In break with last year’s effort, I thought maybe February would be a good time to go through the process of my annual Film, Book and TV roundup.

Initially aiming to get this written up in January, I found myself thinking “But, who cares?”. And then remembering the reason I started all this blogging malarkey was really for my own benefit – so in order that I’ve got something to reminisce on at some point, lets press on.

Books

Last year I set myself a challenge to read more than 5 books, given how pitiful my reading effort was in in 2014.  I’m baffled to say that for someone who loves reading and has quite a bountiful To Read shelf, I failed in my challenge.  Substantially.  According to the list, I read 3 books last year (4, if you count the Maureen Lipman biography I carried around with me for 6 months for no tangible gain).  So, 3, really.

  • Steve Jobs (Walt Isaacson) – The famously voluminous and uncompassionate biography.  Brilliant as Jobs may have been, it really painted him as a massive deluded asshole.  It’s kind of a shame to read really.  I know the trend is all for warts & all portrayals and getting to the real heart of the person.  And yeah, Jobs made a couple of incredibly well-timed lucky calls.  But reading the stuff about his crazy perfectionism, tantrums, and vanity project factories…  one can’t help but wonder how he didn’t get the shit kicked out of him years ago.  Well written, but jeeeeeeezus.
  • So, Anyway (John Cleese) – THIS BOOK WAS MAGNIFICENT.  An autobiography written in Cleese’s speaking meter: so much so that if you know his cadences well enough you can imagine it as an audiobook.  And don’t think that didn’t cause some sniggering on the train periodically.  Totally excellent.  I think I’ll read it again, as a matter of fact.  Has snippets of sketch material among it too, such as this bit (about 35:07 in) from Cleese’s book tour:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnpY46lOTX4
  • The Wood Fire Handbook (Vincent Thurkettle) – having become the owner of a working wood-burning stove it seemed sensible to do some research into best practice for using it.  Sadly I think the best thing this book could contribute would be a way of starting the thing off.  I like the chap’s name (I’ll bet he says “WASSAIL! Well met, stout fellow!” a lot), but in an age where we can buy pre-cut kiln-dried hardwood online and have it delivered it seems that much of the information in this book is on the redundant side.  Oh god, and his website‘s got Comic Sans on it.

Films

Didn’t really keep close track on this stuff, either.  Having moved into a new home in January and then spent most of our spare cash doing it up or fixing it we spent a lot more time staring at the gogglebox than we previously have, to which end I kept forgetting to take notes of what I was looking at.  However here’s the few that did garner a scribble.

