Low Blows And Dirty Tricks: X&HT Saw Sucker Punch

I’m grateful. Really, I am. It’s good to have a low water mark against which all else can be judged. It’s good to know that when a friend rags on a film that you can chip in and say, “Yeah, but at least it’s not…”

Let’s put it another way. We have our new Battlefield Earth.

Continue reading Low Blows And Dirty Tricks: X&HT Saw Sucker Punch

A Response To The Chancellor

(I didn’t watch the live Budget broadcast yesterday, for fear that I might throw something at the telly. This is a fairly common occurrence whenever George Osborne is on screen, so I figured probably best not. However, I was following the Twitters, with particular interest shown to tax expert and strident reformist Richard Murphy. He was not impressed. I’ve had a chance to see what was in young Osborne’s little red satchel, and I would like to respond as if I was the Shadow Chancellor (incidentally, isn’t that a great name for a fantasy villain?) – admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight that I don’t think Ed Balls gets.)

The Shadow Chancellor rises, and waits for the applause and jeering to die down. He fixes his opposite number with a hooded glare, and taps impatiently on his lecturn with the eraser end of a pencil.

The House of Commons is, unusually, completely silent as he speaks.

“Is that it? Really? Is that the best you can do? Have you given up so early in the game, George? I mean, this is just derisory. There’s hardly anything here! Alright, let’s see what you’ve managed to do, shall we?

A penny off fuel duty. When you’d raised it by two in the last budget, and a postponement of the next hike until January. Which means you’ve just promised the drivers of the nation two price rises on fuel in 2012. 50p on a packet of fags. Fine, I’m with you on the coffin nails. A sneaky play on alcohol duty though. No rise doesn’t mean you’ve abolished the duty escalator. So that’s a 2% rise above the rate of inflation. 10p on a pint over the next year. You’ve just doomed the rural pub market. Not that people can afford to drive to them in the first place, but that on top of the VAT hike is going to grease the slide on which a lot of these local community businesses are already teetering. Nice work.

“That’s a sweet little drop in corporation tax rates there. And I see you’ve made an attempt to address tax avoidance. Sort of. A bit. A fifty grand payment if you’ve lived in the UK for twelve years. I can see Philip Green quaking in his boots over that one. And you’ve not put a limit on the tax assets that banks are sitting on from the losses they incurred in the 2008 banking crisis. That’s what kept Barclay’s tax bill down to a 1% payment. Nicely done. Keeping your paymasters sweet.

“If you were serious about tax avoidance, you’d give HMRC the cash and staffing it needed to get to grips with the staggering amount of revenue we lose to corporate shenanigans every year. Instead, you’ve provided loopholes in inheritance tax and charitable contributions that will turn this country into a haven for tax abusers. Nicely considered.

And after that, we can still see that growth has slowed for the third successive quarter that you’ve been in charge of the accounts. That’s not the best record, really, is it?

“I suppose we should be grateful that you haven’t done more. After all, the cuts that will begin to bite in the next couple of weeks will be bad enough without you turning the screws any further. Unfortunately, you’ll probably find that your lame duck budget hasn’t fooled any one. I suggest you have a look at the people who will be filling the streets of London this Saturday. The people who will be clearly and directly affected by your politically motivated financial agenda. Is it a coincidence that you’re rushing through your attempt to clear the deficit in time for the elections of 2015, when most economic experts consider that there’s no problem with taking 12 years to do it? And in fact that this country is in significantly better financial shape than you’d have us believe?

“It’s becoming pretty clear to everyone with two brain cells to bang together and a fast internet connection that your policies aren’t working, that your interests are not those of the people you claim to represent, that you’re lying to the electorate in order to push through policies that are based on discredited economic theories dragging us back to the worst excesses of the Thatcher years, that your arrogance and hubris will not allow you to admit that the gamble you’re taking with this country’s future is putting us on a path to disaster. This Budget is pointless, because the damage is already done.

“I’d say thanks for nothing, George, but the sad fact is that you’re going to leave us with less than that.”

The Shadow Chancellor sits, and waits for the inevitable tumult.

Shaken And Stirred: Against Shaky-cam

An interesting post hit yesterday on Salon from director of photography Matt Zoller Seitz. A summons to arms, a battle cry. In it, he calls out the increasing practice of directors and DOPs to use shaky-cam techniques on multi-million dollar films. The specific example he mentioned was Battle: Los Angeles (yes, THAT film again. Welcome to Battle: LA week. Not my intention, honest. Like I plan any of my content) but Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are also singled out for special attention. You could argue that most big-budget actioners use this technique to a greater or lesser degree, and in a worst-case scenario, almost exclusively.

