Sunday, 30 December 2007


Hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Have a great New Year's!

Read more about the video here:

Also, a little chuckle for the New Year. Some witty souls decided to replace the audio track on an insane bit of guitar wankery.

Happy 2008!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Geeks are cool

This is something that's been bubbling inside me for quite a while now, and something which still irritates me: The idea that geeks are 'bad', or that they should be ashamed of who they are. This notion was recently pushed in my face while I was in the middle of a frustrating search for a new flat-share, here in unrelenting London.

Having noticed the only adornment in a potential home's living room was an old Robocop poster, and having made amiable chit-chat about the 1987 Paul Verhoven classic, and then spotting a crudely hidden collection of consoles under an old table cloth, I felt I was on pretty solid ground: The two 23 year old men who lived in this flat were, like me, geeks. Geeks without any talent for interior design, yes, but geeks non-the-less.

Learning that one of them worked at Microsoft, only backed up my initial reaction. Here was a pair from the same ilk as me, with the same interests and passions. Here was common ground, and the promise of enjoyable conversations and sharing of mutually relished past-times. In other words, bonding material.

"So", I later ventured cheerfully to the girl who was showing me around, and whose room was being vacated, "I take it there are some geeks here?". Her face, suddenly serious, took me off guard. "We don't like that word in this household", she fake-niced to me.

I faltered. What could be wrong with being a geek in this day and age? Are we not fully integrated members of society? Have we not earned the right to be who we are?

To be who are are.

I was quickly ushered out of the house, knowing I hadn't got the room. Polite goodbyes. A geek and geek-sympathiser, banished.

What's going on?

Those two men were geeks. They were geeks before I noticed the crudely blu-tacked sci-fi movie poster on their, otherwise bare, living-room wall. Before I noticed the gaming consoles. Before I learned one of them worked for Microsoft. Before I called them geeks. They were so geeky that their housemate was aware that they were sensitive to the word. Sensitive to it.

Why is this something to be ashamed of? Those that want to be seen as cool; why don't they realise that being a geek is cool?

The generally accepted idea of 'cool' is, I believe, someone who likes the 'right' things, does the 'right' activities and wears the 'right' clothes. In other words, someone who fits in with other people's shallow ideals. Someone who follows fashion. Someone who, unless they're genuinely being themselves, is controlled by the opinions of others, and if they are genuinely being themselves, enthralled by the shallow.

Is this really something to aspire to?

I'm sure most of you are already aware of what I'm getting at, but it surprises me how many people, even those much older than me, haven't learned this yet. Cool is subjective. Cool is temporary. Cool is in the minds of others. Why let other people control what you do with your limited time on Earth, and how come you haven't realised that everything worthwhile ever created was created by a geek?

That sounds like a bold statement, but it's true. So why do folks like my two (previously) potential flatmates feel so bad at being thought of being one?

Well, for one thing, it takes guts to be who you are in a society that bombards us with advertising telling us we're not good enough as we are, not pretty enough, not well-dressed enough, not popular enough.

Another problem is that sometimes we forget how transient 'cool' is. For example, if, dear reader, you're young, and you're part of a music scene you consider to be 'cool'. You probably think that the music that people who are older than you listen to is 'uncool'. If so, brace yourself for a bit of a shock: In ten years, that music you love will be considered old fashioned. Dated. 'Uncool', by the little tykes younger than you, who need to reject what came before them and find their own voice.

Not only that, but geeks created that music you love. You don't become and accomplished musician or song-writer by going to parties, getting wasted and nearly drowning in your own vomit. You do it by staying in, night after night, practising, learning, honing. Then, when you think you're good enough to display your skills in public, you spend the rest of your time organising and scheduling. You don't get to be a fuck-head rockstar until your record company is reaming your money off of you, you've been touring your ass off, you're fed up and, all of a sudden, the world wants to make you happy.

Some people get this backwards. They are not cool.

The people you see on TV, in magazines, in films, have all been dressed, lit, framed and, usually in the case of magazines, airbrushed, in order to sell you things. Talk about aspiring to shallowness.

If what you're aspiring to be is only going to age, be considered 'uncool' and ultimately be discarded, should you forever keep progressing and trying to keep up?

If that's naturally what you love doing and it makes you happy, then fair enough, of course, that's great. If you're following fashion because you feel that others won't like you any more if you don't, then that's not so cool. If you judge others on their ability to follow fashions as well as you, then, well, you're scum.

The truth is that the only thing you've got that will last and that will genuinely make you happy, is you're own opinion. It's the only thing that will not date, will not go out of fashion and can, if you're brave enough to listen to it, genuinely make you happy.

It's also what leads people to become obsessed with things and create. Every writer, musician, artist, inventor, scientist, and generally anyone who is truly successful at something they enjoy, is a geek. They are driven and controlled by the things they love, not what others love.

This the message behind the common cliché "be yourself".

If you can be yourself, ignoring what others consider to be 'uncool' or 'cool', then you've got my respect, because those that can remain themselves in face of those who tell them they're 'uncool' have a difficult path.

It's one thing to be affable and attempt to ingratiate yourself to people, that's great, but it's another thing entirely to be afraid or ashamed of your passions.

It takes a lot of courage to be yourself, especially if you're surrounded by people telling you that you're 'wrong'. It takes even more bravery to know that this is the reaction you're going to get, but to still decide to stay true to yourself and keep going.

The people that succeed at his are the real rebels and innovators, and they inspire others to do the same.

Provided you are mindful of the thoughts and feelings of those around you. Provided what you love causes no harm to others (and you know within yourself whether that's true or not). Then why not jump right in and splash around? Enjoy yourself. I know I'll certainly salute and admire you for it, and you'll undoubtedly find yourself having a good time, too.

In a perfect world our character, not our clothes or chosen past-times, would be what we're judged on. If you're a great, supportive friend, if you're a loving spouse, parent or sibling. If you're wonderful person to those around you, why should it matter that you catalogue and collect local fungi on the weekend? That you stand for hours on platform waiting for that train to arrive? That you get excited when you see certain postage stamps?

Be honest with yourself. If you're a geek, embrace it. Don't be afraid of losing face with those people you consider to be 'cool'. Those that stick around you will be better friends than those you have to impress.

Embrace yourself and your idiosyncrasies, learn to love what you are. This is the only life you've got, and it's closer to ending every single minute.

So don't grab hold of life, grab hold of yourself and don't let go. It's the only thing that you can truly trust to make you happy.

Now if only I could find a bloody flat to live in.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Thoughts on... Guitar Hero 3

Guitar Hero 3 finally came out here in rainy England and I've just finished a three hour session. Impressions? Well... First of all, I'm surprised just how far I've got already. While there does seem to be some bad song timing (the ZZ Top one springs to mind), GH3 is also more forgiving than GH2. As such, I'm already over halfway through and I've not failed a song yet on Medium.

The second thing I noticed is that the song selection is GREAT. Rather than it being made up of songs and bands that I've not heard of, here I find myself knowing much more of the songs, and even if I don't know the band, recognizing the song... It's great. Playing Weezer's My Name is Jonas was worth the price of admission alone (almost).

