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bob the moo

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Quirky light entertainment but there was so much more to be had here and it does feel like a wasted opportunity, 7 September 2014

When he first saw his name quoted in print, Greg Packer was thrilled to the point where he decided he was going to make it happen more often. He took to going to major events to try to get near the front of crowds where reporters were looking for quotes, or queuing for new products or anything to get a reporter to take his quote and print it. This continued to the point where the Associated Press spotted the reoccurrence of his name and sent a memo to all reporters to be active in not taking his quotes. This short film spends a few minutes with Packer and looks at his unusual hobby.

This short film is a very light and enjoyable documentary which, as so many do, focuses on a quirky central character. It doing so it tells a very simple story and uses Packer as the sole on-screen contributor, rather appropriately letting typed quotes from papers do the rest. For the few minutes it plays it is engaging and quite fun, but it really barely does more than tell us a headline. Okay Packer is quite fun to listen to, but for me the film quickly felt stuck because it clearly didn't want to go beyond the base headline and at the same time it seemed longer than it actually took to do that. For me there is a longer and much better short film in here – perhaps 20 minutes. The lack of any information about Packer left me feeling unsatisfied and I do think it would have been more interesting to have explored him a bit more because, frankly, getting quoted in papers is not very interesting, but the man who goes out of his way to get quoted is much more of a story. Given how keen he is to be the focus of things, and how relaxed he was in front of the camera, it is not clear why more was not made out of this, but for me there is a much better film in this subject than this one and I'm not sure why this film had such little ambition in what it was doing.

1.7: Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff: Could have been a bit more direct but does cleverly overlay reality with fiction and irony, 7 September 2014

It was interesting in the wake of this film to go online and read more about this story that is told with some energy here. A showman (straw boater at the end of a piano) tells us about the great fire, delivering the story with plenty of drama and intensity. The descriptive and engaging manner of the delivery is part of the point of course, and it works well because we are drawn into the tale as was intended. It supposedly links to America, or so the showman tells us, but the more enjoyable linkage comes from the final line, which is soberly delivered and nicely done by Mays.

The suggestion that America is a country of showmen is a fair thing to suggest and I liked the way that it mixed the reality and fiction in order to do it. We have this terrible fire where a huge amusement park caught fire and burnt to the ground overnight and yet it is relayed in such a gripping way, full of spectacle, showmanship and pizazz. There is a nice irony of this huge failing entertainment project itself becoming an entertainment project through this fictional telling (or pitch) and I liked this aspect of it. Perhaps it could have been more direct in its commentary but it was engagingly delivered by Mays and cleverly constructed to be a quite satisfying little piece.

1.6: Unknown by Lee Blessing: I prefer not to take it at face value but rather as a negative commentary on onlookers, 7 September 2014

Following the sweeping meaning of the previous film Not (En) Titled, this film Unknown seems a lot more personal and reflective in nature. In it a man relates to the camera the story of when he was waiting at a crowded train station and saw a young person get down off the platform onto the track just before the train came. It is a very contained tale and it is one that we not only see in the words but also see through the affected but yet slightly detached delivery of the witness.

Michael Emerson plays it very well, delivering everything in one take. He plays with a sense of wonderment at what he saw and he does struggle in a realistic way to find a connection to himself in terms of how it affected him or what he took from it. This is a slight downside to the piece though, because it is ultimately about the witness and I did find the ending to be a bit pat – that the witness takes away a gift of a better understanding of what people like this young man must be going through even in such a great country as America. As a conclusion to the film it is weak on the face of it, but it may also be that the writer is holding up his witness as part of the problem – that the suffering and death of others around him is something that he deals with intellectually, boiling it down to some sort of personal experience and then carrying on with his day.

Indeed his comments that nobody took his statement back this up a little, because it suggests somehow he has something to add or to discuss about such a clear suicide – but he doesn't, beyond a pat lesson. Perhaps I misread the piece and should have taken it at face value for its words and its "lesson" at the end, but this seems too simple and is a lot less satisfying. I prefer to take it the other way, to see it as a statement on modern life and the detachment between us. In this way I found it a more engaging short film – but regardless it gave me that to think about and to mull over after it finished, which is a good thing for a film to do.

