Monthly Archives: September 2011

30 Minutes or Less: Enjoyable if Unadventurous

If you have seen Zombieland, you’ll already have a good idea of what to expect from 30 Minutes Or Less. Zombieland saw director Ruben Fleischer and star Jesse Eisenberg team up to create a slacker comedy packed with sharp humour and characters you actually liked, and Fleischer and Eisenberg’s new collaboration largely emulates the success of that film, albeit swapping out zombies for crime.

Eisenberg plays Nick, an employee at a pizza store with the titular 30 minute delivery promise. He shares an apartment with his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), until Chet finds out about the intimate relationship between his twin sister and Nick and freaks out. Meanwhile, frustrated millionaire’s son Dwayne (Danny McBride) decides to act on advice a stripper gives him to have his father killed, and just needs a hundred thousand dollars to pay for the hit. The solution? Order a pizza, drug the deliverer, strap a bomb to his chest and give him ten hours to go and rob a bank. Nick ends up as the hapless guy wearing a C4 vest, forcing him to go to Chet and beg for his help to pull off the heist. As preposterous as this all sounds, it is tightly enough scripted to convey it all with a minimum of contrivance and skips along quickly enough to avoid too much introspection about the absurdity. The plot is serving as little more than a foil for a buddy comedy, after all, and so can be forgiven its moments of contradiction (how many time-pressured scenarios can you think of where a diversion is made to quit a crappy job?).

The most important thing for such a film is the strength of the cast, and here everyone gives a competent, if not particularly adventurous, performance. Aziz Ansari replicates the same highly strung role that you may have seen in shows like Scrubs and Parks and Recreation, but his sense of comic timing is spot on. After a breakout role in The Social Network Eisenberg gives the impression that he is coasting here, but his immense likeability pervades through every scene. The jokes themselves are of varying quality and several scenes feel out of place, but they come rapidly enough to ensure that when one doesn’t work there isn’t a noticeable gap in the humour, and there’s enough that hit the mark to generate a fair few laughs.

30 Minutes Or Less conjures up the workshy sense of the main characters in the film. It’s funny, but it doesn’t try too hard to do anything else. This is probably for the best, as it allows it to stand on the merits of its comedy without being burdened with regards for character development or plot. And on that judgement, it largely succeeds. For 90 minutes of disposable enjoyment, you could do an awful lot worse than this.

Why haven’t you bought a ticket to see MF Doom?

Is the 10th of November free for you? If so, I’d like you to take a long, hard look in the mirror and look at the person who has not yet bought a Doom ticket.

At the time of writing, you – dear reader – could go online and spend the student loan you just received, or are about to receive, on one of the most, ahem, ‘interesting’ shows you’ll probably ever see. When my friend informed me that Doom was coming to Oxford, he told me that on occasions, the shows would either be watching Doom too stoned to operate an MPK, watching him send an imposter in his mask or watching him just be, well, great. I see it as my job to convince you that it’s worth getting a ticket just on the off chance it’s not totally awful – keep your mind open.

This article is really hard to write. Doom has eight albums (ignoring the nine albums of instrumentals), at least six different pseudonyms and forty-six different appearances on other tracks, made by everyone from Gorillaz (November Has Come) to basically any member of Wu Tang Clan (although crucially, not Method Man) – and yes, I literally just went onto Wikipedia and copied those stats off, because I am not going to listen to them all for this article. Let’s take this under a different context. Bieber or the Jonas Brothers? Bieber every time. You know why? You can tell Bieber is a good choice because he just loves music. I don’t like his music (…for the sake of argument), but I have watched videos of him and he is just unbelievable. He makes me feel totally useless. My point is that one of the symptoms of Bieber’s greatness is that he’ll just make music and make music and make music. He is an endless stream of collaborations, covers and albums. This is the same with Doom; I swear, even if you ignore all my suggestions and pick at random any of his albums, you’ll think “God this is great” and that’s a sign of a great musician.

On to what he actually is: I have never taken meaning or anything even close to that from Doom’s lyrics, they’re either stories that make no sense or talking about how much he hates MCs, but that’s irrelevant, his voice and style fits so well with the bizarre beats he uses that I regularly find myself turning on one of his albums and just sitting there, vexed. I’m doing it right now and it’s just inexplicable. Stupid skits and samples are littered through some of the best producing there is, with the cleverest nonsense on top of it. Doom fits in the incestuous faux-underground group of hip hop artists who are on Stone’s Throw recordings, collaborating on albums with Madlib (Madvillain [soon to release a new one of these]) , Dangermouse (The Mouse and the Mask) and doing various tracks with greats such as J Dilla. Essentially, you will be able to find enough stuff that has had Doom in or around it to keep you listening UNTIL the 10th of November.

