Posts Tagged With: video

The Next Step does Thomas The Tank Engine

I once saw a film called Billy Elliot. It was a grim and slightly edgy drama about an impoverished family in 1980s County Durham, in the heart of the miner’s strike. It was a story about the sacrifices we make to help the people we love, and a father and son discovering what was most important to them. Most of all it was about an eleven-year-old boy defying all the stereotypes to become a ballet dancer in a time when this was considered effeminate, sissy; something Boys Didn’t Do.

If the millennials reading this are having a hard time comprehending this state of affairs, here’s a confession: I have an aunt who got her son to do ballet when he was a child and the wider family generally disapproved. We never said so, at least openly, but there were fears that she was suppressing his masculinity by banning the footballs in favour of the pumps. This was not considered a particularly toxic viewpoint; my aunt, instead, was considered the odd one. She’s also a practising naturist, something else the family never quite squared, although Emily and I followed in her footsteps this summer on a beach near Swanage, where all six of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Essentially my opinion of her has softened quite a bit with the passing of several decades, which is kind of what happens when you get out from the echo chamber of your closest relatives.

Back in the present day, there’s a programme on CBBC that Daniel loves but pretends he doesn’t. It’s called The Next Step and it tracks the activities of a fictional dance studio in Toronto – one of those fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries, only not done terribly well. Characters fall in and out of love and creepy princes set up intense first dates wearing the sort of tuxedo that should have stayed in 1979 where it belonged. There are rivalries and egos and comical misunderstandings. There are girls crying in darkened rooms because they can’t go to Regionals and it’s, like, THE END OF MY CAREER. Most of all, there is dancing. Oh, so much dancing. It’s a shame they never dance to anything good. There’s no Prodigy. Not a whiff of Irene Cara. They don’t even have Walk The Moon, for the love of sanity. There’s a lot of generic stuff that leaves you utterly cold, which is kind of what –

– but hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’ve seen it, you’ll know the tropes only too well. There’s the couple whose relationship Gets In The Way Of Things. There’s the squabbling over who gets to do the solo. Meanwhile, girl X has an injury but really needs to dance in this video, dammit, so continues to push herself and lie to everyone else that she’s fine when we all know she’s going to collapse in the middle of that crucial, placement-determining solo. And then there is the bitter rivalry between Michelle and Emily that escalated into a kind of Civil War scenario (which would effectively make Ozzy Peter Parker, right down to the spectacles). Previously, on The Next Step: Riley is tortured by the kiss that she shared with Alfie, but she can’t actually tell us how she’s feeling, so she’s going to express her emotional state using the medium of interpretive dance. You’re a tree, Riley. A single tree, billowing in the wind. Oh, you beautiful snowflake, you.

Most bizarre of all is their penchant for talking heads monologues conducted in the present tense about things that are actually happening at that moment. “I can’t believe Jacqui’s actually doing this,” says Noah, shaking his head. “There’s me, trying to get this segment together, and I asked her for contemporary, and she’s given me hip hop. This is not what I wanted.” This is during the scene, the monologue interspersed in between awkward pauses and some pretty intense staring. Or there’s Kingston, waxing lyrical about a particular routine, while he’s still in the middle of the routine. “The choreography’s tight and I’m enjoying myself,” he says to camera, between pirouettes. “This whole thing seems to be going pretty well”.

There are two conclusions we’ve drawn. Either this is all taking place later and for some unfathomable reason they’re describing it in the first person, or it’s all happening in their heads. I like that explanation – it’s a crummy studio with an inflated sense of self-importance, imagining its own documentary – and this tech-savvy daydreaming doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the experience (or, as Albus Dumbledore would have said, “Of course it’s happening in your head, Riley, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real, girlfriend?”). But perhaps there’s more to it than that, and perhaps there’s a bunch of cutting room floor stuff we’ll never get to see.

West [talking head]: I’m feeling pretty confident about this piece now, and getting into it. I like the way Eldon’s working with this piece, and I know I was sceptical about Emily’s choreo, but I’ve gotta say that –

James [off-camera]: West! For fuck’s sake, GET BACK HERE, IT’S NATIONALS!

Still, the great thing about The Next Step is that it features male and female dancers alike, doing all kinds of styles, and the whole idea of boys doing ballet is seemingly never mentioned. Everyone just gets on with it. The Next Step is thus absolutely geared towards both genders (yes, yes, and everything in between, don’t start on that), even if the bulk of the feedback I hear on TV appears to be from young girls. Daniel is now in the latter stages of fandom, having stopped denying that he enjoys it. And irrespective of the rather cynical tone I’ve taken today, I find it pretty compulsive viewing myself. The actors acquit themselves well and there are some beautifully executed moments, like when Elliot the duplicitous bastard (to give him his full rank and title) was exposed for the nob-end that he really was. No one likes you, Elliot. Go back to Broadway.

Elsewhere on the internet, some bright spark decides to take the theme from Thomas The Tank Engine and stick it underneath the ‘Single Ladies’ video, where it turns out to be the perfect accompaniment. So I thought I’d do the same thing, just for the hell of it. There are multiple episodes therein, and the sync isn’t quite as tight as I’d like it to be (thank you, YouTube upload process) but the whole thing just about hangs together. And god knows it’s better than some of the crap they dance to on the show. I just hope there’s no confusion and delay at TNS East. That’d be a disaster

Incidentally, my cousin’s turned out fine.

