Stuff Of The Year 2014, 4: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the television that has most improved the year. They’re in no order. Click on the titles for links to trailers for the shows.

Fargo

From a distance, this could only go wrong. Taking the one of the Coen brothers’ most loved films and turn it into a series? The reality was more of an extended riff on the film, taking it in whole new directions to masterful effects. It carried many of the hallmarks of the film directors’ work: a script that shifts effortlessly from quirky humour to dark foreboding, brilliant lead performances and sudden, powerful, thrilling action sequences. Season one was a triumph; we have familiar fears about making it work for a second series.

Broadchurch

We got this about a year after everyone else, so it feels like we’ve come hopelessly late to the party. Brilliant though, wasn’t it? Essentially a fairly standard issue murder story, with a variety of suspects, it was lifted way above average by David Tenant and Olivia Coleman’s lead performances. That, and a good portrayal of a vicar.

The Americans

An entry in the ‘can’t believe it’s not hugely popular’ category. It’s a thriller-drama about a deep cover pair of Russian spies in 1980s America, posing as an ordinary suburban family. Yes, it’s a thriller: it’s also an insightful meditation on family, marriage, trust, loyalty and identity in the same way The Sopranos was as much as about family as it was the mob. It’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as that show.

The Knick

This show is what you get when you give one of cinema’s better directors (Steven Soderbergh) time and space to develop an idea. In an age when scientists are the new, infallible priests, this was a timely drama about the price of scientific progress set in turn of the century New York, focussed on one hospital and one man (Clive Owen) in particular. Historically set, but of urgent contemporary relevance.

True Detective

A murder story told in two time-zones; the original investigation and a revisiting years later, this was dark and troubling at times – as much for its conclusions about human nature and what it takes to weed out evil when it rears its head. Made with cinematic flourishes and outstanding performances, it was often hard viewing but always deep and true.

Homeland

Homeland suffered from a great first series – series 2 and 3 tried but failed to live up to the launch. Series 4 has been outstanding, a morally complex investigation of the war on terror and the political and personal price it exerts on all of us. Outside America we’re often tempted to think of US views on some issues as uniform; shows like this undercut our assumptions and ask us think very hard about the conclusions we draw on our eras biggest issues.

Rev

After 3 series, this is still the sitcom that understands faith and ministry, a televisual companion to cinema’s Calvary. Funny, sad and true in all the ways that real-life ministry is.

Gotham

A dark, funny, exciting Batman origins series – there’s too many comic-book adaptations around; this is one of the best, though. It feels fresh and exciting, and it’s made with so much conviction that it’s hard to resist.

Doctor Who

We’re only a couple of episodes in here, but we’ve seen enough to know that Peter Capaldi is more than up to the task of one of the biggest roles on television – sufficiently different and subtle to move the character and the series along. Looking forward to what lies ahead, that most of you have already seen.

 

Also In This Series

1: Movies

2: Books

3: Music

Stuff of The Year 2014, 3: Music

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the music that has most improved the year. They’re in no order, the year in brackets is the year of release. I’ve included links for some of the music. 

Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn (2014)

Remember the Britpop wars? Liam and Noel, where are you now? Was there really ever a question about who was going to emerge from the coke and money blizzard of the mid-90s British music scene with creative integrity intact? Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo album is a thing of understated beauty: a series of diverse influences, well-written songs and more than a dash of contemporary social relevance and wit.

Mr Tembo – if I had such a thing as a song of the year, this would probably be it. 

Heavy Seas Of Love

Hostiles

The music of Steve Lawson  (late ’90s to present day)

2014 has been a very tough year at times – there have been some spectacularly low lows. Engaging with Steve Lawson’s music has done a lot to get me through the year intact. He’s an ambient instrumental bass guitarist. If that sounds pretentious, it isn’t; Steve’s music has a deep honesty and powerful yet hard to define healing quality. I’ve lost count with the number of times I’ve reached for his music in the midst of a very dark day; the day hasn’t got easier as a result, but at least I was able to turn on a light. He’s also a really engaging social media presence.

Steve Lawson’s website (including links to buy his music)

Sleep Like A Baby Tonight by U2  (2014)

Only U2 could give something away for free and still annoy people; the new album was a patchy affair. When it was good it was very good; it’s hard, though, to tell the difference between many of the songs. It’s in danger of being very bland. Given this is the band that gave us Achtung Baby, that’s sad. This song was one of the highlights, a slow-burner that reveals it’s theme slowly and powerfully.

The Take Off And Landing Of Everything by Elbow (2014)

Not the best Elbow album, but its charms revealed themselves journeying across Morocco; so this is as much about the context I ‘got’ this music in as much as it is the music itself. Plus they use the word ‘shindig’ in a rock song. Which is awesome.

Fly Boy Blue/Lunette

New York Morning

I’ve just noticed that compared to last year’s equivalent, this is short. Oh well – in my defense, there is the entire work to date of one artist in there. Plus time and money mean my purchase of music is limited these days. Of course, it’s not like last year’s entries aren’t still nourishing me…

Also in this series … 

1: Movies

2: Books

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2014 that have most improved the year. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent. The year in brackets is the year of publishing.

Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner (2013)

A great sports book, that transcends its subject. Thematic rather than strictly chronological, this is the anatomy of genius; it does justice to one of the greatest exponents on his art and it’s hard to imagine a genuine football fan or anyone interested in what goes into making greatness not enjoying this. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

Tresspass by Rose Tremain (2010)

An elegantly written, finely tuned novel by way of Ian McEwen, this exerts a vice like grip on the attention and never fails to develop its big themes of family, expats and greed. Rose Tremain at her understated and gripping best.

The Circle by Dave Eggars (2013)

Contemporary literary fiction of the most urgent, relevant kind; a convincing portrait of a near-future nightmare at the hands of omnipresent corporations and social media; never less than accessible or fun, too. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (2012)

One of my favourite writers, McGregor is the great painter of contemporary urban Britain, spinning beauty out of the mundane and everyday. This is a collection of short stories, poems and bits and pieces around the broad theme the lenses we view life through and how they shift over time. Sometimes accessible, sometimes odd; always brilliant.

How God Became King by N T Wright (2012)

NT Wright is the era’s defining theologian, and this is one of his more popular level works, aiming to make his take on the Gospels accessible to the everyday reader. It’s pretty much essential reading for the Christian looking to really get to grips with the scope of what Jesus came to do.

Red Letter Christianity by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (2012)

The authors are at the forefront of a movement seeking to transform how Biblically faithful Christians are viewed. It’s an American-centred book, but still vital reading if you say you care about Christian faith and social justice.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery (2013)

Absolution was one of my favourite books of the last few years; the follow-up isn’t quite that good, but nearly. It’s a literary thriller with some dazzlingly good touches; it’s thematically about truth, lies and the security we crave. It entertains and feeds the brain.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A bona fide masterpiece of sinuous prose, bravura characters and hallucinogenic portrayals. Every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Winter of The World by Ken Follett (2012)

The middle volume of 20th century spanning trilogy of  historical fiction, setting the trials of families from various nations against the backdrop of World War 2. Brilliantly executed, crowd-pleasing and no small achievement.

Dominion by C J Sansom (2012)

I love the Shardlake novels, but his may be his best; an alternate history novel set in a Britain which sought peace in 1940; it’s thrilling and chilling in its portrayal of how history turns on a sixpence. Characters are rich and deep, and not just the main ones – even the bit parts are richly textured.

Also In This Series

1: Movies

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

I saw this film in IMAX 3D HFR format.

Some people are never satisfied. Granted, there’s not a single one of Peter Jackson’s six Tolkein adaptations that isn’t in some way flawed. To listen to some talk about the Hobbit films you’d think, however, that he was guilty of mass murder or at least the Transformer films. I remain convinced that from the perspective of history this set of six will be widely-loved and cherished. Frankly I want him to keep making films like this for the rest of my life.

If the first Hobbit was a film that spoke to me of grace and the second was one that spoke to me of joy, then this third instalment induces in me somewhere between childlike wonder and awe. Like the rest of this trilogy, it’s too little narrative stretched over too much screen time. Like The Return Of The King the large-scale battle sections overwhelm character and nuance. Like all the other films, Orlando Bloom is still phoning it in. Unlike the 3rd LOTR film, this one decides that one ending will suffice; and it’s a beautiful, funny and entirely apt ending that moved me to a slightly moistened eye behind my annoying 3D glasses.

Like the other films, and true to Jackson’s film-making roots, there’s some tough stuff in here. Picking up right where the previous film left off, it opens with Smaug laying waste to the nearby city; the attendant action scenes are fantastic, and the footage of ordinary people turned to refugees in fearful panic is chilling and contemporary. There then, essentially, follows a series of sequences of various characters being foreboding about oncoming war, plus a little sneaking around and double-dealing. Richard Armitage as dwarf king Thorin takes centre stage wrestling with ‘gold sickness’ as much as Frodo will later wrestle with the Ring’s power and temptations. It doesn’t quite have the Ring’s chilling relevance but it’s powerful stuff nonetheless and still a fine performance.

It’s all marking time, to be honest, for the titular battle. A masterfully presented battle it is too. There’s a few moments where there’s too much CGI (Legolas running up some falling bricks sticks in the memory in a bad way); other than that, it’s stunning. There are five armies, and for us to be fully involved in personal skirmishes as well as large scale conflict and still be able to keep a handle on the story and who is fighting who and why is no small achievement. There are moments of liquid beauty too – elf armies aligning, especially; and some truly memorable weapons and creatures … a large troll-thing with a stone thing round his head being a funny but still powerful highlight.

As mentioned, occasionally the computer imagery takes over too much, which is an unusual fault in these films. Mostly the human wins through, but here the artifice is occasionally too obvious. For me this was exacerbated by the artificiality of HFR; all be it that IMAX remains the best format for large-scale films like this. By movie’s end, however, it was only my diary and the late hour keeping me from diving straight into the LOTR trilogy.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com