The Grand Tour – Eps 1-3 reviews

Motormouth petrolhead journalists who punch colleagues have no place at the BBC. In the new frontier of online streaming, it seems such indiscretions are glossed over. Especially as the audience for said punchy presenter and his mates is global. 

For years Top Gear has hinted at what a global appeal TV looks like. Slick cars, sexy photography, that track by Hans Zimmer you can’t quite put your finger on without song ID software. 

Last of the Summer Whine – Hamster, Clarkson and Captain Slow are back. 

Now along comes The Grand Tour, the movie budget version of Top Gear, albeit straight to TV, complete with cameos from big names (Jeremy Renner), epic opening, and, well more of the same. Only with a bit of swearing. 

If TG was PG, pushing at 12A, TGT is 15 certificate nonsense of the highest order. And while Jeremy Clarkson may have made a career out of saying outrageous things in the past, he’s really going to have to go the extra mile to beat the pending US president, a man who seems to believe everything he reads on social media like it’s been fact checked by the QI elves. 

California Streaming – photos: Amazon

Episode one took us to the desert of America and the Burning Van festival. Ep two promises South Africa. And so on. A different country each week. Grand indeed. 

Given Chris Evans’ short stint on TG, there’s a chance the show which turned Clarkson into a superstar May recover lost ground (pun intended), but with the Beeb’s modest budget, and the lack of producer Andy Willman, it remains to be seen whether Richard Hammond and his fellow speed demons will take pole position in the race for the best motoring show… in the world. 

Episode two: South Africa
There was a time when watching Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond talk cars was a little like watching a rocket on a launch pad with restraining clamps holding back their collective rocket. Funded by BBC public-funded cash, there was only so much they could do. 

In episode two of The Grand Tour, they rocked up in Johannesburg. That tent from ep one overlooking a remarkable similar desert to their inaugural Californian instalment. 

Out of Africa – photo: Amazon Prime

After poking fun at the local politics and wildlife, Clarkson attempted to get into the absurdly gorgeous £1.8m Aston Martin 7 litre v12 Vulcan. After doing so, he stalled it. Proof that while some motors may look like the stuff of posters on a teenager’s wall, in reality they can be a bit of a let down. 

Clarkson may now have more money than Midas, but his similes were no better than Top Gear. But then who cares? Same banter from the grumpy old men but with a more exotic backdrop. 

Nought to 60 in 2.9 seconds is an alluring prospect… should you ever need to accelerate away at that speed without fear of killing an animal or being arrested. 

Jeremy may have had his doubts as he hauled his old bones into the seat in minute one but by the end he was clearly in love. 

Photo: Amazon Prime

Pudgy-faced Stig replacement The American is already getting on my nerves. He talks, he swears. He annoys. 

What the fans really want is a droolsome shot of the new Bugatti, a car capable of draining its tank, flat out in nine minutes. It looks like something from Tron and costs about the same price as the first movie. I want one. 

Not so sure about a device that can blow your bike up should you want to deter thieves and possibly maim them in the process. 

Arguably the highlight was watching the unholy trinity in Jordan, enacting scenes of explosive drama more at home in a Call of Duty game. Clarkson abseiling from a chopper was a hoot. What followed was pure Last of the Summer wine, with guns. 

And Jeremy being hit on the head with a shovel. Very funny. As is Charlize Theron’s appearance. 

Episode three: Whitby

For my money, this is the best episode of far. And it’s not just because the lads set up camp in Whitby, though they ignore it for the bulk of the show. It’s the fact their Italian job epitomises the best elements of Top Gear and their new show. Three glorious cars, gorgeous backdrops. And general silliness. 

Clarkson and May acting like bickering brothers, Hammond the over excited boy racer in the muscle car.

Oh, there’s a nice cameo from Simon Pegg, and for those wondering about the fate of Clarkson’s house, all becomes clear. 

It looks amazing, is a lot of fun and reminds me my annual visit to Whitby is long overdue. 

Top trivia: The author once shared a flight from LA with Pegg and Peter Andre. 


Arrival – Movie Review

When a dozen shell like spacecraft arrive over key locations around the world, linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads a team of investigators.


Arrival is many things. A love story, an alien invasion flick, a study of grief and longing, and a drama about communication all rolled into one. 
What it actually is is revealed in the final minutes and packs one of the biggest emotional punches of the year. Though punch is too strong a word. It’s more of a tap, hitting part of your soul that resonates. 