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The Mine song – Doctor Who edition

Bump. Bump. Bump. Can you hear that? That is the sound of the bandwagon, travelling along the rickety road. I was going to say it takes its time, but actually I’d be wrong. It speeds along in a frenzy, its wheels afire with Facebook trends and retweets and Buzzfeed mentions, and jumping upon it – as I am endeavouring to do, crouched here in the bushes – is not as easy as it looks. You run the risk of wobbling, losing your footing and falling off entirely, and even if you do manage to secure a hold and climb aboard, you’ll find the wagon already crowded with other poor souls who had similar ideas. The wagon may be mighty and fast, but it is full.

I had a go nonetheless, and for this you have my children to thank. I believe I’ve written before about the lunacy of some viral videos. I never understood ‘Charlie bit my finger’, for example, and yet apparently Osama bin Laden had it on his laptop. The Duck Song (I’m not linking; you can look it up) is tedious and cloying, as are its numerous follow-ups. And Thomas developed a rapt fascination with a ten-second clip of a singing dinosaur (and its related video, in which said dinosaur is the subject of a six hour loop), and a bizarre mashup that combines footage from He-Man with a badly produced cover of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’. For the sake of posterity, both are embedded here.

What’s going on? I don’t know. Do you? To be fair, this is the sort of thing I do, although I wonder how much of it is apeing things the boys have shown me in the hope of creating something that’ll get more than a few dozen hits. Wandering in and out of the study and the bedroom and frequently catching something completely random has given me a window into a corner of the internet I didn’t know existed, and which serves a purpose I do not fully understand. And when it comes to LazyTown, things get even more bizarre. I think I’ve written about LazyTown once in here before – a while back, when we were talking about reversing that Fish Custard video. You may look there for further doses of randomness, should you experience the whim.

For the uninitiated: a young girl called Stephanie arrives in a brightly coloured small town where the lethargic inhabitants are under the thumb of local supervillain, the flamboyant Robbie Rotten, who spends most of his time slumped in his underground lair. Robbie’s posture is so poor it’s a wonder he hasn’t experienced serious back problems, but he’s paradoxically the most active citizen in the entire town, spending most of his free time dashing around its streets and gardens, in a variety of Shakespearean disguises, endeavouring to find ways to keep everyone else confined to the sofa. “I feel disgustingly healthy,” he grumbles at the end of the one episode where this is actually pointed out, and indeed, it’s a hallmark of the self-loathing that seems to drive his character.

Stephanie is aided in her efforts to revitalise the town’s energies by Sportacus – a tracksuited hyperactive sports nut who descends from his airship at the beginning of each episode, and with whom Stephanie establishes a strange, borderline inappropriate relationship. Mercifully, she also has her own peer group, all with their own foibles: Ziggy (sweets), Pixel (video games), and Trixie (no respect for authority; dresses like bad Iron Man cosplay). And then there’s Stingy, a haughty, selfish and deeply materialistic child who practically screams white male privilege; by no means irredeemable but known throughout the LazyTown cinematic universe as being an utter bastard.

It’s a curious fusion of techniques that hearkens back to Sesame Street. Stephanie, Sportacus and Robbie – being the most overtly physical people in LazyTown – are all played by live actors, while everyone else appears in puppet form. It’s the sort of thing that throws you when you’re visiting Butlins and catch the live show, in which the puppet characters appear as fully grown humans wearing character masks; the effect is rather like a freshly regenerated Matt Smith bellowing “LEGS! I’VE GOT LEGS!”. (Sesame Street Live is similarly disconcerting, although it’s partly because Elmo was so goddamned huge.)

Perhaps the saddest part about the whole thing is the news that Stefán Karl Stefánsson (extra credit: find me a more Icelandic name than that, if you can), who plays Robbie Rotten, is suffering from terminal cancer, although he’s apparently improved. Meanwhile Kim Jong-un is the picture of perfect health, and you wonder if there is a God.

LazyTown is replete with songs, most of which are downright irritating, but it’s two in particular that have made the viral rundown. There’s ‘We Are Number One’ – which you can see in the post linked above, although be aware that the version I embedded is backwards. And there’s the ‘Mine’ song – Stingy’s big solo, remixed and Photoshopped and warped beyond all measure all across the internet, whether it’s a ridiculous zooming effect or (a personal favourite) the coming of the apocalypse.

And there comes a point where you figure that joining them is better than failing to beat them, and that’s how we got here. This took about an hour and a half to put together, most of which was scouring transcripts for appropriate shouts of ‘mine’, not to mention ripping them from the Doctor Who episodes. And as a special prize, the first person to tell me every episode I used gets one of Ziggy’s sweets. And an apple. It’s what Sportacus would have wanted.

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Walk Like An Egyptian: The Boohbah edition

I know where this started. It started in three places: Stratford-upon-Avon, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Teletubbyland.

Let’s begin at the end. The Teletubbies are amazing. Parents do not understand them because parents are not supposed to understand them. People who complain about the gibberish and repetition are missing the point. Conversely, people who complain about Tinky Winky’s penchant for skirts and handbags (not to mention the colour purple) may be on to something. That’s another argument for heads wiser and less cluttered with cultural references than mine. Still, I’ve raised four boys on this stuff and they’ve all thought it was brilliant.

Heck, when I was a student even thought it was brilliant. Teletubbies were bright and cute and somehow rebellious, a cultural revolution of peace, love, harmony and sloth in a world that was increasingly pre-occupied with Getting Stuff Done. I was nineteen and could feel the elbow in the ribs about careers fairs. Teletubbies was regression therapy in a world that demanded you were clever, in a world of Wittgenstein and Beckett and Virginia Woolf. They were great. Years later my wife and I will use the theme for the first dance at our wedding. I have some of it on video. No, you can’t see it.

