Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2009 (page 1 of 5)

Christmas 2009

Merry Christmas from P-2006

Things I Nearly Forgot To Say Before Christmas

Christmas is almost upon us, and I nearly forgot to mention this year’s Child’s Play drive. For those unfamiliar, it is the gamers’ charity, started by Penny Arcade, which you can support by purchasing toys and videogames requested by participating children’s hospitals. Sadly the remaining items on the list for the UK’s Alder Hey Hospital are now unavailable, but might I suggest New Orleans as an alternative target for your generosity? Contributions so far have demolished the $1 million target, but that’s no reason to slow down.

You will by now have heard that Rage Against The Machine successfully won the close-fought chart battle to take the Christmas #1 spot. While it’s festive nature may be questionable, I must admit the news has left me feeling significantly more Christmassy than the alternative regurgitated ballad that I fear risks inducing narcolepsy and suicidal tendencies in equal measures (note: this is not an attack on Joe, who seems like a perfectly good singer and took defeat rather graciously in the end; it’s just an attack on the insipid song forced upon him). The real victory behind this is that it exposed many consumers to the wealth of legal music download services available beyond iTunes. Particularly since price comparisons were shown, it will have given many their first exposure to the great 7digital amongst others. Hopefully this will not only push people towards these services in general, but also make them savvy to shopping around rather than just lazily buying through iTunes.

And finally a few links gathering dust over the past couple of weeks:

  • “Torrents and the TARDIS”: an article on BBC America closing the gap between UK and US airings of Doctor Who, and the resulting effect on viewership and illegal downloads.
  • 61 Free Apps We’re Most Thankful For: Lifehacker compiles a grammatically questionable list from reader suggestions on the current best free software.
  • Beat The Reaper is the debut novel from Josh Bazell,  a thriller told by an ER doctor/hitman, which I picked up in a Borders book store, heaving with vulture-like people tearing the remaining carrion from its carcass. I quite like (and agree) with the Amazon reviewer who described it as a cross between The Sopranos, Scrubs and Quentin Tarantino. Meanwhile I stalled reading Chuck Klosterman’s collection of pop culture essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs because we fell out when he attempted to write a piece on Vanilla Sky without even mentioning Open Your Eyes.
  • Rainmeter v1.1 is now available, a more user-friendly release of the great tool for desktop customisation with various meters and widgets. I’m currently running a modified version of the Enigma desktop. Sleek but certainly less minimalist than my desktop has been in the past, it offers a wealth of information as soon as I boot up including email, calendar notifications and the latest news.

And, of course, have a Merry Christmas. I’ll be working up until Christmas Eve so the holiday will likely take me by surprise. Hopefully not so much of a surprise that the snow prevents me from getting back to Croydon though.

Awards Season

Awards season has snuck up on me this year, so I suddenly find myself adrift with a deluge of big film releases. This post is really a map through the next two months for myself, but  since it’ll probably be of use to others, I figured I’d share. The release dates are all for UK general releases, so expect to see some earlier preview screenings and for them generally to arrive sooner in the USA.

Avatar 17 December 2009
James Cameron’s return after a decade is a massively hyped sci-fi spectacle that promises a journey to another world. As a result I intentionally quashed my expectations but rave reviews suggest this is easily the event movie of the year, not least for its groundbreaking 3D visual effects. Whether it will have a lasting impact only time will tell, but for this year it’s certainly marked its territory.

Nine18 December 2009
I’m not exactly known as a musical lover, but Nine will be the first to draw me in for a while. Though I tend to dislike the approach of a plot that merely aims to tie loosely together a series of musical numbers, the strength of the cast alone — with Daniel Day Lewis and Marion Cotillard at its core — has won me over (though some fantastic burlesque choreography may have helped).

Sherlock Holmes26 December 2009
While not gunning for Oscar glory like the others here, Guy Ritchie’s brawling take on the world’s greatest detective, starring a strangely cast Robert Downey, Jr., finally started to make sense once the trailers emerged. A fun romp through Victorian Britain, and hopefully a return to form for Ritchie (I know some some fans have enjoyed his work in the interim) it is also perhaps more faithful than some realise.

