Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

The morning after a preview screening of Hellboy II: The Golden Army at the BFI Southbank I'm still trying to work out why I felt so let down by Guillermo del Toro's latest film. 'Disappointing' doesn't even begin to cover it.

Admittedly my humour wasn't helped by the fact that the ticket advertised by the BFI as being a preview that included a 'Q & A with the director' had no such thing (and of course no staff around to complain to - I'm guessing that since more than half the audience stayed to the end of the ridiculously long credits, I'm not the only one who got conned). What we DID get for the extra expense and trip to Southbank instead of our local fleapit was a self-congratulatory 30 second 'live' video introduction from the director who told us, rather presumptuously, that the film we were about to see was 'triple fucking A'.

Of course my expectations may have been too high, and my disenchantment with del Toro specifically may have set in with recent interviews and the way the fawning media are all over him as yet another 'flavour of the month saviour of cinema' director that the jibbering fan boys at Empire and the like suddenly seem to have fallen head-over-heels in love with (Tarantino didn't last long, did he?!).

The man who entertained with endless self-deprecating comments at Comic-Con several years ago, and indeed again at the NFT last year at the preview screening of Pan's Labyrinth seems to have turned into a sort of egomaniacal monster after all the oscar nomination hype, telling the world at every given opportunity how The Hobbit will be HIS fantastic vision and not Peter Jackson's - which may well be hilarious to watch from the sidelines (Jackson's real persona, by all accounts, is far more Machiavellian and controlling than the cuddly persona put on public view) but hardly augers well for the collaborative 'best of both worlds' originally promised.

The credit-claiming antics over The Orphanage didn't impress me either, although that may be the lazy media's fault rather than the rampant case of del Toro egotism it seems to be. Suffice to say that if I'd put my life blood and tears into directing such an excellent horror film, I'd be extremely pissed off at the number of column inches dedicated to praising del Toro (who was merely a producer on the film) as if it was all his work!

Those initial misgivings aside, I've loved del Toro's film work (although I thought Chronos rather over-rated) and although I don't think Hellboy is one of del Toro's best films (certainly not in the same league as Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone which are real masterpieces) it was a SUPERIOR popcorn flick for all that.

Alas, 15 minutes in to the sequel, which most critics are touting as being a better film than its under-performing predecessor, I couldn't fool myself any longer, and found myself thinking 'This is an incoherent mess. Why didn't they go back and do re-shoots or edit the damned thing properly'. When you need title cards every few minutes to explain the time and place as you keep jumping around all over the place something is seriously wrong with the structure of your film. And unfortunately rushed editing was just the start of the problems I had with Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Mabye I should get the good stuff out the way first as I know a lot of folks have high expectations for this new film. Let me say straight off that Hellboy II isn't a bad film: it's not as bad as any of the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix sequels or even anything in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise. It has more than a few enjoyable moments.

But it's just not a film that needs to be seen on a big screen, at least if last night's NFT screening was typical. The print used at the NFT was muddy, murky and over-processed and the aspect ratio hardly cinematic. These were criticisms I had of the same venue's preview of Pan's Labyrinth (which then turned out to be absolutely stunning when released on DVD) so hopefully the shiny disc will rectify these problems.

The new film is more true to the comics than the first one was - in that it's less mainstream, more quirky, and has a LOT more going on. I gather the budget wasn't high, but by God every penny they had must be up there on screen. Del Toro's imagination has run wild and there are endless wonderfully inventive creations and creatures in almost every frame of the picture.

But the whole thing is like a ridiculously over-egged pudding with its CGI puppets, endless effects and prosthetics in a story that has little depth or originality (the first 10 minutes come across as 'Lord of the Rings redux' - but instead of rings being split between races to stop a war we get bits of a crown) and just involves moving as quickly as possible from one showcase battle sequence to the next. The humour, so much a hallmark of the comic book, seems stagey and contrived and... rather weak. You can see each quip coming a mile away and too often the one or two good 'wise-crack' lines seem like they've been added with no thought as to where the characters are at the time and the situations they're in, but just shoved in anyway to get a quick laugh.

Most critics have pointed out the film's single real 'character development' moment - Hellboy and Abe bonding over a late night drinking session - as a highlight, but for me it stuck out like a sore thumb as being so different (and out of place) from the never-ending eye candy 'haven't we seen all this before, and wasn't it called Farscape the last time we saw it' aliens and effects sequences that it jarred - like a clip from a completely different film had suddenly been just slammed into the middle of proceedings.

The biggest sin of all though was Danny Elfman's totally generic, bombasic film score that seems to invade every single frame of the film. Like a bad episode of Doctor Who it's there all the time, drowning out dialogue, deafening you with its cliche's, leaving no room for subtlety or any kind of light and shade that might be required to mark this as 'a film rather than a fair ground ride'.

Maybe when I get a chance to re-appraise the film on DVD in a few months time I'll think better of it, and discover the charm that so many critics seem to be convinced is there. But for now it all feels like a case of 'Emporer's New Clothes' - a film let down by not just poor writing and a lack of coherence, but a woeful implementation by a director who's formerly delivered films to such a high standard. Too often there are glimpses of what the film MIGHT have been if a bit more care and attention (and time?) had been lavished on it, but in its current form it smacks of being a 'rush job'. And whilst 'rush job' might be acceptable to the mindset that liked the recent Pirates and Indiana Jones movies, del Toro's past efforts have meant I expected so much more than what's been delivered here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Experimenting with Time Lapse

Despite the hot, muggy weather - and it being Summer and all - I managed to catch a cold from a colleague at work last week and on Friday felt so ill that although I made it into the office, half an hour later I set off back home for a hot bath, Lemsip and bed. Not good for the cashflow, but what can you do?!

Alas, the cold seems to have totally messed up my sleep patterns, which are sporadic at the best of times, such that at 4am this morning I was still wide awake, not feeling at all sleepy.

So I decided I might as well just get up and head off to South Bank and try and film the dawn, using the time lapse feature on my Sony PMW-EX1 camera.

Alas, it may have been warm and muggy when I left the flat at around 4.15am, decked out only in a thin t-shirt, shorts and sandals, but by 5.30am it was distinctly cold, and by 6am it was raining that annoying thin drizzle that we only seem to get here in the UK. Net result is that it was pretty much the worst thing I could have done, most certainly hasn't helped my cold recovery time, and the rest of the day is going to be pretty much a write-off as I try and catch up on sleep.

Cold and wet I had to give up on the filming, since it was clear the sun was never going to come out, but here are a couple of scenes I shot (just over a minute - nothing too time-consuming to watch) that show the 'time lapse' feature I'm talking about:

Time lapse is rather more difficult than I'd anticipated. I haven't found any way to lengthen the interval time so it takes less than one frame a second (although I guess I could use the 'stop animation' feature for that if need be) and you have to do some funky stuff with the shutter settings to 'smooth out' movement that would otherwise be so jerky it's really unwatchable. However this shutter adjustment makes using the LCD to line things up extremely difficult as suddenly it's like having a display that responds to movement etc 12 seconds after it's happened, and then displays only a streaky image to help.

Alas, there's a couple of nasty changes in the exposure about half to two-thirds of the way into the clip above because the 'zebra' function on the camera which warns about over-exposure was suddenly going crazy as the light started to increase. I over-reacted and adjusted the aperture setting when really I think I'd have got away with just leaving things as they were.

Anyway, it was an interesting exercise, and I'll be going back to try it again when the weather's a bit less inclement. I must say I LOVE using this camera - almost as much as I love editing and playing around with video. So, despite being cold and wet it was nice to have the chance to use the camera for something other than just filming user group talks, which don't really lend themselves to a lot of creativity.

What surprised me most about my little excursion this morning was the number of people walking around at that time of a morning. It seems that Vauxhall is full of gay people heading out TO (not from!) nightclubs at around 4.30am on a Sunday!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

The alarm bells started to ring the week before The Dark Knight opened here in the UK (officially on Friday, but with previews available pretty much everywhere on the preceding Thursday night), thanks mainly to the fact the film had opened in the States to an unbelievable amount of hype a week earlier.

I'm always suspicious when films get the best rating ever on imdb, start appearing at the top of bloggers' "Top 10 Films of the Year so far" lists, have the media calling for oscar awards, and fans boasting of having seen the film three or four times - all within just hours of the thing officially opening. Such ridiculous knee-jerk reaction, without proper time for reflection and comparison with some truly great movies over the last century, has invariably in the past lead to a set of expectations that can only realistically end in disappointment when one finally gets to see what all the fuss is about.

The Dark Knight is a film I've been waiting a long time to see, for a couple of reasons. One: Chris Nolan hasn't made a bad film yet (Insomnia is probably his weakest, but even that was extremely watchable) and his Memento still remains one of my favourite films of all time. Two: Heath Ledger has always shone as a chameleon-like actor (my favourite type) in everything he's done, even when the film he's appearing in has been pretty disappointing (Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm anyone?). Check out Monster's Ball, Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot (as well as the afore-mentioned Brothers Grimm) for examples of what I mean.

