Tuesday, 28 April 2009

I'm a mucking genius!

So I've kinda been without a proper computer for a while now since I fried my graphics card by having a computer case that's seems to be live (I get minor shocks from it and can cause little sparks when disconnecting things) and changing between my PC and xbox connections on my monitor, thus sending a charge down the vga cable (not good). This hasn't been a major issue really as Joe kindly lent me his laptop and I'm got on and have been researching laptops etc. However I recently bought some new cds not really thinking about how i'd get them onto my iPhone so i could listen to them on the way to work. I did manage the other day to get a signal from my graphics card, all be it very messed up, but then promply fried it some more and it now just doesn't work. This meant I had no way of getting my music onto my phone as I can't see to add it to iTunes or put it onto my phone and if I try connecting my iPhone to another computer it asks me to wipe all the data, not what I was hoping for. So along comes the concept of remote desktop, which i pretty much instantly ignore as I can't see to set it up. However today a client used gotomypc.com to log onto their pc, which seemed like something easy to set up and easy to get working. So I tried after I got home and unfortunately failed as I was working completely blind and even when doing it on the laptop at the same time I had no reference and no idea if I had just done something wrong. I then stumbled on the idea of using XPs built in narrator to tell me what I was doing. After a bit of mucking about I got the little microsoft Sam dude to tell me what was going on on the computer with no graphics card. And after a bit of tabbing and shortcutting I managed to get gotomypc installed and running on my PC, which I am now connected to and typing this entry from. Meaning I can add my music and fell all warm and fuzzy inside. I really never though I'd have a use for narrator and have in the past removed it's shortcut from the computer, how glad I am I didn't the last time I reinstalled my PC. Woop.

Getting along famously.

I was sitting in a restaurant yesterday with some friends, discussing the Apprentice.

I have mixed feelings about the Apprentice - on the one hand, it is clearly entertaining and compelling; finding the balance of I-could-do-that-task-better-than-them optimism and that-guy's-a-total-twat judgmentalism that makes Big Brother draw in so many viewers, while managing to avoid the feeling (a feeling I cannot escape with BB) that you're watching a bunch of mentally ill people being poked with a stick. On the other hand, it still feels awfully constructed - it may be "reality television", but it's not real people that we see every week, but the most entertaining facets of carefully selected people, smushed together into a nightmarish caricature of management speak and pressure-based utterances. I'd be lying if I claimed not to enjoy it, but the fact that what we see on screen has been so carefully constructed, edited and synced in order to entertain us, then taking anything other than entertainment away from it would be dangerous. Essentially, it's easy to say "Ben's such a twat", or "What kind of moron doesn't know how to wash a car", but since there's no way of knowing the origins, circumstances and hidden structures of what we're seeing on screen, I find it easier to watch as some sort of semi-improvised social fiction than any kind of actual contest or game.

Anyway, I was sitting in a restaurant yesterday with some friends, discussing the Apprentice, when they both revealed that they watched it while reading along with the Guardian's live blogging of the show.

"Oh", said I. "Is it any good?".

"Oooh yes", said they. "It's done by Anna Pickard. She's brilliant".

"Aha!", I pounced. "She's my cousin!".

So there you are. I officially claim my position as the relative of a famous person, as accredited by this unprompted name-dropping by someone who didn't know.

My cheque, I assume, is in the post.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Linkables 27/4/9

Schadenfreude ahoy at FML. Clearly there's no way of telling whether they're genuine or not, but either way, they're great little dark single-paragraph stories. Some ones that particularly made me laugh/squirm: 1 2 3 4

Australian judge fails at lying.

Mandatory link to GraphJam graph, PictureIsUnrelated picture and FailBlog fail.

I liked the results for questions 15 and 16 on this survey of Washington teens.

Like parkour, but... on a bike?

Flash guessing game.

Friday, 24 April 2009

How to reduce Han to incoherent squeeeeeeeing


Trailers for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but Oh. My. Fuck. Watch them full screen. It's fan-bloody-franken-tastic.

It's hard to explain how much these books mean to me. It's not so much the quality of the writing or the plots, both of which went seriously downhill after book four, but the completeness of the universe that JK Rowling created. During some of my lowest points during my growing up, this series gave me somewhere else to go. It was also what introduced me to the concept of online fandom and online interactivity as a whole. For three years or more, I co-wrote online stories on fan forums with sometimes as many as ten other people set in the Harry Potter universe. HP remains the only cultural marker I have ever written fanfic for. And no, it wasn't slash. My friends and I never played the characters in the books, but Hogwarts and its environs was our primary setting and through that writing I found long-lasting and wonderful friendship. I am still in touch with a good few of those people on a regular basis. The majority of our interaction is online, but the beauty of this kind of friendship is that you can always pick it up wherever you last left off.

