Category Archives: Film and TV

Ten thousand thundering typhoons!

I’m not a huge fan of the concept of heroes. I find them generally rather unsatisfactory – I don’t see what’s so great about a character who’s so very good when it’s quite plain that there’s no other way they could be. I don’t know if that makes any sense. What I suppose I’m trying to say is that all too often, the character lacks any sense of realism. The more flawed the better.

This is why Captain Haddock is a hero of mine. He’s a bad-tempered, clumsy, middle-aged drunk. He’s impulsive, and prey to his own emotional outbursts. He’s a magnet for life’s little annoyances, whether of his own making or pushed upon him by whatever deity governs the Tintin universe. Yet at the same time, he’s also a very loyal individual with a strong sense of morals who is constantly battling his own failings to do what is right. This, I think is the appeal of the character – he is ultimately good, but it’s not easy.

Hergé, creator of the Tintin series, seems to have been Haddock’s biggest fan. The Captain was introduced in the ninth book, The Crab with the Golden Claws. In this, he was a purely supporting player, a pathetic alcoholic who hinders Tintin as much as he helps him. By The Secret of the Unicorn, two volumes later, he’s practically an equal protagonist. It’s quite clear that Hergé saw something of himself in the character, indulging as he did in the author’s own interests in exploration, fashion and the odd tipple. He also gave the rather introverted Hergé a means to work through and laugh at his own frustrations in life.

This is a rather longwinded way of telling you that I went to see The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn last night at Feltham Cineworld, which is perhaps the most un-Tintin location in the world. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m something of a fan of the original books, so this was a film I simply had to see by law.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty awesome film. It mashes up The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and bits of Red Rackham’s Treasure, with elements of original story to give the whole thing an overarching antagonist.

For a Tintin geek, there was a lot to enjoy. As well as the three books the story is based on, I spotted references to The Black Island, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Cigars of the Pharoah, Tintin in America, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, The Shooting Star and Land of Black Gold. That’s excluding the overt references in the title sequence. There’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo by Cutts the butcher and an appearance by Le Petit Vingtième, the rarely-seen newspaper that Tintin actually writes for. No doubt a Tintinologist could find many more.

The animation is worthy of note. It utilises motion capture, a form of animation whereby a real life actor’s movements are rendered in CGI. Attempts at full motion-capture animation have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the Uncanny Valley (see The Polar Express), and based on the early trailers I feared this might fall victim to that. However, it’s not so – perhaps because the film doesn’t go for outright realism with its characters, but caricatures. After the initial jolt, you quickly become used to the animation and get absorbed into the world.

The attention to detail in rendering said world is breathtaking. The setting is fairly ambiguous in terms of time and place, but nevertheless a stunning amount of work has gone into every setting. This is very befitting of something based on the stories (if not the ligne claire art style) of Hergé, who researched his artwork intricately. Such is the quality of animation that despite the obviously exaggerated characters, I often found myself forgetting that what I was watching was actually a cartoon.

I have to say, the film falls down a little where it departs from the original books. Trying not to give too much away, the flashback to Francis Haddock’s confrontation with Red Rackham in The Secret of the Unicorn differs significantly from the original album, abandoning Hergé’s meticulously-researched and historically-accurate sea battle in favour of a conflict in which, how can I put this, a ship swings over another ship by the rigging. Red Rackham’s treasure is no longer brought over to the captured Unicorn from the damaged pirate ship, but is a secret cargo aboard the man o’ war (how much cargo space does a warship have, anyway?) – that’s fine, but if we’re saying the treasure isn’t Rackham’s to begin with, the film’s major antagonist doesn’t exactly have the motivation to go after it. Given that the antagonist was basically invented for the film, this is a slightly bizarre point. Complicating matters further is that by the end of the film, they’ve decided that the treasure actually was Rackham’s, from “plunder[ing] half of South America.” I’m guessing this line was to set up a sequel centred around The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun, but it complicates further a plot that doesn’t make much sense.

That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy about this film. It’s a fun old-school action adventure reminiscent that stands out from the kids’ movie crowd. It’s more cartoony than the original comics, certainly, but if you can let that go it’s a fresh take on Hergé’s world. And if audience reaction is anything to go by, your kids will love it.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Current events, Film and TV, Literature, Only loosely about London

London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

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Filed under Booze, Film and TV, Flora and Fauna, Kensington, London, Museums, Plants and animals, Randomness, Soho, tourism, West End

Wizard times

Tom Riddle's bitterness was nothing compared to that of his brother Jimmy.

Good evening all. I must apologise in advance for the brevity of this entry. It is now slightly after midnight and I have returned from good old White City, where I was watching Harry Potter and the Dragging Out of the Franchise with Messrs. Shoinan and Izzi at the Westfield Centre.

