Wednesday, 31 December 2008

[111] Wild Tyme's Films of 2008, part 1

I know I already posted an end of year toplist a week or so ago. However, that list omitted films. I'd like to redress that with a last-minute recap, an indulgent look over the shoulder at some films I really enjoyed this year. My general rule applies: if I saw it in a darkened theatre, between January and December, it counts as this year. Of course, there are always borderline cases, as foreign films are distributed sometimes up to 2 years after their initial release. But we can argue about that all day, and it is quite a pointless debate to be having anyway. Lists are very arbitrary time-wasters , but I want to put down in writing some of the films that really interested me this year (scanning over the posts on this blog, I've written about very few of them).

I saw 35 films this year; most were in the first 6 months, as once I moved to London the prices were too high to sustain regular trips. A surprisingly high proportion were winners in my book: admittedly, some were the overflow from 2007, which by most accounts was a better year overall, but I still saw very few films I disliked (Sex and the City and Mister Lonely are conspicuous in that regard).

Let's get on with it. 20 notable films from the last 12 months, in chronological order, split across two posts for coherence.

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I'm Not There (dir. Todd Haynes)





The first film I saw this year, and one of the most stylish. Todd Haynes manages to subvert the conventional biopic format by casting multiple actors not as Bob Dylan, but as various evocations of Dylan's mythos and musical legend. Standout performance was from Cate Blanchett , as the androgynous, spider-y mid-1960s troubadour poet, whose life is in black-and-white and threatens to morph into Richard Lester freak-outs or absurdist Fellini homages. The production is superb and varied, with as much genius as 5 separate films packed into one complex, beguiling enigma. A fitting tribute to the artist in question.


Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant)




A quiet, subtle picture, Paranoid Park opened the year with a meditation on innocence, maturity and teenage life. An art-house experiment in every sense of the word, from the lo-fi, elegiac handheld cinematography and evocative, eclectic soundtrack to the Myspace-culled teenage cast. Also probably the film from this year I've written most about, as I reviewed it for Film International. At the end of that piece I said: "Like Rian Johnson, who in Brick (2005) mixed elements of high school drama with hard-boiled detective noir, in Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant tinkers with the formula of teenage melodrama, and creates an artistic hybrid of styles and moods".


No Country For Old Men (dir. The Coen Brothers)





Another big film from 2007, which rightly won accolades across the board. The Coen Brothers crafted this pseudo-western from Cormac McCarthy's novel, bringing in a healthy dose of their jet-black humour. I was one of the few in the audience that picked up on the darkly humorous side of the film. Javier Bardem is unforgettable and already-iconic in the role of the Anton Chigurh, and Tommy Lee Jones is dejected and vulnerable, but it is Josh Brolin, otherwise a side-man or supporting actor, who made the movie for me.


Lust, Caution (Se, Jie, dir. Ang Lee)





Ang Lee returns to Chinese cinema with the most sensual film of the year. Stylistically rooted in its target period of the 1940s, this political-sexual thriller elevated its social upheaval onto a physical plain. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is restrained and subtle in his portrayal of government official Mr. Yee.


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile, dir. Cristian Mungiu)





A big-hitter from Cannes, this Romanian film was blunt and affecting. Set towards the end of the Ceauşescu Communist period, the story told of illegal abortion and the shady dealings of a paranoia-stricken society. The naturalistic cinematography, and droll, bland colour scheme, made 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days stark and harrowing in feel as well as content.


There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)





Daniel Day Lewis is a totemic, almost mythical actor. I'm not a particular disciple of his, but there is no doubt that his performance as Daniel Plainview is the epicentre of this oil-centric epic. Nevertheless, Paul Thomas Anderson's film has an impressive, ambitious scope, tracing Plainview's fortunes, follies and ethical deterioration at that tantalising period between Old West prospecting and the early 20th century. The score by Jonny Greenwood and cinematography from Robert Elswit is also stunning, visceral, and memorable.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon, dir. Julian Schnabel)





Adapted from the memoir written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby after suffering a stroke, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly boldly shifts in style and mood, from comedy to drama to life-affirming poetry. The decision to film in French, gives the film a touching sincerity in these brutally adaptionist times. In the face of its doom-and-gloom subject matter, it mirrors the source material in its celebration of life and verve for expression. Schnabel's experimental approach, mostly shooting scenes from point-of-view angles, and utilising effects and focus to enhance this perspective, is unique and successful. The writing is sharp and funny, and Mathieu Amalric's portrayal of Bauby, essentially a voice-over, is entracing.


Persepolis (dirs. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)





Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, Persepolis, is an evocative and charming work, speaking of her years growing up in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution. The translation to screen retains her simple, but eloquent art style, and looks stunning in animation. Persepolis tackles issues of major international importance, especially in terms of the demonisation of Iran and its population in the eyes of Europe and America, but it is at heart a personal story of growing up. The English dub (which also features Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop) is notable for being just as pleasant and 'authentic' as the original French, with both Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve reprising their integral roles as Marjane and her mother.


Planet B-Boy (dir. Benson Lee)





One of the surprises of the year for me. Planet B-Boy didn't have much in the way of coverage from any magazines or sites as far as I recall, and I saw it packed in the Electric Cinema in Birmingham with a bunch of local dancers as part of the Birmingham Dance Festival. A documentary about the annual Battle of the Year breakdancing competition, following 5 of the crews from France, USA, South Korea and Japan. Touching on relevant social topics such as fame, ambition and youth culture, the film manages to side-step preaching or condescending by focusing on the dancers and their families. The result is endearing, tender and laugh-out-loud funny. It also, unsurprisingly, features some wildly impressive sequences displaying the technical virtuosity and sheer coolness of b-boying as a dance style.


