Wednesday, October 30, 2013

219 - Ikiru (1952)

Following my last review (In The Mood For Love), I figured I might as well keep the theme of the Orient going with my thoughts on Ikiru.

Ikiru, as is nicely pointed out in the subtitles, is the word for "Living" in Japanese and is one of the most apt and intelligent titles on the 5-star list. Mr. Watanabe is a council worker who lives up to every modern perception of public office possible. He spends his life aimlessly pushing papers across the desk while the council itself sends the community around the merry-go-round of its departments in a clear lack of efficiency.

His relationship with his family is strained as his son tries to escape the monotony with his wife, but it is not until Mr. Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer that he decides to do something about it. It is at this point that the film takes a sudden turn towards 12 Angry Men as his funeral-goers argue whether Mr. Watanabe was as proficient as rumours suggested.

Despite the film being clearly split into two acts, it never loses focus of the moral picture it attempts to paint. At some point in our lives we seek direction or a kick that jolts us from an otherwise dull existence. It notes that we are all saving money for a rainy day, but what if that never comes? It is clear that Mr. Watanabe's son is far more vigorous in his youth and sees the opportunity to spend his father's money in ways that his father never could.

Obviously, as you can probably tell, Ikiru has a rather morbid undertone and occasionally veers towards depressing. But, rather than making you feel desperately sorry for Mr. Watanabe, its poignancy makes you want to kick him into action with an element of hypocrisy, before reflecting on the comparisons with your own existence.

According to Empire, this is Steven Spielberg's favourite film. Steven Spielberg is a very wise man.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

221 - In The Mood For Love (2000)

I know this isn't the next scheduled film to review, but I have watched the previous films (I promise!). Problem is,  I seem to have little time nowadays (as those who follow my Twitter feed will know), so the reviews are starting to pile up. In fact, I started writing this review on the train immediately after watching the film in the hope I can follow it through!

To start with, I was pleased to be able to actually watch In The Mood For Love as I took Ikiru on the train with me the other day only to find I'd forgotten to rip the subtitles (edit: I actually had, but didn't have them turned on, whoops!). I didn't fancy starting another Oriental film without some clue as to what was happening.

Ironically, for all my fear, In The Mood For Love didn't really require subtitles. The storyline is very simple - two couples move in next door to each other and the opposing husband and wife nip off to Japan for an affair. Their spouses realise this and try to work how it happened, taking turns to play the role of their spouses' lovers.

Initially, I was very sceptical of the film. What seemed like hundreds of Hong Kong nationals were thrown on-screen as neighbours and friends are introduced. Cleverly though, the faces of the cheating spouses are not shown as their impact on the filmed storyline is mostly irrelevant.

As the film settled down on the two protagonists, I slowly figured out why Empire had awarded In The Mood For Love 5-stars. They are very keen on films with strong imagery and In The Mood For Love is up there alongside the likes of Black Narcissus and Chinatown in terms of intelligent camera-work providing the feel of a scene. Downtown Hong Kong is captured in a strange beauty that I didn't think was possible having visited the province a couple of years ago.

Of course, the lingering camera shots are never going to be everyone's cup of tea and some scenes can be a little tedious if you are unable to appreciate or understand the metaphorical picture. That said, the simple storyline does go a long way to aiding this film's accessibility.

Friday, October 25, 2013

You Aren't What You Consume

OK, I'll admit it. I've been putting off watching the next film in Empire's 5-star 500. I wanted to get a brief idea of what Lars von Trier's The Idiots was about, so I read the summary on IMDB:

A group of people gather at a house in a Copenhagen suburb to break all the limitations and to bring out the "inner idiot" in themselves.

Not exactly the most action-packed sci-fi-adventure romantic-horror comedy-drama to have ever been scripted, so what exactly is the appeal of such a film and why on earth would Empire award it 5 stars?

To begin with, I ought to point out that I love film, and the list of 5-star films has thrown up some absolute beauties that I would probably never have sat down to watch had I not decided that this challenge was a good idea. Equally, there have been several films that have left me feeling very uncomfortable because of their content.

I'm not simply talking about films that have been tediously boring and the resulting awkwardness that envelopes my friends or family who are watching - I'm talking about ethics. The Idiots touches on a number of ethical issues that make me distinctly uncomfortable - where is the moral undertone in a film full of people pretending to be retarded?

This inexplicable discomfort tends back towards when I watched Crash with my girlfriend. Crash is simply about people who get their sexual kicks from car crashes. No, I didn't understand it, and it was a world very alien to mine. So, does this make me a prude? I don't think so.

The inspiration for this article came from a BBC article on the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 and if ever a game was known for it's disreputable and immoral image, GTA was it. I own GTA 4, have played GTA 4 and enjoyed GTA 4, making my moral issue with The Idiots even more intriguing.

In the BBC article, they quote Mary Hamilton, an Australian journalist, who discusses how games must evolve to become art:

It's a peculiar phenomenon that people invest so much of their identities in the games they play - as with the TV they watch or the books they read - and feel so attacked when people point out the problems they perceive within them. We are not what we consume. Game culture is slowly finding its feet within the mainstream. And in the same way that film, art, literature and so on are open to critique both on content and on taste grounds, games are too.

... and that got me thinking. Who am I to judge a film by its content? There are plenty of films I'd happily watch despite many people finding their content offensive - American History X is a brilliant film that I really enjoyed, but it is full of images, both graphical and historical, that would be deeply offensive to a lot of people.

This ethical issue is not a problem only faced by amateur reviewers such as myself. Even the late, great Roger Ebert found himself breaking his code when reviewing The Human Centipede:

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.

The question is, did he like it? Would he recommend it? Does it matter? If your moral standards mean you feel comfortable and relaxed in watching The Human Centipede, then why should he tell you that it didn't agree with him? Why should I tell you that The Idiots may not be my cup of tea?

