Thursday, 29 December 2011

[527] Drive: Den of Geek's Film of the Year 2011

Two controversial articles in a row! Here it is, my final piece for Den of Geek this year, which looks at Drive - the film voted best of 2011 by the site's writers.

I didn't get to see Drive in the initial flurry of preview screenings which had critics fainting with delight; I saw it much later, in a double-bill with Martin Scorsese's George Harrison doc Living in the Material World, at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton.

Both films were striking, but Drive really stuck with me. It both excited me and confounded me. I'm glad I've had a chance to decompress about it - and write about what it does well, and how it works despite lacking some of the qualities I would otherwise deem integral to a successful modern film. It's come dangerously close to changing my stubborn critical approach to cinema. There aren't many films that do that.

Actually, no. I only like it because I feel I have to. So says the following comment from DoG reader 'thewicked', anyway:

Its the film people "want" as their favorite, because its "cool". But being cool doesnt nessecarily make it deserving of the accolade, and signify's all that is wrong with movie awards. 

Sic, obviously.

Drive, Den Of Geek’s undisputed film of the year (getting more than double the votes of Black Swan in second place), was iconic before it was even released. The film’s reputation preceded it, thanks to a moody trailer, a hot-pink title font, and the casting of actor du jour Ryan Gosling in the lead role. All pointed towards a stylish, noirish thriller that oozed urban cool, and to say it delivered would be an absurd understatement. Everything, from the music to the performances, from the composition to the cinematography, seemed perfectly pitched.

Indeed, such are Drive’s strengths that its one flaw - which could be major, minor, or irrelevant depending on your viewpoint - is almost completely banished. The plot, adapted from a neo-noir paperback, and developed from an optioned Hollywood project originally set to star Hugh Jackman, is quite conventional, at times even rote. The nameless antihero falls for the wife of an ex-con, and through a sense of duty helps the husband clear his debt with a low-level crook. Unfortunately, the job is botched, and the ensuing bloodbath sees the protagonist slip further and further into moral ambiguity.

It’s not going to win any awards for its screenplay, but the themes are solid and the stock characters are timeless. Drive could as much be a Western as a noir; but it is in the execution that it all comes to life. Truly, this is a film for which awards for directing were made, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Best Director win at Cannes is well deserved. Throughout, there is a confidence in the direction, and a boldness in the filmmaker’s decisions.

Take, for example, the consistent stripping back of dialogue, often to the point where scenes are almost wordless. In the opening act, this is frequently astonishing, as the driver’s romance with his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), blossoms not over conversation, but through small moments: shared looks, smiles and murmurs. Refn exhibits patience, restraint, and, most of all, absolute faith in his actors, and both Gosling and Mulligan manage to evoke so much with such minimalistic performances.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

[526] War Horse (2011) Review

Here it is, my final review of the year - for one of the sure-fire hits of 2012. It's the new Steven Spielberg flick, War Horse!

Click through, have a read, and find out why one of the faithful Den of Geek readers felt compelled to leave the following comment:

Spielberg "out of his depth"? How many great movies have you made knobhead?

Crikey. Read on, fellow travellers! Oh, and can you spot the handful of Wilfred Owen references in the review? See, my English Literature degree was worth something...

While his films don’t come out with the clockwork reliability of those directed by Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg works to his own halting, arrhythmic beat. Years of silence often give way to flutters of wild activity, with the Hollywood superstar sometimes stuffing more than one of his new flicks into the cinema calendar.

This has been done to calculated effect on more than one occasion, where blockbusters have shared space with bids for dramatic respectability. Most successfully, in 1993 Spielberg ruled both the box office and the Academy with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. The twinning of popcorn adventure and super-serious historical drama continued with both The Lost World and Amistad, and War Of The Worlds and Munich, in 1997 and 2005 respectively.

Superficially, 2011 seems like a similar case, with mo-cap adventure Tintin appearing just before War Horse, a lavish World War I drama which draws on the sentiment of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and a little bit of Blackadder Goes Forth. It seems to be another double bill of fun and fable – that is, until you realise that the latter film is a retelling of the Great War from the perspective of a horse. 

Read the full article here.

Friday, 16 December 2011

[525] The Underappreciated Film Gems of 2011

It's the end of the year! Time for retrospective lists and features. This year, Den of Geek have changed the system for their 'film of the year' vote. Previously, writers could submit their top five, along with an accompanying paragraph explaining their choices. This meant I could rabbit on about any sort of flick I'd enjoyed, but knew the Geeks-at-large wouldn't pick.

This year, the top fives have been collected, and conformed into a general top ten, with each entry getting their own article next week. This left a lot of stellar choices languishing on the voting room floor. Thankfully, the editing bods decided to give many of these films their own list, under the 'Underappreciated Gems' tag. In my opinion, it's a far more interesting list. Well, I would say that, as I contributed 250 words about Midnight In Paris, one of my favourite films of the year.

See what I said below, or click through to the full article here. It's full of films I've seen and loved this year, and some I've shamefully missed. Tune in next week for the top ten.

