Thursday, 1 April 2021

UndergRound Up of the Year, Part 1....

I want my Mummy! Agent Rob takes a break after his, er, break....

Exactly what kind of gormless 'April fool' would present his UndergRound Up of the Year about three months too late, dropping his exhaustive (and exhausted) grab bag blog of the year gone by as late as spring of all things? But, as per good ol' Zack Snyder, so much of this here (under)groundwork had already been done that it seemed a shame not to press on and assemble at least something for your reading, er, pleasure. Of course, with Agent Rob's 2021 starting (and pretty much ending shortly thereafter) on a slippery slope it all now seems rather pointless in the grand scheme of things, but, well, y'know, the only way is forward (likely by means of two very cautious steps backward)....

Agent Rob commutes (just before masks were obligatory)

In spite of the head going over the heels it was 'key working' all the way in 2020 for Agent Rob, kept busy in his (Jimmy from Quadrophenia) mail and admin job while much of the world ground to a grim halt, barely leaving the station. Not that that was enough to derail his multiple trains of thought, so all aboard (a-bored?) if you please for a suitably socially distanced sojourn through 2020. Bad grammar, shocking puns, worse reviews and delays are expected....

"Zapraszamy do reklamy...."

In keeping with the past two years round ups let's kick things off again by turning the dial on the 'wireless' up to 11 and hopping across the pond to Poland – something of an emerging theme in 2020, so Brexiteers may wish to tune out now – to enjoy Radio Trojka. However, as many fond memories as Agent Rob has of time spent in the company of this fine radio station – think an eclectic mix of high end Radios 2 and 4 crossed with 6Music and Late Junction (but thankfully without any grating presenters given it's all mostly 'lost in translation') - it has been systematically dismantled from without in the last few years as the Polish government tightens its grip on the media machine, squeezing out freedom of speech/expression in favour of those who'll happily tip-toe along the ever-tightening party line. It all came to a head in May last year when Kazik, the Kult singer, had his song 'Your Pain is Better than Mine' censored, a move which then sparked a spate of resignations, removals and artist boycotts. Ergo, the (far from blind) mice left the rats to the steadily sinking ship and promptly set up not one, but eventually two new (online) radio stations from their steadily filling lifeboats. Radio Nowy Swiat was first off the patreon mark, followed not long after by Radio 357, thereby ensuring there's still plenty alternative choice for the discerning online listener....

KAZIK - Twój ból jest lepszy niż mój [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

Both Oxford Drama and Patrick The Pan had their first Braw listens while vacationing to Trojka (as well as the liked likes of Scianka, Brodka, Organek, Daria Zawialow and the ubiquitous, all-conquering Dawid Podsiadwo) where one could happily hear them rubbing shoulders with familiar faces like Deerhunter, The Charlatans, The Orb'A Huge ever Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre of the Ultraworld' played in full, thank you! - and (on one memorable occasion) F*ck Buttons (whereby the entire room was pretty appalled with the exception of a rather fired up Rob"masakra!")....

Doctors Smith, Whittaker and Paterson (we'll get to him later)....

Of course, last year it was all about the doctors, Rob being in just the right mood for Jodie Whittaker's second season as the trusty Timelord, enjoying its increased sure-footedness and chucklesome humour, something of a slight return to the show's more 'teatime' roots (in spite of it endlessly preaching without the accompanying power). There was also a nice turn from Sacha Dhawan as the Master, losing his longtime controlled cool in favour of a more modern, jittery (and appealing) post-Joker-esque regeneration. (And not only that but we had a future black female Doctor! ....not Braw favourite June Sarpong unfortunately!) Naturally all this plot dripping came gloriously unstuck right at the end, collapsing under the weight of shoe-horning yet another post-modern idea into the (already bulging) mythos as – surprise, surprise! – writer/producer Chris Chibnall couldn't resist dumping another turd down the show's already well blocked canon with Jodie's Doctor, who's barely found her own character feet, now questioning "who" she actually is and-YAWN!

