Wednesday, 30 September 2009

[243] Neil Edwards Interview

Had lots of fun last week talking with comic artist Neil Edwards. The Thor sketch he did for me is great! Check out the interview below.

As part of the promotional push behind Vicarious Visions/Activision's new action-roleplaying game Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (a campaign which also saw heroes guarding commuters on the London Underground), comic artist Neil Edwards (Fantastic Four, Fantastic Force, Squadron Supreme) gave a select few a masterclass in how to design and draw comic characters, at London's Orbital Comics. After regaling all and sundry with helpful advice about the behind-the-scenes process of making comics, and the importance of simplicity in the design of iconic characters ("Lex Luthor's not got a costume, he's just a bald guy!"), we were presented with sheets of A3 paper and sharpened pencils, and left to our own devices, as Neil sketched and offered further advice.

It would be immodest of us to show off our high calibre, smudge-laden, wonky-fest of a sketch. Let's just say, if there's ever a comic that stars a cloud, or a box, Marvel knows who to contact. Instead, we were able to sit down and chat with Neil, asking about his career, his influences, and what he has lined up in the future. He was also kind enough to give us an awesome sketch of everyone's favourite Nordic hero - and God of UK New Comics Day - Thor. Read on, true believer!

Read the full article here.

Friday, 25 September 2009

[242] The Godfather (1972), Back in Cinemas

Released today is a reprint of The Godfather, from Park Circus, which will be showing at selected cinemas across the UK (more details here). Below is an essay-piece I wrote about seeing The Godfather on the big screen, which is also posing under the guise of a "review" on Screenjabber. It's more of a commentary piece. So here it is.

What is there left to say about The Godfather, one of the most storied films in cinema history, as it is released to the viewing public once more in a cleaned-up reprint?

The cinema is a place of dreams, of stories and art. Watching a motion picture in a darkened room, with surround sound and a gigantic image is a psychologically enveloping experience. You become one with the 24 flickering frames per second. Recreating that in the home environment is hard. It's getting closer nowadays, with 'home cinema' entertainment systems, television screens the size of barn doors and sound set-ups designed to blow you through the roof - but the living room is a place of life, not imagination.

Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film The Godfather is a landmark piece of world cinema. Like plenty of its peers in the pantheon of classics, its greatness has been overstated, and its distinctiveness has been copied, parodied, or simply digested by generations of subsequent filmmakers. It's easy to take for granted, and easy to dismiss. There is also little to say, as it is deemed to be Classic with a capital 'c', with, in mainstream discourse, little argument or discussion.

And so it came to be that I first saw The Godfather on DVD. And it was good; great, even. But, I detected flaws; I thought it's 175 minute runtime was slow, and saggy in the middle. The transition between the stories of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Al Pacino) seemed jagged, and hinged around an extended sequence in dusty rural Sicily, which seemed crucially different from the stylish, thrilling metropolis of New York. I felt a little cheated, but I accepted it: without nostalgia, pieces of culture - be it music, film, or otherwise - can often be less than their public reputation would have you believe.

But, as the lights went down in the screening room, I knew I was in for something different. As Nino Rota's ubiquitous - yet still powerful - main theme swells on a black background for a crucial handful of seconds, before the equally-ubiquitous font-and-logo appears on screen - white-on-black and striking - it is startlingly clear that The Godfather is a piece made from the ground up for iconic standing. From that moment, you're hooked, and, without the intrusion of washing machines, passing cars, or loud flatmates, you can fall headfirst into the world of The Godfather, and pay attention.

The opening wedding sequence is a stunning piece of introduction and exposition. The initial scene is (with great skill from cinematographer Gordon Willis) all slow camera movement, atmospheric light-and-shadow and an oblique over-the-shoulder perspective that nearly deifies Corleone, as he accepts tributes and petitions from men such as Bonasera the Undertaker (Salvatore Corsitto). Slowly, Coppola opens up the scene, taking in the other family members on the periphery, before further extrapolating out of the shuttered darkness of the Don's office, into the joyous family occasion occurring outside. The sequence manages to, with a light touch, bring in the film's myriad characters, their relationships, and the world of organised crime ('I believe in America'), as well as encapsulating the novelistic approach to themes - especially regarding the complex interplay between the Don's purported, staunched family values, and his life of crime, extortion and deceit.

