Thursday, 31 July 2008

Almost bought an iPhone today...

...but then I didn't.

...oh all right I'll expand a little. They only had the white ones, which I agreed to buy initially, begrudgingly, but then orange decided that they'd post my PUK, PIK, POK, PAK, WHACK, FLICK, FU... errr yeah, code to me (the arse bandits) so I decided that waiting in a shop until my parents could post it to me (as it goes to my billing address which is still my parent's house) would be a silly thing. So therefore no poncey white iPhone for me, thank PAK. So anyway, I will eventually get an iPhone, but in black, which will be fun.

So there you have it my first post in about a month or more and it was a pointless tail of gaining nothing. Hurrah.

Linkables 31/7/8

It's been mere moments since my last set of links, I know, but I've amassed a fair few over the last couple of days, and wanted an easy post before I head out this evening.

A great little mental monologue about being at work, and an introduction to darts, in case you were at all unfamiliar with it as a concept.

I wouldn't know good poetry if it carved a stanza into my forehead, but nevertheless, I was entertained by this poem.

I love the fact that this is just a post about a stuffed rabbit: It's hilariously cute.

A blog with a nicely self-explanatory name: Things younger than McCain.

What happens when Dave Gorman has to call technical support? (next week, what happens when David Mitchell has to unblock his sink? (not really))

A good analysis of the problems associated with translating in-game text (in this case from WoW) into other languages, from Kill Ten Rats.

If the word 'chav' is too offensive, how about we start using Lumpenproletariat? Greatest. Word. Ever.

And finally. Greyhound buses always seemed like a good, cheap way to see North America. Until Now.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Reviews: Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E

Both Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E are excellent films, let's make that clear right off the bat. Choosing between them, if that was what one was inclined to do, is very difficult, because they are both excellent examples of animated film-making. They are both impeccably animated, of course, with particle and hair effects as brilliant as we have come to expect, and with amazing attention to detail on models and backgrounds alike. There is really very little difference, aside from the superficial appearance, now between watching a straightforward movie and a high-budget animation.

Kung Fu Panda tells a very traditional rags-to-riches story, following the attempts of the Panda "Po" to join the legendary group of Kung Fu Masters known as the "Furious Five". It's a simple story, but it's told with a lot of care, and has a couple of nice twists to it. Really the enjoyment of the film comes from the interactions between the varied and colourful characters, voiced by an incredible array of high-profile names.

Really, there are probably too many named characters, and the Furious Five really acts more as a single character, with none of the individuals really getting much of a back-story or ever straying much outside their basic caricature. It's a pity that there wasn't more for them to do, but the remaining major characters are fleshed out well, and the relationships between them feel very solid. In particular Po (Jack Black), Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) as Po's trainer, and Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as Shifu's trainer, are all well rounded entities, and their relationship is explored in some depth.

The portions of the film not concerned with character development are, in the established tradition of Kung Fu movies, mostly concerned with fighting. And the fights are fantastic (in all senses of the word). Managing to walk the line between cartoon and realism and making fast-moving, hard-hitting Kung-Fu moves inventive, believeable and easy to follow, even during some extended fight scenes. The camera sweeps round the action, but never becomes distracting, and the whole thing is tweaked for cinematic thrill in a way that can make live-action fights seem overly staged. The beauty of animation is that these scenes fit in so well with the rest of the film that they never seem out of place at all.

Overall, the film is hugely enjoyable, and bounds along at a great pace. It keeps the mood relatively light throughout, despite the darkness of the Tai Lung character (Ian McShane). There are some great lines and moments of physical comedy during the calm scenes, and even the fights feel for the most part like contests of skill rather than life-or-death struggles. The message of the film is simple but it pulls it off in a polished and assured manner, and despite a few slightly underdeveloped characters, the film is a great success.


Wall-E is a massively ambitious project, but with "Finding Nemo" and "Cars" under their belts, Pixar have proved that they are the masters of the anthropomorphisation of anything and everything. Even making fish and cars seem lovable and human fades in contrast to the achievement of Wall-E, though, in which we identify with, empathise with, and totally invest emotionally in simple mechanical objects that can barely communicate. The first forty minutes or so play out as a little silent-movie (minus the occasional whistle or repetition of the characters names), while managing to introduce the characters and develop their relationship. As if that wasn't enough work, they decided to make a cockroach cute and loveable too (name me another film in which an audience sighs with relief when a cockroach survives being crushed).

On top of all this styalised storytelling, the plot is actually relatively deep, with the position of the humans in the story managing to form an interesting commentry on modern society without pushing the point enough to alienate younger viewers. The humans are portrayed as huge, docile beasts, trapped in technology, emotionally stunted and childlike, with the robots having replaced them as the world-changers, making decisions and shaping events. Not taking their eyes off the screens in front of them, humans seem to have forgotten any desire for tactile, face to face relationships, and so even in that, the robots overtake them, as we watch EVE and WALL-E overcome the massive difficulties they face to simply hold hands.

Clearly the film is not going to support a rigorous technical examination (I had to turn off the bit of my brain that was questioning technical aspects of the robots' behaviour), but it is not an Asimov story, and it's not trying to be. It has a massive amount of charm and beauty. There is humour and emotion in both the relationship of the main characters, and in the huge detail of the combined human/robot universe in which the story is set. There are moments of wonderful comedy and real sadness if you can let yourself be drawn into the story. And with a story presented with this much care and love, surely that can't be too much to ask of even the harshest cynic.

I don't really know what else to say, except that you should absolutely see this film if you have the chance.


It's worth mentioning as well the short films that go before the films are represented here again. With Kung Fu Panda, the short forms a part of the story, whereas with Wall-E it is a seperate entity, but they are both marvellous, and it's great to see examples of compact, funny storytelling finding a place in modern cinema.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Linkables 29/7/8

What's that? All I seem to write these days is links posts? Well I've got some more film reviews up my sleeve too - ha! That'll teach you to ask for variety!

Firstly, a few posts from Bête de Jour - if you're not reading him regularly, you're missing out. Speed Dating part 1, part 2, part 3 and the Virgin Media Sex Line Scandal.

How famous would you like to be?

Or would you just rather win arguments?

Story about watching Keith Chegwin opening a co-op. So far, so mundane, but it gets a bit more interesting when the man himself turns up in the comments too. Good to see he's in touch with the fans, anyway.

Finally, a book for all you prospective parents wondering how to introduce your child to the wonders of the internet.

Timon of Athens

My mother has been taking me to see Shakespeare plays for as long as I can remember, possibly since I was aged about 5. While one of my friends who did a Chemistry degree mused that this possibly constituted a form of child abuse, I've never minded and it's been an ambition of mine for a while now to see all of his plays performed in the course of my lifetime.

I'm certainly not doing too badly and to this end, when my parents asked what I'd rather do to celebrate my mother's birthday this year, I voted for going to see Timon of Athens at the Globe Theatre.

It is one of Shakespeare's least-known and least-performed plays. The programme notes for the Globe performance assume he co-wrote it with contemporary Thomas Middleton. The production is bold and innovative and makes full use of the Globe as a 3D performance space where actors are much more freely able to inter-act with the audience. I have noticed and loved this quality of performances at the Globe before and director Lucy Bailey makes full use of it.

