Sunday, November 23, 2008

The weekend never starts round here

I never really think of myself as a music buff, or even a music lover. Compared to my obsessions with movies and games, music seems to take a back seat as I rarely seek out anything new and have bought very little in the last few years.

Thinking back to my childhood, though, it seems a very different story.

I believe the first single I ever bought was Turtle Power, the movie tie-in song on a cassette from Woolworths in Cricklewood (long since closed). It was a bizarre rap-lite concoction, and I think to my embarrassment that the first album I owned was either Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ or Vanilla Ice’s ‘To the Extreme’, both second albums by artists who found fame as their style became fashionable, New Jack Swing taking hold around the time of Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’ being released, and Vanilla Ice cashing in on the novelty (s)hit single. Given the timeline it was probably Brown, but either way I stress that I was influenced by Top of the Pops, and was only about ten years old.

It was also Top of the Pops that set me upon a different path, however, after Iron Maiden’s ‘Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter’ reached number one and basically made me a Metaller, or Metalhead or whatever you want to call it. After that I got a leather jacket and started to grow my hair, and listened to everything from the obvious Metallica, Guns and Roses and Megadeth to lesser know acts like Pro Pain and Misery Loves co. A bunch of friends from school also shared an interested in music that was heavy and guitar based, and mostly thanks to them I hovered around the cutting edge of the scene, getting into the likes of Nirvana, Korn, Fear Factory, Incubus, Marilyn Manson, Tool and System of a Down either before they hit the big time, or before most people had ever heard of them.
I watched as the metal scene fragmented into even more little sub genres than the late 80s had to offer with the cock rock of Poison, stadium bollocks of Bon Jovi and thrash metal of Slayer and Metallica (pre-Black Album) to complement the more ‘bread and butter’ metal of Iron Maiden and Megadeth.
Rap and dance music started to have an influence, and things that had been around a while like punk split off in all directions, forming in that case a base for as diverse acts as Green Day, Pitchshifter and King Prawn.

I went to metal gigs and festivals and paraded around in baggy trousers, band t-shirts and hoodies (though it’s not hugely different now I’m 30), and have days worth of metal on my ipod even today, but it was never as simple as that.

Alongside the metal I was influenced by a number of sources. I remember furtively listening to NWA’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’at probably about 11 or 12, afraid my mum would hear it, and playing De La Soul’s ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ with considerably more volume.
This embarrassment at NWA was despite the fact that my mum was one of the biggest influences on my tastes, for it was her listening to New Jack Swing acts like R.Kelly and Warren G. that no doubt led to my Bobby Brown purchase, and it was her listening to Jungle on pirate radio as it first started to emerge in London that led to me becoming a big fan, and would lead to me twiddling through the FM band at the weekend, trying to find a station with a finger hovering over record so that I could listen to drum and bass as it was then, all Jamaican ragga and film samples set to deep, rumbling bass.
My predilection for dance music was always there, alongside all the other genres that vied for attention, and I wonder what would have happened if I were a bit older and had been a teen when Rave culture first started, rather than reaching 15 to find that the government had criminalised free raves with the Criminal Justice Act of 1994. I went to clubs and danced to trance music instead, before the shit they call trance in Ibiza was invented.

On the other hand, I was a working class kid from a post-industrial suburb, practically the inner city as far as North London’s concerned, but I went to a private secondary school with middle class kids who lived in the ‘proper’ suburbs, ones that had a postcode from a different county. This is probably a large ingredient in the reasoning as to why my tastes included white-boy guitar music as well as underground beats broadcast from tower blocks.

Indie was big too, and whilst I never read the NME like some of my more indie-centric school friends, I became a big fan of Select magazine and regularly took a chance on a band based on reviews in the mag.
As well as the emergence of metal variations like the downtuned metal of Korn and Deftones and the evolution of Jungle into Drum and Bass in the mid 90s, indie music enjoyed a big place in the spotlight with guitar based pop becoming fashionable again after a decade of synths. Blur, Pulp, Suede, Radiohead and dozens of others hit the big time, swirling around in tabloid celebrity culture despite being student music, usually a surefire way to stay out of the top end of the charts. Thus the Britpop phenomenon chugged along for a while and I was into that too, with sub-mutations all of its own as ‘indie’ and ‘dance’ merged and you had acts that were enjoyed by fans of all camps, like Orbital and Aphex Twin, and a rash of remixes bloated each and every release of a single.
And then you also had the emergence of Trip Hop, one of my favourite mini-genres, as Massive Attack furtively shuffled out of Bristol with Tricky, Portishead and my favourite Ruby following just behind.

