Sunday, 31 January 2010

[296] Edge of Darkness (2010) Review

A tiny bit more grumbling from me here, about Mel Gibson's return to the acting side of filmmaking, in Martin Campbell's remake of Edge of Darkness.

In this climate of reboots and remakes of still-warm film franchises, it's interesting to behold Edge Of Darkness, a television-to-screen adaptation of a series that aired before I was even born (and I'm no spring chicken!). Now, that's some restraint. As a project, it's certainly intriguing - the first starring vehicle for Mel Gibson since 2002 that happens to be a gut-punch thriller from Martin Campbell, the solid director who brought us one of the best post-Connery James Bond films (Goldeneye, of course).

Gibson leads as Thomas Craven, a middle-aged Boston detective who is immediately thrust into both grief and intrigue as his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is gunned down on his doorstep. Despite early theories that this was a botched killing linked with Craven's work on the homicide squad, all is not as it seems, but the bereaved father is on the case, chasing leads and cracking skulls to discover the mystery behind the Northsmoor nuclear research facility, where his daughter worked.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

[295] Monumental Text, Get Ambitious in 2010

I'm currently making strides in what I'm calling the 'Get Ambitious in 2010' initiative. In lieu of actually creating New Year's resolutions for myself, I'm going along, and just trying to improve my state both in terms of my work and my creativity. So far it is looking good, if taking time to properly gather momentum.

Last week's Bookleteer Workshop (the report from which is now posted over at the We Are Words + Pictures blog) was a good start, and I have also created a Writing Portfolio for this blog, which is now in the sidebar - or, you can just click here.

The next stage is emailing, pitching, pestering. For the time being, however, I have started a new project over on Tumblr called Monumental Text, which is an images-and-text exercise that I hope will keep me mentally and creatively nimble. I'll let it speak for itself below.

This is a project about commemoration.

In previous eras, notable personages were honoured with grand portraits or statues. Some still are today. But it is far more common in the modern, economical climate to make do with signs and plaques. Slabs of minimal text that somehow signify a whole life. Ambition and success are contained in simple words.

London is replete with such monumental text. This site will contain pictures and writing - part history, part autobiography - that will set these memorials in context, both in terms of the lives they venerate, and the everyday lives they touch as objects on the local landscape.

Please check out Monumental Text here. There will no doubt be growing pains, but I will be updating it regularly.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

[294] Burma VJ (2008) Review

No grumbling, please, this is real life. Burma VJ is quite an astonishing documentary about the power of the media in the contemporary world.

One of the problems with 24-hour, constantly rolling news media is that current affairs are always in flux. By their very nature, the headlines are here today, and gone tomorrow, making way for new stories of importance - a conflict, some snow, a radio show joke gone awry. Events that seemed so engrossing one week have passed on by the next, creating, for those who have a very passive relationship with the news (a large group, probably second only to those who have no awareness of goings-on whatsoever), a landscape full of flashpoints, history defined by punctuation and not narrative.

For a number of weeks in the final quarter of 2007, Burma (or Myanmar, a politically-charged distinction that caused great debate at the time), a south-east Asian post-colonial power, was catapulted into the international spotlight by a number of large demonstrations against its military-led government, protests that focused attentions on the population's unrest, before they were dispersed with intimidation and violence.

Burma VJ is an important film. Not only is it a document of this turbulent period, but it offers insight into the empowerment offered by new media, as the film ties together footage from Burma shot by a team of undercover journalists, whose use of lightweight digital cameras, mobile phones and the Internet made it possible for reportage from the locked down country to be beamed both inside the country and throughout the world.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

[293] Kim Newman's Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema

Now, here's an interesting specimen. Ostensibly a sampler for the BFI's Flipside line of DVD and BluRay releases, Kim Newman's Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema shows a little ambition and intelligence, making it more of a gateway drug than a cheap, hasty collection of trailers.

On the disc is a new, 37 minute documentary featuring Newman chatting about the Flipside collection, a new line of titles from the BFI that collects many oddities from their vaults, such as under-appreciated, bizarre features like Privilege and The Bed Sitting Room. As Kim Newman has made a career out of championing niche and cult film properties, he is perfect for this set-up, doling out facts, trivia and insight with humour and enthusiasm.

Accompanying the documentary are three short films, and the obligatory trailer gallery. Shortest of the three, and exclusive to the set, is the 1969 travel board film Tomorrow Night In London, which is five minutes of swinging nightlife, and quite an artifact for those interested in the representation of the city in days gone by. The two longer subjects - the sober, strippers-live-normal-lives-y'know documentary Carousella and cheeky espionage parody The Spy's Wife - are taken from other Flipside DVDs, but benefit in this new context.

