Sunday, June 24, 2007

Insomnia = A Bunch of Quick Film/DVD Reviews

My alarm is set for 3.30am so I can catch the flight back to Ireland, and yet here I am at 11pm, having struggled to get to sleep since 8pm, feeling wide awake. Aaaaarggh!

I still have no internet connection in Ireland. The "I can get it connected within 24 hours" promise of the landlord has dragged on for 2 weeks now and the latest is "It should be there in 7-8 days", which explains the complete lack of activity on the various review blogs. I'm not holding my breath for the fact that this is going to get fixed any time soon!

Lack of internet access in Ireland is probably not the end of the world as my current contract there is consuming many hours, with the specs for what we have to deliver in 5 weeks time still not even close to being tied down. Despite that and the horrendous weather (an hour long walk to work when it's nearly always raining is no fun!) I'm enjoying the "Emerald Isle" experience, mainly because of the group of people I'm working with and the fact I'm getting to learn some new stuff and work with the technologies I really want to.

I spent last Saturday (in Ireland) checking out the local cinema, in the form of the Limerick 12-screen 'omniplex'. Alas, I made the mistake of choosing the new Fantastic Four movie as the film to see. The first FF movie got panned by the critics, but I thought it was far better than the reviews implied, albeit with some serious mis-casting for the chief villain 'Dr Doom' and the super-hero leader 'Mr Fantastic'. This time round the director is supposed to have responded to criticisms of the first film and turned in a more adult offering. Alas, he's made a much worse picture, and the first half hour is a disjointed, badly edited mess. The whole film is barely 90 minutes long, but feels longer, and special effects house Weta clearly didn't have the time or the budget to finish off the CGI on the central Silver Surfer figure that gives this sequel its main title. The Surfer looks like a demo version of the metallic figure we got 20 years ago in The Terminator 3 movie, and things should have moved on a lot since then. The audience I saw the film with seemed to have an average age of about six, which seemed to me to be the one the film-makers were aiming for. The mis-casting of the main leads in the first film were even more obvious this time around, with only the under-used Chris Evans really delivering. Overall, this is one to avoid!

Evan Almighty

This morning, thanks to Brian, I got to see a preview of Evan Almighty, the follow-up to Bruce Almighty starring Steve Carell (The Office (US), The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine), due to hit screens in the UK officially on 3rd August. Alas, it's a weaker follow-up to the original and although Jim Carrey is one of my least-favourite actors, he worked far better in the original film than Carell, who replaces him this time round, does in this one. The basic premise this time around is that God tells Carell, a former news-reader recently turned congress man, that a flood is coming and he has to build an ark to rescue all the animals just as Noah did in Genesis 6:14. There's some big budget special effects but I couldn't help wishing the money had been spent on something with a lot more substance than this meaningless tosh. That being said, it's a fairly innocuous 90 minutes, and will undoubtedly make back its money as it's a good 'date movie', albeit one that could have done with a bit more structure and a lot more jokes.

Black Book and Goal 2 DVD covers

On DVD, whilst in Ireland, I've seen Black Book set in Holland during World War 2, which was excellent, and Goal 2: Living the Dream which wasn't. This latter film is the sequel to... erm... Goal which was perhaps most notable for the 'deer caught in headlights' acting debut of one David Beckham. This time round the paper-thin story of the first film is even slimmer, and Beckham is thankfully relegated to endless background shots and a non-speaking part, but this is not enough to save the film, despite moving the action from dreary, rainy Newcastle to sun-soaked Real Madrid. The third film of a planned trilogy, with the final film having apparently been shot mainly around last year's World Cup, is apparently now looking like it will be shelved - based on Goal 2 I'm not surprised!

On DVD I've managed to finish the Complete Season 2 of Rescue Me, a brilliant drama series about firefighters in New York post 9/11. The second series, against all expectations, not only lived up to the strong writing and performances of the first season but, if anything exceeded it. The third season is already available on import Blu-Ray high definition disc (and region free to boot. Hoorah!) so that's going to be moving to the top of the 'To be watched' pile.