I was introduced to Doom when a friend of mine recommended me the album Mouse and the Mask. This album is geek reference after geek reference, with appearances from Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah and a very forgettable one from Cee-Lo Green, but the versatility can be seen in the difference from the aptly named Old School, which probably could be taken off a Gang Starr album, to so-downbeat-it’s-almost-trip-hop in Basket Case. It really has to be listened to to be believed. Doom is a piece of hip hop royalty, and that’s why I’m finding it so difficult to believe the show isn’t sold out yet.

I’ve assembled you lucky people a playlist of some of my favourites; all I’m asking is that you give that a listen. And then listen to an album (your choice which). Then buy a ticket. You may easily regret it, but just imagine what it would be like if you didn’t.

Doom: http://tny.gs/mXHHSA

Films Based on Games: Is There Any Hope?

“Guybrush Threepwood has returned!” I wailed a few months back, barely able to contain my enthusiasm. “The Monkey Island series was rebooted about two years ago you uninformed moron! He’s been back for ages.” I may have heard you accurately (if not tactfully) shout back. Alas you would have been correct in your garrulous assertion, but this time he was a real, living, breathing person. That’s right, every gamers favourite pirate arrived from the computer gaming heavens last August and graced a stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival not so near to me (being from Birmingham and all), manifest in physical form. The uninitiated may feel a little lost so far but stick with me, I’ll be back on films soon enough I can assure you.

Well, this at first did indeed seem like a rather pleasing turn of events. As I perused the advert for The Secret of Monkey Island on the Fringe’s website I glanced across the blurb:

“Join Guybrush as he buckles, swashes, shivers timbers, discovers Grog and competes for the affections of the beautiful governess Elaine Marley against the heinous and not-quite-dead Ghost-Pirate LeChuck. Rated Arrrrrr!”

As a young man over the age of Arrrrrr! who has spent many an afternoon adventure gaming like the 90’s had never ended, going to see this show was surely a no-brainer. A swashbuckling time would most definitely be had by all I convinced myself as my mouse hovered over the ‘book tickets’ button, but something stopped me. It may haver been the realisation that I wasn’t actually going to the festival itself and live (as Google Maps assures me) 306 miles from Edinburgh, but no, it’s a niggle at the back of my brain that reminds me that all game adaptations, whether to paper, screen or stage, are uniformly terrible. “Arrrrrr! Why is this?!” I lamented, throwing my pirate hat, eye patch and suitcase to the floor and my hands into the air.

Ok, I’ll take this chance to regain some semblance of credibility and just point out (if you were in any doubt) that I never really was this excited; the games aren’t even that amazing. But the question remains; why is it that video games are just so lousy when it comes to artistic reappropriation?

It’s not like they haven’t tried to adapt Monkey Island before. Way back in 2000 Lucasfilm began work on an animated feature based on the series, with a Mr Ted Elliott writing the story and screenplay. The film was cancelled however and low and behold three years later a little known feature called Pirates of the Caribbean comes out, written by some guy called Ted Elliott. I needn’t outline the overt connection here but what I think it teaches us is something altogether less obvious. The first Pirates film was (despite what the sequels may have done to sully it) a good film and that it was based on a theme park ride (and maybe a partly a game) didn’t seem to matter. If a theme park ride can be adapted into an multi-million dollar, Oscar nominated film, why can’t a game?

What the Curse of the Black Pearl taught us is that if you are going to use a more unconventional (and dare I say it, conventionally flimsy) basis upon which to base a film, then you have to work only with the basics and flesh out the rest yourself. This in Pirates of the Caribbean‘s case meant taking an eccentric character, a name and pretty much a premise (much like that of Monkey Island) and fleshing out the rest in the screenwriting process.

The interactive nature of games and their prolonged periods of narrativeless action do not lend themselves to the big screen. The setting, characters and plot details therefore seem to be the limits of the amount a game (however narrative driven it may be) can contribute to an exclusively narrative driven medium. But why even when this is done are most game inspired films such utter trash? Well like anything, this process of bare bones adaptation can be done in the right way or the wrong way.