Of course in saying this I risk looking like one of those morbid idiots who are suddenly calling for an oscar for Ledger, based solely on some sort of Princess Diana-like overly sentimental obsession with death. Or like the sort of people who can ignore real talent in great films for years and years until the second they appear in a major mainstream blockbuster, when they suddenly think they've discovered a 'new' talent that's actually been around doing great work for years. Why IS it that people too lazy to bother go and see anything other than big budget movies at their local cinema multi-plex seem to think they're experts on discovering 'new' talent?! In my defence I'd like to point out that if you check back through previous blog entries you'll see I've been enthusing about Ledger (and his co-star in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale) since quite some time before pre-production work even commenced on The Dark Knight.

But (as ever!) I'm veering into off-topic rant mode. What I'm trying to say here is that with all the hype I was prepared to be hugely disappointed with the second film in the rejuvenated Batman franchise that's been co-written and directed by Nolan.

Admittedly the film has flaws. So let's get those out the way first. There's some silly, totally unrealistic gadget gimmick McGuffins that are completely unnecessary - the most ridiculous being a video wall that uses sonar to pinpoint someone anywhere in the city by their voice! There's a lack of emotional depth meaning there's no real viewer involvement or sympathy for any of the main characters which makes it hard to care whether or not one of them dies. There are a couple of rather bad edits and plot jumps that indicate this was originally a 4 hour movie that had to be drastically edited down even to make a two and a half hour cut. And I should add that a major weakness in my first viewing was the fact that although the IMAX hi-def presentation is exemplary, this is only true if you're not unfortunate enough to be sat in the first few rows where it's impossible to take in the whole frame, and one is at such an extreme angle you're likely to spend a great deal of the film's running time feeling nauseous. By all means go and see it at an IMAX for the best experience - but NOT if you're stuck with a seat in the first few rows!

But those minor criticisms I mentioned really are minor in the grand scheme of things, and the truth is I loved the film. So much so that I'm rather keen to go and see it a second time to catch the subtleties I missed on the first viewing. So much so that yup, at the moment this is at the top of my 'Best films I've seen this year' list. Bizarrely, the two and a half hour running time (which would usually have me running a mile with moans about 'self-indulgent directors who need to learn to edit') flew by, such that I was kind of disappointed when the film ended and didn't have another half hour or so to go.

Quite simply, the film has a depth and intricacy - and intelligence - that is quite astonishing for a big Summer blockbuster movie from Hollywood. And, those minor criticisms aside, it's pretty flawlessly executed, with great pacing, stunning cinematography, skillful editing and cast performances to die for.

I liked Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's first take on the Batman franchise, but The Dark Knight is on a whole different level. Many are saying that it will be impossible for Nolan to make a better Batman film, and seem to be hoping he'll refuse to make a third on the basis that you should quit while you're ahead, and although I can see what people mean, I'd still like to see him try and top this one. When a director's best is this good, even his mediocre films are going to be worth seeing.

The obsession with Ledger's death means that certain critics are rushing to distance themselves from the gushing 'He should get an oscar' reports appearing on a daily basis at the moment. 'Christian Bale is the real performer here', says one critic. 'No! Aaroon Echkart is the ignored oscar contender' says another, 'his performance isn't a one-note pantomime trick like Ledger's and is far more subtle'.

I beg to differ! As Gary Oldman (who, incidentally, is the second best thing in the film, in another performance that deserves a 'Best Supporting Actor Role' nomination) repeatedly points out in promotional interviews, Ledger has created a truly astonishing and original take on a villain that will stand the test of time, and be remembered for years to come. It's an iconic performance of an iconic role. Just one example: there's a scene where Ledger's Joker approaches Bruce Wayne's love interest, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and somehow manages to convey pure male violence and aggression while on the surface playing it lightly as he playfully curls his hair effeminately behind his ears. It's a performance that alternately has you celebrating the pure joy of the maverick, while at the same time feeling an icy chill down the back of your spine.

Bale, so enigmatic in other films, seems to be coasting here and there's nothing really memorable about his performance - other than the silly fake voice adopted for when he's in costume, which just doesn't work and takes the film out of its neo-realistic take on the comic book character. Eckhart is fine, but he's really just playing the same character we've already seen in most of his films, and I never really bought into his 'so madly in love it drives him to insanity' relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal's character.

Ledger, on the other hand, is totally mesmerising. A frison of anticipation and excitement enters the cinema every time he appears on screen, and he's reinvented The Joker character to an extent that even the very strong 'nobody will beat that' precedents set by Cesar Romero (in the 60's TV series) and Jack Nicholson (in the earlier films) are instantly forgotten.

This is one film that, for me, lived up to the hype. And it has sufficent plot and depth that I suspect I'm going to see it a second time at a cinema rather than wait for the shiny disc. Some argue that Nolan, as director and co-writer, has over-egged the pudding with too many strands, complexities and far-too-clever moral diversions that compare with the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Personally, I happen to like over-egged pudding in an industry that far too often seem to rely on dumb, formulaic content-free 3D software showcases. And the fact that such an intelligent, well constructed and well performed film has just won itself a 'best opening weekend ever' accolade, along with plaudits from critics and public alike is a cause for celebration.

Go see it if you haven't already. Even if comic book movies just aren't your thing. Just one word of warning: this is, as the title implies, a very dark film, and despite the comic book connotations is NOT suitable for children.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mad Men

At the risk of becoming a bore on the subject, I keep being impressed by the quality (of the writing, acting, cinematography and writing values) of so many good American drama series, whilst dumbfounded at the endless critical praise heaped on the garbage that makes for drama series given peak viewing slots on British TV. The last gasps of Russel T Davies reign on the BBC's Doctor Who, which aired his season finale on Saturday, show just how dire a situation we're in. The last two episodes of this British award-winning series weren't just bad, they were dire. Actually make that diarrhoeia. Ask a six year old to write fan fiction and you'd get better results than the garbage that was put out as peak time viewing on the BBC last night.

What makes me so angry is that the Beeb are so busy pushing their tawdry tat as 'event TV', with constant updates on their news pages about what's happening and how everyone's tuning in, and the script's a secret etc etc that even the tabloids are all rushing to join in. Seemingly the need to cash-in on merchandising from the mindless masses who just follow what they keep being told to follow means that the real dramatic gems get consigned to the graveyard slots on BBC2 with not even the merest hint of promotion or advertising.

The BBC royally screwed up Rome, a series they'd invested millions of license payers money in, by doing what no other country did when showing the series - condensing the first two episodes of the series down into a single episode, cutting so much out in the process that what aired made no dramatic or cohesive sense. That they did so without telling anyone, presumably hoping nobody would notice in an attempt to make it fit between a couple of the cheap reality shows they'd rather be making, only adds to the general incompetence that seems to reside in the corporation's drama department. It was left to the episode's director, Michael Apted, to apologise profusely for what had been done behind his back, making it clear that he washed his hands of what aired in the UK as being in any way representative of what he'd filmed as director.

The BBC even manged to kill ratings winners like The X Files by introducing constantly changing schedules and time-slots that made it impossible to work out when the next episode might air, and on which channel.

They did the same, only worse, to The West Wing which never got off the ground despite rave reviews, because nobody could ever figure out what night and at what time the next episode might be on.

And now they've done it again. This time to Mad Men, the first season of which I caught a brief 10 minutes of by accident around midnight on BBC2 a few weeks ago just because I couldn't sleep and was channel flicking. I was so intrigued by what little I caught I imported the (thankfully region free) Blu-Ray disc of Season 1 from MovieTyme for just £22 (OK, £21.99 if you want to be precise). The show tells the story of ambitious, thriving ad men in Manhattan in the 1960's and is that rare thing - a subtle work of beauty, that's also thrillingly addictive.

It has more than lived up to my hopes. The writing is excellent, the cast are superb and the production values are exemplary - from the exquisite Saul Bass -homage opening titles, to the beautifully lit period detail in every scene. It exudes the sort of class and quality the BBC used to be famous for before it got obsessed with merchandising and producing infantile nonsense like Toshwood or endless free adverts for the two millionaires responsible for most West End musicals.

Thankfully, Mad Men has just been released on bog-standard DVD here in the UK and sells for £25 - a bargain thirteen 50 minute episodes of this quality - but, in yet another example of the great British rip-off, includes as extra's (if Empire magazine's reviews section is to be believed) just 3 commentary tracks and a couple of short extra's that deal with the music for the series and what advertising in the 60's was like. There is no hi-def release in Britian.

But my US imported hi-def release, paid for in British pounds and shipped to me from a British address, cost me £21.99. So, for £3 less than the official British 'standard definition - there's no other choice' release you can buy the hi-def version on Blu-Ray and get not just a far better picture that show the high production values the show has, but also had additional material. How much additional material? How about TWO commentary tracks PER EPISODE instead of three commentary tracks sperad across all thirteen episodes? Or a documentary on the making of the series itself?

