Destination Star Trek London 2012

Last weekend, Matty and I attended Destination Star Trek London 2012 (DSTL). And it was a fucking blast.

Destination Star Trek London, 19-21/10/12 - 18

On the Friday, I got there before him and excitedly made my way into the Excel. I was a bit disappointed that my ticket didn’t get me into the opening ceremony, we’d just got standard tickets and it seemed like every little thing was an extra amount on that (already high!) price.

But I had so much else to look at: badges, cups, uniforms and all manner of Trek-related fabulous merchandise and, let’s be honest here, tat.

Excel Centre At Night - 7

When Matt did turn up, we had a rather uninspiring meal at the hotel before hitting the Klingon Ball. Which was… ok… It was basically a disco in an aircraft hanger. It didn’t really feel that Klingon at all. But, fuckit, we made the most of it and were pretty much the last people dancing.

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Saturday, we met up with the lovely Rebecca who I’d bumped into on that nascent social networking hub, Instagram. It was so cool to meet someone actually dressed up as a Klingon, she looked awesome.

Mishra meets mugato!

And, throughout the weekend, that’s what we kept returning to. Although we felt that a lot of things were overpriced and under-delivered, like a goody bag that basically consisted of some leaflets, we had such a good time because of the other fans.

Klingon Wedding

Just walking around the Excel, there was this feeling of tremendous friendliness and camaraderie. We were, by definition, a gathering of Trek obsessives. Here were people who would get my Darmok jokes, or know why I wanted to wager quatloos at every opportunity. It was a nexus of nerd, a glob of geek, the most awesome, beautiful people all being excellent to one another.

Gorgeous Trek Girls #iphonesia  #instagood #photooftheday #igers #instamood #instagramhub #startrek #trek #tos #tng #ds9 #voyager #enterprise #excel #london #dstl #destinationstartreklondon

On the Sunday day, Matt and I were lucky enough to hear this dude:

Richard Arnold!  #startrek #trek #tos #tng #ds9 #voyager #enterprise #excel #london #dstl #destinationstartreklondon

That’s Richard Arnold and Trek flows through his veins. Hearing his first-hand recollections about Gene Roddenberry, the early years, the films and TNG was a beautiful moment. And, yes, I did cry! To think how much one little TV show has touched millions of peoples’ hearts is quite extraordinary.

When I got back home last Sunday night, I felt a huge sense of anti-climax. After the colours, the sounds, getting my picture taken with fucking Odo, Derby seemed terribly dull. But when I got into my car and all the lights lit up on the dash and the satnav started talking to me… I felt at home again.

Destination Star Trek London, 19-21/10/12 - 15

We can only invent the things we dream. Star Trek has inspired us to dream more grandly. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Derby Festé 2012

ALBOT the Robot

Last week was Derby Festé 2012. I missed the events on Thursday and Friday but I managed to catch the daytime stuff on the Saturday. I was with my friend Emily and we had a lovely time, wandering round the various attractions. First up was the gentleman above, ALBOT. I thought it was a bloke inside, Dalek-style but, nope, he was a proper, fully-ambulatory robot. Lovely!

Fhlip Fhlop

Then we were just in time for Flhip Flhop, a couple of performers who filled the stage with beatboxing, music, dancing, comedy… the whole deal! They were great, do go and see them if you get the chance.

Massive Inflatable Cobra By The Emo Bridge

After that, we ambled past some jazzers blowing up a storm outside the Cathedral, ending up at the Silk Mill were we saw the impressive cobra above. As soon as I took that picture, it started deflating, I felt like I’d shot it. No idea what that shit was about.

Festé Finalé At Darley Park And Fireworks - 02

In the evening, Rosanna and I trooped out to Darley Park (after the most pointless car-parking shenanigans ever) and saw some lovely dancing, tumbling and general funtimes. I loved the costumes, the integration with the music, the lighting. AND THEN…

Festé Finalé At Darley Park And Fireworks - 11

BOOM! FIREWORKS! I thought they’d be quite low-key but it was a great display, popping and thundering and the crowd oohing and aahing. I think I preferred it to last year’s Markeaton display! We’re spoilt in Derby in that we now have two great fireworks display at the end of the year. I’m not complaining, I love fireworks far too much. MMmmm…

So, another great Festé! What’s 2013 gonna be like? 😀

(Click here for more pics!)

London With Nat: Dungeons, Sealife, Blood Brothers, Hangover Lounge, Horrendous Fear

Off to London!

Nat and I caught the 9am train to London. We knew we had a lot to pack in but we had the freedom that the only timetabled event was the gig we were doing for the marvellous Hangover Lounge peeps on Sunday.

Nat finally exacts her terrible justice!

