Thursday, 18 November 2010
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Thursday, 30 September 2010
Written for Den of Geek.com
Truly difficult television is a hard concept to get a handle on. Like an intelligent lyric in a pop song it’s not so much a bad idea as one that takes the medium in an unfamiliar direction. Sure, there are plenty of maudlin documentaries or shocking scenes in soaps, but these are often conveniently distanced or suitably fictional for our armchair viewing pleasure. They aren’t necessarily the kind of thing we’d call ‘hard to watch’.
This Is England ’86, on the other hand, is most definitely hard to watch- at least, it has been of late.
Fittingly, since the final scene of the penultimate episode derailed both the narrative of the series and all discussion about it, the final episode flies off in somewhat of a tangent. The episode starts with Woody planning a second, more successful wedding to win Lol back, Milky reconciling his betrayal of his best friend and Shaun trying to find sympathy for the violent father-figure who changed the path of his life forever, but this is largely left frustratingly without closure as the true drive of the narrative is Lol’s confrontation with her father, made all the more imminent by Trev’s horrific news.
’86 is a series that has clearly changed direction. Instead of the ensemble teen series prior episodes have lead us to expect, this episode we’re faced with a heavy, high-stakes drama where life and death really feels like it’s hanging in the balance, particularly in the key scene that spans practically the entire episode. If this sounds like a description of gripping, dare we say ‘worthy’ television that’s because it is. This episode has the potential to make you leap from the sofa with nervous energy, weep bittersweet tears or curse the name of Shane Meadows for putting us through another hard-hitting scene (or the hat-trick in the case of this reviewer) and can therefore comfortably be called an example of great television by most people’s measure of these things.
The question that returns from last episode is not whether the result of Meadows’ boundary-pushing is a success but rather whether it had any place in the series he started making with episode one. It would have been obtuse to continue with knockabout plot lines such as the mysterious parentage of Trudy’s son after last episode’s finale, but it’s difficult to feel that the last episode of this series concludes in any satisfying way anything except that one particular scene.
The episode in isolation is TV drama at its finest. You may need to prepare yourself before viewing (both mentally in anticipation of some unpleasant scenes and physically with a good stress ball to get you through them) but the reward is drama that is as noteworthy and high quality as any you’re likely to see on Channel 4 in the near future.
How to view the series as a whole in light of it or even consolidate the episode as part of a wider narrative remains a debate well worth having, but with Meadows already proposing how a second series could see Shaun negotiating the drug culture of the early 90s it seems this isn’t the last time Meadows will make us grip the sofa tensely during our evening’s entertainment. Just remember for future reference the following advice: just because a series features the music, fashions and good old hi-jinks of your parents’ youths does not mean it will make a comfortable evening’s viewing when watched with your mother…
Written for Den of Geek.com
Shane Meadows takes the directorial chair for the second half of his coming-of-age drama, but is it getting old before its time?
Things are getting serious for Woody and his friends. Since their failed marriage attempt, he and Lol bicker about their flat, his work and everything in between. Meanwhile, Lol’s infidelity with Milky continues but that too is losing its spark as Lol takes her self-loathing out on all those close to her. On the comic-relief side, Gadge wants out of his increasingly oedipal relationship with the matriarchal Trudy, and Smell convinces Shaun to make amends with his mother only for them both to find themselves rekindling the relationship of their youth. As the final World Cup group match against Poland approaches emotions are running high, and it all takes a turn for the worst as Lol’s father shows his ugly side and an unwanted guest-star from the gang’s past makes a reappearance.
Spoiler alert: while there are no spoilers in this article, people in your life will be talking about This Is England ’86. Admittedly, the series is not the most widely-watched of dramas, but what it may lack in viewings figures it will most certainly make up for the breadth of debate around it and the profound desire amongst its viewers to talk about it. People who have watched the third episode of ’86 will be talking about it - they can’t not.
This is of course not necessarily a bad thing. To be responsible for inspiring debate is a great accolade, and one that Shane Meadows has always courted in his envelope-pushing, hard-hitting dramas. The question is not how proficiently or even tastefully the ‘event’ (as it will here-in be referred to) is dealt with – this being a Meadows’ drama it is ruthless in its poignancy and ability to evoke emotion – rather, the issue that will split the opinion of its audience is how unexpectedly unpleasant the episode’s third act was – and whether it had any place in this series. Given Meadows’ reputation it may have been foolish to expect the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of this sometimes melancholy tale of growing-up to continue indefinitely, but the sudden change of direction is astonishing and raises big questions – both about the direction the series’ finale will (or can) go and also what buttons a TV audience will allow a mini-series starring young actors can push without crossing a line.
To speak (finally) about the less controversial first two acts, Meadows allows longer scenes in this episode which showcases the young stars’ skill in natural dialogue but unfortunately can sometimes lead to the seams to show as the interchanges drag on. Lol is also becoming a problematic protagonist – too difficult to defend in her treatment of others, too damaged to genuinely hate. This series may have been promoted as the first Meadows project to have a female lead as the focal character, but it’s hard not to feel the true hero of this story is diminutive nice guy, Woody, and with the way tensions are building there’s the definite worry that he will go the same way as the series, acting out of character and giving us all a nasty shock.
