extra muppets), grosser (introducing Jabba the Hutt just doesn’t work) and soppier (the original Han Solo shoots Greedo first — the current version makes him too honourable for this). Sure, the CGI is much better

Show 1 footnote

  1. There’s a brilliant Facebook picture going round showing a cassette tape and a biro with the caption ‘a whole generation has grown up which does not know the connection between these two items
Sherlock: Over twisty, but still the best thing on TV

Sherlock: Over twisty, but still the best thing on TV

Sherlock (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a Steven Moffatt Christmas. Finally he managed to give us a Christmas Special which wasn’t mawkish (or worse), and then, on New Year’s Day, the first of the new series of Sherlock.

Sherlock!

If you want proof that television can beat the movies, look no further. More specifically, BBC television versus Hollywood movies.

As post-Pirates of the Caribbean fodder, the two Sherlock Holmes films of the last few years have delivered the requisite mixture of comic relief, action and CGI-fueled formula to a new generation of teenagers. But anyone who has ever read a Sherlock Holmes story and actually enjoyed it knows that that particular pair of movies offers almost none of the passion and excitement of the original.

Moffatt’s Sherlock, by contrast, is riveting. For a start, Steven Moffatt proceeds on the assumption that the viewer is clever, and has read all the stories. References fly past at a rate of stories per second, each with their own little twist (the Speckled Blonde, anyone?) More importantly, Moffat’s mastery of the medium means he can overcome the problems that Conan Doyle never could when transferring his creation from printed page to stage: having Sherlock Holmes explain all of his observations to an audience is ponderous, but without it, Holmes is only clever because we’re told he’s clever, not because we see him at it.

Moffatt’s take on this is to use text labels on the things Holmes sees, as he sees them. In this way, a whole scene of explanation is compressed into one or two seconds — and we, the viewer, get the vicarious thrill of seeing the way Sherlock Holmes sees.

The really interesting thing about this is that anyone could have done it, even twenty years before. Sherlock doesn’t rely on the latest CGI, but simply on the ability to put labels onto the screen. This is another example of the brilliance that Moffatt showed in the Doctor Who episode Blink, where he used the vocabulary of television to deliver one of the most exciting bits of TV science-fiction ever, using only techniques which were older than Doctor Who itself.

Last night’s Sherlock was a feast of wonderfully reimagined details, with all kinds of things being brought up to date in a quirky, sparkly sort of way, rather than just being Holmes in modern dress (or, as the films have it, Holmes in Victorian dress saying and thinking modern things).

There were — I feel — just 30 minutes of twists too many in last night’s episode. When someone has been killed once, only to reappear not dead, you can’t really use the same trick again, no matter how well you dress it up. Likewise, the to-ing and fro-ing of sexual tension which can only happen with That Woman just went on a little bit long.

Nonetheless, this is by far the best thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

This all begs another question: have we somehow lost Moffatt’s unique take on Doctor Who to Sherlock? The characters are eerily similar. You don’t have to watch Sherlock very long to catch the same cadences that Moffatt gives to the Doctor. In terms of the speed, Sherlock may be Doctor Who on steroids, but it’s still the same type of reasoning. Moffatt’s Sherlock may be more sociopathic than Doctor Who is, but not a great deal more: and the Doctor is also moving in that direction.

It was certainly a lacklustre year for the Time Lord. Aside from The Doctor’s Wife, scripted by Neil Gaiman, and (on balance) the Christmas special, the season felt like it was marking time (pun intentional). Questions we had all figured out two seasons ago — is River Song the Doctor’s wife? is there something special about Amy? are we going to see more Time Lords? — were slowly drawn out. There were some fine moments (death by acid), but there were more (like Matt Smith playing football, and Rory out-facing the cyber-legions) which looked more as though they seemed like a good idea at the time.

We shall see what the rest of the year brings. What the next two weeks bring, though — two more episodes of Sherlock — promise to be scintillating. Which is more than can be said for any potential 3rd instalment of the current movie franchise.

Worth rewatching: Spooks final episode

Worth rewatching: Spooks final episode

Spooks

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a rather lacklustre series of Spooks. Having lost Lucas North at the end of the last series, along with every other major character except for Harry and Ruth over the previous one, there was no compelling new figure for us to focus on. So the series was about Harry, but, the thing is, we think we know Harry Pierce and his semi-tortured conscience. And so it drifted on — right until the final episode, which is quite possibly the best episode they ever made.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that the first 30 seconds contained a bigger surprise than all of the endings of the previous two series put together. I really, really had not seen that one coming, and, after ten years of watching (off and on), I really felt that time had been called on those kinds of surprises.

However, that’s just where it started. By the end of the episode almost everything we thought we had learned in the series so far had been challenged and quite possibly overturned. In the mean time, MI5 finally gets the drop on the CIA (good for them — after an unnamed marine assaulted a pinioned Harry at the end of the previous episode we were desperate for something like that), we get a superb spin on the ‘terrorists attack London’ motif which — one would have thought — had largely burnt itself out since 2001 when Spooks started, and — for once and once only, despite the obligatory loss of a main character — we get a happy ending.

There is more plot in that one episode than in several three-parters Spooks has had before. I was left wondering whether perhaps they had not saved a little bit too much for the final episode. Certainly it was a riveting bit of TV, and it definitely wasn’t crowded, but if they had pushed some of the details back earlier in the series we could have done without that Islamic suicide bomber episode which was nowhere near as good as earlier ventures into that territory, and perhaps not played so long on the build up.
Perhaps this is just gilding the lilly, wanting to have my cake and eat it, and various other tropes and clichés that can be applied.
It was a brilliant episode, and really makes me want to watch all ten years worth over again. Which, to be absolutely frank, none of the other episodes in the series so far did.
Oh, and, by the way, we get to see Tom Quinn again.

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