Saturday, March 31, 2007

My Verdict on 'The Verdict'

I've been collecting all the titles in Fox's Cinema Reserve DVD series, and the latest title is five-times oscar-nominated film The Verdict. Starring Paul Newman and Sidney Lumet this release marks the 25th anniversary of the film. Although it didn't win any of the main oscars it was nominated for - it was to be the year of Ghandi sweeping the boards - it's well worth a look if you've got £14 spare and don't mind rather heavy tin cases! You can read the full review over on my UK DVD Review Blog.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Page Turner

I like a good Hitchcock pyschological thriller and The Page Turner has a plot synopsis that sounds ideal. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very disappointing film. You can find out why in my latest UK DVD Blog Review here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Extras! Extras! Read All About It!

The second series of Extras, the comedy from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the men behind The Office, is released on UK DVD this week. You can read my review of it over on my UK DVD Review Blog here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Prestigious Return to Form

Christopher Nolan, director of Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins is back, with his latest film being released on DVD just a couple of weeks ago. I think it's his best film since Memento. You can read my review of the disc here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The One That Got Away

Today's review is of the HD-DVD version of Steve McQueen's The Getaway. I'm afraid I wasn't very impressed!

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Court Jester

Today's new review is of 1955's The Court Jester, which has just been released on DVD.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Not Brutal Enough!

Trying to sort out the logo for Shiny Discs has made me realise how much I haven't been living up to my tagline of 'Sometimes Brutal, Always Honest'. No problems with the 'honest' bit, but it's been hard to find a film or TV show on DVD that's been so poor I've wanted to be 'brutal' about it. I've been wondering whether I just need to get rid of that 'Brutal but honest' tagline.

Of course, in just considering that, I've found that I've tempted fate. Admittedly I might be more sensitive to the value of viewing time given that this weekend has been shorter than normal. This is partly because of my attending the flat-warming party of someone at work last night (and Lord! Aren't the last trains from Richmond on a Saturday night the very definition of 'hell', with endless drunken, noisy chavs everywhere!), and also because of the clocks going forwards.

Nevertheless I've been able to catch up on a few of the sellophane-wrapped releases waiting to be reviewed. The Prestige lived up to the expectations I have of Christopher Nolan after his superb Memento and excellent Batman Begins. 1956's The Court Jester was a laugh and a half that showed my childhood memories of Danny Kaye being a performer to avoid appear to be somewhat at fault.

But today's 'official' blog entry/film review is a review of the documentary 'Who Killed the Electric Car?', and is the first film I've seen in a while where I've thought 'That's 90 minutes of my life I'm never going to get back'. Not that it's a bad viewing experience (as you'll see if you follow the link and read the full review), just that the quality of recent viewing means that I've come to expect so much more from my DVD documentaries these days.

Unfortunately I followed that disk with The Page Turner, officially released on DVD tomorrow. A full review will follow at some stage, but suffice to say for now that not only did I NOT get the Hitchcock-ian tale of revenge I'd been promised, but that if this were a book it would be the diametric opposite of what its title suggests. I've a feeling the daily reviews are going to get a lot more 'brutal' if films like this start becoming the norm.

One closing thought: I've read some really nasty reviews of 300 this last week. Time Out and Metro both gave the film a pitiful one star, and that tired, hoary old cliché 'homo-erotic' has been trotted out time-and-time again. Heh, I'm a gay man, and I found nothing sexually arousing in this film at all. The men all look like ridiculous Atlas body builders who've gone way too far, and have beards that make them look like religious zealouts, so can we stop this lazy labelling right now?!

As for those 'one star' reviews... The film may not have a deep and meaningful plot, and may be lacking in racy, witty dialogue. It features ridiculously camp villains and fails to explain the meaning of life, never mind the history of the Greek vs Persian war. But then it was never meant to. It's a comic book adaptation for goodness sake! The point is that the film is a visual and sonic treat, and one that's rather unique and very individual - a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. In short, it has class and it's a hell of a fun popcorn ride. Critics who trash it because it's not historically correct, or because it lacks real character depth are completely missing the point. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you don't like 300 then you just don't like cinema. Go and see it on the big screen if you possibly can!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bullitt Time in The Matrix and Sony's PS3 Launch

"Bullet time" was the phrase used on-set to describe the unique slow-motion effects used in The Matrix movie, subsequently mimicked in many other films that have been made since. It's doubtful the bullet-time gimmick would have been anywhere near as effective as it is without great editing, which is the subject of a fantastic little documentary (well when I say "little", I mean 1 hour 40 minutes!) about film-editing over the years which I watched this morning instead of getting on and doing some work!

The documentary is included as an extra on the HD-DVD disc of Bullitt, which I've just reviewed over on my HD-DVD Review blog here and is today's 'Official daily blog entry from Ian'.

It seems I suddenly can't escape The Matrix (See! The movie was right!) Earlier this week it was announced that The Matrix trilogy are finally going to get the long-promised release on HD-DVD disc in May, although Blu-Ray are going to have to wait a little longer because it seems the manufacturers are struggling to get Blu-Ray's much-hyped interactive features working as well as HD-DVDs!

Meantime the HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray war looks like being prolonged after all. The much-hyped Sony PS3 launch across Europe on Friday, which was mooted to give Blu-Ray the big advanatage it needed to decimate HD-DVD (every PS3 can play Blu-Ray discs, which is part of the reason why the games machine price is so high) turned into something of a farce, with low numbers for launch parties being reported all across Europe.

Early reports of the sales of the PS3 itself are not good. The UK launch got much favourable press over Sony's decision to give those who queued overnight at Oxford Street a free Bravia TV (worth £2000) and free taxi rides home. But elsewhere in Europe (and in the UK too, albeit buried under the 'free TV' story) the buyers just aren't there, and the unit is available in stores to anyone who wants one. This is in stark contrast to the earlier launches of the rival X-Box 360 (which offers the rival HD-DVD format, but only as an optional extra) and Nintendo Wii or even the original Sony PS2.

One has a horrible feeling that with the cock-ups that are being made on both sides of the battle to win the mass market over to high-definition, both sides are going to lose. Sales on both formats are abysmal, even in the States where the formats have a six to nine month lead over Europe, and it's hard to find HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs anywhere other than online. With each day that passes it looks more and more like HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are going to be another LaserDisc format - one that never caught on with the general public, and was soon replaced by a single, superior format. Depressing news for those of us who've invested in either or both of the technologies, on the rather foolish assumption that the companies involved had actually got their acts together.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Shiny Logo's!

So the design company got back to me with not just three logo's for the upcoming Shiny Discs news and review site, but twelve!

Admittedly a few of them had ignored the brief completely and seemed to assume the site would be reviewing vinyl or something! None of the logo's were quite right, but three had elements I liked, and which the few friends I emailed seemed to like too (thanks - you know who you are!) So here's a quick sneak peak of them.