The Road4 January 2010
A harrowing post-apocalyptic tale that portrays a broken civilisation in which humanity is left fractured and without morality. Against this backdrop a father travels with his son and tries to instill the strength of self-preservation and the value of humanity in him.

Up In The Air15 January 2010
Based upon their follow-up offerings, it seems director Jason Reitman was the more talented one behind Juno as his latest with George Clooney has caused a fair stir, not least for its timely story of a constantly travelling corporate downsizer. Meanwhile writer Diablo Cody penned the universally panned Jennifer’s Body, which failed abysmally despite having Megan Fox’s body in the titular role.

Brothers22 January 2010
Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire may not sound like obvious names for this emotionally raw story of a soldier’s return and inability to reconnect with his family, but the performances look incredibly powerful with Natalie Portman rounding out the cast. With her husband presumed dead, she turns to his brother for help.

The Lovely Bones29 January 2010
Peter Jackson’s latest film will seem more familiar to those who knew him before The Lord of the Rings. The film is based on the novel about a teenage girl who was brutally murdered and now watches her family cope in the aftermath, while also coming to terms with her own death.

Precious29 January 2010
This is an unrelentingly bleak tale of an obese, illiterate and abused teenage black girl in 1980’s Harlem. It is the only film in this list I am not certain I will attempt to see, depending on my mood at the time, since this is clearly not entertaining viewing. Mo’Nique’s highly praised performance certainly has my interest. It’s based on the novel Push, the name allegedly being changed due to concerns over confusion with the action-thriller of the same name last year (which now seems a non-issue since no one remembers it anyway).

Edge of Darkness29 January 2010
For those not yet entirely alienated by Mel Gibson’s public behaviour, he plays a homicide detective seeking answers and revenge after the death of his activist daughter. More importantly, it’s directed by Martin Campbell, the best Bond director of recent years who helmed both Casino Royale and GoldenEye.

Crazy Heart19 February 2010
Those that have seen The Wrestler will feel a certain sense of déjà vu in watching the trailer for this film, which follows a similar story of a washed up professional, in this case a country singer instead of a wrestler, and with Jeff Bridges in the lead instead of Mickey Rourke. Once again, a powerhouse character study from the lead is what carries and dominates the film.

The Disgruntlement Factor

When I first came across the facebook group trying to subvert the pre-determined X Factor Christmas #1, I will openly admit I thought they had no chance of even making a dent, let alone headlines.  It turns out that I was wrong. Their push for Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name hit BBC News after pulling ahead of this Joe chap from the show in digital downloads. I still suspect their efforts may be in vain as the physical version of Joe’s single is only released today and will undoubtedly cause a spike in sales.

Simon Cowell’s (unsurprisingly) massively egotistical response labelled it “cynical” and “stupid” and he then proceeded to explain it was all about him. Sorry Simon, it’s not. It’s a retaliation against the whole commercialised package that uses an entire TV show as a glorified advertising campaign to buy/”fix” the Christmas #1 in much the same way as these chaps are attempting. Whatever Simon may argue, both are equally “cynical” and “stupid” if it’s supposed to be about music. People are welcome to buy the X Factor single and if another bunch wish to express their views with their wallets in an alternative direction, surely that’s exactly the sort of audience participation Simon usually endorses…

The great irony is, of course, that Sony BMG wins doubly out of any competition since both songs are released under their label. The strongest argument against the campaign is that they’ve rallied around an old song (albeit one I rather like) rather than something new which they feel isn’t being given a fair chance against the X Factor machine. But what better than Rage in an attempt to take on the system? It’s no wonder Tom Morello approves. All I can say is I certainly know which song I’d prefer you buy. Call it my Christmas present. It would certainly be a moment to be remembered in music chart history.

Where The Wild Things Are

The site has been somewhat neglected in the last couple of months largely because work has been rather hectic in the buzzing litigation dispute resolution department. It’s been fun, but exhausting enough that I’ve been doing little else of particular note (and confidentiality means I can’t write about the work here either). I did recently end up taking a last minute day’s holiday for sanity maintenance, after realising I hadn’t had a day off since June. Hopefully now, with an additional trainee back from secondment, things will settle down slightly going into the new year.

