Saturday, December 29, 2007

Guest Blogger: Steve Fitzpatrick

Just so you know, each year on the podcast UK DVD Review I do a poll whose format is a chart countdown but whose sole purpose is to get you ten great DVD recommendations. I ask for votes and it's all tabulated away merrily in Excel, but I am fully blatant about how I'm more interested in passion for a DVD than I am for just weight of numbers. So each year I ask for a vote - and a reason why you're voting for this or that particular title.

But for the 2007 poll, I got more tremendously considered reasons than ever before. I felt bad that I was going to reduce people's fine work to a two-liner, so I said I'd stop hoarding these great emails. Over the next little while, I'm going to show you what people showed me: the best reasons for loving the best DVDs.

First up, Steve Fitzpatrick. I'd tell you what he voted for but his email was one that worked through his arguments nicely and I'm just going to shut up.



From: Steve Fitzpatrick


Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, sadly in our household, not so much. If a film or programme is branded as worthy it means it is usually beautifully filmed and themes and ideas are fully explored in all their minutiae, characters developed extensively (preferably in flash-back or flash-forward) dialogue is crafted so carefully each word carries a thousand meanings. Usually when you get to the end you discover there has been no plot, and what you have watched has left you mystified and confused as to what has happened. The phrase pretentious billooks (got to be careful of the profanity check) never entered my head.

Steven Poliakoff is usually worthy - yes, I have just watched Capturing Mary - did it show?

That's why with eager anticipation I sat down to watch Die Hard 4.0. and instantly put it to the top of my list of DVD's this year. While it has no plot either it contains the necessary essentials to while away a winters evening. Chases, one liners, explosions, a bit of gun play, more one liners and even more explosions. What more do you need? It even has Bruce looking moody, bruised and torn. No character development, no plot, but at least at the end you know where you have been. I don't think I'll be giving away too much to tell you that the baddy gets it.

An unworthy, shallow, film then; and definitely my DVD of the year.

I haven't had the chance to watch Oceans 13 yet but, fun caper it undoubtedly will be, it doesn't have the Bruce factor.


In a chance conversation I remembered Pierrepoint, recently re released, about the career of Albert Pierrepoint Britain's most "successful" hangman. This is a film I saw at the cinema, it had a limited release and needed extensive research to find where it was playing. It left a huge mark on me, I talked about it endlessly for weeks after and clamoured for its DVD release. It is rare for me to revisit a DVD more than a couple of times, but this was a film I would play to anyone given the merest excuse, and watched over and over. I can't say "enjoyed" it, the subject matter doesn't lend itself to enjoyment, but I was captivated by it. Each viewing giving a different nuance, a different feeling, about the subject matter and still left me tense and shocked by what I saw.

It is, however beautifully acted, and the characters well explored. Timothy Spall is exceptional in the lead role as the film follows Pierepoint's career, from applying for the job of hangman to his resignation, after some 600 executions, in the late 1950's.

It shows a man, dedicated to his work, and applying the job dignity and compassion to the prisoner sentenced to death, yet a man totally dedicated to being the best at his job.

It shows the effect the work had on him. Albert Pierrepoint kept his government job to himself, and no-one knew what he did, not even his wife until the newspapers revealed his identity as a "hero" following the executions of the Nazi hierarchy at Nuremburg to his vilification as the country increasingly turned against capital punishment.

The one thing this film doesn't do is comment. It is neither pro nor anti capital punishment. It does not glorify or vilify. It presents just the facts (taken from Pierrepoint's autobiography) and leaves the viewer to make up their own minds. It does however provoke debate, and I have seen people's attitude to capital punishment both re-inforced or reversed after viewing.

The subject matter does not make for an enjoyable film. It is however compelling and thought provoking. In other words, worthy. And I mean that as the highest compliment.

I wholehearted commend this worthy film as my DVD of the year.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Over-examining one line

It's fashionable for actors to say they chose a role because of the script.  But they only say that in pre-release promo interviews; when it comes to getting an award, they will still thank the director for creating such a great role.

And I can understand that. To be callous, the director is more likely to get the actor work than the writer is. But also the actor and director will have worked together much more closely than writer and actor, writer and director, writer and stationery supplier. 

I'm considerably more troubled when an actor says the script is the thing and then you see it really isn't. It can be that his or her specific role was good, that it was something that truly stretched them, and that it was something that looked great on the showreel. And it can all be bollocks: saying you made your choice because of the script makes you sound good. You've got options, it says. You're a team player because you're thinking of the whole project. You're smart. You didn't just say yes because you needed the money.

