Weekly Ramble No. 10

I have to say that Depeche Mode’s new album Spirit was a bit of a shock after the accessibility of Delta Machine, but after repeat listening I realise Spirit isn’t as guitar-heavy or difficult to like as I first thought. You can hear the influence of producer James Ford in the music and some of the song writing is more mature and political than anything the band have done before, but it’s still Dave and Martin calling the shots.

It’s great that they’re not just sitting on their laurels and are willing to develop while still keep some signature sounds from previous albums. The band does have ‘previous’ on the political front with songs like ‘New Dress’ and ‘People are People’ but these seem naïve and lacking the focused anger on some of tracks on ‘Spirit’. There’s a smattering of songs about personal relationships but no great catchy dance tunes that would make you think ‘this is a single’, but I think we’re all beyond that now.

In terms of reading, I finally finished Bad Medicine this week. I’m trying to reduce the annoying pile of half-read books that are sitting on my bedside cupboard and so I picked up Made in America by Bill Bryson again and took Scrubious Pip’s Distraction Pieces to work to read at lunch. And of course I’m continuing with Bizarre of Bad Dreams.

‘Bad Little Kid’ in Bizarre of Bad Dreams is very much in the mould of It but with a little ginger-haired kid in a propeller hat rather than a clown causing the mayhem. Told mostly from the point of view of the death row convict who killed the demon, it is a creepy tale with no moral or happy ending – just the way I like my Stephen King to be.

I had to content myself with just two films this week for reasons that will become apparent. Supersonic chronicles the early years of Oasis leading up to the two nights at Knebworth playing to 250,000 fans. For a take-it-or-leave-it fan like me the film had some interesting insights into the Gallagher brothers’ lives and motivations. For the die-hard fan you probably won’t learn anything you didn’t already know and despite what’s being said the revelations actually sniff of being a little sanitised. It made me feel old realising that What’s the Story, Morning Glory was released over 20 years ago and Noel makes a good point that due to the rise of the internet we’ll probably never see the likes of such a massive musical phenomenon again.

Taken 3 wasn’t as bad as The Mechanic: Resurrection but it wasn’t great either. It starts off dreadfully and then gets into its stride once the action starts. Casting Dougray Scott as the husband of Mills’s ex-wife played woodenly by Famke Jannsen (she comes into her own once she’s in the morgue I guess) was a mistake as he always plays bad guys. As soon as I saw him I thought ‘oh oh here’s the bad guy’. There’s also a bit where Mills is following the bad guys with no explanation as to how he came to be following them. There are a couple of great lines, but the script is generally pretty awful and Liam Neeson looks almost geriatric in the fight scenes where a stunt double wasn’t used – like Roger Moore in the later Bond films.

Star Wars: Rebels – Spark of Rebellion is a mini film introducing the characters in this Disney animated series set 5 years before the events of Episode IV. It’s a lot more cartoony and fun than Star Wars: Clone Wars although there are plenty of call-backs to that series. I picked up the DVD for £3 on Amazon and as soon as I cracked open the Blu-ray of Star Wars: Rebels Season 1 I realised why. It’s basically just the first two episodes of the season tacked together.

Once I had got over my annoyance I got stuck into the first season and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was good to learn that a lot of the production team of the previous show were involved in this show, great to see a lot of references to Episode IV being drip fed into the stories and of course great to see Ashoka Tano appear in the season finale. There’s the same underlying question marks over all the non-film characters as to why they don’t appear in Episode IV and what’s their ultimate fate, but I’m learning to just shrug and go with the flow. I miss the style of Clone Wars but I’ll get used to the Disneyfied style eventually.

The highlight of the week for me was bingeing on Black Mirror which explores the effects of technology on life. The first three series are available on Netflix and are frankly brilliant. There isn’t an episode I didn’t like. The stories are great, the design and effects top notch, and the casting amazing. It’s like wall to wall talent and Charlie Brooker the main creator and writer has gone sky-high in my opinions. I’ve always liked his satire on things like Screen Wipe and Weekly Wipe, but having missed the original transmissions of any of Black Mirror I didn’t realise what a talent he has for writing near-future science fiction.

Series 1’s opener ‘The National Anthem’ is a memorable story of the English PM being forced to have sex with a pig on live TV to satisfy the kidnapper of a beloved princess. Bizarre given that five or so years later that story came out about David Cameron. Rory Kinnear, who I’ve only really seen on Penny Dreadful (and Bond films?) before, does an amazing turn as the PM.

In the next episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ it is Daniel Kaluuya (who I still refer to as Tealeaf from his role is Psychoville) who gives a great performance as Bing trapped in the repetitive task of pedalling on an exercise bike to produce energy which seems wasted on talent shows. He helps fellow cycler Abi go on a singing contest, but it all turns out bad. It’s a pretty scathing comment on modern viewing trends and a bleak extrapolation to a twisted possible future.