My third impression is what's wrong with GH3: I know it's been said by others but Neversoft (the new developers of Guitar Hero) just don't appear to understand the music. The game looks nice, don't get me wrong, but with GH2 you could feel the love. Here it's all a bit cold, corporate and sometimes embarrassing.

After your "guitar battle" with Tom Morrello you get to play a classic Rage track... but before it comes on, the "camera" follows a female dancer in some stupidly tight leather pants and a tight top and she starts to dance.

This is RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE here - not KISS! Rage were a very serious, politically-aware band. Morrello's guitar has "arm the homeless" on it, not "suck my love pump"! Zack Da La Rocha used to write FUCK SEXISM FUCK HOMOPHOBIA FUCK RACISM on his chest... and yet the camera is following this bored, half-assed, no-brained representation of a dancer across the stage... it's so incredibly NOT about the music. If you love Rage, this just feels incredibly inappropriate.

It's not the end of the world, obviously, but it really makes me imagine a bunch of guys in suits, smoking cigars saying, "Hmm, this track is a bit serious isn't it? Let's sex it up a little, eh?".

More evidence of Neversoft "not feeling the love" (if any more is needed) can be easily seen comparing GH2 and GH3's Career path. In GH2 you start off in a college gym, playing to a small crowd. You move to a small club. To a reasonable venue. To a massive venue. To an insane gig at Stonehenge with UFOs. (All, except the last one, rendered with nice, accurate touches of authenticity.) For you and your band, it's all about the music... You've become successful, obviously, but it's all about the live performance.

With GH3 you start off in a trendy winebar (or something weird), move on to what looks like a cross between an MTV video and a stripbar and then, on the third level, you're in a STUDIO, on the back of a fake truck, with smoke machines, filming a music video.

Woah, Neversoft, woah....

Firstly, one of, if not THE most enjoyable thing about Guitar Hero is playing your music to a screaming, adoring crowd... The thrill of the cheer, as it were. Except, on level three we're in corporate land, playing the songs to a director and some guys in suits... What the hell?! The crowd nose is still there... except there's no crowd. It's an oddly hollow experience and I was glad to finish the level and move on.

(Talking about crowds: The first time I got an encore in GH2, it felt great. The crowd kept cheering and then clapping in unison. I felt their love. Oh yes. In GH3 it couldn't be any less exciting if a Windows dialogue box popped up and and said "Play encore? Yes/No". Seriously. There is zero atmosphere.)

Next level: England. A great time to bring out some brilliant British rock acts, eh? Tip the hat to some classic Brit rock! The Who? Iron Maiden? Black Sabbath? Spinal Tap (nudge, nudge)? David Bowie? Led Zeppelin? So many more to choose from and it could all culminate in the specially recorded version of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols! It would have a nice touch and a cool level...

Instead, we get, Black Sabbath (good start), The Sex Pistols (great), Sonic Youth (huh?), Weezer (what?) culminating with...... PEARL JAM! (wtf?). Why even bother?! I know that GH2 had the Stone Henge level, but that was iconic, this just seems a wasted opportunity.

After this, in the little animations that tell the story of your career, you're accused of "selling out" so you do a gig in a prison to increase your credibility. This could have been REALLY cool. It would have been a perfectly level for some moody, heart-felt blues-ey tunes. The songs could have really made this work, but, as ever, Neversoft don't get the tone, so we get... Scorpions...!? SCORPIONS!?! *sigh*

After the successful prison gig we get another animation... and with this one the ideology behind GH3 is revealed in all its corporate glory: Your band are bored, watching the news, when they're mentioned; Apparently their popularity is up from last week... THANK GOD! They cheer! Yay! Being in a band is like playing the stock market! Yay! As long as we're popular, that's all that matters! Yay! High five! Maybe we'll get that Coke commercial! Yay!

GH3 was not made by music lovers.

Some of the comments between songs, really, truly suck, too.

When it comes down to it, GH2 was a true-to-its-roots, honest to god, all-about-the-music rock band. It was Led Zeppelin. In comparison, GH3 is a corporate assembled and approved rock band... with all the slick production that goes with it. By comparison, it's Hanson.

I'm sure most people won't give a flying monkey's about all this stuff, and they probably don't even notice, either. Overall, it might be humourless, but it's still Guitar Hero and the track-listing is AMAZING. Even the non master recordings sound really really good.

I'll play it. I'll really enjoy it. I'll recommend it to friends. But it won't get my heart.


There's been quite a reaction from Guitar Hero fans regarding the portrayal of women by Neversoft in Guitar Hero 3, and it makes very interesting reading:

Portrayal of women in Guitar Hero 3
Guitar Hero 3 vs Rock Band

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Star Wars Exhibition photos

Yes, I like Star Wars. (So do you, probably.) In the summer I visited the excellent Star Wars Exhibition. Having visited the one in 2000(?) and really enjoyed it, I was keen to visit the largest exhibition of movie memorabilia in history (!) as well.

Thinking that most of the new films where CGI, I was expecting to see the original trilogy represented more, but I was wrong and, as a result, slightly disappointed (no Chewbacca?), but I was also surprised at how much model work was actually used in the new trilogy. Considering how people go on (and on) about the use of computer generated imagery in the recent films, I think most would be surprised to see just how many old school methods were used in creation of buildings, ships and characters.

I took a photo of every model, piece of artwork and costume in the entire exhibition (geek, moi?), but these are the ones which came out best. I hope you enjoy them!

Click for larger images.

This one always makes me smile: It looks like Darth has gone for a night stroll (depending on how your monitor displays it), maybe walking his dog.

My girlfriend alerted me to some more photos here, too. I don't know the author, but I think some of them are really good. Hope you enjoyed my shots!

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Cool new website...

This just a tiny post to say that there's a rather good new site here:

You test your vocabulary skills and learn while you're at it. It is fun, honestly. Your enjoyment also has the side-effect of donating rice to poor countries, too (just go and have a look, will you).

I managed to score at my best, 41, and, at my worst, 30. How about you?

Also, hot on the trails of Pretend to be a Time Traveller Day, is May 25th's Towel Day, in memory of Douglas Adams (although Towel Day actually came long before, but that's time travel for you).

Monday, 15 October 2007

Retro write-up: Alan Moore 'Lost Girls' talk

On the 12 October 2006, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Arts to talk with their friend Stewart Lee about the forth-coming release of their pornographic comic, Lost Girls. While those of us in the UK are still waiting for the official January 1st 2008 release (thanks to copyright issues surrounding Peter Pan), eBay and Amazon have mercifully allowed fans to get their eager mitts on Lost Girls now.

With Alan Moore about to make another public appearance on October 26th, in connection with Ian Sinclair's soon-to-be-published [in paperback] London: City of Disappearances (for which Moore wrote a short story, along with many other contributors), I thought I'd post my original write up of the ICA event for any Alan Moore fans who read this.

Tickets are still available, for the upcoming event, and if you decide to come, I'll see you there!

(Fans of Moore and Gebbie might also like to read their recent interview with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell author Susanna Clarke, from the Daily Telegraph.)

Here's what I wrote a year ago to this day [with some comments], in response to those asking for an account of the bearded one's public appearance:


I suppose I should write something!

