Wednesday, 30 December 2009

oh and while I remember.. Merry Christmas!!

Its a little belated, but here's a retrospective very merry Christmas from us here at the Prefab Treehouse, and have a fantabulous new year! 2009 was a good one, so here's hoping 2010 brings us all lots of joy, there's certainly plenty of great films and games to look forward to, and by crikey, my new year's resolution is to write about more of them! Thanks to all our readers and commenters which we've seen expand hugely over the last 12 months, it's great to know people actually read the drivel we put up here, even if just now and again!

The image above by the way comes courtesy of who kindly let me use a pic of their amazing treehouse, which sadly I don't own, but whose existence has prompted me to start a project to build one, as it looks like I could happily live in that.. Their site is full of amazing photography so do stop in for a peek if you get a chance.. Thanks to them, and a Happy New Year to one and all!

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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Review: Avatar

After a very, very long time coming, the most hotly anticipated film of recent memory has finally landed. 14 years gestation and awaiting the technology to sufficiently catch up to him, James Cameron has unleashed his “Dances with Smurfs”, amid a climate of fear and trepidation that the hype had outrun the reality of the project, and that this would be Ferngully with thundercats. The screenings of sections of footage in cinemas around the world a couple of months back did little to allay people’s fears, instead fuelling the fire and the backlash to fever point, before anyone had even seen the finished product; in many peoples books Avatar looked set to be the biggest cinematic misstep of all time. Me though, I never had a doubt. Not a one! And my blind faith/stubbornness has been vindicated by what I saw in my local Imax cinema, and indeed again in a regular cinema later on. Avatar is mindblowingly impressive. Brain scramblingly beautiful. Thought shreddingly groundbreaking, and many other hyperbolically italicised plaudits. While it’s not going to be getting any awards for its script, or in places, it’s acting, it undoubtedly sets the bar ridiculously high in terms of what’s visually possible in cinema. An utterly compelling alien world is up there on screen for us to marvel at, and is so detailed, so convincing that you will want to take your holidays there. Even if you’re not much of a sci-fi fan, you really should give serious thought to entering the world of Avatar. Some spoilers follow..

It’s 2154 and Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is finding a new lease of life. After an apparent run of fairly abysmal happenings; he is a marine in a wheelchair after an injury, and his twin brother has just been murdered, he is offered a unique opportunity for a new life. His brother you see, was a scientist involved in a very special project – an attempt at diplomatic relations with an alien species. Earth, referred to in passing as a dying world, is undertaking a mining mission on a distant planet’s moon, where the impossibly valuable and dubiously monikered, 'unobtanium' is abundant, and there the alien natives are causing bother for the intrepid miners. The air is toxic and every attempt to relate to the tree dwelling savages has pushed them further away, making Pandora the most hostile environment in the universe, with the exception of Oxford street on Christmas eve. The less than immediately obvious solution is to grow human/native hybrid bodies, the titular Avatars, which can then be remotely controlled by a human ‘pilot’ from the safety of a pod back at base. Because the Avatars are both hugely expensive to make, and need to be a grown from your DNA – Jake is a perfect fit for his dead brother’s which would otherwise have gone to waste. With not a lot else on his plate, off he jets on a six year cryo ride to the other side of the galaxy, and Pandora.

Despite a chronic lack of training or knowledge, Jake drops into the programme with aplomb – Sigourney Weaver’s Grace is the project task master and is none too pleased about having a trigger happy marine on her team- her protests fall on the deaf ears of the big cheese at the top, the fastidious Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who views Sully as a lucky save. “lucky he had a twin who wasn’t a dental hygienist” he remarks, making fairly good sense. So in his new avatar body, and by various mishaps in the jungle, Jake quickly finds himself among the natives who, thanks to several dubious ‘signs’ from the local deity, agree to teach him their ways. Specifically, he is set to be taught by the chiefs daughter who found him, the confusingly hot Neytiri. From here on it’s all learning local custom and the deep connection (literally) they have to the forest, while at the same time reporting back to the evil human taskmasters. For Jake has in secret agreed to feed tactical information to the mad marine Colonel Quarritch and Ribisi that can help bring down the creatures when the time comes, these villainous types having a totally separate, and uniformly evil, agenda to Sigourney et al, who remain firm Naaviophiles. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know where this is going – it’s no surprise to learn that by the final act, Jake has firmly switched sides, fallen in love with the chiefs daughter, is fighting the increasingly aggressive and encroaching invaders and generally being heroic and alien, flying about the place on his alien dragon-steed. Most of the final act is one of the more spectacular extended battle sequences committed to film, but will Jake and the natives be able to fight off the technological terror of the humans with their shock and awe attacks? Ahem. What do you think?

So the plot is no great shakes, but it’s in the telling that Cameron has excelled. The Avatars themselves are simply extraordinary creations, and an incredible achievement of visual effect and performance capture. Each avatar looks like the actor portraying them, but are patently not them. For a start they’re about nine feet tall – the scenes where they’re depicted alongside the humans are quite startling, and for second, they’re bright blue and have pointy ears and tails. The amount of expression captured in each face is quite remarkable, and was achieved through pioneering techniques developed by Cameron, they are utterly convincing and convey emotion like no other CG creation ever seen – you may think Gollum was pretty good, and he was, but this is a whole new level we didn’t know was there, and the scary thing is it’s only going to improve. Zoe Saldana's Neytiri is particularly spellbinding - her face so full of emotion and expression I ended up wanting a nine foot tall blue girlfriend.

The other star of the show is Pandora itself, and in many ways is even more of an achievement than the avatars. The forest planet is essentially one massive rain forest, full of fantastical plants and creatures, but to think that it has all been created from scratch is simply incomprehensible. Impossibly high trees tower overhead, huge mountains float above the surface, by night the forest is alive with spectacular bioluminescence, the world is simply beautiful in its every detail. The creatures inhabiting it are no less impressive, from the massive rhino like creatures to the airborne pterodactyl-alikes, each one is extremely convincing in its execution, exhibiting perfectly plausible evolutionary traits, even if they are a bit too close too earthbound animals in some instances. Throw in the 3-D and you have a world that’s amazing to behold that you are right in the middle of, and that you will scarcely realise as you’re watching it, that each part of it simply doesn’t exist anywhere except on screen - it's only afterwards on thinking it through that the realisation hits - none of that was real? Impossible! Only marginally less impressive is the human side of the coin, with their mechanised walkers and huge flying aircraft carriers – each piece of hardware is as carefully designed as we’ve come to expect and looks amazing in action, particularly during the latter half of the film when they really get to strut their stuff.

There is however, no getting round the fact that the story is thin. It’s criticism of humanity, technology vs the environment and even parallels to the Iraq war are all barely disguised, and are on paper at least, supremely corny. The villains of the piece, the bad militaristic/capitalist humans, are more 2 dimensional than their CG opposite numbers, being incredibly simplistic comic book baddies, hell bent on exploiting the uneducated tree dwelling native idiots. It's almost insulting to suggest that after such vast leaps forward in technology that society would have advanced so little morally to leave Ribisi so unable to comprehend what the native's problem with him tearing up their home might be. The Naavi meanwhile are portrayed as wise, spiritually rich and morally unimpeachable, and Jake abandons his old human life with zero consequence or regret. It’s a typically guilt laden white man self flagellation, the alien nation here impossibly romanticised into examples of a perfect existence.

But then, as it is an alien nation, it can be romanticised as much as Cameron likes – it’s not really native Americans, it’s not really Iraq, it’s a bunch of blue aliens in a tree (we love tree houses around here after all), and what Cameron has achieved is to be able to put you there unlike any previous attempt to immerse you in an alien world, and it’s a place you will want to visit again and again. You could argue the corniness of the plot almost enhances the experience, as anything more complex in terms of whose side we should be on might have lessened or connection to the world. I wouldn't personally argue that, but you could if you wanted to. What is certain though is that the amount of emotion Cameron manages to wring out of you as we watch Jake delve deeper into the culture is immense – the learning to fly sections in particular are simply breathtaking, and you will feel the outrage and the despair as the humans tear down the beloved trees though which the people speak to their dead ancestors. Oh yes you will. The fact that Jake’s real body lies helpless somewhere else while he’s off leaping though the jungle is also nicely exploited to dramatic effect, giving rise to some great nail biting moments, and the battles when they kick off are just amazing. But Cameron delights equally in the quiet moments, the plants of the forest, some little insect fluttering by, a raised eyebrow of a curious native - all so impeccably realised, how can this not be a documentary? Whether or not this will stand up to scrutiny at home is to be seen, but I want that DVD if just to see how the hell it was all done!

