Monday, December 31, 2007

Farewell 2007!

It's New Year's Eve and the holidays are pretty soon going to be over - although it's been hard to tell where work ends and holiday starts since I haven't been doing PAID work (through choice :)) since the end of October. Hopefully the New Year will change all that, although I'm going to miss relatively easy days at home in my study just learning (playing is probably a better word!) new stuff.

This is the time of year when it's traditional to make resolutions for the new year. For me it's going to be pretty much 'business as usual' - which means that, in the short term at least, blogging is going to be taking a bit of a back seat. Apologies to those who follow my various film/shiny disc review blogs - these are likely to remain relatively quiet, at least until I've made some progress on activities I've marked as higher priority for January.

At the moment stuff related to work is taking priority and the company web site is effectively the test bed for some infrastructure stuff that will make auto-updating of my personal web site and various blogs much less time-consuming. My Shiny Discs web site will be the ultimate benefactor of all this 'behind the scenes' work, but that is still some way off. Blame Microsoft, who seem to release new technologies and updates on an almost daily basis, such that keeping sufficiently up-to-date to know what's important and what isn't and trying to guarantee code isn't obsolete the day it's written is becoming increasingly difficult.

I have no real plans for New Year's Eve, other than to have another iteration of my CV so that it's ready to submit for some advertised contract vacancies on New Year's Day.

On the blogging front I intend to sort out my work-related blog first, if only because I'm way behind on stashing useful and essential work-releated links, an activity that needs to be accelerated given today's news that The Daily Grind (Larkware News) - a useful set of daily links for the .NET developer - is shutting down shop today. A new year's resolution is to make sure I update the work-related blog daily, with similar plans for this personal blog not likely to come to fruition until later in the year - in the meantime my Twitter 'tweets' (blog entries limited to 140 characters) are usually updated at least a couple of times a day.

Looking back, 2007 has been a good year after what was for me a very bleak year preceding it. Hopefully 2008 will be even better - for me, and for you, although I see Gordon Brown is already trying to spoil the party with warnings of doom and gloom.

Anyway, Gordon Brown aside, Happy New Year wherever and whoever you are (that doesn't apply to Christopher Lee or any of his family, obviously ;-))

P.S. Forgot to mention that I did a quick write-up on My Top 10 Shiny Discs of 2007 over on the rather excellent Filmstalker blog.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Carol/Lust, Caution

This week I've had two excellent evenings out: one at the theatre in Greenwich, the other at the cinema in Clapham. Both productions were what I would call "real highlights of 2007" in their respective fields. Alas, both were presented in venues that could have easily benefitted from more 'bums on seats', and it's kind of depressing that work of the sort of quality I've witnessed this week isn't proving more successful on a commercial level.

On Wednesday, I went to see A Christmas Carol at The Greenwich Playhouse. To be honest, it's a production I went to see more because it was an adaptation by my friend Brian Sibley, than because it was something I felt I really needed to see: Greenwich is not the most central location (although thankfully, the theatre is right next to the main station) and A Christmas Carol is hardly an unfamiliar piece, trotted out on TV, DVD and in the theatre every December (there are three theatrical productions in London alone this year I believe). My mistake, because as it turned out this excursion turned out to be a genuine highlight of my cultural excursions in 2007: the production is genuinely new, innovative, exciting, fast-paced, and really, really magical!

Brian has taken a very familiar story and given it a new spin by making Dickens himself an integral part of the play. There's an emphasis on the social problems of the times in new scenes that I haven't seen in other versions, and some scenes that are so moving that several audience members could be seen dabbing their eyes at certain times in the production. No matter how familiar you are with the story, you'll find something new here.

Christmas Carol - the flyer

The production itself is superb. The cast make excellent use of a small, but modern, space that gives an intimacy that just isn't there in West End productions. The staging, use of props, and use of puppets for the ghosts and the wonderful 'Tiny Tim' make this an incredibly complex production to perform, and I would imagine a complete nightmare to direct. And yet the small cast of eight manage complex changes and direction flawlessly, while all the time giving believable, real performances. The actors are all professionals, if not household names, and I can't remember a time where I saw a theatrical cast work so hard, or witnessed such a consistently high standard from every member of the cast. In short, it's a real family treat, and a 'must see' this Christmas.

The production runs until 6th January and tickets are a bargain at just £11 (£9 concessions) from the box office on 0208 858 9256. Do yourself a favour and go see it!