Saying that one thing means all these others, and that'd be fine but it can mean it without you actually having to have read the script at all. It's definitely applied now almost regardless of whether the script is good or not, so while there are times I believe it's true, I really think this is a case where specific praise from a star can actually devalue writing. When an ordinary, average script gets Harrison Ford praising it, what does that tell new writers to aim for? And when the script editor knows solely the ten key points from Robert McKee's point of view - and believes there actually are rules to writing - then we are ultimately losing out.

Follow. My mother gets genuinely annoyed when she can't instantly follow something in a drama. Why are they lying? What does he want? Who does she mean? When we first saw Martha Jones in Doctor Who, the Doctor appeared out of nowhere in a plot point neither we nor Martha fully got until the end. My mom would've been spitting for an hour. And I think it's because the majority of her TV drama watching is soap. Nothing wrong with soap but when it's your only diet and when the TV industry believes soap is the exclusive route for new writers, then there's a lot wrong. And a symptom is this inability to lie. Soap characters lie constantly, just not to us: they can smile at their enemy but they must immediately gurn Airplane-like to us so we know.

I prefer it when we don't know. Or at least, I can prefer it. If it's done well, not-knowing something is as good as knowing it. Recently Battlestar Galactica showed us various scenes that we'd previously only ever heard about in reported speech; somehow, contrary to all expectations, the telling proved to have been more powerful than the showing.

And I like it when there's an agreement between the writer and the viewer about what's important. Doctor Who always has this and has it with exuberance - except for a tiny part toward the end of this year's Christmas special:

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

Astrid was driving a forklift truck (which, incidentally, if you don't happen to know already, is really quite difficult to do; difficult enough that you need a special licence to prove you're able to do it). She's aiming to drive Max and his chamber off the edge of the platform. But they're deadlocked and one of Max's robot Hosts frizbees a metal halo at Astrid, pranging it off the truck.

And I keep thinking about Russell T Davies's choices at this point. Logic suggests the Host should've hit Astrid but that would be too violent an end. And it would be the end: the plot would've stopped because she died and Max survived. So he must have the Hosts miss, for both reasons.

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

With those words, the Doctor is back in the game, he's effectively told us what's going to happen, and he's made sure Astrid knows the stakes. Our main character is deep in the action instead of solely being held off to one side. That's got to be good, hasn't it? There are British television series that tell their writers the show is really about the guest characters, not the regulars. (This accounts for why their regulars are so dull. Unfortunately the guests are no more memorable.) But here, the Doctor is key and even as Astrid sacrifices herself to save everything, it's the Doctor we're with. His reactions. So I can't fault that line.

But I do. It tipped me out of the story. I'd accepted the existence of the truck, I'd accepted that Astrid could drive it, I didn't accept that the Hosts had cut the brake line. I've not the remotest idea where such a thing is, but I couldn't take either the coincidence of a lucky shot or the idea that it was a deliberate action. Coincidence is too much, I feel you only ever get away with coincidence at the start of a story or when it is the story. I have a piece that relies upon almost endless coincidence but I believe it works because almost none of it really is coincidence, you just think it is. And you even see coincidences that aren't actually there, so I'm happy with that.  And I'm not happy with the idea of a deliberate choice to cut this bleedin' brake line because that really isn't a sensible alternative to killing Astrid. 

How bad would it have been to drop this line? Pretty bad, actually. Not only would the Doctor's part in it be reduced but Astrid's would've been changed: where she knew what she was doing and what it meant, she would instead have a nasty shock when the brakes failed. So the Doctor would be out of it and she'd be Frank Spencer: I can see why Russell T Davies went the way he did.

Only, I think there was a third way. I can't solve the issue with the Doctor even though I've thought about this a lot. Nonetheless, if you took out that line of dialogue about the brakes, you could've still had Astrid driving up to the edge of the chasm. She's pushing Max, he's pushing her, they're right on that ragged edge, I think you could have Astrid realising what the consequences of an extra shove would be and her deciding to do it anyway.

The trouble is that not only is the Doctor sidelined, he's sidelined for a long time, for the whole end of this sequence. It'd only be seconds, but I think it would feel too long. And I just can't solve that.

But given the choices, given how the dialogue took me out at a crucial moment, I think on balance I'd have cut the brake line.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Joking Apart

Finally, I can tell you this: I've written a companion booklet for the Joking Apart series 2 DVD.

The DVD is being released on March 17 next year but as of today you can preorder it from official website.