Nowadays my musical discoveries are confined to the latest releases of the tried and trusted, stuff I happen to hear on a film soundtrack or similar, and new music of a broad hard-rock church thanks to a friend with a voracious appetite for new music within that hazy umbrella genre.
Because of this I feel like I’m not ‘into’ music anymore, but I guess you could say I was into it all ten years ago and I still haven’t finished with that yet.

Or it might be that I was musically Samson – since the late 90s there haven’t been any musical movements I’ve been inspired by. Bands yes, but bands all doing infinitesimal variations on what has gone before. Is it a coincidence that it was the late 90s that finally saw me cut my hair, after it tangled into a mass I couldn’t comb and I became fed up with it?
I’ve not been able to grow it long since, and my enthusiasm for new music has also stunted. The signs are there. Maybe someone put a hex on me?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CMB returns

When I was younger I was known as the Cricklewood Monkey Boy. I was known for acting like a monkey, and I lived in Cricklewood.

I have lived in Cricklewood on and off all my life, with the odd year or so every now often spent in another part of London, but I keep coming back.
This time around it was to do with cheap rents and familiarity - having to move out at short notice didn't give me a lot of time to plan, so when I had no luck finding a place in my preferred areas I lumped for what I knew. I knew what the area was like, where everything was and all the transport routes, so given the choice of living in an unfamiliar area without the potential for saving any money, I came home.

The new flat is good, much better than flat minus one in that it is structurally sound - doors, walls and lights work, and extravagances such as the washing machine also function. Nice. Plus the advantage over the last flat is that I am in the top floor, and thus have no neighbours waking me up at three in the morning playing Guitar Hero. This is a very good thing and has manifested in a remarkable improvement in my sanity, no longer do I curse obscenities to the ceiling and wish unpleasant death on strangers.
I knew when I saw the place for the first time that there was no TV aerial, but I knew I could live without it. I rarely watch TV so the slightly wonky picture of an indoor aerial suits me fine.
What I didn't realise is that despite the fact there was a phone socket in the flat, this didn't mean I could assume that I could get a phone line. After dozens of phone calls to a number of landline suppliers, I found that my flat did not exist on their computer systems, and that meant that I could not have a line installed without first getting my flat to pop up in their drop-down boxes. It turns out that this will involve getting everyone in the building to fill in forms for the council and pay fees for the privilege of dwelling acknowledgment before I can even start the phone companies on installation and all the charges involved.
I gave up and decided to get mobile broadband, which also was nothing like straightforward after spending nearly two hours trying to set up an account with a phone company, only for my bank to block the 50p transactions that the phone company used to verify my address.

Still, a month on and it's all behind me now, I have a USB dongle which feeds me internet at frustratingly slow speeds, but at least I have access. And I've worked out how to re-save photos to a file size that the dongle will actually let me upload, so finally I present to you my new flat, the day after I moved in about five weeks ago:

This is the front room.

This is the kitchen.


Thankfully, I have a separate bedroom.

And the view from the front room. The building looming over the houses opposite is my old Primary school.

Monday, November 10, 2008

As I Live and Breathe

Autumn has come around, after a brief respite from the abject failure of the British summer. Some warm, sunny days, unknown in Octobers past, have given way to the crisp chill and smell of leaves on the ground.

For me, the onset of autumn brings with it the London Film Festival and the chance for a taste of things that I might otherwise never see.
A lot of people are excited by the premieres and galas and star-studded extravaganzas that have been talked up for months beforehand, but with limited time and resources I much prefer to try and catch the little gems which may never get an official release in these green lands.
Anyone who has read one of the LFF programmes before will know that they, out of necessity, try and make every entry into the festival seem like a good bet for your time, regardless of the actual worth of the film. This makes picking a list of what to see a little more difficult, although realistically in these days of the ubiquitous internet it shouldn’t be too hard to dig up some opinion on a film, unless it is a world-wide premiere. At time of writing, however, I am without the net, with little prospect of getting it set up by November, if then.
So I have to use other means of narrowing the choices; known directors or actors are a start, meaning that I will be seeing Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise this year, just as I would see anything by Takashi Miike (even though it meant I was once stuck watching the awful Izu). Another method of narrowing the field is to go for genre – a thriller or mad, revisionist western or cop film is more likely to be enjoyable, even if only average.
The most helpful part of the programme is the information on distributor – looking at any of the big names in the festival shows you who will be bringing them to our screens, large and small, once the festival is over. Frost/Nixon will be released by Universal Pictures International; W is brought to us by Lionsgate; Waltz with Bashir has been picked up by Artificial Eye; Che has been picked up by Optimum; Hunger by Pathe; Johnny Mad Dog by Momentum and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Sony Pictures. Ideally, I’d like to see all of these, but rather than rush to fit them into the space of a few weeks sitting in a bad seat and packed into a sold-out screening, they will all come out at some point, a lot of them hopefully to Cineworld where I hold my handy pass.

