July, 2005

Over There

I watched the first episode of Over There last night, and thought it was really good. Sky should waste no time in getting on in the UK.
The obvious difficulty of producing a series set in the current climate, is that you might have to take sides – especially with a conflict that as sensitive as this with large sections of the population completely against it. So rather than polarise one part of the audience or another, on the evidence of one programme, it carefully steers a route away from the rights and wrongs of actually taking part in the war (although that may have to come). Instead, it examines the conflict from the point of view of privates on the frontline.
A brief sequence at the start performs some brush stroke characterisation of the people we then go on to follow. But quickly, the troops are under fire and having to follow difficult and at times, pointless orders from above. We don’t know who’s going to live and who’s going to die or be injured, and the scenes of the troops walking out in the open with their night-vision goggles is chillingly scary.
You walk away from this feeling very lucky that you don’t have to be in their position. Exceptionally good drama.
Media Guardian has a summary of what various US critics have said about the programme.

Web Browser on PSP

I spent a bit of time deciding whether or not I’d install the new PSP update that takes the firmware to 2.0. It adds a proper browser, but takes away all the homebrew stuff that’s possible at the moment.
In the end I had to bite the bullet and download it – every game from here on in will force the update anyway.
It’s just a shame that I don’t have wi-fi (and none of my neighbours with strong enough signal strength have left theirs turned on and open) to make full use. At work, I managed to get the T-Mobile default site from the Starbucks next door. But you need to pay to use it.
I guess a wireless router is on my wants list now…

Dancing With The Stars

Dancing With The Stars is the US title for Strictly Come Dancing, and it’s been a big summer hit in the US. Except there’s been something of a controversy over the final and the outright winner.
While we’re used to doing the show and then coming back with the phone vote’s winners later the same night with shows like this, you can’t do that if you broadcast over multiple timezones. So you have to do this week’s results next week – something that really doesn’t work.
Anyway, read all about it here, if you care!

Sniper in Iraq

Salon has an excellent piece (watch an ad for free access) by Phillip Robertson about his attempt to track down the American soldier who shot dead an Iraqi journalist (and doctor) last month. It’s a very honest piece showing the impossibility of it all on the ground for the soldiers who are there.
I’m very curious to see what the new Steven Bochco series on FX in the US, Over There is like. Sky One has bought it in the UK, although I don’t know when it’s going to start.
(As a complete aside, a colleague claimed last night to have run into some bloke in a club who was buying bottles and bottles of champagne for all and sundry because he’d been in Iraq and had been paid some serious “hush” money. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice)

Silver City

It’s taken a while for John Sayles latest film to reach these shores. In the US it was released in the run up to last year’s presidential election, since it addresses State politics.
Included in the cast are some of Sayles favourite actors. Chris Cooper plays would-be Governor Dickie Pilager, who should in no way be confused with a certain ex-Governor on Texas who went on to bigger things. While Kris Kristofferson has a fleeting role as the local big-business guy.
But we spend most of our time in the company Danny (Danny Huston), once a journalist for the local paper, at a time when it did actually investigate things, but stitched up. Now he’s an investigator for a small town firm, who’s embroiled in a case that Cooper’s right hand man (a great Richard Dreyfuss role) has him look into when a photo-opportunity at a lakeside ends up with a dead body being reeled in by the governor-to-be.
The film gets into the dirty business of American politics and it’s spider-like links with local business interests. We also have pictures painted of the dubious employment practices with the trade in illegal immigrants from Mexico being used in the fields, factories and swish Colarado skiing communities.
As usual, Sayles has found an interesting location in the States and taken a close look at how things work there. It all feels very real, with naturalistic performances and a pace and plot that doesn’t feel too rushed.
Michael Murphy has a cameo as Cooper’s father, a Senator. Obviously this is supposed to be a political family, and again, I’m sure no direct links should be made!
Daryl Hannah has a fabulous little role as the black sheep of Cooper’s family, and Tim Roth plays a grungy ex-editor who now runs a counter-culture website from where you can really learn what’s going on while big-media plays it safe and gets sucked into large corporate ownership. Billy Zane’s sleazy PR guy is great too – he once appeared on television explaining the Big Tobacco position that smoking does not cause cancer.
Maybe the end is a touch laboured, but the points are all well made. Sayles just can’t actually make a bad film. Well he might act as script doctor on some pieces of work that end up as bad films, but that’s not really his fault, and they obviously pay the bills and let him do things like this.
And I haven’t mentioned that the film has a soundtrack to kill for. Well any film that has three different Cowboys Junkies tracks in it is going to get a big thumbs up from me to begin with. They’re all taken from The Trinity Session, and we get Mining For Gold over the opening titles before later hearing Misguided Angel and Blue Moon Revisited. But there’s plenty of other stuff including Lucinda Williams and a great track from Steve Earle over the end credits – Amerika v 6.0. The crying shame is that there doens’t seem to be a proper soundtrack album available. I suppose that the film’s too small a proposition to worry about such things. It looks as though I’ll have to put my own compilation together using the handy music listings from IMDB.