The reason that these films make for uncomfortable viewing is that they hit close to home. I'm not suggesting by any stretch that you will go out and link a whole host of friends together in some grotesque experiment, or that you will go out and pretend to be retarded in order to garner attention.

No, what I'm saying is that these films could both be happening in the world at this very moment and that they are opening our minds to a world that we would be much happier to block out and ignore. They don't blur the line between fantasy and reality; they just tell it like it is, leaving very little to the imagination.

Admiring Avatar for its CGI-based beauty is very uplifting, but imagine this: replace Pandora with 17th Century North America, the Na'vi with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the humans with European invaders. Suddenly, this sci-fi action film has become a historical struggle and is much closer to home. The story is still the same.

At heart, Avatar is an invasion of one superpower against an indigenous species because it wants their resources. Some theorists would have you believe that Iraq was only invaded for its oil. But that's all far-fetched... isn't it?

And that's really my point. Some films disguise their stories amongst fantastical settings and loveable characters who are very easy to empathise with. Watching 101 Dalmatians doesn't make you want to commit atrocities that would leave PETA scratching their heads, so why should The Idiots make you want to act retarded?

We all need to get a grip. We're not omnibenevolent beings. We may be able to suppress primal instinct in exchange for a form of civility, but it doesn't mean that the world is full of roses and rainbows. Just remember, your shiny red apples are another person's poisoned fruit. Embrace the controversy and learn from it - you aren't what you consume.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Guide to Creating your Home Cinema: Digitising your Media Library

DVDs can easily get out of hand
Source: JustLiveSimple.com
Introduction
DVDs and Blu-Rays are simply brilliant creations. Where we once had to watch films on tapes that we had always forgotten to rewind before putting it into the machine, we can now watch high definition films at the click of a button. So, what's the problem with the humble DVD?

Take a DVD box. A simple, but functional creation. It holds a disk (or even many disks) and it sits nicely on a shelf next to your complete copy of every edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Heck, that DVD case could even contain a digitised version of your Encyclopaedia Brittanica. As I say, simple, functional and space-saving.

Or is it? Imagine now, that "space-saving" device has 99 other friends for those 100 films you happen to own. At 13.5cm x 19cm x 1.5cm (5.3" x 7.5" x 0.6") per box, in order to see the spines of all of those, you'll need 1.5m (5ft) of shelf space. Scaled up to 500 films and you'll need a ceiling-high cupboard approximately 0.6m (2ft) wide stacked from top to bottom. Yes, it becomes unmanageable.

One viable alternative is to grab all of those films and copy them onto a computer so that you can hide the cases in the loft or cellar. This also brings the added advantage of being able to search for a film by genre, year or even by the name of an obscure extra or film-hand.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo
Before I move onto the process of digitising your media library, please read up on the relevant laws in your region. From what I can gather, in the UK it is now legal to rip all media providing you are not circumventing digital protection. Now, most DVDs and almost certainly all Blu-rays have an element of digital protection built in, so technically ripping them would still be illegal. Sorry, I don't make the law.

My view is that if you spend £15 on a film, then you should be able to use it how you like so long as you are not distributing the material. If you were to sell a film, you should remove it from your digital library as you would have sold the rights to the licence on the film at the same time. Equally, if a friend lends you a film for a weekend it shouldn't grant you the right to copy the film before returning it.

Personally, I do not believe in downloading illegitimate films from the internet, as artists should always be paid for their work and, as those helpful adverts carefully explain, piracy is stealing. Equally, if you buy a rare film, make 500 copies of it and then start to sell them, the original value of the film is all but lost. I am proud to say that I have legally purchased - or been given as a gift - every single film in my collection.

On the flip side, distributors don't make this any easier. Sure, the offer of a digital download available with some DVDs and Blu-rays is starting to open up this market and make converting your collection a whole lot easier. On the other hand, you may end up having to sign up to a service that leaves you locked into their media players and when you want to watch that film on an unsupported device you might not be able to. It is up to you, I just prefer a world of choice that gives me the freedom to choose my own hardware, whether it be PC, tablet or 50" flat-screen LCD all-singing all-dancing television.

Capacity Requirements
To copy your collection to the computer, you'll need to decide if you want to copy the whole lot to satisfy your kleptomania, just your TV shows or maybe just films containing your favourite Disney princesses. Once you know around about how many films you want to copy, then you can begin to calculate how much capacity your computer will need to have.

From experience, there is no sure-fire way of saying that 200 films will equal a certain number of gigabytes. You also need to account for the picture quality, whether you want subtitles and whether all of your films are over 6 hours long.

As a general rule of thumb, I would trade some element of picture quality for capacity. If you wanted to do direct copies of your DVDs (4.7 GB at the least), then your 500 film collection would take up 2.35TB at the very least and for Blu-Rays it would be at least ten times that (more than 25,000 GB). Again, it becomes unrealistic to do this. Besides, do this and you'll still have to navigate those pesky menus.

As a result, I would highly recommend converting your films to another, popular format such as .AVI or .MP4, both of which are highly supported video formats. If you have foreign language films you can 'burn' the subtitles to the film, or some formats let you have them as a switch-on/switch-off style too.

Assuming you convert all of your films to .MP4, I would say that you would need around 2GB per DVD and 10GB per Blu-ray. Again though, be prepared for fluctuations and if you want higher quality or a different file format then you may have to do your own research.

Setting Up Your Server

Synology: Best NAS on the market?
Network Attached Storage (NAS) Drive
After calculating your space requirements, you will need somewhere to store your media. Now, many people have old computers lying around which will do a fair job of holding an lot of films, and indeed I had a spare computer with 1 terabytes (1000 gigabytes) of space on it. Problem is, these are probably not set up for sharing those media files.

Yes, you can download software that will enable this, but I decided to buy a Synology NAS (network attached storage) drive and fill it up with 12TB worth of hard disks (4 x 3TB disks) - more than enough for my growing media library. The beauty of the NAS is that it happily shares its data with the other devices on the network for easy accessibility. I can share to the Xbox 360 for television viewing, to my tablet for bedtime viewing or to my computer if I'm feeling like a break from working. You don't even need much technical knowledge to set it up.

