June, 2013

Some Summer Films

I’ve not really written a great deal here about the films I’ve seen recently, and as much as anything, I think that’s because I’ve not been to too many films lately. At least in the cinema.
But there are one or two that I’ve caught up with.
I should start with Star Trek Into Darkness which I always knew I had to see in IMAX having watched a six minute preview with the first part of The Hobbit last year. JJ Abrams just jumps you straight into the action with an all action set piece. Star Trek purists complain that his version of the series isn’t what they remember from television. And it isn’t. But it’s close enough. The Kirk/Spock relationship is there, and Zachary Quinto in particular is superb. I like Simon Pegg a lot, but I’m really not sure about his abysmal Scottish accent, even though I know it’s awfulness might be deliberate.
In this film we get a strange villain in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch, and he’s a damn fine villain. He has deep sonorous voice and frames the piece’s terrorist themes very well.
By now the film has pretty much left cinemas but I thought it was worth mentioning.
If there’s one horror film that had a profound impact on me when I was younger, it was The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s telling of Angela Carter’s reworking of folk tales. I can just hear George Fenton’s theme music in my head just thinking about it. While I wasn’t as excited by An Interview with a Vampire as some were, the idea that he might be revisiting some of that earlier territory with Byzantium meant that I had to see it.
Lately Jordan has been busying himself with the slightly overblown Showtime series The Borgias, so it was good to see him back in the horror genre. Byzantium takes place in an unnamed seaside town where Gemma Arterton’s Clara has run away to with her teenage daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They are both vampires, although the “V” word only seems to be used in the title of the play the film is adapted from. Clara became a vampire despite it being a “brotherhood” that only lets in men, and her daughter also became one more than 200 years ago. Now they’re on the run from that brotherhood and have reached a sleepy seaside town with a disused guest house – named Byzantium – owned by Daniel Mays.
The film’s origins in a play are perhaps visible in the scale of the piece. And it’s clear that this film was made to a budget probably similar to one episode of The Borgias. But it’s dark, and smart. And I really rather liked it. Sam Riley is great as the hunter, and Johnny Lee Miller has a rip-roaring cameo as a navy man who wrongs Clara.
It’s not perfect, but it’s vastly superior to much of the “horror” we get these days.
Of the two films opening this weekend that I’ve seen, I can comfortably say that Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is the better piece. As he’s explained a lot in interviews (and again in a packed Q&A session after the film at the BFI on Wednesday), he made the film in the downtime between completing principal photography on Avengers [Assemble] and beginning post production on that film.
It seems that for years he’s been having actors who are part of his “gang” come around and perform Shakespeare for fun. And for this film, he gathered a load of them and made it, in his own home, in about 12 days.
And you know what? It’s really very good. Now I can’t claim to be a complete Whedon afficiando as many in the Q&A were. I caught the odd Buffy, and although I tried to get into Angel it wasn’t my thing. I came to Firefly on DVD and loved it however. While Dollhouse I also watched late and thought was rather superior. And Cabin in the Woods was good fun. But what I do like about Whedon is that he runs a little against the Hollywood grain. He’s rails against the lack of female roles – promising that the forthcoming SHIELD TV series will have plenty. And he can clearly write.
But here, the script is already written (although he has tinkered with it, and reordered it a little), so it’s about getting the most out of his actors. The film is set in the current day, but somehow it hangs together anyway, and the language is certainly more accessible than in some of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m seeing The Tempest this weekend).
And it’s also very funny. While the central conceits in Shakespeare’s comedies can sometimes be hard to run with, in Much Ado it’s generally believable. And the characters run true. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (both longtime Whedon actors) play Beatrice and Benedict, and you completely buy into their characters. Across the board, everyone does a great job, although Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry, played as an inept TV detective, steals every scene that he’s in.
Really funny, and really worth seeing.
I know lots of people were most excited to see Iron Man 3, but despite Robert Downey Jr making Richard Stark a great character, I find myself getting a less excited about the way Hollywood superhero films have been going. You just know that every film is going to end with an “epic” effects-laden fight that’s going to take upwards of the last third of the film to complete. Maybe when I was 12 I would have found this prospect thrilling, although I note that films like Star Wars managed to end with fairly tightly filmed endings. So I didn’t bother with the third film. I’ll probably watch it on TV at some point
Which brings us to the Man of Steel, the Superman “reboot”. When I say that the exception to the rule about recent superhero films, is the Christopher Nolan Batman series, then the fact that he’s producing this film immediately intrigues me. Yes, it’s directed by Zach Snyder who’s problem on Watchmen was that he was simply too faithful to the comics. But it makes the film worth of attention.
It seems that everyone is trying to forget the 2006 film Superman Returns with that guy that nobody can remember but who looked a lot like Christopher Reeve. So it’s back to basics with this film and we get the full origin story with Russell Crowe as his father dispatching the young Kal-El (aka Superman) from an imploding Krypton. General Zod (Michael Shannon) seems to be attempting some kind of coup against this backdrop, but it fails and he and his co-conspirators are dispatched a far flung jail of sorts.
The structure of Man of Steel is interesting because once on earth we skip Clark Kent’s upbringing and immediately see him working on a trawler that’s called to the aid of an exploding oil rig. He performs superhuman feats and then has to disappear, only to repeat such feats later elsewhere. He’s a drifter of sorts. Just when you think you’re not going to get a backstory, we head into a dreamy Kansas world where Kevin Costner is his dad and Diane Lane is his mum. As the film progresses, we get more revealed about his life, as stories of his upbringing reveal Clark’s character traits.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the case, tracking down Clark, having inadvertently stumbled upon a spaceship buried deep in the Canadian ice. But there’s not a great deal about life at the Daily Planet under editor Laurence Fishburne.
Instead Zog arrives back on earth and what then follows is mayhem.
And here’s my problem with the film. It seems every tentpole summer film these days has to somehow out-blow-up all the previous tentpole summer films. First, Smallville is nearly completely destroyed, before the action moves to Metropolis.
By the end of an exhaustive, and at times quite dull, thirty minutes or more of destruction, there must barely be a building left undamaged. Entire sections of the city are flattened. Yet do we mourn the hundreds of thousands who must have died? Of course not. They’re barely considered.
It’s not as though the CGI isn’t excellent. But it’s just that the shock has gone out of it. Oh look, another skyscraper has fallen down. Yawn. I was just bored.
As I said before with Superman Returns seven years ago, the issue is that you just know that Superman is indestructable. In this instance, it’s everything around him that’s not.
While I wouldn’t expect an action blockbuster like this to be character driven, I never really felt any jeopardy. That’s not to say that this is a bad film. But it’s not good either. There’s not enough humour in it as Superman is generally quite po-faced. And the story means that there’s barely time to breathe before some earth-shattering event (quite literally) starts again.
The performances are generally fine. I’ve never really watched The Tudors, so I’m not familiar with Henry Cavill. He’s clearly very square jawed, although at times he felt too clean cut. In Star Trek Into Darkness, there was a much commented on scene where Alice Eve needlessly gets into her underwear. Well I can report that there’s a scene in this where Cavill needlessly walks around bare chested in just some ripped trousers. I don’t think one equalises the other though.
Amy Adams does the best she can, although the film struggles not to have Lois Lane permanently in peril. Otherwise, it’s the effects that shine strongest. It’s just that they’re called upon too often.
And somebody somewhere has been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica. Everything feels completely lifted from the way they did those effects, with non-stop lens flare, and crash zooms from wide to narrower shots in the action scenes. I honestly thought at times that we were going to zoom into a Colonial Viper.
I saw the film in 3D, but it was unimpressive. I’m never going to be completely won over by 3D, but it was a notably poorer experience than Star Trek Into Darkness.
So overall somewhat disappointing. But I fear this is the way too many films are going. We saw a trailer for Pacific Rim at the start of this film, and I get the impression that it too will have blown up half the planet by the end of the film, as big robots fight it out Transformers-style. And that is not a good thing.

