Thursday, 29 July 2010

[366] Tupperware Hack

My parents visited last weekend, and my dad did his usual trick of showing me up through his unending DIY ingenuity. The plastic covering for the phone/internet connection outside my flat had come off - probably the fault of gale-force winds, local foxes or a disgruntled neighbour - leaving the wires perilously open to the elements.

We spent our family weekend, as you do, in the local Tesco. At one point, my dad turned up with a big grin on his face and a Tupperware container in his hands. Within a couple of hours, this was on my front wall.

All it took was a medium-sized container, a black bin bag, two screws and some duct tape. Now it is secure, water-proof, and has easy access via the lid.

Certainly beats my bulldog clip poster 'stationery hack'. Damn.

[365] Sherlock Interviews: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss

Here is another chunky piece of coverage from my Sherlock set visit. An interview with series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. They were both immensely charming, sharp, and full of insight. It's a shame that, in the end, I was underwhelmed by the series' opener. But there are still two episodes left.

Pining for Doctor Who? Have no fear, as even though the show is having a rest, head writer Steven Moffat has been hard at work on another project with Who writer Mark Gatiss: Sherlock, a modern re-setting of the Arthur Conan Doyle crime classics starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The first of three feature length episodes airs this Sunday, but to get you into the spirit, we've got three chunky bits of coverage coming up in the next couple of days.

Firstly, then, we have an interview with Moffat and Gatiss, conducted back in March, when we ventured out to the BBC studios in Wales with a bunch of eager journalists. The two creators were generous with their time, going into eloquent, rambly detail about their love of Holmes, the thinking behind the change in setting, and how Matt Smith almost played Watson.

Read the full interview here.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

[364] Remembering Mighty Aphrodite

You know, I’m taking this Woody Allen mini-project quite seriously. As I’ve said previously, I’ve set up a Lovefilm list and thrown on there all of the films by the writer-director-actor that I’ve not yet seen. I’m ploughing through them. I’m taking notes. Not the disjointed nonsense I jot down in the dark of the screening room - actual sentences, I swear. I’m planning an essay that ties together the first two films I saw - Anything Else and Interiors - as part of Allen’s sense of inferiority and self-doubt.

But, man, I recently watched Mighty Aphrodite. It is neither as embarrassingly-bad as Anything Else, or as misguidedly-flawed as Interiors. It’s in that dangerous mid-point between awful and awesome - the two poles that make a film stick with you. In fact, I’m already forgetting just what Mighty Aphrodite was about. Good job I noted down these four notable aspects. There’s, honestly, not much more to take from it.

The Chorus

After having quite a diverse stretch of films in the 1980s and early 1990s, where he mixed up Bergman/Fellini homages (Another Woman, Stardust Memories) with high concept fantasies (Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days) alongside some of his best intellectual comedy-dramas/drama-comedies (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives), Woody Allen thrust himself into the mid-90s with a run of films with more of a generic bent. While you could say that the brilliantly cheeky thriller of Manhattan Murder Mystery anticipated this, from the gangster period film Bullets Over Broadway onward, Allen was stepping into different stylistic shoes.

Mighty Aphrodite, as a pitch, is a spoof-y mash-up of modern, urban comedy and Classical Greek references. Somewhere in the conceptual stages, it must have occurred to Allen that most (especially romantic) comedies from Hollywood are inevitably tied to narrative conceits and structures from around 2500 years ago, and he decided to show this with Aphrodite. Along the way, however, he settled with just throwing into the otherwise straightforward movie some really incongruous sequences featuring a Greek Chorus performing in a ruined temple.

They comment on the plot, and discuss the characters and their moral choices, not unlike the Choruses in plenty of Athenian plays. Lots of cheap gags come from the collision of classical pomp and 20th century mundaneity. This is especially seen once members of the Chorus - such as F. Murray Abraham’s Chorus Leader - start popping up in the primary narrative, which concerns a sports writer (Lenny Weinrib, Allen) hunting down the mother of his adopted child (Linda Ash, Mira Sorvino).