Meanwhile, back in the more or less present day, someone does this.

It’s one of those moments when you realise why God gave us Joy Division. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It is the sort of thing Ian Curtis would have loved. Actually, scratch that, Ian Curtis wouldn’t have loved it at all. He’d have said “I don’t want my song laid over those fookin’ Muppets”, or something similar. I wouldn’t have blamed him for this. It is the same in Doctor Who: I love ‘The Horns of Nimon’, but Tony Read does not, and I can’t say I hold that against him.

Also 1997: John Cusack, then just about Hollywood’s hottest property, stars in Grosse Pointe Blank, in which a disillusioned hitman returns to his home town for a high school reunion. It is worth seeing if only for the scenes between Cusack and Dan Aykroyd, in one of his finest ever roles. But there is one scene where they are inside the high school gym and everybody is getting their groove on to The Bangles. It may have been that moment I sat bolt upright in my chair and thought “Holy shit, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ is awesome. How come I never noticed?”

It really is awesome. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a band trading verses, which is exactly what happens here. Boyzone’s ‘No Matter What’ is notorious for it. And on Heaven For Everyone, the final, effectively posthumous studio album, there’s a song called ‘Let Me Live’ – to all intents and purposes a rewritten ‘Take Another Piece Of My Heart’ – in which Freddie, Roger and Brian all take a verse each, and it sounds like one of those lovely communal efforts even though you know it probably wasn’t. John is characteristically silent, unless they decided they didn’t like his vocals, which is reportedly what happened to the Bangles’ drummer. Never work with children, animals or your siblings.

There is a bit in that video that I remember vividly from my childhood, and that’s the moment when –

Supposedly Susanna Hoffs was looking at different members of the audience, which explains the eye movement. Whether it really was to overcome stage fright we may never really know, but it’s an important point and we will come back to it later.

Fast forward to 2003, and Emily and I are poking around the shops in Straford. It is our first weekend away together. We will visit the bard’s house, try out a few of the pubs and go to see Taming Of The Shrew (still the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen, even after all these years). It is release day for Order of the Phoenix: I insist on finding a local independent bookshop to buy it. Two years later, with far less cashflow, I will have abandoned such pretentions, although perhaps not entirely.

Ragdoll Productions have their offices in Stratford, and there is a shop at the quieter end of town: amidst all the cuddly Teletubbies and Rosie & Jim memorabilia there is a TV showing something that will terrify me to the depths of my soul, and it is this.

“What on earth are we looking at?” I ask the young man on the till.

“Oh, it’s, like their new thing,” he says. “It’s called The Boohbahs.”
“Boohbahs? What are they, when they’re at home?”
“They’re atoms of energy. And they do dancing and there are story bits.”

That’s basically it. A pod full of bulbous particles who rest in cryosleep until awoken to do a bit of cavorting in a huge white space while frightened children watch from the comfort of their living rooms. It is Teletubbies, minus the charm. The central concept is much the same: colourful characters who dance around and tell a story. The problem is that the story and the Boohbahs aren’t really allowed to mix. There is an opening dance number (more on that in a moment), before a group of ethnically diverse children push a gigantic parcel through a portal into what passes for the real world, where its contents are delivered to a strange extended family. There’s Mr Man (who resembles a portly Laurence Fishburne), Mrs Lady, Brother and Sister – presumably on some sort of overseas student programme, from the way they’re dressed – two grandparents, and a dog. After the story – delivered exclusively in narrated mime, presumably to aid international dubbing – we return to the pod, where the Boohbahs do another dance which is loosely related to the events of the episode, before going back to bed.

But they’re seriously creepy. There’s no way around it. The whole presentation is halting and uncomfortable, replete with pauses and silences, broken by sneezes and 1970s sound effects. The Boohbahs themselves are silent puffballs with no visible presence and nothing to differentiate between them save the colour scheme: beyond this they are, to all intents and purposes, absolutely identical. There’s a futile attempt at a roll call: “Humbah! Zumbah! Zing Zing Zingbah! And the others whose names I’ve forgotten because they have no obvious personality!”. And they all line up, with almost military precision, staring hard into the camera like one possessed, before performing an array of oddly hypnotic dance moves. I pride myself on my ability to understand the way children’s programmes work but even I can’t explain this monstrosity. Is this why army recruitment is down?

The biggest problem with Boohbah, of course – and in all likelihood the reason it’s not repeated – is that it uses Chris Langham for the voiceovers. Not that I have any personal beef with Langham; he’s brilliant in The Thick Of It and whatever he may or may not have done I always believe in separating art from artist. But Langham’s history makes it awkward. This is perhaps being a little generous to Boohbah, of course, which could just as easily have been pulled from the schedules because it’s honestly a little bit crap. And in general, we try not to think about it.

Last scene of all: a couple of months ago. I’m watching YouTube videos with Edward and I notice this.

Heck, they dance, don’t they? Why not do something with that?

So I did. And here it is.

I make no apology, but I throw myself upon the mercy of the court.

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Rogue One: Kind of a Star Wars story

It’s not exactly cheery, is it?

I mean, it was never going to be. If you want to visit the first paragraph of that iconic title crawl and turn it into a movie, you immediately run into a problem. If the Rebels striking from a hidden base have managed to steal the plans for the Death Star, how come we never hear from them again? Why does the the entire revolution lie in the hands of a drippy farm boy, a cynical mercenary and a sexually frustrated royal? Tangentially, why is everyone so goddamned happy at the end of Episode IV when they’ve lost about thirty-six pilots on that trench run?

