29 February, 2012

Skins - Nick - Drugs

Skins is still trundling along towards the end of the line for this 'generation' of characters, but surprisingly, and probably due to Mini's greater absence in it, this episode was pretty good! There were the usual problems - heavy reliance on drugs, rather than dialogue or plot, and some unexplained/hyperbolic plot points, but at least this was an episode that I wanted to sit through. Result!

The episode this week, focussing on Nick with a lot of Frankie too, was carried on the performances and charisma of these two young actors. What would probably improve Skins by about a million percent is if we just had Alex, Frankie and Nick as characters, and got rid of everyone, especially Mini and Alo. The chemistry and performance between Dakota Blue Richards and Sean Teale is immense, and Teale, who plays Nick, manages to pull off 'cocky kid who's actually hurting and angsty' pretty well - kudos for that. It is episodes like this that expose just how ridiculous the acting for characters like Grace, Rich and Mini actually is.

Now what really showed itself for me this episode was how the production values on Skins are, for what it is, very high. The club scene, the music, lighting and visuals were excellently evocative of that kind of drunken haze of going out, and it struck me just how much the plot and characters are letting down such an otherwise well-made show. This week, the money issue (and let's not even go into how ridiculous it was that, for a week alone, Nick had £700 stored in random folders, and then thought to take out another £1300 from his Dad's account without any thought as to how he would explain this away to his psychotic father) was poorly thought out and poorly explained - what exactly is the reason that Matty cannot use his own passport? These (quite blatantly flawed) plot points let down an otherwise well-made show.

Now I've said it before, and yes, I will be saying it again - the drugs message in this programme is horrendous. At one moment in this episode, Nick had a scene in which his character motivation was quite clearly 'oh shit I have a problem LET'S TAKE SOME DRUGS'. At another moment, Alex said, of the drink into which Frankie was pouring in every single powder and tablet she had found in a random warehouse into, said 'that looks dangerous', to which she replied 'that's the point'. Now, drug-taking is nothing new to television - but to show excessive, unknown amounts of random substances being taken, together, consistently and with no ill effects, is dangerous. Skins needs to be aware that people at very young ages watch the show - I watched Series One when I was 12. If the drugs had been this prominent and frivolous and FUN when I had watched, I hate to think of the effect it would have had.

The love triangle plot, which ominously ended the episode, threatening the new relationship of 'Frick', is boring. It's probably something like the fourth time that two-boys-liking-one-girl has been done, and there's quite a few different plot than this that Skins could have a go at. What the episode did do well though, excluding Matty as a legitimate concept in the plot, was make the end of this series about the relationships between the characters, something that has been lacking in the singularly-focussed episodes we have had.

In all, the episode was great, minus small criticisms. The series, with this episode, has taken a massive step up and raised my expectations for the rest of the series. The 40-hour party was classic Skins, and exactly the sort of thing that used to happen in Skins-Bristol - well done team.

[Written for Great & Gold]

28 February, 2012

A Failed Dystopia (Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Shteyngart)

'Today', writes Lenny Abramov in the opening lines of 'Super Sad True Love Story', 'I've made a major decision: I am never going to die'. This is a strong, interesting start to a dystopic novel by Shteyngart - but, like my last review, I'm bloody glad I bought this novel on discount; the promising first chapters soon unravel into a loosely-plotted and barely meaningful dystopia. The book fails to be as interesting and quirky as the signs suggest, and whilst verbose and long, is quite restrained in what it is willing to suggest about current society.
A better book.
 The book has two narratives - the first being Lenny's diary (he's one of the last people on earth to be writing one), an account of his love affair with Eunice and all that follows. The second narrative strand is excerpts from the 'GlobalTeens' account of Eunice Park, a Facebook-like system, but with more control and a compulsory exercise. The relationship between them is improbable, and whilst in other literary romances of this type - older man, reluctant and confused younger woman - there is an element of mystery to the relationship, we see both sides. Eunice's GlobalTeens conversations demonstrate how she thinks of Lenny as older, uglier and repugnant, and so their eventual pairing is unsympathetic to the reader. This is basically '1984', without the depth.
Another better book
 What I DID enjoy about the novel (during the rare times it was done well) was the apocalyptic sense of doom and mortality, for our characters and for the world, hemmed in as they both are by social strata. America is so poor that China, its creditor, is threatening to 'pull the plug' and there is a sense of foreboding, and ever-closer danger ahead. Essentially, 'Brave New World' without any actual exploration of social class. Lenny cannot get for himself the immortality which, as a profession, he provides to others - but what is also never explained is why, when he doesn't fit into society, he wants to 'live forever'.

Shteyngart is a competent manipulator of language - Lenny's diary is highly characterised and stylised. Likewise, the slang and youth-speak of Eunice's world is exhibited proudly in her GlobalTeens excerpts, and her mother's failed English suggests the danger that the world is in, not just America itself. But after a while, these gimmicks are tiresome - what do they actually do for the plot? How do they actually put forth the ideas of the text?
As you can probably tell by now, he's an absolute nutjob. But not in the good, 'genius' way.
 The most interesting idea of the novel was the literary aspect - as in every dystopia which came before it, SSTLS makes the point that people are forced to read less, and governments desperate for power will make reading unfashionable, and abhorrent. Whilst this point is never expanded in any meaningful or subtle way (Lenny says 'Even I'm having trouble following this...Reading is difficult...We're in a... visual age', such a blindingly obvious point as to be an insult to the Facebook generation) it is interesting to see almost every classic novel name-dropped and the book itself being referenced in the final chapters. But if this is the sort of book published in Lenny's middle-years, no wonder noone reads.

