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University Challenge

The best TV programme ever?
Well, other than The Simpsons. But University Challenge is undoubtedly the best quiz show. No fabulous prizes, celebrity specials (though wouldn't it be cool if the BBC showed the episodes with people like Stephen Fry in?) or tacky formats; just a good, solid series. Yet there is still enough of a 'format' present to endear the show to me - the classic dialogue ("your starter for 10" has actually made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotation), the one-team-on-top-of-the-other set (famously parodied in The Young Ones), Roger Tilling's blink-and-you'll-miss-it voiceover that he nevertheless gets credit for, and the fact that every week seems to include Somethingorother College, Oxford playing either the Open University or UMIST.

Most importantly though, where most other quiz shows only seem to point out your ignorance of certain topics and leave you feeling stupid for the questions you can't answer, the ultra-difficult nature of University Challenge means that you don't feel bad about the questions you get wrong, but when you get one (or more!) right it seems as if your whole life spent collecting arcane facts has been validated.

You could also argue that University Challenge is more wholesome than other quiz programmes. The winners don't play for prizes but rather for the honour of their university (and, if I remember rightly, some money and a nice statue too). It was watching this programme that I knew I wanted to go to uni, and someday be able to say to a BBC studio audience "I'm Richard Magrath, and I'm reading English Literature". It was through University Challenge that I learnt that you "read", rather than "study", your course at university, about the Oxbridge collegiate system and that I have a talent at being able to recognise pieces of classical music when played backwards.

Finally, as the icing on the cake, the series is filmed in Manchester. What more could you want?

The Hole

Yes, I rented this film looking for a bog-standard slasher. Yet I have seen enough genuine horror films (The Haunting (1963), The Shining, something else that has slipped my mind) and thrillers to recognise when something is genuinely good. And this film is genuinely bad.

I've already written one review of this on Amazon.co.uk, so here I'll list the faults in a point-by-point, Wittgensteinian style:

1. Worst portrayal of police procedure ever. At first it is quite interesting to observe how they believe Thora Birch more so than anyone else, because she looks like a victim. By the end you'll be wondering in the police force in this area was intentionally hiring idiots, or were they just incredibly (un)lucky.

2. Plot holes and giant gaps in the logic. If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. I actually thought I'd gone mad, or missed a big piece of the film, until it came to the end and I realised it was everyone else who'd gone completely insane.

3. Which brings me to... the fact that [name removed]'s motives boil down to "I'm mad, me". How rubbish is that?!

4. Bad ending. Chinatown showed that there was more than one kind of justice, and was actually quite satisfying. The Hole just left me really annoyed.

5. Clichéd characters. The Hole might not be a slasher film, yet the unimaginative writers still used the stock slasher characters: weird girl, weird lad, pretty but annoying girl, hunky and slightly mysterious lad, 'funny' jock lad. The more observant of you will have noticed that all these characters were used (and satirised) in Scream.

6. No thrills, chills, or drama of any sort. It's one of those films like the 1993 Invasion of the Body Snatchers that just floats by on a sort of cushion of ennui. This never, ever, ever, ever comes across as anything other than horribly dull, emotionally distant and boring on screen (with the sole exception of Three Colours Blue by Kryzstof Kielowski).

7. Thin story. There *is* a vague twist, but it is clearly signposted, and the 'revelations' that follow are unimaginative and actually quite uninteresting, after the first death. By the time the film has finished, a lot less has happened (and much fewer interesting things) than you would have expected from the trailer, for instance.

8. Unenjoyable. It comes, it goes, it makes no impact on you whatsoever, just a slight numbing misery and a brief burst of annoyance at how it all turns out.

In the end, though The Hole was seen at the time of its release as being a brilliant example of low-budget filmmaking, it suffers from the same problem as most high-concept Hollywood output: it is nothing more than its pitch, and when the film gets past dramatising its pitch (that is, once the setting and characters and McGuffin have been established) the writer and director seem intent on wrapping it all up as quickly as possible.