Context is the important thing. This is a sampler DVD, sure. It's a promotional item currently available exclusively through HMV - online, or in store - for the measly/affordable price of £1.99. But the reshaping, re-appropriation, and sheer elbow grease of the project makes it both eye-catching and a little groundbreaking. Newman's documentary is not a lavish or consummate production - it's him sitting on a sofa, talking just off to the right of the camera for under 40 minutes, interspersed with trailers, clips and images. It's obviously tied in with the Flipside brand, but takes in wider concerns. It's essentially a timely magazine feature, but with the text stripped out. It's a visual mini-essay, backed by illustrations and extra goodies in a way that even the most interactive, over-hyperlinked, embedded-to-oblivion web-article hasn't yet comfortably cracked.

Inadvertently, it even addresses current debates about film criticism. In Sight & Sound's recent survey of the last decade in film, critic Mark Cousins mused that, thanks to Youtube, readily-available DVDs and massively-stocked rental services like LoveFilm, being a cinephile isn't hard any more. He went on to comment that:

'The new question in the 21st century is not how to see, but how to choose. At their best, demand economies are knowledge economies. If you haven't heard of Jodorowsky, you don't know to watch his films. Who'll tell you? Your cool friend, or Sight & Sound, or Martin Scorsese, that's who. (...) The recommendation is all important in 21st-century movie culture, so everything depends on the credibility of the recommender. This is the good news. But there's bad news, too. If we've moved from how to see to how to choose, underlying this is the question of how to choose freely.'

Kim Newman's Guide To the Flipside of British Cinema fits perfectly into this new paradigm. It may be a store-exclusive DVD, but here is a critic who can speak lucidly and with great authority about these films, which have been lovingly exhumed and restored in a gesture of great ambition by the BFI. And here is a documentary that finds its home not as an unwatched DVD extra, but as a hybrid recommendation-sampler, twinned with equally odd subjects (marketing short films in the home entertainment world is still tough) to sweeten the deal.

It is good to see the BFI experimenting like this; maybe in the future they can try something similar - perhaps without reliance on old, brick-and-mortar models - but for the time being this set is worth seeking out.

Kim Newman's Guide To the Flipside of British Cinema is released on January 25th, and is available from HMV, Fopp and for £1.99.

Friday, 22 January 2010

[292] Bookleteer Workshop With We Are Words + Pictures

On Tuesday I was invited along with a number of creative types from the We Are Words + Pictures gang to a workshop at Proboscis headquarters, in order to check out their Bookleteer project, and to hear about the print-on-demand wonders they are working on there.

Bookleteer is currently in a closed alpha stage, but the thinking behind it is solid and inspiring. Users are invited to upload their own booklets (or storycubes), in PDF or html format, and are presented at the end with a PDF file for printing. Using paper-based magic and a pair of scissors, two or more sheets of A4 can be sliced up, folded and transformed into a handy little A6 eBook that fits in your pocket.

The uses of such a service are manifold: this is print on demand in a cheap, easy-to-understand, intuitive mode, giving the user the opportunity to throw together words, images and design ideas and have a (sturdy, eye-pleasing) tangible product within a very short time frame. As soon as I could, I tried out a couple of ideas. It goes without saying, that I was not the most design-driven of the workshop attendees, but here are my offerings.

The first two were quite straightforward. The cheap eBook format is perfect for publishing online content, so I put together two 'film/crit' booklets that collated some of my writing. The Jar City book closely mirrors what you would find in a DVD insert from cinephile distribution companies like Eureka and Criterion: a mini-monograph on the film, collecting both my essay 'Genre, Culture and Identity in Jar City' and my Den of Geek review. On the other hand, the Easy Rider booklet was a mixture of learning materials from a seminar on the film I gave back in 2008, and my recent Den of Geek review. Simple stuff, for sure, but it was quite thrilling to see these digital bits in print.

The third idea was something a little more narcissistic. One of the questions I'm always asked is regarding where my writing is published - so I thought the pocket-sized eBook format would be perfect for a sort of amalgamation of a portfolio and business card. So, I ended up with 'Places I've Written For: A Portfolio Booklet'. Something I can shove under the noses of new acquaintances, as opposed to mumbling something about 'niche websites that you've never heard of'.

