31 December 2014

TV Review | Star Wars Rebels (2014)

It is a period of civil war. The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was met with bewilderment and scepticism by many seditious Star Wars fans, who, despite the conglomerate’s deft handling of similar properties, struggled to envisage the franchise in the hands of a multimedia empire famed for its child-orientated “animated classics” and sing-along show tunes. Disney’s immediate abandonment of the groundbreaking Star Wars: The Clone Wars series did little to appease such worries; indeed, it wasn’t until JJ Abrams rocked the world with his electrifying teaser trailer for next year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars Rebels went live on Disney XD that some sense of consensus was restored to fandom, but the conflict is still far from being over.

I watched the first episode of Rebels somewhat cynically, still seething from having had to import the half-finished final “season” of The Clone Wars on Blu-ray into England, and even more furious that I’ll never get to see the series’ planned Sons of Dathomir and Dark Disciple quadrilogies. I was also annoyed at Disney’s kiddified commercial release of “Spark of Rebellion”, the series’ de facto pilot, which was released on DVD but not, √° la Mickey Mouse Clubhouse et al, on Blu-ray. 1080p digital copies were available from iTunes and other digital retailers, in fairness, but in the UK iTunes Store the episode was overpriced at £4.99 and devoid of bonus material, while the £2.99 DVD features all four of the series’ online prequels together with a five-minute look ahead at the first season proper.

But even in standard-definition, the show’s Ralph McQuarrie-inspired visuals are instantly staggering, particularly when complemented by Clone Wars composer Kevin Kiner’s take on classic – no, legendaryStar Wars themes and melodies. It’s astonishing what a difference using those original refrains makes to the series; how it instantly cements it as being Star Wars – proper, ’70s-style Star Wars – almost subliminally. Admittedly something is lost in the move away from the movie-like title sequences and fortune cookie-styled truisms, but this is more than made up for by the instant glut of star destroyers and TIE fighters that we see keeping the denizens of the outer rim down at heel.

I also welcome Rebels’ 16:9 presentation, which fills up every visible pixel on my television screen. Whilst there is certainly something to be said for The Clone Wars’ cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio (which I believe was often cropped to 16:9 for broadcast), on Blu-ray only around 816 of its 1080 lines contain the picture, which means that when it is being watched on zoom, as is my preference given the 16:9 shape of my telly, what Im watching isn’t much sharper than 720p.

As to the subject matter, Rebels’ setup is much more traditional than those who followed The Clone Wars might have expected. Rather than pepper stories from an entire war haphazardly over a hundred plus episodes (and one theatrically-released movie), this series starts at the beginning and moves forward from there, allowing us to watch the characters’ relationships develop as they share more and more adventures together. This was inevitably designed to better suit the young Disney XD demographic, but will be appealing to most adult viewers too as it allows the series to tell what is essentially one large arc rather than dozens of two to four-episode ones. A number of recurring characters have already been established and long-running plots appear to be building. 

I also really like the way that the series has been rooted in the outer rim so far – unlike in the Star Wars trilogy, we don’t get a mind-blowing, expansive view of the galaxy and the rebellion against the Empire. Instead, we see only through the eyes of a small group of insurgents in a relatively small area of space. As such we encounter the same Imperial senators and ministers, the same Imperial agents, even the same underworld scoundrels week after week, allowing the writers and voice artists to enlarge and embellish them. I hope though that the plan is to slowly open up the galaxy as the series progresses and the rebellion gathers steam. Already we’ve seen glimpses of Darth Vader (who I’d have held back for later, personally – a bit like a video game boss at the end of a level season); the droids; Bail Organa; and Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Yoda slated to appear in the first episode of 2015 and Lando Calrissian probably not long afterward. Additionally, we have new characters whose roles are destined to be significant: Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner has been set up as the voice of the rebellion, while Jason Isaacs’ Inquisitor is the week-to-week face of the evil Empire, double-bladed spin-a-roonie lightsaber and all.

The good guys are not entirely as I would have imagined – they are not members of the Rebel Alliance (which hasn’t been formally founded as yet, just fifteen years post-Revenge of the Sith), but are in fact a motley crew of waifs and strays loosely captained by Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Junior), a Jedi Knight who escaped the Sith’s purges and now survives largely by robbing the Empire for profit. Their ship, the Ghost, is owned by the Twi’lek Hera Syndulla, whom we haven’t seen a great deal of in the eight episodes that I’ve seen to date, and is policed by Steve Blum’s Zeb Orellios – a hulking Lasat who looks like Chewbacca might have done were different stylistic choices made back in the day. Zeb is, for me, the standout character thus far – tough and bitterly funny on the outside, but even in just a handful of episodes we’ve started to scratch beneath his weathered veneer. Tiya Sircar completes the existing crew as Sabine Wren – the Mandalorian equivalent of Doctor Who’s Ace - an explosives artist in the truest sense of the phrase that I look forward to learning more about.

The story of Rebels begins when the crew of the Ghost become entangled with Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray), a Force-sensitive orphan born on the day that the Galactic Empire was founded and who’s Lothal’s answer to the Artful Dodger. Reluctantly taken under Kanan’s wing, Ezra hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi, and in so doing strike back against the Empire that robbed him of his parents and subjugated his homeworld. Most of the episodes to date have focused on the budding relationship between master and apprentice, neither of which is ideally suited to their roles. Kanan is admittedly a poor teacher – as he confesses in one brilliant pre-title sequence, he doesn’t understand much of Yoda’s wisdom, “There is no try…” in particular – and Ezra is an even worse student. Vulnerable to fear and hate, he’s already had his first taste of the dark side, and given Vader’s comment in the original Star Wars movie, “There’ll be no-one to stop us this time!”, I can’t help but wonder what rueful fate awaits this rogue Force-wielder at the end of the series.