The over-arching themes of the play are money and greed. The central character, Timon, is generous to a fault and is preyed upon by flatterers who are his friends only for as long as his money lasts. When he turns to them in need, they all refuse him. Cursing all mankind, Timon leaves Athens to live in the wilderness and eventually dies an outcast.

Bailey portrays these themes in an intensely visceral way. A net is suspended over the audience in which members of the cast, vulture-like, scrabble and scratch. At times they drop through holes suspended on bungee ropes to hover threateningly over the theatre-goers. Even when not acting as vultures, the costumes actors wear are distinctly straggly and birdlike in their appearance with wings and crests and tails.

When Timon is dying, he places two coins over his eyes and lies down. The first vulture to approach him tentatively removes the coins and then, gradually, they all descend on him and he is physically devoured by the entire cast. As I was sitting in a balcony, I had a particularly good view of this and it was a truly terrifying moment, particularly as once the body is gone, the remaining actors faces are streaked with blood.

The image of this play as unpopular and not recognised as one of Shakespeare's great works is a shame, and I think, undeserved. Whatever the reasons for it, this is an incredibly successful and enjoyable production and even if you only go as a groundling and pay a fiver for a standing ticket, I would urge anyone in London to get themselves to a performance pronto.

(Incidentally, the Shakespeare plays I have seen are as follows: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, Henry VII, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, The Tempest, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, A Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and the Merchant of Venice. Only another 12 to go.

The scary thing is that the list almost equals one Shakespeare play for every year of my life and I've seen several of those plays several times (most viewed are I think Hamlet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, the Winter's Tale and the Tempest). Also, I go to many theatrical and performing arts things beyond Shakespeare, which indicates that I must go on average between 5 and 6 times a year...

"As drunk by"

There is an advert on a phonebox in the town where I live which really annoys me for a number of reasons. It is an advert for Oasis fruit juices. The opening line of text reads "As drunk by Cactus Kid" and the caption at the bottom is "Oasis, for people who don't like water."

The reasons for the annoyance are manifold:
1. Although "As drunk by" may be grammatically correct (and I'm not entirely sure it is, but couldn't think of how else they could say it), the phraseology is awkward and sounds clumsy, which doesn't give a good impression of their brand image.
2. The picture shows a male figure who is a cactus with hair and face wearing a wife-beater vest. He has spikes. Although not apparently on the area of skin under the vest. He looks fairly buff and toned, for a young man who is a cactus. Are we to believe that one who is apparently bursting out of such a shirt, would not make holes on it with the spikes that would ordinarily cover his body? Maybe his vest is made of kevlar. It's this season's desert wear for the discerning follower of fashion. Or maybe he got a chest wax. Either way, it's weird.
3. And lastly, and most annoying: "For people who don't like water" doesn't make any sense whatsoever when referring to cacti. They love water, they just can't get enough of it. That's why they have the spikes, to minimize water loss through evaporation. Likewise the wax on the surface of the plant and the pleated folds in the structure of the plant to allow the plant to expand as it takes in water. To say a cactus, even an anthropomorphic catcus, doesn't like water is just plain ridiculous. Perhaps their slogan should have been "Oasis: for people who didn't take GCSE biology/geography and lack a basic understanding of the botany of cacti."

All this may sound frivolous, but it really annoys me when media of any kind, but particularly adverts as they're trying to sell you something, get something fairly major completely wrong.

Anyway, needless to say, I shall not be buying said juices on the basis of that advert. That, and the fact I think they taste disgusting.

Saturday, 26 July 2008


I have just returned from a thoroughly successful trip to the Comedy Store (success being measured in laughs, naturally), where myself and the group I was with, saw Nick Doody, Micky Flanagan, Will Smith, Jim Jeffries and an inexperienced Israeli comic who's name escapes me.

The four pros were excellent, with Smith's self-deprecating and Jeffries' outrageously offensive humour being particularly good. The Israeli newcomer faired less well - he seemed terribly nervous (as, I suppose, is to be expected), and rushed a lot of his lines. He then lost confidence with his jokes if they didn't seem to be getting a reaction, and cut a few short, seemingly before the punchline, which didn't help. He didn't get heckled particularly, and had some interesting stuff on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but ultimately wasn't able to deliver it effectively, which was a pity.

In any case, the comedy and company were as good as expected, but that's not necessarily the point of the post. At Earls Court station on the way home, I was waiting for a Wimbledon train, iPod in ears, minding my own business, when a guy walks past, glances at me and stops. He then steps back, points at me and says:

"xkcd for the win"

Indeed sir, indeed. I was, of course, wearing an xkcd t-shirt, though not one with an identifier on it, making the recognition all the more impressive.

Aside from the quasi-female perspective I get from strangers staring at my chest the whole time when I wear it, I've had a few semi-recognitious looks from people before, but never an outright endorsement.

Some people might have used this common understanding as a springboard into conversation, but being someone who is at best wary and at worst terrified of conversation with strangers, I smiled and nodded and shook his hand, and he went on his way.

It still totally made my evening.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Linkables 25/7/8

Following on from my post last week, here's an interesting personal account from inside the film industry focussing on the Bechdel Test.

Via Ryantowne, an account of the breeding properties of M&Ms.

The ants are back.

A particularly insightful Dinosaur comic.

And now, some humorous pictures from the internet:

from Toothpaste for Dinner:

it's sort of bad form to copy rather than linking them, but I emailed them to myself and don't want to trawl the archives looking for direct links.

and, you know tapestries? They're totally back in:

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Not-even-a-paragraph reviews

These reviews are for films that I saw earlier this year, but never got round to reviewing at the time. In general, I can't recall them clearly enough to do a long review, so I've just picked out the main points as I remember them:

American Pie for the YouTube generation. Funny in parts, though there's nothing particularly interesting about the story. Just about avoids the typical "teen movie" stigma with some witty lines and good main performances. For a night in with mates, you could do worse, if you've not got the energy to pay attention to a more accomplished film.

Great fun. Exudes quirkiness from every pore, mostly to its credit. The soundtrack got on my nerves a little, but it's a small minus point to a very good film. There's not a poor performance on show, and though the story was maybe a little fluffy at times, it has enough edge to be interesting. Escapism with a heart.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Rattles along well enough, and manages admirably to portray the complexities of Tudor court life. Eric Bana does well with what screentime he has, and I thought Natalie Portman was excellent as Anne Boleyn. Skims over too much politics to be particularly deep, and fills the gaps with soapy mush, unfortunately. Not a lost cause, though.

Vantage Point
Sets up a really interesting premise with the multiple-points-of-view idea, and then chucks it all away after an hour or so in favour of sub-Bourne chases and Hollywood cheese. While it keeps its premise, it's taut and interesting, though with possibly too many "major" characters. Afterwards, it's just smush.

Leans heavily on its "true story" origins, but few of the characters feel believable. Rather than an examination of massively intelligent people working a system, it feels too much like an Ocean's Eleven knock off. Laurence Fishburne is good, but gets practically nothing to do, and the whole last half hour seems contrived and silly.

