Thursday, 30 October 2008

[63] 30/10 Morning Roundup, etc.

I've been contributing Morning Roundup columns, once a week, to CC2K for a couple of months now, so I thought it was as good a time as any to start promoting them here. Here's the blurb for this morning's post:

This morning we've got scoops concerning Mike Nichols' adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, Tom Ford's directorial debut, a Preacher adaptation directed by Sam Mendes, some scandals and smashes in the UK, plus music news. Chow down, it's time for The Morning Roundup!



Check out the full post here.

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I'm going to be quite busy over the next few days. My parents are visiting, we're going for dinner this evening and going to see No Man's Land at the Duke of York's Theatre. Tomorrow, I'm conducting an interview for 4Talent Magazine as a trial for hopefully more commissioned work; and then I'm hoping to do a double whammy of the Dave McKean signing at Forbidden Planet, and the Neil Gaiman talk/signing at LSE.

Busy, indeed! See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

[62] The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

A couple of days ago, I sat down and read Neil Gaiman's latest novel, The Graveyard Book. I thought I'd write a couple of impressions and reactions here.

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I've enjoyed pretty much everything by Neil Gaiman I have read. Even though I have at times had reservations with the novels themselves, I feel that Gaiman writes with an infectious enthusiasm. He is a writer for daydreamers, in the sense that his works are first and foremost exercises in pure imagination. Nearly everything he puts his name to can be defined by the unique worlds they inhabit, and The Graveyard Book is no different. Central to the story is Bod, who is orphaned at a young age, and adopted by a ghostly group interred in a local cemetery. The book is structured almost like a short story collection, with episodic chapters charting Bod's growth from baby to child to young man. This approach means that some sections stand alone as wonderful stories (in fact, one of the standout chapters, 'The Witch's Headstone', was previously published in M is For Magic, a collection of child-friendly short stories).





Due to this set-up, The Graveyard Book doesn't have much of the grander, large scale storytelling of Gaiman's novels for adults, or even the tightly structured Coraline. Instead, the writer indulges in his love of characterisation and endearing portraits. Neil Gaiman is a writer that enjoys odd characters, who are rendered with a palpable excitement, and in the novel this aspect is conflated with his masterful command of prose and his encyclopedic interest in eras and cultures past. The imposed narrative world of a graveyard, with inhabitants that stretch from pre-Roman Britain to the Victorian age, gives Gaiman the opportunity to indulge in his love of age-old modes of speak and communication. Characters such as Mother Slaughter, Mrs Owens and Nehemiah Trot are primarily rooted in the words granted to them. Even those outside of the graveyard exhibit Gaiman's exquisite ear for speech, with characters such as the rambly Mr Frost ('I'm also master of the boil-in-the-bag. Eating for one. Living on my own. Bit of a crusty old bachelor. Actually, in the papers, that always means gay, doesn't it? Not gay, just never met the right woman') reminding one of an unaired episode of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Equally, a short section involving a close narration involving the young girl Scarlett shows an acute awareness of modern teenagers ('Scarlett began to walk back down the hill - this was why she needed a mobile phone, she thought. If she was so much as five minutes late, her mother would freak, but she still wouldn't buy Scarlett a phone of her own. Oh well.').





It's quite obvious that I fully enjoy the characters of The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman has brought together a collection of well-drawn characters that, in my mind, challenges even his best works. Also, his attention to detail is lovely; one particular running joke is that each gravestone mentioned will be fully cited, epitaph included ('He walked down the path carefully, avoiding the ruts and holes until he reached the impressive stone that marked the final resting place of Alonso Tomas Garcia Jones (1837-1905, Traveler Lay Down Thy Staff)').





Praise must also go to Dave McKean for his work on the illustrations. A powerhouse of an artist in his own right, it is still welcome to see him work with pencil and brush, as opposed to his trademark multimedia style. The pictures (which I have posted throughout this piece) lurk in the corners of each chapter, sometimes insinuating themselves around the text. Shadowy, sketchy images that are full of atmosphere and personality.





The Graveyard Book would be a welcome addition to any library, and can proudly sit alongside Neil Gaiman's other work in his own. I cannot recommend it more.

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Buy The Graveyard Book at Amazon.co.uk (Dave McKean illustrations / Chris Riddell illustrations)
Visit Neil Gaiman's official website here.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

[61] Super Smash Bros. Brawl

I've been agonising over this piece for some time. Back in February, the games writers over at CC2K clubbed together and wrote an article about their most anticipated games for 2008 on their respective systems. For the Wii, I chose Super Smash Bros. Brawl. This review / comment piece has been floating around on my hard-drive in various forms for the last 4 months. I'm still not happy with it, but I'll post it, and send it off, just to be done with it. I'd appreciate some comments, reactions, etc. Thanks.

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Back in February, where we CC2K games writers wrote about our Most Anticipated Games of 2008, I had this to say about Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the latest in Nintendo's blockbuster franchise:

'...The list of new features and additions is staggering. It will be the first game in the series to offer online play; the single player campaign has been overhauled, now offering a proper storyline; and this is without mentioning the amount of collectibles, customisables and unlockables.

One development that has caught the headlines is the inclusion of characters from other, even one-time rival, development teams - namely Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog and Solid Snake from Konami's hugely successful Metal Gear Solid series. It seems that Nintendo have pulled out all the stops for this game, choosing to refine and amend, as opposed to tacking on awkward Wii motion controls or dumbing down the gameplay to entice a wider audience...'





Super Smash Bros. Brawl offers players a huge amount of content. The game is vast. In terms of unlockables, extras, modes, characters, levels and music, I struggle to think of anything that comes close. In fact, as an overall package, I think that Super Smash Bros. Brawl is a success. The creative team expanded what is a very simplistic central concept by throwing in lots of goodies for the enthusiasts out there. Even though the actual differences in gameplay provided by these additions is debatable, they provide Brawl with a well-crafted entertainment factor.

