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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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


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 and 4/5 on

Stuff of The Year 2014 1: Movies

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules. This is the first in the series, and it’s the films that have stayed with me. I’ll stick with films I saw at the cinema or in 2014. Probably. Actually I cheated; there’s a few I watched on (legal) download or DVD. I’m in South Africa, so we don’t get all the same films or release dates as the rest of you … there’s a lot I miss or catch up on at a later date on TV or DVD or planes. Planes don’t count as they’re a rubbish place to properly absorb a film. To read my full review of each film, click on the movie title. Years are the year of original cinematic release. Titles are listed in the order I saw them. 

The Raid (2011)

An Olympian-scale celebration of martial arts and the action movie genre in general. Breathtaking, even on a laptop screen, it really has to be seen to be believed.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

A richly textured tragic-comedy from Woody Allen, distinguished by uniformly excellent performances and lifted to a whole other level by Cate Blanchett’s remarkable central turn. It’s good enough, too, to ask the viewer searching questions of him or herself.

12 Years A Slave (2013)

Everything has been said about this film, and it’s one of those that the wary viewer might avoid for fear it’s over-worthy or over-praised. That would be a mistake. It’s every bit as remarkable as has been said, and every bit as essential. Somehow I never found the pain or injustice oppressive; it’s as humane and hopeful as it is hard and true.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

A college comedy about music that I first saw on a plane is pretty much a guaranteed disaster. I’ve seen this at least 4 times now, and every time I’ve cried with laughter. It’s a grin-inducing joyride. 2015’s sequel worries me; but we’ll always have this.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

Two films in and this is a franchise reboot in danger of serious quality. Special effects used to serve the story, never overwhelming the human element; great action sequences that feel tangibly real; actual ideas to feed the head. It’s hard to credit that people choose Michael Bay films over this.

Boyhood (2014)

A remarkable film in every facet, there has never been anything like this. The scale of vision and commitment from director and actors is staggering to comprehend; that it falls together into a coherent, gripping, entertaining whole as opposed to collapsing into a self-important artistic experiment is barely believable.

Calvary (2014)

On paper this is a self-conscious and artificial film; in reality it’s a deeply human, funny, and gripping meditation on the pastoral calling, community and changing cultures and much else besides. The brilliant and devastating closing sequences are masterful.

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Insubstantial, but as addictive and sky high on smiles as it’s possible for a film to be. Irresistible fun backed up by The Proclaimers’ indestructible set of songs.

Gone Girl (2014)

A darkly entertaining neo-gothic thriller and troubling state of the nation address on our romantic relationships, David Fincher’s on his game and in his sweet spot here. Stay spoiler-free and this will stay with you for a long time.

Interstellar (2014)

There are lots of reasons not to see this. It’s flawed. It’s packed with science. It’s long. It’s got some philosophy in it. None of these are remotely acceptable reasons to miss this on the big screen. Staggering, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. A film doesn’t have to be perfect to haunt the memory long after final credits roll.

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

When something new(ish) comes along, it’s easy to see that as a criticism of the old and the pre-existing. This is especially true in the realm of church life, where people get attached to what they know and feel threatened by change and shocked by the new. Mission-shaped church is especially vulnerable to this: in an enthusiasm to rethink church and discipleship in such a way as to ensure it is directed towards those who don’t know Jesus, it’s easy to criticise or be seen to criticise that which is already happening.

Sometimes that’s because the people bringing the change are bored or frustrated. That’s not the point, though. Mission-shaped church is not church for the bored or angry or frustrated. It’s church for people who won’t be part of church otherwise. It’s church for people who don’t do church. That doesn’t mean that the existing church is suddenly irrelevant. Church as it exists continues to work for many people and as such it has an important, life-giving role. The mission-shaped realisation is one that wants to add and multiply, not replace.

Isaiah prophesied about rebuilding on ancient foundations; to do so needs those foundations. Build without ancient foundations and you’ve got a problem.

Photo from

Doing church in the pub was an addition to church as it was happening already, not a replacement of what the people already knew.

Jesus and the early church preached and healed in synagogues and on the streets; in the ancient places and the virgin territory.

It’s what a wise former Archbishop called mixed economy; not either/or but both/and.

Don’t dismiss what you have; it’s what you’ll build on. Don’t dismiss the ancient; it’s what gives meaning to the new. Don’t choose between old and new. Let each inform and refresh and incarnate the other.

Also in this series: 








Towards Another Future, Part 3: New Car Syndrome

Part One

Part Two

You all know it. You’ve never heard of something, or paid much attention to it. Then you acquire it, find out about it, visit it or … whatever … and then you can’t seem to avoid seeing it everywhere. The syndrome is well-known especially with cars  – you’ve never noticed that make of car before, then once you buy one it seems to be in front of you at every set of lights.

I had this experience in relation to the fostering journey the other night whilst engaging in one of my other passions: film-watching. It was one of the films that had been clogging up our hard-disk recorder for a while; we’d missed it at the cinema because I think it was one of those that received little or no release in South Africa. It was The Place Beyond The Pines; a fine, engaging and beautifully shot, emotionally driven crime-drama. Ryan Gosling is a motorbike stunt driver who quits his job when he discovers he has a young son in the town his show has stopped off in. In an attempt to buy his way into the son’s life he falls into a life of crime, which puts him on an intersecting path with a good policeman (Bradley Cooper) attempting to pick his way through a corrupt police department. It’s hard to say much more without significant plot spoilers; but what there is throughout the film is a sometimes effective, sometimes contrived parallel between the two main characters and their families. As the film progresses we move into a kind of territory where the film almost becomes a parable for the idea of sins of fathers being visited on children – and the chilling reality that could represent. It’s never less than involving, though in truth the film loses some impact by over-stretching its point and its running time. As is often the case, less would have meant more.

My ‘new car’ moment side-swiped me somewhere in the film’s later stages, when a relatively minor part of the film’s story evidenced itself as about fostering/adoption. Previously I’d have brushed over it; it’s not a film about fostering and adoption, really. However three important characters are clearly in this territory. When that dawned on me, the rest of the film became refracted through that lens. Was this how all fostered or adopted children grow up? If they’ve come from birth backgrounds that aren’t supportive, are the children unavoidably destined to be affected by the lives of their birth parents? What is the role of the adoptive or fostering parent, then? Are you destined to fail, or can you make any difference?

I’m by nature prone to worry, so I guess it’s inevitable that this line of thought would present itself at some point. On deeper reflection too I’m aware of my wife’s own experience as an adoptive child: loving adoptive homes make a huge difference. There’s always going to be issues, however. Issues of rejection, identity and heritage to name three. The dance between nature and nurture appears to be a complex one indeed.

We’re on this road now, though. Maybe not forever; and we’re not committed to the destination yet. Truth is, we don’t even know what the destination is. It’s comforting, predictable and also a little strange that all these similar looking cars suddenly seemed to have joined us.

I rated this film 7/10 in and 3/5 on