Sunday, 30 September 2007

31 Days Of Dread

Starting tomorrow, Dan's Media Digest is having a scary theme for October!

I'm calling it "31 Days Of Dread"…

The idea is – every day, there will be a post about something spooky from the world of media; from frightening films and terrifying TV, to monstrous music videos and horrific home-videos…

I will include as many links, trivia, photos and video as I can -- so each "Day Of Dread" should be something worth checking out, as it builds towards Halloween on 31 October.

My 31 choices aren't set in stone yet, so if you have anything scary you think people will get a kick out of, feel free to send me it at danowen79 @ (delete spaces). I will credit all contributors.

Oh, and I'd love it if people could share their own spooky experiences in the Comments area every day. I'm a sucker for a good, real-life ghost story! Do you have one to share?

Viewer discretion is advised, as some content may be unsuitable for minors. A Parental Advisory logo will accompany anything likely to alarm.

JOHN FROM CINCINNATI 1.2 - "His Visit, Day Two"

Writer: Kem Nunn
Director: Gregg Fienberg

Cast: Luke Perry (Linc Stark), Luis Guzman (Ramon Gaviota), Austin Nichols (John Monad), Willie Garson (Meyer Dickstein), Rebecca DeMornay (Cissy Yost), Matt Winston (Barry Cunningham), Greyson Fletcher (Shaun Yost), Ed O'Neill (Bill Jacks), Jim Beaver (Vietnam Joe), Keala Kennelly (Kai), Brian Van Holt (Butchie Yost), Bruce Greenwood (Mitch Yost), Dayton Callie (Steady Freddy Lopez), Garret Dillahunt (Dr. Smith), Karl Makinen (Mr. Nolan) & Emily Rose (Cass)

A drug-dealer arrives at Imperial Beach, Linc expresses an interest in sponsoring Shaun's surfing and Barry decides not to raize the motel after experiencing a vision...

It's the second episode, entitled His Visit, Day Two (which I assume refers to the eponymous John Monad's arrival), and things continue to plod along in an almost-hypnotic manner. Shaun's ambition to participate in a surfing competition becomes reality thanks to Linc Stark's offer to sponsor him. Linc (Luke Perry) appears to be just another hanger-on to the legendary Yost clan, so it's strange to see patriarch Mitch allow his sponsorship, particularly as Linc's dealings with son Butchie led to a career-ending drug addiction.

John, who we learn hails from "Cincinnati" in this episode, continues to be a surprisingly ambivalent presence. He's not very proactive in whatever "mission" he has to accomplish in the town, instead quite content to shuffle around repeating a growing collection of phrases. The fact people seem to latch onto John is interesting, as is how quickly the poodle-haired oddball has become a "family friend" of the Yost's. It's almost as if everyone can sense they need John around, for some unknown reason...

The motel subplot is the most bizarre at the moment, as I can't work out where it's going. The manager Ramon (Luis Guzman) and his lawyer Meyer (Willie Garson) are busily trying to endear themselves to new millionaire owner Barry (Matt Winston), who likes to meditate half-naked in empty rooms overlooking the ocean, whilst talking to his teddy bear.

Quite where this is all heading is anyone's guess at this stage, as becomes particularly clear after Barry experiences a frightening, unseen, vision in Room 24. It may not make much sense yet, but I'm keen to discover the answers.

His Visit, Day Two also introduces a new character; drug-dealer Steady Freddie Lopez (Deadwood's Dayton Callie), who immediately starts a fight with client Butchie, before throwing a punch at John that seems to trigger a minor earthquake! The episode culminates in a tragic moment for Shaun that's quite surprising, but not as surprising as the final scene with Bill Jack's pet Zippy -- the avian equivalent of Lazarus.

Overall, there are developments that hint at greater things, while the character's interplay fizzle with a weird tension. John From Cincinnati is a very oblique show, that tends to wander into humdrum scenes too often, but it also has a laconic sense of the bizarre that pulls you through. Just about.

Posthumous Review
Written: 18 June 2007

Saturday, 29 September 2007

DVD Releases: October 2007

My personal picks of what's being released on UK Region 2 DVD this October...

1 October

24: Season 6 Box Set
Dark Crystal (Anniversary Edition)
Heroes: Season 1, Part 1
The IT Crowd: Series 1 & 2 Box Set
Labyrinth (Anniversary Edition)
The Prisoner: 40th Anniversary Special Edition Box Set
Tribe: Series 1-3 Box Set
Troy (Director's Cut)

8 October

The A-Team: Complete Collection
Fantastic 4: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Fonejacker: Series 1
The Munsters: Closed Casket Complete Collection
Quantum Leap: The Complete Collection
Spider-Man 3

15 October

Bridge To Terabithia
Family Gun: Season 6
Murphy's Law: Series 1-5 Box Set
Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition
Stephen King's The Stand

22 October

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1-3 Box Set
Dirty Dancing: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Father Ted: Definitive Collection
Hostel: Part II
Lost: Season 3 Box Set
Michael Palin's New Europe
Monk: Season 1-5 Box Set
Smallville: Season 6
TMNT - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Unit: Season 2

29 October

Deadwood: Season 1-3 Box Set
Die Hard 4.0
Flight Of The Conchords: Complete First Season
House: Season 3
Robin Hood: Complete Series 1
Sapphire & Steel: Series 1-6 Complete
Sarah Jane Adventures
That Mitchell & Webb Look: Series 1

THE IT CROWD 2.6 – "Men Without Women"

Writer & Director: Graham Linehan

Cast: Chris O'Dowd (Roy), Richard Ayoade (Moss), Katherine Parkinson (Jen), Matt Berry (Douglas) & Graham Linehan (Irish Sorcerer)

Jen is offered a new job as Douglas' P.A, so leaves the I.T department…

After a weak opening, wherein a clichéd sorcerer (creator Graham Linehan) gives Douglas (Matt Berry) a love potion to woo Jen, the last episode of series 2 is rather humdrum, although the emphasis on things meaningful to the characters is welcome.

The IT Crowd rarely bothers to focus on its own situation, instead preferring to have its two-dimensional characters interact with a moderately-sensible world. Series 2 has stretched itself beyond the I.T department confinement, to varying degrees of success, but it’s never really about the character's working situation, which makes Men Without Women seem a bit fresher.

Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is offered a top job as Douglas' personal assistant, meaning she leaves the I.T department and a working life spent playing Guitar Hero behind. Unfortunately, as per her initial concern, Douglas is only interested in making weak plays for her affections. Although, somewhat against his sexual predator persona, Douglas tends to crumble whenever he calls Jen to his office nd pretend he just wanted her to look at dead flies.

With Jen now gone, the boys can be boys; messing around to even geekier extremes and making prank calls to pizzerias. But it soon becomes clear Jen, Moss and Roy can’t be without each other, and Douglas' true intentions become clear after a disastrous "date" in a park…

Men Without Women isn't without some funny moments -- such as the fly pretext, a superb moment when Douglas takes a "missing hand" gag to a ludicrous extreme, and some risqué subliminal shots – but it's otherwise a bit empty. I appreciated having a story that involved the character's interpersonal relationships for once, but it all builds to a rather bad-taste climax and unwelcome cliffhanger.

It seems unfair to mention Father Ted, Linehan's most famous sitcom achievement, but the two shows clearly have similar styles and attitudes. Both are live-action "cartoons", involving a triptych of misfits stuck in a rut. However, Father Ted had more joyous freedom with its stories and crafted a consistent world of crazy characters to support the cast. The characters were also more lovable, too...

Richard Ayoade tries hard to be the sweet-natured geek version of Father Ted's child-like Dougal, but just doesn't cut it as Moss. At best he can act appropriately zany to elicit some giggles, but he's too weird to be adorable.

Chris O'Dowd has really improved throughout series 2 as Roy, now able to win laughs with his confident line delivery, but it’s telling that his standing as the supposed lead has diminished. Roy's just not particularly well-developed as a character. He's a lazy IT technician, that's it.

Katherine Parkinson's Jen is the only character that truly works on two levels; disarmingly normal one minute, but always slightly unhinged. There's also more comedy in having someone who's relatively normal react to the surrounding craziness, making her the "Father Ted" character in many ways.

The main problem I have with The IT Crowd is that the stories are rarely as elaborate and knotty as they could be. The Work Outing and Moss And The German were brilliant examples of how Graham Linehan can take simple ideas, stretch them to crazy extremes, and then enjoy wrapping the audience up in his imagination.

But most of The IT Crowd's plots are linear and tedious -- enlivened by occasionally funny dialogue and quirky visuals. If you're lucky, there are enough memorable moments to make you forgive the plodding storyline… but not here.

Series 2 ends on a middling note, but it was overall a minor improvement on series 1. If Linehan can write more elaborate plots, make the office environment more integral, develop a world beyond the office that's interesting to visit, and make Katherine Parkinson the star… series 3 could finally see The IT Crowd capitalize on its potential...

28 September 2007
Channel 4, 10.00 pm

Standing to attention for Young Victoria...

Standing up for long periods of time is not good for you. I learned this the hard way. Now outside again, I was positioned next to my canon, ready to lurk in the background as the next scene filmed. As I explained last time, a small tent had been erected over a low stage, next to a red carpet, where a crowd of Dickensian extras were gathered.

As I stared out at the Leicestershire countryside (later to be transformed into glistening water with the power of CGI), other extras were being talked through their parts. Five men, dressed as "undertakers" were on-stage, together with other gentry and the town's Mayor. Miranda Richardson, Emily Blunt and a few other "real actors" were on-stage with them, being positioned by assistants and having chats.

After standing for ages, the scene began filming in earnest once a coach and horses had pulled up beside the red carpet, to provide Queen Victoria with her exit. Then, filming began. Unfortunately, I was facing the other way, but could get sneaky glances between takes...

As with all the filming that morning, it's infuriatingly slow and tends to consist of people doing things silently as a "mime", then will full chatter, before redoing the whole thing because someone's elbow masked someone's face, an extra moved too quickly, or the angle just wasn't perfect on something.

It's easy to see why such care and precision goes into making films, however. I mean, they've rented Belvoir Castle, four horses, a coach, about fifty extras have turned up, numerous costumers and make-up people have been busy preparing for weeks... so you've only really got one day to make the most of it. You'll never have this group together again!

Anyway, time began to pass by and my back began to ache. Not to mention my cripplingly tight helmet was cutting into my forehead now, and some annoying braces were tugging at my shoulders. I have no idea how real soldiers ever cope with this, particularly in Victorian uniforms!

The other extras seemed to be having more fun -- although they were also standing for long periods, their costumes looked snug and comfortable. Miranda Richardson seemed nice, occasionally smiling and sharing a joke some of the extras on-stage, while Emily Blunt frequently stopped between takes to chat with the crowd extras -- particularly any little kids looking cute in their tiny waist-coats and waving flags on sticks.

Anyway, it was time for lunch. Everyone headed back inside, with the extras in the dingy cafeteria. I was just glad to be sitting down, waiting for my grub. The main cast and crew were being fed first, us lowly extras had to wait our turn. Unfortunately, after an hour, we were told we had to be out working in 30 minutes, so there was no time to eat properly! Various plates of "tuna, or sausage?" arrived on paper plates and we scoffed it down, a little annoyed. The Belvoir Castle head chef came in later to apologize, explaining it wasn't his decision to rush our lunch ... it was those pesky filmmakers. Grrrr.

Back outside. The crew were already filming a scene that didn't require any extras. Emily was sat inside a coach, being filmed through its window by a camera on a dolly-track. A few of us gathered around the monitor, watching it being shot. For the first time you could really imagine what the finished product might look our, via a TV screen. Interestingly, the coach never moved off in reality, but the camera slid along on its track -- making it look like it was. Once they add some sound-effects of horses hooves, it should look great.

Anyway, after that, it was time for more back background work. Fortunately, this scene required me to be standing the other way, actually facing the stage! It was a coach scene, where Victoria leaves the gathered crowd. It quickly became the most annoying thing to watch being filmed. Ever. It seemed simple enough: Victoria (Blunt) had to leave the stage, after thanking the townsfolk there, walk down the steps, walk along the red carpet... the crowd cheer, and she just gets into the coach, followed by Miranda and some others. Easy! What could be simpler?!