Like the Mario Kart series, but on a much grander scale, the Smash Bros. games have always celebrated the Nintendo canon. The first game, released on the N64 back in 1999, cemented the franchise's central elements. Gamers could choose characters from various Nintendo games, and engage in an innovative, platform-style twist on the fighting genre across stages once inspired by locales in the Nintendo universe.

Super Smash Bros Brawl offers, essentially, the same game. However, the designers have put evident effort into moulding the ultimate Nintendo fan-service game. The list of playable characters is now 35 (after 10 on the first installment and 25 on the Gamecube's Super Smash Bros. Melee), and there are now over 40 playable stages. Of course, the stages have been upgraded and updated, featuring more shifting and morphing throughout the playtime (night turns to day, or level-specific dangers appear). There are new items, including Assist Trophies (short bursts of help from a Nintendo mascot, like a Hammer Bro or Lakitu) and Smash Balls (giving the player the ability to unleash a devastating attack), do nothing but make the combat more complicated and chaotic. They're welcome additions, but hardly groundbreaking stuff.





Possibly the most radical aspect of the game is the inclusion of a fully-fledged single player mode. Previous installments have included traditional fighter single player progression, where the player goes through successive stages against characters (with variations), sometimes stopping for a bonus stage, until they fight a final boss. Brawl adds in a proper story mode, called Subspace Emissary. The single player plays like a platform-adventure iteration of the Smash Bros. concept, with cut-scenes and a barely-understandable narrative anchoring the play. Sadly, the Brawl control scheme doesn't work so well in a platforming context. However, the early stages zip along, padded out by some brilliantly choreographed cut scenes and fun (if shallow) boss battles.





Halfway through the mode's 8 or 9 hour length, the whole shebang takes an inexcusable downslide, as levels become longer and players have to revisit old ground. Nevertheless, Nintendo have packed so much into the game that it is practically impossible to be without something to do. Other than completing the different main game modes (on 5 different difficulty settings), players can engage in old-school point-scoring exercises in the Home Run and Target Smash contests, as well as Multi Man brawls. There is also an events mode, with various custom rules, and 'challenges', an achievements-like system which guides the player through various landmarks and goals (complete the game on a certain difficulty, under a certain amount of time, etc). The single player is brimming with content, and is quite staggering to relate.

Equally, the unlockable trophies of characters and items (complete with mini-biographies) have been increased to over 500. Completely new aspects of this museum side of the game (or 'vault' as it is called) include further unlockables, like stickers, music and 'masterpieces' (playable demos of early Nintendo classics). The music library is well-selected, with multiple tracks from each represented franchise, including some remixes and re-arrangements. Indeed, even though Brawl is endlessly playable as a multiplayer game with some buddies, this jungle of nostalgia is where the infected will find their entertainment. The infectiously whimsical music that plays while you flick through pages of stickers and trophies recalls deep-rooted memories of games-gone-by. It is a weird kind of porn for the Nintendo fanatic.





And that's certainly what it feels like; this game is perfect for those who enjoy choosing their favourite player (Lucas from Mother 3, a game so awesome it was never released outside of Japan), choosing their favourite music (of course, the remixed heavy metal version of Ridley's theme from Metroid) and level (Pirate Ship, from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, duh). This is a game for players who will barely pause for a break, who will attempt to beat high scores, or just have mammoth brawl sessions. High points will include cheering with glee when Little Mac, from Punch Out, bursts out of an assist trophy and uppercuts Ike (from Fire Emblem) out of the arena. This is fan service, pure and simple. It is a scary, obsessive kind of genius. Nintendo have somehow distilled nostalgia for their own legacy, either imagined or authentic, into a game. That game is Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

And this brings me to my concluding point. Granted, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is probably the most complete game, the most satisfying all-round package on the Wii from 2008. It delivered on the hype, and has provided many of its fans, and maybe some of the Wii newcomers with plenty of fun for a long time to come. However, I think it is a sorry state of affairs that a game that is so exclusive, buggy and similar to previous installments could be placed at the top of any end of year list. Brawl is, for all its extra bells and whistles, the same basic game as its predecessors. There have been more daring (Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure), original (De Blob) and surprising (No More Heroes) games released this year. Super Smash Bros. Brawl contains little of those features. It may have been the most anticipated game when the year started, but its position as the year's best will have to be closely scrutinised.





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Sunday, 26 October 2008

[60] What is 'Wild Tyme'?

60 posts in, and I thought I should tackle this question:

What is 'Wild Tyme'?

1) It's not a droll attempt at a witty conscious-typo. I took the name from a Jefferson Airplane track, off their album After Bathing at Baxter's. I set up the blog around the time when I was taking a course on American counterculture in the 1950s-1960s. One week, we had to listen to the music of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. I was already a fan of the Airplane, but hadn't heard that particular album before. One of the only tracks I was taken by was 'Wild Tyme', one of Paul Kantner's songwriting credits which declares about the new experiences, viewpoints and worlds created by the youthful culture in the late 1960's. Here are some lyrics:

It's a Wild Tyme
I see love all the time!
I'm doing things that haven't got a name yet;
I need love, your love.
It don't matter if it's rain or shine.
...
I want to be with you, no matter what I do,
what doesn't change is the way
I feel for you today.
Times just seem so good.
I do know that I should be here with you this way,
and it's new, so new.
I see changes, changes all around me are changes.






I think it's one of the best songs that Jefferson Airplane ever recorded. It's a real punchy, driving rock song, immediately anchored by a biting electric guitar intro (one of Jorma Kaukonen's best performances). The listener is gripped by the swirling vocal melodies. Again, like their best songs (especially 'White Rabbit') 'Wild Tyme' does not really follow any set pop song structure. It merely develops, shifting into a bridge section before fading out. I dug it, I think it was playing when I registered for blogger. I thought it would do.