The main feature of the booklet is about both series, it's the whole story of how Steven Moffat's comedy came to be. It's really about how the show went right and then went so wrong: how something so great simply wasn't seen by many people. And how the sitcom's vibrant mix of sex and verve, sheer farce and stunning rage, is now so obviously where Moffat's hit Coupling started.

But there's also a piece in the booklet by DVD producer Craig Robins on how the second series was remastered from the 1990s original master tapes and why they had to be painstakingly worked on, how the show looks better now than it did on transmission. It's an informative story and Craig is adding to it on his revamped Replay DVD website. Starting today and over the next couple of months until the DVD is out, he's recounting some of the behind the scenes stories. He thought it was just a DVD project, but your hand will be in your mouth when you hear what it took to get this made.

In case you don't already know, Craig Robins wasn't a DVD producer until he found out the BBC was never going to release Joking Apart. Never. He checked. It was official. So he put up ouchfuls of his own money, negotiated and bought the rights to release the first series it himself.

Plainly it's worked out well because now he's back with the second.

Fantastic, isn't it?


Friday, December 14, 2007

Call sheet: Ashes to Ashes

You know how things come along at once? I'd never seen a call sheet until last week and now I've had two. Last Monday I was filming behind the scenes at a Radio Times photo shoot for the new BBC1 period drama, Lark Rise to Candleford. Julia Sawalha, Dawn French and Olivia Hallinan were photographed in period costume - by a photographer in tails and with a truly Jules Verne-like wooden and brass camera.

Also a top-of-the-range modern digital tethered to a MacBook, but.

And it must've gone well because this Monday, I've just been booked on the RT shoot for Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars. Presumably I can't tell you anything about the shoot but there is word that a car will be there.

Looking forward to this,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Your UK DVD Review poll of the year

You voted, I counted, we talked: have a listen to this week's UK DVD Review show, a half-hour special podcast counting down your top ten DVDs of 2007.

I promised on that edition that in exchange for my not taking ten of the thirty minutes to read out the prices, I'd do it here. So, ta-daa: here's your countdown - and I've done it as a series of links to Amazon so you can just zoom through.

The whole point of the countdown was not to have a countdown; as fun as it was to see what made number 1, the whole list, the whole ten were ones you picked because you loved them so much, you couldn't stop talking about them. And shortly I'll be putting up some of your best emails about why you picked what you did; they'll be guest blogs over the next few days.

Last, I've also appended my own top ten from the week before's UK DVD Review.

Thanks for voting. The show will return on 6 January 2008. See you then.


Your Top Ten DVDs of 2007

1. Doctor Who: The Complete Third Season

2. Veronica Mars: Season 3 (US import)

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

4. Heroes

5. Stranger Than Fiction

6. The Prisoner

7. Pan's Labyrinth

8. Pierrepoint

9. My So-Called Life (US import)

10. Mad About You (US import)

And now My Top Ten DVDs of 2007

I should explain that it's a revised list, ever since listener Ian Smith told me about the DVD that really should come top for me.

0. Battlestar Galactica (HD season 1, US import)

1. Doctor Who: The Complete Third Season

2. Veronica Mars: Season 3 (US import)

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

4. Stranger Than Fiction

5. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

6. My So-Called Life (US import)

7. The Prestige

8. Casino Royale

9. Dar Williams: Live at the Bearsville Theatre (US import)- but buy Dar's albums first

10. Alias Smith and Jones

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

When Leopards go "Boo!"

I am supposed to be busy, but...

Couldn't resist. I just recorded some dialogue here in my office, popped it over to the PowerBook in the living room and hit play on it from here.

True, I couldn't hear the playback, but I heard the bump as my sister-in-law jumped through the roof.

Ah, technology.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

When Leopards Go Bad

I should've seen this coming, shouldn't I?

I've got a Mac and a PowerBook; since the Leopard release of OS X I've been using a feature called Back to My Mac: I sit in the living room and, whenever I fancy, I can look at the screen of the Mac in my office. You're thinking this is stupid and I can't 100% disagree with you, but the PowerBook's a writing machine that I've reluctantly stripped down to prevent me piddling about in Photoshop when I should be working. And the office Mac is the big bugger; if anything's going to take some heavy lifting, I leave my Mac doing it.

And then check its screen from down here.

Only... I had to go do it in reverse, didn't I? Very fine, very useful, but can you see where this is going? By accident and thickness, I used my PowerBook to show me the screen of my office Mac... which was showing me the screen of my PowerBook.

This is what happens.