Art by Braw buddy Lex! Any excuse....

Having wrapped that and given there was precious little else on the 'Whorizon' there was nothing for it but to return to the (overlooked by Rob himself) Matt Smith era and work his way towards the 50th anniversary which, praise be!, didn't disappoint, Smith and David Tennant's jokey interplay coupled with the ever-reliable grizzle of the mighty John Hurt making for a hugely satisfying birthday conclusion. Smith's run certainly had it's moments – 'The Rebel Flesh' / 'The Almost People' 2 parter even harked back to the classic era's cliffhanger incarnation* - but for Rob the epic arcs, seemingly designed with nothing more in mind than generating endless fan theory Youtube videos and setting said forums alight (see new Star Wars for similar details) were less so, muddying episodes here and there and just taking up far too much time (before the inevitable, clever-but-okay-ish reveal). Still, proof that absence makes the two hearts fonder....

*It's amazing given that the newer shows always flag about 30 minutes in – they're obviously tailored to ease into American/overseas programming schedules, bumping up to an hour with the inclusion of adverts – that no one has thought of chopping them into 2 parts, bringing back the cliffhanger ending proper and having the show on for 20 weeks or so instead of 10-ish. #chop Who in two!

Agent Rob quite agog at those oh-so-special effects!

With the big screen having no option but to completely shut up shop and settle for the biggish screen it was left to the concluding part of the recent POTA trilogy to provide last year's top blockbuster thrills. Whilst not quite besting the previous instalment in the story stakes, War For The Planet of the Apes more than made up for it with the amazing (VIP) CGI effects – quite frankly the best you'll see anywhere - the king of the swingers indeed!

"I've got a bad feeling about this...."

If ever a film was so desperate, so relentlessly eager to please it had to be the risible The Rise of Skywalker, the absolute nadir of the new Star Wars trilogy. This sorry, stodgy, Han-fisted attempt to tie up the messy, misguided threads of the previous two films (while effectively ret-conning much of the preceding The Last Jedi) is really the ultimate in slick, unimaginative blockbusters - conclusive proof that movies made by committee, steered by 'target markets' and focus groups, with no clear direction or story aren't really anything worthwhile at all. A film so obvious (and actually so pointless) that you're left bemused and angry at having wasted your time with it. Not even Iain McDairmid rocking it as Emperor Palpatine (or a stupid clone of him or whatever) can rescue this steaming pile of Bantha Poodoo, a whiffy mish mash of (presumably) The Force Awakens reheated leftovers and whatever ideas hadn't yet been plundered from the Empire and ROTJ cash cow by the previous two films....


(And just to prove it's not only Star Wars that gets it horribly wrong, Rob has to admit that rewatching Takeshi Kitano's Brother, his (failed) attempt to reach an American audience, was almost as dispiriting an experience, marred by hammy acting, clunky violence and a general sense of otherwise simply not translating in terms of style and substance....)


Funny that after slamming MARVEL blockbusters Martin Scorcese then proceeded to release the much trumpeted The Irishman, a film an hour longer than Avengers: Endgame (and that feels like it's twice as long again!). To be frank (Sheeran), aside from the oddities of Joe Pesci's head floating on a younger man's body, Al Pacino's magical hair or Robert De Niro squinting through his Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn face – presumably in search of his vanished neck – there was little to recommend this legendary gang's last hurrah. He paints houses... and you'll know what it feels like to sit and watch it dry, likely needing to be digitally de-aged yourself after the epic slog....


While 2019 was the year of Talking Pictures TV it was Film/All4 that snagged the best pictures gong in 2020 with a huge range of diverse and satisfying world/cult/oddity films, from the unforgettable, epic, almost alien, yet humane An Elephant Sitting Still to the emotional and (politically) enlightening A Taxi Driver, via other entrancing gems such as the doe-eyed melancholia of Happy As Lazarro, the raucous slapstick of Men & Chicken, the punishing obsession of Suntan, the twisted humour of I Am Not A Witch, the moody mysticism of Embrace of the Serpent, the plot twists and turns of The Handmaiden, Bruno Ganz tearing it up as Adolf Hitler in Downfall, the bleak power of A Touch of Sin and chilly (Polish Oscar contender) Cold War - films that shone a (welcome) bright, rich light on other countries and cultures....

