Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Break

So that was Christmas! And very enjoyable it was too. Quieter than normal on the day itself, with just me and Mum at her place in Southampton, where normally the whole family would gather at my sister's in Reading. But it felt much more relaxed and a lot less stressed than normal with just the two of us. Easy for me to say of course as I just ate and read while I was waited on all day long. That's the life!

The HD-DVD player got a bit of a work-out on the Saturday before I headed off to Southampton, and the only two disks with a Christmas theme that have been so far released were first up on the basis that their 'sell by' date was about to expire! Judging the HD-DVD format, or its content, based on just these two Christmas releases, is not the wisest of moves as tradition dictates that any Christmas-themed movie has to be dire by its very definition.

A Christmas Story is not a film I've ever heard of, although I gather it's up there with the likes of A Wonderful Life in the States, in terms of audience appreciation, and mainly for the same reasons (failure at the box office, followed by a growing audience that latched onto it after heavy rotation on American TV at Christmas). The HD-DVD cover is truly dreadful, giving the impression this is some sort of Home Alone kiddie-oriented fare, where in actuality it's a more adult-oriented gently nostalgic affair. Good fun to watch on Christmas Eve once you realise it's not so much the story the title implies, but a series of rather disjointed anecdotes about childhood, as told by an adult wallowing somewhat in nostalgia. The author has a James Herriott -like ability to tell a very simple story that strikes a chord at the time of viewing, albeit one that when viewed in the cold light of day doesn't really boil down to much at all. I can see why it's popular (especially Stateside) and its lack of sentimentality is a good thing, but it's certainly nowhere near the same class as A Wonderful Life.

Looking at the film in its HD-DVD incarnation the reviews of A Christmas Story have been somewhat 'mixed' - actually more like very unkind - which seems to me to be unfair. While outdoor scenes and some indoor classroom scenes look like 'reference standard' DVD (without a 1080p screen it's hard for me to judge it against anything else), indoor scenes are swathed in seemingly deliberate soft-focus sepia washed-out tones. It's an odd mix of 3D vibrant clarity one minute, and soft focus washout the next, and unfortunately the soft-focus 'family indoors' scenes make up most of the film's running time, earning it a thumbs down for the HD-DVD's picture quality rating in many quarters. I'm pretty sure the poor picture quality fault (design?) is in the original film-making rather than in the HD-DVD transfer itself. For my part, I thought the title was worth the asking price and didn't feel it merited the 'dishonourable mention' it got over at the highdef digest's review of the year!

A Christmas Story screencap

Alas, I followed A Christmas Story with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on HD-DVD. To read the reviews over at imdb you'd think this was one of the funniest films ever made. It's currently running an average score of 7.1 where it should have a rating of 2 or even less. This is an absolute turkey from the Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell 'why write proper jokes when you can just gurn endlessly' school of film-making. Nearly two hours of my life that I'll never get back, and a timely reminder for the new year that what used to be a great source for finding good movies that I might otherwise have missed based on ratings, has become completely unreliable as everything coalesces to the same meaningless 'average' score.

Christmas is an excuse to catch up on reading and the backlog of film magazines and SFX took up most of Christmas Day. Am I the only one who resents the way these magazines have just become inflated, pre-release advertising material for films that are months away?! The highlight was the most ridiculous Christopher Lee interview I've ever read (and let's face it there have been quite a few that could seemingly qualify for that title over the years). Mr Lee is promoting an album and genuinely appears to think he's a singer now. I laughed out loud at the pomposity of the man as he talked about his new 'career', his 'heavy metal' credentials and yet again endlessly blew his own trumpet on the one hand whilst putting the poor journalist in his place on the other, only to turn a few pages to find some whipper-snapper journalist talking about the dangers of using the 'Dracula' word when the ac-tor Mr Lee is around. I laughed so hard I spilt tea down my sweater, but suspect that even as I type legal threats are being sent in the direction of the SFX offices in Bath, which won't be funny for the poor recipient of course!

The XBox 360 UncloakedI also managed to finish The XBox 360 Uncloaked, a book I've been dipping into, a chapter at a time, over the last month or so, and which has been a fascinating read. I'm not a games player, and don't really care about the XBox 360 itself, but the book is a fascinating account of the politics and power-plays made in the games industry, and gives great insight into the way Sony and Microsoft run their businesses. It's also that rare thing in these days of 'pay the staff nothing because everybody wants to work in media and we can just copy all our material off the internet' celebrity-obsessed journalism - a very well researched book. Probably TOO well researched! At times there are too many tangents the author goes off on, and too many names and minor anecdotes, as he chases a subject obviously very dear to his heart.

