Monday, 31 December 2012

2012: Movies that Rob Saw (part 3)

Hello you. Grab a cup of tea and make me some toast! It's time to find out which were my favourite films of 2012.

I've mentioned a few here and here, and I'm sure you'll all agree that those films are, for the most part, interesting in their way, but not the best of the year. Unless you are some kind of idiot - the kind of idiot who would bring a very, very cheap bottle of wine to my house in 2001 and think it was the kind of behaviour I would ever, ever forget.

I'm sorry not to have seen Seven Psychopaths, or Argo - both of which I imagine I will enjoy immensely once I drag myself away from playing Hitman: Absolution all day. And though I have seen The Hobbit, that was only yesterday, so I have as yet  no developed opinion on it. I think it would go in the 'quite enjoyable' category. It just wanders along, telling its story in a visually striking manner, as you would expect. Sylvester McCoy is great in it. Martin Freeman is perfect casting. It is too long.

So, in reverse order, here are my top four films of 2012. They are very unusual, esoteric films that you probably won't have heard of, unless you go to tiny, out of the way Arthouse Cinemas.

4th.   Skyfall

The title of which is utterly impossible to say, even in your mind, without it sounding like Adele's mournful wail. I thought this was a decent enough song, but it should have been sung by Goldfrapp. Why haven't they been chosen for a Bond theme? Answer: everyone but me is stupid.

This will be a mildly spoilery review, I think. A quick glance at the box office for Skyfall tells me that every single one of you saw this film, seven times, and in some cases you took your pets. So if you didn't bother going to see it, but are somehow also desperate not to know anything about the film, I'd skip ahead to the next film. Though what's going on inside your head I don't know.

I'm not a huge Bond fan. I've probably sort-of seen all the films, in the same way that I've seen all the Carry On films and heard everything by Robbie Williams - it just kind of happens to you. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy Bond, or that I think the films are mass produced dross. I've seen everything since Goldeneye at the cinema and I generally enjoy myself in Bond's slightly-ridiculous world of jumping off moving vehicles, punching guys in the teeth and being a smart-arse to super-villains. But I'm aware that there is a huge, passionate love for and involvement in Bond amongst his real fans, that I do not quite have.

Skyfall, though, appears to be the Bond film that everyone likes, and rightly so. From the start, it's a massively enjoyable adventure in which many exciting things occur. The initial chase is spectacular, with some great stunt work - like the motorbikes-over-rooftops bit  - and some audacious almost-too-much stuff, like using a big digger to climb up a train.

 Bond has clearly learned a lot from the success of Jason Bourne, not least the hyper kinetic realism of the action scenes. Casino Royale destroyed the invisible-car nonsense of Die Another Day the moment Bond smashed a guy's head into a sink, and brought the series back to life even as that particular guy lay on a bathroom floor bleeding to death. The trick, though, is to integrate that grittiness into the world of 007 - it's not the same world, and shouldn't be. Bond's world is slightly more outrageous and a little more playful than the bleached out, shaky realities of Blackbriar and Touchstone.

Skyfall plays masterfully within this tension. There's a palpable sense of the real world here, a world changed by the levelling influence of technology and the shattering of political ideologies. "We can't walk in the shadows any more." says Rafe Fiennes's brilliant Mallory, "There are no shadows." How do you have a secret agent, fighting for his country, in a 2012 of cyber terrorism and cable leaks? What does fighting for your country even mean any more? And what technological wizardry can you give a spy when the entire world has GPS on its phone?

This is Bond, though, and so these issues are addressed mostly through the medium of explosions and shooting. We get the best Bond villain in years, Javier Bardem's incredible Raoul Silva, who's plan is both psychologically complex (mother issues, revenge, ideological instability) and batshit crazy ("How can I be Antony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Dennis Hopper in Speed and Matthew Broderick in Wargames all in one day?") We get destruction and death aplenty, including an awesome London set escape/battle/chase sequence. And we get the best art direction I've ever seen in an action movie.

Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins make this film an intoxicating, immersive experience. One fight scene is staged entirely in silhouette, another shrouded in smoke. Colour pallettes shift in response to the action, painting psychological themes onto the environment as if we are seeing beyond the surface of the world, into the souls of the protagonists. Never is this more evident than in the final act, as Bond and his companions wage war in a nightmare world of fire and darkness and ice.

If I have one issue with the film it is that it seems to work hard to undo some of the progress made by Casino Royale. We end the movie seemingly back in From Russia with Love, in a very masculine world. I realise there was probably a desire to celebrate Bond's origins, what with it being the 50th year and all, but this felt a little odd to me. Overall, though, this is a minor gripe. I liked Skyfall. It was good, and I look forward to James Bond returning in Death Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry. With a soundtrack by Goldfrapp, please.

Joint 2nd.   The Dark Knight Rises / Avengers Assemble

Since Summer I have struggled to work out which of these films is best. Is it Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, a magnificent, thought provoking meditiation on power, responsibility, civilisation and identity? Or is it Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble, which features Hulk smashing Loki into the floor, and Scarlett Johanssen looking really, really lovely?

The answer is... I really don't know. They are both, nominally, superhero films, so there should be some basis for comparison, I suppose. But they don't feel similar, do they? One is a fine, complex meal - the sort where the wine complements the steak and you pause between courses to let the tasted resonate in your mouth - and the other is some awesome sausages with onion rings and wedges.

In this metaphor, Scarlett is the onion rings. Yum.

So... they both get second place, because they are both fantastic and they both demonstrate, in different ways, why the experience of cinema is important, exciting and brilliant. Allow me to elaborate.

Nolan's Batman films are, surely, the standard against which all other reboots must be measured. In a world where remakes appear to make up about 50% of cinema output, it is a joy to find a series of films that does not just rely upon a brand name to make some profit (Halloween, Total Recall, Spiderman etc), but takes an idea and really runs with it, doing something new and beautiful - something which enriches the source material, rather than sucking all the life out of it for a quick buck.

TDKR has split critical opinion, and it is easy to see why. It is massive, unwieldy and in many ways hard to love. It came after the near-perfect The Dark Knight - a film boasting astounding performances across the board, great action movie direction and a powerful, unstoppable story. Rises had a hell of a job to do, and it did not go out of its way to do that job in any kind of a hurry. TDKR feels less like someone telling a story, more like a story that is just happening regardless, rumbling under the surface of cinema, breaking out onto the screen, formless and terrifying.

This is a film I still can't quite get my head around, and for that I love it. Like all of Nolan's films, there is a lot going on that won't become apparent until we've lived through the film a number of times. I must have seen Memento twenty times or more and there's still stuff in there that surprises and excites me. The same for Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception. Generally, with Nolan, if you thought the plot didn't make sense, or that there was a bit of it that wasn't relevant, it's probably because you haven't worked it out yet.

I will need to see this film many more times. But for now it wins its place in my heart for being an awesome first-watch that affected me profoundly in both its story and its style. The last ten minutes moved me in a number of ways. Not necessarily for the characters, and the various fates that befell them, but for the power of storytelling at work in this beautifully crafted film.

The Avengers on the other hand...

I will probably watch Avengers Assemble a number of times, too. I watched it again, over Christmas, and I could happily watch it again this afternoon. But I doubt I will gain any fresh insights into the characters, or learn anything new about its themes. For while Avengers Assemble also makes for terrific cinema, it does so in a very different way to The Dark Knight Rises.

Like all art, film can move us, teach us, make us think and stir our senses. That's why I love it, and why I go on about it so very, very much. What I like best, though, is when film excites me. Yes, you can have a slow, visually sparse film in which very subtle, very meaningful things happen. But there's a part of me, when staring at a ten minute close up of someone having yet another ambiguous emotional response in a flat in Eastern Europe, that is thinking 'This is pictures! Why aren't you doing better stuff with the pictures?' If you want to express deep, subtle emotions, maybe don't throw it onto a big screen on Friday night, write a poem. And if you want to show New York being smashed to bits by extra dimensional aliens whilst in combat with brightly coloured super heroes - don't put it in a novel. Make me a big, exciting film so I can whoop and laugh.

And by Odin's beard, did I whoop, and did I laugh. So much so that some friends of mine, who had come to the cinema separately and were seated quite a long way behind me, identified my presence through the noise I was making. This is a masterfully constructed film that punches all the right buttons, and punches them hard. Snappy, intelligent dialogue. Characters broad enough to be instantly recognisable yet imbued with enough subtley and nuance to make you care. Action sequences that feel like they've burst out of the most exciting dream you ever had. Moments that catch you off guard through the power of the acting or the bravado of the film-making.