Eight episodes into Rebels, I’m far more hooked on it than I was on The Clone Wars at the same point, and The Clone Wars had the advantage of being able to use well-established principal characters and explore slightly more adult themes. So, as with The Force Awakens trailer, Disney has my vote of confidence – on screen, anyway. Off screen, I’ve little to no faith in Disney’s handling of the series’ home media releases. Thanks to James Earl Jones’ cameo in the so-called special edition of “Spark of Rebellion” that aired on ABC, since purchasing the DVD I’ve upgraded to the HD iTunes version, which now includes the Darth Vader / Inquisitor additional scene (the download was updated just after the ABC broadcast – delete and re-download the episode if you haven’t done so already), and shelled out £19.99 for a series pass worrying entitled Vol. 1 rather than Season 1. If I don’t get all sixteen episodes of the surprisingly short first season for that (which means that it would have been cheaper to buy the seven Vol. 1 episodes individually at £2.49 a pop), then I’ll be joining the ranks of the rebellion against Disney, never mind the Empire. 

Star Wars Rebels is available to download in 1080p from iTunes. Two series passes are currently available: Spark of Rebellion (which in the UK includes just the 44-minute “Spark of Rebellion” episode for £4.99) and Vol. 1 (which includes the first seven episodes of Season 1 so far. It is not yet clear whether the season’s remaining nine episodes will be included, but I am banking on this being the case given the pass’s £19.99 price tag).

27 December 2014

Book Review | The One Pound Challenge: The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Business Adventure by Alan Radbourne

I’m a crap listener. Even when I was paying him to paint the spare room - the spare room that he was crashing in for a few days - I didn’t fully fathom the magnitude of what Alan Radbourne was doing. He spoke of the “One-Pound Challenge” as if it were this well-established, age-old tradition; the business equivalent of walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks or running the London Marathon. In truth, he’d invented it himself; just dreamt it up one monotonous Monday as he ruminated on his post-graduation entry into the world of work and desperately tried to avoid revising for his final undergraduate exam.

So what is the One-Pound Challenge? In short, it’s taking a quid and grafting it into £20,000.00 over the course of a year. No set hours, no red tape and no grief from Da Man. Sound appealing? Well, before you hand in your notice, bear in mind that there’s no sick days; no annual leave; and, crucially, no safety net.

The first half of the book focuses on Radbourne’s enterprises over his challenge year. From his twee stumbling upon a pound coin on the floor of a church car park – an almost absurdly poetic beginning that, if I didn’t know him, I’d never have believed - to its investment (in a bottle of washing-up liquid), to bespoke wood-carving commissions and ambitious vehicular renovations, Radbourne provides an insightful and inspiring overview of his business endeavours. 

Beyond the glimpses offered into his thought processes, and his weighing of the competing considerations borne of marital and even parental expectations, I even enjoyed reading the chapter-opening summaries that keep track of his monthly profit and running totals. If anything, I’d have been interested to see him go a step further and really drill down into the ins and outs of his various contracts and transactions with greater detail. As it is, Radbourne gives you just enough to keep your interest piqued without losing those amongst his readership who care only for the story, and not the stats (or over-exposing himself to agents of HM Revenue & Customs…)

The only weakness in his account is that it’s unclear exactly what he’s living off as the challenge progresses. This really isn’t anyone’s business of course, but when it becomes plain that the running total is not being spent in a salary-like manner on mortgage and grub, the obvious question is begged, and even his wife’s telling chapter on “Being Married to the One-Pound Challenge” (which I found an especially lovely touch) doesn’t fully explain the situation.

Such paltry qualms are as nothing though when measured against the book’s, and indeed the challenge’s, greatest strength: its championing of hard work, perseverance and fair business practices – virtues too-often neglected in a world of celebrity, greed and ruthless aggression. Reading the book’s later chapters, in which Radbourne espouses his firm and frank views on everything from advertising to Apartheid (well, nearly...), I was reminded why my wife always whinges about how hard it is being his sister. He’s a first-class student whose excellence in athletics and world-class carpentry are second to only his good looks, charm and ineluctable likeability. Already a champion of church and charity, he’s now - despite his book’s humble claim to the contrary - effectively reinvented the business wheel for what he hopes will be a happier and more ethical generation, reminding us all in the process that self-determination can be as effective as employment. 

And damned good fun too.

The One-Pound Challenge is available to download from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £2.05, and is available for free to KindleUnlimited customers. The paperback edition of the book can be purchased from My One Pound Challenge for £5.00 (plus £2.00 postage and packing).

Alan Radbourne is a Loughborough University graduate in geography and sport science (“colouring-in and running”) with a passion for small business start-ups and encouraging good personal financial management. He is available to speak at business conferences / groups.

Follow Alan Radbourne on Twitter @Pound_Challenge, or drop him a line at onepoundchallenge@gmail.com.

13 December 2014

Book Review | Iris Wildthyme of Mars edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

Men are from Mars - which is probably why Iris Wildthyme has spent so much of her lives there (not that any of her adventures would fail the Bechdel test, mind). Indeed, it is the fourth Iris’s adventures on the planet “even bigger and even redder” than her beloved bus that are the focus of Obverse Books’ most recent anthology.