But what was fantastic about the workshop was seeing the We Are Words + Pictures crew in full flight, testing the waters of the service from an image-led, comics-creating point of view. The ideas that trickled out were quite promising, with even the test prototypes coming out very well.


There was a lot of interest in the Storycube format, for the potential it gives for non-linear storytelling, and for its essence as an eye-catching art object - with Julia Scheele fleshing out a three-dimensional cube version of the logo design for WAW+P (picture stolen from Matt Sheret's Flickr).

WAW+P Shareables

Likewise, it was a delight to see Solipsistic Pop editor Tom Humberstone running off a quick booklet of material from the My Fellow Americans project (a political blog co-created with Dan Hancox). As the book of My Fellow Americans is out of print, and is likely to stay that way, the eBook format offers a nice way of creating a cheap, physical run of such small press properties for those who are late to the party (picture stolen from Giles Lane's Flickr).

Bookleteer is certainly an exciting service, and it was a pleasure and a privilege to hear the team talk through their ideas and ambitions for the project. Thanks must go to Paper Science boffin Matt Sheret for helping organise the workshop and inviting me along, and to Giles Lane, Karen Martin and Stefan Kueppers for their hospitality and generosity.

For more information on Bookleteer, visit or

Thursday, 21 January 2010

[291] Un Prophète (2009) Review

Finally, something positive! Un Prophète is quite a powerful film, and it gave me great pleasure to recommend it.

French crime drama A Prophet (Un Prophète) has been positioned by critics and festival panel members alike as being one of 2010's films to watch. Besides being France's selection for the Academy Awards, it garnered great praise from both Cannes and London film festivals, winning the Palme d'Or at the former, and the Best Film award at the latter. Well, those amassed opinions aren't wrong, because A Prophet is certainly the first great film of 2010 - a singularly gripping crime thriller told with freshness, depth and grace.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a complete nobody. Landed with a six year sentence for a crime that is of no interest to the plot, the 19-year-old enters prison with nothing apart from a tightly-folded 50 Euro note. He has no family, friends, enemies, vocation or religion. The last detail is important, as the Arab delinquent is thrust into a microcosmic society that mirrors the French melting pot, finding inside as markedly divisive as outside, with gangs delineated by colour of skin and background.

Overwhelmed by the aggressive surroundings, Malik ends up cajoled into working for Corsican mafia boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), starting with one little task - murdering a Muslim inmate.

Read the full article here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

[290] OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (2009) Review

My review of the 14th French film I've seen in 2010. Hint: contains more grumbling.

Those who bemoan the state of the English-language spoof film will be both disappointed and assured to find out that efforts from foreign shores are no less banal. OSS 117: Lost In Rio (Rio Ne Répond Plus) is the second in a successful (in France) series of spy movie pastiches, that stars Jean Dujardin as the farcical international special agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath.

OSS 117 enters an arena filled with plenty of misses and a few hits, with characters that have maintained a profile despite diluted returns and eventual self-parody. Hubert is not the equal of Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, Frank Drebin, or prime Austin Powers, but that is not the fault of Dujardin, who grins and smarms his way through the role, barrel-chested and broad-browed, evoking a winking Gene Kelly, a smouldering Warren Beatty and a wild, fist-first Brando in a cheeky mash-up.

No, the problems with Lost In Rio are deep-set, in the plot and script. Hubert's mission to Brazil is flimsy nonsense, merely a mechanic to move around what few jokes, set-pieces and characters the writers could come up with.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

[289] Big River Man -- Fathers and Sons

An odd one, this. Big River Man is a documentary about a 50-odd year old, overweight Slovenian man, Martin Strel, who makes a name for himself by swimming the lengths of the world's great rivers. He's done the Danube, mastered the Mississippi and yoked the YangTze - and now has the Amazon firmly in his sights. Early sequences involving his local superstardom are breezy and cute, with this hobnobbing with Slovenian dignitaries, appearances in national TV ads, and other perks (a free car, a free membership to Europe's largest indoor swimming complex), but once the trip gets underway, all becomes more diffuse, complicated and uncertain of itself.

First and foremost, this is a document of his adventure, from the minutiae up, recording the daily slog and the preparations and hard work that must support such ambitious madness. Madness is key, however, as the filmmakers spice up the proceedings with an acute psychological dimension, casting Strel in with Aguirre, Timothy Treadwell and Fitzcarraldo as a character straight out of a Werner Herzog film - an obsessive driven into the heart of darkness against all reason. Indeed, his heart rate is high, far too high for an endurance swimmer, and the dangers of the Amazon are multitudinous - monsters both large and microscopic haunt the waters - but nothing is more perilous than the man's deteriorating mind.