The festival itself started on Wednesday 15th October with Frost/Nixon, but I was due to start on the Friday with a screening of The Secret, an Indonesian thriller which is meant to traverse genres in a way that the best of recent Korean cinema has managed to do.
Unfortunately I had mis-timed my screenings, and had gone to see Gomorra (on general release), which I expected to end at 8 and give me half an hour to walk to the South Bank from Haymarket. When I left the cinema it was 8:20 and I had no chance, a non-refundable ticket and nothing to do but go home and finish watching season five of The Wire. Not the end of the world, then.
Gomorra was an odd film, all crumbling, damp housing estates full of preening Italian gangsters as if this was the ruin of the second Roman empire. The setting is Naples, however, and there are no sharp suits to be found with this version of the mafia; rather the universal uniform of the hoodlum – sports clothing. Guns and drugs are the mainstay for crime, and these are found in abundance as we follow the day-to-day existence of the bottom rung of the Neopolitan mafia. As a gang war brings the world down around them, we follow a money-man, Don Ciro, who is the mafia equivalent of the social services, handing out a dole to families who are recognised as having helped the Family, usually by having a relative killed of imprisoned; two teens get up to no good after we first see them attempting to emulate Scarface in an abandoned mansion, we watch as they dig themselves deeper into trouble, ripping of dealers, stealing guns and all the while acting independently of any faction; a property developer seeks to get rich by taking on the waste disposal responsibilities of a number of Italian industries by dumping them into a quarry; a tailor gets into hot water after teaching Chinese clothes makers the techniques to produce haute couture; a young boy attempts to get himself into the gang and finds the downside to the relative glamour.
Gomorra is as blistering as La Haine but with no narrative to speak of it doesn’t attempt to hold the audience’s hand with signposts or other explanations. This helps to cement the realism of the film and at times it takes on a documentary feel. It certainly stands as a stark contrast to the experiences of British youths in their so-called ghettoes. The idea of stabbings over postcodes and being in the wrong manor seems even more ridiculous when compared to the Napoli estate, rife with crime and corruption to claustrophobic levels.

On Saturday I went to see Eagle Eye, also on general release. I had seen the trailer a number of times and had an idea of what to expect, specifically a paranoid techno-thriller along the lines of Enemy of the State, and whilst I hadn’t read any reviews I had seen some of the two star ratings it had been given. Still, it was technically free and seemed a better bet than How to Lose Friends and Alienate people, so in I went. I am about to tell you what happens, so if you really care please skip to the next bit.
The idea of ‘them’ being able to see and hear everything you do thanks to the extensive CCTV network and mobile phone tapping etc. isn’t a new one, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a rampant AI. A rampant AI which believed that the best way to serve the American people is to kill the people in charge of the country. Of course, It Has To Be Stopped, but despite the deflating feeling on discovering the twist of the movie it also feels like a genuinely subversive idea wrapped into a blockbuster-by-numbers. If you made a computer to protect society and told it the rules straight up, it would probably seek to stop the President of the USA as he makes things worse. It makes sense. There would have been no Bush jr. in the first place, as he didn’t actually win the election.
The worst thing about Eagle Eye is undoubtedly the embodiment of said AI – probably the laziest piece of film design this century, the computer has a light for an eye, like HAL, and is in a little, golden globe on the end of a stalk in a big dome with lots of shiny, golden spheres on the walls with echoes of Flight of the Navigator. After the uninspired but solid stunts leading up to the big reveal it serves as a puncture wound to the big blockbuster balloon for which there is no patch.
Plus there are sticking points. An AI being able to control automatic cranes with split-second precision and flying and unmanned, armed military plane through a tunnel, and Jerry Shaw jumping from a building onto train tracks below with no injuries don’t seem to pull the viewer out of movie land, but towards the end of the film when Jerry makes his desperate attempt to stop the AI’s murderous plan, he has a fight. It has already been pointed out that he is a good-for-nothing, drifting between crappy jobs and treating a string of girlfriends poorly, and that, after FBI agent Billy Bob Thornton asks some security guards how he held a shotgun, he is not a professional. And yet, after being chased and bashed around a number of times, Jerry is able to overpower a guard stationed at an underground entry point to the White House. A guard who is not knackered or stressed beyond belief after having just escaped from an explosion as the aforementioned unmanned plane crashes in the aforementioned tunnel, and almost certainly is trained to kill with his bare hands, is taken down by Jerry Shaw after a somewhat brief struggle.
Whatever, at this point the movie has lost after copying the AI design from a movie that is now 40 years old.