Reclaiming Radio

For months now, there’s been a document kicking around in my Google Drive entitled – as this blog is – “Reclaiming Radio”.
It was effectively common knowledge that Apple was working towards some kind of streaming music offering, and earlier this week, having concluded a deal with the third and final major record label, they announced iTunes Radio.
I had in mind quite a detailed piece about why what these streaming music services like Apple and Pandora are offering, is not actually “Radio.”
I was going to write about how the word “Radio” has been repurposed by broadcast industry outsiders to mean something different to what listeners have always understood it to mean.
I’d have taken readers back to the early days of radio from Guglielmo Marconi’s work in the late 1890s, and the earliest stations beginning broadcasting in the early part of the twentieth century, through to the first proper disruption the medium has suffered with the introduction of the internet.
But mostly, I’d have been aggrieved about the co-opting of the word “radio” from technological interlopers, who are adopting the word to act as a proxy for the new services that they’re offering.
However, I don’t need to do that, because lots of other people have been doing it too.
David Lloyd has a great piece about what radio actually is, and what it means to listeners.
Phil Riley asks whether Apple’s move will mean the end for radio? (Broadly speaking, he says it won’t).
James Cridland suggests that misuse of the word radio is actually the crime of passing off (And there are lots of pages of discussion underneath his piece).
Writing a short while ago, when Google announced its own music streaming services, Mark Barber also explains why this isn’t radio.
In addition to all of this, I thought that it worth looking at the definition of radio.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
Language evolves. We all might be getting totes emosh about the industry, and not experiencing too many lols, but the way we describe things changes.
So as an industry, we need to win listeners “hearts and minds” as John Adams might have said. We can’t go on crying about other using and abusing our terminology. We need to win listeners back through what “we” can do that “they” aren’t able to do.
In some ways, this is the first time that radio has truly had something genuinely different park its tanks on our lawn. While the BBC Home Service might have killed off Grace Archer on the night ITV launched in 1955, nothing has really threatened radio until now.
We can’t ignore these new services – the companies backing them are multi-billion pound international conglomerates.
But rather than moan about the misappropriation of our language we need to take the game to them and play to our strengths. Radio has always been more than an endless series of songs generated by some kind of algorithm and punctuated by ads*, and we need to make sure our services are so good, listeners appreciate the difference. See all those links above if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.
Take the fight to them. Because if we don’t, we deserve everything that comes to us.
*If that is a fair approximation of your service, then you need to get worried, and quickly.

Protesters in the West End

It’s all been a bit lively in the West End of London today, with protesters occupying a nearby building in Beak Street, before being forcibly evicted by police. More protesters have been moving about the West End, all followed by large numbers of police (and a not insubstantial number of media).
We had something of a strong vantage point for many of the events as they unfolded. Most notably, there was a protester on the roof of the occupied building on Beak Street (a former police training centre that has been empty for a few years now) who appeared to try to jump off the roof of the building before being wrestled to the floor by police in climbing gear who were tethered to the building. It’s still not clear what he was trying to do, but police probably saved his life by dragging him to the floor.
One of the things we got asked to do was to not send around photos or videos to the outside world while police operations were in progress. That said, there were TV cameras crews sited all around us, including on the roof over my head.
Anyway, although at time of writing, there is still lots of activity in London, I think it’s probably now “safe” to publish some of the pictures and a short video that I took.

A Disingenous Newspaper

Yesterday the free UK newspaper, Metro, managed to publish a massive great spoiler on the current series of Game of Thrones. While discussions about current TV series are the meat and drink of newspapers – think of all the articles about who will be the next Doctor Who? However Metro ran this “news story” on page three, and illustrated it with a half-page photo that very clearly, showed part of what happened. (Incidentally, that image was pretty graphic considering real life recent events involving knives).
Metro rightly got hammered in social media yesterday with hundreds of Tweets from angry readers who hadn’t seen goings on in the series yet.