The Science of Sleep
Really bizarre film, and not one to watch while sleepy yourself. If you can take a pretty serious dose of the crazies, there's enjoyment to be had in the interesting characters and the sweet central relationship. Don't expect anything approaching story resolution, though. Gets bonus marks for weird and wonderful set design.

Letters from Iwo Jima
Slightly incoherent look at the Japanese side of the battle for Iwo Jima. Large sections of the battle scenes are confusing, and though the "letters" concept gives it some structure, it feels slightly tacked on. I was pretty tired while watching it, so it's possible I need to see it again, but at a first viewing, I was disappointed.

Review: Wall E & Dark Knight

Wall E & Dark Knight
These films are both magnificent. Acting / animation, direction, plot, characters and just sheer quality is top notch in both. But more than anything, in both films you have the feeling that the everyone who made them really, really belived in and really, really loved the story and characters they were bringing to the screen.

Anyway, individually:

Wall E
The beauty of this film, the amazing character of the lead robots and the incredibly touching love story between them had me grinning, laughing (and crying, but only a little) pretty much from start to end. This is definitely one of the best animations I've ever seen and I urge you to seek it out.

Dark Knight
Dark is definitely the operative word here. This film is wonderfully dark in its portrayal of pretty much everyone. The Joker is truly fearsome and you really belive that Batman almost can't stop him and that he will taint and twist Gotham in on itself. Harvey Dent, Alfred, Lucious Fox, Lt Gordon are all excelent and fully involved in the plot. Basically this film is really good, my only complaint is that I'd managed to hype it up so much in my head that I couldn't enjoy it as something fresh. So I'm hoping to go again in a slightly more relaxed manner.

both 10/10

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Review: Persepolis

This was going to be a set of three reviews covering the three animated films I'd seen recently, but as usual I got carried away with the first one, and ended up with no time to do the others justice. Hence, just the one review:

Persepolis is an animated film following the young life of Marjane Satrapi, as she grows up in Iran and Austria. The story is adapted from Marjane's autobiographical comics, and covers her life from age 10 to her mid-twenties.

While I'm totally in favour of the idea that films don't necessarily have to have a "point" or a "message", and that such things shouldn't be crowbarred into a primarily autobiographical story, films that don't have some thematic focus run the risk of feeling flat. The early part of the story, in Iran, is set against the background of massive historical events, but some of the impact is lost because the story is told through a child's eyes. While it gives an interesting perspective, it also means that the memories (and hence the plot) are somewhat jumbled and disconnected. In contrast, the portions of the film set when the protagonist is older are told with more fluency and commentary, but cover less global and more personal developments.

I rarely feared for the main character, as she sometimes seemed more at risk of boredom than personal injury. This is not to say that there needs to be a physical threat like that to make things interesting, but I felt the story of a girl growing up in a muslim country and, certainly internally, challenging some of the social norms of the culture, would maybe have been more heavily challenged. As it is, she is constantly supported by her friends and family, and a lot of the interesting political or cultural clashes are glossed over.

Part of this reaction, no doubt, comes from the fact that I saw the film while in the middle of reading 'Infidel' by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which also describes the life of a girl growing up in a Muslim country, but with a far darker tone. I suspect that having this in my mind made the parallel experiences of Marjane seem less serious and left me looking for political commentary in the film that was perhaps not its intent. Nevertheless, the film does cover a number of dark events without really ever becoming too emotionally invested in them. Rather than reacting along with the protagonist, we are generally well aware that we're watching the events unfold, and certainly personally, I felt a certain disconnect from the emotional aspects of the film throughout.

There are some excellent parts to the film, and the presentation is great throughout, switching between semi-realistic and very stylised representations of the world and characters. As a coming of age story, it is entirely competant, and Marjane's personal journey is explored throughout, even if the fact that it is a partial autobiography leaves the ending somewhat unsatisfying.

Verdict: Stylish and well told, if lacking a little depth and punch.

Review Round-Up II: "Wall-E", "Cloverfield"

Wall-E [director: Andrew Stanton; stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard] - I'd heard good things about Wall-E going into it, but was a little apprehensive having had my first experience of an average Disney Pixar film in Ratatouille, which I'd found, whilst being superbly animated, to be a little thin when it came to characterisation and storyline. Luckily, Wall-E didn't disappoint. In fact, dare I say it, Wall-E is the best Disney Pixar film to date. Everything about it works, and works incredibly well. The story is simple, but told with such warmth, humour and skill that it works fantastically. You will warm to the eponynous robot within the first five minutes and be rooting for him until the very end. The script is witty and never gets in the way of telling the story. The majority of the characters are allowed to develop beautifully through what they do rather than what they say - it is a testament to the director Andrew Stanton that the characters I felt the greatest attachment to by the end were the robots, not the humans. The animation, as you'd expect in a Disney Pixar film, is never less than excellent. I find it difficult to pick out any flaws in Wall-E, and am sure it will go down as a cinematic triumph.

[director: Matt Reeves; stars: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T. J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel] - I saw Cloverfield at the cinema and enjoyed it a lot, although after seeing it my thoughts were "That film will either not work at all on DVD, or work even better than it did on the cinema". Having watched it for a second time on DVD, I can confirm that the latter scenario is just about true. The film definitely doesn't lose anything anyway. The handheld camera style is less distracting on the small screen (I occasionally found it a little too much at the cinema) and the fact that the film is presented as a home video means it feels at home being watched on a TV or computer. I largely enjoyed Cloverfield more on a second viewing - the story felt like it hung together a little better, and some of the dialogue came across as more natural than I remembered it being. That said, the character of Rob is still a little too far-fetched for my liking, and Hud the cameraman is still a little annoying at times (although I noticed this less the second time). Overall, Cloverfield is a highly enjoyable and successful disaster movie. The chosen presentation style is definitely more than just a gimmick that wears off after one viewing.

DVD extras: I picked up the two-disc edition of Cloverfield to get the full range of extras not included in the single disc version. Having explored some of them (but not all), the extras are on the whole worthwhile, but there's nothing mind-blowing. They are fairly standard fare - deleted scenes, blooper reel, feature on the special effects, and so on. There are two alternate endings, one of which I felt wasn't worth showing, and the other I felt was incredibly similar to the film's actual ending. My opinion may change once I've had a chance to view them all, but the extras to my mind are fairly average.
Film: 8/10
DVD extras: 5/10

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

And how did your evening go?

As a slight bit of back story, my phone has been periodically dodgy the last few months, occasionally resetting itself randomly. It'll go for days without doing it at all, and then it'll do it every 2 minutes for a couple of hours. Annoying, but every time I decided to replce it, it went through a good patch, and I convinced myself it wasn't worth it. I've never had any problems with signal.

Yesterday, as I was driving to Wimbledon, I clipped the edge of the concrete surrounding a bollard in the middle of the road with my tire. There was a thump, and the car was suddenly making a lot more noise. I didn't really know what had happened, so I turned into a side road and got out to check. What had happened was this:
So much for making a car journey that evening. I was meeting friends, so I jumped on a bus and resolved to come back the next evening and get the wheel changed. After all, how long could it take?

