Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Being Human Series One

What took me so long to discover this great series?

Maybe I didn't expect much seeing as it's broadcast in the UK on BBC Three, the home of mind numbingly dull lowest common denominator cack, with the exception of Torchwood & Mongrels.

For those, like me, who didn't catch the show when it first started, Being Human is about three housemates: George (played by Russell Tovey), Mitchell (played by Aidan Turner) and Annie (played by Leonora Crichlow).

These three aren't your average housemates though; George is a werewolf, Mitchell is a vampire and Annie is a ghost.

They are all trying to live out their day to day lives (especially hard for a ghost) as though they're regular humans. Mitchell decides to go on the wagon where blood is concerned, George struggles to control his transformations and Annie needs to come to terms with her death, so that she can finally rest in peace.

I think it's good that this series was set in Bristol as London and the likes of Manchester get used all the time, and I think it helps ground the show in reality, despite the unreal goings on.

Although this is a drama programme there are plenty of funny moments, which make this programme all the more enjoyable.

The cast are superb, helped by a script written by Toby Whithouse, the characters are flawed yet likeable and the storyline for this first series keeps you coming back to see what happens next, like the TV equivalent of a good book that you can't put down.

Bring on series two!

Monday, 30 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #93 The Apartment (1960)

This has to be one of my favourites so far. Directed by Billy Wilder, who also directed Some Like It Hot (AFI 100 Movies #14).

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a man whose pursuit of climbing to the top of the company he works for has meant that he has neglected his love life.

In order to speed his progress through the ranks at the company, he allows members of the management to use his apartment when entertaining lady friends in exchange for good reports and swift promotions.

Baxter becomes smitten with company elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who has to endure being sexually harassed by her male colleagues. Baxter appears to be the only man working there who treats her with respect. He plucks up the courage to ask her out on a date, and she promptly stands him up, as we learn that she is secretly having an affair with Mr Sheldrake, the company managing director.

Sheldrake asks Baxter if he can borrow his apartment, as he has a date lined up, Baxter, unaware of who the lady in question is, agrees to make himself scarce while the two lovers make use of the facilities.

Fran is hopeful that Sheldrake will leave his wife to be with her, but he seems to keep stringing her along. She presents him with an LP as a christmas gift,  which he tells her he will have to leave at Baxter's apartment as his wife may discover it. In return he gives a lame excuse about not having time to get her a gift and hands her a $100 bill.

She obviously (and rightly) sees the "gift" for what it is and gets upset. After Sheldrake goes and leaves her on her own in the apartment she decides to end it all, and takes an overdose.

Baxter returns home to find her unconscious, and with the help of a friend next door who is a doctor, saves her in time.

For the rest of the film, the viewer is left wondering whether Fran will fall for Sheldrakes' lies or come to her senses and realise that her ideal man has been there all along in the form of Baxter.

Lemmon is charming and funny, and he puts up with a lot of grief because of trying to prevent his superiors from being exposed, and in turn trying to cement his place at the top of the company hierarchy.

Shirley MacLaine plays Fran sympathetically and you feel sorry for her when she gets messed around by the unpleasant character of Sheldrake.

If you haven't seen it yet, I would heartily recommend it.

Great stuff!

Friday, 27 May 2011

Panasonic Lumix G Series Overview

I was recently invited to Panasonic UK headquarters in Bracknell to take a look at the company's range of G series multi lens cameras.

The innovative compact design delivers SLR quality photographs in a much more conveniently sized package.

Taken on a 25 second exposure in shutter priority mode.
In order to make the cameras smaller Panasonic have removed the conventional mirror box used in standard single lens reflex cameras. Seasoned photographers will know that the mirror box enables the user to see exactly what the lens is seeing. In order to keep this useful facility Panasonic have included a "Live View" button which gives the same end result using the camera's sensor.

Speaking of sensors, the G series cameras have a sensor 9 times bigger than that of standard compact cameras giving superlative picture quality.

For anyone contemplating buying an SLR camera, but are put off by the bulkiness, the G series range are the perfect solution. Also for compact camera users (such as myself) they offer the ability to achieve beautiful photographs without necessarily needing to know all of the techniques used by those with years of photography knowledge.

Intelligent Auto mode gives stunning results just by pointing and shooting. Also on offer are creative modes which enable users to create more artistic photos using simple icons to indicate the type of shots available.