Under the stewardship of editor Philip Purser-Hallard, this volume concerns itself exclusively with the transtemporal adventuress’s Martian frolics back and forth across the aeons (and, of course, sideways too), from Seth’s verdant jungles of the early 20th century to the “real” and fusty Mars whose green-man legends prop up the multiverse. It’s even got a map.

And the perfect story to open such a collection is, surely, Ian Potter’s mercurial effort, “Wandering Stars”. Quirky, contentious prose delivers the book’s introduction to “meat and attitude” Iris and “stuffing and thwarted ambitions” Panda as they come face to face with the Greek Pantheon in a terribly clever and cheeky tale about science, mythology, UNIT dating and sexual submission. Daniel Tessier’s “Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend” begins in more Earthly surroundings, before quickly carrying its readers to the domain of the delightfully-named Hither and Thither-folk atop a Zalbreckian travelling mat. Worth reading alone for its author’s almost Arthur Conan Doyle-esque description of Iris’s beloved bus, Tessier’s wry homage to Edward Lester Arnold’s seminal Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation is a lyrical delight.

Narrated by its eponymous protagonist, the yarn allows us to see Iris through the eyes of an American soldier - one who’s instantly enamoured with this seldom-seen Barbarella incarnation’s beauty. Tessier has great fun highlighting the gulf between Gullivar’s romanticised views of this particular iteration of Iris, and the actual, “Oh, bloody hell!”, Blue Oblivion-imbibing harridan that we all know and begrudgingly admire. The story’s caustic comedy thrives on the juxtaposition of this upright, verbose adventurer and the common-as-muck, time-travelling adventuress - as does its heart. Beneath its laughs and its derring-do, Tessier’s tale captures perfectly the weekend dilemma of every red-blooded man: the conscience’s struggle against libido and wanderlust, both of which this particular Iris catalyses.

The story is also remarkable for Gullivar’s vivid description of the Martian jungle, which Tessier has crafted almost entirely from anachronistic simile. And you’ve got to give it to Dan, in his very first paid-for piece he even manages to squeeze in a sly nod to the Doctor Who novel that begat this “Jane Fonda” Iris, not to mention my favourite Panda line to date: “I say!” he cried. “Totty!”

Simon Bucher-Jones’s “Iris: Chess Mistress of Mars” is a much more sober outing than the first two, focusing less on sado-masochistic gods and human libido and more on chess; Martians; and the way that we view both. Selina Lock’s “Death on the Euphrates”, whilst a much livelier affair than Bucher-Jones’s, is perhaps the least Mars-y story in the collection. A whodunnit typified by some novel asides (the universe’s need for “Nobbys” and the hospitalised Iris’s longing for grapes “in fermented, liquid form” being my favourites) as well as the collection’s first female, modified-outfits-and-lipstick take on our heroine, the ship-bound tale feels a little at sea amongst so many heavily Mars-themed tales. Dale Smith’s subsequent story, “And a Dog to Walk”, focuses utterly on the Red Planet, however - more particularly, on humanity’s first manned mission to it. By turns hilarious and heartrending, Smith follows two married astronauts, Sue and Phil, as they bicker their way towards history and oblivion under the gaze of a toy panda’s cold glass eyes.

Juliet Kemp’s kooky offering, “Talking with Spores”, continues to expand Mars’ burgeoning population with her tale of its long-dead Fungal Empire and the slug that nearly put paid to its resurrection, while the ever-stellar Richard Wright chips in with probably the book’s most distinctive piece. Visceral present-tense prose sucks you right into the bowels of his unique Fenric / Lovecraft / Doom pastiche cum first-person shooter. There aren’t many short stories that make you want to reach for a joypad as you read, but “Doomed” is one of ’em. Wright segues effortlessly from cold, military fact to stoic regret (“...warm sheets and a lover’s limbs”) and on to pure, unadulterated Iris in the shape of rectum-rammed octopuses and “shooting stuff ’til it’s sorted,” all the while creeping towards an ending that never comes. It’s not a story about winning, it’s a story about playing. And, if she’s nothing else, our Miss Wildthyme is a player.

After a run of Iris and Panda-lite adventures, Rachel Churcher places our favourite double-act at centre stage once more in “The Last Martian” - a strange and fashion-conscious tale with an intriguing idea at its core. Next up is the album’s hit-single story, the whole goose-kinky “Lilac Mars”, courtesy of Doctor Who veterans Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham. A tale of sky-scraping phalluses and twitching loincloths, the authors’ piss-taking prose dazzles with its deliberate eschewing of plot to the profit of the irrelevant. There’s one wonderful scene where Panda’s waxing eloquent about the laziness of his kind while Iris progresses the narrative off-screen, as it were; another where an Egyptian god holds up a scene to play Angry Birds for a bit. Best of all though, the story is built around an Aresquake, which no matter how much of your life you’ve spent proof-reading, still looks like “Arsequake” every time. It’s Iris herself though who offers the most insightful view on “Lilac Mars”, which given her metafictional awareness makes the whole damn thing all the more droll: “It’s like a story with two authors, and both of them thought the other one was doing the story bit.” I couldn’t put it any better myself.