The films were never as good as they could have been, I think the weight of expectation was always too great and as with the editors of the books, sometimes people just didn't know when to say no to those involved. However, aside from Chamber of Secrets, I don't think they have been truly awful. I certainly appreciated the pick up in pace for Prisoner of Azkaban. I enjoyed Goblet of Fire and have to say I can't remember Order of the Phoenix at all, though I did go and see it in the cinema. I may have to find and re-watch it before July 15. The adaptations always suffer from a lack of plot exposition and over-egging of the action in the final pudding, but I still enjoy them because they are a glorious realisation of a universe that has supported, sustained and encouraged me. Not only do they look fantastic as films, I also love the music which I think is just perfect. And whenever I go to see the films, I'm always carrying the memories of the books into the cinema with me which helps make up any deficiencies.

I think Philip Pullman is an infinitely superior writer to JK Rowling, Narnia will always be my first love, along with the Willard Price "Adventure" books and Enid Blyton boarding school stories, I think Hogwarts as an idea owed a helluva lot to Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch which I read when much younger, but I will always retain a special affection for HP. Now the books have ended, the films are something of a nostalgia fest for me, because my life has moved on in so many ways since that period when every new HP book was cause for serious excitement. On July 15, you know where you'll find me.

EDIT: Just been messing about on IMDB and discovered they are making Deathly Hallows in two parts. Talk about a money spinner. Part of me is delighted by this, but the rest of me feels we could well be in for epic fail.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Snow White And The Seven Recycled Scenes

An interesting video that's doing the rounds at the moment, demonstrating how Disney has "recycled" several of the same sequences in a number of their animated films over the years.

And stories covering the video in The Telegraph and The Times.

My thoughts...

The video, if nothing else, is compelling viewing. It's crafted to perfection, flowing seamlessly from one film clip to the next. The most surprising thing that's come out of this is the reaction from the "Disney fans" (read: people who commented on YouTube). From The Times:

“I feel so ripped off now. All the money I spend on this crap, they could at least come up with some original scenes,” wrote one viewer. “Our childhoods were based on a lie,” said another.

A little melodramatic, maybe? Oh wait, this is YouTube commenters. Maybe not then.

As a fan of Disney, do I feel "ripped off" or that my childhood is now "based on a lie"? Definitely not. The fact that a handful of scenes from a small number from Disney's dozens-strong canon of animated films have used the same animation sequences is fascinating to see, but certainly doesn't destroy the legacy that Disney has crafted. I find it surprising that the broadsheets would report the YouTube commenters as genuine commentators.

Returning back to the video itself, I found it remarkable that the video referencing system was used as late as 1991's Beauty And The Beast, and that the sequence reused was one from Sleeping Beauty, a film over years old at the time. I'll also be interested to see if any further compilations of this technique, from Disney films or otherwise, surface in the near future.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Cinema Scope

When it comes to films, I generally try to keep an open mind. I'll give most films a try and stick them through to the end (I've never walked out of a film in the cinema, and I've been to see some boring/excrutiating/embarrassing films in my time) mainly so that I can form my own opinion of them knowing that I've experienced them fully. Of course, there are films that I can be fairly certain I'll love, and others that I'll have a feeling I'm going to despise, based on past experience and personal taste. I try to go into a film with an open and objective mind, but obviously this can only be done to a certain extent.

I like to have an opinion on a film, no matter whether I'm already placing it within my all-time favourites or hoping my eyes and ears will never be besmirched by having to view or hear any portion of it again, and this opinion is invariably expressed through several outlets. Conversations with others is typically the starting point. These could be simply asking someone I know has seen the film too what they thought of it, or, if I'm speaking to someone I know is a fellow avid cinema fan, a more in-depth verbal analysis. Then there's reviewing films, which falls somewhere inbetween those two scenarios in terms of depth, but also has a separate function all together. I write a review of a film not just to let people know what I thought of a film, but also to record my own feelings about the film for my own reference, and thirdly, to produce a piece of writing that is coherent and engaging - basically, so that it's something other people will actually want to read.

