Friday, 11 July 2008

[34] The Visitor (dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2007)

Thomas McCarthy's follow up to 2003's indie hit The Station Agent is both an intense character study and an attempt at socio-political commentary.

Walter Vale, an economics professor (played by Richard Jenkins), is introduced as being disenchanted, and stares out of his campus office window, dispassionately reusing old course documentation and avoiding as much work as possible (he says he's working on a book, which never materialises). This short opening is effective in solidifying the audience's focus, on character. Before long, he is sent from his Connecticut base to New York, in order to present a paper (which he barely co-authored) at a conference. On entering his New York apartment, he finds that it has been rented to two young illegal immigrants during his time away. Walter decides to give the young couple a place to stay. In turn, Tarek and Zainab (relative newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) slowly reconnect the dejected widower with a zest for life. This is especially true of the former, whose calling as an afrobeat jazz percussionist exposes Walter to the music of Fela Kuti, and, through djembe lessons, gives the older man confidence in expression.

McCarthy gracefully paces the film along with Walter's slow emotional rehabilitation. He is the film's core, but the supporting cast are strong and well-drawn. As he opens up, so does the narrative, which becomes anchored in socio-political concerns involving Tarek being arrested and held in a detention facility, facing deportation. The scenes depicting the process of arrest, detainment and deportation throw up a lot of thematics about post-9/11 America, and its treatment of immigration or foreign matters. However, this hard-hitting commentary is paralleled by Walter's brief romance with Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbas), again stressing the humanistic concerns amongst the political statements.

Indeed, the socio-political dimensions of this film can perhaps give way to accusations of exoticism (Walter gives up learning the piano, and embraces African music), naivety, liberal guilt-tripping or melodrama. However, the solid roots in character and performance give the film's soapbox turn an emotional depth and empathy. This elevates The Visitor above many of the similarly-angled films of late, which focus on borders, ignorance and race (such as Babel). McCarthy has managed to craft a memorable, thought-provoking gem.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

[33] How Manga Took Over the World

The current exhibition at Manchester's Urbis is called 'How Manga Took Over the World'. It is an overview of the art style and movement that came from Japan and is now an international craze. Even though it doesn't necessarily delve into the social, economic or artistic processes that have helped manga along to its supposed global domination, the exhibition presents a well-rounded introduction and endorsement of its subject.

Structured around six colour-coded rooms, the exhibit crystallises manga culture into its perceived aspects (cute, artistic, action, adult, corporate). Some of these are self-explanatory, but others require a little brainwork. Nevertheless, the journey is centered around a podium inscribed with a short history of manga (drawn by David Siddall), alongside a selection of Hokusai artwork and an introduction to Umeko, a mascot designed by Sonia Leung, who details and explains all along the way.

One of the immediate shortcomings of the exhibit is the focus on manga's interntational standing and wide appeal. This can often sidestep the actual core literature. The sections 'Cute' and 'Artistic' are mostly dedicated to extra-textual phenomena, like manga-inspired fashion, music videos and toys (kidrobot). These sections are good to see how deep manga culture goes, but it certainly detracts from the source material.

The other rooms, however, more than make up for this diversion. Both the 'Corporate' and 'Adult' rooms focus on the more meaningful, intelligent aspects. The former shows the adoption of manga style artwork for self-help books, language revision aids and Shakespeare adaptations. The 'Adult' room, flanked by large '18' signs and 'Over 18s only' restrictions, took to task the stereotype in western cultures of both manga porn and adult-oriented manga as a whole. Sadly, the giggling teens watching the screened clips of The Rapeman and The Legend of the Overfiend missed out on the eloquent quotations that adorned the walls, one being (ascribed to Helen McCarthy):

'In the West, we're still following scriptural advice - 'When I was a man, I put away childish things'. English-speaking culture labels comics and animation as suitable only for the young... The Japanese, like many Europeans, use comics to tell mature, adult stories... Whatever the reason, although we consider all comics and animation as suitable for children, the Japanese treat them like any other books and films - some adult, some intermediate, some for children.'

