A Strange Review: “W1A”

Programme Name: W1A 2 - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes

Picture Shows: Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Jack Barnes

“Hah?” is what you’re saying to yourself right about now, or “Huh?” or “Heh?” or “Where’s my avocado?”

So I was rummaging through what’s new on Netflix and came across this gem of a Britcom I had never heard of before, and if you know me, you know that’s strange, because I love and adore Britcoms and pride myself on keeping abreast of all the great stuff I haven’t seen yet.

W1A stars Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, as the new “Head of Values” at the BBC. It seems that the Royal Charter is set to be renewed for the Beeb in 2016, but before that can happen the venerable institution has to figure out what it’s real purpose is in a digital age.

The dialogue is composed mostly of truncated vocables, half-sentences, unfinished thoughts, questions without answers, “Right,” “Brilliant,” all spoken, or spit out, by a lot of stressed-out producers and directors and interns who don’t know whether they’re coming or going if for no other reason than they’re constantly being interrupted by their cell phones, new reports they were supposed to have read via a new tablet-based super-app called Syncopatico, 11 years in the making, which, frankly, never works, and strategies no one can figure out because they are never fully thought through but nevertheless must be acted upon.

All the while there is a narrator setting the stage for that day’s source of conflicts, the who’s who among the nameless, and otherwise giving us backstory that, if you listen very carefully, amounts to nonsense like “This person’s still here.”

The Beeb headquarters is a U-shaped glass palace where small conference rooms are dominated by grotesque B&W images of former BBC stars like Morecambe and Wise, the two Ronnies, and don’t be surprised if you walk in on Salman Rushdie and Alan Yentob arm-wrestling.

And that was just the first 20 minutes of the pilot, a substory of which focuses on the network’s bad press regarding rank discrimination within its ranks, which is very bad. The people demanding justice and redress of grievances, of course, are the Cornish, only four of whom were represented in the 2012 London Olympics—and they all lost. (One of the spokespersons for the Cornish cause is a BBC news reader who believes she has been discriminated against because of her “West Country” accent, which she doesn’t have, because she’s not Cornish.)

The tone of W1A is sort of anti-Armando Ianucci (The Thick of It, Veep), which is to say, it’s not about a bunch of vicious, self-seeking, foul-mouthed cartoons making each other’s lives miserable as they claw their way to the nearest john to throw up their anti-depressants. The W1A troupe don’t seem to know what it is they are seeking and are trying very hard to work with each other to find out before they all lose their jobs.

Their number one obstacle to achieving this goal, of course, is a common language, which no one seems to understand.

I know what I’ll be binge-watching over the Labor Day weekend, and it will probably be Twenty-Twelve.

Posted in A Strange Review, And Then Everyone Died There | 3 Comments

Idris Elba and the James Bond Kerfuffle

291719_Idris_Elba_01_591wSo Roger Moore thought the erstwhile star of The Wire and Luther couldn’t play James Bond because Bond should be “English-English,” which is to say white. And the author of the latest James Bond novel who is not Ian Fleming thinks Elba can’t play James Bond because Elba’s too “street,” which I think is code for “too black.”

You know who first pitched the idea of Idris Elba as James Bond?

I did.

Behold: a screen shot from Mollie’s Twizzler feed, when she retwitted a twit from my now defunct Twizzler account, dated September 28, 2011.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 10.30.33 PMBut do I get any credit? No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. Now if Elba goes on to play the role, as he should, because the franchise is going to need to be shaken and perhaps even stirred once Daniel Craig goes the way of all Bonds, will I at least get an invite to opening night? How about a pass to a local showing? A coupon for when it comes out on Blu-Ray?


I would never say that anyone who disagreed about such casting was just racist. I don’t play those games. I would say, however, that anyone who disagreed was definitely lacking in imagination. Elba would be one of the coolest double-ohs yet.

Posted in Cinecitta | 8 Comments

A Very Strange Preview: Sergio Leone’s “The Siege of Leningrad”

Sergio_LeoneThe only stories I love to read more than “The Making of …” this or that film are stories about films that almost got made, kinda got made, never got made.

I recently treated myself to a popcorn book, The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, and although I knew broadly about several of these would-be almost sorta films: Kubrick’s Napoleon, Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind (which actually was shot, just never completed), Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried (which was not only shot but finished, but is so bad, Lewis has forbidden its release for another 10 years).