  • Snowpiercer  – dystopian future story about a socially-stratified train (plebs at the back, rich ppl at the front) that hurtles around the world at terrifying speeds.  Mainly predictable tropes but this is all about the execution, which is great.  And there’s an awesome axe fight in it. 👍
  • Thunderball – mid-60s Bond film which seemed to feature a lot of snorkelling.  I think I fell asleep in it.
  • The Drop – Slow paced film with James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.  Seemed like the arty “payback” film for Hardy playing Bane.  👎
  • Before I Go To Sleep – Nicole Kidman’s Groundhog Day.  Thriller that gets a bit creepy but worth staying awake for. 👍
  • The Look of Love – Seems my fascination for biographies has moved into film, which in this case was essentially Alan Partridge being Soho club-guru Paul Raymond.  By which I mean it felt like Steve Coogan going into autopilot. 👎
  • Behind The Candelabra – Biopic of Liberace starring Michael Douglas, which again is time I could’ve spent doing something else.  Perhaps I was tired of uncomplimentary biography by this point (having waded through the Jobs book already). 👎
  • Taken 3 – Liam Neeson and his disaster prone family on another outing where he’s singled out and a lot of people get beaten up and/or killed.
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings – The Ten Commandments reboot but without any of the redeeming features that will see it repeated on TV for years and years to come.  I feel like I’m missing the point with a lot of these, but just being “spectacular” doesn’t really do much for me.  Although I liked Snowpiercer, so , go figure.  This film is a biblical epic which feels like it’s actually 2000 years long. 👎👎
  • I Know That Voice – documentary about voice actors put together by John DiMaggio (aka Bender from Futurama) showing a glimpse into a fascinating world.  Also, features loads of very famous voices and there’s a huge giggle factor in seeing the voices come out of a 3-dimensional face rather than the usual 2D source. 👍
  • Jurassic World – rehash of the 90s franchise where they get the band back together, but man messes with nature (err?) in genetically modifying a dinosaur to please the crowds, and combine this with a series of cost-cutting measures imposed on science by the corporate reality, and you end up with lots of opportunities for serious people saying “This is the ONE THING we didn’t want to have happen”.  Still sorta fun though.  And no Jeff Goldblum, so that sucks. 👍
  • The Scandalous Lady W – incredibly raunchy period piece.  Sort of Game of Thrones meets Jane Austen, in what’s basically a vehicle for Natalie Dormer to get BBC viewers all hot & bothered.
  • The 33 – probably shouldn’t count this given how far we got into it.  Borderline insufferable during the setup, because the screenwriters heavyhandedly telegraphed pretty much every element of every character’s motivation/fear (“Just one more trip down the mine before I retire”, etc.).  Somewhat insensitively all I could think of was the joke, “How do you rescue 33 Chilean miners?” / “Juan by Juan”. 👎
  • Mad Max Fury Road – fired up immediately after The 33, and could not have been a more stark counterpoint.  This is a film which doesn’t bother trying to explain anything about the world in which it’s set (which is pretty frigging harsh, surreal, and non-intuitive from an audient’s perspective).  It just gets on with it and drags you along at high speed.  It’s over the top, spectacular, and brilliant. 👍 👍
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – of course I went to see this in the cinema (twice).  There’s no point going into lengthy writeups about this as it’s all been observed already, however my brief summary is that I broadly enjoyed it (moreso than the prequels, less than the originals).  I was VERY impressed that the main characters straight out of the gate were not white males.  I realise there was plenty of squandered followup opportunities, and also that if you look into it for any length of time there’s substantial plot holes and/or shortfall.  This film did definitely cement Lucas’s place as the Artist (just a rough patch in the 90s) – the original voice among all imitators.  👍
  • The Maze Runner – promising Hunger Games/ Lord of the Flies style film which put me right on the cranky foot when they brazenly abandoned story time and opted for declaring a sequel AND a second sequel right at the first real call of junglers. 👍
  • Spectre – I don’t claim to be a huge Bond fan, but thinking back I believe I’ve seen all of the Daniel Craig ones in the cinema.  This one was a bit wandery but had some really nice set pieces.  Overall it lacked a bit of internal consistency/logic which I found distracting.  But then it’s worth remembering that it’s only a bloody film.
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Don’t watch this within a month of a Bond film, I guess is the lesson here.  It really felt like the MI franchise – which started as exagerrated action/thriller – realised that the space was too crowded and was done better by others and so transformed into pantomime/farce.  👎
  • Ant Man – possibly the most enjoyable Marvel film so far although I can never really get on with that bloke who’s in it.  Y’know, the boring one with black hair who isn’t Vince Vaughn.  That guy. 👍
  • Birdman – not so much of the superhero, but a very interesting and unusual film, with Michael Keaton getting out his proper acting chops.  What a dude. 👍👍
  • PITCH PERFECT 2 – this film is utterly ridiculous, and brilliant. And we’ve watched it about 14 times. Kind of like Glee meets Best In Show, but without nearly as many mawkish emosh cliches as Glee and the arrangements/choreography tend to the silly rather than pandering.  The absolute highlight of it for me is Birgitte Hjort Sorenson playing the leader of the German a capella group Das Sound Machine.  So many lines in this film!  And disturbingly catchy tunes.  And MASHUPS! Argh.  What’s not to love? 👍👍
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jA1KN3D2gU

Although after all that it’s probably relevant that the very finest film I saw all years was this masterwork in which ham goes up an escalator.

TV

In addition to switching from a Serviio media server setup in the old flat over to a Plex setup plugged into a Roku 3 to ensmarten somewhat elderly telly, we now also have a fair selection of streaming options available to us, which has meant digging right in on the TV series (or what USED to be called “box sets”, back when you needed physical media for this sort of carryon).

