January 31, 2011

The Omega Factor

The Omega Factor was an unusual drama for the BBC: a paranormal thriller produced by BBC Scotland, it sparked a sudden controversy upon release before being essentially buried by the broadcaster for more than two decades. It has only been since a recent DVD release that modern audiences have had the opportunity to discover it.

The series was created by George Gallacio, a former production manager for Doctor Who who had moved to Edinburgh to take up a permanent position there as a staff producer. Gallacio was initially commissioned to produce the second season of The Standard, a 13-part newspaper drama that had been launched in 1978 with great fanfare. With that series facing flagging ratings, however, Gallacio was ordered to abandon pre-production for that show and instead develop a new drama series himself.

January 27, 2011

Five Films: Michelle Yeoh

This week’s Five Films segment is dedicated to Michelle Yeoh. She was born in Malaysia, raised in Great Britain and then introduced to movie audiences via Hong Kong. She originally trained as a ballerina, but a spinal injury led to her shifting to choreography, then modelling, and finally to acting. She will next be seen playing Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s biographical drama The Lady, but she’s got an enormous back catalogue of films that are well worth checking out. Here, below, are my five favourites.

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
Yeoh featured in six films before retiring from acting in 1988. It was only after she divorced her husband, Dickson Poon, that she returned to the screen opposite Jackie Chan in Police Story 3. She is extraordinary in this film, going toe-to-toe with Chan in terms of energy, screen presence and ridiculously dangerous stunts. Her final stunt in the film – riding a motorcycle off a ramp and onto the roof of a moving train – was so impressive that it led Chan to add an even more dangerous stunt for himself (hanging off a rope ladder tied to a flying helicopter) to keep his reputation intact as Hong Kong’s most reckless and talented stunt artist.

January 21, 2011

Arthur of the Britons: "Arthur is Dead" (1972)

Arthur of the Britons was one of those strange TV shows that I saw as a child during the school holidays in the mid-1980s. It was a half-hour British adventure series, and seemed like no other version of the King Arthur legend I had encountered. It seemed rougher, smaller and dirty. Camelot didn’t seem to exist, and Arthur and his knights seemed to live in a wooden fort.
I didn’t realise at the time that the series wasn’t a new one. Arthur of the Britons was produced for two seasons between 1972 and 1973 by HTV, one of Great Britain’s regional television stations. The series was set in the Dark Ages: the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, and Arthur was Celtic tribal leader defending his territory against Saxon invaders. Even 38 years later it feels like a completely fresh take on the Arthurian legend, creating the sort of “the real Arthur” mystique that the 2005 Jerry Bruckheimer film could only dream of. In many ways it foreshadows another HTV production, Robin of Sherwood, which took the well-worn Robin Hood legend and created something new out of it for the 1980s.

January 20, 2011

The Greatest Show Time: Perfect Blue and Paprika

This was originally written and presented as a reading at Aussiecon 4 in September 2010. Writer/director Satoshi Kon had recently died, and I felt like commemorating him in some way.

‘It’s the greatest show time!’ announces a clown as they impossibly squeeze out of a tiny automobile. A circus ring seems like an incongruous place to begin a science fiction film, but before long we are following a middle-aged police officer from circus to corridor to train and beyond, without explanation or logical sense. We are in a dream, and that dreams is being subtly controlled and manipulated by a machine: the DC Mini.
It sounds quite a lot like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mega-hit Inception, in which surveillance experts use technology to enter other people’s dream-states and steal their ideas. This, however, is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, an animated film from Japan that pre-dates Nolan’s work by four years and is – arguably – the superior film.

January 19, 2011

Urine controlled videogames

You can forget all the motion-controlled games being thrown around at the moment, whether it's the Wii, the Xbox 360 Kinect or Playstation Move. Sega are already onto the next big thing: urine!
It sounds like I'm joking, but in four Tokyo arcades this month Sega are trialling a series of urinal-installed videogames. The idea is that as you play them, you will also see digital advertising on the game screen.

