Tuesday, 12 February 2008

TV: The British Academy Film Awards 2008

British film's big night has been and gone. I won't offer a comprehensive list of winners, or even many thoughts on them -- such things are easily found elsewhere -- but I will instead offer my thoughts on one of the few ceremonies this year to be presented in full (well, relatively speaking), and the only film awards ceremony that receives a terrestrial television airing in the UK.

The first thought that comes to mind is, "oh dear". Anyone would think the writer's strike was affecting the UK too, if this was the evidence they had to go on. Jonathan Ross's jokes were few and far between, and rarely gained much reaction from his audience. To be fair to Ross, Stephen Fry had a good deal of excellent material when he used to host the BAFTAs and he was often met with silence too... but not as often, and it tended to be the silence of "that went over the heads of the yanks in the audience" rather than of "it wasn't that funny..." I like Ross as a presenter, generally speaking -- I enjoy his Friday night show, and while I rarely catch his radio show (I'm rather lax about listening to anything on the radio) I enjoy that even more; and I liked Film 200-whatever, because I often find I agree with his views and have some broadly similar tastes. But he's no BAFTA host. He's just not funny enough... oddly, because his work at the Comedy Awards is usually hilariously good.

The opening, with a troop of 300-style Spartans, was by far the most interesting bit. It all seemed quite incongruous for an awards show, but through this it suggested a show with some flair and excitement. Sadly it just remained incongruous, with nothing else even vaguelly close amongst the endless troop of fairly famous people reading poorly from an autocue. Evening that Spartan-packed opening was flawed though, missing out on the apparently obvious joke of having someone enter and yell, "THIS. IS. BAFTA!", which would've been a far stronger opening than... whatever Jonathan Ross said... I can't remember now...

It's a shame we couldn't make a better fist of it for a year when more eyes than ever were on the BAFTAs, thanks to the faltering performance of US awards shows under the strike. A new host would help. Eddie Izzard, maybe -- he got laughs. So did Ricky Gervais, not that he'd do it. But when even Hugh Laurie can't bridge the cultural divide of British and American humour, you have to wonder if the host is doomed to failure from the start. At least the awards themselves threw up some surprises, with enough nods to the American films (and a consequent shunning of British talent) to keep them interested -- I do wonder if the BAFTAs pander to trying to gain an American audience too much, but one could probably debate that for hours.

There's one thing we do better thought: fewer awards, and we don't even screen them all. It makes for a much less tiring experience.

This review first appeared at 100 Films in a Year.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

TV: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

Whatever one might think when viewing this version of Charles Dickens' novel, you can't not be awed by the sheer scale and technical complexity of the thing. It is, in essence, a filmed version of the RSC's eight-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation of the novel, originally performed over two evenings of four hours each! There are 39 cast members who between them play over 100 roles. The staging, including any number of scene transitions and set pieces, as to be seen to be believed. It's incredibly impressive.

The adaptation itself is sadly lacking at times, however. There's an over-reliance on having cast members read chunks of the novel out for narration -- at times it's useful, but at others is so utterly pointless that it seems to be present merely to keep up a flow of narration so we don't forget it's there. Some segments could do with a good trim and modified pacing, especially during the first act of the first half (around episodes 1 to 3 of this miniseries version), where the story struggles to get going and, I must admit, I almost gave up on the whole thing several times. It is worth sticking with, though, even if just to appreciate the feat of its staging.

The performances are, unsurprisingly, quite theatrical, which can be problematic at first but is less so once you become accustomed to them. This is not always the case, however: David Threlfall's Smike is as convincing as anything you might see in a realistically-played film or TV programme; so much so that I wasn't convinced it was a performance (as opposed to a genuinely disabled person) until I finally recognised who the actor was a fair way in. He steals the show. He's also one of only two actors to play just one role, the other being Roger Rees as Nicholas. Rees was 38 when this was shot but convinces pretty well as an 18-year-old, though I wasn't always so sure of his performance. He's not a poor actor as such, but I didn't always warm to Nicholas.

The primary villain of the piece (probably, anyway -- there are several) is Nicholas' uncle, Ralph Nickleby, played by John Woodvine as a calmly uncaring man, which makes a pleasant change from the usual scheming evil villainy. His semi-redemption at the end is well played, but an unfortunate piece of plotting -- in typical Dickens style, it's based on a coincidence too far and also lacks a decent comeuppance. The dirty, snivelly evil is left for Alun Armstrong as Mr Squeers, Ralph Nickleby's sometime co-conspirator, a delightfully evil performance that would surely be labelled Dickensian were it not in a Dickens. Then there's Bob Peck (yes, Muldoon from Jurassic Park) as both the comical and good-hearted Yorkshireman John Browdie and the thoroughly dastardly Sir Mulberry Hawk -- as the former he becomes one of Nickleby's greatest friends, as the latter one of his greatest enemies. Sir Mulberry gets more suitable justice served than Ralph Nickleby, which is most satisfying.