Soap operas and docudramas have tackled many similarly heavy subjects to that covered in this penultimate episode of ‘86, but these are often through insinuations and allusion rather than graphic depiction, and it will remain to be seen whether the consensus is that Meadows has utilised a level of violence inappropriate for the small screen or has brought much-needed innovation to a medium that has seen little since the time this series is set in. For now it’s only clear that the final episode will be explosive, highly-charged television – for better or for worse.
Friday, 17 September 2010
Shaun gets a job, Woody fixes up a flat – is the rebel yell of This Is England finally being domesticated?
Episode 2 of ’86 is unashamedly the ‘daddy-issues’ episodes. The theme is quite apt for a show that both benefits from its parent series’ success and yet is still to escape from its shadow, and of course such subject matter is always ripe for soap-opera.
Lol’s father makes an unwelcome reappearance - dredging up the past and forcing Lol to reveal home truths that her mother denies and her sister has never heard. Shaun gets a job renting out VHS tapes and finds a father figure in the trusting shop-owner, and Gadge’s tryst with an older woman reveals her son may have been fathered by another member of the gang.’86 is shaping up to be a bleakly funny kitchen-sink dramedy that courts contradictions in more than just its genre definition. Evidently the subject of the day is growing-up, yet the largely youthful cast of lost boys and girls seem to address this fact by acting as immaturely as possible at every opportunity.
Shaun and Woody may be working - and the latter has organised the gang to decorate a flat for Lol and generally disguise the fact that a drug addict died in there - but you’d be hard pushed to call even the older members of the gang (who quite frankly should no better) an emotionally-developed adult member of society.
’86 is not mature, ‘worthy’ drama but then neither is it the disposable pulp-fiction of aspirational teen-drama, and the series continues to explore and attempt to find its tone as much as its heroes look for their place in 80’s Britain. The performances are still largely solid (with the possible exception of Thomas Turgoose who may have already shown all he has to offer), and while some characters are clearly being pigeon-holed as clowns and others as victims, nobody seems miscast and all are more than capable in the roles they have been given.
‘86 can be silly and it can be tragic, and it’s not immune to hitting the odd bum-note (the love-triangle hinted at in the first episode seems unnaturally accelerated to fit the limits of a four-episode run), but the will to forgive much greater sins is easy to find since the series’ heart is so undeniably in the right place.
At the half-way point already, it’s unclear whether any great arc chartering the gamut of teen life in Thatcherite Britain will be achieved, but that is obviously an unfair expection given that most of the time ’86 seems in no great rush to get any particular story told, any message delivered.
Like its cast, it’s fair to say that ’86 is enjoying the time it has while it lasts. And while that is undeniably self-indulgent, it’s difficult not to feel more than a little indulged vicariously for having watched it.
Somehow, by transporting what is ostensibly the cast of Skins to live in their parent’s decade and handing them a few issues to deal with that don’t involve iPhones, This Is England ’86 makes a drama about immaturity feel oddly mature. Or is that the other way round? More of the same please.
Read our review of episode one here.
Simon Amstell has proved himself to be an adept presenter and stand-up comedian, but do his talents translate to the traditional sitcom? Josh looks back at Grandma’s House…
You may have heard a little about Grandma's House over the last month. You won't have watched it (oh, God, no) but you will have heard it spoken about, largely because it has encouraged a disproportionate level of debate given its modest viewing figures.
Discussion point number one has been Simon Amstell himself. Leaving Never Mind The Buzzcocks on an impressive high last year, it seems he's split his time between recording new stand-up DVD, Do Nothing and co-writing and starring in the odd little nugget of observational comedy that is Grandma's House. And the question on everyone's lips has unanimously been, "Yes, but can he act?" to which the honest answer remains: we don't know. He hasn't really tried to yet.
The series is a family situation comedy more in the vein of The Royle Family than My Family, though it walks a perilous tightrope between the two, not truly picking a side with any conviction throughout its six episode run.
Simon plays Simon, a sardonic ex-presenter known for ridiculing pop stars on TV. He's surrounded by an over-encouraging mother (Rebecca Front, best known for The Thick Of It's Nicola Murray), her dull try-hard fiancé (James Smith, Glenn of the same series), a paranoid aunt, her obnoxious son, the eponymous grandma, constantly trying to keep the peace, and her long suffering husband who wants only a bit of calm and quiet.
So far, so situational, and accompanying it the comedy does not disappoint. Amstell has proved himself not only in his stand-up and quick-witted presenting, but also in a proficient guest writing role on Skins, and the family neuroses here are as keenly observed as they are cringe-worthy.
While their culture is a key part of the family's nuances (it's not for nothing that in one episode the outsider Clive is finally labelled the ‘schmuck' that he is) you need not be Jewish to start drawing lines with character traits of your own family members.
And if the working class context of The Royle Family felt irrelevant to you, the Amstells (a surname assumed, but never mentioned) offer a hilariously ‘upwardly mobile' alternative.
