Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Films I've seen of late 2017 (January)

#1: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Great suspense flick set in a bomb shelter. A young woman wakes up after a car accident to find herself in the aforementioned shelter with two other guys - one being John Goodman, expertly playing the ambiguoiusly creepy guy who built the shelter. He claims there's been a devastating attack on the country, hence them all being locked away underground, and they cannot leave (for 1-2 years) until the air above is safe for them to breathe.

Tension is expertly built as we gradually discover the truth about why this young woman is trapped down below. Full of twists and surprises, 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps you guessing and brilliantly conveys the emotion and strength of the heroine in her fight for survival.

#2: Spaceballs (1987)
Star Wars parodies are two a penny these days but Spaceballs is the original and best. It felt slightly disrespectful of the epic space saga at the time, but on repeat watching it seems to have aged well and even the effects hold up after all this time. I'm not a huge fan of Mel Brooks, but Spaceballs is one of my favourite comedies.

Best moments: The giant spaceship taking forever to run past the frame, Dark Helmet watching a VHS tape of the very film they are in, 'combing' the desert, Dark Helmet playing with his action figures, Lone Star and Helmet comparing sizes of their lasers at crotch level.

#3: Zoolander 2 (2016)
I'm always a bit wary of sequels, especially ones that are made many years after the original (usually an attempt to reinvigorate the careers of the cast). Fifteen years (fifteen!!) have passed since Zoolander, an hilarious comedy about incredibly dumb male fashion models. Z2 doesn't quite hit the mark unsurprisingly, but it's actually a decent return for the characters. There are plenty of funny moments and at least the plot is vaguely different to the first one. Fun but forgettable.

#4 Hotel Transylvania (2012)
Kids animation where monsters are actually good guys, constantly under threat from pitchfork and flaming-torch wielding humans. Count Dracula has created a hotel for all the monsters (werewolves, mummys, swamp things, yetis etc.) to hang out and get a spot of refuge away from the lynchmobs. A single parent, Drac must contend with Mavis his daughter's coming of age party whilst trying to stop her venturing beyond the hotel and meeting the dreaded humans. In the mix is a real human who stumbles upon the place not realising what the deal is and falling in love with Mavis. This is actually a lot of fun - not hilarious, but plenty of in-jokes relating to monster tropes dotted throughout the movie. And the story holds up as a typical dad-fighting-to-control-his-newly-adult-daughter-longing-for-freedom caper.

#5 Deadpool (2016)
From the moment this films starts, you can tell it's not going to be your typical comic book movie. With plenty of gratuitous swearing, extreme violence and breaking of the fourth wall, the film holds nothing back in being faithful to the Marvel character. Deadpool is a fairly typical origins story, but what makes it stand apart is Ryan Reynold's titular character. It's clear they had less money than other franchise films, but the script more than makes up for that.

#6 Captain America: Civil War (2016)
I had low expectations going into this one but was pleasantly surprised. Comic-book heroes The Avengers split into two factions after getting all arguey about a new accord that proposes to keep a check on their activities. Inevitably this leads to crazy big-time punch ups and the biggest collection of superheroes amassing in a single film since, well, the Avengers. The split in the team seems a little forced and unrealistic, but the action pieces are entertaining and Spiderman makes a memorable appearance as played by the excellent Tom Holland. Fun to watch but once is enough for me.

#7 The Book of Life (2014)
A charming animated tale of loss and love set in the colourful Mexico of yesteryear. The gods of the underworld place a bet to see which one of their chosen mortals can win the heart of their childhood sweetheart. Gorgeous design and plenty of humour, it's nice to see a Latino story given the Hollywood CGI treatment.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


I refused to watch the news on Friday. I didn't want to know anything about Dumpf's inauguration and this was my silent protest at the end of democracy in America (not that it was perfect to begin with, but Trump really has put the nail in the coffin).

As a Brit, I am not directly affected by who runs the USA but I do have relations there and visited as a tourist a couple of times. Also, American culture is highly influential. I grew up on Films and TV from the States, which all made a big impression on me as a kid. Finally, there's the fact that America has a huge impact on the rest of the world, not just culturally but economically, politically and militarily. So it's fair to say I should be concerned about what's happening across the Atlantic.

So here we are, in a post-Obama world where fear, hate and greed seem to have won.

How the fudge did that happen?