After a lucky early check-in at the hotel, we headed to the London Dungeon experience. I was a bit worried about this as I heard it was gruesome. And it was but on the right side of traumatising. Loads of laughs and the actors all did sterling jobs marshalling us around the ghastly exhibits. The bit that was the most grim was the Whitechapel / Ripper bit, I would advise you to skip that bit as it features actual pictures of the victims. I found it hard going. The best bit was definitely the Drop: a ride that drops you straight down as if you’re being hanged. My experience was made bit more painful because you’re clamped into your seat by a metal bar which, for some reason, features a big chunk *exactly* where male genitalia ride. As the actress checked we were in, she thumped down on the bar and my balls were pummelled, Bond-style. Still worth it but if I go on again, I might have my knackers cut off first, save some agony.

Yep, we rode a penguin ~ THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!

Then we went on to the London Aquarium Sealife Centre, just next to the London Eye. And wow – it was gorgeous. Fish, crustaceans, molluscs, the whole panoply of swimmy, creepy, crawly marine life was on show. Obviously, the sharks and turtles were the best critters… until we entered a frozen area and came face-to-face with some penguins!

Penguin

YEP! PENGUINS! They were such inquisitive little souls, coming up to the glass to inspect us before flashing off back underwater. I loved seeing them but it did make me think of the scene in ‘Happy Feet’ where he’s going barmy in the enclosure.

Nat & Assyrian Friezes

We had a bit of time left over so we headed on to the British Museum. I really, really wanted to show Nat the Reading Room: the last time we tried in 2010, they said it was shut for refurb until 2012. So, we chanced it. Nope, still shut, probably till 2014. Awww, maaaan! Never mind, you can’t ever get bored at the British Museum, the fabulous artefacts it houses reach out and poke at you, forcing you to consider the epehmeral nature of your existence. I got a bit freaked out at some of the Greek carvings, tiny statues over 2,000 years old and yet looking like they were made yesterday. Who carved it? For what reason? How did they live, love and die? And will I leave behind anything that someone will be looking at in the year 4012? Unlikely.

For dinner, we went wandering in Soho. It’s one of my fave areas of London, I spent a lot of time there when I was in my early twenties and it feels like home in lots of ways. When I’m there, that’s when I’m most likely to wish I lived in London, the atmosphere is so amiable, particularly on warm, sunny evenings like Saturday. We found a good Indian restaurant, scoffed and then made our way to…

Blood Brothers!

THE PHOENIX THEATRE FOR BLOOD BROTHERS! Yep, this is probably what we’d both most been looking forward to. Willy Russell’s tale of separated twins is more than just a pondering on the old nature vs. nurture debate, it connects at a hugely emotional level. Some of my favourite bits where when the twins were young, the way the actors acted childhood innocence was flawless. Just the joy of being eight, where days are endless and all that matters is your mates and who can make the best machine gun noise. There were some heartbreaking moments, not just the end-point which we see at the beginning. I was very touched by the dissolving relationship between Mickey and his wife and how it’s mirrored by his estrangement from his blood brother. When he’s lonely and beaten down and doesn’t know where to turn, it really got to me and I admit I cried. And the songs! They dovetailed with the story perfectly, unlike some musicals where they seem wedged in as an afterthought. I was totally lost in the play, I kept forgetting I was watching live humans a few tens of feet away from me. It’s a testament to the power of the show that it almost made me forget how tiny the seat was that I was crammed in, I probably looked very peculiar to the people behind me as I was shuffling around, trying to massage the cramps out of my legs. Anyway, what a show! We were grinning as we headed back to Soho for some late lattes before heading back to the hotel.

Sunday, we got up bright and early and then hit Oxford Street. We didn’t do a marathon session as the gig was looming but it’s always fun being on that street for me, I love the bustle, the fashions, watching other shoppers. Surely Oxford Street is one of the best places in the world for people watching?

Finally, the actual reason we’d come to London: playing The Hangover Lounge at The Lexington. This, like all HL shows was totally acoustic, no mics or PA or anything. Which I love ~ there’s so much less faffing about than normal gigs.

Making Marks

Before us were the wonderful Making Marks, a Norwegian foursome whose songs are catchy, pithy and bright as buttons. I was actually watching them thinking it was a bit unfair, me having to follow this amazing act. I did ask John HL if I could play before them but he politely refused me! 🙂

Then we played. It’s only the second gig Nat’s done with White Town (and second ever, also) and she sang wonderfully. I was a bit all over the shop because I wanted to do new songs. So, Nat had to hold up the lyrics for one newie, ‘I’m In Love With You,’ as I can’t even remember my own lyrics. I had an amazing time playing and the audience was so friendly and warm, singing along and putting up with my often incongruous inter-song banter. We had such fun that I really can’t wait to do it again. It’s an honour to play!

And one of the bestest parts of the gig was the surprise appearance of my friend Laura Mac! She’d got back from South Korea and wanted to keep it secret so she just turned up. She’s the star of this video, bless her. ?