Did you know that BAFTA has its own private cinema hidden away in the heart of Piccadilly? It lies behind a relatively inconspicuous door with BAFTA written above. The inside is decorated with giant sculptures of the organisation’s distinctive gold face, and features a bar and restaurant as well as the excellent cinema which is a good size and has one of the nicest screens I’ve seen in London.

Where The Wild Things AreSarah and I found ourselves there last night at a preview screening of Where The Wild Things Are, courtesy of LOVEFILM. Spike Jonze has achieved something remarkable in his pitch perfect recreation of the tone of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book. The book itself is something of an enigma, in this country at least, being either adored or entirely unknown depending on to whom you speak.

The Wild Things are a perfect way to explore different parts of Max’s psyche and the loving attention to detail is evident from their furry costuming to their humanised expressions. Casting voice talent must have been a strange process, but they all blend in well. Being a Sopranos fan I did find James Gandolfini’s distinctive voice as Carol slightly distracting, though he was great choice for the role. The mood is greatly enhanced by the low key but subtly infectious score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which I heard several people humming or whistling as we left. The film necessarily expands significantly upon the book but in returning to a childhood classic it’s the tone and the sense of wonder that really count, and Jonze nails both. I previously Jonze’s mentioned his documentary on the author, and I’m now even more curious to see it.

It’s particularly nice to have a children’s film designed simply to allow them to explore psychological ideas rather than feeling the need to signpost and spell out every message explicitly. Also, child actor Max Records has one of the coolest names ever.

Michael McIntyre @ The O2

It was, he explained, the biggest night of his life. Looking around the heaving arena, it wasn’t hard to believe. For any stand-up comedian that was a serious crowd. I’ve previously made my feelings about The O2, at least as a music venue, very clear. However as Rav and I had booked these tickets back in January (fortunately he reminded me yesterday since I had entirely forgotten) I found myself there tonight for the biggest gig of Michael McIntyre’s life.

I’m a big fan and rather in awe of his sudden rise to such stratospheric fame. As you might expect, he was hilarious, though somewhat unusually the second half of his set felt significantly stronger than the first. The material felt fresh (by which I mean I hadn’t seen it all on TV before) but some of the observational humour seemed to miss its mark – I’m not certain of the intelligence required to point out the unnaturalness of plants inside houses when I’ve been railing against it for the past decade.

The chief problem was still the venue itself. Its size is a massive disadvantage particular with a comedian like McIntyre because (as his fans will know) half of his humour is derived from his facial expressions and/or hair. This means for the full effect one cannot look directly at him, but rather must focus on one of the screens, with the result that one often feels they may as well be watching at home. To his credit he played up to it, actively engaging the distant rear seats, and it’s certainly an impressive sight to see a single man keeping an crowd that size in constant laughter. He wasn’t aided by a triple echo that reverberated around the arena, though it was amusing to experience the laughter/applause that seemed to roll around the audience in waves rather than the usual ripples. Perhaps most worrying of all, however, was a long segment in which he discussed the removal of pants in a gym. It’s a sign of just how long I’ve been spending in the States of late that it took nearly five minutes to realise he was talking about underwear and not trousers.

Penny Arcade’s review of Windows 7 is decidedly succint, if not entirely inaccurate. Having had an experience with the Release Candidate so good that I installed it on my primary computer, I am pleased to say my experience with the final product has been (aside from a brief issue with Belkin’s wireless drivers) even smoother. Wandering home through Waterloo station I was impressed by Microsoft’s launch advertising which appears to be their most accurate campaign yet, highlighting how the changes in Windows 7 are simply what users have been asking for. It’s nothing massively innovative or original, it’s just what people want. In some ways that is what separates it from Apple (though I am not about to suggest this is what has characterised Microsoft over the years; if anything the opposite is true), which feels the need to tell people what they need from and how to use their technology. For the last generation perhaps it is true that users could not be trusted with such decisions and needed to be told. Now, as we all become increasingly familiar with technology, that approach seems just a little bit backward.

