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October 05, 2007

Book review: The Raw Shark Texts

Book front cover
Title:
The Raw Shark Texts
Author:
Steven Hall
ISBN:
1847670245
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

Needing a book to read on the plane over, I chose this more-or-less at random at the airport. I liked the title, the premise seemed vaguely philosophical and sci-fi-ish and I enjoyed this sentence on the first page:-

My eyes slammed themselves capital O open

The idea of the book is intriguing: the world of ideas, thoughts, language and communication is a rich eco-system, and every rich eco-system spawns life and parasites. Therefore there are monsters afoot in this eco-system, and they eat memories, which explains (a) certain diseases hitherto thought to be degenerative conditions of the brain, and (b) why our hero wakes up with no memory on page 1.

It’s a nice conceit, but one which is hard to put into practice. Are these actual monsters, which you can see and hear and touch? It seems so, but describing them presents a challenge which is never really met. And this is either a problem or a strength depending on your desire for clarity in your fiction. The title of the book – Raw Shark Texts – is presumably a play on Rorschach Test, with the implication that you can see what you want to in the book; either it’s a literal action adventure, or, if you prefer, it’s a metaphorical meditation on memory and identity. Or maybe it’s both. The book certainly borrows liberally from other sources; there’s a bit of the Matrix in there, some of Memento, and the last quarter is a more-or-less straight-ahead recreation of the final battle scene from Jaws, with the minor caveat that we don’t really know whether the shark, the boat, the sea and the people are real or imaginary. The ending also struck me as reminiscent of the ending of Life on Mars.

There are plenty of references and bits of word play within the text to keep you occupied if you like that sort of thing; Mycroft Ward, one of the villains, sounds a bit like Microsoft Word. Our hero’s sadly deceased girlfriend – or is she? – is called Clio, after the goddess of history, daughter of Mnemosyne, whose names means memory. The word play even extends to some cute typographical tricks; there are flip drawings and other non-linear text devices scattered throughout the book.

The intertextuality, the sense of playfulness in the writing, goes some way towards making up for the dialog, and indeed some of the characters; the scenes between the hero and his then/now girlfriend border on the painful. Ultimately, whether you’ll like this book depends on whether you’re prepared to accept something which is deliberately ambiguous and, even being generous, improbable. If you’re the sort of person who wants clear outcomes and who snorts with indignation when things which palpably couldn’t happen, happen, then I suspect that you won’t just dislike this book, you’ll hate it. But if you’re happy to go with the flow, to accept what on a literal reading is somewhat ridiculous, to turn a deaf ear to some clunky dialog and characterisation, if you enjoy spotting references and allusions, then this could be worth a look. At the very least, I’d have thought, you won’t find yourself thinking “Not another typewriter bomb” when one pops up, and typewriter bomb isn’t a bad metaphor for the whole book.


April 23, 2007

Sunshine movie review

Writing about web page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0448134/

Sunshine movie poster

Things to remember if asked to send bomb to re-ignite sun

  1. Send robot, not humans. Humans get maths wrong, forget stuff and go mad. Plus makes ship one thousand times more complicated with oxygen, food and shielding, plus wretched crew want to come home afterwards.
  2. If sending humans, don’t take nervous tics, edgy eye movements and tendency to start SHOUTING SUDDENLY as desirable attributes.
  3. But do favour glossy hair, attractive stubble and bright blue eyes. Ship spec to include eye-level lighting in all areas so that eyes can glint brilliantly even if face in shadow.
  4. Don’t include observation deck. Staring at sun for prolonged periods causes, at best, headaches and eye strain, at worst, hideous lesions and full-blown psychosis.
  5. Don’t call ship Icarus. Is stupid name, like calling new boat Titanic. Suggests a lack of confidence in mission. Also, if first mission fails, don’t build second ship and then call it Icarus 2; is tempting fate to unreasonable degree. Choose something upbeat like Sunbeam instead. Or possibly Sunchyme after Dario G’s cheery pop hit.

