Monday, 29 September 2008

The Children

The Children is a three-part ITV drama that treats its viewers as though they have the memory capacity of a goldfish. It follows the events leading up to the killing of eight year old Emily Brookes, who within a few weeks, accumulates more enemies than Richard Nixon.
The Brookes family and the Miller family are families no more. Mr Cameron Miller is now the partner of Mrs Sue Brookes, while Mr Brookes has a new, young girlfriend and baby, and Mrs Anne Miller is free to pursue a man who works at the same shopping mall.
Fourteen year old Master Jack Miller gets himself thrown out of the house by Anne Miller, and winds up living with Cameron, Sue, and Emily. Still with me?
Emily, formerly a spoilt little brat, finds having a semi-step-brother a big inconvenience, particularly when he frightens her with false tales of paedophiles. However she turns the tables on him when she accuses him of being a paedophile.
Once again Jack is forced to leave his home, and Cameron goes with him, putting a strain on his relationship with Sue, who herself does not know what to make of Emily’s accusation, and rues the potential loss of what she had with Cameron. Anne, already scornful of Emily, likes her even less on learning Emily’s damning verdict on her son. Previously, Emily had also dropped her new baby step-sister, leading to less than familial harmony with her father’s girlfriend, and even her own father.
The scene is set for a whodunit that Hercule Poirot would give his moustache for a chance to crack. Yet, unlike ITV’s infamous sleuth series, The Children is a slow, long-winded master class in dreary storytelling. Kevin Whately, almost wasted as Cameron, would have been of better use trying to solve the case as another infamous ITV character than being a suspect in it.
The flash-forwards are numerous, repetitive, and (I never thought I would say this) more tedious than those in Lost; not to mention almost insulting, as though the viewer is too stupid to recall what they have seen ten times beforehand. And yes, we do know what the implications of the words ‘Cameron Miller in an empty classroom with a female co-worker’ are, we don’t need a moving picture drawn for us, thank you very much. I certainly felt stupid for sitting through three hours of this drudgery.
There are only so many times you can watch a child fall to her death before wishing you had let Sky+ do the work so that such scenes can be skipped over quickly. The sight of Emily’s doll flying rigidly through the air in slow motion time and time again was more humorous than harrowing, then downright dull. If they had cut back on the flash-forwards the whole thing would only have took an hour to tell.
BBC One’s new primetime show has been accused of having unlikeable characters. Trust me, the Mutual Friends look like The Waltons compared to that lot in The Children. By the end you can’t help but wish they had all fell and cracked their heads open within the first five minutes. Lesley Sharp as Anne was the only person I felt marginally less ill-inclined towards.
However the writers, actors and directors of The Children all want locking up for killing three of the British public’s Monday evenings.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Having read such negative reviews of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I must have set my expectations so low that it seemed much better than it was given credit for.
In 1585, as suitor after suitor is passed casually over, Walter Raleigh arrives at court having discovered the New World, and christened it after the Virgin Queen. While he gets closer to Elizabeth, she is dealing with plots to assassinate her, plots spearheaded by Mary, Queen of Scots.
Tense relations between the Protestant English and Catholic Spanish crowns come to a head when Mary loses hers, and the Spanish Armada begins its assault on the English Channel. By then, Raleigh has lost all favour with the Queen by impregnating and marrying her favourite maid, but he is released from prison to lead the woefully outnumbered English fleet to victory.
That’s the wonderful thing about historical movies, reviewers do not have to worry about spoiling the ending. However I could be taking a liberty in referring to the sequel as historical, as the liberties it took with history make The Tudors look accurate.
While purists may well gloat at the sight of Elizabeth astride a white horse in full armour addressing her troops at Tilbury (for the record, she did address her troops at Tilbury while wearing a breastplate), it was nonetheless a moving and uplifting scene, if a tad Hollywood. There could be no doubt of the inspiration it gave to her soldiers.