During the set up procedure, I was asked about how I wanted the disks to work together (this is probably the most complicated bit - and only complicated if you buy more than one hard disk). Synology has its own system of connecting the disks together, but I opted for RAID5. Without getting too technical, if one of my hard disks fails, it can be replaced and I won't lose any data. You do have to sacrifice 25% of your capacity for this security though, and you should also bear in mind that hard disks lose further capacity during their setup. As a result, my 12TB was diminished into 8TB. Fortunately this had been accounted for in my calculations.

Video Station: Synology's answer to Plex (server screenshot)
For those who want an even cheaper NAS solution, just opt for a single disk (try for the highest capacity possible - around 4TB). You won't be able to have the security against data, but you should still have the DVDs in your loft anyway so you'll be fine.

If you do opt for a Synology NAS (for reference, mine is the DS413j), then once it is all set up I would highly recommend downloading a package called Media Server which sets up folders for you to put you films, music and photos into. Once this is done, you are ready to start converting! As an aside, I would also download DS Video or Plex as these are two great packages for sharing films across your network.

If you opt for your own computer, then please look into server software such as the brilliant Plex.

Setting Up Your Computer

Ubuntu: Free alternative to Windows or Mac
Computer
To convert, you will need a computer with Windows, Mac or Linux (yes, even Linux - that's what I use because it's free!). It will need at least 10GB free of hard disk space for ripping DVDs and 50GB free for ripping Blu-rays. The computer will need a DVD drive for doing DVDs or a Blu-ray drive for doing both types of media.

If you fancy doing this on the cheap, you could convert any old computer you have lying around your house into a Linux machine. Linux is an operating system similar to Windows and Mac, but tends to require less power to work. Thus, if you have an old computer with a DVD drive and at least 10GB of free hard disk space then you could use this for converting your disks. Check out Ubuntu, if you fancy this route.

Software
The next bit came courtesy of lifehacker.com. You will need to install two programs: MakeMKV and Handbrake (both free although the former is time limited). For Windows and Mac users these should be relatively easy to install from the linked websites. For Linux users, a user called mechevar on the MakeMKV forums has made a handy script for installing MakeMKV and you will need to update repositories to install Handbrake.

For the purposes of clarity, I will be explaining everything from a Linux user's point of view, but most of the elements described below can be transferred to Windows and Mac too as the software is the same.
Right, once you have all that, you're good to go!

Digitising your Media Library

MakeMKV: To rip DVDs
MakeMKV - Ripping your films
Insert the disk you want to digitise into your computer drive and start MakeMKV. Your computer will undoubtedly tell you that you've inserted a disk and give you hundreds of options for it. Ignore all of these. Once MakeMKV is open, click the disk or go to File > Open Disk > [Your Disk]. This will start hunting around the disk for any piece of film it can find. Depending on the encoding of the disk, this could take a matter of seconds or half an hour. Either way, once this is done you'll be presented with a checklist of all the bits of film on your disk.

Just to warn you: some disks will have over 30 titles because it'll pick up all of the trailers and copyright warnings that precede the menu. It could also find all of the bloopers too. Generally, you'll want to choose the title with the largest size next to it as this will almost certainly be your film. Uncheck all the rest of the boxes, and choose your destination directory on the top right. I would highly recommend making a new folder called "[Film Name] ([Year])" [e.g. Avatar (2009)] and saving it into there. Once this is done press Make MKV at the top and go and make yourself a cup of your favourite beverage!

A short while later you'll be told it's done and in your destination directory there will be a file called something.mkv (usually title00.mkv, but it might be different). You can watch this file (if you have a compatible video player) as it is a movie container and you could just copy it straight onto your NAS right away. That said, at around 5-10gB for DVDs and 30-50gB for Blu-rays this soon starts to add up on your storage. Also, MKV is a format that is only just starting to gain popularity and may not be fully supported on your player.

Handbrake: To Convert Films
Handbrake - Converting your films
I chose to compress my files down, to save space and enable the Xbox 360 to play the films (this was a pain in the backside). This is where Handbrake comes in. Open it up and you'll be presented with a bit more of a complicated interface than that of MakeMKV. Press Source and find your .mkv film. Next, choose the destination of your film and the new name of it (recommended calling it "[Film Name] ([Year])" [e.g. Avatar (2009)] ).

You can choose the type of file you want to output. This is entirely up to you, and I won't preach on which is best. I chose MP4 simply because it is a common type. Intially, choosing MP4 will change the extension of your file to M4V for compatibility with Apple products, but going to File > Preferences can change this to .mp4 should you so require.

The tabs below are all about your film. Usually, its best to just leave well alone unless you want to change your audio output or video stream. The subtitles can be very useful for foreign language films. I tend to burn the subtitles onto the films for ease of access, but it means you can't turn them off should you enjoy watching foreign language films in their native language with no help. I also changed my .mp4 audio to .mp3 instead of .aac, and my player said the file was invalid so now I just leave things as they are.

Later versions (it's only just been released so this is hot off the press) also allow you to add tags to your films in a similar way to how you can tag music films with artists and song titles. Simply click the Tags tab.

Once you are ready to go, press Start at the top. If you already have one conversion going, just hit Enqueue. This makes for very easy multitasking and means you don't have to be watching your computer every hour. I have films copying using MakeMKV while Handbrake has films queued up and leave my computer on overnight for maximum efficiency.

Copying Your Films to the NAS

Film to NAS
Throwing the files onto the NAS is really easy. You need to ensure your NAS and computer are connected to the same network and go into your computer's network folder, click on your NAS and simply copy the new files into the relevant folder.