It’s surprising that more hasn’t been made of this, but this year two old film masters - Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese - both made rhapsodic odes to 1920s Paris. And, even more so, 2011 saw Scorsese, ever faithful in terms of quality, beaten by his fellow bespectacled New Yorker.

Unencumbered by Hugo’s CGI, 3D and two-hour runtime, Midnight In Paris is Allen’s breeziest, funniest and most charming film in decades. Its pseudo-fantasy set-up is established with the most economic of storytelling, as Owen Wilson’s neurotic hack, adrift in the French capital, is whisked away in a vintage car by F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. From there, it’s smooth sailing, as Allen peppers the film with pitch-perfect cameos from a host of Jazz Age Parisians, from the braggadocio of Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, to the surreal trio of Dalí, Buñuel, and Man Ray.

The film has the whimsy, wit and existential themes of the director’s best work, and can sit proudly next to The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway in the perky, period sub-section of his oeuvre. But what makes Midnight In Paris stand out is that, after two decades where Allen’s comedy films became increasingly kitsch, broad and forced, he manages to capture that old, familiar, incessant humour once more - where laughs are not hard-won, but easily given.

Read the full article here.

Monday, 12 December 2011

[524] Cornish in Finnish

From the icy northern climes of Finland...

Apparently my interview with Joe Cornish about Attack The Block has been quoted in the Helsingin Sanomat. Hyvä!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

[522] VIGIDEN, Coming Oh-So-Soon

Monday night, Free Trade Wharf. Shooting Samantha Baines, aka Clarissa Ankle, for an upcoming VIGIDEN sketch.

Phew. Hello, there! Apologies for the radio silence on the BytesCorp-front. You see, we three Bytes-buddies have been beavering away for the last few months on VIGIDEN, our follow-up to the Behind The Bytes miniseries which appeared online over summer. Whereas BTB was a mockumentary series with each episode looking at the scandalous lives of various video game characters, VIGIDEN is different beast - it's a full-blown news network! Specifically, it's the Video Games Digital News Network. Or, at least, I think it is. Who cares? It's an ace acronym!

VIGIDEN will be sketch-based, featuring many set-ups and characters inspired by the 'news channel' format. Expect breaking news reports, interviews and special features from the video game industry. What's Luigi up to? Who's Kirby eating? What's the weather like in Hyrule? If such questions keep you awake at night, worry no longer. We're on the case.

That's the ambition, anyway. We're currently polishing up our punchy pilot package, which contains five sketches, each showcasing a different wing of the VIGIDEN empire. For the last month, we've been shooting and editing, sprucing up our 3D studio and getting to grips with green-screen filmmaking. In short, turning this...

Into something like this.

Looks nice, right? Oh, by the way, that's Nick Moran, VIGIDEN's hard-nosed anchorman. Expect to see more of him - and the rest of the VIGIDEN correspondents - once the series gets under way. For now, sit tight, and we'll give you more teaser-y breadcrumbs soon. In the meantime, we'd better finish off these edits!

Friday, 25 November 2011

[521] Take Shelter (2011) Review

Unfortunately, a lot of personal distractions came up around the end of the London Film Festival, meaning I didn't get the chance to turn in my 'best of fest' write-ups. Thankfully, some of the the best films are coming out before the end of the year, so I get to review them 'properly'! With that in mind, here's my review of Take Shelter.

In the great big grab-bag of Hollywood movie tropes, there aren’t many as well-used or as long-serving as the protective father. 

Whether a plot contains disaster, alien invasion, or meddlesome terrorists, the bond between patriarch and family is enough to inspire great feats of heroism. These men - be they Tom Cruise’s loser divorcee in War Of The Worlds, Dennis Quaid’s scientist dad in The Day After Tomorrow, or even John McClane - are protagonists to rally behind, satisfying primal instincts to provide care, safety and shelter. 

While it may not seem like it at first, one of psychological drama Take Shelter’s major successes lies in its clever subversion of this trope, colliding the stock narrative conceit with a powerful psychological undertone.  

Construction worker Curtis LaForche lives a mundane, pleasant life with his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter in rural Ohio, until he is plagued by terrible nightmares of a coming apocalypse. These visions are truly chilling, filled with portent and unsettling imagery of oil-slick rain, plagues of birds and aggressive, faceless antagonists. Convinced that such a storm is indeed brewing on the horizon, he becomes obsessed with building a shelter in his back yard, while expressing all of the destructive, anti-social and self-deceiving symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. 

Curtis’ motivation is to ensure the safety of his young family, but his reasoning is unsound. However, his is a character flaw that reflects backwards, casting the obsessive urges of the likes of John Matrix, Taken’s Bryan Mills or countless Harrison Ford characters in a whole new light. 

Those fathers knew best because they lived in uncomplicated worlds governed by simpler ideals. On the other hand, Curtis’ America faces its own economic apocalypse, in which a lost job not only threatens financial ruin for a family, but potential personal danger, without the safety net of medical insurance. And then there are the risky loans and scaremongering news reports of chlorine spills, which further chip away at the man’s authority over his own family’s well-being. 

