Friday 30 November 2012

This Is All Sam's Fault

Although I should point out that when I say "Sam's fault", I mean that in the nicest way possible.  Not really a 'fault' in the conventional sense at all, just that it's largely down to Sam.

I'm talking about my increasing interest in Asian (mainly Japanese) cinema.

Admittedly, my first introduction to Asian cinema came from a director I don't remember Sam ever mentioning, namely a pair of films from animator Hayao Miyazaki.  Specifically, these were his feature directorial debut Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), and his Oscar-winner Spirited Away (2001).  The first was a relatively gentle introduction to far-eastern cinema, albeit a slightly surreal experience, as the film is set in a version of middle Europe filtered through a lens of Japanese cultural perception and storytelling.  The other was only the second film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (following debut winner Shrek), after the category's belated inauguration in the 2001/2002 season, and is a much more wholeheartedly Japanese work, drawing heavily on traditional Shinto religious imagery.

But then came Sam.  Over the four years since I first met him, I have not only discovered more of his fascination with the Kaiju genre in particular and Japanese cinema in general, but I've slowly started getting drawn into seeing some of the films for myself.  He gave me a DVD copy of the original Godzilla (1954) as a Christmas present last year, and I bought a copy of the more recent South Korean film The Host (2006) on his recommendation.  And I liked both of them.

Despite the move towards the monsters, however, there remained a very significant gap in my education - I hadn't seen a single film by the man who is perhaps the most famed Japanese director of all, Akira Kurosawa.

Yes, that Kurosawa - as in, the man whose 1958 film The Hidden Fortress is often cited as the primary inspiration for Star Wars.

Back in August I obtained a copy of what may well be his other most famous film, Seven Samurai (1954), once again on Sam's advice.  I must admit that when I finally sat down to watch it last week, I had my reservations, mainly due to the fact that the film (even with some material still thought to be missing) runs to 190 minutes long, and I had found the American remake (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) somewhat unengaging and overlong.  I needn't have worried, though - Seven Samurai proves once again the already-well-established principle that remakes, especially American ones, tend to be something of a disimprovement.  The Japanese original did feel long (unsurprisingly), but remained engaging throughout despite being in fullframe, black-and-white and a foreign language.  Character motivations and actions made a lot more sense in their original context, and the pacing was much snappier.

I won't go into too much detail on the film's history, structure etc (Sam has already done all of that, and I don't see how I could improve on his writeup); I just wanted to post something to say, relatively quickly, that I've now seen it too, and I liked it.  And to say thank you to Sam for the tip!

Now to get hold of Godzilla Raids Again and/or The Hidden Fortress...

- The Colclough

Tuesday 6 November 2012

That Impossible Monday

I've been on YouTube for 5 years plus, and over the course of those years I've sometimes wondered what it would feel like to open my emails one Monday morning and find my inbox swamped with YT notifications after one of my videos somehow managed to go viral over the weekend.

Well, one can dream.  It's never happened.

Until yesterday, it sort of did - except not on YouTube.

My Mondays usually start somewhere around 9am, but I was brought to half an hour early yesterday, as Ben popped in and said something (sorta casual, as you do) about all those votes and comments that one of my recently-published Portal 2 custom maps had been getting.  Well, the last time I checked, my most popular map had achieved something like a dozen views, seven or so people playing it, few enough votes (in either direction) that you could count them on one hand, and around two comments.  It had been about a week since I last logged into Steam - a week, on my Steam account, is usually just about long enough for absolutely nothing to happen - but my still-not-quite-awake brain thought it heard Ben say something about 'nearly 2000 votes'.  I would probably have fallen out of bed, except that I'm in the rather sensible habit of sleeping towards the middle of the mattress, rather than hanging off one side.

8:30 may count as 'a bit too early' on ordinary days, but Ben wasn't joking, so it seemed that this wasn't ordinary days.  I promptly decided that if I really had got literally thousands of people playing one of my maps, then this was clearly worth getting out of bed half an hour early for.  Sure enough, I fired up Steam and found some 57 messages, nearly all of them comments on Cliffs of Insanity, and stats boxes showing it had been one of the 3 or so most popular P2 custom maps for the last several days.  Someone even had a screencapture video on YouTube showing themself solving the map - which I have, needless to say, added to my favourites list.  And somebody else left a comment in Russian.