First logo

I like the film reel, although I'm not convinced it's entirely relevant to a site called 'Shiny discs'. The site title is nice and bold too. But the colours are very retro, Nazi even! I had asked for the colours of a standard DVD (silver), an HD-DVD (brownish-red) and Blu-Ray (errrm, blue!) to be used if possible, which seems to have been missed in all the suggested designs. But this logo was actually the starting point for the new 'improved' one I have asked the company to produce from a very raw mockup I've put together with Photoshop.

Second logo

The colours are a bit too gawdy, and I'm not sure why there are two differently-sized discs, but I like the way the tag-line curves around the discs. The site title is too puny and gets lost though.

Third logo

I like the film canister and film strip, but the strap-line is completely lost and the monochrome is dull and unexciting.

If you want to see the 'mocked up' version I've sent the design company, together with the other 9 designs, you can see them here. The mock-up is missing the tag-line (the advertised method for getting curved text in Photoshop CS2 just doesn't work, so I couldn't mock it up) but I think it takes the best bits of the three logo's I liked the most. It will be interesting to see what the design company come up with based on my feedback.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I've seen Harry Potter's Dangly Bits!

I saw the film of Equus so long ago that my memories of it are extremely vague. Mostly I remember Peter Firth, currently looking VERY different on Spooks as the MI5 boss 'Harry', with long ringlets of blonde hair doing strange things with horses in the dark, and of the whole thing being rather melancholic, if not just downright strange.

As a result when all the brouha blew up over the new stage version, featuring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe naked on stage, my interest in going to see the play was close to zero. I've not liked any of the Harry Potter film franchise (boring, poorly acted dreck!), and I don't really think, based on the Potter movies, that Radcliffe can act, although I'd have to concede that he gave a surprisingly good guest turn in Ricky Gervaise's Extra's TV series.

So I'm grateful to my good friend Miss Deadline for booking a bunch of tickets for herself and other friends, and asking me to join them. I guess when the major star of an internationally huge film franchise makes an appearance on a small West End stage, with people flying half-way round the world to see him, you really should make the effort to go and see what's not much more than a few steps away from your front door (or that was the excuse I made to myself when accepting the ticket offer)!

Arriving at the theatre we were surprised at the make-up of the crowd: not the ogling teenage girls and gay hairdressers we'd expected, but a smartly-dressed older crowd. Admittedly this impression changed a little during the intermission, on encountering very obvious groups of 'the gays' outside the front entrance having a 'fag' break (ho! ho! See what I did there?), but even so, this was primarily a traditional theatre crowd with little of the obvious Harry Potter franchise fan base demographic being in evidence. Listening in to conversations, and discussing the subject with those in our party, it was interesting to hear how many people HADN'T told friends what they were seeing, for fear of ridicule after all the publicity given when some beautifully shot photo's of a buffed-up Radcliffe half-naked had appeared all over the main-stream press. It seems that nobody wants to be perceived as a letch, particularly when the apparent object of desire hasn't quite reached 18 yet!

In the event, the much publicised nudity (which includes a completely naked young female as well - funny how none of the press reports mentioned that!) was nowhere near as gratuitous as it might have at first appeared. In fact I would argue the nudity was warranted to give the final scenes the credibility and shock value the play demanded. Perhaps the most telling insight on this whole 'homo-erotic' back story is that when Miss Deadline commented that Radcliffe 'had a nice arse', I had to say I hadn't even noticed (honestly!) as I was wrapped up in the drama on stage more than the physical attributes of the actor enacting that drama. In answer to the predictable questions I know I am going to be asked, I can't remember much about Radcliffe's physical attributes other than a vague recollection that he appeared to be 'a ginger' down below (too much information, I know!)

Daniel Radcliffe with a real horse in a promotional shot for Equus

The play is much lighter than I remembered the film being, with amusing lines liberally scattered throughout the play's duration. However, the basic story of a troubled young man and the psychiatrist trying to treat him remains the same. The youth has unexplainedly blinded six horses under his care, animals he had previously had an almost obsessive devotion to, and as the play unfolds the psychiatrist attempts to unravel the events that lead up to this barbaric act, whilst also revealing how unpleasant and troubled his own life is.

Although Radcliffe is on stage for almost the entire running time of the play, Richard Griffiths has the biggest role as the psychiatrist, and I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. Previous performances have indicated that the actor is a graudate of what I call the 'Judy Dench school of acting' - lauded and acclaimed everywhere as a 'national treasure' and 'great acting talent', but seemingly only ever playing the same character (themselves!) no matter what they appear in.

In Equus' awkward first half it's Griffiths' relaxed, naturalistic delivery that makes the play work, not least because Radcliffe's part requires that he mainly play the role of 'I'm being shouty, probably because I can't really act' mode throughout. It's hard to work out if this is just the result of a script and dialogue that demand a rather one-note performance, or genuine proof that Radcliffe really CAN'T act. Part of the problem may be down to the fact that Griffiths performance, along with that of Jenny Agutter (who, if memory serves me right, also appeared in the original film, although as a different character) are so natural and relaxed that it's hard to see Radcliffe's performance, at least initially, as being anything that is above that required for the average amateur school play (and we all know how bad those can be!)

Fortunately the actor gets a chance to really show his mettle in the second half, where his part (no, not those parts!) demands more in terms of raw emotion and vulnerability. Radcliffe tackles the much-publicised, and potentially difficult and embarrassing, naked scenes fearlessly and, more importantly, with such acting talent that one is totally drawn into the action and the emotion of what's happening on stage, rather than noticing that someone's running around the stage stark bollock naked for several minutes.

The set design, whilst minimal, is excellent, and I particularly liked the horses - tall humans with metallic wire high-heel shoes and elaborate metallic masks. I also thought the play was well structured and beautifully written, in a form that's far more mainstream than I remember the film being.

All-in-all I feel lucky to have seen it and would recommend it to anyone interested in good theatre who might be prevaricating about whether or not to give it a try. However I suspect the 'fame' factor of the play's young male lead means that decent tickets are hard to come by (the theatre is best described as 'intimate', with a limited number of seats).

The subject matter may appear odd, but the story here is not so much about weird intimacy with horses, so much as it is about two human beings, both struggling to find happiness in life. 'Kill the passion, and you kill the person' is the psychiatrist's closing lament, faced with the difficult decision of 'curing' the boy who's become his patient, but at the cost of leaving him to a life as unsatisfying and passion-free as his own has been.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Shiny Discs!

I spent this morning at a Microsoft MSDN event. Ordinarily I'd do a mini-review over on my much-neglected Company blog, but having left half-way through, which means I have a false impression of the event as a whole, and with a ton of other stuff to do (yes, I know today's blog is appearing a bit late in the day!) I don't feel justified in doing so. There are just too many other priorities at the moment, one of which has more to do with the subject I usually blog about here - films and TV shows released on shiny digital discs!

My early departure from Olympia in Earls' court, the venue for today's Microsoft MSDN 'Technical Roadshow', was not so much that the talks were particularly bad, but more that the usual MSDN event problems got on nerves that were already frayed by the remnants of a nasty cold that were screaming "Go back to bed and get some sleep before you go out to see 'Equus' tonight!" Plus, the afternoon agenda was nowhere near as interesting to me as the morning agenda had been.