6:15 - I leave the house and walk 15 minutes up the road to where the car is parked, only to find I have no signal. I walk in ever increasing circles trying to find somewhere with signal that's also not too far away from the car (since they may need to call me back, if there's a problem, or they can't find me).

6:35 - I find a spot with signal and call my dad to find out where the breakdown membership card is. The signal dies before he can tell me.

6:37 - I find another spot with signal and call again. The signal dies again.

6:40 - I go back to the car and find the breakdown card. I try to call my dad again. The signal cuts out again just as he answers.

6:43 - I finally find somewhere with 4 bars of signal and call my dad to confirm which number I have to call, and make sure I haven't forgotten anything. The signal remains good, but the phone resets itself randomly in the middle of the call.

6:45 - I call back and the phone resets itself after one minute.

6:46 - I reset the phone manually, and watch it carefully - it seems to be behaving ok, so I call the breakdown service.

"Hi this is <breakdown service>, how can I help you?"

"I was hoping I could get someone to come out and help me with a puncture"

"Sure, no problem, just tell me -"

At which point the phone resets itself.

6:47 - I have a minor loss of composure and only just resist the urge to smash my phone into tiny pieces on the pavement.

6:48 - I start walking back home.

7:00 - I get home and ask my brother if I can borrow his phone. I can, but his phone has no credit on it. He goes to put credit on it.

7:02 - I get his phone, now with credit, and leave the house again, walking 15 minutes back up to the car.

7:17 - I get to the car and lay out all the information I'l
l need to call the breakdown service.

7:18 - I try to call the breakdown service but realise my brother's phone's keypad is locked and I have no idea how to unlock it.

7:20 - Press every conceivable combination of buttons. Phone remains resolutely locked.

7:21 - I lose composure slightly again and punch the car roof.

7:22 - Try to call brother using my phone, but hav
e no signal. Start walking to find signal for my phone.

7:30 - Find somewhere with signal, call brother. He tells me how to unlock phone, just before my phone resets itself.

7:38 - I get back to car and phone breakdown service. They will be with me "within the hour".

7:39 - I sit in car and wait for mechanic.

8:37 - Mechanic arrives to change wheel.
8:43 - Mechanic leaves, having successfully changed wheel.

8:47 - I get back home, tired, frustrated and mentally constructing a voodoo doll of my phone.

Marvellous. It's not like I wanted to do anything with my evening anyway...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Linkables 21/7/8

First of all, and if you never click on another link on a 'Linkables' post, click on this one, you have to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-along blog. It's a series of three very funny musical episodes centred on the eponymous Dr. Horrible, a supervillain-wannabe, constantly foiled by his nemesis, Captain Hammer. It stars Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillan, and is a great example of what you can do with minimal resources and lots of ideas (and some professional equipment and actors, of course...).

I'm a sucker for physics-based flash games, and Fantastic Contraption is a great example of the genre, forcing you to be resourceful, inventive and lucky, with a very simple interface.

The Last Stand and its sequel, are fairly standard mouse-click zombie killer games, but are well polished and have some nice touches. Addictive enough to cause me to shout at my computer when I lose, though that's maybe not saying much.

Convert your name into that of a Brazilian footballer. Don't ask why...

And finally a great example of the kind of well-written personal story that turns up all the time on Post of the Week, this time concerning a moving pub conversation.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Bon Anniversaire...

One year ago today, I sat down and wrote the first entry on this blog. There was no stated purpose to it, no niche to fill, no audience to satisfy - it was simply an attempt to develop a sustainable personal model for blogging. The ideal situation a year on (though I didn't specifically mention this in the original post) was that the blog would still exist and still be active. That people would be writing on it and people would be reading it. And in that sense, I am hugely pleased to have got this far.

I've been tracking the site since December on Google Analytics, and so I can give a run down of the trends from this year at least. The full report is a pdf, which you can have a look at here (it's not massive, and it's just the default report, but gives a good overview of the different things Google Analytics can track).

The basic visitor trend looks like this:
The spike near the beginning came just after Bambi wrote his review of the Chris Rock show, which brought in a ton of people over a couple of days. Reviews are the posts that bring in the most visitors in general (because they're the post titles that come up naturally in searches), with the most viewed post being my review of the Derren Brown show. It's difficult to pick out anything more complicated from the results, because the numbers are low enough that they could be thrown off by the writers visiting a couple of times a day to check comments.

Looking at visitor numbers is reasonably meaningless, in any case, because the point of the blog is not necessarily to attract random visitors, but to give a good central place for people who know each other to write about whatever they want. And in that sense the best period we went through was probably around April or May, where there was lots of posting activity on various topics, as well as comment thread discussions.

Since then things have died down somewhat, and I've felt myself slipping back into the old routine of trying to think up filler posts to keep the blog active and prompt others into writing. This is a pity, and I'd like to try to get back into the posting frequency and quality that we had earlier this year.

And so part of this post is to ask you what you think - whether you're a writer or not, and however you're reading this. What do you think of the first year? Is it interesting, are you enjoying reading what people write on here (and if you're writing, are you enjoying writing on here)? Are you writing as much as you would like, or is there anything I can do to help you write more (or write better)?

Are other people writing about the kind of things you want to read, or should there be more thematic elements? Do you comment on people's articles and do you check the comments of older articles to participate in discussions? What have you particularly liked or disliked about the posts in the last year?

Often when there are questions like this at the end of posts, they end up not getting answered by blog readers. If you don't comment (and there are people who are reading who don't, I can see you in the visitor logs :D), or don't comment often, is there any particular reason why not? Even if you're never going to comment again, please comment on this post and say why.

What should we be aiming for for the next year? More of the same? More writers? Fewer writers? A theme?

Regardless of the answers (or lack of answers) to these questions in the comments, I've very much enjoyed everything to do with this blog in the last year - and more and more so with each additional writer added to it - and I'm certainly going to make every effort to ensure that it will still be here in another 365 days time, whether exactly the same or unrecognisably different.

If there's nothing new to read at any point - try looking back over some of the older stuff. There's some good posts that I had forgotten about back there, that I definately enjoyed reading again a second time.

Hope you all have a good Sunday, and happy birthday to us!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Review: Grindhouse

Since I mentioned QT and Death Proof yesterday, I thought it was maybe time to get on with one of the reviews I've been putting off for so long...

As a big fan of both Rodriguez and Tarantino, the prospect of a themed double bill was massively exciting. Being too young to have any experience of the exploitation films in which the concept was born, I was interested to see whether the films would be able to stand up without any grounding in the reference material. The huge expectation was only equalled by the massive disappointment I felt when I discovered that the full "Grindhouse experience" was not to be played in the UK, with the two films being released seperately. Not only would we lose out on seeing the films back to back as they were intended, but also on the B-movie atmosphere set up around them, with an intermission and fake trailers.

Whatever the motivations behind the films being split, I resolved to avoid seeing either film until I could experience them together in their intended format, and luckily didn't have a huge amount of time to wait until there was a run of "proper" showings in Brixton. Since they are different films, I'll talk about them seperately, before doing a quick rundown of how I rated the whole experience.