Grandma's House is a comedy constructed out of competent, robust parts, the weak links arguably being the irritating young actor playing the cousin (blissfully absent in the fifth and, not coincidentally, best episode) and Simon himself, who plays more the ringmaster of a panel show than a character, regularly distancing himself to address events in a way not dissimilar to Woody Allen's pieces to camera.
A lead who doesn't do much acting need not be a complete deadend (take Larry David's performance in Curb Your Enthusiasm, often sounding more like a man complaining about the lines than delivering them) but it is this jarring confusion of performances that leaves Grandma's House slightly off-kilter.
While Amstell channels the American neurotic greats, half the cast carry on apparently believing they're in the next My Family, while the rest seem to think they're in The Thick Of It (probably because they very recently were).
While these various pieces from seemingly completely different puzzles make for uncomfortable viewing at first, it eventually gels quite well, with the environment of a house where disparate personalities are forced to congregate each week. Viewers who stay with the series long enough for it to find its feet are treated to a comedy that tackles domestic comedy without ever feeling domestic.
While lead personality Simon takes a backseat choric role, his mother Tanya's relationship with Clive becomes a natural focal point, and the series charts their courtship, while in the background, Simon's cousin gets kicked out of various schools, sickly grandpa just tries to stay out of trouble, and by series' end, enough dramatic tension has built that Amstell damn near emotes.
The promise of 'trust me, it gets better' is the fragile last defence of any series apologist, but if you're willing to take on a whole six episode commitment, you may find your investment rewarded with a sensitive and honest comedy that occupies a niche no-one knew needed filling.
Amstell's performance can be bemoaned (mostly unfairly) until the cows come home, but it does bare mentioning that, while this could have become a vehicle for the worst kind of 'everyone's crazy but me' comedian-helmed sitcom (Everyone Hates Raymond, King Of Queens, etc.). Instead the dysfunctional family of well fleshed out personalities invokes more the Bluths of Arrested Development, especially as that series also featured a lead you followed in the madness, only to prove less likable as the series went on, leaving you to find a new favourite amongst the nutcases.
The same is true here, as dark horse grandpa proves to be an amiable hero in his epic quest to not be any bother, which makes it all the more sad that the actor Geoffrey Hutchings died before the series made it to air.
Find the entirety of this series on BBC iPlayer to catch a wonderfully understated final performance by a fantastic straight man.
Episode 1: The Day Simon Told His Family About His Important Decision is here.
Set three years after Shane Meadows’ original This Is England film comes a four-part drama, but is this transition to the small screen a backwards step?
Published on Sep 9, 2010
Television series based on successful films are usually the reserve of shameless cash-ins. Often, finding they do not have the budget or the cast for a sequel, the studio is left with only a brand name and put that into a poor man's imitation that fails to recapture the essence or the scale of the movie that fathered it.
This Is England '86 is not that series. Although not unchanged after jumping mediums, the first episode is less the shameless addendum of Teen Wolf: The Series and its ilk and more the atmosphere of the City Of God televisual follow-up, City Of Men.
The predecessors of both were hard-hitting, violent coming-of-age dramas that told the story of young boy's falling in with a bad crowd in the midst of a very particular place and time, whereas their respective series offer a more leisurely, soap opera-type narrative that allows for a naïveté and moments of comedy that would have seemed alien in their counterparts.
But, while it's tempting to get wrapped up speaking in dualities, if ‘86 is to be labelled a success, it has to be on its own merits rather than through any comparison.
Now that three years have passed, Shaun has become the clichéd underachiever. Lacking the smarts to finish high school with any aplomb or the physicality to impress his peers, his only virtue seems to be that same quaint chivalry that won Smell's heart all those years ago and even this only serves to get him in trouble with the slapstick local scooter ‘gang'.
Interestingly, when his path happens to cross with Gadge and another familiar face (the pair fresh from stealing a wreath from the graveyard), he deliberately ducks them and watches as his sometime friends pass him by.
When the two catch-up with the rest of the gang, we see the flowers have been procured for Lol and Woody's imminent wedding, and they all travel to a modest community centre on the top of a double-decker bus. During the service, family members who are supposed to attend don't, while parents who weren't do, and just as Woody falters on that all important ‘I do', a member of the congregation collapses with a heart attack and they all rush to the hospital, coincidentally, just as Shaun too finds himself in need of medical attention after a disagreement with the bullying leader of the scooter gang.
As already stated, '86 is funny, genuinely belly-laugh funny, and it's such a relief going in to this series, with the knowledge of previous events, and finding a warm, humorous narrative that doesn't take itself too seriously.
In a nice touch, it begins with what appears to be a deleted scene of the young Thomas Turgoose standing in the rain and this serves to both remind us of the young actor's sweet performance and bridge the gap of the three-year jump cut.
With the fate of Milky hanging heavy over the series (the eagle-eyed may have, in fact, spotted him on the many posters in circulation) it's fantastic how organically the plot unravels, as Shaun does not immediately rush in to the inevitable consolation with Milky after his youthful sin of leaving his friend at the mercy of the psychotic Combo, and, while Lol and Woody clearly have a lot to deal with after the mishap over their marital vows, the issue hangs over for future episodes to cover.
Forgive the cascade of various character's names, as this is symptomatic of how quickly the series invokes anew in you the names and histories of characters you didn't realise how closely you held in your heart.