Given that today is officially a 'day off work' (ie a day I can't charge a client money for) I felt justified in leaving early, particularly since all the signs were that Microsoft evangelists really haven't learnt from past failures and endless critiques of similar events in the past. I've got used to demo screw-ups now, particularly where beta software is concerned, but when a speaker doesn't even notice at one point that what he is saying he's demonstrating isn't actually happening (or when he DOES notice something isn't working at all keeps blaming it on 'a rebuild of my laptop I did on Friday') there comes a point where you realise some things will NEVER change, despite the endless feedback forms, blog rants like this, and supposed market research that Microsoft undertake in planning such events.

Microsoft make an excellent product called Virtual PC that enables you to run 'virtual' environments without having to keep rebuilding your PC (just backup the 'virtual' environment regularly). It's considered essential these days for the mainstream 'production' developer, let alone the full-time evangelist who has to spend a lot of time demoing frequently changing beta software to large audiences. And it's free! So why the **** don't full-time Microsoft evangelists use it, instead of trotting out the same tired old excuses we've been hearing at these events for the last 10-15 years?!! OK, maybe I'm being a bit harsh and we all have bad days, but some of us prepare for the worst instead of insulting our audiences by just crossing our fingers and hoping that everything will be perfect on the day. How long does it take to rehearse a fairly straightforward demo after a machine rebuild anyway? Saying to an audience of several hundred people 'I haven't tried this since I did the rebuild' of an action that takes mere seconds to complete is just lame!

All that being said, I felt the morning was actually worth attending, despite the problems, because it sparked a few ideas for my new Shiny Discs project. This was intended to be an ongoing project to centralise and improve all my different DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disc reviews which appear across a bewildering number of free public blogging sites, so that there would be a central point to showcase the reviews and add much-needed search and release news facilities to. I now see it as being more a 'mash-up' that I think will add real value to some of the bigger commercial and independent review sites out there that I use on a daily basis. At the moment Shiny Discs is just a name (every other .com name I could think of was already gone, so apologies if it makes you think of CDs rather than DVDs), with a company working on giving me a nice professional logo to go with the name, literally as I'm typing this. Yes, I've realised I can fake SOME graphical ability with Photoshop and filters, but my 8% for a mock Art O-level is still lurking there in the background!

Hopefully ShinyDiscs is going to become something much bigger and much more useful than I'd originally envisaged, and that's thanks to some of the technologies (ASP.NET AJAX in particular) that were demo-ed this morning, albeit somewhat clumsily at times, by Microsoft staff.

I'm sure will be the subject of many a future blog entry, before it's finally launched, and the big struggle at the moment is balancing the time needed to make that project real, while still keeping the existing blogs updated with new reviews on a regular enough basis to keep the few readers I currently have still interested. But, in many ways, focusing on is going to become the priority because it will not only enable me to spend some 'free' time getting up-to-speed with some newer technologies that will become increasingly important on the work front, but will also help with the time-consuming process of getting new reviews read and written.

At some point over the next few days I hope to post three or four samples of the planned logo for the new project and get some feedback on which one's preferred. In the meantime I'm sure a review of 'Equus' and those promised new Newman/McQueen DVD/HD-DVD reviews will eventually appear. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

'Sunshine' with Danny Boyle at BFI SouthBank

A ship. A crew. A signal.

As Danny Boyle pointed out in his Q&A session at BFI SouthBank, following an early screening of his new film, Sunshine, this is pretty much the plot for many a classic sci-fi movie. With Sunshine Boyle takes the established formula and tries to add his own individual stamp. I'm not entirely sure he's succeeded!

The director has experimented with many genres, and has career highlights that include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Millions so I was keen to see what his take on Science Fiction would be. With a cast list that includes Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans, quite a bit of pre-release buzz, and a film that's been three years in the making the signs were pretty good.

Unfortunately, I think Boyles influences - Space 2001, Solaris, and Alien were name-checked by Danny, but you should add Das Bootand Event Horizon to the list - are all too obvious, particularly Kubrick's masterwerk, and don't really feel that he added much new to the genre other than a bit of a 2007 spit and polish. There were times (too many!) where I felt I was just watching an update of that movie, with admittedly much more lavish visuals, but with the same glacial pace of narrative and a deliberate obliqueness of the storyline that had me mouthing the 'p' word (pretentious) at several points, particularly in the latter stages. The problem for me is that you're never quite sure whats real and what's actually a character's imagination working overtime, and that makes things very confusing very quickly. This is not a film for those who like everything wrapped up neatly with a bow.

The basic story is that the sun is no longer providing the energy and light that mankind needs to survive. A crew of eight are sent out on the Icarus II to send a bomb into the heart of the Sun to reignite it. It all sounds very Armageddon, but make no mistake - this is not a comic-book, popcorn movie by any stretch of the imagination. 'More NASA than Star Wars' is how Boyle describes it.

There's a lot to like - the visuals are stunning (for once the NFT had a seriously good print - hoorah!) and the music, as one has come to expect from Boyle, works extremely well. In fact sound design, some amazing sets, incredible CGI and very clever directorial flourishes are all great. I just wish that there had been a bit more 'meat' at the heart of the story, and a bit more credibility about what turns out to be 'the monster in the dark' that all such films employ. That being said, it's a thought-provoking film, and not one that's easy to forget. With each film he's made Boyle has shown he is rarely predictable, and yet again he's produced something entirely different from his previous work. I'm sure the film will have a strong band of cult followers.

Sunshine - the new film from Danny Boyle

The question and answer session after the film showed Boyle to be quite self-effacing, explaining several times he didn't have a clue when it came to CGI, that his writer (Alex Garland who also worked with the director on his previous 28 Days Later) was as much director as writer, that his heads of department came up with the ideas that many attributed to him etc etc. His explanation of the meaning of the end ('What's real? What's imagined?' asked the interviewer, verbalising what most of us had been secretly thinking) did at least clear up a few points (the action which seems to take about two minutes is apparently a billionth of a second, but perceived from the central character's perspective). And it was interesting to hear that although he hasn't really been directly involved in the sequel to 28 Days Later (28 Weeks Later. Natch!) he supports the film and enjoyed it. 'But it's violent. I was shocked at how violent it is', he said, before going on to admit that he'd actually done some work on second unit for the film one weekend, as a break from the mammoth job of editing Sunshine. He seemed particularly full of praise for the way the new film portrays London, saying that the Ecuadorian cameraman's take on London was 'amazing' and something only a foreign pair of eyes could have come up with.

Boyle was joined, half way through the interview, by actor Cillian Murphy, who talked a little about his research for the role, and the amount of science and learning Boyle put them through, with zero gravity trips, scuba diving and the eight cast members all having to live together for two weeks in a student bed-sit before filming commenced.

Sunshine opens, both here and in the States, next month. If you're going to see it, make sure you see it on the big screen - it's hard to imagine it having anything like the same effect on a small screen or TV. If you hated 2001 you should probably give it a miss, but if that film is amongst your favourites then Sunshine is absolutely not to be missed!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Towering Idols

Here's something you probably didn't know: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen helped me pass my French Oral (stop making your own jokes up at the back there!) 'A' level.