It was really good. Both Melinda and Alan were great. Stewart Lee seemed a little nervous as host, and he said so, but he never explained why (the [pornographic] material or the whole set-up?), but he was still great too. He never lost the thread of the conversation and pulled Alan back when he did.

In fact, Stewart Lee did a very good job indeed. He even confronted Alan a bit about some of the aspects of Lost Girls which he thought were cartoony, and also when an audience member asked Alan that, considering he gets upset about how his work is treated by other people (namely, filmmakers), how did he think the original authors of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan would feel about his use of their characters.

Alan sort of avoided the question, apparently hoping that none of us would notice, but Stewart Lee pulled him right back and forced him to answer properly. Which he did, extremely well, too. Basically he said that, with his work, they used the same title, so many people think that the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell films are taken from his writings. As a result of this, his work is diminished because he becomes associated with a crap movie he had nothing to do with, rather than a good book that he wrote.

This is of course, his real bone with Hollywood, and it's good to hear his real reasons for his hatred, rather than the usual cack-handed rationalisation he hands out by way of explanation ["they cost too much money" etc.].

Stewart Lee opened the evening by pointing out the bizarre situation: They were about to talk about a book that a tiny percentage of the audience have read and that wasn't even officially released yet. But they did do just that, and I think that they did a great job. They used images from the book projected onto a screen behind them, so they could talk about specific things.

A lot of what what said has already been said in many Moore and Gebbie interviews about the book, but it's always nice to hear it from the horse's mouth, so-to-speak, and most people there probably hadn't read the interviews anyway.

Some of the things discussed were; The original inspiration (Moore wanted to do something pornographic, but couldn't figure out how - Melinda helped him come up with the idea of Wendy and they developed it together from there). How they couldn't have done it if they weren't a couple. How they collaborated together. Moore's views on the original authors [Carroll and Barrie as probable paedophiles] (only L. Frank Baum came out 'clean' - until Lee pointed out he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan [not sure about the KKK connection, I've since looked into it and been unable to find anything supporting Lee's claim - but Baum did once print his positive opinions about the killing of Native Americans]). I'm probably not doing it justice, actually! There was a LOT of stuff discussed, followed by questions from the audience, but it all pertained to Lost Girls.

I remember one person (a girl) asked if they were fans of Angela Carter(?) and the work she'd done trying to create, I presume, female-friendly, artistic pornography. Moore explained that they both were, and Melinda went on to discuss how she'd tried really hard to make her artwork beautiful and attractive for women, too. Moore added that they'd discovered that it took very little to please a male audience (big laugh), so they'd concentrated a lot on making Lost Girls work for women.

I got to meet Moore afterwards and he, as always, was extremely gracious, even if a complement I was trying to give him got misunderstood (I said that I'd noticed the blurb for Lost Girls begun "can pornography be art?", but after reading it it seemed to me that it was the other way around: Lost Girls was a real work of art... with pornography. He took no hesitation to point out that "well, of course it's art, we just wrote that stuff for the blurb..."). Obviously I knew that Moore would think it was a work of art, but he seemed to miss the complement I was trying to give him. Of course he'd been there for two hours at that point and the queue was still out of sight, so I suppose he just took my comment at face value, and as such my comment must have seemed silly to him.

I did get to explain one other observation to him (which he liked more), and that was how hard it must have been to create characters to fit in the genre of porn. That is, in thrillers, comedies, dramas, whatever, each character behaves in a certain way which is conducive to the events in that story, whether it is 'realistic' or not. (In a thriller it could be a quickly getting over a brutal murder in order to get revenge; in a comedy it could behaving in a way in order to create a ridiculous set-up, etc.) It's important that characters in stories don't impede the story by reacting too realistically to events, but also they must behave in a way that seems somewhat real to keep the story going. If you go too far in either direction the fictional 'reality' is ruined; too real and our characters stop the story. Too conducive in making the plot work and we stop believing in the characters and, as a result, we don't care about them any more.

What I've noticed in porn that tries to have a story (and I'm sure I'm not the only one), is that any attempts to create characters that can exist in a world where they could have sex with a complete stranger at the drop of a hat, is usually unbearably contrived, and as a result it becomes a joke.

Moore amazingly managed to create characters that somehow seemed 'real', so we care about them, but they could still exist in this universe where sex could happen at any time with no emotional strings attached. In a word: Wow!

He appreciated this complement a little more and said that it hadn't been easy! (Although I'm amazed I managed to get it all out and he follow what I was saying!)

I also queued to get my copy of Lost Girls signed by Melinda Gebbie, and she was, as usual, fabulous! So incredibly nice and friendly, such a lovely person! I was there with my girlfriend and Melinda asked her what she thought of Lost Girls, and said to me, "sorry, but I'm more interested in what she thought than you!", which was really funny. My girlfriend wasn't totally comfortable discussing it with other people around (understandably), but she told her that she liked it. (Afterwards my girlfriend kept looking for an opportune moment to talk to her a bit more privately, as it was obviously something Melinda was interested in and my girlfriend had things to say, but sadly it never came.)

After we'd got the signings done, I decided to say hello to Chris Staros from Top Shelf and ended up having a really nice conversation with him. I wasn't expecting it, but he was an extremely nice guy. Me, my girlfriend and I talked to him for quite a while. Afterwards, what with how unbelievably nice Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie and now, Chris Staros where, my girlfriend was just like "I want to work with these people... they're all so nice!!", which was very true. It seemed like Alan Moore, Melinda and Top Shelf were a perfect match for each other, and just really really nice people.

I learned some interesting things about Top Shelf too, namely that it's entirely run by two guys: One in Portland and one in Atlanta! Amazing! They've been going for ten years and they've slowly over that time become bigger and bigger, but it's still just the two guys!

Anyways, that was a quick stream-of-conciousness review of the event. Sorry if it was a bit all over the place or didn't answer any question you were hoping I was going to. (Please ask!)

I didn't see any cameras, but it's possible the event's audio was being recorded. We can only hope that someone has a bootleg of it. [One has yet to appear, sadly.] It would be well worth a listen as the night was extremely enjoyable and informative.


The excellent Lost Girls should be seeing a UK/European release on January 1st 2008.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A brilliant idea! (Not mine.)

This is a rather brilliant idea, and I wish I could claim it as my own, but Dresden Codak creator, Aaron Diaz, (I've not read it, either) has come up with an excellent idea for a new public holiday (or indeed, just a great fancy dress idea).

December 8th, 2007 - Pretend to be a Time Traveller Day!

On Dec 8th you dress up and behave as if you are from a different century. Mr Diaz explains you choices:

#1: Utopian/Cliché Future
Star Trek! Imagine you're Picard or Kirk (or from any other similar sci-fi) and you've suddenly been sent hurtling through time.
Think all-in-one velour outfits. You're completely out of your depth, but also very polite. Interact with wonderment at all the "primitive" technology and show extreme ignorance in operating it. Expect everything to be voice-activated; vending machines, pay phones, elevators, etc.

- Ask shops if they'll accept Credits for payment. Act very "proper" and polite. If you're travelling on public transport, sit-up straight and look around at everything.

Try to "hide" alieneqsue features, like Spock ears under a sweat band, and then act self-conscious about them.