In all honesty, the movie is driven by Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance. She is rage and fire, wit and humour, yet fearful and vulnerable. The torment she experienced on sending her cousin Mary to the block, and a deeply intimate, personal moment when she held her maid’s newborn baby were two of many highlights. Why she did not win one of her many Best Actress nominations for the role is a mystery.
Samantha Morton gives a subtle, short, yet intense showing as Mary, and although Clive Owen did his best as Raleigh, aside from his flowery recitations about life at sea, did not fully explain why Elizabeth took to him as she did.
The cinematography was gorgeous. Even Eilean Donan Castle looked more picturesque in the Scottish gloom than it did on this reviewer’s visit last year in similar weather conditions.
Yet it seems that all this lush scene setting slashed the budget for the battle of the Armada. Director Shekhar Kapur never quite shows the intensity and depth of the fight at sea that was, as the movie itself states, the most humiliating event in Spanish naval history. After almost an hour and a half of building up to it, the whole thing is over in five minutes. It looks good for the first minute, but if you want a decent sea battle, try Pirates of the Caribbean.
Grounded in history it is not. However, if like me, you are fed up of all the recent Spanish sporting victories, and Spanish banks coming to our financial rescue; The Golden Age does a rather good job both of reminding us of the great superpower that Britain once was to be able to win against the odds, and making us wonder just what the hell happened. It’s either this, or trying to catch a re-showing of Andy Murray beating Nadal at the US Open earlier this month.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

"The Tenth Case" by Joseph Teller

The Tenth Case is former criminal defence attorney Joseph Teller’s debut novel. Defence lawyer Harrison J. Walker, known as Jaywalker, is to face suspension from the bar following the use of inappropriate tactics to win a case, and receiving a certain favour in the courthouse stairwell from a satisfied client. However due to his exceptional acquittal record and large workload, he is allowed to finish ten of his cases before suspension.
While the first nine cases are dealt with comparatively smoothly, it is his tenth case that tests his capabilities, and threatens to undermine his record.
When elderly billionaire Barrington Tannenbaum is found dead in his Manhattan apartment, all the evidence points to his twenty-six year old wife, Samara Moss. A former prostitute, and portrayed by the tabloids as a gold-digger, Samara continually attests to her innocence. It is up to Jaywalker to convince the jury that this young, petite, pretty Cinderella is no killer.
It is a refreshing change for the lead character to be an experienced, mature man dealing with his own issues privately; rather than the cocky young rookie who appears in so many law court novels. Teller himself describes Jaywalker as his “alter ego”, and works places and situations from his career into the story. Samara remains something of a riddle throughout, at times one hardly knows what to make of her. Teller does a grand job of keeping things under wraps while revealing so much.
Despite the subject matter being what it is, there is still a healthy humour within the pages. From a New Yorker’s frustration with the pedestrian crossings to stereotypes within the law profession, there are moments guaranteed to raise more than a smile.
Although the book spans more than three years, it certainly does not take that long to read The Tenth Case, as it is a considerably fast page-turner. The complexities of the US legal system are explained as and when is needed, and in simple, un-patronising language to aid the reader’s comprehension of the trial; while the trial itself is presented almost in script form.
For a first novel, Teller has produced a thrilling, gripping courtroom drama that from the first page to the last simply does not allow the reader to put it down.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Lost in Austen

Given the numerous adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, can we really handle yet another? Yet Lost in Austen offers a completely different take on the classic novel. In 2008, Amanda Price, perhaps the biggest fan of P+P (who else would want that theme music from the 1995 version as their mobile phone ringtone?), is living a typical young woman’s life in Hammersmith: flat, boyfriend, and Elizabeth Bennett in her bathroom. Alright, maybe not quite so typical.
Amanda steps through the same portal that Elizabeth did to find herself in Longbourne, and promptly gets stuck there, with Elizabeth trapped in 2008. At first, all seems to go well. She is accepted as one of Lizzie’s friends, meets Mr Bingley, and even dances with Elliot Cowan’s Darcy on their first meeting, something not even Elizabeth could achieve.