Things to remember if asked to make film about re-igniting sun with bomb

  1. Making everything in front of space shield too bright to make anything out and everything behind shield too dark to make anything out not a recipe for aiding audience understanding.
  2. Decide whether making sci-fi actioner, slasher pic or psycho-drama before starting film. Especially, don’t make a third of each and then glue them together hoping nobody will notice.
  3. Avoid pointless jump cuts, flash frames and freeze frames. Not big. Not clever.

October 22, 2006

Torchwood

TV image
Title:
Torchwood
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

So, the well-trailled Dr Who spin-off aired tonight, though what with the teasers and the bus posters and the web site, I kind of felt as though I’d seen it already. Billed as an adult drama rather than a childrens’ show, it promised… what, exactly? Something in the style of the X-Files? Strong language? Adult situations? Sex and violence of the sort that Dr Who has always eschewed?

As it turns out, the answer is yes to all of the above. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. There was blood, there were acts of violence, there was plenty of sex, but it was all done with a sort of gratuitous, heavy-handed obviousness, as if the makers had a checklist of things they wanted to include in the first episodes just to prove that they could: spurting blood? Check. Characters saying “Fuck” and “Bollocks”? Check. Gay kissing? Check. Gun shot wounds? Check. The show wears its “adult” label a bit too blatantly on the sleeve of its dashing military overcoat.

The X Files is an interesting comparison; way back at the start of that show, before they had to invent ever more ludicrous plot convolutions, we were presented with charismatic leads, and a storyline which hinted strongly that there was More Going On than Met The Eye. It was intriguing enough to draw you in; Torchwood, by contrast, rushes to explain everything as quickly as it can, achieving ambiguity only by omission (how does Captain Jack come to be in Cardiff, given where we saw him last in Dr Who? Where and when is he really from?). Maybe future episodes will introduce more elements of mystery, and perhaps some arcs which span more than one episode, if the makers can get past trying so hard to prove their grown-up credentials. As it stands, Torchwood is a bit like a teenager who wants to be cool and grown-up; it wears lots of black and hangs around moodily, but it hasn’t yet quite grasped that swearing and trying to shock aren’t really the key to the thing.


August 13, 2006

Singstar Anthems

Game front cover
Title:
SingStar Anthems - Solus (PS2)
Publisher:
Sony
ASIN:
B000FS36XU
Rating:
Not rated

So, Singstar Anthems. There's not much to say about the game itself; it's like all the other Singstars and you already know whether this selection of tracks appeals to you or not. It didn't appeal to me enough to buy, but I gave it a spin at a friend's house over the weekend, and I have to say that there's one track which causes me particular concern: Making your mind up, by Bucks Fizz.

This song offers some advice on how to comport oneself: specifically, it suggests that you should "try to look as if you don't care less". Obviously, I'm keen to try and follow advice from the mighty Fizz whenever possible, but I have some difficulty with this; I'm willing to give it a try, but I'm not quite sure what to do: should I be aiming to appear more indifferent, or more concerned, or should I be more concerned while looking more indifferent, or vice–versa? Perhaps I should look less as though I don't care, or does looking like I don't care less mean that I don't in fact care very much at all? Curse you, Fizz, for your lyrical ambiguity.


September 19, 2005

Something Fishy

Game front cover
Title:
Fishy
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

It couldn't be much simpler, but Fishy is a great five minute time waster; you start off with a tiny fish and your only job is to grow your fish by eating other fish which are smaller than you, while avoiding fish which are bigger than you. Every time you eat a fish, you grow a bit bigger and thus can take on bigger fish next.

The only controls are the arrow keys to move your fish around, so there's zero learning curve, and it has the added virtue (or vice, depending on your temperament) that it's tremendously unforgiving; no matter how long you spend growing your fish, touch one fish that's bigger than you and you're right back to the start. This has the side-effect of encouraging daring play early on, when your fish is tiny and you don't have much to lose, and conservative play later, when you've already spent three minutes getting your fish this far, and you don't want to to squander your efforts to date.