Whatever the reason, I'm doubtful that anything good can come from having a narcissistic, hot-tempered lunatic in charge of the most powerful nation on earth. I can think of three possible outcomes and so, dear reader, thought it would be therapeutic to share them with you.

Please note that these scenarios are not based on any foreknowledge, proper research or extensive understanding of American politics. They are purely speculative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

1. Best Case Scenario
In my best case scenario, Trump doesn't last long as the 45th president. Within month of assuming the role, the scandals have amassed to such a degree that, even with journalists imprisoned for breaking new laws forbidding 'insults directed toward President Trump', the disgraced orange-faced-one is hounded out of office by the Republican Party with the support of most of the American public. Trump's misdemeanours finally catch up with him and he is put behind bars for sexual assault, tax avoidance, treason, inappropriate behaviour with livestock and mass corporate bribery. His sentence amounts to a total of 345 years.

In spite of this, it will take years to undo the fallout from Trump's ascendency to power. Infrastructure is in ruins, unemployment is rife and the factory which makes M&Ms has burnt down. Across the USA there are riots, looting and other forms of civil unrest. Eventually, however, with a swathe of political reforms, the country gets back on its feet and M&Ms are freely available again.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is deposed following the failure of his scheme to destabilise the USA. Free and fair elections are held and Crimea regains its independence.

Likelihood: (hopefully) Very
Death toll: Hundreds
Number of toupees destroyed: Not nearly enough
Sales of orange fake tan: at their lowest ever

2. Medium Case Scenario
In this scenario, Trump and his corporate cronies enact some kind of national bloodletting that has never been seen before, attempting to reverse every single good thing that the previous Obama administration achieved. As healthcare collapses, gun crime skyrockets and small businesses implode, Trump sits idly by in his golden boudoir ranting on Twitter. Many citizens decide they've had enough and mass civil disobedience erupts in every major city. Trump's answer is to offer free faux-gold frame photos of his portrait (signed using an auto-signature machine) to all citizens who agree to leave the streets and go home. Somehow this doesn't quell the riots.

California decides to secede from the Union, as does New York and Florida. This sparks the Second American Civil War which lasts only twelve weeks after everyone realises a civil war will stop them from a) drinking a decent latte b) watching Netflix c) buying the latest iPhone.

Trump's troops are ultimately defeated (thanks in part to Trump's insistence that his son, Donald Trump Jnr, leads all forces into battle) and the former USA splits into four: California, Texas Federation, The Central States of America and The New York and Eastern States Union.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin takes advantage of American turmoil and enacts a full-scale invasion of Eastern Europe, restoring the boundaries to former USSR lines. Without American support the EU is powerless to intervene, and World War III looms heavily on the horizon.

Likelihood: Unlikely
Death toll: Hundreds of thousands
Number of Second American Civil War movie scripts in development in Hollywood: 217

3. Worst Case Scenario
The moment he assumes office, Trump doesn't waste time offending every minority, nation, and ethnic group on the planet.

This includes China and Russia, who increasingly threaten to take action unless he stops. Incapable of backing down, Trump locks himself away in the Oval Office to fire off tweets attacking Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping for not being 'manly' enough.

After more angry exchanges, Trump is goaded into launching a full-scale nuclear assault on Moscow and Beijing after #trumpisimpotent and #trumphastinyhands become the top trending hashtags on Twitter for three days running.

The human race is annihilated in the subsequent nuclear firestorm that rages across the planet. London property values drop to an all-time low.

Likelihood: Very unlikely (please God!)
Death toll: 7.2 Billion
Most popular song played as the nukes rain down: 'Always look on the bright side of life' by Monty Python.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Things I learnt from filmmaking Part 1: Money, time and effort

I am pleased to say that my short film, Refuge, has had over 11,000 hits on Facebook and overall the feedback has been positive. We are looking at putting it onto Amazon Prime at some point and I am currently in the middle of the next project - another short film, but this time a sci-fi comedy.
"Um, what's that out the window?" Me Directing my first short.
My first time as a director was a massive learning curve for me, and unsurprisingly a lot of things went wrong along the way. This makes the fact that Refuge was actually finished almost a miracle.

I'm going to be writing up a few posts about my learning from the film making process. This post is all about money, time and effort:

It takes money, time and effort to make a film. The less of these things you put into making your film, chances are the lower the quality of the final product. Equally, the more of these things you have, the better your final product will likely be (although that's not necessarily a fullproof formula).

