Author: notreallyworking

TV lawyers – the real superheroes

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

In “Hero”, the latest episode of the new Netflix drama Better Call Saul, lawyer Jimmy McGill turns superhero as he rescues a worker dangling precariously from a giant advertising hoarding. The sweaty-palmed drama is just a stunt; Jimmy (better known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) is after some free publicity in his ongoing battle with deep-pocketed rivals HHM. “Compared to them I’m just a kiddie lemonade stand trying to compete with Walmart,” he admits to some potential clients.

It’s great to see the brilliant Bob Odenkirk getting top billing in a show that explores the origins of the lugubrious attorney who became so integral to the criminal enterprises of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. On the evidence of four episodes, I think I’m going to enjoy this show more than its over-hyped predecessor.

With his ingenuity, self-deprecating humour and ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey (handy when Tuco is threatening to snip off his digits) Jimmy is a relatable figure for the average viewer who knows nothing about the law. It’s his innate likeability, combined with his down-at-heel appearance, that makes him the antithesis of most TV attorneys, who look as though they’ve been gelled, waxed and groomed to within an inch of their lives.

Despite Jimmy’s episode 4 heroics in Better Call Saul, TV’s law practitioners are not usually renowned for their acts of derring-do.  Even more versatile than the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, they spin a web of arguments, run rings around the opposition (in court) and destroy evil corporations through their intricate knowledge of the legal system.

Since I was a teenager I’ve loved TV legal dramas, with their irresistible of combination of expensive tailoring, high-stakes cases and verbal pyrotechnics. It all started in the late 70s with The Paper Chase, which followed the trials and tribulations of a bunch of Harvard law students.

James T Hart (James Stephens) and his fellow students were desperate to impress the intimidating, patrician Professor Kingsfield (played by the equally intimidating John Houseman). All I remember now is the Seals and Crofts theme song and the references to Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co – a contract case that came up during my own legal studies a few years later.

I was a law student at Bristol University in the mid-80s, but by 1986 I had opted for a career in the glamorous and low-paid world of book publishing. That was just around the time that Steven Bochco’s blockbuster legal drama, L.A. Law, was beginning its eight-year run.

The shoulder-pads, big hair and criminal over-use of blusher now seem as over the top as some of the cases tackled by the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. (I remember one episode – “On the Toad Again” – that focused on the narcotic secretions of a cane toad.)

I couldn’t get enough of L.A. Law’s resident Lothario/raging egotist Arnold Becker (Corbin Bersen) or the never-ending love triangle involving power-suited Michael (Harry Hamlin) and Victor (Jimmy Smits) and the lovely Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).

In the 90s I was hooked This Life, the BBC series about a bunch of young London lawyers and barristers, who had to fit law in around their endless bickering, drinking, shagging and drug-taking.  

I can’t remember much law being practised in This Life, but I did love those movie-themed episode titles – “The Bi Who Came in From the Cold”, “Diet Hard”, “Apocalypse Wow!”. The talented but tempestuous Anna (Daniela Nardini) was one of the best female characters on TV in that decade.

When The Good Wife began in 2009 I wasn’t that excited. As Alicia Florrick, the humiliated spouse returning to her legal roots, Julianna Margulies just seemed to be giving us a slight variation on aloof nurse Carol Hathaway from ER (another show set in Cook County, Chicago). She’d swapped the philandering Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) for the philandering and disgraced State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth).

But over the course of five seasons (I’ve just started watching season 6 on More4) The Good Wife has just got better and better. Creators Michelle King and Robert King have succeeded in balancing internecine warfare within Lockhart & Gardner with courtroom shenanigans (quirky judges and salacious cases involving Colin Sweeney), and the “ripped from the headlines” topicality of that NSA storyline from season 5.

All that wit and cleverness would be less satisfying if The Good Wife didn’t also have real emotional depth and complexity. Much of that is down to the nuanced performance of Julianna Margulies, who I had totally underestimated as an actress. Adroitly switching between managing her teenage kids, sparring with her estranged husband and setting up a new law firm, Alicia has become a superwoman who is mistress of her intellect and (most of the time) her emotions.

Just three weeks ago I belatedly started watching Suits on Netflix. Nine days later I’d watched all of the first two series and I’m about to order season 3, though I’ve heard it’s a bit of let-down.

Suits stars Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, the ferociously ambitious corporate lawyer and “closer” of deals at the Manhattan firm of Pearson Hardman. Harvey reveres vinyl (records not furniture), collects sports memorabilia and wears more hair product than all those other TV lawyers put together. Less well-groomed is his young associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J Adams), who has an eidetic memory but no law degree.

Much as I love The Good Wife, I think Suits might be the ultimate TV show for viewers who enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching lawyers with an almost superhuman ability to argue their way out of any situation.

Suits also boasts Gina Torres as the imperious Jessica Pearson and one of the great comic creations of 21st-century TV in the monstrous but lovable Louis Litt (played with relish by Rick Hoffman).

