TV Review: Good Omens

Good Omens is a novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It is much loved by many people. And by ‘much loved’ I mean: “there are people like me who have read it multiple times and who owe much of their personal philosophy to its story about an angel and a demon who work together to prevent the Antichrist delivering the apocalypse so any adaptation for any other media better not fuck it up too much even if it is adapted by the surviving author.” And so to Amazon Prime comes a six-part TV version, adapted by Neil Gaiman, and starring Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley.  Nothing has been fucked up. In fact, it’s rather marvellous.

I was fearful. Of course I was fearful. I’ve listened to the radio version. And it wasn’t bad but it didn’t sparkle like the novel. I also endured the first season of American Gods wherein ten endlessly long episodes took us laboriously through only the first third of that Gaiman novel. I have not been back for series two. The list of excellent Pratchett transfers from book to other media can be counted on the fingers of no hands. I think I had every right to be fearful. And I have a feeling that those fears were shared at every level in this production because it’s remarkable how much they have got right – and they have done so by staying true to the spirit of the book without slavishly insisting that everything in it finds its way onto the screen.

Good Omens the TV series should probably pay royalties to the estate of Douglas Adams. The Voice of God (Frances McDormand) frames the action as both narrator and wry observer, and the interconnectedness of all things that powers the Dirk Gently novels is a running theme throughout. (As an aside, compare how well this series works with how not well at all any Dirk Gently has worked).

Whilst the focus is very much on the central bromance between Aziraphale and Crowley, Good Omens is very much an ensemble piece. The decision to strip down the book’s myriad digressions is a good one and leaves most of the enjoyable supporting characters in place. Anna Maxwell Martin is dead eyed and pus-ridden as Beelzebub, Sam Taylor Buck’s performance as Adam conveys neatly that balance between childish whimsy and understanding of the perils of the world beyond his Tadfield utopia, Jon Hamm is a terrifying-in-their-efficiency Archangel Gabriel, and Adria Arjona is suitably confused-witchy as Anathema Device. It was also nice to see Josie Lawrence get to play Agnes Nutter, the seventeenth century prophetess whose predictions are so shockingly accurate, given that she did an excellent job as the voice of Agnes in the radio series. A huge number of other British actors and comedians seem to have picked up pay-cheques too.

Good Omens doesn’t seem to have been particularly warmly received by critics. Perhaps they are feeling bit humbled after gushing in advance about American Gods. Maybe they think that it’s a bit too much out of time. A thirty-year old novel which itself homaged 1970s films, 1950s Americana, Queen, and had as its key location a fantasy village based on a nostalgic, imagined England that never existed. Whatever. They’re wrong.

Whilst not, to me, ever as laugh out loud funny as the book, this is a very enjoyable series. With enough nods to keep long-term fans like me happy, I reckon there’s plenty here for the casual observer too. Watch it before the world ends.

TV Review: Ghosts (BBC)

It’s always the way, isn’t it? There you are, having a fancy dinner party with your double-barrelled surname neighbour who owns the village and you’re disturbed by a dancing caveman, a lovelorn poet, a burnt witch, a filthy minded trouserless MP, a Captain, a Lady murdered by her husband, a ‘scout’ leader with an arrow in his neck and an overly excited long-deceased woman who just wants to be your friend and talk about boys. And only you can see them as they dance around the table, walk into the table, and then sing their praises to the moon. Always the way. Welcome to Ghosts.

The team that brought you Horrible Histories when it was good and then followed it up with Yonderland and the sadly-hardy-watched-but-brilliant Bill (review here) are now all dead. They hang round Button Hall and try not to get too bored with each other. The caveman (Robin played by Laurence Rickard) has turned out to be rather good at chess (“Horsey go cloppety cloppety .. check mate”) but mostly it’s just talks about basket weaving, (“You need it to be about five potatoes high” – this from Katy Wix as the simple singed witch, Mary) that they then can’t do because they can’t touch anything.