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are always great and here they offer a solid emotional anchor to a project that could have floated away like the dozen ships at the heart of the movie. 

The scenes of human-alien interaction cleverly take place in an arena that looks like a movie theatre with no seats. We relate to the heroes witnessing what looks like a giant interactive movie. There are echoes of Torchwood’s ETs, only more benign, or are they?

After his powerhouse dramas Prisoners and Sicario, Denis Villeneuve has struck gold again, delivering a compelling tale with an aptly alien score. 

Some movies signpost their messages a while in advance but this takes its time revealing the heart-rending core of its tale. 

I left the theatre with a deep sense of melancholy and empathy. Yes it’s a film that has a start, middle and end, but not how you might think. 

Though marketed as an Independence Day-style thriller, it’s really an art house movie, more reminiscent of Under the Skin and Day the Earth Stood Still than the less commercial, cerebral movie it is. Like all the best films, such as Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine, this lingers long after the credits have rolled.

Obviously it’s not perfect. A ticking clock plot twist feels contrived, and those responsible seem brushed under the carpet too easily, but it’s not a deal breaker. When the key to the third act’s denouement comes it feels right given the context. 

There are inevitable comparisons with Contact, Jodie Foster’s 1997 sci-fi epic which involved a female protagonist, aliens, subterfuge and big ideas, but that was let down by a cop out finale which looked like it belonged in a Bounty advert. This avoids such pitfalls.

A repeat viewing is almost essential. 
My passion for Blade Runner 2 has been building for years, and given Villeneuve’s track record so far, I doubt he’s going to drop the ball with that sequel.  

An Evening with Peter Davison, blinding lights and an Alfa Romeo

 So tonight, after four days of crippling back pain and another uninspired day at work, I hobbled home, fed the cat, jumped in the car and drove 11 miles through darkness to an industrial estate near York. The fact I managed to miss the activity of the nearby car park gives you an idea of how bad my sense of direction can be. 

A bright light, a tree and some groomed leaves, all co-starring in a new movie near York. Nov 1, 2016. Photo: Me

Now at this point, the thought of dark car parks either makes you think of dodgy subject matter on a Channel 4 doc or boy racers doing doughnuts. Well half right. 

It’s one of the final days on set for cast and crew of End of Term, the pending horror thriller from award winning co writer/director Mark Murphy. 

The car is a blood red Alfa Romeo. I first fell in love with it a couple of weeks earlier on my first visit to the set a few miles away. It looks good from any angle so I’m guessing cinematographer Gerry Lively didn’t need to work too hard to make it look dynamic. 

I could tell you what happens but I’m revealing as little as possible. 

I’ll admit I have fallen in love with this shoot after three visits in a couple of weeks. It’s not just the fact I like the script and think the largely unknown cast are all stars on the rise. The crew are among the most interesting I’ve encountered, hailing from either up the road, the Antipodes, LA or Eastern Europe. 

A truck, a tree and more leaves. Oh, and that blinding light again. Action taking place to the left, but you’ll have to wait until 2017 to see what happens. Photo: Me

I have a soft spot for Heidi, the genius costume designer making a modest budget work wonders, and several other tech wizards, whether Simon in the sound department or Tim, the stills photographer. 

And then I spend five minutes with Peter Davison, and it’s the icing on the cake. The man who has been consistently good since the 1970s, whether in All Creatures Great and Small, A Very Peculiar Practice or At Home with the Braithwaites. The man is a legend and it’s great to see him making movies again. 

I could tell you who he plays, what happens in the scene and who he shares the scene with, but I won’t. 

I have no idea whether the movie will work. Having a team of experts at the top of their game and a great script is one or two things. Whatever alchemy occurs after the effects, score and edit have taken place is in the lap of whatever gods you believe in. 

I hope it does but will have to wait another year to find out. The wait might kill me. 

A Street Cat Named Bob Movie Review

The other week I watched Doctor Strange, Marvel’s multi million dollar adaptation of their cult comic book which utilised thousands of effects artist to dazzle the eye and some of the world’s finest actors to add gravitas to the pixellated wonder. 
And yet throughout I felt little emotion. There was little tension, a modicum of humour and the explosive finale was good not great. 