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

[520] Nelson

Nelson is a real piece of work. It has so many moving parts that, initially, it’s quite overwhelming to take in. Is it an anthology? An ‘exquisite corpse’-style game of storytelling pass-the-parcel? Or a statement of purpose on behalf of a flourishing British comics community? At its heart, at least, it’s the story of one girl, Nel Baker, which is told through vignettes that see her from birth to middle age, with each chapter illustrated by a different artist.

Along the way, we pass from 1967 to 2011, and read about the friendships, events, diversions and distractions that make up Nel’s life. From her childhood, marked by the death of her twin brother, through her troubled school years, radical college phase and rudderless twenties, the character grows before our eyes.

For this purpose, editors Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix have brought together a staggering line-up of artists from all sectors of the comics community. As a result, Nelson has quite a dizzying array of styles on offer, making this a perfect primer for those wishing to delve into British comics.

When laid side-by-side in an anthology context, artists can often seem at odds with each other. This is sometimes used to great effect, but here there is a unifying factor: the story of one single character. It’s quite thrilling to see all this talent moving forward with this shared purpose, progressing the narrative, while still providing their own unique spin on Nel’s character.

It also means that some artists can be arranged for ideal effect, such as an excellent run, early in the book, where Nel’s hyper-active childhood is given over to Sarah McIntyre, Jamie Smart and Gary Northfield. Their energetic, colourful and wholly distinctive styles, which have graced numerous kids books and comics, perfectly complement little Nel’s forays into pre-school daydreaming - through whose eyes, in Smart’s chapter, a debt collector turns into a huge, troublesome monster.

As both the artists and the reader explore Nel’s life, secondary narratives emerge. In McIntyre’s chapter, Nel bounces down the street on a space hopper, while John Allison’s high schooler Nel tapes the hits off the radio on a cassette recorder. These little details, which litter each chapter, add up to a comprehensive tapestry of popular culture, both British and global, from the mid-late 60s (watching the Moon landing on a black-and-white TV) to the new millennium (buying tickets for New York, flying out on September 13th, 2001).

But this isn't nostalgia of the ‘I Love the 70s’ ilk, it's an evocation of time and place, and a history of the larger events that run alongside the protagonist’s own life, which influence and inspire her. When the story’s very chronology is one of the major constituents of the narrative, such specific colouring is integral, as the amorphous ‘pop culture’ is as much of a character as Nel is herself. They are familiar points to which readers, and artists, can anchor themselves, and they provide a backbone to this character-driven story.

The book is at its best when the personal and the historical threads intertwine, such as the Adam Cadwell’s chapter, which heralds the rise of Britpop, and a new relationship, or Tom Humberstone’s, where Nel moves to London right into the chaos of the 7/7 bombings, as another romance blossoms.

There is a danger with a project such as this, where there are so many creative minds involved, that the storytelling, both artistically and narratively, may end up being neither loose nor tight. Indeed, there aren't many of the curveballs that you might expect from an ‘exquisite corpse’ game, as some chapters seem tethered to the linear narrative daisy chain, and at other times the ebb and flow of the plot can feel a little haphazard, as characters and themes slip out of frame for what seems like decades.

Some of the best strips are those that close loops, or call back to earlier chapters, such as Kristyna Baczynski’s beautifully composed sequence where an adult Nel finds a dusty copy of the 1001 Arabian Nights, complete with doodles drawn by her thirteen years - or seventy pages - earlier, in Warwick Johnson Cadwell’s chapter.

The constant forward momentum of the book is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives us the irresistible hook of seeing one central character grow, change and live. And while Nel’s arc isn’t odd or fanastical, the familiar humanist touchpoints of love, grief and the pursuit of happiness remain as compelling as ever. However, the incessant pace can push some of smaller, more reflective subplots into the background, and some of the best chapters can be easily overwhelmed by the elongated scope.

This is particularly true of the chapters concerning Nel's father, ranging from a touching, quiet interlude by Jon McNaught, which looks at his estranged life on the streets, to Roger Langridge’s marvellous chapter, which imagines an exchange at the pearly gates with Saint Peter.

Such undercurrents are those that will hopefully become stronger with multiple re-readings, and the book certainly begs for them, if only because the work is so remarkably consistent, and consistently eye-catching. Simply flicking through the pages is enough to incite a feeling of overwhelmed giddiness at the sheer volume of comics - enough so that you can find yourself forgetting some of the best bits.

Open up the book again, and you may find a new favourite contribution. But which will it be? Perhaps Katie Green’s lovely chapter, where Nel translates the adventures she has with her toys into crayon-coloured comics? Maybe Laura Howell's fantastic use of Facebook as a way to tie up loose narrative threads? Or Kate Brown’s first-person turning point, where booze, sex and a new-found lust for life are upstaged by a clever, mischievous stylistic flourish?

Dazzling, that’s the word for it. It’s 50 of the best artists currently operating in the UK, gathered into one chunky book. There may be certain flaws inherent in such a massive project, but they've certainly pulled it off well. Above everything, it inspires excitement for what will come next from all involved. Will it kick-start a nationwide renaissance? The cynic in me doubts it, but Nelson is a statement of purpose that can be proudly pushed into the hands of even the hardiest sceptic. Buy it, and register your support.