The fruits of Cameron's four year labour in terms of creating a living breathing world are onscreen for all to see, this film grabs you by the eyeballs, and sucks you straight into its world and keeps you there for 3 full hours - you'll be there at the end, cheering and shaking your fist at the screen, ready to sign up to the next freighter that will ship you out to Pandora. But, then you remember, we don't really have space travel yet and you're stuck on this drab little planet, and realise you have no choice but to go back to the front of the queue and buy another ticket to get back that wonderful place. Is this the game changer we had been promised? - absolutely - we are now at the point where technology can deliver things we've genuinely never seen before, and I for one am very excited to see where this takes us next. For now though, forget small steps, Avatar is one giant leap for mankind.

Treehouse rating


Out of this world

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Monday, 14 December 2009


Since I recently found myself in the greatest city in the world, I’ve taken a page out of S1nner’s book and gone nuts with a camera. While I make no claim to have an iota of talent or photographic knowledge, and my tools were, by most’s standards, basic (yet arousingly svelte), I did very much enjoy snapping away at every inch of that amazing town, and still have Rhapsody in Blue reverberating around my skull. So here then is a small selection of the almost embarrassing number of images I indiscriminately digitised, a little love letter to my favourite city on earth. Its quintessentially New York.

Is there a place in all the world that oozes such self assurance, such nonchalant hipness? Everywhere you go, you simply cannot move for something amazing, be it a fantastic view, an easy going bar, an exceptional restaurant (reviews coming up. Oh yes). No, London gets a lot of kudos for being a great city, and it is, in it’s own mean spirited, selfish kind of way – London you have to grab by the throat and squeeze the good stuff out of, make efforts to seek out the juicy, squishy delights lurking beneath a soggy batter of mediocrity. In NY, the goods throw themselves at you at every turn. And then if you delve a bit deeper, you find the really good stuff. Of course it’s easy to romanticise such a place, especially when decked out in it's festive trappings, but if ever there was a city worth romanticising it’s this one.

People say New Yorkers are tough, surly, mean. Balls. What a lovely, cuddly downright adorable tribe they are. Ok so we didn’t spend an awful lot of time in the Bronx, but generally speaking, the man on the NY street is about a gazillion times more likely to offer a lost tourist a hand than you would find on the poshest London street. And in the bars and restaurants? fuggedaboudit, the level of service borders on the ridiculous. Recommendations, honest advice, what not to have or do, all are more forthcoming than the endless coffee refills, and all are spot on. Sure there's a tip waiting for them with the bill, but hey, you gets whats you pays for. In every side street lurks a little slice of greatness, an energy and creativity that pervades the most meagre diner, the most unlikely looking tavern. If ever there was a place I could slip into like a fatman into plate of pancakes, it’s the Big Apple, if just to sit and watch the day unfold.

Do you New Yorkers ever get tired of your town? Is it possible? Sure maybe when you're not on holiday, wandering the streets in a silly hat taking pictures of doorways, and are actually say, making a living or something, it might become a little less striking, but really, does it? Can it? I really can't see it!

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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Review: The Road

The road is long, with many a winding turn. Two statements that can’t readily be applied to this, the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel, for clocking in at just over 110 minutes it's relatively short, and with nary a plot twist, or indeed a plot in sight, isn't terribly windy either, this Road is in fact a beautiful but flawed apocalypse movie. The apocalypse itself is almost incidental to McCarthy's novel, an exploration of humanity at its very end, following the travelling father/son duo on their wacky adventure across a decimated North America, and documenting their jolly encounters with travelling salesmen, entertainers and cannibals, and the film is no different. So no different in fact that you may emerge blinking into the colourful real world thankful that it is still there and just as colourful as you remembered, or perhaps, despite the excellent work by everyone involved, just thankful that the movie is over.

It was never going to be easy, bringing this one to the silver screen. McCarthy’s America is one where nothing grows, no birds sing, no squirrels gather nuts and the sun never, ever shines. The causal event of such devastation is only hinted at, here by subtle flashback – a nuclear war? A tumultuous natural disaster? Who knows. What is clear is that the world is dead. No animal save for man walks upon the earth, and humanity is its death throes. Those that remain some ten years after the event survive as they must in the brutal ash covered landscape. And it is here that our protagonists known only as the man (Viggo Mortensen) and the boy (newcomer Kodi Smit-Mcphee), travel south in search of, anything. Along the way they scavenge and survive, and occasionally run into other survivors – typically tense affairs when the majority of strangers want to eat your legs – and that is literally the entirety of the plot.

What the book, and to a less successful extent the film, try to gauge, is the capacity of man for good and evil. The man and boy are the self professed “good guys” – who would never eat another person no matter how hungry they were – but of course each encounter with another party, a punctuation in the monotonous silent crawl south, explores how good the man really is, and what lessons he is passing onto his son. An early encounter with a rather mad-max-esque hick ends abruptly with a bullet to the head in the name of protecting the boy – fair enough you might say, but later run-ins see a harsh punishment doled out to a would be thief (watch out for an overly-chubby-for-the-role Michael Kenneth Williams Omar fans!) and the man’s fury tempered by the merciful son – has he learned good lessons? I don’t know, I’d say he wouldn't last five minutes with such a trusting nature, honestly has he learned nothing?? But then that's the point, the morality on display in extraordinary circumstances; we’ll all come away with a different take on how we might believe ourselves to behave in such a position.

But the trouble is, the book is good for such reflection, for such melancholy daydreaming, but the film is something else. A book you can put down, or look up from and surround yourself with the warmth of reality. Here we are locked in the barren grey silence of it all for the duration. And this would be no bad thing, if it weren’t so slavishly tied to the book's content. Of course it never really had a choice in the matter – fans of the novel would be liable to self immolation if an additional sentence of spoken dialogue or scene with a shopping mall were added, so it can’t be held at fault for it, but the fact remains this is a very slender narrative. As the pair make their way south, the man’s health gradually declines, and the ultimate question of what will happen to our offspring we leave behind us raises it’s ever present ugly head. It is an interesting conundrum, and makes for some genuinely tense moments during some particularly grisly encounters with the logical conclusion of life at the end of days, but can’t sustain itself into what we might consider a cinematic plot.

It falls then to the acting, and fortunately, this is where The Road triumphs. Viggo is, as ever, hypnotically great. Appearing half dead for half of the film, he brings a natural sensitivity to the role of the doting father, carefully tutoring the boy in methods of survival, while simultaneously marvelling at how little he understands, born as he was at the start of the “event”, about the world before the devastation. “You think I’m from a different world don’t you?” he croaks at one point, as indeed he is. He treads the finest of lines throughout the film between morality and brutality, motivated to good and bad only by his boy, his emotional and physical decline throughout is both touching and painful to watch. The boy meanwhile is also excellent, although the “look Papa!” wore thin after about five minutes. Supporting cast members, thin on the ground as they are, are all very well played, especially a brilliant turn from an almost unrecognisable Robert Duval as the old man, and a buck toothed cameo from Hilcoat favourite, Guy Pearce.

Speaking of which, The Road is a difficult proposition to quantify. While being on the one hand superbly made, diligently shot and impeccably acted it is simultaneously grey, flat, depressing and dare I say it, a little boring. Obviously one does not expect action adventure from such a movie, yet there is so little life in the lens that it fails to excite on a fundamental level. The barren stills of There will be Blood never failed to capture the imagination, no matter how little was happening in the frame, same for other “quiet” movies like Walkabout or Flash Gordon. But the Road is as drained of passion as the picture is of colour – it feels as tired as it’s ailing protagonists, who while excellent in themselves never really feel connected. That sense of disconnection may well be deliberate, but it only serves to undermine our relation to the characters. The clipped, dry dialogue of the book is retained here, and off the page feels cold and distant. Do I really give a monkeys if these two don’t make it through the relentless bleakness? Why delay the inevitable? Of course, this again is a central tenet of the story, as is nicely illustrated by Charlize Theron’s rather harrumphy exit from their lives some years earlier, did she have the right idea in saving herself all this greyness?

Despite all the ambiguity, I would recommend the Road to those of a reflective and melancholy nature as it does provide a morbidly-emotionally gruelling couple of hours. To those of you of an excessively exuberant and effervescent disposition, you should probably see it too as you’re pissing us all off with your relentlessly cheerful attitude. I wouldn’t recommend it to you however if you’re expecting Mad Max or Dennis Hopper with an eyepatch, there are no gyrocopters here. What is here is a thoughtful and tender meditation on life and death, in a realistically stylised vision of the end of days. An essayist's study of what it means to be human, and after everything has passed, what it means to be a good human, all told through a brown lens with the odd cannibal thrown in for good measure.

The Road is released in the UK on 8th January

Treehouse Rating


Armageddon outta here

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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

One and a half days in Rio de Janeiro

Quite unexpectedly, Rio has become my favourite place to be (with the exception of Kashmir but I was born there so it doesn’t count). Saying it’s my favourite place is quite a statement given that I was actually only there for a day and a half and I was petrified of getting mugged as soon as I left the airport. So, let me explain ...