Nevertheless, he is pushed on by childhood trauma and nightmares of failure. Or so we are told, in a frank, omniscient voice-over by his son, Borut Strel, who also serves as publicist, assistant and general manager. Footage of his episodes are absent, giving the films constructed scenes of visions and waking hallucinations - all superimposed images and warping effects - a jarringly contrived tone. Oddly, his navigator - a self-confessed 'fisherman from Wisconsin' - seems more barmy, as he rants about Strel being 'the last superhero in the world'. Meanwhile, the only hint of anything but exhaustion comes from a truly chilling sequence as Strel attaches wires from a battery to his head, shocking himself back into fighting fitness.

It is strange that he is mostly silent; we get more of his son, who throughout acts as a narrator and - arguably - the film's main protagonist. He cares for everything: he is the ultimate PR man. He even poses as his father in interviews with the international press, as his exploits garner curiosity and attention. It is perhaps here that the film strikes its most resonant chord, as an illustration of reverse Stage Parent syndrome, as the son pushes, manipulates and lives through the father. Never is this more potent than when, after Martin has finally finished the swim, and is lying exhausted in an ambulance at the big river's mouth, Borut barges in, attempting to force his father into delivering a speech - which he wrote for him, of course - to the assembled Brazilian spectators.

It comes as a shock both enlightening and alarming that a film so steeped in its subject, and intent on documenting the great lengths that some select people push themselves for their bizarre ideals, reveals itself as an at times compelling study of an equally bizarre father-son relationship. Big River Man may be, like Strel, overflowing with ambition, throwing in striking imagery, mixing comedy and drama, and containing many serious environmental asides, but this slightly off-centre dynamic proves to be its - perhaps unintentional - moment of truth.

Big River Man is released on January 18th on DVD from Revolver Entertainment.

Monday, 11 January 2010

[288] Visiting the Movieum

A tiny bit more grumbling from me, but it's buried among a lot of cinephilic glee, as I went to visit the Movieum (now reportedly rebranded as the London Film Museum).

The Movieum has the potential to be the geekiest of all London's tourist spots. Tucked away on the South Bank, in between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges, this 'movie museum' is housed in County Hall, the old, vast civic building that has been given over to private interests. This is prime tourist-centric real estate, right next to the London Eye and the Sea Life Aquarium. However, due, no doubt, to high rents and competitive price-gouging, tickets for entrance are £17 for adults (£12 online) and £8 for children. It's worth noting this, as it is precisely the reason why I hadn't ventured out to the Movieum earlier, until being invited to a press day in anticipation of their latest major exhibition, Charlie Chaplin: The Great Londoner.

Bearing the mark of the building's civic roots, the Movieum mostly consists of long, narrow corridors and small side rooms, both of which are overstuffed with text, video screens and memorabilia for visitors to pore over.

As you enter, you are bombarded with texts and images from the London On Film mini-exhibition, which details the role of the city in the film industry, from the stars who grew up locally, to the studios that flourished within the Greater London area. Once you stride into the museum proper, you hit an atrium filled with a number of dioramas, including a display of the Terry English-designed armour from Excalibur And, what's that in the corner? Nothing but the Rank Organisation gong!

Read the full article here.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

[287] The Road (2009) Review

The grumpy chain continues with my review of The Road. While I'm actually quite proud of how this turned out, I'm a bit embarrassed about how pompous it all is. I promise there will be more cheer and enthusiasm soon (fingers crossed).

Those expecting 2010 to herald a new era of cinema will have to be sorely disappointed on one front, as The Road, a film adaptation of the critically-acclaimed novel by No Country For Old Men writer Cormac McCarthy, hits the screens.

A tale of humanity's survival in the aftermath of a devastating, unexplained apocalypse, The Road stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son who must journey southwards, through the debris of a dead civilisation, in time for the coming winter. Man and boy together must contend with cannibals, the elements, and malnutrition as they pursue their goal in this dusty, decrepit world.

From the start, director John Hillcoat has a lot to contend with. While he is one of the best possible choices to helm such a film, having attracted plenty of attention with his Australian Western The Proposition in 2005, The Road is - more than most novels adapted for screen - defined by its textual style.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

[286] Exam (2010) Review

My first review of the year is now up over at Den of Geek, it is of Exam, a low budget, high concept thriller that is getting a lot of attention from Empire magazine. Sad to start 2010 with something so negative, but so it goes.