"Careful, Peter.... There are acids in here...."

Nonetheless Talking Pictures still had a few Brit-obscurios to offer, screening the likes of The Medusa Touch, Gumshoe, Billy Liar and Rasputin:The Mad Monk, featuring a wonderful, mesmeric turn from (the late Sir) Christopher Lee....

Hiroshi Abe commutes (just before masks were obligatory)

Bonus points have to go to the pleasingly gentle After The Storm's Hiroshi Abe for having that classic anime hangdog expression in the flesh....

"Why so (deadly) serious....?"

You'd be forgiven for thinking that with so much movie action, that the (not actually any) smaller screen of television would be left for dead and buried. Not so, as Agent Rob still had time to unearth and dust to dust down the tombstone-alike series boxset of HBO's wonderful Six Feet Under, the dramedy concerning the dysfunctional Fisher family and their barely functioning funeral parlour. There's older brother Nate toiling with his fidelity, middle child David tormented by his homosexuality, and daughter Claire wrestling with her identity while they all, mother Ruth included, grapple with their sense of self and belonging after the father's death. Over the corpse of 5 ever-darkening series it generally stayed true to its course with believable (and believably flawed) characters, remaining insightful and pertinent and, dare Rob type it!, 'life-affirming'. Perhaps daughter Claire's artistic arc was the closest to the show's beating heart for Rob as he watched her transform from doe-eyed arts scene devotee to dead-eyed farts seen disenchantee(?) - it certainly struck a (painful and fairly bitter) chord. That said, a Series 3 episode did as good a job of any of evoking that (often misguided, usually drunken, yet) invigorating sense of creative wonder and possibility that can grip like-minded individuals and inspire them to reach for greater heights.... until they wake up hung over and depressed in the unforgiving low of the following afternoon....

So how d'you follow a show (primarily) about death? Maybe with all 7 series of the comedy vs. dramedy of Showtime's Nurse Jackie, the lovable-ish drug addicted ER mainstay who'll stop at nothing and no one to feed her habit. No doubt it's a fine, ahem, line to pitch your show around an anti-heroine and try to keep the audience on side for all that time. (Though there's no doubt in Rob's mind that the open-ended series finale should be it – he couldn't help himself but loathe Jackie by the climax and absolutely hoped she got exactly what was coming to her....)


From funeral parlour to ER to the undead of What We Do In The Shadows.... that's 2020 for you in a knutshell.... Still, this show dug up a wonderful second series of satisfying vamp-antics that kept Agent Rob chuckling till well after sunrise. How rare that a spin-off should easily surpass the original (film). Here's hoping there's plenty more (after)life in this old dog yet....

Claes Bang? Fangs.... but no fangs....

Unfortunately, for all their bombast, the BBC spent most of 2020 flopping around (and doubtless spending millions of pounds in doing so). First (belly) up was the much-heralded and (a bit too) stylish adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. For all there were a few good scares it lacked bite, failing to match the unsettling chilly creepiness of Herzog's Nosferatu nor equal the sheer Technicolor Gothic grandeur of Hammer, spending too much time trying to impress with it's witty one liners and (admittedly) clever-clever spinning of the plot plates, spotted as they were with the fingerprints of those past masters of the post-modern tweak, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. By the final episode the comedy and horror was failing on both counts – three counts if you include Claes Bang's puzzling Vegas entertainer-cum-chummy wideboy performance not helping matters much, rendering the bloodthirsty moments oddly toothless and wasting his proper ('could have been a contender') Count credentials....