Charged with topping such “prepackaged postirony” is Aditya Bidikar and “City of Stars”, an altogether more sensible story - as sensible as Iris stories get, anyway - that, quite extraordinarily, tries to condense the structure and scope of a novel into a couple of chapters’ worth of words. Faction Paradox’s Blair Bidmead then contributes “The Calamari-Men of Mare Cimmerium”, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Following the classic all-inclusive holiday gone awry formula (as opposed to her namesake’s mathematical construct gets corrupted one), and furnished with a stunning Target-style illustration or three (see left), Bidmead’s tale of ray-guns; gods; and spaghetti-eating twats brings the lighter section of the volume to a suitably silly, yet duly perilous, close.

The editor then concludes the anthology himself with “Green Man Blues” - a surprisingly dry and Iris-lite exploit that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the collection. Purser-Hallard’s Mars is deliberately stuffy and dull, choked by the all-too-Earthly bureaucracy and narrow beliefs of human Martians - colonists who’ve made the allegedly uninhabited orb their own. But one academic has made her life’s work the study of Martian folk tales, and by way of a lesbian love affair that turns oviparous, she finally finds out why.

And so Iris Wildthyme of Mars succeeds in its mission to fruitfully flesh out Iris’s catsuits and curls fourth incarnation, while bringing through some talented new young blood and still allowing the old guard the pleasure of letting rip with cripplingly ironic stories that couldn’t be told anywhere else. Most importantly though, it gives the readers another dozen adventures with Iris and Panda to snigger through beyond Big Finish; adventures that, iReckon, are amongst their most entertaining to date.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars is available in hardback from Obverse Books for £14.95 (reduced from £16.99!) or as an e-book for just £6.99. For that you get both an EPUB file (which can be imported into iTunes, tagged, and then synced to any Apple device) and a MOBI file (which I have tested on the Kindle app on an iPad).

16 November 2014

Blood, Meth and Tears: Musings of Another Breaking Bad Addict in Withdrawal

It all started in the desert of To'hajiilee, where Commissioner Gordon stood in his pants, frantically toting a firearm in manner that seemed to scream, “amateur in over his head.” I’d seen the iconic image a few times, and it had always piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until it formed the basis of a mandatory anti-money laundering CPD seminar that Breaking Bad queue-jumped the dozens of other shows competing for my limited telly time and took over my life for a goggle-eyed month. A coinciding iTunes sale of the series’ six “deluxe” box sets helped.

The brainchild of noted X-Files staff writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is a drama that defies categorisation. By turns thrilling, comic, and cripplingly sad, the series takes a mild-mannered, middle-aged chemistry teacher and turns him “into Scarface.” What’s so remarkable is that it does it plausibly, perhaps even inexorably, and without ever turning the viewer against him fully. Indeed, I found myself championing him for almost four of the show’s six years, and still sympathising with him intermittently thereafter.

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the series’ pilot (which, in of itself, rivals most feature films in terms of its quality, if not length), Walter White makes the poor decision to “break bad” in an attempt to provide for his pregnant and up-to-her-eyeballs-in-debt wife and teenage son. Exploiting his Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”)-employed brother-in-law’s expert knowledge of the drug trade and a compromised former pupil’s connections, Walt starts to cook the purest methamphetamine that Albuquerque has ever seen. And, right under the nose of his brother-in-law, his reluctant partner in crime starts to pedal it.

Breaking Bad’s lofty reputation is built largely upon its nuts and bolts; the endless schemes and bellyaches that kept me glued to four or five shows at a time stretching out long into the night. The show’s first season is a compelling, semi-soap opera that tells of a liar trying to pull the wool over his loved ones’ eyes as he struggles to make meth pay for medicine. The longer Season 2 is a beautiful and thrilling concept piece that begins to drive the show into the nail-biting, hard-hitting sphere of 24, culminating in a set piece so massive in every sense that the viewer struggles to see how the writers could ever up the ante - but up it they do. Indeed, year three is probably the show’s finest, and undoubtedly its edgiest. The introduction of the Mexican cartel and Gus’s super-lab give it a sense of sheer scale that it had previously lacked; scale that is mirrored in the incredible, game-changing character developments that revivify the series’ most important relationships. 

Season 4 is billed as Walt’s thirteen-part game of chess with the cold and clinical Gus (played by the Oscar-worthy Giancarlo Esposito), and it’s exactly that - if queens are pipebombs and pawns are children. What’s commercially billed as ‘Season 5’, but technically is only its first half, is the most show’s most thrilling year by far - it’s Breaking Bad’s version of Revenge of Sith; the end of Walter White and the rise of Heisenberg. The eight-episode 2012 run, the so-called ‘Final Season’, is Vader cooking in the lava, excruciatingly drawn-out and examined from every possible angle.

Beyond its procedural / plot-driven aspects, I really admire what Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently would call, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Huge, life or death moments turn on a quirk of coincidence or a forgotten thread - an incriminating book in a bathroom, a bereaved father’s momentary inattention, or even the lust-fuelled cooking of a tax swindler’s books. I’d say that the storytelling is chemical in its reactions, were it not so hard to predict.

What earns Breaking Bad its place in the highest echelons of television drama though is the beating black metaphor that is its heart. As the shadow on Walt’s lung grows, so does his “Heisenberg” alter ego. As the cancer eats away at Walt the teacher, Walt the husband, Walt the father, the kindness and altruism that was once the catalyst for his questionable actions is lost to egotism, fear and odium. Haunted by the business decisions of his past, Walt begins to see his product as less of a means to an end, and more of end in itself. Even his friendship with Jesse, arguably the only good thing borne of his life of crime, is ultimately lost to spite. In the end, it becomes so plain that even Heisenberg can see it for himself: “I did it for me,” he admits to a broken shell of a wife, and it’s the first true thing that he’s said to her since his diagnosis.