Erstwhile screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine's (Knowing) directorial debut, Exam, will, no doubt, cause a lot of interest due to its high concept premise, but the ensuing film barely delivers. From the start, Exam has a tantalising set-up, using its micro-budgeted, Brit-indie restrictions to the fullest.

There are eight candidates applying for a job at a mysterious, world-conquering company. However, fittingly for such a shady institution, the interview process forgoes team-building exercises and knotted cross-analysis in favour of something a little more intense. To this end, the young hopefuls are herded into a nondescript room, and are faced with an exam, in which they are tasked to answer one question in 80 minutes. However, there's one catch: after a brief, foreboding introduction, the test-takers turn over their crisp papers to blinding blankness. With the clock ticking, what will they do? Do they work together? What is the question?

Exam is high concept filmmaking at its most basic and bold. Everything is tied into its central narrative hook - the title, the poster, the tagline ('80 minutes. 8 candidates. 1 answer. No Question. How Far Would You Go To Win The Ultimate Job?'). It is memorable and beguiling, working its way into your head with the thrill of the slightly-known, but still wholly unknown. It's an approach to cinema that has fallen by the wayside a little in recent years, and you'd have to reach back a fair amount of years to find a set up as strong as this one.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

[285] Goodbye 2009

2009 started on a bus near Kennington, and ended on a hill in Burgess Park. In January, I was living in Peckham with the Finnish Girl, and by December I was living on my own in Walworth, stressing over the second essay for my MA course in History of Film and Visual Media. It was a year defined by small victories and slight progress - less about paradigm shifts and more about getting to grips with constant, consistent writing and adjusting to the feel of London streets under my feet. Working hard, maintaining composure, and laying groundwork that will hopefully make for a better year in 2010.

I blogged less, but wrote plenty of pieces, primarily for web-based outlets like Den of Geek, Screenjabber and Film & Festivals, with one-off articles for Tiny Mix Tapes, Gamer Bytes, and Comics Bulletin. That said, there was a handful of Wild Tyme pieces that caught some attention, such as 'Nature and Nurture: Okami and Practicing Shintoism', 'Comics, Continuity and Canon: Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison's Batmen', 'Watchmen on the Thames' and 'Bob Dylan 1966 European Tour: National Portrait Gallery, London' (with the last in particular passing the 2000 hit mark).

Most of my writing activity was published in places other than the blog. For Den of Geek in particular, I wrote over 80 articles, including reviews, features, previews and interviews. Highlights for me have included interviewing Neil Gaiman, and latterly attempting to introduce the Den of Geek readership to the delights to be found in the indie comics scene (trying to 'give something back' to those wonderful people), through my (slightly ambitious) coverage of the MCM Expo. I like to think that it's improved my work ethic, bolstered my confidence and helped me to develop my writing style towards something more workable in a wider professional context.

Speaking of which, I had a few articles that made me proud not just because they came out well, but because of where they were published. First, there was a rocky, stressful birth for my 'Classics Live Again: The Art of Downloadable Remakes' feature, which required a lot of preparation and interviewing, and turned out to be quite chunky and heavy; initially dropped, I was thrilled when it was picked up by Gamasutra, a site I completely respect. Likewise, my work appeared in print twice in Micro Mart, with two list-based features that picked out PC games that require your attention. This is a good start; I need to capitalise, consolidate and expand. Since starting my MA at the beginning of October, I have taken on more Den of Geek work, and found less time for branching out. That will be 2010's goal. More writing, more published work, more creativity. More, more, and more.

As you can tell, I'm a complete bore of late. That will be rectified, too. I've already written about the films that made my year, but in 2010 I want to get back into writing about the things I enjoy outside of work. This year I've spoken less about the music, comics, and video games that have made my life bearable. I have posted about a few, such as Solipsistic Pop, but it's not enough - too much has been left out. Life-aids like the warmly-moody tones of The XX, the chillax vibe of PixelJunk Shooter and the this-needs-to-be-read-more brilliance of Chloe Noonan; or the poetic minimalism of Today I Die, the bold, surprising, Actually Interesting Music of St. Vincent's Actor, and the obscenely impressive nail-on-head madness of Phonogram. Or Tegan and Sara. Or Scott Pilgrim. Or Captain Forever. Or this, or that, or the other. All in good time. Bear with me.

As always, thank you for reading. I wish you all the best for 2010.

Mike, listening to moody disco, South London.