This is just one of the subtle, stylistic masterstrokes in The Godfather, and there are plenty. It is an expansive, epic, widescreen film, of the kind that rewards attention; but, importantly, it is an engaging, entertaining film - sparring with its themes, following its characters and sitting through its sub-3 hour length is not difficult. Not on the big screen. Even those elements that seemed like flaws in previous viewings were given new dimension, thanks to the more orchestrated viewing context: the cross-cutting between the generations is, when laid out on a larger canvas, a complex oedipal drama, of compromised expectations, switching of familial roles, and overwhelming senses of duty. The Italian sequence - an intermezzo in what is otherwise an opera of the American dream - uses narrative in order to cook up some wonderfully symbolic character development, as Michael - the American GI and "War Hero" - reconnects with his Italian heritage, and learns the key family values of respect and dignity.

That he eventually becomes an outright liar, and a treacherous criminal leader with little time for decency and open-ness, is the tragedy of the film. As he closes the door on his wife, Kay (a beautiful, tender Diane Keaton), it is clear that his transition is complete, and that her role as the head of the family needs to be utterly separate from his role as the head of The Family. She will become like Mama Corleone (Morgana King), who, in the world of The Godfather, is little more than an extra.

The Godfather's qualities can be overstated, but they cannot be denied. It is a rich, nuanced, and well-rounded production; watching it on a cinema screen is a wonder, with its momentum and immensity proving totally engrossing. Not seen it before? Make sure you do.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

[241] Interim

Apologies for the recent silence on my part. I have been going through a flat move. So, goodbye Peckham...

...And hello Walworth.

It's a fascinating area: a social housing project from 1903-1906, seemingly spearheaded by Octavia Hill. I've taken plenty of photos and, once I'm on my feet and settled in, will probably write at length about it.

In the meantime, apologies again for the inactivity, and if I have not replied to emails. Currently without an Internet connection at the new place, and I've had plenty of bureaucracy and unpacking to go through.

Friday, 18 September 2009

[240] Trisha Ziff Interview

I enjoyed this interview. Trisha Ziff is a switched-on, eloquent lady, and she speaks well about many of the photographic and image-based themes of her film, Chevolution, as well as the historical background and behind-the-scenes production tidbits.

Michael Leader speaks with Trisha Ziff, co-director of documentary Chevolution, about the film, which explores the continuing use of the famous "Guerrillero Heroico" photograph of Che Guevara in 1960, and the position of the image in solidifying, and at times distorting, Guevara's place in pop culture

Chevolution is your first film, but you started off as a curator, is that right?
TRISHA ZIFF: Well, no, I started off running an agency of photojournalists in London, called Network, in the '80s. A collective of independent photojournalists, that took me to curating, and my area of work has always been photographic and with Chevolution, it centers on the narrative of a photograph, and now I'm working on my second film, which is also about photography.

Looking through the exhibitions you've curated (Hidden Truths: Bloody Sunday 1972; The Ballad of Katriot Rexhepi, Mary Kelly), it seems that you're quite interested in representations of history through the image.
TZ: Not necessarily historical, but I'm interested in ideas of, through photography, raising issues. Concerns about looking, about understanding the power of imagery in our culture.

And what a better, more powerful image to focus on than the photograph of Che. How did you become interested in this image in particular?
I knew Alberto Korda, the photographer, when he was alive. He had a relationship with Mexico, and Cuban photographers would always have the ability to travel to Mexico. So I met Korda in Mexico City. And when Alberto died, I was talking to his representative, Daryl Couturier, who's in the film, about how it must have been for Alberto, to have his entire life's work to be narrowed down to 1/60th of a second, and what that must have meant for him. Because, in the obituaries, when he died, it was always 'the man who took the Che image', as opposed to all the other images that he took in his life. And that made me think about how to tell the narrative of a single image, and I did an exhibition, and a book, which came out in various different versions and languages, and, from there, the film.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

[239] Chevolution (2008) Review

This is one of my favourite films of the year, easily. A totally different, yet utterly mesmerising approach to Che Guevara, especially in relation to films like Steven Soderbergh's Che project (the two parts of which I reviewed here and here).

