Monday, 27 June 2011

Laurel & Hardy in Hog Wild (1930)

Stan and Oliver prove that quality comedy is timeless.

In this talkie short from 1930, Oliver is a henpecked husband, who is nagged into attempting to repair the radio aerial on the roof of the Hardy family home. Needless to say his best friend Stanley is happy to lend a hand.

The film opens with a great skit, involving Oliver searching for his trademark bowler hat (unaware that it is sitting on his head!). In this scene Ollie proves that he is no mere straight man, hanging on to Stan's coat tails, he can pull off comedy timing with the best of them.

Stan arrives on the scene in his car.

He is obviously a great actor. Away from the big screen, having seen interviews with him, and knowing that he wrote a great deal of the material, and directed too he is no idiot, but his ability to pull off the gormless demeanour of the character he portrays on screen is pure bliss.

Ricky Gervais commented recently that one of the reasons he loves Laurel & Hardy, is that their comedy comes from the empathy that you feel for their characters, rather than laughing at their expense.

The boys set about their task, in suitably slapstick style. No matter how many times I watch their movies, I never tire of their humour. Ollie's plaintive looks in to the camera lens when things go awry are priceless.

The final section as the car veers wildly out of control is great, Stan was way ahead of Homer Simpson with his girlish screams (not to mention Ollie using "DOH!" on numerous occasions in their movies).

And the gag at the end with the squished car is the perfect ending to a very enjoyable movie.

These guys managed in 19 minutes what many so called film makers fail to do in 120!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

AFI 100 Movies #80 The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah's reputation for creating violent, action packed, blood soaked movies, on the strength of this viewing is deserved.

The Wild Bunch starts out in Texas in 1913. Pike Bishop, played by William Holden, is the leader of a gang of ageing outlaws, who plan to do one more robbery before retiring.

The gang featuring, amongst others, screen legend Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), set out to rob a railroad office, where they learn that a cache of silver is being held.

Unknown to the robbers, the railroad office is being staked out by a posse of men hired by the railroad company, lead by Bishop's former partner Deke Thornton played by Robert Ryan, who has been promised a full pardon if he apprehends the wild bunch.

After the botched robbery attempt, the outlaws make their escape across the border to Mexico, and encounter General Mapache, a corrupt dictator, who wants the outlaws to steal a large consignment of weapons being taken by locomotive to a U.S. army base in exchange for $10,000 in gold.

Angel, a member of the gang, who is opposed to Mapache's regime, makes a deal with Pike to exchange his share of the money offered for one of the cases of weapons to be smuggled to a group of rebels, who want to bring down Mapache.

As you might already have gathered, things go rather awry.

Comparing this film to fellow AFI 100 selection #96 The Searchers, although they're both westerns, The Wild Bunch has a visual style of it's own, with multiple camera angles, as well as slow motion sequences that really emphasise the grimness of the graphic shoot outs.

Although the film runs for a total of 145 minutes, it never feels like any undue padding has been added, and the pace of events keeps you wanting to know what happens next.

So overall, a good solid western.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Doctor Who: Earth Story Boxset

I bought this because of my typically nerdy completist need to own all of the classic series DVDs.

I watched The Gunfighters first as it has been championed by Steven from the Radio Free Skaro podcast and others such as Toby Hadoke (who moderates the commentary on this DVD).

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The story is quite fun, and is a light hearted take on the classic western movie genre.

The Doctor, Steven and Dodo arrive in Tombstone in the 19th century just in time to witness the events that took place prior to the famous shoot out at the OK Corral.

The show is played out as a comedy/drama with the emphasis on comedy. This could be seen as William Hartnell's last full story in the role of the Doctor, as Mr Hartnell's ill health forced the production team to find new and inventive ways to take him out of the story for the bulk of the subsequent serials of the third series.

And I have to say, he's pretty good! Often seen as a rather grumpy individual, Hartnell takes to the comic role with aplomb. Peter Purves should get a special mention also as he was increasingly required to carry the show toward the end of his stay on Doctor Who.