August 29, 2005

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory movie review

Whether or not you enjoy this movie will depend to some extent on how you feel about the main character from the original book being completely changed. In Roald Dahl's original 1964 novel, Willy Wonka, the owner of the eponymous chocolate factory, is a smart, mischievous, fully-realised adult, albeit one who is, as we would say today, in touch with his inner child. Here's how Dahl describes him:-

His eyes were most marvellously bright. They seemed to be sparkling and twinkling at you all the time. The whole face, in fact, was alight with fun and laughter. And oh, how clever he looked! How quick and sharp and full of life! He kept making quick jerky little movements with his head, cocking it this way and that, and taking everything in with those bright twinkling eyes. He was like a squirrel in the quickness of his movements, like a quick clever old squirrel from the park.

Gene Wilder's brilliant realisation of this description in the 1971 film of the book, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (apparently it was felt that American audiences in 1971 weren't ready for a film with "Charlie" in the title) presumably left the makers of the 2005 version with something of a problem: should they try and find someone to do a copy of Wilder's performance, or go for something quite different? Not unreasonably, they decided to do something different, but arguably they took this to extremes: Johnny Depp's Wonka is a damaged man who has great difficulty relating to other people and has that most fashionable of quirks, unresolved issues with his father. (He can't even say the word "parents".)

This changes the dynamic of the story completely. In the book, and the first film, Willy Wonka rescues Charlie, saving him from poverty and changing his life forever. In this film, Charlie rescues Willy Wonka, helping him to resolve his issues, providing him with a family life, working alongside him. It's a fundamental change, and although there's nothing wrong with this new version of the story, it's a huge leap away from the book.

That caveat out of the way, everything else about the film is brilliant. The chocolate factory is a visual feast (ha), the children are cleverly updated for 2005 but just as wonderfully obnoxious as the book and the first film had them, the dialog is smart and funny, and Depp's performance as Wonka, provided you're willing to accept that he's not the Wonka from the book or the first film, is great fun. Charlie and Grandpa Joe are both huge improvements on their incarnations in the first film (although I did find myself wanting to shout out "It's Basil Fawlty's builder!"), and it's nice that the other grand-parents and Charlie's mother and father get a little bit more time and fleshing out. A few things to watch out for:-

  • The gag about the flag museum had the adults I was with roaring with laughter, and the children we were accompanying saying "What? Why are you laughing? What's so funny?"
  • Wonka's father warns him that he will not be there when he returns. And he's as good as his word; When Wonka returns, his father's house is gone, ripped right out of the middle of the terrace it was standing in. Later, we see the house perched incongruously on the side of a mountain, and the absolute best thing about this terrific visual gag is that it's never explained. It's just presented matter-of-factly for you to take or leave. Brilliant.
  • Where is Wonka's factory located? The film is set in the real world – at the start we see crates labelled with London, New York, Cairo and so on. But at various times with various accents we seem to be in England, America or somewhere else entirely.
  • All the Oompa Loompas were played by one man – Deep Roy. He's cloned through the magic of computer graphics into dozens of Oompa Loompas, and perhaps predictably, there has been some discussion about whether or not it's fair to hire one man when the film could have given work to dozens.
  • The songs have been updated, but as somebody else (Tom?) pointed out, the sound mix for the songs is rubbish; the music and the effects completely drown out the lyrics. Fun use of different styles, though – disco, west coast, metal.
  • My favourite throw-away gag is when the glass elevator is flying the characters through the factory, whisking them high above room after room. The effects are a bit over-sized, even for the chocolate factory, but there's a priceless moment when the elevator zips through a room in which – very briefly – we see a bright pink sheep being sheared. Willy Wonka looks slightly shifty and says "I'd prefer not to talk about that". What can he mean?

Alien Hominid game review

Game front cover
Title:
Alien Hominid (PS2)
Publisher:
Zushi Games Ltd
ASIN:
B0007OWNMW
Rating:
1 out of 5 stars
I'm a big fan of old-school shooters. Retro graphics and retro 2D side-scrolling action are exactly what I like (coming soon: my R-Type Final and Gradius V reviews) so I bought this with high hopes. And technically it's just what I want, with a nice line in cartoony graphics and all the horizontally scrolling action you could ask for. There's just one flaw, but it's so bad, the game only gets one star (and if you could give half a star or no stars I would have done): it's much, much, much, much, much too hard. Since this is the genre of games I like, I'm reasonably in practice at them, but there's no way to avoid dying once every few seconds, killed by any one of thousands of tiny bullets you can't see. Avoid this game at all costs.