Just the week before my exam I'd spent a week or too with my French Exchange family in Le Havre. On that trip the family had decided to take me to the cinema to help break up the monotony, but struggled to find a good French film that was showing. They eventually conceded defeat and opted for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, which had just opened, and was at least dubbed in French without English subtitles to enable me to cheat. The film was The Towering Inferno, or rather La Tour Infernale (why are towers female? Because they're infernal?)

The film, the first big 'disaster movie' I'd ever seen, made a big impression on me, despite the fact I probably didn't understand half of the plot intricacies because of the language. I particularly remember the annoying wait during the intermission (yes, this was in the days when films had an intermission!) after a sudden explosion had seemingly sent Paul Newman's character plunging to his death.

When I returned to the UK I went to see the film again - this time in English to get a feel for some of the dialogue that I'd had problems understanding. In many ways the film started my huge obsession with cinema. I went on to read the two novels on which the film was based - The Tower and The Glass Inferno - to buy the large film poster and lobby cards, and to buy the soundtrack score by John Williams, which to this day is one of my favourite film scores. It was also around this time that my Sunday afternoon trips to a cinema in the centre of Southampton became a regular occurrence.

Getting back to that wretched French exam, it was when my French examiner asked me if I'd seen any films over the Summer that I was able to pontificate at length about 'les pompiers' in the film, going on to discuss the overlapping roles of the police and the fire brigade when disasters happened, and somehow dragging a discussion sparked by the film into a conversation that lasted for most of the examination length.

Something about the conversation must have been OK because although I failed French A Level overall, the 'Oral' section was separately categorised as 'a C pass', with a 'compensatory O level' being awarded overall. In fact the O level was no compensation at all since I already had one (how on earth could you do a French A level without first having the O level?), but who am I to argue with the 'generosity' of the examination boards of the 1970's?!

The big story around The Towering Inferno at the time was the big 'battle of egos' between the two 'rival' stars, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Much like the artificial Brit Band wars of the 90's (when you apparently had to be an Oasis fan or a Blur one but could never be both!) you were supposed to support one actor over the other. My vote went to Newman, partly because he was prettier, but also because he had a reputation for being 'nice' where McQueen had a reputation for being arrogant, thin-skinned and rather 'difficult'. Rumour had it that McQueen only signed up to the film when Newman agreed to have his lines cut so that the two actors had exactly the same number of words. The poster billing became a big issue, with a compromise about equal billing only being achieved by having McQueen's name appear first, but with Newman's slightly higher, so that which actor's name was first depended on whether you scanned the poster from left to right or top-down!

Towering Inferno mini-poster from my hallway

You're probably thinking this is leading into a link to my review of the afore-mentioned film on DVD. Alas not! The British DVD of the film is an old one, and a very poor transfer. In the States a new digitally polished 'Special Edition' was released last year, but has yet to be officially released here. As a big childhood fan, I had to order a copy from the States of course, but my Region 1 DVD player (a top-end Toshiba, which has now been sat in Toshiba's workshops for FIVE MONTHS 'awaiting parts'. Grrr!) packed up the week before it arrived. Hopefully the title will get a Region 2 release at some point.

So no 'Towering Inferno' review, this time round. What sparked off the old memories, and this blog entry, was the release (today!) of the Cinema Reserve edition of Paul Newman's oscar-nominated The Verdict. This comes hot on the heels of the HD-DVD releases a fortnight ago of two Steve McQueen classics: Bullitt and The Getaway, so in a few days time there's going to be a spate of reviews on my blogs around the films which starred these icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I still think Newman beats McQueen hands down, at least based on these three reissues, with The Getaway in particular not dating very well, and being seriously undermined by the appallingly wooden performance of McQueen's squeeze at the time, Ali McGraw. Stay tuned for the first review - I've got Sunshine at the NFT tonight (with a Q&A screening with the director, Danny Boyle) to get out of the way first. And on Wednesday on top of being away at a Microsoft launch event all day I'm apparently going to be seeing Harry Potter waving his bits about on stage, so it's a busy week!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

It's All Going Down the Pan

Or, if not, down his labyrinth!

I had forgotten how slow a dial-up line can be after several years of broadband access. I KNEW I should have posted my review of the Pan's Labyrinth DVD yesterday when I had broadband access at home. Hopefully it's all there and good - my current connectivity is too slow to check.

I guess this is the time to 'fess up: some of these 'daily' reviews are prepared in advance. With a busy work week and the occasional fall-back to having to use dial-up for uploading it's just as well! Fingers crossed it's back to normal broadband access tomorrow!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

'Going Down' in the Valley

Edward Norton is an actor whose films are always worth watching, and Down in the Valley is no exception. You can read the full review over on my UK DVD Review blog here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

One Queen Reviews Another

I was slightly disappointed with The Queen, which came out on DVD this week. It's a great hour or so of TV drama - the sort of thing the Beeb used to show on an almost weekly basis, before reality TV shows took over completely - but a film that needs to be seen on the big screen? I don't think so! You can read my full review here

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Europe is not a single country!

If you were to take some of the American web sites and forums as your guide you'd think Europe was a single, rather small country. Which in terms of marketing, product launches and music it probably is! Or so I thought until recently. A visit from my German friend Reiner Harth last night seemed to show that I've become just as brain-washed about what Europe is, as my American friends.

I know Reiner from my time working as a contractor for Ford in Germany back in 2000/2001. Reiner was one of the guys who helped make it a really enjoyable year, and although he's a lot younger than me he's another gadget geek so we tend to have a lot in common. For instance the last time I was over I enthused about the XBox 360 HD-DVD player and this trip he told me he now had one, and a Blu-Ray player on order too!

Reiner popped over on a flying visit to borrow my DVD of A Scanner Darkly which, I was very surprised to learn, isn't available in Germany. As we chatted about favourite movies and discs, it became clear how different the German and English markets can be, especially when it comes to movies and TV shows.

For example, Pan's Labyrinth has apparently only just hit the cinema's in Germany, where it's not sub-titled, but dubbed. If I was surprised, I think Reiner was more so to learn that a movie that had been dubbed in German had been released with sub-titles in all the English-speaking markets.

Like many of us, Reiner buys DVDs he can't get locally from international online suppliers, but he pointed out that British DVDs are a nightmare because, by his estimate, less than 5% of British releases actually have a German language track. The funny thing is I've seen so many of those wretched 'Choose a language' screens on DVDs I'd assumed the figure was more like 95%.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was learning that Doctor Who and Prison Break seem to be unknown in Germany, at least if Reiner is typical. The subject of Doctor Who came up when Reiner wanted to know what on earth the full-sized dalek in my lounge was meant to be. I think I probably made a slight international faux pas in describing them as 'not good guys, but like robot versions of the Nazi's' (his English is so good I keep forgetting Reiner's German)! Knowing so many American and Canadian friends who are familiar with the series I'd just assumed Doctor Who had traveled across Europe too, but apparently not.