Five Films: Mark Hamill

For the second Five Films column, let’s take a look at Mark Hamill. Best known as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga, he’s been appearing in various films and TV productions for over 40 years now. And remember: if you liked Hamill in any films not mentioned below, make sure you speak up in the comments below.

Wizards (1977)
Hamill is an exceptional voice artist, and it was a side to his career that he was developing all the way back here in the 1970s. Hamill plays Sean, the leader of the elves, in this inventive animated fantasy from writer/director Ralph Bakshi. This isn’t my favourite Bakshi film (that would still be The Lord of the Rings), but it’s still highly enjoyable.

January 18, 2011

Q*Bert (1982)

There is a purity to early videogames that ensures their continued popularity, either on a small-scale level of cult appeal, or with a much larger pop culture cache. These games were programmed on computers that are by today’s standards ridiculously limited, yet the limitations provided a structure within which some of the most enjoyable gaming experiences ever were successfully created.
This isn’t an attempt to claim that all early videogames are enjoyable. Truth be told, a lot of them are dreadful – either dull retreads and ripoffs of other more successful titles, or quite simply straight-out bad games.
When all of the elements are well designed, and one of these early titles has a unique and iconic look, memorable and original gameplay, and challenging and interesting design, then generally that game is going to be remembered and re-played for years to come.
I have a lot of favourites from the early days of videogames: Frogger, Galaga and Ms Pac-Man immediately come to mind. Another favourite is Q*Bert, a strange-looking but wonderfully addictive American arcade game from 1982.

January 17, 2011

Pale Rider (1985)

This is an old review I wrote back in 2009, but it's a good movie and deserves being talked about again. Hope you enjoy it.

A small community of Californian gold miners find themselves persecuted by a rich local banker with a jealous eye towards their claim. There’s a violent raid one morning. A teenage girl’s pet dog is killed. After burying her pet, the girl prays for God to send a “spirit of vengeance” to avenge her loss and drive away the banker and his men. The next day, a solitary rider arrives in town – a nameless preacher who unites the embattled community and inspires them to fight back.

I have an enormous love for westerns that I don’t often talk about. I love the mystique of this big, dusty, ridiculously fictionalised vision of American history. I think it’s sad that an equivalent bushranger genre didn’t take off here in Australia, because it probably would have been just as fun.
I love grim men in broad-brimmed hats, riding horses and training revolvers on one another. I love – when they’re shot like a western should be – beautiful North American vistas. I’ve never particularly wanted to visit the USA for its people, but I’ve always wanted to visit just to look at the landscape they live on.

January 15, 2011

Want to read scripts to The King's Speech and The Social Network?

One of the cool things about Oscar season is that the studios often widely distribute copies of eligible screenplays, in the hope that Academy members might nominate and vote for them. The result is heaven for any aspiring script writers. Two scripts have recently been put up by Deadline Hollywood, so click here for a PDF of David Seidler's script of The King's Speech, and click here for an insightful interview with The Social Network's Aaron Sorkin, as well as a PDF of his script.

January 14, 2011

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk (2010)

Chuck Palahniuk is a terrifyingly talented author. He has a remarkable gift for odd turns of phrase, describing people, events and places in ways that the reader would never have previously imagined, but which fit perfectly. He’s laugh-out-loud funny when he needs to be, and frighteningly confronting when he wants to be. His first published novel, Fight Club, was a well-deserved cult hit and spawned an even better motion picture from screenwriter Jim Uhls and director David Fincher. Follow-up novels such as Survivor, Choke and Invisible Monsters continued to cement his reputation as one of America’s best novelists. He’s an author with whom you can make some easy comparisons – the deceptive simplicity of Stephen King, the highly evocative phrasing of Bret Easton Ellis – but also one who stands up as a very original writer. Nobody else writes exactly like Palahniuk. Ten novels into his career and he has effectively created his own niche genre.
Tell-All, published in 2010, is Palahniuk’s latest novel. Like several of his recent books it’s comparatively short, running for roughly 180 pages or so in a B-format paperback. It is a satirical pastiche, tracking the attempted career comeback of an aging movie star through the eyes of her long-standing (and long-suffering) personal assistant. When a young man arrives with an eye to woo and exploit the movie star, it’s up to her assistant to see him off and protect her employer – whom the manipulative assistant clearly sees as her own life’s work.