This is a film that absolutely should not work - a massive, hubristic project to bring together a super-band of film stars playing iconic characters, all apparently from different genres of storytelling. Whedon's genius is to play the team off each other with an absolute dedication to reality. So what if it's a science geek, a Norse god and a genetic soldier? They're still all guys, and they're still going to argue. There's as much joy in watching the Avengers interact in conversation as there is in watching them fight. Which is to say, a massive amount of joy.

And Scarlett... What a gift the gods of cinema have given us. I've loved her since Ghost World, with her husky voice and pouty lips. Let her be in every film ever, please. That would be good.

Which means that the number one film of 2012 is...

The Muppets

I wasn't a massive Muppets fan, though I did grow up with them as a constant televisual presence. I certainly didn't go into seeing this film with high expectations or any great sense of nostalgia. I just thought it would be funny.

Quite why 2012's The Muppets makes me so happy I cannot say. There are plenty of elements, sure. I like Jason Segel a lot - he was brilliant in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I got the impression that this would be a similar affair. And I love Amy Adams in a very real, very physical way. She has, just, lost out to Scarlett in the battle for my heart and loins, but she remains a luminous, enjoyable screen presence and I will have her if Scarlett remains unavailable.

The songs are simply fantastic. Really smart, feel good songs that make singing along a real pleasure. Life's a Happy Song is infectious in both melody and its turn of phrase ("Life's a fillet of fish.... yes, it is!") and the Oscar winning Man or Muppet never fails to make me smile. Elsewhere, the poignant Pictures in my Head managed to make me cry, even though it was about puppets in paintings being sad, which is not something I thought I had any emotional connection with.

I was actually close to tears throughout a lot of the film, though tears of what I cannot say. A kind of sadness, yes - the idea of friends you just kind of drift away from without really noticing is a powerful one. But also tears of  joy and gladness. This is a film that puts simple, beautiful emotions at its heart, and I think that's where it really touched me. There's an uncomplicated silliness to the film that rejoices in its own ludicrous nature. It is self aware without being self important, and exhalts a child like love for the world and everything in it.

At the end of the year, there is a tendency to try to make sense of what happened, as if our lives were great narratives, full of meaning and portent. What they really are, I suppose, is a collection of random. nonsensical events, within which we bounce around trying to find meaning. More and more I am realising that the meaning, for me, is appreciating those events while they are happening. The sheer joy felt by Walter, the muppet who might be a man, upon meeting his heroes, moved me beyond words, because I suppose that's what I want -  to love things with that simple, stupid love I had before I learned to evaluate everything in terms of art, and narrative and worth. All that stuff is good but really... basically, life's a happy song. That'll do.

See you in 2013.

Friday, 28 December 2012

2012: Movies that Rob saw (part 2)

The end of the year is fast approaching, and you are faced with a problem. You'll be looking in magazines, or watching TV, and the people there will be mentioning all the films that have been on at the cinematorium, and talking about them like you've seen them. And you'll feel bewildered, and lost. "What are these films?" you'll think. "I don't have any opinion at all!" Or maybe your friends will pop in, for a croissant, and they'll say to you "So what about all those films there's been? What did you make of those?" And again that cold hand of fear will grasp your heart. What are they talking about? Best kill them!

Well, fear not. Your friends can live, and you can hold forth in a seemingly intelligent way. For here is all you need to know, about all the films of 2012.

That I've seen.

Not including the best ones. I save that for New Year's Eve.

Also, there might be some from last year that I didn't get round to seeing then so I've mentioned them here.

I'll be honest, if it's a thorough account you're after, I'd look elsewhere.

The Artist

In an age where films are waving their 3D nipple-tassles in our faces, desperate for attention like a drunk dinner lady in a Wetherspoons, it is pleasing to see a film do so well by being so resolutely unfashionable. There was no end of applause for The Artist and it was rewarded by Oscars, box office and all manner of people going "Good show!" as if they too were in black and white.

Passing opinion on The Artist is tricky, as the taste police have outlawed both disliking it ("you CGI hungry  philistine") and liking it ("you bandwagon jumping pretentious prick"). It put up a ton of barriers to the regular cinema crowd through its black and white silent-ness, while irritating people like me by winning a bunch of Academy Awards. There's nothing like an Oscar nomination to put me off a film.

Well, anyway, I liked it, and the reason I liked it is because it is good. It's funny, well played and has an awesome script (which you can find here.) Best of all, it is forced to communicate character, narrative and emotion through visuals alone (well, nearly) - a constraint which brings out the best in cinema as it is forced to look back to the brilliant, inventive pioneers who invented the language of the moving image before sound came along and made it all too easy.


Joseph Gordon Levitt waits. alone in a big, desolate field. After a while a guy materialises out of nowhere, and Joseph shoots him dead. For this Joseph gets lots of money. Why? Because the suddenly-appearing guy has been sent back, from the future, by guys who want to get rid of their enemies without any evidence. It's a bit like The Terminator would have been if he had thought to draw up a business plan.

One day, the person Joseph has to shoot is his future self - played by Bruce Willis. Oh oh! There follows an exciting adventure, full of timey-wimey paradoxes, creepy confrontations and exciting chases. It's a smart, effective thriller with one great moment after another and a couple of enjoyable lead performances. The science fiction ideas are handled just right - introduce them fast, forget about the details, get on with the story. There's some powerful film making here, and only a slight predictability towards the end stopped Looper being in my absolute top films of the year.

Cabin in the Woods

Some kids go on holiday to a cabin, in the woods, to do drugs, have sex and make cool pop-culture references to other horror films. They are well written, believable characters who venture into an insane, unbelievable world.

And then...

Every review of the film you will read, beyond the information I have just given you,  will say "Whoah, man! I can't tell you anything more about this! Oh wow! Oooo!" And they are sort of right - there are lots of things in the film that are best left discovered as you go along, and I'm certainly not going to spoil them here. But don't go into into the film thinking, as some reviews lead you to believe, that there's some kind of awesome twist that will, like, blow your mind. There isn't.

There's a fascinating central premise to Cabin in the Woods which slowly uncurls as the film progresses, becoming apparent very early on and revealing more and more of itself as the narrative develops. It is immensely satisfying and hugely enjoyable, with an almost unbearable cascade of joys and surprises.

Unless you don't like blood. Or watching people get killed in inventive, fantastical ways. If you are one of those people, I'd stay away.


I really, really enjoyed this. It isn't great, exactly, and the plot leaves a lot to be desired. But I loved being in the world it created - I enjoyed how real it all felt. This was a film of sensation over narrative, and in that spirit, I commend it. Sure, there was some ropey dialogue. And some of the things the characters did made no sense. And there were some moments where my suspension of disbelief said "What? Really?" But on the whole, Prometheus is a well designed, interesting film with enough interesting ideas to make it worthwhile. So it's not Alien. What is?

The Amazing Spiderman

Perfectly enjoyable and really well cast, but too similar to Sam Raimi's one ten years ago. I sat through every plot beat, just waiting to tick it off. He will get picked on. He will meet the girl. He will get bitten. He will learn how to use his powers. He will be stroppy and unwilling to accept his fate. This certain character will die. He will vow to avenge him. And so on.

When we saw this at the cinema, there was a trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which excited me so much that I demanded to watch Batman Begins once we got home. This we did. Now, there's how to tell an origin story. A generation of cinemagoers, expecting the familiar beats of the Burton/Keaton film, are confronted by a bearded, angry Bruce Wayne, fighting monks in the snow! The dirty tone of the film, with its corrupt officials and violent deaths, is so far from Burton's dark whimsy as to feel like an utterly different story. The Amazing Spiderman was just... the same story, told slightly differently.

It was OK. If it is on TV at Christmas, I will watch it an enjoy it, and declare anew my love for Gwen Stacey. But it wasn't good enough, I'm afraid.

That'll do for now. Come back soon for more exciting highlights of the year they'll soon be calling 'last year'.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

2012: The Photograph of Doom

This is the tale of a fool who put greed and pride above personal integrity. It is also the story of a large, generous group of friends who helped me despite having never once met me. It is the story of The Photograph of Doom.

This is not the photograph of doom. But it 
is photograph. And it is 'of doom'.

Earlier this year I got an email, out of the blue, from a man who we are going to call Dick. Dick was a professional photographer, and he was unhappy. Apparently I had, in this very blog, included a link to an online image that, technically, belonged to him. I had used the photo to illustrate some hilarious point I was making about badgers, and had not credited him, nor sought his permission.  I hadn't known it was his - there was no credit on the photo whatsoever, so I couldn't have contacted him if I wanted to - but the fact remains that this was his work. Fair enough, really - this man made his living by selling photos, and there was me using one without his say so. He made me aware of the damage that could be done to his reputation, not to mention his livelihood, if his rights as an artist were not respected.