Chevolution is a remarkable documentary, fully polished, accessible and absolutely assured in its execution. It is a Che film with a difference that, appearing after pictures like The Motorcycle Diaries and the two installments of Steven Soderbergh's Che, significantly manages to circumnavigate the well-trodden aspects of his biography, history and politics - instead focusing on the story of a single image, the famous photograph, and eventual poster, Guerrillero Heroico.

Starting off as a dual narrative, that of the photographer and the revolutionary, Chevolution speeds through a heavily condensed version of Che's life, and the Cuban revolution, as well as the life of Alberto Korda, the man who, after a long period of Batista-era excess and fashion photography, became a key photojournalist in the early years of the Republic - eventually snapping the famous image at a memorial service in Havana. While most of this has been covered before, it is displayed well, through interviews with a handful of witnesses, colleagues and experts, like Korda's daughter, Che expert Jon Lee Anderson and, most entertainingly, contemporary Cuban photographers, whose anecdotes and insight give this slight retreading an edge and distinction over the more filmic depictions - such as the tidbit that Korda was required to harvest sugar cane for a week before being allowed to photograph Che.

It is also crucial groundwork, as the film soon casts its net wide, taking in the photograph's own history and cultural significance...

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

[238] High Heels / Tacones Lejanos (1991) DVD Review

Another DVD review, this time at Screenjabber.

Pedro Almodóvar's 1991 romp High Heels (Tacones Lejanos) takes in two of his pet obsessions, that of femininity and the relationships between women. Rebeca, a young newsreader, is on edge as her mother, Becky del Páramo, a famous actress and singer, comes to visit for the first time in years. Tension and awkwardness occur, especially as Rebeca has married Manuel, her mother's old lover, and is also enjoying a close friendship with Letal, a transvestite who performs in a stage show impersonating Becky.

Unfortunately, what seems to start as a dizzying, non-traditional character piece, with elliptical storytelling, enlightening (if oblique) flashbacks and plenty of well-managed conflict, soon gets bogged down in a heavy-handed murder-mystery plot - involving long sequences of pure exposition and twists-a-dozen. This development stifles both the characters and the performances (mostly pleasant, especially Victoria Abril as Rebeca and Miguel Bosé as Letal), as the centre of gravity shifts towards enacting a farcical melodrama-meets-crime narrative.

Read the full article here.

Monday, 14 September 2009

[237] Reckoning Day (2002) DVD Review

A new DVD review of mine over at Den of Geek, of Reckoning Day. By no means an essential film, but I think I let my hair down a little with it. Also, the DVD release, from Revolver Entertainment, has one of the stranger publicity stunts I've seen - involving journalists and volunteers taking the psychoactive drug salvia, with their short 'trips' being recorded. Bizarre stuff, but check out the review below.

It's easy to forget, as we're bludgeoned by over-stuffed cinema schedules year after year, that any finished film is a miracle.

Anything that goes from inspiration to creation, through production and post-production, to our cinema screens or our home entertainment systems, is special. Films are artifacts borne out of the harmonious collision of hard graft from a large troupe of people, piles of money, and a bunch of luck.

That Reckoning Day, British director Julian Gilbey's action movie debut, now sits on shelves alongside Rambo and Robocop is such a miracle, for a couple of key reasons: one, it was shot by young, mostly inexperienced, pups, on a shoe-string budget, over a two-year stretch, in proper resourceful indie style; two, it's an utterly terrible film.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

[236] Letter to True (2004) DVD Review

One of the stranger DVDs I've had the pleasure to review.

Do you like dogs? I really don't. Not since I was chased down the road by a rottweiler at age 9, set on me by a boy who didn't appreciate me suggesting that Manchester United were the better of the city's football teams. Professional photographer Bruce Weber, on the other hand, loves dogs. He has a family made up of the little fellas. In fact, A Letter to True, a 2004 sorta-documentary, is a film dedicated and addressed to one of his pups.