Grindhouse (dirs. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez)





After complaining about the international split of Tarantino and Rodriguez's exploitation-fest in 2007, I gleefully grabbed at the chance to see the full double-feature cut of the flick when it played in limited cinemas earlier this year. Planet Terror is still a caffeine-high thrill of gore and cocked-eyebrows, and Death Proof benefits from a trimmed, lean cut. Add in the hilarious fake trailers, which the international audiences missed, and you have an evening of broad, unabashed horror entertainment. As a cinema-going experience, this is one-of-a-kind, as, it seems, even smaller, independent cinemas shy away from double features and schlock. It's a shame it wasn't so successful.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

[110] The Punisher Xmas One-Shot (Aaron, Boschi)

I know this review is a little stale, considering the timing, but The Punisher MAX Xmas one-shot is a brilliant example of a comic short story. Whereas I really liked Alex Ross' Kindgom Come Special: Superman issue, with its resistance to tell a traditional narrative and steadfast focus on character, Jason Aaron here provides a well-rounded, conclusive, wham-bam tale that works entirely on its own.





Ignore the cover, which has no relation to the story either in tone or content (no quirky elves or ribboned-grenades). I don't know much about The Punisher. I don't really care for the character, actually, apart from the brilliant 1993 side-scroller video game. I've always felt that his character is surprisingly one-note, and tackles themes better-expressed in other series. What I do know about Frank Castle, however, serves me entirely well for the purposes of this issue. He is a messed-up war veteran, who turns to an extremely moralistic life of vengeance and vigilantism. An anti-hero who kills bad people. That's it, as far as I can see; there is no need to know the prevailing continuity, or the chequered publication history from inception to present.

This narrative unity and approachability are just two of the strengths of this issue. Aaron's writing is on-the-money, with a Christmas-set gangster story that manages to offer action and grit, but also a surprising amount of warmth, depth and unpredictability. On Christmas Eve, a high-ranking mobster's wife is going into labour with their child. His rivals take this opportunity to strike, aiming to kill the baby and the parents. But the Punisher is also doing his rounds. This main plot is underscored by themes of innocence, birth, faith and charity, elements forgotten by the sullied society the Punisher inhabits.





Roland Boschi's artwork exhibits a subtlety I wouldn't have associated with such a comic. The 'explicit content' that is advertised on the cover isn't as exaggerated as in some other violent comics; instead, the violence and brutality is depicted in the expressive, grotesque faces of the characters. The cast are a parade of leering, intimidating, creepy or unseemly people, not least of all is the Punisher, who is an ugly, grizzled man. These characterisations harmonise with Aaron's story of a world fallen from grace, tainted by crime and vice, with the Punisher as the avenging angel.





Hopefully this issue won't be forgotten due to its holiday tie-in nature, as it is a textbook, formally-perfect instance of concise comic storytelling.

Monday, 29 December 2008

[109] Good-bye Woolworths Peckham




I walked past the Woolworths Peckham branch on Rye Lane today. It only has two days left until it closes on the 30th. Decided to check it out, and take some photos of the carnage. For those who aren't UK-based, Woolworths is a long-standing high-street shop that first opened in Liverpool in 1909. Originally a spin-off of the American F. W. Woolworth company (now Foot Locker), Woolworths UK became its own entity and enjoyed a familiarity until it collapsed under the recent, harsh economic climate.





Most of the store had been cleared out, unsurprisingly, as most items were going for 70% off retail price. Woolworths is a strange store, which suffered from an identity crisis for most of the last 20 years. It was a cross between a general store, clothing shop, confectioners, newsagents and entertainment shop. Most of the branches were relatively small, and their stock was badly chosen and quite restricted. It's not surprising they weren't doing well.





Nevertheless, it is still shocking to see a chain which maintained such a presence on nearly every high street in the country go bankrupt. Most people of my generation / age seem to have built up nostalgia for Woolworths as one of the only places to find a good Pick 'n Mix sweet selection. Interestingly, for me anyway, the sweets stock was supplied by Candy King, a Nordic company, so isn't affected by any of this. Furthermore, as you can see in the below picture, the shop's fixtures and shelving were for sale. The Candy King containers, however, weren't.





So, that's it. I didn't buy anything, after all. Out of the 807 branches throughout the country, 200 have already closed. The rest will be shut by the 5 January.

Read a picture-filled history of Woolworths at the BBC here.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

[108] Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour

Happy Christmas!





Thanks to Mr. Door Tree @ Golden Age Comic Book Stories for bringing this Curt Pardee pic to my attention.

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Today I want to draw your attention to the new series of Bob Dylan's radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, which starts in the UK today. This is the third series, and it will be on BBC 6 Music today (25th) and tomorrow (26th) with a two-part opening salvo on 'Money'. The shows are on at 2pm both days, but will be available on BBC iPlayer afterwards. Check the site here.

Theme Time Radio Hour is the only radio show I go out of my way to listen to every week. Luckily, for the last few months, BBC have been airing a lot of repeats, so there is almost always a new episode on iPlayer to check out. Each episode has a specific theme, and Dylan trawls through the last 50-60-70 years of music for some obscure or not-so-obscure gems for your listening pleasure. Throughout there are skits, jingles and movie quotes, as well as guest appearances from friends and acquaintances from the world of music and showbiz (such as Tom Waits and Penn Jillette to name but two). The playlists bend towards the less-known, and more vintage ends of the scale, but that provides Dylan and the listener with material that is a lot more interesting, and a lot more surprising.