Why would anyone with internet access buy the British release?! Come to that, why would the British release not only cut out so much additional material but then have the temerity to charge us a higher price? I think we all know the answer to that: it's just business as usual for the British distribution companies.

Things are so bad that I'm seriously considering purchasing an American Blu-Ray player to play the titles I want that AREN'T region free (basically everything from Fox, including shows like Lost which aren't available in hi-def formats in the UK). We get ripped off in so many ways - a big mark up in price for significantly less. How do they get away with it? There really is no excuse.

Empire gave Mad Men four stars by the way, which is a high mark for them, and I'd agree with that rating. But if you're going to check it out please buy American and don't encourage the UK industry which insists on ripping us off so much.

I heard over the weekend that another superb US drama series, Dexter, which kicks off its second season on a channel I don't have access to (FX) TONIGHT, is going to eventually surface on ITV. No doubt that will follow the fate of other quality drama over at the BBC and end up being aired too late for anybody to be able to watch it.

Still there was a little glimmer of hope for those interested in improving the quality of widely viewed British drama this week. In a Q & A session on the BBC web site hack writer Russel T Davies said that when he left Doctor Who at the end of the five specials next year he would never write for it again! Hoorah!

I hope and pray the BBC got that promise in writing! It's sad, especially as I loved his Queer As Folk scripts, but Davies' Doctor Who scripts have been the most inane, infantile, plot-hole filled, ex-deus machine ending filled garbage masquerading as drama that I've seen fill our screens in a long, long time. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's good riddance, thank God you're going, and please Mr BBC commisioner don't let him anywhere near sci-fi ever again if his work on Who is an example of all he can do.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

It may get a bit quiet around here!

I've wasted pretty much all of Saturday morning taking part in a senseless 'debate' (ie heated argument) with people on an online forum. Will I never learn?!

The 'debate' was about an American company's pricing policy. The company are continually promoting 'discounted' prices that have a limited time on them, with such gems as 'special price - ends tonight'. The trouble is that those 'special' prices almost invariably change to a new, even lower price just days later, which tends to annoy newbies unfamiliar with the way the company works its strong-arm sales tactics who've purchased the items thinking they've got a bargain, only to find it bettered days later.

Understandably, people get annoyed that before they've even taken delivery of their goods the 'special' price has turned out to be not so special as if they'd waited a day or two and ignored the so-called 'special' deadline that was advertised. This happens so often that the controversial subject of 'unfair business practices' or 'rip offs' tends to crop up fairly frequently on the company's forums. What's odd though is that this particular company has a small number of loyal, but extremely vocal, fan boys who moan endlessly about how often the subject comes up. This might be acceptable if that small minority didn't continually fan the flames themselves, by mercilessly bullying anyone stupid enough to show even a hint of disapproval about the company's practices. What usually happens is the poor naive newbie pointing out the obvious unfairness of the company's sales approach gets such verbal abuse that he invariably beats a hasty retreat, usually never to be seen again.

Today's 'debate' got more heated than normal because it centred around the fact that a week ago the company boasted a launch price that was "never" (their word) to be repeated, only to, as usual, then advertise a better deal just a few days later. Understandably, this upset a few folk who'd purchased before the "never to be repeated" better deal came into effect, with the salt in the wound being that they were still waiting for delivery of the items advertised under the older deal. I foolishly leapt into the debate when I felt the usual forum's fanboy minority were yet again bullying someone who had a legitimate complaint.

The counter-arguments put forward can best be summarised as 'The company products are so good nobody cares about the pricing. I'd sell my house, wife and kids to buy these products even if the day after I'd bought them I found they were being given away free to any newcomers. So why is anybody else complaining?'. OK, I exaggerate a little for effect, but you get the general drift.

The folks who've wasted so much of my time this morning don't seem to appreciate that the argument is about business ethics and 'truth in advertising' and not about the value for money of certain products in certain price ranges. Suggestions that they look up the word 'never' in a dictionary and then consult the guidelines of The Advertising Standards Authority to see why something's not just unfair but (at least in the UK) just plain wrong, are invariably met with intelligent, reasoned responses like 'You're always complaining. Why don't you leave?'. Fortunately I've had the good sense to exit the 'discussion' before the inevitable word 'whinger' raised its ugly head, which at least means my Saturday afternoon won't be a complete write-off too.

Generally, criticisms that I'm a 'frequent complainer' or a 'whinger' are just water off a duck's back. Especially when those making the calls (Microsoft evangelists on salaries take note!) have vested interests, or who demonstrate time and time again all they're interested in is point scoring rather than a fair and objective view. And there's a reason why this blog is called 'Irascible Ian' after all!

But the wasted time and energy in dealing with the negativity that radiates from idiots is getting to me so much today that I've decided it's time to take some good advice: 'If you've not got anything nice to say about somebody don't say anything at all'.

Well at least for the next few weeks anyway! Old habits die hard ;-)

Which is why there's no review of The Incredible Hulk in this blog entry, which I was lucky enough to see a preview of on Monday (lucky in the sense I didn't have to pay money for it). And why there isn't a lengthy discourse on how great the new Narnia film Prince Caspian is. Or even The Happening.

Heh! Look at the time I've reclaimed by not having to write about those things under this 'nice things only' policy!

The danger of course is that this blog might just disappear completely if all the negative stuff gets taken out.

Fortunately there's last week's Doctor Who, which was so well written and filmed, that I feel I can actually mention it here on this blog with a sense of enthusiasm and respect. It was the second of a two-parter by Stephen Moffat, whose episodes over the last four years have easily been the stand-out ones of the series.

Apparently the next few episodes - including tonight's - are written by Russel T Davies. I won't be watching. I'll be going to The Magic Circle instead. That way there's a chance I'll have something to write under the new policy on this blog tomorrow!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Another "Catch up" Post

My blogs have all suffered as I've wasted one weekend after another trying to get Shiny Discs properly launched. It's now 'on hold' until I can afford decent hardware to ensure I don't spend two days producing a weekend show, only to then find it needs a week to edit in titles and then render them out.

I may revive the old DVD reviews in the absence of the weekly video podcast if I haven't got things sorted by the middle of July, but in the meantime here's a few quick thoughts on titles I've seen recently.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (on Blu-Ray) - not as bad as the critics have said it is. Formulaic and a bit pedestrian perhaps but I was never bored and this is worth seeing just for the incredible London car chase scenes. Nic Cage isn't my idea of someone who makes for a good leading man (although his sidekick in this film, Justin Bartha does, with quirky humour, some great lines and traditional good looks what's not to like?!) Helen Mirren joins the 'franchise' and it's good, if somewhat old-fashioned and extremely silly, Saturday teatime popcorn fare.

My Kid Could Paint That is a fascinating documentary on DVD about a four year old child hailed as an artistic prodigy. But as the story unfolds suspicions arise that it may be the girl's father who's actually doing the painting. The film and to an even greater extent the extra's show how scarily able human beings are to totally delude themselves to justify their decisions, even when the evidence is right in front of their eyes. One of the most enjoyable documentaries I've seen in a long time.

The Savages on DVD was a disappointment for me, despite starring the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. All the best bits are in the trailer, and the film loses its way by not sticking to the main story that starts the film - that of two siblings forced to face dealing with a father who develops dementia. His predicament pretty soon gets dropped as the story moves all over the place trying to show the two childish siblings finally reaching adulthood. I'd expected more laughs and more of a single-strand story than I got with this one.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead on Blu-Ray was a real joy for me. Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman give incredible acting performances in this story of two brothers who set up a bank robbery on their parent's jewellery store to sort out their financial problems, only for things to go horribly, horriby wrong. It's the 84-year old director, Sidney Lumet who's the real star of this film though - he brings a fresh, exhuberant energy to the direction that totally belies his age.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on DVD has won a lot of festival awards. I was worried the bleak subject matter (abortion in 1980's Romania) would mean this would end up like the last Romanian DVD I saw (The Death of Mr Lazarescu - ejected after a long hour that made the prospect of watching paint dry for a week seem exciting). But I was gripped throughout, and it's a very well made, powerful film.

I've also been catching up on some TV by way of DVD box sets.

24 Season 6 is just turgid and I gave up on it about 2/3 the way in. Repetitive, unbelievable and just plain dull this is by far the worst series of the show so far. Previous series have had me hooked from start to finish. Not this one! Did the regular writers leave or something?

Dirt was also disappointing given the generally enthusiastic cricial reviews. Admittedly Courteney Cox gives an impressive performance, but the show is so obviously trying to shock with its endless sex scenes and drug-fuelled storylines, I got very irritated with it very quickly. It's like someone tried to steal all the best bits from the likes of Six Feet Under, Nip/Tuck and Ugly Betty, but forgot that you need more than just 'quirky' to make it addictive viewing. There isn't a single remotely likeable character in it and the whole thing comes across as a 'we've got a deadline - write something' rather third rate soap opera. Not terrible, but not great either!

