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Thursday, August 23, 2007

TV: Heroes - The Early Episodes

Hot on the heels of 24, Lost and the C.S.I. phenomenon comes Heroes, the latest American TV series to sweep the world, dominating TV ratings wherever it lands. Superheroes, in general, are pretty big business in 2007. Their stock has risen hand-in-hand with the advance of detailed, believable, computer-generated imagery. Suddenly, Superman really can fly, Spiderman really can swing, and Batman is no longer the pantomime dame. So, there is no better time to unleash a TV series featuring a ragtag collection of new superheroes than now.

The real genius of the story is Heroes creator and executive producer, Tim Kring. He’s managed to capture all the things that make great viewing whilst avoiding the usual pitfalls that kill off most series in their infancy. The first few episodes are a series’ make-or-break moments. Introduce the action too quickly and the show will burn out, usually through it's lack of character depth. Start out too slow and it’s a yawn-fest. To achieve this he has given us imagery that burns bright. Comic-book art and camera-work; clever snapshots of what’s to come; characters that intrigue, each with their own rich, dark and complicated history; entwined plot lines introduced from different perspectives.

The heartbeat of these first few episodes has been Kring’s masterstroke. He’s admitted that Hiro Nakamura was the final character he created and yet with Hiro he’s introduced the one missing, but essential, element to the storyline - humour. Played by the brilliant Masi Oka, Hiro, is the last piece in the jigsaw. He is the one with the most awesome power and yet the one who embraces his talent with a childlike joy. It’s in such contrast to the bitterness and recrimination with which the other heroes deal with their powers. They feel like freak shows and have a tendency to bury themselves with their fears.

Revealing as little as possible, Hiro wields the power to bend the space-time continuum and discovers a terrible future lies in store for humanity. It is in Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) that Hiro confides this horrific reality. Peter is the one other character who seeks the truth no matter what, bringing to mind character elements of both Spiderman’s Parker and Matrix’s Neo, and as the cast begin to find one another the series really lifts off.

It seems inconceivable that from this point Heroes can fail. So much is reminiscent of successful sci-fi entertainment past. Star Trek, Firefly, Donnie Darko, Spiderman, Matrix, Battlestar Galactica. This along with all the referencing to modern life keeps the viewer riveted, constantly guessing then reassessing. If you’re not already involved then Heroes comes highly recommended. If you’re way ahead of me I trust it’s everything you wanted it to be and hopefully more.


© Johnskibeat

Friday, August 17, 2007

Film: The Bourne Ultimatum

This is the cinematic equivalent of lighting a high-power repeater firework and having the director strap you to it before you can retreat to a safe distance. It’s insane and it’s the Bourne Ultimatum. The third and final instalment of a trilogy that has raised its genre’s bar to new heights, completing what has been an adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of emotion through the murky world of government splinter cells, high-tech surveillance and assassins aplenty.

The plot follows along the lines of the previous instalments. C.I.A. official, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), is a man on a mission to destroy anyone who threatens the secret identity of an illegal government project. This includes killing Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), an assassin suffering amnesia, who needs to reveal the truth so that he may put his fractured and tormented life back together. Vosen’s colleague, Pam Landy (Joan Allen), is determined to separate right from wrong and along with C.I.A. Operative, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), they provide uneasy allies for Bourne as he battles an organisation that wields more power than ever before.

This truly is a brilliant film but it’s been built upon decidedly shaky foundations. By this I mean the director, Paul Greengrass, has taken the scattergun approach to film-making and employed the documentary, fly-on-the-wall-style of camerawork throughout, with fidgety shots and rapid-fire cuts. In the quieter moments it’s nothing but distracting, whereas during the action sequences, despite sacrificing information left, right and centre, it’s stunning. We’re in the head of Jason Bourne now and this means when he steps into a scene, we are the ones scanning the area for the nearest way out. We’re the ones seeking out a weapon in case of attack. We’re the ones with sweaty palms.

Here’s just the briefest of examples. Quick-pan left to an out-of focus uphill shot of an empty alley; spin right to shaking image of a distant street; zoom and tighten frame as two policemen career round the corner at the foot of the hill; zoom out, drift up and zoom in to juddering close-up of an open window above street level; pull out to over-the-shoulder shot of a house number, then a series of flashed images: a frame, a door, an exit.

Combine all this with John Powell’s relentless musical score across the most action-packed car-chase or fist-fight scenes, or the simplest coffee-shop conversation and the tension is ramped up to unbearable levels creating a decidedly uncomfortable viewing experience.

Be it lying low in a crowded London train station, dashing across the rooftops of Tangiers, or tearing through New York City in a police car, Jason Bourne makes a fascinating travelling companion and Matt Damon has laid his character’s tortured soul bare for us. This time he’s darker, colder and more ruthless in everything he does. Julia Stiles’ deliberately restrained performance amongst the dizzying action is perfect, and David Strathairn has never been more vitriolic and revels in his role of bad guy.