Check that Jaime Hernandez artwork!

Dylan's on-air presence is astounding. I'm a firm fan of his music, although I do think that he fades a little as he gets older, even on the critically acclaimed 'comeback' albums from the last 20 years (World Gone Wrong excepted). His voice has deteriorated to a thin reedy duck-call, and his style is more laid-back. His latest album, Modern Times, for example, is my favourite dish-washing soundtrack.




However, with Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan recasts himself as a charismatic host, infusing some of the links and wordy bits with all of the character and musical rhythm that has made him into the legendary troubadour he is seen as. Some of the highlights of the shows are his monologues, often throwing in quotations and recitations, such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare. His precise, but swinging intonation also comes to the fore when he recites long lists of items, people or other things related to that particular show's topic.

It is a radio production that is tight, well-selected and well-performed.

Give it a try!


For a more in-depth overview of TTRH, read Dylan-expert Eyolf Østrem's piece on his Things Twice blog.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

[107] Amiga Memories

After reading a post on the Guardian Technology Blog about Christmas Gaming Memories, I decided to resurrect this post, first attempted some time over the summer, during my trawling through my parents' house. It is about the Amiga, which I received one Christmas morning 16 years ago. I was 6. Due to the unconventional genesis of this post, the perspective and chronology are a bit kinky, but I'm sure it still communicates.

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Recently I've been searching through my parents' garage and loft. I've found comics, magazines, crap and tat. On the gaming front, however, I found my Amiga 500+.

Even though I did have a NES and a Mega Drive in the 80s, in 1991-1992, my father traded in those consoles and bought an Amiga (I wouldn't get another console until 1997-1998, with the PSX / N64). The Amiga is one of those platforms which is not as storied as the Sega / Nintendo / Sony consoles, but it was home to many groundbreaking and important games (which were often ported to more popular platforms afterwards). As I pretty much missed out on some of the best games of the 16-bit generation (we had already moved on from the Mega Drive before Sonic 2 had been released), my gaming nostalgia is mostly made up of Amiga titles. Here are a few that I found today, which in my opinion deserve recognition as some of the best games of all time (perhaps).




Another World, and its spiritual successor Flashback, were two fantastic games created by the French development studio Delphine Software. Both were created initially for the Amiga, before being ported to such platforms as MSDOS, SNES and Mega Drive.

It is funny, as just the other day I was browsing in the Zavvi sale, and found the 15th Anniversary edition of Another World (official site here), boasting high-definition remastering and other goodies. I tried playing through this game again, on an emulator, a few months ago. And while I think the gameplay itself is outdated (too much emphasis on trial and error and illogical developer-centric puzzle-solutions), I am still astounded by its rotoscoped animation, and beautiful artwork. Recently, gaming icon Hideo Kojima said that Another World was one of the 5 games that mattered most to him.

I don't think that The Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure require much in the way of introduction. They are both classics of the Lucasarts SCUMM point-and-click school, released in 1989-1990. Again, like Another World, the outmoded gameplay is savaged by some contemporary game critics, because it is very restricted, and the game logic is usually defined by the specific, often irrational whims of the designer. This is certainly true in Monkey Island, which develops along wonderfully amusing and surreal lines. The scripts in these games are funny and sharp, however, and the focus on storytelling make the Lucasarts library, and others in the style, still worth a play-through today.

One beautiful aspect of these games was the effort put into the manual and other packaging material that came in the game box. For Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for example, they reproduced a slimmed-down version of Dr. Jones Sr.'s 'Grail Diary', with original entries and artwork.







Mega Lo Mania, also known as Tyrants, is an action-strategy God game, developed by Amiga behemoths Sensible Software. I bought this game again, years later, for the Mega Drive (when I started collecting games again). It is a charismatic, quick-paced game, more about building up forces and tech instead of resource gathering and tactics. It is built around 'epochs', where the architecture and technology leap forward at certain points, giving one player an edge over the others. Again, probably quite dated, especially in light of the advances made by the Warcraft, Dune and Command and Conquer series, but an interesting curio nonetheless.

To finish up, one of the games of the early 1990s. Street Fighter II. A horrible port by anyone's standards, reducing the controls to (in my case) joystick-and-two-buttons, making any special moves particularly hard to pull off (and also explaining why I'm not as good at SFII on SNES or Arcade as I'd like to be). However, at 6 years old, I didn't really care about ports, framerate issues, and arcade-to-console conversions. I just liked playing as Guile. My dad apparently moved mountains to get hold of it, back in the day when you had to mail order this kind of stuff, and it came in a trendy little bag, which, to my surprise, is still intact.





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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

[106] Watching the Watchmen, by Dave Gibbons et al

Posting might get predictably sporadic over the next few days, but let's see how it goes. Might end up with some quick-takes and filler posts. Bah, humbug!

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I've started dipping into the goodies I got for my birthday, and today I read through Dave Gibbons' luscious coffee-table book Watching the Watchmen.





Watching the Watchmen is both a behind-the-scenes overview of the conception, execution and distribution of Watchmen, one of the most critically lauded graphic novels ever released, and a trawling through of Gibbons' commendably extensive archive of Watchmen material. It is amazing to see what material Gibbons had saved; initial sketches are reproduced, as well as other rough notes, early character designs, correspondence, alternate covers and the entire 12-issue series in thumbnail form.