The solution is simple. You give the job to someone who takes it upon themselves to disappear from the limelight for a good while (which is what they did in Dark Forces) or you kill off everyone involved, which is exactly what happens in Rogue One. Specifically, you give it to a young woman with a ‘troubled’ past and family connections, stick her with a bunch of misfits and ‘a droid with more personality than any of the human characters’ (quoth Honest Trailers) and then you send them marching off to their deaths. Give them a few headline-generating filming locations to take in on the way. Night raid on craggy Imperial outpost? Check. Forests? Check. Desert world? Flights to Jordan already booked. And somewhere, in a bar on Mos Eisley, a retconned-out-of-existence Kyle Katarn is weeping into his Jawa Juice.

It looks spectacular, as one would expect. But perhaps the best thing we could say about it is that for the most part it doesn’t really feel like a Star Wars story – and that’s a compliment. The tropes are all present and correct, of course. K-2SO even says “I have a bad feeling about this” when he’s entering an elevator, although it’s almost disappointing when said elevator doesn’t subsequently cut him in half. But that’s where it stops. If the biggest crime committed by The Force Awakens was its scene-by-scene homage to Episode IV – a film that mirrors its predecessor so closely can never be a total success – Rogue One manages to take the Star Wars universe into different territory without ever quite abandoning the galaxy far, far away. This is a darker, grittier piece with a greater degree of moral ambiguity. Characters face death and find there is no last-minute reprieve or conveniently placed Wookiee. Instead there is a lot of self-sacrifice and that scene on a beach that basically rips off Deep Impact. I hear whispers of an alternative ending, perhaps never shot, in which Jyn and Cassian survived: perhaps a better homage would have been a dramatic freeze frame, fading to sepia, the almost-lovers locked in time, somehow cheating death.

It might have been a decent way to conclude the movie, because then we wouldn’t have had to put up with this.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the uncanny valley, but I can’t help feeling that this particular traversal was a colossal waste of time. Essentially it still looks fake. It’s like particularly good botox – wrinkle-free, but you can still tell. It’s not as bad as Jeff Daniels in Tron Legacy, but it’s close. And the moment it happens is worse than looking at a photo. It’s like that bit in Spaceballs where the effeminate commander yells “You’ve captured their stunt doubles!”. Would it have killed Ingvild Deila to keep her back to the camera? “And when I turned round…”

More successful – somewhat – is the resurrected Grand Moff Tarkin, played this time by Guy Henry, who (Rosie Marcel aside) is just about the best thing in Holby City, whether he’s being fatherly with Arthur Digby or getting punched in the face by Ric Griffin. He still looks fake, but it’s a believable kind of fake, somehow. What does this say about my preoccupation with women’s looks? Put another way, why can I accept a CG Peter Cushing, but not a Carrie Fisher? And at the opposite end of the spectrum I’m still annoyed that in the process of revisiting the First Doctor for the Christmas special they’ve cast an actor who is absolutely nothing like him, so perhaps it’s impossible to make me happy.

The film ends – you will know this, and if you haven’t I’m about to ruin it – literally minutes before A New Hope begins, with Princess Leia making a run for it with the stolen plans, the Empire in hot pursuit. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps there’s room for a whole slew of adventures in between, in which Leia picks up the two droids, meets Han Solo, bears his child and then has her memory wiped. If this were Doctor Who, that’d be what happens. There is a school of thought that suggests, for example, that the Ninth Doctor went off and travelled on his own for years in the five seconds that it takes Mickey and Rose to cross the car park before the TARDIS rematerialises and the Doctor asks “By the way, did I mention that it also travels in time?”. It is a silly theory, but you could shoehorn it if you really wanted.

All headcanon aside, the sense of familiarity that hits you in those final minutes is a blatant attempt at crowd-pleasing, just the same as the seeds for Episode IV were sown in the montage that closed Revenge Of The Sith. That one had twin suns on Tattoine, brooding stares from Darth Vader, and a partially constructed Death Star. Rogue One tries so hard to outdo this it comes across as posturing. It’s not necessarily bad posturing, particularly as it’s so much fun to watch Vader striding through the Alliance command ship, mercilessly throwing Rebel troops against the ceiling like someone playing Boom Blox on the Wii. But it’s really not very cheery, K-2SO’s quibbling aside. It’s jolly good, all told, but there must be a way to make it a little more fun.

And then it hit me. You add the Red Dwarf theme.

There, that’s much better.

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I Wasn’t Expecting That. Or This

Look, I’ll be honest: I hate this song.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. It ticks all the boxes for structure, the production is sparse but musically pleasant, and it sounds so much like Ed Sheeran my supposedly trained musical ear was convinced it really was him until I actually Googled it. It’s just very 21st century: acoustic, casual and shamefully manipulative, the sort of thing that Radio 2 presenters love, appealing as it does to the middle aged, middle of the road sensibilities of much of their audience, as well as grieving husbands and wives everywhere. You want to do a Jeremy Vine segment about terminal illness? Stick this on the decks and watch the Twitter feed jump through the roof.