In Battle: LA, I assume that the idea was to give the impression of an embedded reporter following alongside 25 Recon. This reporter is clearly suffering from the coffee shakes. Shaky cam turned the last Bond film into an incomprehensible mess as the Broccolis tried to put Bourne style shot-work into the franchise. It was one of the flawed decisions that would stall the resurgence of Bond in it’s tracks.

I don’t want to spend time synopsising Matt’s post, so I’ll simply add my approval. There’s a whole genre of horror films that pose as found footage from camcorders in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project, and I can’t be alone in finding them unwatchable. They give me motion sickness, and are pretty much unreadable. There’s no sense of staging, or frame-building. Hand-held techniques, used sparingly, can be incredibly effective. When they become the only technique, there’s a problem. It looks cheap, ugly and lazy.

The problem is, it’s everywhere. Bandwagon jumping has always been an issue in Hollywood. A film-maker does something innovative, and others rush to follow. When shaky-cam techniques were folded into the effects sequences of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, Hollywood made notes. The Star Trek reboot forgot the sweeping, graceful camera passes across the surface of the Enterprise as it flew past in favour of jittery zooms and whip pans. NCC-1701 is a beautiful ship, and it needs to be eye-candy, not half-seen in a thick layer of fake motion blur.

Shaky cam is hard to shoot, too. You need a multi-camera set-up, and even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch everything you need. It’s a mess to edit, a pain to sound sync and horrible to grade. As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan.

I don’t want to see the end of hand-held, by any means. It’s been a vital part of film technique since the French New Wave. But it’s time to stop relying on it as a way to mask poor direction, effects and acting. As Matt says: Get a tripod. Write a set list. Stop covering action. Start directing again.

Why The Aliens Of Battle: Los Angeles Deserve Their Beatdown

Spoiler alert

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... and I look GOOD without a shirt.

I am the commander of an invasion force. We have travelled across the stars to parasitise a small, blue planet somewhere on the Western Spiral Rim of the Milky Way. Specifically, my comrades and I have come for its water. There’s a lot of it. This “Earth” (such a foolish name for a world whose surface area is 70% water) is a rich prize.

Because I am not stupid, and because I understand that a) tactically, high ground gives you a major advantage and b) there is no higher ground than low orbit, I begin my assault by making a note of all the major gathering points of the indigenous population. Usefully, these are lit up at night.

Then I start throwing rocks at those population centres. They don’t need to be massive. Just big enough not to burn up on their way through the atmosphere. Something the size of a skyscraper, tiny in terms of the masses of rock and metal that swing around the sun in tandem with the blue world, would have a pretty appreciable effect on a major urban conurbation when it’s travelling at several miles per second. I don’t even need to be that accurate. Shockwaves and airborne debris would do most of the work. Then it’s a simple mopping-up operation.

Or, if I’d rather start a harvest of the water without causing genocide, I could land my forces in the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific, and set up seaborne facilities that would be difficult to detect until it was too late. I could have a defence grid in place before the aboriginals have a chance to organise a meaningful response. Maybe I’m already at it. You’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle, right?

The one thing I would unquestioningly not do is land a ground force on coastal zones of high population without immediate air support, and then force them to fight inland in order to start a refuelling and harvesting operation from the sewers. The sewers, for fate’s sake. This would afford me the barest trickle of the resources that are clearly available. You know, all the blue stuff I can see from orbit? The stuff I came hundreds of light years to get at? Why would I fight an expensive and potentially ruinous land war against natives who, quite rightly, are going to be pretty honked off at what I’m up to? Like I said, I’m not stupid.

I am the commander of an invasion force, and I laugh at your Aaron Eckhart, just before I throw an asteroid at him.

The Invisible Genre: How The BBC ignored SF on World Book Day

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World Book Day is a celebration of all things literary, a chance to put your hand up and say, “Hell yes, I’m a reader. Give me a book and I’ll read the living stuff right out of it!” It’s an important event that brings together writers and readers worldwide and unites them under a common, quarto-shaped banner.

But there’s a problem. Author Stephen Hunt watched the BBC’s coverage of the day, and noticed that there was something missing. Something big.

Apart from a brief mention of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a YA crossover, SF, fantasy and horror were not represented. No Pratchett. No Rankin. No Tolkein or Lewis. No Iain M. Banks, no JK Rowling. No China Mieville or Joe Abercrombie. No Clive Barker, no Christopher Priest. Genres that between them take between 20 and 30% of the UK book market were roundly ignored.

I wish I could say I was shocked or surprised. The publishing world is more than happy to make money from the fantastic end of the market, but they’re not so keen on promoting it. You’ll hardly ever see SF or fantasy on the front-of-house deals at your local Waterstones unless your name happens to be Rowling or Meyer. As Hunt points out, it’s pure and simple snobbery. What’s more, it’s damaging.