Cable Car

We’d asked John HL what sightseeing we should do and he recommended the cable car from the Excel Centre to the O2 Arena which neither of us even knew about. But it sounded great so we headed over. (Note: if you’re going to do this from central London, get a water taxi or a tube, not a cab like we did, you might save twenty-two quid.)

The view

Well, it was fabulous. We were lucky it was a gorgeous day and as we boarded our car and headed up, the views were stunning. It felt quite surreal to be dangling over the Thames, seeing the Excel retreat behind us and the O2 loom larger ahead. If you get the chance to go on it, take it.

Next was the Horrendous Fear part of the weekend. On the way over, we’d spotted a whirly tower spinny thing, one of these:

I WENT ON THIS! I have a horrible fear of heights buti went on it, @nataliealice giggled at me cos I had my eyes shut a lot. Thought I was going to poop myself with fear. BUT I DID IT!

I have a terrible fear of heights. It’s ridiculous and totally out-of-control. I don’t even like standing on step-ladders. So, when Nat started squeaking about the ride, my first instinct was to run off or perhaps feign an attack of beri-beri, anything to get out of going on this mad looking gizmo. But then I thought, fuck it. I was terrified out of my wits so that showed I needed to do it. We sat in the bucket seats and I was dismayed to learn the buckle wouldn’t do up between my legs because of my porkiness. The bloke operating it said I’d be fine with just the saftey belt. My immdeiate thought was that I would just slide out and why did they have the restraining bar and buckle if they were superfluous? The machine spun up, we rose into the air and then started spinning. I kept my eyes shut a lot, all I could hear was Nat whooping as she waved her arms in the air and took selfies on her iPhone. I didn’t take any pics as my hands were gripped like superglue around the chains (I had imprints after for a while). I was almost getting used to it when the wind picked up and started twisting the seat all over the place. It was at this precise moment I wished I hadn’t been such a fan of the Final Destination films. I very nearly pooped myself.

BUT I DID IT. FUCK YOU, FEAR!

On the Thames

After I’d stopped sobbing, we caught a water taxi back to Embankment. This was the final outing of the weekend and we couldn’t have picked a better coda. The sun was setting over the Thames as we sped along the river, the riverside sights of London laid out before us. It was beautiful to see the city skyline painted with the golds and oranges of the sun retiring for the day.

Then we grabbed our bags from the hotel and caught the train home. We got back to Derby around 22.15. We crammed a lot into 37 hours.

What a perfect weekend! 😀

(Click here to see the pics from the weekend!)

Teenage Engineering OP-1 : A Perfect Instrument

OP-1 - 1

Recently, I bought an OP-1. I’d been in love with it since seeing the very early demos. It looked like a VL-1 as re-imagined by Wintermute so of course I wanted one.

OP-1 - 2

But there’s been a lot of hating on the poor old OP-1 on the web. People slagging it off as over-priced, gimmicky and, ohh, the ultimate insult, like something Apple would make. Which I guess is saying that people who love Apple products are more concerned with style and image than actual functionality.

Well, in a lot of ways, the haters are right.

If Apple made a synthesizer / virtual four-track / drum machine / groovebox, then they would make something like the OP-1

OP-1 - 3

I love this instrument! The layout, the ergonomics, the GUI, everything is as smooth and silky as an Apple product. This is simply great design.

OP-1 - 4

As a songwriter, when I’m pursuing an idea, I don’t want to be de-railed by interfaces which squander my time menu-diving. The OP-1 doesn’t ever do that. This is one of the most musical musical instruments I have ever used. I’m working on a synth sound, the envelope is a bit off, press one button and then twiddle the appropriately colour-coded knob. It is so easy, so intuitive.

OP-1 - 5

All of that would be charming but rather pointless if the OP-1 was, as its detractors claim, an over-priced toy. It is not. It packs enough DSP to create full tracks, I’ve been hammering it and I’ve never had it give up on me like my Micron does when I try to sequence too many parts. The OP-1 just works.

And the main thing? IT’S STUPID, STUPID, STUPID FUNNN!

OP-1 - 6

Remember the fun of your first synth, just fucking about on it and creating magical symphonies? The OP-1 is that again. I was showing it to my mate Ash, sampled a bit of the built-in FM radio and I had a crazy new tune in about fifteen seconds. It’s that easy, that playful.

So, the OP-1, I fucking love it. Here’s a little tune I created on it, enjoy!

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

rotpota

About half an hour ago, I got back from seeing ‘Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes‘ (henceforth ‘ROTPOTA’ for brevity’s sake) and I’m buzzing about it so I want to do a review before that fades.

I am a huge fan of the original Apes films. I watched them on telly as a kid, I was obsessed with the TV series and the cartoon series too. Roddy McDowall was amiably wonderful as Galen in the TV series but he was stunning as Cornelius and Caesar in the films. The Tim Burton reboot of 2001 was even worse than his reboot of Willy Wonka. And that was godawful. So I was very worried about ‘ROTPOTA.’