2) So, Wild Tyme is the name I chose for this blog.

I started Wild Tyme early in 2008. I have had a livejournal account for almost 6 years now, however once I went to university, I lost all interest in writing about myself and my personal life. Instead, I needed a place online to post my other bits of writing which I have, in the past, published on websites such as rateyourmusic.com, facebook, or CC2K.us. I was inspired by a tutor, who, as part of a course, encouraged the students to write weekly blogs on our reading and research. Over time, this has become a dumping ground for the majority of writing I have written in a serious or critical mode.

The blog gained a lot of steam when I started posting up draft chapters of my final year dissertation (which was based around English-language translations of the plays of Anton Chekhov). Interestingly, when I finally handed in my dissertation, it seemed there was an error in the printing, so a page or two was missing. It turned out that one of my tutors, who knew of the blog, plugged the gaps from the material online. Now, I've graduated from university, and I'm currently in the process of trying to get more published (hopefully one day paid) work, so therefore this blog works as a kind of online portfolio. I'm still working out how to gain any kind of a readership, although the smatterings of interest, referrals, searches and random hits are enough for the time being.

For those keeping count, my most popular posts over the last 60 posts, and 10 months, have been (I'll keep it a top 3, as it slides down quite quickly):

  1. 4 Tracks That Should Be in Mario Kart Wii - 2,256 views (a viral / blog-y style post I made around the time of the release of the latest Mario Kart game, it was picked up by a couple of gaming websites)
  2. 'We Can Be Together': American countercultural music, film and the trappings of the mainstream - 202 views (a posting of an essay I wrote for a university course, it was picked up by one Bob Dylan fansite)
  3. 'Pushkin and Shovin': Rusalka in The Seagull' - 84 views (see what I mean about the slip in views? This was one of the chapters from the dissertation, for some reason this is a big hit with random searches)


So now we're better acquainted. I'm Mike Leader. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

[59] Bedhead (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1991) [It Came From Youtube]

It Came From Youtube is a series of posts reviewing or promoting video or music content from Youtube.com that is of note. To start with, here is a short essay regarding Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez's first short film, Bedhead (youtube link). It is recommended that you watch the video in question, or listen to the music, before reading the piece.

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Robert Rodriguez is one of the more interesting personalities in American filmmaking today. He is a strident visionary, an unpretentious auteur, an exponent of cutting-edge technology, and a spokesperson for (relatively) low-budget, well-made feature films. However, he is often under-rated, even patronised by a critical community which does not seem capable of enjoying the discreetly radical popcorn entertainment he creates. Whereas his contemporaries, such as Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh, inhabit a plain which encompasses the mainstream and the leftfield, Rodriguez is often overlooked or sidelined.





Indeed, both Tarantino and Soderbergh have in their own ways made self-conscious attempts at classic or artistic cinema. Rodriguez seems to have an altogether more humble approach, making his films much more entertaining in sensibility. However, Rodriguez commands a great deal of autonomy and authority with his films. Due to his cheap and fast working methods, he has often been given freedom beyond his contemporaries to fulfil his own creative vision to sometimes effective, if at times subtle, outcomes.





His career started with Bedhead, a short film produced in 1991. Shot on a modest budget, the film became a success when shown at various film festivals. Even at this early stage, all of the hallmarks of Rodriguez's style are present. The story, an imaginative little gem, concerns a young girl, Rebecca, and the one torment in her life: her brother David, with his insufferable bedhead. David at first is shown to be a monster, making his sister's life hell: he eats his breakfasts sloppily, stabs bugs with his fork and swallows them down. He even defaces her one, supposedly safe doll. After a scuffle with David, however, Rebecca bashes her head on the ground. When she wakes, she discovers she has amazing powers, which initially seem endless. She realises she could do anything, but feels compelled to do something about that bedhead.





Rodriguez documents the shift away from David the terror to Rebecca the all-powerful in a wonderful shift of tone. The early part of the film is pure John Carpenter, complete with creepy synth score. Once Rebecca's powers are introduced, the shift goes towards the resourceful, imaginative special effects seen in low-budget successes such as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead. The fast cutting and expressive sound dubbing gives the whole film an authentic, entertaining momentum. It pays off because Rodriguez's creativity and ideas are working overtime.





Especially early on in his career, he had a capacity to make the most of what would be weaknesses or shortcomings for other film-makers; instead, he would craft something that would look much better than those focusing on the budget would expect. Here, he uses a handy narration, to mask the lack of sound-sync recording methods; a wheelchair was used in place of a dolly. Equally, Rodriguez, already working as director, co-writer, cinematographer, co-scorer and editor, made great use of his family in the production of the film. In fact, the whole cast is made up of family members, and his brother David doubled up as writer and dolly grip (with a friend, Bryant Delafosse, helping out too).





The film starts with a short animated sequence, created by Rodriguez and his production partner (and now ex-wife) Elizabeth Avellan. The influence of comics and cartoons, something that the creator himself dabbled in, and would return to time and time again in his career, is evident. Also present, if more subsumed than in later films, is an awareness of Mexican American issues. Of course, on a very level of representation, the family in the film are Mexican-American, and one of Rebecca's ambitions for her new-found superpowers is politically-slanted ('I realised I had the power to do anything I wanted. I could bring peace to the Middle-East, or become the first Mexican-American female president of the united states..'). Of course, Rodriguez almost immediately pushes this under the rug, and gets back to the rollercoaster ride ('...the first thing I'm going to do is get rid of that bedhead').