I fired off a reply, apologising for my unwitting use of the image, and I immediately removed the offending link. I sought out the going rate for using the image and, even though I make no money from this blog whatsoever, offered to pay him  for having used the photo, rounding the amount up a little by way of an apology. I also offered to put a link to his website up here on Pancakes for Davros, so that he might benefit from the enormous customer base that comes to look at my entertaining thoughts on Doctor Who and kittens.

A photo I took. Do not copy it. Unless you want to. 
In which case, do.

In response, Dick acted like a total... well, dick. He refused to accept my attempts at reparation and demanded I pay him over 8 times the asking price for the photo. This, I thought, was a little unreasonable. I'd taken the image down, offered to pay, said I was sorry. I explained to Dick that I respected the rights of the artist, but had been unaware that I was doing anything wrong. Now, part of this was my own ignorance. I had believed, as most people seem to, that images on the internet are fine to re-use in a non profit making capacity. A quick scoot around some copyright law sites made me aware that I was completely wrong about this. Oops. Lesson learned. Move on?

No. Ignorance was no defence, not to this guy. His protestations of artistic integrity melted away pretty quickly, leaving a clear and unambiguous desire for money. I tried to reason with him - asking why the amount was so high, pointing out that I couldn't have credited him if I'd wanted to, assuring him that I now had a better idea of copyright and would certainly not make the same mistake again. In response came a long, nasty, legal sounding letter, threatening all manner of retribution, giving me seven days to pay up.

Did I take this photo? Or willingly steal it, to 
annoy someone? Only Jesus knows.

In retrospect, his demands were ludicrous. At the time, however, it all seemed very unpleasant and upsetting. I went into the weekend in a foul mood, annoyed with myself for my poor understanding of copyright, angry with this photographer for being so unreasonable, upset at the prospect of losing a good deal of money.

Two things helped.

As always, one of them was Caroline's idea. She was well aware that I wasted much of my time arguing online with other Doctor Who fans on the internet forum 'Gallifrey Base'. Often she would call upstairs to ask why I was shouting 'Cock brain!' at the office computer, or have to sit through a thrilling account of how I had angered someone I had never met with my theories on how the TARDIS worked. She wondered if I might avail myself of the massive diversity among the online Doctor Who community to shed some light on my problem. Surely some of these obsessive science fiction fans were also photographers, who may have a strong opinion on the morality of the case, or solicitors, who may help me understand copyright law?

Online I went, grumbling that it definitely wouldn't work and what did she know about Doctor Who or the internet or anything. I posted a quick description of my situation, asking if anyone had any advice. In particular, I wondered if any photographers sympathised with Dick, and thought I should just pay up. I resolved that, if the general tenor of the response was one of disapproval for my accidental infringement, I would swallow my pride, pay Dick his stupid fee and chalk it up to experience.

Copyright Rob 2012. Oh yes. 

There are around 64,000 members of Gallifrey Base, from all over the world. A lot of our time is spent getting into petty arguments about Doctor Who trivia. We certainly disagree about what we like, and will put a lot of energy into fighting for what we consider to be 'proper' Doctor Who. Our ability to disagree goes beyond mere television however; we are just as likely to attack each other over politics, sexuality or grammar as we are over the correct dating of 'Terror of the Autons'. The community is one I find both immensely frustrating and wonderfully interesting, often at the same time. What would they make of my conundrum?

Many, many people responded to my story. Solicitors, artists, photographers, lecturers in law and people who just had an opinion. People I'd never met and didn't really know, in the conventional sense. A discussion blossomed, drawing on a wealth of case histories, personal experience and some strongly felt moral arguments. The conversation, of which I was only one small part, was courteous, intelligent and fascinating. Most of all, it was good hearted. Even those who questioned the rightness of my actions did it with compassion, understanding and a desire to find a fair way through.

Some people went as far as putting me in touch with advice groups, or used their legal expertise to draft replies to Dick's demands. Some found useful examples of precedent and summarised them for my benefit. It changed my weekend from being one of despondency and gloom to one of feeling included, cared about and supported.

The conclusion we came to was simple. Dick was probably right to criticise me for using his image, and had every right to ask me to take it down. But by asking for a ton of extra money he had stepped out onto shaky ground, both morally and legally. I sent him a reply, refuting some of his wilder claims (claims which, when I'd calmed down, I realised were bonkers scaremongering and had no basis in anything sensible or legal) and restating my willingness to pay him the standard rate. Dick never got back to me.

The moon surface, yesterday. Photographed by me.

I don't know if Dick realised the massive collective effort that went into my reply or not. Perhaps he's reading this now, searching hopefully for further naughty uses of his work, so as to make a little more money. If so, hello there Dick. Hope the business is going well. You'll notice I've taken down any photos from my blog that aren't allowed by copyright law, so well done - you made a difference for artists everywhere. I'm not being sarcastic - I really have learned something.

Maybe you could learn something too. If you hadn't been such a prick in our initial exchanges, you could have had a bit of money for your work, without any stress or argument. You could have retained my respect for your work, and for you as a person. I understand it must be frustrating, living in an age where your work is so easily copied, but maybe next time, try to be a little friendlier. Copyright law is complicated, and lots of people don't really understand it. Maybe, rather than seeing that as a chance to make money from non-profit making bloggers, you could see it as an opportunity to educate people. Most of the time, we're not trying to rip anyone off, we're just trying to be creative, like you.

And if you are one of the people from Gallifrey Base who took the time and effort to lend support, expertise and ideas when I was feeling low and confused - thank you. It's good to be part of a community that can disagree, debate and fight over the smallest things, but pulls together when it matters. You made a huge difference.

Anyway. That was one of the best and worst weekends of 2012. And hopefully we've all learned something about art, community, copyright and how not to be a prick. See you next time, for... I don't know. Probably a review of a biscuit I ate or something.

(Oh yeah. I said there were two things that helped, didn't I? Well... I'll get round to that later. It's not that exciting.)

(or is it..?)

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

2012: Amazing, Recommended Television

Once upon a time it was quite easy to upset me. I was a thin skinned child, easily wounded by the thoughtless barbs of others. I did, to be fair, offer up a multitude of opportunities for mockery - I was small, skinny, bespectacled, terminally geeky and utterly unable to interact sensibly with the world. Also, brilliantly, I had the tendency, upon becoming upset, to turn bright red, opening up further hilarious opportunities for abuse.

As I have grown older, I have generally got better at coping with those who disagree with my (correct) perspective on the world. Real criticism - the stuff that comes from people who know me, that contains some grain of truth and knowledge - can knock me down, but that's as it should be. That's the kind of criticism that matters, and should be acted upon. But most attacks and arguments aren't like that. Most of the time, if someone is being nasty about me, it says more about the attacker than it does about me. Small minded childish insults are the province of those who lack confidence in themselves, or the intellect to develop a true line of thought. Except when I called that guy a penis in my last blog. That was just hilarious. 

There was one thing someone said this year, however, that really annoyed me. It was not an attack on me, rather an attack on something I love. It was a simple sentence, and the sentence was this:

"TV isn't art'"

Oh dear. 



TV isn't art...OK. It's 1954 then. Back to bed. Close the blinds. Not art. Right.

There is a discussion to be had about this which references the massive body of existing debate on the subject, going back to Benjamin through Duchamp and Warhol etc. But really... there's an easier and more interesting way of proving me unassailably right. 

Here are four television shows I saw this year. They are art.

The Thick of It

I've always liked comedy when it tries to do something more than make us laugh. I'm fascinated by the tension between humour, which relies upon a subversion of expected patterns and outcomes, and political discourse, which must have clear structure and a definable point. Stand up comedians who have a point to make tend to get less funny as they get closer to making their point. 

The Thick of It clearly has a number of points to make about the way Britain is run. Its comedy is a terrifying fairground mirror, showing us grotesquely distorted characters who manifest the truths we suspect about our so called leaders - they are selfish, duplicitous and basically unworthy of office. It has become celebrated for the character of Malcolm Tucker, the foul mouthed spin doctor brilliantly made flesh by a blistering Peter Capaldi, who confirms everything we think we know about how power really works.

In this last series, however, The Thick of It has become more than satire - more, really, than comedy. There are moments of darkness and introspection that you rarely see in any art form, let alone on television. Characters reveal themselves not as hilarious exaggerations of real life politicians, but as real people. They are weak, like we are. They are compromised beings, horrified on a daily basis at the gulf between what they thought they could achieve and what they are actually capable of. And they are terrified, finding themselves fleshy and  vulnerable among the whirling steel cogs of media hysteria, political chicanery and pure dumb luck.