The big surprise has been Skins on DVD (Series 1 and 2). The trailers on Channel 4 put me right off watching this when originally broadcast, and the tagline 'From the makers of Shameless' did nothing to dissuade me that this was the sort of rubbish that lay at the root of London stabbings, yobby, foul-mouthed youth and endless reality TV rubbish. Truth is I have zero interest in drug-addicted, sex-obsessed teenagers. Or so I thought. But the series is great because it has real fleshed-out characters that you find yourself sympathising with. The series has great writing, with wonderful laugh-out-loud moments mixed with 'Reach for the Kleenex' tragedy, and a cast able to deliver on the writing. I now understand why the show is so popular with the young folk. It's well worth renting out if you missed it on TV.

On the big screen yesterday I went to a preview of Narnia: Prince Caspian which hits cinema's on June 24th. Of the four of us who went I think I was the only one who actually thought it was rather good. I didn't like the first 'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' film, finding the acting, particularly from the children, very poor, the direction lackadaisical, and the pacing tedious in the extreme. It was a kid's film, pure and simple. The new film is definitely more of an adult's one, although it's become one by emulating (or trying to) 'Lord of the Rings'. As a result the original book by C.S. Lewis has been pretty much lost, with lots of silly new stuff added (jealous rivalry between the two elder boys, a love affair between Caspian and the eldest girl, an invented battle in the thin second act etc.). The film is MUCH too long at 2 hours and 25 minutes, but the effects are consistently good throughout and much better than those in the Harry Potter franchise. But I went in with pretty low expectations which may be why I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Certainly I'd agree with most of the early reviews that suggest there's nothing original that we haven't seen before in the film.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Video editing - knowing when to give up!

I seem to have spent most evenings and weekends of the last few months sat at a computer, waiting. Waiting for the computer to do something that should take seconds but, inexplicably, starts taking hours.

For the last few weekends and a few Bank Holidays too I seem to have survived on just a few hours sleep, trying to get a slickly designed and produced video podcast ready for the web. Only to find I run out of time, have to throw away all the hard work done over the previous week (because each week the material becomes out of date), hit the 'reset' button and go through the whole wretched process again a week later.

Signs that things were not going to be as straightforward as promised by the hardware and software manufacturers who'd sold me high priced equipment surfaced pretty early on, with basic camera usage.

Sony's PMW-EX1 camera is an amazing camera for the (not inconsiderable) price of over UKP4000. The high def picture quality and level of control available is amazing. But the build quality is worse than that of a very cheap Christmas Cracker toy. Sony just love deliberately building in obsolescence - and as I look at a broken PC, several broken DAT players, a broken portable CD player and a broken digital video recorder, it seems to me that this is deliberate policy on ALL their products.

The PMW-EX1 is a hi-def camera that has numerous fiddly controls designed for fingers the size of matchsticks, with much needed lettering that flakes off within weeks of being used. It features an on-camera microphone holder which snaps off just by having a piece of camera bag material brush against the attached microphone.

The video forums are full of early owners disappointed at the frankly shit quality of what Sony have done in several areas, when the camera is so beautifully well designed in others.

What I find really bizarre is that whenever somebody rushes in to complain about any of the problems a horde of Rottweiler-like fan boys rush in to say 'What do you expect for the price? The picture quality is great. Who cares about the ergonomics or the build quality?'. I don't know why these 'fan boy' owners don't just walk around wearing 'Please rip me off. I'll never complain because that would mean admitting I made a mistake in my purchase' t-shirts. The reason we get such shoddy products is that people just seem happy to accept third-rate products that don't deliver on the promises made in the sales material.

My second 'learning curve' came with buying some animated backgrounds from Digital Juice. I should state upfront that I like Digital Juice a lot. They make great products, at ridiculously affordable prices, and have a customer service department second to none. But they also have this annoying practice of changing their prices on an almost daily basis. However, I guess that's a subject for another day. My frustrations with their product started with finding approximately half the DVD volumes I purchased from them - which should just load within seconds - would sit cranking away, locking up my whole computer for over 8 hours at a time, before finally giving up without installing the required video collateral!

Endless experiments and to- and fro-ing eventually pointed to my DVD drive being the problem, despite it having had no problems with numerous Microsoft software installation discs from MSDN. This is the 'fitted drive' that came with a top-of-the-range laptop that cost just under UKP4000! Digital Juice suggested getting new drivers but there are none available. What is available, if you do an internet search, is a lot of owners of the same drive complaining about lack of decent drivers and the way the drive keeps 'disappearing' from Vista on reboot. Unfortunately, this being a 'fitted' Dell PC, there is no simple alternative to replace it with.

I had thought I might be able to use an external Blu-Ray drive to load the discs instead - another expensive piece of equipment. But no, that drive too fails to read discs that other drives have no problem with! Shouldn't this shit just work? Are DVD formats a standard specification or not? Why am I wasting hour upon hour just trying to get basic functionality I foolishly assume I've paid for to work?

The next problem is that despite having 4GB RAM on my PC, video editing is too slow to be practical. Available disk space is part of the problem, so last week I bought a 2TB external RAID drive from Western Digital. If you're tempted, as I was, by their My Book Premium Edition II range that proudly boasts it's suitable for hi-def video, please do an internet search to find out how many angry owners all trying (and failing) to get their money back on this product there are!

Problems were obvious from the get-go. The drivers didn't auto-install as the flimsy one sheet instructions supplied with the drive had said they would. Not a biggie - I installed them manually. The drive then became visible in Windows Explorer and I could use the 2TB drive (actually two 1TB drives RAIDED together) to read/write to. But the supplied RAID manager, necessary to switch between RAID 0 and RAID 1 configurations, just keeps saying "no device found" despite the fact the drive is happily there, visible AND usable. A quick search via Google revealed no solution - just a LOT of unhappy customers complaining about what an awful product it was, and how customer support was non-existent. Some owners are still trying to get Western Digital to fix their problems more than a year after purchase!

Last night, after working crazy hours for two days on filming, DVD reviewing, script editing and collating assets I started to try and put the final touches together for a video podcast I wanted to launch last night (with another show to follow this morning). Using the Western Digital drive to hold assets introduced an interesting performance issue. Hit any key in the video editor and the PC would lock up for 10 minutes with the Western Digital drive flashing to say it was doing something, but I've no idea what. Want to split a piece of video to insert something? Wait 10 minutes. Want to back up a frame to line up a transition? Wait 10 minutes. After 6 hours I realised that my four minute video would require a week of working 18 hour days to get ready with this hardware. Hardware sold as 'suitable for use with hi-def video' I hasten to add.

I've had enough! Video podcasting plans are on hold until I can afford the 8 or 9 grand that seems necessary to purchase a turnkey solution suitable for video editing. A turnkey solution that has proper backup and support and NOT the sort I've had from Sony, Western Digital and Dell over the last few months! The time I can afford that sort of money to get something that will actually do what it says on the tin seems some long way off, but in the meantime if you've found a good packaged hardware solution, ideally one that's PC-based since I've spent a fortune in time and money in learning Sony's Vegas Pro package, please let me know.

In the meantime, I'm just going to look forward to a few free evenings, some decent sleep, and casual weekends for a change! The world of video editing makes the world of flakey Microsoft beta software and continual patches seem professional by comparison!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I'd better not give up the day job!

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Single Camera Documentary Film Making Course I went on for a bit of fun, and wrote how I felt the whole thing was a poorly given rip-off. I think there's a lot of these sorts of rip-offs aimed at 'wannabe' film-makers and producers, often aimed at gullible newbies who think it might give them some sort of magic pass into the film-making industry.

After that experience I'm kind of relieved to be able to give a much more positive account (or, given the name of the company behind the course, I should say Pozitiv account) of the one day TV Presenter's Course that I went on as a way to 'celebrate' my 51st birthday on Tuesday.

No, I don't have any aspirations to go and work as a TV presenter (which is just as well, as I'm rubbish at it), but I did want to try and improve my 'on camera' apparances for my weekly video podcast over at

I should say upfront that the course isn't cheap, but then quality rarely is, and the glowing references from a ton of reliable sources (like The BBC and The Guardian) together with a long list of former clients whose names I recognised 'from the telly' meant I thought this was probably the best course to go for. The fact that the next available course coincided with my birthday and had one space available (out of just six available places per course) acted as a beacon that said 'You're destined to do this'.

And I'm really glad I did, even though, as I'd initially suspected, the course didn't transform me into the great presenter I'd like to think is hidden inside me. The main thing is it was a LOT of fun, and I was really impressed with the attention to detail from the company behind it, which extended to delivering me a birthday cake with candles on half way through the afternoon viewing session :)

My experience all through the pre-booking and final course assessment with this company was never less than professional and customer-focussed. Which is a pretty rare thing these days, in my experience. Frankly it's a relief to be able to post something good about a company, after all my experiences of late!

The schedule for the course was really scary, particularly when you realise that most of us attending had no prior experience of being in front of a camera or in a TV studio. The company send out an information pack a week or two ahead of time and you have to choose (or write and send in) an autocue script for one exercise, and make sure you have learnt another piece ready for a 'live broadcast' exercise on the day of the course itself.

