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Some of the best articles on the blog. Typically, these have a picture. It's a low entrance requirement, I know.


November 17, 2016

Nostalgia Corner: Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Posted on November 17, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Schalcken The Painter

Making art history programming interesting, accessible and memorable is a tricky thing. Doing two of those isn't necessarily hard, but all three is tricky. 

For example, I watched all of Simon Schama's Power of Art, but while I found it very interesting and accessible, I can't tell you much about what our Simon said except that Caravaggio was very realistic and good with lighting. For me, it failed in actually educating me about art.

Dramatisation, which was one of Simon's tactics, can certainly help with making art history interesting and accessible, but there are few arts programmes that have gone as far as Omnibus did in using dramatisation to make it memorable, too. In 1979, the BBC arts programme included an hour-long drama about 17th-century Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken. What was even more novel about it and helped it to be memorable was that rather being a simple biopic, it was also a ghost story.

In common with Jonathan Miller's original adaptation for Omnibus of Whistle and I'll Come To You, Schalcken The Painter is not officially part of the BBC's long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet not only did the episode air in the series' traditional slot of 23 December, vacated when the series was cancelled in 1978, it also fit in tonally, while still being an arts programme dedicated to exploring Schalcken's life and art.

Based on Sheridan Le Fanu's short story Strange Event in the Life of Schalken The Painter (sic) and narrated by Charles Gray as'Lefanu', the episode follows Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde)'s career from his early days as a pupil of Gerard Dou (Maurice Denham), one of Rembrandt's most famous pupils. 

There he falls in love with Dou's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), but before they can be betrothed, a pale man called Vanderhausen (John Justin) comes to the door, offering a huge sum of money in exchange for her hand in marriage. Rose begs Schalcken to take her away before the marriage goes ahead. Does he? Well, you'll have to watch to find out.

Schalcken's ghost

Schalcken the Painter was directed by Leslie Megahey, the producer in charge of Omnibus, who had actually only accepted the job on condition that she could adapt Le Fanu's short story for the programme. Inspired by Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche, she shot the film in the style of a docudrama, using the absolute bare minimum of dialogue.

To meet the Omnibus remit, many scenes depict Schalcken recruiting models and posing them for his most powerful works, with Gray exploring the merits of each composition and how it might have derived from Schalcken's life and mental state.

The most important of these, ironically, is a fake - an adaptation by the production team of 'Young Girl With A Candle' in the style of Schalcken that starts and finishes the episode and purports to be the inspiration for Gray's narration.

Girl with a candle

(Fake) Schalcken picture

But Schalcken is not the only artist to feature. As well as Dou, Rembrandt (Charles Stewart) himself turns up to commission Schalcken. And the production team used the paintings of Vermeer, de Hooch and Dou to learn what interiors of 17th century Dutch domestic dwellings were like, as well to compose scenes.

Schalcken Interior

For the more frightening qualities of the story, they also took inspiration from both Schalcken's and Rembrandt's work and their mastery of darkness.

Darkness in Schalcken

Girl posing in 'Shalcken The Painter'

As a piece of art history, the fictional nature of the story obviously means Schalcken The Painter is flawed, particularly since its most enduring image isn't actually by Schalcken. But it's now probably more famous than Schalcken himself and certainly more people will have heard of him because of it than would otherwise have done. Certainly, I did.

Here's the first few minutes, but if you like it, as always, buy it (iTunes if you prefer)!

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November 16, 2016

Review: Shooter 1x1 (US: USA; UK: Netflix)

Posted on November 16, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Shooter

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA
In the UK: Wednesdays, Netflix

I think it's fair to say that America loves guns. Or at least has a lot of them: 300 million at last count, on a population of 325 million. And if you have a lot of guns, they tend to get used, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Which has caused all kinds of problems for USA's Shooter, a show that loves guns rather a lot. Originally scheduled to air mid-July, it was postponed at first by a week following the shooting in Dallas. However, following the shooting in Baton Rouge, USA decided to move Shooter from its summer schedule to November. 

Shooter sees Ryan Phillipe (Secrets and Lies, Cruel Intentions) once again take on a role to which he's slightly ill suited - a former marine sniper. Wounded in action by the Chechnyan sniper who killed his best friend, he's perfectly happy with his wife and daughter, until his former CO turned secret service agent Omar Epps (House, Resurrection) approaches him for help. Said Chechnyan sniper has threatened to kill the President and Phillipe is one of the few people in the world with the skills to work out how he could do it and so prevent it. Except things are not quite as they seem…

Based on the 2007 movie of the same name, which in turn was based on Stephen Hunter's book Point of Impact, this pilot episode follows the film and to a lesser extent the book pretty faithfully, meaning that if you've seen the movie, there'll be almost no surprises as to what happens at the end of the episode.