Prince of Persia and RocknRolla star Toby Kebbell is next up to bat in ‘The Entire History of You’ and does a grand job in a story of a broken relationship in which everyone has instant access to recordings of their life. The fundamental question in this episode, and others, is just because technology will allow you to do something should you do it? What are the consequences if you opt out?

Series 2 opens with ‘Be Right Back’ with great performances from Hayley Atwell (Captain America) and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina). A poignant study of grief and the role technology might play in the future. Ironic that Gleeson ends up playing a robot given that my most recent memory of him, apart from the odd casting in The Revenant, is from Ex Machina.

Lenora Crichlow (Being Human) stars in the next episode ‘White Bear’ which has you rooting for Crichlow’s character as she wakes up with no memory and is chased by psychopaths while bystanders film it on their phones. By the end of the episode what is going on is revealed and your sympathies switch. Supporting actor Michael Smiley has been in many things since Channel 4’s Spaced, but (like Tealeaf) I still call him Tyres after his bicycle courier character and it was also great to see Tuppence Middleton from Sense8.

Episode 3 ‘The Waldo Moment’ stars Daniel Rigby almost as himself as a struggling stand-up comedian better known for his advert appearances and the voice of a potty-mouthed real-time computer animated bear called Waldo who ends up running for political office in a UK bi-election. Another Guy Pierce alumni Jason Flemyng (Lock Stock, Snatch) stars as an ambitious studio boss. This is Charlie Brooker laying into politicians and society’s obsession with shallow celebrities fuelled by social media. Reminded me of Ali G in Da House.

Episode 4, and the Christmas special for 2014, is called ‘White Christmas’ and is a super creepy tale in which two guys snowed in at a remote outpost share stories about their lives. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) is great in this and it was nice to see Oona Chaplin so recently on my tellybox in Taboo. Virtual reality and the ability to copy a personality and render it as real, thinking and individual in VR, is central to the story and it is the application of this technology to enable immortality trapped within an artificial infinity which is chilling.

Season 3 opens with ‘Nosedive’ starring the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard who I struggled to identify until it clicked that she played Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3. The episode is a dark comedy set in a future where the options open to you as a person in society are determined by your ranking on social media.

Howard’s character is intent on upping her ranking to be able to get a good deal on a new house she is buying by attending an old friend’s wedding and making a speech. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong and finally she is liberated from the raking system and hopefully transcends to a state outside of ranking. There are some episodes I am going to watch again with Siggy and this is certainly one of them. While I may be hypocritical mentioning this in a blog, it bothers me immensely how much emphasis people around me put on likes and comments on social media.

Episode 2 ‘Playtest’ is the story of an American backpacker who finds himself testing out a new computer game in a totally immersive VR system. Things go horribly wrong and because it’s a horror game that taps into your darkest fears things don’t turn out well. There’s some great effects and some tricky false endings, but I didn’t take to the story as much as I have done to others. Perhaps because the main character isn’t particularly likeable and the horror isn’t as full-on as I expected. I’ve played Resident Evil and Silent Hill (and that bloody Alien game) and been properly scared. What he faces seems rather tame in comparison.

Episode 3 ‘Shut Up and Dance’ is a bit like ‘White Bear’ without the reveal. Kenny is a young paedophile who gets caught out by hackers and blackmailed into obeying their texted orders. I’ve not seen the film, but I guess it’s like Dare in some ways. Jerome Flynn helps along the way as another blackmailee and, much like ‘White Bear’, while you might be uncomfortable with rooting for the blackmailees what you are really seeing is justice being served by technological savvy people, this time it’s not institutionalised but equally as effective and leads to all sorts of questions over ethics etc.

Episode 4 is as far as I have got (I have to leave the comfort of my couch some time) and is an absolute corker. ‘San Junipero’ is the name of the episode and the town featured in the story. Given what’s preceded this story on Black Mirror it wasn’t difficult to guess that this was some VR system at work, the question was more about what the intention of the system was.

Mackenzie Davis who I’ve seen from The Martian and soon to appear in Blade Runner 2049, plays Yorkie who travels to San Junipero in different times (starting I think with 1987) and meets and falls in love with good time girl Kelly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Martha’s sister in Dr Who).

Both women are initially just Saturday night visitors to the environment but have a different views on whether to stay. Its ultimately a story of love overcoming boundaries and personal sacrifice which along the way has some very well observed design, set dressing and music editing. This is definitely one to enjoy again with Siggy who is into all the Breakfast Club stuff.

Phew, that was a long one. Until next week. TTFN.

Image: Darren Coleshill (unsplash.com)

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