If the TV gods ever bring Harvey Specter and Alicia Florrick together their offspring would be a lawyer of truly superheroic proportions.

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve)

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

On the shelf again

My parents first met in a library in North London in the 1950s. In the following decades they acquired a house filled with hundreds of books and three well-read children. The fact that my mother values antiquarian volumes more than antique jewellery may go some way to explaining why I’m a bibliophile with a love of all things mid-century.

Though many traditional libraries in the UK are in danger of becoming little more than superannuated wi-fi hotspots, I still think of them as places you go to enjoy peace, quiet and the written word.

I like order on my shelves, which is one reason why moving home last autumn was such a trauma. Over the past six months, the bulk of my book collection went from this neat arrangement:

EmlynBooks

. . . to this semi-ordered chaos.
AtticBooks

Finally, this week I have some custom-made shelves in my attic/study room.

NewShelves

The bad news? Picture three doesn’t show any of my film, architecture or sports books, or some the colourful volumes featured at the Taft Hotel. They remain scattered around my flat in various corners and on non-matching shelves.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on a decline in the market for tablets like Apple’s ubiquitous iPad. According to Apple’s Tim Cook, one of the reasons for this worrying drop in our appetite for slim ‘n’ shiny gadgets is that “the upgrade cycle is longer”. All that means is that consumers aren’t ditching their tablets every 12-18 months, along with their smartphones.

That’s one of the reasons that I love my books. They may get a little bent or dusty over the years, or be superseded by film and TV tie-in versions or digital downloads, but they’ll never succumb to an obsolete battery or the lure of a higher resolution screen.

Books are for life. So next time you think about upgrading your phone, why not invest time and money in paper and ink instead. Treat your book collection to some decent shelving.

Happy reading!

The Oscars 2015 – the usual suspects

Julianne Moore at the  2009 Venice Film Festival  (Pic Nicolas Genin)

Julianne Moore at the 2009 Venice Film Festival
(Pic Nicolas Genin)

If I had to use just one world to sum up the Oscars 2015 coverage so far it would be “dickpoo”. Announcing the nominations yesterday with actor Chris Pine, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs mispronounced the surname of British cinematographer Dick Pope as “Poo”, before hastily correcting herself. Thanks to Cheryl’s blunder, Mr Pope is now guaranteed a footnote in Oscars history, even if he fails to secure an award at the 87th Academy Awards on 22 February.

In her defence, Cheryl had just made a decent stab at not mangling the names of Polish cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida), before falling headfirst into the doodoo (metaphorically speaking) with the ludicrously straightforward Pope.

If I’m being picky, I’d also question why Cheryl Boone Isaacs chose to overemphasise the director of Boyhood as Richard LinkLATER, or why she inserted that painfully long pause in the middle of best actor in a supporting role nominee JK . . . Simmons. Perhaps, like me, Cheryl was just super excited at seeing the name of the man who used to play Will Poop (sorry, I meant Will Pope) in The Closer finally getting some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for his role in Whiplash.

Of course crappy pronunciation wasn’t the only aspect of yesterday’s nominations that incensed moviegoers, journalists and Twitter users. As Peter Bradshaw admitted in The Guardian, this is the time of year when movie critics are even more prone to whingeing, crying and stamping their feet like a bunch of spoilt toddlers at the Academy’s failure to recognise their favourites.

For the British media no amount of excitement at having five nominations in the acting categories – Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Rosamund Pike Gone Girl – can make up for the snubs to Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) and David Oyelowo (Selma). For the Brits, the glass remains half empty.

I stopped paying much attention to the Oscars more than a decade ago, when Julianne Moore was cruelly robbed of an Oscar for the magnificent Far from Heaven by Nicole Kidman and her ugly prosthetic nose in The Hours. So it was no great surprise to me when Channing Tatum’s cauliflower ears were trumped by co-star Steve Carell’s hook nose in their private battle for best actor in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. (That film has, inexplicably, been overlooked in the best picture category.)

When it comes to awards ceremonies in general and the Oscars in particular I expect to read a lot of flawed “analysis” and inflammatory headlines on top of the fashion and fun stuff. This year the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has drawn attention to the lack of ethnic diversity in the nominations – particularly marked after last year’s success for 12 Years a Slave.

There’s absolutely nothing new about the Oscars being found wanting as a showcase for ethnic diversity or the talents of female film-makers. Just four women have been nominated for best director in the 87 years of the Oscars, with Kathryn Bigelow the only winner to date.

The statistics make for depressing reading, but what do you expect from the middle-aged, middle-class and predominantly white institution that is the Oscars?

Whatever Cheryl Boone Isaacs and her colleagues might tell themselves, the Academy Awards are not a reliable barometer of artistic merit – let alone a reflection of global achievements in film-making. They remain essentially parochial, an annual popularity contest and marketing junket, showcasing the unerring ability of certain female stars to pick the least flattering outfit for their red-carpet moment.

