Saturday, 6 January 2018

Seen and heard: October to December 2017

Nelly Cootalot and the Fowl Fleet – charming, very funny, very British adventure game, featuring the eponymous Northern pirate whose special interest is in rescuing seabirds. Handcrafted with love, played with joy. The author–artist, to judge by his Kickstarter video, is a hoot.

Monument Valley 2 – beautiful sequel to the very wonderful puzzle game. As with the original, there’s not much head-scratching, because you usually have only one possible path forward; the beauty lies in the progressive unfolding of the intricate designs and the Zen-like atmosphere.

Richard Alston Dance Company performing at Northampton Derngate – three pieces: Carnaval (to the music of Schumann), Chacony (Purcell) and Gypsy Mixture (Electric Gypsyland – Balkan music meets Techno with a DJ remix). Always a pleasure to see them, and the Gypsy Mixture is a cracker.

The Party – new film by Sally Potter. Rising politician (Kristin Scott-Thomas) entertains family and friends to celebrate her career triumph, but a personal revelation from her husband (Timothy Spall) releases chaos and breakdown in this smart North London set. A gem of a film: just 70 mins in a single location, but a good script and the magnetic performances you would expect from this cast.

W1A – third and final series of the spoof fly-on-the-wall comedy, set in BBC management, though the idiocies and self-inflicted screw-ups will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organisation. It’s certainly helped keep me sane these last few months, my favourite bit being when the team are trying to implement the new BBC strategy “More of less” and their first task is to work out what it actually means. “Basically,” says Anna Rampton, Head of Better, “we need to find out what we do best, and do more of less of it.” So that’s all good then.

Gunpowder – gripping and grisly TV drama, convincingly showing the origins of the Gunpowder Plot in the persecutions of Catholics of seventeenth-century England, with a sympathetic portrayal of lead conspirator Robert Catesby by Kit Harrington (his descendent) and Mark Gatiss playing rgw King’s right-hand man Robert Cecil as an evil spider.

The Way – beautiful, slow, powerful film with Martin Sheen as a stuffy respectable ophthalmologist moved to follow in the footsteps of his son who died walking the Camino de Santiago. Falling in with other pilgrims along the way, we see how all of them are changed by the physical and spiritual journey.

Howards End – BBC TV drama series, not about to supplant the Merchant–Ivory–Jhabvala 1992 film in our affections, but definitely superior in its finer detail of cringe-making class-divisive situations and conversation. Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox is also more comprehensible than with the (otherwise excellent) Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

Wonder Woman – a surprisingly successful film, given many people's high personal investment in the character and the multitude of ways in which it could have gone wrong. Definitely helped by having a woman director (Patty Jenkins) really committed to the project and a star (Gal Gadot) with a wider acting range than the boys currently inhabiting the tights and the batsuit. Women seem to like it, and I love the concept of a superhero whose coming of age story is the realisation that she cannot save the world.

The Wolf Among Uswell-reviewed narrative game from Telltale. Excellent concept (derived from a comic book), in which fairy tale characters, exiled from their homelands, are living as an immigrant community in New York. This is game noir: you play the community’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, walking through a seedy underworld as he investigates two grisly murders. Some of the characters really work: Tweedledum and Tweedledee as a pair of violent thugs-for-hire, George Porgie as a pimp and owner of the Pudding and Pie nightclub, Snow White running the Fabletown district office and trying to maintain some kind of decency and order. But I did get fed up with the repetitive fighting and violence. I won’t be revisiting Fabletown for the sequel.

Feud: Bette and Joan – very classy TV drama series, tracing the hostile relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davies which blew up when they starred together in the 1962 film 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane'. Tremendous period detail and quality performances (Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, etc) which all illuminate the sexual politics of Hollywood, both past and present.

A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov by Peter Bowler – a summary of futuristic visions, both utopian and dystopian, during the period in which people genuinely thought that science and technology could save the world, or destroy it. (That level of hyperbole is now reserved for digital technology.) The material is potent, especially if (like me) you can remember when such visions were part of popular culture, but this is really only a surface summary; I don’t get any sense of why people are thinking this way or what is driving and sustaining these world views. So there’s still a good book to be written about this.

The Miniaturist – TV domestic drama set in seventeenth-century Protestant Amsterdam. Visually stunning and decidedly creepy, with shades of Rebecca.

Kingsman: The Secret Service – comic-book thriller with an ironic take on sixties spy films. Nice to see Colin Firth in an action role, but I was troubled by the jaunty attitude to the excessive, if surreal, violence.

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