The dalek in my lounge

Fortunately the traffic doesn't just go one way. In the UK we still haven't had a DVD release of one of Peter Jackson's best films, his spoof documentary Forgotten Silver. Forgotten Silver caused quite a ruckus when it aired in New Zealand because people thought they'd watched a real documentary, not a very clever spoof, and got quite upset when they found out. It's thanks to Reiner and the German market that I've been able to watch a copy of the film on DVD, and it even plays in English! Hoorah!

In an attempt to educate Reiner I gave him a DVD of new Doctor Who so that he could be educated on an important part of British sci-fi culture. Not one of those God-awful Russel T Davies dalek stories, I hasten to add, but Moffat's genius The Empty Child episode. I wonder if it will 'travel'!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BFI SouthBank Launch Party

Note: All images used in this blog entry, except that of the USB bracelet, are scanned from current BFI brochures and advertising material, and are copyright of the BFI.

Several months later than planned, the new BFI SouthBank has finally launched. That's BFI, as in British Film Institute, formerly the National Film Theatre (aka NFT). A lot of people aren't happy with the change in name after 20 years, but let's not get bogged down in the politics of that particular can of worms! BFI SouthBank opens to the general public today, but as a BFI Champion I got an invite to the Launch Party last night. With no partners or non-members allowed (unless they're also 'Champions') I had to go on my own, and wasn't really sure what to expect!

For those of you who don't have the time to read the rest of this rather long report, here's the basics... I'm glad I went! I got free booze, snacks, enjoyed looking at the venue and checking things out before the place gets opened to the great unwashed hordes (that'll be you, dear reader!) BUT I left angrier than I've felt in a long, long time (which takes some doing, let me tell you!).

Make no mistake, BFI SouthBank has NOTHING to do with 'promoting the heritage of TV and film', and EVERYTHING to do with huge, wasted, self-indulgent, lavishly decorated open spaces with nothing in them and appallingly irrelevant 'exhibits' in rooms so tiny only a handful of people can see them. The whole thing appears to have been designed to impress creatives at posh dinner parties rather than with any kind of practicality that would require it to cope with more than a handful of people in central London.

It is an APPALLING waste of money!

So much space - so little of it actually being used for anything!

OK, let me now give my account of the launch party in which I'll try to justify that statement....

On arriving, I was somewhat surprised to find long queues waiting to get in. I would estimate about 1000 of us had been invited, but with no formal tickets having been issued, it obviously took time to name check every one and tick them off the long computer listings that had guests names on.

First impressions of the new building were that it resembled a showcase Apple computer store - all glass, big open spaces, expensive modern fittings, and metal floors with black and white decor. Outside the venue four multimedia projections of old films (unfortunately, somewhat out of sync with the sound that was playing) were being screened on the brick walls of the adjacent National Theatre as we arrived. The whole thing had a very 'pretentious night club opening' feel about it, but helped raise an air of excitement, and gave something for us to watch while queuing. Alas, it wasn't practical in any real sense because of the sound-sync problems and the fact that coloured brick work with lights everywhere is never going to make for a great cinema screen.

Impressions of entering an Apple computer store weren't contradicted at the main entrance where I was asked if I was an Apple or PC owner, before being given a USB bracelet that I was told I could use to watch BFI material when I got home. Very cool, especially for a freebie! It turns out to be a 64MB USB drive containing a simulation of the site's new Mediatheque facility (of which, more in a moment) for both Mac and PC, albeit with just a few short clips. Very professional and a neat promotional device!

USB Key bracelet - cute promotional device!

Inside the entrance was a lot of space, albeit space already filled with several hundred standing people. Free wine and beer were available at stands around the room and at one end is a small bar/restaurant area with a few seats, but nowhere near enough for the crowds likely to descend on the place. The huge atrium area does have one big plus - free Wi-fi, for those of you who don't like web surfing at home.

At the far end of the cavernous empty space (presumably meant for the queues, with the biggest of the new spaces able to hold a staggering THIRTY-EIGHT people in total!!!!) was what would normally be the ticketing/information area. For the launch party there was a DJ with twin decks and speakers, although as is typical of these sorts of 'art meets nightclub' pretentious affairs, it was noticeable that the decks weren't used (not once!) the whole of the time I was there, with music seemingly being pumped in from something hidden under the decks. I guess the DJ, complete with obligatory baseball-type cap helped create the 'ambience' of something modern and trendy, as opposed to (God forbid!) something promoting the 'heritage' of film and TV!

The Studio - very nice, but it only seats 38 people!

My first visit was to The Studio (a screening room!), featuring 'stunning highlights from the BFI National archive'. I was impressed actually. The seats were very big and very comfy. The screen was big and bright. The picture quality of the short movies from the 40's being shown was absolutely superb. But the venue ONLY HAS THIRTY-EIGHT SEATS! How the hell is that going to provide any sort of service for the teeming masses?

Next up was the new BFI film store. The BFI needs a shop to promote its wares, and the latest edition of Sight and Sound boasts that the new store will be 'the best stocked outlet in London'. Excuse me? The place is tiny (if you've been to The National Portrait Gallery and seen the small souvenir shop there, it's about the same size). A third of the store's shelf space appeared to be given over to t-shirts imprinted with a blurred black and white football picture. Apparently this is to help promote the BFI!!!! My guess is that the still is from the first known footage of a Manchester United game that was playing on a screen inside the shop, but even so.....

Just round the corner from the NFT is a Foyles shop with an excellent selection of film books. The BFI shop is slightly better, but not by much. The BFI shop also sells DVDs, but again if you pop just round the corner there's the Movies and Music store which has a much larger, and even more eclectic, set of titles on offer. It's nice to have another specialist film store in the area, but given the huge caverns of wasted space just outside its entrance, it seems such a disappointment, particularly given all the advance hype.

I did buy a book at the store, and the staff were friendly and helpful although it was annoying to find out after I'd left that BFI members were entitled to a 20% discount at the store. Given that this was a launch party specifically for BFI 'Champion' Members and other alumni shouldn't this have been pointed out to me at the time of purchase?!

Next to the store is The Gallery, nowhere near as big as the name implies, but probably as big as the whole of the floor space in my flat, and the biggest space outside the main entrance. It is currently showing Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad which contains four small oblong tables of ultra-tiny Scalectrix-like sets depicting slow moving vehicles from the 30s. One table has a New York scene that looks like it's straight out of the Jackson remake of King Kong, with cars jammed up in both directions while the sounds of impatient tooting motorists echoes around the room. Another table shows older vintage cars moving around a triangle of fake grass. In the corner of each table there's an alternative minature tableuu - a set of figures in a vintage home, sat on the sofa watching TV or indulging in some other mundane activity. Each of the tables is well lit and has several tiny cameras pointing at the minatures. On the far walls four screen projections constantly shift between different camera's on the tables, giving the illusion of a multi-media experience, or a real life movie being made from something that is pretty close to still life. It's all great fun, and I left the room with a big smile on my face, but I wondered what on earth this had to do with 'promoting the heritage of TV and film' - absolutely nothing so far as I could make out!