August 28, 2005

The Island movie review

Movie image
Title:
The Island
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

Michael Bay, by his own admission, makes movies for teenage boys. What this means is that in a Bay movie, you can be fairly, indeed absolutely, sure that there will be beautiful people in flattering lighting, action, guns, and plenty of stuff blowing up real good. Going to see a Michael Bay movie and then complaining about any of those things is like drinking coke and then moaning that it's a bit on the sweet side.

So there's not a lot to say about The Island other than it does what you expect. The story isn't much, a lacklustre mix of Logan's Run and Coma (Logan's Coma?) and nothing that happens isn't hugely predictable from the first five minutes of the film. But there are a couple of mildly interesting things to note:-

  • There's an absolutely stupendous car chase sequence in which our heroes evade (actually, not so much evade as utterly destroy) their pursuers by hitching a ride on a big truck and then untying some enormous train axles which the truck is (conveniently) carrying. These huge axles fall off the truck, down on to the road and vehicular carnage ensues in a genuinely stunning sequence. It's a shame that this sequence is immediately followed by an incoherent, seen-it-all-before jet-bike chase which is a thousand times less well realised.
  • Michael Bay has a strange approach to editing his action sequences. In films generally, and action sequences in particular, part of the point of editing is to clarify what's going on. In a chase sequence, say, you want to know who's chasing who and where the pursuers are in relation to the pursued, where the chase is going, whether the gap is narrowing, and so on. Good editing, traditionally, is one of, maybe even the key, way of helping to show these things. But Bay utterly ignores this tradition; his edits are incredibly quick, and don't attempt to do anything to establish geography or the relative positions of the characters. Instead he seems to prefer to make sure that all the images in his sequences are as striking as they could possibly be – there isn't a dull frame to be seen – and that they edit together to make a sort of action tone poem; the sequences are frequently visually stunning, but you sacrifice all narrative coherence to get them. If you can live with that, it's quite fun, but if you're used to more traditional editing it's just annoying. (Apparently old-school editors have a term for this style: frame-fucking.)
  • Scarlet Johansson has an amusingly self-referential moment when her character watches the "real" (if there is such a thing) Johansson in a Calvin Klein video. Art imitating life?
  • Johansson was just twenty when this film was made. How long before thirty is too old for a female lead in an action movie?

May 05, 2005

Scrubs

I've written before about Scrubs, but I'm knocked out by the current series – series 4, I think – because it's usually around this point that sitcoms start to run out of steam. Either they've used up all their ideas, and have to resort to more exaggerated, cartoon-like retellings of earlier stories, or the characters start to feel stale and complacent. But Scrubs still feels fresh and the characters still seem interesting. Tonight's episode includes some brilliant physical comedy in the opening moments, starting with the line:-

The most important thing about hospital get-togethers is to make sure you don't do anything people will be talking about the next day…

Obviously nothing good can happen to a character who's rash enough to utter such words, but the pace and timing and the actions and reactions of everyone in the scene are just priceless. I'll say nothing more about it except (a) it really is true that you can't put out a fire with a pool cue; who'd have guessed?, and (b) that I'm still wiping the tears of laughter away.


April 27, 2005

Family Guy is back

Family Guy has achieved the rarest of feats; it's been uncancelled. The first of the new episodes aired last night, and it's as great as ever. From the opening scene where Peter lists all the recently cancelled shows, through "Passion of the Christ 2: Crucify this" (trailer voiceover: "This July… Let he who is without sin… Kick the first ass.") through to the Mount Rushmore ending, this is comedy genius.

As always, Stewie gets the best lines; to Brian, when he's forced into doing a nappy change, laughing maniacally, "How does it smell, dog? Does it smell like servitude?"

I hear that BBC2 have the rights to this new series. I can't wait to see what they do with it; given that this episode included framing a child by putting coke into his locker, it's difficult to see it going out in the early evening slot. But it doesn't seem like BBC2 9pm material either. Perhaps they'll just do an Arrested Development with it and bury it. Their loss.