Read more about Nelson at Blank Slate Books. Buy it from their online store, or at good comic and book shops around the country. All profits will go to Shelter.

Monday, 14 November 2011

[519] Adventures in Comics: Ink+PAPER

Exciting news! The first volume of Ink+PAPER, a 'comics and creativity' anthology edited by David O'Connell, has finally been released! And it looks a little like this...

It's a beautiful little volume; full colour and almost pocket-sized, it's perfect for some gentle reading in the long Winter evenings. The opening two thirds are given over to comics, while the back matter is full of wordier pieces, such as recipes, features and mini-essays.

The list of contributors is really quite stellar, and with top-notch offerings from the likes of, among others, Joe Decie, Dan BerryHugh Raine and Timothy Winchester (whose rather inspirational little comic about overcoming moodiness is pictured above).

The back section is just as exciting, especially Ellen Lindner's informative feature on the 'bubble tea' trend, Philippa Rice's recipe for My Cardboard Life character Cardboard Colin's Ginger Cake, and Jess Bradley's super-colourful 'Travel Musings From Tokyo'. I absolutely love Jess Bradley's stuff, and her work plays to a lot of my obsessions. That should explain why most of my notebooks are adorned with her stickers (check out Lum 'n Link, the latest additions to my family of jotters, here). Look out for her at MCM or Thought Bubble, she's ace.

And to cap it all off, there's an article of mine in there! It's a mini-essay on the whole Frederick Parkes Weber project, titled 'A Life In Artefacts, or Dr F. Parkes Weber and the 50p hardback from Birmingham'. It was fun condensing all of the themes, details and side-glances into a short-form piece of somewhat-creative journalism, even if the deadline did clash with the dissertension debacle. On the whole, I'm proud of it. Plus, it looks fab, thanks to David's design and illustration work.

Ink+PAPER can be ordered online from their website, or can be bought in person at Thought Bubble this coming weekend. Speaking of which, I'll be attending Thought Bubble this year, but more on that later.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

[518] Nick Murphy Interview: The Awakening, Ghost Stories and More

One of the perks of covering the London Film Festival is the 'Afternoon Tea' sessions that are arranged for journalists and filmmakers to come together and have a casual chat. This year, I really struck it lucky, having candid conversations with Paul Kelly (Lawrence of Belgravia) and Nick Brandestini (Darwin).

Those two might make it onto the blog in future, but for now, here's another great little interview with The Awakening director Nick Murphy, who has some very thought-provoking things to say about directing, writing and the horror genre,

Haunting cinemas across the country this week is The Awakening, a chilling ghost story starring Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, a stylish super-skeptic who debunks spooks in a Britain transfixed by a post-Great War gloom.

But don’t call it a horror film. Amidst the bustle of the London Film Festival, we had the chance to talk with director Nick Murphy about how the film slots in with horror tradition, as well as his own opinions on genre, ‘strong’ female characters, and the central tenets that every film - and filmmaker - must satisfy.

However, with his insight comes the terrible taint of mild spoilers - so, please do tread carefully.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

[517] Batman: Arkham City: Paul Crocker Interview

Still playing Arkham City? Must admit, I've already moved on to Bastion (ace) and Borderlands (ace, especially when Moran is rushing off into the distance, getting into all sorts of scraps). However, it's always nice to have a little bit of perspective, so here's the second of my Rocksteady interviews, this time with lead narrative designer Paul Crocker. Beware, it gets a little geeky.

We’ve already heard from David Hego, the art director on the smash hit caped crusader sim Batman: Arkham City, but we went to the game’s lead narrative designer, Paul Crocker, for some further insight. Crocker, a man with considerable geek credentials, leads us through Rocksteady’s unique take on the Rogue’s Gallery, ponders Britain’s link to DC’s finest hero, and explains how working in a comic shop helped him to write the Arkham games.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

[516] Eight Unfortunate Evangelion Toys Seen At The MCM Expo

Expect a proper MCM report in the coming days, but here are some photographic findings from the Expo. Of course, the cosplay gets all of the attention, but it's the anime memorabilia that crops up at a show like MCM that never fails to baffle me. Here's a selection of toys I found from the series Neon Genesis Evangelion - mostly of the distant, ethereal character Rei, but there were some of the feisty redhead Asuka.

Evangelion is, at its heart, a humanist drama, which explores father-son relationships and notions of identity and responsibility, played out against the backdrop of Earth being invaded by pseudo-Biblical beings that can only be defeated by giant robots piloted by teenagers. There's a purity to its themes, and a real creative ambition behind it. The toys, however, are a different story. They're pure, unadulterated, mildly distressing fan service.

Rei at the beach, sporting a cute little totebag, and cheekily playing with the bow on her bikini.

Rei at the pool, no doubt just after collecting silver in the 100m Butterfly race.

Remember to have a good shower after swimming - we wouldn't want to get dry skin, would we?