I saw the films all the way at the back at the beginning of the year, so these reviews may be a little restricted by fuzzy memories, and by my intense desire not to spoil bits of Death Proof for anyone who hasn't seen it. Apologies, hope there's some interest to be got from them:

Planet Terror:

Robert Rodriguez's film was the first to be shown: a darkly comic zombie movie with a large ensemble cast. It's a very enjoyable watch, as long as you don't mind a large amount of pretty graphic (if mostly cartoonishly-over-the-top) gore, and has a tight script to back up the visual extravagance. In particular, the characters, despite remaining essentially caracatures (something of a necessity, given the large cast and hence their limited screen time), are engaging and solid. There's a good chemistry between the actors, and everyone keeps the acting tongue-in-cheek most of the time, ensuring that the movie never starts taking itself too seriously.

The acting is so consistently high it feels slightly wrong to pick out particular roles, but nevertheless if I had to choose, I thought Rose McGowan balanced being funny, sexy and deadly brilliantly, and Josh Brolin is fantastic as the dark, brooding, Dr. Block. Freddy Rodriguez also deserves mention for leading the ensemble admirably. If there was a weak link, it was maybe Tarantino's "cameo", which I felt was a little too long and over-the-top, and doesn't quite gel with the feel of the rest of the movie.

The plot covers both the tension of the initial zombie outbreak and the frenetic action of the fight scenes well, though it maybe loses its way slightly, right at the end. Nevertheless, once the pace gets going it never lets up, and the suspensful hospital scenes at the beginning contrast well with the action-oriented finish.

Overall, I really enjoyed Planet Terror's witty and knowing approach to the zombie movie concept, and it handled with inventiveness and pace what can be a predictable genre.

Death Proof:

It's difficult for me to describe Quentin Tarantino's film, because watching it without knowing anything about it was massively enjoyable. I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it and is planning to, to do so without finding anything out, since it adds masses of suspense to both halves of the film. I'll try not to give too much away in any case, but consider yourselves warned.

I can't find the exact quote, but I remember Mark Kermode talking about Quentin Tarantino and saying that "no one in the world talks the way Tarantino's characters speak". And it's true. The characters in this film talk in the strange plodding, purposful dialog that we can see in all of QT's films, and which doesn't seem to have any relation to the way that people talk in real life. If you can let yourself settle into his world, however, the script really does work - despite watching them talk about basically nothing, you feel like you know characters very quickly. Both halves of the film have extended sequences of chatter, which are massively difficult scenes to keep dynamic, but the vitality of language and sparkling performances ensure that they never feel dull, and left me really caring about the characters.

Backing up the script are a succession of great performances, and I really can't pick out a weak link this time. The standout has to be Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike - it's really difficult to describe why without spoiling it, but his performance in the conclusion of the first half of the story is amazing. Indeed the whole first half of the film packaged up could be presented as its own dark little mini-movie.

The only nitpick I have with the whole thing is that I felt slightly let down by the very end. Where the rest of the film is painfully realistic at times, it descends slightly into cartoon, and I thought it detracted from the film as a whole. Not enough to make the film a very enjoyable (and emotional) experience, and not enough to cause me to recommend seeing it any less.

The Grindhouse Experience:

I couldn't be more glad that I waited to see the films as I did. While you wouldn't necessarily lose anything from the individual movies by watching them seperately, it was the event as a whole that was special. The trailers and fake cinema announcements were small touches, but ones that had been worked hard on, and they turned it from simply a double bill into a carefully crafted experience. It would have been very easy for Tarantino and Rodriguez to just make their own movies, distributed in the usual fashion, but to collaberate and create something both impressive and unique is a real achievement and I'm very happy I got to see it properly.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Pulp Feminist

Via various links today I came across the Bechdel Test, a set of criteria to determine whether or not a movie is "worth watching". The criteria are as follows:

  1. It has to have at least two named female characters in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
and originate in this comic strip.

An interesting idea, and though no better or worse than any other way of determining a film's watchability, the scarcity of good examples does highlight a serious issue in how women are presented in film. I'm not an expert on either women or film, but I'm struggling to come up with well known (or, say, high budget) films that satisfy these conditions.

That is to say, I was struggling, until I remembered Quentin Tarantino. With Death Proof and Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 under his belt, he's a regular feminist filmmaker. The realisation was inspired by this post (which contains minor Death Proof spoilers).

I can't think of a huge number of other films at this hour (though I'm sure there are at least a few), and am struggling to get far past Thelma and Lousise (which is kind of a cheat, and which I haven't seen) and Tideland (which I didn't care for).

Ooh, also, The Village and Sin City (just) which are at least films I have seen and do like.

Can you think of others? Or can you think of other ludicrously simplistic criteria for determining "watchability"?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Beard Update 2

Ok, not the world's most important posting topic (and about the least interesting post title ever), but I've trimmed down my beard. I didn't take a "before" photo, so you'll have to imagine, though it looked pretty similar to how it looked back here, but a little longer and more unkempt. In any case, here's the new look. I'll probably trim it back a couple more times before going back to clean shaven.

I'm not precluding the reappearance of the full beard, and I definitely like the way I look with it, but it's quite itchy in the summer heat, and since the novelty's worn off, I'm heading back to a less hirsute look. For now...

(Of course, if the new goatee gets a lot of positive attention, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that I'll keep it.)

Linkables 15/7/8

There was a great series of pictures in the Guardian, looking at the different conditions local administrators in different countries work in, with most earning tiny amounts. One Liberian policemen earns the equivalent of £9 a month, which seems like a ludicrously small amount. For him, looking at someone in this country earning £24k is equivalent to us looking at a Premiership footballer earning £100,000 a week.

In any case, I can't find the photos online anywhere, which is a pity, but there's a series of photos here showing families from different parts of the world with their weekly food shopping. It's pretty humbling to see what people at the lower end of the budget spectrum are able to live on.

Those photos were originally on the Time site's photos of the week display, which is worth a look if you like great topical photos.

Then we have this cool css manual animation. Every time I see one of these, I think they'd be great as an art installation somewhere, where walking along a particular track made it seem like static sculptures contained moving figures.

Finally, this article on UKPollingReport led me to these interesting YouGov results comparing UK and US attitudes to society and politics. Most interesting in my opinion is the differences in the answers on religion:

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Off the record.

Recently, when reading articles, both on blogs and in newspapers, online or off, I've started to get annoyed about the manner in which quotations and interviews are dealt with.

Using quotations is a vital part of reporting, since it provides a factual and accountable basis for the story being reported, ensuring that it is grounded in something more than rumour and hearsay. Without some sort of an official quote or statement, there would be no way of distinguishing a reputable, investigated, story, from something potentially biased, or simply fictional.

However, the presence of quotations alone, is not enough to guarantee reliability of message or truthfulness of reporting. More and more, it seems that people are concerned about their words being taken out of context, twisted, or otherwise used to make a point other than that which they were trying to make. Whether or not this is something interviewees genuinely need to be afraid of, it seems to me that the way in which quotations are used in articles could be a factor in this fear.