Shortbus and Rescue Me Season 2 DVD covers

The surprising highlight of the weekend's viewing though has been Shortbus, which has received a lot of publicity for its 'explicit' sex scenes. Actually explicit doesn't really cover it - in the first 10 minutes alone we get self-fellatio, explicit sexual intercourse and cum shots, with rimming and Lord knows what else to follow later in the film when a background orgy scene featuring a lot of 'sextra's takes place. The surprising thing is that unlike Michael Winterbottom's equally controversial 9 Songs, which was just plain dreary and borderline sleazy, the film doesn't, to this viewer at least, feel at all gratuitous. It has a sweet, quirky, good-natured feel to it that made it totally watchable, with some cute cartoon sequences, witty writing and a 'feel good' ending. Of course the explcit sex scenes are always more watchable when your cast are all young, uninhibited and very attractive. British critics have been surprisingly enthusiastic about the film, despite the explicit sex scenes, and it's not hard to see why, although you need to be VERY liberal minded to cope with nudity which is frequent and sex acts which are numerous. The strange thing is that although there's a lot of sex in the film, the film doesn't come across as being just about sex, and is actually more about relationships and character, with the sex making the whole thing feel more real. The characters here are very sweet, with a nice little pay-off for all of them at the end but the sex grounds it in a reality too often missing from rom-com's. Absolutely not for Daily Mail readers, and it would be hard to find screen caps that could be considered 'safe for work', but otherwise highly recommended.

Talking of rom-com's I also got to see Music and Lyrics on high definition HD-DVD disc this weekend. It's enjoyable fluff, particularly for those who like to take the mickey out of 80's pop acts like Duran Duran. Hugh Grant is a real surprise (he can sing AND dance!) and Cameron Diaz is naturally warm and sympathetic, with some surprisingly witty writing. I don't generally like rom-coms but after Shortbus and this I may have to revise my opinions.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Whirlwind Weekend

It's been a bit of a whirlwind weekend, catching a late night flight back from Shannon airport in Ireland to Ol' Blighty on Friday which got me home quickly and efficiently not long after midnight, and with a return flight that means a taxi is picking me up at 4.00am tomorrow (Monday) morning :-O.

Aside from packing and some rather tedious research and preparation for next week at work, it's been very much a 'chill out in front of the big(gish) screen' couple of days.

Saturday's highlight was a draw between the DVD of Notes on a Scandal and the transmission of the latest Doctor Who episode, written by Stephen Moffat. Moffat has proved he is light years ahead of most of the usual Dr Who writers with the episodes he's written so far. Saturday's episode, coming right after Paul Cornell's excellent two-parter, didn't disappoint and shows what can be done with the format when you have someone who doesn't assume to know what four year-olds want to see (and target his scripts accordingly). Alas it looks like we're back to Billy Bunter's usual infantile awfulness with the remaining episodes, at least if next week's trailer is anything to go by. Fortunately I'll be in Ireland next Saturday and won't feel obliged to watch it.

Notes on a Scandal has been described by some as 'a masterclass in acting' and I find it hard to disagree. I've never really been a big Judy Dench fan (she always plays the same person), but have to admit she surprised me with her performance here. I'd go so far as to say that she was robbed of the 'Best Actress' oscar even if the eventual winner of that award did deliver a strong performance in the extremely over-rated The Queen. Even putting aside Dench's career-best performance on show here, there is the added treat of Cate Blanchette who never disappoints. Add in an excellent supporting performance from Bill Nighy and all the kids involved, and you have a wonderfully under-rated film that's a 'must see' on DVD. Highly recommended!

On Sunday I had brunch with Brian and David before going to a cheap matinee performance of Half Nelson at The Clapham Picture House. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a drug-taking school-teacher who has his life put back on course by one of his 13 year-old students who herself is struggling with difficult family problems. Gosling was nominated for 'Best Actor' at this year's oscars for his performance here, and it's not hard to see why, although the cast are uniformly excellent. However I was disappointed with the film, which was over-long, self-indulgent and far too clearly 'indie' for too much of its running time. I can cope with a low budget when the cast are this good, but there was precious little 'story', and the shaky camera-work and extremely slow pacing became very irritating after a while. Critics generally have raved about this film, with even the poorest reviews giving it four stars out of five, so maybe my expectations were set way too high. Gosling is the latest 'new Marlon Brando' Hollywood pin-up boy with a lot of the media (a little premature surely?!), so it will be interesting to see what other films he stars in over the coming months, but admittedly he gives a blisteringly good performance in this film.