As I briefly mentioned with the file naming earlier, it is important to get a naming regime down as soon as possible otherwise you could find your collection being unmanageable. I tend to stick to the following:

  • Movies
    • [Film Name] ([Year])
      • [Film Name] ([Year]).mp4
      • poster.jpg
  • TV Shows
    • [TV Show Name]
      • Season [Season Number]
        • [TV Show Name] - s[Season Number]e[Episode Number] - [Episode Name].mp4
e.g. If I had the first episode of Lost, and the movie Avatar:
  • Movies
    • Avatar (2009)
      • Avatar (2009).mp4
      • poster.jpg
  • TV Shows
    • Lost
      • Season 1
        • Lost - s01e01 - Pilot.mp4
As you can see, pretty concise and to the point. Both DS Video and Plex will be able to search the Movies and TV Shows directories and find further information about your film - you just need to give it a nudge in the right direction!

Summary

This could easily have been a job that was absolutely FREE for me to carry out had I wanted to use the old computer to store the DVDs on. In the end, I decided to splash out on the NAS, which set me back quite a lot of money - but the investment was to future proof my system as it is by far the most important part of this entire procedure. Fortunately we use Synology NAS systems at work, so I was able to get around it pretty quickly.

I now have a system of being able to digitise my entire DVD & Blu-ray library and the ability to store over 2,000 films. I can pick and choose films using my tablet, Xbox controller or even my mobile phone and quite easily watch them on my ageing 22" television (though, as it's connected through HDMI, this could plausibly be a 70" 3D projector - that's a lesson for another day).

Please comment if you have any queries with the ridiculous amount of text above!

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Guide to Creating your Home Cinema: Introduction & Disclaimer

One of the first things I wanted to do when I bought my new house was to drag its 1950's masonry into the 21st Century. My idea was clear: I wanted to pick and watch a 3D movie on a projector with 5.1 surround sound (7.1 is no good in my tiny living room) without leaving the comfortable haven of my sofa.

Source: AboutProjectors
There was a catch though: this is a budget job. I absolutely refuse to have the expense of external companies' help on a job that I feel any person with a bit of technological nous and a hammer can achieve.

So, over the coming months I shall keep you updated with my progress and hopefully you can gain some insight into how to create yourself a lovely home cinema by learning from my mistakes (and probably improving on them by spending an extra £20 that I decided to save!).

Part of what I will be discussing is how to transfer all of your DVDs & Blu-Rays onto a computer so that they can be accessed without ever leaving your chair. Naturally, with ripping DVDs comes certain legal grey areas.

The law in the UK was updated in 2010 with the Digital Economy Act which legalised copying CDs and DVDs for personal use. However, it is not that simple. It is still not legal to bypass copyright protection which is prevalent on most DVDs and nearly all Blu-Rays. That means, by law in the UK, it is still not necessarily legal to copy the films which you bought.

So, for the purposes of any information I give on ripping DVDs and Blu-Rays I strongly urge you to investigate the laws in your country.

Other than that, I hope the information I give you will come in useful!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
In all honesty, I haven't watched a film for probably getting on a month due to the countless amounts of classic TV series that the girlfriend and I have been sifting through (Lost, My Family, Peep Show, Hustle). But, during a recent spree on eBay, I managed to pick up The Audrey Hepburn 3 Film Collection (including Sabrina and Funny Face) for a bargain. As a result, I could finally achieve something I've been trying to do for a while and watch Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, is not to be confused with Breakfast At Tiffany's, the Truman Capote novella, on which Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, is based. It is also not to be be confused with Breakfast At Tiffany's, the song by Deep Blue Something, which is about using Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, to reconcile with a girlfriend. Capice?

Despite being an American literary classic, my first experience of Breakfast At Tiffany's actually came from the song although, because of my age, it was a 2003 cover version by Jannik (which is pretty good - the girlfriend and I both kinda liked it) that first crossed my path. Naturally, I would ignorantly sing the lyrics and wonder what was so special about Tiffany that would make some guy want to have morning crumpets with her.

Fortunately, in the ten years since the re-release of that song, I've become slightly more educated. After watching Capote and In Cold Blood, along with reading the book around which those films are based, my admiration for Truman Capote was piqued and his classic 1958 romantic comedy was the natural progressive step.

Breakfast At Tiffany's is about Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a socialite who Capote once described as an "American geisha". She spends her days courting rich men in exchange for money which she tries, in vain, to save for the return of her brother, Fred, who is serving in the military.

Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer (from whose view the novella is written), moves into the apartment above Holly's and, because of his similar life situation, Holly befriends him. Initially, Paul is uninterested in Holly because of her extravagant lifestyle, but gradually he finds himself drawn into her naïve little world.

The first thing that can really be said about Breakfast At Tiffany's is that it was written (and subsequently released) at the right time. Following the screwball comedies of the 1930's and 1940's (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), the romantic comedy genre had petered out by the end of the 1950's. Breakfast At Tiffany's seemed like the natural evolution of the genre that would later give us some of the worst films ever made.

Rather than providing the audience with a character that is easy to imagine being your next door neighbour as had been the norm before, the swinging 60's and Breakfast At Tiffany's brought in the concept that this was probably happening to someone else you'll never meet. It also embraced sexuality where its predecessors shied away from the taboo.

Breakfast At Tiffany's showcases a romance you feel will only ever happen at the start of a relationship when it feels like something new and exciting. It's dashed with the idyllic sentiments of a first date and its backing track of Moon River is a stroke of genius especially as Holly serenades Cat as Paul looks on wistfully to the mellow tones.

For all of Audrey Hepburn's glamour - and in Breakfast At Tiffany's she is simply sublime - Holly Golightly is not someone you'd expect to bump into on the streets of New York. She's a member of a society that doesn't take part in 9 to 5 office work. She's what every woman should aspire to with their newly found freedom, while less obviously the majority of men are depicted as snivelling and desperate.

Really, it's this new, exciting and romantic group of oddballs that makes Breakfast At Tiffany's the American literary - and movie - classic that still retains its charm today.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

213 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
Here is another film that I watched a month ago and have left as a scheduled post! Not only that, but it is actually one from the Empire 5-star 500!