Educating Activision

An EducationA while ago when I compiled a list of films you may not be planning to see (but, for reference, probably should), I wasn’t entirely sure about including An Education, but a combination of the quality of the trailer, the writer and the calibre of the supporting cast convinced me to highlight it with a poster too. Fortunately it seems I have been vindicated with the film receiving not just rave reviews but its lead actress Carey Mulligan being tipped for an Oscar. Doctor Who fans may recognise her as Sally Sparrow from Blink, one of my favourite episodes (not least because it was written by Stephen Moffat). So consider this a reminder to go see it when it’s released at the end of the month.

I am not buying Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on release. To gamers, that will sound like a pretty bold statement. An outright refusal to buy what is widely expected to be the best game released this year? Surely I jest. But no, Activision has asked me to pass it by. At least I assume that’s what they meant when they increased the RRP to £55. In practice that means it will be available for no less than £45 and their argument, insofar as they have deigned to proffer one, is either “it cost us quite a lot to make” or “well, people will pay it anyway”. Unfortunately both are true. High end videogame development is expensive but when your game is guaranteed to sell in the millions, recouping costs is of limited concern. And people want this game so they will pay for it. That’s how free markets work. My not buying it (until the price drops) won’t change anything because others will. The bottom line is this: one day my children will ask why their videogames cost so much and I will have to explain it’s because people’s convictions don’t run quite as deep as their wallets; but at least I can tell them I tried.

Finally, some are commending Spike Jonze’s documentary on Maurice Sendak as a more impressive achievement than his adaptation of the author’s seminal Where The Wild Things Are.

Short Films and Family Films

Following on from the last post, I’ve been checking out a few other short films. SIGNS is beautiful in its musical simplicity and the everyday familiarity of its isolation. It perfectly captures the human desire — the need — for connection, again something that can be done in 12 minutes better than in 120. As a gamer, particularly intriguing was the Half-Life-inspired What’s in the Box?, shot entirely in first-person. Its Half-Life influences are clear, right down to its mute protagonist, but for all its visual flair (its augmented reality HUD in particular) it raises they key problem with an extended first-person excursion in film. By losing your visual connection to the character whose viewpoint you are experiencing, one actually becomes detatched rather than more immersed. Character development is virtually impossible in this disembodied form, and even interaction is problematic. It serves well only as a way to explore an environment (and so work reasonably well here) but this is a perspective that is always better suited to a videogame where the player controls the exploration. When that control is taken away, it feels confined and almost paralysing as we are guided around against our will. By comparison, the visually impressive Half-Life 2 fan-film Escape From City 17 (be sure to check out the HD version) is arguably more immersive from its standard 3rd person viewpoint.

It will come as little surprise that the vast majority of my film collection is rate 15 or 18. While not exactly unexpected — adult-orientated films are wont to include analogous adult content — I am still often perplexed by its apparent family unfriendliness. In fact I own exactly 4 Universal-rated films: Wall-E, Monsters, Inc., Labyrinth and (for personal childhood meaning) Flight of the Navigator. Admittedly there are several child-friendly PG films (as someone who strongly believes in scaring children and allowing them to enjoy the experience, I think many of these could be watched by a child of any age) but the real limiting factor has been the extortionate cost of Disney films. Their cunning DVD (sorry, Disney DVD) ploy was to release each major film for a very limited run so the price never had a chance to drop. Now this has waned but they are still hardly cheap. As such I jumped at Amazon’s BOGOF Disney deal to make things a little kid-friendlier. That’s my excuse anyway.

Forever’s Not So Long

Forever’s Not So Long is a fantastic short film that I’d prefer not to spoil by summarising. It is, after all, only 13 minutes long. I would humbly suggest you can find a (baker’s) dozen minutes in your day to do yourself the favour of watching it. It has the effect I often find with short stories, making me wonder whether many good “full length” products are actually still overlong for their content. One could easily see this being extended into a considerably longer film, and yet when the credits role we have seen absolutely everything that was necessary. It is no less thought provoking for its brevity and anything more would risk detracting from its simple poignancy.

