Thursday 11 January 2024

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

 

And so we bid goodbye to 2023, the forward-looking year in which The Beatles topped the singles chart, The Rolling Stones topped the album chart, Doctor Who him/her/itself hit 60 and Agent Rob did a Dylan and went "electric" (er, toothbrush, that is). A year where it was all about UK television, specifically the people on it (or not), the nation yawning its way through lengthy self-perpetuating, self-justifying media stories as if the BBC and ITV were playing a vast, pointless game of tit for, well, tit as Lineker, Schofield, and Edwards dominated the news, while politicians, the absolute lowest of the low, lined up to throw stones from their eternal glass houses, happy that this trite wallpaper covered the cracks and tracks of their underhand dealings in the increasingly brutal and cruel times we (barely) exist in.... All the death and destruction of the wider world is enough to put any trip by Scotrail into perspective.... Still, that didn't stop Rob from trying to have a good time over the past 12 months. So please read on and enjoy the year gone by's pointless 'pundown'.... (as 2024's will no doubt be farted out by some AI blogbot).... 


Dun da dun dun! Now, did Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny deliver or was Ford phoning it in for the fifth installment of the archaeological franchise...? Hmm, it's hard to say if it was either relevant or relic (or what actual audience it hoped to capture). The de-aged ex-tended intro, sticking to the later The Last Crusade/The Kingdom of Skulls - see that whole film just an edit/draft away from hitting the spot - formula, looked exceptional for the most part. Only occasionally did it dip into Spielberg's Tintin-esque uncanny valley, though the action itself, conducted in that bluey fake CG darkness never quite hit the spot - watching Tom Cruise being a right stunt in the Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning trailer beforehand just highlighted how hard a sell imaginary action is on the big screen. Then, of course, choosing time travel is about as iffy a concept as big brained aliens - you could imagine if they'd walked through a portal at the end other than (snip - no spoilers!) it would have shaved about $150 million off the bloated budget. Still, Ford put in a typically grizzled shift as the ageing archaeologist - Rob had genuine fears after his decidedly wobbly turn in The Risible of Skywalker - the visual and character call-backs were reasonably well handled, even if it all had a sense of being a bit lifeless and humourless (in spite of Fleabag playing, er, Fleabag). But, hey, just imagine if JJ had got his horrible fanboy mitts on it. Every cloud.... 


If it was zip and zing and and bang and whizz and pop you were after then (in another evergreen franchise that never seems to die) there was the sheer visual fizz of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which genuinely burst off the screen in a explosion of kinetic animation (thanks in part to a fellow Scot). Then again, like self-proclaimed "permanent teenager" Seth Rogan, as a watch it was a likeable and passable enough without actually being remotely funny....


Who isn't looking forward to this lady roaring into mad multiplexes in May 2024? Though admittedly the trailer looks nothing special.... But in George (the other one!) we trust (to bring his A-game to big budget B-movie thrills)....


It was a quieter year for films on the big small screen this year, though Film Four still managed a select crop of their usual mix of world and indie cinema, screening the likable likes of Mandy, The Lighthouse, White Boy Rick, Beyond The Infinite 2 Minutes, To Live and Die in LA, Bombshell, Special Delivery and Anais In Love....


Elsewhere it was much the same, Talking Pictures TV having a yield somewhat on the grainier side too, but still they stuck to their favoured formula of the culty, the curio and the kinda crappy with She, Vanishing Point, Death Race 2000, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Cisko Pike and The Knack and How To Get It.... 


Other than that Freeview was able to scrape together such treats as M.A.S.H., Wild Men, Horror Express, Master Cheng, Halloween, I Think We're Alone Now and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close....


As ever, that Glasgow city centre stalwart Missing Records - a twice a week saviour from the dull, decidedly dead ends of Rob's work - provided a plentiful, ever-shifting stock landscape absolutely ideal for periodical 'pocket money' purchases (helped a huge amount by their Black Friday-esque half price DVD/Blu-ray fest around mid-November)....


And, gee, did their 50p each for '3 for £1' DVD (and occasional Blu-ray!) deliver - it's just a case of diligently sifting through the dingy piles of Danny Dyers and Daniel Craig Bonds in search of those surprise punts - this year offering up such bargain hunts as the weird and wonderful likes of Babette's Feast, Day Watch, Night Watch, Tron: Legacy, Gridlock'd, Rudo and Cursi, The Streetfighter, Flash Gordon, Close Encounters, Richard Pryor, Lowdown, Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray!) Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (Blu-ray a quid!) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (admittedly at 33p on Blu-ray still far too expensive)....
 