The numbers kept going up, some of them by the hundreds, over the rest of the day, and were still rising this morning.

And just as I was all fired up in test-chamber-building mode, somebody somewhere in the deeper recesses of Valve went and broke something.  As of first thing this morning, I can load Steam perfectly well, thank you very much, but Portal 2 won't start for love nor money; I get an error every single time saying that "the Steam servers are too busy to handle your request for Portal 2" - which doesn't make a great deal of sense seeing that I had the game already working 24 hours ago.  Quite annoying timing.

I digress.  The main point of all this was to say what had happened, and to comment that it all feels really weird after all those years of obscurity.  Really, really weird.

But not unpleasant.

- The Colclough

Saturday 3 November 2012

Who and Why

So, apparently the massive, greedy, faceless corporate giant that is Disney has bought out the most famous and successful independent filmmaker in the world - and as if that's not enough, they immediately scheduled Episode VII for release in the summer of 2015, just two and a half years from now.  As Sarah said at the beginning of her email (which was how I found out about it all), "Oh, dear..."

We're talking, of course, about the company which seems almost literally unable to handle the idea of not making a sequel to any film which got seen by a paying audience of more than 3 people.  Except Prince Caspian, for some reason.  They've been known to pillage their archives as far back as the 1940s, going so far as to produce Bambi II in 2006 - yes, you read that right, Bambi II - a direct-to-video (and I don't doubt utterly worthless) sequel to the original film which had been around since 1942.  Apparently it holds the record for the longest time gap between a film and its sequel, but the real issue is that Disney felt it had to exist at all.

There seems to be a school of thought out there which holds that Star Wars creator George Lucas himself had become something of a money-grubbing corporate fiend of late, but whether or not that is true, he at least had the decency not to bother making Episode VII.  House of Mouse, of course, saw a cash cow and promptly rushed in with the largest milking bucket they could find.  We don't know who's writing the new film(s), or who will be directing them, but to my nose (and those of many others, it seems) it all smells like a particularly rotten case of lucrative-release-date-first-and-shaky-plot-later.  What really irks is the wording of the news piece, which suggests that Disney aren't just looking to make a new trilogy, but that Ep VII would be "followed by episodes eight and nine and then one new movie every two or three years".  In other words, just keep churning them out, mindlessly and endlessly, for the rest of eternity - somewhat like how Shrek ended up.

All bleak and terrible, then?  Likely, but not definite.  There are, in my opinion, a small handful of directors out there (presently numbering 3, although I can't say I've thought it through too comprehensively) who I can't rule out as unavailable (Joss Whedon is too busy making Avengers 2, for example) whose hiring could turn the Third Trilogy into potentially-not-disastrous news, and whose names I shall present in alphabetic order, along with my thoughts on why they might be able to redeem the new sequel(s) from Mouse's rancid avarice...

  • Brad Bird: has directed 4 feature films to date, and all of them have been critically lauded and/or massively successful.  Basically all were both, except that Warner never bothered to market The Iron Giant properly, so most people have never heard of it and it didn't get the fame or the box-office numbers that it deserved.  The success of Bird's films probably has a lot to do with what another writer has called "his vice-grip on storytelling mechanics" - I can't think of any way to improve on that description.  Bird started in animation but proved with Mission: Impossible IV that he can do live-action as well, and right now I have no idea what Bird is doing with himself, so he might even be available to take on Star Wars VII.
  • Kenneth Branagh: not remotely the obvious choice to direct a superhero movie - Thor could have been a disaster on so many levels - but somehow it all came together and worked out surprisingly well.  I suspect Branagh's famously Shakespearian background could stand him in good stead to handle the philosophical and quasi-religious undertones of the galaxy far, far away.
  • Gore Verbinski: proved with the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and with Rango, that he can make a very good film so long as he has a decent script before (and not after - Dead Man's Chest...) the cameras start to roll.  Main strengths include his visual sensibilities (the Pirates sequels still looked fantastic, even when the plot structure was teetering dangerously) and his wit - imagine the director who crafted Jack Sparrow working with Harrison Ford to portray a much older but still smuggler-ish-at-heart Han Solo, and you should be able to see why I put Verbinski on my list.

Might come up with some more names later, but can't promise.

But for now, of course, we'll all just have to wait and see.

- The Colclough