And into this world come Alison and Mike. A young couple with no money who, via Alison, are distantly related to the last of the Buttons and so get the house. Initially, only moderately freaked out by the size and expense of their new home, things get a lot more complicated when pervert MP Julian (Simon Farnaby) crosses the temporal plane to push Alison out of a window. Dead for a while but revived she can thus see and interact with the ghosts even though no one else can.

And so, across six episodes, silliness ensues. The kind of endlessly quotable, completely rewatchable silliness that lets everyone bask in a warm glow. Here’s the poet attempting to woo Alison with what he thinks is a tender verse but is actually Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky; here are the lost souls trapped in the plague pit into which they were tossed who know all about how the boiler works, (“Red Lever! Red Lever! Red Lever!”); here’s the head endlessly calling out to the rest of his body; here’s the Captain pointing out which of the workmen did something (“The handsome one. With the arms. Strong … probably.”). The jokes come remorselessly thick and fast. It takes a second watching to pick out some choice lines or to see yet another sight gag go by. I’m sure more will come on third and fourth watching.

In amongst the gags there are some genuine moments of emotion. Pat (Jim Howick) seeing his family and Robin talking about the moon amongst them. I’m sure, assuming a second series comes (this being British TV we’ll probably get a Christmas special in 2022 and be grateful), there will be similar moments for some of the other characters too. I’d love to know more about all of them.

There’s no doubt more to say but the best way to appreciate Ghosts is just to watch it. And if, having done so, you are able to walk into a room without going through in your head the souls that must be looking on nearby, please let me know how you’ve done it. I’m convinced that our cat must be seeing something spectral right now. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. I do hope they’re having a good time.

Film Review: See You Yesterday

70 year old establishment white man, Ian McEwan, whose novel Saturday is the most insultingly unrealistic novel ever published, recently drew praise from credulous members of the UK literary establishment when he wondered out loud about how great it would be if science fiction was less about magic anti gravity boots and more about dealing with real issues in an imaginative way. The prick. But, anyway, here comes See You Yesterday, a science fiction film that uses the idea of time travel to explore the reality of black lives in America.

Produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday is the feature film directorial debut of Stefon Bristol. The story is simple in the way that the best stories are. Claudette ‘CJ’ Thomas and her best friend Sebastian have discovered time travel in their garage. They are concerned about getting what they need in time for an expo so run an experiment to test it out. It works. But then, because these people aren’t rich but are black, and are in New York, CJ’s brother gets shot and killed by the cops despite being decent and innocent. Thus the loop is formed and CJ and Sebastian deal with the fall out of trying to stop that happening.

See You Yesterday has an absolutely infectious energy. Eden Duncan-Smith has great fun as CJ, and the way her character runs through all the emotions, whilst trying to sort everything out, is the heart of the film. She is ably supported by Dante Crichlow as Sebastian and Astro as her brother Calvin. There’s a beautiful cameo early on from Michael J Fox as the science teacher. I love that ‘the science’ is wilfully unscientific. Gamma rays, protons, worm holes and a chalk board with symbols… and then time travel is achieved by a backpack and a smartphone, why not?

Nobody is going to accuse See You Yesterday of subtlety in its message. This is the science fiction chapter of black lives matter. That’s only a problem if you want it to be a problem. For the rest of us it shows that science fiction can be diverse, interesting, challenging, and still have something to say about the present day. The soundtrack also rocks.

Ian McEwan incidentally, decided his original take would be to play with the idea of … hold onto your hats … robots that might have human emotions. Like I say, life is different when you’re white.

Film Review: Detective Pikachu

I went with my two sons, of course. In their separate ways, and entirely without any influence from me, they have lived Pokémon pretty much their whole lives. When knowledge of Detective Pikachu came into our lives it wasn’t a case if we would see it, it was a case of when. And how often. It is the greatest compliment I can pay this film that the prospect of having to watch parts of it again and again and again does not fill me with any kind of dread.