Links: I agree with most of this
Oh and more evidence of him being bonafide crazy

27 February, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Disputed Land, Family & Afghanistan

The title makes this sound like some kind of political, historical and social piece on Afghanistan. It's not.

'A Thousand Splendid Suns' is a historical fiction of Afghanistan, and of feminity. I had it pegged in my head as a really intelligent, thought-provoking read like the reviews said, but I was let down. I should have known that 'the Richard & Judy Number One Bestseller' would disappoint.

It's not, by any means, a bad book - it's just too light for the subject matter and the prose is a protracted, long drudge through quite a short, eventless history. The characters are likeable, but not intensely so - I didn't particularly care either way. The amount of bad things that happen is a tumultuous pile of wrongdoing and injustice - but overwhelmingly so. The relationship between Mariam and Laila goes from hatred to best-friendship over one unconvincing page, and their relationship together - the main point to the book's quasi-feminist agenda, is weak and ungrounded.

The writing is not chick-lit as such, but there is very little of aesthetic beauty in the text - the narrative is of the 'let's get this information out there' variety. The one thing that gives respite to otherwise bland uses of language is the inclusion of Afghanistan words and phrases, including their English translations, which ground the story historically and socially. However, in terms of other details about the historical basis of womens' lives in this time period, there is a sense that Hosseini knows a lot more than she is writing down and sharing.

Don't rush to read 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' - it's an easy read, fairly quick and enjoyable, and there are rare moments of thought-provoking gender battles, but these are short-lived, in a series of predictable plot surprises, mediocre dialogues and conceited character motivations.  It wasn't the worst book I've read, but let's put it this way - there's literally no way I'm reading 'The Kite Runner' after this.

I picked up 'Disputed Land' by Tim Pears on discount at work, and I'm glad I did - the novel was interesting, possessing moments of unique poetic voice and the book itself is very 'handsome' - but I'm glad I bought it on discount - the book fails to maintain its highs, and swings wildly between the universal trials of mortality and possession as a topic, and mundane and sleazy monetary deals.

As with 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', the majority of prose is fairly generic, but Pears elevates the mundane with poetic beauty he reserves for best. For example, in discussing life and death, the owners of property and land, and the world's impending energy crisis, Pears writes metaphorically and poetically, which contrasts with the banal tone he uses for family domestics. But then he often throws a spanner into the works - he writes beautifully of the family Christmas, and then has some hunting and machinery-clearing scenes in the picturesque outdoors featuring some crude dialogue and fight scenes. In all, he challenges the separation of family life from any other outside influences, and makes the point that we are all part of the world within which we live.

This dichotomy - city/country, genuine/pretend, life/death - pervades the entire novel. Not least because Theo, our narrator, is looking back as an adult, but the majority of perception is narrated, and divulged, from the viewpoint of a child. From a beginning in which he notices very little, the book also seems to become a coming-of-age tale - Theo gets his first kiss, and starts to note the nuances in his parents' and family's behaviour. The way in which a child sees everything as before him, and is shown mostly the good, is torn apart by Pears. There is a strange mix of the good and the bad in everything this Christmas - inheritance vs Grandma's impending death, the beauty of the countryside vs its impending doom from pollution and Theo's first kiss happening simultaneously with his Grandma collapsing - which I think symbolises that way this is in life, and how Theo must grow to accept that.

Now, the book is not phenomenal - it's quite mediocre, but has some moments of genius. Its poetic beauty is sparse, but well-placed and manoeuvred, and the book is short - so for a few hours, it will entertain you. It's funny, true and all-encompassing - but wait for the paperback. It's not that good.

Between the two, we see two different family lives, but concerns of reputation, social hierarchy and legacy are undeniably relevant in both. The idea of possession, inheritance, and what possession will do for us in the future is another topic which is bound tightly to what we pass on in terms of children and progeny. Just what part of us is it that we leave behind, with or without children?

23 February, 2012

Glee - On My Way (Karofsky & Quinn)

The most controversial Glee episode yet - even more than the teen sex one. Bloody interesting, but Glee has opened up a massive new set of issues. And I'm sorry but this is going to be a bloody long review.

I couldn't start this review by talking about anything but Karofsky. Now I heard a spoiler about the plotline, and I was fearful. Whether he lived or died, or whether he actually attempted to kill himself was irrelevant - the idea of teen suicide is so brutal and topical that Glee would have to treat it perfectly to be able to do it - and we know how they normally behave in these situations. But I've watched the episode, and I think they've done a bloody good job.

The topic was dark, and Glee did not shy away from showing this side of teenage life. The 'Cough Syrup' song was beautiful, and the entire scene was lyrically and visually, stunning, with an amazing performance by Maz Adler. Now, Glee has become DARK, there is no denying, but thats where its strength lies - in showing the darkness of humanity, it stresses and demonstrates the importance of good.