The story is paced well, which can't be said of all 1960s era episodes, the only negative thing I could say, having watched it for the first time, is the frequent use of 'The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon' sung well by Lynda Baron, which I found somewhat grating. In fairness this story was only ever considered by the production team to be transmitted once over a four week period, rather than watched back to back in one go.

So, it does enough to shake off it's "worst ever episode" tag (if you have any suggestions post them below), but not quite a classic.

The second DVD in this set is 1984s The Awakening, starring Peter Davison as the Doctor with Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson as Tegan and Turlough.

The story takes place in 1984, in the normally sleepy English village of Little Hodgcombe. Tegan asks the Doctor if they can go and visit her grandfather who lives in the village. It doesn't take long for them to realise that something is wrong.

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Tegan's grandfather has mysteriously disappeared, the rather unpleasant Sir George Hutchinson has sealed off the village so that no one can get in or out, while he plans a re-enactment of a battle that took place in the village during the civil war in 1643, and has plans to make Tegan "Queen of the May", which is not something you would want to be selected for.

During the course of the story, the TARDIS crew befriend Will Chandler,  a peasant from 1643, who has crossed a timeline and ended up in 1984. The Doctor investigates the strange goings on and discovers evidence of an aborted alien invasion back in Will's time, but did all the aliens leave?

I remember liking this watching it the first time around as an eleven year old (God I feel old!), but as John Nathan Turner once famously said "The memory cheats".

There are some good performances, the regular cast are all on full form, and there are some decent turns from the guest cast, particularly Polly James as Jane Hampden and Glyn Houston as Colonel Wolsey.

The problem seems to stem from the lack of time over two episodes to cover all the plot points in a satisfactory manner. In the DVD extras, it is revealed that the story was originally intended to be a four part story, which would explain what would seem to be a rather rushed ending.

As with much of the classic series DVD releases, the bonus material is excellent, with commentaries for both stories,  a retrospective look at the latter part of William Hartnell's tenure as the Doctor, a making of for The Awakening, and the usual informative and entertaining info text, to name a few.

Overall a good value set, but possibly not the one to use to introduce friends to 'Classic Who' for the first time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Panasonic Lumix DMCG3 Review

After having seen a pre-production version at Panasonic UK last month, the waiting is over...... and it was worth the wait!

This latest addition to Panasonic's G series range is the successor to the phenomenally successful DMCG2.

The camera body is significantly smaller than the G2, but still has a good ergonomic feel, in size it sits between the G2 and the slightly slimmer GF2. Unlike the GF2, The G3 retains the 3 inch free angle touch screen and an improved electronic viewfinder.

New improvements include an amazing Light Speed 0.1 second auto focus, pin point focus mode for super accurate focusing, an incredible 20 frames per second burst shooting mode (resolution is reduced from 16 megapixels to 4 megapixels), full screen touch focusing, 1920 x 1080i resolution HD video, a new stereo microphone, and intelligent auto plus, which allows for fine tuning of colour preferences, but retaining the point and shoot simplicity of the standard intelligent auto mode.

The camera is available in a kit with a lumix 14-42mm lens or body only. The body is available in choice of black, red or white finishes.

There are eleven micro four thirds lenses currently available from Panasonic at the time of writing, with adaptors available to enable use of Leica R mount and M mount lenses, and an adaptor to allow the use of full size four thirds lenses

I have only had it a day, so I haven't had too much time to play with it, but the experience so far is great. There are some really neat touches, like the peripheral de-focus feature, which allows you to pick out an area on the touch screen to focus on, and the camera does the job of blurring the surrounding area for you, creating artistic looking shots within seconds.

I love this camera, it's small enough to be practical to carry around, but with all the creative control and quality of a bigger SLR camera.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Doctor Who Book Club Podcast

Having already extolled the virtues of Radio Free Skaro, I thought that I should also give a little mention to another entertaining Who related podcast.