Yet from there, it all goes awry. Despite Amanda’s best efforts, Bingley notices her more than Jane, and while he is still busy agonising over her rejection and working out his feelings for Jane, Jane has married the slimiest Mr Collins ever seen, played with slippery aplomb by Guy Henry.
From here on in, it seems that very few of the characters are as we know them. Be prepared for some revelations that, as Amanda puts it, would have “Jane Austen spinning in her grave”. Meanwhile, Darcy too has added himself to the growing list of Amanda’s admirers, despite her comparative coarseness and lack of accomplishments. Although she is flattered - and let’s face it, who wouldn’t be? - she is adamant that he should meet Elizabeth, but she is still stuck in Amanda’s world.
Many twists and turns later, Amanda finds herself back in her Hammersmith, and Darcy follows her. There was something startling and yet wonderfully artistic on seeing Darcy in all his Georgian finery, standing in the main street of Hammersmith, looking at his surroundings in awe, disgust, and yet with his usual gentlemanly composure.
They find Elizabeth, who is fitting in with her new surroundings much more seamlessly than Amanda did in Elizabeth’s world. She returns to Longbourne with them, but who will return to Netherfield with Darcy?
Lost in Austen is pure escapism. Jemima Rooper as Amanda gets the line between doing the right thing and being swept away by every woman’s fantasy man just right. Hugh Bonneville and Alex Kingston play off each other well as Mr and Mrs Bennett, yet sadly we do not see enough of Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth. Tom Mison takes Bingley down an unfamiliar road of depression and self-destruction, and although it is not a pretty sight, Mison handles it well.
There are also some genuinely humorous moments, from Amanda’s voice over thoughts, to her entertaining the Bingley’s with Petula Clark’s “Downtown”; but by far the most amusing scene involves Mr Darcy and a lake at Netherfield.
Austen purists will undoubtedly be affronted by the erratic plot, yet it is interesting to explore how the characters would act in situations and developments that are as alien to us as to them. All in all, Lost in Austen is an entertaining, refreshing version of a book so popular it is in danger of being done to death. It does not take itself seriously, and it not meant to be; rather it is just light-hearted fun. Try finding something better to watch at nine ‘o’ clock on a Wednesday.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Murray beats Nadal 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4

Christmas came early for me this year, although it does not normally come with feelings of nausea four days beforehand. At one ‘o’ clock in the morning on Thursday 4th September, I put teletext on to get the news I wanted to hear: Andy Murray had - finally - beat Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter finals of the US Open in an epic five-setter. Now able to relax, I went to sleep, and awoke the next morning to find that Murray was to play Rafael Nadal in the semis.
On paper, it did not look good. Nadal held a 5-0 record against the Scot, and, aside from a defeat by Novak Djokovic at the Cincinnati Masters, was on a winning streak. However, Andy had just ended Del Potro’s winning streak. Could he finally break the run of Spanish wins, not just in tennis but in other sports? It felt right, the time felt good for him to do so. The overwhelming, gut-wrenching feeling inside me was that it was Andy’s turn; yet there was still that tiny little voice that said: “but what if he doesn’t?”.
Thinking the semis would be on the Friday, like normal Grand Slams, I got through Thursday, yet felt as though I was sitting around waiting for the match to begin. However, due to television executives in the US, the semis are held on Saturday, with the final on Sunday; and, for some strange reason, Roger Federer’s match against Djokovic was to be the first semi played, although Murray and Nadal, being in the top half of the draw, should have been on first.
On Saturday morning, I woke up from a wonderful and yet cruel dream. I had dreamed that Andy was two sets up against Nadal, but the latter fought back and won the third set, but never saw the end of the match. Waking up and realising it was just a dream was the most painful experience of my life. My household upgraded to Sky Sports that day so we could watch the match, and although I avoid Nadal’s matches like the plague, and today was to be no different, on seeing how positively Andy started, I had to stay and see what happened.