Beneath the satire, this is a psychological horror story, challenging us to watch the slow unravelling of human beings in a world more absurd than any science fiction dystopia. Brilliantly plotted, executed with masterful storytelling and beautifully played by its cast, The Thick of It can make you laugh while filling you with horror. Incredible stuff.

The most intelligent commentary on Hackgate you will see, anywhere.

Him and Her

This is a hard show to recommend. I really didn't like it for the first three episodes, and this appears to be a common reaction. Whenever I tell someone to watch it they say pretty much the same thing as everyone else: "I tried watching one, but it just wasn't funny." And then I say, "Well, once you've watched about four, you start to get it." And they look at me like I am mad. You're thinking it now, aren't you? You watched one episode, and thought 'Nothing is happening and these people are annoying', and now you are thinking that I'm wasting your precious time when you could be Google Image searching random phrases to see what comes up. Is there such a thing as a nazi kitten? Did Zooey Deschanel ever do any nude work? Has anyone ever drawn a picture of the TARDIS control room in the style of Escher? Well, go look for those things if you must, but then come back here and let me try to persuade you to watch Him and Her.

Back? Right.

Him and Her was best summed up by Caroline thus: "They never leave the flat." Steve and Becky, the eponymous him and her, lounge around in a flat, occasionally getting ready to go somewhere but never actually achieving it. They are visited by a number of friends and relatives, all of whom exhibit some level of irritating behaviour. There is Dan, the dirty, bearded loner who lives upstairs and comes down to steal their food. There's Laura, Becky's evil sister who is bitchy and selfish while remaining convinced that she is the centre of everyone else's life. There's Paul, Laura's dim, trapped fiance. None of them are ever welcome, all of them are always there.

So far, so sitcom. People trapped with people they don't get on with, humour arising from conflict and misunderstanding. What makes this better - what will make you eventually realise the worth of this beautiful show - is the stuff under the surface. Like The Thick of It, this is a show with real characters - people who present a face to the world to avoid letting spill the dozens of competing desires within. The descriptions I gave above are all true, but they are only part of the story. Dan, for all his unsavoury, thieving weirdness, is a gentle, lonely character with real beauty in his heart. Paul is still, at his core, a child - rejoicing at Christmas, moved to angry tears when things go wrong on his birthday, utterly uncomprehending at how he has got trapped in an engagement with this horrible, stupid woman, Laura.

Ah, Laura. One of sitcom's great monsters. Her grating voice, her preening self love, her utter lack of perspective - all you can do when watching is urge the other characters to punch her in her stupid face. But then there are the little moments when the facade slips... when you sense a girl who doesn't know who she is, trying to construct herself through feeling attractive, planning a wedding, getting pregnant. She is a creature only defined when being observed by others, constantly trying to shape the way she is perceived by bigging herself up and putting others down. There is an incredible moment in series three when we are left alone with her for just a few moments. Unobserved, she slips into a brief, silent scream, tears held desperately in, before pulling herself back together so the world might continue to adore her.

These are characters in whom the tragedy and the comedy is the same: they cannot articulate who they are. All except Steve and Becky, who love each other because they've found somewhere they can be themselves: a tiny flat, with someone else who who wants nothing more than to eat in bed and watch Morse. This is a strange, brilliantly funny little show which will reward your time.

Laura - horrible, manipulative, a bit evil - arrives

American Horror Story

Over Halloween I bought myself the entire series of this new American show and devoured it over the course of a week. It is mental. The tenor of the show, as you might guess from the title, is one of genuine spookiness and fear. Its episodes are perverse, darkly sexual and often horrific, yet shot through with a macabre humour.

I do not recommend it without reservation; there are some of you who may find its blend of psychotic eroticism off-putting. If you are unsure, try the following:

A fat man is staring into a mirror, in a darkened bathroom. He is shaking with fear. He calls out to his reflection. "Here, piggy piggy." Nothing. He gulps, and calls again. "Here... piggy... piggy." Nothing. But the third time is the one, isn't it? That's the one that summons... the thing. One last time, the fat man summons the courage. "Here... Piggy... Piggy." A sudden squeal from behind him. He spins around, mouth opening to scream. Out of the darkness lurches the squealing head of a pig, but it's body is that of a man. Before we can register the incongruity, the man-pig swings a machete, slicing into the neck of the fat man, severing his head...

Now, how did you find that? Was it

a) Thrilling and exciting - that sounds like the kind of mental stuff I'd enjoy in a programme.

b) Not my kind of thing - that's a bit too graphic for my tastes

c)  I am a friend of the person who just read that. I found them unconscious on the floor in a pool of their own vomit, a look at horror etched on their face. What have you done to my friend? You sick, sick man!

If you answered a, then you will probably enjoy American Horror Story. If you said b, then probably not. If the answer was c, then you have a friend with a very low tolerance for fear. I would exploit this by hiding under beds, dressing up as ghosts etc. 

The premise of the show is simple and ingenious. A family is on the edge of being torn apart by internal tensions, not least of which is an extra-marital affair. They attempt to solve this by moving into the most haunted house in the world. Over the weeks they meet a variety of weird and wonderful characters who may or may not be the ghosts of previous residents. We slowly learn the history of the house, visiting moments from the past that shaped the ghostly present.

The show is bold, imaginative and compelling. Brilliantly, it pulls its triggers fast: a mystery set up in week one is likely to be resolved by week three, only to germinate more questions. The cast are clearly having a ball and play their characters just the right side of camp. Visually stunning, directed with real style, this is one of the most involving and exciting things I've seen all year.


It is almost a year ago now, but I remember it with clarity. I turned from the screen to my viewing companion and said, "We are, right now, watching one of the best things that has ever been on television." Sherlock series 2, The Reichenbach Fall in particular, demonstrated a deep understanding and love for the art form that is television. Elegant in construction, bold in execution, absolutely enthralling.

There's plenty of television I did not see this year.I will, no doubt, spend next year trying to catch up on Dexter, Mad Men, maybe even Homeland and Game of Thrones. This year, though, TV gave me enough sustenance to last a long, long time. It was beautiful, and it was intelligent, and it was art.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

2012: The Death of Zippity Jim

If 2012 was a banquet, we are surely onto the cheese and biscuits - nibbling away at a bit of stilton, not because we are hungry, but because it is there. And we look across the table at the massive mess we have made while eating and consider our meal. What was that about? Did I choose my courses wisely? Was the starter... was the starter, like, January? Is that how this works? And that would make the main course... June? That doesn't seem right. How would that work? How is a banquet like a meal anyway? Which idiot thought this up?

All of which is my roundabout way of saying a) I love you and b) let's carry on looking back at some good and bad things about the year gone by.

Don't know why I didn't just say that in the first place, really...

I talked about some good things here and here. Today, a sad thing.

The Death of Zippity Jim

If 2012 was a meal (ahh, you thought I'd given that up, didn't you? Well that shows how little you understand my idiotic tenacity when it comes to metaphor)... if it was a meal, then the death of our beloved car, Zippity Jim, was like a tasty samosa that you picked up to stuff in your salivating mouth, only to have the samosa split and all the lovely spiced lamb and vegetables spilled out over the floor, leaving you with a flap of pastry and infinite sadness.

The universe tried to kill Jim a number of times this year, most notably when a massive great truck attempted to drive over us on the M1. Some dick in an articulated lorry decided to pull out without really looking, presumably thinking that all smaller vessels would simply get out of his way. For a size comparison, think of that bit at the beginning of Star Wars, where the tiny blockade runner flies over the screen, pursued by the massive, never-ending hulk of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Except the blockade runner is a red Saxo, and the Star Destroyer is piloted by a bearded tosser with poor spatial awareness and a tiny, tiny penis.

Luckily for us, the traffic was going very slowly, and so the collision manifested itself as a slow, grinding push. We slid sideways across the lanes, more surprised than anything else. It felt like the back of the car was being eaten by gravity itself. The truck driver, who I'm going to call Gonad, eventually realised what was going on, and ceased his attempt to park his massive lorry  in the boot of our car. Everything came to a stop.

I consider myself to be a fairly gentle and calm person, reacting with an even tempered grace to difficult situations. This, it turns out, is complete bollocks. I leaped out of the car, into the sluggish traffic, and stormed across the lanes towards the truck as if I was the Terminator and he was Sarah Connor's womb. Gonad had climbed down from his big blue penis substitute of a wagon and was standing there, looking confused.

I shouted some words at him. It would soon transpire that he knew no English, but I think my meaning was pretty clear. He was, to paraphrase, a bad man. An incompetent driver. What in the name of golly gosh did he think he was doing? This situation left a lot to be desired. Also, he had sex not only with whores, but with his own mother, who was also a whore, but this was additional sex to the sex he also had with whores.