What I thought was stunning and quite upsetting in the episode was the way in which it came across as a love letter to the fans. It was essentially an hour of everyone involved in Glee pleading that the audience, as well as the characters, look to a better time - they mentioned Lady GaGa's Born This Way Foundation, and in America, a new commercial for the Trevor Project debuted during the episode. Now, criticisms of the plot point have read that 'Glee is acting as social services, as a public service announcement' but if noone else is going to do anything for the kids of today, why shouldn't Glee? The idea that the producers of Glee are now going out of their way to put an end to bullying and prejudice is phenomenal - the episode, and let's face it, the series, is moving in so many ways.

The scene between Kurt and Karofsky needs constant praise, for at least a couple of years - it was the best, and most moving, emotional scene, in Glee history. Max Adler and Chris Colfer urgently deserve some awards for the scene, because I'm not exaggerating when I say it was a phenomenal and incredible piece of television. The idea of looking forward to the future, that one day, the shitstorm will pass, is the basis for the Trevor Project's 'It Gets Better' campaign. But Glee took this one step further, and said that the future can, and will, be incredible. Karofsky's future scene was a heart-wrenching dream sequence, and again I cannot praise Adler's performance highly enough. The strength of the scene rests on the relationship between the two young actors, and the stress they put upon how amazing everyone's future can be. What I also think works well in Glee is that Colfer is in a position to be an intensely inspirational figure to youth. He is a fantastic actor, has a children's book coming out, and has starred in and written the new feature film 'Struck by Lightning' - he is a success story. What I would appreciate, which is missing in the 'On The Way: Behind the Scenes' clip is Colfer speaking candidly about success, and teen suicide - it would be massively interesting to have some candid, inspirational words.

What remains to be seen is how the story is taken from here - Kurt said 'I'm glad you're alive David' and he said 'So am I' - so hopefully there will be no further suicide attempts. However, his mother said he has a disease, and I don't know whether he should or will return to his home. What is important is that Glee does not skirt past the issue, or ship Karofsky off and forget about him - to retain the integrity and importance of this plot, aftercare is essential. The episode was intensely moving, and I hope will make some people a little more thoughtful - but even so, if it saves one person from attempting suicide because of bullying, then that's amazing.


The music in the episode was strong - despite the new trend to squeeze competition numbers into quick segments to allow for other plot points, Regionals still managed to be a tense and fraught affair. The Warblers pulled out some of their best songs since Blaine defected, and the New Directions numbers, despite not particularly 'inspirational' like the brief, or original, I still enjoyed them. But Regionals did seem to come as a secondary plot to the rest of the episode. Not least was this because 'Cough Syrup', song-wise, performance- and meaning-wise, blew most of this season's songs out of the water. The song suited Criss' voice perfectly, and it's one of the few Glee tracks I've listened to countless times. Indeed, I'm listening to it now.

The 'Peanut Butter Sharing Circle of Forced Positivity' made it debut on the show this week, and despite its initial cringiness (either Schuester is lying, or he's bloody mental - we met his dad in series one, and he's pretty chilled), this scene was brilliant. The idea that everyone should look forward to something was strong, and put into place more clearly than ever before this season (should really have happened around episode one) where each character is heading and where they want to go. Their ideas were undermined somewhat by the notion that 'everybody has something that would take them to that edge', because surely what would make you end it all could be inextricably linked to what we want to happen in the future? It's the idea of these hopes 'not happening' which can be the killer. What was strong though was the difference in ambition, and I felt that every viewer should be able to relate to one of the hopes.

Little Bits of Thought:
-Sugar said that if someone photoshopped pictures of her like they did to Finn, she'd kill herself - insensitive, no? Possibly a comment on people's casual attitudes to suicide, but this is Glee, so no it was just thoughtless.
-The teacher's meeting over the suicide attempt showed the bureaucracy and fear of teachers, but Emma hit the nail on the head - 'then whose job was it [to know]'.
-the Karofsky plot was a good way to humanise Sebastian
-finally the Rachel/Finn marriage has some impetus to actually happen now - before, they could have put it back years, but now there's a reason for a wedding scene
-Sue's pregnancy is interesting - I genuinely have no idea who the father is
-Going to ignore Quinns comments over Karofsky's suicide - don't know what message they're trying to give.
-The trailer tricked us by thinking that Quinn would turn up to the wedding. Now, this is NOT a deleted scene - they're in the marriage location, dressed in bridesmaids/wedding dresses, and Quinn is telling Rachel not to marry Finn, even though in the school scene, she said she'd support it. Would like some clarification as to whether this was filmed as a decoy, or whether this fitted into the script in some bizarro fashion.

Now to the biggest heartbreak of the episode - Quinn. She is one of my favourite characters - she has turned her life around, she is immensely talented and her scenes about getting into Yale and 'graduating... at the top of my class' are the most touching future-based scenes yet. The idea that we should seize the day - live every day as if it were our last - was delivered by the Karofsky plot; now, does Quinn's crash undermine this idea, driving it into overkill, or just emphasise the point? I think it depends on the happiness of the outcome. I'm not OK with the idea that this is a preachy 'don't text and drive' message (though I am driving ten times safer since the episode) or the message that bad things happen to good people who are going somewhere.