- Refer to things that don't exist, for example: "Where's the nearest matter transporter?"

- Refer to cars as "vessels" or "ships" and when travelling in one, look confused when trying to put on your seatbelt.

- Stop people in the street and ask them if they've seen any of your crew-mates, describe them as being basically human, but then add alienesque features at the end
. Eg. "Quite tall, brown hair, heavy build... big wrinkley forehead", "She's my height, with blonde hair, blue eyes, green skin, big smile", etc.

Remember: You'll be trying to "fit-in", so explain your behaviour by "pretending" you're joking: "Of course! I was thinking it had an holo-fusion reactor... How silly of me! (nervous over-the-top laughter)." Then act lost by randomly changing direction.

#2: Dystopian Future
This one offers a little more flexibility. It can be any kind of future from Terminator to Mad Max. The important thing to remember is
dress like a crazy person with armor. Black spray painted football pads, high tech visors, torn up trenchcoats and maybe even some dirt here or there. Remember, dystopian future travelers are very startled that they've gone back in time. Some starters:

- If you go the "prisoner who's escaped the future" try shaving your head and putting a barcode on the back of your neck. Then stagger around and stare at the sky, as if you've never seen it before.

- Walk up to random people and say "WHAT YEAR IS THIS?" and when they tell you, get quiet and then say "There's still time!" and run off.

- Stand in front of a statue (any statue, really), fall to your knees, and yell "NOOOOOOOOO"

- Stare at newspaper headlines and look astonished.

- Take some trinket with you (it can be anything really), hand it to some stranger, along with a phone number and say, "In thirty years dial this number. You'll know what to do after that". Then slip away.

#3: The Past
This one is more for beginners. Basically dress in period clothing (preferably Victorian era) and stagger around amazed at everything. Since the culture's set in place already, you have more of a template to work off of. Some pointers:

- Airplanes are terrifying. Also, carry on conversations with televisions for a while.

- Discover and become obsessed with one trivial aspect of technology, like automatic grocery doors. Stay there for hours playing with it.

- Be generally terrified of people who are dressed immodestly compared to your era. Tattoos and shorts on women are especially scary.

And that's pretty much it. Just remember, try to fit in! You obviously wouldn't want people to know you are from another when, so never admit you're a time traveller and make really bad attempts at keeping a low profile.

Not sure yet how I'm going to go... Its a toss between the past and dystopian future... leaning toward dystopia right now.

Anyone else want to accompany me on my imaginary trip through time?

What a hilarious idea, and certainly one that could down well at fancy dress parties, too! Kudos to Aaron Diaz (whoever he may be) and Flint Paper (whoever he is), whose blog I found this on!

It's the new Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Retro review: Red Dwarf - The individual novels

Occasionally my excitement for things that I used to love is reignited, and not so long ago I found my it lit up for the classic BBC TV sci-fi comedy show, Red Dwarf. It's always had a soft-spot in my heart (and undoubtedly will), and I decided to re-read the classic novels written by Rob Grand and Doug Naylor.

After seriously enjoying
Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life (the first two books), I decided to give the subsequent solo novels another go and see how I felt about them; Doug Naylor's Last Human and Rob Grant's Backwards.

For those who are unaware, or may have forgotten, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant wrote the first two Red Dwarf novels together (under the pseudonym Grant Naylor), but after a split in their working relationship and an aborted attempt to write a third novel together, they separately wrote two completely unrelated sequels. Unlike their work together, which was well received, their individual efforts received mixed reviews, especially from fans.

Here were my immediate reactions after reading them again:

Backwards by Rob Grant

I've just finished re-reading Backwards and I have to say that I'd forgotten how completely brilliant it was. I'd forgotten just what a good, satisfying well-paced read it is. I was also surprised (and perhaps pleased) at how little was taken from the TV series. In all, there were four ideas taken from three episodes: Backwards (obviously), Dimension Jump (the idea of Ace Rimmer) and Gunmen of the Apocalypse (pretty much the whole show, including the idea of xenophobic battledroids hunting humans).

Only really Gunmen was referred to heavily (which was an odd choice considering how much of that show was based on visual humour), and even then almost all of the dialogue was different (unlike the first two novels which copied dialogue verbatim, more often than not, when taking things from the TV series). The other ideas taken from the series were expanded and changed considerably, even more so than the first two novels.

For whatever reason, it seemed as though Grant was trying very hard not to use too much from the series, and thankfully it's not to the book's detriment.

Despite feeling like a fairly large tome, the story runs at an incredibly comfortable pace. You really get the idea that Grant could have just happily kept on writing and writing and, interestingly, I don’t think the reader would have gotten bored, either. Maybe because of this, the ending does appear a tad rushed and/or abrupt (although this may just be an illusion caused by the spelling errors that even made their way into the final chapters of paperback edition).

Still, despite it’s size and apparently rushed ending, it’s a incredibly cohesive and satisfying read. I don’t think I really noticed the journey that Rimmer goes through when I first read it (no idea why, perhaps I was too young to pick up on it), but this time it was clear to me that he was the backbone of the whole story.

There was at least one missed opportunity by Grant, though: A scene where an uptight Rimmer and a reluctant Ace talk in private to try and figure out where their lives diverged would have been utterly priceless (and could have set up the epilogue nicely, too). Bizarrely this undoubtedly interesting conversation is replaced by the “wrap things up quickly” scene from the TV series (where Lister has sudden and amazing insider-information on where the change took place). Ah, well, in another universe, perhaps.

Rimmer's personality is reset to “bastard mode”, which doesn't fit continuity from the warmer person he changed into when Lister grew older in the second book. That said, it's no surprise, as Rimmer generally works better as a character when he's at his most antagonistic, and it felt like the right starting off point for the book.

(As an aside; is it just me, or is that chapter featuring a teenage Cat and a young nubile woman in a gingham dress just a little bit weird/creepy/disturbing/wrong? Why is it in there?)

In all it was a great read, much better than even I remembered or expected. I ordered a copy of Last Human to see if it could impress as well.
Last Human by Doug Naylor

I made it 50 pages into Last Human, and I just couldn’t take any more… It’s very funny, don’t get me wrong, and there’s some brilliant lines, but it doesn't feel right. Reading it was like driving in a car in dire need of a mechanic; It looks OK and is driveable, but it keeps making such horrendous and unhealthy noises that you don't want go keep going.

For a start, Naylor clearly has no issue with messing with the entire Red Dwarf canon. Take for example, Rimmer's inferiority complex regarding his more successful brothers. Whereas Grant thoroughly explored these issues, and used them as the backbone to his entire story (turning them into something we could all relate to in process), Naylor says they're all down to the fact that Rimmer didn't get a memory implant when he was a boy. Not an inferiority complex as much as actually being inferior. Not only is the explanation completely unrelateable to the reader, but it's also completely illogical: Why doesn't he buy a memory implant now, as a grown man?

The fact that this character-changing line is tossed away in such an unemotional manner is unfortunately indicative of the care and thought seen elsewhere into the book. Another example is the amount of pseudo-science, that not only doesn’t hold up to even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, but also disregards everything we know about the Red Dwarf universe.