The Bourne Ultimatum should come with a health warning. I had to peel myself off my seat at the end and it was a relief to get back to the mundane. Something simple like picking out the lumps of seat cover that had somehow got rammed beneath my fingernails.

© Johnskibeat

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Commissioned by Local Secrets online magazine...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Eating Out: The Zebra, Cambridge

‘Do you fancy going for a Polish?’ isn’t exactly a phrase you hear being uttered too often, but thanks to Ralph and his wife Ania, the proprietors of the Zebra pub on Maid's Causeway, you could be hearing it a lot more around Cambridge.

The Zebra, a gentle stroll from both the Grafton Centre and Midsummer Common, has recently had a menu makeover and now boasts Polish cuisine ranging from simple soups to interesting pasta combinations - many of which can also be served as a vegetarian option. This all sits alongside traditional English dishes, such as bangers and mash or filled jacket potato, and on top of that there’s a comprehensive pizza menu. So there really is something for everyone.

The pub is filling up nicely with both the young and old as we arrive for an early evening meal. The atmosphere is relaxed and the background music isn’t overly intrusive. The place is clean and neat and there are large and small tables to choose from. We’re keen to try the new generously-priced Polish food and it arrives promptly, courteously, and is both neatly plated and full of colour.

The zurek (potato and sausage soup) is hearty, slightly spicy and moreish and comes with a fresh baguette and butter. Our party also tries the goulash, the perogli (pretty pasta parcels filled with meat in a tomato sauce) and the golabki (meat and rice baked in cabbage parcels with a tomato sauce). All these main courses are accompanied with a salad replete with fruit and vegetables. The golabki filling is spicy and wholesome but the sauce rather overpowers the delicate cabbage. Of the three dishes the perogli was deemed the tastiest with a particular favourite being the excellent beetroot puree that accompanied it.

As we finished the proprietor popped back to check that everything was to our satisfaction and he was able to expand a little on how well the Polish menu was going down. Apparently, Monday to Thursday lunchtimes are the least busy but his staff are run off their feet in the evenings of Thursday to Saturday with both English and Polish clientele enjoying the food. When asked about where the idea for this bold new menu had come from, he replied, ‘Having got married in Poland and sampled many of their traditional dishes, my wife and I believe that the Cambridge residents will enjoy it’. With most of the main courses costing around a fiver, and the food a welcome deviation from the standard pub fayre, he may well be right.


© Johnskibeat

Commissioned by Local Secrets online magazine...

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Film: Evan Almighty

The lights dim and it’s all aboard for this crazy 21st century Noah’s ark saga as we join Steve Carell, currently Hollywood’s favourite comedy son, reprising his role from 2003’s hugely successful Bruce Almighty. He plays Evan Baxter, TV reporter turned Congressman who is visited by God (Morgan Freeman) and instructed to build an ark causing upheaval to his blossoming career and family life.

It’s quickly apparent that the storyline is scattergun at best and ludicrous at worst. Imagine The Santa Clause without Christmas. Carell, who shone so brightly playing the goofball in Anchorman and Little Miss Sunshine, finds his light vastly dimmed when put in the role of responsible parent and politician. His character’s decline into apparent madness is laboured and, at times, ineffective. Worst is the film’s tendency to veer from the simple to the overcomplicated in consecutive scenes making it pretty tough to digest.

In contrast, there’s the computer wizardry on display. Reportedly pushing $200 million, it’s the most expensive comedy ever made. This statistic alone is mind-blowing. To spend so much money perfecting the look of the film is criminal when you consider just how poorly scripted it is. As the film progresses, we’re subjected to long sequences of turgid dialogue followed by a visual feast of computer-generated animal mayhem, all ending with a glorious poster-perfect money shot. It’s a great series of images but that’s really all it is and this may explain why the trailer appealed so much.

Despite all these negative points, the film still has its moments – Morgan Freeman has his mischievous God down pat now - and at the end the smile on my face told the real story. In particular, keep an eye out for the nod to Hitchcock’s The Birds and the hilarious dancing cast as the credits roll.

Evan Almighty is a wholesome family film, heart-warming, and with a strong message promoting family values and the importance of environmental concern. Considering the younger audience to which it is quite clearly aimed it seems strange that they didn’t push harder for a Universal certificate considering how close they came.

© Johnskibeat

Commissioned by Local Secrets online magazine...

Monday, August 6, 2007

Sport: Oxbridge Engineering Sports Day 2007

Every year unbeknownst to the outside world there is a colossal clash of great engineering minds. It features Cambridge University Engineering Department trading blows with the Oxford University Department of Engineering Science and, over the course of a day, one great establishment overcomes another across a range of sporting events - golf, softball, punting, cricket and tennis.

In recent years there have also been unofficial events played alongside those recognised. This year the spare places on the Cambridge coach are taken up by football-crazy engineers hell-bent on humiliating their Oxford rivals despite the lack of a trophy to recognise the feat. I am one of those determined few.