The crash itself and its visuals were intensely dramatic - but as a 'shocking winter finale cliffhanger' - is there any actual need for this as part of the story? In terms of characters, I want her to be OK - even if she is in a wheelchair as set reports suggest, the idea of her overcoming adversity which is set upon her later in life, and still succeeding, is interesting. But for the integrity of the plot, she really should die. The crash was into her side of the car, just as she passed, it hit her window, side-on. And she was going fairly fast. Whatever the outcome, I want a big emotional payoff about the future and her ambition - considering the lead-up in the episode, to her being a great person, and having a special future, it seems like the antithesis of Glee's message to then kill her off.


I hope these thoughts aren't as incoherent as they seem - please comment or tweet me @Jakeshaker with any opinions, would love to hear them.

21 February, 2012

Skins - Mini - Youth

I'll start by saying that Mini is a character I have never liked. She is selfish, arrogant and shallow, and unfortunately, Freya Mavor has failed to give the character any depth so far. This episode gave Mini, for the first time, a sympathetic edge and despite plot decisions that I wouldn't personally make, the writers managed to make quite a coherent episode for the first time in a while.

Pregnancy has already been a plot point in Skins, and in TV drama generally, is not an original idea. That would be okay but what was lacking in the episode was anything profound or new to say about teen pregnancy. What I also failed to understand, throughout the episode was people telling Mini that her dad will 'fuck her over' and to go back to her mum's house. To me, her mum seemed fairly mental, and her dad had become the lesser of two evils (for most of the episode, he was fairly genuine), so why wouldn't she like to move in with him?

What was original and new in the plot was the idea that Mini had never been able to love, or be loved. We saw that in her character from Series 5, in that she is mean and could not keep up a relationship with Nick. Likewise, in this series, she has been reliant on sex, not love, from 'farmboy'. When her father's assistant kissed her, not on the mouth, but on the cheek, it was interesting to see her respond to kindheartedness, more than just sexual feeling. To me, it will be interesting to see if Mini can atone for her parents' treatment of her, by keeping the baby and being a good, loving mother, or whether she will pass on unhealthy attitudes to love and parenthood.

Random Points:
- to yell 'get the fuck out of me' whilst being sick in a bathroom at college is NOT a good technique for keeping your pregnancy under wraps

- we need to see more of the crazy English teacher - she was marvellous + absolutely cray cray

- the characters need to stop taking drugs constantly. Seriously.

- the following exchange was ridiculously funny:
''Act with a bit more professionalism'' *Goes and has sex with a child in the cloakroom*

What I think is lacking in this generation of Skins-kids is a sense of Optimism, and a sense of hopefulness of youth. In earlier series, the characters jumped to have sex and drink to have fun and because they were young - they were exploring the world. Now, it seems that we're having to deal with characters who drudge through their lives, taking drugs to get through - and this has not just been occuring since Grace's death. This is also an even worse message about drugs - that they'll 'make things better'. In season one, even after Tony got run over, the characters burst into song, and there was humour in the final scenes. Now, Skins is trying to remain 'edgy' but, unfortunately, losing what it was originally about - youth, and its possibilities.

19 February, 2012

Cheeky Reading Update

I'm about 3/4 of the way through this - a hedonistic, gluttonous modern tragedy. It's a hefty 400 pages of dense, dense text - but isn't that the point? In a book about excess, limits and the drudgery of hedonism, the book has to be a trawl to get through. But thats not to say the prose isn't precise - Amis has a way with metaphor and dialogue that expresses the vulgarities of the modern world consisely, exactly and in detail.
The plot revolves around John Self, a Londoner and a New Yorker, who is addressing the reader in what the novel's sub-title says is 'a suicide note'. He is in the process of making money from a film, whilst spending as much money as he can in the process. He sleeps around, eats, drinks, and the repetition and sheer number of hedonistic trips exhibits the tragedy of the man's life. Similarly, Amis' prose shows the bad and the dangerous of his life. In a life of pornography, drugs and money, his heart is described as a 'time bomb' -  the image of a useless, and struggling heart is apt and a motif of hope and of inevitable tragedy.

(It pains me to write 'Color' it really does).
Walker's most famous novel is set in the deep South of America between the wars. It is a classic of the A-Level set text list, but I  escaped reading it. I finally got around to reading it, and frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about.

The most endearing part of the novel is the relationship between Nettie and Celie, sisters who are separated and spend the majority of the book writing letters to each other - letters which may or may not even reach one another. This is a sad sad separation (getting more and more absurd) but you struggle to see why Celie stays in the situation she is in, and there is a danger around her, but also a lightness, and one never knows where she actually stands.

The lesbianism plot isn't as profound and deep as I would expect for something praised for its treatment of this theme. It is, I would argue, a feminist text, but is more jolly-jolly pro-women's relationships, but failing to actually expand meaningfully on lesbianism as a theme or idea, and even fails to keep up a consistency of this in plot terms.

