Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Where about on the internet do you live?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

Batman Begins was a very special movie. Its one of those movies that is greater than the sum of its parts, which is especially impressive when each one of its parts is great to start off with. If you want to see how to make a great superhero movie, watch Batman Begins. The first hour and a bit is as close to perfect as it gets and by the time it descends into mere brilliance towards the end you're so caught up in the plot and the action that you hardly notice.

So, as you might have gathered, I had very high expectations of the sequel. What I have to say should remain spoiler free...

Like its predecessor, The Dark Knight is also a film made up of great parts. However, for reasons I still haven't completely worked out, the final film ends up being slightly less than the sum of those parts. That's not to say that its not very, very good, its just to say that it's not as awesomely, gob-smackingly brilliant as it should be. I think maybe it was a little bit two long, or possibly because there were a couple of non-brilliant links in the chain, but somewhere along the way The Dark Knight loses one star out of the five stars it should have had. But its still a four star movie - way better than average.

Perhaps it fell partially into the same trap that Tim Burton's original Batman movie did - its not a film about Batman, in many ways he seems to be a supporting character. Batman Begins was the first Batman film that was actually about Batman, everyone else in it was just scenery. This film isn't about any single character really. Its not even a film about the Joker (which Tim Burton's original movie was), he too is a supporting character.

It's a film about ideas, not people. This was demonstrated most when it got to the scene where two people were in trouble and Batman only had time to save one. This was two thirds of the way through the film yet, by this point, I didn't actually care enough about one of the characters (I knew what was going to happen to the other character because I've read the comics, seen the old films, etc.) to be bothered either way if Batman got to them in time, yet this was supposed to be the emotional core of the film. Likewise when we got to the bit with the two boats, I really didn't care either way.

But. Visually its stunning. It has so many fab moments that I can forgive its other weaknesses. The whole hospital scene was outstanding, full of humour and perfectly timed. Yes, it was a 'set piece' but so what, it was a great set piece.
  • Heath Ledger was brilliant - he produced a totally believable, utterly captivating, psycho. In fact, there was nothing of Heath Ledger there, I genuinely forgot (even given the hype) who was playing the part and just watched the Joker on screen.
  • Gary Oldman was excellent. Hopefully he'll get a bigger role if/when they do another Batman movie.
  • Christian Bale was side-lined a bit, but still gave a convincing performance as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. They did a silly thing with the Batman voice though.
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal was OK. To be honest, I preferred Katie Holmes in the role, but MG was OK. I thought MG was fab in the last film I saw her in ("Stranger than Fiction") and - after watching that film - would even go as far as to say that she has the sexiest smile in Hollywood, but sadly the smile was not used much here and we had the lip-trembling face instead, which just never really grabbed me. Sorry.
  • Aaron Eckhart was good too, although when he started getting nasty before his transformation, I didn't really believe it, it didn't quite work. He was in the role of the 'White Knight' after all.
I think I will return to the cinema to see it again, given the opportunity. Actually, I'd quite like to go and see the IMAX version - six of the big action scenes were shot in IMAX. Hopefully the hospital scene was one of them, that would be awesome. I'll also get the DVD when it comes out, even though I don't have much time for DVD watching these days. I'll make the time.

So, after one viewing, The Dark Knight is currently ranking as my 4th favourite superhero movie after Superman (1978), Batman Begins (2005) and X2 (2003).

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Musical roundup...

After months and months of buying nothing, somehow the stars have aligned and I found myself buying three new CDs this week. So, in order of increasing awesomeness, here are my thoughts on them:

Revelation by Journey

Journey have had a bit of a hit and miss career. They started in the early 70s, the core of the band being the musicians left behind by Carlos Santana when he went solo from 'Santana'. They pootled about for a few years flirting with various (unpopular) musical styles before recruiting Steve Perry as their front man and opting for a 'radio friendly', pop-rock, AOR sound. Then they went massive. A few years on and keyboard player Greg Rolie had had enough of touring and suggested that Jonathan Cain replace him. They did this and Journey went on to produce the finest AOR album of all time, 1981's 'Escape'. Things kind of slowed down and drifted apart in the late 80s, but then they reconvened for a 'reunion' album 'Trial by Fire' in 1996. But Steve Perry was unable to tour for health reasons, so the classic lineup dissolved once again.

