28 August 2011

The Hour

I have recently finished watching BBC2 drama The Hour and I must say I've enjoyed it.
Set in 1956 it follows the professional and personal lives of characters who are working on the new -and eponymous- news programme. My interest in 20th Century history has only increased in the last year and I thought it was good to see something that showed the early history of television journalism -that it was also gripping and had good characters was a major bonus.

Set around the Suez Crisis (when Britain and France collaborated with Israel to keep Egypt from gaining control of the Suez Canal) the programme examined how journalism -especially TV journalism- worked at a time when governmental and institutional controls were so strong. I hadn't previously known that TV news had a gag rule stating that they could not report on anything being discussed in Parliament for 2 weeks. When the possibility of going to war is the discussion then it seriously hampers a news programme to stay silent when newspapers and popular opinion are all over the topic.

The characters -and the actors that played them- were very good. The three main characters, Freddie, Bel and Hector, had excellent interactions and were great to watch.
Freddie and Bel are BBC reporters and have been best friends for years, the relationship between them is comfortable and trusting despite disagreements. Bel is given a job producing new news programme The Hour and she brings Freddie along despite his tendency to do his own thing and buck against authority. The host of the show is the upper class Hector, a charismatic man who makes a good anchor and who is also interested in the work. Hector and Bel start an affair and Bel finds herself in a tricky position both privately and professionally as all eyes are on her. Government man McCain snoops around the studio, determined that The Hour do nothing to make the Prime Minister look bad.

The supporting cast are also well done. From Isaac the eager junior reporter, and Cissy the bright young assistant to wry, worldly Lix and suspicious Government man McCain, all are characters who have their own aims and agendas. While these characters are not always the focus of the drama their actions and views colour the story as much as that of the three leads. No characters and no story exists and isolation, and tying both the big and small events not only to history, but to various individuals is a sign of the high quality of the writing.

As well as the personal and political stories there's also a conspiracy thriller plotline. Freddie's childhood friend, debutant Ruth Elms, comes to him in terror about the recent death of an academic, and then she apparently commits suicide. This personal tragedy sets Freddie investigating, and it turns out to be linked to something deeper and more dangerous. With Soviet spies, MI6 agents, and suspicious deaths the creeping sense of danger in these parts of the programme are skillfully done.
The darker moments are offset by more lighthearted character interactions and the day to day business of 1950s programme making, meaning the the tone of the show is varied without any plot thread feeling overblown or heavy-handed. This  mixture of mood and tone, when done well, is the sign of a good drama series.

I heartily recommend The Hour and -for those in the UK - it is still available on BBC iPlayer.

The internets tell me that there will be a second series. I'm quite excited now.

18 August 2011

Why I Love The West Wing

I was first introduced to The West Wing at university by my husband (he blogs about gaming and books at Citadel of Davegotsu).
The first time we watched the entire series it took us about nine months. The second time took us about three months, by that time we were working similar hours. It is unusual for us to spend so much time watching a non-SF series.

The series about a fictional US president, set mostly in the White House, ran from 1999 to 2006 and was created by Aaron Sorkin, who is a televisual maestro.
The West Wing was a great blend of drama and humour, an entertaining character-based series that was also about really important issues. The characters were engaging, the story lines were interesting, and the dialogue was regularly brilliant.

The plot lines could go from the lighthearted to the dramatic. Unsurprisingly there was a lot of content dealing with US politics, which managed to interesting even to a fairly unpolitical Brit like myself.
Aaron Sorkin is skilled at creating shows with characters and situations that you care about, even if you don't have a particular interest in the content. A good example of this is Sports Night, a program about a US sports show, something that an unsporty girl like me would normally never be interested in.

The characters and their interactions really made the show. The White House staff were shown to be extraordinary people -not only doing important and challenging jobs, but dealing with various personal problems in ways that only ever felt human and realistic.
I could list the great things about all the characters: Toby's dry sarcasm, Josh's determination, Charlie's loyalty, Leo's wisdom, CJ being one of the best female characters on television.
I think I'll stop myself there or else I'll go on all night.

President Bartlet was exactly the kind of president that many of us wanted America to have - he was smart and erudite, compassionate and liberal, and he really struggled with some of the serious issues he faced as President. He wasn't perfect, but he was likeable and you could respect him even if you didn't agree with all his choices.

One of the nice things about the series is that it is liked by many geeky types, but can also be recommended to people who aren't into SF.

I remember that the Sci-fi Society at my university had a Big Block of Cheese Day. The Chair (who was from Gloucestershire where they are very serious about cheese) brought in a block of cheese with a small US flag stuck in it. I can't remember if we asked any important questions, but I'm sure it was all done in the spirit of Andrew Jackson.