All over the place random scientific sounding bits and bobs that are tossed into the story and dialogue without explanation. All of a sudden even the Cat is an astrophysicist. Things like “unused time lines” (how can a parallel universe be considered "unused"? We can supposedly visit them, so do the people living in them consider their universe "unused"?) or the fact that Starbug has a “Hubble telescope” installed (I mean, come on) are just horrible.

I guess Doug would argue that it’s all about entertaining readers, and don't care about the science and technology (so long as it sounds ok), they just want a laugh, and while I can definitely agree that Last Human tries very hard to tickle your rib bones (and succeeds very often, too), I have to ask; if you're going to do the science-fiction without the science, why bother?


Reading both books gave me a very strong idea of who did what in the Red Dwarf universe. Doug Naylor was clearly the man with the funny one-liners but, unfortunately for his book, no grasp of characterisation and no exploration of ideas or concepts. Rob Grant’s book feels deeper and more satisfying, with the laughs tickling your brain more than your ribs, but it's also much heavier by comparison. The writers seem like two parts of the same brain.

When they merge they turn from two funny, talented guys into one hilarious, unique, sublime, gestalt entity. I hope they work together again at some point.

Grant Naylor, are you out there?

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Tarantino 'Death Proof' - London Q&A: Pt 3

This is the third and final part of my write up of the Death Proof Q&A Session with Quentin Tarantino and Zoe Bell. Thanks for all the kind comments on various forums, and the insistence from some that I finish this sooner rather than later. It has spurned me on to do this now, even when I can't be bothered!

Don't forget there's also
Part One and Part Two, which are both probably worth reading.

Spoilers below.

So here it is, the last bit. This is where all the left over moments that I didn't mention get dumped. As with the last two posts, I'm writing this off the top of my head with very little in way of sensible editorial control and also, because this final part is actually little moments that didn't fit into parts one or two, it's not very well structured.

My lasting feeling from the events was that both Tarantino and Zoe Bell came across as very nice people (Zoe especially; I hope she continues to do more off the back of Death Proof). Tarantino may have been sniffing an awful lot during the beginning of the Q&A, but I can't possibly speculate as to why, so let's give him the benefit of doubt.

It was really the director's night and Zoe Bell, brimming with as much nervous, excitable energy as you might expect for a newcomer, was careful not to not step on his toes. While I would have been more than happy to hear more from the charming New Zealand star, I was glad she let Tarantino have his say... as he always has a lot!

One of the most interesting revelations of the night was his explanation of his feelings about Jackie Brown. If I recall correctly, someone asked him if he would be adapting anyone else's work again in the future, and Tarantino's answer was quite interesting.

As a sort of disclaimer, he made it clear that he loves Jackie Brown, and he by no means wanted to disrespect it in any way, but at the same time, he described how once it was made, he didn't get the same amount of buzz as when he has created something from scratch. For him the experience was apparently a bit of a let down.

He described how exciting it was to start off with a blank piece of paper, imagine a whole world of characters and situations, and ultimately turn it into an something that he then gets to see other people experience. (And looking around the crowd, the energy on the faces of people still buzzing from having just watched his latest creation was palpable.)

He claimed that this feeling that was missing when Jackie Brown was complete. It wasn't his world, they weren't his characters, and as such, there was something missing from the experience for him.

He then told an anecdote about discussing this particular feeling with another filmmaker who had just adapted something for the first time in their career (although he didn't say who, you got the feeling it was someone big), and they agreed with him; the experience was not as satisfying as seeing your own creation come to light, and as such, it just wasn't as exciting seeing it finished.

Again, he made it clear that that has now all this has passed, and it was just a feeling that was missing at that moment in time, and he's very proud of Jackie Brown, etc etc, but in the end, he said that the feeling he felt was strong enough to put him off wanting to adapt anything else in the future. So no more adaptations on the horizon for Tarantino!

Another question asked, in light of his feelings about adapting other people's work, was which of his own characters did he like the most. At this point Zoe Bell piped in with, "not including me, who is obviously your favourite, right?". Tarantino laughed and said, "of course", but then seemed to think about it and added, "actually, you're not my creation, you play yourself!" (which, judging her from the night, she most definitely does).

So, and I hope I'm remembering the full list (see why I left these questions to last?), he thought about it and said: Butterfly, Abernathy, The Bride, Mia Wallace, Mr Pink and Mr Blonde. I remember thinking, "no Mr. White?", but no, he wasn't there. (If anyone is out there going, "but what about Jules and Vincent?", um, well, they may have been there, but I can't remember for sure.)

Someone asked what he thought of Rob Zombie's new Halloween film and I was pleasantly surprised at how candid he was with his opinion, "I liked the first 40 minutes, but after that... I hated it". It's refreshing to hear someone just be honest for a change.

Tarantino was also very open about his general dissatisfaction working with Directors of Photography in general. Death Proof is the first film which Tarantino shot himself, without a DP, and he seemed to appreciate the freedom this gave him. Also, he joked that Death Proof was the perfect project to try it out on, "If it looked bad, I could just say, 'it's supposed to look bad, it's a 70's exploitation film!'".

He talked a little about his frustration of working with DPs, and how all they bring their own staff with them, who then, wanting to keep their working relationship with the DP in question, work for the DP instead of for Tarantino. You got the sense let it was a source of some considerable frustration for him, and that there must have been issues in his previous films, although he named no names.

Aside from Zoe Bell's sweet account of how Tarantino revealed to her just how big a role she had in his latest film (she at first thought it would be a one line cameo at most), which is also told on the Death Proof DVD for those who want to hear it, I'm sorry to say that think I'm out of material.

The whole experience was an incredible one, and one that changed my feelings about, not only Death Proof, but also Tarantino. It was nice to see the director "uncut" and clearly in an environment where he felt comfortable.

Thinking about Death Proof in a more critical light as a result of this evening, my girlfriend came up with a really interesting psychological profile for Stuntman Mike. In her mind, Mike was basically an average guy that got into stunts a little too much. The buzz from surviving car accidents made everything else pale in comparison and he got hooked on the extreme adrenalin rush. Even sex paled in comparison, it just couldn't compare to the life-threatening thrill of surviving a crazy accident. So he developed his own twisted version of sex, or the closest he can get to sex and still feel exhilaration, mixing these terrifying thrills with beautiful young women. I think that's rather a cool background story his character.

I hope you've enjoyed these three weeks of Death Proof madness! Thanks again to all those who have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed these little write ups. And thanks my girlfriend for getting us both tickets to the event (somehow miraculously stumbling across them just as they went on sale!). Cheerio!

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Tarantino 'Death Proof' - London Q&A: Pt 2

This is the second part of my write up of the Death Proof Q&A with Quentin Tarantino and Zoe Bell that I was luckily enough to attend. (The first part can be read here.) I've tried to address the most commonly talked about aspects of the film at the moment. Apologies if it's a bit rambling and not immediately compelling.

Other parts: Part One - Part Three

Spoilers below!