Everyone told me “Be careful, it’s City of God country”. I have no doubt the ‘wrong’ parts of town are dangerous but my experience was overwhelmingly positive. And how is man known for being so hard to please erm pleased? Was the sea? The sand perhaps? That beautiful sky? Or the hot rays of sunshine on my skin? The people? The food? The stunning scenery? Actually, it was all of the above. There are beaches and then there are the beaches. Rio has character and atmosphere by the bucket load. It’s very hard for anyone not to fall in love with Rio.

The start of the relationship
Flying from Sau Paulo where I’d been working for 3 days, I arrived in Rio late Thursday night. The flight was delayed so I missed an evening in Rio. So off to the hotel I went and checked in and slept soundly till 7am. Friday morning and my adventure began. The highlights of my stay:

Christ the Redeemer
If you think of Rio, a few things spring to mind and this colossal monument is one of them. The statue is 130 ft tall and 98 ft wide. It weighs 635 tons and is located at 2300ft on top of the Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city (you can’t really miss it). In July 2007, Christ the Redeemer was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a list compiled by the Swiss-based “The New Open World Corporation”. I’m not sure I’d agree but it doesn’t matter. It’s impressive! The tour guide told us it was made of concrete shipped in from Switzerland but a quick search on the internet says it’s made from soapstone. Not sure what that is but in any case, it’s a great monument and the views from Corcovado are spectacular. Actually, getting to the top by tram is good fun – it’s very steep to walk (although people do actually do this).

Sugar Loaf Mountain
Cable cars take passengers up the mountain in two stages, the first stopping at the Morro da Urca, a smaller mountain in front of Sugarloaf, and the second continuing on to the summit, each stage taking three minutes. Again, the views are spectacular and it’s well worth a visit. I had a moment of mental peace while I was up on Sugar Loaf. There is even a club there but I didn’t get to check it out (this time). For all you film buffs, Sugar Loaf is where James Bond battles Jaws in Moonraker!

Copacabana Beach
Everywhere I looked I saw people playing volleyball or football, people basking in the glorious sunshine and buff men strutting around in the tiniest Speedos (slightly disturbing as I’ve never seen so many men’s crotches in my life). I walked the entire length of the beach and back again. It was fabulous. The people were great, the weather was great, I managed to burn despite my sun cream factor 30 but I didn’t care. Sitting down drinking coconut milk watching the world go by was simply wonderful. I was introduced to a drink called ‘Guarana’ – sugary, syrupy, tasty and full of caffeine it will wake you up and keep you buzzing. One can was enough though …

I sincerely regret not staying for longer in Rio. It’s left its marked on me. I need it. I want to lie on that beach, swim in those waters, watch those people walk by and feel content. Because that is what I realise Rio did for me. It washed away my troubles and woes and, for a short time at least, I was happy to be me.

Treehouse rating:

5/5 –
“Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand …”
“Tall and tan and young and lovely, The girl from Ipanema goes walking, And when she passes each one she passes goes "a-a-ah!"

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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Batman based song of the week

Words are great. We love 'em here at the Treehouse, and bandy them about willy nilly, sometimes using whole sentences in displays of uncharacteristic eloquence. But dammit all, they’re so 2008. As we creep towards the bright future, much like Doc Brown’s distaste for roads, where we’re going we won’t need words. For the rise of the video, though apparent for a good while now, has been ever more stealthily spreading it’s seductive tendrils. The video review is certainly no new thing, we’re big Yahtzee fans around here, and indeed even the Gametrailers reviews are things of much value, allowing viewers to see the words of the reviewers in their heads, sometimes literally. But surely the work of Rebecca Mayes eclipses all of these pretenders to the medium, for she is carving herself the niche in video gaming of video song reviews. She not only uses words, and a plethora of instruments, and catchy ditties, but also adorable little penguin outfits and tea sets. A brave new world of games reviews dawns. She was recently featured on Charlie Brooker’s excellent Gameswipe, with her review of Madworld, but this delightful love note to Batman: Arkham Asylum is at once pretty and insightful, and is surely her finest work to date. Ever a sucker for the incredibly talented I take off my penguin hat to her and bid her continue with this bold march towards a word free future. But then again, some faces are meant for radio, so please don’t think too harshly of us if we continue to spout a couple now and again around here. See more of the wonderful Rebecca Mayes at her home at The Escapist, but not I hasten to add, at her real home because that, sir, has a word, and that word is stalker.

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Sunday, 8 November 2009

Review: Paranormal Activity

The marketers of indie flick Paranormal Activity must’ve had a helluva time with this one. A no-budget, skeleton cast and crewed horror spook-em up written and directed by newcomer Oren Peli, very much in the vain of Blair Witch and REC, clips from the footage probably didn’t lend themselves well to trailers. Which is presumably why the early trailer mostly consisted of massive banners quoting reviews; “you will never sleep again”, “you will poop you pants” and so forth they cried (both of which are a bit of an exaggeration) and the current trailer is in the style of the film itself, documenting an audience's terror in lovely night vision as though the main protagonist dusted himself down and kept on filming. And oh, how they scream, oh how they jump. Yes it’s the classic first person “found footage” scare-fest riding on the wave of some quite novel marketing buzz, this time though happily offering a semi-plausible reason as to why the protagonists might continue filming instead of putting down the camera and picking up a bat – a) they’re documenting spooky happening in their house, b) you can’t hit a ghost with a bat stoopid. Also, this footage has been found, and then some thoughtful soul has kindly edited it into a nice sub-90 minute package, and in so doing have crafted a highly competent little creepshow that delivers some genuine chills that will stay with you well after you leave the cinema and crawl back to your safe, dark little bed. Um.., what was that sound..?

The footage follows Micah and Katie, and handsome young couple living in a nice little house in a nice little area. They have a pool and everything. Micah has invested in a tasty new camera to document what’s been happening in this suburban cul-de- sac. It’s a blindingly simple conceit, and is executed brilliantly - the early scenes are utterly plausible, the pair of unknowns being extremely convincing as a happy couple, screwing around with Micah’s new toy and each other, and not taking the whole ghost thing too seriously. And so, they document their lives, setting the camera on a tripod in the corner of the bedroom to watch for spooky happenings while they sleep, in a static shot that we will come to dread, and generally creeping themselves out during the day by watching the footage we have just watched “live”. Things start off at a crawl and gradually ramp up. A door moving by itself, some strange banging sounds – the kind of thing we generally experience now and again, adding to the paranoia you’ll feel on returning home after viewing. But the haunting increases in intensity and violence as the days go on, culminating in a – well, I couldn’t possibly say how far it goes, but you may need to take something/someone to hold onto. It emerges Katie has been followed by this haunting for most of her life, and this demon, so sayeth the obligatory psychic expert who pops in for tea, is in some way connected to her - there's no point in running away. And so they don't, and despite at times wanting to, neither do we.

There was a real risk this could have turned into an episode of some TV ghost hunting nonsense with two nitwit protagonists jumping at noises and generally being dull and occasionally screaming at the camera. The horror, when it kicks in in earnest however, is quite dramatic, and after the gentle, lolling introduction, it comes as quite a shock when things get real. Soon the haunting is being really very creepy, and the night scenes become little wars of attrition where we fear the worst and are forced to watch helplessly as the pair try make it through the night, their fragile bodies at the mercy of whatever is stalking in the darkness; we all need sleep after all, and playing on this vulnerability, you really may have trouble dropping off the first night after you watch it. It taps into something quite primal that gets those neck hairs upright just thinking about it - that there might be something just behind your head right now - "I can feel it breathing on me" gasps Katie. Eu, creepsville!

The pacing of the film is in fact both its greatest strength, and ultimately it biggest flaw.While the slow early scenes build up gradually, making it all the more effective when things kick off properly, the movie is not well balanced as a whole. Much like a nervous teenager (if you’ll excuse a rather crass analogy), it warms you up with a lot of perfectly skilful foreplay, but then, just when things start getting really interesting, it makes a clumsy headfirst dash for the finish line. Once we’d got to the meat, I wanted more scares, more action! There were plenty of nice low budget places it could have gone, and that I assumed it would go, given the snail’s pace it had been building us up at, but instead it was all over in a flash, and left me feeling a bit, well, unfulfilled.

That said, this feeling is all testament to how well the near zero budget has been used, the special effects that are in there are extremely well done. Subtle and effective, they really manage to set the nerve endings jangling, and the audience I watched it with were full of gasps and moans and the sounds of straining one involuntarily emits when girding oneself for an impending inevitable shock. “Less is more” is the mantra here – you’ve never before heard such a dramatic reaction from an audience to a light turning on in a distant room, and some brilliantly used time-lapse shots inspired nervous giggling and under breath swearing aplenty – it’s enough to make you sleep with one eye open – and don’t think having someone sleeping nearby will help. Much of the terror stems from great sound design – a low rumble and footsteps can be infinitely more effective than a CG beastie, and of course it helps that our two protagonists, on whom the whole film hangs after all, are both superb to the bitter end - although S1nner found Micah to be a bit irritating.