As with most people in this day and age, my only experience of Victor Hugo's classic is through the bright and colourful version Disney released in 1996 and featuring talking gargoyles. While Disney was lauded for exploring darker source material than normal it still comes nowhere near the original story.

Even this version, made in 1939, tones down the story a bit but it is clear that Disney drew inspiration for Quasimodo's appearance from Charles Laughton's striking character representation and I can't help but compare the two for just that reason alone.

The story is similar - in 15th Century Paris the gypsies are being persecuted. One - Esmerelda (Maureen O'Hara) - manages to sneak into the city where she attracts the attention of many local men, including the Judge Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), a failing poet. Quasimodo is a reclusive hunchback who is made deaf by his bell-ringing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and is legally cared for Frollo.

Noone had the heart to tell Quasimodo his hair dye was running
What I never realised about the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the brutality of it. Victor Hugo's tale isn't a pleasant one, and this version exposes much of the gritty nature of the book - obviously far more so than Disney's colourful version. That being said, the book kills off both Esmerelda and leaves Quasimodo presumed dead which is a radically different ending than most people are aware of, so it could be argued that this film influenced Disney far more so than Hugo.

To back up this claim, Disney's Quasimodo even shares the same squint, wonky teeth and ruffled hair as Charles Laughton's heavily made up hunchback. Because Laughton has changed his physical appearance so much, the only thing that gives away the fact that it is the actor playing Quasimodo is that his podgy nose is identical which, again, is another trait that Disney copied.

In conclusion then, if you are interested in Victor Hugo's original text (probably translated), then this would be the perfect stepping stone. There are plenty of recognisable scenes from Disney's film, right down to the less-colourful Fool's Parade, but the added sense of realism will bring a whole new perspective on that story you saw as a child.


Monday, May 06, 2013

A to Z 2013: Reflections


First of all, welcome to my new followers. It's great to have you on board! I hope you enjoy my continuation of the 5-star 500 challenge over the coming months and years.

What a month April has been - on the blog and in my offline life. Both have been horrifically busy and the blog has been a great escape. Thanks for all your comments - they have been greatly appreciated, and I'm sorry if I haven't replied to you yet.

I promised in January to write down 26 alternative endings and in mid-March I realised that was a difficult challenge to give myself seeing as I had only written 3. I had to hastily come up with another solution and decided to do something far lighter by doing an A to Z of comedy characters.

Initially I figured it was easy. Countless characters seemed to fall on the letter 'D' - Dory (Finding Nemo) and Doug (Up) are just two examples - and I had plenty for 'M', 'A' and 'S' too.

Then the ugly letters started to rear their heads. I first got to 'I' and realised I couldn't think of anyone for that letter before stumbling across Inspector Gadget. Having already done a piece on Matthew Broderick, this was a bit of an issue, so I hastily threw "Inspector" into Google in the hope of some inspiration. Brilliantly, it suggested Clouseau - and even more inspired because I wanted to write about Peter Sellers and had taken all the letters for his characters from Dr. Strangelove.

Then there was nothing for Q, U, X, Y or Z. I couldn't do Uncle Fester because Christopher Lloyd was Emmett Brown, I couldn't do Zoolander because Ben Stiller was White Goodman and couldn't do Zohan because Adam Sandler was Happy Gilmore. Crap. I must admit, I bodged those. Still, I think I got away with it.

Apologies once again if my posting schedule goes out of the window. I have three 5-star 500 posts to go up (OK, I need to finish them first) and then I shall continue on with the challenge. May isn't overly busy in the cinema - except for Star Trek - so with luck I can keep you all entertained with the main focus of the blog rather than getting distracted and going out!

Finally, I hope to be announcing something exciting soon which I have been working on in a literary sense. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Until next time!


Saturday, May 04, 2013

Oblivion (2013)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
Today is April 12. This post has been scheduled for release on May 7 since then. Apologies for the delay everyone, but the A to Z has well and truly taken over the month of April and held up all reviews since.

Oblivion has been on my calendar since the end of 2012 when I saw a preview in Empire. A simple image of a destroyed Earth seems to be all it takes nowadays to entice me into the cinema and I wasn't even put off by Tom Cruise headlining - whose films I don't usually rate.

Since that moment I had decided I was watching the film and starved myself of all information about it until, well, a couple of hours ago when I hit the cinema.

Oblivion describes a world where the moon has been reduced to a satellite of rubble by aliens. Humans, who destroyed Earth to win the war, have fled to one of Saturn's moons (Titan) and machines are somehow harvesting Earth's water supply to sustain the population. These machines are being guarded by drones who fight off the remaining alien hoard known as Scavs.

Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live in the sky and Jack is sent to Earth each day to repair drones that have been damaged by the Scavs. During his sleep he has a constantly recurring dream of a time before the invasion where he spends time with a mystery woman.

Let me start off by saying that I wasn't disappointed by all of the hype that I had put on myself surrounding this movie. It is a film that is based on an unpublished graphic novel and therefore is heavy on the special effects and using Joseph Kosinski as director is an inspired decision. I also loved his film Tron: Legacy (which was practically all CGI), so he was definitely the man to head up Oblivion - and it looks stunning.

Yet again, Oblivion is part of the growing trend where the studio gets in on the act by changing their introduction scene to 'fit in' as part of the storyline. This time, Universal has been very intelligent. I remember watching it and thinking it was different to normal - only for my suspicions to be confirmed shortly afterwards. Keep an eye out for that if you watch the film.

Many of the posters for Oblivion feature a waterfall coming down a skyscraper and it was that kind of grandeur that I was expecting to see on the big screen. I can't actually recall that picture being used, but as Jack travels from the utopian sky to post-apocalyptic Earth, through menacing thunderclouds every single sense is aroused by the imagery that has been created.