This is not just 'Pajamas Time', this is 'EXTRA Pajamas Time', where our heroine sprawls on the bed, blouse open, as if she's deep in a coma.

How about some 'Private Time'? After a long day battling intergalactic super-beings and engaging in mild melodrama, how best to relax than to put on your favourite pink apron and slippers, and assume awkward poses with a ladel?

...or maybe lean on a fence post somewhere?

Or dress up as coquettish little maids? It's all for fun, mind you, because these characters are 14, after all!

On one hand, this is fascinating - part of a multimedia merchandising empire which also includes a GT Racing Team and hotel rooms. But on the other hand... boy, is it disturbing. I'm off to find a way to give my soul a good, deep clean.

Monday, 31 October 2011

[515] Batman: Arkham City: art director David Hego interview

Video games! Or, more specifically, comic book video games! Last weekend, I played through the story of Batman: Arkham City, and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed it.

More detailed thoughts could be explored in a future blog post, but for the meantime let's bring up the old 'more of the same... and more!' problem. Where Arkham Asylum was full of surprises and fresh gameplay angles on a familiar character, Arkham City can merely build, refine, and embellish. It's a remarkably polished game, but in the pursuit of new, or simply bigger, thrills, some aspects simply don't hit the mark in as impactful a way to the predecessor. I'd also say that, at least story-wise, this one has some outright flaws.

A discussion for another time, definitely. For now, here's an interview I conducted with David Hego, the game's art director.

Brace yourselves, fellow gamers - the AAA season has begun. From now until Christmas, there will be many top-tier titles vying for your time, each attempting to one-up the others in big-budget thrills and near-perfect Metacritic scores.

Currently leading the pack is Arkham City, the sequel to 2009’s Arkham Asylum - which is, we’re assured, The Best Batman Game Ever Apart From Batman On The Spectrum. So far, City has proved to be the equal of Asylum, as Batman enters the eponymous urban prison to do battle with his old foes Two-Face, Penguin and the Joker - like a remake of Escape From New York, but with Snake Plissken donning a cape and cowl, and gliding across the skyline.

However, among the plaudits showered on Arkham City by critics the world over, a few writers have taken umbrage with an underlying air of sexism seen in the game’s cleavage-centric depiction of Catwoman, and the consistent use of ‘bitch’ as a catch-all synonym for womankind.

To settle matters, we got the inside scoop from David Hego, art director at Rocksteady Studios, who gave us some insight into the artistic process, the game’s stylised, hyperreal aesthetic, and the line between sexiness and sexism.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

[514] LFF Reviews: Like Crazy, We Have A Pope and Bernie

[Cross-posted from Den of Geek]

We’re into the final few days of the London Film Festival, so here is the first round-up of our findings so far. Read on for crazy lovers, crazy popes and crazy morticians.

Like Crazy

A big hit at Sundance, where it took home the Grand Jury Prize for drama, Like Crazy tells the story of Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), two students who meet at university, but find their relationship strained by distance once Anna has to return to the UK after graduation.

Drake Doremus shoots this transatlantic tryst mostly with a handheld, intimate aesthetic, getting the viewer under the skin of Anna and Jacob’s moody, broody romance. The couple’s stares are full of longing, their days are graced by Californian sun, and their murmurs of affection are in turns affecting or off-putting, depending on how much you believe that messy, complicated love is somehow more pure than the regular, clean-cut kind.

However, the decision to use the US Immigration Authority as the lovers’ complicating action - as Anna decides to violate her student visa, and is therefore barred from re-entering the States - is rather odd, as not only does it give the film an easy logistical barrier to the realisation of love, but it further gives this navel-gazer an air of First World Problems.

Once Jacob starts his own furniture business, and Anna becomes a trendy lifestyle ‘blogger’ for an upmarket London magazine, we see their lives developing separately - especially so once new significant others come on the scene. However, we’re led to believe that the intense university relationship leaves a lasting impression, but besides a couple of small moments - a late-night text conversation here, a tentative, subtext-laden visit there - Doremus doesn’t really twist the knife in a similar way to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The leads, for their part, are youthful, charming and lost, but the representation of their relationship just isn’t raw or wry enough to be compelling.

We Have A Pope

Italian actor-writer-director Nanni Moretti’s latest film starts with the election of a new pope and ends with the undermining of the entire Catholic faith. However, its mixture of cardinal comedy and papal drama is a little discordant.

An opening sight gag is priceless, where close shots of the papal conclave weaving through the Vatican’s tight corridors give way to reveal a veritable media circus just out of reach. Likewise, the assembled clergymen, pencilling in their ballots, are shot like schoolkids taking a test. They’re easily distracted, bored, and sneak looks at each other’s slips of paper. It also becomes clear that none of them want to be Pope, so the holy responsibility falls to a cheery, dopey old sod played by Michel Piccoli, who, just before making his first public appearance before the congregated Catholics in St Peter’s Square, suffers a breakdown and does a runner.

While Moretti finds much fun in this chaotic situation, especially once an irreverent psychoanalyst (played by the director himself) starts to concoct various schemes to keep the cardinals from leaving the Vatican, the ensuing ‘walkabout’ plot, with the Pope sojourning around Rome to perchance find himself and his lost faith, is bloated and directionless.