And for those seeking more control over the camera there are program, aperture, shutter and full manual modes, as well as custom modes and scene modes.

There are four models in the current range; G2 (entry level offering 720p movies), GF2 (slimline), G3 (step up to 1080i movies) and GH2 (flagship model). Panasonic, at the time of writing offer 11 different micro four thirds lenses, ranging from a 14mm pancake lens, fish eye, wide angle, macro, 3D, to a range of telephoto lenses including a whopping  100mm - 300mm (200mm - 600mm 35mm equivalent) lens.

Taken at F2.5 in aperture priority mode
Other manufacturers including Leica and Olympus also offer a range of micro four thirds lenses, and there are also adaptors to enable other lenses to be used.

The G series cameras also offer the ability to record movies in HD quality with very impressive results.

The range of G series cameras are available here

I think I need to start saving some money!

Monday, 23 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #35 It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night was directed by Frank Capra and released by Columbia Pictures in 1934, it was the first movie to pick up the five main awards at the Oscars.

Claudette Colbert plays Ellen, a spoiled brat, who marries a gold digger "King" Westley against her wealthy father's wishes. Her father takes her away from her new beau before the wedding can be consummated, but she escapes, determined to get back to him.

Ellen gets on a greyhound bus bound for New York, where she meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an out of work newspaper journalist who recognises who she is and offers her an ultimatum: she can accept his offer of help in exchange for the exclusive rights to her story, or he will go to her father and tell him where she is and claim a $10,000 reward. She decides to accept his offer of help.

They end up hitch hiking and get into numerous scrapes along the way, and somewhat predictably she declares that she loves Peter. They check in at a motel, while Ellie is asleep, Peter decides that he loves her too and leaves there and then to make arrangements.

The motel owners assume that Peter has done a runner and throw Ellie out, she thinks that he doesn't have feelings for her and decides to go back to her father, who agrees reluctantly to let her marry Westley.

Will Ellie end up with Westley or Peter?

Gable is a charming rogue, a character type he seems suited to, and Colbert plays her part well.

The filming of this movie was, by all accounts, a stressful one. Claudette Colbert was so convinced that she would not win the best actress oscar that she decided to book herself a holiday! When the head of Columbia Pictures found out that she had won, an employee was despatched to go and catch her before she got on her train and drag her to the ceremony!

Friday, 20 May 2011

L.A. Noire: First Impressions

It's been a long wait for this game. It was first announced in 2005, but rest assured the wait has been worth it.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this a Grand Theft Auto knock off. Unlike GTA you are on the side of the L.A.P.D. starting off as a rookie traffic cop, and working your way up the police ranks.

One of the most innovative features of the gameplay is the way that you question witnesses and suspects when trying to solve crimes. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get a feel for it, you really start to pick up on tell tale signs in the facial expressions of the people you talk to.

If your instincts are good then your successful questioning will unlock more leads to help you in your quest.

It's clear that a lot of work has gone into this game. Not just the impressive animation of the characters, but the attention to detail used in creating a believable world, excellent voice acting, music composed in the style of the period, the design, and the scale of the reproduction of 1940's Los Angeles.

If the early stages that I've played so far are anything to go by, this could be an early contender for game of the year. As the Xbox 360 version comes on three discs, I think I will be getting my money's worth in terms of value.

If you're looking for something different from your average sand box style game this is for you.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #96 The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers starts in 1868, John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, who has just returned to his brother Aaron's homestead from fighting for the Confederacy in the civil war.

Not long after Ethans return, Aaron's Neighbours the Jorgensens have their cattle stolen by rustlers. Ethan, Captain Samuel Clayton and a band of Texas rangers set out to try and track down the thieves.

Upon their return to the homestead they are horrified to discover the ranch ablaze. They find Aaron, his wife Martha, and their son Ben, murdered by comanches, and Aaron's two daughters, Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood) are missing, presumed abducted by the natives.

In the film, although it is never explicitly spoken of,  you get the impression that Ethan was closer to his brother's wife than he should have been, and that Ethan might secretly be the youngest daughter Debbie's father.

A group of men is quickly assembled to track down the comanches and rescue the girls. When they find their camp it is deserted, they continue searching and are almost done for when the natives stage an attack.

Although the group survive the comanche assault, only three men go on to continue the search; Ethan, Brad Jorgensen (Lucy's fiance) and Martin Pawley (the girl's adopted brother) played by Harry Carey Jr and Jeffrey Hunter respectively.