Nevertheless, there is still a motivated attempt to represent the Mexican-American experience in the film, or at least make the neutral American viewer engage with this background. In this case, this is primarily seen in David's chosen brand of cereal - 'Little Dog's Big Cacotas Cereal' - a blink-and-you'll-miss in-joke which translates as 'Little Dog's Big Shits Cereal'. The use of Spanish, and Mexican-American experience, even on such a minimal level here, later becomes an important aspect in such films as the El Mariachi Trilogy, or the Spy Kids movies.





For a 9 minute movie, Bedhead is packed with ideas. It is executed well, and has the tone of a 'gee whizz' modern fable. Rodriguez would go on to create bigger, better and more ambitious movies, but it is here that his tricks and undeniable charm are first realised. I can't think of many films that offer such a concentrated dose of fun.

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Read about Bedhead on IMDB here.
Read about Bedhead on Wikipedia here.

Friday, 24 October 2008

[58] Film & Festivals Magazine

The new site for Film & Festivals magazine has recently gone live. In print for 7 issues now, the editorial team have decided to take the whole publication online instead. You can browse through their latest issue (mostly focused on all things Green), as well as catch up with more recent goings on in their regularly updated sections.





The team is mostly made up of professionals within the industry, and one of the commendable aspects of the magazine is their championing of the whole span of film production and distribution, interviewing those behind the camera, as well as behind the scenes of festivals that bring movies to a wide audience. They're good people, and I'm not just saying that because I might (eventually) have something of my own published up there.

Check out Film and Festivals magazine here.

[57] 5 Differences / 6 Differences

I haven't been able to play many video games over the last couple of weeks, because of moving house and being distracted by lots of different things. I have not had the time to commit to the consoles. I'm getting back into it; over the last week I hooked up the Wii to the internet and downloaded Mega Man 9 (brilliant, brutally-difficult nostalgia trip).

To tide me over, I have been playing games on flash game website Kongregate.com. I have been on the site before, mostly to play the idiosyncratic, bite-sized blockbusters that have been plugged on big gaming blogs, such as Fancy Pants Adventures, or Flash Portal. However, on my more recent visits, I've come across a couple of gems which provide an artistic, inspiring experience different to anything I can recall playing.

Both 5 Differences and 6 Differences, two games by Ivory, recall the 'spot the difference' games from children's puzzle books. However, the high standard of the art on display, which often takes diversions into surrealism, photo-realism and psychedelia, is breath-taking. Each stage, where the player has to spot the right number of differences between two pictures, is in itself a piece of art, with Ivory using subtle animations to at times upset the tranquil proceedings.





The second game in the series adds an extra difference, more developed use of animation, a 'hint' key (which allows the player to skip one difference a level) and additional music from Nine Inch Nails. Both games are wonderful in their intersection between the traditional puzzle game framework, art and ambiance. If distributed at higher resolutions, and projected, I can imagine them providing a meditative experience as 'wallpaper games'. If you're finding yourself stressed out, anxious or overwhelmed, I recommend playing one of Ivory's two Difference games. They will sort you out.





Play 5 Differences here.
Play 6 Differences here.
Visit Ivory's profile on Kongregate.com here.
Visit Ivory's personal website here.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

[56] Hulk: Gray, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale [Great Comics]

I started writing the below piece as a short comment, as part of a new 'Recent Library Haul' post, but it got out of hand. It's still a little unrefined, but it deserves to be posted on its own.

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Hulk: Gray, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale





I'm yet to read something by Loeb/Sale that I don't like. Even though neither of the Marvel colour comics I've read so far have lived up to their Batman graphic novels, I am still wildly impressed. From my experience, the DC universe lends itself much better to the graphic novel approach. For some reason, I have read very few landmark limited storylines from the Marvel stable. You can draw whatever conclusions you like from that.

However, Loeb/Sale's work on Hulk: Gray (American title, American spelling) is very similar to Spider-man: Blue, in that it tackles an early development in the hero's history. Both comics revolve around romance, and how both lead characters' super-powered situations disrupt normal relationships. However, whereas Spider-man: Blue was an at times joyous, at times emotionally touching celebration of lost innocence and untainted beauty (with Gwen Stacy embodying this carefree idyll), Hulk: Gray is a lot muddier, more cryptic. It takes the early, gray-coloured stages of the Hulk, where Bruce Banner effectively changed into an out-of-control demolitions team, and attempts to inject the character with rudimentary systems of values and morals. Hulk is contrasted with General 'Thunderbolt' Ross, whose extremist branding of the Jade Giant as a 'monster' reveals a love of fundamentalist binaries. Furthermore, Hulk's quick-to-anger, emotionally-immature persona is symbolised by his relationships with both Ross and Betty.





Loeb brings in a flashback narrative framework that is anchored in a conversation between Banner (now during his Green Hulk phase) and Doctor Leonard Samson. This conversation, which carries the majority of the book's psychological and emotional depth, appears throughout (as opposed to the more book-end approach used in Spider-man: Blue). It works very well, with whole span of the comic operating on these two parallel levels. One particular segment, featuring a surprise appearance from an equally early-stage Iron Man, is a long, elaborate action sequence. What could be a one-dimensional (yet entertaining) thrill-ride is buoyed by the dialogue, and turned into one of the best parts of the story.






Once again, Tim Sale's artwork really surprises me. His work on the Hulk is astounding, and some of his splash-pages are bursting with panache and character. His style is grounded in the interplay between detailed character pencils, and minimal backgrounds (brought to life by Matt Hollingsworth's colouring - who would have thought that muted, grey tones could contain so much personality?). Equally, the lettering and design work by Richard Starkings and John Roshell is wonderful. This comic just looks great (as did Spider-man: Blue, but I've never been impressed by Hulk artwork before - it has either been too shuffling thick-skull, or too beefy muscleman), as do the covers.