While it's great to see so much of the original cast return and again deliver such believable, amiable performances, there are also some fantastic inclusions in the way of the Skins veterans playing the scooter gang leader and his right-hand henchman, and the now less cute Turgoose matured into a proficient straight man to their various pratfalls.
All said, this first episode is a great foundation for the next three in the series. There is something contradictory about the style, as it manages Thatcherite-era Britain with reflections on its similarities to youth today (the Skins regulars being a clear touchstone), balancing anarchic, uncouth humour with an oddly wholesome ‘family' drama rarely seen since the time of its setting.
It walks this line without faltering, and it's refreshing to see a well made British drama that doesn't rely on this nation's pre-occupation with a staple diet of supernatural and crime dramas (that is, beyond the petty crimes of graveyard thievery).
Meadows has suggested that future episodes will orbit closer to Lol than Shaun, and this would be a wise choice, as it seems that the logical progression from his coming-of-age is her struggle with dealing what it means to now be a ‘grown-up'.
The mini-series may be only a fleeting glimpse of what the boundary to adulthood means for these old faces, but it's a reprise that this episode proves should be very welcome to those who enjoyed the film and inspires trust that no-one involved is about to let the narrative stagnate just for the sake of cashing in.
This Is England '86 airs on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4.
Sunday, 8 August 2010
Written for GameSpot UK
Apple has been hotly tipped to be on the verge of signing a US$150m deal with the Chinese software developer, Handseeing. Not only marking their first major deal in the People’s Republic, this would place the handheld giant in the new position of being able to develop games for the iPhone and iPad in-house.
“We should have a decision in about one or two months,” Tian Bo, the acquisition’s vice-president for operations told Reuters. “They’re still talking about it and it’s not quite settled yet right now.”
The online games specialist has been operating in south-east
As is Tian Bo, who only added to Agence France-Presse that the negotiations would be ongoing until September when an “incremental” announcement would be made.
Until then we can only speculate how Apple will handle the rare transition from gaming platform to games developer and how this will affect the unpredictable current handheld market.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
Written for DenofGeek.com
Where do you keep your private collection? Under the mattress? In an unassuming shoe-box somewhere? (Supposing it would all fit.) Do you place it in unmarked boxes tucked away in the far corner of the attic, out-of-sight, out-of-mind? Or do you throw caution to the wind and display it defiantly in pride of place on your shelf for all to see, disapproval be damned? It’s the dirty little secret gamers all share yet none but the truly foolhardy dare to discuss in any detail, and with good reason too.
I’m speaking of course - in this infantile extended innuendo – to gaming backlogs; those games that lie unfinished (some even unstarted) not through any fault or gross misdeed of their own but simply because you haven’t had the time to finish them. We all do it. The gaming industry is fantastic at generating hype for new and upcoming releases and this is especially apparent now E3 has passed and every self-respecting gamers’ wish-list is fit to burst . It’s no wonder then, that with every new release we chase that new hot product, like parents cooing over a newborn when they have 50 neglected children already sitting at home.
And it’s not just games. Most of us will already have enough books and DVDs (it’s the boxsets that’ll get you) to last a year, at the very least, and yet we still collect HMV bags and Amazon packages like birds gathering materials for their nest. Fact: the home-entertainment draught is not coming. Neither will we be needing any time soon the materials to hibernate through a nuclear winter (and if we did I doubt the last three next-gen cover-shooters will be what people are wrestling over in the aisles of ASDA).
Perhaps it’s the blindness of nostalgia but personally I can’t remember in my youth ever letting a game sit on the shelf uncompleted. I would take it as a matter of duty to complete a game - often more than once - and not the just the good ones either, even a truly mediocre game was worthy of a thorough playing through. Admittedly, as children time was in abundance, whereas money for new games was not, and many of the games of that time were clearly significantly shorter affairs than those of today. However, it is also worth considering that for most gamers we were furiously defeating these games before the internet made ‘I’m just stuck’ a thing of the past and - for some of us - before save files were par for the course, meaning the Herculean act of completing a game in one sitting.
Today the shoe is on the other foot. Time is money, and most of us have too little of the former and, well, more of the latter. Placed in such a position our younger-selves would bunk-off work in order to catch up with a decade’s worth of gaming, and knowing this we attempt to condole our inner-child by regularly purchasing games neither of us will ever finish. We feel guilty so we buy, only to end up increasing the number of games we feel guilty for not playing, and since this cycle of guilt doesn’t look like it will relent any time soon we’re left deciding where to hide the resulting backlog.
But now a new option has raised its head. Backloggery.com offers the digital equivalent of lining up every game you regret never completing and inviting your friends round to judge you. ‘You have the games. Play them.’ reads the bold slogan and as a surprisingly anti-consumerist mission statement it really gets to the heart of what is ostensibly a glorified to-do-list.