In a world where Pokémon and humans live side by side, Justice Smith is Tim Goodman. Tim used to be all in for Pokémon but now works in insurance and buries his dreams. A call takes him to Ryme City where it appears his detective father has just been killed and whilst looking over said father’s apartment he comes across a pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who he can understand perfectly.  He and his new sidekick, with assistance from rookie reporter Lucy Stephens (Kathryn Newton) try to work out what the heck is going on. The mystery won’t tax you too much but Detective Pikachu is so warm-hearted, so actually funny, and so well put together in terms of action and character that the beyond basic nature of the plot hardly seems to matter.

Stylistically, we’re in a world that’s best described as Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Blade Runner. A lot of the real-world city scenes are London but it’s well covered by all manner of high-rise Japanese logos. Deckard doesn’t fly across the screen to Vangelis but we are very much in a family version of that kind of neo-noir world. Less rain though. There’s almost certainly more for the fans than for the non fans but this is not remotely a piece just for kids with Pokémon card collections. Concepts that might be hard (and are second nature to devotees) are explained briskly without getting in the way.

And so two boys with their lifelong devotion left the cinema absolutely bowled over. They didn’t seem to be alone in that. And there was already a nice queue for the next showing waiting to be let in. Detective Pikachu seems to have found an audience. Good. It’s an enjoyable watch.

Film Review: The Highwaymen

Whilst not heading towards full revisionism, The Highwaymen is a low-beat retelling of the last days of Bonnie and Clyde from the perspective of the two cops-of-advancing-years who finally bring them to the ultimate justice. 

Kevin Costner is Frank Hamer, Woody Harrelson is Maney Gault and they barrel across the badlands, cooped up, unwashed in their tiny car, trying to work out how and where in the vast wilderness their prey will next appear. The chase will take as long as the chase takes, as America civilises around them. And if that sounds like The Searchers then the film helps you out by homaging one of its most famous shots as a character stands in complete silhouette, looking out at the emptiness, framed by the door.

The Highwaymen is an odd film in many ways. It determinedly wants to present the real impact of Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes so they, are decidedly unglamorous. However, clearly that might mean that we, the audience, think that killing them in a hail of bullets is a bit unfair. So some of the legend remains in place. Bonnie is shown killing a defenceless policeman on the ground; the truth is generally accepted that this infamous incident did not occur.

There are also some incongruities in setting. Some shots are external and beautifully crafted; but then we have people running across obvious sound stages whilst sprinkler rains falls on them.

But, the key reason to like it is the double act whose names are above the title. Costner and Harrelson work so well together. Costner reminding you that despite all this detractors, he can do this stuff effortlessly; Harrelson just adding to his run of quality performances that he now seems to deliver whatever the film.

The Highwaymen is not great. But it’s decent. And there’s more than enough to keep you going. It probably shouldn’t be two hours long but it is and, unlike some, that’s far from an ordeal. It’s almost the perfect film for home viewing: challenging enough, entertaining enough, amusing enough, dramatic enough, but with a story you already know that’s not going to tax you too hard.

At the match: England v Pakistan, 2nd ODI, England win by 12 runs

“Dad, dad … why is it that Pakistan are only allowed one review per innings but this is their third … dad, dad …” Such is the danger of sitting in the family stand. Questions to the rear from a wide-eyed child struggling to get why Umpire’s Call means you don’t lose a challenge whilst in front a collective of eight adults (with two children somewhere in the vicinity to give them permission to be in Block T) get progressively more swaying as the booze takes its effect. “I love cricket,” one of them said at one point, “what’s the score?”

The Ageas Bowl at Southampton remains the strangest of beasts. The view for the spectators is probably amongst the best of any ground. The seats are comfortable. And, for those who wish to, the range and ease of pretty much any kind of food, drink or distracting entertainment is easy to access. But, Christ, everything else … Getting to the ground is the same as any big city ground: you can’t park. With the obvious point being that you’re not in a big city, you’re in the middle of nowhere. So Park & Ride, or shuttle from distant stations, or … well, there is an extensive list. But it’s not great and last year we were caught in the crush that means you stand no chance of seeing the first ball (this year we were in ludicrously early) and, so again, people who had no doubt arrived at the right spot an hour before the start were struggling to their seats up to and past midday.

And, with all the negatives out of the way, we can now move on to what a tremendous day this was.