Flash Gordon

To me Flash Gordon seems like nothing so much as it does a gay Star Wars, and as such it is the work of genius. Flash is as colourful as any psychedelic album cover of the 1960s but with a tightness and assuredness to it that proves it wasn't the work of misguided, acid-drowned hippies (as some scenes might suggest at first), or indeed, of any contemporary mainstream film director. Flash feels like a labour of love rather than of a committee - it is infused with a loving care and understanding of what it's doing that means the film is never afraid to touch upon sex, violence and gore, yet does not feel it is therefore bound to being adult, and likewise in its technicolour vistas does not shy away from what some would label childish (or camp...), and unlike contemporary mainstream films it doesn't have a cocky or pretentious sense of its own worth (just think of every stupid, stupid film that has actually seriously tried to teach us something), and by its campness Flash actually (and quite charmingly) persuades us to underestimate it as a bit of pulp fun, which is perhaps why those who enjoy it really love it too. It should also be remembered that it has a plot that is authentically pulpy and rollicking good fun at that (even Star Wars dragged a bit, but not Flash Gordon), and I'd even go as far as to say that Flash is a proper epic, with its grand scale, cast of well-known actors (Brian Blessed!) and the fact that it gets so bloody much done (compare with Titanic, the wannabe-epic which got so little done - two people fall in love - in 3 hours).

Flash Gordon is the perfect Bank Holiday film, captivating and enjoyable from start to finish, it is one of a kind and I really don't think we'll ever see anything like it made ever again.

The Cream of Eric Clapton

Wot no John Mayall?
17 tracks here: Louise (Yardbirds), Crossroads (Cream), I Feel Free, (Cream), Sunshine of Your Love (Cream), Strange Brew (Cream), White Room (Cream), Badge (Cream or Blind Faith, I forget), Worried Life Blues, Layla (Derek and the Dominos but performed solo), Knockin' on Heaven's Door, Cocaine, I Shot the Sheriff, Wonderful Tonight, Forever Man, Tearing Us Apart, Behind the Mask, Holy Mother.

What you think of it depends on your opinion of the Four Eras of Clapton (pre-Cream blues, Cream psychedelica, Derek and the Dominoes, and solo) - the balance is tipped more towards his solo work which I'm not too keen on. I found the last three tracks in particular to be diabolical.

However this video can be bought *very* cheap - £6 - so it's probably worth the price for ace footage of the Yardbirds (a mile away from For Your Love, thankfully) and Cream both live and in the studio (or the old grey whistle test, or something). Layla is disappointing as it's cobbled together from bits here and there, including one section with (yikes!) Phil Collins on drums. If you are reading this and are an archivist, make it your duty to go out *now* and search for Derek and the Dominos live footage!

Deconstructing Harry

"I haven't got a soul" Allen tells his psychiatrist somewhere in this film.

I couldn't describe my feelings about Deconstructing Harry better myself. A lot of people seem to think that (in an Emperor's New Clothes sort of way) disliking this film automatically means that you are incapable of higher brain functions, that Allen's witty style goes above your head. I feel slightly guilty about this, as I have used the same argument many times before, but honestly - I loved Annie Hall and Manhattan and Play It Again Sam and Everyone Says I Love You. This I do not.

The observations on life and relationships and everything so wonderfully Allenish are pitifully diluted here, and the unusual and unneeded sex and language are really rather distracting. While excessive obscenities seemed accurate in The Blair Witch Project or Withnail & I, it is rather.... disturbing to see normally mellow Allen (or whoever he is playing, they're all the same - not that I'm complaining!) cursing repeatedly. Woody, there *are* other ways to make an adult romantic comedy than shock tactics!

But overall, this was a VERY poor effort from Allen. There's just nothing memorable here.