There’s conflict here not only between two types of film - that of comedy and drama - but two kinds of commentary. The satire, that the church is full of ineffectual, petty, old men, has some bite to it, but the dramatic broadside, where the central tenets of divine right meet human psychology, is lacking something, even if the potential resignation of a Pope has apocalyptic implications. This results in a film which isn’t entirely damned, but offers little salvation.


Richard Linklater has spent the last decade darting between independent projects and mainstream movies, notably with the enormously successful flick School Of Rock, which starred an energetic Jack Black just before his loudmouth rocker schtick got old.

Eight years later, Black and Linklater have re-teamed for Bernie, where the actor plays the title character, a rather eccentric funeral director in small-town East Texas. Immensely popular with the locals, Bernie’s reputation is so strong that when he kills a rich spinster (Shirley MacLaine), the district attorney moves the murder trial to another town, so as to find an unbiased jury.

The fact that this is based on true events, and adapted from a newspaper article should give some indication that this isn’t the most straightforward of comedy-dramas, but Linklater adds another twist to the film. Actual residents of Carthage, Texas appear both in talking head interludes, spouting gossip and reminiscences about the protagonist, and in the main plot, playing themselves. This brings much heart to the film, as while Black is surprisingly restrained and meticulous in creating Bernie, he is blown off-screen by some of the real-life characters, who have much more warmth, wit and personality than the actor at his best.

However, the film fails to find a balance between the artistic licence of fictional filmmaking, and the commentary of documentary. Linklater and Black seem unwilling to explore Bernie’s complexities, leaving the story rather light and shallow, and are equally unwilling to hand over the telling of the tale to the friends, foes and facts themselves, which effectively botches any claim to truth. Bernie, therefore, sits squarely in the middle of Linklater’s indie-mainstream spectrum - an experiment in marrying drama and documentary, which inevitably satisfies neither.

Monday, 24 October 2011

[513] Found at a Walworth Road Charity Shop

Joe Matt's The Poor Bastard, an absolute steal at £3. However, the bookmark nestled between the pages was just as surprising...

'How to open this Prayer book'. It was stuck a few pages in, and the book looked pretty much unread. I wonder what part of this master-work of neurotic, self-obsessed comics autobiography drove our religious fellow to give up on Matt. Was it the narcissism? The godless vanity? The compulsive masturbation? I guess we'll never know.

[512] We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) Review

The LFF finishes this week, which means you should see most of my coverage go online. In the meantime, here's a review of what is probably my favourite film of the festival so far. And it's out on general release right now!

We Need To Talk About Kevin. It's an odd name, really, but that didn't stop Lionel Shriver's novel from becoming a bestseller. Even now, as an adaptation from director Lynne Ramsay hits the big screen, the title still has a compelling sense of mystery, but its the film’s constant subversion of expectations that makes it utterly distinctive.

The plot centres on the relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), cutting back and forth in time between a post-traumatic present, where Eva lives alone, and the past, where Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) settle down to raise a family. After Kevin is born, Eva’s previous life of freedom and adventure is slowly given up in favour of full-time motherhood; but parenting proves particularly unpleasant, as Kevin grows from toddler to teenager, and turns out to be a real terror of a son - culminating in a horrific episode which upsets not only the family’s life, but that of their local community, too.

The film’s central character drama slowly unfurls, hazily moving between dream and memory, using hyper-real cinematography and dislocated sound and image to deeply unsettle the viewer. As its premise would suggest, there is darkness at the film’s heart, but the way this is manifested is consistently surprising. The basic plot calls up various genre readings - problem child horror, psycho-thriller, domestic melodrama - but Ramsay darts from one to the other, dodging tropes at every turn.

Read the full article here.

Monday, 17 October 2011

[511] 360 (2011) Review

Here's my first review from the LFF, where I take a look at the opening film, 360. Lots more to come.

Also, this is my 200th article for Den of Geek, almost 3 years since my first piece for them went online. The site's grown a lot since then, but there's still plenty of developments on the horizon - and I'd like to think my writing has improved, too. Thanks to the Geeks-In-Charge for letting me write all this nonsense for them.

Since bursting onto the international scene with City Of God, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has received untold goodwill from the global critical community. His English-language debut, 2005’s liberal guilt epic The Constant Gardener, received just as many award nominations as his Brazilian breakthrough, and also netted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz in the process.

Indeed, the legacy of these two peaks has proven so long-standing, that the box office failure Blindness has been all but forgotten, and his latest film, 360, takes pride of place as the opener for this year’s London Film Festival. Heralded as the new work from an international artist, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of an uninspired hack.

Ostensibly influenced by La Ronde, a play which attempts to survey the sexual and moral aspects of society through a number of encounters between various characters, 360 takes the viewer from Vienna to Denver, via London and Paris, as it weaves together numerous narrative snapshots concerned with love, life and - sigh - the human condition.