A Letter to True is a mixture of reminiscences, anecdotes and bits of footage, hastily and awkwardly sewn together by Weber's cloying narration to True. He interviews fellow canine lovers, who spout drivel about the extra, supernatural senses that dogs exhibit, and ascribe to the little bundles of fur a fanatically-high level of awareness, intelligence and emotion. Weber even speaks of one of his dogs as, 'like all of us', being traumatised by the horror of 9/11, and plots a heavy-handed, sentimental link between dogs and war - something that is never given depth or explanation. Cue tangents about Haiti refugees, the Vietnam War, both World Wars and a London Remembrance Day ceremony, punctuated by clips from Courage of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, and featuring spirited sound samples from Martin Luther King Jr., and Marvin Gaye singing 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

[235] Jennifer Oneal Interview

Another article from Den of Geek about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. This time, a chat with the Executive Producer, Jennifer Oneal. I was a little starstruck when, idly chattering beforehand, she told me she had worked at Lucasarts, with Tim Schafer.

Recently in the UK to promote the upcoming game Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, we had the chance to sit down and talk with Jennifer Oneal, Executive Producer at developer Vicarious Visions. Oneal started her career at Lucasarts in the late 1990s, working on Tim Schafer's unfinished final project and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Afterwards, she moved to Activision and, eventually, settled down at Vicarious Visions. We spoke about Ultimate Alliance 2, the team's first title for the HD console generation, and their first instalment in the series after taking over from Raven Software, as well as Stan Lee's on-screen cameo in the game, and Oneal's personal favourite Marvel heroes.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

[234] Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 Preview

Still reeling from the news about Disney acquiring Marvel Entertainment? Well, have no fear, as there's one sure-fire way to get your Marvel kicks on the horizon. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, developed by Vicarious Visions and published by Activision, is on its way, and should prove to be a suitable way to assuage any misplaced anxiety over the House of Ideas' future. We had a chance to check out the Xbox 360 version of the game, and chat with Executive Producer Jennifer Oneal at one of London's best comic stores (where better?), Orbital Comics.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

[233] Genre, Culture and Identity in Jar City

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City (Myrin, 2006), released internationally in 2008, is at first glance a rather generic detective thriller. However, despite the conventional aspects of its narrative, the production team manage to infuse the film with a distinctive sense of identity and character, taking inspiration from its country and culture of origin.

When first released, many critics were quick to highlight the film's close ties to many detective-based television series, such as Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost (a review in Sight & Sound magazine led with a remark that the film should be retitled 'Inspector Norse'). Indeed, like those programmes, Jar City centres around Inspector Erlendur (Ingvar Sigurðsson), a dour, middle-aged policeman with a cynical, pragmatic world-view. He is professional, unwavering in his duties, and routinely fires off bluntly derisive remarks at his relatively inexperienced, or less scrupulous colleagues.

Equally, the narrative trajectory of the film employs many techniques of both the police procedural genre and the crime thriller novel (in fact, the film is adapted from a successful book, written by Arnaldur Indriðason), such as the use of two parallel plotlines, which initially develop separately, but soon converge. Erlendur is following up a case concerning the death of an old man, described as a 'typical Icelandic murder - shitty and pointless', while a young father (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson) mourns the passing of his daughter from a hereditary disease. Before long, these two tragedies become connected, and the detective must follow a twisting, complicated line of investigation to solve the mystery.

However, whereas these narrative tropes and developments are in line with the genre, the innovation of Jar City is evident from the way these conventions are interwoven with specific cultural touchstones. For example, the plot is structured around the topics of genetics, family and society. One of the film's key locations is a research facility, which is tasked with monitoring and cataloguing the country's relatively insulated, genetically pure population. The database housed in this facility is used to track the specific genetic condition, and unearths a long-forgotten cover-up involving a rape, which is linked to both the bereaved father's dead daughter, and the murder victim. This mirrors reality, where companies such as deCODE Genetics uses Iceland as research base, and the use of genetic information is still the source of much debate at the junction of the scientific and political worlds. The use of such an institution in the film is more than simple contrivance, as it helps to tie the conventional plot to Iceland itself.

Furthermore, Jar City uses other aspects of Icelandic culture in order to strengthen its atmosphere and tone. At times, the film exhibits macabre tendencies, especially as the narrative takes in exhuming long-buried corpses, and digging up graves. These gothic undertones are reflected in the film's soundtrack, which prominently features dolorous Icelandic vocal pieces, sung by an all-male choir. Traditional Icelandic cuisine is also incorporated into the film, with a particular scene in which Erlendur nonchalantly orders a cooked sheep's head at a fast food restaurant's drive-thru window.