1.5: Not (En)titled by Anna Deavere Smith: Heartfelt, 7 September 2014

It takes a few minutes of the film to get into the character because at first their talk while staring out a window is not clear as to its meaning; this continues but soon we get fragments where we quickly start to understand that this is a Principle of a school who is writing a letter to the parents of the children in her care. From here we start to understand why the letter is being written and it puts in context the writer's meandering thoughts, his frustration and ultimately the point of despair that this letter and too many like it has caused him to reach.

To say more than this would not ruin it but I do not need to add to what the film already does very well, which is to capture a feeling. Okay we have a specific character in a specific situation writing a letter following a specific event, but the script captures the many frustrations and failures before this point – not in that person, but in the community as a whole and we see them come through that person. We get the feeling of the effort and sacrifice poured into a community and the ever present reality that, while not effort wasted, it is certainly not one filled with the reward and results one might have hoped, as things seem to be getting worse. The parents, the mayor, the police, the teachers – all of them have a part and yet things keep getting worse.

It is forcefully written and very well delivered by Henderson, because he convinces in his words, delivering a heartfelt and impassioned piece from Smith. The only downside of the film is that it is so much written in Smith's voice that it is hard to sometimes not hear her behind them – not to take away from Henderson though. I liked the conclusion of the film as it does rather sum up the lack of conversation on such matters – another thing feeding into the frustration. It makes the point without overly hammering it home and it plays it out convincingly through a good character – a very engaging and heartfelt piece.

S8: The Mind of Evil: Plot is convoluted and more could have been made of the ideas, but moves at a good pace with distracting action and events (SPOILERS), 5 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Despite having recently let The Master escape in a clapped out bus, UNIT and the Doctor have put that from their minds and carried on. For UNIT things are busy as today they not only have a peace conference full of foreign delegates to protect but they also have to transport a powerful Thunderbolt missile from one location to another (the two tasks being unrelated). Also unrelated, the Doctor heads to Stangmoor prison where they are trailing the use of a machine which 'cures' prisoners by extracting and absorbing all their negative thoughts and feelings – a process that the Doctor has grave doubts about.

After the shorter serials before it, Mind of Evil runs an hour longer and this did make me wonder if there would be much padding in there as was sometimes the way with some of the longer stories in previous seasons, where narrative devices sort of kept the wheels turning even if the car was raised up off the ground. In this serial though it is not the case and indeed there is probably too much plot going on and the result is it feels all a bit convoluted as it brings all the bits together. From the start it is pretty clear that the peace conference and its scheming Chinese Chin Lee is somehow going to link to the transport of a missile and to the Keller machine in the prison, and indeed it does – but perhaps not quite as smoothly as you would have liked as it does feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole at times.

This is best seen by looking at The Master's plot in retrospect; okay the Keller Machine serves a bit of a role in getting to his end game but only because the writers make it so. Otherwise it seems a very long walk to get to where he is trying to get to and the story does struggle a bit as it plays out because of course one never feels like this would have been his first and best option. That said, it does engage as it unfolds because it has plenty of action moments and events, including confrontations and the usual cliffhangers (even if some of them are fairly manufactured in feel). At heart the Keller Machine is an interesting concept with its ability to expose people to their worst fears, feeding on negativity to do so – but it never really felt like it was more than a plot device; perhaps like a couple of story ideas which got kicked around and ended up in the same serial for convenience? It does still work though because, as with the previous serial, it moves with good pace and forward motion so even when it is a bit weak, you are distracted by the movement.

Pertwee remains good at this, with a good mix of dramatic flair and arrogance. Manning may be playing a fairly obvious sidekick, but to be fair to her she is starting to grow on me because at least she understands and delivers what she is supposed to do, whereas John never really felt comfortable. In this second serial she fits better as a character and her performance is fitting. Courtney remains solid with a nice touch of humor to him; while Franklin's Yates seems to have been moved to be a sort of companion for Lethbridge- Stewart and is okay in support. Delgado is played a bit more sinister and again I enjoyed his interaction with Pertwee although at these moments I did wish that maybe the show would reduce the pace and deliver a nicely tense dialogue scene between the two, but it never really gets to that. The production is mostly good, with a mix of sets and outdoor locations; I'm not sure if a color copy exists since the one I was given was all in black & white.