In 2001, Journey re-emerged with a new lead singer, Steve Augeri, and a fantastic (IMO) album called 'Arrival'. This was followed up by 'Generations' a few years later, which was quite similar to Arrival in many ways. But there were problems with Steve Augeri's vocal capabilities on tour, so the band eventually fired him and went looking for a new singer.

So now we have the new album 'Revelation' with new lead singer Arnel Pineda. The CD release is a double album, disc 1 being entirely new songs and disc 2 being a 'greatest hits' compilation - but all re-recorded versions with Pineda singing lead vocals.

The new songs are great. Pineda can certainly sing, and while his voice is reminiscent of the Steves that have gone before, it is also distinctive enough. So vocally and musically things are fine. Its just that the songwriting is very much in the same track as Arrival and Generations were. There's nothing bad here, but there's nothing particularly new either. Some songs really do sound very similar to others that have gone before. If you love Journey but haven't heard Arrival, then you'll find this to be a great album. But if you already love Arrival, there's nothing really to be gained by getting this. Maybe it'll grow on me though.

I have a problem with the re-recorded songs though. What is the point? Steve Perry had a highly distinctive voice with great range and power. Pineda is a good singer, but not a better one, so his vocals add nothing new to the old songs. And its not as if the band opted to 're-interpret' the old songs, they just went for re-creation. So there really is nothing special here. The CD is fine, but if you know the old songs then the minor differences will just niggle at you.

Good but not great.

Silver Spoons and Broken Bones by Stone Gods

I reviewed a Stone Gods gig back in January. They're the band that are basically The Darkness without Justin Hawkins. Well, their debut album came out a couple of weeks ago. And its pretty good really. This is a wall of hard-rocking, old-school metal with chunky guitar sounds and riffs & solos aplenty. Stone Gods sound better on CD than live in a basement, and they certainly look better when you can't see them.

This is heavier and harder and more serious than The Darkness ever were, but there are still moments of humour that come shining through. This won't achieve the crossover success that The Darkness had, none of these songs will be troubling the airwaves or the singles chart, but this will go down well with folk who identify themselves as metalheads already.

Rise by The Answer

This is the first time that has 'recommended' something to me that I hadn't previously heard of and turned out to be exactly my kind of thing when I investigated further. This is a fabulous album.

Once upon a time there was a genre called 'blues-rock', I'm not sure when it died out, but certainly there haven't been any great blues-rock albums out for a long time. In the 70s all the big rock bands dabbled with blues-rock and of course the biggest in the genre was Led Zep. Somewhere in the 80s, blues and rock parted company. Occasionally folk like Gary Moore would jump from one to the other, but few bands kept one foot in each camp - except for aging blues-rockers like Paul Rodgers.

So I have no idea how a band like The Answer can suddenly explode on the scene - in 2007 - all big riffs and blues vocals. I think what mut have happened is this - at some point in the late 80s, the former members of Led Zep, Free and early Whitesnake must have been sowing their wild oats in Northern Ireland. As a consequence of these liaisons, four boys were born who grew up to form a band. That band is The Answer.

From about 30 seconds in to track 1 on the CD, I knew I was going to love this. And the album kept going with great song after great song. The bonus disc on the special edition release has some great stuff on there too, but its not quite as coherent as the entire first disc is.

And special mention has to be made of the track "Preachin'" which is some old time blues and has an opening line which made me burst into laughter (on the bus) the first time I heard it. Genius.

If you like your rock with a little touch of blues, you'll love this album.

And there's more to come. Extreme are back next week with a new album called "Saudades de Rock" which is an odd name, but hopefully a good album. Will let you know.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Marillion: Whatever is wrong with you?

Marillion have just given away a free edit of one of the new tracks from their forthcoming album.

Its called "Whatever is wrong with you" and can be downloaded from the website of the same name:

Its, erm, mediocre. As bland as most of the last album was. If this is typical of the stuff they've just recorded, I'm not going to like the new album. :o(

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Scientifically proven fact!

It is a scientifically proven fact that whenever someone uses the phrase "scientifically proven fact" what they really mean is 'I heard someone say this and I believed them, but I haven't put in the time and effort to find any references for it' or possibly 'I read it on wikipedia'.

It is self-evident that when someone uses the phrase "it is self-evident" what they really mean is 'this is my interpretation of the facts and if you come to different conclusions then you are wrong'.

And 99% of statistics that claim that "99%" of some group are united on an issue are completely made up.

I've heard two of these abused in the past 24 hours and it can't be long before someone uses the third...