Listing your most neglected purchases may seem daunting but the hidden reward is the feeling of achievement you get every time you update that another hour has been shaved off a completion time, not to mention the glory of changing a game’s category from ‘Unfinished’ to ‘Beaten’, ‘Completed’ or even the elusive ‘Master Run’. It works a little like a blog for your gaming achievements (note the lower case ‘a’) and while your friends may begin to lose the will to feign interest in your game-completion Facebook updates Backloggery offers immediate gratification as it instantly alters your unfinished/beaten ratio and even presents you with a little graph of your accomplishments. It’s Mr Miyagi for your gaming training-montage, and the analogy even stretches as far as the ‘fortune cookies’ which suggest a randomly generated game from your collection to rediscover.
This may read like a press release so I might add that I am not under commission and other to-do-list formats are available (such as the modestly timeless pen and paper). In fact, Backloggery works in much the same way, offering no catalogue of games but instead allowing you to input their details one by one. It’s a laborious process and it’s unclear how exactly the users whose backlogs numbers into the thousands had the precious game-completion time to spare for it, but in many ways it’s part of its understated charm that your profile is truly customisable from the personalised banner and colour scheme to the grammatical decision between ‘Legend of Zelda’ and ‘Legend Of Zelda’ (choose wisely). It really is a no-frills service and an endearingly altruistic one in an industry where games must be either new or retro to be of any interest and in this environment, a listing of merely old games is actually quite refreshing.
Admittedly, depending on your backlog figure you might never get to the bottom of it, and the site features a cheeky ‘wish-list’ category to acknowledge that man can not live on old games alone. Conversely, for a site that reveres the statistics, 100% completion never seems the point. The play’s the thing, and whether it’s a further chapter of a story you thought you’d never hear the end of or rediscovering the joy of playing for the sake of playing, trophies-be-damned, the simple act of listing those regrets frees you from the guilt they carry. Some games you may find you need to go back to if only to fully realise there was never any need to go back to them, and in these cases I’ve found even a prompt click on the ‘null’ category offers its own satisfaction.
Backloggery is a clearly a site designed by gamers that know all too well the self-flagellation and shame gamers subject them to over a hobby that should only ever be about enjoyment. So feel guilty no more. Backloggery has died for your gaming sins. Your backlog chains are cast off. Live long and prosper! You’re free, and you’re welcome.
(If your curiosity is piqued my humble backlog can be found here. Sign up and let us support each other like a kind of Backloggers Anonymous.)
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
Written for SubtitledOnline.com
Film: Battle Royale II: Requiem
Release date: 23 Aug 2004
Running time: 133 mins
Directors: Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ai Maeda, Shûgo Oshinari, Takeshi Kitano.
Studio: Tartan Video
The original Battle Royale courted critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure. Kinji Fukasaku filmed only one scene for the sequel before succumbing to prostate cancer, leaving writer of both films Kenta Fukasaku to complete it. Kenta says that he doesn’t consider the film his directorial debut but rather as his father’s final work, but is this an epitaph Fukasaku senior would be proud of?
Much like its predecessor, Battle Royale II begins with an unsuspecting class of unruly Japanese youths finding themselves fitted with ominous metal collars and standing at the starting line of a sadistic government initiative. This time is different however, as where as the original combined public execution with a snuff reality TV show, the new game (aptly named ‘BR2’) has been formulated to send the classmates to dethrone the dangerous terrorist and champion of the previous film, Shuya Nanahara. If they accept they will have to assault a heavily-guarded island stronghold. If they refuse, they die.
The vicious beauty of Battle Royale was always in the tragicomic potential of its ultra high-concept, and in trading the free-for-all deathmatch for a more strategic co-op dynamic the film retains the appeal of having a conceit with a more clearly established playbook than your average videogame. Indeed, the Cluedo-like elements of individual character’s back stories, unique weapons and respective locations is largely traded for a homogenous, Normandy-landing of panicked teenagers but the deliciously vindictive new maxim that each combatant must also keep a particular classmate alive or face execution adds a fresh level of cruelty to the proceedings. A nice dark addition to the narrative is the voluntary participation of Shiori Kitano, the vengeful daughter of the teacher from previous film, allowing for a welcome cameo by ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.
Battle Royale’s ‘games’ have always been as psychotically intricate as anything Saw’s eponymous anti-hero could devise, but whereas the latter film’s strength is in the way it neatly ties up the various hideous loose-ends, Battle Royale II shamefully falls apart in the third act. Resulting from a plot development that removes any impetus to follow the rules of the game that traditionally underpin Battle Royale the film flounders as it finds itself entering the territory of a misdirected war epic. Add to that a poor translation, an intrusive musical score, a teacher that unimaginatively apes Kitano’s original unhinged master-of-ceremonies, a playing time that stretches a solid 90 minute concept beyond the two hour line and the wide-eyed, melodramatic death-scenes of 42 participants, and what could have been a fiercely delivered addendum to Kinji Fukasaku’s original political message actually starts to make a student’s head exploding feel routine.
“We declare war against all grown-ups,” declares Shuya Nanahara, and therein lies where BR2 loses its way. At the age of 15, Kinji Fukasaku and his classmates were drafted to a Japanese munitions factory when artillery fire hit the building, forcing Kinji and his fellow survivors to use the bodies of their classmates for shelter and leaving him with what he described as “a poisonous hostility towards adults”. It’s fair to say then that the apparently naïve declaration of Kenta’s protagonist are very much inline with his father’s world-view but it leaves the motivation of the film’s latter half in very murky water.