A live action film in which a man repeatedly tramples on colourful tortoises wouldn’t really grab the public’s imagination and may actually alienate the children that would comprise its target audience. Substitute this for a lot of rubbish about reverse evolution and dinosaurs and some other stuff I really failed to pay attention to or care about and what you have is the artistic squalor of 1993’s film adaptation of Super Mario. It might just be me, but I would take watching Tortoise guts splatter my screen surrounded by the screams of distressed children and the disgust of their parents alike over Bob Hoskins in an animatronic dinosaur head any day. At one time I thought that I would enjoy watching good old Bob in anything, apparently not.

Apart from this attempt which due to its failure ended up being a one off, there has since been a slew of terrible game to film adaptations which have worsened the stock of the genre considerably and driven away the creative talent that it so badly needs. For anyone in the know I’m sure there is one eminently punchable man on your mind at this moment in time (pictured above – do try to resist punching your screen). The venerable Uwe Boll has not only dedicated his career to adapting some of our most beloved (and some less so) video game creations into fetid piles of steaming celluloid cack (Far CryAlone in the Dark and House of the Dead to name but three), but he has done it with all the grace and tact of a man consumed with contempt for his audience. He tirelessly spews out this trash with the unanimous criticism of his critics ringing in his ears (he held a boxing match and invited them to come and fight him) and in the face of a petition for him to retire (currently with 366032 signatures – including mine), but he will not be stopped. Thankfully he recently took a break from game to film conversions, writing, producing and directing the ominously titled Auschwitz, in what anyone with a sense of cultural judgment would term as a wildly insensitive move at the best of times. If you can stomach the abhorrent tactlessness I urge you to track down the trailer on YouTube to understand what an idiot Mr Boll really is.

However, as I have stated before, although the history of games based movies is littered with failures that have stunted the emergence of the genre, there is definitely the potential out there to make a great film. As many have done before me I like to think of Bioshock as the yard stick. It’s a rich vein of material just ready to be plundered for the big screen. It’s Ayn rand inspired plot, great writing and characters, uniquely amazing setting and dark, horrifying atmosphere make it a perfect candidate to bridge that most wide of gaps between the desktop monitor and the cinema screen.

In pre-production for a period of two years whilst Gore Verbinski (it’s ok he’s only producing) tried to cobble together the huge budget needed to recreate Rapture’s undersea metropolis and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo on board to direct it looked promising. The studio however wanted their budget to be spent on a more restrained mainstream effort than the dark and violent story that the game demands and thankfully rather than acquiescing to this limited vision of the source material the project collapsed and is now indefinitely on hold. If Bioshock is currently our greatest hope for a great game based film then I would rather not see the opportunity squandered on sub-standard fare. I’ve got to say though, a film depicting the downfall of the city of Rapture does have me rather excited, whether or not it’s a success.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A symphony in the key of beige

When Alec Guinness starred in 1979’s BBC television adaptation of John Le Carre’s cold war espionage novel the action had the topical immediacy of a contemporary drama. 30 years on it’s a period piece and despite its Swedish director Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most beautifully British slice of cinema I’ve seen in quite a while.

The plot as it stands at first seems rather straightforward. After George Smiley is dismissed from the British intelligence service (here called ‘The Circus’) he is unexpectedly called back in order to smoke out a suspected Soviet mole. The suspects are all very high ranking and in an ingenious piece of production design can usually be found meeting in a sound proof vault, brassily daubed in period glory. It’s a melting pot of tension and secrets and one which throughout the film frames Smiley’s investigation. I’d like to leave you to find out about the intricacies (of which there are many) of the plot itself however, so the less said about it the better really. Rest assured you’ll be kept guessing right until the end.

But what many people will end up buying their tickets for is the cast. As stunning an ensemble as one is ever likely to see in a cinema, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is littered with British greats. Some more established and some less. John Hurt plays Control, the head (and soon enough ex-head) of The Circus with all of the growling, enigmatic intensity at his not inconsiderable disposal. Colin Firth’s charismatic Bill Haydon is depicted with a consummate class that by now from Firth seems effortless. Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline is a controversial figure who the highly underrated actor brings to life with the most aggressive of demeanours and the Scottishest of accents, whilst Ciaran Hinds rounds off the top rankers and suspects as Roy Bland in a somewhat more underwritten role, but he does well.