The audience I saw the play with were clearly as much in love with the production as I was, as apparently are the critics. But don't just take my word for it - check out the rave reviews and photo's that Brian's posted over on his blog.

Since he made that blog post more, equally enthusiastic, reviews have appeared in the local press. I sincerely hope that their enthusiasm for this production translates across into 'bums on seats' because it would be a shame if a production as good as this one didn't have a full house every night for the remainder of its run. More information can be found at

Last night I went to the Clapham Picture House to see a preview of Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution which was followed by a satellite screening of a live Q&A with the director. It was quite depressing to see a cinema that was less than a tenth full, for a film that won the Venice Film Festival Film of the Year, and has received nothing but praise from the critics.

I've liked most of Lee's films, from The Ice Storm, through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain, and even including the poorly received The Hulk movie he made, but Lust, Caution is, I think, his most polished film to date - perfect in nearly every way.

In the Q&A session Lee described the film as his most personal, and certainly it's his most explicit, with three sex scenes that, while short (although apparently taking twelve days to film), leave little to the imagination. These may put some potential audiences off but they are more than warranted I think in helping to convey the depth of emotion that needs to be conveyed if the rather unbelievable outcome from the book is to be in any way believable. It's not a short film, running at two and a half hours, but I found myself gripped throughout the entire running time.

In many ways Lust, Caution is like two films in one, with a central violent event forming the 'hinge' of the two. The first half is what the director called an 'overly dramatic' melodrama, concentrating on the story of a group of actors in pre-War Hong Kong putting together a naive plot to assasinate a traitorous politician who's colluding with the Japanese. The second half is more a 'film noir', complete with subtle, but nicely done, homages to Hitchcock. Lee talked about his deliberate usage of more desaturated colours and natural performances for the second half, obtaining incredibly subtle, nuanced performances from his cast in a story that moves on three years from the first half, with the same characters attempting to finish what they'd set out to do in the first half.

The ending is shocking in an 'obviously not a Hollywood movie' kind of way, but all the more powerful for all that, and I'm struggling to get the film out of my head the next day. In the Q&A session after the screening Lee talked about the fact that his last six films have all been 'tragedies' and that he really needs to get back to the genre he started with in Taiwan - comedy. When the 'tragedy' he produces is as good as Lust, Caution it would be a pity to see him move away from a genre that he's so adept at, and which has the power to move audiences so visibly. The film goes on general release in the UK in January and I strongly urge you to see it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Conversation with Philip Pullman

During one of the coffee breaks on the British Film Institute tour of the National Archive last Wednesday, a small group of us chatted about how often we go to the cinema. I repeated my oft-expressed view that with current home cinema equipment, timely shiny disc release dates, and the nightmare that is a trip to the cinema these days it was hard to justify any visits to the local fleapit. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old git (again!) a cinema trip these days seems to mean having to watch a film surrounded by ringing mobile phones, kids asking dumb questions at the top of their voices, and individuals noisly chomping on huge buckets of popcorn that could feed a family of twelve. Since when did a trip to the movies become a meal time for the whole family? Add in some truly appalling prints, poor projection systems and ridiculously inflated ticket prices and travel delays courtesy of London's transport system, why would anyone not just wait a few weeks for the DVD?

After my trip to see The Golden Compass yesterday (reviewed here on my Movie Review blog, I have a new irritant to add to the long list of why cinema trips can be a nightmare - false fire alarms causing disruption and long delays in getting in to see your film! OK, so maybe this isn't a common problem and I was unlucky, but when the one or two inexperienced staff in charge advise all and sundry that there will be a 40 minute delay and it would be best to come back later, only to then start the screening 15 minutes earlier than they've just advised, you can perhaps see why people end up getting very annoyed (not me on this occasion as I've learnt from experience never to trust what poorly paid staff tell you!)

One way some of the specialist cinema's are trying to lure audiences back is through offering their own version of DVD Extra's and my local cinema, the Clapham Picture House, has taken to offering not just a great membership scheme with the occasional free preview, but also a series of 'satellite' interviews and Q&A sessions with key figures tied in with a film screening.

Next Friday they're offering a preview screening of Ang Lee's latest film Lust, Caution, with satellite transmission of a Q&A with the director immediately afterwards. Given that the film doesn't go on general release here until next year, this is a screening I'm certainly interested in attending, especially at the bargain basement price of £8.50 all-in, even if it is a 45 minute walk each way to attend.