January 13, 2011

Five Films: David Morse

In these occasional columns, I’m going to pick an actor I like and recommend five of their films to you. They might be a major star; they might be a supporting player. I’m starting with one of those exceptional supporting performers: American actor David Morse.

There’s something distinctly watchable about David Morse. I’m not entirely sure what it is. He is one of those actors who seems to effortlessly capture my attention when he’s on-screen. He doesn’t steal scenes. He’s never showy. He very rarely gets the opportunity to play a lead role. Instead he’s one of those immensely strong, wonderfully talented supporting actors who lifts the quality of any film or television episode he’s in.
I think I first noticed him in Michael Bay’s 1996 action film The Rock, where he plays second-in-command to Ed Harris. After that he just seemed to crop up everywhere, impressing me each time – not by playing a striking, unique character, but simply by doing an exceptional job of playing interesting yet everyday people. That’s a hard thing to do, playing an everyday person. Leonardo Di Caprio (whom I admire immensely) tried it and failed miserably in Titanic. David Morse nails that kind of character every time.

January 12, 2011

Away: Shuffle Dungeon (2008)

Videogames are not always the most original of mediums. I suppose the same may be said of pretty much every creative medium: just as you’re always going to discover derivative videogames, you’re also going to be able to easily find derivative films and novels. For some reason they seem to stand out more obviously to me in games. Maybe it’s the gameplay – how many substandard platform games were released for the SNES and Megadrive, each with their own cute animal-based mascot, each desperately attempting to replicate the success of Mario or Sonic? How many bland first-person shooters get released every year? Games are a highly commercial medium, arguably even more so than film and television, and that commercialism tends to bring with it an element of cynicism too.
Most derivative games are not very interesting or memorable. Unless you bring something new and interesting to the table, the best result you can hope for is that gamers buy and play your game while waiting for the next ‘big thing’ to grab their attention.

January 11, 2011

Close to Home (2005)

To use some random sports metaphors, Close to Home is a knockout. It hits the ball out the park. It scores a century without losing a wicket. To speak in plainer terms, it is a sensational work of low budget cinema. Shot on a shoestring in Jerusalem and released in 2005, it demonstrates complexity, heart, nuance, character and vitality. I watched it for the first time in a cinema I used to manage, as part of a program of low budget features including Primer, Keane and Down to the Bone (all of which were and still are exceptional movies). I watched it the second time over the New Year break on DVD, and my appreciation for the film only increased.
Close to Home follows two 18 year-old women undertaking their Israeli national service by patrolling the streets of Jerusalem as part of the Magav, or Israel Border Police. Smadar is cocky and rebellious. Mirit is shy and withdrawn. They don’t like each other much, but are forced to patrol together. Their patrol essentially entails stopping each Arab who tries to pass them on the street and to record the details from their identity card. It’s a tedious job, and the film goes a good length to show how dull it must be. It’s also a relatively racist and offensive job, and the film makes certain we recognise that as well. Finally, there might even be an argument that while morally repugnant it is also perhaps a necessary job.
This isn’t a film about answers, or social justice, or political opinions. It takes a very difficult and complicated backdrop, and then places into it a pair of wonderfully realised, beautifully performed young women.

January 10, 2011

Secret of Mana (1993)

A young man recovers a magical sword from a stone, inadvertently releasing a horde of monsters into the lands around his village. As a result he is banished from his home, and winds up travelling the world visiting the eight mystical Mana Temples in order to replenish his sword’s magical energy and prevent an evil sorcerer from taking over the world.
It’s pretty tedious stuff when read from a page – certainly it was pretty tedious stuff while I was writing it down. It’s the basis, however, for Secret of Mana, a 1993 Japanese role-playing game (RPG) released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). For most of the people who have played it, it is one of the most fondly remembered games of the SNES era. For fans of Japanese RPGs, it remains an absolute classic of the genre.
So why, if the story is so derivative, is Secret of Mana so fondly remembered? Like most videogames, the quality of the story took a back seat to the quality of the gameplay, the graphics and the sound. In these respects Secret of Mana excelled. At the time there really wasn’t a game available for the SNES that combined such high quality images and music with such a wonderfully immersive gaming experience.