What impressed me about the course was that I felt it was very 'real world', where another company would probably have made the exercises much easier and more 'mickey mouse', if only to make the students feel good about themselves. They warned us ahead of time that there might be some 'surprises' (ie spanners in the works!) instead of just simple exercises we'd been initially prepped for, and so it proved to be, which I think is much more typical of what happens in the real world.

For example the first exercise - apparently the one most students have trouble with - was a rather scary 'talk about yourself to camera' piece which you had two cracks at, with tuition between the two attempts after some initial training about what to do, and the various floor manager signals you would get. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that you didn't know how long you were going to have to talk for until just before the recording started.

Next up was a scripted autocue piece against green screen, with the idea again being to have two takes. What really impressed me here, given that this was the piece most relevant to what I was looking to do in video podcasting, was that the instructor took the time to give me advice and then do as many takes as were needed. I think I ended up with something like six takes when all was done, with new advice between each, and although it meant we started running a bit late (and the other students were propably really annoyed with me) it was typical of the personal attention I think we all got at different points throughout the day. A lazy instructor would have just left things as they were after the second take.

The course instructors had pre-prepped things to the extent that whatever subject a student chose they had a choice of three different 'green screen replacement' backdrops for each of us to choose from that were all specifically relevant to the subject we'd chosen. For most of the people on the course these exercises were going to be part of a 'show reel' they used to try and get work, and it was good to see them trying to personalise things very specifically to the student's choice.

Next up was the 'outside broadcast', conveniently filmed on the green outside The Houses of Parliament, just opposit the studios where the course is held (and also used by the BBC and ITV). Here we each had to deliver a prepared script, but without autocue (although clipboards were allowed). The other students all said they were most looking forward to this, but I was dreading it the most because I'm hopeless at learning stuff by rote. I find that appearing 'natural' whilst struggling to remember whole sentences with key facts is incredibly difficult! I ended up needing four takes to get it just about right, but the funny thing was that it turned out everyone else had problems too, and the initial confidence of the other students soon evaporated as some of the 'live broadcasts' descended into four letter word expletives or people just freezing up as they experience the sort of 'brain fart' I am all too familiar with.

Again, the director and crew gave nearly all of us three or four takes rather than the promised two to get us to continually improve and learn new techniques for coping. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that we had to deliver the broadcast not standing still, but while walking with a very wide-angle camera seemingly just inches from our faces. Apparently I was chasing the cameraman rather than just walking naturally allowing him to follow me! Even worse, my idea of walking in a straight line while delivering a piece to camera from memory is to apparently zig-zag all over the place, which can be particularly 'challenging' for the cameraman given the number of other professional crews gathered in that very small park who tend to be there interviewing MPs pretty much all day long!

The final exercise of the day - the big one - was two takes of a 'magazine' programme, with each take recorded back to back almost immediately after each other. This exercise had all kinds of distractions: multiple camera's, autocue scripts we'd not really seen before, constant director instructions through an earpiece, and an unscripted but rigorously timed interview. The fear in the air was palpable!

The first take was to involve just a 90 second guest interview slotted into the middle of the programme, the second take was with a different guest for that section, but with the interview expanded out to 3 minutes.

I was constantly surprised at how people could contradict your assumptions about what they'd be like when in front of a camera. Carl, an ex-radio DJ from Manchester station Galaxy FM, who I chose to interview for my magazine section, had looked really terrified just before his first take of the magazine program (he was first on, and I was his first guest) but as the opening music cued it was like a switch went on and he transformed himself brilliantly.

Another chap, who was a real extrovert and 'character' when with the group, was someone we all thought would be great 'on camera', but when the camera started rolling he became rather dull and static (just like me).

The only disasterous take of the day (on previous courses some people have apparently frozen completely or ended up in tears as the pressure has built up) was my first take of the magazine programme! In the morning the autocue had been close enough for me to read without having to wear glasses (which I usually avoid for anything other than driving). As we started recording the magazine section I realised (too late) that the camera was further away and all I could see of my autocue script were some very fuzzy words which I often mistook, somewhat hilariously, for completely different words! It was an incoherent rambling mess, and the whole thing was not improved by the fact I thought I'd heard the director give me a '10 second - wrap it up' warning when he hadn't, so that I finished up having to fill 10 seconds of dead time before the end credits. Nobody - but nobody! - is ever going to get to see that footage I can tell you!

Fortunately a hastily grabbed pair of glasses (thanks Jo!) meant my second attempt wasn't quite so bad. You can see for yourself how it turned out in the video below. It was only when watching the DVD/VHS tape that the organisers give you at the end of the course, that I realised I had got the guest's surname wrong in my introduction! Oh, the horror! Admittedly, it's not very good, but I include the segment here so you can get more of a feel for what the exercises on the course were like (and watch me squirm!)

By the way, if you think the studio looks familiar that's because it's the one used for The Frost Report and, like most TV studios, looks so much better on camera than it does 'in the flesh' where the couch seemed really grubby and worn! Apparently Sarah Jessica Parker had sat where I was sitting just the day before - a fact which seemed to excite some of my fellow students!

All-in-all, I thought the course was excellent and made for a really fun, if totally exhausting, day. Although I'm clearly never going to be very good at this sort of stuff, I thought I was given some excellent advice and tips throughout the day - I just didn't seem able to personally deliver on too many of them.

Anyway, if you have any aspiration in this direction yourself, or just want a fun day doing something completely different, I highly recommend this course (apparently a big favourite with Big Brother contestants when they leave the house!). You can check out all the details at

The course certainly made for a birthday I'm going to remember more than most - and all in a good way :)!

Monday, May 12, 2008


There's an old saying 'You can choose your friends, but not your family'. I think it needs updating for the noughties, especially for those of us living in London. It should read 'You can choose your friends, but not your neighbours'.

For the third time in the ten plus years I've lived here my upstairs neighbour decided to start running his bath and then promptly forgot, ignoring even the heavy pounding on the door I was giving to alert him to the fact that yet again the moron was trashing my bathroom.

Lights in the bathroom have been fading in and out despite being turned off at the central switch for most of Sunday afternoon and evening, and there was no electricity in the lounge, bedroom or hallway, although the study survived intact. About 7 years ago the flat was completely rewired. I'm beginning to think the work carried out was less than stellar, and the relation of the labelled fuses on the wiring box bears no relation to what actually happens when I get flooded out!

The electricity is now thankfully back on (except for the bathroom), and at least the warm weather means the bathroom should soon dry out. I own my property but my neighbours are tenants so I guess they just don't care about repeatedly flooding me out. The local estate office will no doubt reimburse me for the costs of sorting the mess out (ie the electrician who's looked at the results). But they never reimburse you for the hassle, inconvenience and, more importantly, the day's lost pay in trying to get the mess sorted out.

Alas, I'd like to say that this third 'wash out' will mean the afore-mentioned tenant will be evicted, but given that the tenant below me has happily survived tens, if not hundreds, of warnings about deafening noise all through the night (he has a habit of leaving his DVD player on full-blast menu-repeat all through the night - I know each and every note to the '24' menu system off by heart, having spent so many Saturday night/Sunday mornings hearing it) this looks unlikely.

Oh well. The bathroom was overdue for a refurb anyway I guess and at least it didn't happen while I was away! And compared to the suffering in China (a 7.5 earthquake apparently) this is all pretty small beer. Damned annoying all the same.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The BBC Just Don't Get Hi-Def!

It seems somewhat ironic that within just days of making the big announcement about the upcoming free High Definition TV service from the BBC and ITV, I should find two pieces of evidence indicating that the BBC are either totally incompetent or just plain clueless when it comes to being realistic about the importance of content for High Definition (HD) video.

Online internet sites offer upload/download of 720p high def video already, and the number of these video hosting sites is growing, seemingly almost daily. But in the meantime the BBC seem determined to just ignore the demand for HD and create barriers to entry.

The newly launched (and rather excellent) Reel Show TV features the main High Definition guy at the BBC reviewing the new Sony PMW-EX1 camera (it's in part 3 or 4 of the first edition if you want to check out the video). The man from the Beeb talks about how impressed he is with the new Sony camera, but somehow neglects to point out the most important things about it, leaving the seemingly more knowledgeable interviewer to step in and do it for him. Nevertheless the BBC rep says the camera gets an 11 out of 10 on their scale of evaluation (based on using a 'benchmark' Sony Z1 camera) and then goes on to say that the output from this '11 out of 10' camera is not allowable for their High Definition service! WTF?!! This is a camera that received a ringing endorsement from the Hollywood film professionals who make up the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) who professed themselves blown away at a cinema screening of a film made using the camera. But it's not good enough for the BBC's artefact-ridden, heavily compressed HD service!