Often quotes are scattered throughout a piece, with no sense of coherence or thread. There is no indication of the order of the statements, and in the case of an interview, often no indication of the question asked. Sometimes single words are used as quotes, so-and-so was "disappointed" with the reaction, or "frustrated" about the process. These single word quotes may be useful to back up a point as valid, but they really offer no guarantee of reliability without an idea of the original context of the word.

As an example (and the example that prompted me to want to write this post), take this article on the f-word about their reaction to recent changes in the mayoral offices. The f-word post in this instance is fine - there is a link to the source, and the quote is long, accurate and contextual. The Evening Standard piece to which they link, however, presents more problems.

Firstly, it follows the pattern I mentioned earlier, with quotes from at least two sources scattered around, often short, even single words. There is no indication as to whether the quotes were gained from a press conference, an interview, or simply in the normal business of the London Assembly. Finally, the headline contains a quote which doesn't appear in the article and doesn't appear to be attributed to anyone.

I'm not an expert on journalism or any of the processes involved in producing an article of this kind, but as a reader I have encountered situations more and more frequently where I would like to read the original transcripts of press conferences or interviews in order to gauge for myself whether or not I feel the reporting is accurate and faithful. I don't know the law surrounding ownership of transcripts, and accept that for print publications it might be more difficult, but on the internet I would really and genuinely like to see at least a link to the original source of a quote in full wherever possible.

I feel personally that this would make me feel more comfortable that the journalist and the publication were confident that they were not misrepresenting the people they were quoting, and would allow me to argue more efficiently if I wanted to further investigate or disagree with the interpretation presented by an article.

Anyone with any more experience (*ahem* Hannah *ahem*), or just their own opinion, want to comment on any of that?


Over the past week or so I've had the opportunity to watch several films, but rather than writing a long film review of each one I'm going to have a go at doing some snappy one-paragraph reviews. This is due in part to the fact that I feel my film reviews are a little long-winded at times, coming out lengthier than I intended and not saying an awful lot, and also because for a few of the films I don't have a great deal to say.

* * * * *

Hancock [director: Peter Berg; stars: Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron] - A thoroughly enjoyable film which never drags. Smith creates a believable, finely crafted and funny hero in Hancock, and Bateman and Theron support well. The script is sturdy, although it occasionally feels a bit out of its depth within its own mythology, especially during the second half of the film. The film presents an original concept and for the most part carries it off very successfully. Verges on the over-sentimental towards the end; any faults are minor niggles however in what is a very good film.
"The bastard offspring of...": Superman and The Big Lebowski

Eagle vs Shark [director: Taika Cohen; stars: Loren Horsley, Jermaine Clement, Joel Tobeck] - This film had me smiling from start to finish. Regularly very funny with superbly crafted comic characters. Clement and Horsley have fantastic chemistry throughout and bring a great deal of depth and heart to the characters of Jarrod and Lily respectively. The quirkiness of the film's execution, coupled with the fact that it is firmly rooted in geek culture and proud of it, gives it an incredibly authentic feel and helped me to buy into the story's universe. Crafted and scripted to near perfection. Excellent.
"If this film was having a dinner party it would invite...": Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and The Royal Tenenbaums

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford [director: Andrew Dominik; stars: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell] - Consistantly excellent from start to finish in every way. Slow moving all the way through which requires a level of commitment by the audience, but the steady pacing benefits the film overall giving it a highly polished and epic quality. The scenery and settings are captured beautifully throughout adding to the quality of the film. The cast as a whole are fantastic, but Pitt and Affleck give outstanding performances from start to finish, with Affleck in particular giving what is surely a turn that will help to define his career as a superb actor.
"If this film had to name its top three favourite films it would say...": Unforgiven, The Godfather Part II and Hamlet (Branagh, 1996)

Persepolis [director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud; stars: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Sean Penn, Iggy Pop, Gena Rowlands] - Very interesting in its presentation of the historical, social and political background and landscape of Iran over the past few decades. Despite this potentially loaded storyline, the film never feels like it is preaching nor does it slip into the realms of propoganda. The animation is very stylish throughout and was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. The point upon which the film as a whole hangs is that it is essentially the life story of one person; there is little indication as to whether Marji's experiences are typical or unusual compared to what others would have been experiencing. That said, as a biographical film it is entertaining and well made.

Seraphim Falls [director: David Von Ancken; stars: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Angelica Huston] - Consistently above average, but never much more, and never really attempts to raise the bar in what it aims for. Brosnan and Neeson both do well throughout, but I've seen both give stronger performances in the past (however I couldn't help but wonder why they had cast two Irish actors in two unquestionably American lead roles - their accents were commendable, but never perfect). The vast majority of the rest of the cast never have enough time to develop past one-dimensional characters who I cared very little about. The script ventures into the over-sentimental once or twice, but remains fairly rigid apart from that. There are some interesting ideas introduced towards the end of the film, in particular Angelica Huston's character, but these aren't given nearly enough time to develop into anything meaningful and end up feeling like wasted opportunities. A very watchable Western film; enjoyable, but nothing spectacular.

Kung Fu Panda
[director: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne; stars: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane] - The key to this film's success for me was its simplicity. The story never gets tied down in over-complex plot tangents, with a definite beginning, middle and end. The plot never gets dull and never lingers, meaning there was no chance to get bored of any part of it. The character of Po the panda is well crafted and the vocal talents of Black fit superbly. Master Shifu is also a fantastic character voiced ably by Hoffman, who makes the character seem incredibly real. The rest of the characters provide a fun and lively backdrop to Po's journey. I would have liked more depth included in the Furious Five - only Tigress receives any form of backstory, and this is only a glimpse - but including more would have lengthened and probably slowed down the pace of the film. The script is not laugh-a-minute, and the comedy comes mainly from slapstick and action sequences, but there is enough humour to keep the film firmly and satisfyingly entertaining.
"The missing link between...": Shrek and Kill Bill Vol. 1


* * * * *

Let me know what you think about doing film reviews in this fashion and how well you think this has worked as a blog entry. I feel that the shorter style of film review has worked better for me in condensing what I want to say down to the essentials without rambling on.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

This post may leave you nonplussed

This discussion on ask metafilter (and yes, I'm going to keep starting my posts like that until you guys start reading it...) led me to (and reminded me of) a whole bunch of linguistic goodies.

I was already aware of the excellent Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo and Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den. I'm always less impressed by the more common ambiguous sentences that are usually trotted out in these kind of discussions because it seems like they generally rely on a specific absence of punctuation to provide their ambiguity.

Something linked from the discussion that I was not previously aware of is the concept of Garden Path sentences. These take advantage of the way our brains process sentences word by word to confuse us - the first portion of the sentence appears to lead us in one direction (up the garden path) before a word at the end changes the meaning of the whole thing. The mental dissonance is so great that it generally requires you to go back and read the whole sentence again to pick up the actual meaning. In addition to the wikipedia article, there's a list of them here.