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Terry Pratchett's 'The Colour of Magic' (TV adaptation)

I managed to catch up with some of those movies and TV programmes that I'd recorded-but-not-yet-watched when I was on holiday recently. So I've now completed Smallville series 7 (generally fine, but got silly towards the end), Lost series 4 (interesting but a bit annoying) and I finally got around to watching the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 'The Colour of Magic' which was on Sky at Easter time.

Having seen last year's 'Hogfather' adaptation (it was OK, but not nearly as magical as the book) I was vaguely intrigued to see what they would do next, and was a bit disappointed to discover that they'd picked one of TP's weaker books to adapt. 'Why didn't they at least go for 'The Light Fantastic', its a better story?' I wondered to myself.

But now that I've watched it I know that the TV adaptation is a blend of the first two Discworld books, 'The Colour of Magic' and 'The Light Fantastic', which (a) means that the source material is better than simply doing TCoM alone, and (b) means that more has to be chopped out to fit to a 4 hour running time (including adverts).
So, it was OK. It was faithful to the story, with all the wackiness still intact, but once again the witty narrative that drives all of TP's books along (particularly the early ones) is missing. I'm not sure how this could be translated from the page to the screen, but I'm sure it could have been done somehow.

I'm not sure what I would have thought of the story if I hadn't read the books. The plot jumped about a bit and there were many parts of the story - which were emphasised and developed in the books - which just had to be briefly mentioned in passing. So the sub-plot with Cohen and his troll teeth 'din-chewers' happened, but it was stripped of all its humour. The bit where Twoflower explains the concept of insurance to the publican happened, but was stripped of any real meaning. The bit where Treymon reads all the 8 spells and his mind collapses happened, but was stripped of all the horror of the 'nameless things' that take him over, and so on. So yes, it ticked all the boxes it needed to tick, but without knowing the story first, I'm not sure it would play very well. Sadly the sub-plot with the magical shop and the cursed shop keeper was dropped.

Or maybe it was fine if you saw it without having read the books, maybe its only because I know the gems that have been cut out that I'm a little bit disappointed.

But. The biggest problem I have with this adaptation was the casting. As I'm sure is clear to everyone, David Jason is not Rincewind, clearly Nigel Planer should have been cast in that part. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply wrong. Likewise, Sean Astin is not Twoflower. Tim Curry, on the other hand, was perfectly cast. And the Librarian was great.

So it was fine, looked good, ticked all the right boxes but was a bit muddled and soulless. But I will watch the next one when they do it. But why, oh why are they not doing 'Mort', 'Wyrd Sisters' or 'Guards! Guards!' next?

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Doctor Who: 'The Stolen Earth' & 'Journey's End' (S4E12 & 13)

And so it ends (for this year at least). I've got to say that this has been the best of the four NuHu series so far, and by quite a margin. That's not to say that the previous three series weren't good, but is to say that this series was great throughout, with only a few dips towards 'alrightness' along the way.

If you haven't seen these episodes yet, don't read on, I'm sure to spoil something for you.

This two-parter followed the pattern laid down by previous Doctor Who two-parters in that it tried to achieve far too much in the first part. Too many characters converging and too many things going on. You put Donna and Martha together in one episode and we care. You put Donna and Rose together in one episode and we care. You put Donna and Martha and Jack and Rose and Sarah-Jane and the Doctor together and try to fit a plot into 45 minutes and we're struggling. By necessity the Torchwood team, Sarah-Jane's son and Mickey and Jackie got sidelined and we didn't have the time to actually care about any of them, which is a shame.

Also, the production team seems to think it is necessary to put the entire world in jeopardy at the end of every Doctor Who series. I'm not sure it really is. You can still pack a two parter with action and an emotional punch even if the entire world has not been ripped out of time and space.
But still. The Daleks are back. Yay! Davros is back. Double Yay! All the recent companions that we know and love are back. Yay! And then the best cliffhanger of any NuHu yet. What will happen next?

But still, I do agree with SFX ( who said it was like an extended movie trailer - lots of snippets of what should be a much longer story. But the first half was clearly just there to be a set up for the second...

... and that was just fab. Davros showing the Doctor how he used his companions was a touch of genius, the Daleks talking in German was brilliant and the DoctorDonna was great. Everything that could have been wrong about Catherine Tate being cast as a companion thrown into one scene and somehow tranformed into pure class. 10 out of 10, Russell T.