Mrs. Merton and Malcolm

I admit that when I first saw Mrs Merton and Malcolm I thought it was terrible. But it kind of grows on you, and by the end of the first series I was quite enjoying it. The last episode in particular was very funny. More tea vicar?

Pop Up Video

I love Pop-Up Video. It is a brilliant idea - spice up otherwise boring music videos with cool facts popping up in bubbles. Even if most of it is untrue and the fact-assembling team have an unhealthy obsession with sex (just count how many times the 'sperm' bubble pops up...). I never miss it. Pop!

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Ah, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The greatest science fiction show ever created. The link with the original '60s show was in concept rather than style - while the crew still went where no-one had gone before in a ship named Enterprise, this time they had some good plots too. No more Bonanza-in-space, this is more Thirtysomething-in-space. But much better, of course, and with far more explosions.

Don't listen to old fools who claim that Captain Kirk was the greatest starship captain in the galaxy. Kirk was a stubborn idiot who couldn't see past his own ego and has no place in '90s (well, '80s) TV. I laughed when he died in Generations.

Lots of people live in the illusion that Star Trek is the great show that many others claim it to be. Sure, it is mildly entertaining, but it is no more legendary than Randall and Hopkirk Deceased or The Professionals. If it weren't for the brilliance of TNG, it would be long forgotten.

Sorry, but ST:TOS (The Old Series) isn't in the same league as it's successors. TNG is more intelligent, more exciting, has deeper characters and is much, much better. Think of it this way - would you rather drive a brand new BMW 750i or a beaten up old 2002?

Alien Resurrection

I'm sorry
I apologise to David Fincher and all fans of Alien 3 for my moaning in my Alien 3 comments. After witnessing the horror that is Alien Resurrection, I now realise what a good movie Alien 3 was. This movie is so bad I think I need to invent a new word to express how I feel about it. And it gave me a headache too.


Not Alien enough
First of all, I would like to say that Alien 3 is a good action/thriller. It has suspense, good dialogue and a decent plot. But it isn't a good Alien movie, and because of that it will be unfairly dismissed as 'bad'. Aliens continued logically on from Alien, with a storyline that told us more about Ripley, the company and the creature. But with Alien 3, however, it seemed to hit a brick wall. Yes, the isolated mining facility looked nice, and it did establish a forboding atmosphere, but it didn't have the tension of the first two. In the first two films, it was more the thought of an deadly monster hunting you down than the actual monster itself, but here the Xenomorph seems less deadly, and therefore less frightening. In Alien and Aliens, letting it get anywhere near you was certainly fatal, but here you might as well play fetch with it. I recommend to anyone who has seen Alien and Aliens but hasn't seen Alien 3 yet, that when you do watch it, try and imagine that after Aliens, Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Bishop (the coolest character in the trilogy) were rescued by the Corporation and that the people here are actually not the same people from the first two films, and it's just a coincidence that they have the same names. You'll enjoy Alien 3 a lot more, and it won't depress you every time you see the ending to Aliens knowing that they're all going to die.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Yeah, baby
It's a bit rude and not everyone will like it's South Park-esque non-PC humour, but I think it's groovy baby!

Blade Runner

They just don't get it
A lot of critics don't seem to get Blade Runner. They think it's just a sci-fi action. How wrong they are. It is the one perfectly-directed movie EVER. The chilling Vangelis music etched into your memory, the surreal yet realistic future San Fransisco city and Harrison Ford's confused detective all make this worthy of the Philip Dick book it was based on. Bonza!

Annie Hall

Probably the best of Woody's romantic comedies. The dialogue, the direction - everything seems perfect. I've seen most of his post-1975 romantic comedies, but this takes the proverbial biscuit. Or lobster.

Everyone Says I Love You

Traditional Woody Allen
I enjoyed ESILY. The way it blended traditional Woody Allen comedy/romance (like Annie Hall) with music was superb, and I think that it should go down as one of the great musicals like 'Grease'.

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