Today, in a typically bullish response, Metro ran a piece basically defending itself, highlighting on several occasions that the episode had already been shown (completely irrelevant in today’s TV watching world). Newspapers never like to admit that they’ve screwed something up. So they come out punching.
Now to be clear, I don’t read Metro – and only saw the headline when fellow commuters read the paper. But its prevalence on public transport in big cities around the UK makes it ubiquitous. And in any case I’d also seen the UK airing of the show on Sky Atlantic on Monday night, so it wasn’t a spoiler for me.
But I’m also well aware that the vast majority of Metro’s readership hasn’t seen the show. Most will not have even had the opportunity to watch the show yet.
Here are just some of the reasons:
– They were busy on Monday and Tuesday nights, and hadn’t had a chance to catch up.
– They were watching the excellent BBC2 show The Fall, and will catch-up with a later showing
– They were saving up episodes to watch together on their PVR
– They are Virgin Media customers (vast chunks of London are cabled so this is a significant part of the audience) and don’t have access to Sky Atlantic
– They don’t have pay TV and watch the series on DVD or Blu-ray
Sky knows that this is how people watch TV shows these days. That’s why they show Game of Thrones multiple times a week, and make it available to catch-up with on computers and mobile devices (although I’d recommend against watching this particular show in a public place).
The nature of the show means that it is very different to fire on EastEnders or a murder on Coronation Street. I’ll reiterate. Despite it being shown on TV on Monday, most people will not have watched it yet.
The word “spoiler” seemingly emerged during the pre-web Usenet era of the internet. Once upon a time, there was no rush. Economically film prints used in the UK would be “used” versions that had already done the rounds in the US. Viewers with little real knowledge of what was being made and when accepted that there were often long delays between a film or TV programme’s US release and it hitting UK shores. Famously, Star Wars opened in late May 1977 in the US, not reaching the UK until late December the same year, with most people not seeing the film until 1978. The coming of the internet meant that it was far easier to learn more than you wanted to know about a show ahead of time. Learning the murderer of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks was a good example.
Yet today, while films and TV shows get near simultaneous global releases, our watching habits have changed out of all recognition. Netflix releases a series all at once; we may gorge a physical DVD boxset many months or years after a show came out (c.f. The Wire); PVRs and streaming catch-up services like iPlayer mean that we schedule programmes on our own terms – we don’t let channel schedulers dictate our lives – sport and live reality shows excepted.
Does this make it harder to sometimes talk about films and television programmes in the mainstream media?
Yes it does.
The subject comes up quite a lot on the Kermode/Mayo film podcast where sometimes previous films are used to compare with new fare, and invariably someone will complain that a classic has been spoiled for them. Is it a spoiler to know what happens at the end of Romeo and Juliet or King Lear? Or to learn about Rosebud in Citizen Kane? What about Luke Skywalker’s parents or who dies at what point in the Harry Potter saga?
To be honest, while I wouldn’t expect any serious published piece about any of these productions to shy away from revealing what happened, I wouldn’t expect a headline, title or accompanying imagery to immediately reveal all.
One of the spurious arguments Metro has put forward is that the book was published 13 years ago (and The Daily Show made a similar quip in Tuesday’s episode). That’s true, but we’re watching a TV adaptation that aired for the first time last Sunday in the US and on Monday in the UK. Clearly very many viewers will not have read the books. I know I haven’t.
Metro is fully aware that TV viewing habits have changed. The reason I use the word “disingenuous” above is because the editor knows perfectly well what he was doing when he published those spoilers. And he’s being mendacious if he doesn’t acknowledge that.
Metro sells itself to advertisers as a leading “Urban Media Brand”. In their own words, its audience is “cash rich and time poor” – in other words the kind of people who use PVRs and catch up with things on demand.
In the end Metro doesn’t care. A Twitter storm yesterday means that they’ve already filled two pages of today’s paper. They’ve got page views on their website that they’ll go on to monetise. Unless people stop picking up a free paper, or advertisers stop using it, it makes no difference to them.
I’m not sure why this whole thing has exercised me so much. As I say, I wasn’t affected by it.
I just think it’s the utter contempt that Metro has shown its readers. I shouldn’t expect any more from a company that’s owned by Associated Newspapers.