The original’s UK release was three days after September 11th, and so it’s fitting that the sequel attempts to tackle this newest atrocity through the same challenging role-reversal, beginning the film with the collapse of a Japanese skyline and the previous film’s hero taking credit for the act of terror in manner not unlike Osama Bin Laden. Maturing from the subject of how the delinquency of youth leads to greater evils performed by authority in the name of justice, the sequel builds on this tackle how marginalization can only lead to more radicalization, but while Kenta is evidently not afraid to invoke the USA’s bombing of Afghanistan, Japan and – as it observes - 20 other countries in the last 60 years, he lacks the strength of his convictions, failing to explain what exactly Nanahara is trying to achieve, why we should empathise with him any more than the next fundamentalist and even at one point who exactly is attacking as they resort to calling both the USA and Afghanistan ‘that country’.
Too ambitious by half, Battle Royale II attempts to tackle 60 years of America’s foreign policy in what is ostensibly still just an old-school exploitation flick. Starting off strong, the first hour is classic Battle Royale but it would be easy to then skip 40 minutes and miss very little. Kinji deserved better.
Written for DenofGeek.com
‘Staggered release dates’; a phrase that will happily roll off the tongue of your average marketing man, yet stick in the throat of his target consumer. TV shows, videogames, cinema releases and the following DVDs are all unapologetically trotted out, sometimes whole torturous years between regions (a food-chain that Yahtzee Croshaw will attest Australia is regularly at the bottom of) in the name of sales strategy and often largely because there’s little commercial impetus not to.
Now, the comic book isn’t a medium synonymous with keeping with the times. In many ways an anachronism, it harks back to a silver age when the vicarious thrills of superpowers and war heroes were uniquely found in their static pages rather than in today’s Hollywood blockbusters and next-gen console releases. And so, ofcourse, it too has fallen foul of the archaic practise of staggered releases: in the US, ‘new comics day’ is an event celebrated on a Wednesday every week, in the UK this is on Thursday - a whole day later.
Why is it then that the comics industry – indeed one in far less rude health than its contemporaries – isn’t afraid to delay the product any longer than the time it takes to physically transport it? Sure, it doesn’t require translating or recoding for different regions like other mediums, but then these too are artificially implemented limitations. Regions exist so the same movie can be sold in Asia at a price affordable in that economy without the fear of importers undercutting the far more lucrative western market.
While that is admittedly disingenuous, far more nefarious tactics have been applied in the name of business. The problem isn’t the regions, it’s the decision to then organise a hierarchy that dictates who gets the film first. Originally a successful way to build hype and focus resources in one area of the world at a time, in today’s proliferation of bit-torrent clients it seems to actively encourage potential customers to illegally download their entertainment, both to enjoy it at the same time as the international acquaintances the internet allows them to make and perhaps also for a little taste of cultural democracy.
Lost has already proved this is not the way things have to be. The series finale was ‘simulcasted’ in 8 different countries to bypass the piracy that has always followed the series due to its unusually tech-savvy demographic, and while this was undoubtedly an effective means of avoiding undesired alternative distribution it also had its own positive influence by creating a truly worldwide watercooler talking-point. 5am on a Monday morning Sky 1 was a long way for such a hot property to have strayed from its traditional primetime slot, but the pay-off for those dedicated Brits who got up especially for it is that they did not then have to spend their day in fear of the internet being ridden with spoilers for what is definitely a series that rests on its timely revelations.
It’s not just that this universal approach to broadcasting saves us from labelling internet forums and live gaming arenas no fly zones until we’re suitably spoiler-proof, it also means that family, friends and co-workers in the same country can find themselves speaking the same language. A tangible download/broadcast division has arose when it comes to American TV series, to the point that the phrase ‘Have you seen the latest episode of X?’ not only requires you to have actually seen the latest episode of X (I hear it was quite Y), but also to quickly evaluate to which side of the division the person speaking’s allegiances lie. You can ask, or you can avoid the risk of having to then explain torrents to the uninitiated, but decide well because you may be talking about series 3 when a key element of the current US run is revealed.
Now this may seem like an overly anal approach to staying spoiler free (ofcourse staying on top of recent downloads would remove any danger if you’re that way inclined) but the key danger is that TV thrives on being a shared experience and anything that gets in the way of that undermines its potential pleasures. The watercooler cliché works because it is such an effective way of describing how everyone likes to be able to talk about their favourite show with a fellow follower, and so surely the only boundary that should exist is whether you do in fact follow that show. The time difference between the original US broadcast, it finding it’s way online through an industrious pirate, it being distributed through more authentic means such as iTunes (but then also is that US or UK iTunes?) and it finally being shown on these shores is completely unacceptable in a time when eager viewers can be discussing an episode on Twitter as it’s happening.