I loved it!

But first:

WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!

(Well, they won’t be major ones but, like ‘Super 8,’ one of the reasons I loved this film is that I didn’t know every turn and weave of the story before I went in. The trailer is really quite clever in the way it shows, obviously, elements from the film but actually doesn’t give away major plot points. So I’ll hint at stuff but I won’t be explicit. Why are you even reading this – go and see the film first!)

rotpota

I love all five original Apes films but my favourite is ‘Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes’ in which a young, talking ape called Caesar (played by McDowall, of course) leads an ape revolution. ‘Conquest’ is a perfect science fiction film: ostensibly about apes it is actually about the nature of humanity, our brutality and willingness to engage in mass slavery and other horrors.

‘ROTPOTA’ is kind of a remake of ‘Conquest’ but not really at all. The premise for how apes get uplifted to (and beyond?) human intelligence has been changed, there is no involvement of apes from the future and the new Caesar himself isn’t as garrulous as McDowall.

This entire film rests on that new Caesar’s shoulders. A totally digital character, Andy Serkis breathes life into him in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m not a huge fan of CGI because so much of it is so poor that it completely ruins my immersion in a film. That’s not the case here. Caesar’s face is shockingly expressive. Every nuance of brow movement, his eyes, even when he’s huffing and puffing in distress at the glass separating him from his human family, it’s all beautiful. Serkis and the animators deserve an Oscar for how they make Caesar real and made me forget he’s a collection of polygons and shaders.

rotpota

Turning to the fully human cast, James Franco as Will Rodman (the scientist who inadvertently uplifts apekind) delivers a moving, detailed performance. He pitches it more like an indie film than the summer blockbuster it actually is. The only criticism I have for John Lithgow (Rodman’s Alzheimers-crippled father) is that he’s not in the film enough. I loved the chemistry between Franco and Lithgow and also between them and Caesar. How often have we witnessed characters smiling / crying at the space they think a CGI character will be? Not in ‘ROTPOTA.’ From being a tiny, cute ape baby to his full alpha malehood, Caesar is embedded in the family. Yes, that’s partly due to the hyper-realistic CGI but the rest of it is Franco and Lithgow selling it to us. Freida Pinto was good but under-used, I felt. In narrative terms, she could easily have been written out. I did feel someone at the studio must have said, “HEY! Where’s the love interest?? Throw a girlfriend in there!”

Props to one of my favourite actors, David Hewlett, as long-suffering neighbour Hunsicker. If you follow all the shit that happens to this poor bloke, it’s actually a very dark comedy. Hewlett was excellent in the various Stargate shows and also twitchily irascible in ‘Splice,’ it’s good to see him in a major release like this. Also very good was Tom ‘Draco’ Felton as one of the handlers at the Primate House Of Doom. I only noticed his American accent slip once and his performance was convincingly nasty. As a nice little nod to us old people who like the originals, Felton gets to utter Charlton Heston’s immortal line. No, not that one at the end, the one where he’s in the net. Where I hope that Hewlett doesn’t typecast as beleaguered / grumpy bloke, I also hope that Felton doesn’t get stuck with being the nasty guy. He should do a silly romcom or something similar next.

rotpota

The story of how Caesar ends up leading the ape rebellion unfolds with a great pace but also with enough time that we become emotionally involved and invested in the characters. Something films like ‘Transformers 3,’ ‘Green Lantern,’ and (apart from Magneto) ‘X-Men: First Class’ failed at this year. Yes, this is a big action film with action set pieces. The extended ape escape is thrilling! Logically I know that’s a CGI silverback hurling a CGI parking meter at a cop car but it all feels very real. The drama is in the emotional connection we have made with the apes. When we see Franco and Caesar hugging in the end scene and Caesar says the words, ‘I am home,’ there’s real emotion precisely because the film put in the backstory. We’ve seen Franco holding baby Caesar, we remember how cute he looked as he bottle fed himself. And now here he is, the Lenin of the ape world.

And on that note, this is probably the most socialist revolutionary film to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Caesar at first longs to go home to his human / ruling class family. But, eventually, he voluntarily decides to stay with his brothers and sisters in the ape house. There’s even a sign exchange between him and a proto Dr. Zaius where he explains the power in a union. Billy Bragg must have teared up at that bit. The orang replies, ‘Apes are stupid,’ before ambling off. He probably votes New Labour, the reformist.

Essentially, ‘ROTPOTA’ can be seen as a monster film. And you know a monster film is great when you find yourself siding with the ‘monsters’ against humanity. Like the best of the original Apes films, ‘ROTPOTA,’ makes us question our own morality and also our status as alleged top species on this planet. What gives us the right to torture sentient species in order to develop new wonder drugs? (Or, more likely, new cosmetics?) What is our speciesist arrogance based on?