There is still a hardcore of English cricket fans who despise limited over cricket. Pyjama cricket, as it was disparagingly called, and probably still is by men old enough to own a pair of pyjamas. Today’s match will have come close to their worst fear. (In Ireland and here, there were 2 one-day internationals today: nearly 1,700 runs between them with just 20 wickets falling.) But that does a massive disservice to what we witnessed.

Firstly, yes. The pitch didn’t offer much to the bowler. And, yes, with the ICC preparing pitches for the upcoming World Cup then we will be having more of the same. More so, probably. Expect at least one match to have 1,000 runs. But, secondly, come on … you might be batting on a road but the boundaries are deep here at the Ageas and it’s not the pitch’s fault that too many bowlers today couldn’t follow up one good, probing delivery with another. When the margins are so fine you have to be close to perfect and, today, the bowlers were not.

Today will be remembered for two great individual innings. The obvious one being Jos Buttler’s for England which, effectively won the match. England had been building rather than exciting before Buttler came on. Only Bairstow had looked like he was in proper form, scoring his 51 off 45 before being caught in juggling fashion on the boundary. Buttler came on with 14.5 overs left. With Eoin Morgan he put on 162 in 89 balls; his personal contribution being 110 of those runs in 55. He hit his century with a 6 because of course he would hit his century with a 6.

Pakistan came close. Fakhar Zaman’s 138 from 106 was probably acceptable to cricket purists. He grabbed the strike and built from the start of the innings. Pakistan were always there or thereabouts on the DLS score. Where England had needed explosions at the end to reach 373, Pakistan were constantly within striking distance of the run rate. It took the most speculative of appeals, confirmed only via the sensitivity of the edge microphone, to pick out that Zaman had lightly nicked a wide ball into the welcoming keeper’s gloves. His innings over, there could have been a collapse but Pakistan kept coming. Asif Ali made 51 from 36, but wickets began to fall at regular enough intervals, and the England bowlers, in particular Willey, found a line that meant it was became harder and harder to find big runs when needed. England winning, in the end, by 12 runs.

All in all, a splendid day’s cricket then. Sons and daughters had their questions answered by parents of varying degrees of knowledge and engagement. The beer snake wound its way in the distance before being thrown in the direction of the field for reasons which made less sense than the Umpire’s Call review law. And, thanks to Royal London’s limited selection of adverts, we all know that we can upload a video of us bowling to have a chance of bowling Nasser Hussein out. Oh, and the play on the field was decent too.

On Netflix: Bonding

Bonding. Kinda like bondage, you see. Because Tiff is a college student by day but she makes ends meet by being a dominatrix in the evening, and she needs to rely on her friend Pete. Who is gay, repressed and needs, with everything the euphemism implies, a helping hand to put himself forward into the world. This is how you find yourself in the twenty-first century.

All that said, deviant sexual practice has never seemed so cherry pie. Bonding is a sweet-natured teen-esque friendship series disguised as something darker. Which may make it the most radical thing to pop up on my screen in a while, or may, possibly at the same time, make it just too vanilla to be worthwhile. Either way, what’s not deniable, is the simple gusto with which the cast enter into the spirit of it all.

It also looks brilliant. There aren’t many series where so many shots, in particular the ones in which the dominatrix scenarios play out, look clever and funny just by characters pose whilst they wait. But whether it’s a man in a penguin suit anticipating fun or a woman who’s not sure how to ask for activities for her husband, the mise en scene is spot on.

As said, that look, combined with the central performances from Zoe Levin as Tiff and Brendan Scannell as Carter is why you’ll keep coming back. That plus the fact that as this is a Netflix series there’s no need to keep to network-friendly run times or episode quantities so there are seven shows of ‘about fifteen minutes’ each. Nothing outstays its welcome and, so far, we’re mercifully free of completely pointless retro/origin episodes to pad anything out.

If there’s going to be more then Rightor Doyle (writer and Executive Producer) may need to dig deeper for plot, which presents the danger of taking the fun out of it all. For now, though, Bonding is an enjoyable example of the good stuff coming out of Netflix right now.

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