It also makes me very curious to see the 2005 short film that spawned this year’s longer cinematic version of 9, a post-apocalyptic animated film directed by ex-WETA animator Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. I have heard a few people suggest the less fleshed out original is actually the stronger of the two.

Uncharted: Drake's FortuneNot much in the way of news. While my flatmate Anna is away I’ve found myself generally exhausted rather than making particularly good use of the extra space. I’m finding that having someone around in the evenings probably adds some much-needed post-work energy. I’ve spent a few nights playing Uncharted on the PS3 and swiftly found myself agreeing with the excellent reviews it received. It is easily one of the best exclusive game on the system to date with its cinematic flair, colourful art (a welcome change from the traditional grey and brown palette of most early games in the current generation), likeable scoundral protagonist and a fun if unoriginal storyline that runs somewhere between Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. With its sequel just weeks away, my hopes are certainly high.

Last night I went with Rav, Angie and Andy to see comedian Ed Byrne performing at the Vaudeville Theatre. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you’ll probably know him as the likeable long-haired Irish guy from Mock the Week. In terms of fame he’s a decidedly mid-level comedian and he knows it, so he plays off it. His observational humour runs the gammut but, having married just over a year ago, wedding commentary was rife. Which, with Andy’s wedding preparations just taking off, was hilarious. Much as this may sound like a veiled insult, Ed’s set was both better and more consistent than I had expected.

Finally an interesting piece on how the security in Snow Leopard, Apple’s latest version of its OSX operating system, is still playing catch-up with Windows Vista.

Neither A Borrower Nor A Renter Be

Most people find it odd to discover that despite my not particularly veiled obsession with film and sizable DVD collection, I have never rented one (as in paid-to-rent, fuzzy library VHS tapes were an exception). Until now, that is, as I have just signed up to a one-month LoveFilm trial and fully intend to continue. So what changed? Well, understanding that requires explaining the reason I avoided rentals to begin with.

I have always said the size of my film collection is deceptive in that, although there clearly has been a significant financial outlay over time, it was nowhere near as much as it appears. This was achieved largely through the (necessary) imposition of strict pricing rules when purchasing DVDs (generally under £5 for a standard film, £8 for special editions, £10 for foreign and rare discs). This meant that in most cases the cost of renting a film more than twice would exceed the cost of buying it to watch forever. If it turned out I didn’t really like the film, selling it on (or usually trading in) would tend to result in a “loss” of about the cost of a rental.

What changed is the expansion of rentals into blu-ray and videogames where the margins are significantly higher. A mediocre game may be worth playing, but isn’t worth the £40 price tag on release. Unlike DVDs, it’s likely to take such a game almost a year to tumble to a more acceptable price and by then its resale/trade-in value is likely to have diminished entirely. Similarly, although I tend to shop around for blu-ray bargains (Cheap Blu-ray Movies being an invaluable resource), it’s a more dangerous prospect to buy a film you’re less than sure about — though there are exceptions as I recently made £3 by watching the new high-def release of Total Recall and selling it on.

So my LoveFilm list is entirely populated with blu-rays and videogames, and each month I expect to play through a game and check out 3 films that I’m not yet sure about. Even subscription-based rentals services will never replace my need for a film collection (at least until an on-demand streaming HD library is a workable reality) since predicting my film mood in advance is largely impossible. Nevertheless my staunch anti-rental policy has now gone the way of those snowy over-used VHS tapes…

My Blueberry NightsIncidentally the first film I rented was My Blueberry Nights, Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai‘s first foray into English language cinema. It received a decidedly lukewarm critical reception which put me off for a while, but his always exceptional use of light and colour makes for gorgeous HD viewing. Despite the uncomfortably stilted dialogue, and perhaps due to lowered expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the mood it effortlessly evoked. Anna was also a fan.

And finally in unrelated (but awesome) news, a Dr Horrible sequel is now official.

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"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

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