Death Proof vs Grindhouse
At the moment, wherever Death Proof is being discussed by movie fans, there seems to be someone complaining that they're being forced to 'double dip' on DVD because Death Proof and Grindhouse are "obviously" going to be released separately on DVD, and that the only reason they're not able to buy Grindhouse right away is because it flopped in US cinemas, and they're trying to get everyone to buy it twice: First as a stand-alone movie, then in a Grindhouse boxset. Now while there is some truth that UK and Australian cinema-goers were deprived of a theatrical release of Grindhouse because of its lack-lustre US box-office, it's not the case when it comes to any DVD releases. Nobody, believe it or not, is being forced to 'double dip'. (Remember the rumours about 'six different versions of Kill Bill to be released in a year'? Yep, we're still waiting...)

Death Proof 'Extended' on DVD (a confusing title) is actually just Death Proof. You see, as Tarantino explained at the Q&A, he made Death Proof, Rodriguez made Planet Terror and together they made Grindhouse. Three separate entities.

Tarantino revealed that the only way he would ever have agreed to edit his film down to 90 minutes for use in Grindhouse was simply because he knew that his longer cut would be the one that was going to be seen in most of the cinemas of the world (Grindhouse, it seems, was never set for a worldwide theatrical release) and the one that was going to be released everywhere on DVD. Quite simply, without those stipulations, he never would have agreed to it. He also added that while he was editing for Grindhouse he had to make sure that he was serving the experience of Grindhouse, and not his film.

So, to try and make this absolutely clear, and in contrast to the many misinformed reviewers and film commentators out there: The release of the longer, separate cut of Death Proof was not a 'studio' decision. It was nothing to do with Grindhouse being a failure in the US (except in the one or two countries that were originally set to get Grindhouse at their cinemas). It was planned from day one.

Tarantino talked about how proud he is of the film he's made, and how he cares about it (and how, realistically, could he not? It's something he spent years of his life creating, and this is the version he wanted people to consider his). The longer version of Death Proof is his film. Grindhouse was a film he made with Rodriguez.

In my mind at least, Grindhouse is a truly cinema experience, not a home theatre one and I really don't see the point in trying to recreate it on your sofa on your own. (I could be wrong.)

(It's worth noting that while Tarantino admitted Kill Bill was separated into two films under pressure from the Weinsteins, he discussed how he refused to buckle under the same pressure for Grindhouse. He also said that the reason the merged cut of Kill Bill has been so long coming was because he actually felt rather happy about it being two films. Whatever resistance he might have originally had to the idea of splitting The Bride's escapades into two parts were clearly long gone, and he happily shrugged and said that he felt that it had worked great as two films and was actually very glad he'd done it. He also made it clear that if he hadn't been able to release his version of Death Proof that he would have been very upset indeed.)

Leading on from this, he also went on to explain why the Grindhouse fake trailers (shot by people like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie and originally shown between Planet Terror and Death Proof as 'upcoming attractions') were not being included with the separate releases of the films.

Quite simply, as I've already said, the directors are very happy with Grindhouse and they don't want to see it die. Tarantino explained that one way to definitely kill it (and to disrespect it, really) would be to sell off its parts wholesale. If the trailers had been split and included with the separate releases of Death Proof and Planet Terror then it would have been one less reason to watch Grindhouse, and therefore one less reason for it to exist.

Tarantino told a funny story about when they received a polite letter from the distributors asking them to include the trailers in the international cinema showings of Death Proof and Planet Terror. It went something like this:

"We'd really like to to include the Grindhouse trailers for our audiences. We fully understand and support the 'grindhouse' aesthetic of these films and we believe that putting two trailers on each of the films would enhance this 'grindhouse' feeling for the audience. Also, we know that a lot of people want to see the trailers, so we feel it would be giving the audience what they want..." etc., etc.

Apparently before Tarantino could even think about replying, he turned the page to read Rodriguez's reply:

"If you're so keen to give the audience the 'grindhouse' experience, and understand and fully support the 'grindhouse' aesthetic, and you want to give the audience what they want... THEN FUCKING RELEASE GRINDHOUSE!"

So apparently Death Proof is Death Proof. Grindhouse is Grindhouse. And you probably shouldn't listen to the people who try to convince you otherwise.

Why They Didn't Just Stop the Car
Moving on from all this controversy (but which unfortunately seems to be dominating online discussion about the film - there must be a term somewhere for this ignorance generated, internet hyped, mass confusion that's become all too common to surf across), into something else entirely. There was inevitably and unfortunately at least one idiot in the audience who felt it was their right to argue with Tarantino. It's something about London, I swear. I've had most of my experiences with these people in Greenwich (no idea why, I'm sure there's lots of lovely people there) and they look like nice normal, ordinary people, except when they talk, it's clear that their brains have been re-wired so that they're incapable of being anything other than totally obnoxious.

Excuse me while I try to explain the type of person I'm referring to: In one such experience I remember standing at a bar, when the person next to me started to aggressively tell a taken-aback bartender that the film he's just seen was actually 'very good'.

It doesn't matter that this person was in the bar a few hours earlier and, unsure of what to go and watch, had asked the bartender his opinion was of a film. This bartender, making friendly banter, had said the film in question wasn't as good as the book, but that it was still quite good. Apparently this bartender had been horrifically misinformed and, although this other person hadn't actually read the original book, he'd decided to come back into the peaceful bar to threateningly tell the bartender what an idiot he was. It wasn't 'quite' good, he said through gritted teeth with finger pointed, it was 'very' good, and he should get his facts straight.

I apologise on behalf of the nicer side of London for these idiots. I also apologise to you for digressing so much, but hopefully it might give you an idea of what this person was like, which I'd have probably been unable to convey otherwise.

So, this person asked the following question: "Why do you set your films up to get the audience worked up, make it tense, believable and engaging, and then suddenly ruin it?".

Confusion and shock to this obviously aggressive question. The interviewer tries to move on quickly but Tarantino, quite surprisingly, calmly says, "No, no, I want to understand his question", and turning to the guy, "What do you mean?".

Now we get to the actual point of his statement, which is really what this guy should have asked, in a nicer tone, from the beginning: "Why didn't they just stop the car while Zoe was on the hood?".

Now, to be fair, this is a question that had drifted through my mind and had taken me out of the moment during the film's climax on at least one viewing, but it was asked in such a rude and inappropriate way that I, and others in the audience, couldn't help but squirm.

Thankfully, and surprisingly to me, Tarantino took it all in his stride and kept his cool. "One or two few people have asked me that", he replied, "but really, apart from two seconds, when they're in the ditch, they don't have time". The likeable Zoe Bell jumped in at this point and explained more fully. As being the person who was actually on the hood of the car, she pointed out, she was really in a unique position to explain what the character's options actually were.

She explained that it had taken literally half a mile of extremely gradual slowing down after each filmed take in order to stop her from flying off the hood of the car. Any slight increase over this, even if it was only a second, and she would literally feel as though she was about to be thrown off. There was no way that they could have slowed down without her being tossed in front of a moving vehicle.

Tarantino piped back in to ask the guy, jokingly and with bonhomie, if he had been chased by a homicidal maniac while Zoe was on the hood of his car, and really, until anyone had been in that situation, they couldn't honestly say how they'd react under the stress.

Zoe added that, if you think about it, when you're being chased by someone who's trying to kill you, that slowing down isn't really going to throw them off, especially when the homicidal maniac is right there. He's still going to try and kill you by any means necessary!