He just stood there looking sorrowful, not really understanding the various indignities I was heaping upon him. I think he was German, or something. All I can remember about German lessons is that I fancied the teacher and that 'Rathouse' means 'Town Hall'. Possibly. So, while I could have communicated things like 'Attention! The Motorway! Noisy Spirit! Secret Police!", there was little I could do to express more complicated sentiments like "We need to wait here until the police come so we can work out how to facilitate an insurance claim. Also your cock is often used for pleasuring horses."

Anyway, this is all a bit of a pointless story, because this isn't how Jim died. Somehow this altercation with a huge metal behemoth only gave him a bit of a dent, and scraped a bit of paint off. Annoyingly, later in the year, a car drove slowly into the back of him and caused a slightly larger dent - a dent the insurance company deemed a terminal illness and had him written off.

We loved Jim. He took us all over the country, never once breaking down. His clock was impossible to set, except by accident. He was speedy and brave, and he was the first car I shared with another person. Our new car, Henry, is a fine thing and we are learning to love him too. But Jim was special, and I miss him.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

2012: Movies that Rob saw (Part One)

2012 was a year in which I did not get to the cinema much. Possibly because I was playing video games all the time. In the hours I spent playing Fallout 3 over the Summer, I could have easily have watched every film on the BFI top 100 list. But would I have enjoyed myself as much as I did when I opened that cellar door and let zombies into the Tower of  Arrogant Smug Wankers? It seems unlikely. So, Singing in the Rain, if you want me to get round to watching you, maybe you want to think about incorporating some Bullet-Time death sequences, or include a bit where I get an alien laser pistol.

Anyway. I have seen some films, and some of the were great, and some were merely OK. Some of the weren't even from this year, but that's just something you're going to have to live with. In a world of confusion, uncertainty and news stories that make you want to punch the world in the face, there's one thing upon which you can rely. My opinions on films are correct, and yours should follow obediently behind.

The Hunger Games

I read a lot of reviews of this film trying hard not to compare it to Battle Royale, the ace school kids-kill-each-other splatter feat it so resembles. Why be coy? The basic premise is startlingly similar, but this is far more colourful and fun and lives in a very different place to its grungier, nastier predecessor. In many respects this is an impressively smart film, sneaking subversive commentary about the shortcomings of Western culture into mainstream acceptance, all by looking a bit like another Potter/Twilight extravaganza. It's pretty dark stuff, telling us that we'll accept the death of children before we dare disrupt the status quo - prescient sentiments post Sandy Hook - but it has the kind of imagery that goes well on lunch boxes.

On the other hand, I feel uneasy about the sanitisation of the violence in the film, which I think is less about smuggling through a message than it is about selling more tickets to children. The fight scenes, of which there are many, were edited down to appear bloodless and less visceral,  all to achieve a lower rating (and thus a wider audience and this more money). This I do not like. This is a film where the violence is written as shocking, but comes over as relatively easy. I've no criticism of the film makers here - the original edit is apparently quite powerful. But some marketing bod somewhere decreed that a safer cut would bring in more money for sweets, and so we have horrible violence re-edited to seem more palatable. 

Overall, though, a pretty good movie. visually stunning, well acted and with an intriguing bunch of ideas bouncing around a credibly drawn world. I look forward to the sequel, which I believe to be called "Hunger Games 2: Hungrier Games".

Evil Media Mogul... could be anybody...

Pirates, in an Adventure with Scientists!

Despite my job being stupidly easy, consisting as it does of showing people movies and then sending them off with video cameras so I can get on with writing nonsense on the internet, I sometimes have a day that makes me sad. One such day occurred early this year, and I found myself  utterly fed up of the world and everything in it. Caroline, who has the exclusive super-power of dealing with my fluctuating moods, suggested we go see this film, then get pizza. This was, in Super Hero terms, was the equivalent of flying round the earth really, really fast. That is to say, it worked.

Pirates! is a wonderful, life affirming film that vibrates with joy, wit and a vigorous, all consuming silliness. It is the tale of a Pirate who wants to be the Best Pirate but isn't really very good at it and... you know what? it really isn't important. The plot is as daft and inconsequential as the storytelling is deft and inventive. We're in a ridiculous yet plausible world full of enjoyable characters going on bonkers missions in extraordinary places. It is laugh out loud funny, both for its playful visuals and wonderful, surreal dialogue. "It's called Blood Island," explains one pirate, "because it's exactly the same shape as some blood!"

I suggest you see this film, even if you are not sad. It is made of awesome.

By the Beard of Brian Blessed!


This year's Pixar film is merely  OK. Not nearly as good as the Marillion album of the same name, from 1994. but then, what is?

It's very beautiful, of course. Pixar are moving into nearly-real human characters, skirting carefully around the uncanny valley and giving us a Princess we can believe in and root for. The story is straightforward and satisfying, and there are a good few laughs. The problem is, I think, that Pixar films have set such a high bar that it's difficult not to feel let down by a movie that is merely 'good'.

The weird thing about Brave is that it feels very small. Smaller than Wall-E, smaller than Up, smaller than the excellent Toy Story 3 (which remains my personal favourite and still makes me weepy when I think of the end). I just didn't care enough. So, good as you are, Brave, you remain one of my least favourite films of the year. Sorry.

2012 was a big year for people with bows and arrows.

See you next time, for more cultural highlights of 2012.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

2012: naughty or nice?


I sit, high above this city, eating a magnificent burrito and contemplating the year gone by. 2012, once an impossible, science fiction dream, is now collapsing into the past - it's glittering, futuristic name destined for out of date calendars and budget CD compilations; the subject of melancholy regret for the time we were  younger, and had hair. It's off, like every other year, into collective memory and the spines of unfinished diaries. Before it slips into history, though, let me take a little time to pay my respects.

2012 has been a year of great change, for your handsome though occasionally inebriated narrator. By far the most striking change, and the one that is most fun to tell people, is the shift in my working conditions that means I now get to spend most of my time playing video games and telling others about how awesome it is.  Yes, it turns out that pretty-much-watching-TV-for-a-living was still too difficult for my lazy and decadent soul and I was forced to push deeper into the abyss, to a place where I might spend an evening attacking a horde of zombies with a chainsaw wielding cheerleader and justifiably call it 'research'. When I tell people I'm teaching games design they find it hard to comprehend. "That's not a thing,' they say, incorrectly. Of course it's a thing. Everything is a thing you idiot. It's just that my thing annoys you, because it sounds fun, while you've probably chosen to do something worthy and dull with your life like be a doctor or manage a company.

"But I work really hard!" they protest. "I do a significant, difficult job that comes with incredible stress and little reward! All you do is toss around on computer games!"

"Your job sounds awful!" I shout, laughing and spilling wine everywhere. "Mine is awesome." And I am correct.

Video games are like everything else - 90% of them aren't very good, some of them are quite a lot of fun and once in a while you find one that makes you love it like you've never really even loved a human being. One, in particular, made me very happy this year, and so it become the first of my great pleasures of 2012.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

You know the story of the emperor who dreamed he was a butterfly, and then woke up wondering if he was, in fact, a butterfly dreaming about being an emperor? Well, that's how this game made me feel. So beautiful is the world of Deus Ex, in it colours, its music, its texture and shape, so beautiful is this world that I longed to be in it whenever I was away. Real life offered poor substitutes for its Blade Runner skyscapes and smooth, low lit interiors. On mundane Saturdays I would stand in the shops, gazing at the air vents, wondering if I could shimmy through it to assassinate whoever was upstairs. When I entered a room I wanted to roll and dive behind the nearest cover, all the better to sneak about knocking its occupants unconscious.

Deus Ex offers a gorgeous, intricate, believable world full of plentiful opportunities for espionage and mayhem. As my cybernetic alter ego stalked its futuristic streets, searching for clues to the various conspiracies that drive the story, I found myself enthralled by the freedom given me to play the game however I liked. It was quite possible, for example, to charge ahead firing guns wildly into the faces of delightfully terrified passers by, and this did allow for a certain visceral thrill. Some of them cowered and wept, allowing me to indulge in not-unhealthy-at-all cathartic roleplay in the comfort of my living room. "Look into the gun barrel, Mrs Robinshaw from Middle School! Look into the barrel, and tell me again that my cheese scones are dry and tasteless! DO IT!" Blam! Blam! Blam! Death to Mrs Robinshaw. Or, at least, the computer controlled civilian who was unwittingly standing in for her.