So it’s all very effective; chilling, nerve wracking and manages to stay with you afterwards, so it must be, as the hype suggests, a classic horror film right? Well, yes and no. It should certainly be seen, and if you are to see it, it should be at the cinema surrounded by a jumpy audience, for what is here is top rate. But ultimately it's so threadbare, so lightweight, it cannot stand up to comparison next to “real” films of the genre. Not to be dismissive of Peli’s massive achievement of getting such a small picture to the big screen, but at the end of the day Paranormal Activity is really little more than a ghost train, a spook house – a cheap carnival thrill. For me, the half baked ending brought the proceedings to a close in a disappointingly abrupt spasm of terror that may have been pleasing at the time, but looking back you can’t help but feel if it had been just a little bit more fully cooked, it could’ve been a bona-fide knee trembler. But hey, everyone still loves the ghost train right? So hop on, enjoy, get home and leave the light on.

Paranormal Activity is released in the UK on the 25th November.

Treehouse rating


No really, what was that sound?

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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Treehouse Photography Special - Macro

For those of you that don't know me, you won't know (is that some weird tautology there?) that I love photography. Yes, I admit it. I'm that sad, lonely figure walking around camera in hand jumping at anything that can be photographed. My preference is landscapes and macro and Munial suggested that I post some of my images to try and get some feedback (since I'm always badgering him). So, I will start posting a series of photographs monthly with different themes ... do let me know what you think as there is (probably) a big conflict of interest if I review my own stuff! This month's theme is macro (small stuff up close) and I've posted a very small selection from my vast library. Just bear in mind that the photographs are reduced in size and resolution for obvious reasons. Also, the watermark refers you to my website - apologies for the plug!

The camera I used was a Canon A710 IS purchased in 2006 which is a mid-range fully manual digital compact (not an SLR). I was recently visiting relatives abroad and my aunt decided she needed it more than me. I didn't know how to say no so I'm now about to purchase the Canon SX 200 IS. This is a direct replacement for the A series and it's all I need. It's a strong all rounder and a good size at a reasonable price. Although, the Nikon D5000 would be my budget digital SLR of choice for greater manual control. My theme next month may be 'lakes' and all things to do with lakes. If anyone has a better suggestion or wants to challenge me ... go for it! The photographs shown are a very small selection - I literally have thousands. If you like photography and would like to exchange tips etc, let me know.

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Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Despite what Michael Jackson would have us believe, This is, in fact, it. This is Gilliam’s shot at the big time. Never mind the fact that he is one of the most brilliantly inventive, dedicated and passionate film makers ever, this is his last chance to show those money hogging, suit wearing bitches, that he can get bums on seats too. And I hope he does – I know a lot of people who have been to see this film, the type I wouldn’t imagine typically seeing a Gilliam film. Sure they came away with a predictable reaction – it was a bit weird – but they saw it, and enjoyed it.

But no doubt, a sound analysis: weird it is, as wonderfully weird as we’ve come to expect from Gilliam. A sprawling heap of wacky ideas and twisted notions, this is essentially his imagination made flesh, his brains scooped out and sloshed about onscreen in an orgy of colour and beauty, and when inside the titular imaginarium, it’s most analogous with his cartoons from Monty Python. The tale itself really is somewhat of a bafflement though, perhaps even more than is usual for Gilliam. Its a beautifully befuddling and warm fairytale about imagination and story telling, that is undoubtedly his finest film for years.

We’re in modern day London, announces the oddly medieval onscreen script, a weirdly tall and narrow horse and cart pulls through the darkened rainy streets. The show, for it is such, pitches up outside a busy nightclub where drunken revellers are spilling onto the street. The rickety cart opens and unfolds to reveal that perennial Gilliam favourite; a shabby flea circus theatre, ancient and ramshackle. Onstage the pitiful band of the immortal Dr Parnassus and his followers try to tempt the revellers with their fantastical tales. Parnassus sits motionless in a trance while his crew spin a wistful tale. Straight away the conceit is clear – the world has left these performers behind, the drunken revellers don’t care for stories or imagination and after a boozy bust up Valentina, Parnassus’ long limbed daughter, is chased through the stage mirror to the back of the stage. Except of course these travelling oddballs are the genuine article and the mirror in fact leads into the recesses of Parnassus’ entranced mind. Inside the imaginarium, reality is what you make it, and so each journey within is never the same twice. The reveller quickly meets a sticky end inside for reasons that become apparent later.

And so off they trot, after giving the dopey filth the slip for the missing pisshead, to find another pitch to tell their tales and expand some minds again. The crew is four strong. There’s Parnassus himself, Valentina, Anton – the downtrodden dreamer madly in love with Valentina, and Percy, Vern Troyer’s even-smaller-than-a-midget coachmen/advisor. Together they roll around the streets of London looking for punters to enthral with their stories, and to guide to blissful transcendence from their everyday lives through Parnassus’ fantastical imaginarium, but clearly times are tough. Valentina dreams of escape. Anton dreams of Valentina, and Parnassus simply dreams. And drinks.

Also, even more trouble is afoot, for it emerges that Valentina’s 16th birthday is approaching and Parnassus’ very long history is about to catch up with him. The story is gradually revealed throughout, but much is clear from very early on – a shadowy figure displays an unhealthy interest in Valentina and Parnassus knows him well. A thousand years ago, when he was a young monk (!) Parnassus had a little run in with a moustachioed Tom Waits with a knack for magic and a penchant for gambling. This was, he tells Valentina, the first time he struck a bet with the Devil. The good Doctor was locked in battle with Mr Nick to see who could save or destroy the most souls through offering simple choice to the folk who entered his imaginarium, a bet which Parnassus won and gained his immortality – which of course turned into a curse as times changed and he and his stories became ancient and irrelevant. But back to Valentina, and many hundreds of years later Parnassus meets his one true love, and Mr Nick crops up again to make another deal – in exchange for his youth given back to him allowing him to court this beautiful creature, Nick will claim any offspring they bear on reaching it’s 16th birthday. Well, the Doc agreed and lo and behold many many years of blissful marriage later, out pops Valentina. Oh dear – things are just looking up for Lily, and now it seems the Devil's going to cart her off for his amusement. But ever the gambler, Mr Nick, in the present now, makes another offer; if Parnassus agrees to resurrect their old favourite game - If he can "enlighten" five souls before Mr Nick, Valentina's soul can be saved.

The start of this new wager is marked by the arrival of a new member of the troupe – the enigmatic Tony (Heath Ledger). Found hanging by his neck under London Bridge, initially dead, he quickly comes back to life and becomes a central figure in the travelling show. Immediately an object of much fascination for Valentina and deep suspicion by the jealous Anton, Tony is a mysterious figure, never fully explained. Without a memory (so he claims) and with strange markings on his forehead and apparently some magic of his own, he tags along with the show, seemingly unfazed by the enchanting secrets behind Parnassus’ mirror, and together they set about saving souls and ultimately Valentina’s. But his murky past cannot remain hidden and as the competition hots up it becomes clear that Valentina's soul is at the mercy of her own choices, just like everyone else's.

So there is a plot. That is it. It is weird, no doubt – fantastical and imaginative and where anything can happen and does. At the heart of it is the notion explored in the early flashback scene, where the young Parnassus first meets Mr Nick. In it he explains that the monk's purpose is to tell the eternal story - the idea being that should they stop telling it, the world will cease to be. Nick proves that wrong by sucking their voices from their mouths. See, he croaks, we're all still here. Ah but, rebutts Parnassus, someone somewhere else in the world is telling the story, and so here we remain. Brilliant. It’s no surprise to learn the story was co-penned by Baron Munchausen creator CharlesMcKeown; the script positively drips the Baron’s whimsy; an immortal (ish) protagonist, the notion that storytelling is as vital to humanity as breathing, the power of the imagination to alter our reality – these themes are all central to Parnassus.

Much of the focus has however been firmly on this being Ledger’s last film, so what of the scenes he didn’t complete where other actors step in to fill his shoes? Whenever Tony enters the imaginarium he takes on a different form, appearing as Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, each portraying the different sides of Tony. This is introduced in such a natural and organic away it’s hard to imagine that it was never intended all along. It would be nice to say Ledger is a revelation, but he is just plain good. A charmingly likeable aspect to what turns out to be a more complex character than we initially realise, much of his performance was to his credit improvised, and it is undoubtedly a solid one. The turns by the guest Tony's are all equally enjoyable, each bringing out a different aspect of a character.

Gilliam's focus looks to have been elsewhere however as he has clearly found a bit of a muse in Cole. While she too never blows us away with her acting chops, being as she is, just about passable, she is simply fascinating to look at, and Gilliam frequently seems unable to tear his lens away from her extraordinary face. Special mention must also be made of course of Tom Waits, who should probably always be cast as the Devil. His portrayal as the playful, whimsical Prince of Darkness is magnificently funny, as is Plummer's boozy old immortal himself.