But Sergio Leone’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad was a new one to me.

Leone first travelled to the USSR in 1971 to gain their trust and cooperation, feeling he could not film anywhere other than Leningrad itself. However, it took the ascendance of Gorbachev in 1984, and the relaxing of restrictions, or Glasnost, to change Soviet inflexibility; Once Upon A Time In America was the first of Leone’s films to be allowed a release in the Soviet Union. Leone suggested a Russian writer, familiar with the conditions of the siege, work with him on the script, to which the authorities agreed. Leone envisioned the film beginning thus:

“I start with a close-up of the hands of Shostakovich. They are on the keys of his piano … The camera will be on a helicopter out of the house and close up will be taken through the open window. We see the hands seeking the notes of the “Leningrad Symphony”. And the composer begins. The music is repetitive. It begins with three instruments, then five, then ten, then twenty, then one hundred. … And my opening will be made ​​on this music. In one clip. A clip as it has never been done: the camera leaves the close up of the hands of the composer. It goes back. We discover his room. It comes out through the window. It is the street. Dawn. Two civilians out into the street. Everyone carries a gun. And they ride on a tram. The camera follows the tram. The music continues. The tram stops several times. Civilians take it. They are all carrying weapons. Finally, the tram arrives in a suburb. It stops in a small square where there are already several other trams. And beside them, there are waiting trucks. Trams empty. All the passengers were armed men … no women. Men climb into the trucks. The camera follows the truck. Always the music. Always the same plane. No cuts. No inserts. And we arrive at the front trenches to protect the city. Music is increasingly strong. There are trenches. And suddenly, the camera goes to the steppe. Huge. Empty. The music rises more. Until the camera has crossed the steppe to take in a row, thousands of  German tanks ready to fire. And from the first shots, mixed with music, I cut! Following plan: a curtain opens. This is the concert of Shostakovich. Five thousand people in the room. Hundred eighty musicians play. And then: CREDITS!”

Would it have been more Inchon than Apocalypse Now? We’ll never know.

Also on my shelves is The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. Written in 2001, a lot of these films have now actually been made—Fantastic Four, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I Am Legend—but by different filmmakers, and with dubious results.

Oh, and while I’ve got your attention: director Ridley Scott originally wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Deckard in Blade Runner. (Don’t laugh—Hoffman’s so good an actor, I bet he could have pulled it off. Imagine a futuristic Lenny Bruce. Now imagine that he may or may not be a vice cop who arrests guys like Lenny Bruce.) And there’s a product-placement curse attached to the flick. What do Atari, Pan Am, RCA, Cuisinart, and Bell Phones all have in common, other than that their logos appeared in the film? That’s right. They dead.

Posted in A Strange Preview, Cinecitta | 1 Comment

Strange Quote of the Day: Ronda Rousey

“Honesty pays, but it pays very slowly, and doesn’t pay consistently.”

If you have a low tolerance level for locker-room language, I advise against clicking the play button.

Or, you may want to cut to the second half of the discussion, about the science of making weight, steroids in the sport, training routines, reading opponents, improvising in the ring. It’s less rowdy and a lot of fun if you’re into MMA, judo, boxing, or just kicking people in the face.

Rousey vs. Gina Carano can still happen: onscreen.

Posted in Strange Quote of the Day | Leave a comment

A Strange Preview: “Concussion”

So Will Smith’s in the Oscar race, I’m thinkin’.

Based on the true story of a Nigerian-born neuropathologist who, after studying head trauma in NFL players, made the all-important link between repeated concussions and early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Needless to say, the NFL, like Big Tobacco, was in no rush to accept these findings that could conflict with the bottom line.

Great line: “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week!”

UPDATE: Seems concerns about blowback from the NFL may have resulted in Sony Pictures tweaking aspects of the story.

In the end even Sony, which unlike most other major studios in Hollywood has no significant business ties to the N.F.L., found itself softening some points it might have made against the multibillion-dollar sports enterprise that controls the nation’s most-watched game.

In dozens of studio emails unearthed by hackers, Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.

Posted in A Strange Preview | Leave a comment

Oopsie: Is this Qur’an OLDER than Muhammad?