April 26, 2005

C4 spoof PPBs

Writing about web page http://www.channel4.com/news/microsites/E/election2005/

Channel 4 has commissioned three spoof party political broadcasts and they are scarily convincing. I have no difficulty believing that had the ideas been presented to the three parties they would have embraced them; the tone of the videos is judged to perfection — they go only fractionally further than the parties have themselves gone in their attempts to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt.

As a matter of interest, I believe the three videos were made by the team which produced the viral "Suicide bomber" advert for the VW Polo a few months ago, and you can see the same sensibility at work here. Fantastic stuff, and well worth a viewing.


April 25, 2005

Feeble cliffhangers

I'm enjoying the new series of Dr Who, but I was surprised by the incompetence of the editing recently. They're including a trailer for next week at the end of every episode, and the last story was a two-parter in which part 1 ended with a cliffhanger in which everyone is in mortal danger. So you might think that showing a trailer immediately after the cliffhanger which clearly shows everyone alive and well slightly undercuts your narrative arc. But apparently this wasn't an oversight; here's an email from the BBC (via YakYak ):-

We're sorry that your enjoyment of the new "Doctor Who" series on BBC One has been marred by the trailers for the following episode. The aim of these short trailers is to demonstrate the range and tone of storytelling on offer week by week and we believe it's always important to tease the audience with details of the next adventure. Having said that, we appreciate that a trail that comes midway in a two-part story needs to be handled especially carefully. With hindsight, the BBC agrees that we probably did give too much away within the content of the trail for episode 5. The reason we did this is that we didn't want to leave our very young audience anxious for a whole week about the safety of the Doctor. In future we will take more care to find a balance between not spoiling the impact of the cliffhanger while leaving children thrilled but without anxiety.

It's nice, I suppose, that someone at the BBC is thinking about the anxiety levels of their very young audience, but isn't the whole point of cliffhangers that they should induce, well, anxiety? I remember Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee (the Doctors I watched when younger) routinely being choked, shot, zapped, exploded and lord knows what else at the end of the episode, and I survived without trailers showing them alive and well next week.

Mind you, Doctor Who has some way to go to beat Dragonball Z in the undercutting-your-own-narrative stakes. Also from YakYak, PurpleChair writes:-

"At the end of one episode, Goku (the main character) was poisoned by some kind of space virus that was going to kill him, and no-one knew the cure. There followed a trailer for the next episode, in which the other characters search for some magic bean that they think will cure him. The excited voiceover concluded thusly:

WILL GOKU LIVE? FIND OUT IN OUR NEXT EPISODE: GOKU LIVES!

Wonderful.


April 10, 2005

TV Ark

Writing about web page http://www.tv-ark.org.uk/

This site is a collection of credits, continuity announcements and adverts from off of the telly, going back a really long way. It's amazing to look back in time and discover that flake adverts worked on basically the same principle in 1969 as they have ever since. Or that KP Nuts caught the essence of 1983 better than any number of pop videos or "I remember" retromentaries.

The TV show clips are even better. Roger Moore does a fine job selling his 1971 show The Persuaders in several European languages, except in German, when his blooper reel reveals his true views.

But perhaps my favourite is the opening credits from Gerry Anderson's 1969 show UFO . Clearly a contender for most ridiculous credits ever, these are a delirious mix of sixties futurism, stellar miniature model work, stunning costumes (and wigs!), and Barry Gray's best-ever theme music. And, the whole thing is cut at a blinding pace – it wouldn't disgrace even the most hyperactive of modern directors. I wonder if Michael Bay edited them as a junior school project?


January 11, 2005

HamsterBall

Today's state-of-the-art games are cool. Halo 2? HalfLife 2? GTA San Andreas? They all rock. But there's a problem (apart from the fact that I seem to have started writing like William Goldman): I'm too old for them. I played video games between about 1980 and about 1990, so everything I spent time on was 2D, and an arcade game or a home computer or console arcade clone. By the time FPS's and Final Fantasy and survival horror games and the like came along, I'd pretty much given up. I still like to find a few minutes to play now and again (with a three year old in the house, playing in five minute bursts is about all there's time for) but there's pretty much nothing on the shelves in Game that's aimed at me.