Although it is a bit convoluted and it doesn't perhaps make the best of some of its strengths, this is still a brisk and entertaining serial which has lots going on. I would like it to have done more with the ideas and maybe slow the action to increase the impact, but regardless of what could have been it is still pretty good stuff.

An ambitious idea which is paying off with a consistently high standard of short films from a huge pool of artists, 5 September 2014

It was only a few months ago that I heard of this project by chance and I was immediately taken by the idea. I am not a huge Shakespeare fan but do enjoy the odd film or visit to Stratford once every few years, but my experience is limited to the main plays that everyone knows and have never ventured out into others, far less into the sonnets; despite that though the project interested me enough to take a look. The project has the goal to film all 154 of the sonnets in a different New York City location, with a different set of artists responsible for each one, although with support from the New York Shakespeare Exchange, who are behind the idea. It is a project that is ambitious and, as you might expect it has been ongoing for about 16 months now and they have just passed the halfway mark (which is sort of what motivated me to write this comment).

Having watched all of the short films thus far, it is impressive to me that the standard of them is very high. There are a few weaker ones in there as you would expect, but they are generally well made pieces of work which, at worst, are often just a solid delivery of the sonnet text to a camera, but generally are so much more. To help my viewing I decided to read the text for myself, to get the words in my head and to allow myself to draw my own conclusions. I have so far lost count of the number of times that the short films have helped me to understand the text better or, in some cases, to present me with a whole new interpretation of it that never occurred to me while reading. To me this is one of the most exciting things about the films because so many of them really do brings the words alive – I may not agree with all of them, but the vast majority are insightful or funny or touching or thoughtful or all of the above.

For sure there are some films that I think really didn't work for me, but even with them it is fun to see what they tried to do and I enjoyed these ones, albeit in a way other than that which was intended. At the other end of the spectrum there are a good group which really standout and which I have found myself going back to many times to enjoy again. In the middle the rest are still of a high standard and there are very few indeed which are just solid and unremarkable. The fact that the films are mostly about 2 minutes or so long means that this doesn't matter as much as it would if they were longer, since if you wish to watch and move on then you can do – but for me it is surprising how many I'll watch at least a few times. Technically the films are also of a high quality, looking and sounding good. There are a few where it feels like the film has had to work around restrictions (by using narration rather than street recordings for example) but there are only a couple where they are poor – again, the quality is high but, more importantly, it is consistently high.

The films are all free to watch online and they are more than worth your time whether in a short time like I did, or in periodic small bites. I came to the project out of curiosity but it is the high standard of films and engaging delivery that kept me watching through the first half of the films, and I am very much looking forward to the second half of the films.

S1.78: Sonnet #149: Close to a straight delivery and works as such, despite changes in sound and a bit of feeling of being thrown into the middle of something, 5 September 2014

Sonnet 149 has an air of 'what more can I do?' and frustration about it as the writer declares how much he gives himself over to the subject, rejecting those that she looks down on, giving up self in honor of her and other such approaches, even though it makes no difference. He eventually concludes that he will never be loved by the subject. In the film it is a fairly straight delivery of the sonnet text, without too much addition. By virtue of the red rose the young man carries, we know there is a broken love of some form here and his manner adds to this as he does seem in despair somewhat. Although the man is on the move through the streets of Dumbo out to the little park there, the film doesn't add too much in terms of context beyond the actual delivery.

This is not a problem since essentially the words are enough, and a performance and prop are more than adequate to bring it off. The location gives a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan but isn't really used much beyond that since there doesn't really appear to be a reason for it or a link to the film – again, no problem since it is just a cool location. Watkins' performance felt a little bit overwrought to me, mainly because it felt like I was suddenly thrown into the middle of something and not given time to understand him before I had to process the extent of his anguish. By a handful of lines in this didn't feel quite the same, so many a slower descent would have helped? The film looks decent enough but, although the sound is clear, I didn't like the way it was louder depending on the proximity to the camera. Yes I get this is the real sound (things far away sound that way!) but the dip/rise in volume levels distracts and makes some sections a little harder to hear by contrast.