With films that are heavy on the CGI it is easy for the plot and character development to get lost and this is probably my biggest criticism of Oblivion. It was far too predictable. I managed to predict practically every part of the film (err, except for the touching final scene) - but this was because it panned out exactly how I wanted it to. For me, this made it enjoyable. For others, I can see why you wouldn't be too impressed.

Overall, a mixed bag. I can't recommend the film because of its predictability and I fully understand any criticism that it gets. However, as a method to transport you to another world for a couple of hours... it's perfect.


Friday, May 03, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

In my review of Iron Man two days ago I said that the reason I liked it so much was because I could see it potentially becoming real at some point in the future. I take that back.

With Iron Man 3, it is like director Shane Black (in only his second directing shift) took that very thought and said to the team, "right, how mad can we make this franchise?". The answer, is a resounding "very mad".

After an explosion leaves his top security man and highly regarded friend, Hogan (Jon Favreau), fighting for his life, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gives the terrorist who lays claim to the attacks his address and asks for a meeting face-to-face. The terrorist, known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), agrees and Stark soon finds his house being demolished along with much of his life.

Meanwhile Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's girlfriend and manager of Stark Industries, meets a face from the past in Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). When she goes missing shortly afterwards, it seems as though the Iron Man has lost everything.

I will admit, that contrary to my prior thoughts, I did enjoy the first Iron Man and its sequel for bringing something fresh to the comic book genre. It does seem that you can have too much of a good thing, as Iron Man 3 delivers more of the same but without the originality. I imagine that Iron Man 3 will probably fade into the background of its predecessors' success.

That's not to say that there aren't good bits - or even that you shouldn't see the film at all. It is still peppered with one-liners and its humour still feels fresh. I don't think I'll ever get bored of listening to the Tony Stark Show as he and JARVIS (Paul Bettany) exchange quips as Stark bullies a robotic arm.

On the subject of the robotic arm, it goes to show how much effort was put into the previous films as much of Iron Man 3 relies heavily on the empathy that eminates from them. One scene shows the audience exactly how much he cares about his inventions in a typically laugh-out-loud but tender moment that has come to typify the franchise.

Much of the film comes undone in the last act. The final scene seems like a last hurrah and it was far too over-played and drawn-out. There is only so many times that a man can come back from a beating - and I'll leave it to you to decide which character that is aimed at.

At the end of the day though, the audience must come to realise that, like Stark, there is only so much empathy that can be shown towards machines. Perhaps then, despite all of his brilliance as the character (and he has been superb), Robert Downey Jr. can give no more as Iron Man.

The end of the credits explains that Tony Stark will return, but this only seems to add fuel to the speculation that Downey Jr. will not be reprising the role. I fear that without Downey Jr. the franchise will fail. As I've said in the past, it now seems as though character and actor have become married into one co-existance.

Perhaps though, this is what the franchise now needs.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
The second instalment of Iron Man was watched almost immediately (OK, two days) after the first - so now I'm all clued up and ready for Iron Man 3 in cinemas later this month! I should probably note that I'm actually writing this mid-April and have scheduled for May because of the inconvenient timing of the A-Z Challenge.

Iron Man 2 is much the same of its predecessor. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has to fight another humanoid - this time War Machine - and has to overcome personal problems and medical difficulties in order to battle his enemies.

When the first Iron Man came out, it entered a saturated market with plenty of other heroes and it came out on top thanks to its smart humour and interesting protagonist. Despite being a new character, Iron Man was still very warmly received.

Iron Man 2 takes this successful formula and very much recycles it. There are more pieces added in for the fans, while it still keeps its accessibility for a broader casual audience.

Where Iron Man 2 falls down is that it feels very much like a stop-gap in the franchise before The Avengers - exemplified with the introduction of Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson. Their characters were interesting but they weren't given enough screen time to really have an impact. It really does feel as though they have been jammed in to try and justify their inclusion in The Avengers.

The one positive that this film gives over its predecessor is that is that it has a proper villain - and someone with a dastardly plan that doesn't involve around a business plan to overthrow Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke's Whiplash is mysterious and interesting while his change in character from focused workman to utter maniac is outstanding.

In summary then, Iron Man 2 is still just as witty as the original, but its lack of originality and its seeming conformity to the genre are not what Iron Man fans should expect.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Iron Man (2008)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
I remember when Iron Man was released in 2008 and my snobby outlook on comic book films concluded that it was a fad that wouldn't last. I didn't really know anything about Iron Man and as far as I was concerned that was just how it should stay. Thus, until late in March 2013 (this review has been scheduled since the end of March because of the A to Z) I hadn't actually seen Iron Man.

Having seen The Avengers, I decided that perhaps Tony Stark's alter-ego (with emphasis on the ego), wasn't such a bad character. So, in preparation for the release of Iron Man 3 later in April - or rather, because of the scheduling, last month - I figured now was a good time to catch up with what's been happening in Tony Stark's life.

I'd heard that Iron Man was a film - and a character - that provided far more laughs than many other comic book heroes, and during the introduction it is clear to see that this is the case. A multi-millionaire, Stark (Robert Downey Junior) develops advanced weapons systems for the military. On a demonstration of his latest missile, however, he is captured by the enemy and told to design the same missile for them.

Instead, Stark decides to build himself a way out of there and the first Iron Man design is created. Upon his return home he finds that his company's weapons have often been ending up in the wrong hands and he informs the media he no longer wants to manufacture weapons - much to the disgust of his second-in-command, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Alongside Downey Jr. are Gwyneth Paltrow as Iron Man's assistant, Pepper Pots, and Paul Bettany as Downey's artificially intelligent housekeeper JARVIS.

Unlike many other films of the genre, Iron Man doesn't seem to revolve around the supernatural. The fantastical suit is a concept that is clearly plausible with enough time or money - even if it uses an element (adamantium) that doesn't exist. The arc reactor could be created with some currently unknown power source. Perhaps it is these plausible theories that made Iron Man so easy for me to understand and laugh along with.