The Gallery's current show  - Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad is fun, but has little to with the national film archives

Upstairs from the ground floor is more of the same. In classic 'creatives not having a clue when it comes to practicality' design the name of the room housing Optronica, painted in large sideways-on letters is completely invisible when the doors are open! The Optronica event, which finishes in a week's time, is advertised as 'a cauldron of sound and vision.. with premieres of new work by two UK artists who have shaped and influenced the spheres of electronic music and design'. What a load of pretentious piffle! It's a big empty space the size of a large living room with a small square dance-floor in the corner with the corner walls being used for small image projections while dance music plays. This is fine for the younger crowd wanting a night out on Ecstasy maybe, but yet again this has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH 'PROMOTING THE HERITAGE OF TV AND FILM'! Who the hell thought it did??!!!

Trying to find something positive to say, the undoubted highlight of the whole place is Mediatheque. This is like an airport lounge or small but plush internet cafe. Drinks and food are not allowed in and you basically have fifteen widescreen monitors with keyboards, mice and headphones set up running a broadband intranet web site which has the look and feel of the public BFI internet web site. Using one of these computer stations you can browse up to 300 hours of film from the BFI Archives, with the material chosen to be made available based around specific themes. At the moment two themes are available: London Calling and Being British, with plans to add 50 hours of new themes each month. The collection of films for each theme is beautifully indexed with each film having extensive research notes for each film alongside which a copy of the film can be seen in a fairly large window (which can be expanded to full screen). I found the whole system very usable. Apparently only one of the fifteen screens can be pre-booked, with the rest being available on a first-come, first-served waiting system where sessions of between fifteen minutes and two hours are available. The plan, I was told by a very helpful BFI Staff Member, is to issue beepers like they do in popular restaurants, so that you can book a slot and then wander off around the rest of the venue, to be paged when a station is free.

It's great, but completely impractical given how busy the area is. Count the number of stations that have been supplied by Hewlett Packard: FIFTEEN! With the usage these things will get, and the rather cheap build quality of the units I saw, I guarantee that within three months the BFI will be in a situation where at any one time at least two or three of the workstations will be down for maintenance. How on earth does this tiny space with just fifteen PCs present any kind of realistic service? And this is by far the big highlight of the new centre (and shock! horror! one that actually meets the BFI's remit - all together now! - to promote the heritage of TV and film).

Half way through the party we got endless gushing, masquerading as 'speeches' from several of the higher-ups. First up was Anthony Minghella, film director and Chairman of the BFI Board of Governors. He told a story about how Lindsay Anderson and John Ford met in this very building, told a story about how Anderson was always railing about the 'conspiracy of mediocrity', and how impressed Anderson would be by BFI SouthBank. You couldn't be more wrong Anthony! Anderson would be incredulous at the extravagance and wasted space for facilities that can only be used by a handful of people at any given time. Say all you like about it being open to the public and free but that's of no damned use at all if you only have space for a small spattering of people to take advantage of it.

Big, brash, expensive... and empty!

If I thought Minghella was living in cloud-cukoo land, then Tessa Jowell must be living on cloud-cuckoo planet, and things entered the realms of the positively surreal when she stepped up to gush on behalf of the Labour government. She actually had the gall to issue trite platitudes about the thousands of children in her constituency, a few miles away, who would have their lives enriched by the new centre. What on earth is the mad, deluded woman on? Are these thousands of children going to have their lives enriched by standing in a big empty space with nothing to see? Or is the idea that the BFI close for the next year so that those children have a chance to get into the Mediatheque or Studio, thirty at a time in pairs for a fifteen minute stint?

Well I think you get the drift! What's so depressing is that nobody official seemed to realise what a complete white elephant the whole thing is. And in five years time when all the expensive gimmicks have broken down and nothing's working a huge dose of money will be needed to get things back to the point where those lucky 15-38 people can actually do something again.

The new BFI SouthBank is like one of those God-awful web sites where all you want is information, but you can't find it because all that's been provided are endless Flash videos that have reinvented the user interface so that it takes you hours to reach single glib marketing statement which has nothing to do with the whole supposed existence of the web site in the first place. Looking around at all the extravagance all you can do is shake your head in despair at the sheer waste of money that has been spent on facilities that can only possibly benefit a few. This is the space that used to house The Museum of the Moving Image, which admittedly may well have had its dull parts, but actually met the remit of promoting the heritage of film and TV, and had many fascinating treasures to show anybody who wanted to see them. Something the new BFI SouthBank spectacularly misses out on.

The luvvies really have taken over the asylum, and its address is Theatre Avenue, South Bank, London!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

5 Things You (Probably) Don't Know About Me

Aaarggh! I've been blog-tagged, by Brian Sibley.

The aim of the game, apparently, is to post an entry 5 Things You Don't Know About Me and then 'tag' five other bloggers who have to do the same!

My '5 things' are posted below, but I still need to publish the details of the five bloggers I've decided to pass the tag baton on to. I'm struggling trying to find 5 people who haven't already played the game, but stay tuned for details over the next few days.

Luckily the first person I've tagged has responded in time for this blog entry. Richard Brunton runs the superb Filmstalker site. Richard's blog is my no.1 resource for film news, and it celebrated its first birthday just last week. If you haven't checked it out already, please go have a look and join in the conversation.

But now here are MY 5 Things You (Probably) Don't Know About Me

1. Pop manager/celebrity Tom Watkins (Pet Shop Boys, Bros) once phoned me to thank me for saving the career of one of his bands

The band were called 2wo Third3, but in a review of one of their dreadful records that I'd written for the American Dance Music Authority magazine I'd rather unkindly referred to them as 2wo Turd3! Watkins wasn't best pleased, apparently feeling nobody had the right to criticise until they'd done a better job themselves. He had a bet with his main producers, who I'd already done a 'trial' mix with for another act, that I couldn't produce anything better than had already been produced for the band. So I was paid £500 to spend a day in the studios with his producers putting together a dance remix of their next planned single. The record label, Sony, liked it so much they said 'That's the next single! Edit that verson down for the radio mix and 7 inch'. The band got their first (and only!) Top 30 hit and a 'Top of the Pops' appearance out of it. And I got a grateful phone call from the band's manager when the chart position was announced. Result! So the next time you're thinking 'That prat Smith hasn't got a clue when it comes to reviewing things' just think on't!

2. I once found myself on the wrong end of several loaded guns in Kuwait.

If you're going to lay a flour trail for The Hash House Harriers ('the drinking man's running club', or is it 'the running man's drinking club'? I forget!) DON'T let the numpty from the British Embassy choose the route. The idiot will likely plot a line that goes all the way round and through a police station car park. Four of us had just finished laying the trail when out of nowhere came the sound of screeching tyres. Suddenly there were Army landrovers and Police vans all around us, and uniformed men shouting and screaming at us in Arabic with guns pointed at our heads. Luckily one of our party spoke Arabic. But it was a long wait at the station before the forensics laboratory confirmed that the white powder we'd been seen laying down WASN'T explosive!