The reason, apparently, is that the camera only outputs HD at 35Mb/sec where the BBC have arbitrarily decided they won't accept anything less than 50Mb/sec. The man from the Beeb declares that this is to keep standards high, whilst admitting that the picture quality, even at the 'lowly' 35Mb/sec is outstanding and that he couldn't see any differences in picture quality. Sometimes I think the world really has gone mad with the idiotic bureaucrats having completely taken over the asylum.

Further evidence that the BBC is letting incompetents make the key decisions on HD comes from an interview with prize chump Russel T Davies (aka 'Billy Bunter'). Davies explains that Doctor Who isn't being made in high definition because the increase in budget required to shoot in HD is not worth it. WTF?!! Even the internet's moving to High Definition, and yet the BBC's so-called 'prime' BAFTA award-winning drama series - the one that generates an absolute fortune through merchandising and sales abroad - has decided it's not worth bothering with. This is the same sort of monstrously stupid short-term thinking that caused the BBC back in the late 80's to trash so many of the old Doctor Who video source material, not realising that they'd just thrown away a small fortune in future VHS and DVD sales.

Regular readers will know that I think Russel T Davies makes a lousy 'head writer' for Doctor Who. I'm enjoying the current series far more than any previous one, and that can only be explained by the fact that it's because Davies has not written any of the last 4 or 5 episodes. But to have the 'head writer' now making use of technology decisions that will affect future transmissions, worldwide sales and sell-on Blu-Ray opportunities is utterly ridiculous.

His words MIGHT have some sort of value to them if the appallingly bad Torchwood hadn't switched to high definition right from its first episode. This series doesn't get anything like the viewing figures Who does (despite the non-stop ads), primarily because it not only has unbelievably juvenile writing, but also the worst acting I've seen on a prime time series in a long, long time. It makes Hollyoaks look like an oscar winner! And yet it has the 'budget' for HD, where Doctor Who doesn't!!!! The first series of Torchwood is being released for the THIRD time (talk about flogging a really dead horse!) next month, this time on high definition Blu-Ray disc. Fans of Doctor Who who prefer high definition viewing are wasting their time hoping for something similar. The series isn't shot in high definition and therefore won't appear in high definition.

While we're on the subject of HD, and because even I'm getting sick of my own ranting about the fools, dolts and nincompoops that seem to control nearly every aspect of our lives, it seems best to try and end on a happier note by mentioning the wonderful folks at Digital Juice. These guys show what a company can achieve when it employs people who are genuinely passionate (and not just people who keep telling you how passionate they are - Microsoft take note!) and care about quality. Their customer service is fantastic, their web site contains some of the best 'free training' on video that I've seen, their products are market leaders, and even the packaging shouts 'quality' at you. They've just relaunched their magazine (available as a free PDF download) and, of course, most of their products are produced ready for instant high definition. While the BBC seem happy to pay obscene amounts of money for spinning '6 o'clock news' graphics these guys produce the same sort of stuff for very affordable prices, with strictly limited copies so that you don't run the risk of the whole world and his wife using the same material. I just wish more companies operated the way they do.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

May the Fourth Be With You!

There's nothing like a good pun to open a new blog post.

And yeah, I know that the title is nothing like a good pun!

I seem to have spent most of the Bank Holiday break wrestling with Sony Vegas Pro to edit video together, but am finally starting to feel that I'm controlling it, rather than having it control me!

The first 'proper' weekly video podcast is uploading as I type (with two hours to go before it finished and then starts compressing - sigh!) but at least this one's in 720p hi-def and although still too long, half the time of the early 'preview' show which clocked in at just under half an hour.

I'm happier than I was with the preview with the way the visual side is going - especially the Top 10 rundown, but my presentation (narration and 'on camera' performance) still sucks big time.

I'm going on a TV Presenter's Course for my birthday a week on Tuesday, so hoping that the folks there can give some hints and tips on how be less 'wooden'. The company running the course trained Natasha Kaplinski and seemingly almost everyone who works in television today, and it's conveniently run just down the road from me, opposite The Houses of Parliament, so fingers crossed! I must say the course looks pretty intense and we've been given home-work (script writing) to prepare before the course. It turns out the six attendees are all going to have to do an informal piece to camera (with no idea how long to talk for, under the control of someone barking instructions down an ear-piece), an autocue piece, an outside interview, and a couple of magazine-styled interviews - all on top of any training we're given. It's quite a long day but should be fun!

Fortunately, I haven't spent all my time at the computer, although it sometimes feels that way. On Friday night I 'escaped' and went to see the Iron Man movie, having renewed my annual subscription to the Clapham Picture House, receiving three 'free' tickets as a result.

I wasn't disappointed in the film, although the final act suffers from the usual Hollywood nonsense, and comes across as a carbon-copy replay of something from the Transformers movie. As I've mentioned in my Shiny Discs show, if you go make sure don't rush to leave the cinema when the (seriously overlong) credits start rolling there's a nice extra scene which features a Hollywood A-list actor giving clues as to what's coming soon from Marvel right at the end. You'll be filled with Fury if you miss it and want to 'Avenge' yourself on those that didn't warn you what you might miss!

Monday, April 28, 2008

OK, so Sometimes I'm wrong! (Speed Racer revisited)

A month ago I blogged about Warner Brothers generously 'inviting' people to traipse over to Holborn just to see a 5 minute preview from 'Speed Racer' (here). At the time they were saying there would be no full previews, so this was 'a real opportunity'.

I had a whinge about how ridiculous film promotion has become if Warner Bros really expected bloggers and reviewers to travel at their own expense just to see a 5 minute trailer, and this drew a hilarious, irate response about me being 'classless, insecure and mean-spirited' from someone identifying themself as 'Anonymous' who apparently wanted to hit me over the head repeatedly with a hammer. I think we can all guess which film company 'Anonymous' might have worked for!

Well it seems Warners had second thoughts, and decided to hold preview screenings of the film, which opens nationwide on Sunday 9th May, after all.

For some reason ;-) I wasn't invited.

But I went anyway!

And to my surprise I liked it!

The film has its faults - it's half an hour too long with one endless climax after another for one thing (Peter Jackson's Return of the King has got a lot to answer for!)

And the first half hour is confusing as hell, even for adults, with endless sudden switches between the past and the present and what a person is imagining rather than what is actually happening.

But it's a MUCH better movie than I'd expected given all the secrecy around the project, reports of it being 'in trouble' and that ridiculous 'We're only showing people a 5 minute preview' email.

Think Tron updated for 2008 and you've pretty much got the feel of it. Every penny of the $200 million spent on it is up there on screen, and I'd say I don't think I've seen so much endless eye candy in a film for a long, long time.

I mention all this now (some two weeks before the film is due out) just in case anyone was put off going to see it by my original 'Promotional Madness' blog post. This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, in the same way that 300 and Transformers were - and ideally at an IMAX cinema which is launching the film day and date with 'ordinary' cinema's.

Advance tickets will likely sell out fast as 'word of mouth' spreads, so if you're tempted I'd say book your seat now. Much of what's on show here is as ground-breaking as the same directors' work on The Matrix was, so I'm ALMOST prepared to forgive The Wachowski Brothers for the dreadful second and third Matrix movies (let's not get too carried away - I said 'almost').

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Playing with Video Titles

It didn't take very long to realise that the first Shiny Discs video podcast was too long for the web, running at half an hour, even if you ignore the rather dull visual style used for some of the longer reviews.

I suspect the length of the first podcast was the reason why I've still been unable to render out a hi-def version of that first podcast without crashing, even after a week of re-trying.

So I'm moving to a more frequent, shorter set of podcasts, and the Shiny Discs web site will be redesigned to accommodate new plans. Watch this space (or rather the ShinyDisc space, if you see what I mean!)

In the meantime I've posted a (not very good) summary of highlighted new releases for next week under the title "Sunday Shipping". The new title sequence for an improved version of this "Sunday Shipping" podcast wasn't ready in time for this week, but as a sneak peak you can see the new titles for a couple of the planned new short shows below. I think they're coming along nicely and there are more to follow now the basic "theme" has been worked out.

Shiny Discs - Thrilling Thursday - Test Title from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

Shiny Discs - Telly Tuesday - Test Title from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

Shiny Discs - Blu Monday - Title Test from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

I must say that overall I'm impressed with the hi-def video hosting from Vimeo, which is faster and better quality than that I'd been experiencing with Viddler. But the 500MB weekly limit (where Viddler has none) and the fact that hi-def can't be streamed from embedded video is a real pain. To see the video as intended the user has to click through from the video embedded in the Shiny Discs web site to go to the Vimeo web site. So if you want to see the sample title sequences above in full 720p glory pretty much intended (aside from the nasty compression that ISPs do once the video has been uploaded) you have to click on the videos to go to the vimeo site direct where the hi-def versions are available.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hi-Def Woes and A Trip to the Theatre

I seem to have spent my last week of freedom (before going back to full-time work), endlessly waiting for my PC to finish rendering video - only to have it invariably fail after 8 or 9 hours at the '99% complete' mark. 'Frustrating' isn't the word!