The book is narrated through slabs of text from Gibbons reminiscing about the whole process of releasing Watchmen. His evocation of mid-80s Britain, and the opportunities offered to comics writers in those days, is inspiring and nostalgic. This was a time when the still-visible 'British Invasion' of American comics started. At this point, Gibbons and others were relatively humble 2000AD writers or artists (Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Bolland, O' Neill, Dillon to name a few). However, he also communicates well the slog necessary to create a comic, in the days before digital colouring, and internet-based communication.





As insightful as these bits of writing are, they mostly seek to describe and contextualise the wealth of visual content present in the volume. Even though I wouldn't go as far to say that Watching the Watchmen is essential, it is a beautiful, surprising book nonetheless. It is a testament to the original novel and the immense thought and effort that Alan Moore and Gibbons put into it. The pages are heavy-quality and the reproductions are detailed. Gibbons and designers Chip Kidd (who also edited the Bat-Manga! book) and Mike Essl have crafted a wonderful, sturdy collection that is a feast for the eyes. If you're a fan of Watchmen, or of comic craft in general, give it a glance.

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Read more about Watching the Watchmen at Amazon.co.uk here.
Check out a feature on the book, with more excerpt pages, at The Guardian.
Check out a feature on the book, with a preview video, at /Film.

Monday, 22 December 2008

[105] Hey mum, look!

I moved down to London and became a big-shot journalist...





...Now everybody knows my name!

(in other news, my camera phone seems to have forgotten how to focus)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

[104] LTFF Week 2: Times and Winds & Two Lines

In its second week, the London Turkish Film Festival migrated north to take up residence in the Odeon Holloway and Odeon Lee Valley Cinemas. After a grinding cross-town bus-tube journey, I went to see two films at the Odeon Holloway. They were both united by their quiet, observational outlook, but were distinct in their subject matter.





The first film, Times and Winds (Beş Vakit), is a coming-of-age drama set in a rural town. Directed and written by Reha Erdem, it follows the lives of three early teenagers as they learn about love, death and responsibility. In theory, Times and Winds sounds like many hackneyed Baby Boomer films from Hollywood, but its location and execution give it a powerful edge. The village is idyllic, the lights of a city twinkle in the distance; the periods of the day are determined by the calls to prayer, which ring out from the mosque tower that oversees all of life and work. The landscape is varied, encompassing green pasture and rocky outcrop, and affords the camera countless opportunities for breath-taking widescreen shots. Not that the production team slacks off due to their natural surroundings. Erdem employs a mixture of camera techniques, from crane shots that rise to the mosque's peak, to weaving steadicam shots through the village streets, to communicate the setting of Times and Winds.




The film trumps childhood-drama expectations by presenting a de-centralised approach to the story, focusing on three characters and their families, as well as the community as a whole. Omer is a son of the local imam; his story is one of twisted jealousy, as he plots to kill his father. Yakup's story is a little more light-hearted, as he develops a school-boy crush for his young, beautiful teacher. Finally, a girl called Yildiz is doted on by her father. Even though the location of Times and Winds could suggest a rose-tinted, nostalgic, or quaint experience, the reality is more complex. The children spend their days roaming the countryside, but their lives are far from easy or picture-perfect. Family relationships are often brutal and cold: Omer's father is almost bullying in his adulation of a younger son, for example. Another subplot features the fathers of Yildiz and Yakup, who are implored by their father to build a wall each around their inherited land. Yakup's father is lazy and unskilled, in contrast to his brother, and is beaten like a child by his aged father when he falters. The score, culled from the work of Estonian minimalist Arvo Part, is in a monumental, austere, yet sometimes wistful mode that helps to complement and emphasise the restrained moments in the narrative. His repeated motifs are simple, yet stirring, reflecting the cyclical, beautiful, and harsh rural background.




Times and Winds is concerned with cycles, not just in the shifts from day to night or the repetition of daily rural chores, but in the perpetuation of family failings and traits. These moments, where the children become like their parents, are integral points in the narrative: Omer mimics his father as he sings the call to prayer from a hilltop, Yakup's crush on his teacher is shared by his father and, just as poignant, Yildiz must fulfil her role as a woman in looking after her baby sibling. Equally, life and death is all the more stressed in the birth of a calf, or the passing of an old lady. Village life seems stuck in these cycles, and brief glances of 21st century culture (a refrigerator, a digital camera, a microphone in the mosque) are notable and jarring. As such, the film's ending is abstract and open to interpretation. There is no resolution or emotional conclusion: it merely fades into birdsong. Nevertheless, this strengthens the thematic weight of the film, and should inspire audiences to reflect on the film's content. Throughout the running time there were various diversionary shots of the children lying in hay or heather; at first, these scenes seem more nostalgic or rustic, but as the film turns darker, these scenes become a morbidly foreboding. Do they sleep, or are they dead? Times and Winds is an elegant and moving film, full of beauty and discord.




By contrast Two Lines (Iki Çizgi) is an urban drama centered on a young couple in their twenties. It is just as quietly unfolding as Times and Winds, but not as successful. The film is quite heavy-handed in is exposition. The first half of the film's 90 minutes is dedicated to cementing the fundamental differences that separate its central characters. Mert and Selin live in a modern, metropolitan Istanbul, in a trendy flat. Their daily habits are truly incompatible: Selin works 9-5 in an office, whereas Mert spends his days wandering the streets, taking photographs. In the evenings, they barely communicate, as Mert spends his time holed up in his dark-room, stealthily filming and watching the young, perky girls in a building across the street, or goes out to an alternative rock concert. Selin, however, listens to Erik Satie, plays the piano, or reads. They don't look like they have much in common - Selin is well-presented, seen in her skincare regime and her work clothes, whereas Mert has a straggly beard, and wears shorts and sneakers.