I would recommend the West Wing to anyone to who enjoys an intelligent TV drama.
Here's a link to the Wikiquotes page, it has great examples of the witty dialogue, but I must warn you it's pretty distracting.

17 August 2011

Hub Magazine

You might not know that I sometimes do reviews for Hub Magazine, probably because it's been a while and I haven't mentioned it here before.

Hub is a free online magazine that provides one piece of fiction, several reviews and some quality non-fiction with each issue. If you aren't already subscribed you should check it out.

My review of Declare by Tim Powers is in the current issue (No. 142). You can see my thoughts on his book The Anubis Gates on this very blog.

Previous reviews I've had in Hub:
Black Ships by Jo Graham - fantasy and mythology, these are 2 of my favourite things. Issue 66
Godspeaker: Empress by Karen Miller - fantasy story about a woman who rises from nothing in a harsh land. Issue 74
Franklyn - a strange, noirish film set partly in London and partly in an elaborate other world. Issue 82
Godspeaker: Riven Kingdom by Karen Miller - this sequel introduces new characters and sets up a clash of cultures. Issue 84
Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks - start of an action-packed fantasy trilogy. Issue 88

14 August 2011

Recent Reading

Oops. I've failed to keep up with blogging about what I'm reading. Is it OK if I say I spent the time reading?

I've mostly been reading teenage books, so I'll have plenty to say at the reading group meeting next week.

Matched by Ally Condie
This book tells a familiar story of a highly controlled future society that paints itself as a utopia, but is actually dystopian in its methods. Cassia lives in the Society, a place where all citizens are happy because they are carefully looked after until the age of 80, when they die. People are assigned their work, their food, and their spouses, all to make them as happy, healthy and productive as possible. Cassia starts to fall for a boy who is not her state-chosen Match, and she starts to see that perhaps the Society isn't always right.

The ideas presented were very familiar to me, although most dystopias masquerading as utopias aren't told through the eyes of a teenage girl.  In fact this book would make a good introduction for teens to this genre of SF. Condie has made a credible world with methods of control, and the tech required to implement them, clear to see. There is a romance plot (I'm beginning to suspect that YA authors cannot sell books without them) and it is pretty well done, emotional without being too sentimental.
An enjoyable read, even if it was rather familiar.

Trial by Fire by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
In this sequel to Raised by Wolves we return to Bryn -the human girl raised in a werewolf pack. Now alpha of her own pack Bryn is facing more complications and threats from outside. An abused young werewolf arrives in her territory seeking asylum, but Bryn cannot take a wolf from another alpha.

Building on the world created in the first book, Barnes increases her supernatural repertoire from werewolves and those with knacks, to psychics who have a variety of mental powers. Full of tough decisions, schemes and werewolf politics the plot is engaging and intriguing.
Once again the romantic side of things is fairly undefined. Bryn is the one who moves the plot forward, Chase is mostly just there for her, although at least this book explains why he's so devoted to a girl who knows so little about him. Even so I found that Chase continued to be less developed than most of the other characters. The supporting cast continued to be well rounded and interesting, and the antagonists are more complex and human than the sinister figure from the first book.

7 August 2011

Why I Love Stuart History

One of the most famous -or infamous- English royal dynasties is the Tudors. They are certainly the only one to have their own sexy TV show made in the US.
The Tudors have some great characters. Henry VIII with his enjoyment of weddings and executions. Bloody Mary I, who has her very own cocktail. Feisty Elizabeth I who love her country more than any man!
There was also a financially responsible guy and some kids as well.

Now this is all well and good, but what I like is the family came after that.
The Stuart monarchs are an interesting lot who ruled over a fascinating period of British history.
In just four generations the monarch went from the most powerful person in the country to being a figure whose religion and choice of spouse had to conform with the constitutional will of the nation, with Civil War, execution, abolition and revolution along the way.

Things started well enough for James I (VI of Scotland) who was the first adult King of England since Henry VIII. James' father was blown up when he was just a child and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and then executed by her cousin Elizabeth I. Given this background it's unsurprising that he was paranoid, and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot couldn't have helped.
Other than being the monarch who instituted Bonfire Night (giving generations of Britons a reason to set off fireworks in November), James is probably most famous for commissioning the King James Bible. James greatly  feared witchcraft and Macbeth -with it's scary witches and general Scottishness- was written to please him.
James was probably homosexual, and certainly enjoyed the close company of handsome men. Perhaps his most infamous 'favourite' was George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was widely hated for rapidly becoming one of the most powerful men in the country, and for generally proving awful at any job he was given.