I realise that plastering the words “Academy Award winner/nominee” on a movie poster guarantees a lot more bums on seats, but it really doesn’t affect my decision to see a film. If the Oscars were cancelled, film-making and watching would continue all over the world, though certain people might be less inclined to churn out yet more “Oscar bait”.

Yes, like flies swarming around dickpoo, the Academy voters are powerless to resist heartwarming sob stories. This year their predilections have been well catered for, with films about the disabled (The Theory of Everything), tortured and misunderstood genius (The Imitation Game) and early onset Alzheimer’s (Still Alice).

Most important, the Oscars remain fiercely loyal in their worship of the multi-talented, multi-accented Meryl Streep. She’s just received her 19th Oscar nomination, for Disney’s Into the Woods. I’m willing to bet it won’t be her last.

Election 2015 – Coming Soon to a Doorstep Near You

Our next PM? Ed Miliband By Department of Energy (WhatDoTheyKnow: Photographs of Ministers (file)) [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Can 4 million conversations really save 
Ed Miliband’s bacon?

Don’t be surprised if Labour leader Ed Miliband turns up on your doorstep in the next few weeks. He’ll probably be wearing a rosette – though he’d be wise not to team it with one of those controversial “This is what a feminist looks like T-shirts”. Whatever you do, don’t offer to make him a bacon buttie or ask him if he’s read today’s Daily Mail.

It’s not just Ed or his former Shadow Cabinet colleague Emily Thornberry who have taken a pasting in the media recently. Across the spectrum, politicians face a constant battle not to look ridiculous every time they open their mouths or step out of the Westminster bubble long enough to stick 2p in a beggar’s cup.

Even the usually media savvy UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to see the funny side of the recent Ukik app, branding this parody “pathetic” and making himself look pretty risible in the process. So it takes some chutzpah for the Labour Party to announce that the battle for the 2015 General Election will be fought on Britain’s doorsteps.

In Manchester yesterday, Ed Miliband declared “Our campaign is setting the goal of holding four million conversations with people in just four months about how we change our country.” Yes, he really does mean face-to-face chats – not leaflets, phone calls or (God forbid) tweets to potential voters.

Long before we get to polling day, I’ll be wishing that “Nicholas Fromage” would put me out of my misery by booting me off the White Cliffs of Dover

Though it’s only the first week of January, I suspect many people will already be as bored as I am by the 2015 General Election and everything that entails. The long-suffering British electorate must now endure the full four months’ worth of electioneering that follows five dismal years of coalition government.

Long before we get to polling day, I’ll be wishing that “Nicholas Fromage” would put me out of my misery by booting me off the White Cliffs of Dover. Suck it up voters!

It’s bad enough having political mouthpieces spouting the same clichés, false promises and dodgy statistics from now until Election Day on 7 May. The Tories with their feeble “Let’s Stay on the Road to a Stronger Economy” slogan (it’s not even a British road in the poster), and Labour with its “Cost of Living Contract”.

At least on TV you have the option to switch off or employ one of our greatest inventions – the mute button. What will you do if the candidates turn up on your doorstep?

Labour’s dim but well-meaning Tessa Jowell appeared on BBC’s Daily Politics, insisting that UK voters want the “intimacy” of doorstep conversations. If by intimacy, she means the opportunity to swear, throw eggs or stick one of those rosettes where the sun don’t shine, there might be some truth in her statement.

I think what most voters want is genuine change in our political system. What we don’t want is the dismal spectacle of one bunch of Oxbridge-educated, intellectually feeble, self-serving career politicians being replaced by some slightly younger models.

In the run-up to the 2010 poll I was living just down the road from Hammersmith. All the parties wisely opted to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by not bothering to canvass. There were no leaflets (until the final week) and not a single caller: it was the most blissfully low-key election campaign I can remember.

Unfortunately 2015 could be very different.

Sorry, Mr Miliband, but I’ll be treating canvassers from all parties the same way I treat representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses brandishing copies of Watchtower magazine. My front door is staying closed until after 7 May.

Have yourself a Morecambe and Wise-free Christmas

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

70s comedy giants Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

Excluding Morecambe and Wise from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner

Nothing says Christmas quite like yet more repeats of Morecambe and Wise. In a post-Christmas-lunch-induced torpor I sat through some of Morecambe & Wise In Pieces on BBC2. This hour-long show was billed as a celebration of the duo’s “most memorable and well-loved sketches”.

This year Morecambe and Wise were served up with a delectable accompanying dish of Dame Penelope Keith – aka the imperious Margo Leadbetter from vintage BBC sitcom The Good Life. All three are icons of the (now very tarnished) golden age of BBC TV in the 1970s and 80s – that innocent time in which Jimmy Savile was still venerated as an altruistic, cigar-chomping eccentric. How things have changed.