It is contrived, exaggerated stuff, but it uses this hyperbolic, highlighted approach to communicate the isolation of young urban life, and the uncertainty of routine and relationships. The impression is that Mert and Selin are two lines, either diverging or running parallel, not truly enhancing or affecting each other's lives. The only contact and interaction they experience is through daily obligations, like Mert picking up Selin after work in their car, or eating together. Sex is another point of contact, but it sits alongside the other daily acts in its hollowness. These early portions, full of unspoken resentment and bitter jealousy, are evocative and eloquent. Mert's obsession with the neighbours, which on one level touches on the inherent voyeurism in photography and filming, also feeds into the young adult's fear of settling down, becoming boring, and losing the spark of youth and frivolity.




However, writer-director Selim Evci's decision to pull these characters out of their cocoon, by having them go on a road trip to Bergama and beyond, yields mixed results. On the one hand, it allows the film to indulge in wildly symbolic sequences, such as when Mert and Selin hide from each other in different rows of a sunflower field. It is here, though, that the film becomes almost too bitter, twisted and unfocused, as the underlying, unspoken jealousy and rivalry become more explicit. The final sequence, involving the couple engaging in eventually violent sexual roleplay, seems to be meant as a catharsis, or an outpouring of repressed emotion. However, the conclusion leaves the conflict unresolved. Sadly, it is in this point that Two Lines suffers from lying beside Times and Winds. That film unfolds in a complex, but graceful way, and resists a satisfying conclusion by choosing to subordinate the characters' stories to the cycles of life and nature. The inscrutability of Two Lines' end, however, is at odds with its similarly quiet, but pronounced exposition.




The 14th London Turkish Film Festival is now over, but it provided those in the area with a wonderful opportunity to see some daring, varied and stylish cinema. It has been an eye-opening experience, as beforehand I knew little of Turkish cinema. The festival team deserves commendation. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer next year.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

[103] Mike Leader's Best of Pop-Culture 2008 [CC2K]

I wrote this piece for CC2K this week. Over there, it is currently 'toplist week', or something like that, where all of the writers are asked to make a list of their favourite things of the year. Initially, we were asked to leave out films, for another special week in January. As I didn't feel too hot doing a solely music, film or comics list, I went for the all-purpose top 10.

In retrospect, especially since my birthday, I have a few more things to add, but I will publish it here nonetheless, as there aren't many truly glaring absences. You can read the article in its original context on CC2K up here.

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2008 saw me finish university and set out into the world of (un)employment. Therefore, one of the recurring themes of the year has been economy. I do like to think I keep on top of all the happenings in my chosen interests - be they books, comics, video games, films and music. However, a distinct lack of funds has stopped me from directly experiencing many of the big hitters of the year. Therefore, I find it quite hard to write lists for each discipline. So I'll lump most of them together here. The Top Ten Entertainment Moments of the Year (excluding film), in a vaguely chronological order.


1. Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Video Game, Nintendo DS)





Professor Layton and the Curious Village is notable alone for its addition to story to the realm of Brain Training puzzling. The animated scenes, voice acting and art style (a Japanese take on classic European comic art such as Tintin) created a quirky, but impressive world for the game. Equally, the puzzles, inspired by a series of Japanese books called Mental Gymnastics, are well-developed head-scratchers. In all, this points to a bright future for story-driven, deep games in the genre.


2. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV (Music)





Early this year, Trent Reznor surprised fans with the quick internet release of this four-volume set of EPs, comprised of instrumental experiments and jams held in the wake of his freedom from long-time record label Interscope. The album was released in a variety of ways, from a free download of the first few tracks, to a supreme special edition. More crucially, it was also a bold 36-song collection of evocative soundscapes, perfect for daydreaming.


3. Braid (Video Game, Xbox Live Arcade)





Jonathan Blow's indie game Braid delivered one of the best, original experiences on a console this year. A hybrid of puzzle game, Super Mario-style platformer and post-modernist novel, Braid was tied together by its time mechanic, allowing the player to rewind their actions if necessary. What first challenges the idea of 'death' in videogames later becomes the centre of some of the most ingenious and mind-bending puzzles in recent memory. The artwork was expressive, colourful and fantastic, the music was wistful and beautiful. The narrative, and the ambiguous ending, developed in ways not usually seen in video games, and helped keep Braid in my mind much longer than bigger games of this year.


4. The Week That Was - The Week That Was (Music)





I was quite a big fan of Field Music, a pure pop / post-punk outfit from the North East of England. They announced last year that they would be breaking up; however, I was soon relieved to see that the two brothers that formed the band's creative core would be releasing solo albums in 2008. The Week That Was, which is the album by Peter Brewis, is a conceptual piece revolving around a week without television. It expands on the sophisticated pop sound of Field Music, but is rooted in a big, monumental drum sound and enveloping atmosphere that recalled Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel's early-mid 1980s albums. Tracks such as "The Airport Line" and "Scratch the Surface" are hard-edged standouts, but the whole album is damn good.


5. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo - Joker (Book)





While The Dark Knight topped the box office charts and brought both Batman and his nemesis into water cooler conversation the world over, 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo released a graphic novel simply called Joker. In production as the same time as the film, Joker follows a similar route to Nolan's Batman films - bringing the comic hero and his world into a more mundane, gritty real-world context. Nevertheless, the graphic novel is its own beast, as Azzarello takes a prolonged look at the Joker and his band of thuggish freaks. Bermejo's art, which shifts from straightforward inks to breath-taking painted pages, is outstanding. The writing, equally, is superb. Joker is a twisted, harrowing crime drama, and an essential Batman graphic novel.


6. Dead Set (TV series)





Critic, columnist and some-time screenwriter Charlie Brooker branched out this year by writing the mini-series Dead Set. A zombie film set in the confines of the Big Brother house, Brooker mixes together his oddball humour and his eye for satirising the excesses of society. Pitched just right between the out-and-out horror of 28 Days Later and the cheeky humour of Shaun of the Dead, this is compelling, funny and thought-provoking while still delivering some scares. George Romero should be proud.


7. Neil Gaiman - The Graveyard Book (Book)





Another wildly imaginative book from Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book came out in October, and I read it on a rainy day in November. The boy Bod is brought up in a cemetery by those interred there. Over the course of a collection of chapters, occurring during Bod's formative years, Gaiman assembles a varied group of distinctive, compelling characters from the a wide span of history. He nails the dialogue, which helps convert the book's dark, gothic aspects into something wholly charming.


8. Paul Westerberg - 49:00 (Music)





Paul Westerberg, former front man of alt-rock pioneers The Replacements, released his latest album 49:00 on the internet. Nothing too revolutionary there, but the album is one 40-odd minute chunk of music. Approximating the sound of a radio flicking through stations, Westerberg has created a collage of demos, false-starts, experimentations and honest-to-god pop-rock anthems. A rough, but beguiling listen, it makes an interesting statement regarding the place of the long-player in the world of the digital download.


9. Eddie Campbell and Dan Best - The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (Book)





I only know Eddie Campbell's art from his collaborations with Alan Moore (like From Hell). With ...Monsieur Leotard, he teams up with Dan Best, and writes a pleasant romp about a young man who inherits his uncle's circus persona. Campbell's design work is outstanding, providing new ideas and styles from page-to-page, and the story, which encompasses much of late-19th and early 20th century history and fable, is impressive in its scope.


10. John Zorn (Music)





Easily my most listened-to artist of the year, prolific Jazz composer Zorn has released something like 9 albums in 2008. Three of these (The Dreamers, and Filmworks XIX and XX) made up the soundtrack for my 12 months. They are instrumental, gentle albums, a far cry from his more avant-garde work. These albums, while being similar in tone, show Zorn's stylistic breadth: The Dreamers is mostly surf-rock, featuring an on-form Electric Masada combo, whereas Filmworks XX is full of traditional Jewish musical motifs and arrangements. Lovely stuff.



Honourable Mentions:


Super Smash Bros Brawl (Video Game, Wii) - Probably the most polished game I've played all year. Hugely hyped, and packed with extras, unlockables and fan-service fun. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough novelty to differentiate Brawl from previous Smash Bros games.

Batman RIP (Comic) - This major event in the Batman universe, written by Grant Morrison, takes the hackneyed 'superhero death' saga and adds in surreal humour, crazy continuity and a self-aware metafictional depth. This would be up in the main list, if not for Morrison's last-minute gambit, delivering an anti-climactic conclusion to RIP series. This is not a bad thing, as the narrative ties into not only the still-ongoing Final Crisis event, but further Bat-books in 2009. Consider this still work-in-progress.

Mega Man 9 (Video Game, Wii) - A pitch-perfect exercise in sublime nostalgia, everything about Mega Man 9 is commendable, from the chiptune soundtrack to the punishing level designs. I can't help but feel, though, that its steadfastedly 1980s outlook would not only hurt its standing with newer gamers, but also prevent it from ever sitting comfortably alongside its brethren in fans' rosy-tinted memories.

Korg DS-10 (Video Game, DS) - A licensed music application emulating classic Korg synthesisers? For your Nintendo DS console? Wowzer! Hopefully this will catch on, and revolutionise the 'non-game' world. Maybe I should lobby for a world-wide confiscation of Nintendogs, America's Next Top Model: The Game and Cooking Mama, and encourage people to CREATE instead.

No More Heroes (Video Game, Wii) - A stylish, original game with bags of character that scores high on the quirk-factor. However, I felt the restrictive controls, repetitive action and minimally-realised sandbox design stopped me from truly connecting with Travis Touchdown's quest to be number one.

Friday, 19 December 2008

[102] Batman Returns: My Favourite Christmas Film

Another Den of Geek piece. This week, they sent an email out asking for articles enthusing about 'My Favourite Christmas Film'. I jumped at the chance to write about Batman Returns, which is certainly my favourite Batman movie. I think I made a good case for why it is a great Christmas movie, too. It's in an exaggerated, light-hearted mode - the kind I usually shy away from.

It's also pretty short, too, at just over 500 words. Practically bite-sized for me!


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Gotham City doesn't need Santa Claus; they have their own man in a suit who 'knows if you've been bad or good'...

Batman Returns, Tim Burton's second, more personal stab at the franchise, is probably my favourite Christmas film. It is one of the best of those Christmas-set, Christmas-themed flicks which transcend the month of December and, as such, does not have the baggage of the Holidays schmaltzing it up...