I adored ‘ROTPOTA’ and if you get the chance to see it in the cinema, in all it’s huge, widescreen glory, please go. Not just for the spectacle of the action scenes but so you see every touch, every interaction between the fabulous Caesar and the damn dirty humans he eventually overthrows.

The Tree Of Life

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

So, after the high-octane spectacle of ‘Super 8,’ I headed to see Terence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ at Derby Quad yesterday. My companion was fellow film buff Nat. I’d heard that the film was very divisive, prompting walk-outs from the audience so I wanted to go with someone I knew loved cinema and would give it a fair chance.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a family growing up in Texas in the 1950s. Dad (Brad Pitt) and Mom (Jessica Chastain) have three boys. The eldest (Jack) is played as a kid by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn. The film keeps skipping backwards and forwards through time. We see the kids born, we see them as children and we see Jack as both a kid and the be-suited Penn, loping around modern-day skyscrapers and looking angsty. The main narrative point is that one of the boys dies at age 19. How, we’re never told (Vietnam? Car crash?). We see the mother and father’s anguish and hear the mother, calling to God to explain her loss

These family moments are amazingly told by Malick. This is the only film I’ve ever seen that seems to match how I think: time skips from now to then to now, memory upon memory being triggered by the vaguest of associations. The cinematography is stunning, there’s an almost surreal quality to how close we are to this family, these kids. Malick captures so many moments that define and describe the characters without the use of dialogue. This film at its best is a visual poem, daring and bold in its avoidance of all the conventional cinematic narrative and expositionary tricks.

And then there’s the twenty minutes concerning the birth of the universe, solar system, Earth and life on Earth (including dinosaurs). Every shot is as loving and detailed as Malick’s familial observations and the effect is to push us as an audience towards marvel, wonder at the cosmic splendour. However, there are also huge religious tones to this sequence and the film as a whole. The film starts with a quote from the Bible and throughout we hear characters’ voices imploring God to provide them with some meaning, some explanation for everything they are suffering.

This is what most jarred with me and disconnected me from the film. As a lifelong atheist, what Malick presumably intended to be spiritual and revelatory I instead found annoying, cloying and infuriating. The whole end heaven (?) sequence where everyone arrives on a beach was the most odious part. Characters meet each other, out of time and hug. Really? This is heaven, meeting yourself on a beach? I found it almost offensively theistic, particularly the part where the mother, framed by two beautiful women we’ve never seen before (angels??) intones how she willingly gives up her son. Why? What kind of god would put you through having and raising a son to kill them at 19 to prove some kind of point about morality or freedom of choice? Answer: no god I would wish to follow or believe in.

The Woody Allen Connection ~ Stardust Memories

I noticed something very bizarre as I was watching ‘The Tree of Life.’

Woody Allen’s 1980 classic ‘Stardust Memories’ is about a comic who believes comedy is beneath him. So, he wants to make important, big, philosophical films. We see clips from these films. And, blow me, if there aren’t similarities to ‘The Tree of Life.’ Near the end of ‘Stardust Memories,’ we see a clip of the cosmic film and it’s shots of volcanoes erupting, clouds scudding, waves crashing… exactly the same as Malick’s nature bit.

There’s also a scene where characters arrive from a train at a garbage dump, presumably the afterlife. They walk around aimlessly as seagulls wheel overhead, cawing wildly. Scratch the train and the garbage dump and that’s the end of ‘The Tree of Life.’

Whereas Allen was poking fun at himself and at wilfully ‘arthouse’ directors, Malick is, presumably, being stone-cold serious. So, what does it mean that his idea of cosmic wonder was parodied 31 years ago by Allen? There’s a reason that tropes become toothless and ripe for humour.

As beautifully shot, acted and directed as ‘The Tree of Life’ is, I believe it is a film hobbled by its own pretentiousness. It is trying way too hard to be profound and therefore often drifts into unintended comedy or, even worse, dullness. I confess, I couldn’t wait for it to end, the end heaven beach scene dragged on forever (eternity? 🙂 ). Checking online, it appears that Malick wants to make a six hour version!

But I don’t hate the film. Nat and I talked about it, comparing experiences. We both baulked at the religiosity, both loved the baby / toddler bits. And we were both unsettled by the film, it did affect us. She was also waiting for it to end so I don’t think she’ll be investing in the six hour cut. Then again, we did well compared to the eight or so people who actually just walked out of Quad. I think that’s the most people I’ve ever seen walk out of a screening anywhere!

It’s a shame and I do feel those early-leavers missed out as there is a beautiful family story here that is movingly told. If I could pick a version, I’d pick one without all the Christian baggage and with a less dour view of creation. After all the universe, whether it’s the birth of galaxies or the wiggling of a tiny baby’s toes is wonderful, is startling, is a miracle. Why ruin it by sticking God in there?