January 9, 2011

Hackers (1995)

At the start of Hackers, eighteen year-old Dade Murphy has spent seven years legally barred from using a computer after a hacking incident when he was eleven. Back at the keyboard, he dives straight back into cyberspace as Zero Cool. When he encounters Kate Libby, aka Acid Burn, their battle of the sexes extends both on and off the computer. The two must put aside their differences, however, to prevent a master hacker known as the Plague from crashing a corporate network and stealing $25 million dollars.

Screenwriter Rafael Moreu first encountered the concept of ‘hacking’ while studying at college. ‘I was immediately intrigued,’ he said. ‘When people become so obsessed by a single activity, there has to be a story, and I wanted to investigate further.’
Moreu’s investigations brought him into contact with several of America’s most talented and notorious computer hackers, several of whom were already under surveillance by the police for illegal activities. Moreu compared the phenomenon to a 1960s-style counterculture revolution. ‘These kids were beginning to realise that they’d been handed the keys to the kingdom, and now had to deal with the responsibilities that came with it.’ 
Rather than write a direct and fact-based depiction of hacker culture, Moreu elected to exaggerate the phenomenon into a strange, slightly self-aware version of reality. The film may have been titled Hackers, but the characterisation and technology was vastly different to what one might encounter in the real world. ‘I wrote my own “screenplay hack”,’ Moreu argued, ‘a kind of Trojan Horse program, where I could present these more serious issues in a script that also delivers the hackers’ inherent sense of anarchic humour.’

Game Dev Story (2010)

Game Dev Story is one of those perversely recursive artefacts: a videogame about making videogames. You play the manager of a small videogame development studio. As the game progresses you can access an increasing array of game styles and genres: adventure, shooter, racing, simulation, even audio novel, as well as fantasy, animals, samurai, historical, and so on. The combinations are up to you. So if you, say, wanted to create a simulation game about games, I have no doubt that you could. How is that for recursion?
The game is designed for mobile phones, such as the iPhone or the Android, and as such it’s forced to adhere to a bunch of specific challenges. It can’t be too complex, or too lengthy or slow. It needs to have a certain visual clarity. I found it surpassed all of those challenges, although it does seem a little overwhelming at first.
The game utilises a wonderful ‘old-school’ aesthetic as well, harking back to the 16-bit era of the Megadrive and SNES. On top of that, it’s packed to the brim with awful puns, thinly veiled references to gaming history and well-played moments of parody. If you’re a hardcore fan of the industry and its history, Game Dev Story will probably give you many hours of entertainment.

January 7, 2011

The Feathered Serpent (1976-78)

 There’s something quite wonderful about British children’s television. I can’t really speak for what gets made today – I’m generally at work when children’s TV is playing – but from the 1960s to the 1990s Great Britain hosted an exceptional range of odd little youth-oriented dramas. UK children’s TV was seemingly fearless, and remarkably daring. No subject matter seemed to be out of bounds. No setting or social issues seemed too unsuitable. Whether it was Press Gang tackling sexual or solvent abuse, or Grange Hill getting Zammo hooked on drugs, or even Tom Baker getting half-strangled to death in Doctor Who, UK children’s television often seemed that classic combination of ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Even TV for toddlers seems creepier and more unsettling than productions from other countries. Maybe it’s just me, but from The Clangers and The Magic Roundabout to Teletubbies and In the Midnight Garden, British toddler’s television is downright bizarre.
I never saw The Feathered Serpent on its original broadcast. To be honest, until two weeks ago I had never even heard of it. It ran for two seasons on ITV, starting in 1976 and ending in 1978. It was produced by Thames Television, and notably starred Patrick Troughton (the second actor to play Doctor Who). It’s also about Aztecs. You read that correctly, and this isn’t a joke: for two years in the 1970s Thames Television produced a children’s drama about Aztecs.