As the main man, Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic and his dry humour is comical. At the end of the film I thought to myself, "who else could play Iron Man?", and the answer is simply no-one. Even when he is inside the suit, you are fully aware of the man rather than the machine which makes it very easy for the character's human aspects comes through.

There is still an element of fad about the film - yes, it feels corny - but perhaps this is something that I am confusing with the fact that comic books now appear to have their own genre. Iron Man fits perfectly into this category as the nerdism cult hits an all time high.

In truth, Iron Man was a huge gamble for Marvel in that they chose to begin an unknown entity rather than reboot something more well known. They definitely stacked the odds in their favour with a huge budget and the signing of huge Oscar-nominated names and, thanks to Marvel's guts and gusto, Iron Man was - and still is - a resounding success.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for... Zazu

Z is for... Zazu
Film: Lion King (1994)
Actor: Rowan Atkinson

The Character
Zazu is a responsible adviser to the King, but the King's son, Simba, realises that Zazu's methods are antiquated. King's don't need advice from little hornbills for a start.

Of course, like any boring teacher, Zazu is always correct... but that's not always the fun way, right?


The Actor
Rowan Atkinson is one of Britain's finest comedy actors. He has probably become most well known for his role as Mr. Bean, the bumbling Mini-owning man who seemed to find himself in very bizarre situatoins. The TV series spun off into a film, Bean, which spawned a sequel, Mr. Bean's Holiday.

For British audiences he is also well known in Blackadder, where he plays an ancestry line through time with his assistant Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Elsewhere, on film, he is widely recognised as Johnny English - a spoof secret agent with British interests at heart.

Classic Scene



Bonus!
Thanks for sticking with my blog throughout the A to Z challenge. Enjoy this extra Rowan Atkinson film from the London Olympic Games 2012.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for... Yzma

Y is for... Yzma
Film: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
Actor: Eartha Kitt

The Character
Yzma is pretty... ugly. As an evil villain she has schemes just as dastardly as the rest - and equally just as daft as the rest too. She could easily give Wile. E. Coyote a run for his money in the stupid plan stakes.

On the positive side, her megalomaniacal ways are often muted by her henchman Kronk - but his reason often falls on deaf ears. Perhaps if she had, the Empire wouldn't now be run by a llama that vaguely resembles its former leader.

The Actor
Eartha Kitt isn't a name that springs to most people's mind when they think of comic actresses. In truth, that's because she's not. She's a singer who has happened to have appeared in a few films. Remember the song "Santa Baby" before it was redone by a million different artists? Yeah, that was Eartha Kitt originally.

Film-wise she has still had a reasonable career with over 30 acting credits to her name. Most recognisable of these are her turn as Yzma from Emperor's New Groove (and the direct-to-video sequels), Bageera in The Jungle Book sequel and Madame Zeroni in Holes (2003).

Classic Scene

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for... Xander Cage

X is for... Xander Cage
Film:  xXx (2002)
Actor: Vin Diesel

The Character
Xander Cage is one hardcore man who is a little too rebellious to be left on the streets, so the law decided to get him before he broke it. Once recruited, Xander goes sightseeing in various locations around the world including the USA, Columbia and the Czech Republic. There is one condition though - he must kill some bad guys.

The Actor
While Vin Diesel hit the acting scene in the 1990's, it wasn't until the early 2000's that he hit the mainstream in Pitch Black and xXx. This was also the period where he made the first Fast film - The Fast and the Furious.

Apart from one memorable (or, not) aside as a babysitter in The Pacifer, Vin Diesel has stamped his authority on the modern action genre with further Fast films, and Babylon A.D.

Classic Scene

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for... White Goodman

W is for... White Goodman
Actor: Ben Stiller
Films: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

The Character
White Goodman should be an inspiration to us all. Once upon a time he was overweight and grotesque, and he turned his life around to become one of the fittest guys around - albeit still grotesque. He is also a keen businessman having built his empire of gyms up from nothing and with a life like that it proves he isn't an Average Joe.

Problem is, he's a little bigoted and sees himself as a bit of a ladies man. He could be, save for the fact that he would be embarrassed on a first date as his head wouldn't fit through a door - especially not with all that hair. He is also a little too hell bent on vengeance to be worthy of a second date.

The Actor
Ben Stiller began his acting career on the television and broke into the limelight with four episodes on Saturday Night Live after the producers liked his own parody work. After a brief foray into short films, Stiller was given his own show on MTV.

After this success, Stiller hit the big time in the 1990's with films such as The Cable Guy and Reality Bites, where he both directed and acted in the films. After a few more successful films in Zoolander and Meet The Parents, Stiller entered his purple patch in 2004 with Meet The Fockers, Anchorman (cameo), Dodgeball, Envy, Starsky & Hutch and Along Came Polly.

As well as directing and acting, he has also done voice work when he starred as Alex in the Madagascar franchise.

Classic Scene

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for... Van Wilder

V is for... Van Wilder
Film: Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2002)
Actor: Ryan Reynolds

The Character
Van Wilder is a guy that likes to party hard. When he's not partying, he's off aiding other people in holding their own bashes and, as a result, he earned himself the title of Party Liaison Officer.


Life isn't all rosy for Van Wilder as his job often impedes his University work and it looks like he is about to throw any future of a career away. If only there were something he was good at...

The Actor
Ryan Reynolds has had an interesting career. Off the top of my head I can think of films where he has been a comic book character (Green Lantern), a fake husband (The Proposal) and buried alive (err, Buried). All in the life of a Hollywood superstar, then.

Despite his popularity and fame, Ryan Reynolds hasn't actually appeared in that many films. Aside from the odd rom-com, which Reynolds is most famous for, he has also made appearances in crime (Smokin' Aces) and horror (The Amityville Horror). In fact, he genre-skips so much it is difficult to predict which film he will star in next.