Three hours later...

Emily's still walking up that bloody red carpet and ducking into her coach! I mean, it seems like madness. I'm in Groundhog Day. It was was done perfectly hours ago, surely! Oh well. I'm standing quite close to the coach, but still not convinced I'm in shot -- so I begin to shuffle to my right, very slowly. Just enough to be able to see the camera. Hopefully I'm now in view for the moment Victoria leaves in the film...

It had begun to rain, producing a massive rainbow at one point, so things seem to be moving faster now. Finally, the coach scene is done and there's a sense of things coming to an end. By now it was about 3:30 pm. Someone starts singing Happy Birthday, and Emily Blunt joins in whilst fussing a little girl -- who's apparently just turned one today. Awww.

After that, the main actors leave for the day...

So now it's just the extras. My fellow artillerymen aren't needed, but we watch the final shots of the day being filmed. More movie magic -- the crowd scene isn't very big and impressive, so they ask the extras to mix themselves around into different positions, slowly edging back on themselves. In post-production, the computer whizzes will mix all these shots together, making it look like there was one, huge crowd -- when in fact it's the same 50 people jumbled up. Ooh, clever.

After that, the day is definitely over. We wander around Belvoir Castle to our waiting minibus, grabbing some Birthday Cake before heading back to the make-up/costume tents. Once there, everyone is relieved to be pulling off their uncomfortable uniforms and slipping back into 21st-Century gear. My shirt and trousers seem amazingly comfortable and baggy!

A few photos, taken by the costume crew, are bluetoothed around to our phones as a little memento... my sideburns are taken off by special solution... I have my payment chit signed by an Assistant Director... and I'm free to go!

It's 4 pm. It seems much later. Mind you, I've been up 12 hours. So there we go. A day in the life of a supporting artiste. It was a lot of waiting around and standing up for hours on end, but it's interesting to see how things are filmed; with everything fussed over, and such care and attention invested into the implest of things. I'm sure it will all look suitably glossy and swish in the finished movie.

But, to be honest, I have a sneaking suspicion this scene will last about a minute, at the most. Maybe even less than that! Or not even make the edit! It didn't seem particularly important to the film --but we'll see what happens. The production crew were preparing to leave for Lincoln Cathedral that evening, for the rest of the week's filming... and I found myself disappointed I wasn't needed, really.

Oh well. It was tiring, but fun while it lasted...

The Young Victoria is scheduled for release in 2008.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Box Office Charts: w/e 28 September 2007

In the US, a Resident Evil sequel takes #1, proving audiences would rather watch zombies get slaughtered than Jessica Alba try and be funny in new comedy Good Luck Chuck, in at #2. Eastern Promises and Sydney White perform badly mid-chart, while summer blockbuster Bourne is now dwindling. D-War's turkey status is sealed as it drops to #10 after just a few weeks.


1. Resident Evil: Extinction $23.7m
2. Good Luck Chuck $13.7m
3. The Brave One $7.31m
4. 3:10 To Yuma $6.16m
5. Eastern Promises $5.64m
6. Sydney White $5.2m
7. Mr Woodcock $4.92m
8. Superbad $3.11m
9. The Bourne Ultimatum $2.87m [review]
10. D-War $2.6m

In the UK, the Simon Pegg love-fest continues, with mediocre comedy Run, Fat Boy, Run again keeping the #1 slot! Atonement is also proving itself a big hit at #2. Chuck And Larry limps to #3, mostly through heavy marketing; but Quentin Tarantino's latest, Death Proof, is a sad sight at #6 with a paltry £407k. Western 3:10 To Yuma hangs on after its impressive opening week turned to failure 7 days later, and Shoot 'Em Up is already clinging onto #10.


1. Run, Fat Boy, Run £1.2m
2. Atonement £1.1m
3. I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry £1.09m
4. Superbad £1.06m
5. The Bourne Ultimatum £562k [review]
6. Death Proof £407k
7. Disturbia £338k
8. Knocked Up £256k [review]
9. 3:10 To Yuma £207k
10. Shoot 'Em Up £172k


A dock worker travels to America in the 1960s to find his estranged father. Musical romance starring Evan Rachel Wood.

A woman recovers from a brutal attack by exacting her revenge. Crime thriller starring Jodie Foster.

The daily trials and misadventures of an amiable Australian toilet attendant. Australian comedy starring Shane Jacobson.

A former criminal prosecutor takes care of a law firm's dirty work. Thriller starring George Clooney.

A young man is shocked when his mother decides to marry the high school gym teacher that made his life hell. Comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton and Seann William Scott.

A stuttering boy joins his high school debate team. Comedy drama starring Reece Thompson.

An FBI Agent seeks revenge on the assassin who murdered his partner. Martial arts action starring Jet Li and Jason Statham.

A pair of slachers try and dump a dead girl's body in basement of a drive-in movie theatre, where a satanic cult perform ritual sacrifices. Horror comedy starring Wes Bentley.


Writers: Eli Attie & Aaron Sorkin
Director: Bryan Gordon

Cast: Nathan Corddry (Tom Jeter), Sarah Paulson (Harriet Hayes), Steven Weber (Jack Rudolph), Timothy Busfield (Cal Shanley), Amanda Peet (Jordan McDeere), Bradley Whitford (Danny Tripp), D.L. Hughley (Simon Stiles), Matthew Perry (Matt Albie), Mark McKinney (Andy), Simon Helberg (Alex Anderson), Nate Torrence (Dylan), Lucy Davis (Lucy), Merritt Wever (Suzanne), Columbus Short (Darius Hawthorne), Camille Chen (Samantha Li), Ayda Field (Jeannie Whatley), Monica Garcia (Nurse), Christopher Murphy Carley (Jeff), William Stanford Davis (Floor Manager), John Carpenter (Herb Sheldon), Amanda Tepe (Bobbie), Howie Mandel (Himself), Corinne Bailey Rae (Herself), Wendy Phillips (Shelly), Stephen Alvarez (Anchor), Christine Lahti (Martha O'Dell), Todd Stashwick (Bill), Tate Hanyok (Carrie) & Amy Honey (Personal Assistant)

A virus threatens the cast and crew, Matt has to cope with a reduced writing staff, and Jordan tells Danny a secret...