It is still a good delivery though; it plays it fairly straight, gives a solid performance and moves through the location. I won't say it stood out as overly memorable as a result, but it is a clear and accessible delivery of the text, so really there is not too much wrong with that.

S3: A more confidence, steady and consistently funny season, 5 September 2014

After a changeable season 2 which seemed to settle into some sort of comfortable place to work from, this third season continues in the same vein with significantly fewer cameos and a more consistent tone and flow. The plots revolve around the Parks & Recreation department and the characters within it – their relationships, their character quirks and, to a lesser degree, the work they do. As before, it continues to be delivered in a mix of sitcom and fly-on-wall documentary style. This season is also the one where the couple of episodes I have seen on planes have come from – the ones that were funny and made me think I should watch more of it.

Season 3 is not perfect but it is the best so far and it has some very funny episodes as well as generally producing a lot more laughs per episode. It does have the feel of a show trying to repeat The Office US but in a different situation – but to be fair so many shows do now. What made me relax into it as a whole was that it was a lot more settled and was a lot funnier than previous seasons had been – not to suggest that they hadn't hit high notes (because they had) but that they hadn't managed to sustain it as well as needed. With this season it does still have its best material to the second half of its run, but generally it does benefit from stable characters and a clearer narrative arch which involves lots of characters that feel like they will be around for a bit longer (unlike some cameos who felt fleeting).

In terms of that narrative I did feel like they rushed a lot of things; Andy and April for instance go from 'will they won't they?' to being married in a very short period of time, and likewise Leslie and Ben develop quite fast to where they end the season. Although the speed of these does feel a little manufactured and forced, it does seem to give the season a confidence and stability that it builds around very well. So maybe the plot developments are a necessary evil because they do seem to be part of making the show steadier and funnier as it goes along.

With stronger and more consistent material the cast do well. Poehler is a likable heart to the show but also gets lots of laughs too. Jones feels less like a narrative device and more like a character, with lots of relevant involvement here. Offerman continues to run with his character and gets all the best throwaway moments. Ansari may not be to my personal taste, but he does bring a lot of energy to his pieces. Plaza and Pratt may only have one card to play each but both do it very well and I do enjoy them as characters and performers. Lowe remains by far the best addition and he is very funny with his timing and delivery; Scott is less well used mainly because he tends to be the narrative device for a lot of the season, thus giving him less freedom in his material.

I won't say it is a perfect season but it is definitely the most consistent thus far, with good laughs, steady narrative and a stable and confident feel to the whole show. It does rush things along in terms of characters but this seems like a price worth paying for the strengths that it seems to encourage as a result.

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S2: Builds on the first season with stronger characters and darker edges, while also not forgetting its bread and butter genre base, 31 August 2014

Season 2 of Elementary comes along at a nice time for me, even though I am picking it up a bit later than some. When it started it was very much referred to in the shadow of the BBC's Sherlock, as if it was naturally a lesser copy of some sort. However as the third of the very short seasons of Sherlock appeared overly pleased with itself, Elementary returns with a second season of 20+ hours which mostly gets the entertainment value right, builds good characters, mixes in some darker aspects well, and bows out with a season finale that has a narrative arch longer and more consistent than the entire third season of Sherlock.

I don't mean to pick on the BBC show, because I do enjoy it too, but I was pleasantly taken by surprise by this second season of Elementary. The first season stayed in my mind as an above average police procedural, one that does the well-worn routine of having a charismatic but difficult individual in the lead role – so yes a strong example of the genre, but still of the genre itself. The second season does rather continue this trend because most of the episodes are of the case-per- week variety where an odd crime is sown up nicely within the required 42 minutes. In doing this it must be said that some of the starting points of these crimes are a bit weak whether it be coincidence, friend of a friend or some other device that suggested that the writers got the whole episode in the bag apart from how to get Sherlock and Holmes into the picture. It is to the credit of the show then that even these episode end up mostly working well. Even in the most base episode works because it is well played by the cast who make the most of witty and fast moving dialogue and consistent and engaging characters.