Again, now that the humble DVD has tumbled so much in (resale) value across the board - we're talking 2 for £1, 50p or 3 for £1, 50p or 4 for £1 and, on one startling, if impossible occasion, a whopping 10 for £1! - then charity shopping*, that diligent search for the 1 or 2 or 3 (or often a great 2 and one that'll do) diamonds in the second tier MARVELTransformersStar Wars PTBruce WillisNic Cage , John BishopMichael McIntyre and romcom rough also kept Rob busy in 2023....

*After which you either just trade them in or donate again and, voila, the non-degradable circle is complete....


....offering up such random rarities as Joe (good Nic Cage, ahem), I Am Not A Witch (Blu-Ray, still sealed!), Win-Win, Theeb, 13 Assassins, Storytelling, Festen, Dracula AD1972, Iron Monkey, Jin-Roh, The Measure of A Man, Weiner Dog, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Once Upon a Time in The WestZazi Dans Le Metro, Cape Fear (1962), Allegro and Waiting For Guffman....


And, as ever, for those slightly harder to source oddities - as in the excellent Adam's Apples or ace anime Wings of Honneamise - there's always eBay or Music Magpie on hand, those old chestnuts (for to buy other folk's old chestnuts)....


Of course, it's not always a case that those diamonds in the rough turn out to truly shine, as can certainly be said for such DVD duds as The Wild Bunch, The Super, Tony Takitani, The Silent Flute, Let The Sunshine In and Quentin Tarantino's woeful Wild West stinker The Hateful Eight....


And so television-wise Doctor Who returned for its much trumpeted (by the BBC!) 60th birthday with NuWho saviour Russell T. Davies back in the producer's hot seat in the hope of steering the TARDIS back into a more popular space. Strangely Rob always thought that the 'T' stood for 'Teatime', but, after an initial spike of excitement at seeing the first episode was based on a Mills/Gibbons 80's comic - a nice nod to an often overlooked Who Avenue (or an indication things are running out of steam?) - it seems this 'T' might actually stand for 'Troll'.... You could practically hear the Cloister Bell sounding on 'Woketor Who' forums across the globe* as the Tennant/Tate love-in commenced with The Star Beast. Unfortunately Rob's immune to their supposed twin charms, sorry, with Tennant looking like the oldest man at a Tintin convention while Tate barks out her lines with a curious lack of, well, anything....

*although they were too likely gnashing their (false) teeth over The Daleks In Colour (see below) to notice....


On the other hand Wild Blue Yonder smothered its inventive story in ghastly emoting - initially NuWho added a pleasing emotional dimension that soon slipped into endless sloppy sentimentality, the terrible 'Titanic in space' Xmas episode being Rob's nadir, and it's dogged David Tennant's drippy Doctor ever since - and a splurge of Di$ney dollars, evidently in the belief that 'more is more' (it isn't, far from it). At least The Giggle didn't have Rob wishing it would end after 45 minutes, but again the bloated 'look what we can do' budget - UNIT now have a nice shiny Avengers-esque HQ in central London - and shouty emoting edged out (or, in Tate's case, shouted down) a potentially interesting story.... that involved the Doctor undergoing a bi-regeneration (geddit?!) presumably so Tennant has an excuse to spin-off behind a Di$ney paywall with Tate - surely a fate worse than regeneration?! - and new Doctor Ncuti Gatwa has a chance to run around in his Y-fronts for 20 minutes. Still, for a(n understated) 60th bash it didn't overly pollute back into 'classic' Who, RTD keeping it very much (his own) NuWho centric with a restraint that can only be applauded....


Amazingly The Church of Ruby Sunday was a much more consistent and (reasonably) enjoyable viewing (shorn as it was of the RTD baggage being tied up in the previous 3 episodes). Even if the story was middling twaddle it cracked along at a fair pace with Ncuti Gatwa's shape-shifting Doctor - dare Rob say 'fluid'?cutting a suitably Shaft-esque figure (and thankfully not quite encapsulating the 'Captain Jack turned up to 11' Rob was anticipating/fearing from RTD). At one point Rob's pretty sure there's a 'was that the dinner bell?' call back to Colin Baker's incarnation. Though it has to be said that statements like, "I spent a long, hot summer with Harry Houdini” are obviously as intentionally loaded as they come, ahem, all delivered in Gatwa's strange (and variable) blend of broad Scots and gentle purr, while new companion Ruby Sunday settled into her obvious post-Rose/Clara cute boots well enough from the off. The proof will be in the pudding come May....