Many years ago I read a book called The Soul of a New Machine, a ground-breaking 'behind the scenes' look at how DEC engineers built a new mini-computer, and the author of this XBox 360 book, Dean Takahashi, says he wanted to write a similar book about the XBox 360. I don't think he's succeeded because there are too many people involved here - it's a less 'human' book than I remember 'Soul of a New Machine' being, but one has to admire the end result nevertheless. Well worth a read if you're interested in finding out anything at all about how the games industry works.

The only telly I've seen over Christmas was the first part of Little Britain Abroad (which proved a media backlash against this 'comedic institution' is long overdue - it was consistently unfunny all the way through) and the Doctor Who Christmas special. This latter programme just proved what I've been saying all along - the series has no hope of achieving any of its potential while Russel T Davies is in charge of it. Not only was the infantile script yet another retread on his usual theme, but there were so many of his inappropriate 'flourishes' I swear he must be churning this stuff out through an automated computer programme. So yet again we got the deus ex machina ending and yet again we got the obligatory gay references (oh look two blokes kissing in the background at the wedding - how brave, and on a kids programme too! - yawnerama). But even worse than that was the cacophony of solid ear-to-ear 'orchestral' music loudly playing ALL THE WAY THROUGH IT. Somebody talking in a quiet, emotional way? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. A quiet pause between loud action scenes? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. I don't think I've EVER heard such a mess of a soundtrack, and the 'music' completely undid all the hard work David Tennant was putting in. As if he didn't have enough to contend with given Catherine Tate's rather weak attempts at 'proper' acting and a 'written by Russel, aged six of class 2B' script! Series 3 is now officially on my 'Don't watch it, no matter how strong the pull of nostalgia' list, with the exception of the Stephen Moffat -penned episode if I spot it in the schedules in time. An unopened copy of Torchwood Part 1 on DVD sits in front of me and I really don't know that I can be bothered to open it or invest any time at all in watching it now, despite assurances from friends that 'after a slow start it gets much better than awful Doctor Who'.

Well that's the 'fun' stuff out the way. Alas, from hereonin, it's study and work for the rest of the holiday. Arriving back in London my usual insomniac's sleep pattern has returned (woke up at 3.30am and couldn't get back to sleep) - it seems there really is something about country air being better for you since I had the best night's sleep I've had in a long time on Christmas Eve in Southampton. I've ended up mapping out the next few days in terms of study to be achieved, and it's frightening how full the next few days look with my hopes of making progress on several fronts being thwarted by the sheer lack of hours in a day. My schedule includes a daily movie 'reward' at the end of each day (and a backlog DVD review too as I've been very lax on these recently) and it's hit and miss as to whether it's the studying or the movie watching that will get bumped as the schedule starts to slip! The new year will be here before I want it, I just know it!


Anonymous said...

Please, please, please don't bother with Torchwood!

It's a juvenile mess, just like Doctor Who, made even worse by the fact that it's pitched as an "adult drama". It's rammed with deus ex machinas, terrible dialogue, awful plotting and performances straight out of the seventies, when yelling and gurning to the gallery was still seen as a GOOD THING.

Drama made by adults for adult consumption would have to be Deadwood, The Shield, Heroes, The Wire, NCIS and the frankly stunning Battlestar Galactica.

Not the twaddle the RTD turns out with dreary regularity. I get the feeling that it's The Emperor's New Clothes all over again - no-one at BBC Cardiff seems to want to admit that this stuff is bilge and that RTD ought to be booted out asap.

Saturation advertising does not a good show make...

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on "Battlestar Gallactica" and really looking forward to "Heroes". I'd add "Lost" to that list, although I'd admit it works much better on DVD than as a weekly show with adverts continually interrupting it.

"Deadwood" and "The Wire" still sit in the towering mountain that is my "Still to be watched" pile but I'll make sure they are at least nearer the top of the pile than "Torchwood". "Shield" is there too but there's less of an incentive to start on that given that the UK distributors seem to have abandoned the series on DVD after just a couple of seasons.