The imaginarium itself is beautifully realised – vast in its scope, its juxtaposition to the drab real world is jarring, so full as it is of colour and mad ideas propped up on wacky notions. At times it descends into pure Monty Python territory, a Ben and Jerry landscape with chorus lines of dancing policemen – you half expect a giant foot to descend from the heavens to squash a villain. That said, the real world, relatively drab as it is, is made quite lovely too, London looking better than ever. As he did for New York in the Fisher King, in Gilliam’s London magic and mystery lurk in every nook and litter strewn alley. Quite how he makes these ramshackle existences so appealingly beautiful is beyond me.

Some more logical types may find the obscurity of the tale frustrating. Tony’s origin is never fully explained, and it is fair to say that he is a contradictory character – at once seemingly genuinely committed to helping Parnassus win the bet and saving Valentina, while at the same time (or at least in the final act) revealing his dark side of twisted morals and dodgy past. Does he deserve the ending he is met with? Not on the basis of what we see – but is this morality tale half the point? – that we are a bundle of contradictory impulses and notions eternally at odds with one another, and we will ultimately get what’s coming to us no matter what we do? No idea! Answers on a postcard please. What’s clear is that this isn’t the kind of movie in which one should expect the answers to be signposted, for essays could, and will be, written about what it's all about. It would be fair to say though that it does somewhat lose it's way in the final act, where the mystery descends into plain old head scratching.

But frankly sod all that, if you wanted your film to make sense you should have gone to see This is It. Possibly a bad example. Anyway, Parnassus is at heart a Gilliam fairy tale, told in his inimitable style, as full of wacky, humorous imagination as the imaginarium itself. So if you happen to like a Gilliam fairytale, you should happily settle in for his best in recent memory.

Treehouse rating



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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

DVD Review: 'Let The Right One In'

I’ve been dying to watch ‘Let the right one in’ for sometime now and I finally managed to see it on Sunday and it certainly did not disappoint. In fact, it did quite the opposite. It managed to meet high expectations and, on almost all counts, managed to exceed them. This is a very rare gem of a movie that has the same impact of some modern greats including Pan’s Labyrinth (high praise indeed!) and one that really resonates with the viewer. Quiet, intelligent, superbly made and, at its heart, a basic story of two 12 year olds struggling with the realities of life (one just happens to be a vampire). Do your senses a favour and watch it.

I’m so excited about this film that my brain has frozen and I’m not sure where to start this review. It’s actually quite hard to review the film without giving away key details of the plot and I really don’t want to spoil the film for anyone. Anyway, let’s get some facts out of the way first: Directed by Tomas Alfredson, ‘Let the right one in’ is based on a 2004 vampire fiction novel of the same name by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the screenplay for the film). Some might classify this film as a horror film – yes it does have moments of horror and one of the main characters is a vampire but it’s more than just a horror film. Modern horror films are all about blood, guts and leaving little to the imagination. ‘Let the right one in’ is different. It’s so very different to, for example, Twilight (which I reviewed in February and hated) or modern gore fests such as the Saw series. It is, and please excuse the pun, more than just the sum of the (body) parts.

The film stars Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, an intelligent 12 year old boy bullied terribly at school, a social misfit (actually bordering on psychotic) and living with his seemingly workaholic mother and seeing his apparently alcoholic father on occasion. Bullying has been in the news rather a lot this year and it’s interesting to see its considerable negative impact on Oskar (I’ll say no more). Lina Leandersson plays Eli, the new girl on the block and Oskar’s next door neighbour. She is pale, beautiful, feels no cold and is a vampire. The whole film really hinges on the strength of their performances. And boy do they both deliver. Where are the Oscars for such talents? I despair. In fact, the supporting cast are brilliant too. This is not just a film but a social commentary and, as such, the actors play out their roles as though they’re in a documentary. The subtext of much of the film is disturbing and leaves a lingering taste in ones mouth – there are suggestions of psychosis, paedophilia and then you have the murder/killing and death too. So it’s odd I think it’s a beautiful film.

The film is beautifully shot – the wintery landscape of Sweden providing a suitably dark, chilling and oppressive atmosphere. What strikes you most when you watch the movie is that, at its core, this is almost a coming of age movie about two children looking for companionship and is presented in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There are moments of tenderness and sadness in the film that left a real impact on me and that you can relate to (to a degree). I really want to mention two specific scenes but I’ll give away the story so I’ll stop myself. For me, the friendship/relationship that blossoms outshine the moments of very ‘matter of fact’ horror which are brilliantly done in a both a subtle and sometimes not so subtle way. My point is that this film is not about the horror. The horror is one element of a film that is really about the relationship between two children. But it can be construed from the film that it’s more than that – there may or may not be manipulation involved. It’s not straightforward as I’ve portrayed and it is quite complex. The films leaves out huge chunks of the novel so I’d strongly suggest you read the book too if you want more back story (the film is lacking in detail at points and raises lots of misleading questions which the book explains).

One final point, an English language remake is on its way in 2010 set in the US. I’m not sure I want to see it. It’s not needed unless you can’t stand watching films with subtitles … yes, you know who you are you strange people!

Treehouse rating:



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Monday, 2 November 2009

Too many DJ's: DJ Hero hands-on impressions

I finally managed to beat off the chavs to get close to the demo unit for DJ Hero that appeared last week in my local Game. I've been itching to have a look at the turntable close up, despite not actually being terribly excited for it based on what I'd seen, not to mention band games and the like are usually, with their peripheral proclivity, prohibitively pricey. But based on a mere ten minutes of scratch n' sniff, I might just have to make an exception.

The deck itself is pleasingly sturdy, the disc on the right (or left, southpaws), freely spinning unfettered as it should, and the "mixing desk" to the left (see above, reverse it) all present and correct with its cross fader, effect knobs and standard controller buttons tidily concealed under a flap. I thought I best start with the tutorial being offered, as the videos I'd seen hadn't permeated my imagination enough to actually gather what was happening in them. But it turns out it's dead simple, so I skipped it. Also Grandmaster Flash was embarrassingly drawing attention to my newbness really loudly in a crowded store.

DJ's of course, (and not mind, the ones you encounter at weddings who press play to Now that's what I call music 18), mix (or mash, to use the correct parlance) two, often entirely disparate tunes (choons), to make a new and usually improved mash up (song). The same happens here. Track one is the line on the left, track 2 is the line on the right. The one down the middle, as far as I could gather, is used to insert annoying sound effects and cause you to lose your streak. As with Guitar Hero, the iconic buttons zoom towards you on the mesmerically curving track, and you hit the corresponding real world button located conveniently on the deck under your fingers at the appropriate moment to keep that track in the mix. You may see the line jump from left to right and back again. This indicates where a cross fade is required, causing the favouring of one track over the other. Finally, there is what's called the scratchy scratchy move, where a button is depressed and you use the turntable to scratch a funky "eeriyt" into the groove. Simples.

Like Guitar Hero, this promises to be fiendishly addictive and hair tearingly difficult. That said, I blazed through the three demo tracks on normal without problem. There's obviously a lot more to it I don't appreciate yet - there was no specific direction required to get the scratch right, and I barely touched the effects knob. Coordinating all the button presses and crossfades required to keep up with the track, and then dropping in a tasty scratch, is just as rewarding as nailing a guitar solo, and indeed, a tiny crowd of gobby teenagers had quickly gathered to marvel at my mad skills (skillz). My only concern was the crossfaders tendency to leap unbidden out of its central groove, causing one of the tracks to fizz out like a fluff covered needle. No doubt with practice, a non existent problem, clearly one's hand should instinctively hover between the tracks like a Buddhist passing through life.

So I think I need to start saving for this one, because the deck remains fairly pricey for a game. And although it does lack the pick-up-ability of a dinky plastic guitar, based on this tiny slice of gameplay joy and with the knowledge that Activision have secured a genuinely impressive playlist, I have no doubt this will, once it gathers some momentum, be a huge hit. I certainly know what we'll be doing in the Treehouse this Christmas.

Hit the jump for some lovely official videos of a taste of the wonders that await you, and try, unlike I did, to use an iota of imagination of yourself causing these crunchy grooves..

Yes, yes! Sold.

This will never work, right?

Bowie wins. But you probably won't on expert..

More than the sum of its parts..

Check out the Dj Hero Youtube channel for more.

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Monday, 26 October 2009

Snack based song of the week

Peckish? Fancy some kind of bread based treat? How about a nice tasty sandwich? Ah the sandwich, where would we be without that wondrous, heaven sent pinnacle of snackdom? So many fillings, so many options, hard to know where to begin. But have you thought about it as hard as Dan Antopolski? Probably not I'll wager. Check out his ode to the humble, or not so humble sandwich, and marvel as he explores the fundamental nature of that most quintessential of snacks with a little help from Midge Ure. I'm sure he'd be the first to admit, it's not really a rap as such, but it is very funny. Black pepperr, black pepperrr..