Oxford is hosting this year’s event and we arrive in their fair city on the stroke of noon. A connecting bus is caught to the Brasenose Sports Ground following lunch and we find our opponents already in full kit warming up – an ominous sight.

There’s only time for a quick warm-up and team-talk and then suddenly we’re off. Oxford start brightly with quick passing and some intricate dribbling, but Cambridge defend strongly and find space down the wings for the strikers to attack. It’s a real game of cat-and-mouse until disaster strikes. Our defensive midfielder, Chris Cassidy, goes in for a tackle and comes away with a badly twisted knee and has to go off. Oxford very sportingly loan us one of their substitutes, but as our lynchpin limps off the game opens up for Oxford.

Within ten minutes Oxford go 2-0 up as their striker proves too speedy for our ageing defence. He beats the offside trap and runs clear to round Cambridge’s otherwise excellent goalkeeper before slotting his second in off the left-hand post. Unbowed, we continue to raid down their weaker left side and get a well-earned free kick around the edge of the penalty area. The defence pour into the box and, as the kick curls in, yours truly manages to get a glancing header on target to reduce the arrears. Game on.

As half-time approaches, the older Cambridge legs start to creak and Oxford goes for the jugular. Two raids through the middle and one killer counter-attack lead to three easy goals and as the whistle sounds for the break it’s a miserable 5-1 score line.

Drinks are taken and soothing ointments are applied to sore areas. A quick change of formation leads to our striker being redeployed in defence and in the first few minutes this seems to blunt Oxford’s attacking prowess. Although, in hindsight, it may the fact that it had started raining, making the ball more difficult to control, may have had more to do with it.

Then, lo and behold, Cambridge start to dictate the play and pepper the Oxford keeper with shots. Goal-line scrambles and some clever defending at corners keeps the Cambridge side out but they are not to be denied. A foul on the edge of the area follows and Cambridge front man, Meshal Almane steps up and hammers it low past the wall and through the keeper’s outstretched arms to reduce the arrears.

From here both defences stand firm with both goalkeepers excelling with fine saves. As the minutes tick away, and with the rain now bucketing down, both sides become more conservative. Dribbling skills fall away as legs tire and the passes begin to shorten. The final whistle sounds with the score at 5-2 to Oxford.

Hands are shaken and cheers for each side are chanted vigorously. There are even beers waiting for both winning and losing sides in the changing rooms. Cambridge Captain, Tim Nichols, praises the Oxford team before thanking his players. “I was chuffed with the work rate, team spirit and ‘never say die’ attitude of my players. We kept battling and challenging for every ball right up to the final whistle”. All agreed it was a thoroughly enjoyable game and that next year the football should be repeated and become an official event in the Sports Day programme.

The coach arrives soon after and we’re all transported back to the University Club for the presentation of trophies where we learn that Oxford have won all the events save the tennis. They therefore take the Wroth Trophy as overall winners and are roundly applauded before all those present tuck into the delightful buffet that Oxford have laid on. A thoroughly successful and enjoyable day is had by all.
© Johnskibeat

Click here to see my review in the Local Secrets online magazine...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Film: Transformers

Cambridge’s Local Secrets review begins with “The first 32 years passed without incident. Then I saw Transformers in 2007 and my life was changed forever”. The Times had a slightly different viewpoint and eloquently described it as the equivalent of director, Michael Bay, “beating his chest and waving his penis at us for a couple of hours”. The truth lies somewhere in between.

This movie is an absolute orgy of stunning computer effects. It’s simply jaw-dropping stuff. It succeeds in this where the latest Star Wars efforts failed simply by displaying just what is possible when you unite the best visual director in the world today with a lot of money and a genre like science fiction.

For an hour I gaped in awe as it built from everyday human events into a national crisis with an unseen and unknown enemy, attacking with a force and intensity never witnessed before on Earth. Everything was buzzing along nicely as the evil Decepticons asserted their dominance and then the holier-than-thou Autobots landed and Optimus Prime, their leader, opened his big fat gob. In an instant, I realised the movie I was watching wasn’t going to finish the good work it had started. The payback never came.

It’s actually quite easy to see why it came to this. Michael Bay simply tried too hard to tick all the boxes. You cannot create a movie based on a set of kiddy toys who come packaged with their own simplistic and incomplete back story and hope to ever produce something that pleases the children that played with those toys, the geeks who have latched on to the character cult status, and the movie buffs.

The basic premise of good robots versus evil robots is completely bang-on the money. Where it fails is the human element. By making the robot effects so awesome, Bay has overcompensated by making the human reaction try to equal it. You simply can’t do it without losing the credibility. The stunts are obscenely complex, the vehicles are spotlessly shiny and the sets just get bigger and less realistic.

The result is the movie equivalent of a tag-team wrestling contest between Terminator 2 and The Rock versus 2 Fast 2 Furious and Matrix Revolutions. One minute it’s the best disaster movie ever, the next it’s a lad’s wet dream. Go and see this by all means, but when you turn off you mobile, remember to do the same with your brain.

© Johnskibeat

As Featured On Ezine Articles