Happily, The Fall fares much better than director Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell, would have you expect. The Cell was never less than visually interesting, but undeniably failed to work as a narrative piece, becoming a mostly mundane serial killer/police procedural outside the sequences set in the psyche. The Fall fares much better due to the grounding in between the flights of visual fancy. The relationship between Lee Pace’s bed-ridden stunt man Roy and five year old Maria helps to cement the movie together when it could easily have been seen as a collection of pretty but empty scenes. Some of the visuals on display are unbelievably beautiful, to the point that you are distracted as you wonder literally where on earth the director discovered his locations, but the humour in the film and the fantastic performance by Maria halt any danger of The Fall slipping into pretension or a series of unconnected music video clips.
The mechanic of using people familiar to the protagonist in their dream world has been around since the Wizard of Oz, but here it used to great effect as the sequences are literally straight from the child’s imagination, by way of Roy’s story telling.

Three films in three days and I haven’t actually seen anything at the festival yet, but I’m certainly in the mood.


That was obviously written a while back now, an echo of the past. I had recently moved into this new flat, and now I have seen the festival films I mentioned.
I will be posting pictures as is seemingly becoming a tradition; in the meantime, my latest review is up on hkcinema, link to the right.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

It takes an ocean of stallions to shave our back

Loaded magazine was launched in 1994 at the forefront of the ‘lads mag’ movement of boorish lad culture for the 90s, which turned on the touchy-feely influence on masculinity that had arisen in the 80s.
The lads mags were basically Playboy with less nudity, articles about things Blokes would/should be interested in such as booze, sport, gambling and real life gangsters such as con-turned-celebrity Dave Courtney, all punctuated with photo shoots of models or soap actresses.

In 1998, guy Ritchie capitalized on the geezer zeitgeist with the release of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a knockabout gangster film which mixed a cockney-fantasy view of the London underworld with a dash of Tarantino and another beneficiary of lad culture, Vinnie Jones, the ‘hard man’ of football. The film’s success spawned a plethora of copycats with Rancid Aluminium, Going Off Big Time and Love, Honour & Obey amongst the drek that followed two years later. Thankfully there are few genres in cinema which don’t yield the occasional gem and the brit gangster scene was no exception, offering up the goods with films like The Limey and Gangster No. 1, helping to stop Britain from seeming like nothing but a den of wankers.

Sexy Beast, however, is in a league of its own.
The debut feature by acclaimed music video director Jonathan Glazer (with promos for Radiohead and Massive Attack under his belt), Sexy Beast ticks all the generic boxes at first glance.
Starring uber cockney Ray Winstone alongside UK TV actress Amanda Redman as his wife, and featuring a pre-Deadwood Ian McShane who was best known as the rogueish antique dealer, Lovejoy, the film is the story of a London thief retired in Spain who is called on to do one last job.
Thankfully Glazer is a fantastic director and in Sexy Beast delivered a film that was fresh and cinematic and yet also heavily character-driven. The stylistic touches that Glazer developed for his advert and promo work are evident throughout the film, with fantastic sequences involving camera placement as we follow the point of view of a boulder tumbling down a hill, the revolving door of a bank and a car door opened and then slammed shut; a scene where the focus on Winstone’s face remains constant whilst the rest of the frame shakes violently behind him (a similar technique to that used in Fight Club with Pitt as Durden telling you that “you are not your fucking khakis”); a dream sequence involving a demonic rabbit man. What is so thrilling about the film is that every one of Glazer’s touches of bravura serves the characters and the story, rather than being flash for the sake of it.

The film revolves around the unwelcome return of the criminal past that Winstone’s Gal thought he had left behind. Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan is the vehicle for change, and it is a credit to both actors that they manage to convey that the usually imposing Winstone is terrified of the wiry Kingsley, totally convincing as a driven psychotic whose violence is mostly mental despite his taut and menacing physical presence. While much of the praise around the film was bestowed upon Kingsley for a role that was largely against type, Winstone gives a fantastic performance, conveying the love for his wife, the frustration at being unable to disentangle himself from his shady past, and his repressed panic at the thought of discovery by McShane’s Mr. Big, Teddy Bass, later in the film. It’s a shame that he is usually cast as the menacing lug (although Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth offered a more challenging version of that role) as it is clear that Winstone is a fantastic actor.

Sexy Beast deserves not only a place among the best British crime films such as the Long Good Friday, Get Carter and Brighton Rock, but deserves recognition as a classic British film which snuck into the geezer movie explosion a film about a man who just wants a quiet life with his beloved wife and his friends.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

It's not you, it's me.

Despite everything that I have ever read and seen, emotions are never clear-cut. At least for me.