I can’t praise enough the performances of the entire cast, from Bryan Cranston all the way down to Charles Baker and Matt L Jones, better known as Skinny Pete and Badger, but a few warrant extra special mention, chief amongst them the series’ lead. The Malcolm in the Middle and Dark Knight trilogy alumnus is so damned credible that it hurts; I wouldn’t have thought that anyone could have taken what was essentially my dad (and they do look uncannily alike), a dedicated teacher with a real love for his subject, if not for his pupils, and slowly twist him into a crime lord. Anna Gunn is every bit as good as his wife Skyler, and her job was almost as tough. Mrs Heisenberg had to be ultra-tough yet vulnerable, principled but compromised, and she’s exactly that throughout. Unlike Walt, who loses viewer sympathy as the story nears its end, the viewer never stops caring about her.

Aaron Paul’s role is similarly multifaceted. Initially pegged as a self-interested junkie and no more, the writers were quick to dig beneath Jesse Pinkman’s tired, “Yo, Mr White!” exterior and explore his troubled upbringing, eventually developing him into almost Heisenberg’s mirror opposite - a man who wants more than just instant gratification, money and status. Jesse and Walt are bound in completely different directions; Breaking Bad is where they briefly coincide. And if there’s a crumb of hope in its ending, it’s that Jesse will, somehow, make good.

Perhaps the series’ true breakout star though is RJ Mitte, without whom it would be all too easy for viewers to lose sight of Walt’s purpose. Walt Junior, or “Flynn”, perfectly and poignantly captures a loving teenage son faced with the prospect of losing his father, and all the hope and desperation that goes along with it. What makes him a particularly effective character is that he’s not whiter than white, if you’ll pardon the pun - he’s still a teenager trying to buy booze underage and impress his peers. But always there with him is a sadness; one that I don’t think that even Walt’s qualified success in the series finale, “Felina”, will ever remove.

Finally, there is one performer who really surprised me; one who, from the pilot, I saw as playing a bit of a clich√©. Dean Norris’s Hank starts off as a crass caricature of the rough and tumble American cop stereotype - he’s all guns and donuts, with the odd lewd, manly gag thrown in. As events unfold though, he becomes nothing short of a bloody hero - and despite many stumbling blocks along the way too, both mental and physical. Again, much like Cranston, his journey is painfully believable. In the end you feel like he’s your brother-in-law - and you want him to win.

But nobody wins with meth; nobody wins by breaking bad, not in the long haul. Whether you’re cooking crystal or your boss’s books, whether you’re a bent lawyer or just a hired heavy, in the end you’ll lose. And that’s Vince Gilligan’s point. It ain’t bad karma, it’s science: A leads to B leads to C. And never before has it been expressed so engagingly, so dynamically... so chemically. And never will it be so again.

All six deluxe edition Breaking Bad box sets are available from iTunes in 1080p HD for £12.99 - £23.99 each. The first episode is often available for free (much in the same way that the first shot of heroin is often given away for free). 

08 November 2014

Time for a Name, iReckon...

This post is to mark the fact that the blog finally has a name - one that it’s taken me three years to settle on.

Having toyed with nerdy nomenclature ranging from the arcane ("7L" - my first year comp form group, and also the production code for what I reckon is Doctor Who’s most underrated serial) to the more obvious ("Bad Wolv."), and even the overwrought ("There Are Four Lights!"), I’ve decided to go with a title that reflects both the nature and form of my many musings, as well as my love affair with Apple products (which has admittedly faltered a wee bit since the rolling out of iOS 8), and that also happens to be a phrase that I generally blurt out with supreme confidence a least a dozen times a day, albeit with a more traditional capitalisation and an unfashionable space:

Let the reckoning commence...

The Cruellest of Angles, or the Worst of Cock-ups?

It’s a cruel irony that following the breaking story of WWE’s behind-the-scenes business manoeuvres is much more entertaining than watching most of its recent in-ring output. As evidenced by the Birmingham crowd’s reaction to his recent “apology”, the company’s chairman, Vince McMahon, now has more heel heat than he did at the height of even his feud with the beer-swilling “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Just about the only way that he could save face now would be to fold the evolving drama into a storyline, and have the immediate UK launch of the “over-the-top” WWE Network celebrated by him taking an on-screen beating from Blackpool’s own William Regal on this week’s Liverpool-based RAW.

On Monday evening, as the launch of the WWE Network in the UK neared, I decided to sign up for the month’s free trial. I had planned to spend a month filling my boots with retro Attitude Era content, and perhaps even catch up on the last four months’ worth of pay-per-views. And, if impressed, I would have happily paid up my $9.99 per month thereafter - a price that, for what’s on offer, I wouldn’t have begrudged a dime of (and I do mean a dime - the price is set in US dollars). WWE would have won back a customer from a decade ago, and would have been one subscriber closer to breaking even on its mammoth outlay.

But I couldn’t sign up. Unbelievably, a one-line statement on WWE.com simply stated that the launch had been delayed indefinitely. I pressed the “MORE INFORMATION” button to find out the details, but it just took me to another page with the exact same statement on it, together with a whole host of vitriolic comments from other would-be subscribers. These promptly disappeared, replaced in short order with a nonsensical “WWE would like to thank our fans in the United Kingdom for bearing with us.” After this second delay, there was nobody in the UK that I could see “bearing with” WWE. Most were calling for blood – and rightly so. One half of the screen took away what the other half continued to promise (see below).