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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Getting to the 'Bottom' of things ...

Recently I was fortunate enough to travel to Cannes with work. It's a hard, strenuous job but someone has to do it. It was hot and my hotel was right next to the beach front. From my balcony, I could see the sea, the sand, the beautifully blue skies and the sunbathers. I was hot and sweaty in my suit so I decided to have a quick shower. Since I was in the bathroom I decided to use the loo (as one does) and read my paper. As my soft silky *ahem* skin touched the toilet seat I was greeted by a most pleasant warmth. I almost immediately jumped up thinking that someone had been me using my loo! But no, as I looked around I spotted a fantastically advanced control system for my toilet complete with temperature setting for my toilet seat!! The control system is something that would be more at home on the starship Enterprise (Klingons on the starboard bow captain!!!). I then noticed other settings and not one but two types of 'cleansing' sprays. One was 'front' cleansing and the other was 'rear' cleansing. Each came with individual controls for strength of erm spraying and temperature. And once you finish with the 'cleansing' you simply press the button for the 'dryer'. All I can say that if you have never had a dryer blow on your bum, you haven't lived. All this left me feeling rather peculiar but thoroughly clean.

I decided I didn't want to test the 'wand' cleaning function. Wasn't sure what would happen! And coupled with the 'oscillating' function, this toilet made going to the toilet very erm pleasurable. In fact, one could spend hours on this thing and not get bored! And if anyone knows what the heck the 'energy saver' timer switch is for let me know ...

Quite brilliant. I want one at home :)

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Review: UP

Pixar’s latest, after an interminable and, in this day and age, inexplicable delay, has finally drifted to these shores and happily I can report the wait was more than worth it. It’s been touted as their masterpiece, their finest film yet, but when a company’s output is of such a consistently high quality, it’s always bound to be a close run thing, and will more than likely come down to personal taste of whether you prefer lovesick robots, friendly sharks, or cantankerous old dreamers. “Up” though is certainly a real treat, full of action and adventure and typically brilliant characters, but as always, the laughs and thrills belie an unusually touching story, and a heartfelt message of finding friendship and redemption when least looked for. Aww.

The cantankerous geezer in question is Carl Fredricksen, who we join as a bespectacled tot in the 40’s, wide eyed in astonishment at the newsreel footage of the adventures in South America of intrepid explorer Charles Muntz. The young adventurer quickly runs into Ellie, a buck toothed tomboy who is as enamored by Muntz’s adventures as Carl, and so begins a lifelong love affair with adventure and each other. We skip through their lives together in an extraordinary montage. Forever the dreamers, they save to make their own way to south America following in the footsteps of their hero, to build their “clubhouse” atop Paradise Falls, but as with so many of our dreams and plans, they keep getting sidetracked to make way for more immediate needs. Before you know it, the pair are a grey haired couple, tragically childless and before they get a chance to make their trip together, Ellie dies, leaving Carl alone in the beloved house they shared, now surrounded by a building site. This is not, you’ll agree the usual fare for a kids movie. The montage is one of the most moving sequences seen on film in recent memory, establishing in one elegant sweep the whole raison d’etre for the main character and giving huge emotional weight to everything that follows. Yes he’s a grumpy old git, but in the context of his life and loss, you begrudge him not one moan. If only we could see the Pixar montages of real life old gits who annoy us.

If the whole thing sounds a bit heavy, things lighten up rapidly with the arrival or Russell, the wilderness scout on a quest to earn his assisting the elderly badge, with Carl firmly set in his sights as requiring assistance. Instantly adorable, the rotund camper is loved by everyone except Carl, cranky old curmudgeon as he is. Things come to a head when an incident with the encroaching builders means Carl is due to be shipped off to the retirement home and needs to think fast to avoid being dragged from his house. A balloon salesman all his life, the solution is obvious really. He attaches a million helium filled balloons to the grate of his fireplace, and floats his whole house off towards South America in a bid to fulfil Ellie’s dream. Only once airborne does he realize he’s inadvertently brought the impossibly cheerful Russell along for the ride and the pair quickly find themselves, through the magic of a Wizard of Oz style storm, actually at Paradise falls, but on the wrong side of the cliffs. A near crash landing leaves them stuck on the ground while the house floats overhead (a la “Adrift”), attached by just a hosepipe tied to Carl (a la “Diehard”), and an adventurous walk ensues. Along the way the pair pick up some more companions, Kevin the colorful chocolate loving bird – if you can class a 12 foot multicolored monster as a bird, and of course, Dug the Dog. An instant classic, Dug is the dopey mutt with a translator collar that gives him voice – anyone who has ever imagined what their dog is thinking will probably recognize a lot of his lines, and so amusing is he as a character it may prompt you to throw “squirrel!” into many conversations. Try it at work, see what happens. The quartet get themselves into all sorts of bother when it emerges that Kevin is in fact the monster of Paradise Falls that Muntz was seeking all those years ago, and in fact still is, aided by his pack of speaking hunting dogs, of which Dug is the abject failure, being as he is soft and cuddly, while top dog “Alpha” and his ilk are all slathering bullies, albeit with hilarious malfunctioning voices. Yes once Muntz gets wind of Carl and his companions the race is on, and Carl has to make some tough decisions about where his loyalties lie; fulfilling his beloved Ellie's dream or looking towards the well being of his troublesome new companions.

This is perhaps Pixar’s most personal movie, dealing as it does with the biggest of issues; how we live our lives, the dreams we strive for that seem impossible to reach, and finding redemption and friendship in the last place you look. The relationship between the old man and the wilderness scout is subtle and complex; throughout we learn that Russell’s Dad is less than perfect, and Russell’s real motivation for getting his wilderness badges is to seek his approval. Likewise, as the story develops, Karl learns to let go of his dead wife’s dream, and move on to the next adventure; life goes on and so must he. Again, sounds terribly heavy, but remember this story is told in the context of thrilling action set-pieces interspersed with lashings of brilliant slapstick from the hapless Russell. And the talking dogs, don’t forget the talking dogs. UP does however manage to get itself a little tangled in the telling as a result. A lot of the plot itself hinges on the least interesting character, the gormless Kevin, and Muntz as a villain is no great shakes – I found myself equally sympathetic to that poor mad old geezer who after a lifetime of trying to restore his good name is vanquished and (dare I say it) murdered by these meddling invaders! Poor guy, so much for his dream.

Snagged strings aside though, Up is a delight. Full of imagination that is so natural it can almost get overlooked, this is a story about a man who with nothing to live for floats his house away with balloons. Brilliant. The film is visually fantastic, each character a lovingly crafted caricature, and the level of detail and artistry on display, brought to life by the subtly immersive 3D, is staggering. But as with any Pixar movie, the story is key, and on the whole they have another winner. From an unlikely and unusual subject matter, they spin a yarn with real emotional clout that has messages for every viewer of every age – an extraordinary feat in itself – but to twist it into a thrilling action adventure comedy? Masterful.

Treehouse Rating:


Another brilliant and touchi- SQUIRREL!!

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Monday, 5 October 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker (Spoilers)

I’m not sure how to review this film. It's left me torn on how to rate it. It’s not a factual documentary but it’s not quite a traditional ‘film’ either. The plot revolves around key personnel from an elite US army bomb squad stationed in Iraq. Basically, it’s a ‘war really f*cks you up’ type of film. It’s effective in showing us the harsh reality of working in Iraq and risking your life defusing indiscriminately placed bombs (there are thankfully no clichéd ‘red wire/blue wire’ moments).

Kathryn Bigelow directs the film masterfully and manages to elicit some good humour and unexpected laughs from very tense situations. But I struggled with the main character, Sergeant William James played by the ever watch-able and excellent Jeremy Renner. His portrayal of a maverick ‘f*ck the rules’ bomb disposal expert is a mix between Johnny Utah and Bodhi – characters immortalized in Point Break – a previous Kathryn Bigelow film. He’s the unpredictable, rebellious, reckless, seemingly fearless one who’s holding on to an awful amount of pain. This time letting off a few rounds into the air while crying in agony won’t work to relieve the stress. Ok, ok I’ll quit with the Point Break references now if I must.

Parts of the film are tense. The heart starts pounding, you stop breathing and you wait for that inevitable ‘boom’ that may or may not arrive. For this reason the film cannot really be faulted. If you’re a real cynic though, you could just say that Sgt William James is a nut job who enjoys the thrill of defusing bombs instead of staying home with his baby boy and the boy’s mother, played by Evangeline Lilly. The civvy scenes do show him to be clearly bored and frustrated and his talk with his baby son seemed contrived. The cynical view wouldn’t do justice to the intention of the writer Mark Boal. I’m guessing the intention was to show the risks involved in doing a remarkably hard, thankless and stressful job where your main concern is simply staying alive. In this regard the film succeeds. But I can’t seem to escape my gut feeling that the film could have been so much more. If you want to see a film that shows the indiscriminate brutality of war and its affects on soldiers, you have a heap of quality films to choose from. My picks would be: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon. If you want something more recent then I’d pick The Kingdom (directed by Peter Berg) which is underrated in my opinion. That’s not to say that The Hurt Locker is a bad film it’s just that it pales in comparison to the ones I’ve just mentioned.