So at the other end of the spectrum, director Roger Spottiswoode’s version of A Street Cat Named Bob, the best seller about a recovering drug addict’s relationship with the eponymous moggie, didn’t bode well. Two stars in a major movie mag suggested it was going to flop, but I empathised from minute one. 

That feeling of being an outcast rings a bell with anyone who’s felt on the outside looking in, junkie or not. And finding friendship with a cat who fills a hole in your life is far easier to relate to than an arrogant surgeon tackling the forces of evil. 

As I hadn’t read the book I had no expectations, unlike The Martian and The Girl on the Train. 

It’s not a perfect movie. The Bob cam POV gimmick wears thin after a while and Luke Treadaway spends a little too long narrating to his feline mate, but you’re on his side from the outset, dreading every shady character who threatens to wreck his path to recovery. This is essentially Trainspotting with a Richard Curtis filter. 

The cast are great. Joanne Froggatt is splendid as James’s doc, Ruta Gedmintas a toothy treat as his vegan neighbour, and Anthony Head as sublime as ever as the troubled hero’s hen-pecked dad who’s turned his back on his son. 

The songs are sweet and a little forgettable, and although the finale feels a little rushed, it scarcely mattered. My heartstrings were plucked throughout, and as expected, Bob stole every scene he was in. 

It’s not essential to see it on the big screen, but if you do there’s a good chance it will prove more rewarding than a mega bucks fantasy adventure. 

Time After Time (1979) Review

Thirty years ago I last watched Time After Time, Nicholas Meyer’s high concept fantasy in which HG Wells chases Jack the Ripper from 19th century London to 1979 San Francisco. Despite some stagey scenes and dated special effects it still stands up well, mainly because of the relationship between Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and bank worker Amy (Mary Steenburgen). 

The latter is dreamy as the achingly sweet heroine inevitably targeted by David Warner’s killer. He gives one of his best turns as the iconic antagonist, all swarthy menace and sinister demeanour. 

Miklos Rozsa’s over the top score punctuates everything like a 1950s thriller, from the overblown chase scene to every other dramatic moment.  

The finale is a bit of a letdown with Jack’s departure and the inevitable romantic pay off paving the way for a sequel that never happened. However, the pending TV version could work wonders if it centres on the characters rather than the effects. 

And how great would it be to see McDowell and former wife Steenburgen reprising their characters?

With a little trimming this could have been a fine family film and though there are adult themes, teens and nostalgic adults should love it. 

Trivia fans may note the Warner Bros shield was used for the first time in years in the opening credits. It’s been a pretty constant sight in their movies ever since. 

Dr Strange – Movie Review

For the most part the latest film from the Marvel stable is a lot of fun, even if it does tick all the boxes of your standard origins story. 

Benedict Cumberbatch is on good form as the arrogant, wealthy Stephen Strange, a gifted New York surgeon who during one fateful night has a terrible car crash, careers off the road and sees his own career in tatters also. 

When his hands are crushed by the dashboard, Strange undergoes rehabilitation and even more painful surgery before realising there is little help. However, when he gets wind of a fellow patient who he thought was beyond help, but spends his time playing basketball, Strange goes to find out why. The recovered sports fan seems like the most unlikely person in New York to have gone on a mystical quest, but gives Strange just enough information for him to pack up his things and head off to Nepal. 

There he finds Chiwetol Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton as mystical warriors who will help Strange heal his hands and send him on a mystical quest.

Mads Mikkelsen is on good form as the obligatory bad guy, and there are nice comedic touches that help make the whole outlandish premise far more acceptable. Despite some dazzling visuals and stunning fight scenes, not to mention an impressive Hong Kong sequence in reverse during the third act, it was all a little underwhelming. 

Rachel McAdams was wasted as Strange’s under used love interest, and the finale with the big bad character felt a little dull.

It’s not the worst superhero film I’ve ever seen, and certainly not as bad as Batman versus Superman Dawn of Justice, but given the high water marks of Spider-Man 2 and the original Iron Man, Dr Strange ends up less in some weird mirror verse than in a limbo realm of also ran comic book-inspired movies. 

Thankfully, I’ll repeat the earlier statement. Cumberbatch is spot on as the eponymous spell caster, and is supported by some terrific character actors.

It’ll be intriguing to see how Strange fits into the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe, and we get a hint of that during the closing credits.