By Boxing Day night, the late lamented comedians (Eric Morecambe died in 1984 and Ernie Wise in 1999) had skipped over to Channel 5. There Morecambe & Wise Live! 1973 formed the meat in a cross-generational comedy sandwich of Rob Brydon and Tommy Cooper.

Of course Eric and Ernie are a Yuletide institution, and only a Scrooge like me would suggest otherwise. Excluding them from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner before flambeeing the Brussels sprouts.

But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t like Morecambe and Wise. I didn’t find them funny in their 70s heyday, and despite my advancing years I’m still not moved to helpless laughter when they sidle back onto our screens during December.

So I deliberately didn’t use the word “watch” in my opening paragraph because Eric and Ernie form part of a rarely changing backdrop of Christmas TV that doesn’t demand my attention.

On the plus side,  Morecambe and Wise are reassuringly inoffensive by today’s expletive-ridden standards. Their schoolboy humour and ritual mockery of each other and their guests – Andre Previn (“Mr Preview), Shirley Bassey and Glenda Jackson – is still family friendly. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to watch them with your granny, although she would probably have to explain who those 70s A-listers were.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate TV nostalgia at Christmas. I used to look forward to watching Judy Garland warbling her way through Meet Me in St Louis, or staying up for BBC2’s post-midnight offerings from the world of film noir or the House of Hammer. As a kid I could even enjoy a Yuletide season of Elvis Presley musicals – it helped pass those awkward hours between opening my presents and sitting down to lunch. I was less discerning in those days.

No, my gripe is that the diet of rehashed repeats is so predictable at this time of year and so heavily dominated by the 70s, a decade from which BBC executives and schedulers in particular seem unable to extricate themselves.

The ongoing veneration of 70s TV reminds me of “The Speech”, an episode of a more recent comedy classic, The IT Crowd. Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd) con clueless IT “relationship manager” Jen (Katherine Parkinson) into believing that the whole of the internet is contained in just one small and rather unimpressive-looking black box that has recently been demagnetised by none other than Stephen Hawking.

I imagine that the bosses at the BBC are a bit like those gullible (non-techy) employees at Reynholm Industries. They’re all in thrall to a small box in which a whole decade of 70s TV has been lovingly preserved for future generations. Every year they bring it out and pray over it, before once again revealing its treasures for the telly-watching masses.

So let’s go cold turkey next year and just cut Eric and Ernie from all the channels, along with The Good Life, the Carry On films and the execrable On the Buses. If you love this stuff (I am a big fan of the early Carry Ons) you can still get your fix on other “platforms”.

By Christopher William Adach from London, UK (WiPe - random_) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you tried turning him off and on again? The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd (pic Christopher William Adach)

In our house we had the internet on loan for Christmas Day so we could watch back-to-back episodes of The IT Crowd. My nephew, Gadget Boy, had a new smart watch and his dad had just been given a Chromecast, to convert the box into a wi-fi enabled wonder.

Our comedy fix was handily streamed from Gadget Boy’s wrist to the TV screen, without any interference from schedulers or 70s obsessives.

I wonder what everyone will be watching in 40 years time. I hope it’s not Morecambe and Wise.

Growing Up with The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman

Life in the goldfish bowl: Dustin Hoffman and William Daniels (left)

The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

When director Mike Nichols died last month, aged 83, I wanted to write a blog post but was hampered by a serious case of writer’s block. You might even say that I was overcome by ennui – much like Benjamin Braddock, the hero of Nichols’s most famous movie, The Graduate. I found myself adrift in a seemingly endless 60s montage of my own making, scored by Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Even people who haven’t seen The Graduate know that it features songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, Mrs. Robinson. But how many are aware that the rest of the soundtrack was composed by the brilliant Dave Grusin, whose later work includes Tootsie (also starring Dustin Hoffman) and one of my all-time favourites, The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Most film buffs have at least one movie or franchise that they return to regularly, luxuriating in the familiarity of plot, dialogue and performances, while also finding something new every time. The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

The danger of familiarity is that it can breed boredom. I can honestly say that has not been my experience with The Graduate. Since I started blogging about cinema I have enjoyed and appreciated the film more than when I first watched it in the mid-80s.

I was only four when Nichols’s sophisticated comedy was released in December 1967. By the time I was ready to sit through the whole film, I had recently left university with a law degree and the crazy idea that I could have a meaningful career in publishing. In reality I had a boring job, a miniscule salary and, like many of my friends, regarded work as an interruption to my social life.

At least I wasn’t living at home. That put me one step ahead of Benjamin, the aimless hero of The Graduate, who soon finds his post-university idyll threatened by his overbearing parents (played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and the predatory alcoholic Mrs Robinson (the unforgettable Anne Bancroft).

The age-old problem of the generation gap is handled with great sophistication by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. From the opening party scenes, the Braddocks are rather too eager to parade their newly returned son like a prize heifer in front of their affluent friends and neighbours.