Earlier this afternoon I followed up on yesterday's viewing of The Golden Compass, with a satellite interview with Philip Pullman, the writer of the original book on which the film is based.

Personally, I think the cinema missed an opportunity in not bundling this in with a screening of the film itself, and the half-empty cinema seemed to indicate that maybe £5 to watch one hour of someone being interviewed by someone rather nervous and inexperienced in the role was a little on the expensive side, particularly given that a Hollywood film running twice as long could be had for about the same price. That being said, the satellite screening, which was broadcast to cinema's across the whole of the UK, shows initiative and it will be interesting to see how much more of this sort of event local cinema's offer to combat the threat from home entertainment systems.

The Conversation with Philip Pullman was an interesting affair, mainly because Pullman has no qualms with deflating pompous rhetoric or theories about his work. At one point the interviewer asked if it was true he had several times walked out of interviews when he thought the questions were bad. "I'm far too well brought up to have done that", came the reply, and indeed it proved, although Pullman did manage to demonstrate without any fuss that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and had no problems dismissing long, elaborate, pretentious theories about existential symbolism in his work, masquerading as questions with short, succint answers such as "I think that's complete tosh.". It proved to be an entertaining sixty minutes.

On the specifics of the film of the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy, the author made it quite clear that he is very happy with the film. When pushed and asked what he would have changed he could only think of two things: the final scene where he felt the conversation from Lydia is too long and should have been shortened, and that she and the bear should have shown more visible signs of what they'd just gone through by appearing more embattled, albeit determined and optimistic about the future; and a scene that was apparently shot but cut just after the witch appears to Lydia on the boat, in which her former lover appears and senses the witch's presence and talks of sensing 'a smell of the North'.

Most of the conversation centred around his writings, views on spirituality and philosophy, and perhaps most passionately his views on teaching (and the fact that the government have destroyed everything good about what teachers do with their insistence on 'measuring only things that can be measured, not the things that can't be measured and are actually more important' - he's not a fan of SATs!)

At one point the understandably nervous interviewer, having already delivered what seemed to be a 'gay rights' speech on the importance of Daniel Craig in speedo's retaining his inner child (WTF?!!), asked Pullman about the 10,000 girls who'd auditioned for the part of Lydia in the film before Dakota Blue Richards got the role. Unfortunately it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as he launched into patronising piffle about the importance of children following their dreams, at the end of which Pullman delivered the killer blow: "I doubt the 9,999 children who didn't get the role would necessarily agree with you". Brilliant stuff that was only spoilt by the interviewer suffering from a bout of hubris, trying to defend his position and persuade Pullman to agree that his point had been well made.

Pullman's honesty and refusal to kotow to the interviewer, while sometimes blunt to the point that some might consider rude, encouraged me to look out some of his work and read it. He freely admitted to 'borrowing' from a lot of sources, singling out a couple of scenes from The Magnificent Seven, apparently one of his all-time favourite films, which he'd 'borrowed' for his books.

The hour came to a rather abrupt halt before audience questions could really be asked, but one audience member wasn't going to leave without getting the answer to his question. 'What daemon would you have?' he shouted as the interviewer tried to wrap things up. Pullman's reply was short, sweet and to the point. 'A magpie', he responded, before adding by way of explanation, 'They steal things'.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tour of the BFI National Archives

I had a fantastic day today, taking a tour of the British Film Institute National Archives at Berkhamstead. The day was offered as one of the perks of having BFI Champion membership, but ordinary BFI members (it's cheap to join!) can also take the tour for a £25 fee, with the next tour due to take place in January, as detailed on the BFI web site in the Members area. More information about the archive can be found here. I highly recommend the tour if you have any interest at all in films and/or the restoration process that the BFI undertakes!

Eight of us had a fantastic tour that covered some of the memorabilia, films, posters, TV tapes and demonstrations of all the various stages of film and TV video preservation and restoration work that the British Film Institute undertakes. It was all very impressive, and we were even given lunch and a goodie bag as well!

I've posted my photo's as a Flickr slideshow (alas, I asked permission to take pictures AFTER we'd covered a couple of areas so some areas we were shown are not represented). Make sure you click on the photo (when an 'information' icon will appear) to see the description of what each photo is about. Unfortunately Flickr has chosen to display them in reverse order, so you can follow my tour backwards!