Or maybe Allen’s Alvy Singer was taught the most powerful lesson years ago in ‘Stardust Memories.’ When asking god/aliens about the meaning of life, how can he make things better, what about war, poverty etc., the aliens/god reply, “You’re a comedian ~ you want to make the world a better place? TELL FUNNIER JOKES!”

Super 8

Super8

Last night, Malcy and I went to see ‘Captain America’ at the Derby Showcase Deluxe but it turned out to be in The Director’s Lounge. Not wishing to pay a million billion trillion quid for film tickets, we opted for ‘Super 8’ instead.

Serendipity squared.

I’d known about the film from trailers, it looked cute: kids running about shooting zombie films when *blammo* something strange starts happening. I was intrigued but it wasn’t top of my list to see.

Just shows how wrong one can be. And also how trailers sometimes totally undersell a film.

ssuspsp

From the beginning to the end of ‘Super 8’ I was hooked. When I wasn’t hiding behind my hands at the scary bits, I was grinning like a loon or sighing at the memories of my first love this film provoked.

I’ve seen all the blockbusters this summer: ‘X-Men: First Class,’ ‘Transformers 3,’ ‘Green Lantern,’ ‘Harry Potter DH2,’ and I think I can honestly say this has been the most disappointing year for cineplex films in a good while. From the merely meh like HP and ‘X-Men’ to the turbid, squat cankers of ‘Transformers’ and ‘Green Lantern,’ 2011 hasn’t delivered on the popcorn film front.

Then, with one fell swoop, ‘Super 8’ saved the day and my cinematic summer!

I’m not going to do any spoilers in this review because one of the reasons I loved the film so is that I really didn’t know what to expect. What was the strangeness? Was it aliens? Zombies? Escaped killer army robot? So, please, do yourself a favour and go in similarly un-prepared and the film will reward you so much more.

What I can tell you is that the film is set in 1979 and that the lead character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is 13. (Which is spooky because that’s how old I was in ’79. This immediately brought a huge set of added resonances for me. Also, if they got anything wrong about that time, I’d stick out for me by a mile. It was all faultless.)

Supes

Aaanyway, Joe and his group of mates are shooting zombie films on super 8mm cameras when there’s a huge explosion on a train track next to where they’re filming. After that, things in town start drifting into weirdville: animals run off, people disappear. And what the hell is up with the Air Force, snooping around?

So, a great, hooky premise. But the film would have died if the actors cast as the kids had, in any way, been unconvincing. Thankfully, not only are they convincing, they are magnificent. Under J.J. Abram’s deft, Spielbergesque (well, he is the producer) direction, the kids deliver the best performances I’ve seen so far this year. Not just compared to other kids, compared to adult actors.

The blossoming attraction Alice Dainard feels for Joe could have been syrupy dreck but Elle Fanning, who plays her, made it sweet and believable. And there’s no room to hide in this pic behind a CGI mask or a massive robot, Abrams is in there, SUPERCLOSEUP, on these kids’ faces all the time.

Abrams manages to pull off the same trick that Spielberg mastered in E.T.: we see the film from the kids’ perspective in that he makes us kids again. From family mealtime warzone to skeezy older guys perving on sisters, we’re with them, we are them. The corollary of this is that the adult world is seen through that prism, all distant parents and blundering, grown-up stupidity. Abrams’ lightness of direction never lets that veer into emotionally unrealistic Famous Five territory, the narrative lets the kids remain centre-stage in a very un-staged way.

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Woah – and the ending! I don’t think it’s giving too much to say that the ending piles spectacle upon spectacle but, unlike ‘Green Lantern’ and the other braindead 2011 blockbusters, the mayhem is grounded in the reaction of the kids. So, and I hope you’re listening, Michael Bay, IT MEANS SOMETHING! I really didn’t give a toss about Shia and the Fox replacement, I did care about these kids, my heart was jumping into my throat. I was cheering them on, I felt part of their gang.

That’s all I can really say about ‘Super 8’ without getting into super spoilers. I only saw it by accident but what a lucky night that was for me. I know as soon as it’s out on Blu-ray, I’ll be buying it because this is a film I’ll watch again and again. I’d put it up there with ‘Stand By Me,’ ‘Explorers’ or ‘Monsters’ in terms of how it connected to me.

Thank you, ‘Super 8’ team for making such a beautiful film! 🙂

Alt.Fiction 2011

25/06/2011 10:16

Last weekend, I went to Alt.Fiction 2011:

Alt.Fiction brings you an extensive programme of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction literature events. Our flagship Alt.Fiction Literature Festival has been running since 2006 with an exciting mix of panels, readings, workshops and podcasts. Featuring leading authors, agents and editors, it is a celebration of all things genre fiction. In 2010, Alt.Fiction became a Writing East Midlands brand, evolving in to a year round programme of events taking place across the East Midlands and beyond.