It was, however, far more satisfying to creep around in the shadows, observing the patrol patterns of guards and plotting a series of Michael Myers-like abductions, swooping in, knocking the guards out and dragging their bodies behind a crate before their mates came back. This bit did amuse me quite a bit. After a while you'd have a solitary guard, pacing up and down, evidently unconcerned that six of his squad mates had knocked off early without telling him. I'd create a little narrative for him in my head, where his deep seated insecurities were tipped over the edge by the certainty that all his so-called friends had gone to Nandos without inviting him. I imagined him getting home that night and taking his frustrations out on the wife and kids. He would sit alone, nursing a whisky, going through the conversation he'd have next time he saw his treacherous workmates, telling them just what he thought of them, and their cliquey bloody behaviour, all the while unaware that his friends were, in fact, laying unconscious in an artful heap, victim to my desire to smack people round the back of the head.

It is the reality of Deus Ex's world, in fact, that really drove my fascination with the game. You could overhear characters chatting about what they were going to do later, explore their apartments and read their emails. In one instance the little details of the game actually changed how I played. I was creeping around a police station looking for clues, scuttling through air vents and avoiding security cameras, and I came across this one guy working at his desk, his back to me. Desperate to peek at the no-doubt secret and revealing files on his computer, I crept up behind him to knock the guy out. But, because I am crap, he heard me, spun round, started to shout out. Without thinking I shot the guy in the forehead. Didn't even have time to pretend he was John Dyson who bullied me when I was ten. Just shot him.

I scampered over to look on his computer, scanning hungrily through the files for clues and secrets. All I could find, though, was an email from his wife, delighted that their son could come home for Christmas, telling him how exciting it was going to be for them all to be together for the holidays, telling him how much she loved him. His name was Andy.

Bollocks. I looked from the email to the cop, slumped at my feet, computer generated blood pooling around his head. This, I concluded, was going to ruin Christmas. I flicked back to the game menu screen, hit load and restarted from an earlier point in the game. Now way was I going to have that kind of guilt going on in my head. Andy could live, and have his Christmas.

The fact that a video game could elicit feelings of remorse and guilt is rarely reported - buried beneath the hyperbolic shoutings of those inclined towards moral panic. Yes, it's also fun to surprise a group of soldiers by hurling a fridge at them from a balcony (I did this a lot), but it's also quite the experience to kill a man and feel for the consequences of your actions. There's a lot more going on in Deus Ex - the nature of humanity, the artifice of broadcast media, the nature of social control - but I will remember the game for the day I killed a man who did not exist, and felt so sad about it I changed my ways.

See you next time, for more of the winners and losers of 2012. Have you made the list? Find out soon.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Q is for Qui Gon Jinn

More of my occasional series of exciting poems and vital facts about the Star Wars universe. Last time we looked at Padme, pretend secret identity of Amidala which made no sense. Today I present a lovely acrostic about Liam Neeson's less exciting version of Bryan from Taken, and some of my favourite quotations. Yes everyone, it's Q!


Qui Gon Jinn

Quiet and dignified
Unusually handsome for a Jedi
Idiotic hairdo notwithstanding

Grooming his Padawan,
Obi Wan, is his desire
(Not like that)

Jar Jar caused him to grimace
Immense Jedi patience required to endure the prattling amphibian
Now some kind of floating phantom spirit
Never really explained, that one


Here are my top five quotations from Star Wars, in reverse order.

5. ‘I stick my neck out for no-one.’

Han’s credo, concisely expressed. Also a direct dialogue lift from Rick in Casablanca. My old tutor Alan MacDonald always used to say Star Wars was, basically, Casablanca in space. At the time I mocked him furiously. "Where are the spaceships and lightsabres?" I chortled. Turns out he was right. Piss.

4. ‘Ho ho ho, bantha poodoo.’

Jabba’s contemptuous reply to most things, which, if it translates as I think it does, should really have got the film a PG rating.

3. ‘So be it.. Jedi.’

Everything Ian McDairmid says is brilliant, but this is my favourite, partly because he says it with real venom, but also because he is implicitly acknowledging that Luke’s choices do indeed signal the return to the universe of Jedi Knights. These days I have rather cheapened it, in my own life, by using the phrase to acknowledge pretty much any decision about anything. "Do you want a cup of tea?" "No thanks, but could you get me some juice?" "So be it... Jedi!"

2. ‘Looks like I’m going nowhere.’

Kick ass sulkage from young Luke, having been denied the chance to go to ‘the academy’ and have lots of sex and smoke space-weed. Only spoiled by his rather more contrite qualification that he is, actually, going to play with his droids.

1. ‘You rebel scum.’

Brilliantly delivered spitball of venom, spat onto the screen by an actor who had clearly been waiting his entire life to say just exactly that. In his mind, this film is called 'The exciting adventures of Imperial Commander Guy' and he's about to save all of space. And in another, slightly cooler universe, he's entirely correct.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Let there be lights!

Three random thoughts about lights.

1. Sneaky Fairy Lights

We put our Christmas tree up on Saturday. What do you mean that's too early? Shut up you liar. It was the first of December, which means you go buy a tree, like Jesus did, and you put on the Billy Idol Christmas album and break open a massive bottle of Baileys, like Jesus did. And it is awesome, and it makes you happy and our tree is massive and awesome.

The lights we put on the tree have that feature that you sometimes see nowadays, whereby they eschew the mundanity of a regular flashing pattern, opting instead to oscillate wildly between a number of different behaviours. They might spend a little while glowing gently and pleasantly. "That's nice," you think. Then, without warning, they all go off. Darkness. Have they broken? No, they were just taking a break before launching into a mad frenzy of random flashing. Arg! Your eyes!

Then, just as abruptly, they steady themselves into a more sensible, thoughtful pattern, wandering happily and sedately up and down the tree as if to say "Flashing? Me? The very idea! Shall we watch the Channel 4 News?" And you start to doubt your own mind. Were they flashing? They look so calm now. Maybe I'm going mad. That would explain a lot.

And then they're off again, blasting out a staccato pattern of retina scarring reds and greens. Hypnotising you with subliminal morse code patterns, altering your mind, forcing you to kill... yes.... to kill....

2. Invisible Pedestrian Lights

You're like me, I imagine. Tall, handsome, good at running. You know a lot about Blakes Seven. Once you accidentally killed a tramp. And, like me, whenever you get to a pedestrian crossing, you are faced with a small but pertinent dilemma. Who do you trust? The Green Man / Red Man double act, who look down from on high and tell you when it is safe to go? Or the many years of experience inside your head that say "Screw you, Green and Red Man! I'll cross the road when I damn well please!"

Obviously, it's that latter, isn't it? We're adults, we can cross the road without help. And, more importantly, we might be in a hurry. And, even more importantly than that, most importantly of all - what will other people think if we obey the Red Man? Imagine... you're standing at the edge of the road, you look about. No cars coming. You look up at the lights. There stands Red Man, imperious and slightly camp, commanding you to stay where you bloody well are. You look around again. There are many other people, all coming up to the road, glancing about, scuttling across, confident that Red Man is an idiot who doesn't know anything. And you just know that if you don't go too, if you obey Red Man and stay where you are, these people will look at you, and they will think "Who is this nonce? Doing what the red man tells him. What a prick. And also probably a child molester. And I bet it was him who killed that tramp!"

Shit! They know about the tramp. Quick - screw Red Man. Across the road. And across you go, and obviously, that's mostly fine. You have eyes, you can see, you probably won't get run over. It's fine. Except.

Except when there's someone also waiting to cross, and they've got their child with them, and they are obviously trying to teach this child to wait for the green man. And the child might be going "But there's nothing coming", and the adult is going "We always wait for the green man, don't we?", and the child learns not to leap into the road when it damn well pleases, which keeps the little parasite alive for just that bit longer. Whenever I see this happen, I think, "That's good. That's a good way to bring up a child. That's a good lesson to teach it, learning to wait for the green man. I mean, it would have been better not to have had a child in the first place, to have kept your loins in check and not introduced another life into this world, to steal my food, money and oxygen. Then we could both be across this road and in HMV already. But since you've spawned the little gremlin, this isn't a bad method of keeping it in one piece."

I suppose what I'm saying is... if you see someone doing that, waiting at the green man when there's clearly nothing coming, obviously trying to teach the child some basic road safety... why don't you just charge across anyway like an impatient dickhead?  Don't wait for ten seconds for the light to change. Screw that parent, or grandparent, or child abductor, and their attempts to teach the child not to leap into traffic. Show them how it should be done! Off you go!

Or, you know. Don't.