At one point, Weinrib is stopped in the street by Tiresias, who in this case is a blind beggar, naturally. At another, a brash Chorus member turns up and foretells of future strife. The exchange goes:

‘You’re such a Cassandra!’
‘I’m not such a Cassandra, I am Cassandra. That’s who I am!’

Ugh. What is this? Why would a sports writer be experiencing visions of Greek Chorus members? They don’t directly affect the plot, and their appearances are baffling and half-baked. Neither truly meta-fictional or structurally justified.

The early Woody Allen play (and later film) Play It Again, Sam was based around a film-buff character who experienced visions of Humphrey Bogart. This was a rich concept: an exploration of character and masculinity. But in Mighty Aphrodite it's just stylistic silliness, as epitomised by the end credits sequence, where the Chorus go through a long dance number, anticipating the musical Everyone Says I Love You, backed by ‘When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles At You)’. It’s torture.


The Chorus takes up too much of the film. So much, in fact, that the characters of the main narrative - Sorvino and Allen aside - are thinly drawn and barely used. Allen at his best assembles strong ensembles of nuanced characters. Here, his supporting cast is underused, and even credited performers get short-changed - Olympia Dukakis’ name is proudly displayed on the poster, but she only has a couple of lines, and Claire Bloom doesn’t have much more. Their characters are forgettable - in fact I’ve forgotten them already.

One cameo sticks out, however, even if his character - a slimy gallery owner who has his sights on Weinrib’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter, again underused). Why, it’s Robocop himself, Peter Weller.

It should be noted that Allen would follow Mighty Aphrodite with star-studded cameo fests for the rest of the decade. And, looking at the cast lists for his first two films in the 2010s, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris, he might be moving back in that direction.

Sight Gags

Woody Allen used to pack some of his early comedies - Sleeper in particular - with a lot of sight gags. But, oh dear.

Oh dear.

Mira Sorvino

Mira Sorvino is the centre of Mighty Aphrodite. She carries the film’s heart, the root of its humour, and the bulk of its narrative. It’s a lot to ask, but she is more than up to the task. The thing is, Allen’s screenplay is atrocious. Not only is the central conceit fumbled, and the supporting characters rendered irrelevant, but there is a strong vein of smugness and elitism when it comes to the female lead.

She’s a hooker. She’s a porn actress. She’s also dumb, has no taste and is imbued with a stupid sense of humour. It is a lazy caricature, and this works to dilute the drama of the situation. Thankfully, Sorvino somehow finds the happy compromise - giving Linda a chirpy, forthright charm that has a little more depth than the cartoonish set design, costumes and anecdotes would suggest. For the majority of the film, she exists in two-shots with Allen, playing off the contrast between the small, middle-aged man and the tall, leggy bombshell. But there are some subtle moments where Carlo Di Palma’s camera holds on her in long takes. Her monologue when she finally describes giving up her baby for adoption, in particular, is powerful without breaking character. It's an emotionally pure moment - as naive as the rest of her performance.

Sorvino won an Oscar for the role, for Best Supporting Actress. I’d say it’s not a supporting character, but I don’t think it is an award-winning performance anyway. It is certainly memorable, though - a career highlight. And it doesn’t look like there was much competition that year - Mare Winningham in Georgia? Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility? Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13? Joan Allen in Nixon? Maybe Sorvino was a breath of fresh air against all of those period dramas.

Or maybe it was Academy momentum, running on from Dianne Wiest’s second Oscar for a Woody Allen film, in 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway (the first was Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986). I wouldn’t be surprised, as Allen also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and was nominated later in the decade again for Deconstructing Harry - suggesting that the Academy were still taken in by his stature as opposed to the immediate quality of his work. They were slow on the uptake, as Allen was on a downward slump.

[363] We Are Words + Pictures @ Legoland Windsor

I am not a comic artist. I'm not even a comic writer (yet?). But I'll do whatever I can to further the cause, and that's attracted me to the work of the We Are Words + Pictures collective. After chipping in with a couple of their events in the past, I was asked to be part of the group - alongside Adam Cadwell and Kayla Hillier, both artists and amazing ambassadors for the medium - heading up a comics workshop at Legoland.