Indeed, the backlash was understandable as the UK launch had been hyped to the hilt - I’d received two e-mails from WWE about the launch just that weekend. More than that though, for the very first time, the UK’s WWE fans would have had access to the same product as their American counterparts, and for the same price. Sky’s decades-long chokehold would have finally been weakened, if not broken, as most of their customers would have flocked to the make-or-break, “over-the-top” streaming service that has almost ended the reign of pay-per-view stateside.

Some hopefuls clutched at straws, speculating about technical issues holding up the launch, but I didn’t buy that. The network had been rolled out in numerous countries at once in August, and without any technical hitches that were newsworthy.

This delay of the UK launch - the second in as many months, and this one without even a revised date to fixate on - made WWE look foolish at best, and has done irreparable harm to its reputation in the UK. As such, it’s hard to believe that the delay was of the company’s own making - it would have been damned stupid to enrage an entire nation’s worth of punters simply to try and broker a more lucrative, premium channel contract with Sky (as they did in Canada, with Rogers Communications’ ten-year deal).

I suspect, as many do, that upon their announcement to launch the WWE Network in the UK as an “over-the-top” service, Sky sought an interim injunction to prevent the launch. WWE hoped to negotiate their way out of the situation before the launch, but failed to do so, hence the embarrassing - and inflammatory - last-minute pull of the plug.

The only problem with this theory is that it suggests those running WWE are incredibly myopic. The network’s main selling point for most people is, obviously, that it includes all twelve annual pay-per-views within its $9.99 per month price. As no commitment is required, a viewer can effectively just buy an otherwise £14.95 pay-per-view for only a little more than a third of what it would cost them through Sky, and enjoy a month’s worth of the network’s on-demand content and original programming to boot. That clearly and foreseeably would have hurt Sky. Not as much as most people assume, I reckon, but it would have lost them pay-per-view buys, particularly in November, when Survivor Series would have been effectively given away with the free trial.

The outcome of this situation will be fascinating to see, not just from my potential Apple TV WWE Network subscriber / never-ever-gonna-get-Sky point of view, but also as someone who’s genuinely interested in the way that television / media consumption is changing. Not being privy to the terms of the WWE / Sky deal, who knows what, if any, distinction there is in there between satellite broadcasting and online streaming? This whole thing could turn on something so simple as a badly-drawn deal that neither side properly understood the implications of, and that didn’t fully reflect WWE’s future intent.

But if this is WWE stalling to try and sell out the UK for a fast buck now, just as it did Canada earlier this year, I don’t think that its fans will be quick to forgive, particularly given that what was advertised has not been delivered. After SummerSlam 1991, the late, great Warrior was reportedly fired by the WWF for merely threatening not to perform as advertised in the hope of forcing a better deal for himself. Thirteen years on, and WWE itself doesn’t deliver on what’s been advertised, and given its guilty silence, we can only speculate as to why.

One thing is for sure though: the times they are a’changin’, and the WWE Network is right at the heart of it all.

30 April 2014

The Simpsons LEGO Review | Bricks of Homer - A Review of 71006: The Simpsons' LEGO House

Earlier this year, The LEGO Movie’s media dominance was briefly outdone by a news story revealing that America’s favourite dysfunctional family, the Simpsons, would be taking brick form in a very special LEGO set designed to celebrate their show’s twenty-fifth anniversary - and soon.

Fans of LEGO and The Simpsons alike wouldn’t have to wait long to get their hands on the family’s 2,523-piece Evergreen Terrace abode. But even before it shipped in February, the online-exclusive superset was being hailed as “the greatest LEGO set ever” based on its publicity material alone, and given LEGO’s forty-year history spanning dozens of themes and thousands of sets, that’s no small feat. Now I’ve not seen, let alone built, every single LEGO set that’s ever come out of Denmark, but of the hundreds that I have - my beloved Death Star and numerous star destroyers of varying size and hue amongst them - this piece de resistance trumps them all.

Various factors have conspired to make this so; perhaps the most obvious of them the Simpsons’ unprecedented suitability to the LEGO form. Not only is the show animated, but its colours are bold and its rendering is simple, which makes its reduction to colourful bricks far more aesthetically pleasing than a live-action Jedi or Hogwarts wizard. Hell, most of Springfield’s inhabitants are even yellow to start with - a colour originally chosen by LEGO for its neutral ethnicity, only for Matt Groening to later take it and make it Springfield’s new white. There are no real losses and precious few compromises here - the transition is within a gnat’s wing of seamless.

Another secret to the set’s success is its scale. Eschewing timeworn LEGO building styles that used to frustrate me even in my infancy, the house is relatively spacious and, moreover, looks like a house from every angle. The number of backless buildings that I used to build that you could barely squeeze a minifigure into are just distant memories now - every room of the house is here, and is still readily accessible thanks to the removable roof pieces and garage, and hinged side wall. The garage alone is the size of most LEGO City dwellings, and the fully-equipped bathroom is just a working flush away from realism. 

Indeed, the level of detail in the near half-metre-wide home is breathtaking. TV-accurate kitchen cupboards are teeming with kitchenware and tiny crockery; the garage is overflowing with borrowed power tools and gardenware, many of which are branded with apposite “PROPERTY OF NED FLANDERS” stickers (LEGO’s first-ever justifiable use of a stickers, I reckon). Bart’s bedroom, complete with Radioactive Man comic books and Krusty the Clown posters, is a work of LEGO art surpassed only by the lounge. The iconic family couch and old-school television set are each stunning to see, with the nearby telephone; staircase; sailing-ship picture and grand piano completing the timeless cartoon diorama.