Treehouse Rating: 3/5

Worth a watch in the cinema

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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

How now Derren Brown?

So about an hour ago, Derren Brown, psychological illusionist extraordinaire, "predicted" the UK national Lottery live on TV. I say "predicted" with bunny ears, as what he in fact did was show us his "prediction" seconds after the balls were actually announced on the Beeb due to "legal reasons". Cue much speculation as to the incredibly simple camera trickery he probably employed in the execution of this machiavellian shenanigan. Or machiavellanigan. Bear in mind Derren has publicly stated that these several Events, of which this is the first, are exercises in misdirection, so chances are, it probably really is something very straight forward because, lets face it, the man cannot predict the lottery. It was certainly all live though, as my double TV setup can attest. All is apparently revealed on Friday, so we have a couple of days to think about how the hell he did that. So seriously, how the hell did he do that?

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

PS3 Firmware 3.0 goes live

Today, three things of significance have happened. The first (and arguably the most important) is that I’ve managed to find time to write again. I’ve left Munial holding the fort for far too long and doing an amazing job. The second is that PS3 Firmware 3.0 went live at midnight and thirdly, the PS3 slim finally went on sale today (officially anyway).

The full list of changes from the Firmware update is quite long and, if I’m honest, some changes work and some are just a tad baffling. For example, the font of all the writing has been increased substantially making the interface look less sleek and sexy. I actually thought something had gone wrong with the resolution of my TV for minute. There wasn’t much wrong with the font size to start with so I’m flummoxed. Equally there are other seemingly minor amendments that increase the sexy, sleekness of it all and leave me rubbing my sweaty palms against my clean jeans. On the whole though, it’s a mixed bag. Two changes shine through for me: the BBC iPlayer launching directly from the XMB and the inclusion of animated themes. Call me a scrooge but I really thought the first animated theme should have been free; instead the American PSN store has a LBP animated theme for $2.99 and the European PSN store doesn’t have one at all. The theme itself looks amazing but $3? Ok, I’m a scrooge. I admit it. However, if you jump onto the Japanese PSN store, there is one completely for free and rumour has it that it’s better than the LBP one!

Main features in system software update version 3.00
- New design for the XMB™ screen.
- The information Board has been replaced and contains a new design and new features.
- We can now access the latest content available from PlayStation Store directly under Game and Video.
- When using storage media that contains folders, the number of folder levels that can be displayed under Photo, Music and Video has been increased.
- We can now copy text using the on-screen keyboard.
- Audio Multi-Output has been added as an option.
- We can now use the right stick of the wireless controller to perform fast forward or fast reverse operations during video content playback – I’m dreading this as I will no doubt keep doing this by accident. It might be time to invest in a dedicated remote control.
- We can now save a screenshot of the Internet browser.
- A list of messages that you have exchanged with a Friend can be now accessed from the Friend’s profile screen and actually shows up on the main screen on the top right hand corner.
- Internet speed is now shown – both uploading and downloading. Good for telling your ISP that they’re not delivering on the speed they promised you!

The service I’m most looking forward to is movies on demand for the PSN launching in November 2009 promising hundreds of movies for the PS3 and PSP in both Standard Definition and High Definition. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Vidzone and use it far more than I thought I would.

PS3 Slim
The PS3 Slim … need I say anything about this that you probably don’t already know? An RRP of £249.99, Bluray, free online access, larger hard drive (from 80GB to 120GB), a redesigned internal design architecture; from the main semiconductors and power supply unit, to the cooling mechanism resulting in a much slimmer and lighter body. In total, the internal volume as well as its thickness and weight are trimmed down to approximately two-thirds. Furthermore, power consumption is also cut to two-thirds, helping to reduce fan noise. What are you waiting for? Get one and let our online battles commence! Or, you can wait till the new XBoz Natal SKU ...

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Saturday, 22 August 2009

Avatar Day was a red letter day

There it was then. The full 20 minutes of footage in all its glory, on the big IMAX screen, in 3D. The trailer for Avatar hit the net yesterday, and the backlash is already in full swing! A lot of "its not photorealistic enough" and "looks like an Xbox game" (clearly not gamers), but how many of 'em got to the cinema to check out the real deal? The future has been on its way for 14 years, so now is the time to ask, are we there yet?

We open with the self same footage I saw just last week, which remains as equally impressive on the jumbo screen as it did previously, and larger. But then, oh glory of glories, the new stuff. First up is Mr Worthington helping himself into the mind melding sarcophagus while verbally sparring with Sigourney Weaver – they don’t seem to be getting on too well, could it be his cocky, brash machismo is rubbing her up the wrong way? Or perhaps the right way? Anyway, he’s in the tank, so let's see some Dileep Rao playing minority report with his snazzy Apple notepad, as the link between marine and Na’vi is established- we need to go first person for this. Wooshing lightshow, then bam, out of focus doctors are staring into the lens. This scene is glimpsed in the trailer, and is amazing. Worthington is immediately having the time of his life. He can feel his legs and is up and wobbling about the place, to the dismay of the medics who just want him to touch his thumb to his fingers. “This is great” he grins. And it looks it too. The creature is there in the room, while the medics, dwarfed by the blue giant, scurry around him. Remarkable.

Next up we’re in the jungle at night, Worthington is wrestling with an alien dog creature and is losing. Out of the dark leaps a semi naked Na’vi, firing arrow into the dog in midair. She takes out the rest of the pack in graceful, deadly movements, and the remainder retreat into the darkness whimpering as she snarls after them. She extinguishes Worthington’s torch with a curse, what a numpty, lighting a fire brand in a hostile jungle, and goes about putting one of the injured dog creatures out of it's misery. As he retrieves his torch from the pool, Worthington realises he has flawless night vision, and that the jungle is lit up all around him in gorgeous neon. Very pretty. Very alien.

Next, the scene directly following – Worthington and Zoe Saldana (for it is she) have their first tiff. He is trying to thank her for saving him. She is super pissed off at him for getting in trouble in the first place and needing her to kill the animals she did. Then why did you save me? “You have a strong heart – you have no fear”. Hmm first sign of sloppy romance (of course) or also an allusion to the fact that he’s a marine working a body that’s not his and he doesn’t really give two hoots if his face gets bitten off by space dogs? Regardless, the faces on the two protagonists are simply amazing, expressions and nuances so spot on, so detailed, they are looking more and more realistic.

Cut to the final scene. Worthington now seems to be part of a Na’vi tribe as Zoe is there, and there’s a bunch of other males there too. They are inching along a high precipice of a cliff face, and as the round the corner we see.. a flock of dragons basking on the rocks! Freaking big sabre toothed dragon things, all laid out on the cliff face, nesting like something out of Planet Earth, the leathery looking creatures squawk and roar, flapping away as the Na’vi approach. We learn they mean to capture these creatures, and that they use them as transport. Zoe has been teaching Worthington the tricks of the trade; he must make a bond between himself and the lizard to tame it. He approaches one that looks game, and prepares for the catch. One of the male Na’vi is mocking – “The moron's going to die” - ooh, 3D subtitles. The creature snaps at our boy, he dodges and leaps on its back, wrestling with it for control, but is thrown, nearly taking a spill off the impossibly high cliff as the nasty looking male jock roars with laughter. What a douche. Undeterred, Worthy leaps back up and then onto the back of the creature, this time pinning its head. We see the "bond" is literal – he grabs a tendril from the back of the creatures head, and his own pony tail, and holds the ends together – we see silvery nerve endings intertwine between them and they fuse together – the dragon going wide eyed and docile in a moment. Next they’re off, the first flight "seals the bond". The first flight is actually a bit of a nightmare, as the creature dive-bombs and tumbles through the air, the camera swooping after them in stomach lurching arcs. Worthy cant get the hang of flying, the creature smacking into the cliff face and falling several hundred feet, screechily protesting all the way – until he shouts “shut up and fly straight” and it simply does - he thinks it, it does it, then it's plain sailing all the way, and a chance to take in the beautiful panoramic landscape.

And then we’re into the wrap up reel. This followed the style of the trailer but there were a few more shots in there that are not, including an indescribably cool shot of falling debris – perhaps one of those floating mountains being destroyed and falling to earth? - and lots more of the epic action from the trailer, which we didnt get a sniff of in the proper footage. Boo.