Charles I is best known for upsetting Parliament and being so principled and unbending that the country was ripped apart by Civil War, which ended with his execution. Unlike previous internal wars this was not a battle between competing factions over who should be king, but a conflict between the King and his subjects. At the outset no one had any intention of executing the King or abolishing the monarchy, but things just got crazy. Charles wouldn't give up on his beliefs, and his opponents realised that Charles Stuart would not surrender his power.
Charles married Catholic princess Henrietta Maria of France. The marriage was initially neglectful, but the couple bonded and eventually fell in love after Charles' friend Buckingham was assassinated by a disgruntled naval officer (he had it coming). During the Civil War Henrietta Maria first went to Europe to beg for aid, then returned to the dangers of war torn England and despite being heavily pregnant travelled around the country with Royalist forces.

After Charles I's execution no one really knew what to do next, no one had planned for that outcome. There followed years of uncertainty and governmental change, which many people unsurprisingly took as a sign of the end times. Religious and political radicalism ran rife. Parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector -he refused the title of King, even though that would have provided ongoing stability to his regime. Instead Cromwell tried to find a new way to govern the country, however he received much opposition and eventually ended up dissolving Parliaments and throwing opponents in prison -exactly the sort of thing that had made everyone so mad at Charles I. Cromwell held things together, mostly by resorting to military dictatorship whenever his latest idea for governing the country failed. On his death his son Richard inherited the title of Lord Protector, but didn't have his father's support and the government fall into chaos again.

Charles II was invited to reclaim his father's throne in the Restoration. Charles had fought a second Civil War to get the throne back after his father's execution, but had only been crowned in Scotland and had been beaten back into exile (with a brief stopover in an oak tree on the way).
Charles II is known as the Merry Monarch, and considering the number of mistresses and illegitimate children he had it's fair to say that he was no stranger to pleasure. He was also surprisingly loyal to his long-suffering wife Catherine of Braganza, refusing to divorce her even though she never had children.
Charles became popular when he stayed in London during the Great Plague and then helped firefighting efforts during the Great Fire of London. Unlike his father and brother Charles was good at getting on with people and though he faced various problems and plots he is mostly remembered as a charming, roguish figure.

James II came to the throne after the death of his brother Charles. As an open Catholic and a believer in absolute monarchy it was clear he wasn't going to get on well with a largely Protestant country that was still scarred from what happened last time a king got too big for his boots.
If a Catholic King was a worry then a Catholic succession was a nightmare. When the Queen gave birth to a son rumours were rife that the child wasn't truly the heir. One of the odder conspiracy theories states that a baby was smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan.
Leading Protestants invited James' son-in-law, William of Orange, to invade -the country having learned the benefit of forward planning since the last time they needed a change of ruler. After a 4 year reign James II fled and despite some serious attempts to regain his throne he died exiled in France.
James II is pictured fleeing the country with the Royal Seals (not salt and pepper shakers). He threw them in the Thames as he fled and Parliament conveniently decided that this was tantamount to abdication.

Willam III (II of Orange) and Mary II were cousins and spouses (that's just how it goes in royal circles). After kicking out his father-in-law with his Dutch army William -who was third in line to the throne after his wife and sister-in-law- became King on equal terms with his wife Mary, they were the only co-monarchs in English history.
William and Mary were the first constitutional monarchs, ruling by the will of the nation. Many of the rules of British monarchy (especially those involving Catholics in succession) were laid down in law for their reign. William had to defend his reign from the Jacobites, who felt that the succession rightly lay with James II and his son. Mary gave William a lot of her authority, although she did rule well when he was away on military campaigns
Interestingly the History Mug has William and Mary separate, something which rarely happens in Monarch lists - though that might be because the handle got in the way. I have no idea why William is pictured upside down with rodents by his head, I'd be fascinated to know what that's about.

Anne finally became Queen when her brother-in-law/cousin William died. She had refused to speak to her sister Mary for years, resenting the fact that Mary had allowed William to leapfrog her place in the succession. Anne was the first monarch of Great Britain after the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united.
Anne had many pregnancies and many miscarriages, her eldest child only lived to eleven. Succession caused Anne political as well as personal difficulties. Jacobite Tories wanted Anne to name her half brother James as heir, whereas the Whigs wanted her to pass the throne to her Protestant second cousin from Hanover. This was a period when the two party Parliamentary system first became entrenched in British politics.

Like the Tudors the Stuart's Royal dynasty ended with a childless Queen. The Hanoverians -known as the Georgians- came to the throne, although the exiled Jacobite Stuart line continued to cause them problems.