The three men's journey goes on for many years, however, three soon become two, when Ethan discovers Lucy's body (there is an inference that more than murder has occurred) Brad goes into a rage and storms into the native camp and is killed.

Something that struck me, watching this film in 2011, is the racism displayed by many of the characters. John Wayne's character Ethan, discovers that Debbie has been indoctrinated in to the comanche tribe, he would rather see her dead than live as an "Indian". Even one of the more sympathetic female characters tells Martin that Debbie's mother would have approved of Ethan's threat to "put a bullet in her brain". The director, John Ford, has commented on this element of the film, suggesting that this kind of racism was rife in the old west, and I suppose he has a point, but it's still a little unsettling.

On a more positive note, the remastered Blu Ray print looks pristine, and monument valley, used as a backdrop in 2011's series of Doctor Who looks as epic as it ever has.

So, to conclude, even with some striking cinematography, this was probably my least favourite movie in the AFI 100 so far.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Panasonic DMRBS880 Blu Ray Recorder Review

I bought this a couple of weeks ago as our freeview reception was getting progressively worse.

Thankfully when we moved house a while ago I decided to ask our satellite dish installer to put in two extra cables incase we wanted to have sky+ or freesat+.

After a brief crash course in mastering the art of fitting F-connectors to the sat cables, the setup was simplicity itself. The tuning process took a matter of minutes, with only a prompt to enter your postcode in order to receive the correct regional broadcasts, needed to complete the initial setup.

Timer recording is very simple. Using the onboard TV guide you can record up to a week in advance, with the choice of single or series timer options available. The machine will even suggest new programmes to record based on the ones that you like to watch. And with a fairly substantial 500GB of hard drive capacity there's room enough for 76 hours of HD recordings and approximately 360 hour of standard definition content in SP mode. The machine can also pause and rewind (up to 2 hours) of live TV.

With its twin tuners the machine gives the handy facility of recording two programmes simultaneously, and, at the time of writing there are four high definition channels available to record from (BBC HD, BBC One HD, ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD). The programmes are recorded to the hard drive in DR mode, which efficiently compresses the data to a relatively low bit rate, but retains high definition resolution, which gives exemplary playback, especially from HD sources. DR mode also records subtitles and audio description, which can be turned on or off after recording.

Another neat feature is the ability to copy jpeg photos, music CDs and camcorder content in both standard definition and in the AVCHD high definition format, as used by Panasonic, Sony and others. The machine has a gracenote database as used in iTunes, so that your music stored on the machine's hard drive has the artist, track and album names automatically added to make them easy to find.

Blu Ray playback is stunning, Panasonic's PHL (Panasonic Hollywood Labs) chroma processor creates a faithful pixel perfect reproduction of your favourite Blu Ray discs. It also does a decent job of upscaling from standard definition DVDs, the BBC's "The Tudors" looks sharp, well defined and colourful played back from a DVD disc.

And if you thought that the audio side of things has been overlooked, you are very mistaken! With the BS880 connected to my Sony 7.1 amplifier, the Daft Punk fuelled soundtrack to "Tron: Legacy" sounds amazing. Also selected programmes from the HD channels are presented (and recorded) in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, something that most Freeview HD machines cannot offer.

This machine is certainly not the cheapest recorder on the market, but it's definitely one of the best.

Tron: Legacy

If you are new to this franchise I would probably suggest watching the original movie before seeing this.

The film starts seven years after the events of the original Tron film, Kevin Flynn the gifted software programmer and CEO of ENCOM goes missing, and his young son Sam becomes the majority shareholder.

Skip forward twenty years, and Sam takes very little interest in the company that he has inherited from his father. He decides to investigate a mysterious message emanating from his father's disused offices at Flynn's Arcade. After a bit of cursory snooping, he discovers a hidden computer lab, and is digitized and transported to the virtual world of the grid.

Clu, the program that Sam's father invented to create this virtual world has staged a coup, once Sam is revealed to be a "user" things really start to heat up.

Anyone familiar with the original movie will remember the light cycles and disc wars, which have been duly updated using modern cgi techniques. I am in two minds about this film, on one hand the visual art is stunning, it really is a graphical tour de force, but there is just something I can't put my finger on that leaves me a bit cold.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't absolutely hate this film, the blu ray disc transfer is very good, including a DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack which really makes the most of Daft Punk's pounding score. But it just didn't have the same buzz as, for example, Inception, which made me want to get my own copy as soon as the blu ray was available.