Just like in January and August when I dreamed that Andy lost in the first round of the Australian Open and the Olympics, my dream came true. I was not at all surprised when Andy took the first two sets, and not just because of the dream. Nadal was not playing at his best, but Andy was simply astounding. He dominated the points and rallies, was aggressive, came to the net, and served exceptionally.
He broke Nadal twice to take the first set 6-2, and in the second set tiebreak had the upper hand, but Nadal soon caught up. There was a terrifying moment at 5-5 when a Nadal return of the Murray second serve clipped the net, but mercifully fell into the Spaniard’s half.
Again, just like in my dream, Nadal began strongly in the third set, breaking Andy’s opening service game, and at 3-1, I learned why I never saw the end of the match in my dream: Tropical Storm Hanna arrived. The match was called off until Sunday, and the final postponed until Monday; Federer having beat Djokovic in four sets.
Although I was relieved that Nadal’s momentum had been taken away, the next twenty four hours were the longest of my life. Could Andy come out as well as he did on the Saturday, or would Nadal take the upper hand? All Andy had to do was win one set, something he was more than capable of doing. I only had four hours sleep that night, and thankfully had no more dreams about the match.
I needn’t have worried. I never have worried for Andy, not even when he was two sets and a break down against Gasquet at Wimbledon I was convinced he was going to win the match; but this was Nadal, the one player who I would love to see Andy beat more than anything.
Yet no sooner had Hanna passed by than Hurricane Andy once again arrived and caused more damage. Although he went a break down in the fourth set, his refusal to lie down enabled him to break back against the now rejuvenated Nadal. If Andy’s play had been impressive on Saturday, it was even more so on the Sunday.
At 5-4, Andy set about once again breaking Nadal’s serve, something he had done so well. Aided by the net to go 0-15 up, the rest was all Andy’s doing. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping sight of the match after the supremely high quality of the Scot’s tennis, was the sight of Nadal bent double trying to get his breath back after a long rally that gave Andy match point.
A drop-shot from Nadal was only too easily chased down by Andy, who tapped a backhand passing shot past the now helpless, now defeated Spaniard. Andy has never been one to celebrate a win by jumping up and down while pumping his fists, and today was no exception. A slight clenching of the fists and a brief closing of the eyes made for a calm and dignified acknowledgement of his stunning achievement, while his expression said just how much it meant to him.
Yet he seemed even more awed to meet Will Ferrell outside the locker rooms than by his win. Incidentally, I had been watching Will Ferrell in The Producers before turning over for the match. Further proof that the result was meant to be.
Finally, after four days of agony, I could get back to the fundamentals like eating, drinking and sleeping; although that Sunday night I lay in bed until four in the morning either grinning like Jack Nicholson in Batman, or laughing in silent hysterics as if I had just seen Stonehenge in This Is Spinal Tap. What I really wanted to do at that time, however, was imitate Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady in that scene where she could have danced all night.
For me, Andy had to beat Nadal. I knew even before their first meeting at the Australian Open two years ago that Andy had the game and the skill to win. It had to be proven that it takes more than power to win a tennis match, and Andy had to be the one to give that lesson. It may have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. I had joked to myself that Andy was waiting for something special to beat Nadal, but special doesn’t cover it. Put simply, there are not enough words in the English language to describe what happened that weekend at Flushing Meadows. Whatever it was, I will treasure those memories forever.
Of course, now that Andy had made my dream come true, I had to go and thank him personally for it. So, not two weeks later, my mother and I were fortunate enough to get to the practice court of Wimbledon’s Court 19 during the Davis Cup tie against Austria just before Andy arrived. While he signed my programme I thanked him, but as there were ten people trying to talk at him he may not have heard.
So, just in case you didn’t hear it the first time:
THANK YOU, ANDY!!!!!!!!!!