To LEGO’s credit, they’ve even included one of the family’s cars rather than save it for a separate set. Homer’s pink but deceptively robust automobile is the spit of its immortal title sequence self, complete with radioactive rod, boot and all, and to my delight it can even fit two minifigures inside it side by side, yet still look quite at home beside the standard-issue one-man LEGO City cars. It’s one of the set’s greatest triumphs, and a particular hit with my two-year-old toddler, who’s spent hours playing with it and only managed to break off the aerial on its bonnet (which is more than can be said of Homer, if its dents are anything to go by).

The set is not without its omissions, however. Bart’s trademark treehouse is nowhere to be found, disappointingly, and so will probably form the basis of a future set. Likewise, the family’s long-suffering pets, Snowball II and Santa’s Little Helper, have slipped through the cracks between pencil and brick - at least for now.

As for flaws, whilst the house’s tiled floors offer a polished finish seldom seen in a LEGO erection, posing the minifigures on them is as difficult as building a house of cards. You can’t even sit them all on the sofa together in order to recreate your favourite iterations of the show’s famously fluctuating opening titles as there isn’t enough room for one thing, and Bart and Lisa’s standard-issue Yoda legs don’t bend for another. Purists may also lament the liberties in layout taken by the designers as, for all its stunning features, the rooms aren’t all where they appear to be in relation to one another on television.

My biggest gripe by far though is the minifigures, who, as since proven by the recently-released (and unreservedly excellent) minifigures series, could have been a lot better. Homer, for instance, looks half asleep here, which might well sit well with his work attire, but does beg the question as to why the version of Homer included in the supposedly flagship set is an out-of-the-house variant. Similar could be said of Marge, who looks decidely flighty in her seldom-seen apron, though her removable - if flimsy - cloth skirt does at least allow her to use the house’s LEGO loo in nowt but her white knickers. I’ve no complaints about the more recognisable Maggie and Lisa, save perhaps for the woeful absence of Lisa’s trademark sax (which would accompany her in the subsequent minifigures series), but Bart looks worryingly mischievous, even for him, and even Ned Flanders’ aberrantly open eyes are blighted by an apron that he’s hardly famous for.  

In all though, the set deserves its lofty repute, and having paid a lot more than £179.99 for Star Wars sets of similar size, I can’t even quibble about the cost - brick for brick, it’s an absolute steal. Bring on Mr Burns’ nuclear power plant, Springfield Elementary School and Moe’s tavern!

The Simpsons’ house is available directly from LEGO for £179.99 with free delivery.

21 March 2014

Prose vs Pictures #4 | Irvine Welsh's Filth vs Jon S Baird's Filth

I’ve always loved Filth. Who doesn’t? The first of Irvine Welsh’s novels to move away from the minds of downtrodden yet blazingly vibrant schemies, Filth holds a mirror up to an aspirant middle class professional - and the reflection cast back is every bit as uncomfortable as the images of addiction and squalor conjured by his seminal Trainspotting. It’s not so much a different playing field that we’re looking at here as it is the opposing team. Fundamentally though, the same rules apply.

Filth is the tale of a misogynistic, callous and cruel detective sergeant who’s got his sights set on an inspectorship, and whose department’s investigation into a high-profile murder offers him the perfect means by which to seize it - provided, of course, that he can destroy everyone else in the frame for the post through his exploitative “games”. A thickly-sliced sausage of cognitive dissonance wrapped in the sizzling bacon of a darkly comic police procedural, Welsh recently described the novel as the tale of “...someone who isn’t taking their pills who should be,” and its appeal lies as much in that as it does its dramas of murder and manipulation. Indeed, what really sells the book is the unique manner of its telling, which is entirely in the idiosyncratic voices of Detective Inspector Bruce Robertson. That’s right my sweet, sweet friend: plural.

There are many aspects to Bruce, some of which he’s aware of, others that he’s perhaps not. At one end of the scale he’s a fantasist, turning ‘I’ into ‘we’ in a half-cognisant attempt to soften a loss that he can’t bear. At the other, he’s being consumed from the inside-out by the implied distillation of all his rottenness and evil: the Self, a surprisingly chatty tapeworm who, it seems, is privy to all his thoughts and secrets, the “ghosts” of which haunt his overfed innards.

As was already evident from his preceding works, most notably Marabou Stork Nightmares, Welsh has a flair for creative typography, and it reaches its apotheosis in Filth. Bruce’s principal voices are often displayed concurrently on the page - Bruce the cop’s musings are set out in Welsh’s well-established vernacular Scots prose, while the tale of his tapeworm is set above it in an illustrated, meandering stream that crudely resembles a digestive tract. The Self’s increasingly coherent, and eventually expositional, words obscure most of the prose whenever they appear, serving as a wonderful metaphor for the all-pervading effects of Bruce’s psychological schisms on his day-to-day life. It’s bold and revolutionary stuff - though admittedly a bit irritating if, like me, you want to know everything and it annoys the hell out if you that you’re missing out on what’s going on underneath. Welsh is, of course, careful not to overwrite anything significant, but it’s nonetheless a testament to Bruce’s compelling narration that even the covering of its most banal passages irks me.