Sadly, I'm at a disadvantage regarding discussing this comic. Whereas I have a lot more background knowledge and reading experience with Spider-man (and more so with Batman), I don't think I've ever read a Hulk comic before, only crossovers and specials. Loeb/Sale's modus operandi here, to take early aspects of a character's biography, and represent them in interesting ways, worked very well for me. These graphic novels, more so than their work on Batman, are gateway books to the ongoing series or established continuity. Whereas Dark Victory or The Long Halloween were, in their own way, very self-contained and satisfying, the two coloured Marvel books I have read have open beginnings and endings.

Hulk: Gray
may start with the origin of Hulk, but Loeb's focus on Hulk/Banner's relationship Betty, Rick and General Ross opens up the narrative beyond what is on the page. The retrospective nature, as seen in Spider-man: Blue, allows Loeb to plant references and foreshadowings for what is to come, while he masterfully sidesteps potential 'tidy' endings. Just as with Gwen Stacy, the narrative strands involving Ross, Rick and Betty are not concluded. This might be frustrating for some, but I personally see it as a respectful way of celebrating the canon, and enticing the reader to look into the Hulk's long publication history. Hulk: Gray is as good an advert for the Marvel Essentials / Marvel Masterworks series as I've ever read. It is well worth checking out.



[55] Gosh!

On my travels around central London yesterday, I decided to check out Gosh!, a comics shop that stands facing the British Museum. I vaguely remember seeing it (closed, at the time) when I once went on a school trip to London, some years ago. It had completely slipped my mind, until I read a great, informative post on London comics shops over at the London Loves Comics blog.





Gosh! has been established for over two decades, and has a comfortable, friendly atmosphere. It is independent and welcoming in a similar way to Orbital Comics, although it is much better laid out. From what I could see, its trade collection was quite solid; what I did like was that there were many little signs scattered throughout the shelves, highlighting key creators, franchises, and books of note (in a much more detailed capacity than I have seen in other shops).

There were impressive sections dedicated to picture books, illustrated children's books and newspaper strip collections. Again, this is an area which other London shops don't handle very well. I was particularly impressed by the amount of English-language Disney comic collections they had on offer, mostly imported of course. Downstairs there was a great little Manga section, as well as a small but intriguing selection of indie/arty comic books (outside of the Urbis Manga exhibition, this is the first place I've found Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man on sale).

There was a lot to like, and I could have easily spent much more money than I have spare. I ended up restricting myself to the HarperCollins edition of Neil Gaiman's latest novel, The Graveyard Book, which has illustrations by Dave McKean (the UK Bloomsbury edition has different illustrations, by Chris Riddell).



As we were leaving, I was a little starstruck to see Paul Gambaccini stroll in and peruse a huge pile of comics that had been set aside for him. I'm sure that is as good an endorsement as any.

From this first visit, I'm quite impressed by Gosh!. I'll no doubt be going back in the future.


Check Gosh! online store here (currently out of action), or comics blog here.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

[54] Little Big Planet in Covent Garden

The London Games Festival starts today, and one of the events is an ongoing publicity exhibition for Little Big Planet, which is in a store space in Thomas Neal's Centre, in Covent Garden.

I decided to go down there this afternoon, to check it out (unlike most of LGF's other events, it's free!). Here are some pics, comments and ramblings.




The exhibition is on two floors, with lots of PS3s and beanbags for people to come in and have a casual play. I went with the girlfriend, and we were greeted by a peppy PR type who, whilst quite nice and friendly (it's what she is paid for, I suppose), didn't seem to be able to talk positively and eloquently about the game. Luckily I've been subject to the avalanche of gaming news, previews, reviews and content around the net about the game, so I was able to plug the holes between her vague comments ('Sackboy, he's your guy... and you've got to put stickers on things...'). However, I can't really see how the PR team would be able to successfully 'sell' LBP to fresh punters (the rep in question actually said to the girlfriend, after she said she really enjoyed the game - 'yeah, but it gets harder and very frustrating after a while').




The exhibition is based around two concepts at the core of Little Big Planet itself: Play and Create. Upstairs you have a chance to get to grips with the main gameplay itself, but downstairs you can create your own levels, as well as design your own Sack-People with crayons and other arts-and-crafts accessories. It was a shame, I was looking forward to having a look at the level creator, which seems to be the real focus and genius of the game; however, the other peppy PR type (a guy this time) seemed to be more than occupied with the one other person who had wandered in. Nevertheless, we had to go, so it was no big loss.




The lineup of events and workshops that the exhibition has is quite impressive: Sundays feature either family days (featuring face-painting and balloon animals) or 'chillout days' (with local DJs performing). Equally, there are knitting days, t-shirt design days and live illustrations. Maybe the ropey performance by the reps was something to do with us visiting on a down-note. I'm sure these events will do really well in exciting the children and intriguing the parents. Little Big Planet needs to tap into that cross-over appeal that seems so simple for less well-designed, less inspired games to capture.

However, for me, there is no greater or more stirring promotion for Little Big Planet than sitting down and playing it. My girlfriend and I played co-op, over a few early stages, and it was one of those really fun, genius and, sadly, rare gaming experiences. The art design is flawless - combining the best of so many different traditions, yet staying completely original. My interest, already teased by all the preview content online, is now well and truly piqued. If I had the money, I would seriously consider purchasing a PS3 just for this game. Sadly, I'll have to spectate from the sidelines. It's my loss.