But that's okay, because there are other solutions for retro gamers like me:-

  1. I have an arcade cabinet with a PC running MAME inside it. More on this some other time.

  2. There's a growing shareware industry making games which are modern twists on classic arcade games. They're simple to pick up, the games don't tend to last too long and the play is simple but challenging. Perfect. And since they generally go for $15 to $20, and the pound is beating the dollar to a bloody pulp right now, most of them cost about a tenner, which seems much more reasonable than the £35 or so that new releases in the shops seem to cost.

Current favourite: HamsterBall. This is basically the old arcade game Marble Madness given some shiny new graphics, some great multi-player modes, and new tricks and toys on every level. A particularly nice idea is the "Ghost Ball"; if you lose a level, when you replay it, there's a semi-transparent ball as well as your ball, showing you what you did last time. So you can see how you're doing compared with last time, and whether you're improved enough to get to the finish line in time.


December 09, 2004

The Incredibles: Movie review

The Incredibles is a great film, one of the year's best. The omens were always good, since Pixar haven't made a bad movie yet (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo) and the director, Brad Bird, comes with impeccable credentials; he worked on The Simpsons and then made the brilliant, under-appreciated animated film The Iron Giant.

What's suprising about The Incredibles is that it's been written for a different audience from previous Pixar films; it runs for two hours, which is long for an animated film, and it's liberally laced with chases, giant robots, violence, explosions and all the usual perils, plus some impressive new ones. It's more James Bond than Buzz Lightyear (in the US, it gained a PG certificate, though our more relaxed BBFC passed it – rightly – as U certificate).

The more adult tone works well; the film is as thrilling and spectacular as any live action equivalent, and manages also to be smarter and more insightful than most: there's a knowing nod to adults in the handling of Mr Incredible's mid-life crisis, and a subtle dig at political correctness – when Elastigirl (Mrs Incredible) tells their young son that he musn't use his super-speed powers on sports day, she reproves him by saying "Everyone's special, Dash", to which Dash disdainfully replies "Which is another way of saying that nobody is". Nice.

Two other stand-out moments: the villain's secret island base is clearly an homage to the many wonderful designs that Ken Adam did for the James Bond films, and the look of the base – the monorail gliding through the trees, the 1950s furnishings, the gleaming empty corridors – is just sensational. And Brad Bird almost steals his own movie by voicing Edna Mode, costume designer to the superhero fraternity, who is a hysterical cross between Bond's Q and Coco Chanel. Her explanation of why capes are not a good choice for the superhero is worth the price of admission on its own.


December 08, 2004

Forgotten: Movie review

Writing about web page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0356618/

My guess is that when Forgotten was still just an idea, it was signed off for production on the basis of two things; a creepy and ambiguous premise about memory manipulation, and a cool special effect for whizzing people up into the sky. The makers got lucky a couple more times early in the film's gestation, too; they got Julianne Moore as their lead, and she's a talented actress who does a good job delivering a mixture of sadness and determination. And the art direction and cinematography are both a notch above what you might expect for a modest picture like this, with elegant gliding helicopter shots and a muted, steely palette conveying the sombre mood of the film.

Sadly, that's where the goodness ran out. Somewhere along the way, somebody forgot that a good, creepy premise, a talented actress and good-looking footage won't save you if you've neglected to write a story, and, crucially important point, an ending. The film moves swiftly from ambiguity to a not-particularly-great X-Files conspiracy theory, and from there to an ending that's so utterly feeble that it makes it all too clear that the film's writers had utterly failed to think about important questions like How? and Why?, leaving the audience to ask itself other questions, such as What?, and Duh? Pity; if the film had sustained the quality of the first half hour it would have been great, but as it was, it was no more than, sigh, forgettable.


November 28, 2004

Review: Jeremy Hardy at the Arts Centre

Jeremy Hardy is an interesting comedian. Charismatic, but not as effortlessly as Eddie Izzard, likeable, but not in that puppy-dog Alan Davies style, a little bit surreal and rambling, but not as deliberately, exaggeratedly so as Bill Bailey. And he hasn't tried to parlay his routines into a TV career (though he's regularly to be heard on Radio 4 and writes for the Guardian). His USP is his mixing of well-informed, intelligent social and political commentary into his routines.