It was an exhausting, but exciting weekend. And now I have posted up a report for the WAW+P blog. You can check it out here.

Monday, 26 July 2010

[362] Sherlock Set Visit

Back in March, I had the opportunity to visit the set of the new BBC series Sherlock - the first episode of which aired last night. The recordings from the day have been resting in my Dropbox folder for the last 4 months, until transmission was announced about a fortnight ago.

So, with hours of audio to trawl through, I ventured into the Dennis Publishing office, taking up a spot on the Micro Mart/Den of Geek desk. And hammered out 7 chunky articles over the course of the week.

In an unassuming warehouse, just outside of Pontypridd, BBC Wales creates dreams. Dreams of a prime time televisual variety, that is. In the reception area, they proudly display artwork from Doctor Who and Torchwood, their two most successful series since the studio complex opened in 2006. But we, a rag-tag bunch of daytrippin' journalists, are here for a different reason.

It is March, and, in a portacabin-cum-cafe, we sit down with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. They fill us in on their new project as a coffee machine churns like a broken TARDIS in the background. Their goal is to bring Sherlock Holmes, one of the English language's more iconic characters, into the 21st century. The ensuing series,
Sherlock, will take the form of three, feature length episodes, re-setting classic Arthur Conan Doyle tales in a thoroughly modern London.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

[361] Darla K. Anderson Interview

I saved all of my tough Toy Story 3 questions for Darla K. Anderson, the film's producer. Thankfully, she was quite open to my questions about Pixar's upcoming sequels, the goodwill granted them by the public and media alike, and even gave us a little insight into the company's approach to test screenings.

Ahead of the glitzy London premiere of the film last weekend, we had a chance to chat with Toy Story 3 producer Darla K. Anderson. A veteran of Pixar productions such as A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc. and Cars, Anderson filled us in on the how Pixar approached the big hitting sequel, as well as the appeal of franchises, and the pressures inherent in toying with beloved characters.

Financially, the idea of a Toy Story sequel is a no-brainer, but was it an easy project to handle from a producer's point of view?

Both Lee and I felt a lot of pressure to make a good movie, because neither of us wanted to be attached to anything that wasn't of the highest standard in this
Toy Story line. So, yeah, we worked so, so hard to make a movie that would be worthy of standing alongside the two films.

Read the full article here.

[360] Lee Unkrich Interview

I don't think it's a secret that I didn't like Toy Story 3 as much as the rest of the world. However, I will gladly talk with anyone from Pixar, especially Lee Unkrich, the director of the film. Even though our interview was cut short, he was suitably chatty, and especially interesting when talking about the 'darkest time' in the studios history, referring to the aborted Disney-helmed Toy Story 3.

Toy Story 3 is out now, and judging by our reviews, you'd be foolish to miss out on it. Last week, we managed to score an interview with the film's director, Lee Unkrich (editor on Toy Story, co-director of Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo), when he wasn't taking pictures of a small Big Baby figurine in front of London tourist hotspots, and posting them on Twitter under the hashtag #BigBabyWorldTour.

We used our time wisely, asking about the aborted Disney-helmed
Toy Story sequel from 2004, how Unkrich crafted this dark end for the trilogy, and whether he has any live-action ambitions.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

[359] 10 Ill-Fated PC Games

This week, I have another feature in Micro Mart. This time, I write about ill-fated PC games. Games that were promising or notable that didn't reach our desktops. It paints quite a dark picture of the industry, actually, as games are cancelled due to shifting trends, jumpy executives, or overindulgent developers.

The issue is on sale now.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

[358] London River (2009) Review

Here's a review over at Film4. Of the dour 7/7 drama London River.

I love London; I've lived here just shy of 2 years, but I feel more connected to my areas of the city than anywhere else I've lived. It is a city full of stories, of lore and mythology and perspectives. London River doesn't capture any of this poetry in the slightest.

Releasing a film about the July 2005 London bombings on the event's fifth anniversary is sure to garner some attention. However, London River also has a strange sort of notability due to its mostly French sources of funding, and its Franco-Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb.