On the subject of sentences that take a second or two to unravel, I don't know if there's a particular name for it, but I love the idea that "The mouse the cat the dog bit chased ran away" is a grammatically correct sentence.

And in terms of strange constructions, a while ago I came across the concept of a "quine". In computing, it's a self-replicating program, while in linguistics it's a sentence fragment, which, when combined with itself in quotation marks, forms a complete sentence. There seems to be no resource for this idea (it's not even in wikipedia), but it appears to originate in a fairly obscure book by Douglas Hofstadter. Without more resources to link to, there's not a lot else I can say about this, but an example of a quine would be "is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh", since

"is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh" is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh.

is a grammatically correct sentence. If not a logical one.

And finally, we remind ourselves of the delightfully contradictory two meanings of the word "nonplussed".

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

A word is worth one one-thousandth of a picture

I have a couple of film reviews I want to write here (one that I even got as far as starting today), but I don't feel I'd be able to do the films justice at the moment, so instead here's another whatchamacallit from Alex's blog (he's giving me some decent material at the moment). Visit Wordle, it's ace. It creates a word-picture of a website. The bigger a word is in the picture, the more frequently it has been used on the website. Here's FOTSLJW's Wordle:

I like how the word "film" dominates, especially as films are only really a small part of the gargantuan pile of bollocks we spout here. I like it though, and like the effect.

Real posts soon, I promise.

Wait, where am I?

I had a read through this discussion on ask metafilter about levels of geographical knowledge amongst the general public (possibly inpired by these kinds of videos). While we can all indulge in the old pasttime laughing-at-the-ignorant-Americans, it's also important to remember how selective presentation can bias the views of these kinds of results, both in terms of compilations of clips, where we don't see all the people who got the question right, and in stats we're just given at face value:

For example with the "33% of young Americans cannot find Louisiana on a map" instance, you could have a situation where you took 100 people and asked them to correctly label certain states or even all 50 states. Regardless of their overall performance at the task, you could just take the one they most frequently failed to identify correctly and highlight that single data point, even if the complete statistics reflected a much higher level of geographic knowledge. I'm not saying that's the case here but that's a general way these things can be distorted.

And linked from the thread is this discussion of the different ways that survey results can be deliberately and accidentally misinterpreted.

Some of the points in the thread were also about the actual difficulty in some apparently simple tasks:

Have you ever looked at an unlabeled map and tried to identify Iraq? It's a dinky little country that's smushed in the middle of a bunch of larger countries. It's pretty hard to identify. [...] Anyway, the point of maps is that they are labeled [sic] so that you can look at them to find out where things are. In fact, the whole idea of a map presupposes that you don't know where things are.

While it's important to have a general sense of geography, I take this poster's point that being able to point out the location of a particular country on a map says nothing about general geographical knowledge, or indeed anything else. I'm not sure I could place Iraq on a map, or even on a map of the Middle East.

In any case, it made me want to give my geographical knowledge (or lack of it) a test, so I trawled through my old links and found some tests to try.

First this relatively simple general world trivia test, on which I scored about 75%. It gives a good breakdown of the correct answers afterwards, so you can see how you compare to the rest of the public.

Then there's a series of 'name-as-many-as-you-can' games. I did ok on European countries, worse on US states and abominably on African countries.

In case you want to try these out, I've put my results behind links so that it doesn't spoil your efforts:

Embarrassing lack of knowledge about Europe.
Embarrassing lack of knowledge about US states.
Embarrassing lack of knowledge about Africa.

(The ones in red are the ones I failed to identify.)

Finally, according to this data, consistently over the last 20 years, 25% of people are unsure whether the earth goes around the sun or vice versa, and up to half of respondents were unable to say how long the earth takes to orbit the sun. However you try to spin that, that's bad.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Linkables 7/7/8

Just a few today. Mostly some strange but enthralling games from the creator of the 'falling sand' 'game' (via jayisgames, of course). If you like your flash games to be less about the anthropomorphic animals in drug-induced situations, then you could try the monumentally addictive "Trick Hoops"

Via POTW, an interesting analysis of the recent water contamination problems, and a great little story about breakfast in bed.

And finally a video explaining why tech support always sound pissed off with you.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I can't comment on the quality of his cakes.

I've just finished watching the Wimbledon men's singles final, and I feel exhausted. I remember the final last year as being an amazing contest, and had great expectations of this one; expectations that were fulfilled and exceeded. Both Nadal and Federer had essentially breezed to the final, looking more skilful and powerful than every opponent they faced, but when facing one another, they were so incredibly closely matched that it once again took five sets to separate them.

In terms of the game itself, Nadal had the strength advantage, and never seemed to tire, while Federer showed the brilliant combination of placement and positioning that we know him for. Rallies that would have stood out as the rally-of-the-match in any other game came again and again, as each player pulled out incredible strokes just when a point seemed lost.

Throughout the back-and-forth, I wanted Federer to break Bjorn Borg's record and take his sixth Wimbledon title, and I wanted Nadal to take his first Wimbledon title. I wanted Federer to bounce back from his defeat on clay, and I wanted Nadal to become the first player since Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. I wanted Federer to continue to exude his incredible dominance over this competition, and I wanted Nadal to dethrone him.

Ultimately, I didn't want the match to end, and it did its best to accommodate me on that. It was a pity in the end that it had to finish in semi-darkness: perhaps the roof that will be available next year would have made a difference, preventing the 90 minutes lost to the elements, and I hope that the conditions did not contribute Federer's final dropped serve (though he mentioned the darkness in the interview, he was far too much of a gentleman to blame it).

In some sports you can overlook the crippling blow of a defeat like this on the losers, but in a contest lasting so long, and without a team to back you up, it seems so much more personal and devastating, especially since the professional attitude of both players has always been exemplary, in both victory and defeat, both on and off the court. I really hope that this isn't the beginning of the end for Federer - though no one other than Nadal looks even close to him, the loss of two Grand Slams so close together is a psychological blow that will take a lot of recovery.

In any case, the atmosphere and excitement had me shouting and gasping, even watching it alone, and the sheer quality on show was enough to make this a game worth seeing, even without the bonus of it being a Wimbledon final. If you are a tennis fan and you missed it, you missed out, and if you aren't a tennis fan, and this game failed to convince you that tennis is an exciting, atmospheric and emotionally draining game, then nothing will.

As a final point, during one of the rain breaks, they mentioned that there is a quote above the entrance to Centre Court from the Rudyard Kipling poem "If" (I know nothing at all about poetry, but this is one of a handful of poems I know and like). They then showed a montage of clips of Nadal and Federer, with a classical soundtrack overlayed with both men reading extracts from the poem. Being caught up in the occasion and all, it was really very moving, and seemed to fit in perfectly well with the scale of the occasion, especially with the personal touch of having the two competitors read the poem.