This is a collection of musings and ideas (I won't say essays - they are not scholarly) on the ideas of reading, readers and its benefits. With contributions by Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith, it has the big names to draw sales, but also more interesting and scientific, political ideas by Jane Davis and Dr Maryanne Wolf.
Here are some of the interesting quotes from the book. A book which provokes the pleasure of reading, the pleasure of learning, and puts them side by side, often speaking very seriously about the power of reading in the 'current climate':

1. ''Attention Deficit Disorder' is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading' - Winterson
2. 'Memory is talismanic. We hold on to what we need and let the rest go' - Winterson
3. 'This [feeling] is what film can't do. The sense of being inside looking out' - Haddon
4. 'Publishers of books... are the foot soldiers of this army. On they go, on they must go' - Callil

Some of the pieces are better than others, and some of the points you'll agree with, some you won't. I wholeheartedly disagree with Haddon's assertion that Virginia Woolf is the best writer at 'capturing the texture of life itself', and the last text, 'Questions for a Reader', is heavy on scientific points to prove a point, but sparse on the scientific explanation and justification for its findings. In all, an interesting read - with some in-depth and emotive ideas on the power of reading, and some less-than-interesting passages, but either way - it helps the reader to further formulate THEIR opinion on books - and in these times, that's important.

18 February, 2012

Skins Again & The Problem With Violence

Chilling on a pool table.

Skins continued this week, with a Frankie-centric episode which centred on the Luke character from the series opener and dealt with her feelings of responsibility over Grace's death. Apart from the implausible 'oh yes Frankie, we met in Morocco but I also happen to live in Bristol' plot device, the episode was at least fairly fast-paced and watchable.

Frankie remains an interesting character, and she is played well by Dakota Blue Richards, but continues to behave in ridiculous ways. During the episode, in which Luke was violent and aggressive towards her, the character sensed no danger despite it being obvious from Luke himself, and from people speaking to her, that he is not a nice guy. Any character who says 'You make my brain cum' is probably not somebody you should get to know.

The rest of the characters, bar Nick, were hardly in the episode at all, and whether or not this is a good thing, it is something that Skins does often, when focusing on one character for a week. However, Alex from last week was not featured in the episode at all, and it seems that audiences will duly forget about him if you introduce a character and then forget about him.

Much has been made this week of the amount of violence featured in the episode. But what I had a problem with was the way it fitted into the script. The violence was not gratuitous within the context of the plot, but served little purpose. Gratuitous violence is always needless and headline-grabbing, and damages the integrity of a programme.

The violence in this episode was not demonstrated to be the exciting draw it was meant to be - it seemed childish, dangerous (due to the baseball bats) and something that would turn most people off their new friend. But not for Frankie. The programme showed a lot of violence and damage, but then allowed Luke and Frankie to kiss in the middle of a pub brawl in complete safety, without worry. It would have been better to be consistent with the violence you are showing, and not give your protagonist immunity from any danger.

In all, the episode was carried by the Nick/Frankie (Frick?) love plot and the idea of Frankie's grief and responsibility, which really should have been touched on in an earlier episode. To be honest, Grace works well as a ghost, rather than a living person, and Nick/Frankie is one of the couplings I can actually see happening. Another steady improvement in Skins-world, but I'm not even sure if, after decling popularity of the last two series, E4 will commision a seventh.

Written for: Great and Gold

This Week's Reality TV Roundup

This week has been a bumper week for reality television, so I thought I'd round up what I think about the main ones (except TOWIE..... no TOWIE).

This week, the Coppers cameras followed the TSG (Territorial Support Group) through the streets of Nottingham, as they ran searches, patrolled a football match and controlled a night out on the streets. Once again, to see the police going about (what is for them) an average day, is fascinating. What was great about this episode was that it showed them telling people off for swearing, and contrary to reports, it is great to see the police have the time to deal with petty crimes. One reveller argued with the police saying 'I'm not even trying to be clever... fact is I AM clever' which was comedy gold in a documentary at its best.

Whatever you think of the concept of Playing it Straight, watch at least one episode because it is hilarious. This week, Cara rested at a mountain lodge, whilst the boys had to trek, camp and abseil to win her affections. Levi was asked to 'leave the hacienda' and was in fact revealed to be straight, but after his behaviour in the mountain lodge, who'd have thunk it? Next week is the semi-final, and we can finally begin to find out whether some of the major players - Sven, Sam, Ben, Danny - are gay or straight. Some people find the programme offensive in terms of stereotyping, but it's all in the name of fun entertainment - if you don't like, don't watch.

Geordie Shore has now reached the levels of expectancy, contrivance and drama we expect of its sister programme Jersey Shore, but like the rest of you, I'm still tuning in every week. Highlights of this series have been James' inability to pull, Vicki's oneliners and Hollie's deluded desire to bed James. Certain situations - the end of the fight, Vicki's boyfriend arriving, Sophie's boyfriend not being invited to Newcastle before the date - seem to be well-orchestrated and well-timed by the production team, but in the end, who cares? Geordie Shore is an easy and quick programme for laughs, entertainment and shock. And with Charlotte returning next week, what could be be better?

Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents had another brilliant episode this week. There is something great about watching people on holiday - even if they fuck about and we see some vile sights. In fact, that makes it even better. We saw 'the lads' and 'the girls' on holiday, with some quite liberal parents and some quite strict, nervous parents. What is problematic about the success of this series is that it will begin to be difficult for the producers to get groups who don't expect to be on this programme. Already, from Andy in Episode 2, you can see that the kids start to detect that they have been had. I hope someone finds a way round this situation, because this programme could go on and on.