While this approach is in one sense ambitious, tackling universal themes by exploring small moments that have major consequences, it is also insultingly shallow, as Peter Morgan’s script moves from one instance to another, giving only rudimentary depth to each sequence, and merely focusing on how the characters fit together in the film’s smug over-arching structure.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

[510] 13 films you can still see at the London Film Festival

The London Film Festival has started! Here's a preview post. There'll be round-ups, reviews and interviews coming up in the next couple of weeks, but you can keep up with mini-reviews of all the films I see on Twitter.

The 55th London Film Festival is now underway, boasting a programme that includes top-flight flicks like George Clooney’s The Ides Of March, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, and 360, directed by Fernando Meirelles. However, unless you’re a BFI member, a quick-off-the-mark cinephile, or an industry bigwig, it’s highly likely that you missed the small window of chance for getting tickets for these bigger films.

No need to worry, though, as many of the festival’s 300+ films haven’t yet sold out. Here are just a few notable or geek-friendly deep cuts that, at time of writing, still have tickets on sale.

Read the full article here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

[509] Midnight In Paris (2011) Review

I somehow missed out on reviewing Woody Allen's last two films, but in the interim I watched everything else he's directed, so I guess we're even. Luckily, though, I got to see Midnight In Paris - and it's brilliant.

With Woody Allen, it’s not so much a case any more of expecting a ‘return to form’, as seeing periodic glimpses of inspiration and genius.

Recently, his work has veered from the atrocious (Cassandra’s Dream) to the great (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), with a handful of tittersome morsels in between (Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He’s still working at an alarming rate, and is still quite happy to gaze at intellectual middle class types and their over-inflated personal problems.

However, by now he is so comfortable with these tropes - life crises, marital issues, creative anxiety - that they are mere motifs, or a form of narrative shorthand that he can embellish ever so slightly, marking out each new film with a different location, a rejigged cast or small genre touches.

Midnight In Paris, the latest in what could be called Allen’s ‘tourist’ films, makes no claim at being anything else, starting as it does with an endless montage of Parisian vistas, a ‘day in the life’ overture which roots the audience in the French capital - its boulevards, its landmarks, its cultural history.

Paris brings out the romantic in Allen, as was previously seen 15 years ago in the musical Everyone Says I Love You, in which he staged a languid, dreamy song-and-dance sequence alongside the Seine, featuring himself and a knockout Goldie Hawn. Here, once more, Paris is a city that devours and delights, as Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an erstwhile Hollywood scriptwriter, comes to the city with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). After years of hackdom, he wishes to write his first novel, but his neurotic self-flagellation gets in the way, especially when faced with the aggressively-intellectual braggart Paul (Michael Sheen).

Paris, though, is inspiring, and he can barely walk ten paces without excitedly cataloguing the city’s rich artistic heritage. "Imagine this town in the 20s!" he raves, as Inez rolls her eyes and shops for furniture, with her equally disapproving parents (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller). Soon, Gil’s alone, wandering the streets and dreaming of the past. At which point, a church bell strikes midnight, and a vintage car stops nearby, ready to whisk him away on a jazz age adventure.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

[508] #Dissertension Done.

What now?

In the short term, I'm covering the London Film Festival for Den of Geek. Expect a preview soon, and some columns/reviews/coverage once the festival gets under way. Oh, and there's BytesCorp, which is taking off as a small production company. Crikey.

I'd like for the dissertation to find a larger readership than me, my tutor and the external marker. Sadly, 15,000 is a bit unwieldy. I'll think of something. Maybe a series of blog posts? We'll see.

Friday, 23 September 2011

[507] Dissertension

My original ambition was to blog along with my MA dissertation work, but due to many mitigating circumstances (BytesCorp, mainly), I'm up against the deadline. I'm powering through, though, and at quite a comforting speed, judging by the '#dissertension' hashtag stream. It's quite exciting to be laying tracks as you're motoring along them. Thankfully it's all coming together, and I'm enjoying it.

All will be back to normal service soon - within a week, in fact. Until then, wish me luck.

Monday, 19 September 2011

[506] Adventures in Comics: Orbital Self-Portrait Exhibition

Comics! Remember them? I sure do. It's been a little two-dimensional over here of late (Bytes-work and diss-work), but I still made the effort to go and check out the latest in a long line of ace exhibitions at Orbital Comics.

This time out, it's a bunch of self portraits from some of the UK's brightest comics stars. And what a lovely selection it is!

Filmish creator Edward Ross; and Ink+Paper editor David O'Connell (is that an... ostrich?)

Mancunian Master-comicker Adam Cadwell (who's always got his eye on you)

Timothy Winchester (+ some People He Knows)

It's another marvellous little exhibition from Orbital. What's surprising is how the bevvy of artists subvert the form of the portrait, breaking out of the imposed framing of yesteryear and really letting their personalities flow onto the page. Key examples range from Mark Stafford, who splashes his mug over a fake magazine cover, to Paul Rainey, who gives us a slice of middle-aged life (with a little touch of TMI...). Other ace contributions that I didn't photograph (or didn't photograph well) include Philippa Rice, Luke Pearson, Ellen Lindner (whose piece you can see here), Joe Decie and Tom Humberstone.