  • The Wire Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5 -a real catch up on a bygone classic, and what a masterpiece.  David Simon’s increasingly bleak delve into the coexisting drug and police cultures in Baltimore, with each season told through the eyes of a different sector of society. How I didn’t get around to finishing this years ago I’ve no idea, but it’s brilliant. 👍👍👍
  • Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Denis Leary vehicle about a has-been/never-was’s rock band, revitalised by his it-girl daughter’s singing. 👍
  • Silicon Valley S1 & 2 – brilliantly observed sitcom focussed around tech startups with quirky characters and some really good stuff.  Cruelly funny in parts, and it’s got RUSS HANNEMANN!  What a guy. 👍👍
  • Game of Thrones Season 5 – well, we were never gonna NOT watch it, right?  Another great season although I kinda felt that the last 3 episodes were gratuitous, and broke from otherwise solid storytelling throughout the rest of the whole series.  Some very memorable moments, and it’ll be very interesting to see where Weiss and Benioff take this. 👍👍
  • Between – I only included this because we got 5 episodes in before this one revealed itself to be a humungous polished turd of a show. Normally you can tell within one episode (or, in the case of Marco Polo, 8 minutes).  Between was about a US town stricken with some virus that kills everyone over the age of 22. Who cares how it finished. 👎
  • Fortitude – very interesting drama set in Greenland with some really good acting and a compelling mystery plot weave. Haven’t actually finished it yet but it’s worth a look at, though it’s not quite the Nordic Noir that I was hoping for or expecting. 👍👍
  • House of Cards Season 3 another seemingly safe TV bet, although it was pretty hard to believe Machievellian puppet master Francis Underwood’s transformation from cool & collected chief whip into trapped idiot President. We’re really hoping that the season 3 arc was pitched for dramatic contrast and that it hasn’t gone from being must-watch tv over to post-Sopranos character-centric tedium. 👍
  • Aquarius – David Duchovny stars as an authoritarian Vietnam vet cop in this piece centred around Charles Manson and cop/community tensions of the time. Duchovny’s character still channels a lot of Hank Moody, though confusingly right wing at times. 👍
  • 1864 – epic-scale Danish series centred around the Second Danish-Prussian war in Schleswig, following a girl’s diary from the time and seeing cross-timeline weaving.  A bit self-indulgent in parts, it’s still a solid watch and has a few faces from the Scandi TV rollcall (Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Sidse Babette Knudsen). Kind of like a period Band of Brothers where everyone’s from Copenhagen. 👍
  • Breaking Bad seasons 1, 2 and 3 – I must be the last person in the English-speaking world to have not grappled with this one yet, but I managed to knock over the first 3 seasons of this story of the high school chemistry teacher who turns drug supplier to pay for his cancer treatment and support his family.  I’ve been warned that it gets darker and bleaker as it goes and I think I’ve just started to see signs of this.  I love the moral ambiguity, and its characters are mostly fairly strong and possible to empathise with because you can see how they’re acting the way they do in order to make the best of their situations.  Really looking forward to finishing this off in 2016. 👍👍
  • Grace and Frankie – interesting dramedy centering around the wives (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) of a pair of lawyers (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) who realise that after years of working as law partners that they’re in love and move in together.  Grace and Frankie are totally opposite kinds of people but have nowhere else to go so both live in their shared beach house.  It’s mostly harmless fun and not too mawkish but it’s yet another show where the protagonists all come from wealthy backgrounds and it’s assumed that everyone’s got enough money to do whatever they want.👍
  • Last Week Tonight – probably should’ve mentioned this last year, although it’s not the same as the others.  Last Week Tonight is a weekly political/news satire show helmed by John Oliver, one half of the team from my favourite comedy podcast. Each week he points his beady little eyes at some aspect of life or politics in America and reframes the argument with the aim of highlighting and/or exposing how ludicrous/bad/extreme/nonsensical the situation is, and it’s absolutely brilliant.  For a comic who didn’t get nearly the recognition he deserved over here (prior to his stint on The Daily Show there’s barely a whisper of him on The Guardian website, but now people breathlessly paraphrase his episodes), he’s really making the most/best of the opportunity and exposure he’s got in the US, and it’s all just excellent.👍👍👍👍
  • Schitt’s Creek – Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara bring back their Christopher Guest-style improv relationship in this decent sitcom about an urbane family of former billionaires forced to move to a town which Levy’s character (Johnny Rose) bought as a joke.  👍
  • X Company – atypical WW2 special ops taskforce who are paired with an unusual field agent with perfect memory and unique personality aspects.  It’s compelling enough to keep clicking through new episodes. 👍

So that list didn’t include the substantial number of shows we never made it past episode 2 of (or, typically, episode 1 of*).  There’s loads of new content being pushed out over the internet every day, and as a side note it’s totally feasible not to need a TV licence any more!  About the only thing that holds us back from is watching Saturday Kitchen.  But given we can hook up the iPlayer through the Roku and watch it on Sunday it’s hardly the end of the world.

That’ll do for now.  I wonder if I should start including lists of podcasts** as well, now that I’ve gotten THAT sorted out too?
* or, more typically, minute 10 of episode 1 of

** the Featured Image for this post, by the way, was based on my plan to look through my Facebook pictures and pick out the first one that had me holding/reading a book or in proximity to a TV.  And there weren’t any.  At all.  So wearing headphones was the closest thing to media consumption I could find.  So I guess I’ve GOT to summarise the damn podcasts next time, eh?