13 February, 2012

Another Earth - Film Review

You've all seen the trailers for this 'Another Earth', I presume. They've been quite aggressively stapled to every recent feature film over about the past year, and the film has finally been released in the UK. Unfortunately, the trailer (counted as a short film) is about seventeen times better than the full-length feature, which trundles along, without saying anything profound, whilst believing sincerely that it is.

Newcomer Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is Rhoda. She hands in a strong performance, but irritatingly her vowel sounds have a tendency to go wildly off-course. And whilst I would not go as far as to agree with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw that Marling 'to be frank, is not a natural screen performer', she does have just two facial expressions throughout the movie - shock and fear - which never progress to more. Mapother (known mainly for his role as creepy Ethan in 'Lost' and for being Tom Cruise's distant, less successful but probably more normal cousin) stars as widower John Burroughs. Managing to portray both 'family man' and 'the outsider' well, Mapother has a standoffishness which he puts into play here, making Burroughs both sympathetic and slightly sinister.

Without spoiling too much, the two become more intimate than you'd initially think (a point in the film I audibly sighed at). Sadly the chemistry between the two is minimal, and they struggle to toe the line between lovers and a sinister age-differing twosome. Are the two supposed to be a vomit-worthy atonement of Rhoda's earlier transgression or a fate-driven power couple?

What was fascinating in the movie was how the background noise was minimal and at times was a kind imitation of white noise playing. This emphasised the feelings of isolation and bleakness in the film, and gave the imposing 'Earth 2' visual motif a kind of malignant, foreboding feeling. The only time music was played was at the sparing number of moments when Rhoda managed to connect emotionally with others, which is clearly a struggle for her after the accident. There is an interesting parallel to be made between the paucity of human speech between long stretches of white noise and the huge distances between planets and stars in the universe. However, the 'Earth 2' idea is so poorly executed and poorly demonstrated that it is difficult to believe that any of these filmic connections to planetary workings were intentional.

Something I always struggle with in supernatural or sci-fi books, films and programmes is that the parameters of the universe are often poorly thought-through and set up. This makes it difficult to emotionally invest in a world where very little is clear about how the two identical planets relate and interact. The film ends without explaining how the other planet could help John Burroughs or how it relates to Rhoda's sin and ultimate acceptance of what she did. Similarly, it fails to use the 'Earth 2' visual or world, seeing as the 'visiting Earth 2' does not even take place in the time constraint of the movie. There was no point during the movie in which it was even inferred that the military, the governments and the other planet were all working in the way an audience would expect during first contact with another world.

Ultimately, 'Another Earth' felt like a skin-deep and happy-go-lucky portrayal of the storyline, rather than a fully-thought out representation of an interesting and compelling idea. Despite the fact that so much of the film's movement and its visuals centre on journeys - railways, footprints - it's a shame my journey watching the film was slow, painful and ultimately disappointing.

12 February, 2012

'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' by Padgett Powell

'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' is the first book I have read by the intriguing Padgett Powell. The American writer currently works at the University of Florida, and has said interesting things in interview about the lifespan of a writer's work, their legacy and the practicality of being a writer in the modern world; after learning about him and reading this novel, I will definitely be exploring more of his work. The book is his fifth novel, and is a little different: it comprises one hundred and sixty-four pages of questions. They range from the practical and the personal to the bizarre, the specific and the general, all of which make up the titular 'Interrogative Mood' of the entire book.

There is a Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) -esque playfulness and whimsicality to the writing. Powell includes a specificity to many questions, and yet a nondescript and general nature to others, a juxtaposition of the superficial and the personal. The story and 'narrative' built up by the questions becomes very individualistic, and muses on the nature of 'us' and of 'we' - on humanity, together and alone. The very nature of the personal questions, such 'Do you find the phrase ''the verdant selvage of Michigan'' intriguing?' ponders the personality of the speaker and of the reader, assuming we both answer the question, and questions the relationship between the two individuals, and how it is we come to learn about one another. The novel (I'll answer his question - yes, this is a novel) relates an idea of the importance of conversation and the nature of the information contained in not just the answer, but also the question.

Chekhov states that the aim of a writer is to ask questions, not to answer them and there is a playfulness to Powell in fulfilling this assertion quite literally. The questions are fun - 'Historically, what has been your flavour when you order a milkshake?' - yet become serious - 'Does integrity lie in failure?' - but do manage to create the idea of a situation, a palpable and informed narrative as the basis for this relentless questioning.

The ideas in other reviews of the novel - the speaker is part of a political interrogation, this is a man on his deathbed - are all intriguing, but through the questions, their connotations and answers I had for them, I built up a very specific idea of the speaker. It seems to me that 'The Interrogative Mood' is a novel that everyone will react differently to, and will bring something new to. As with T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', the picture from different readings of 'The Interrogative Mood', as far as I can tell, varies significantly. Interestingly, I read the book in three readings of about an hour each, and the questions do not become tiresome or tedious - they become more intriguing as patterns and repetitions begin to emerge. The colour red, bluejays and the taking of a bus in a foreign city are all important to the narrator of 'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' If you want a relationship with a book, much more intimate than with the most open and revealing of prose fictions, then read Powell. Will you?