Having read many of the Target novelisations and quite a few of the Virgin New Adventures, the idea of a book related podcast really appealed to me.

Your esteemed hosts, to guide you through the book chosen for each month are Sean from the fun and rather naughty Tardis Tavern podcast, and Erik, who is a contributor to Bridging The Rift.

The guys do a great job in their roles as hosts, not only giving a critique of each book, but also deconstructing some of the more complex plot points that aren't always completely clear on first reading.

One such example is Erik's explanation of the climax of Russell T Davies' Damaged Goods, which is a little tricky to follow, but he describes it well in a very concise and engaging way.

I also like the way that the guys chat about their thoughts on each story, and they don't always agree on everything which makes for entertaining listening.

They obviously put a lot of thought into their show, and you can tell that these two know their subject well. I like that they mix it up a little from month to month, by choosing stories that are different in tone, which helps to keep the show sounding fresh.

If you would like to hear this great show for your self, it's available to download from this link: Doctor Who Book Club at the iTunes Store

Saturday, 18 June 2011

AFI 100 Movies #92 A Place In The Sun (1951)

Montgomery Clift stars as George Eastman, a young man from a humble background, who goes to work for his wealthy uncle.

He doesn't exactly get the warmest of welcomes, everything is kept very business like, with George referring to his uncle as Mr Eastman, and he starts out at the very bottom of the company in the packing department.

His attempts to fit in at parties held by the wealthy Eastmans and their circle of friends are fruitless. George is an outsider.

While working at the factory he becomes close to his co-worker Alice Trip (Shelley Winters). The company has a strict policy forbidding employees to get involved in relationships with each other, this however doesn't stop them from secretly dating.

Things get complicated when George gets a promotion and starts mixing in more glamorous social circles, he meets Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) and they soon become very close.

George starts to get a taste for the lifestyle enjoyed by his wealthy relatives, and he seems to care little for the feelings of Alice, who has discovered that she is pregnant with George's child.

So does George do the decent thing and marry Alice? Remember this was the 1950s and people would get married to someone they didn't love to spare the shame of everyone knowing that they had a child out of wedlock. Or does he abandon Alice, and go off and live the high life with Angela?

Montgomery Clift was made to play the outsider, which he did in numerous other roles, to the point of being typecast. Elizabeth Taylor is beautiful and charismatic (not much acting required really!).

As the film progresses, you start to get the feeling that things are going to turn sour, and boy they really do!

As dramas go, if you like the characters to go through twists and turns and turmoil to make it through to a happy ending, you might be disappointed.

A solid drama but not quite up there with the very best in the genre.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Queen: Days Of Our Lives BBC HD

I fully intended to only watch part one last night, but I was so engrossed that I ended up going to bed late having watched both parts, back to back.

It was a very moving documentary, tracing the band's history from the early days of Brian May and Roger Taylor's group Smile, through to the live shows featuring Paul Rodgers.

Queen were never really cool, and they happily admit this, but they built up a dedicated following from their early days in the 1970s, which seemed to spur the music press on to criticise them even more. One of the things that most people would agree on, even if they weren't particularly fans, was the band's (and particularly Freddie Mercury's) ability to get the crowd involved at their live gigs.

The interaction between the band and their fans was Queen's attempt to create a unique show while touring the United States, which, considering the number of high profile rock bands touring the U.S.A. at the time was a shrewd move. And because of the need to play huge stadiums the band wanted to try and retain the connection with the audience that they developed when playing to crowds in smaller venues.

Unlike a lot of similar documentaries the programme makers weren't afraid to address some of the groups low moments, including albums that didn't quite hit the mark, and most notably, the bands decision to play Sun City in South Africa during the reign of the apartheid regime in the 1980s, which the surviving members agreed had been done with good intentions at the time, but in retrospect had been a huge mistake.

The final section covered the demise of Freddie Mercury, who in the archive interview footage comes across as a very charismatic and intelligent person. Seeing the remaining band members talking about the dawning realisation that something was very wrong, and hearing them tell of Freddie's initial reticence to tell his fellow bandmates about his illness was very moving.