My father died about one year after he threw me out of his flat. I warned him that I would never speak to him again when he threatened it, but he carried on regardless. I went and slept on the living room floor of my mum's flat, already too small for her and my sister and two brothers, but luckily I had a place at University and halls to move into two months later. She had originally thrown my father out about six years earlier for being a drunk, and after a time spent sleeping in his car, he bought a flat a few minutes away from us and I was sent to live with him at about thirteen years old.
It was the drink that led to the fist fight which happened before he threw me out, and it was the drink that killed him.
In books, movies and TV soaps, as well as accounts from friends and family, a situation in which you cut off a family member who dies always leads to you wishing you could have patched things up, that you could have made amends before they were gone, in line with the old cliche that you don't know what you're missing until it's gone, but I have never regretted cutting my self off from my dad. After he had said that he didn't want to quit the booze it was clear to me that he would never again be the father I once knew, and that there was no longer anything to miss.

I cried after I learnt of his death. Not at the time, but a day or two later I slept over with a friend who said I shouldn't be alone, and she was right, I broke down in tears and she held me, taking the edge off the grief. I could never understand why I cried so when I hated him, hated what he had become and had wished him dead on numerous occasions standing in the dark front room of his flat that smelled of cigarettes and cider, looking out at the cross roads outside the flat bathed in a yellow sodium glow.

More recently I have been dumped by my girlfriend of six years. The relationship was always difficult, never flowing naturally but always an effort to try and overcome obstacles, and seemingly involving a lot of effort and sacrifice on my part.
In this situation it is hard to work out what I feel. I am not as devastated as I have been after the failure of shorter relationships, but this is likely to do with the slow, inevitable decline. I wanted to end it myself numerous times for at least the last three years, but was always persuaded to give my one-time partner another chance every time, so the idea of splitting up isn't exactly new, but somehow it still feels like it's out of the blue, a shock, a wrench of the emotions.
Even though I have not been as miserable as I expected to be, I also have a feeling that it hasn't all hit home yet.
The arduous effort put into the relationship led to less time spent with friends and weaker links because of that - it will be hard to bounce back as a social animal, without even taking into consideration the fact that I've never really dated.

So now I'm thirty years old and single, and whilst I'm not sure if I regret the entire six year relationship, for the first time in my life I definitely have regret for my actions (or inactions); regret that I didn't stick to my guns the first time I wanted out, the first time I thought that it wasn't working and that I was sacrificing too much to make it work with too little effort to match it put in by my ex.

That this regret does me little good is of no matter - I have no more control over it than over the tears I shed for my father's death - but what does matter is that I don't know where to go on from here, I don't know how to prioritise friendships and romance any more and I have no idea how to be single.
It might all just fall together with time, but I'm certain that it will help to get some physical distance between this part of my life and the next, so I'm glad I have found a new place to move to and that in one week's time, the majority of the trauma of moving out will be over thanks to a little help from my friends.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stick fiddling, button twitching sweats.

After the glory days of the NES and SNES, Nintendo had faltered with their N64 console. A combination of highly expensive games due to the decision to stick with a cartridge format in a time of disc-based systems, a lack of third party support and the lingering image of Nintendo as a kiddy-centric company whilst Sony catered to the newly-emerged funky youth market all led to the Japanese games giant falling by the wayside in the late 1990s. Whilst things weren’t so bad as to lead to the company going the way of its old rival, who bowed out of the console race in order to churn out Sonic titles, Nintendo’s fall from the top of the console gaming league continued with their next entry into the games race, the Gamecube.

This time around Nintendo gave into the idea of discs, but ever wary of the dangers of piracy it still shied away from using standard CD-ROMs or DVDs, instead plumping for the titchy 8cm mini-DVDs that fit in with the considerate spacial stylings of the system itself. Almost an actual cube with a handle stuck to the back of it, the machine was less than 6.5 inches at its largest point and ran quietly compared to the increasingly powerful machines that were being released. The Playstation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox were different beasts altogether, with the PS2’s original incarnation (before its slimline redesign) looking more like a chunkier version of the more cheaply manufactured DVD players of the early millennium and the Xbox being simply a huge brick. Nintendo found that although the Japanese culture had something of a fetish for the miniaturisation of technology, Western markets were far more impressed by the image of the new machines being for a hip, young-adult crowd than the aesthetics of the actual machines, and this coupled with DVD playback and a wealth of titles (especially in the PS2’s case) saw Nintendo’s new rivals outperform its gaming-dedicated box.
Worldwide sales of 21.74 million machines seems respectable, but considering that the Xbox was brand-new to the market and surrounded by distrust of the Microsoft behemoth that gave birth to it, sales of 24 million units by May of 2006 certainly gave Nintendo cause for concern. As for the PS2, trading on the established Playstation brand and flooding the market with titles that catered for most tastes helped Sony to shift a stonking 127 million consoles by the end of 2007, with units still shifting despite the release of the ‘next generation’ PS3 in November 2006 in both Japan and the US.