The exibition continues until 15th November. For more details check www.LittleBigPlanet.com or The London Games Festival Website.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

[53] Yellow Magic Music: Reviewing HASYMO's latest single releases

Yellow Magic Orchestra are one of those groups which have fallen out of public consciousness. Not that they were particularly 'big' in the first place - they were massive in their native Japan, but at best had some minor hits elsewhere. Their legacy lives on as important early influences on most of the electronic music around today. However, this is a little vague, and the person on the street might only recognise them from a subsidiary source: 'Behind the Mask', a track off their second album Solid State Survivor, became a significant radio hit for Eric Clapton (in 1986, during his droll Phil Collins phase); almost 20 years later, Welsh parodic/idiotic hip hop group Goldie Lookin' Chain sampled the song on their track 'Your Mother's Got a Penis'. Yellow Magic Orchestra also suffer from the same fate as Oingo Boingo, in being the first exposure to a subsequently more successful artist in the vein of film music. Boingo bequeathed Danny Elfman, and YMO had Ryuichi Sakamoto, who later wrote award winning scores for such films as The Last Emperor, The Handmaid's Tale and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

The band first split in 1983, reformed in 1993 (as Not YMO, or YMO) for the one-off album Technodon (a wonderful piece of early 1990s acid/techno-pop). However, more recently, Haroumi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Sakamoto have been performing together once more, under the moniker HASYMO ('Human Audio Sponge' was a name first devised whenever they performed live together). The band played at the Tokyo concert for Live Earth, and have played a smattering of other shows. Crucially, however, they have started releasing new material. No news about a fully-fledged album project as of yet, but in the last year fans have been treated to two double A-side singles, 'Rescue / Rydeen 79/07' in 2007 and 'The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages' in August 2008.

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HASYMO - Rescue / Rydeen 79/07 (2007)





HASYMO's first single is comprised of a song from the soundtrack (produced by bassist Haroumi Hosono) to a CGI anime film Appleseed Ex Machina, alongside a re-recorded version of one of their most successful songs, 'Rydeen'. Possibly the most surprising thing about this single is how contemporary the group sound. They were always innovators, and the members have kept working and relevant in the years since their heyday (Sakamoto most notably, with his experimental collaborations with David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz), but nevertheless, the sound HASYMO achieve in 2007 is vastly different from that of their past projects together.

'Rescue', based around a repeating vocal sample ('Get your mind right, I'm on your side. / Progress or regress, why not go forward?'), is reminiscent of such mid-period Yellow Magic Orchestra tracks as 'Stairs' or 'Pure Jam'. However, the direct links mostly stop there. The intro is based around an infectious skittering drumbeat, undoubtedly informed by the more reflective moments of IDM/Electronica/whatever-you-call-it artists like Aphex Twin or ยต-ziq. Like with the music made by those modern electronic artists, 'Rescue' is based around rhythmic variation and modulation, as opposed to pop song structures.





The most radical aspect of HASYMO's sounds is their shift from the mostly synthesized pastures of their YMO material towards an undoubtedly manipulated, but mostly acoustic instrumentation. This is most noticeable, and impressive, on the re-tooled version of 'Rydeen'. The original, recorded in 1979, was a heady rush of synthesizers; a sugar-rush of multilayered melody that was destined for an interstellar video-game arcade disco. A soundtrack to Galaga, Gradius and other Japanese space-candy before they were even created. 'Rydeen 79/07' is an acoustic cut-up, not unlike the work of The Books. A patchwork of piano, acoustic guitars and xylophones work with textured electronic sounds and synths to create a much more contemplative piece. It is lovely; one of those revelatory re-imaginings which erase the original from memory. This single, initially seeming like a reformation vanity project ('Rydeen 79/07' was born out of an advertisement campaign HASYMO did for a Japanese beer company), is actually a wonderful statement.





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HASYMO - 'The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages' (2008)





In August 2008, HASYMO released another single, this time containing the tracks 'The City of Light' and 'Tokyo Town Pages'. Like their previous release, this is made up of two pieces created and commissioned for different projects. 'The City of Light' is currently the theme tune to News23, a Japanese television news programme, and 'Tokyo Town Pages' is the end credits theme for the forthcoming anthology movie Tokyo!. In yet another turn of the musical screw, this single sees the band members rooting these songs in their primary instruments. Indeed, the intricate programming and sonic textures of the previous single is still present, but both tracks are based around the interplay between the core ensemble of drums, bass and piano. The effect is dazzling; even though Yellow Magic Orchestra always exhibited the musicianship of the members, they never played so closely or as tightly as on these tracks.

'The City of Light' is based around one of the vaguely off-kilter rhythms that YMO have in the past turned into beguiling and catchy songs (such as their cover of 'Day Tripper'); Takahashi's drum performance is finely nuanced, displaying his mastery of restraint and economy. The vocals, again based around spiralling repeated lyrics, this time reflects a more group-based approach. The effect is like a jazzier, more developed version of the plaintive, electronic pop of German group The Notwist.





The second track, 'Tokyo Town Pages', is just as focused on the performance. Hosono's bass rumbles and pops, as it has done throughout the band's history; however, this time he is not the musical red-herring. On this song, an instrumental, the members of HASYMO use their instruments to create a recurring groundwork, with Sakamoto's simple, trance-inducing piano figures leading the charge. They are joined on this track by Christian Fennesz, whose guitar occasionally rises to the surface, never breaking into a tangible melody, but bringing an impressionistic aspect to the piece akin to the work he is renowned for producing. Indeed, 'Tokyo Town Pages' recalls pieces from Fennesz's popular albums, such as Venice or Endless Summer. However, whereas the German producer would use distortion and noise as part of the musical tapestry, HASYMO use these production aspects more sparingly, artfully. It creates an altogether different ambient style, more based around their musicianship. For a band that traded on their powerful, intertwining melody lines, it is interesting to hear them experimenting with their formula this late in the game; especially so, as the result comes off well.