If you find yourself around Leicester Square, then make sure you check it out. The exhibition runs until the 15th of October, and you can read more about it here.

Edit: Artist and mega-blogger Sarah McIntyre beat me to the punch, not only by posting about this launch a full two hours before I did, but by snapping some awesome pictures of the artists alongside their portraits. Go and have a look.

Friday, 16 September 2011

[505] 30 Minutes Or Less (2011) Review

Here's my latest review for Little White Lies, which proves that I can be as snarky as the best of them. I'm thinking of ordering a rubber stamp which says 'insultingly phallocentric' and having my merry way with the DVD section in HMV.

A serious aside: I find it interesting how 30 Minutes Or Less is getting a much easier ride from UK-based reviewers than their US counterparts. My review has much more in common with Ebert, Brody and Corliss ('For a soul-sucking 83 minutes, you're trapped inside the film's tiny, ugly mind.'), while my colleagues on this side of the pond, from Peter Bradshaw to David Jenkins, seem to be innocently entertained by the flick. Bradshaw even gave it four stars! Curious.

As is becoming more common by the day, the best way to grasp deadbeat heist comedy 30 Minutes or Less is to look at how it treats not its male protagonists, but its female supporting characters.

There are only a handful of women in the film, and only two are given names in the credits. One of them is Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), the pretty, ambitious city professional who just can’t tear herself away from lead loser Nick (an improbable Jesse Eisenberg). The other is a callous stripper called Juicy (Bianca Kajlich), who seduces slacker extraordinaire Dwayne (Danny McBride) into formulating a plan to bump off his rich father.

Hackneyed caricatures, both, but at least they’re not relegated to the role of ‘Hot Girl’ or, heaven forbid, a cameo as the pliant chick who gives Nick’s best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) a supposedly uncomfortable, front-seat blowjob.

It’s not that the gents are any better filled out, but 30 Minutes or Less is entirely focused on their world, and is only interested in their manchildish dilemmas, exploring the conflict between laziness and responsibility while joyfully celebrating a lifestyle of film marathons, Call of Duty and Mountain Dew.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

[504] BytesCorp Website; Vigiden Teaser; Ed of the Week

Things are so busy at BytesCorp that this has to be a three-in-one update!

First of all, this week we released a short teaser for our upcoming project: VIGIDEN. It concerns Jeff Tozai. Where did he get to, after we left him in a London backstreet? What happened after he was manhandled by the fearsome Greek Ninten-dogsbody Andreas? And what's this about a news network for video games? All will be revealed soon. Thanks to Cathy Thomas for providing her voice for this.

Also, our website is now live, sporting some lovely artwork from Bytes-Cohort Ebony. Check it out, have a read, we're quite proud of it.

And, finally, our intrepid editor-cum-production-whizzkid Edward Szekely was profiled as part of the 'Job of the Week' feature over at the IdeasTap website, answering all of the questions you're dying to ask about being a Greenscreen Technician.

Some wise words in there, especially this quote from Lucille Ball:

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.”

On that note, I'd best get back to work. This dissertation isn't going to write itself, you know. In the meantime - spread the word, and give us some feedback, why don't you?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

[503] Artificial Intelligence, Episode One

The second episode of Artificial Intelligence is here! It's Episode One! Here's a blurb:

Welcome to the first official episode of Artificial Intelligence, a new fortnightly conversation about the growing relationship between the developing world of videogames, media, and culture. Matthew Burt, Joseph Ewens, and Michael Leader have been slaving away over a hot recording studio to bring you this finely cooked chunk of video game discussion.
This week they disentangle the increasingly symbiotic relationship between development studios and the communities that blossom around their games. Become a member of the AIPod community by firing your thoughts into the comment box below or sending us an email at

Go and listen. And here is a picture of where we record this seriously intellectual gaming podcast.


Mysterious, isn't it?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

[502] In Appreciation of Ryan Gosling

In anticipation of Drive, here's an article about Ryan Gosling, and his astonishing career so far.

It’s very easy to be cynical about Disney, especially when you look at their parade of child stars that fill up their various kids’ media organs. These tween pop sensations - the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, the High School Musical gang - seem to be bred for preening, sell-out stardom, pumping out CDs, merchandise and crowd-pleasing filler for as long as their corporate overlords wish.

Although, while the impulse to scoff is strong, it’s complicated by looking at the precedent set by the last generation of Disney kids. Back in 1993, if you were to spend some time with the Mickey Mouse Club, you’d see in premature form a bunch of pop culture notables, from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, to Justin Timberlake. The former have very much coloured mainstream music for over a decade now, and the latter, after doing the same, is now making a promising move into the movies.

He’s not the first, as he’s following in the footsteps of one of the quieter successes from the MMC line-up: Ryan Gosling. Alongside the world-conquering pop stars, Gosling may seem unassuming, especially when you look at the false-starts that marred his teenage years (one season as Young Hercules, another in high-concept teens-on-a-cruise series Breaker High), but his career in the last decade has been consistently surprising, daring and damn near unique in the current Hollywood landscape.

Read the full article here.