Classic Scene (*Strong Language)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for... Uncle Albert

* OK, he's not a film character. I could have done Uncle Fester, but I've already written about Christoper Lloyd, so ner.

U is for... Uncle Albert
Films Sitcom: Only Fools and Horses (1985 - 1999)
Actor: Buster Merryfield

The Character
You may have heard that Uncle Albert Gladstone Trotter did many things durin' the war. Actually, in his defence, he was a decorated war veteran who performed many brave antics and single handedly sunk many ships... even if they were on his own side.

His clearly successful past earned him the right to a peaceful life with his thoughtful nephews who are always there to look out for him. They even had the heart to take him in when their granddad sadly passed away.

The Actor
Buster Merryfield didn't get on the acting scene until the 1980's, where he took a few roles on stage and small roles in television in his retirement. It wasn't until he was offered the part of Uncle Albert, to take the place of Granddad following the sudden death of Lennard Pearce.

He played the part of Uncle Albert until 1996, trademarking the catchphrase "During the war...". After the sitcom ended, he returned to the stage before he died in 1999.

Classic Scene

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for... The Tramp

T is for... The Tramp
Films: Modern Times (1936), City Lights (1931), The Circus (1928), The Gold Rush (1925), Nice and Friendly (1922), The Kid (1921), A Dog's Life (1918), Easy Street (1917), Shanghaied (1915/I), The Tramp (1915), Recreation (1914), The Star Boarder (1914/II), Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
Actor: Charlie Chaplin

The Character
Despite being a homeless fellow, The Tramp aspires for something far greater. He often finds himself in bizarre situations that mean he could enhance his social status, but regularly screws it up to end up where he was before.


He only appears to have one set of clothes - in a similar vein to a cartoon character. His trademark bowler hat and baggy trousers with jacket and tie do everything to exemplify each social class.

Despite not being very wealthy, The Tramp is well travelled, having even visited as far North as Klondike, Canada in his hunt for gold and love. Again, he finds himself in perilous situations and, having had it all, only goes and loses it again.


The Actor
Charlie Chaplin is the star of silent comedy. In fact, because he - and his Tramp character - became so synonymous with 1920's and 30's film-making, he became a victim of his own success. At the dawn of the 'talkies', Chaplin failed to adjust his mannerisms to take in the marvellous invention of sound.

Despite his failure to adapt to modern film and the controversies that surrounded him in the 1940's onwards, Chaplin will always be remembered for giving the world its first true taste of comedy, from one of the world's first superstars.

Classic Scene

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for... Steve Stifler

S is for... Steve Stifler
Actor: Seann William Scott
Films: American Pie (1999), American Pie 2 (2001), American Pie: The Wedding (2003), American Pie: Reunion (2012)

The Character
Steve Stifler is a lewd young man who doesn't change in later age. He is known to be into sport, namely lacrosse, but isn't particularly academic and it makes him suffer in later life.

Despite this, he is very popular at school thanks to his ability to throw a damn good party and, equally, because he has a very attractive mother who looks a lot like Jennifer Coolidge. Some might even call her a MILF.

He is clearly a ladies man, at least in his own mind, but cares deeply for his friends too. That is, except for Paul Finch who Stifler fears may one day be his father-in-law... or at least the father of his half-sibling. He may also have a fear of chocolate cake.

The Actor
Seann William Scott's big break came in the American Pie franchise as party-thrower Stifler. As a result of this role he has come to be typecast in that role.

Despite this, Scott has had a varied career outside the American Pie franchise. Sure, he played a similar part in Road Trip (2000), Dude Where's My Car (2000) and Role Models (2008), but he has also been a monk's assistant in Bulletproof Monk (2003) and done some voice acting in the form of Crash in the Ice Age sequels.

Finally, Seann William Scott's most famous role outside of American Pie came in the form of Bo in The Dukes of Hazard (2005) - a reboot of the famous TV series.

Classic Scene

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for... Rufus T. Firefly

R is for... Rufus T Firefly
Actor: Groucho Marx
Film: Duck Soup

The Character
Rufus T. Firefly is the dictator of the bankrupt State of Freedonia, but fortunately he has the confidence and financial backing of the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale.

As his country is undergoing a political siege from nearby Sylvania it is not clear whether Firefly is aware of the terror that faces him. In fact, it is not clear whether Firefly knows anything about anything.

The Actor
Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx was one third of the Marx Brothers, along with his siblings Chico and Harpo. There were two other brothers too, Zeppo (who appeared in Duck Soup) and Gummo.

Despite only appearing in only half of his films without his brothers, Groucho is often considered the most enigmatic of the group with his snappy one-liners and witty innuendos. Due to the way comedy has evolved it makes him very difficult to understand to the modern audience, but it is still very intelligent none-the-less.

His legacy does live on though in his comedy moustache, glasses and nose which are seen as classic props in any gag.

Classic Scene

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for... Q

Q is for... Q
Actor: Peter Burton (Dr. No), Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese (The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day), Ben Whitshaw (Skyfall)
Films: James Bond franchise (except Live and Let Die, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace)

The Character
Major Geoffrey Boothroyd is Quartermaster to James Bond and is known as Q to his colleagues in respect to his job title. He often devises gadgets of a questionable nature with humorous end results appearing in the background while he prompts Bond on his latest mission.

He is known to have a base in several different countries and often appears with very little warning in the most obscure of places. Luckily this rigorous testing throughout the world provides Bond with the most advanced gadgetry known to the British Secret Service.


The Actor
A former lieutenant in the British Army and prisoner of Colditz Castle, Desmond Llewelyn turned to acting as an extra in several films following the end of the Second World War.

He eventually went on to become the staple of the James Bond franchise appearing in all of the films (except Dr. No and Live and Let Die) until his death in 1999. For the most part this was his only acting work except for a few other minor roles in films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Ironically his death was sudden, in a car accident, but his character had had a fitting send off in his previous film, Die Another Day, telling Bond he must always have an escape plan.

Classic Scene

Pay attention 007.