Open Tech 2005

I was pretty rubbish on Saturday, and only made this event by the skin of my teeth – not an easy achievement given the state of London transport in the aftermath of recent events.
Anyway, it was well worth going to, and there was the usual problem of deciding which events to see – the main lecture stream or the seminar stream.
My biggest technical accomplishment of the day was surely to work out how to operate the taps in the bathroom though. I felt completely stupid when having spent a couple of minutes waving my hand under unseen (and un-present) sensors, to get the water working, before finally realising there were foot pedals.
Biggest joke of the day was when a session on device hacking began with audience members being invited to bring their Ipod Shuffles to the front. They were immediately put in a cardboard box, “shuffled” and redistributed. Later on, they had to be “un-shuffled” when it became clear that valuable files might also be saved on the drives.
Anyway, lots of stuff to see and learn. Many more people I should have said hello to, but didn’t. But that’s my shy/nervous demeanour.
And I’d happily be building a Myth TV box right now, were it not for the fact that when our IT department rolled out new PCs to our department over the weekend, they insisted on taking away the old ones and not selling them off cheap. I’d have paid £100 for my old machine!

The War of the Worlds

I’ve been meaning to write something about this since I saw it a couple of weeks ago.
Critical opinion has been very mixed, and a couple of people of work seem to have found the whole thing enormously disappointing.
But first things first, Spielberg’s transported H G Wells’ classic from nineteenth century Surrey to 21st century New Jersey. But liberties with the setting aside, he’s been remarkably true to the book.
The aliens arrive quickly (although not noticeably from Mars), and quickly terrify humankind who have no hope of defeating them. The special effects are, needless to say, outstanding.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, an estranged father of a couple of kids, who starts the film taking them in for the weekend. He then spends the rest of the film, effectively impotent as he tries to protect them and is largely helpless.
The big thing about this film, and indeed, the book, is that things sort themselves out, and it’s not some kind of heroic Cruise intervention that saves the planet (a la Will Smith in Independence Day, when he has no problems finding the right cable to dock his Apple with the alien spaceship). Of course, Cruise does manage a couple of smallish heroics along the way, but fails to manage many more. And I think we really understand his complete helplessness as he has to try to be a father to his children.
Yes, his daughter screams just a little too much, but a young child probably would scream a lot in the cirumstances. And his son is annoying beyond belief, but then aren’t all teenagers?
Overall, the best Spielberg film I’ve seen in absolutely ages (and I speak as someone who hasn’t even seen The Terminal).

Captain Alatriste

In Spain, the fictional character, Captain Alatriste, has appeared on stamps. And now, the biggest budget film ever produced by Spain is being made about the man, starring Viggo Mortensen (of Lord of the Rings fame).
So who is this man?
He’s the creation of Arturo Perez-Reverte, the Spanish writer, some of who’s books I’ve previously read and enjoyed (The Seville Communion, The Flanders Panel, and The Dumas Club). Captain Alatriste is his version of Alexander Dumas’ musketeers books.
Set in seventeenth century Spain, Alatriste is an ex-soldier, and general sword-for-hire. But he finds himself being drawn into a web of political machinations between the church and state. We learn his story through the eyes of the young Inigo, a lad he’s effectively forced to take on.
The book is a complete romp of a read, and the parallels to be drawn with The Three Musketeers are clear. There’s a Milady charater who we learn little about in this novel, but is obviously being set-up for later in the series, and a Richelieu character as well.
This is the first in a series that currently number five in Spanish, and are seemingly greeted locally in the way that we greet a new Harry Potter. A fun way to pass a couple of days’ journeys to and from work.