Lets be clear, what I saw was astonishing. I’ve read an awful lot of hating on the nets today, mostly aimed at the trailer, and I honestly can’t understand it - just what were people expecting from a sci fi movie about aliens on another world? Ok, so you can tell the Na'vi are CGI, but only some of the time! In closeup especially, they are breathtakingly convincing, and at the very least, represent the pinnacle of computer generated characterisation. I thought the trailer alone looked great – impeccably gorgeous landscapes, again undoubtedly the most advanced CG ever seen, anywhere (FACT) but to see the world and characters in 3D, and on the big screen was something else. What these wizards have c
reated is so rich and so gorgeous that I simply need to see this movie now. The imagination on display was astonishing and so well realised and incredibly immersive that claims about it being a watermark in cinema are probably spot on - bearing in mind JC certainly hasn't shown his full hand yet, the game is set to be well and truly changed. It seems in some camps expectation had been set so high, the reality has come as a bit of a downer. But it really shouldn't have as this is the closest anyone's come to fashioning another world onscreen, and the reaction may be more to do with the realisation it's going to be a movie about blue skinned aliens in a jungle. Some people are never satisfied.

The technology has been the focus since we heard about it, but watching the footage it became clear that what Cameron has been quoted as saying about the tech being advanced enough to “wave its own wand and make itself disappear” is totally true – all the CG and 3D will play second fiddle to the story and characters. The Avatars, despite being 8ft tall and blue, were completely believable, and the range of expression on their oddly feline faces was amazing– by the second viewing (did I mention I went twice?!) they didn’t look CG at all, but rather like familiar faces, each unique and remarkable. Imagine sitting through a whole film. We’re going to love these things.

But this is just me. Could you get tickets? Were you a part of Avatar day? What did you think? Revolutionary or Thundercats meets Ferngully?

If you need to see the trailer.. here it is!

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Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Review: District 9

District 9, like any good piece of cinema, will mean different things to different people. To some, it may offer a frank social commentary on the nature of bigotry and exclusionism. To others, the theme of exploitative capitalism taking advantage of the most vulnerable societal groups for financial gain may ring truest. To others still, this is a film about big focken ray guns exploding soldiers, aliens pulling peoples heads off and enormous robotic mechanoids tearing the place up. What it is in fact, lies somewhere in the narrow spaces between these closely related themes, and despite clearly being influenced by several movies and video games before it, District 9 is a film that feels wholly original and thrillingly ballsy. An unusual premise, an offbeat leading man, a unique presentation, all blend together to deliver a bona-fide instant sci-fi classic, and one of the best films of the year.

Exposition is the bane of a film with a concept. Here it is dealt with neatly, most of the first act viewing in a documentary style, we are treated to news clips and snippets of interviews with locals and experts, recapping the last 30 years of this alternate history. It is 2010, and a massive alien spaceship hangs over the city of Johannesburg, where it has hung motionless and inactive for 28 years. The aliens it carried were found to be helpless and malnourished, mysteriously unable to take control of their ship. A field hospital established directly below the ship to tend to the sick creatures has in 28 years evolved into a slum. The aliens are now a part of the community, but untrusted, unwanted and a burden on the human societies around them. Derisively nicknamed prawns, the creatures are insectoid with a certain seafoody quality to their faces and speak with a whirr of clicking and glottal stops, subtitled for our benefit. They are second class citizens, feeding on the waste of the humans, excluded from society and exploited by the Nigerian gangs set to profit from their helplessness. For with them, the aliens brought technology. They have a plethora of futuristic guns and weapons which rather than using to enslave humanity, they trade with their exploiters for cans of catfood, an irresistible delicacy. The catch is, no humans can use the tech, as it operates on a biological level with the aliens, and only they are able to make it work.

All of this is covered in the first 10 minutes, and serves to create a setting that is utterly authentic in every detail, and a premise that is totally believable. And yet for a film with such big ideas, it remains very much a story about characters and heroes. Our unlikely candidate is Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat for MNU, the private company that has been appointed custodians of the aliens and District 9. He is, in the early scenes, more akin to Steve Carrel’s version of David Brent. He relishes the attention lavished on him by the documentary crew filming him, wisecracking and mugging for the camera, as he prepares to execute the operation to serve notice on the million strong residents of District 9, that they are being evicted and moved to District 10, out of sight and mind of Jo'burg. He and his private army, MNU ominously being the world's largest private arms manufacturer, roll in to District 9 to get a million alien signatures to legalise the controversial movement of these refugees. It’s not a difficult leap to read the allegorical theme at work here, as the uncomprehending alien, living in his ramshackle hut, is presented with the eviction notice by the cheerful, patronising Wikus, encouraging him to sign here please, knowing full well he is committing the alien to what he later confesses is little more than a concentration camp. The operation is unsurprisingly met with resistance which at times slides out of control, and many aliens are gunned down. At this point however, most viewers will be on board with Wikus. The aliens are after all bottom feeding prawns. Worthless and legion, we feel little sympathy for their plight.

The film is quick to turn the tables on us and our reluctant hero however as during the search of one of the many “residences” for weapons and contraband, Wikus stumbles across an innocuous vial of liquid we, moments before, saw some of the aliens carefully cultivating from salvaged alien technology. The unfortunate Wikus is sprayed by this liquid, which sets in motion an unprecedented change in his demeanour and outlook, and he quickly learns to see things from the alien’s perspective. His journey takes him from top dog at MNU to their most wanted fugitive, and he finds himself on the wrong end of the human/alien relationship, learning the hard way the extent of the human’s exploitation of the prawns. Suddenly the most valuable biological resource on the planet, Wikus manages to escape the monstrous clutches of MNU and with nowhere to turn takes refuge in District 9. Here he strikes up an uneasy alliance with one of the aliens from earlier who was, it emerges, gathering the mysterious liquid for a much bigger purpose, and it becomes clear that getting it back from MNU is the key to both their futures.

The Wikus character, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, is unique in film history and his performance is, in short, a revelation and will no doubt achieve him cult status. He starts the film as the office pest, irritating and unsympathetic to the plight of the aliens, yet by the final act he is an action hero and alien champion. His priorities evolve as much as he himself does during the course of the movie, his overriding motivation suddenly on his love for his wife which he pursues ruthlessly, assisting the alien cause where their needs overlap with his own. His plight is fairly harrowing, and he is really put though the grinder by both MNU and the scary Nigerian gangster kingpin, who has his own equally disturbing reasons for wanting a piece of him. By the end however, his understanding of the bigger picture means he is selflessly fighting in the alien corner sacrificing himself and his happiness for their cause, which to you and I, means Mech walkers, taking on hordes of heavily armed mercenaries, with enormous alien guns. Oh yes, did I mention the final act is an orgy of violence and gunplay? This might seem out of place given the lofty notions being explored in the first half of the film, but is in fact perfectly suited to what is after all, a pure sci-fi movie at heart. Several unfortunate marines and gangsters experience the zappy end of the alien technology with pleasingly messy results, and be sure to keep an eye out for the appearance of Half Life’s gravity gun, brilliantly used to kill a man with a flying pig. Genius.

The effects generally throughout District 9 are nothing short of amazing. The massive mothership hangs nonchalantly in the background of many shots as though it has always been there. The aliens themselves are fascinating to watch, being completely rendered in CG, they are especially effective in close up, and throughout the course of the film, we become quite attached to two particular alien characters, thanks
largely to their amazing portrayal – they move from being the insectoid drone Wikus initially presents them as, to intelligent and emotional individuals that you will feel more concern for than most of the human characters. And as mentioned, when the action hots up, Blomkamp doesn’t hold back, with some of the most thrilling action sequences to grace the screen all year.

It’s not without it’s unanswered questions mind, but these only serve to deepen the mystery rather than undermine it. The origin of the alien ship for example is never fully explored, nor why they are unable to help themselves more than they do - a brief reference to their being "the workers" and therefore more docile and compliant explains away the alien's less than proactive demeanour. Also, the lack of any kind of international intervention in the affairs of District 9 is arguably conspicuous in it’s absence, and one can’t help shake the feeling that such a camp would be surrounded by 20 foot steel walls, with slightly fewer civilian humans living in it selling cat food to the aliens.

To even be considering flaws like this however, is simply testament the realism the film achieves in its portrayal of the situation. District 9 is a bold sci-fi movie, unique in its vision and presentation, and full of such a mixed bag of ideas and themes, you simply cannot tear your eyes off the screen. The way it segues from docu-drama to action romp is masterful, and the achievement of the film as a whole is nothing short of remarkable; at once thought provoking, amusing, vomit inducing, emotionally wrenching and pulse-racingly exciting, District 9 is a strong contender for film of the year. It happily draws on elements from sci-fi history like Alien Nation, The Fly and Half life, but goes on to blend them in a truly unique and refreshing way.
Thank the lord Peter Jackson recognised the brilliance of what Blomkamp et al were aiming for, as without him, District 9 might have been perceived as too risky or offbeat to be a success, and ended up on some production office shelf. As it is, it ranks as one of the best sci fi flicks ever, and is a definite must see.

Treehouse Rating


Focken amazing

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