That said, there have been a few tweaks. Epps's characters might not be the obvious double-crosser that Danny Glover was, while Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Arrow, Spartacus)'s disgraced FBI agent and potential ally to Phillipe is a moderately interesting gender-change to the Michael Peña character, even if she's not quite as interesting as he was. The fact Phillipe now has a family, rather than a Kate Mara to hook up with, also changes the dynamics of the story a little.

As I mentioned when I reviewed Graves, shows with conservative politics are relatively rare and Shooter is clearly aimed at viewers of that disposition, right down to our hero's family saying grace before meals. Its dedication to honourable men and women, doing honourable things in service, is a refreshing change, too, even if we know a great big conspiracy is potentially looming round the corner. Its big, big, big love of guns (aka "defenders of freedom"), which it inherited from its source material, is also a little different, even if does come across like a product review page in Guns & Ammo at times.

But dramatically, it's not really innovating much and the opening scene in which Phillipe starts shooting orthodentists because they've used the wrong kind of gun and rounds to hunt a wolf is astonishingly clumsy. Characterisation is weak, largely fitting people into particular plot functions rather than making them fully fleshed out human beings. Dialogue is often dreadful, particularly anything between Phillipe and his wife, who judging from her lines must have been a sniper herself. And the constant use of low-budget CGI "bullet time" shots for, erm, bullet shots makes the show look cheap and a bit silly. 

As a piece of action-thriller TV, Shooter's pretty good, though. Clearly, that's mainly down to the source material but sometimes it transcendents that material to avoid some of its sillier ideas. Whether subsequent episodes, which will have far less to work with, will be as good or whether Phillipe will be shooting more dentists remains to be seen.

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November 15, 2016

Preview: Good Behavior 1x1 (US: TNT)

Posted on November 15, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Good Behavior

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, TNT. Starts tonight

Sometimes, I'm surprised there's any scripted British TV at all. Who's starring in it, given that virtually every actor in the UK seems to have nipped off to the US to try their chances at having a well-paid career for a change. Hell, even Jeff from Coupling gets to be a an ex-Russian special forces soldier over there; here, he'd be some doctor in a low-key BBC Two drama or something.

So widespread is this problem that even the cast of Downton Abbey are heading stateside. Dan Stevens has been paving the way for the others for some time but now Michelle Dockery's there.

What's stranger than their managing to get jobs is the kind of jobs they're getting. Stevens has already been voicing a supercomputer in The Tomorrow People but now he's going to be a TV X-Man in FX's Legion. Meanwhile, Dockery is in a new TNT show starting tonight that she has no right to be the lead in whatsoever, you'd have thought.

Based on Blake Crouch (Wayward Pines)'s Letty Dobesh Chronicles, Good Behavior sees Dockery unexpectedly playing the books' titular former con and conwoman, a drug addict who's just been let out of jail and working in a dead-end job in roadside café. When she gets fired, she returns to her life of burglary and confidence tricks, but when she overhears two men planning a hit against a woman, she decides to do something nice and save her. 

No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and just as she's about to end the pain with a bucketload of drugs, sexy Juan Diego Botto turns up with an offer she can't refuse.

Read that description of the plot and tell me your first thought is "Hmm, maybe that Lady Mary from Downton Abbey would be good for the job?" Ridiculous, isn't it?

Yet, surprisingly, Dockery ain't half bad. True, she spends a lot of her time in her undies or implausible wigs, which might distract the viewer from her performance a tad. But she does well with what she's got and is persuasive, as is Botto.

The problem isn't with them, though - it's with the source material. While it's not stupid, it's very much a piece of male gaze. Dockery's character is a typical male fantasy - a bad girl with a heart of gold, who naturally does everything for the love of her daughter and her mother, rather than because she's properly trailer trash, properly criminal or every bit the sneaky equal of Botto. Dockery's also expected to be both put-upon victim and top con artiste, but trying to be plausibly crushed underfoot by life yet strong willed is a squaring of the circle that would be hard for anyone to attempt even unbewigged.

So little does any of this hold together that I honestly thought I'd missed bits. Wait… she was a waitress cleaning the toilets a minute ago. How is she now burgling top end hotels with her phone buddy? Was it something to do with that wallet she stole? But he can't have had any money, surely. What did I miss?

Rewind.

Nope. Didn't miss anything.

If anything, Good Behavior shows that if you get a good cast together and shoot something in a noirish way, it's almost enough to fool the viewer into thinking a quality piece of work is being produced. But like sister show Animal KingdomGood Behavior also demonstrates the vital importance of something actually making sense, if it's going to aspire to darkness-tinged mimesis. 

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