Both Zoe and Tarantino agreed that the character's aim was to get far enough ahead of Stuntman Mike for them then to slow down and get Zoe off the hood.

Although I was upset by the rudeness of the audience member, I was actually very glad the question was asked. The answer, once explained, does make a lot of sense, and it will certainly increase my enjoyment of future viewings. I suppose it might have been nice if Tracie Thoms had had a line that reminded the audience that Zoe didn't have anything to restrain her, or maybe those two seconds in the ditch trimmed from the movie, but at least now I know!

This is, inevitably, where the idiot pipes up again: "But they could have just stopped", he yells, sans microphone. Groans across the cinema.

Moving on, someone else asked Tarantino to name any films he'd be embarrassed to admit he'd not seen. Perhaps he was too embarrassed to list any specifically but he went on to talk about Fellini and European directors that he'd had difficulty enjoying. He made rather a interesting observation that he felt it was a mistake to go straight for films that are considered "classics" or the auteur's best.

He said that to really appreciate such films you have to have watched the director's earlier ones to fully understand what they were trying to capture. If you actually followed their career it would put their films into a context that most modern viewers miss (going straight for the "classics" listed on best movie lists, as they often do). He said he'd felt that he'd made a mistake doing this himself and had missed out on enjoying them fully, or perhaps even understanding why they were so revered.

I found this quite an interesting idea, as my girlfriend and I have been working out way through the IMDb's top 250 films list, with an eye on concentrating on the more obscure, older or foreign titles, and now I'm wondering if we're going about it all the wrong way.

There's still a few things that Tarantino talked about that I've not mentioned, so I'll probably put these in a Part Three at some point. Things I've not mentioned are Tarantino's favourite characters (out of the ones he's created), the reason why he has mixed feelings about Jackie Brown, what he thinks of Rob Zombie's new Halloween and other minor things. If you've got any questions, I'll try and answer them for you in the meantime.

Tarantino 'Death Proof' - London Q&A: Pt 1

I was lucky enough to get tickets to the London Death Proof Q&A with Quentin Tarantino and Zoe Bell held at the Ritzy Brixton. Here's part one of my impressions and recollections.

Other parts: Part Two - Part Three

Firstly I have to say how pleased I was that Tarantino came across as a smart, intelligent guy. There have been times in the past when I've seen him waffling on during interviews, and I wonder if he really knows what he's talking about, or he's just talking fast enough and long enough in the hope that no-one will notice. Thankfully it seems this isn't the case, and as the Q&A session progressed, he seemed more and more comfortable, coherent and insightful.

I learnt many things about Death Proof itself, too, and his comments actually changed my mind about the film, which I had been ambivalent about at that point, and made me really appreciate how well structured it is.

Let me just say that I'm going to get spoilerific right now and Death Proof is NOT a film that you want spoiled. What little storyline there is works much better when you don't know what's coming, so please, trust me, go watch Death Proof and then come back. (You won't appreciate what's being said until you've seen the film anyway, so it's not worth spoiling it for yourself.)

Right, now that's out of the way, I'm spoiling everything: When I first saw Death Proof I thought that it was a substandard attempt to copy Psycho. The set-up is essentially the same (as it is with many other slasher movies, to be fair), young woman (or women, in the case of Death Proof) get murdered, in an extremely shocking scene, by a guy that you don't expect to be a murderer.

The second half of the film is spent watching, hoping, that he doesn't strike again.

Now, like I said, I thought this was a substandard attempt to copy Psycho. With Psycho you knew from the outset that there was well, a psychopath waiting to strike. Alfred Hitchcock even explained almost the entire film's plot away in the movie's advertising. This was done, in my mind, to make the first chunk of Psycho (before the shower scene) more tense. The audience knew what was coming, they just didn't know when.

When the violence comes in Death Proof, it's a shock. Out of the blue, "no way", utter shock, and I kind of felt that if the audience had been given a hint at what was coming (maybe even an overheard police radio discussing vehicular homicide) that the first half of Death Proof would have been more compelling.

From Tarantino's comments, however, I realised that the shock was completely and utterly deliberate. Not only that, but more importantly, it was necessary for the second half to be truly scary and compelling. As Tarantino put it, "I spend the first half of the film getting you to trust me, then I pull the rug out and show you that you can't trust me at all". By doing this, the danger is ramped up for the second group of girls. Anything could happen, and as Tarantino pointed out, it would have been perfectly dramatically correct to allow Zoe to die, which ups the ante in the viewer's mind even further.

I was pleased to hear this explained and it made me appreciate that Death Proof's slow dialogue scenes are in fact completely deliberate. Tarantino is persuading us that he's not about to kill off these girls, we've spent too much time getting to know them! Maybe one or two might die, but not all of them!

The other thing I noticed when I watched with an audience was that the first half is creepy. It is sinister, and you do expect something bad to happen to the girls at the hands of the mysterious Stuntman Mike. You don't need that overheard police radio letting you know that something bad is going to happen. Unless, like me, you expected Kurt Russell to be the anti-hero, it's actually pretty obvious from the get go what's going to happen... and Tarantino spends the next 30 minutes slowly, masterfully trying to convince you that, against your better judgement, you're wrong.

Tarantino went on to explain that during his research of watching classic car-chases while writing Death Proof, he realised that the most effective car-chases, the ones where the audience is really emotionally involved, are the ones where we want the car to catch the people they're chasing. He mentioned the French Connection as an example, as opposed to say, something like The Blues Brothers, where the good guys are trying to escape.

This helped shape Death Proof's two-tier car chase: At first the good guys are being chased, and the audience is looking through their fingers at Zoe's near death experiences, then half-way through, the tables are turned and we're given a totally different experience. We're on the edge of our seats, excited, wanting the girls to "get him!".

It was very interesting to hear him explain the reasons for something which I'd completely taken for granted. There was actually a lot of thought and reason gone into the plot structure of Death Proof that I'd imagined, and it made me appreciate it a lot more. As Tarantino put it, the 70's exploitation idea was just his "jumping off" point, and after that, the film becomes something else.

It's not quite a slasher movie, it's not quite a car chase movie, it's not even really a 70's exploitation film, and it uses the low expectations of the audience expecting these things, to its advantage.

I still can see flaws in two aspects of Death Proof, however. Firstly, Psycho has a much stronger McGuffin, than Death Proof. With Tarantino's film we're almost bored. Yes, there's a few lose stories, but they're nowhere near as compelling as a woman who's just stolen money from her boss so she can't start a new life with her lover. Instead it's a bunch of things we're not really that interested in. It almost goes without saying that if the stories in the first half of the film do work for you, then Death Proof works much better as a film.

The second point is a single shot in the film where the "ship's mast" car is shown to have come to a stand-still, and then slowly start accelerating. The tension really drops, and it's almost like you wish you hadn't seen it.

This is discussed in more detail by Tarantino himself in Part Two.

To come: Why the Grindhouse trailers weren't included in the theatrical (and DVD) releases of Death Proof and Planet Terror, why they couldn't have stopped and let Zoe back in the car, and Tarantino dealing with an obnoxious audience member. Read all about it in Part Two...