Then thrown in a few silly bits and a pretty ropey plot whereby Donna has to have her memory wiped and is therefore written out - we knew it had to happen, but I'm sure there could have been a better way. With the prophesy of "One of them will die", I don't know why they couldn't just follow through on that. They killed off Kylie last Christmas, why not kill Donna off properly? In no real way did one of them die. It was a trick.

And of course the Rose storyline is now resolved and ended and she'll not be back again. I liked what they did there with the other Doctor, but it also felt like a little bit of a cheat. But I'm nit picking here at what was a fab ending to a great series. Well done the BBC.

So here's a quick summary of the whole series:
  1. Partners in crime: Silly but entertaining. 7/10
  2. Fires of Pompeii: Who as Who should be. 8/10
  3. Planet of the Ood: A bit weak, but passes the time. 6/10
  4. The Sontaran strategy: Entertaining. 7/10
  5. The poison sky: Fun with dull bits. 7/10
  6. The Doctor's daughter: Too simple a plot. 6/10
  7. The unicorn and the wasp: Silly but entertaining. 7/10 (initially 5/10 but it grew on me)
  8. Silence in the library: Brilliant and creepy. 9/10
  9. Forest of the dead: Continuing brilliance and creepiness. 9/10
  10. Midnight: Simple story, well told, some great moments. 8/10
  11. Turn left: Genius. 10/10
  12. The stolen earth: Too much happening, but a great roller coaster ride. 8/10
  13. Journey's end: Emotion, heartbreak and some punch-the-air moments. 9/10
Wow, so an episode average of 7.7/10! That's pretty good. By my own scoring rules I should go and buy the DVDs, except that I wouldn't have time to watch them these days... Oh well.

So now its ages and ages until the next Doctor Who (OK, there's a Christmas special, but then ages before the next series). But at least they are making a new series of Torchwood after the summer, so that will hopefully hit our screens early in 2009. And for those of you who don't know, it will be a five-parter, continuous story, showing Monday to Friday one week. And will feature Noel Clarke as Mickey as the new boy on the Torchwood team.

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My Super Ex-Girlfriend

I finally got around to watching this movie.
  • Reasons why I wanted to watch it: Its a superhero movie, I love superhero movies. Its a comedy, I like comedy movies. I mean, Mystery Men was excellent, wasn't it?
  • Reasons why I didn't want to watch it: It stars Uma Thurman and Luke Wilson. I have never understood why Uma Thurman is cast in roles where she's supposed to be attractive or sexy, I just don't see it. And Luke Wilson is always the same character in whatever film he's in.
But I added it to the list of movies on my online DVD rental selection and eventually it turned up on my doorstep.

And I have to say I quite enjoyed it. Yes it had an almost entirely predictable plot (except for the bit with the shark) and you could see the final two 'twists' a mile off, and all the characters were paper thin and reasonably stereotypical, but it did actually have a heart lurking under there and in the end you did care what happened to the characters. And Eddie Izzard always adds a little fun to a film.

Forgettable but transiently entertaining fluff.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prince Caspian

Have I previously mentioned that I'm a bit obsessive about the Narnia stories? I'd read all seven books (at least once each) by the time I was ten. I've probably read them all more times than I've read any other books. I probably still could recite large chunks of the books. So (a) I have to go and see these films at the cinema as soon as they're out, and (b) I'm highly critical of them. But the film adaptation of Lion, Witch & Wardrobe was very good and I managed to forgive its failings and occasional departures from the plot. So what about the sequel?

Well, in many ways, Prince Caspian is possibly the least interesting of the Narnia books. Its not very interesting an allegory and all the good bits of plot happen in flashback, not in the 'present'. It is also possibly the least cinematic of the lot, especially as much of the first part of the book is very talky and happens in flashback. Also there aren't any significant battle scenes, and battles is what the film-going audience want in a fantasy film these days.

You see, in the book, our heroes - the Pevensie kids - meet up with Aslan before they meet Caspian and there is an expectation from then on that Aslan will save the day, but we're just not sure when. The story is all about faith, trust and belief. But that doesn't make for a very dramatic movie - well, certainly not one playing to a secular audience. So the main reasons the movie fails as an adaptation are that they decided to remove the faith story and remove Aslan from the plot until the very, very end.

Obviously, this decision affects the rest of the plot. Given that they're not expecting Aslan to save the day (OK, Lucy is, but the rest aren't), what do they do? And how can we get an extra battle scene in the film?