I will only have internet at work over the next couple of weeks, so I'm not sure when there'll be a new blog post here, but I'm back in the UK in a fortnight's time and hope to have some pictures of Limerick and more reports to post then, if not before. For 'down time' I'm taking the complete Season 2 of Rescue Me with me to watch on my laptop. This is an excellent, gritty HBO TV series about a group of fire-men in New York post 9/11, which I think only Sky are showing in the UK. It's the sort of ongoing drama series (The Sopranos, Huff, Lost, 24, Nip/Tuck, Battlestar Gallactica and Heroes being just some of the others) that put British drama offerings to shame, at least if the first season was anything to go by. Season 3 of Rescue Me has just been released on high-definition Blu-Ray disc (and, surprisingly, it's region free), and it's interesting to see TV shows leading the way on the high definition formats (The Sopranos and Smallville have already made their debut on HD-DVD, with Heroes about to debut on HD-DVD and Nip/Tuck doing the same on Blu-Ray) so I have some serious catching up to do.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

My First Day In Ireland

After a bad start (although the morning flight left the gate on time, it was kept waiting for an hour for a slot from Air Traffic control), my first day in Ireland has gone very well, and concerns about huge hidden expenses, at least on the travel side, have evaporated.

I spent most of the afternoon exploring Limerick City, and it's a curious combination of modern, trendy shopping arcades full of bijoux (spelling?) shops and restaurants, quaint castle-walled shops and museums, and then sudden areas of what can only be described as graffiti-strewn slums, all piled up and mixed in together.

First impressions are that it'll be a fun place to live for a while.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is encountering so few Irish people in the shops and restaurants. English is definitely not the first language for the waiters and shop assistants I encountered in profusion today. It seems it's not just London that's been subject to the great Baltic invasion!

It was a surprise to discover that the Hilton Hotel, which is my accommodation for this first few days, has only been open for a few weeks - and it shows. The restaurant (free meal included on your first night - hoorah!) is excellent, the staff friendly and attentive, and the location is superb, overlooking as it does the river and main City just a couple of minutes walk away across a bridge. But there's those tell-tale signs of a new building that's not quite finished: the smell of fresh paint seems to be everywhere, and the air conditioning in the humid, swelteringly hot room isn't working.

Limerick City itself reminds me in some ways of Reading's Oracle Centre with its busy little restaurants and up-market shopping arcades, and my new flat (as of Monday) definitely reminds me of my sister's flat overlooking the canal near there. Apparently costing over 330,000 Euro's to purchase it's a tiny, 'modern' flat overlooking the river, and just a couple of minutes walk from the City Centre. What I'd call a typical modern bijoux 'buy to rent' property. My landlord, Patrick, who I'd only spoken to over the phone after the agency who got me this contract put us in touch, is a 26 year-old trainee accountant who bought his flat in October last year, only to have the relationship he was in fall apart a few weeks ago, leaving him with a mortgage he can't afford to pay on his own. Which is good news for me, if a bit of a nightmare for him! My room might be small by my usual standards, but it has an en-suite bathroom, the location really couldn't be better and the spartan feel to the place (a lounge with a TV, some simple furniture and maybe a dozen CDs and DVDs) is a refreshing change from my overflowing flat in London.

Patrick himself is the sort of polite young man who seems all too rare these days. He's a smoker, but made a point of asking if I wanted him to go outside whenever he needed a cigarette, rather than adopting the attitude of 'This is my flat and I'll do what I want'. He seems to be coping with what is obviously a broken heart very well, by filling his spare time with activities (Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights he's not going to be around because he's started Martial Arts classes to take his mind off things and keep busy after work). I think the decision to take a room in a shared flat instead of an expensive hotel is going to prove to be the right decision.