3. Idiot Quick-Change Traffic Lights

At the bottom of the slip road onto the M1 at Junction 41 there are some traffic lights and they are dickheads. They change every couple of seconds, making it almost impossible to get past them. They are like mechanical nazis, tempting you with freedom, then snatching it away. "You want to go? Ok, here we... ahhh, too late. That fifth of a second there, that was your chance. And you missed it. Ha ha ha ha ha! Oh, look - I turned green... no, gone again. Damn it, you could have gone there. If I hadn't changed instantly back. Ha ha ha ha ha! Looks like you'll be here all day!"

Bastards. I hope they rust. I hope other road signals look at them and laugh and call them 'Spank Face'. I hope they open their Christmas presents to find little parcels of sick. I hope they get invited to a big party, for all the traffic lights, and they get really excited, and wear their favourite hats, and it turns out not to be a party at all, but instead it is smelly pit full of wee and poo and it goes on their heads.

I hope their Sky Box stops recording their favourite programme seven minutes before the end, ruining their enjoyment. I hope a dinosaur does a dance and they don't see it. I hope they catch syphillis. I hope they have a beautiful dream, where they have arms and legs and human senses and can enjoy the feeling of running through a golden meadow in the warm sun, and then they wake up to the cold, harsh reality of their pointless bastard lives, and they weep and they weep.

I hope birds are sick on them. I hope God is sick on them. I hope Billy Bragg writes a sarcastic song about how they have betrayed their core beliefs in an astonishing display of hypocrisy. I hope racists torment them. I hope the Amish mock them. I hope the universe is destroyed and leaves them alone in the void, blinking pointlessly between red, amber and green, forever and ever, for no reason. I hope they die.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Dark Knight... Begins?

Note: I have done my best not to reveal any significant plot or character moments from The Dark Knight Rises, and you won't learn anything from this blog that should spoil your enjoyment of the film if you have not seen it. However, if you simply must not know anything at all, I recommend you get yourself to the cinema, pronto, and then read this afterwards. The same probably goes for Ferris Bueller's Day Off, though f you haven't seen that by now, you really aren't trying.

There's a great bit in the film  Ferris Bueller's Day Off where Ferris and his buddies go to an art gallery and zoom around taking a look at the paintings, as would any normal, healthy teenagers on a day off school. Here's the scene. You don't need to watch it, but it's very nice.

Anyway, the bit I really like is the bit near the end where Cameron - played by the awesome Alan Ruck - get's lost in a painting, his gaze (and ours) focusing closer and closer on the image until all we can see are the fibres of the canvas. The meaning of the image is gone, all that is left is colour and shape.

I like it for a number of reasons. It says something about Cameron himself, of course, and the lack of centre his character has. There's also a kind of abstract aesthetic beauty to the scene which is a satisfactory end in itself. And then there's the reason I'm thinking of it now. Some things, it seems, are impossible to make sense of until you move away from them. I guess for Ferris and his friends, his 'day off' would be one of them - a flutter of inconsequential moments that would gain significance the older they got. Imagine Jim McAllister from Alexander Payne's Election, looking back on his carefree youth, seeing it anew from his compromised, trapped, older point of view. Time and distance lend perspective, give things shape.

I saw The Dark Knight Rises on Friday, and I have to say, I feel like Cameron in my reactions. Too close to the canvas to really understand what is going on. There's a film there, yes, and I sort of have an opinion on it, but I can't quite see it yet. I'm too near, too involved in this moment. If you ask me what I think, I'll probably praise it to the heavens - I did really enjoy it - but that will be kind of a cheat because I don't really know what it means yet.

I'm not like this about every film, you understand. I didn't sit through 'Bad Teacher' ruminating on the existential nature of my viewing experience. I thought "This is slightly better than I thought it would be," and "I don't really fancy Cameron Diaz any more'" And then I forgot about it. It didn't matter. I think TDKR does matter.

For one, and most obviously perhaps, there was no way to watch the film without being aware of the cinema shootings in Denver not 24 hours before. There are - and this should not come as a spoiler to anyone - some scenes in TDKR featuring gunfire, and people screaming. It was impossible to watch without wondering at what point in the film that Denver audience found themselves wrenched out of fantasy violence into its real life equivalent.

Once leaving the cinema, it is still impossible to disassociate the movie from the shootings. Scores of idiot speculators are scrambling over each other to find causal links between a comic book movie and the cowardly actions of an idiot with guns. We won't be out of these particular woods for some time, largely due to the desperation of some Americans to blame gun crime on absolutely anything but guns. But just in case someone near you even tries to blame 'these kind of movies' for the actions of cowards with guns, here's an argument you can use for free. Director Christopher Nolan's films are not about the power of weapons, or of armour, or even of strength. They are about the power of hope, The Dark Knight Rises especially so. There are at least two scenes in TDKR which unarmed individuals advance in the face of gunfire - vulnerable, heroic, believing that doing the right thing is more powerful than superior firepower. The film is behind these people and gives their actions worth. It is against the men with guns. Against. Them.

Moving on from these events, the biggest struggle TDKR has is the shadow of its immediate predecessor - the similarly named The Dark Knight. And while there are a number of 'brilliant things' about TDK that TDKR might struggle to emulate, there is really only one that people are talking about - can Tom Hardy's Bane match Heath Ledger's Joker? The latter performance is one of the greatest pieces of character creation in living memory, elevated into instant legend by the subsequent death of Ledger. And it is an issue that will not leave you during a viewing of TDKR. Bane is not The Joker, Hardy is not Ledger. You will not find any satisfaction trying to locate 'Jokerness' in this film.

And this is the problem, isn't it? Nolan has ignored the great rule of sequels - do the same thing again, but different. It's not just that Bane is not The Joker. Gotham has changed. Batman has changed. The genre, pretty much, has changed. The entire tone and feel of this movie is different from what has come before. And  I will admit that, having rewatched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in the run up to TDKR, I did occasionally find myself, as I watched the new film on Friday, wondering, 'Is this... as good?'

Like Cameron, I need to step away from the canvas. TDKR is not 'as good' as those two films. Neither is it better that them. Or worse. It is part of a larger canvas, one I can't properly see yet. One that takes in a bigger idea of heroism, hope, madness and society than one film can properly express. We are looking at a series of films that will, one day, transcend its individual components and even the tragic circumstances of its birth. What it will then be, I can't yet say. I'm just too close.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Star Wars Trivia

Every now and then I have one of those glorious days where I don't have to speak to anyone at all. This is ace, because most of what people have to see is a huge waste of my time, but it does have a drawback. When I finally do see someone, and try to speak to them, I find myself utterly unable to remember how people are meant to communicate.

One of two things then happens. Either I mutter staccato, incomprehensible sounds, blinking at them like a fish transformed unexpectedly into a human, having completely forgotten how to talk. Or, worse, I babble like a madman, wittering at high speed about everything that has ever happened to me and what it might mean. Neither of these makes for a delightful spectacle, unless you hate me and want to see me look like a fool.

I mention this 'not speaking' thing because I've not blogged for a while and may well have forgotten how to speak to you, the beloved denizens of internetworld. Please don't be put off if I bark and howl, or make a noise like a spanner banging about in a washing machine. I'm sure I'll be back to normal before long. In the meantime... have this:

Klaatu Barada Nikto

Some time ago I embarked upon a dictionary of what I considered to be the most important things about Star Wars. I got as far as 'O' and then kind of drifted off topic and started bitching about the BBC. Well, I thought I'd do some more. Should you wish to remind yourself of the previous entries, I believe you can access them by clicking on 'Klaatu Barada Nikto' somewhere towards the end of this blog. Or I suppose you could trawl through the entire backlog of my written nonsense, and forget about whatever it was you were doing before you came wandering into this dark corridor or my mind.

So, then...

P is for Padme

Unused screenplay extract from ATTACK OF THE CLONES. PADME, who is also called AMIDALA for reasons that are never entirely clear, is talking to a PRETTY LOOKALIKE.


Hello, would you like a job with the ruling elite of Naboo?


Yes please!


Well, how would you feel about wearing this big special hat?


But that’s your special hat, your royal prettiness.


 Yes, well, never mind that. Just put it on. That’s right. And now paint your face



But maam , now I look just like you…


Yes, that’s right. Now. I’m going to stand over here, looking normal, and I’d like

you to wander over there, towards that bomb.




Did I say bomb? I meant spaceship.


You said bomb.


No I didn’t.


You did, you said bomb.


Do you want this job or not?


I’m not sure…


Look, just walk towards the shiny, lovely, very safe spaceship.


Well, alright. Why are you running away, your highness?

Spaceship explodes. Good triumphs over evil. Padme/Amidala runs away and becomes a famous ballerina. Possibly.

Coming soon - Q is for Qui-Gon Jinn.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Album review: Postcards

This Way to the Seaside!