Given the above, it’s easy to see why it took so long for Filth to appear on the silver screen despite numerous production companies acquiring the rights over the years. Some stories are so dependent on the freedoms and limitations of the printed word that to take them into a different medium would be at best laden with difficulty, and at worst self-defeating, but inventive cult classics such as Fight Club have proven that it can be done successfully with a little creative licence. Thus the Filth that was released theatrically last year is necessarily a very different sort of muck to the infamously porcine polis-faced tome that first saw print in 1998. In adapting the novel, director and screenwriter Jon S Baird has stripped the story right back to its core, tearing away its defining literary gimmicks and substituting them with more subtle cinematic ones. The logistical problems inherent in presenting the musings of Carole, Bruce’s absent wife, are tackled by initially presenting her as a dreamlike figure who seems to exist within the confines of a perfume commercial, eventually segueing through song into her tragic and true form, which ironically is even more surreal. The worms, meanwhile, join the many nightmarish ghouls in Dr Rossi’s treating rooms as Baird turns to a wacky Jim Broadbent to capture the spirit of the novel’s underpinning, if not quite the substance. It’s an intense yet economic approach that I think strikes the perfect balance for the viewer, conveying the same sense of madness as the book but without the same level of intrusion.

The film also does a tremendous job of homing in on the story’s key points and giving life to them almost exactly as readers would have imagined them. There’s barely a cut that’s loss is felt keenly - the only prominent examples that I can think of are a hilarious set piece en route to the Dam (Hamburg in the movie), in which Bruce seeks retribution against a do-gooder who’s publicly pulled him up on his lewd manner, and Bruce’s ill-fated visit to Hector’s house, where his plans to shoot Animal Farm II are put paid to when Hector’s “queer dug” fancies Bruce more than his intended co-star. Even these, though, were scripted and shot, as I found out to my delight when devouring the Blu-ray’s archive of deleted scenes (Welsh’s customary cameo amongst them). Nevertheless, as with most adaptations, the sense of total immersion that great novels engender is lessened by the obligatory omissions, as even in trimming the narrative fat, Baird has inevitably made Bruce’s world a little smaller.

You’ll note a qualifying “almost” in the paragraph above, and it’s an important one. The on-screen Filth is replete with superficial deviations from the text that don’t really alter the essence of the story (the murder victim’s ethnicity, the substitution of Hamburg for Amsterdam, the amalgamation of Drummond and “Chinky-drawers”, the shocking absence of Lennox’s Zapata ’tache), and a few that do. Of the latter, one is a huge revision to the murder plot that I won’t spoil, and the other is the almost complete veiling of Bruce’s back story, which in the book is outlined in the tapeworm’s concluding monologue, but on film is only flirted with in visions and through spectres. I think that this works to the story’s advantage though, as the ghosts of Bruce’s past are more effective challenging the viewers’ imaginations than they are providing readers with mitigating circumstances, if not outright excuses, for his dramatic fall from grace.

The most obvious departure, however, is the look of Bruce himself, who in print comes across as a rough and weather-beaten forty-something veteran of the force and the craft - a far cry from the usually soft-skinned pin-up who’d be cast to play him. The casting would prove to be inspired, however, as an alcohol and junk food-fuelled James McAvoy would give life to an interpretation of Bruce every bit as weathered and vile as his literary counterpart, but defined by a vulnerable edge that really makes the viewer care about his plight. On screen, the beating black heart of the story is tempered by a devastating sympathy for the devil that McAvoy’s powerful performance and the screenplay’s redacted finale conspire to stimulate.

Now I’m normally the first to criticise a film’s departure from an established narrative, particularly if it significantly alters one’s perception of the piece, but with Filth, I have to concede that the movie’s more lenient climax is ultimately even more harrowing than the book’s, which even when reading for the first time seemed to stretch credibility just a little too far, and moreover failed to evoke the same measure of sympathy for the protagonist (who’s arguably an antagonist in print). On the page, Bruce is driven almost entirely by hate and self-interest and his dark deeds are almost implausibly extreme; he’s arguably closer to evil than even the animalistic Franco Begbie, whose gross stupidity robs him of the requisite mens rea half the time. On screen, however, Bruce is compelling and vile but with a morsel of decency that starts to visibly grow as the noose looms. He makes you care, slowly but surely.

A lot of the credit for this is also owed to the performance of Eddie Marson, who plays Bruce’s masonic cohort and loser of a best friend, Clifford Blades. Boring, bumbling and utterly free from malice, Brother Blades is the perfect foil to the bullying Bruce. Whilst Baird’s screenplay adds little to the relationship as originally depicted by Welsh, in retaining almost every aspect of it at the expense of other narrative threads, not to mention adding one or two defining flourishes, the movie really seems to drill down into it, enriching the story and giving McAvoy and Marson the ammunition that they need to break viewers’ hearts.

After going 3-0 down, Pictures have clawed one back with a movie that, to my astonishment and pleasure, actually manages to improve upon an already seminal work of fiction. Deeper, richer and altogether more believable than Irvine Welsh’s avant-garde novel, the few clean spots that shine through in Baird’s movie only serve to highlight the depth of its ineradicable filth.

Irvine Welsh’s Filth novel is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £3.40 from AbeBooks including delivery) and digital formats (£3.66 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £4.99 from iTunes).

Jon S Baird’s Filth movie is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for £13.99. The Blu-ray edition, which also offers a vast selection of deleted scenes and interviews, is currently cheapest at ASDA where it is being sold for £13.00 with free delivery.