Even more promising is discovering that the work place isn't as far outside Limerick as I'd been told. A brisk 40 minute walk would cover the distance from the flat, and there's a bus at 15 minute intervals which costs about £1 each way, so worries about expensive taxi's are no longer an issue. If I can resist the temptation to face the weekend commute from hell back to London I might even make more money than is required to pay my mortgage back home!

Of course the real proof of the pudding will be in finding out what the work itself entails, and what the people there are like. Tomorrow I will find out! If you're a friend or relative reading this please cross everything you've got that it turns out as well as the accommodation and travel aspects today appear to have!

Lord of the Rings - The Musical

My last night in London before setting off for Ireland, was spent with Brian, David and Sophie at a performance of Lord of the Rings - The Musical at The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

To better prepare audience expectations it might have better been titled 'Lord of the Rings - The Pantomime'. Its biggest flaw (and, unfortunately, it has quite a few) is that it doesn't seem to know whether to pitch itself as a slightly camp spoof for fans of the film, or a serious piece of contemporary theatre based on a literary classic. It seems to veer between the two extremes, and comes across as a rather disjointed mess as a result.

"It's better than I thought it would be" was a quote often repeated in the party I was with at last night's 'preview' performance - one of many before the official launch later this month when critical reviews will undoubtedly rush to tear it to pieces. The idea of turning such a weighty literary work into a three hour musical is such a ludicrous conceit that for most of us the production was doomed long before the dreadful notices for its Canadian debut last year started pouring in, resulting in an early transfer to the London stage. So the production is indeed better than I thought it would be or could be, but then my expectations were very very low!

On the tube journey to Heathrow airport this morning (this review is being typed in the airport departure lounge as I head off to Ireland) the morning free-sheet Metro carried a full-page interview with the 'exhausted' director (and also co-writer) of the production in which the poor chap tries desperately to defend his 'musical' as a worthy work in its own right, rather than some cheap cash-in on the success of the oscar-winning films. Cheap the production certainly isn't and it's no surprise to read that the theatre will need to sell at least 3/4 of the seats for an initial year-long run to break even. The good news for those taking the risk and purchasing tickets is that most of the money is there on the stage, and the production is, if nothing else, quite a spectacle. I'm not a fan of West End musicals but I've seen 'Miss Saigon' and 'Phantom of the Opera' and there are set pieces in this production that have more of a 'wow' factor than anything I saw in either of those long-running (and, frankly, seriously over-rated) productions. If only that were enough!

Let's get the main negatives out the way first - a difficult job restricting comments to just a few of them if I'm to keep this mini-review short and blog-like - and start with the music. If something calls itself a musical then it should have good music. This production doesn't. There isn't a single memorable melody or hook. Songs in musicals should further the story. In this production they drag it to a halt and often a slow, agonising death. It's staggering to read that in Toronto the production ran over an hour longer than the 3 hour London version, and that an hour was trimmed out primarily by cutting much of the musical content out. What a horrific endurance test that Canadian production must have been, based on the 'improved, shorter' London version I saw last night.

Music aside, the biggest problem is the complete lack of any characterisation. The hobbits have been turned into dumb village idiots, and even the stronger roles in the book are relegated to uncharismatic characters that one feels no sympathy or empathy for. Too many of the characters seem to have been deliberately made to look like their film counterparts, but without even a smidgeon of that cast's charisma or talent. Most worrying of all for the financial backers, there is no equivalent of Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom or Viggo Mortensen for teenage girls to fall in love with, which means much needed repeat business probably isn't going to happen.

Good-looking leading men aside, Gandalf is particularly ill-served, with the actor too often sounding like he's reading the lines wearily from a script at a read-in he didn't want to attend. When Elrond appears, in a performance that finally delivers on the promise of adding some much-needed depth and resonance, it serves only to show how poor the rest of the leads are. Only the actress playing Galadriel (complete with the apparently essential 'sign language and morse code' trait that all elves in this production have!) and perhaps the actor playing Gollum give anything remotely exceeding what you'd expect from your local amateur dramatics group. Admittedly, the ensemble work hard - the logistics seem to demand that they do so - but there's no real passion or belief in the performances, and too often, especially in the much weaker second half, one feels one's watching a bad spoof where there's a prompt in the wings going 'We're running late. Speed it up. Speed it up. Don't worry about acting. Just get the damned lines out'.