In terms of a genuine Timelord birthday treat there was 'The Daleks In Colour' on BBC4 - or, if you want to stick to the modern naming trend, how about 'The Colourisation of The Daleks'?, a 75 minute show that slimmed down and polished up in zinging colour the original classic(-ish) William Hartnell adventure (in time and space) that, well, started it all.... Not that it was perfect by any means, the merciless truncating of the story leading to a few 'huh?' moments (but Barbara putting her hand on the camera lens - one of Rob's all time fave tv moments - survived), while the new soundtrack seemed to be suitably, ambient, gloomy and perky as required - thankfully they kept another fave, the ominous 'dong!' that welcomed the Dalek City too. So not, given the muted response online, 'The Decimation of The Daleks' by any means, but instead something truly 'special' to be unwrapped for Who's 60th, the icing on the top of this particular cake being the end montage of the earliest era - yum!


The cake itself, of course, is the fact that the entire 'classic' era has arrived on iPlayer BBC iPlayer - Doctor Who (1963–1996) - a slice big enough for everyone! Tuck in!


Sticking with talk of the ever-ticking time travel theme, 2023 started with finishing Sapphire and Steel, Rob impressed by David McCallum's (RIP) icy cold turn and Joanna Lumley's warm, plummy performance. Clocking in at a mere 34 (30 minute) episodes - making it akin to The Prisoner's 17 hours of  locked up lunacy - the show succeeds on the strength of its (budget curtailed) claustrophobic settings, 1 per each of the 6 "assignments", and its small but uniformly excellent supporting casts - Steven O'Shea, Gerald James, Val Pringle (as Lead), David Collings (as Silver) and Edward De Souza and Christopher Fairbank (as Transient Beings) all merit a mention. Such a shame then that it concludes with the chilling menace of the Transients (only really beginning to suggest what further, deeper assignments may have been in store). Highly recommended viewing....

(One can only imagine how great mid-80's Doctor Who could have been had McCallum swiped the TARDIS keys from Colin Baker and fellow Scot Sylvester McCoy and delivered a similarly steely stint. Indeed, but for Mary Tamm's posh performance as Romana, the delightful Ms. Lumley - as was mooted around the time - could have given the pre-Whittaker Timelord a deliciously graceful tongue in cheek regeneration.) 


Kicking off with a trip into HBO's Lovecraft Country - once cancelled and now cancelled again along with star Jonathan Majors - a show that somehow ended up less than the sum of its stitched together parts - is it a horror, is it sci-fi, social commentary, history lesson, all of the above? That's not to say it wasn't sporadically great - the Jig-a-Bobo episode certainly brought the scares - but some of the overarching themes were surplus to requirements and Rob felt that often the core character drama - which ought to have been hard-hitting - was undermined by the fantastical events surrounding and thereby distracting from it. At it's best it evokes the similar WATCHMEN but is unable to be consistently enough batsh*t crazy to go toe-to-toe or, indeed, tentacle-to-tentacle with that show....


Showtime's Dexter: New Blood was certainly a pleasant televisual surprise, picking up as it did 10 years after the original half great/half ropey 8 seasons had (unsatisfactorily?) concluded. Indeed, for all its plot hole hokey dokeyness there was something immensely enjoyable (about, er, rooting for a serial killer...?) and curiously addictive about this bloody good series as a whole. Certainly it was far better than it had any right to be (especially when compared to an attempted rewatch of the hyperbad series 8 that didn't even last a single episode)....


Other TV shows aiming for if not hitting the spot every time included HBO's darkly funny Succession, their hit show about avoiding a corporate sh*tshow as ailing media mogul Brian Cox tried to control his self-centred sons and daughter as they wrestle for control of his self-made empire - horrible people doing horrible things! Then there was Glenn Close chewing up the scenery without mercy in FOX's dodgy legal drama Damages - which it was, being subject to the law of diminishing returns after 2 great opening seasons - and SKY's Fortitude, their fine foray into Twin Peaks-esque territory (though the ambience was decidedly chilly as opposed to warm)....


....the brutal gut-punch of SKY/HBO's truly chilling Chernobyl*, the genuine 'cost of living' crisis in the shape of HBO's superb, stately Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the tense home turf defense drama of FOX's war and terrorist Homeland and the BBC coming good not once, but twice, with the frazzled revenge Western of The English and the outback twist and turns of The Tourist**. Showtime scored another late winner with the first season of Yellowjackets, their feisty female footballers survivalist/survivors drama, although a killer but frustrating twist towards the end was almost an own goal - but Rob supposes that's the best telly doing its job, innit, if it provokes enough that you can't stop thinking/talking about it....