This is a very curious episode; quite interesting, sometimes enjoyable, often a boring mess. Tellingly, it's the first Studio 60 Aaron Sorkin has co-written, meaning Sorkin was either upstaged at times by writing partner Eli Attie, or Attie crippled an episode with promise. We'll just never know for sure.

B-12 is another studio-based episode, which comes as a strange relief after the gallavanting location-based episodes recently. I like watching these characters work together as a team, even though the show is stuck in a formula. Yes, the dilemma-of-the-week rears its ugly head (again) to threaten the smooth-running of Friday's live show. This time it's a virulent sickness, causing one actor to faint whilst in drag, and everyone to be given B-12 injections.

Howie Mendell is this week's guest host, an unfamiliar face to UK audiences, but he's the US equivalent of Noel Edmonds -- in that he presents Deal Or No Deal. Cue a lame "deal or no deal?" opening sketch with Danny Trip pretending to call The Banker. And, y'know, I often grumble about Studio 60's weak comedy sketches, but this sketch is actually quite accurate about how lazily obvious such shows can be. So I can let this predictability pass. But, combining reality show The Bachelor with Ancient Rome is funny? Ugh.

Oddly, the sickness affecting Studio 60 doesn't become anything more than a background event. The emphasis is instead on Matt's situation with a staff that now consists of quietly goofy Lucy (Lucy Davies) and naive Darius (Columbus Short). If, like me, you were expecting a serious problem for Studio 60, now that it has three writers, you'll be disappointed.

Lucy and Darius are tasked with penning an "incompetent criminal" sketch, but the show is apparently not reliant on them actually coming up with anything! There are other sketches to be performed, perhaps stored up for just such an emergency? Weird. I was under the impression the stakes were going to be very high after last week's mass walkout... but apparently I was wrong.

Despite this plot being undermined, it's still enjoyable, particularly once downbeat former writer Andy (Mark McKinney) arrives to mentor Lucy and Darius. Lucy Davies is also less annoying this week -- probably because she keeps her mouth shut. McKinney is also a great antidote to the perky, motormouth smart-asses that populate Studio 60, so I'm glad he'll be sticking around.

I also lap up any scene with Jordan (Amanda Peet), who surely deserves a spin-off series. Or, failing that, just give Peet her own show! As network president, Peet's cute as a button, but with a tongue sharper than a steak knife. A great scene where she humourously pokes fun at a Time magazine reporter who's been sent to interview her, eventually belittling his intentions, is one of those moments that makes the rest of Studio 60 look uninvolving by comparison. That said, Jordan can be annoying occasionaly, as she's very blinkered when it comes to self-publicity and office politics.

Throughout B-12, an ominous thunderstorm rumbles above L.A and a CNN news report about a hostage crisis on Grosse Point becomes a recurring motif. Uh-oh. These are obvious omens that bad times are ahead, so it comes as no surprise when the hostage crisis has a knock-on effect with a prized sketch. Predictable stuff, sadly.

It's also very strange to see ace reporter Martha O'Dell (Christine Lahti) reappear on the show, as I'd forgotten about her character's potentially disastrous article on how Studio 60 runs behind-the-scenes.

Apparently, her article has been published and Danny didn't like it, so he snubs O'Dell here. But I don't understand Danny can't just make her leave the set! Isn't he an executive producer? Now that her report has been published, what business does she have being here, anyway?! And why does she have a folding chair with her name on it? It would also have been nice to get an indication of what her column actually said, too -- so, ultimately, the O'Dell storyline has been badly treated and has outstayed its welcome.

Overall, B-12 is just a very schitzophrenic episode. You can tell there were two writers involved, but I'd love to know who was most responsible for which aspects, as the episode veers from bad to good nearly every scene...

The writing staff dilemma is enjoyable (despite the weak ending), the hostage news report is too predictable, Harriet's inability to remember jokes is good for a giggle (if bizarre for a comedienne who has to remember lines), Jordan's scenes are spicy fun (ignoring her climactic soap-opera style announcement), and there's an unecessary plot-device that jumps back in time.

Solid, but flawed.

27 September 2007
More4, 10.00 pm

SAXONDALE 2.6 - "Episode 6"

Writers: Steve Coogan & Neil Maclennan
Director: John Henderson

Cast: Steve Coogan (Tommy Saxondale), Ruth Jones (Magz), Rasmus Hardiker (Raymond), Alistair (James Bachman), Morwenna Banks (Vicky) & George Anton (Toby)

Tommy upsets Magz during an art show, leading to their separation...

The second series comes to a close, with a belated emphasis on Tommy's relationship with Magz (Ruth Jones), an element of the show that is cruelly ignored usually. It's a shame, because Ruth Jones acquits herself well here, despite the writers' refusal to give Magz anything funny to say or do. She's all reaction; the straight woman to Coogan's clown.

Episode 6 starts with the best anger-management class scene in ages, as Tommy reads out a make-believe discussion between himself and his own anger. It's one of those silly rehabilitation exercises, but Tommy's script is excellent -- poking fun at "wet fart" Alistair (James Bachman) and getting angry with his own anger! These opening classroom scenes are often vaccuous, particularly because I've never believed Tommy needs to be there, but this scene is a real treat.

The seismic shift in Tommy and Magz's relationship happens when Tommy is his cynical self at an art show called "Hidden Genders", where the concept of painting nativity scenes with a black baby Jesus is considered pioneering, controverial work. Magz isn't happy with Tommy's attitude to her arty-farty friends, so decides on a trial seperation. It's not a particularly plausible action, as surely Magz is used to Tommy's grouchy ways by now, but it sets the ball rolling...

The rest of the episode concerns Tommy's attempt to woo Magz back home, whilst trying to act unconcerned and even flippant about their break-up. It certainly tests Tommy's patience once Magz starts seeing a "fat yoga instructor" at the Chi Cafe, who puts her into provocative poses.