It is two of the younger contingent on show however who equip themselves excellently and almost steal the show. The superb Tom Hardy as outcast Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam carry much of the story and give blistering performances. This does inexorably seem to be the year of Hardy’s life as he is fast shaping up not only to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but also to be one of my favourite actors (anyone who remains unconvinced should go and see Bronson immediately for one of the best performances of the last few years).

However at the centre of all this we have Gary Oldman’s stoic and reserved George Smiley. A figure that may not immediately fit the bill of a spy in the sense we are used to. He is almost silent for the first act of the film and has the type of amorphous face and unimposing presence befitting a character much less important and ultimately much less interesting than Smiley in fact turns out to be. When someone is this unassuming however when they do decide to come to life it means all the more. There is nothing at all flashy about Oldman’s emotionally closed portrayal of Le Carre’s most beloved character, but he delivers a devastatingly brilliant performance here. It was a risk centring a film around such an unconventional protagonist but it’s a risk that pays off handsomely.

Director Tomas Alfredson (much like Smiley) finds glamour or overt excitement in nothing, lingering no more over deaths than on garishly patterned wallpaper or one of Smiley’s numerous early morning swims. Things just happen. Deaths are portrayed as having no great importance, nor does the camera linger or ever seem to point out how horrible this all is. There is a cold, callous brutality to everything whether it be relationships, deeply suppressed emotions or indeed the ever looming spectre of death. When one character must break all evident ties with his homosexuality in order to be better immune from blackmail, we simply get a 30 second scene in which his boyfriend storms out and he has a quiet moment to himself. It is never again mentioned but neither is it completely glossed over. Everyone involved definitely has their problems, everyone has sacrificed and everyone lives a facade. Terrible things just occur all the time. Emotions have their place, but throughout this place is almost entirely out of the eyes of their peers and for the audience in the cinema it is almost entirely off screen.

This air of emotionally restrained paranoia is all pervasive throughout. Many people see a niggling problem as being the brevity with which much of the plot is dispensed. They often cite that the mole is unmasked in completely unceremonious fashion, with little fanfare or build-up (save Smiley tensely eating some fantastically British Trebor Mints). This supposedly climactic event is dealt with as another incidental occurrence devoid of special meaning or cause for alarm. While this may not serve our conventional cinematic instincts all that well, it is a finale that is completely of a piece.

The plot itself – as thrilling and complex as it is – pales in comparison with the triumph of atmosphere that is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson’s staid and understated direction is a positively beautiful piece of mood and moderation. Excellently shot and artistically lit by Hoyte Van Hoytema with an eye for the traditional televisual 70’s aesthetic, it’s a world of fag ash, drab overcoats, middle aged men, compromise, routine incidental horrors and small, dilapidated industrial units. Short of a wonderfully crafted vignette about Ricky Tarr and his love for a Russian defector there is never even a hint of James Bond. Everything is a concession, everyone is overworked and haggard and as is brusquely summed up by Kathy Burke’s retired agent, everyone is “seriously under fucked”.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is quite simply stunning. If you leave feeling a little non-plussed don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that that is necessarily a bad thing. Much like the first time I saw There Will be Blood, I left the screening feeling slightly underwhelmed and oddly downbeat. With a little introspection however I decided that what I’d actually just seen was a triumph of cinema that was so unexpectedly different that my usual cinematic instincts need not apply. Second time round (as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece) I’m sure I’ll finish Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feeling as ecstatic as I feel about it now. It is a truly unique work and one that I hope will be getting much consideration around awards season indeed. With a bit of luck come February we’ll be hearing the increasingly frequent cries of ‘the British are coming’ all over again, but looking at the talent on display here, I think it true to say that they never went away.

- Ross Jones-Morris

Friends with Benefits: Familiar but fun

Friends With Benefits basically follows the story of pals Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake), as they experiment with a casual sexual relationship. If the premise sounds familiar, it may well be because director Will Gluck has managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist. Either that, or you’ve already seen No Strings Attached, which explores an identical set-up between Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. Having seen both films (all in the name of dedicated research, obviously), it’s clear that a funny script can do wonders: Friends With Benefits is far and away the better film. Furthermore, Kunis (who I’d quite like to be) and Timberlake have the necessary chemistry that Portman and Kutcher sorely lacked.