The trouble is that those 'damned lines' are frequently so bad they're positively hokey. Of course the story is a difficult one to compress into 3 hours, but even so, perfectly good lines from the book or film are changed for no apparent reason, often coming across as just crass and meaningless. The plot and repositioning of key elements is all over the place and if you're not already familiar with the book and/or film you haven't a hope in hell of following what's going on.

In the Metro interview the director talks about wanting to produce something that couldn't be reproduced in the medium of film, and the frustrating thing is that in many places he's achieved this. The set designs are amazing and there are moments that are so iconic and breath-taking one is almost convinced that maybe the idea of a 3 hour stage production of the work wasn't such a ridiculous idea after all. Think Cirque de Soleil without quite so much acrobatics and you've got a sense of the spectacle on display. But the whole thing needs a far stronger script than is in evidence here, and a much more talented cast too.

The undoubted star of the show, if there is one, is the large circular stage which contorts itself like some kind of massive, cleverly-engineered musical box throughout the production's run. It's no surprise to learn the mechanics cost over a million and the thing is so intrinsic to most of the action it must use up enough electricity to power a small sub-continent. Either that or it's being powered by the body of the good Professor Tolkien himself, who is surely spinning in his grave at what's been produced in his name here!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

As One Door Closes....

I've always been a fan of the "de-motivators" from the folks at (my home office has framed copies of some of my favourite posters from the company) and now they've branched out into clothing. If you fancy a chuckle check out their latest t-shirt range here. It's as if they gave me a personal consultation and came up with a whole new customised wardrobe for me to take to Ireland!

Talking of Ireland it's scary to realise it's just three days away and I'm nowhere near ready. The stress of the old job may now be gone, but the panic of the new is starting to set in!

My last week at work was much less fraught than my 'half glass empty' persona had predicted. The overnight deployment on Bank Holiday Monday went fine, helped somewhat by my project manager, who was officially on holiday all week, coming in for the whole eight hour shift to give moral support. The rest of the week - well at least until Friday lunchtime - was relatively quiet with a few 'priority 1' customer issues that turned out to be simple to fix and not actually anything to do with work we'd done. While my body has pretty much spent the entire week trying to work out why it can't sleep when it should, and why it wants to sleep when it can't, this particular morning that probably has more to do with the amount of alcohol consumed at my leaving drinks do last night than with any after-effects of the over-nighter at the start of the week.

The folks at Intelligent Environments gave me a good send-off and did me proud. Although I got drunk (I don't drink very often so it doesn't take much) I'm relieved to say the only real embarrassment came at the end of the evening when everybody else had left.

It is the tradition at these events for the departing employee or contractor to put his credit card behind the bar and invite colleagues to 'have a drink on me'. This invariably leads to 'Have another drink on me. I've set up a tab' and before you know it the whole world and his wife are trouncing your credit card like it's gone out of fashion, such that by the end of the evening you find you have a bill that's going to require a phone call to the bank manager requesting a second mortgage.

So at the end of last night I went to settle up as the last remaining bodies left, pretty much resigned to being given a final bill in treble and quite possibly quadruple figures if one ignores the pennies. I haven't worked out yet whether I screwed up badly by not reminding people enough times to 'put it on tab number one', or whether it's just that I've been working for the last two years with a bunch of people who refuse to take advantage of a situation that's freely offered to them, but I am VERY embarrassed to report that when I staggered to the bar to pay the final bill it came to a pitifully low thirteen quid. I make a lousy and unsociable host, but at least the bank manager will be happy I guess!

I'm off to the Emerald Isle!

NB: My original post under this same title has been deleted because it was somewhat ungracious! (Blimey! Self-censorship - a first for me, I think!)

Have signed a new 14 week contract to work in Limerick in Ireland. I fly out Tuesday morning and this blog may be even quieter than it has been as a result, depending on Internet access.