There are some decent performances; Jeff Bridges is an actor I admire, Garrett Hedlund & Olivia Wilde are two actors that I don't recall having seen before who come across well and Michael Sheen camps it up to the max as Castor.

So to sum up, I would recommend this if you are a sci-fi fan, but maybe as a rental movie rather than buying it to own.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #24 Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull is a biopic based on the autobiography of middle weight boxer Jake "Raging Bull" La Motta.

The film starts in the 1960s as Jake (Robert De Niro) prepares backstage prior to a stand up comedy show, which leads in to a flashback to 1941, when La Motta was in his prime as one of the major contenders for the middle weight championship of the world.

Jake is in a turbulent marriage, not helped by his misogyny and his uncontrollable jealousy. His brother Joey, played by newcomer Joe Pesci, acts as his manager, and tries to keep Jake from getting in to trouble.

In next to no time Jake meets Vickie, the woman (at 15 more aptly described as a girl) who will become his second wife. His jealousy towards Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) is suffocating. One notable example is when Jake is discussing his next fight against Tony Janiro with his brother, Vickie mentions that the fight would be good for Jake's profile as Janiro is a popular, good looking kid. This sends Jake in to a fury, and when fight night comes around he tears Janiro to pieces.

In order to get a shot at the world title Jake is persuaded by mafia bosses to throw a fight, he reluctantly does this, which causes him considerable anguish and public humiliation.

After his subsequent victory against Marcel Cerdan in 1949, and having achieved his dream, he starts to pile on weight (De Niro put on 60 pounds to play the older Jake) and after a huge bust up with his brother his boxing career goes down the pan.

At the end of the film we find ourselves backstage again where we came in at the start of the movie, and De Niro recounts Marlon Brando's "I could have been a contender" speech from (AFI 100 Movies #8) On The Waterfront.

The film is shot in black and white, which gives it a 1940's aesthetic, and the boxing scenes are visceral and brutal.

Martin Scorsese is one of my favourite directors. It says a lot about his skill as a director, not to mention De Niro's as an actor, that Raging Bull is a very watchable film, considering the main protagonist is a pretty awful person.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book (Audiobook)

This was my first introduction to the weird and wonderful stories of British author Neil Gaiman.

The story of the book is inspired by Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

At the beginning of the story, a little boy, barely a toddler, narrowly escapes being murdered by a mysterious figure known as "The Man Jack" who creeps in to his house in the middle of the night and kills the boy's family.

By chance, the toddler wanders into a nearby graveyard, and is subsequently adopted by Mr and Mrs Owens, who happen to be ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard, and they name him Nobody Owens.

The rest of the book follows Nobody (Bod for short) as he grows up in the graveyard. Bod has a guardian named Silas who, along with his friend Miss Lupescu, teaches Bod about the arts of fading, dream walking and haunting.

Bod befriends a girl called Scarlet, who is visiting the graveyard with her parents. And perhaps because of this friendship, as he grows up, he starts yearning to leave the graveyard. But the outside world isn't a safe place, "The Man Jack" hasn't given up on tracking down the child who escaped his clutches.

The audiobook is read by the author, and a sterling job he does too. Mr Gaiman voices all the characters in a very entertaining way. The atmosphere of this audio presentation is further enhanced by the music at the start and end of each chapter, a piece rather aptly titled "Danse Macabre".

If you've never tried any of his work before I would have no hesitation in recommending this.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #31 Annie Hall (1977)

And so to the film that started this whole exercise: Woody Allen's "Annie Hall".

I bought this as part of a boxset shortly after returning home from a wonderful holiday in New York City.

Allen plays the part of Alvy Singer, and the film centres around his rocky relationship with the eponymous Annie (Diane Keaton).

Alvy is a neurotic, a trait which Woody Allen imbues his characters with on a regular basis. Alvy often breaks the "fourth wall" and addresses the audience directly which provides some great moments.

One of the best examples of this is a scene where he and Annie are standing in a queue waiting to see a film by Marshall McLuhan, and the guy standing behind Alvy is driving him crazy by very loudly coming out with pseudo intellectual criticism of McLuhan's work. So much so that he gets in to an argument with him and when the guy refuses to accept his opinion is wrong, Alvy walks over and reaches behind an advertising poster board and emerges with Marshall McLuhan himself in tow to tell the annoying nerd that he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about.