I actually quite enjoyed it, although it is worth noting that it has a lot of plot holes that only make sense if you’ve read the books. For instance (minor spoiler alert), it is noted early on that our heroes have captured Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand. Shortly after that, Hermione disguises herself as Ms Lestrange in order to infiltrate the bank, and is asked to present the wand as identification, and this throws her. This is because part of the book has been cut, but otherwise the fact that they have Bellatrix’ wand has no bearing on the plot. Meanwhile, an extremely significant character development is cut altogether. There are various other points where it feels like part of the script is missing, and this lends the whole thing a slightly breathless air at some points. I shan’t go into any more specifics for fear of spoilers.

Am I the only one who’s vaguely bugged by the fact that they use King’s Cross for interior shots of the station, but St Pancras for external ones? I mean, for God’s sake, it’s not like St Pancras is an obscure station any more. And they’re not even the same colour, let alone architectural style.

Also, did anyone ever think of cutting Voldemort’s arms off? I mean, he’d still be immortal, but he’d have no arms, so he couldn’t cast any more spells.

Also, Neville is hardcore.

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Filed under Current events, Film and TV

And now the story…

Check this out, my droogs. Very little to do with London, but it was a funny thing that happened involving me and the author, Shoinan. That is all. Anyway, I’m off to write today’s real entry.

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Filed under Film and TV, London, Meta, West End

Science Fiction Single Feature

I love science fiction. I was first introduced to it at the tender age of 8, via the glorious medium of Thunderbirds repeats on Friday afternoons. From there, I discovered Doctor Who and Star Trek. Then, a couple of years later, I was directed to the works of Asimov and Clarke (and Douglas Adams, of course). And from there, things just sorta grew. Despite the best efforts of secondary school to wean me off this juvenile nonsense, it’s an interest I maintained into adulthood and, indeed, even had the opportunity to study at university.

So when my good chum Succubusface drew my attention to the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library, I figured it had to be worth seeing. One of my flatmates recommended it, and so the decision was made. On Saturday, Succubusface and I made our way to St Pancras.

I tend to be a little wary when serious literary folk start talking about science fiction because, as I suggested in the intro, there’s a tendency to be rather snobby about it, to assume that it’s a juvenile genre of square-jawed space heroes firing ray guns at marauding robots. I once came across a critical essay which suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t science fiction because it was too good.

I couldn’t disagree more – I believe that science fiction is as valid a literary genre as any other. It grants the licence to explore questions that could not easily be answered in other genres. What does it mean to be human? How do we know what’s real? What if humanity isn’t superior in the universe? What responsibility do we have to that which we create? How might political systems work when played out over centuries? One of my favourite novels is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a man who struggles with Christian faith all his life, only to find himself transported to first century Galilee and the reality of the beliefs he’s fought – a story that inherently relies on time travel, but whose subject matter (religion and idealism) is universal. Another is, as I said above, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams uses the broad canvas of space opera to satirise and absurdify (is that a word?) our society.

Of course, there’s a lot of junk lit out there, and this was particularly prevalent before the 1960s and the rise of the New Wave sci-fi movement. The picture on the right is a fine example. However, I am reminded Sturgeon’s Law. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once confronted with the suggestion that ninety-nine per cent of science fiction was crap. His response was to look at the interviewer with an expression of mild bewilderment and say, “Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap.”

The exhibition takes a more enlightened view than many critics, and as such would be enjoyable both to hardened geeks and relative newcomers. It describes itself as “science fiction, but not as you know it,” a mission statement which it fulfils admirably. A lot of the works covered therein are not what one would traditionally consider science fiction (although, when you think about it, they are). Things like Thomas More’s Utopia, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise or Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove. The classics you would expect to see are in there – Childhood’s End, Foundation, Flatland, Metropolis, Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (spoiler: yes) and the like. There were also quite a few of the less widely known and yet equally worthy works, like Jane Loudon’s The Mummy and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

The exhibition is ordered by subgenre – dystopia, apocalypsealien invasion, time travel, steampunk etc,which I think serves to make it all more approachable to the casual non-geek. It also showed the many different approaches to different concepts – the utopia/dystopia section featured works as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Utopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta. The displays explained the basics of each subgenre in an understandable and non-patronising way.

Speaking as a geek, I found it utterly absorbing, and might even make another visit. I found a load of titles that weren’t familiar to me, but which are now firmly on my reading list.

The only caution I would give is that it’s not really a great exhibition for young children. There’s the funny sleepy robot and the draw-an-alien activity, but the displays are very wordy and I suspect that boredom would quickly set in for a child. For everyone else, though, I can’t recommend it enough.

Further Viewing

Here, the subject of Yr Humble Chronicler’s literary mancrush, China Miéville, takes us on a tour of the exhibition for the BBC.

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