We’re excited to be delivering our first two day festival in Derby this June, as wellas more intimate evenings throughout the year, with leading lights in Science Fiction such as Iain M. Banks, to interactive panels with industry experts. Alt.Fiction’s events are for fans and writers alike.We invite you to join us on a tour-de-force of alternative fiction!
(Source: Alt.Fiction)

I haven’t missed an AF since they started and they just keep getting better and better! When it moved from the Assembly Rooms to Quad last year, I was a bit worried that the smaller venue might not be able to cope. True, there isn’t as much milling-about space as over the square but this year confirmed that the panels and workshops are far better served by Quad. Also, the newly refurbed Quad cafe was a wonderful place to author spot:

The best instance of this was when I was sitting and chatting with Tony Ballantyne and Ian Sales. We were, as usual, talking about favourite authors and I was wanking on about Jon Courtenay Grimwood and how much I love his books and would love to know what he’s up to / when the next book is out. Ian piped up, “Why don’t you ask him – he’s sitting over there!”

25/06/2011 13:29

Sure enough he was, so I went and got the snap above. That’s the joy of AF, you pay a tiny amount of money for what you get: panels and workshops from the top authors in their genres. I went to every panel I could and I heard so much amazing advice for budding writers that it put my entire year of taking Creative Writing at Derby Uni to shame. It was an intense weekend, I can’t seriously pick out any highlights because everything I attended was of such a high calibre. One thing I can say: every panel needs more Sarah Pinborough! 🙂

25/06/2011 15:02

This year’s guest of honour was Alastair Reynolds. He delivered an intimate, funny ramble about his career and I was quite bewildered that I was sitting there, listening to yet another of my favourite authors speak in person.

Alt.Fiction 2011 ticked every box for me and then some. I had sooo many chats with people, talked about so much SF, politics, films, music. The only downside of AF is that it makes me realise how isolated I am the rest of the year. The net is fine and all but there’s something special about meeting and conversing with other geeks in person.

I am already waiting for Alt.Fiction 2012! 🙂

Click here for day one pics, here for day two!

“They’re Not Throwing Their Fannies In Your Face”

Tonight, I watched a wonderful documentary about the British sculptor Reg Butler. It was made in 1974 and it’s pure old-school BBC arts doc: no moving cameras, no tricksy cutaways or CGI, just talking heads. Talking about art and life and sculpture. Click here to watch it.


The doc traced Butler’s career from his early breakthrough piece ‘Monument To The Unknown Political Prisoner’ up to the (then) new works: figurative bronzes of women (though Butler calls them girls) painted in lifelike tones. The Tate now owns ‘Girl On A Round Base‘ and it’s still a startling work which makes me question my own sexuality, my objectification of women as sexual objects and, naturally, mortality.

Such overtly sexual and sexualised sculpture is bound to poke at bourgeois morality and the interviewer did ask some rather strange question (as this article points out). Butler fielded this banal line of questioning with aplomb: he laid himself bare and admitted that his obsession with ‘girls’ was partly lust, partly compassion. the most telling part is that he emphasised the gradation of care. I can’t remember exactly but he says something like “If you can look at a girl and see her, have some compassion for her, imagine her growing old, imagine her dying, that’s the point.”

So, yes, of course his sculptures were about lust but they’re also obviously about death. And he freely admits his obsession with girls.

Can you see why I like this artist who died thirty years ago?

I would say 99% of my songs are about women and girls I’ve known. Unlike Butler, the females I’m writing about aren’t an abstraction, a Platonic ideal of ‘girlness’ I review in my head. And women, girls, love, lust, sex, death are the themes I return to again and again and again. I’ve tried writing scathing political diatribes: they’re shit. I’ve tried writing pretty stories where everything works out, no loose ends, poignant closure, the songwriter’s version of THE GREAT NOVEL. I can’t do it. I’m a broken record, a rusty, squealing hinge, a dripping tap, the painful hardon you get on the bus that makes you miss your stop.

I’m confused and marooned and, as a middle-aged man, while the things that were trials as a teenager are trivial to me now, they’ve been outpaced by new terrors. Love shatters and pierces ones body and soul with such beautiful shrapnel. I pick out the slivers and scratch bloody dots across staves, redundant fucking doodling.

I wish I could sculpt like Reg Butler. I wish I could have met this man who I have nothing in common with and who I have everything in common with.

Terminator Salvation

T4

Today was Father’s Day so I took my Dad to see the most blokey film on at the moment: Terminator Salvation. (Or Terminator: Salvation. Or T4: Salvation. I’m not quite sure which one is definitive!)

Quick review: it’s great! Go and see it now!

Now, onto the more lengthy, wanky appraisal… (WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM!)

I don’t think I have particularly weird tastes in film. They’re pretty much the same as my music tastes – I like pop films the same as I like pop music. Anything willfully experimental or self-consciously chin-stroking leaves me cold. Therefore, you’d think that I’d go along with most reviews of most films, seeing as I’m quite average.