Couldn't agree with you more about Emporer's New Clothes mentality and, if friends can be believed, it's spread to new drama series "Robin Hood" too (haven't watched it and unlikely to given what I've heard).

Anonymous said...

Hehehe, the reason why I didn't mention Lost is the same as why I didn't go for Dexter, the original CSI, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and a whole host of others is that I didn't want to give you a comment that went on for miles! ;-)

I think you're right about leaving the incessant ad-breaks out of Lost - whatever momentum is built up by the show is hardly added to by requests to buy cars or mobile phones. :-(

Yes, I'd forgotten about Robin Hood - the Chav years - awful, awful, awful. As was The Outsiders which looked like a resurrected old ITC show from the sixties. Makes you wonder how this excrement got commissioned, doesn't it?

I also thought that the BBCs The State Within was very well put together, with writing, performances and production very much in the same league as some of the finest coming out of the US.

The thing that saddens me most about the disturbing willingness of the UK to have a blind (or is it blonde?) spot with regard to Doctor Who is that it is still being foisted on the viewing public as some kind of "TV event of the year" every time it is shown. Critics and commentators alike have jumped like lemmings onto the bandwagon, all claiming that they wanted it back for the last fifty years, etc, etc.

RTD has made no secret of his worship of Joss Whedon (never really got on with Buffy, but thought Firefly was superb stuff), but has nothing like the ability as a writer and showrunner. And perhaps shouldn't attempt to steal his ideas quite so blatantly. As for lifting huge sections, sorry influence from the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials novels, he should be shot.

I have to say that if the UK is to compete, we have to learn a lot from the US, and not necessarily about budgets (Galactica is put together on a shoestring for the sort of show that it is). There are a lot of screenwriters blogging away here in the UK, and the output of many of them is dire. With people still claiming that The Prisoner is a "landmark series that stands the test of time" with a straight face, we're doomed.

The UK needs to raise its game in a big way, not worry about producing parochially "British" shows and just come up with ideas and executions of quality.

Sorry, rant over... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Nope, Torchwood doesn't get better.

There is one vaguely decent episode. Not surprisingly it's written by Peter Hammond, who knows how to write genre drama.

Amazed by the show because I thought nothing could be worse than Doctor Who. (Although the utterly rotten Robin Hood is nipping at its heels when it comes to inept storytelling).

Holy crap, that Christmas Doctor Who. I thought they had already nicked the design of Darkness in Legend already in the previous series. I guess this time they mixed it with Shelob.

Apart from the writing, the real problem is the directing and pacing. It's like an old four or six-part story hastily re-edited down to 45 minutes.

While the show is bad enough, at least I'm now saving money by not buying certain genre magazines that are filled with the staff writers gushing over how utterly brilliant Doctor Who and Torchwood is. No, they are not brilliant. They are bad. Very, very bad.

Use the Torchwood DVD as a coffee mat and watch The Wire.

Watch The Wire! Watch The Wire! Watch The Wire!

Watch The Wire and rid yourself of any lingering thoughts of Doctor Who.

Anonymous said...

If that's the same Peter Hammond (P J Hammond) behind the brilliant, if under-watched at the time of transmission, Sapphire and Steel then I'm going to have to at least check that episode out.

I've been holding off "The Wire" waiting on Season 3 coming out in February but after all the raves I'll try and watch the first season over the next few weeks once I've got "Prison Break Season 1" out the way - heard nothing but good about this series and it's been sat waiting behind "Lost" for a couple of months now. There's just too much good stuff to watch as I've also got "Firefly", "Carnival Seasons 1 and 2", "House Season 2", "24 Season 5" and "Sopranos Seasons 4 through 6" in the "still not watched" pile. Life is too short. The Americans really do seem to be turning out far better drama than us, although Riddley's comment about "The State Within" has aroused my curiosity.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed the very same PJ Hammond of Sapphire & Steel fame - what a great, odd show!

Good Dog's a Wire addict, and quite right too, the episodes I've seen are exceptional.

It was Good Dog in fact that alerted me to The State Within and it was terrific stuff. I did like Carnivale a great deal, especially its pacing, much slower and suited to the themes and content. Good performances all round and Nick Stahl is a good laugh, a very self-effacing chap.

I definitely think that the UK can do it, we've just got to roll up our sleeves and aim a bit higher than theatrical tat.