Nichols skilfully employs close-ups and point of view shots (Ben lumbering into the pool in his new diving apparatus) to emphasise how he feels both smothered by and alienated from the world of his parents. The degree of misunderstanding is never more stark than in Ben’s “half-baked” engagement announcement to his bewildered parents. This sums up the alternative reality in which he now exists.

For later generations weaned on the comedies of Judd Apatow, the sly humour might prove too subtle. (The sad clown picture hanging on the landing of the Braddock house.) But I think The Graduate still strikes a chord with underachievers who feel that they haven’t quite lived up to their education or their parents’ expectations.

Now that I have reached middle age, I find I am more sympathetic towards Mrs Robinson – seducer, relationship-wrecker and all-round bad mother.

In reality, Anne Bancroft was a lithe and beautiful 36-year-old when she played the “broken-down alcoholic” Mrs Robinson. But as her affair with Benjamin sours she’s portrayed as a termagant, determined to keep him away from her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) even at the cost of destroying the family.

She’s made to look not just deglamorised but almost monstrous in the rain-drenched scene where she hijacks Ben’s date with Elaine. In the climactic wedding sequence, Mrs Robinson is reduced to flailing hysteria as she screams at her daughter and then hits her.

Katharine Ross, The Graduate

Home truths as Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross square up in church

Despite all this, two earlier moments do emphasise Mrs Robinson’s vulnerability and how she “lost interest” in everything apart from booze and illicit sex. First, when Ben insists on some pillow talk during one of their trysts and quizzes her about her life. He can’t see the reaction, but her expression reveals the sadness at a shot-gun wedding, a husband she loathes and college studies in art that never went anywhere.Later, during the montage when Elaine leaves for Berkeley, she stands apart from the family – there’s no goodbye from her daughter.

The Graduate doesn’t allow her a redemptive moment, but I’d like to believe that Mrs Robinson eventually made it to the Betty Ford Center, kicked the booze and took up painting or charity work.

Finally, I recognise that I’ve grown increasingly anti-religion in the years since I first watched The Graduate.  (No, I’m not singling out any religion in particular.) I love the fact that this film ends with Ben locking the baying crowds inside the church with a large cross, as the runaway couple make their getaway.

Who needs churches, religion, parents or unquestioning obedience to outmoded ideas?

“Elaine, it’s too late!” shouts a desperate Mrs Robinson following the marriage to stuffed shirt Carl Smith. “Not for me!” shrieks Elaine.

It’s the last line of dialogue and sounds a note of defiance and optimism, though for all we know her happiness may not lie with Ben.

Unsporting Sports Personalities of 2014

U09_Luis_Suárez_7523 (pic Ailura)

Hungry for World Cup glory? Luis Suárez
(pic Ailura)

As another year of sporting achievement draws to a close, the BBC is preparing to hand out the gongs at BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2014 on 14 December. Those who like acronyms will know this event as SPOTY, and I see that for fans of brevity it’s been shortened to SP14, which sounds like a tax form.

As readers of this blog may already know, I gave up watching SPOTY a few years ago. The endless montages, cheesy interviews and wall-to-wall sycophancy gave me a headache.

There’s not even much of a competition this year, with World Number One golfer Rory McIlroy seemingly a shoo-in to beat new Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton for Sports Personality of the Year 2014. That’s disappointing news for fans of the ever fertile Roger Federer, who’d argue that fathering a second set of twins is even more impressive than picking up two Majors.

Instead of watching SPOTY, I’d like to salute those players, managers and administrators across the sporting world who made the headlines in 2014 for all the wrong reasons.

Luis Suarez: big mouth strikes again

When you look back on the 2014 FIFA World Cup, what do you think of first? Is it the 5-1 rout of defending champions Spain by the Netherlands or Germany’s ruthless 7-1 semi-final annihilation of over-confident hosts Brazil? Of course not. It was Uruguay’s goal-hungry striker, Luis Suárez, apparently sinking his teeth into Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini that made headlines around the world and sent the British press into a feeding frenzy. Suárez had previous form – most recently an attempt to nibble Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s arm – so his four-month ban wasn’t a surprise. Love him or hate him, the orthodontically challenged Luis is a gift to sub-editors (“It had to be chew!”) and GIF-makers. Liverpool haven’t been the same since he left.

Phil Mickelson: a formula for failure

The British press had the knives out for veteran Phil Mickelson at the 2014 Ryder Cup. Both before and after his team’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ points defeat by Europe, Mickelson’s penchant for shooting his mouth off overshadowed the action. I’ve always found Phil’s swashbuckling style, expanding girth and incipient man boobs quite appealing. His “we also don’t litigate against each other” quip – referencing Rory McIlroy’s dispute with former management company Horizon was more innocuous than obnoxious.  Sadly not many people appreciated the candour of Mickelson’s “We have strayed from a winning formula” post-mortem on Tom Watson’s feeble captaincy. A case of bad timing?