Episode 6 is more focused than usual, and uses its entire 30-minutes to tell one story, without any padding, but that does mean the weekly Jonathan highlight is rushed. Darren Boyd has been a joy as the irritatingly unhip neighbour, but there's no massive pay-off to his gradually more maddening behaviour in this finale. I was quite looking forward to Tommy blowing his lid at the beanpole annoyance, but it wasn't to be. He just gets ignored.

However, it was nice to see Tommy and Alistair sharing scenes away from the meeting circle, and it was particularly illuminating that Alistair actually makes a breakthrough with his client on a one-to-one basis.

Scenes with "surrogate son" Raymond (Rasmus Hardiker) are also good fun, particularly when loyal Raymond is tasked with pretending Tommy has a terminal illness -- because doctors have found "a shadow". It's a shame Raymond is often used as a human-Gromit to Tommy's Wallace, as you sense there are more avenues to be explored with him. I mean, what do Raymond's parents think of his life with Tommy and Magz? Where are Raymond's friends? Is he resigned to being a pest control assistant all his life?

But Saxondale has always been more interested in its eponymous character, so it's fortunate Coogan never disappoints in the role. In series 2, Tommy has been fully-developed and is much more amusing than last year. Tommy will always be in Alan Partridge's shadow, particularly because his brand of laid-back humour isn't as broadly appealing... but he's a more believable comic creation than Alan. Tommy's a carefully-constructed personality, whereas Alan is a monstrous pastiche.

Overall, Episode 6 is a good instalment, notable for its welcome diversion from most episode's direction and emphasis on Magz and Tommy. Series 2 retained the general Saxondale vibe, but was more entertaining and a lot funnier. It's still not laugh-a-minute material, but it's a welcome mix of sharp dialogue, amusing undercurrents, and acute characterisation.

27 September 2007
BBC2, 9.30 pm

Ready... aim... act!

Our canon rehearsal took place out the back of Belvoir Castle, on a large gravel ridge overlooking the countryside far below. Along the ridge's edge was a waist-high stone wall, with six small canons pointing out at the panoramic scene. The camera was positioned alongside canon 1, with the other 5 curving away into the near-distance.

All the artillerymen were shown a canon and a pole used to ignite gunpowder in an indentation the top. The canons weren't real -- they were light-weight fakes, but you'd never tell. They looked extremely heavy, but three men could lift one. They couldn't fire real canonballs, so a pyrotechnic crew were there, ready to set them off on cues.

We were briefed on what to do: stand to attention next to your canon, holding your "fuse pole"... then, on the command "present", we had to hoist the poles up and ready... and when the command came to "fire!" we had to move the pole to the gunpowder ontop of your canon and the pyro guys would detonate an explosion.

It sounds simple, but the speed and maneover isn't easy to synchronize with other people! It was also nigh impossible to judge the distance exactly, so your lit fuse would usually miss the gunpowder area and you'd poke around trying to adjust your stretch. Then the stupid powder would never ignite!

After some failed rehearsals, they abandoned the gunpowder "fizzle", but it might be added in post-production using visual effects. So the plan now was to fire the canon remotely, using the pryo-crew, who woul synchronize to our movements, instead of our gunpowder fizzles. But again, that's harder than it sounds!

The director (Jean-Marc Vallee) was also around, huddled behind his camera, trying to get all the canons in the shot. He was a bit annoyed the gunpowder thing wasn't working, because it looked great when it did, but was just too temperamental to keep messing around with. I thought Vallee was a Frenchman (given his name), but detected a slight American accent. It turns out he's actually French-Canadian, so that explains it. Anyway, he seemed like a nice enough bloke, but kept himself separate from the extras, letting assistants and a military expert relay his thoughts.

It soon came time to shoot for real. Gulp. We all stood to attention and the extra playing our commanding officer had to shout "artillery... present... fire!" a few seconds after the director yelled action. He got £5 a word for that, so I think he should have padded it out. "Artillery... ready... aim... wait for it... okay... fire!" £40. Easy money.

The camera rolled. A cloud of concentration descended. The commands were shouted. We all did our best to hit our targets with our poles on the canon, and the pyros went off with satisfying BANGS. Hooray! We were one-take wonders, although my pole got slightly tangled on some bunting the wind decided to blow towards me. But I don't think it affected anything.

After that, we were congratulated for doing it brilliantly first time and people began moving onto the next scene. The "Dickens" extras came out of the Castle, to stand in front of a small stage with a tent over it, next to a small red carpet. As I mixed with the other artillerymen, now all complaining about the restrictive braces, uncomfortable helmets and back-ache... I suddenly caught sight of a woman in a green dress and bonnet, on the stage.

I remember thinking, in all honesty: "Wow, that extra looks like a younger version of Miranda Richardson." Er, but it was Miranda Richardson! It seems stupid to have thought that, but she just looked too small and youthful! It's funny how you expect film stars people to be taller, but she really was very petite.

Anyway, the other extras were assembling on the stage, around one lucky bloke who'd been chosen to be the town's Mayor! Apparently another actor on stage next to Miranda used to be in TV's Sharpe, but I didn't recognize him. It wasn't Sean Bean, I'm not an idiot.

Now, I wasn't really aware of Emily Blunt before getting this extra job, as she hasn't starred in any films I've seen -- or want to see, really. Her most famous role was as a "scene-stealing" character in The Devil Wears Prada, but I'd never heard of her. But she was up there on-stage now, getting ready. Like Miranda, she was very tiny and waiflike. She's in her early-20s, but you'd think she was 16. Maybe it's just the costume and corsets that have this affect on women.

Emily was like a beautiful china doll, but you could see a vague hard-nosed expression in her that reminded me of Queen Victoria's gruff older look. I think she's been well-cast from a physical standpoint, although I doubt the real Queen Vic was anywhere near as pretty. It's like when Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth II -- she's a more idealised, prettier version of the real thing.

Everyone was standing around now, watching cameras move, extras get positioned, and just sneaking glances at Miranda and Emily. There was no sign of Jim Broadbent or anyone else from the cast, though. I was a little disappointed, as it would have been nice if Paul Bettany had been there. I'd rated him as an actor since his film debut in Gangster No1. Oh well.