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These two releases from HASYMO are heartwarming. Too many projects from once-innovative artists or groups see them revisiting familiar ground in dull or predictable ways. Thankfully, this is not the case here. The group members, now well into middle age, are still approaching their music with care, inspiration and innovation. Releasing singles has afforded them a freedom to focus on the individual pieces, which has paid off, considering the high quality of what is on offer.

The question that nags at the listener is: will they ever release a full-length album? Too many album projects, especially by those experienced journeymen of the music world, are scuppered by expectation and filler. Maybe the full-length, in the age of the download, is once again becoming one kind of a multitude of forms of distribution. For the time being, HASYMO are more than welcome to craft their short, but perfectly-formed art.






- http://www.commmons.com/index.html - Commmons, HASYMO's record label, masterminded by Sakamoto. It seeks to find a more progressive, encouraging and inspirational alternative to the label-musician framework. [website mostly in Japanese]

Saturday, 18 October 2008

[52] Charlie Chaplin in London

Charles Chaplin is one of London's more famous children. However, I'm always surprised at how it is countries other than the UK, usually in Europe, which celebrate this great figure in the history of cinematic comedy.

Nevertheless, there are some monuments to Chaplin in his birthplace. Possibly the most popular, recognisable of these is a statue in Leicester Square (a copy of an arguably better situated statue in Vevey, the Swiss town he called home in his later life).



The Tramp in Leicester Square

Less impressive, but no less significant, is a pub in Southwark, near Elephant and Castle tube station, called The Charlie Chaplin. The pub is situated not far from Walworth, the inner city district where he was born in 1889.




The Charlie Chaplin, Elephant and Castle

Thursday, 16 October 2008

[51] Recent Library Graphic Novel Haul, With Comments/Mini-Reviews [Great Comics]

I have a lot in the pipeline. Maybe it will materialise in the next few days. Watch this space.

As a follow up to the previous post on Peckham Library's graphic novel selection, I thought I'd post the comics that I have taken out, and read, over the last 2 weeks. I might do another installment at some point. I'll say a few words about each book, although in some cases I will write a more substantial piece once I have the time and inspiration.

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Spiderman: Blue, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale



I am a huge fan of Loeb/Sale's work on Batman (The Long Halloween and Dark Victory). I recently picked up the preview issue of their latest collaboration, Captain America: White. That series starts soon, so I thought I'd read up on their previous colour-coded Marvel work. Spiderman: Blue tells of Peter Parker's early romance with Gwen Stacy, and the love triangle that develops once Mary Jane Watson comes on the scene. I was initially hesitant, especially regarding Tim Sale's artwork. I loved his dark, moody work on Batman, but there was a stockiness to the characters that, while brilliant for gangsters and heavies, I didn't think would transition well to the world of Spiderman. Boy, was I wrong! Sale's depictions of MJ and GS are beautiful. Loeb's writing, too, is first-rate, using a tidy narration structure, with an integral pull away from the final, harrowing action for emotional impact. I hope to write something more substantial about this at some point, so I'll leave my comments there for the time being.

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Coward, a Criminal Edition, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips



I've had an interest in Criminal since I picked up the first issue a few months ago. Sadly, I could only find the first two parts of the Coward storyline in single issue form, so I laid off the series for a while. Lucky for me, the library had the collected edition. The writing is sharp, and Phillips' smoky art style fits the book perfectly. What impresses me is that Brubaker and Phillips work with tight, economical issue runs, yet still manage to create compelling storylines, with varied and interesting characters. Action is present, but it is not excessive or gratuitous. Too many comics concerned with 'the real world' or crime often aim for 'brutality' or 'grit' in the form of violence or language. I think that Brubaker is too intelligent and skilled to resort to these easy, yet shallow strategies. Even though Brubaker and Phillips present Criminal as a series of storylines, not necessarily linked in any integral way (at least not to my knowledge), there is such a great deal of attention and care put into the issues themselves that you feel the need to buy them individually. Brubaker invites colleagues and friends to write excellent essays and articles on all things to do with film noir and detective fiction. Unfortunately, the collected editions do not include this wonderful extra material. I read this book, and almost immediately went out and bought the first issue of the next storyline, Lawless.

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Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger



I first read Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow a few years ago, when I first started reading outside of my comfort zone of Vertigo properties (Sandman, Preacher, Hellblazer, Transmetropolitan), and expanded into the general comic world. Now that I know more of the the history of both Superman and the DC Universe, I still enjoy this two-issue special, but I get more of the importance and resonance of Alan Moore's farewell to the Silver Age. Equally, it is more affecting, now that I have read more pre-1985 comics, to see Moore revolutionising the form. The use of abrupt, surprise violence and death to devastating effect. The lingering, inevitable doom that permeates the whole book. It is masterful. This, twinned with The Killing Joke, comprises Moore's most famous DC work. I think that both are important, not merely in their treatment of accepted canons and characters, but in their championing of the short form of the comic book issue. The comic book as a storytelling medium can work on so many time frame, from a 6 issue arc, or a 100 page graphic novel, to 12 issue 'year-long' series, or a planned, 60-100 issue epic (this is something that no other medium can do well, apart from television). Or even, as is the case here, one or two issues. I think that Moore's preface to the story is one of the best pieces of writing in comics:


This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one. It ends with a wink….This is an IMAGINARY STORY … Aren’t they all?

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Invincible: Family Matters, by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker



I'm a huge fan of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. Invincible was created earlier, but is currently at around the same issue number. I am currently working on a piece that compares Invincible with another, very different, superhero comic, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s Kick Ass, so I won't exhaust all my points here. However, I will say that Invincible is a joy to read. It is funny, touching, and full of imagination. It makes a great case for comic writers to remember the time before The Dark Knight Returns, before 'mature' comics needed to be shrouded in black, bathed in blood, or foul-mouthed. Not that there isn't a place for those things, mind - it is just refreshing to read a well-written book with an eye on the fantastic.