As anachronisms go, Peter Parker’s perpetual youth is systematic of a medium that is afraid to let go of it’s old properties, but at least it attempts to rejuvenate those properties in new titles and releases them in a way that remains relevant to their ever-changing audience. Lost may just represent TV execs trying to feed us the same Twilight Zone/The Prisoner mysteries it has for years, and that’s OK, but that doesn’t mean they can also broadcast them in the same tried and tested ways and hope through sheer ignorance those pesky emerging technologies won’t interfere. We’re hear, we’re peer-to-peer, get used to it.
Written for SubtitledOnline.com
Release date: 8th September 2008
Running time: 92 mins
Director: Nadine Labaki
Starring: Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad
Studio: Momentum Pictures
France / Lebanon
When a foreign film manages to make that break across the border and garners international success there’s often the expectation that it should act as an ambassador for its country of origin, especially when that nation is not known for its prolific cinematic output. But where does that leave Nadine Labaki’s sweet Lebanese romance, Caramel? Can any film successfully walk that balance between the light-hearted and the weighty?
For a beauty salon, Si Bette isn’t much to look at. A ramshackle salon in the city of Beirut which requires the use of a second generator if anyone wants to use a blow-dryer while the fridge is on, it provides a living, a support-group and not to mention a hive of gossip for four hairdressers who are trying to deal with the expectations that come with being an unmarried woman in modern-day Beirut.
Layale (played by the film’s director, Nadine Labaki) is having an affair with a married man and is struggling not only with the prerequisite guilt of her situation but also with the practicalities of doing so in a city that requires proof of marriage to book a double-bedroom and whose police deems a man and woman sitting in a car ‘indecent behaviour’. Her friend, Nisrine has the opposite problem; engaged to the son of a traditional Muslim family she carries a secret that prevents her from being the pure daughter-in-law she is expected to be. Meanwhile, divorcée mother of two teenage children Jamale continues to pursue an acting career despite her increasing years betraying the contrast between her and her competition, and quiet tom-boy Rima finds herself catching the eye of an attractive, female client.
These four women are not the only ones in town with troubles, however, as a supporting cast of clients and acquaintances orbit around them, pulled in by the gravity of their little salon. The local parking attendant smitten with Layale, the lonely elderly seamstress with a rare chance for romance and her senile sister whose penchant for collecting parking tickets are equally as vital; all weaving into the rich mix that is Caramel.
And it’s this sense of community that really stand out in Labaki’s film. This is not a film about
. As one might assume from the aforementioned plot points, many of the situations are arguably culturally exclusive to its location but it’s to the film’s credit that it reaches below the surface and pulls at the strings of far more universal themes of loneliness and the pressure of others. It matters not whether Nisrine is sitting at a table full of Lebanese Muslims or East Finchley Catholics, her discomfort is all too familiar and it’s not difficult to imagine changing a few cultural touch-stones to find an above-par western romcom with the same narrative still completely in tact. Beirut
Caramel is a film about people rather than place, and therefore it’s through the central performances that the world really comes to life. The vibrant, lived-in atmosphere can be largely credited to the four leads who balance often exaggerated comic turns with genuine notes of pathos in their respective situations. The balance is not always perfect as sometimes a trivial subplot clashes jarringly with a profound emotional moment, but this is only to be expected from a film that clearly never sets out to ‘tackle’ anything. This is the story of four (or more) romantics who have been unlucky in love and yet keep trying, and so the film’s tone fittingly takes on the feel of the eponymous burnt sugar the girls use in their waxing. Sweet without being saccharine, the film plays out through the gold-tinted glasses of those looking for love. It is not the main meal. It is not the balanced diet of historical context and cultural resonance that are the meat and potatoes of films that want to be ‘about’ something. You won’t fill up on it, but neither is it the sickly sweet imitation product of
’s own brand. Hollywood
And it’s Labaki’s deliciously sepia cinematography that elevates what could be a trivial narrative. Her film is beautifully shot and allows the narrative to play out in a surprisingly subtle and nuanced manner given the extravagant performances. Every character is awarded the appropriate respect and time of day given that, for them, they are the star of their own classic tale of romance. Invoking other genre stand-bys such as Steel Magnolias and the other similarly-titled western-friendly offering Chocolat, Caramel is an ensemble piece that genuinely cares about each of its individual components. Its only possible failing being that Labaki sometimes awards herself more than her fair share of screen time – clearly even she feels she is the star of her story.
Caramel may flirt with the anachronistic studio-era concept of being a ‘woman’s picture’ but when the only current offering for strong female leads in cinemas sees entire platoons of the Boots ‘here come the girls’ set marching blindly into cinemas to watch four over-paid harridans bemoaning the lack of haute couture in Abu Dhabi there has never been a better time to discover the mature and believable view of romance purported by Caramel. Who says romcoms have to be dumb screen fodder?
Thursday, 1 July 2010
[Rec] was the Spanish horror sleeper-hit that left its audience as zombified as its stars - doomed to forever walk the Earth in a dull state, dead to Horrorwood’s conventional output and similarly boring in conversation with their ceaseless onslaughts on their subtitle-phobe friends that it genuinely is the ‘scariest film ever’.