Bouchareb's work includes the historical pieces
Days Of Glory and Outside The Law, which both interrogate France's treatment of its North African communities. It is fitting, therefore, that Bouchareb - in conjunction with co-writers Olivier Lorelle and Zoe Galeron - structures his look at the multicultural capital around two outsider narratives, as two parents travel to the UK to find their children in the chaotic aftermath of the bombings. In the process, London River effectively sidesteps direct comment and full-blown tragedy in favour of mild melodrama and a heartening dose of diversity-studies sermonising.

Guernsey farmer Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) leaves her all-white, all-Christian, Channel Island comfort zone for a North London melting pot, searching in vain for a daughter, she realises, that has far more to her life than has been communicated in her sporadic phonecalls home. It seems she has developed a friendship with a young African Muslim, who has also gone missing, and whose forester father, Ousmane (Malian-born Sotigui Kouyate), also travels to London to search for him.

Bouchareb clothes
London River in a meditative, naturalistic style, with the camera given over to bustling vistas of London storefronts (read: Arabic-strewn kebab shops). Such a down-to-earth aesthetic befits the drama, which is less interested in the bombings themselves, than it is in the peripheral experiences of relatives.

And while the set-up - an ignorant almost-bigot from the sticks comes to terms with prejudice through the guidance of a sage Other - is hackneyed, predictable, and unconvincing at times (the meticulous casting of non-white London residents in most scenes is particularly curious), this is obviously just window dressing for the central performances.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

[357] Being Human USA, Sam Witwer Interview

I'm not dead, you know. It just seems that I have little being published. Currently working on a short essay on Woody Allen, as well as pulling together a comics workshop and tussling with the busiest period in recent memory. Not long ago, I interviewed Sam Witwer, ostensibly about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, but I asked him about Being Human USA.

Last week, we were chatting with American TV star Sam Witwer (Smallville, Battlestar Galactica) about the upcoming LucasArts videogame Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, in which he gives voice and likeness to the protagonist, Darth Vader's apprentice, Starkiller.

When not gushing about gaming, or talking about the pressure inherent in dabbling with canon, we managed to slip in a question about the upcoming Syfy remake of the BBC's supernatural comedy-drama
Being Human.

It was reported back in June by Entertainment Weekly that Witwer had signed on to play the vampire of the threesome (based on Aiden Turner's Mitchell in the original series). Although, despite now being "extremely enthusiastic" about the show, Witwer revealed that it wasn't all so simple from the beginning...

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

[356] Mega Piranha (2010) Review, in Sight & Sound

I have a review in the latest issue of Sight & Sound magazine. This is a big deal, even if it is a piece on Mega Piranha, an awful TV film by The Asylum. S&S is one of the best film publications out there, and they have a heck of a reputation, so it is quite an honour to be present in their pages.

You can buy Sight & Sound magazine at most places that sell such things. Check it out, there's a great lead feature on 'Old, Weird Britain' (with a superb cover graphic by Becca Thorne), as well as one of the last interviews with Dennis Hopper, and a review of Toy Story 3 that comes dreadfully close to my own take on the film.

I'm also, once more, credited as a researcher. Fame and fortune must be 'round the corner, surely?

Friday, 2 July 2010

[355] A Summer Wasting...

Some insightful genius on my Twitter feed recently pointed out how school holidays have scarred us for life. With the lighter evenings and the sunnier days, it feels like we're due a summer break - just under two months of nothing at all. The sound of tennis balls being thwacked across Wimbledon lawns doesn't help. It's dangerously evocative. How can one work in this weather? Let's sit in beer gardens or lounge on park greens instead. I think Belle & Sebastian are to blame, partly.

Spring is a time of rebirth, and summer is a time of peaks. So it's no wonder that I usually attack the brighter months with hope. I'm going to do something! I have a few artefacts from these flashes of inspiration over the years, and a recent trip to Salford (for a friend's wedding; we're getting old) found me rooting through piles of shoeboxes full of... cinema tickets, an album recorded with my band, and notebooks filled with short story ideas and murmurings about my adventures in Manchester. I spent the summer wasting. The time was passed so easily.