3. I had my personal web site shut down by Christopher Lee

Or his son-in-law 'representative' - I never did find out who really was at the bottom of it all. It all started with my reporting some remarks that Sir Ian McKellen had made at a public event I'd bought tickets for, which Lee's camp took great exception to. I learnt a very important lesson: NEVER meddle in the affairs of wizards!

4. I appeared on BBC2 doing an impression of Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'

BBC2's 'The Sunday Show' tagged along with a group of us that were on a Bungee Club adrenaline weekend trip to France. As the coach struggled up the French alps to our hotel destination the producer from the BBC thought it would be a good idea to have us all disembark and do quick impressions of Ms Andrews with the French Alps in the background. Foolishly we agreed, and felt very silly indeed. I felt even sillier when the resulting footage was shown on the telly! I made myself so dizzy I was spinning like a top, and tripping up all over the place. Needless to say, despite the accompanying music it didn't look like a 'Sound of Music' re-enactment so much as a drunk staggering around (which was probably the producer's intention all along)!

5. In a past life I had some involvement with Simon Cowell

He was an A&R man for RCA Records at the time. I didn't like him then, and don't like him now. Three words summarise the man and his 'musical talent': Robson and Jerome. They were signed by Cowell because they sang a cover version of 'Unchained Melody' on ITV drama 'Soldier Soldier', which people really wanted to buy, at least if the words of the Woolworths' managers who phoned Cowell the morning after transmission could be believed. Cowell made sure session singers were used on the records instead of the actors themselves, leaving the poor actors whose voices had attracted all the attention in the first place having to mime badly to someone else's vocals on 'Top of the Pops'. Oh the stories I could tell - the music industry makes Hollywood look like a paragon of virtue, by way of comparison! Cowell's a multi-millionaire now of course, having taken the 'Pop Idol' show he was hired for as a presenter, copied it lock, stock and barrel and then launched it as his own show 'X-Factor'. The man has gone from being a pretty poor A&R manager whose only talent was for signing boy bands to do bad karaoke cover versions of hits from the past to being a major 'celebrity' in his own right. Sometimes I think the world has gone totally, utterly, completely mad!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cute Latinos and Pregnant Fifteen Year Olds!

I'm not convinced that the DVD release of Echo Park LA, winner of the Grand Jury and Audience "Dramatic" awards at last year's Sundance Festival is a purchase rather than a rental, but it's a sweet, life-affirming movie about the importance of family, even if that family has to be a make-shift one.

You can read my full review of the DVD here

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD, Babel, Beerfest and The History Boys

Movies seem to have taken over my life for the past few years and I can hardly move around my flat without tripping over one of the many precariously stacked towers of DVDs that seem to exist in every single room.

The launch of the high definition formats, notably HD-DVD, late last year have not helped my addiction in any way. I bought my first HD-DVD player - a nice cheap, XBox 360 add-on - back in November and haven't looked back since. Suddenly standard DVDs just seem so ordinary!

Last week I decided I had enough titles to warrant purchase of a 'proper' HD-DVD player (the X-Box 360 is notorious for suddenly displaying the 'red rings of death' on power-up - an indication that the box has died and over-heated - and I've always felt rather vulnerable using it as my main DVD player). The Toshiba high-end DVD player I had before I purchased the X-Box has been in Toshiba's workshop 'awaiting parts' for four months now, still with no sign of a date when it might be fixed, despite me agreeing to a repair cost that would buy me four brand new DVD players if I went to Tesco's!

If there were someone else making HD-DVD players of any sort of quality I'd buy a player from them, but alas!, Toshiba have a virtual monopoly on the HD-DVD format. Their XE1 'top-end' player has a typical online price of £650, but I managed to purchase a unit from Dabs for £500 - too much of a bargain to resist, although I still haven't got around to actually connecting it up. No doubt a review of the unit will appear on this blog at some point. For now the only comment I can make is that the remote control for the player is one of the biggest, ugliest and heaviest remotes I've ever seen.

In the meantime, I've also succumbed to the 'other' high definition format: Blu-Ray. In all honesty, I wish this region-locked format would die a horrible, painful death. For reasons why, read the long rant on my new Blu-Ray Review blog, which I launched yesterday.

It's a sad fact that too many good movies are now being released exclusively to Blu-Ray, such that the format can't be ignored, despite its poor, and extremely over-priced players and some appallingly bad transfers that were released when the format launched. Blu-Ray has more film companies behind it than the rival HD-DVD format, and appears to have moved ahead in the 'format war' that's taking place around high definition formats, with Blu-Ray disc sales allegedly now outselling HD-DVD by a factor of about two-to-one. This situation can partly be explained by a sudden dearth of HD-DVD titles (no titles at all this week, although things ramp up again next week), but even so, the marketing muscle of Blu-Ray's supporters is clearly beginning to take effect.

By all accounts the new Sony PS3 (a games machine that just happens to have bundled in a Blu-Ray player at a ridiculously low price which means Sony is losing money on every unit it sells) is by far the best Blu-Ray player on the market, and its European launch on March 23rd, together with some discount bundle pricing from Dabs means that I've succumbed to the format. Expect to start seeing Blu-Ray reviews on the new blog when the units finally start to ship here in the UK, although where a title is released on both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, it will always be the HD-DVD version that gets reviewed because HD-DVD is my format of choice.

In the meantime I've spent the last week trying to catch up on the backlog of DVDs and HD-DVDs waiting to be reviewed. DVDs of The Queen (rather disappointing, given all the hype!), Pan's Labyrinth (a superb film gets excellent DVD treatment), Over The Hedge (one of the better CGI cartoon films that's been released), Echo Park LA (over-rated Sundance winner, but enjoyable for all that), Down in the Valley (far better than most of the critical reviews would have you believe), The Mother (an excellent companion piece to the recent Peter O'Toole vehicle Venus which is currently playing in cinemas) and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim have all been watched, and are just awaiting the time-consuming process of having screencaps taken so that reviews can be published over the next week or two. On the HD-DVD side two classic Steve McQueen films, Bullitt and The Getaway have arrived, so I'm looking forward to seeing how well they've been transferred to the new high-resolution format.

In the meantime I did manage to get two new reviews posted yesterday, with a third being added earlier this morning. My reviews of Beerfest (ghastly, puerile, infantile crap!) and Babel (classy, Oscar-nominated fare) on HD-DVD have been published on my HD-DVD Review Blog, while a review of The History Boys (far-fetched, and somewhat disappointing Alan Bennett fodder) has been published on my UK DVD Review blog.

A review of the DVD release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make glorious nation of Kazakhstan (I laughed out loud. A lot!) will be posted later today, and I'll provide a link to it here on this blog tomorrow.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Daily Blog

A BBC News report early last week (can't find the wretched link now - sorry!) highlighted the fact that there appears to be a direct correlation between the increase in broadband usage and a subsequent decline in newspaper sales. Not good news if you're a paid journalist, but an explanation for the poor quality of our national press I think (If you pay peanuts because of dwindling income then you WILL get monkeys!)