[For more information about the book, written in more depth and detail than I had time for, try Shigekuni on Wordpress or Julie Cline on ConnotationPress - these guys are indeed very good. If possible, read the book and then these]

09 February, 2012

Glee - The Spanish Teacher

Glee recently shocked its audience (well, me) by announcing a SEVEN-WEEK hiatus. This is hardly surprising, as they are still shooting the Regionals episode set to air in two week, but a huge letdown when we've had break after break after break this season. As such, the latest episode 'The Spanish Teacher' is one of the three episodes we have left before the break, and we'll have to make the most of it.

Ricky Martin was the star of the episode - he played the character well, but is not particularly charismatic and is not someone I would want to stay in the programme long-term. The plot swang wildly between the Spanish theme, Will/Emma, Mercedes/Sam (still not a couple I understand) and Sue's baby troubles (another wild character u-turn for her there). Unfortunately, the episode took basically every character out of how they would actually behave.

The Spanish theme to the episode was a good idea, but the music failed to be particularly exciting - 'Sexy and I Know it' and 'La Isla Bonita' were highlights, but Sam's mashup and Schuester's performance were dull, and the episode failed to show the excitement and 'passion' of Spanish music - merely translations of some English-language songs. Whilst the episode seemed to be setting Santana up to be the biggest bitch in Ohio, her points were valid and her words to Schuh about being an inspirational teacher were 'deep'. However, along with Kurt's words to Finn this week, Glee seems to be setting the kids up to be sanctimonious and preachy, in a way that is unnatural to their characters and the club. Kurt's speech to Finn made sense, but noone seems to be able to work out what it is about Finn that is 'special' - is he destined to be a performer, or something else?

Other character failings in this episode were the travesty of pretending that Will, a smart and practical guy, doesn't know any of the language he has taught to high-schoolers for three years, Sue's plot to get a baby brought up some laughs - her chat to the Glee boys - and some bittersweet sadness - Becky telling her she'll be a good mum - but the direction of Sue's character this season seems chaotic at best.

The Sam/Mercedes love plot is tiresome - the resolution to their week apart was massively anti-climactic. They both wanted to be together, but again, Mercedes walks off with her boyfriend, ignoring Sam. In an episode of hilarious pamphlet-ing, and of showing Emma's success with her students, is everyone ignoring the fact that she didn't resolve their difficulty? And as much as I like Emma, she has never been shown, in three years, as 'good at her job', and now suddenly she's up for tenure?

The episode was not terrible - it had some hilarious laughs, and some touching moments. But these moments came in spite of the fact that the plot was not logical and the characters not consistent. Oh and one big issue I had with the script: Will offers to take Martin for coffee, and in the next scene he says 'I never drink coffee'. Difficult. Now let's have one absolutely killer episode next week, with plot AND funny lines, before the home stretch. 

08 February, 2012

Skins - the next two eps

The most recent two episodes of Skins have dealt with death, friendship, endings and beginnings, but have differed significantly. The first episode was a predictable, boring and drawn-out hour of hedonistic grief, and the second was a more clever, slow and heart-warming look at the universe of a teenager.

Episode two centred on the death of a central character, and followed the characters as they tried to deal with their friend's coma, squatted in a teachers' house and ultimately learnt about their friend's death. Whereas the programme used to have intelligent and innovative ways of storytelling, we sat through an infinitely long, average, drudge through a mediocre narrative which again, had implausible character motivations, and failed to bring to life the situation at hand. There was an increased amount of violence and destruction in the episode - rather than showing grief and confusion, it showed a Rich as a weak character acting like the child he pertains not to be. He is a character who fails to draw any empathy, or emotion, from the audience - a fault which falls at the feet of both the actor and the writers.

The writers continued to fail in the episode, by overdoing their points and over-exaggerating the story - not in a way that is a hyperbole of real life, something Skins has done excellently in the past, but as a consolation for them failing to provide exposition naturally. Some examples:

'Your milk is no longer required here.'
Yes, we get it, they've left the country.

'Everything's mental since fucking Morocco.'
Yes, obviously, because YOU fucked up and now your friend's in a coma.

The third episode of the current run, however, was a strong comeback and pushed the series in an upward direction. The new boy, Alex, played by a charismatic Sam Jackson, had an interesting, believable and surreal back-story. The episode's strengths rested on his performance, which almost managed to carry off the ridiculous, and implausible dice idea. What the episode showed excellently was the group of friends who sit, speechless, together, as it remains the only way they can think of to overcome their grief. After their friend's death, their social circle has been shaken to its core, and the episode managed to convey their confusion over how they should behave, only that they should be together. Alex's twist - his being gay - was predictable, and I had initial sighs when they entered the gambling 'den', but ultimately, this was a step back towards the fun, surreal and odd happenings of first-generation Skins.

Although the message of destroying the memorial service was ruined by Liv's flashing, the episode ended on a high - the idea of friendship pervaded, and the ridiculous dice shenanigans were thrown into the ocean with Alex's gran. Now let's just keep our fingers crossed and hope the writers keep up this standard... but judging by the return of Morocco-boy in the trailer for next week, my hopes are not high... 