Despite the low launch price of the Gamecube, Nintendo made a profit on each machine sold, an advantage that eluded the Microsoft and Sony corporations, which goes some way to explain their more aggressive content releasing strategies.
Microsoft had bought itself a cast iron hit in Halo, and set about keeping its userbase satisfied with all of the shooters and racers they could want. Sony simply threw tonnes of content to market, with the sheer numbers meaning that the odds were something would shine. Not traditionally being game developers, these two new gaming companies had little choice but to rely on third party content (or to buy the third parties themselves).
Whilst Nintendo had previously depended on its first party titles to be console-sellers, this time around many fans where under whelmed. Metroid Prime was a worthy addition to the Metroid franchise, brilliantly evolving the universe into a 3D world of eerie quiet and loneliness, but Super Mario Sunshine, the latest addition to the Mario series, lacked the punch of Mario’s 3D debut on the N64 and many fans criticised the deviations from the classic platforming formula. Likewise many Zelda fans balked at the graphical overhaul that Link received in the cel-shaded Wind Waker, despite the quality of the title itself, and the two-manned karts of Mario Kart: Double Dash were criticised as a gimmick that soiled the original’s classic gameplay.
After the third party publishers had abandoned Nintendo in the days of the N64 they had little reason to come back now that the PS2 was proving so popular, so despite the odd exclusive classics such as Animal Crossing and super Smash Bro. Melee, Cube owners often found themselves waiting for something worth playing.

However, as with most ‘failed’ consoles there were a number of gems hidden away that few got to sample.
Eternal Darkness from Silicon Knights was an early title that disproved the assertion that Nintendo was for kids, it being a survival horror game that differentiated itself from the schlocky Resident Evil and the clones of that series thanks to its basis in a Lovecraftian world, with ‘fourth wall’ interaction in the vein of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Alongside the familiar health and magic meters, your character also had a sanity meter that would be drained upon contact with otherworldly creatures and events that erred toward the macabre. As your character began to lose their grip on their psyche, you, the player would feel the effects as blood began to drip down walls, statues’ eyes would follow your progress, and most affectingly the game would start to play with your own sanity. On entering a new room, monsters would rear with no warning, killing your character and leaving you shaken and unjustly treated, before the screen would flash and place you alive and well back outside the room. On attempting to save the game the system would crash and inform you the file was deleted, before returning back to the save screen as if nothing had happened, and in the middle of play green-hued TV text would appear on screen alerting you to the volume being lowered. Such events worked well in their aim to unsettle, and tempted the player to risk their character’s sanity in order to see what the game would throw up next.

Later in the console’s life, once most had abandoned it, the First Person Shooter Geist was released. Whilst the Xbox had claimed the throne of the FPS fans’ console of choice from its launch with the legendary Halo, the Gamecube exclusive Geist featured an interesting gimmick little seen in gaming, let alone the FPS genre.
Possession as a gameplay mechanic had been used in platformers before, such as Metal Arms: Glitch in the System, but it was a first for an FPS (although the remainder of Geist was pretty generic).
A tale of a special forces agent aiming to stop the plans of a mad scientist type who had recruited his own army and mucked about with powers beyond our ken, in this case spirits and a dimension of demons, saw lots of journeys around military facilities, along corridors and inside air ducts.
The difference here is that early on in the game, your avatar the agent is captured and his body is separated from his spirit. He/you escapes from the special ecto-containers that the bad guys have constructed and then the game proper begins.
Via mostly scripted set pieces you get the opportunity to possess objects in the game world in order to manipulate them and scare animals and people wandering around. Once the targets are sufficiently terrified, you can visibly see a change in their aura as a signal to their vulnerability, meaning that you can take them over and utilise their abilities to your own ends, whether that be using a rat to access confined spaces, scientists to get hold of experimental weaponry or the more obvious soldiers to kill other soldiers.

Geist is not a great game, the visuals are clunky and blocky and the negotiation of the 3D space is sometimes awkward. As previously outlined the story is steeped in cliché, and the chances to use your powers are very linear and limited, but throughout playing the game you can see the great potential of the feature and I couldn’t help imagining the possibilities of similar gameplay let loose in the highly detailed sandbox environments of the current videogame generation.
Half Life 2 has proven that although a linear game, a key hook such as the gravity gun can be used to open up the player’s imagination and experimentation within a virtual environment, and the thought of the possession feature being used freely in a large, highly detailed open-world game along the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4 is busting with potential.
As the gaming industry develops and the options open to the consumer during play become more important to sales, the possibility of an open-ended possession sim is more and more likely, so hopefully the developers won’t forget a little-seen game from Nintendo’s dry period.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hoping for an Indian summer

I'm not exactly a movie buff or an authority on the silver screen, but I have a healthy interest and like to think I have a broad, if shallow knowledge of film.
There are precious few films I won't watch and have enjoyed films from a number of countries in every genre, but one area that is daunting to get into is also one prolific sources world-wide: Bollywood.

