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.