MickelsonTPCAwardCeremony (pic minds-eye)

The prize for motor mouth 2014 goes to Phil Mickelson (pic minds-eye)

Kevin Pietersen: right to reply?

I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether Kevin Pietersen is a “maverick genius” or just another tattooed narcissist with too many trick shots. Following England’s disastrous Ashes tour last winter, the ECB terminated KP’s contract – some would say with extreme prejudice. His response was the imaginatively titled KP: The Autobiography, in which he lambasted the “bullying culture” supposedly fostered by former coach Andy Flower and senior England players like Graeme Swann and Matt Prior. No doubt the mutual mud-slinging helped KP shift lots of units, but it wasn’t what Alastair Cook’s beleaguered team needed.

Kevin_Pietersen_2014 (pic NAPARAZZI)

Swann song: Kevin Pietersen criticised several former team-mates in his autobiography (pic NAPARAZZI)

Shamil Tarpischev vs the Williams sisters

Shamil Tarpischev sounds like a girl’s name to me, but even if the president of the Russian Tennis Federation had an “ova” he’d still be no match for Serena and Venus Williams. That ill-judged reference to the “Williams brothers” during a Russian chat show appearance briefly made Tarpischev a household name. The WTA slapped him with a US$25,000 fine and a 12-month suspension. Serena Williams hit him with the triple-barrelled accusation of being “extremely sexist, racist and bullying”.

The ever popular Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand’s Twitter account was in the news again in 2014, following that ill-advised “sket” hashtag. The FA fined him £25,000 and banned him for three matches for introducing fans to this Caribbean slang for a loose woman. The FA took into account that @rioferdy5 has almost 6 million followers and is therefore held to a higher burden of responsibility as a prolific tweeter. In response he tweeted: “Is humour even allowed….I’m baffled! Ludicrous…. & I don’t mean the rapper.” 

Money talks & West Indies walk

In the 70s and 80s the West Indies test team were world-beating entertainers with the scariest fast bowling attack and Master Blaster batsman Viv Richards. In 2014 Dwayne Bravo’s team made the news for abandoning a tour of India in October because of a pay dispute. I don’t know who’s to blame: the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), the West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) or the players. I do know it’s a terrible advertisement for the game of cricket.

(more…)

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Benedict_Cumberbatch_filming_Sherlock (pic by Fat Les (bellaphon) from London, UK)

A Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Benedict Cumberbatch

The Museum of London – a mid-70s hotchpotch of grubby concrete, white tiles and multi-level entrances – doesn’t look like the most obvious place to begin an excursion into the Victorian era. Hansom cabs being in short supply, I travelled to Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die on a shiny new Metropolitan Line tube. I changed trains at Baker Street (where else?).  After descending two floors at the museum, I was directed “through the bookcase” into a world of gaslight, deerstalkers, dastardly villains and a consulting detective with superhuman intellectual powers and an unhealthy appetite for cocaine.

I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories a few Christmases ago and found them a welcome distraction from the bland landscape of seasonal telly. I’ve not seen much of the BBC’s Sherlock series because I prefer to watch the stories in their original (Victorian) setting. I’ll take the commanding presence of Jeremy Brett over the foppish Benedict Cumberbatch any day, but I know there are many fans who’d disagree.

In the first room of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die the faces and voices of a century of screen Sherlocks crowd in on every side. William Gillette (who created the character on stage), Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker and Robert Downey Jr look down from banks of TV screens and walls of posters.

If you’re a film fan, your appetite will be well and truly whetted by the some of the posters advertising both “official” Sherlock Holmes movies and spin-offs such as the garishly shot A Study in Terror (1965). A slavering beast on Hammer’s superb Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) rubs shoulders with a busty femme fatale on the French poster from Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Fans of antiquarian books will enjoy seeing the beautifully illustrated and carefully preserved first editions of A Study in Scarlet. They’ll also discover a bit about the history of Tit-Bits magazine (note that hyphen) and its publisher George Newnes, who was the man behind The Strand Magazine.

If you’ve simply come to wallow in Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, you’ll have to go almost to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls to find it. In the penultimate room of the exhibition, fans can swoon over that Belstaff Milford coat worn with such panache by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are also cases of displays featuring everything from vintage typewriters, candlestick telephones, pipes and (cunning) disguises, to the fascinating accoutrements of the 19th-century cocaine addict.

But in between the posters and the artefacts, some visitors might be feel that they’ve strayed into a different exhibition.  That’s because after introducing us to his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (some of the author’s Southsea notebooks are on display), this show veers off into the streetscapes of Victorian London.

For those who like old maps, The Museum of London has meticulously plotted the course of some of Holmes’s most famous adventures, including A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In this pre-Google Maps era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently relied on the Post Office Directory to plan his indefatigable detective’s progress around town and the suburbs.)