But if I’d listened to the reviews of Salvation and hadn’t bothered to see it, I’d have missed a lovely little film.

T4
Nearly all the reviews I’ve seen bemoan McG as choice of director and say that the story is choppy and emotion-light.

I disagree.

T4 has a very human, very emotional thread running through it. McG establishes characters one cares about and empathises with. Even the token cute kid! Normally, token cute kids in SF annoy the buggery out of me (hello Newt, hello Naomi Wildman!). But Jadagrace Berry never crosses that line, so full props to McG for pulling that off.

From the opening shots set, bizarrely, six years ago, McG delivers a solid, grounded slice of Terminator. I don’t say that lightly, I adored Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, it’s easily the best recent SF TV series. I was very saddened by its cancellation and really thought the coming film couldn’t match it for emotional depth and breadth. Terminator Glau!

T4
But it does. A lot of the credit for this rests on the shoulders of the film’s dynamic duo, Bale and Worthington. Bale’s John Connor is the best John Connor so far. The fanboy in me loves seeing, finally, an adult, powerful, Connor. The scene at the start where he throws himself down the shaft of a Skynet base shows he’s the kind of man we always wanted John Connor to be.

Bale has the physicality to be utterly convincing but he also has those searchlight eyes, scanning from confused hurt to pure rage in a flicker. I really cannot fault his Connor in any way. I only wish there was more of him but, apparently, Bale only took on T4 after re-writes to increase his screen time. How much Connor would we have seen originally?

Another actor could have mangled Connor’s big hero speech at the end of the film. Could have made it as laughably corny as the motivational-poster barf-fest at the end of Independence Day. Bale, however, is not another actor. He’s Christian GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING Bale and we all know how seriously he takes his acting. 🙂

T4
Nearly taking Bale’s crown, Sam Worthington as cyber-Lazarus Marcus Wright is always compelling, ever magnetic (sorry). If I was a 1940s studio head, I’d chomp my cigar, belch and then say, “Kid, the camera loves ya!” before signing him to a punitive exclusive contract.

McG pulls a lot of extreme close-ups in T4 and Worthington could easily have wilted under that pitiless scrutiny. He doesn’t, he seems to revel in it. His role is in some ways more complex than Bale’s: he’s human, he’s not, he’s a killer robot but he feels every cut and bullet, he has the memories of a man but he’s revealed to be a machine. That’s a lot to try and express within the confines of action-film dialogue. Worthington succeeds.

T4
There are some bad points about T4. I do feel that it’s been chopped about a bit.

For example, Moon Bloodgood, above, had a scene where she was topless, comforting Worthington’s character. I say comforting as I don’t think the scene was meant to be sexy, more about humanity, our animal nature. But it’s been excised. Maybe it was to get the 12A certificate but it’s left a great, big clunking hole. One minute, it’s raining and things are getting close between Blair (Bloodgood’s character) and Wright, the next, rain’s gone and she’s inexplicably offering antibiotics to three chancers we’ve never seen before.

What the hell?

This jarring bowdlerisation shook me out of the film, destroyed my sense of immersion for a good couple of minutes. You may think I’m saying all this simply because I’d love to see Bloodgood’s boobies. Yes, of course I would, she’s gorgeous. But the issue is a huge film like this having such a gaping p(l)othole. Couldn’t they have patched over it with something? For what it’s worth, Bloodgood’s breasts are said to be on the forthcoming DVD version. Hmmmm…

T4
That’s the most irritating bump in the narrative road but there are a few more. Parts of the film feel a little rushed, like too much was cut out. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s how it felt in the cinema. There are certain more normal plot points that made me go ‘huh?’ too. Why does Marcus Wright get recognised as metal by fellow terminators only at the end of the film? Were the ones at the gas station, the termi-bikes et al holding back when they attacked him? It didn’t appear as if they were. So, if they had killed him, what would have happened to Skynet’s grand infiltration plan?

Okay, I am getting into pedantic territory here. Sometimes, you just have to sit back, munch your popcorn and enjoy the spectacle.

T4
And, overall, that’s what I did. Terminator Salvation engaged me, made my pulse race, made me care about the characters and the climax had me curling my toes in apprehension. I couldn’t really ask for more from a summer blockbuster action film.

The real compliment? Terminator Salvation rewired my experience of reality. When we left the cinema and drove home, I kept noticing how beautiful our world is, in contrast to the post-Judgement Day landscape of T4. People walking their dogs, little kids on bikes, it all looked glorious. Like some kind of surreal advert.

But then I also noticed the number of robots and computers around us… the automatic doors, the ticket machine, the blinking lights of the escalator. Suddenly, even the obsequious whirr of my car’s electric windows sounded menacing to me.

One day… one day…