On top of this the season seems more comfortable to push the edges of Sherlock's flaws and their consequences; personally I would have liked some things to have gone longer (Bell's story for example) or cut harder, but it was all engaging nonetheless. This more probing sense of character really builds strength into the season as a whole, in particular adding to the dynamics between the main characters. Another way it benefits the show is that it does rather give it license to push the oat out for a longer run of episodes which essentially make up a 5 hour long season finale. At times I thought that they went a little "big" with it and got too far from the weekly structure that they came from and will, of course, have to return to, but mostly they managed this transition by virtue of it not being a huge jump into something new, but also because again the writing, acting and professional production values all combine to make it engaging and entertaining while also having a darker edge.

Perhaps day he will become a caricature of himself, but thus far Miller is very enjoyable with his mannerisms and performance, selling the quirky detective network character as well as he does something darker and more hurt. Liu does tend to be a bit weaker and when pushed she doesn't always deliver, but she does work well with Miller and this is where most of her time is. The reoccurring characters from Ifans and Pertwee work better than I thought they would, but the real step-up for me was from Hill as Bell. He has some weaker moments (the episode where he is around the old 'hood gives him lines that don't work) but when he is knocking heads with Miller both men are very strong, with Hill in particular standing out much more than he did in the first season.

Ultimately it is still a genre show for the most part, but while the first season was already standing above the pack, this season cements that and improves upon it. If the current contrasting trajectories of this show and Sherlock continue, it will soon be very much be a case of the BBC's effort looking like a lot of fuss about nothing.

S8: Terror of the Autons: Fast pace helps carry it over some humps; but good serial with new characters and frightening moments (SPOILERS), 31 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The eighth season of Doctor Who arrives with a strong start in some respects, albeit more of a crash-bang-wallop one when compared to some of the slower stories of the previous season. The faceless plastic Autons return but this time they are assisted by a new character – another Timelord called The Master (a man who doesn't struggle with self-doubt, that's for sure). The Master is clearly up to something and while UNIT and the Doctor race to stop him, The Master is using his mind control to produce plastic items which, when activated, will attack and kill the nearest humans.

The short number of episodes in this serial does mean that it doesn't meander very much and instead it plays pretty quickly through the plot, all the time using that pace to cover up plot holes and some narrative devices that don't particularly work. The story works pretty well, mainly because it has some pretty scary moments; okay they are a little comical if you look at them in the cold light of day, but there are some frightening ideas in there whether it be the toy demon, the Autons with oversized smiling heads, or the famous scene of a man suffocated by a chair. There are more moments like this which are perhaps not as effective but at least still feed into the pace and action of the serial; so for example, the Doctor fighting with a telephone wire, Jo able to knock out a strongman with a drinking glass, or the Doctor showing himself a lot less thoughtful than Batman when it comes to bomb disposal. Ultimately it ends with a bit of an anticlimax (nobody can catch up with a bus?) and feels a bit disposable by virtue of how short it is, but it is still a pretty engaging story.

The addition of The Master is a good one and he is well acted from the get-go by Delgado. He is quite charming, although perhaps his interactions with Pertwee could have had a bit more in the way of edge. Pertwee himself is fin – direct, dramatic and impatient (but not to the point where I disliked him). Courtney gives solid work, but the scientific companion of Liz has been pushed out and replaced by a much simpler character – one that the writers clearly know what they are doing with, since she is a rather ditzy figure. No offence to Caroline John, but the whole seventh season I did feel like nobody knew what her character was and often tried to push her round peg into a square hole. With Manning's Jo things are much simpler and she copes well with the low demands of the material – run, scream, need things explained, stuff like that. She does fine with this but there is not much more to her than that. Wisher's Farrel is well played – a rather tragic figure all told and I felt for him while allowing him to be a good plot device to keep things moving.

A good start to the season then, with plenty of action, new characters, and genuinely quite unsettling moments and images. Will be interesting to see what it does with all the changes, and if the season keeps up that sense of pace and action that it had here.

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