I would like to think that in this day and age, that the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS in the 1980's is a distant memory, but for Freddie back then, it must have been terrifying. I can't imagine how distressing it must have been trying to come to terms with having a terminal disease without the added pressure of the paparazzi scum loitering in the streets hoping to get a picture of you looking ill.

I was never a huge fan, but every now and then they would come along with a song that would really leave an impression on me, and I think that's why their music has endured for so long.

Poignant, entertaining viewing.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

AFI 100 Movies #97 Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Another entry into the 100 list in the "Screwball Comedy" genre.

Cary Grant stars as David Huxley, a paleontologist, who has been trying for years to complete the construction of a dinosaur skeleton. He only needs one more vital bone to complete his prized Brontosaurus skeleton and finish his life's great work.

David is trying to get on good terms with a wealthy benefactor, Mrs Random, who is considering giving a substantial amount of money to his museum. Apart from funding problems, David is about to get married to Alice, a young lady with an austere personality.

The day before his wedding he meets Susan Vance, a rather haphazard quirky young woman, who unknown to David, is Mrs Random's niece.

Susan takes delivery of a tame leopard, a gift intended for her aunt from her brother Mark. She seems to be under the impression that David is a zoologist and goes out of her way to get him to come to her country estate in order to help her with "Baby" the leopard.

Susan introduces David to her aunt as "Mr Bone" and things start to sprial out of control. Susan's dog George makes off with the final bone that David needs to finish his dinosaur skeleton and buries it somewhere. During the chaos that ensues Baby goes missing along with George, and just when it couldn't get any more crazy, enter a second leopard that has been mistakenly released from its cage while on its way to be put down after it mauled a man to death at a circus and the action really gets going.

There is something quite comforting about watching classic old black and white movies.

Cary Grant has the ability to play someone who is essentially a nerd, but still remain suave and charming. Katherine Hepburn's character is quite frankly bonkers! in a very entertaining way.

The movie bombed when it was first released, but has subsequently achieved classic status as the years have passed by. Grant and Hepburn clearly have a chemistry which is probably why they were paired together in three other movies.

I certainly liked this enough to want to see the other films that they made together.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

AFI 100 Movies #99 Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

I liked this film quite a lot, I guess that makes me a wooly liberal.

Sidney Poitier plays Dr John Prentice, the film opens with Dr Prentice and his new girlfriend Joey Drayton returning to Joey's home city of San Francisco having nurtured a whirlwind romance only ten days before, when they met by chance in Hawaii.

They are so smitten with each other that they decide that they want to get married, and seek Joey's parents approval. Now, in 2011, you might think, what's the big deal? But in 1967 America was still coming to terms with legislative reforms won by the black civil rights movement.

Joey's parents are played by hollywood legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is a successful businessman in the publishing sector, renowned for his liberal attitude concerning politics. When Joey comes home with John he is forced to question his own beliefs, his wife Christina (Katherine Hepburn), herself, a successful entrepreneur, is at first stunned by the news of their relationship, but soon realises how much in love they are and gives Joey her blessing.

So, what could possibly go wrong? John is a highly respected doctor, he is well mannered, and also insists on no sex before marriage, as he is worried that it might affect their relationship. There can't be any reason for Mr Drayton to object surely?

Well, it would seem (and Joey actually points this out) that Mr Drayton can see nothing wrong in two people of different races marrying, unless it's his daughter. Matt isn't the only one who shows prejudice toward John, the Drayton's maid, Tillie, who herself is black, thinks that John has ideas above his station, and makes it clear to him in no uncertain terms that she does not approve of his actions.

Things become even more tricky when John privately tells Mr and Mrs Drayton that if either of them disapproves of his proposal, he will do the honourable thing and call off the proposed wedding.

And, as if that wasn't enough, Joey invites her future in-laws to dinner, even though they don't yet know that she is white.