This particular dish is Svið (picture from ylfamist's Flickr), a delicacy in Iceland, where the head is boiled, after removing the brain and hair. While on a very basic level, this communicates an aspect of the nation's eating habits, the scene strengthens the film's macabre sensibilities, which is reflected in the implicit, subterranean brutality of its chosen culture. Erlendur unwraps the meal, revealing something grey, slimy and unwelcoming, and opens a pocket knife, proceeding to scoop the sheep's eye into his mouth. As he eats, the inspector reads aloud a psalm, integral to the plot. The juxtaposition of austere moralism ('Hear my voice, O God, in my prayer. / Preserve my life from fear of the enemy.'), and his hands-on approach to devouring the meal (breaking the jaw free from the head, pulling meat off the bone with his teeth), also gives the scene a vein of dark, dead-pan humour. A similarly dry scene involves an eccentric pathologist, who chomps on chicken wings while handling decomposing remains and swollen kidneys.

Indeed, the distinct action of the film is portrayed in a very mundane, and subtly humorous, way; an integral chase scene involving young cop Sigurður (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) and prime suspect Elliði (Theódór Júlíusson) subverts convention, occurring across an open field, through a muddy bog (the film's Icelandic title, Myrin, translates as 'moorland' or 'swamp'). Far from the slick editing and choreography of iconic Hollywood films like The French Connection, Jar City's chase is filmed in long takes, lacking the rhythmic underpinning of a driving score. In comparison, the chase is slow, unwieldy and messy - with Sigurður attempting to vault over a fence unsuccessfully, catching his ankle on barbed wire. His ensuing pratfall is not played for tension, but for a peculiar sense of visual comedy, as the detective limps after the overweight, out-of-breath criminal.

The beach ...

Likewise, Kormákur and cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson adopt an earthy colour scheme for their film, highlighting the greens, blues and browns, making the naturally harsh and sprawling qualities of the landscape all the more vivid. The crime and investigation take place in Reykjanes, a coastal, volcanic peninsula on the country's south-western tip (pictures, below and above, from Asmundur's Flickr). Through a series of sweeping airborne shots, often featuring a solitary police Land Rover winding towards a distant house, Kormakur takes in the contradictory nature of Icelandic life outside of the major cities - with communities that are isolated, yet close-knitted, where 'first name and patronymic' is a viable form of address. Again, this aspect of culture is used for humorous ends: rumour travels faster than conventional transport, as local residents hear of the murder, and investigation, before the police begin their questioning.

God's house under heavenly skies ...

By incorporating elements of its native culture, Jar City makes a mark for itself outside of conventional genre exercises. Kormákur and company have managed to use these aspects as distinctive facets of the film's storytelling, humour and atmosphere - creating a piece of cultural communication that informs an international audience of a foreign country though subtle inversion and embellishment of the familiar.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

[232] 20 Indie Games That You Really Should Try

Last month, I had another article published in Micro Mart. This time, it was about PC Indie Games. Here are some images of the article, click through to Picasa to see enlarged and zoomed versions. Otherwise, click here for a Google doc of the article. I will post the list of games you should totally check out right now at the bottom.

- Spelunky - Derek Yu
- World of Goo - 2D Boy
- Passage / Gravitation - Jason Rohrer
- Rom Check Fail - Farbs
- I Wish I Were The Moon / Today I Die - Daniel Benmergui
- Crayon Physics Deluxe - Petri Purho
- Cave Story - Daisuke Amaya
- You Have To Burn The Rope - Mazapan
- Braid - Jon Blow
- Trine - Frozenbyte
- Judith - Increpare Games
- The Path - Tale of Tales
- Blueberry Garden - Erik Svedäng
- Gravity Bone - Brendan Chung
- Zeno Clash - ACE Team
- Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! - Mousechief
- New Star Soccer 4 - New Star Games
- Ben There, Dan That / Time Gentlemen, Please - Zombie Cow Studios
- Noitu Love 1 / 2 - Joakim Sandberg
- Violet - Jeremy Freese