Tucked away in the corner was also a small area dedicated to 'Nouvelle Manga', which featured browsable works by Jiro Taniguchi and Kazuichi Hanawa amongst others. Opening up the frame of reference to these (relatively) recent masterpieces is definitely praiseworthy.

Indeed, I often felt that even though the exhibition presented a well-designed, well-presented assault on the senses, plus a crucial demystification and communication of what manga is, there was little to inspire a newcomer to go out and become further acquainted. Despite the best actions of publishers such as Tokyopop, manga and anime are still subcultural, especially in the UK. I still think that the majority of this exhibit keeps manga defiantly apart from the mainstream, and most visitors would merely look on with curiosity, interest piqued only for the time within the glass walls of Urbis.

I contemplated this as I walked into the 'Action' segment of the exhibit. Again, there was a distinct focus on the Western or the familiar - Akira and Ghost in the Shell were represented by both posters and clips, but were only discussed in comparison to The Matrix. Equally, a large mural of Tado's Star Wars art was impressive to the eye, but was hardly pure manga.

However, my mild cynicism started to slip away as I approached the small cinema housed in this section. The 'Manga Cinema' (so called because its programme is mostly made up of Manga Entertainment properties) plays a loop of episodes from a choice selection of anime series - such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Astro Boy and Dominion Tank Police. This in itself is a brilliant idea, as punters are invited to relax on a beanbag and experience a proper slice of manga-derived entertainment. And what's more, through July until the exhibition's close in September, Urbis are holding free evening screenings of full films every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On the bill are classics such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, alongside Studio Ghibli features, and even live-action films such as Oldboy. This truly is a public service, especially considering the price of some anime DVDs and the scarcity of these films on UK television.

Misgivings aside, this is a well-rounded, and at times wonderfully eloquent, passionate and generous exhibition. Well worth your time (it is also free).

How Manga Took Over the World is on at Urbis until 27th September.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

[32] It came from the garage...!

Yet more self-indulgence, I'm afraid.

Since Wednesday, not much has happened. I have started playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Grand Theft Auto 4, so expect some impressions in the future. Otherwise, things are a little slow over here.

I went to see a production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester with my parents. It was a pretty solid production, as is to be expected from the RET, but apart from a few moments of real transcendence, I wasn't too impressed by the play itself.

Today, I cleared out the garage with my father. We came across a lot of stuff, with some things of interest.


From a young age, I have been a big fan of Star Wars. This has probably waned in the years since the prequel trilogy and the relative infrequency of quality licensed video games, but it means I have a great deal of Star Wars stuff. The majority of this is mostly valueless, but the pride of my collection, handed down to me from my parents and uncle, is collected here:

I'd recommend clicking through to Picasa, and zooming to get the detail here. This picture contains:

- The first two issues of the Marvel-published Star Wars monthly comic.
- 2 contemporary Star Wars annuals
- A ticket and programme from the Manchester premiere of Star Wars, held at the Oxford St Odeon cinema (now sadly closed). My parents won a competition held by the Manchester Evening News.

Fantastic stuff. You really get a sense of how special the release of Star Wars (before 'Episode 4', before 'A New Hope') really was. 30 years ago! In pretty good condition all round, I must say. One amusing aspect of the comic in particular is its place as a Marvel publication ('Stan Lee Presents...'!), which gives rise to a clash between Star Wars and 'The Marvel Age of Comix'. Check it:



Wednesday, 2 July 2008

[31] It came from the wardrobe...!

As I'm back at my parents' house, probably for the last time in a 'vacation/out-of-term' capacity, I'm engaging in the seemingly Herculean task of clearing out my bedroom. This hasn't happened in any great way for over 8 years.

So, I've been sifting through a lot of stuff from a variety of ages and periods of my life. Today I was working on it from 9am until 9.30pm, when I took 10 almost-splitting binbags full of paper-based detritus to the recycling bank. I think I will engage in some self-indulgence regarding what I found. As the job is only half-done, I might make another as more things present themselves (I am a little worried about some things I'm yet to find).