You can prove anything with statistics of course, and paper is a rather different medium from the screen but the report, together with the BAFTA debate that took place earlier this week, got me thinking about my own excessive usage of blogs for information and entertainment sources, and the realisation that I no longer bother with newspapers, not even the weighty Sunday tomes that used to be one of the highlights of the week.

I probably average two to three hours a day on blogs, which is far too much wasted time, but seemingly inescapable if you want to be at the top of your game in the IT industry. The evening sessions are the longest, and are down to my day job. These days it seems that the only way to stay current on what works and what doesn't is by signing up to seemingly endlessly Microsoft employee and assorted Microsoft fan boy blogs. Information that used to be hosted on a central web site or, God forbid, in the form of documentation that actually shipped with a product is long gone. I find I need to plough through tens of thousands of blogs a day to find the information I need just to be knowledgeable enough to give my clients the correct information, or to get the software I just paid a fortune for to a state where it actually does what it's supposed to do. The signal-to-noise ratio is appallingly low on these blogs, primarily because companies like Microsoft insist that their employees 'demonstrate their passion' (for career development) by blogging, regardless of the value that such blogging might have. While it's true to say a lot more information is escaping companies like Microsoft to the outside world as a result, I have to admit I hanker for the old days where I could actually do something I really wanted to do in the evenings. Sorting the wheat from the chaff shouldn't be so difficult!

My morning blog sessions are rather different. They are, effectively, my highly personalised replacement for a daily newspaper and a chance to catch up on friends (online and 'real world') AND to get the latest news from the film and DVD world from people I've learnt to trust. Thankfully, most folk have realised that the world has moved on, and that we now live in the post-MTV world of the attention-deficit generation. As a result, 40 minutes over breakfast are usually more than enough to get up-to-speed on the things I'm interested in.

Blog entries need to be three things if they're going to be read by ANYONE: short, sharp and sweet. Definitions of 'sharp' and 'sweet' are entirely subjective of course, but 'short' is something I've always been hopeless at! When I took a sabbatical from my 'real' job to work in the music industry a few years ago I used to send a weekly rant to Jonathan King's The Tip Sheet publication for music industry insiders, only to be admonished by Jonathan on an almost weekly basis to 'Précis dear boy. Précis!'. It's something I spectacularly failed to do, and continue to fail to do on my UK DVD Review Blog and my HD-DVD Review Blog. Fortunately, that didn't seem to stop Jonathan printing what I sent and I sit hoping, with fingers crossed, that the same sort of thing happens with the few readers of my blogs who hang around despite their long, rambling length!

However, I have noticed that my favourite blogs, and also the most successful in terms of readership numbers, have two things in common: they tend to be regular as clockwork - ideally for me they should be sat there every morning in my RSS feed reader; AND they need to be short, succinct and 'sweet' (as in useful or funny). I don't think I'm ever going to meet the 'short' criteria other than by cheating, but intend to meet the first criteria by making sure that from hereonin there is at least ONE daily update to this blog.

I will only achieve this 'daily' requirement by cheating of course. What this means is that you're going to be seeing some daily entries that are just links to my other blogs, partly in an attempt to divert more traffic to those new blogs (I find it bizarre that I'm still getting lots of comments on old reviews on this blog, but none on the new, more finely-tuned, homes they relocated to some months ago). The irony is of course that this approach will also help me meet that seemingly unachievable 'keep it short and succint' criteria for a good blog entry. You can't get much shorter and succinct than a blog entry that's a link to another blog entry ;-)

Tomorrow I'll be posting links not just to some new DVD and HD-DVD reviews, but also highlighting those 'Daily Blogs' I read before work each morning. But I'll also be using this blog to highlight stuff I've found funny, interesting or just want to say a few words about. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Guardian Panel at BAFTA: The role of the film critic in the digital age

I went to a discussion panel on The role of the film critic in the digital age earlier this evening, and participated in a lively discussion, although I don't think anything that wasn't already fairly obvious to most attendees came up.

Fortunately the four panel members were entertaining and informative, comprising Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, Nick James from Sight and Sound, Sam Nichols who heads up film distribution at Momentum Pictures, and Hannah McGill who's the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Film Festival. The audience, congregated in the BAFTA HQ in Piccadilly, was a small enough group, comprising about 50 attendees, that anybody who wanted to participate in the debate appeared to be able to do so.

I felt the discussion itself gravitated far too much towards the subject of "blogging", with surprising little about the more professional film sites like Rotten Tomatoes (referred to as 'blogging site Squashed tomatoes' by the Chair Rosie Millard at one point) or the move of the traditional print media online.

The audience make-up was different from that which I'd expected too, with surprisingly few bloggers, but a lot of film promotions staff, independent producers, directors, actors etc there to take part. My invitation had come through someone at The Guardian finding my blog, so I'd assumed the audience would be mainly bloggers like myself - bad assumption!

I thought it was interesting that Nick James regarded Sight and Sound as largely being about publishing an archive for the future, and Peter Bradshaw made some amusing remarks about being forced to exit the palace and mix with the peasants in the shit, when discussing his printed work and the new requirements to also blog.

Lord of the Rings fans came in for some criticisms when blogs were being discussed (at this point I kept my head down, although I have to say I had to agree with most of the criticisms made). One blog site (I really should have taken notes to give some URLs here), having complained about how over-rated the boring 'Lord of the Rings' films are, then had to admit that the most lively discussion on their blogs had been "Does 'The Hobbit' need Peter Jackson as director?", which struck me as evidence that the blog site had maybe misjudged their audience, and got it all a bit wrong!

I also derived some pleasure from the continual dissing of the 'Ain't It Cool' web site, which I've visited a few times, but which counts as one of the most hideous, ghastly web sites I've ever come across. It was a relief to hear that so many people had a similarly low opinion of it, particularly its susceptibility to 'fan boy' gushing, marketing from the film companies rather than independent review, and the quality of its spelling.

There were no real conclusions drawn, other than the rather obvious one that blogs can stimulate debate and help spread the word about films, which can only be "a good thing"! I did think that some of the traditional print media folks were burying their head in the sands in discussing how "TV was supposed to kill off radio and film. It didn't", as if this meant their jobs were secure for the forseeable future, ignoring the BBC report earlier this week which showed direct correlation between the rise in broadband sales vs the decline in newspaper sales. Yes, of course traditional print media will be around for some time to come, but it will have to operate with much-reduced costs and a dwindling audience. To my mind this can only mean a reduction in quality, and I'd argue that we're already seeing that reduction in quality in the pages of the monthly magazines like Empire and Total Film.

The debate itself is apparently going to be posted as a video and/or podcast on the Guardian or BAFTA site in three weeks time - which seemed rather ironic, given how much of the discussion had centred around the biggest strength of blogs being how immediate and instant they were. Clearly there's still some way t go when it comes to publicising things in the digital age!

I didn't stay for the after-discussion drinks, but spoke to some interesting folks working making independent films and in publicity at the bar before the formal panel kicked off. All-in-all, it was an interesting way to spend an hour or so on a Monday evening.