Finally, no overview of the performances would be complete without mention of Edward Petherbridge as Newman Noggs, Nicholas' greatest friend of all. At first I found him a tad irritating, with his over-the-top hand gestures and odd way of speaking, but his many snide remarks (so very Dickens) provide a great deal of the play's best humour, and his unusual manner ultimately seems very befitting -- when Petherbridge turns up briefly as another character, it serves to highlight just how effectively affected his portrayal of Noggs is. His truly noble character, existing to serve those he believes are worth it and never after anything for himself, makes him all the more likable. If anyone comes close to equalling Threlfall then it's Petherbridge, albeit for different reasons.

Looking back on the whole nine-hour affair (which, thankfully, I watched over many nights instead of two!), it becomes easier to be impressed with the play. While viewing it can occasionally feel like a bit of a slog, especially when the plot chooses to go round in circles or drag things out interminably. But it's an achievement, that's for sure, full of memorable performances and memorable staging. Be glad it was filmed -- I can't imagine anyone being daring (or foolish) enough to attempt this again... and I'm not sure many would wish to sit through it in such large chunks anyway!

Sunday, 3 February 2008

TV: Thank God You're Here - Season 1, Episode 4

This week, Paul Merton's improvisational sketch show finally hit its stride. So far it's been a sporadically amusing affair, with most of the guests (who are thrust into a sketch they know nothing about and must make it as funny as the can) struggling to get many good laughs. Even the host himself, a master of improvisation on Have I Got News For You, frequently flounders in the one sketch he does every week.

But not so this week, with all six sketches and the two sets of linking clips managing their fair share of decent humour. It was also quite nice to see most of the guests messing with the regular cast members, throwing them the odd line or direction that had them struggling to keep up for a change.

Obviously the quality of this show will always hinge on the guests and what they can do, meaning that there's never any guarantee of a consistent standard. Thus far they seem to have struck a good balance with guests and given them mostly strong enough starting points that those with enough ability can do with it what they will. Hopefully they can keep it up -- and keep people watching -- because it's fast becoming one of my favourite comedy shows.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Film: January Round-up

Here's a little round-up of all the new films I saw this January, with links to the full review over at 100 Films.

The Simpsons Movie
"it made me laugh, and often; at least as much as any other recent comedy, if not more so. That makes it a success in my book."

Dark City
"probably the most underrated film I've ever seen. It is, to my mind, absolutely brilliant."

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
"short on great insight, but does provide an overview of what went on in this period -- that is, the story of how Hollywood made the transition from the old studio system to the era of the blockbuster"

Churchill: The Hollywood Years
"most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding."

The Mirror Crack'd
"the direction is flat and lacks suspense, half the cast phone in their performances, and Angela Lansbury, lumbered with a sprained ankle and premature aging, seems to be in a dry run for Murder, She Wrote."

Keep an eye on the regular 100 Films in a Year blog for full length reviews of all the films that are new to me as I see them.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

TV: The People Watchers - Episode 4

BBC Two's new daytime pop-psychology series sees a group of psychologists use hidden camera experiments to demonstrate human behaviour, in the process explaining why we do the things we do, what tricks are sometimes used to influence us, and how or why we should avoid them. It's a little bit of Derren Brown mixed with The Real Hustle mixed with Dragons' Den mixed with Trigger Happy TV (or any other hidden camera show you care to mention). Sometimes it works and there's something to be learnt, other times it seems to be an excuse to pull off hidden camera stunts -- not necessarily a bad thing, but not quite what was advertised. At its worst, however, it's utterly misleading -- some of the experiments are very obviously being rigged.

Today's fourth episode saw two of the worst examples of this. In one, they asked mothers to predict if their child was lying (all of them were), to see if mums could really tell when they were being lied to. Their extensive survey covered three mothers, two of whom guessed correctly. Apparently this showed an "almost even split" between mothers who could tell and mothers who couldn't. Except you could equally (and almost more accurately) say that these results prove that twice as many mums can tell their child is lying as cannot -- a very different implication. Occasionally the show admits that its test samples are too small to really demonstrate the point, but in this case it was just glossed over.

But far worse was to come. In an experiment to demonstrate reverse psychology (or something along those lines), one of the team held two seminars on healthy eating. With the first group -- the Nice group -- he behaved in a friendly manner, and took an "everything in moderation" approach to what they should eat. With the second group -- the Naughty group -- he was sterner, more patronising, and took a "bad foods should never be eaten" approach. To see the effect on their behaviour, when the group members left the seminar they were confronted around the corner by two other team members giving away free food, apparently as part of some marketing thing. Would one group be more tempted than the other? Allegedly, yes -- the Nice group all resisted temptation with ease, while two of the Naughty group actively took something and the other member seriously considered it.

All well and good. Well, no. Because as the members of the Nice group passed by the two team members with the food simply stood around and let them go, but when it came to the Naughty group they actively sought them out and offered them something! It doesn't take a genius to tell that this completely skews the results of the experiment. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of result is supported by more extensive properly conducted research, but when the demonstration we're shown is so blatantly flawed it does rather undermine the point.

It's a bit of a shame, as a populist show about human psychology presented in a broadly entertaining way is no bad idea, it could just do with a little more integrity in its execution.