The publishing industry always depicts the book as a gateway to a world of imagination, to a place of limitless possibility, of endless adventure. At the same time, the act of picking up and reading a novel is considered to be an act that is good for you, in the same way as running twice a week or eating a high-fibre cereal for breakfast. It’s an educational action, a pathway to moral improvement and good citizenship. In some ways, you can be defined by what, and how much, you read.

The perception amongst most mainstream critics is reading SF, fantasy and horror is not an improving activity. That these books are of low character, of dubious morality. That somehow you will put the book down, and not gain the insights into the world and it’s people that you would if you’d only pick up something by Margaret Atwood. Or Jeanette Winterson. Or Kazuo Ishigura. Something without spaceships or aliens, clones or creatures grown from genetic experiments gone wrong.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? All the above authors have written SF. They simply choose not to identify the books as such for fear of hurting their profits.

It’s the same skewed thinking that forces Iain Banks to flag his Culture novels as written by Iain M. Banks. As if they were somehow written by a different person. He at least is pushing the envelope, however gently. His latest “mainstream” novel, Transition, was an SF book in all but name, and contains references to a culture that may be … well, The Culture. But the book is packaged and marketed in a very different way to his SF excursions. The back cover blurb calls it a “fable”.

Stephen describes SF, fantasy and horror as a “gateway drug” to the world of literature. I agree. What’s more, that’s proven to be true by one of the growth markets in the publishing sector – the young adult or YA book. This new stream is stuffed full of fantastik stories – and I’m not just talking about Potter or Twilight knockoffs. Cory Doctorow’s agit-punk books such as Little Brother and For The Win are politically driven and yet still filled with action and drama. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies postulates a world where it’s a crime to be ugly – a pointed and direct comment at the sort of world in which kids struggle with their self-image every day. YA is where a lot of the interesting stuff is happening right now.

Should I be bothered by the fact that the BBC ignored the fantastik? It’s fair to say that a lot of people do buy, read and enjoy genre fiction, and it seems to tick along quite happily without mainstream critical attention.

But a lot of truly great books, head and shoulders above the latest “contemporary” efforts in terms of literary merit, plot, character and inventiveness are marginalised purely because of their subject matter. It’s a stigma that prevents deserving authors from reaching their full potential readership. This is simply not on, and needs to be addressed.

It”s a real shame that genres need to be compartmentalised, but it’s a fact of the industry. However, the playing field should be fair. A good book is a good book regardless of where or when it’s set, irrespective of the species of the main character.

What next? Well, Stephen’s set up a Facebook page, and there’s a petition to sign. If you love SF, fantasy and horror and feel that it didn’t get a fair chance in the BBC’s coverage of World Book Day, you know what to do.

O2’s Childish Mistake On Age Verification

O2 logo

Say you’re waiting on a bus or a train. It’s dead time, so to ease the boredom you grab your smartphone to check the latest post on your favourite site – this one, of course. You get a nice strong 3G signal, and hit the bookmark.

Instead of that familiar, beautifully designed opening page, you get a warning from your mobile provider, telling you that the site you’re trying to reach is only suitable for over-18s, and that you need to go through an age verification process. You’re then taken to another page which, although it has livery from your provider, seems to be from another website entirely. And this page is asking you for your credit card details.

It’s an obvious and rather lame attempt at phishing. You’re not any kind of idiot (you’re a member of The Readership, after all) so you spot it as that instantly, and sadly inform the webmaster that his site has been hacked.

Except it’s not a scam. Well, not in the true textbook sense of the word, anyhoo. The scenario above happened yesterday to O2 customers across the country, as a age verification process was extensively rolled out. It only affects their 3G and GPRS networks, and it’s really, really stupid.

The reason for the credit card charge (£1, following which you’re refunded £2.50 as a one time payment) is to ensure that the person attempting to access “adult” material is over 18. You have to be over 18 to own a credit card. QED. But you also have to be 18 to set up a Pay Monthly account, and surely it would be simpler to set up a password controlled block in the website accessible only to the bill-payer. And the over-enthusiastic filter O2 have put in place means that PAYG customers are being blocked from sites they have perfectly legitimate reasons to visit. It’s just nonsense.

What on earth was going through the O2 mind (you know, the one that’s currently TV advertised with a very badly disguised version of Mr. Tumnus in place)? Did no-one think that suddenly switching on a filter without fair warning that would direct their customers to a site asking for credit card details might not be taken as entirely genuine? O2 claim that the company in question, Bango, have many years experience and are a trusted partner. Fine. I’ve never heard of them, and have no reason to trust them on O2’s say-so.

More worryingly, O2 have yet to explain what Bango (the name that doesn’t fill me with trust, it has to be said) do with your credit card details after the verification transaction. And, for that matter, how long your payment stays in Bango’s account before you get your £2.50 refund. I call shenanigans on this. It all feels a bit suspect, a bit slippery. Why a quid, for example? PayPal do a similar thing to ensure the card you’re linking to their system is legitaimate, but they do it with payments or 3 or 4p. Stick a couple of hundred thousand pounds of your customers cash in a high interest account for a couple of days, and there’s a decent profit to be made.