My reviews currently appear in two places. I first write them on the Flixter application of Facebook. This application functions as a scratchpad for my immediate and initial thoughts and feelings on a film, where I usually write no more than a few sentences summing up what I think of it. Initially this decision was made as I became aware that the Flixter app is in no way linked to the Flixter website, and as such there's no storage of my reviews. If the app disappears for whatever reason, as far as I know so do my reviews, so I don't want to lose anything too detailed that I've actually put a fair amount of work into crafting. The primary reason now is because I much prefer my full reviews to appear in my second place: here.

And so, I finally head towards the crux of this entry (yes, there is one - and thank you for sticking with it so far). I've written quite a few reviews, some very basic, others more detailed. But ultimately, whether on Facebook or on here, they all boil down to the same conclusion: a score out of ten. And this is where I often find the greatest difficulty in my reviews. I can ramble on and on about the cast, the writing, the special effects, the direction, and any number of other things for as long as you like. But when it comes to giving a film a score, I often have to work very hard to not make it an arbitrary figure chosen as part of a trite exercise.

Here's the general rule by which I work. A totally average film - one that doesn't particularly do anything wrong, but also doesn't do anything particulary well - will receive five out of ten, roughly in the middle. Films I've given this score include such forgettable fodder as Along Came Polly, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and 17 Again. All films within roughly the same genre, the romantic comedy, which, whilst maybe seeming a little narrow-minded, actually helps me to demonstrate rather neatly what I mean. Speaking objectively, there's nothing specifically wrong with these films. If you have a strong personal dislike for anything involving Ben Stiller, you might score Along Came Polly more punitively than I have. If you're a big fan of superheroes, the treatment that that particular topic receives in My Super Ex-Girlfriend might have a bearing on whether you would give the film anything higher or lower than five. However, those are both highly subjective factors that, arguably, should be for the most part disregarded when reviewing a film objectively. In the end, none of these films are cinematic masterpieces (in itself a subjective label but one that hopefully is generally understandable and relatable), but neither are they embarrassingly bad films. So, they get a middle score.

But there's more to consider here. All three films are rom-coms, and as such adhere to rom-com conventions. You'll find stereotypical characters that include a man and a woman - one of whom will be very good-looking, but neither of which will be "ugly" (unless the person playing them is very famous or a guaranteed box office draw) and one of whom at least is unlucky in love; a "bad" current or former boyfriend or girlfriend; a caricature who is usually the best friend of one of the main characters and provides mainly comedy, etc. Present too will be a simple-to-follow and over-the-top plot that usually involves some kind of misunderstanding or crossed purposes, but resolves itself happily where the "good" people "win" and the "bad" people "lose". It's a format that, to varying extents, all rom-coms follow. This means that it's not particularly challenging to create a successful rom-com as long as these conventions are present.

So does that mean that a rom-com that does all these things should get ten out of ten? Well, no. When a rom-com is made, the people making it to my mind limit themselves in how good their film can potentially be. A standard rom-com, like the ones above, all receive an average score. A rom-com that does things particularly well, or that mixes things up in an interesting way, could gain a score of six. Anything higher than that and usually it will have to stray significantly from, or add significantly to, the rom-com formula. If a rom-com is particularly lazy or unoriginal, or just simply poor in its execution, it'll slip down to a four or a three. Three and below and we're talking about a film that not only wasn't interesting, but was actually physically frustrating or irritating for me to watch. But generally, even if a rom-com does most things right, in the end it'll never reach the heights of an eight or a nine, simply because those making the film have chosen to produce something that isn't challenging, unusual or particularly difficult to do.

It isn't just rom-coms of which this is true. Family comedies follow a different set of conventions, but again a set that doesn't exactly raise the bar in terms of cinema, and I find it very difficult to give them anything more than five or six, even if there was nothing particularly wrong with them. Horror films also follow a formula, and unless they are especially adventurous or out of the ordinary in their execution, again I find it hard to give more than a six.

So, what constitutes a high-scoring film, the eights, the nines and the tens? Films that get eight or nine are ones where the people making them have set themselves a challenging feat. They haven't decided to make something that's been seen countless times before, or something that simply follows a set of easy-to-follow rules. They've attempted to make a film that is more than that, that will stand out as a real achievement. But obviously attempting it is not enough. To get such a high score the film has to actually achieve its goals in some way. The more successful, the higher the score. Tens are pretty much reserved for films that not only do things right and to a high standard, but also have that certain intangible quality, that magical quality, that when I'm watching them, I know somewhere inside me that I'm watching something special or momentous - a film that will stay with me forever. Some films have it, and some don't. Ten out of ten to me doesn't mean I think the film is perfect. What it does mean is that the film sets the bar high in several ways and, in my opinion, it achieves everything it set out to do.