2 August 2011

More Film Reviews

No 'Why I Love' post yet. The next one involves finding my camera and taking some pictures, I should post it towards the end of the week.
In the meantime here are some more 300 word film reviews. I'm tempted to start writing similar quick reviews for films I see at the moment.

Down to You
Freddie Prince Jr, Julia Stiles, Selma Blair
It’s an old story: boy meets girl, they fall in love and then complications arise. Al and Imogen meet at college and the romance between them becomes serious. They swap stories, pick a song and meet each others parents. However a pregnancy scare and doubts on both sides create a rift. Eventually they split-up after she sleeps with someone else. Al cannot get over her and sinks into apathetic depression. He goes a little odd and even tries drinking shampoo before he gains the resolve to fight for what they had.

I met one person who really liked this film, but I know someone else who walked out of a cinema because of it, and I have to side with the latter. The film is an old story being done in a way that is too familiar to stand out. The novelty of having Henry ‘The Fonze’ Winkler in a supporting role soon wears thin. The cast of quirky, porn-making friends are not actually quirky or risqué enough to provide much interest, and as often happens they are simply there to react to the main characters. The romance is sweet and sentimental but neither lead actor is at their best here. The documentary-style monologues are meant to be different but serve little purpose with the characters telling the audience what they should be showing them. Al’s moping angst quickly becomes annoying and then draining. In one scene he is up-staged by an animated spider, and then attempts a weird kind of half-hearted suicide, possibly? Towards the end I was desperately waiting for someone to run through an airport, or a bus terminal, or something in a typical rom-com style climax. However there was only a disappointingly stationary and mediocre ending. 

Hudson Hawk (1991)
Sandra Bernhart, Richard E. Grant, Andie MacDowell, Bruce Willis,
Cat-burglar Hudson Hawk wants to go straight but after his release from prison he’s persuaded to do one more job by his partner Tommy Five-Tone. The stolen item inexplicably reappears just before it's auctioned. Hudson gets pulled into the schemes of maniacal husband and wife team, the Mayflowers -villains whose ambition is second only to their ruthlessness. Hudson is forced to steal Da Vinci artefacts in order to complete the construction of a miraculous machine. With help from his partner and an attractive Vatican agent, Hudson must foil the Mayflowers’ nefarious schemes.

Da Vinci’s sketchbook, a secret Catholic agency and an eccentric British villain. Sounds familiar, but this film has little else in common with Dan Brown’s creation. Not only was it made 12 years earlier it has a very different tone; a blend of action, adventure and humour that fits well with many of Willis’s other films. There are bizarre characters and an outlandish plot with various twists and double-crosses. The comedy is irreverent and at times silly, Hudson calls the Roman Forum “rocks and shit,” and much of the violence is over the top in a way that is humorous but not graphic. All the characters have strange traits and idiosyncrasies; Hudson and Tommy sing to time their robberies and Andie MacDowell is a less than saintly nun. The villains are wacky, maniacal and amoral; the Mayflowers’ are utterly insane and Hudson is trailed by an unusual gang of candy-themed crooks. The film could almost spoof The Da Vinci Code but benefits from its lack of association with the controversial bestseller. There’s no grand conspiracy, religious theories or attempts to be historical in this film. It is a funny, fast-paced action comedy and that’s all it needs to be.

Weird Science (1985)
Anthony Michael Hall, Kelly LeBrock, Ilan Mitchell-Smith
Wyatt and Gary are introverted loners who fantasise about girls, parties and popularity, but lack the social confidence to act on these desires. Pygmalion-like, the boys create their perfect woman using a computer program. Enter Lisa, a British bombshell with reality-altering powers. Although created to improve the boys’ lives she doesn’t blindly obey them, as well as bringing fun she puts obstacles in their way to increase their confidence. The film is a wish-fulfilment overload that comes to a predictable conclusion.

The stereotypical teenage boy viewpoint may make this film harder to enjoy if you don’t happen to fall into that category. It remains faithful to its target audience and doesn’t try to be anything its not, which is mostly good but some may find this a little limiting. The main characters have various positive qualities, especially Wyatt who's shyer and more sympathetic as he's bullied by his dreadful older brother. Unfortunately both are drenched in immature comedy at times, and that makes them less likeable. Gary drunkenly imitating an old bluesman is horribly cringe-worthy, but it is the worst example. Once set up the premise could go almost anywhere, but despite some random, unexplained extras it doesn’t extend beyond the basic aims of Wyatt and Gary. The film is a product of its time from the impossible phenomena caused by a simple home PC (computers could do magic back then) to the dated style of Lisa’s clothes. Despite these failings the film is reasonably amusing and is enjoyable as a silly, light-hearted ‘80s teen flick. I suspect I didn't like this as much as people who saw it in their teens.