This was the first time I had seen Sidney Poitier on screen, and he has a real charisma, and presence. Hepburn and Tracy (in his last screen performance) simply ooze star quality. Despite the subject matter there are plenty of comedic moments to enjoy. Isabel Sanford is a real firecracker as Tillie the maid and certainly has some memorable moments.

Very enjoyable.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Puzzle Bobble Universe

While the 3DS may be one of the most sophisticated portable consoles released so far, this little gem is as basic as it gets, and that is part of it's charm.

For the uninitiated, Puzzle Bobble features characters from the classic 80's Taito platformer Bubble Bobble.

This time around the gameplay involves matching bubbles of the same colour, get three or more of the same colour in a row and they will burst, however, there is added jeopardy as the ceiling above the bubbles gradually moves down, and if the remaining bubbles get pushed below a marker at the bottom of the screen, the game is over.

As well as the need to burst all the bubbles on the screen, you also need to collect keys in order to rescue your friends who have been captured. Although it's a fairly basic puzzle game, the visuals are really nice. As you play the game, the backgrounds give the effect of orbiting a planet, and as you burst the bubbles, the sense of 3D as they leap up from the screen and then fall hurtling toward the planet below is pretty neat.

When you get to the end of each planet, you face off against a boss character which is a nice change of pace and adds a bit of variety to the gameplay.

Like many of the initial launch titles, as the second wave of titles is released, this game is now available at a knock down price. So if you want a fun, addictive puzzle game for your 3DS, look no further.

Puzzle Bobble Universe is available to buy here

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Radio Free Skaro

Type the phrase "Doctor Who Podcast" into the search option in the itunes store and you will be presented with what seems like a million different podcasts dedicated to talking about British television's greatest hero.

Without naming names there are a great many that are down right dull.

So, finding a good one can be tough. With a heavy heart, and with my hopes fading I took a chance and downloaded an episode of Radio Free Skaro............. and............. cue the hallelujah chorus!

These guys put together a great show, It's obvious that they have known each other a long time, and that really shows in the witty banter and creates a totally natural feel for the podcast.

Steven always starts the proceedings, and at times he acts as a referee to try and keep the other two in check.

Warren can always be relied on for a cheeky one liner. And Chris has a very dry sense of humour and seems to relish playing the role of Pedantor when analysing plot holes.

The early episodes featured Steven and Warren, and they are very entertaining, but for me the show works best with "The Three Who Rule".

The show has a good variety of different features, aside from the usual reviews, the guys also do entertaining commentaries, interviews with the likes of Phil Ford and Graeme Harper, and one of my personal favourites, the miniscope, where they (with the help of authentic 1970's sound effects) randomly select a luminary from the last 40 odd years of Doctor Who to talk about their contribution to the programme.

Throw in one of the cheesiest (and greatest) versions of the Doctor Who theme tune to open and close the show and you have podcast gold.

It seems apt somehow that the best podcast about Doctor Who comes from Canada, the home of Sydney Newman, the man who originally dreamt the whole thing up.

You can experience the goodness of Radio Free Skaro here

You can also follow them on twitter @radiofreeskaro

If any of Three Who Rule should read this, thank you for the many hours of entertainment, and hopefully many more to come.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

AFI 100 Movies #85 Duck Soup (1933)

Argh! Where to begin?

I don't want to be entirely negative about this film. I suppose humour is subjective.

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly is very witty and comes out with some great one liners, Chico has some good exchanges with Groucho. I have to say, and I know this will divide opinion, Harpo is incredibly irritating. I like my fair share of "zany" comedy, but he just leaves me cold.

His one moment of class is the scene where he pretends to be Firefly's reflection in a mirror, the timing is perfect and it's genuinely funny.

But for me, the rest is pretty uninspiring. I like a lot of comedy from this era, for me what puts the likes of Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton above them is that their comedy comes from an empathy for the characters that they play. But I guess if we all liked the same things the world would be a boring place.

Not the least enjoyable film at this stage in the list but not far from it.