Sadly, the A.D told us our services weren't needed in this scene, so we were asked to go back into the castle cafeteria. Bugger. Back inside we traipsed, to sit around and take off those infernal helmets -- where one size is meant to fit all heads!

But then, amazingly, after 15 mins -- a runner came in and said: "Is Dan here?" I put my hand up. "Great, can you come with me, please?" Wow, great! Maybe I caught the eye of Miranda and Emily, so they want me up on stage, eh? Erm, no. As luck would have it, the camera angles of the stage area meant they needed "canon-firer number 4" to be in the background.

Oh well. Initially, I was a bit annoyed about being on canon 4, because I was quite far away from the camera, but flukily it meant I'd be needed for every shot of the tent scene! YES! But the downside is I'd be facing "out to sea", so you'll only ever see the back of my head. NOOO!

Ahhh, extra work: it lifts you up... to knock you down. Next time, in the final part of my extracurricular activity (see what I did there?) it's the most monotonous coach scene ever filmed...

Thursday, 27 September 2007

THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES 1.2-1.3 – "Revenge Of The Slitheen"

Writer: Gareth Roberts
Director: Alice Troughton

Cast: Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Yasmin Paige (Maria Jackson), Tommy Knight (Luke Smith), Daniel Anthony (Clyde Langer), Joseph Millson (Alan Jackson), Juliet Cowan (Chrissie Jackson), Alexander Armstrong (Mr Smith), Martyn Ellis (Blakeman), Ian Midlane (Jeffrey), Pamela Merrick (Wendy), Imogen Bain (Janine), Anton Thompson McCormick (Carl), Lachele Carl (American Newsreader), Jimmy Vee (Carl Slitheen) & Paul Kasey (Jeffrey/Blakeman/Janine Slitheen)

Maria and Luke arrive for their first day at school, only to discover a strange alien plot taking shape in the new technology block…

Success breeds imitators and spin-offs, as the revived Doctor Who is proving single-handedly. Lukewarm on the heels of Torchwood, eight months after its introductory episode Invasion Of The Bane, The Sarah Jane Adventures is the latest wheeze designed to milk the Time Lord's appeal for all it's worth...

Elisabeth Sladen reprises her role as 70s Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, a minor sci-fi icon and pin-up girl for a generation of anoraks. So while dads will be tuning in for saucy Sladen, their kids will remember her from Doctor Who episode School Reunion, which served as her introduction to the current generation.

Sarah Jane has been retooled as an intrepid defender of aliens herself, suddenly equipped with a sonic lipstick, artificially-intelligent computer "Mr Smith" (voiced by comedian Alexander Armstrong) and other high-tech gadgets that help deliver information, paper over cracks in the plot, tie-up any loose ends and get her out of scrapes.

Strangely, Sarah Jane is often a secondary character in this two-part epener, with the emphasis more on the gang of kids who know her secret: neighbour Maria (Yasmin Paige), adopted "son" Luke (Tommy Knight) and, introduced this episode, school friend Clyde (Daniel Anthony).

Revenge Of The Slitheen, written by Gareth Roberts (Who's The Shakespeare Code), utilizes popular aliens the Slitheen -- already familiar to fans of Doctor Who from Christopher Ecclestone's tenure. Well, I say "popular", but they were actually one of season 1's major missteps, being tonally so childish they alienated everyone over the age of 10.

Fortunately, the baby-faced Slitheen fit much better into a sci-fi adventure series designed for young children, with the pantomime-style of acting and fart jokes proving more acceptable in this context.

Of course, when reviewing The Sarah Jane Adventures you have to bare in mind its target audience of youngsters. Personally, I still cringed at the Slitheen's antics, but they do make decent villains for under-10s. It's just a shame Sarah Jane had to blatantly establish itself as from the Who family tree so immediately. I mean, even Torchwood waited a few episodes before dragging up a Cyberwoman for an easy "geekgasm".

Roberts script contains just the right degree of witty banter and light touches for its audience to enjoy, thankfully making the story surprisingly light on its feet. The 25-minute duration is also more suitable to kids, although Revenge Of The Slitheen's full 50-minute storyline never drags.

The kids are also surprisingly likeable and realistic, particularly Yasmin Paige as Maria, while Thomas Knight gives alien-genius Luke an engaging naivety about human interactions. Newcomer Daniel Anthony is also pretty solid as Clyde, replacing the teeth-grating annoyance of Kelsey Harper from the introductory episode.

It's also nice to see the special effects are on a par with Who's, except for a few gooey CGI explosions. The Slitheen creature effects are actually an improvement on their Who debut, without that embarrassing tendency to use CGI versions for any athletic running scenes.

The Sarah Jane Adventures gets off to a promising start, although kids over 14 are unlikely to be that engaged because of the young tone. Elisabeth Sladen is decent enough as the eponymous heroine, but at 59-years-old she's no spring chicken. She also carries the air of an actress whose career stalled post-Who, never recovered, and has subsequntly spent 20 years unable to escape her cult character. While I'm sure Sladen is genuinely glad writer Russell T. Davies came along and resuscitated her career by giving her an unnecessary spin-off show... there's a glazed-over look to her performance at times. You almost get the impression she's trapped in a recurring dream, never to escape Sarah Jane and all this silly alien jargon.

The show will undoubtedly be a success, because kids lap up anything Doctor Who-related these days. The same is true of many adult Who fans, particularly those who can remember Sladen from her days alongside Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. I still think the show is a lazy cash-in, which was true of Torchwood, too – but at least on Torchwood they can tackle provocative and controversial topics Doctor Who can't touch. Well, that was the plan, anyway...

Still, now we have an outlet for the more childish and frivolous storylines that sometimes clog up Doctor Who's seasons. I hope we can kiss goodbye to farting aliens and Abzorbaloff's when the good Doctor returns next year... so, for that at least, I'm grateful Sarah Jane exists.

But isn't this saving the world lark getting crowded now? Between Sarah Jane's gang, UNIT and Torchwood, are The Doctor's services even needed? I hope somebody puts K-9 down before his threatened cartoon series begins to take shape...

24 September 2007
BBC1, 5.00 pm
CBBC, 5:30 pm

On Set at WHAT time?