I really wanted a better picture of it, but this is the best Google could offer.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

- Rudyard Kipling

UPDATE: a video of the segment from the tennis. Thanks to WorldWone for the link.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Film Review: "The Incredible Hulk"

Release date: 13th June 2008
Certificate: 12A
Director: Louis Leterrier
Stars: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt

If I'd grown up in the United States, I have no doubt that I'd now be a comic book geek. The fact that the latest Marvel and DC comics aren't readily available to pick up on the shelves of supermarkets and newsagents in the UK is the only reason of which I can think that the adventures of all the most well-known superheroes weren't a big part of my childhood. The return of the comic book blockbuster movie, not seen since Tim Burton directed Batman almost two decades ago and Christopher Reeve played Superman even longer ago than that, has therefore been something I have relished - a chance, almost, to live a part of my childhood that should have been there but wasn't.

The Incredible Hulk is a comic book character who, I must admit, never fully captured my imagination. That said, when I saw Ang Lee's attempt at bringing the not-so-jolly green giant to the big screen in 2003, I enjoyed it, apparently more than most. It was far from the best film I'd ever seen, but it was enjoyable enough as a comic book action film. The film was largely panned, however, for a wide array of reasons. Marvel's decision to make a Hulk film so soon after Lee's picture, but not make it a sequel to the 2003 film, was a bold move. The film was originally intended as a sequel, but all ties to the first film were severed to try to give the franchise a fresh start. It has even been described as a "reboot" in the same vein as Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Unfortunately, The Incredible Hulk doesn't even come close to doing for The Hulk what Nolan's film did for Batman.

From the start, The Incredible Hulk seems unsure of its intentions. You are presented with the back story - the transformation of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into The Hulk by gamma radiation - as the opening credit sequence. And already the confusion with the connection to the 2003 film begins. Is this a recap of the last film, like Marvel do in their Spider-Man franchise? Or are we being shown this to set the film apart as its own venture? It isn't made clear, and things are muddled further through the opening scenes of the film set in Brazil - the country in which Lee's film concluded. Unless the viewer has done some background reading into the film's production, this is one of the most confusing openings the film could have had in terms of setting it apart as a "reboot".

Unfortunately, The Incredible Hulk has very few redeeming features. The casting of Edward Norton, Tim Roth and William Hurt was one of the big reasons I wanted to see this film, all being highly respectable and, for the most part, reliable actors in terms of the films they make. It's not as if any of them do badly either. All three are as good as they potentially could be. The script they are having to deliver, however, sucks out of their performances any feeling or depth their characters could have had. At one point, before a battle with The Hulk, a fellow soldier asks Roth's character Emil Blonsky "How do you feel?". Roth replies "Like a monster". First of all, we have seen Blonsky begin to transform literally minutes before, so we don't really need him to tell us he feels like a monster. Secondly, who talks like that? The same can be said for most of the dialogue throughout the film: flat, lazy and largely unnecessary.

CGI is not something for which I generally go to see a film. The few times I have seen a film with the computer wizardry as the main draw, I have generally come away disappointed (Transformers, anyone?). The Incredible Hulk in many ways had the CGI opportunities handed to it on a plate. Big green monster who likes to attack things. Perfect. On paper at least. But Leterrier's Hulk isn't that big, isn't that green, and doesn't actually attack a great deal during the film. When he does it seems to be over just as it was getting started. The final fight scene is largely underwhelming, coming down to a CGI fistfight that never really gets going. Some of the action scenes also suffer from the same problem that I remember Transformers having - the screen becomes much too busy, making what you end up seeing become a confusing mess. Again, the final fight comes to mind as a prime example of this. That said, by the time the film's climax came around, I didn't care a great deal.

The biggest flaw in The Incredible Hulk is the plot development, in that there isn't a great deal, and what there is never has a chance to become anything more than one-dimensional and pointless. The film never really decides whose story it's telling - you'd think Bruce Banner's, but the focus often shifts to both Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), her father (William Hurt) and Blonsky - and none of the characters are developed enough to give their story or motives any real meaning. The film bumbles along for pretty much the entirety of its near two-hour running time, linking development scenes that never seem to have a true purpose and which introduce characters in a fairly haphazard fashion with underwhelming action sequences.

The final scene of the film does contain a twist of sorts, and to me felt like the most worthwhile part of the film even though it was only around a minute long. Once I'd seen the scene, I almost said to myself "So that's why they made this film". It really did feel to me like the entire film had been building to that final development, reducing The Incredible Hulk to an overlong DVD extra to another comic book film.

Verdict: The Incredible Hulk feels like a real missed opportunity. The acting talent is squandered through poor scripting and a weak, at times almost non-existent, plot. The CGI is average and never redeems the film as an action film. Ironically, I remember enjoying Ang Lee's Hulk five years ago a lot more than this, a film made to repair the damage Lee's film apparently did to the Hulk franchise. Lee's film at least explored the psychological aspects of Banner's transformation. Leterrier's film doesn't have any characters who go deep enough for that kind of treatment. A successful Hulk film to me would have to be a lot darker than The Incredible Hulk. A real disappointment.


Friday, 4 July 2008

Review: House of Wax

I actually saw HoW quite a while back, but I'm still catching up with the reviews I failed to write at the time. For whatever reason I needed to release some bile tonight, so the possibility of doing this felt perfect:

I'm generally pretty picky with the films I watch. Not because I'm a snob, thank you very much, but because there are enough high quality things to watch that I get annoyed if I feel like I've wasted a couple of hours on something that wasn't worth it. Hence, I generally pre-screen a lot of my viewing with recommendations from friends etc (as far as I can, given my deathly fear of spoilers).

Sometimes, however, I have no input in the choice of film, and so I have to hope that those that do choose choose wisely. In the times when this process reaps rewards, I get to see things like Fight Club, Equilibrium and the Matrix for the first time. In the times when it does not, I get to see Stealth, Legally Blonde 2 or, on this occasion, House of Wax.

To say that House of Wax has no redeeming features is perhaps unfair. It is at least coherent, it proceeds from scene to scene in something resembling a storyline, and even if the entire process reeks of cookie-cutter slasher-movie, it deals relatively well with whatever originality it can find in a rehashed story.

The script and acting are not just forgettable, but also for the most part awful. The only character who inspires any positive reaction from the audience is Elisha Cuthbert's, and even then, the character never extends beyond the well-trodden damsel-in-distress role. It's not even as if the other characters are unlikeable; unlikeable I can deal with; unlikable can be a winning characteristic. These characters are just cardboard cutouts. They are actors reciting exposition and nothing more. They never feel like a group of friends, there is no chemistry, there is nothing. There is a scene in which Paris Hilton strips, which feels awkward and uneccessary, and in that sense, fits in perfectly with the whole style of the rest of the film.

The film feels like it was filmed on a camcorder, but rather than adding a sense of claustrophobia, it just feels amateurish. The special effects are well done, on the whole, but that's just standard fare nowadays. There's an attempt to have a darker theme running under the movie, with the antagonists backgrounds being explored, but it never feels like anything more than a cover story for a slasher flick.

In order to be watchable, this film would need a script that gave its characters some substance and the actors to pull it off. Without them, it's just an empty, eggshell-thin covering over a void where it's soul should be, devoid of meaning or point. It has no reason for existing, and has nothing to offer. It is a no-trick pony, getting by on things that have been done a million times before, and better. If this film were a person, it might even be Paris Hilton, which would be really rather depressingly appropriate.