Friday, 14 September 2007

Review: Death Proof Extended and Unrated DVD

I've had this DVD since the 8th and have been attempting to review it (well, Death Proof) since then. I've now given up and am just posting what I write off the top of my head (apologies in advance).

Death Proof's review has proved elusive because of its long and complicated history, so let's get that out of the way first: For those who don't know, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof was originally intended to be seen in the US, UK and some other countries, along with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror in a unique, retro double-bill called Grindhouse. Both of those two films were cut down to 90 minutes, they got some famous horror directors to put together some fake trailers for 70's exploitation style movies, and they packaged the whole thing as one long, crazy, experience.

The US audiences didn't like it, it flopped and major theatrical release of Grindhouse was pulled from other countries. As to why it flopped, nobody knows. Rodriguez claims it was because the TV advertising confused cinemagoers. Tarantino, more philosophically, thinks it's because people just didn't want to watch two films back-to-back in the cinema ("man, I've got shit to do today!"). Others have speculated that it was just too "out there" for audiences, being as it was, an homage to an obscure and unpopular niche (70's exploitation cinema).

I personally speculate that Tarantino's core audience Rodriguez's core audience don't necessarily crossover as much as people think, and prospect of having to sit through a film from a director you're not that bothered about just to watch a director you are that bothered about, wasn't an enticing one.

Whatever the reason, its pull from cinemas left UK and Australian audiences fuming. Instead of the full Grindhouse experience, however, both films are being released theatrically in their longer, director preferred cuts, separately.

This DVD includes the this longer cut, which was always going to be released on DVD the world over.

The first thing to say is that thankfully, the idea of Death Proof being an homage to guilty pleasures comes across immediately. Even outside of the Grindhouse experience, the retro opening titles, with all their bad cuts, scratches, dirt and deliberate jumps, get the message across clearly and leave you with a smile on your face.

The second thing to say is that yes, this longer cut, is the better of the two versions. The much talked about "missing reel" from the Grindhouse version has been, ahem, "found" and reinserted back into the film, creating this version's first compelling moment.

Aside from that though, most of the extra twentyodd minutes is additional dialogue, which, while not adding any new amazing scenes, does help flesh out the characters a little more (in an indirect way) and gives us some classic Tarantino dialogue, too. The second half almost suffers from too much conversation, but just as you're just about to get tired, the finale kicks in (no extra footage there, though).

This is the version that Tarantino always wanted to us to see, but he was happy to sacrifice his favourite moments in order to make Grindhouse work better as a whole, knowing that one day we'd all be watching this version.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice one small edit (yes, a removal of a few lines!) and one different take, but in both cases they are improvements.

If you're not familiar with Grindhouse and are completely new to Death Proof, then let me begin as I would have if I hadn't had to explain all of the above. Tarantino's fifth film is (or at least starts as) a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the atmosphere of a low budget 70's slasher movie. It's got the innocent girls talking about boys, the lurking danger and the almost non-existent plot. Staying true to its origins, when the violence and action comes, there is no use of CGI. This is truly an old school treat.

That's not to say that Death Proof is flawed or too simple. It's actually a lot cleverer in its structure than you might realise and is hugely entertaining to boot, even if it owes a lot more to Psycho than it does to any forgotten slasher movies.

Kurt Russell is brilliant as the mysterious Stuntman Mike and its shocking to know that he wasn't the first choice for the role. This is a brilliant addition to Russell's rogue gallery of characters, along with Escape from New York's Snake Plissken and The Thing's MacReady.

"The Gals" (as they're referred to in the opening credits) are all great, too. Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Rose McGown and newcomer Zoe Bell shine in particularly. The cast as a whole work perfectly together, too, which given the large amount of ensemble conversations is extremely fortunate. The chemistry appears so good amongst the cast that you can't imagine they didn't have fun filming Death Proof.

You'll forgive me if I seem to be deliberately avoiding talking about the plot, it is, as I've said, so simplistic that frankly there's nothing to be gained by telling you about it. Just go and watch and enjoy if you're outside of the US or buy, watch and enjoy if you're in.

By now I'm sure you've come to expect, as I have, a pretty decent treatment for films on DVD, and thankfully Death Proof is no different. If anything I'd have to say that, apart from the obvious loss of detail, the picture quality is actually better than the brand new cinema print I watched last week. The blacks are nice and black, but the image isn't too dark (as it was in the cinema), creating good contrast with shadow detail. The colours are perfectly captured, and so are all the deliberate scratches, bits of dirt and other artefacts.

The same goes for the sound (although I have to say, listening to it full volume in the cinema was most impressive). The deep engine growls cry out for a system with decent bass and loud speakers. Like the plot structure, the audio is deceptively simple.

As with Kill Bill, it seems like extras are not really what this DVD release is about, despite having a second disc dedicated to them. On the first disc you get the International Trailer (gives everything away) and a Poster Gallery (especially uninspiring).

The second disc is made up of short featurettes, which do provide some sense of background for the film when viewed together. I'm not really sure what a feature length documentary or commentary could have provided for a film like Death Proof, unless it delved into its Grindhouse beginnings... which none of the included documentaries do, unfortunately.

Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof (20mins) - A short piece on the old school drivers they used for the car chase. Some of the things they did seem almost let down by the film itself (for example the "near miss" they talk about is not very impressive in the final film).

Introducing Zoe Bell (9 mins) - An interesting explanation as to why one of the actresses does some amazing stunts.

Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike (10mins) - A short piece on how great Kurt Russell is as Stuntman Mike (he is, but ten minutes of this isn't totally necessary, but I guess any shorter and it would have felt equally pointless).

Finding Quentin's Gals (20mins) - Another short piece on how each of the women were cast by Tarantino.

"Baby It's You" sung by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2mins) - A short outtake from the film showcasing Winstead's surprisingly good voice.

The Guys of Death Proof (8mins) - A smaller piece on how the guys were cast (did you know that Eli Roth was one of them?).

Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke (5mins) - An extremely short piece were Tarantino thanks his editor, and some snippets which are the closest to outtakes/goofs as this DVD gets.

Double Dare trailer - A trailer for the documentary that shows Zoe Bell's story and one that possibly led to Tarantino casting her.

A lot of people are probably annoyed that there's no mention of Grindhouse nor any of the fake trailers which were originally shown between the two features. The reason for this is actually quite hopeful; Tarantino and Rodriquez see Grindhouse as a separate entity don't want to do it a disservice by just selling off its parts. As such, this DVD is about Death Proof, not Grindhouse.

They both love Grindhouse and want it to keep alive, and the only way to do that is to keep whatever unique elements it has, to itself. This means, thankfully, that Grindhouse will indeed keep floating around cinemas all over the world once its two halves have had their separate releases. Ultimately its life will probably be one closer to the low-budget 70's it pretends to emulate, appearing in lesser known cinemas for sporadic (hopefully late night) showings.

Final thoughts
If you're familiar with Grindhouse and liked it, you'll love this. If you're new to Death Proof (meaning you're probably reading from outside the US) go see it at the cinema first (it's great with a good crowd) and then come back and import this DVD.

It may not be Tarantino's greatest work, but it's his most playful, joyous and outright fun.


Recommended (for the film itself and presentation more than anything else).