Two years later and only 15 minutes have passed in the infamous apartment building. [Rec] 2 drops its audience immediately back into those same corridors with their familiar blood-stains, and we are all too aware of what awaits its new, unknowing heroes. And it’s in this play on expectations that [Rec] 2 is at its most confident. Knowing winks to the privileged few who saw the original abound in the early minutes, providing some surprising chuckles given its horror thoroughbred. It is certainly a movie for the initiated, but while the obligatory ‘for fans of the original’ parenthesis certainly applies that’s not to say there isn’t plenty for newcomers to enjoy, it’s more a question of why they’d want to.
[Rec] 2 – as with all sequels - obviously starts off standing on the coattails of [Rec] 1. But whereas great sequel success stories like Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back and Simba’s Pride step off of those coattails, taking what made the original great and daring to improve upon it, [Rec] 2 stands cowardly in the shadow of its big brother. The final 30 minutes of [Rec] terrify thanks to the suspense the preceding 50 minutes builds, and so by picking up 15 minutes later the film manages to feel like more of the same, only less so. Throw in the heavily-armed SWAT team protagonists (Want to make you film less scary? Give everybody guns.) whose actions we follow through super high-tech head-up-displays and the whole film takes on the air of an add-on pack to a first person shooter.
That’s not to say that [Rec] 2 brings nothing new to the undead table. The multiple cameras allows for a ‘cutting in’ technique where we switch between perspectives, which has never been seen in a film of this type, and the introduction of another camcorder lets the creators play with interesting concepts of rewinding and jumping back in the narrative. As each element is revealed the heart leaps at the possibilities of how they can be used to terrify, and so it’s all the more disappointing when the direction the film goes with them is the most contrived and unexciting. This goes too for the suggestion of a religious connection from the first film which fascinated originally but is only left to stagnate and confuse when followed up in the sequel. It was inevitable in a Spanish horror for the proceedings to take a very Catholic, Exorcist-y turn for the worst, but it’s just a shame that while the first film only hinted at a greater evil, its sequel seems to fumble the ball, accidentally pulling down the mixed-metaphorical curtain to reveal that the makers aren’t entirely clear on all the details of this world they’ve created.
All that said, [Rec] 2 remains one of the more original and truly frightening horrors we can expect this year. Its flaws stand out so uncomfortably because they upset up what clearly could be a genuinely startling new horror franchise. It is not a bad horror film - bad horror films fester and replicate ad nauseum, and rarely - if ever - inspire you with new possibilities. [Rec] 2 inspires its audience at regular intervals to imagine the possibilities of where it could have gone. Let’s only hope that there’s a [Rec] 3 in the making to live up to that promise.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Thursday, 18 March 2010
Now I mention this because one can’t help but hear Miss Anglesea’s desperate cry for appreciation echoed in Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds. Here is a documentary so proud of its fast shutter-speed cameras that it feels the situation calls for a fanfare for them every time they do their thing. “Now it seems to the naked eye that nothing is going on, but if we slow it down with our super slow-motion-cameras it appears there is something happening here that we previously never could imagined…” No, but since the last six times you said that it showed us something pretty damn spectacular I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case here - stop being a clip-tease Hammond.
And it is spectacular. There’s a reason every action film made since, well, Chariots Of Firehas struggled with the decision of whether to hold back on the slow-motion or to Matrix the shit out of it. Slow-motion looks cool, and it does here. Lots of things happening – water droplets, lightning bolts, spores from horse dung, all flying around in all directions, all looking cooler than Keanu Reeve’s coat-tails (the true heroes of that movie). The problem isn’t that the documentary doesn’t do anything impressive, it’s that it’s constantly vying for your approval of it, like the kid at the front of the class trying to show his teacher he’s already completed this week’s homework and next week’s as well. By all means hang your medical degree in your office, but don’t point out it's location on the wall every time we ask for a repeat subscription.
Then to pad out what could have boiled down to a 5 minute YouTube clip of scientific spectacle they’ve thrown in plenty of close-ups of Richard Hammond’s own eye to remind you what organ you see with, and clips of the camera spinning around on a rollercoaster to remind you what it’s like to move your head really quick. There’s also plenty of the Top Gear-esque ‘Ey, you’ll never guess what we’re going to do next!’ as he blows up a quarry face and then 1000lbs of gunpowder – both to pretty much illustrate the exact same point – but when you have to watch the Hamster playing with a bumblebee it starts to feel like the 55th minute of a half hour lesson plan or that time your teacher was retiring and took the class for a walk to just ‘soak up the science’.
There’s plenty of really fascinating revelations - like the fact that the real power of an explosion is in the shockwave it sends out – but then there is also the nagging suspicion that these are things you sort of.half knew before, possibly revealed in a documentary ten years ago with slightly faster slow-motion. I didn’t really believe it was the gunpowder physically flying knocking into the rocks around it did I? Come to think of it what did I believe? Most likely these revelations are such a surprise because they’re about subjects you never gave a flying horse-shit spore about before.
My last complaint (I wrote a list) involves the use of the word ‘equivalent’. “That’s the equivalent of 1000 miles an hour!” is all very well but what does it mean? Does it mean that if water skeeters were human they’d be going that fast? Or vice versa? Either way, not to knock their messianic achievements (I do believe
'Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous, love is never boastful or conceited'
I think the same should go for science.
Bears a remarkable resemblance. Much less gurning though.