What’s more, the lyrics are dumb. “It was only a smile / But my heart it went wild / I wasn’t expecting that”, sings Jamie Lawson, which is all well and good, but this is a man who apparently goes through his entire life surprised by everything it throws at him, which suggests he ought to work on honing his instincts. I don’t mean to be disparaging, but seriously, if every single aspect of your love life comes as a complete and total surprise then you have no control over it, and that basically means you’re coasting, relying solely on the decision-making abilities of people close to you. I’m imagining it’s the girl wot wears the trousers in this relationship, and who, despite putting up with him for two or three decades (long enough to raise a family and push them out into soulless flat shares and dead end telesales jobs) laments certain recurring traits and phrases.

“Steve, any chance you could help me with this Ikea cupboard?”
“Yep.”
“Oh, that’s strange. I thought we’d ordered beige. This one is teal.”
“Hmm. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Oh, fuck off.

‘I Wasn’t Expecting That’ also makes the mistake of spending most of its running time talking about the early stages of the romance, before suddenly cramming thirty years – and a sudden death – into the last thirty seconds. It’s like watching ‘Heaven Sent’, although at least that one sort of worked. I said before that structurally it was sound: retrospectively I’m not so sure.

Still, people seemed to like it, and there is an obvious Doctor Who tie: Matt Smith’s oft-quoted outburst from ‘The Lodger’, one of his funniest and most underrated episodes (and I genuinely don’t understand the hatred for James Corden; Craig is awesome). I can’t remember where I was when it struck me that this would be a perfect song for the Eleventh Doctor’s karaoke session – probably the shower, that’s usually how it works – but it was a starting point. Sometimes starting points are notoriously difficult to flesh out. This one, once I’d severely truncated the song to remove the verses that weren’t going to work, came quite easily.

What the official video does is actually quite clever: like ‘The Scientist’ before it, it tells the story in reverse, so the wife is dying on a hospital bed at the beginning and meeting her husband-to-be for the first time just as Lawson is singing about cancer. I thought briefly about replicating that, but then discovered someone else had done the same thing with the Doctor and Rose (always Rose. Why is it never Romana?). Instead, this actually takes its cue from a Christmas video. There are lots of them about, but one of the best I’ve ever seen was this one.

I’m beginning to regret even embedding that, to be honest, and it’s not even because it’s still the middle of summer. I mean it puts my feeble efforts to shame. Look, Babelcolour are the people us amateurs all aspire to be, OK? And sometimes that needs a public acknowledgement. Sometimes we must pay tribute to the gods and recognise our own unworthiness.

Anyway, the best bit of that Shakin’ Stevens offering is around the 2:30 mark, after the key change, when all hell breaks loose. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted, although it’s more of a slow build-up, in which one gradually realises (following Capaldi’s guitar-playing) that this is not to be taken seriously, than a sudden explosion of silliness. It’s simply a question of finding inappropriate clips – disembodied hands, dissolving babies, or that bit where Suranne Jones sinks her teeth into the Doctor’s neck. It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner.

The whole thing is a bit rough around the edges, but I think we just about got there. If nothing else it has a nun falling down a lift shaft. You weren’t expecting that, were you?

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Remastered: A Town Called Mercy, Silent Movie Style

There are different types of YouTube comments. Some heap undeserved praise to the point of sycophancy. People will tell you that a mediocre product is the best thing they’ve ever seen on the internet; it is crucial above all else to ensure that you do not start to believe your own hype, because therein lies artistic complacency and the excessive inflation of ego. At the other end of the scale are the downright abusive. I used to be polite; these days I’m inclined to argue back, albeit without letting them see that they’ve got to me. I’m not suggesting you should ever feed the troll, but sometimes you can poke it with a stick.

Somewhere in the middle there is a sweet spot; a small compartment of users who offer something that actually might be considered constructive feedback – the people who say “I liked this, but have you tried…?”. For instance, there was the chap who told me my Kraftwerk montage was a little too long. He was quite right, and were I to redo it now I’d go for a shorter edit. There were the numerous people who pointed out the mistakes in the Red Dwarf mashup – a hard lesson learned about when less is more – to the extent that I gave it a substantial overhaul in the tail end of last year and made something I actually almost liked.

Then there’s the silent movie I did three and a half years ago. Generally people seemed to like it, but a comment I got a few months back got me thinking. “Speed it up just a little more and put it slightly out of focus,” said a user named cemeterymaiden1. “It will look authentic I think! :D”

And that’s great. I can work with that. It did need to be faster, and it did need a little blurring round the edges. That’s the sort of comment I love receiving, because it is constructive without being disrespectful. It makes a welcome change from this –

I’ve decided, after careful reflection, that most Doctor Who fans are fucking idiots.

[coughs]

In any event: when I decided to retouch a few old projects that never quite lived up to their potential, this one seemed like a prime candidate. Most of the changes are cosmetic – loose frames tucked, timings adjusted. Then I ran it through a gaussian blur and tinted it with sepia, rather than the black and white I originally used. I’m still not sure how authentic this makes it as a result – my knowledge of silent movie production techniques isn’t as comprehensive as it ought to be – but it’s a Western, dammit. It looks cooler.

“Don’t you think,” said Gareth when I posted the original, back before ‘Day of the Doctor’, “that the joke about the Eccleston cameo is going to date rather quickly?” He was right, of course – it’s not something that bothered me at the time, given that all it did was time stamp the original, but the remaster replaces it with a gag that’ll never go out of style, even if the BBC eventually follow through on it.

The original is still up there, if you want to take a peek. But I’m happier with this one. Some things don’t need changing. But sometimes you reap the benefits when you do. Happy trails, y’all.