So, this entry's ended up being pretty rambling and sprawling. I've watched a wide variety of films recently, and I started thinking about how I form opinions of films and why I reach the conclusions I do, and it ended up as this entry. I'd be interested to see how others view and review films in different genres, and how different people arrive at the scores that they do. There's a few other people who write film reviews here, so I look forward to any comments or follow-up posts on the same topic.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Review Round-Up 6

It's been too long since I've put some reviews on here, but I've seen a variety of films recently, so it's time for that to change. I said something pretty similar to this at the beginning of my last film review entry though, so I'm not making any promises.

Starts quite well with a psychological/supernatural thriller feel to the story, and the first half has a couple of well executed disaster sequences. The film really loses pace and focus in the second half, shifting the attention strongly towards a religious theme and providing a weak and anticlimactic conclusion. Nicolas Cage is firmly on auto-pilot, with his eyebrows set to confused-and-emotional from start to finish. The supporting cast is a mixed bag ranging from average to poor. The writing is sloppy with several poorly resolved points, and a couple just left hanging limp and incomplete. Overall disappointing and not worthwhile.

Marley & Me
This one should have just been called "Marley", as no one else in the film is well-rounded enough to fill the role of "Me". The eponymous Labrador is the most developed character, with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston playing things safe and fairly shallow. The rest of the cast are either cardboard cutouts or simplistic stereotypes, adding nothing to the film. Alan Arkin sticks out very much as the exception to this, providing some genuine comedy and high quality acting head and shoulders above everyone else involved. Towards the end the film begins to drag, needing to be around twenty minutes shorter - once Wilson and Aniston's characters' children became more than background characters, I began shuffling in my seat and checking my watch every few minutes. Fairly enjoyable, and at times genuinely emotional (although this may be because I was reminded of times with my own pets from childhood) but ultimately incredibly sentimental.

Be Kind Rewind
The greatest failure of this film is that it makes far too little of its greatest asset: the amateur remakes of films (or "sweded" versions, as Jack Black's character Jerry names them in the film) that the characters create. As the audience, we're shown these films being made at times, but not nearly often enough, and very rarely do we get to see any of the final products. Instead, the film focuses on a sentimental story that lacks focus. The cast is generally solid, with Mos Def and Danny Glover putting in strong performances, and Jack Black entertaining if going through the motions at times. Entertaining, generally funny with some very silly moments, but in the end it doesn't give enough of what it could very easily deliver.

Wedding Crashers
With Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn starring, I went in expecting a "frat pack" style comedy. The end result is much more in the rom-com vein. Both leads have done better, and even cinematic heavyweight Christopher Walken gives a half-hearted performance in the supporting cast. Ultimately, this becomes far too predictable and safe, with an incredibly cliched climax. Will Ferrell provides the most satisfying part of the film with a cameo that I wish had been much more. Enjoyable, but not special.

Over The Hedge
A simple story executed well, but it's the voice talents that really make this film such a joy. Bruce Willis is fine as the voice of R.J. the raccoon; veterans William Shatner and Eugene Levy add credence and give excellent performances; Steve Carell as Hammy the squirrel also stands out in an over-the-top role. Not quite a computer-animated masterpiece, but thoroughly enjoyable and great fun from start to finish, with many genuinely funny moments.

Monsters Vs Aliens
Chock full of sci-fi and disaster film references, and usually with its tongue firmly in its cheek, this film is by and large a delight. Dreamworks go back to their overall winning foundation of a simple story executed well (e.g. Kung Fu Panda, as well as Over The Hedge, as reviewed above). The main characters, whilst poking fun at sci-fi stereotypes, have personality, and are voiced entertainingly well. The film is laced with genuinely funny moments, in particular those involving the president, as the film is at its best when heading towards the absurd. The animation is also impressive, and whilst Dreamworks is still second to Pixar in computer-animated cinema, the improvement from one film to the next is notable, and the gap in my opinion is closing.

17 Again

Zac Efron impressed me in Hairspray, and continues to show his leading man credentials in this film, taking the starring role and making it his own. Thomas Lennon also provides some funny, if incredibly unsubtle, comedy as an over-the-top sci-fi and fantasy nerd. Overall, however, this is neither special nor particularly original; the story lacks focus and direction, and none of the characters ever feels as though they have genuine depth. Fairly enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Estimation Game

Linked in this post in the NYT


is a pretty fun estimation game; slightly US orientated, but still fun.