There are lots of generalisations that you could vicariously pick up about mainstream Indian cinema- the size of the business globally, the long running times and the fondness of musical numbers, but the films themselves present a barrier to those outside the Indian community.
Being a fan of film I don't want to miss out, wherever cinematic goodness can potentially be found, so thought I'd start of safe with a film called One 2 Ka 4. It had a tempting 18 certificate stuck to the cover with Bollywood superstar Sharukh Khan looking moody and armed, and the blurb on the reverse telling a tale of cops, revenge and such.

First thing to mention is that One 2 Ka 4 was actually rated 15 by the BBFC so it's odd that the distribution company, Spark Worldwide limited, went and plastered an 18 rating sticker on the DVD case. This is what they had to say on the back:
"Javed (Jakie Shroff) and Arun (Shah Rukh Khan) are members of a special task force that combats drug trafficking. Their main target is a notorious drug lord called KKV (Nirmal Pandey). After a tense encounter, they do succeed in arresting him, but KKV, with his powerful connection manages to get acquitted in court. Javed entire life revolves around his four motherless children. Into this idyllic existence, comes a dastardly ambush; a sudden and cruel burst of gun fire that kills Javed. Arun is devastated. He decides that from now on he will look after Javed's orphaned children. But the children hate him and refuse to have anything to do with him. In sheer desperation, he turns to Geeta (Juhi Chawla) a loud and talkative rustic girl whom Javed had befriended. Geeta comes home with Arun and wins over the children. And then, one day,. as he tails KKV to a nightclub, Arun sees him dancing with a stunningly sexy woman. Its Geeta! Shocked out of his wits, he rushes home angrily confronts Geets. She bursts into tears and swears she was at home all the while. Arun is confussed but all the more determined to solve the mystery and get to the truth."

A fairly familiar story of a pair of cops, one a widower with children, who is killed during a drug lead and leaves his children in the care of the younger partner, played by Bollywood heartthrob Sharukh Khan.

There is a very strange moment (although probably normal in Bollywood films) when the film gets an intermission. The film pauses precisely at the point of when Khan realises his village-girl nanny has a secret identity, blacks out, and then resumes but in reverse, rewinding through the scene. The film then starts up again to bring us up to the point of a cliffhanger, which is a fairly useful device to give you a reminder of what’s going on, were you to be mucking about in the cinema looking for snacks and things for fifteen minutes.

The action scenes are inept with the cops running about like they're in an amateur production, pistols in both fists pointing and firing seemingly without aiming. There is slow-motion and acrobatics, but the overall feel is that of a parody rather than of pleasingly balletic gunplay. Not only is this strange after years of decent action films from both Hollywood and Hong Kong to draw influence from, but when taking into account the care and attention taken in the choreography of the songs it seems odd that some of that wasn’t applied to the action. Obviously the priorities of Bollywood lie elsewhere, but it is strange to think that the majority of Bollywood productions are essentially romantic comedy musicals.
I would of course be happy for anyone to point out a wider range of genre explorations within Bollywood (as opposed to the more arthouse side of Indian cinema), but from what little I know every film will essentially boil down to some romance and songs, possibly with comedy.

The climactic action scene is pretty good though, despite the awkward combat there is lots going on with a truck driving into a plane, a massive shoot-out with people leaping through the air, explosions and Khan pasting the guy who killed his partner before killing him with a prototype engine fan.

Kahn’s love interest, played by Juhi Chawla, is absolutely beautiful and a great comic actress, but the main villain KKV, played by Nirmal Pandey, is a revelation, so scenery-chewingly over the top that he comes out the other side of hammy, convincing you as a slimy drug dealer who is totally and utterly unhinged.

All in all it’s entertaining and funny, the songs are either good or good enough to put up with and most have inventive or bizarre settings, but it really does feel its full three hours.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Only when I fall

Having pretty much given up such vices as drugs and booze the extent of my indulgence into illicit substances chiefly involves diet Coke, in all its corporate, chemical saturated glory. I’ve talked about this before, and specifically my overwhelming affection for the limited run of vanilla flavoured diet Coke, which encompassed both my addiction to the fizzy brown liquid and my preference for the blander side of confection. Unfortunately for me, the evil multinational Coca Cola company decided to terminate the infusion of synthetic vanilla flavour and went back to the same old cherry crap, along with the lime version that seems to have been around for ages.
For a number of months my life had that bit less colour, until one day I happened to visit a shop specialising in the importation of foreign confection and found a sliver of fizzy hope. A hope named Jazz.