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The Straight Story: The David Lynch Version

(Note: today’s video is at the bottom. It just made more sense that way.)

I’ve loved The Straight Story for years.

I love its warmth and simplicity. I love the message of family that overcomes the odds and the bitter swallowing of pride in the face of disaster. I love the ambiguities in the narrative: unresolved conversations and a backstory that’s never quite explained properly. I love the performance of Richard Farnsworth, who pours understated emotion into every line of dialogue. I love the way it’s shot – the rolling flatness of the Iowa cornfields giving way to the lush, hilly greenery of Mount Zion as Alvin Straight concludes his journey. I love the occasional flashes of ridiculous humour – the deer in the field, Dorothy asking “What’s the number for 911?” as she and Bud try and lift Alvin off the floor. Most of all I love the quietness of the whole thing – the slow crawl around the side of the house after the opening credits, the silence broken by a solitary thump, and the wordless final tableau as the two brothers sit in tearful contemplation on Lyle’s porch, and we’re treated to one final shot of that brilliant star-swept sky.

But…well, it’s not very Lynch, is it?

Look, there are no dwarves. There are no mysterious figures dressed in black. There are no scenes where the protagonist encounters a confused amnesiac at the side of the road, covered in someone else’s blood. There’s not even any jazz, for crying out loud. Instead you get two hours of soft focus shots of rural America. I’m actually OK with that. Our church house group watched it for a film study recently (my suggestion) and we had an animated discussion the following week about forgiveness, family and the nature of redemption. That scene where Alvin pulls up into the conveniently placed (and perfectly sized) barn at the side of the road just in time to avoid getting soaked? That’s one of the strongest examples I’ve seen of the work of God in the world as witnessed in a supposedly secular film.

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Actually, The Straight Story is layered. There are theories that Alvin is dead, for example, by the time the film concludes: that the entire trip is a hallucinatory manifestation of a dying man’s penance, the priest he meets near the film’s conclusion granting him the last rites before his heart stops (symbolised by the John Deere’s motor failure a hundred yards from Lyle’s house). The tractor driver he encounters is the ferryman of the underworld, ushering him into a tranquil afterlife where he is reunited with his brother (who, of course, is also dead).

I’m not sure whether that’s really what Lynch meant to do, but he’s called The Straight Story “my most experimental movie”, so who knows? On the other hand everything Lynch does plays with the formula – allegory, unreliable narrators, questionable performances from David Bowie – and just about the only thing you can predict about him is that he’ll never do anything predictable. So maybe the experimental aspect is that it isn’t experimental at all. Theories about the fate of Rose’s children aside (“someone” was looking after them the night of the fire…could that someone have been Alvin himself?) perhaps this really is just a film about an old man who drives 240 miles on his lawnmower and meets some lovely people along the way.

Still. If you’ve seen Wild At Heart, it’s a bit jarring. There’s no death, no violence, nothing to upset anyone but the most stringent fundamentalists (The CAP Movie Ministry, the internet’s self-serving source of ‘Christian’ film reviews, docks it points for “terror of runaway lawn mower down a hill with the rider”). Even Twin Peaks, accessible by design, had its moments of darkness. The worst we have to contend with here is Alvin losing his hat, in just about the closest the movie gets to an action sequence.

There are exceptions. The Olsen twins feel like watered down versions of Lynch standards, the sort of scam artists you’d expect to see in a hick version of Lost Highway. The woman who can’t avoid the deer is downright anomalous – a scene that simply doesn’t fit the narrative, although there is a glimmer of recognition in Alvin’s wistful stare as she drives into the distance – almost as if he recognises a part of himself in that angry commuter. It’s the most Lynch-like scene in a film that is distinctly non-Lynch. There is nothing like this.

(I really wouldn’t worry. Nobody gets this scene. Nobody.)

Anyway: I’d been thinking for a while that The Straight Story really would benefit from a bit of a revamp. Because what better choice for a psychological thriller than a film that doesn’t contain a single sinister undertone? So I downloaded a few stings from horror trailers and mixed them in with a re-pitched Johnny Cash song and the Silent Hill soundtrack (that’s the original PlayStation version, not that godawful film they did a few years back). Nothing says ‘uncomfortable dissonance’ like a bit of Akira Yamaoka, particularly when it’s accompanied by images of Richard Farnsworth apparently losing his mind.

And I confess I’m quite pleased with the end result. There are no dwarves, but you can’t have everything.

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Hello

Important: today’s video had particular viewing restrictions, most of them mobile / tablet related. If you’re unable to see the embed above, I’ve uploaded it to Vimeo.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Eleventh Doctor is a big fat stalker, and we all know it.

I can quite understand wanting to know more about Clara. She’s an anomaly wrapped up in a miniskirt. Her appearances in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and ‘The Snowman’ make no sense, unless you’re prepared to attribute it to an eerily precise preservation of lineage and a genetic love of souffle. Rule one, Doctor: when someone is following you around the space-time continuum leaving cryptic messages, it’s usually a trap. This particular arc dealt with the consequences of that trap, of course, rather than the trap itself, but it still counts.