Written for: Great and Gold

07 February, 2012

Fiction in Summary - Jasper Fforde - Shades of Grey

Such a beautiful hardback.
Jasper Fforde is now the writer of THREE book series - Thursday Next the literary detective, the Nursery Crime series and this - Shades of Grey. Only the first of this new series has currently been published, and is a dystopic, adventure-led love story set in a world where colour perception determines class. Greens are highers than Reds who are higher than the Greys - equivalent to the proles in Orwell's '1984'. That is not where the Orwell similarities end - our central protagonist, Eddie Russett, is a fighter-against-the-system made to make difficult moral choices, and is led astray by the wild and masculine Jane, with whom he falls in love.

His covers are consistently amazing... I want them all.
The whimsical and immaterial nature of the world in which our central characters reside takes the focus away from the seriousness of their rigid class system and the impending danger. This is a fun, and a funny, novel - but never are we far away from Fforde's latent seriousness. The novel is dense with literary allusion and one is never far away from a joke about our society. In itself, the novel is far removed from the world in which we live, but comparisons can be made, about freedom, the futility and failings of religion and of criticisms of rules and authority.

Critical reviews of the book focus on its 'plotless' first Act, and its failure to come to a climax in the final pages, to leave room for the pre-planned sequels.  The first 200-or-so pages of the novel allow us to relax and get used to the world into which we have been thrust. Most dystopic, through language and characters' attitudes, distance the reader, and to some extent, continue to do so in order to present a consistent world and a reliable set of rules. Whilst some - such as Brave New World - thrust us right into action before we have grown accustomed to the style, Fforde (rightly so, in my opinion) allows us to relax, take all the information in, before serious action, of which this book is not lacking. The book does fail to answer some critical questions, but as Fforde intends to write at least two sequels, it is not as if we will never get the answers.

Fforde has continued his terrific trend of writing compelling, well-imagined and interesting series, of which Shades of Grey is probably the latest of many to come. The book is laugh-out-loud funny, enthralling, and the perfect afternoon read. Nothing too taxing, but a clever funny book - science-fiction with heart. Read this for laughs, shocks and a book you'll want to read in one sitting.

05 February, 2012

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy's 'The God of Small Things' won the Booker Prize in 1997, and yet is the author's only novel - she has since gone on to complete several collections of political essays on India. It is a beautifully written book, densely poetic and focuses on a richly tapestried story, which crosses and marks a great time-span and many generations.

The author's only novel focuses on forbidden love, the Indian class system and the rules of ''who should be loved, and how. And how much.'' These are applicable to Indian culture at this time, but also to societal pressures on any type of love in any era or country. There is a sense of caste and creed being thrown out of the window with regard to true love, and the power of love to break through societal parameters of acceptance.

What I personally loved about the book, something it shares in common with much of what I've been reading recently (The Woman in Black, Rules of Civility, Fitzgerald's short stories) is that it luxuriates in itself as a story. Roy even goes so far as to refer to her role as revealing and creating a narrative. In a story in which there are few physical books (or maybe even none at all - I couldn't be sure) the family revel in stories. Poems and stories in the novel are read out loud after being memorised in oral form and the family is obsessed with 'The Sound of Music'. In itself, love of a story is one of the 'small things' to appreciate - stories are prominent in the face of control over literature, just as love is strong in the face of oppression by the Indian class system. Stories are shown as important in that powerful events in the family's timeline are centered around them and are paralleled by their contents - the cinema is the backdrop to the Estha's molestation and the book's climax runs seemingly in tandem with a narrative of lies told to the police.

The natural world, nature and wildlife, is contrasted strongly with industry and power. The new hotel and its inhabitants are an apalling group, who force their ways upon their surroundings. Whilst there is an admiration and pride in the local community for the family's British connections, there is a sense of rivalry between the two, and what they each bring to the family. Throughout the book, dichotomy is brought to the forefront, between the big and the small, the manmade and the natural amongst other comparisons. But like the sets of lovers, two converse opinions can often be brought together and made to be compliant with one another.

The narrative is told in the third person, but with undertones of the perceptions and the language of children. The twins' (sometimes forceful) advance into the adult world is all the more strongly drawn out in this way, through the contrast between actions and the language used to describe it. Even in the final chapters, we are shown the twins as adults, who still act with arguably a childishly simplistic view of the world. The contrast between childhood, age, experience and innocence is also fascinatingly threaded into the plot; a phrase which pops up often in the story is 'a viable die-able age', which brings to my mind connotations of fate and destiny of aging through the idea of being 'viable' to die in a masterplan created by a God of sorts. The phrase justifies life but also demonstrates a sense of unfairness, in that some of the deaths in the book are not of those who have reached a 'die-able age' - in this way, Roy includes the sorrow and grief of death, whilst throwing shade on the beauty and brilliance in life.

Roy has certainly written a masterpiece of epic proportions, which deserves the praise which has been heaped upon it. Beneath the layers of this multi-dimensional and transcending novel, lies a story of life, love and appreciation for what one has. As the story hurtles forwards and backwards in time towards its tragic denouement, Roy never loses sight of her intentions with the novel. Whilst highlighting the struggle of Indian society in what is probably a more organic way than in her later essays, she also touches on universal themes of love, loss and class in new and exciting ways. Her command of language is exquisite, as is the richness of both narrative and prose. Acute and outstanding, Roy has created a narrative so rich and breathtaking, you'll want to read it again and again. I certainly do.