Different colours highlight the routes takes by Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, on foot, by train or their preferred mode of transport – a hansom cab. Underneath these maps, speeded-up video footage shows the same journeys through 21st-century London. What struck me was how boring and homogeneous the centre of the city looks today from the back of a speeding cab – a succession of Starbucks, Prêt à Mangers and mobile phone shops.

One of the five sections of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is given over to prints, etchings and paintings of London as it looked in Conan Doyle’s day. While these pictures don’t directly illustrate the stories they do give a flavour of the buildings, fashions and vehicles of this era of “pea-soupers”. Here you’ll find household names (Matisse, Whistler) cheek by jowl with many long-forgotten chroniclers of London’s lost landscapes.

In a different venue, the focus of this exhibition might have leaned more heavily towards the history of Sherlock Holmes on the big and small screen. At the Museum of London it is the inextricable links between the Victorian city and the adventures of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated character that take centre stage.

Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London

The Museum of London plays host to Sherlock Holmes

From Borgen to Barcelona: the BFI London Film Festival 2014

Kristen_Stewart_Snowwhite_Premiere

From Twilight to the glare of Camp X-Ray: Kristen Stewart (Pic. Eva Rinaldi)

After a three-year break, I found time last weekend to attend the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Thanks to a generous friend who was prepared to endure the eccentricities of the LFF online booking system, I managed to fit in four films in three days.

Watching new films in a Film Festival environment is a completely different experience from turning up at your local multiplex or even a Curzon and enduring a couple of hours in the company of the popcorn-munching, FaceBooking masses. (Who are these morons who refuse to switch off their phones for the short time required to watch a film?)

Film Festival attendees don’t have sit through up to half an hour’s worth of adverts and trailers before the film starts. Instead, there’s a live introduction from one of the Festival programmers and sometimes a cameo appearance from one of the film’s stars (see below). At the end, there’s often a Q&A session with the director. Three of the four films I saw this year offered this “bonus” feature.

In previous years I have churned out full-length film reviews for websites that didn’t pay me anything. I won’t be doing that again. Instead, in a nod to the wise creator of Paragraph Film Reviews, here are some brief reflections on what I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2014.

The Duke of Burgundy (director Peter Strickland)

Guardian and Radio Times-reading TV viewers were fixated by the Danish political soap Borgen and its multi-lingual star, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She swept into the cinema just a few minutes before I sat down to watch Peter Strickland’s beautifully shot but bizarrely plotted erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy. (The title is a reference to a type of butterfly.)

Knudsen plays Cynthia, the cool, immaculately dressed employer who puts her younger “maid” Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) through her paces with a mixture of contempt and boredom. From turning up late at the door of the amateur entomologist’s ivy-encrusted mansion, to sitting down without being invited and then failing to wash her employer’s silk undies properly, poor Evelyn just can’t avoid punishment.

Appearances are deceptive: their rather stilted interactions are elaborate role-playing (complete with hand-written cue cards) at the heart of a sadomasochistic relationship. Soft-focus photography, sly humour and a surprising lack of nudity make the specifics of their games seem less salacious – though I’m glad we never found out more about that much-vaunted “human toilet”.

The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a two-hander that relies on the charisma and the chemistry of its two stars to overcome the fact that both the characters and the setting of the story remain an enigma. Cynthia’s increasing physical and psychological frailties – her struggles to satisfy her younger lover’s demands – add emotional weight to what might have been a cold, stylised drama.

Viewers who entertained fantasies about seeing Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in silk lingerie will not be disappointed. Far more revealing is what Sidse Babett Knudsen’s affecting performance reveals about the universal fear of growing old.

Camp X-Ray (director Peter Sattler)

I have given the Twilight films wide berth, but Peter Sattler’s Guantanamo Bay-set prison drama, Camp X-Ray, shows Kristen Stewart in a whole new light. She brings a convincing mixture of steeliness and vulnerability to her role as Amy Cole, a soldier charged with babysitting detainees at the controversial facility. In her relationship with long-term inmate Ali (Peyman Moaadi), Cole begins to question the morality of this system of internment without trial.

Peter Sattler wisely concentrates on the human elements of the drama rather than railing against the shortcomings of America’s human rights record. (The opening scenes in which the orange-suited Ali is bundled into a cage, bleeding and utterly dehumanised, speak for themselves.) The later confrontations between guard and inmate that take place around Ali’s cell door are some of the most nerve-shredding I’ve seen for years.

If you’re not moved to tears of rage by the plight of the Harry Potter-loving Ali, then perhaps you should just stick to watching vapid teenage vampire flicks.

Charlie’s Country (director Rolf de Heer)

The BFI London Film Festival programme gives all the films a positive write-up, and never more so than in the case of “visionary director Rolf de Heer’s Australian-set drama. David Gulpilil won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his powerful performance as Charlie, an ageing Native Australian who finds himself on the wrong side of the white man’s draconian laws in the post-“intervention” era. Broke, hungry and shorn of his weapons, Charlie takes off into the Outback to reclaim his freedom, but ends up desperately ill and then incarcerated.