The problem is that the Doctor’s never watched his own show and is thus blissfully ignorant of all this. Everyone the other side of the fourth wall knows that this is one of Steven Moffat’s Big Ideas and that it’ll be sorted out by the time the Doctor regenerates, but there’s no telling him that. For someone who boasts a PhD in self-awareness he really is mind-numbingly obtuse. What we’re left with is a series of creepy stakeouts where the Doctor actively spies on a single family as their daughter grows up, even going so far as to watch her while she’s grieving for her dead mother. The funny thing about all this is just how quickly we’re prepared to forgive the Doctor, although our forgiveness is tied up with Clara, who’s also strikingly willing to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). Perhaps it’s because it’s so drastically out of character. I suspect that had Peter Capaldi been the one hiding behind the gravestones we’d be willing to describe it as ‘typical Twelfth Doctor’, just as Clara’s sense of hurt and betrayal would have lingered for far longer than the twenty seconds it takes to dissipate on screen.

Doc-Sherlock

I wonder if casual stalking was on the minds of the creative team behind the ‘Hello’ video. You remember ‘Hello’, don’t you? And no, I don’t mean that song by Adele, although from what I can gather, mashups of the two are endemic. No, ‘Hello’ was a 1984 number one for Lionel Richie – a sweet, piano-driven tale of seemingly unrequited love. It’s thoughtfully composed, decently structured and nicely produced. It was a surefire number one. Then Bob Giraldi (the chap set fire to Michael Jackson’s hair) got his sticky hands on it and turned it into the dark and frankly sinister tale of a college professor seeking an inappropriate relationship with one of his pupils.

It’s funny that of all the possible objections you could have to this setup, it’s the pupil / teacher thing that seems to rankle people the most. Maybe I’m just getting old, but back when I was at university (which really wasn’t so long ago) the scenario of students jumping into bed with their lecturers really wasn’t so uncommon, nor was it particularly frowned upon. It depends on the lecturer and the student – I can think of a couple of hookups that made my flesh crawl a little – but on the other hand both are consenting adults, and it seems churlish to criticise it in one breath and then, with the next, laugh at the narrative arc in Friends that explored the very same concept.

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No, what’s creepy about this is Lionel’s looks of predatory longing as he watches Laura sunning herself in the cafe, improvise drama in the lecture theatre and fall into the arms of a dance partner in a workshop. It’s the way he follows her down the corridor. The heavy breathing down the phone when he rings her up in the middle of the night (and why, Lionel, are you holding the receiver to your crotch while you’re singing to Laura?). And, of course, the infamous monkey head scene, in which Laura sculpts a bust of Lionel that looks absolutely nothing like him, prompting the befuddled lecturer to draw in his breath and exclaim “Oh, it’s…wonderful…”

It would be comparatively easy to take footage from Doctor Who and mix it up with Lionel’s ballad. Actually, it’s already been done. But can you – and this was the question I found myself asking – can you find enough footage to actually tell some sort of story? Can you recreate the beginning and the end? Can you, in effect, create some sort of love triangle? And can you effectively turn the Doctor into a sap?

It turns out you can. And if you wanted a compare-and-contrast, here’s the Lionel version.

Personally, I think I got it pretty close…

 

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Remastered: Whistle and I’ll Come To You, Explained

In the darkness, something stirs. There’s a scratching at the door. John Hurt lies on an old bed, fingering a ring he found on the beach with almost Hobbit-like intimacy. There are noises. We never find out what’s causing the disturbance. There is an ending, but as with the best horror stories, it makes comparatively little sense.

It terrified me. It terrified both of us, as I remember: the heightened emotions of Yule and the thrill of a ghostly tale told beneath a darkened, wintry sky; the sight of a suddenly lucid Gemma Jones sitting on the bed, staring directly at the camera. The moment it finished I turned on all the lights. Neither of us slept well.

“There were just lots of noises,” Emily said, when I asked her why it had affected her so much. “And nasty things happening. And I couldn’t understand it!”. This, I suppose, is the whole point: we fear what we do not understand, and the nature of the haunting that the ageing professor was experiencing was never fully explained. In the meantime I managed to spook my wife by scratching on the side of the bed, and crawling across it towards her, bellowing “I’M STILL HERE!”

I accept – without reservation – that the original is better, despite never having seen it; one set of wandering blankets is enough, thank you very much. And I wouldn’t say that the video that followed – which I completed a few weeks later, at the dawn of 2011 – was therapy. But perhaps in a way it was. Perhaps the best way to defuse the tension is to kill it with a joke. This was my favourite episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and it was such an obvious fit. It pairs Frank Spencer with the War Doctor. The end result jars, which is partly the type of film used and partly the aspect ratio. But the story works.

If you’ve been following this blog more or less since its inception – or if you’ve had the dedication to go back and read through all the archives, for which I thank you profusely – you’ll remember that this video is the first one I did, and the first one I wrote about here. Deciding to revisit it again this autumn (purely for the purposes of uploading it to Facebook) meant a host of mostly cosmetic changes. I fixed a couple of rough edits and took care of a couple of sound issues that I was never quite happy with. The actual structure is more or less unaltered, because it works as is. I got my fair share of negative feedback, given that it doesn’t really give the concrete answer that people might have expected from the title. It’s an explanation, but a comedic one. I honestly think people expect to be spoon-fed.

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But I do recall another night not long after we’d seen Whistle, lying in bed, cuddled, the electric moon candles I gave her for Christmas the only light in the room.

“I looked it up, and there seem to be a couple of theories,” I was telling her. “One is that the whole thing was psychosomatic. The other is that she was haunting him because he believed she was nothing more than an Alzheimer’s-ridden shell. But I don’t know.
“Something strange, though. You remember the ugly bust they had in the bedroom? Apparently Neil Cross, the writer, was staying in a hotel in Devon, probably for research or something. And that same bust was in his room and he remembered it looking inappropriately creepy for hotel decor and that probably fuelled the creative process. Later on, when they were assembling the set in the Surrey mansion they were using, he realised it would look good in John Hurt’s room so he contacted the hotel, and asked if they could borrow it. And apparently…it never existed. He showed them photos, and they said yes, it’s our hotel and it’s our room, but this bust was never here.”