The net result (no pun intended) is that The Daily.NET Show is now 'on ice' until probably October/November 2008 when I can afford the hardware needed to dramatically improve rendering times so that getting the show out on a daily basis while holding down a full-time job is at all feasible. I seriously underestimated the time needed for video rendering, uploading and subsequent server-side compressing in my original forecasts.

In the meantime the different user group videos are serving as a good way of getting more familiar with the camera and editing software (four videos from the Silverlight UK User Group have been posted here). There are a lot of issues around rendering hi-def video, which is proving to be far more of a 'bleeding edge' issue for most of the software I use (Digital Juice's Juicer 3 product and Sony's Vegas Pro if we're being specific) than I'd expected this far on in the life-cycle of the respective products, quite aside from the hardware issues I've got.

Next up on the user group video coverage front is DDD Ireland in a couple of weeks time. I'm looking forward to it as it will give me an opportunity to concentrate on being 'behind the camera' instead of worrying endless about how 'wooden' I am in front of it!

Online friends have argued that hi-def on the web isn't there yet, and doesn't have that much demand anyway, so why am I going that route (and in particular using one of the 'true' hi-def formats XDCam rather than that used in the very small consumer cameras)? In fact there are several good hi-def shows already out there, albeit produced by folks for whom it's a full-time job, often with several staff to help. I'm convinced that in a couple of years time hi-def will be 'the norm' and the 'bleeding edge' pain is necessary, if only to get a head start on the immense learning curve. There are plenty of spotty youths doing YouTube video's already, and I prefer to try and get something closer to broadcast quality, although having to serve as reviewer, presenter, cameraman, editor and web master all at the same time is making progress slow!

That being said, the first weekly video podcast of The Shiny Discs Show that I've produced is NOT hi-def. The problems (which seem to be down to the fact the 28 minute running time of the 'expanded' first show takes me over the 1GB limit) mean that hi-def just wasn't an option this week. Hopefully next week's show, being shorter, will not prove to be such a problem. You can watch the first show now using the Shiny Discs link above. It's a disappointment with so many problems (truncated ending, too long, features out-of-focus talking head shots etc etc), but it's a start and things can (hopefully!) only improve from hereonin. Given how problematic this first show has been it will be interesting to see how feasible producing a weekly video podcast on top of holding down a full-time job proves to be!

I start a new 6 month contract with Intelligent Environments tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to catching up with folks and finding out what's been happening in the year I've been working elsewhere.

Yesterday I went to see an old 1920's Noel Coward play, The Vortex at the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue. Felicity Kendall leading a strong cast (including the young girl - Cordelia? - from the TV series Brideshead Revisited, a woman we all recognised from Doctor Who - The Slitheen head honcho? - and a bunch of others). It was a good production, with excellent staging and acting throughout, although the play itself did feel a bit dated. Recommended, especially at the cost available using the Official Half Price Ticket Stand in Leicester Square, which is where we got our tickets. Word of warning: all those stores near the tube station displaying red LED displays saying 'Official Half-Price tickets' are NOT the place to buy tickets - they're rip-off touts, albeit officially licensed. You need the clearly identifiable stone building down from the Odeon in the square itself to avoid getting ripped off.

And in an amusing footnote to the whole 'travel across London to see a 5-minute extract from a film' saga that I blogged about a few weeks ago, next Sunday (thanks to a friend who I won't name as I don't want anybody to get into trouble on my account) I'm going to see Speed Racer. It seems the whole film is being previewed after all. It'll be interesting to see if the film is as bad as it sounded it was going to be, or whether the full screenings now mean that Warners have more confidence in the final results. No doubt I'll be posting a short review next weekend, either way ;-)

And time to mention (as if I didn't have enough distractions already) that you can follow me on Twitter, which suddenly over the last two weeks has taken off big time (I'm getting endless spammers suddenly 'following' me!) Personal/work -related stuff is under the Twitter 'irascian' account, one-line news/reviews about shiny discs are under the Twitter 'shinydiscs' account.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Recent (lack of) Activity

Does anybody like recruitment agencies?

Any thoughts I had that the recession is just an invention of the mainstream media, determined to irresponsibly talk us into a recession that wouldn't otherwise happen, are being somewhat dashed by personal experience in trying to find work at the moment. A market that was ridiculously buoyant last Summer seems to be pretty 'dead in the water' at the moment, and my 'between contracts' sabbatical is lasting far longer than I'd originally intended!

Not that agencies are being in any way honest about the situation. Last week, after posting my CV to Jobserve on the Friday afternoon, I had 27 different agency calls, so excited about my CV that they were 'putting it forward immediately for a job that's right up your street'. Number of agencies that subsequently called me back? One (to advise me that the vacancy they'd insisted on contacting a reference for, BEFORE even putting my CV forward, had 'gone to India').

On the back of my experiences before Christmas when doing the same thing, I'm alternating between getting extremely demotivated about the whole thing, and getting really angry at the way staff at these agencies deal with people. And of course the people on the other side of the fence (the clients) have similar horror stories to tell from their side.

Agency issues aside, I did actually manage to get an interview at the end of last week, which involved travelling up to Watford Junction and having to answer such in-depth technical questions as 'What is the configuration file for an ASP.NET application called?' (which appeared twice in a multi-choice 'test' that comprised 30 questions in total). This involved some time, travel and expense on my part, with a promise that I'd hear back first thing Monday morning, if not late Friday afternoon. Needless to say I'm here, late on Tuesday morning having not heard a word, and I suspect the situation will not have changed by the end of the week.

As it happened, the job was not one that was appropriate or I'd accept anyway. And I should have taken the lack of any telephone pre-interview technical screening as a sign of how the company works, but this lack of any response seems to be 'the recruitment norm'. No wonder the whole recruitment industry has a general reputation of being 'worse even than lawyers and estate agents'.

Just before Christmas, I spent the best part of a day on a coding exercise that one agency insisted all potential candidates had to complete before they could be put forward for any possible vacancies. The exercise was fundamentally flawed in several areas and I had to send in a solution that was accompanied by a whole list of assumptions that I'd made because the specifications were unclear. In response I got an email from their .NET specialist saying how impressed they were with my submission, and would I consider helping them to grade other candidates in future when they launched a formal appraisal service in the new year?

All very nice, but as for the original vacancy that had caused me to contact the agency and deal with their coding exercise submission? Not a word! And in what's a common pattern where agencies are concerned, any attempt to talk to the person who originally contacted you with such enthusiasm is invariably met with complete silence. Email responses to queries go unanswered. Promised "he's busy right now. He'll call you back" promises made when you hassle them as to why you've heard nothing back never materialise, no matter how often you try and follow up. The whole process is extremely demoralising.

When candidates have spent time and money to help agencies who then go on to collect between 15% and 20% of all future income that successful candidates generate, they should get a far better service than they are doing. As it is all the agencies seem to be offering for their not insignificant cut, is a CV forwarding service based on the most crude 'keyword' searches.

I don't know a single contractor who's got a good thing to say about agencies. Or, in fact, a single employer looking for contractors who has a good word to say about them! I wish there were some other solution to the 'matching contractors with clients' problem. Maybe I should just change careers and become a recruitment consultant myself?

Podcast Interview with 'The Social Programmer'

Since I seem to have got into the subject of work (or lack of it!) it's worth mentioning that a few weeks ago I did a podcast interview with The Social Programmer web site. You can hear over an hour of me pontificating on the state of the industry, the Las Vegas conference I attended, and the whole HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray format wars mess in the podcast which can be found here

Weekend Film-Making Course

I spent the weekend on a 'single person' documentary film-making course. I had suspected that many of these advertised film-making courses are just an attempt to make money from naive 'wanna be's who think such courses will magically open doors in Hollywood (rather like those Microsoft certification boot camp ads that imply in 2 weeks they can turn you into a high revenue-earning IT consultant!). And so it proved to be. A lot of the equipment didn't work, was insufficient to meet the stated goals of the course, or had broken/missing bits and pieces. Misinformation was given out right, left and centre, and I don't think I've heard so much bullshit in quite some time. Very disappointing! I learnt more from the excellent (and far cheaper) Shut up and Shoot Documentary Guide book than I learn on this course, despite the instructor's ridiculous claims that he'd saved us all a year's worth of learning!

Film: The Orphanage

On a happier note, last night I went to see The Orphanage, universally praised by critics as an 'intelligent horror movie'. This foreign-language film has received a lot of attention (and a UK Top 10 position) primarily because it's been recommended/produced by Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. It's in nowhere near the same league as Pan's Labyrinth, but it is a beautifully constructed film that's well worth a trip to your local emporium to see - even if you're the sort of person who hates seeing subtitled movies. It's hard to say any more about the film without spoiling it - just go and see it!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Fan Mail!

For those (like me) who read a blog post but don't go back to check comments made days later, I can't resist posting this "comment" to my previous blog post about the ridiculousness of expecting people to schlep over to Warner Brothers HQ for the 'privelege' of a 5 minute preview of a film that the company is desperately trying to promote. I know we live in a society where there's a starry-eyed obsession with the 'cult of celebrity' but even so, the following response took me by surprise...