As you’d expect, Charlie’s Country is primarily a showcase for the talents of the veteran Gulpilil, a star of Australian cinema since 1971’s Walkabout. It is his face and personality that dominate every scene in this gruelling and often slow-moving story. There are lighter moments here – notably Charlie’s ill-fated buffalo hunting trip and the way de Heer emphasises the colour and quantity of prison food as it’s doled out.

I can’t say that really enjoyed Charlie’s Country, but I did learn something about the discriminatory and (frankly) infantilizing measures taken by the Australian Government in 2007 against Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

10.000 Km (director Carlos Marques-Marcet)

I wasn’t convinced that a long-distance love story conducted mainly through Skype would make for compelling cinema, but writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet has pulled it off. That’s largely down to his two very sexy, intelligent and appealing actors – David Verdaguer as teacher Sergi and Natalia Tena as his photographer girlfriend Alex.

After the long opening scene in their Barcelona apartment, the pair are forced apart when Alex decides to move to LA for a year for her career. Lonely, bored or just horny, the twentysomething pair soon discover the limitations of trying to share intimacies over wi-fi when you’re thousands of kilometres apart (9,661.4 to be precise).

Despite the physical confines of the plot – the characters are seen on-screen only in their respective apartments – Marques-Marcet keeps the pace brisk as we chart the elapsing days over their 12-month separation. He trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks, as when Alex shuts her screen during an online sex session or when Sergi’s one-night stand is heard showering but never glimpsed or mentioned.

Regardless of technology, a love story stands or falls on whether you care about the fate of the couple. I would happily spend another 100 minutes Skyping with this pair.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Rosamund_Pike_2011 (pic Justin Hoch)

Before the 2014 BFI London Film Festival gets under way next week, I decided to indulge in some mainstream, big-budget Hollywood entertainment – David Fincher’s Gone Girl. This eagerly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the picture-perfect Nick and Amy Dunne. When beautiful blonde Amy disappears from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police uncover suspicious blood spatter quicker than you can say Dexter Morgan. From then on Gone Girl is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists, culminating in that old BFI favourite: “strong, bloody violence”.

I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but those familiar with the source material will know that it’s difficult to reveal too much about the plot of Gone Girl without plunging headlong into spoiler territory. It starts out a bit like a police procedural (Nick even cracks a joke about Law & Order), as the (not sufficiently) distraught husband comes under intense scrutiny from the cops, the locals and excoriating TV host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle). Meanwhile, flashbacks of Amy writing in her diary fill us in on their past life as yuppie journalists in New York, and what may have proved to be a fatal attraction.

Gone Girl is a story in which two highly unreliable narrators pursue high-risk agendas that pull audience loyalties one way and then the other. Though the opening half hour is a bit slow, skeletons soon start tumbling out of closets and something nasty (or at least very unwelcome) turns up in the woodshed, as the protagonists revel in media manipulation, role-playing and illicit sex.

With her patrician beauty, English rose Rosamund Pike might seem like more obvious casting for genteel period drama like Downton Abbey than the rigours of a David Fincher movie. (Remember what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en?). But despite the occasional wobble in her accent, she is a revelation here as the missing trust-funder with a penchant for picking the wrong guys. Chomping hamburgers on the fly and splashing about in buckets of blood, Pike throws herself into the extremes of “Amazing” Amy’s jaw-dropping antics with gusto.

Some people don’t like Ben Affleck (maybe it’s the Oscar wins, his politics or the fact that he’s really an Affleck-Boldt). For me he’s the natural successor to Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge, as the handsome, lazy and morally reprehensible bar-owner Nick Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry are also highly effective as, respectively, Amy’s creepily devoted ex-suitor and Nick’s hot-shot attorney.

The problem is that while director David Fincher seems tailor-made for this kind of high-concept thriller, I didn’t find Gone Girl nearly as much fun as some of the critics who’ve gone overboard with their praise this week.

Of course it’s not essential that any of the main characters are likeable or sympathetic – they’re certainly not in this film. I didn’t bring art-house level expectations of a profound meditation on modern relationships or media excesses to what is, after all, just a pot-boiler. But given my unfamiliarity with the material I did expect to be much more shaken, stirred, excited and even horrified by this ugly tale of a thoroughly toxic relationship.

Perhaps the problem is that at 145 minutes long Gone Girl continues the 21st-century trend for films that outstay their welcome by a good 20 minutes. I also found that the content and the presentation of Amy’s diary entries made for a boring, bland introduction to the character, though perhaps that was deliberate.

Gone Girl will be best enjoyed with your blood-alcohol level raised and your expectations lowered. Despite the hype, this is not a modern masterpiece.