Emily said nothing.

“So they had a replica made, because he could remember what it looked like, but the original just wasn’t there. Creepy stuff, isn’t it? Anyway, goodnight.”
“Shithead.”

Happy Halloween.

whistle_01

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All your TARDIS are belong to us

“So what’s Paper Mario like, then?”
“It’s great,” said Jon, as he gunned the engine and drove the battered old Nissan through the Friday evening traffic. “There’s this bit where you face off against a boss and he shouts ‘SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!!!'”.

Do you know Jon? He’s one of Stack Overflow’s biggest celebrities, apparently. People even stop him in the street. His wife, Holly, is a respected children’s author, and also Thomas’s godmother. But I knew them as the people who opened their doors on Fridays (and Saturdays. And Sundays, and often during the week) and gave me a second home back when the millennium turned. Those Friday evenings consisted of cinema visits, followed by Holly’s pasta and wine accompanied by long games of Siedler or Super Smash Bros – usually in the company of our friend Douglas – and the four of us would talk until the stars came out.

I haven’t seen them for years, although we still keep in touch. I miss those Fridays, not least because we liked the same things but had different experiences of them, which always made conversation interesting. Jon was a big Resident Evil fan back in the day, and we loved the creepiness of those early instalments, before it became gung ho and ridiculous. But over the years I’ve managed to remove the rose tints from my glasses. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you are faced with such ridiculous dialogue. “Jill?” says Barry Burton, early in the first game. “Here’s a lockpick. It might be handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you.”

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I still giggle about this, even though it’s fairly typical of the style. I can never work out whether these things are badly translated or simply badly written. In this instance I suspect it’s the latter, and there’s a part of me that laments the fact that designers have obviously poured their collective hearts and souls into refining a project’s gameplay, soundtrack and visual flair, only to stumble at the first hurdle when it came to finding a decent script. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Devil May Cry but it is hard not to stare at the screen and mutter “Whu…..?” when Dante cradles his (supposedly) dead girlfriend in his arms and sobs “I should have been the one to fill your dark soul with LIGHT!!!”.

On the other hand, House of the Dead 2 – or Typing of the Dead, as we came to know it – had pedestrian dialogue, very badly performed, but it doesn’t matter. Gratuitous over-acting is par for the course in many bigger titles, whether it’s Harry Mason’s B-movie schlock in the first Silent Hill, or Roy Campbell’s angst-ridden cries of “SNAAAAAAAAAAAAKKKKE!!!!” in Metal Gear Solid. That’s actually OK. Sometimes the acting suits the mood. And House of the Dead is unquestionably brilliant.

Anyway. When I was a teenager, there was a game called Zero Wing. I’m told it was a reasonable success in the arcades, but I only ever knew it on the Sega Megadrive (or Genesis, if you’re reading in the U.S.). It is a generic side-scrolling shooter with nothing in particular to single it out from all the other side-scrollers that were endemic in late 1980s culture, save its intro. Because said intro has passed into legend as being one of the worst translations in video game history, to the extent that “ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US” was a meme even before memes were officially invented. There is even a Bohemian Rhapsody version, if you are so inclined. It is not great – stretching a joke to snapping point seldom is – but it deserves brownie points for trying.

The irony is that the original Japanese dialogue – when tralsated properly – is actually not too bad at all. Observe:

TITLE CARD:
In A.D. 2101
The battle began

Captain: What happened!?
Mechanic: Someone detonated bombs all around us!
Operator: Captain! Incoming transmission!
Captain: What!?
Operator: Image coming through on the main monitor.
Captain: You… you are…!!
CATS: You appear to be preoccupied, gentlemen. Thanks to the cooperation of the UN forces, all of your bases now belong to CATS. Your ship too, shall soon be destroyed.
Captain: Im.. Impossible! (or F.. Foolishness!)
CATS: We thank you for your cooperation. Enjoy the remaining moments of your lives….Hahahahaha ….
Operator: Captain!?
Captain: Launch all ZIG fighters! All we can do is entrust it to them…Give us hope for our future…We’re counting on you, ZIG!!

With this:

TITLE CARD:
In A.D. 2101
War was beginning

Captain: What happen?
Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
Operator: We get signal.
Captain: What !
Operator: Main screen turn on.
Captain: It’s you!!
CATS: How are you gentlemen!! All your base are belong to us. You are on the way to destruction.
Captain: What you say !!
CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time. Ha ha ha ha…
Operator: Captain !!
Captain: Take off every ‘ZIG’!! You know what you doing. Move ZIG. For great justice.

Anyway.

I can’t remember the exact moment I thought a Doctor Who rendition of this would be a good idea, but I finally got round to doing it last week. I will spare you the technical details, except that I used different software in order to get the font the way I wanted it, and said software (which I will not name) proved to be more trouble than it was worth, but we got there eventually. Footage is all New Who based because it saved fiddling with aspect ratios (and besides, the ‘Cat’ substitute actually works pretty well). If it looks somewhat grainy, that’s all part of the fun. This whole experience has kind of put me off doing intros for a while, but when I eventually take it up again I really ought to work in that line from Paper Mario, simply because it’s great. It’s just a question of figuring out how to do it.

Jon would know. Maybe I’ll email him.

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