From “V for Vendetta.” Fry’s character had a rare copy of the Qur’an he was protecting from the evil government. Your laugh here.

So this should be fun (subscription required):

A copy of the Koran that may predate the Prophet Muhammad could rewrite the early history of Islam, scholars believe.

Scientists at the University of Oxford said last month that carbon dating of a fragment of the holy text held by a Birmingham library suggested that it was among the oldest in the world.

The Daily Mail has just such a subscription and follows up:

Historian Tom Holland, told the Times: ‘It destabilises, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything with certainty about how the Koran emerged — and that in turn has implications for the history of Muhammad and the Companions.’

Keith Small, from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, added: ‘This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.

Needless to say, Muslim scholars aren’t buying it, questioning the carbon dating results and whether the tests were done on the parchment or on the ink. It would probably be wise to apply the same skepticism as we (or at least I) normally do when the papers announce a startling discovery that will turn Christianity upside down.

Anybody remember the Jesus family “bones box” or Jesus’s wife or the “gospel” of Judas?

Posted in History's a Fickle Bitch, Yes but Do You Have a Receipt | 1 Comment

“There Are Only Two Conceptions of Human Ethics”

1346040046573.cachedI am rereading Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s masterwork limning the psychology of Soviet totalitarianism, and realized you can justify anything if you believe you are on the right side of History. Kill babies, sell off the parts, then lie about it? That’s amateur night.

Here is a portion of the classic colloquy between Ivanov, a veteran of the civil war and an Old Bolshevik, and Rubashov, legendary former member of the Central Committee, erstwhile Commissar of the People, about to be purged for his sentimental ideas about the brutal tactics employed by the Revolution.

Ivanov: “There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian example? You can’t point out one. In times of need—and politics are chronically in a time of need—the rulers were always able to evoke “exceptional circumstances,” which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism…”

Rubashov: “In the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it’s a matter of submarines, manure, or the Party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in the administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequently in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism, and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see…. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles, and nerves….”

Ivanov: ”Well, and what of it? … Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. This is not an occupation for people with weak nerves…. This sudden revulsion against experimenting is rather naïve. Every year several million people are killed quite pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history? Not to mention the legions of those who die from undernourishment and tuberculosis in coal and quicksilver mines, rice-fields, and cotton plantations. No one takes any notion of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth. Yes, we liquidated the parasitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It was a surgical operation which had to be done once and for all; but in the good old days before the Revolution just as many died in any dry year—only senselessly and pointlessly. The victims of the Yellow River floods in China amount sometimes to hundreds of thousands. Nature is generous in her senseless experiments on mankind. Why should mankind not have the right to experiment on itself?”

There lies deep within every soul an inkling, an intimation, that things are not as they should be—that something is fundamentally wrong, with society, culture, government, our very selves. We do not do what we want, and we do what we don’t want. In short, we act in self-destructive ways even as we protest that we are exercising our freedom in the name or survival and self-expression. We have “fallen” from a great height, a status, a stature, that we can still vaguely discern. Call this “golden age” a myth, if you like, but if we are merely material byproducts of an inexorable and natural process, with one trajectory, then we should be more comfortable in our skin than we are. Instead, an uneasiness about the state of things troubles everyone, as does the burden of putting down the Old Man and his anarchic predations so that a New Man can arise.

So again, there are two ethics at work in our world: the Christian and the Collective. One accepts the New Nature in a purely passive manner, as sheer gift, as grace, but also aware that it cost Someone a great price to win. Those who accept the New Nature must also bear it in a worthy manner, not out of compulsion but out of gratitude, always failing, always repenting, always striving again to witness to their new reality (as opposed to a mere abstraction or fantasy, an idea to be incarnated in some imaginary future).

The other, the Collective, seeks to construct a New Nature, a New Human, by law, coercion, threats, shame, mass-media manipulation. It demands compliance and conformity, plays god because it has outlawed Him as not up to the task of constructing the New Eden “which only we can see.” It rips the skin off babies with an eye toward a future that will be numb to any absolute notion of the truly human that is not first vetted by the Collective, always with an eye toward how this New Human will benefit that same Collective, and especially the elites that sit on its Central Committee.


Posted in Don't Blame Me I Didn't Vote for Him, Infinite Human Capacity for Stupidity, Strange Quote of the Day | 8 Comments