[There are a lot of photos, if you can't see the detail, I'd recommend clicking through the to picasa album]


1. One of the first things I came across was a brown bag from Malaga airport, full of tapes. This is only 2 years old, when I went on a family holiday. However, I had put certain tapes in there and forgotten about them, namely a mixtape a friend had made in 1999/2000, when I was 13/14. This was one of my first exposures to some of the bands that I would later revisit. The first side is a distillation of Nirvana's b-sides from the Nevermind / In Utero era. When I told the friend about discovering it, he said: 'Glad you were pleased with the tape although I can't say I really give a shit about any of those bands anymore...'. It's a shame, as it's a great tape nonetheless. I can't say I listen to that much Nirvana (or even any of the bands on side B) nowadays either, but this compilation is tight, and is an effective, alternate history of one of the most overplayed, overstoried bands of the last 20 years.

2a. One of the main aspects of clearing / tidying has been chucking out a lot of the magazines that I have collected over the last 10 years. Mostly film, music or video games. Some surprises were in there, however. Such as the 1000th issue of Private Eye (which I don't believe I've bought since). However, amongst these huge piles of magazines, I found 2 issues of the Simpsons Comic, dating from 1998-1999, which were notable because they had submitted fan artwork drawn by Kate Ashwin, who I would get to know a few years later, and who would become my first long-term girlfriend. She is currently doing incredibly well as the mind behind the long-running webcomic Darken. Here's the second piece, from July 1999 (I'm not sure if she'll like me doing this).

2b. I didn't draw when I was younger. I did write, though. The majority of personal stuff I've unearthed and archived are journalistic. A lot of high school journalism of various levels of ineptitude. However, when browsing through the copious issues of Empire hidden in my wardrobe and under my bed, I found an issue from October 2000, which had this:

I thought that was pretty cool at the time, and I didn't even know who Kim Newman was! Now I do, and, well, let's just say I know what I'll use as an ice-breaker if I ever meet him. Side note: I believe I sent another question in here, around this time, that got published, asking 'who has saved the earth the most times?'. I couldn't find it.

3a. To round this off, two pictures showing collections that had previously been split up or mostly lost, now reunited. First up, my comics collection, which still looks smaller than I anticipated.

Nevertheless, it is good to see the Transmetropolitan trade paperbacks all lined up, and my full set of 1988 V for Vendetta issues.

3b. Another collection that has been split up and mostly neglected (through my family's haphazard storage system, primarily) is my console / game collection. I cleared out the big cupboard, and used the central space for a mini museum / diorama of my various consoles (ok, a few are missing, namely the PSX, PS2 and Wii). I threw in a couple of easter eggs in the form of peripherals and controllers for the keen eye, as well as two vinyls (the single for 'Lullaby', by the Cure, and Raymonde's album 'Babelogue'). I think it looks good.

It is strange; I am not a big gaming collector. Most of those consoles on display were donated from family members. My games collection is quite small, especially considering the consoles I have. What I'm worried about is that even though I have found the majority of my SNES, N64 and Dreamcast games, some of the notables or favourites are missing.

Maybe they will show up in the next few days.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

[30] New era, and all that...

Productivity has slowed to a crawl over the last few weeks, I'm afraid. The couple of blog posts that I had planned to publish have either become irrelevant or are stuck in development hell. I got my results for my degree - a 2:1 overall. My dissertation was awarded 81; I'm very pleased.

I'm currently working on a DVD review of Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, for Film International. I'm hoping to sort that out in the next week or so, because I will be off the radar for the end of July / start of August period. Graduating, jet-setting, etc.

I am back in Salford, after moving out of the house in Birmingham. Expect a self-indulgently personal post on that in the next few days, if I ever get around to writing it. I have also been catching up with a lot of graphic novels / comics that I either missed or overlooked.

For the time being, however, here is a video from the last few days at University.


Some bullshit went down that Friday night. Long walk around the outskirts of the wasteland known as 'The Second City'. Culminating in the most banterous act of our whole university careers.

Hell of a way to end an era.

[This video is purposefully presented in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get lo-fi format]