Of course, the whole thing is frequently absurd – but no one’s pretending that this is Academy Award winning stuff. Both characters have implausibly wonderful jobs: Jamie headhunts Dylan for a job as Art Director at the New York office of GQ; a position that also comes with a huge luxury apartment. Dylan then busily fiddles around on his smartphone to come up with cutting-edge viral marketing campaigns (and to organise a flash mob: how very 2011). The pair also appear to have an obsessive relationship with their mobiles: we’re constantly treated to displays of technology as they quip and banter with each other through virtual means. This became a bit distracting – at one stage I began to wonder if the whole thing was an one long advert. In fact, I still think it might be.

Phones aside, Gluck is to be commended for managing to make the audience care about – rather than want to kill – these two sickeningly good-looking, successful characters. He also jazzes things up by saddling both with some emotional baggage in the form of tricky family backgrounds. Furthermore, there are some genuinely amusing set pieces (one involving a John Mayer mega-fan and another a Hollywood sign – I’ll keep these mysterious, as there’s not a great deal of dramatic tension to be found in the film itself). Friends with Benefits is funny and enjoyable, if not particularly original or ambitious. It’s certainly heads and shoulders above other more lacklustre offerings in the same vein (namely, No Strings Attached, but I’m beginning to sound as if I’m waging some bizarre vendetta). All in all you could doa lot worse on a rainy afternoon.

County Championship team of the season

Now the championship campaign is over, it’s time to select the team of the season.

Marcus Trescothick
As imperious as ever, Trescothick scored 290 more runs than anyone else in either division, despite missing three games to a cruel injury. His dominance is such that it has become a cliché to describe him as batting on a different pitch from everyone else.
Mike Carberry
Though it wasn’t enough to keep Hampshire in division one, Carberry’s return, after fears his career was over, was astounding. Against Yorkshire, he hit 300*, displaying the range of shots and concentration that earned him an England Test cap only 18 months ago, while his last-day century against Warwickshire denied them the title.
Chris Rogers
Brought in to average over 50 and lead a side to promotion that finished eighth in division two in the previous two seasons, Rogers made the twin challenges seem positively easy.
Dale Benkenstein
There was no third championship in four years for Durham, but Benkenstein’s excellence remained unabated: only Trescothick exceeded his 1353 division one runs. Long established as his side’s crisis man, Benkenstein’s experience as skipper was a valuable aid for Phil Mustard.
Zander de Bruyn
In a Surrey top six that is as gung-ho as they come, de Bruyn provides stickability, and two hundreds and two fifties in the last three games allowed Surrey to claim a remarkable promotion. Somerset fans, not unreasonably, will feel they might just have won the championship had he not been lured to The Oval.
Jonny Bairstow (wicket-keeper)
In an otherwise bleak season for Yorkshire Bairstow’s excellence, culminating in a memorable England ODI debut, provided some solace. Attractive and calm in front of the stumps, he scored his runs at a strike-rate – 69 – that few top-order batsmen can match. With the gloves Bairstow improved but is not yet the equal of his late father.
Will Gidman
With one first-class appearance before the season began, bookmakers would have given any odds on Gidman becoming the first man for 15 years to score 1000 championship runs and take 50 wickets. But do that he did; and with a batting average (45) more than double his bowling one (21). A late developer at 26, Gidman deserves England Lions recognition.
Glen Chapple (captain)
It’s not only sentimentality that earns Chapple a place in this side, which his achievement in lifting the pennant without stars ensures he leads. At 37, his canny fast-medium bowling was effective enough to claim 55 wickets at under 20, despite often not being fully fit. Though he was uncharacteristically short of runs, Lancashire would not have won the championship without his 97 in their penultimate game.
Tim Murtagh
Unlucky to never represent England (though he may yet play for Ireland), Murtagh’s best season yet propelled Middlesex to promotion. A round 80 wickets in 15 matches highlight his potency, which is especially great with the new ball, as a three-wicket bust in 16 balls against Derbyshire illustrates.
David Masters
Lazy cricket writers have spent years describing Masters as a “nagging seamer” and “journeyman”, but he forced them to be rather more imaginative after claiming 93 wickets. Masters’ mastery of the Tiflex ball and constant ability to seam it was never more evident than when he claimed 8/10 against Leicestershire.
Gary Keedy
The mark of Keedy’s bowling is that his left-arm spin is almost as effective in April as August, while his parsimony (giving away just 2.5 an over) means Lancashire never lost control in the field. His 4-57 from 28 overs in the first innings of the victory at Taunton perfectly encapsulated his qualities.

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