On human trafficking:-

It's our fault. We make it so hard for people to enter the country that they will do anything, even risking their lives with human traffickers. People who are desperate to get to a different place will enter into any sort of arrangement with greedy, ruthless profiteers; just look at the railways. Modern trains can tilt, not built for speed but rather to do wheelies to jump over sections of track maintained by Jarvis, a company that doesn't understand that "papering over the cracks" is just an expression.

The laugh that came when he hit the word "railways" was as much for the cleverness of the segue to a new topic as for the implicit insult. And come to think of it, another distinguishing feature of the performance is that he's one of a small number of comedians who mixes real malice and contempt, largely for politicians, into his material. Lots of comedians throw out casual insults or one-liners about politicians, but you don't often get this sense of real contempt and anger behind the lines.

But he's also good on the more personal, domestic stuff. On aging, for example:-

People in their late forties always tell me that it's a great decade, that I'll love it, that it'll be so much fun. Oh yeah? How come you look like sh*t then? Wouldn't you rather have the face you used to have, you know, the one where all the veins were on the inside, rather than the weird Pompidou-Centre-style thing you've got going on now?

I love the casual assumption that his audience is one which knows the Pompidou Centre well enough to appreciate the gag; sadly, it's becoming unusual to see a comedian whose references extend beyond the shallowest waters of pop culture. If you like opinions and ideas in with your comedy, this was the ideal show for you; it'll be interesting to see how Mark Thomas compares in a few days time.


August 09, 2004

I Robot

Before talking about the movie itself, I should say in passing that I chose to use the Spanish version of the movie poster in preference to the US one. I don't know why, but something about it just appealed to me more.

The film itself… well, it wasn't completely brain-dead and it didn't totally suck. That's progress for Will Smith, whose last two films were the disappointing Men in Black II and the utterly abysmal Bad Boys 2. One imagines that it was important to him not to make another total turkey this time around, and whether for that reason or just because the source material was better, he turns in a reasonable performance, toning down the wise-cracking (though reportedly the film-makers had to work hard to keep additional asinine one-liners from being added to suit him), and showing little hints of something other than glib cool.

The effects were a mixed bag; the city-scapes were nice (although they're easy to do, since they're basically just big paintings), but the underground motorways were rubbish, looking more like a video game than anything even vaguely real (why do film-makers persist in believing that future cities will move all their express lanes underground?) and although the robots were effective while still, once they got into running, jumping and fighting, they blew their credibility completely, as CGI creatures often do, by being faster and stronger than would be physically possible.

But the effects triumph of the movie is Sonny, the lead robot. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, he's played by an actor, so you get expression, body language and graceful, believable movement, and then the robotic appearance is painted over the actor in post-production. It works startlingly well, and makes the character compelling – and convincing – to watch, unlike all the pure-CGI robots.

You'll notice I've said nothing about the plot. That's partly because the film works better if you know as little as possible about it, but also because it's disappointing in a number of ways: first of all, it's described as "Suggested by the stories by Isaac Asimov", which seems a bit mean; second of all, although it is indeed derived from Asimov's well-known short stories, it suffers from the problem that lots of other films have been to the same well-spring before it. As much as the film is "suggested" by Asimov, it's also "suggested" by Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix, 2001, Blade Runner and many more. If you've seen any of these, you already know that Bad Things Happen When Robots Get Too Smart, and if you already know that, then I Robot has few revelations for you. And although the film attempts to consider questions of consciousness and morality, it does so rather feebly in comparison with just about any of its predecessors, or indeed the Asimov originals. Furthermore, by the end, the film clearly has no idea how to answer the philosophical questions it's raised, and glosses over the issues so completely that when it's finished at the cinema I'd like it to come round and do my skirting boards.

So three stars out of five for trying to be better than dumb and partially succeeding, plus a wonderful combination of acting and effects in Sonny. Docked two stars for ultimately abandoning ideas for explosions and some ropey, video-game style effects, especially in the fight sequences.