...I have no trouble in saying that it is my favourite Batman film. And what's more, it is the perfect comment on, inversion of, and antidote to the schmaltzy guff usually peddled in Christmas movies. It's time for a reappraisal.

Read the full article here.

[101] The Spirit: Press Conference Report

Two weeks ago, when I covered the preview screening for The Spirit, I also went to a press conference, with Frank Miller, Samuel L Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson and Deborah Del Prete in attendance. Whereas the initial press embargo of the 19th was lifted for the screening, it still stood for the conference, so this week I bashed out a report and it went up on Den of Geek just before midnight.

With this article, I decided to branch out a little. I mostly write in my objective, academic-analytical comfort zone. I tried to be a bit subjective, a bit first-person and stylish. I don't think I'd be able to make myself stand out otherwise. It also let me pack in a few comments and opinions about The Spirit adaptation. It was an experiment, and I was quite happy with the results.


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Frank Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes talk about January's new superhero adaptation...

I walk up the steps out of the Knightsbridge tube station. It is a chilly Thursday afternoon. I quickly glance at my notebook, to check the name of the hotel I'm looking for; there's no need, however, as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel stares at me from across the road. I'm here in order to cover a press conference in aid of
The Spirit, a film adaptation of the Golden Age Will Eisner comic strip, helmed by Frank Miller, creator of Sin City and 300...

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

[100] Morning Roundup, other things, etc.

Again, this week has been quite busy. I've been checking out a few screenings in the London Turkish Film Festival, which finished today. I only managed to see two films in the last couple of days, but they were both pretty great. I'll post a write up soon.

I've also written quite a few articles for CC2K and Den of Geek, which I will be posting links to as they are uploaded. They've been distracting me from original blog-matter, but hopefully in the next day or two I will produce something. And maybe a schmaltz-y 2008 retrospective, we'll see.

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Tonight I went down to Bellenden Road in Peckham for the 'Bellenden Bonanza', a late-night shopping event where some of the stores were open until 9pm. There was a roving Christmas Choir, too. I spent a lot of time in Review, which is the stylish, cosy bookshop they have down there. It's recommended if you're ever in the area.

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Two quick things:

- This 2D Flash version of Mirror's Edge may have only one stage, but it is really smooth and fun. Looking forward to later versions of it.

- The most depressing, but fascinating Twitter this side of Warren Ellis is TheMediaIsDying: as-they-break scoops regarding downsizing and cut-backs in print and online media. Lovely!


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This morning we've got some great looking posters for Coraline and GI Joe. Plus, we've got some tidbits including Gore Verbinski's MMORPG-themed film. We've also culled the best end of year toplists the internet can offer. It's all for you, dear reader. It's the Morning Roundup!

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

[99] Phonogram: The Singles Club #1

Even though I've kept up with buying single issues in the last few weeks, I've not written about any of them. I was going to write a digest about recent reading, but I got carried away on the first comic. Suddenly, it's late, so I'll post it solo. More later.


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Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 (Pull Shapes)





I haven't read anything by Kieron Gillen before, and likewise didn't know about the first series of Phonogram. I only picked up this first issue of the second series, Pull Shapes, after a recommendation from Dom at London Loves Comics. I've spoken to him before about the lack of engrossing back matter in most of the single issues I pick up, so his description of the varied material in Phonogram was enough to lure me in. Inside the (beautifully designed) cover lies a 17-page main story, as well as two shorter 'b-side' stories and a back-cover teaser; in terms of written back matter, there is also a column by Gillen, an 'annotations' section (detailing the disparate musical references in the comic) and a letters page.

Ok, I understand that I am perhaps quite alone in the sense that this mixture of material was enough to make me curious. Luckily, the comic itself is spunky and distinctive. The main story, written by Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, is a short piece about a girl, called Penny, who just loves to dance, and her infectious enthusiasm casts a spell on those around her. Penny makes her way to the Never On a Sunday club-night, which will be the repeated location for the rest of the Phonogram series. In fact, all of the main stories will link up to create a larger narrative. On the issue-by-issue level, though, these are merely snapshots, and Pull Shapes, about Penny hoping that the DJ would play her favourite song, is effective and lovely. Gillen has an ear for quirky, but character-building dialogue, and McKelvie's beautiful, bold artwork helps to keep the proceedings colourful and memorable. For a strip so focused on the act of dancing, McKelvie manages to communicate the motion of pop-song abandon really well.





The world that Gillen creates, where there are 'Phonomancers', whose magical powers come from music, or dancing, is not fully fleshed out or explored here. Instead, this issue is more about the joy of revelling in music. This passion drips off the page, from the constant references in dialogue to the posters in the background. I understand that such a style is not for everyone, and there are those who would balk at a comic's narrative hinge being 'I want to dance to The Pipettes in a club' (guns and bullets are much more interesting), but Phonogram manages to be cheeky and charming. The b-side stories also offer something different, with guest artists contributing their own distinct styles. The first, longer b-side, called 'She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment', is an intelligently metaphorical look at the woman-as-victim in the musical world. It's practically a piece of music journalism, in the form of an occult-inspired comic. The second is a bite-sized bit of confectionery about Huey Lewis' mid-80s hit single 'The Power of Love'.