It’s the mealy-mouthed, box-ticking nature of the exercise that really makes my teeth itch. The block only operates on O2’s mobile internet services, meaning that your child can easily access all the adult content they want as soon as they hop onto a wi-fi signal. That, of course, is outside O2’s remit. They’ve done their job, and been seen to be compliant with a self-regulatory agreement with no legal basis.

O2 have really dropped the ball on this one. If they wanted to worry, bother and honk off a fat chunk of their customer base in short order, then they’ve found the perfect way of doing it. The process assumes a blithe ignorance of internet safety 101, and contravenes advice that they give on their own website. The O2 forums are full of seething customers that had no idea that O2 were about to drop this on them.

I’m absolutely furious. At one point yesterday morning, I was convinced that X&HT had been hacked, compromised and retasked as a phishing site. All because some hand-wringing twonk at O2 doesn’t want to take responsibility when a 15 year old accesses questionable material on their network.

Here’s an idea. If you don’t have a credit card, you can age verify at any O2 store with photo ID. I suggest that every aggrieved customer who feels a bit uncomfortable at giving out their credit card details to a third party for access to the sites they’ve always been able to access with no trouble before does exactly that. If that happens en masse, we’ll clog up the stores and cut into O2’s profits a bit. Direct action, taking a page from the UK Uncut playbook. That’ll send a message that they can’t ignore.

Who’s with me?

Oscar analysis from someone that didn’t watch the show

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The usual pointless farrago of asskissery and balls-out flint-eyed marketeering fancied up with a couple of handfuls of pink frosting, but a few points sprang to mind on a brief spin through the results.

1. Boy, the producers of True Grit must have really pissed someone off. Not a sniff of a golden dildo. I would have laid money on Roger Deakin’s luminous photography getting the nod, and I’m on record about my admiration for the acting skills of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.

2. when it comes to supporting actor/actress, bigger is clearly better. In terms of performance, that is. I thought Christian Bale sailed pretty close to the wind in The Fighter, but Melissa Leo ran up all her flags and bared her fangs at the storm. Cartoony performances go down well with Oscar, and Leo’s role as the Ward matriarch was as broad as it gets. I thought Amy Adams was better, frankly.

3. The only reason anyone’s disappointed that Exit Through The Gift Shop didn’t win? It would have been fun to see what Banksy would have come up with. Inside Job is this week’s cinema trip, and by all accounts it lives up to the high reputation it’s received.

4. SF films have to make do with technical Oscars. The Awards Committee is full of actors who look to script and performance rather than the whole package. It’s blatantly clear that they’re not interested in films with a fantastic bent, and Inception is just the latest example of this tiresome snobbery. These films will get a pat on the head for looking and sounding pretty, then sent off to play while the grown-ups take the stage.

5. The King’s Speech should have won the award for Film Most Likely To Tickle The Academy’s Fancy. Historical drama? Check. Historical drama featuring Brits with plummy accents? Check. Historical drama featuring BRITISH ROYALTY? Check-o! Historical drama featuring a British royal with a disability? OMG Checky Checkington III! It was so blatantly tooled to the Academy’s proven weaknesses that the other nine nominations might as well just not bothered turning up.

Once again, there will be crowing about what a great day this is for British film. No, it’s not. British film is in a real state, and tosh like The King’s Speech only puts a pretty mask on an increasingly withered and ugly old trouper. There was no official British presence at the Chermont International Short Film Festival this year, despite a strong independent showing. British short film is blooming, as Shaun Tan’s deserved Oscar in the Short Film category made clear, but otherwise things are looking grim. I shudder to think what representation or support there’ll be for Brit film-makers at Cannes. The King’s Speech shows the idea of a British film becoming caged up into a shrinking pool of acceptable subjects. Funding for films that fall outside this net will only become more and more difficult to achieve, in a market that’s vanishing day by day.

Meanwhile, over at the Razzies, I was delighted to see M. Knight Shamalangadingdong’s Last Airbender get the thorough kicking it deserved. Until I saw that it had taken $360million worldwide, despite the fan-hate and critical pantsing the movie had endured. That means the rotten thing actually made a profit. It also shows that Oscar is meaningless. In it’s way, Last Airbender was as successful as any of the Oscar winners last night, in that it accomplished it’s primary objective. It made money, and without any of the posturing and shmaltz that the rest of the industry had to put up with last night.

Having an Oscar is great for marketing purposes, but if you can make a buck without it, you have to question the point of the whole exercise.

 

(EDITED, once I realised I was claiming that there were no British short films at Chermont. Very not true, and X&HTeamate Nick Scott was there flying the flag amongst many others.)