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Y: The Last Man - Unmanned, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra



I was going to start reading Y: The Last Man not long after it first started. I found a run of early issues in a comics shop / porn shop / thriftstore in Manchester in 2003-2004, before I went to university. However, I could never find the first issue, so never jumped on. Unmanned, the first trade paperback, has stared at me from shelves ever since. I'm glad that I finally got around to reading this (although I'm already worrying that Peckham Library doesn't have the third volume). Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra start off with a brilliant idea: one day, the entirety of the male population of the earth (human and animal) are wiped out. Apart from Yorik, and his pet monkey Ampersand. This concept alone is full of potential stories; however, Vaughan and Guerra pack the first issue to bursting with characters, situations, side- and sub-plots. Again, with the economy, relationships and characters are communicated with a few scant pages each, however, when that first issue ends, when that plague hits, the loss is more than effective. The scope of the book is mindblowing - Vaughan brings in political dimensions, international intrigue, and meaningful, interesting pop-culture references. I don't read that many comics in one sitting, especially at the moment. I was feeling pretty burned out after reading the above, and had started to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X instead. However, Y: The Last Man has gripped me. Now I need hope no one has taken out the second volume in the last 2 days...

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I am yet to read the following comics, but I will post them here anyway:

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Invincible: Eight is Enough, by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley



I started this today. I've only read the first issue. However, I can safely say that Invincible#5 is one of the best superhero one-shot stories I have ever read. It is quietly radical, amending the structures of superhero fiction as opposed to aggressively lampooning or reducing it. It is also bookended with great exchanges between Mark and his family. I think that Robert Kirkman is the only writer I know who can make his characters' family relationships into something that is tender, warm, but also full of humour and familiarity. This is also seen in Walking Dead. It is sophisticated and mature, in a very real way. It is a far cry from the increasingly droll Fight Club knock-offs that satirise or outright reject the accepted structures of society with no real comment or reasoning (suchabody is a disaffected loner who is bored of his deskjob etc...). Ugh. Thank you, Robert Kirkman!

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Hulk: Grey, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale



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The Question: Zen and Violence, by Denny O'Neill, Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar



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Friday, 10 October 2008

[50] Farewell, DVDSpot

It has been brought to my attention that DVDSpot, the DVD collection website, is shutting down. I've been a member of the community for over three years now, and I felt it was quite a nifty resource, allowing users to catalogue their collections, as well as log their film-watching habits, and set up 'Movie Nights'. As a person that watches a lot of films, DVDSpot came the closest to a diary that I had, and reviewing the list of DVDs I have watched over the last couple of years is an effective jog on the memory.



One aspect of DVDSpot that I respected was its strong community of forum users and contributors; members were encouraged to expand the database of DVD releases, and upload entries themselves (not unlike similar-but-with-albums site rateyourmusic.com). Nevertheless, I am sure this resource was expensive and time-consuming, especially as it was offered free and without ads. The DVDSpot team have said that they will be dedicating their time to other web-based services. I wish them well.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

[49] Chimaira - Resurrection (FtV)

From the vaults, a short album review I once wrote for Redbrick, the University of Birmingham student paper. Due to the pretty restrictive word count, I experimented in an economic style that sacrificed words, but not information.

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This new effort from Chimaira is more frustrating than promising. Over the 60-minute runtime, the Ohio sextet shows some ambition, but they obviously feel more at home in their tired metalcore comfort-zone. ‘Six’ has a lengthy, progressive structure and ‘Empire’ is indebted to such Black Metal bands as Dimmu Borgir; the use of keyboards on both, however sparse, does add depth to the somewhat canned production. These are undisputed standouts, but such moments of genre transcendence are brief.

The vocals, likewise, show some attempt at variation: however, moments of Opeth-like clean harmony, or Black Metal rasping, quickly revert back to generic yelping or Phil Anselmo grunts. It’s easy to say the lyrics kill any claim to integrity – scores of typically maladjusted, alienated lines litter the album (‘No Reason to Live’, ‘Worthless’). Not likely to convert the masses.

Originally published in Redbrick, 02/02/07

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

[48] Unfortunate shelving in Zavvi...



Spotted 26th September, in the central Manchester branch of Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastore).

Thursday, 2 October 2008

[47] In Peckham... Update

I don't have the internet at home at the moment, so this will have to be a stopgap post.

- I have moved into my place in Peckham, and we're currently sorting out all those little things. There won't be any internet until next week, so I've had to make do with the free wi-fi service at Peckham Library (which rarely/barely works, so I'm using one of their computers).



- Peckham Library is a fantastic, colourful, Tetris-block-shaped building, with wonderful views of the centre of London. Its collection of fiction, graphic novels and DVDs is really good. I can see myself spending a lot of time here as money and storage space become tight.

- I've also started applying for jobs - we'll see how that pans out.

- Issue #51 of Superman/Batman came out last week. It is the second and final issue of the Lil' Leaguers storyline, which I have written about in the past. Most of the reviews I have read of this issue were negative, with reviewers citing disappointment over the issue's hit-miss ratio in terms of ideas and jokes. Well, I can't help but agree that the issue is less entertaining in purely humorous sense, but that was only half the enjoyment for me anyway. As covered in the past, I was just as attracted to the subterranean thematics that were present and this issue develops on these aspects (with varying success). I might write a proper piece on this at some point.

- I have bought my ticket to see Neil Gaiman at LSE on October 31st (Halloween, no less). This should right the wrong of when I couldn't make it to a reading/signing he did in Manchester years ago in support of Coraline.

That's it for the moment, I hope to post more in the next week. I did have pictures of the house to post, but the archaic form of IE that is installed on this computer only works with raw text editing for Blogger. Curious.