"First of all, thanks for specifying the parts of this blog in which you were being sarcastic. I don't know how I would have coped without such helpful hints (sarcasm).

Secondly, you need to replace your photo, as it quite clearly depicts a grown man. This is surely some mistake?

Finally, I wouldn't invite you to a five minute screening of me hitting you over the head with a hammer (and trust me, that is a work I would be very proud of); I'm amazed anybody would seek the approval of such a classless, insecure and mean-spirited man.

I don't know what's funniest: the fact that the poster criticises ME for being 'classless, insecure and mean-spirited' in what is just one long insult that doesn't address the subject matter of the original blog post at all; or the fact that they're so cowardly they felt they had to share their intelligent and enlightening thoughts 'anonymously'.

If there's one thing I hate even more than publicists expecting me to waste my own time and money promoting something I clearly won't have the knowledge to comment on (I challenge anybody to review a film based on a 5-minute preview) it's cowards - and anyone who resorts to threats and name-calling 'anonymously' is by definition a coward!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Promotional Madness!

One of the happy side-effects of my different shiny disc review blogs is that I get the occasional invite to a free preview screening. 300 was a real treat and resulted in me recommending a film I would otherwise have probably avoided on theatrical release. I subsequently received a couple of other freebie invites, which unfortunately coincided with my being abroad, but which was kinda nice!

But the latest, an email headed Fancy a Free Film Screening (read that again, yup it definitely says 'Free Film'), shows just how ridiculous the whole art of film promotion has become!

It turned out to be an invitation to schlep over to Warner Brothers HQ in Holborn for an 'exclusive 5 minute preview' of Speed Racer. Excuse me, but since when did a 5 minute preview constitute a 'free film'?! As added incentive I could apparently take the kids too (oh wow! - a five minute preview full of noisy kids - sign me up, now (not!))

Why would ANYONE want to spend time, effort and money attending this? All I can sense is the total desperation of a promotions company stuck with a real turkey on their hands when the invite attempts to explain the lack of a proper screening thus: "It doesn’t sound like a lot, but bear in mind that there is unlikely to be any advance screenings before it’s release, so it’s likely that this will be the only advance footage that reviewers/bloggers will get to see" Oh well, in THAT case sign me up immediately (sarcasm!)

To be honest, my suspicions that the movie was duff were aroused by an over-the-top advertorial masquerading as editorial article in one of the glossy film monthlies that appeared a few weeks back ('Total Film' I think). Despite the pretty colour pictures, multiple pages and generous cast quotes there was just no substance to the piece and it all seemed a trifle desperate. This latest invite has simply convinced me that Speed Racer, far from being a 'must see' is looking suspiciously like a 'must avoid'.

Note to Warner Brothers: if what you have really is a 'great' film and you're only prepared to show a 5 minute preview, why not maximise the number of bloggers/reviewers/potential audience members you reach and simply post it on YouTube, Vimeo or any one of hundreds of other promotional sites?! Don't assume bloggers are so starry-eyed they'll schlep across London just to do the same thing in one of two staggered screenings at your HQ!

Monday, March 24, 2008

(Belated) Happy Easter!

I'm afraid the blog's been pretty quiet because I seem to have been sick for so much of the last few months - with some sort of endless cold/flu/insomnia/jet-lag thing. Thankfully, I seem to be well past the worst now and more-or-less back to normal.

I hope everyone's had a good Easter. I seem to have spent most of it fighting with computers (no change there then!), trying to get a preview edition of The Daily.NET Show done. Like most things in my life these days, this took far longer than it should have done, although I'm now feeling a lot more comfortable with Sony Vegas Pro video editing software. The preview episode is done and now I have to work out how to iron out all the kinks (of which there are many, but it's more fun than doing real work!). One thing's become very clear: I'm definitely a "better behind the camera than in front of it" guy :(

I did watch a couple of movies over the Easter break. No new shiny disk purchases as I'm 'between contracts' and money is scarce, but I caught up with Evening on HD-DVD (which features a great cast, but misfires on most fronts because of messy and too-frequent time shifting) and also Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I admired rather than enjoyed (worth seeing for Jonny Depp's performance, but a bit too off-the-wall to really appeal to me).

Next weekend I'm going on a 'documentary film-making' course, and I suspect most of this week will be spent chasing agencies for job interviews, not to mention helping a former client out with a 'quick' piece of work that is suddenly looking like a 'long, slow, difficult' piece of work instead, so don't hold your breath waiting for any updates over the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, I hope everyone's enjoyed the break and is all prepped for the return to work tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

MIX08 Blog Posts All Appearing over on DailyDotNetShow blog

I'm blogging all the MIX08 announcements over on the new Daily.NET Show web site. Already announced pre-conference is the new version of Expression Studio 2, available in April.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Gatwick Restrictions and A Damehood for Petula Clark

I'm in Las Vegas, with a sore throat and feeling somewhat jaded, but otherwise fine despite a scary amount of lack of sleep.

The flight over was great, apart from the nightmare Virgin Airways check-in, where they're insisting on weighing hand luggage and not allowing anything over 6kg. This is a nightmare when you have a very expensive camera in a soft padded bag, and according to other cameramen, seems to be something exclusive to travelling from Gatwick airport. Avoid!

Thankfully the laptops I subsequently had to repack survived a journey in the hold, although the padlock I put on my case was gone when it arrived in baggage reclaim at Las Vegas airport! To get the hand luggage down to just over the maximum weight requirements I had to move everything else (including laptop - ouch!) into my hold baggage. New regulations introduced a week or so ago say li-on batteries have to travel as hold luggage anyway, which I hadn't picked up on. I swear they make these ever-changing regulations up just to wind passengers up, or to force you to buy stuff from over-priced 'duty free' shops the other side of check-in!

You've probably seen a lot of folks promoting a petition to try and get Bruce Forsythe a knighthood. Well my friend Brian Sibley is trying to promote something similar for Petula Clark. Time is running out and the petitition needs to be signed by 12th March at the latest. For reasons why you should sign the petition, and a link to the petition itself, please check Brian's blog entry

Friday, February 29, 2008

Off to Vegas!

In eight hours time I'll be heading off to Vegas. Got a pretty hectic schedule once the MIX08 conference kicks in since I've got a whole bunch of interviews to do for my new video podcast site The Daily.Net Show (which doesn't officially launch until April).

Contacting people for interview requests has been a real revelation. Microsoft get a lot of flack for a lot of things, but I've been amazed at the level of co-operation from people who are 'rocks star's in the Microsoft development world, all of whom have responded quickly and positively to simple email requests. Hard to imagine a Corporate Vice President at another company responding to an email within a few hours, effectively saying 'I'll be happy to do an interview'.

So far Scott Guthrie (Corporate Vice President, .NET Developer Platform), Scott Hanselman (, Jeff Sandquist (, Adam Kinney (Silverlight evangelist), John McLelland (Microsoft Partner Huddle) and Mike Ormond (Microsoft UK Developer Evangelist) have all verbally agreed to take part so it's just a question of trying to co-ordinate things once we're all in Vegas. I suspect this is where things might fall down with so many things going on, but people have happily given out cell-phone numbers so I'm optimistic that most of it will happen. I'm a fan of all these folks so I feel very lucky in having had such a strong, supportive response.

On Sunday I'm having brunch at Bally's with good friends Susan and John Brock from San Diego. They are coming up to Vegas especially to show me around, which is, as the Americans would say, 'totally awesome'. We're going to have a lot to drink on the Sunday, visit The Star Trek Experience on the Monday, and do a quick 15 minute helicopter tour of the Las Vegas Strip at night on Monday evening. This last activity is primarily in the hope that I can get a nice opening shot of the conference venue from the air for the video podcasts, before the Brocks have to make a long drive home back to San Diego later that evening.

The conference itself officially starts on Wednesday but on Tuesday I've got a couple of interviews tentatively arranged, registration for the event itself (which is at same hotel I'm booked into all week - The Venetian, and a pre-conference Silverlight treasure hunt in the evening.

My luggage is an even bigger nightmare than usual. The tripod, all the camera and sound gear, together with my heavy video editing laptop, my ultraportable email and note-taking laptop, my 'self-promotional' wardrobe (t-shirts promoting the new web site which I'll be wearing all week) and business cards mean there's very little room left for anything else in my luggage. Despite taking little in the way of clothing I still have three large pieces of luggage to haul around.

The alarm clock is now set for 5.30am tomorrow morning, and the flight gets into Las Vegas early Saturday afternoon local time. If I get the chance to shoot anything before the event itself kicks off (assuming the equipment still all works when I get to the other end) I'll publish it here, otherwise all video will be the work-related stuff posted at The Daily.Net Show.

And just to round this post off so that it's vaguely 'personal' rather than 'work' related: here's a link to a video that made me laugh out loud. Optimus Prime performs 'Evolution of Dance' Tribute. Worth watching to the end for the pay-off! Enjoy!