There are a whole host of big names among the cast list, some of whom only have small roles, including Paul Simon, Jeff Goldblum, Truman Capote & Sigourney Weaver to name a few.

The film examines the complexities of relationships as Alvy and Annie come to realise that although they have feelings for each other they know that they will be happier apart.

So, quite a bittersweet experience, with plenty of laughs and some solid acting.

Doctor Who: The Power Of The Daleks

As a self confessed nerd I tend to go through obsessive phases, one of my favourite things to obsess about is Doctor Who.

The British TV series will celebrate it's 50th anniversary in 2013, so for those who are new to the show there is a wealth of back catalogue material to feast upon.

I have been watching the show since the late seventies, when Tom Baker inhabited the lead role, so, as a child it was fascinating to me to discover that there had been three previous incarnations of this great hero of whom I had been completely oblivious.

My favourite of these was (and still is) Patrick Troughton, a thoroughly likeable personality, who gave the impression to his foes of being a bumbling fool, but he was always one step ahead of them. How sad then that the majority of this fine actor's work is most likely lost forever after the BBC wiped the master tapes of many of the stories made in the 1960's during a cost cutting purge in the early 1970's.

The Power Of The Daleks was Patrick Troughton's debut story, which now only exists as an audio recording. Anneke Wills, who played Polly in this story provides linking narration, which works well and makes the plot of the story easy to follow.

The Doctor, Ben & Polly arrive on the planet Vulcan, where the Doctor is mistaken for a visiting official, there to settle the in-fighting happening at the nearby Earth colony. Upon arrival at the colony the Doctor meets Lesterson, a scientist, who has discovered a capsule which is thought to have crashed on the planet many years before.

The Doctor inspects the capsule and then very quickly announces that they have seen enough for one night and tells everyone to go off to bed. Ben and Polly notice the Doctor sneaking back to the capsule late at night and accompany him inside the capsule where they discover two dormant Daleks. The Doctor is concerned that Lesterson is trying to reactivate a third missing Dalek.

Maybe this is heresy, but I'm not the biggest fan of the Daleks, for me this is one of their best stories, I prefer them to be schemers and manipulators, which Mark Gatiss and Robert Shearman have successfully brought to their "Nu Who" stories. But more often than not they seem to be reduced to stereotypical bile spouting killers who can't be reasoned with, which in my opinion makes them rather dull.

Patrick Troughton's performance is great, you warm to him immediately. And Ben and Polly's reaction at the start of the story when the Doctor regenerates is far more believable than in later stories where companions just seem to accept a complete change of the main character within a few minutes.

So if you are a fan of this wonderful show, and you love it enough to investigate an audio recording of a story not seen since the late sixties, you are in for a treat.

Monday, 9 May 2011

AFI 100 Movies #87 Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale's version of Frankenstein was released by Universal Pictures in 1931 prior to the strict adherence to the censorship guidelines set out by the Hays code. And maybe that's one of the reasons why this film has endured the last 80 years, with the director able to bring his vision of this classic tale to celluloid life, unfettered by the censors (at least not until later...).

The film has more in common with the stage adaptation by Peggy Webling than Mary Shelley's original novel, and the film has a theatrical feel to it with many of the key scenes taking place on lavish stage sets.

There is a lot to like about this film, the central performances by Colin Clive as 'Henry' Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the creature are great. Mae Clarke as Elizabeth is a tad on the hammy side and Frederick Kerr as Henry's father plays the part of a pompous old duffer to a tee.

Boris Karloff steals the show as the creature, which even today is a recognisable horror icon, as a viewer you feel sympathy for this sad creation who is so badly mistreated by those who made him (particularly 'Fritz', Frankenstein's servant, who meets a nasty and not entirely undeserved end).

I must confess at the point where Fritz is breaking in to the lab to steal the brain needed to complete the creature, I did have a flashback to the late great Marty Feldman as Igor in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein!

As the tale progresses, the creature escapes his tormentors and goes out in to the world beyond. He befriends a small child with tragic repercussions in a scene which for decades had been censored after its original release and not reinstated until 1986.

As the end of the film nears, Frankenstein and the creature slug it out next to the edge of a cliff before the creature, carrying an unconscious Frankenstein, is pursued in to a wooden windmill by a flaming torch wielding mob which leads to a sticky and fairly obvious end for the poor fellow.

Overall an enjoyable tale.