There was more (unwarranted) post-modern tinkering to be found in the similarly stylish (but unnecessarily tweaked and needlessly) convoluted adaptation of H. G. Wells's War of The Worlds. Given the quality of the source material it was a shame to see the attention to period detail and FX budget squandered on an (admittedly interesting-ish but) half-baked post-Mars invasion version of  Earth, now reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland – tho it did mean more screentime for Robert Carlyle's intriguing, William Hartnell-esque turn, as the mysteriously disfigured scientist Ogilvy. This expansion did set up a nice twist in the opening tale but from there on things began to flounder and lose all shape (though some nice instrumental music somewhat salvaged the finale)....

"See ya...."

Is it genius or is it simply overcooked? Once again the BBC seem unable to not let a success go to their heads with this highly watchable, wonderfully performed but simply puzzling and confounding third series.... Not so much Killing Eve as a feeling of 'Treading Water' unfortunately, with Jodie Comer's captivating turn as Eve - there's something of Peter Cook in her blank, impassive stare - just about keeping things afloat....

Even more perplexing was the second series of His Dark Materials, the tv show that looks good enough to eat.... but tastes like cardboard, such is its complete lack of engagement – Scot James Cosmo managed one scene of decent dramatic heft in series 1 – to the point of being too dry to follow and swallow, everyone acting so deadly serious, so achingly sincere that the show has absolutely no warmth beyond the dazzling visuals. A dish (not at its) best served cold.... 

By contrast in sticking too close to the book('s penchance for page after page of thorough stodge) the immaculately presented The Name of The Rose bogged itself down to the point of disinterest by too often indulging the book's convoluted historical setting. Agent Rob'll happily stick with the Cadfael-lite (themselves pretty good books) film version with the late Sean Connery. No praise be, sorry....

"I could really go a bar of chocolate right now...."

Even ever-reliable Nordic Noir failed to raise temperatures this year as Darkness: Those Who Kill (a nordic-noir too far for sure!) delved too deep (even for Rob) with its grisly scenes of kidnap and teen torture, while The Killing II was simply disappointing, slopping all over the amateur shop - some of the best laughs of the year were watching poor portly Nicolas Bro shovel food into his gob at the most inopportune of moments....

"I've got a bad feeling about this too...." 

Lone Wolf and Cub + The Man With No Name + (not quite) Boba Fett + (not quite) Yoda + genre tropes + no imagination whatsoever = The Mandalorian AKA The Biggest Disappointment of the Year (and hot on the heels of 'The Flop of Skywalker' too). Created (which in this case actually means appropriated from someone else's ideas altogether, plundering the OT, EU and CW for any cool stuff to distract from the middling stories) by Jon Favreau and hewn from the same grit and sh*t Star Wars universe that delivered the likable but limp Rogue One, the show sure looked a (hundred) million dollars (of FX). A shame then that the often clunky direction and tired (and tiresome) plots - the double cross, the Mexican standoff, the shootout, the siege, the one last job, the suppressed yawn, the predictable eye-roll - were even more worn out than Agent Rob's work socks! A complete immunity to the charm of Baby Yoda certainly didn't help matters, proving that the best years of Star Wars really were a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....

*About now Rob's assuming most readers will have given up on his (genuinely) ill-informed opinions ,but thankfully we've reached the end of this part as it is. (Plus, for all it took to read, can you imagine how much time he wasted putting all this together?!) How can he possibly favour wannabe 'woke' 'BBPC' krenk like Doctor Who over slick SW fan favourite The Mandalorian? Truth be told the (other) good Doctor wins simply by trying – writers like Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall were/are out to better what's gone before, and truly believe they are. The case is comprehensively closed when you realise that absolutely anyone (with a bunch of old Star Wars toys to bash together) could write the predictable, fan pandering fluff that Favreau/Disney are currently churning out. I have spoken.

Anyway, we all know the opinion on opinions so hopefully that won't stop anyone from agreeing to disagreeing to joining us for Part 2 where we'll cover (in a far more favourable light) books, music and comics. Altogether now, "Haw hooo! Hoo hee hahoo hahoo!"....

Kult - Piloci (Official Audio)

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