Have you ever had to wake up at an ungodly hour? I think we all have at some stage. It just completely messes with your head.

On Monday night I had to go to bed at 8 pm, in order to get 8 hours sleep before getting up for my call to the set of Young Victoria. I eventually went to bed at 9, because I'm not a child and can deal with 7 hours sleep. Oh yes.

11:45 pm. Oh no. I'm still awake. My determination to get to sleep is having the opposite effect.

3:45 am. Ooh. Must have drifted off. Damn, don't need to get up till 4:15, so lie awake in bed cursing the day I ever agreed to be a bloody film extra.

4:15 am. I spring out of bed with all the enthusiasm of... well, a man in his 80s. Amazingly, once I have clothes on, have brushed my teeth and washed my hair, I feel a bit better. But one look out the window, at the total darkness, saps my soul a bit more. Yawn.

4:30 am. I have a half-bowl of cereal to keep me going, then leave for Belvoir Castle. It's an hour's drive away from where I live. I need to be there by 6 am, so I'm giving myself 30 minutes of "emergency time", like a puncture or a breakdown. I'm now on the road.

4:40 am. Shit. I'm not convinced I have enough petrol for a 2-hour round trip, so find a 24-hour garage. I always find myself strangely fascinated by the fact society keeps on ticking past midnight. All those poor sods doing graveyard shifts, they're unsung heroes.

5:36 am. Oookay. I'm at Woolsthorpe-on-Belvoir. That sounds like I'm in the right area. Now where's Belvoir Castle. Are there any signposts? Anywhere?! I drive down windy, dark, narrow country roads, seemingly in a circle, for about 10 minutes.

5:49 am. Hooray! Belvoir Castle. This way. Up the road, on the bottom of a hill, is a collection of buses, cars and tents. A bloke guides me in to a car park, then directs me across to a large tent next to a snack-food van.

5:53 am. Oh yes. I'm on time. It's still depressingly dark outside, but inside the tent is quite bright and warm. The tent is divided into three areas: snack area, hair/make-up and costume fitting. I'm the third extra there. In the snack area, I meet some of the other extras and gulp down some coffee.

6:20 am. Still dark! More extras have arrived and we all sit around, small-talking. It seems most people are here for the money (£80 a day), and not the experience. So I feel like the odd-one-out. The money will come in handy, but is nobody just a little excited to be on a film set? Hmm.

Time now gets hazy. A rule of being an extra is keep mobile phones and other such devices off set, so I have stashed my mobile phone away. It must have been coming up to 7 am. I'm slightly irritated that I had to get up at 4:30 when 5:30 would have been fine. Oh well.

It's not long before the snack area is quite full, and I'm part of the first batch to be "processed", for lack of a better word. So it's off to the costume section of the big tent. I get my artilleryman's outfit on, then stand around to be fussed over by costumers -- who fit me with a holster, chest belts, a shiny buckle, etc. There! Off to hair and make-up...

I like sideburns. I get a nice fake pair stuck to my face using "spirit glue". They look a bit naff, really. The make-up lady says they cost £200!! Ahh, but then the magic happens. Once they're attached, you can fluff them out, then blend them into my hair colour. Wow! I now have a month's sideburn growth in under 10 minutes.

Hair next. I'm wearing a helmet, but I don't think the make-up girl knows this, so I just let her get on with it. The Victorian fashion was for front combing, so she basically brushes my hair forward and curls it with tongues. Simple stuff, but suddenly I really do look like a soldier from the 1840s! Cool. Oh yes, and I did have a shave the night before, which makes me look totally different (if you'd seen me the day before, anyway.) It all helps my mind-set, as I now really do look the part!

Back to the snack area for an egg bun, that unceremoniously squirts down by trousers. Shiiit. I spent the next 10 minutes secretly ferrying to the tea urn, to wet some napkins and sponge the egg away. It works. Phew!

By now it must have been 8 am, or thereabouts. People are arriving back into the snack section looking like they've beamed in from a Dickens novel. It's amazing how authentic modern people look in the right costume and make-up. It shouldn't be a surprise, but it sort of is. Movie magic. Only one Victorian gent playing on a PSP gives the game away...

I'd say it was 8:30 when we were called to the set. Just my fellow artillerymen -- six of us in total. We marched out to a minibus, with an Assistant Director, two costumers and... er, two other members of the crew. The bus drove up from the foot of the hill, through winding roads and pretty gardens, slowly ascending, until Belvoir Castle came into view...

Belvoir Castle is nothing astounding, like Windsor Castle or Blenheim Palace, but it's a quaint, picturesque place. Basically, a big mansion in the style of a castle -- no moat or anything, sadly. But there are some peacocks strutting around, rather oddly. There are also lots of trucks, vans, cars and horse boxes parked around Belvoir, with people walk about carrying Victorian props, while others mill about, or chat on phones and walkie-talkies.

We were led into Belvoir Castle, looking appropriately dapper and commanding in our blue-white uniforms, only to sit down in an ancilliary room... to wait again. Yes, the "waiting game" is something you play all the time as a supporting artiste! After a 20 minute wait, we were moved to a dim cafeteria, where other extras were waiting (dressed like Dickens characters), only to wait for another 20 minutes.

A posh military expert called Alistair arrived, who informed us we'd be firing canon in one scene. Cool! He detailed the chronology surrounding this part of the film (which I can't remember now), and told us the outside of Belvoir Castle was actually doubling for a coastal town Victoria visited in her 20s! They'll CGI in the water, I hope.

Anyway, the call came to go outside for a rehearsal of the canon scene, so out we went. The day had only just begun, and by the end... back pain and sores would have killed the novelty value of sharing a screen with Emily Blunt and Miranda Richardson...

HEROES 2.1 - "Four Months Later"

Writer: Tim Kring
Director: Greg Beeman

Cast: Dania Ramirez (Maya Herrera), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder Suresh), Jack Coleman (Mr. Bennet), Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Greg Grunberg (Matt Parkman), James Kyson Lee (Ando Masahashi), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), Adrian Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli), Stephen Tobolowsky (Bob), Cristine Rose (Angela Petrelli), Adair Tishler (Molly Walker), Shalim Ortiz (Alejandro Herrera), David Anders (Takezo Kensei), Nick D'Agosto (West), Lyndsy Fonseca (April), George Takei (Kaito Nakamura), Eriko Tamura (Yaeko), Sara Solomon (Martha) & Barry Shabaka Henley (Detective Bryan Fuller)

The heroes have started new lives after the events in New York, but Hiro is still in the past with legendary Japanese warrior Takezo Kensei, while his father Kaito receives a death threat...