*proof indeed that everyone in a position of power knows absolutely nothing about anything, their only point being to make ill-educated and irreversible decisions on everything....

**Spoiler/spoiled alert! The second season just premiered and already it's a total stylistic bomb a la Killing Eve's fall from grace, paper thin characters spewing witless one-liners in a pointless morass of seen it all before violence. That it's been unceremoniously dumped on iPlayer in its entirety is a sure sign it's a post-Xmas turkey....


Hot on the fangs of What We Did In The Shadow's toothless third series, the (near enough) same team loaded up another mirthless misfire in the shipshape of Our Flag Means Death, a strange, expensive-looking but mostly tedious pirate-cum-bromance-cum-whatever-cum-'if all else fails just swear (a lot)' programme that was all at sea in every sense. Sunken, yes, treasure, no....


Time for Rob to eat some humble Bantha Pie as he has to admit that 'blAndor' (as he so wrongly tagged it last year) is easily the best Star Wars spin/rip-off so far, far away... Indeed it might be the very best Di$ney production of all - it's easily better than The Mandalorian (okay, but lazy) and The Book of Boba Fett (wayyyy beyond lazy) and the Rogue One film (director Gareth Edwards and company bashing all their OT toys together like mindless 8-year olds). Considering Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso were the least interesting characters in R1 - Rob dismissed Cassian as the 'world cinema' Han Solo at the time, with particular reference to the early fumble of the informant killer scene, as per Greedo, finding him dull and lacking in big screen charisma. (Just to note, while we're happily bashing post-Lucasfilm SW - check any sad middle-aged male for details - that all this makes Poe Dameron the 'cosplay' Han Solo.) But it has to be said that on the big small screen there's a better intensity to Diego Luna's performance, helped by the fact that he's supported by an excellent cast across the board - every actor seems to fit perfectly into inhabiting their smaller roles....


We're delving deep into life on the ground, the show expertly teasing out little unexplored corners of the galaxy in a welcome slow-burn fashion, watching as the Empire's vast boot grinds the universe under its heel. And it works! The show feels fresh in spite of its tendency to drain all the (Industrial) light and magic out of Star Wars - there's no Force, no sunlight, no sand to be found here (so likely it appeals to Rob's inherent bleak Scottishness). At first there's a creeping sense of flab - do we really need to round out every character? - but by the midpoint Rob just wanted more and more until, with a few episodes to go he then kinda just wanted it to end (which it did in a somewhat 'meh' fashion, having peaked around episodes 9 and 10). Still, Rob cannot wait for season 2 for this jewel in the Star Wars crown to blast off....


Contrary to Andor, Rob was pretty hyped for Season 1 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, only to find that (the) 'Same Old Worlds' seems a better tag, the only substantial spin being that the Enterprise is crewed by a ticking time-bomb of mental health casualties, every member seemingly saddled with a secret or a doubt or an insecurity that makes you wonder just how this bunch of the Federation's finest (closet) f*ck-ups ever passed enough muster to make it into deep space! Not only is Mr. Spock so badly cast as to continually pull you out the story - this is embarrassing 'fancy dress' Spock, not even 'cosplay' level - but Captain Pike himself is so lackadaisical and unsure of himself - he's haunted by his impending death, gah! - it's doubtful whether you'd let him mix you a drink let alone command a Starship. As per Star Wars it looks a million dollars (7 per episode to be exact!), but as ever they sure didn't spend it on the writing. (To be honest the 'wee kiddie winkies' got it good/better with Star Trek: Prodigy....)


The biggest grin of the year - a strange fleeting pulse of pure happiness - was (inexplicably) reserved for Catterick, Vic and Bob's 2004 sitcomedy drama, er, experiment. Of course, it faded fast - it's not as if Rob was watching to see if it held up, considering it really didn't hold up in the first place.... But somehow amid all the (highly talented) mugging and laboured gags there's something unique at play, gleeful moments of joy/idiocy in this strange, uneven middle England of surreal static caravans, garden centre gunfights and tacky hotels (all a little uncomfortably spliced with post-Pulp Fiction/Lockstock violence) - the sheer fact that this deranged world exists at all is a cheering wonder to behold and something to cherish....

Catterick - Kinky Boots

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