Now, things are a little different. I don't have seven weeks to spend on these things. My cousin recently asked me when I was going back to Manchester 'for summer', obviously with a date in the middle of July in her mind, where people break up and forget about work until September. I may not have that privilege any more, but I still feel like something has to come out of these months.

I'm in awe of people who can work on big projects - Paul Rainey's 2000AD Prog Slog, or Matthew Sheret's threesixfivestart, or even Tom Humberstone's addition to the 100 Days Project, now back on track after a hiatus. They just need an idea and some dedication. Easy, right?

But I am going through an odd patch with my writing. I am enjoying what I do, and I am pleased to be contributing to the sites and publications with which I'm currently affiliated. I just need to think through my priorities, my competencies and specialisations. What am I good for? Why am I writing? What do I have to offer? And so on. I am finding myself more incensed by inadequate work from every corner of the media - podcasts, radio, television, journalism - and I'm equally astounded by good work. I'm not sure where I fit in that landscape, though.

So that's a summer project of one kind: sort my head out. I started a new notebook the other week, and gave a page or two over to puzzling out my thoughts on the five-star system for reviewing films. (Such things need clarifying.) I've started indulging in lists again. Some are for work (Cancelled PC Games), some are for potential pitches (Best middle-tier albums by Rock Dinosaurs), and others are personal (Films to cheer up a friend).

Then one day I woke up and tried to write a list of filmmakers whose work I've seen in their entirety. I was inspired in this mad endeavour by fellow Den of Geek writer Duncan Bowles, who wouldn't dare consider writing about a star or director unless he'd watched every film they'd touched. That's dedication of another kind - an authority that comes with intense research. And, therefore, if I ever had a question about Nicholas Cage, I'd know who to ask.

I have little to show. Maybe Chaplin if you only count post-Kid work, but that's cheating. And it's also improper to list those with only a few films under their belts (so no Jeunet, Fincher, P.T. Anderson). I've seen most Hitchcock, most Kore-eda, most Miyazaki, and pretty much everything by David Lynch. It's not all though, is it? That's a barmy sort of dedication, as you're vowing to stick with them in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, with little reward at the end.

So I wrote down all of the Woody Allen films I hadn't seen. It came to 21.

Before I knew it, I'd started a new rental list on LoveFilm and added most of them to it. I went back to the page and scribbled 'Summer Project' at the bottom.

And now, I have Anything Else staring back at me, and I realise this is going to be a slog - as, well, I've watched all of the generally-agreed 'good' Woody Allen films. I will let you know if anything interesting comes up in my viewing.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

[354] Capitalism: A Love Story Review

You know, I like Michael Moore. Sometimes. I think that Roger & Me is a very strong piece of work, and Sicko has its heart in the right place. This is not the case with Capitalism: A Love Story, sadly. Maybe I've been listening to too much This American Life, and watching too many genuinely good journalistic documentaries. Moore just can't compete.

Let's forget for a minute that Capitalism: A Love Story is being distributed by Paramount and sold on shelves for £19.99 RRP - a fact that effectively dulls its criticism of "the system". This is Michael Moore at his most provocative extreme, right from the kick off. A staid archive clip warns the viewer that the film contains scenes 'which under no circumstances should be viewed by anyone with a heart condition, or anyone who is easily upset', before shifting into a raucous opening titles sequence, backed by Iggy Pop tearing through Louie Louie as shards of bank robberies flicker across the screen.

Despite being the world's most famous example of one, Michael Moore is not a documentary filmmaker. He makes subjective essay films filled with manipulation and emotional zeal, twisting facts to serve his will to shock and incite, as opposed to illuminate or inform. At his best, this creates punchy one-man adventures, such as his humble-yet-cheeky debut feature,
Roger & Me.

As he has grown older, plumper, richer and more recognisable, his schtick has become more obvious and less pointful - resulting in Capitalism's baggy, indulgent overview of the American Dream and the consumerism and exploitation at its core

Read the full article here.