The film can be split up into three main chunks:
  1. Setting up the story - Caspian escaping from Miraz, meeting the Old Narnians and the children getting back to Narnia and discovering what's going on.
  2. The middle bit from when the children meet up with Caspian until the duel between Miraz and Peter. This is what should be the heart of the story, but is actually the bit where the film strays furthest from the plot and spirit of the book.
  3. The final battle and Aslan's return.
Basically I think its fair to say that I enjoyed parts 1 and 3 and found most of part 2 unnecessary and annoying. So I'll moan about part 2 for a bit and then be positive about the rest of the film after that.

You see - in the book - once Peter and Edmund have met up with Caspian (the girls never meet Caspian until the very end), Peter does his very best to avoid battle and unnecessary bloodshed and hence suggests the duel, primarily to stop the two armies killing each other while the duel is arranged. Not in the film. In the film Peter is all about trying to engage the enemy in battle and attacking the castle. And once that has failed, we need a contrived reason to come back to a duel. Despite what some of the critics have said (that Susan is the weak character in the books), it is actually Peter who is the most 2D character in the books (and in the first film), so to make the plot revolve around him and his decisions is a bad idea. And the actor playing Peter isn't really up to the task of carrying the film through its middle section and so everything falls a bit flat.

The whole film looks like a homage to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies - compare the opening horse chase to the flight to the ford in Fellowship, compare the final river flood scene at the end to the scene at the ford in Fellowship, compare the battle scenes to ROTK, compare the angry trees to the Ents at Helms Deep, etc. But never is this more apparent than the night-time assault on Minas Tirith, sorry, I mean Miraz's castle. OK, so here the flying gryphons are the good guys, not evil Nazgul, but beyond that everything looks the same. We've seen this before.

But, the whole film does look really good, even if it is homage. It looks like the Narnia in my imagination, fleshed out with bigger towns and more people than the books describe. Despite being about a decade older than he should be, Caspian himself is great and I liked the way the Telmarines and Miraz, in particular, were done. Once again, putting more flesh on the story than there was in the book. Good.

I approve of most of the changes in the early part of the book, missing out all of Caspian's younger years and making the Telmarine situation a bit more political. The changes with the children's story are fine too, and the bits in the ruins of Cair Paravel and all the way up to the river Rush were great. Shame they dropped Edmund's "Where's this bally Rush got to?" line though. 'Bally' is a great non-expletive which should really be reintroduced.

From the River Rush on, though, things start to go wrong. It is at this point that the book deals with the robust faith of Lucy, the failing faith of Susan and the outright disbelief of Trumpkin and the various ways that Aslan deals with them when they all come face to face with him.

By missing out the doubting Susan storyline, the film makers had to change Susan's character for the movie, and I think they did a pretty good job. In the film Susan is a fantastically heroic figure, fighting as well as the boys and falling in love with Caspian as well. Anna Popplewell shines right through the film and I think she has a good future ahead of her.

But by removing Aslan and changing Susan, the film makers unfortunately chop my favourite bit of the entire book. You see, while Peter and Edmund go off to help Caspian face up to Miraz, Susan and Lucy go with Aslan and witness the transformation of Narnia from a stern, repressed, rule-based, grey country into a wild and free country of magic and parties. This is the bit of the story that - no doubt - gives many conservative Christian types cause to worry, as we see Aslan - the allegorical Christ figure - cavorting with pagan gods like Bacchus and enjoying a wine-fueled late night slumber party. Still, at least they left the river god in at the end.

The duel between Peter & Miraz is pretty good but not as good as it should have been. The fight does not suggest that Miraz is an experienced old soldier or that Peter is a great warrior in the prime of his youth. Its just two folk hitting each other with swords. The battle that follows this is OK, but its still just two armies running at each other and fighting. But I suppose that is what the film going public want to see.

The film is too long. With a bit of trimming (of the middle section and the final battle) a much better film would emerge. It's not faithful to the plot or the spirit of the book, but is entertaining enough by itself to stand as a movie in its own right. And it'll make bucket-loads of money, so hopefully we'll get to see a movie adaptation of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in due course. But then again, that book really doesn't have any potential for battle scenes in it, so they'll really have to change things for that. After that, I'm not really expecting them to make the other four films, although I really think they should do the Magician's Nephew sometime, with Tilda Swinton reprising her role as Jadis. But no battles in that either. Or they might just jump on to The Last Battle (cos they like battles) and be done with it. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

I'm back...

Did you miss me?

Various random thoughts and movie & tv reviews to follow shortly...