After a debut season that became a global phenomenon, Heroes disappointed many with a plodding season finale. The sophomore season premiere of Volume II: Generations, entitled Four Months Later, jumps forward in time to catch-up with the heroes after they prevented New York's destruction...

Spaking of jumps in time, Hiro (Masi Oka) finds himself transported back to Kyoto, Japan in 1671, in the midst of a battle between a group of samurai and legendary warrior Takezo Kensei (David Anders). After saving Kensei from death, Hiro is disappointed to find his childhood hero is actually a youthful English conman, tricking his way across Japan...

Masi Oka was Heroes' heart last year, with his exuberance and saucer-faced joy proving to be the show's real trump card. Oka is his usual charismatic self here, although the period storyline doesn't seem to have much relevance. Historically, it's also extremely unlikely an Englishman would have been allowed to wander the Japanese countryside, as the Dutch were the only settlers -- but you don't watch Heroes for a history lesson!

David Anders (Alias) has a likeable vibe about him, but I'm not convinced by the decision to subvert expectation by changing Kensei's identity. I get the impression Hiro's "mission" is to make this unheroic young man live up to his own myth, but will audiences enjoy this historic diversion? I can't see how it can tie-in with present day events, but hopefully Hiro will drag Kensei into the contemporary world at some stage.

Back in the present day, the premiere focuses on adjustment for the characters, best exemplified by the Bennet family, who are now living as the Butler family in Costa Verde, California. Mr Bennet (can't bring myself to just call him Noah, sorry) is adamant indestructible daughter Claire "be entirely unextraordinary", so the shadowy Company don't discover their whereabouts...

Jack Coleman and Hayden Panettiere had a magnificent father/daughter dynamic last year, and their easy rapport is just as engaging as usual. Coleman is particularly great as Noah Bennet, forced to act subservient in a retail store, facing scorn from his young superior.

Panettiere remains endearing and cute as Claire, struggling to repress her academic skill and cheerleading prowess for the greater good. In an obvious development, the seed of a relationship is planted by introducing West (Nick D'Agosto), a young boy who takes a shine to Claire in class. It seems West will be allowed the romance that failed to develop between Zack and Claire last season.

Back in New York, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) has joined the NYPD, thanks to his mind-reading advantage, but while his professional life is on the up, his private life has shattered off-screen in divorce. It's a good move to make Matt single, as he was stuck in a limp marriage that crippled his character's involvement for long periods of season 1's first half.

Molly Walker (Adair Tishler), the young girl who played a pivotal in the season finale, is now under Matt's guardianship, but plagued by nightmares about a supervillain we've yet to meet. In typical spooky kid style, Molly has taken to drawing red eyes emblazoned with the helix symbol that recurred throughout season 1.

Indeed, the helix motif is incredibly strong in this episode, indicating its stronger relevance this year. It seems to be tied to the unseen supervillain, who in turn appears to have a connection to the older generation of heroes. Kaito Nakamura (George Takei) is shaken to discover a photo of himself with the helix, used as a death threat. Kaito's been awaiting his son Hiro's return, while Ando (James Kyson Lee) has apparently risen to stature in Nakamoto's company, if his executive overcoat is any indication...

With the suffix of Generations, Volume II is clearly going to delve into the mysteries surrounding the older heroes -- including Angela Petrelli (Cristine Rose), who cuts her usual Cruella de Ville figure throughout the episode, blaming son Nathan's cowardice for his current state as a bearded washout, grieving over the loss of brother Peter. Adrian Pasdar doesn't get much to do as Nathan, although a late scene hints at a bizarre development for his character -- as his reflection shows him burned and disfigured!

Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy), whose "super power" is audience valium, sadly returns for more pretencious voice-over and humourless tedium. Here, Mohinder mirrors season 1's premiere with another crackpot lecture in Cairo -- speaking about an impending plague that only targets superpowered individuals. Frustratingly, the details of this plague remain vague and has appeared from nowhere, although I suspect it will become this season's "bomb". X-Men fans can be found rolling their eyes as Heroes rips off the Legacy Virus, though...

Writer Tim Kring stirrs some new characters into the mix, like mysterious Bob (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man with a "Midas Touch", who offers Mohinder a Company job. Hispanic siblings Maya and Alejandro Herrera also feature throughout the premiere episode, desperartely trying to get across the US border to cure Maya of her unspecified, dangerous power after reading Chandra Suresh's book...

Unfortunately, the Herrera's scenes are limp and unfocused, merely eating up time -- with actors Shalim Ortiz and Dania Ramírez not given anything to do but run around and act scared. Their addition to the show also means more subtitles to read, as Heroes grows steadily closer to becoming a true comic-reading experience!

While catching up with all the characters is generally interesting, only the Bennet family are sufficiently well-drawn to have the experience mean something to viewers. But Matt and Molly make fior a nice duo, as Grunberg is far more plausible as a cuddly dad than action cop, and child actress Tishler looks much more confident in her role.

For a premiere, Four Months Later isn't dramatic or exciting enough to launch season 2 with the expected fireworks. The plague concept is sketchy, Hiro's subplot seems like another pointless diversion for the show's best character, while the hints at a mysterious threat is ground already covered by Sylar. Whatever tension exists over a new antagonist quickly dissipates when a "hoodie-villain" makes his debut, especially because the faceless, super-powered attacker was done last year.

Overall, season 2's premiere is a competent start to Volume II, with a handful of nice moments and enough intriguing notions to keep your faith. But after last year's whimper-not-a-bang finale, there's an element of caution in watching Heroes now. It remains to be seen if the writers can develop the characters, broaden the scope, deepen the mythology, and concoct threats that outdo a brain-guzzling psycho and an exploding man.

24 September 2007
NBC, 9/8c pm