‘Postcards’ is the second album from weird and brilliant West Yorkshire trio The Housekeeping Society, following 2011s oddball debut, ‘This Way to Power’. If you’ve heard that album, or been lucky enough to catch one of their mesmerising live sets, you’ll have some idea what you’re in for. If not... well, describing them might be a bit tricky.

They’re not normal, you see, the Housekeepers. Quite aside from their decidedly odd moniker, they produce music that pings with wit and invention, bounding gleefully from one musical style to another whilst never losing focus on a sound that is, distinctly, and for want of a better word... Housekeepy. You might want to call it folk music, with its earthy, organic tones dominated by guitar, piano and ukelele, breathing in time with the yearnings of its characters. But then these are also pop songs, with canny, vibrant hooks and melodies that seep unnoticed into the background chatter of your mind and hum away all day.

We start with a journey to the seaside, as opening track The Coast is Clear builds a rhythm around the chugging of a steam train that develops into a wide eyed, playful hymn to the joys of getting away from it all. From this point on we will never be far from the beach, swooping through the lives of holidaymakers, locals, Bed and Breakfast owners and seafarers, as the fortunes of the holiday industry ebb and swell through the years. The tone shifts from vaudevillian whimsy (Seaside Mystery Man) to wistful melancholy (the achingly beautiful Ghosts), taking in romance, nostalgia and social commentary along the way.

Shot through all this like words through a stick of rock is a real sense of time and place. The album tastes of salt and candy-floss, thanks in no small part to the layering of location recording from the North Coast, often sequenced into the rhythms of the tracks by percussionist Ivan Mack.

There are two or three tracks that stand out quite quickly. End Of The Pier is energetic and poppy, with a frenzied electronic bass-line under swooping strings and a soaring lead vocal by Ric Neale that would make Morten Harket’s ears prick up. The plaintive, wistful voice of Spencer Bayles, meanwhile, lends a delicate and beautiful sadness to You, Me And The Swell Of The Sea. Most moving of all, and for this reviewer the highlight of the album, is the Neale penned Still. In this ballad we hear the prayers of a woman widowed by the sea, wondering how the God who moves over the face of the water could let it happen. A powerful lyric over a haunting piano signature, the song burrows deeper with every listen.

There are many other treasures here. Suitcase is either funny or heartbreaking depending on your mood, as the titular item of luggage laments an increasingly one-sided love affair with its owner. And closing track The Seaside’s Been Shut Down sees nothing wrong with being both sing-a-long melodic perfection and a terribly sad curtain drawn on the world we have been celebrating.

The whole album, in fact, plays on the tension between the joy of the present and the pain of the past, finding both beauty and sadness in the fading world of the sea front. This is reflected not only in the carefully crafted lyrics and eclectic instrumentation, but also in the gorgeous cover art. Created by Jean McEwan and Robert Hope, the sleeve design evokes in image what the album does in sound: seaside landscapes, slipping out of focus into abstract, pastel memory. On the cover a child-like scribble of a house soars through the air, carried by a zeppelin over a defocused seafront. Hope and bittersweet nostalgia at the same time, Postcards is something to write home about.

Postcards is available for pre-order. For inormation, including upcoming tour dates, visit

Friday, 20 April 2012

Do Homophobes Dream of Electric Gays?

Hello you, you gorgeous thing. Is that a new haircut? No? Well, maybe I'd just forgotten how lovely your face was. Lovely, lovely face. Like a statue, carved from fragrant soap. May I lick your lovely face? May I? Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. Your face tastes weird.

Right, stop flirting you hussy - we've got work to do. The weather has got warmer, the evenings longer and, as a result, the homophobes have come buzzing out of hibernation to irritate the shit out of us. You've probably seen them, wittering about how The Gays are coming to eat your sandwiches, steal your toys and have sex with your Jesus. Just as a hayfever sufferer can sniff a high pollen count, I can sense an unusually high presence of self righteous dickheads in the air, and I think it's time to either murder them in their beds as they sleep or, at the very least, complain about them incessantly online. Whichever gets the job done.

The trouble with hunting homophobes is that they a) look just like us and b) often honestly don't know they are homophobes. They think they are reasonable humans, making good and righteous moral arguments from a fair and balanced perspective. A vast proportion of them call themselves Christian, and believe that they are doing God's work. If you went up to them with an axe and said "Are you a homophobe?" they would probably say "Goodness no, I'm just a lovely person who wants to make the world a better place for everyone - even faggots!"

In this sense, they're like the Replicants in Blade Runner. You've seen Blade Runner, right? Ridley Scott film from 1982. In it, androids that look exactly like humans are loose on future Earth - violent, clever androids that will snap your fingers off as soon as look at you with their artificial eyes. Harrison Ford is sent to catch them but - oh oh - not only do these Replicants look human, but they've been implanted with human memories, so they feel emotions and, in some cases, believe themselves to be human.

Harrison Ford employs a test to determine if someone is human or not, called the Voight Kampff test. It's a series of questions, designed to elicit an emotional response. If the subject fails to register enough emotion, Harrison concludes that this person is, in fact, made of wires and plastic and stuff, and quite rightly shoots them in their artificial face. It's a very efficient system, and I've devised my own version to aid us in our fight against the Homos (I thought I'd shorten homophobes to 'homos'. That's alright, isn't it?)


Here comes the test. Just confont your homo with the scenario, and gauge their response from the options I have provided.

The Voight Campff Test

Scenario One

You see a gay couple outside a church. Two men, two women, doesn't matter. And they're in suits. Wedding suits. All their friends are around them, throwing confetti and taking pictures. They are smiling. They have rings on their fingers. Behind them, a Vicar smiles, as if to say, "I have just performed a marriage service for these gays."

How do you feel?

a) Outraged and homicidal. Jesus invented marriage in 32AD and quite clearly stated that it was to be on a Saturday afternoon, and you have to wear a tie, and that it's NOT FOR THE GAYS. Now this Gay marriage has happened, all straight  marriages are rendered void and we will all be forced to have anal sex and/or whatever it is gay ladies do.

b) Pleased. The institution of marriage is not exclusively religious in nature - it has some foundation in the context of social and economic norms and thus has changed over time. The Bible certainly doesn't have a consistent, set in stone approach to marriage and it's frankly a lie to say that it does.

c) Bored - it's a wedding of people I don't know. I hate those.

Scenario Two

You are playing a computer game. In it, you can murder a wide variety of people using all manner of exciting weapons. They explode pleasingly when you kill them. Every woman you meet is half naked and fetishised to the point of absurdity. Suddenly you are confronted with a character who is clearly a homosexual. He has an earring and everything. And you have the option to kiss him, if you want to.

How do you feel?

a) Horrified and disgusted. The wholesome, Christian hobby of murdering people in computer games has been invaded by disgusting filth. I am being literally forced to choose the option where I kiss this muscular yet tender space marine in his perfectly designed stubbly face. There are no gay people in real life, or in fiction, so why are they in computer games?

b) Pleasantly surprised. Massive under-representation of homosexuality in mainstream media is one of the contributing factors to their social status as 'other'. If they remain 'other', they are easier to ignore, or - worse - persecute. Also, I assume it is nice for a gay person to be able to play a character which better fits their sexual orientation. In fact, I think it might be a closer fit for good old hetrosexual me, rather than the screaming masculine insecurity of the brutes I'm usually forced to play.

c) Indifferent. Sexual orientation really doesn't come into it when all you're planning to do is bayonet people in the face.

Scenario Three

You orchestrate an advertising campaign suggesting that gayness is basically a disease that can be cured. You try to put your adverts onto the side of buses, but are told that you can't because that's a horrible, small minded twattish thing to do.

How do you feel?

a) Marginalised and oppressed. Middle class white males like myself have been persucuted since the beginning of time, and this is just another example of a society that tolerates and loves homsexuality above all other belief systems. Also, being a gay is clearly quite similar to being a leper. Just as Jesus tried to heal those with leprosy, I am simply trying to heal those with Gay Disease. Basically, I am Jesus.

b) Ashamed of myself for my incredible arrogance. Rather than focusing my efforts on sex trafficking, gang warfare or the ever worsening plight of poor families, I have chosen to criticise the lives of people whose orientation I simply do not understand. I have adopted a simplistic approach to the situation based on a selective misunderstanding of social science, psychology and religion. I have allowed my own personal fear of difference to dominate my judgement and now I am legitamising prejudice and abuse by perpetuating the myth that homosexuality is an illness.

c) Confused, because Boris Johnson has said something decent and sensible.

Anyway, that's the test. Feel free to take it yourself, or apply it to suspected homophobes. If they test positive (mostly 'a's), feel free to chase them through the streets, leaping onto cars and shooting wildly with your space pistol.