Pitchside Advertising

I was out on Sunday evening, and didn’t watch the Brazil v England match live from Brazil, but I did watch the highlights later. Good goals from the Ox and Rooney, but I’ll leave the football alone. I want to talk about the pitchside advertising.
As the match kicked off, the pitchside advertising switched from looked like static ads viewable in the stadium, to what at first seemed to be those scrolling electronic ads that you get in most Premier League grounds these days.
So far so normal, except that there was a brief shot of James Milner right at the start standing in front of one of those electronic ads and there was ugly keying all around him. In other words, it looked like the technology that weather presenters had to stand in front of the map before they refined green screen technology.
Then I began to notice the ads themselves a bit more. There was an advert for Teletext which wanted to know “Do you want to get away like Wayne?”
Huh? That doesn’t seem very nice. He’s on the pitch you know. But of course – he can’t see it can he. He can just see the fixed ads for big brands like Nike. Another ad was for BT Sport, but only seemed to mention their UFC coverage. A bit odd. Most distasteful was an ad for a payday loans company I’d not previously heard of. Now I despise those companies in particular. They prey on the needy (An aside: doesn’t Nicholas Parsons earn enough from presenting Just A Minute? I’d happily see him get paid more if it meant that he stopped doing voiceovers for one of the bigger companies in the market).
So the first half, which Brazil dominated, was full of these ads aimed squarely at Brits. But that almost certainly meant that ITV was being delivered a UK-specifc feed.
To be clear, I’m 99% certain that ITV had nothing to do with any of this. They only sell programme advertising, and Ofcom doesn’t let them run in-game ads. But if the club or competition sells ads, then ITV has to show them. It’s certainly not unusual for pitchside ads in overseas games to be aimed at UK audiences. Whoever pays the most gets the ads (hence ads in Chinese at Premier League games). Indeed on occassion, two sets of cameras are used to give both home and away audiences localised ads. But I’m not clear what happens when ITV is being delivered a feed that has deliberately had ads “injected” into it.
For whatever reason, after halftime, the “injections” had been cut off. If ITV did this, then they did right. We didn’t get awful green screen technology distracting us. Nor did we get unpleasant ads from either holiday companies seemingly mocking a player on the pitch, or a loans outfit failing to say how high their APR is (something that almost certainly would fall foul of the ASA code in the UK).