Speaking as a lapsed music writer, failed gig promoter, and false-start radio DJ, Gillen managed to quell my knee-jerk cynicism. Phonogram: The Singles Club manages to speak about a certain kind of music, and tap into what makes listening to it so enjoyable. It also side-steps the cries of preciousness, pretension and elitism with the inclusion of the 'annotations' column, which seeks to enlighten the reader, and spread the love. Fine, I'm hooked. I'll be making a special trip for the next issue.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

[98] London Turkish Film Festival, Week One Report [LTFF]

We're now over halfway through the London Turkish Film Festival fortnight. In the last week-and-a-bit, the festival has been hosted at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, as well as Central London cinemas such as the Barbican and Odeon Covent Garden.

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On Tuesday, I went to see a showing of Dot (Nokta) at the Barbican. A taut, short crime thriller, anchored by its assured technical virtuosity, Dot uses the spiritual, philosophical aspects of calligraphy as a basis for a tale of a man's futile search for forgiveness and absolution. It is set in a Turkish salt lake, as expansive, desolate and unforgettable a location as the American West. Ahmet, a calligrapher recently out of jail, is convinced by his friend to help in the forgery of a priceless edition of the Koran. However, after a couple of hard-edged criminals get involved, the job turns violent. As a result, Ahmet is the only survivor of a bloody encounter with the thugs, and chooses to confront his friend's family, and reveal the truth.

The dot of the title is a reference to a calligraphy myth, where a famous calligrapher did not add an integral dot to an inscription asking for God's forgiveness (either accidentally, or due to lack of ink, or as a sign of defiance). However, director Dervis Zaim takes the style of calligraphy - the beauty of producing art with a single fluid stroke - to heart. The film's cinematography is a technical marvel: the camera weaves and sweeps with dignity and precision, tying together long takes and veiled cuts into a seemingly unbroken shot. The execution of this style is wonderfully impressive, especially in the transitions between steadicam and vehicle dolly sequences. Such an approach places full pressure on the actors, without the safety net of composite edits, and Mehmet Ali Nuroglu provides a conflicted, uncertain, yet compelling performance as Ahmet.




The camerawork also helps the narrative's deliberate, but graceful development, and gives the film a foreboding sense of inevitability that approaches the economy and dread of Greek Tragedy. I don't believe I have seen a film where its disparate aspects (be they technical, thematic or narrative) have gelled together so well.

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Later in the week, I made it up to the Rio Cinema in Dalston to see one of the programmes of documentaries they are showing as part of the festival. The first film in the programme was called Alethea (Hakikat) and documented the struggle of villagers in the rural area of Bergama against multinational gold mining corporations. When the area around the gold deposits was bought up and developed into a mine by the multinational firm Eurogold, the local villagers were quick to register their complaints against this use of the historic area of great agricultural and scenic worth. Further worry was caused by the controversial cyanide leaching process used by the mining corporation to extract the gold.




The title, Greek for 'truth', is central to the film's themes of deceit, corruption and futility. The villagers refer the issue to the State Court, as well as the European Court of Human Rights. Despite both courts ruling against the mining activity, the Bergama mine still stands by the end of the filming process in 2006 (filming started in the mid-90s, whereas the gold was discovered in 1989). The film was also made memorable by its stirring, unsettling production decisions. The soundtrack, for example, sounded like a mid-point between the industrial electronica of Coil and the studio composition of Karlheinz Stockhausen. It creates a moving, horrific experience that fits well with the injustice discussed within the documentary itself. Sadly, the second film in the documentary programme, A Bridge At the End of the World, did not have subtitles. I believe I was the only audience member not fluent in Turkish, so I quietly made my exit.

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I soon returned, though, as on Saturday the Rio held its final two screenings: two short film programmes called 'Shorts from the World' and 'Shorts from Turkey'. A marathon in anyone's book, both programmes together featured 19 films, and ran for almost four hours. The opening piece, called Sugar & Spice and All Things Movies, directed by Melih Kancelik, observes an interview between screenwriter Tony Grisoni and Umit Mesut, a Hackney shopkeeper. Not long after it opened 19 years ago, Umit's sweet shop grew into a cinephile's playground, a movie museum filled to the ceiling with 35mm film canisters. They talk of the battle between digital and film projection. Umit is an eccentric, kind man full of passion and enthusiasm. His initially stubborn view of the digital medium is softened, as he admits that the relative cheapness allows more young, independent film makers to express themselves freely.

An inspired opener, Sugar & Spice's central message reverberates through all of the films on offer. The short film, now consigned to film festivals like the LTFF , is nevertheless a perfect format for experimentation, expression and experience. The breadth of material on offer is impressive. There are bite-sized shorts, such as the animated sweetness of the delightful Head, about a man who is a vessel for other people's nagging and experimental tableaux, or the market place music video of Apple and Ei , where the stall-holders shouts and hustling becomes a rhythmic rap.




The longer pieces are just as unique and memorable, such as the Lynchian nightmare of Dimension (Boyut), where a young urban girl finds herself transported to a rural village, and forced to marry a man she's never met, or the quirky Mr. Unhappy Meets the Girl, where a young man with a camera follows a beautiful woman around town, filming her all the while. Possibly most effective of all films shown was a short documentary from 2007 called Refugee (Multeci), which purely focused on the stories told by a handful of Turkish refugees in the UK. Their stories are revealing and moving, and speak volumes about a paranoia that has risen in the country since 9/11. Such short film programmes are like mini-festivals, in that they encompass the whole span of tone, genre and intention. They can be exhausting to sit through, but there are few more eclectic experiences in the cinema.

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The festival continues, until Thursday 18th, at the Odeon cinemas in Holloway and Lee Valley. Please consult the official website for more details.