Finally some very mild spoiler thoughts if you've seen the film:-

  • What happened to the cat? Last we heard, it was in the trunk of the car. But we know what happened to the car.
  • The product placement was just appalling. Fed-Ex, Audi and – especially – Converse should just be ashamed of such blatant, embarrassing plugs.
  • I thought the violence done to the robots was interesting. At various times, they are crushed, dismembered and shot at point-blank range. Had they been human characters, their various fates would have been unwatchably horrific. But as robots (sentient robots, mind you, easily as smart as humans) it's apparently unproblematic and only 12A-cert to see carnage wrought on them. Curious.

June 10, 2004

Best sitcom ever?

The recent passing of Friends didn't excite much comment around here, and that's clearly a good thing. But what's the best sitcom ever? Clearly there's going to be some age-related issues here; if you're old enough to remember the prime-time eras of MASH, or Bilko or even I Love Lucy then you might reasonably be tempted by any of those. And if you're Anglophile, you might contemplate Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers. But for me, alas, the contenders are all American. In my "nearly made it" spots:-

  • Seinfeld. A work of genius which managed to stay consistently brilliant for nine seasons, something no other sitcom has achieved, and then had the smarts to stop before it went down-hill. No hugging, no learning, characters who were selfish, self-absorbed and obsessed – and hilarious because of it.
  • Frasier. Misses the number one spot because it has been so patchy over its lifespan. If it had stopped around series 5, it would have been the wittiest, most sophisticated comedy ever. But it ploughed on, lost its sparkle and reduced its characters to cariacatures of themselves. Shame.

So my winner would be my dark horse candidate: Scrubs. In a way, that's unfair to longer-running shows, because it's only had three seasons, so it could easily go horribly wrong in years to come. But for those three seasons, it's had the best characters, the funniest lines, the most whimiscal diversions into surreal fantasy, and of course The Todd. If you've never seen it I recomment giving it a try; Season 3 will probably be starting in C4 some time in the next few months.

Any gems I've forgotten?


Day After Tomorrow: movie review pt 2

Still here? You are such a geek. Those effects in more detail, then: the opening helicopter move over the ice and water was pretty good; all CG right up until we see our heroes, and then blue-screened. I‘d bet it was done with Maya and mental ray. The helicopter sweep was well done, the water was fine and the ice was mostly okay, but you could see the fractals where they modelled thin snow on top of translucent ice. Fantastic matte painting though.

Ths shots from outer space were also very good for all-CG work; really big volumetric displacement mapped objects (the clouds), and the lighting was excellent – global illumination for sure. Must have taken forever to render. And the big flood scene was excellent; some miniature work but CG for the spray and the elements that the water picks up and throws around. In general the particle work for the frost, snow and ice was flawless, but the water was slightly off here and there.

The scene where ice races down the sides of building and then chases our heroes (!) was ridiculous, but the ice effect was really well done; it‘s fiddly to do translucent material on top of something else, because calculating the proportions of reflection and the internal bouncing around is hard. But without it, it would have looked more like dust or plaster.

The sunlight breaking through in the final scenes with the helicopters was exaggerated to the point of lunacy, but that‘s the cool thing about sunlight and cloudscapes; you can go nuts on them without bothering the audience, because crazy lighting effects do happen – albeit rarely – in real life. They were also unusually restrained in resisting the God camera with the helicopter shots; with CG scenes, you can put the camera in places that would be unworkably difficult or dangerous in real life, so one dead giveaway for CG is a shot where the helicopter flies within 6 inches of the camera, or the camera goes places a real camera clearly couldn‘t. In general too, they were quite good about showing their effects in bright light, in long shot, and in reasonably long takes – the mark of confidence in your work. Effects that you see mostly at night or in the rain (Godzilla) or in very quick edits (Armageddon) or close up so you can‘t judge scale or context (MIB2) are normally being disguised for a reason.

Things that didn‘t work so well: the wolves were only partially successful; the fur was great, but the facial expressions were pretty ropey. it was done in very fast cuts though, and I suspect that was as much to cover up the naffness of the modelling as to generate tension. And the digitally added clouds of breath never looked quite right; they‘d have been better comping in real breath clouds rather than doing CG. Perhaps that was why they were so casual about whether they bothered to add it in or not.

If you went to see it just for the effects, I reckon you‘d be pretty satisfied. But that‘s a pretty poor excuse to see a movie, and frankly a ridiculous thing to write a review about. Won‘t happen again. :)


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