Jazz diet Pepsi comes in two flavours, or at least two flavours that were in the shop’s fridge and hinted at the possibility of a near match.
First there is Jazz diet Pepsi Caramel Cream “Indulge your senses”. It says that above the name, trying to give you a reason to take it out of the fridge.

It tastes like the description suggests – creamy with a hint of caramel, a heavier, chocolatey taste that wasn’t found in the vanilla version of diet Coke. However, the aftertaste is less pleasing, being on the tinny side of metallic rather than the bloody copper taste of straight Coke and Coke Zero (which is also less than pleasant). I find a bit of the metallic aftertaste in diet Pepsi, so this could just be a Pepsi thing.

Also, the can looks the same but the volume is stated as 355ml rather than the 330ml UK (and possibly European) standard, most likely due to the metric division, with us getting around a third of a litre whilst the yanks go for 12 fluid ounces.

About a third of the way through the can and the caramel comes across as more unnatural, an unpleasing plasticness I tend to associate with cheap confectionary, whilst the cream is far less prominent than that of vanilla Coke and so can’t take up the slack.

Ultimately the choice of caramel may initially seem a good idea as the whole nature of fizzy drinks is a luxury, as with sweets and chocolate, and therefore more luxuriousness is surely more tempting (hence double choc chip etc.). However, the key flavouring in the sparkling water that is the cola has caramel origins in any case; can you have double caramel?

Jazz diet Pepsi Strawberries and Cream tastes more like a lollipop than any natural strawberry flavour, which is to be expected. There is a hint of cream that gives a tantalising glimpse of vanilla cola, but this is mostly drowned out by the boiled sweet tang of the strawberry. In this case there is no unpleasant aftertaste and no metallic hint, though it should be noted that this time I drank from a glass instead of the can, so it could just be the poor quality US can type that was affecting the flavour of the caramel Pepsi. The fact that this is closer to vanilla Coke makes it worse than the caramel in a way, like a prostitute wearing a mask of your dead wife.

It’s interesting that some (but not all) of the ingredients include explanations (eg. Potassium Benzoate (preserves freshness), Calcium Disodium EDTA (to protect flavor) and that the UK food market hasn’t gone this way, considering the current fashion for healthy eating, organic food and such and such. The caffeine content is also quantified on the caramel flavour (38mg per can) that is another detail I’ve not seen in the UK.
As for the actual ingredients themselves, there are some old friends I remember from my piece after the launch of Coke Zero – Phosphoric Acid, Aspartame, Acesulfame K and Caramel colouring (E150d) all come as standard in your fizzy cola, but these two explained ingredients are new to me. Perhaps this is precisely why they feature explanations; the savvy cola connoisseur is perfectly aware of the make up of their favourite fizzy beverage, but confronted with some rogue elements they need to be soothed by the reasoning behind the introductions. We obviously won’t argue with preserving freshness, and the flavour is one of our chief reasons for consumption, surely? Therefore, Potassium Benzoate and Calcium Disodium EDTA can only be good things. As a preservative, Potassium Benzoate (E212) “inhibits the growth of mold, yeast and some bacteria” (Source:Wiki), which definitely sounds like a good thing, although there is a warning that mixing the substance with vitamin C can create the carcinogen Benzene. Whilst cancer is no laughing matter I rarely find myself mixing coke and orange, but it’s useful to know what you shouldn’t be washing vitamin pills down with. A time frame between coke and vitamin C ingestion would be useful, but I don’t fancy risking cancer in order to carry out the tests.
Calcium Disodium EDTA (or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) is actually used in soft drinks to help prevent the formation of benzene, so we can all rest easy when partaking of the luxury alternative to water.

Ultimately disappointing, ‘normal’ diet Coke, diet Pepsi and Pepsi Max are preferable (though maybe not Zero), let alone the holy grail of vanilla diet Coke.

Filthy Jazz Pepsi.

Also, the pictures are crap because of my camera and because my eyesight has withered after two years of a desk bound screen based job.


My latest DVD review (of Pulse) can be found in the links to the right.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Three decades in and none the wiser

Everything works this time around. These upstairs neighbours aren't particularly more noisy than the last ones, but have been at times when you might want to sleep. Other than that it's lovely, although quite often cold which will probably be more of a problem this winter. Gloves inside?
You can get to the terrace through the kitchen, which is nice, or has been for about two weekends this summer. Aaah, great British weather.

Altogether moving in wasn't as stressful as I feared, but next time I will be paying for people to do it, or hiring a big van at the very least. If ever there was a time when you needed Mary Poppins....