Between the three producers, about £300.00 was spent on the film. This covered things like travel and food and props. That is a ridiculously small amount but it was all we could afford – and for a lot of people even this would be too much. When anyone says they made a film for 'nothing' they're most likely lying. Even if no money exchanged hands, there's a cost to people's time and effort. We pulled in favours and used our own equipment and facilities, which is why we were able to spend just a few hundred pounds. Taking into consideration the real costs (if we had paid everyone, hired locations etc) the actual figure would probably be a couple of thousand pounds.

Time is always against you when it comes to making films. My understanding is that it takes a full day to capture about five minutes of screen time. The rule of thumb for making films is that each page of script equals one minute onscreen. The second film I worked on had about 12 pages and we only had one day to shoot, so we were having to do twice as much in the time given. Having finished a rough edit, and seeing that pretty much all of the shots are there, I'm amazed we got everything we needed. It didn't help the stress levels, though, and doesn't allow much time for setting up shots or for the actors to get their performance right. The other problem is that, had there been an emergency or other set back, we would most likely not been able to get everything shot. Not a great place to be in, especially when everyone is already giving up their free time to help you on your hair-brained project.

And then there's effort. Filmmaking is hard. I can't stress that enough. Most people have no idea how much work goes into making films, and in some way that's a good thing. You don't want an audience saying to themselves "how many people did it take to make that scene happen?" all through your movie. If they're so absorbed in the film they don't even think about stuff like that then you're doing something right. It requires many people to put a film on screen: writers, actors, directors, camera ops, producers, make-up artists, graders, sound recordists ... the list is endless. Sure, you can skimp on crew (and sometimes you have no choice), but that will inevitably affect the end result.

It can take years to write a script for a feature film, and on the face of it you might think that's a bit long for 20,000 words, but scripts don't just happen. They go through numerous rewrites, being honed, again and again until it's a good as it can be. Even when cameras start rolling, however, the script can be changed several times throughout the entire shoot.

And then there's putting the film together. Not just filming scenes, but also the editing – and the grading, special effects, foley (adding sound effects). The process is long and involved, not something you can throw together in a weekend. Saying that, people do make films in a very short space of time, but usually they have the resources to do so.

Of course, as implied earlier, you could have all the money, time and energy in the world available to you and still make a piece of crap.

There are other things you need to make something great (and I'll touch on that in a follow-up article), but a decent amount of time, money and effort put in to the mix are definitely a good start.

You can watch Refuge here: https://www.facebook.com/PurpleHatProductionsWales/videos/545111149014211/

And you can follow more of our efforts as Purple Hat Productions here: https://www.facebook.com/PurpleHatProductionsWales/?fref=nf

Friday, January 13, 2017

Weirdo with a Beardo

I'm not quite sure what prompted me to grow a beard, but I guess it was sparked by one of those things I imagine all guys ask themselves: "Can I produce a decent amount of facial hair?" Looking at my current growth I guess the answer for me is that I can. Maybe not as thick and dense as others, but good enough I reckon.

I grew a goatee just for fun several years back and I was surprised to find it was ginger. Now I'm 41, the grey hairs are a making a strong appearance and reminding me of my advanced years.
How long I'll put up with it, though, I don't know. It's often itchy and makes things a lot trickier to eat or drink. It does, however, offer some protection against the cold wind, I'll admit that.

So maybe I'll wait until the spring before I have a naked face again...

Friday, January 6, 2017

Hey Apple! What about the pros?

As a long-time Apple fan, I've pretty much stuck with their products no matter what. Windows has never been an attraction as it's always been pretty clunky, annoying and – well, Microsoft. This might change, however, as Apple continues to ignore the Mac in favour of its iPhone goldmine, and in particular ignore the professionals (like myself) who rely on their hardware and software for a living,  investing lots of money in the Apple ecosystem.

A lot of Apple users have been complaining about the lack of recent updates to the Mac hardware, and when the MacBook Pro came out just before Christmas, there was hope that this would be the beginning of a slew of new products. The pros, however, were freaking out because the MBP had minimal RAM, only USB-C ports and a magic touchbar thing (that looked cool at first, but actually will probably be more of an annoyance than anything else). Not only that, but it was ridiculously expensive. I was hoping to buy one myself, but given the specs and price I backed off. A new version of any piece of computer hardware is always a bit of a gamble.

I'm now using a 2015 MacBook Pro model with 16 GB of RAM which I bought instead and I love it (even though it's 2 year old computer technology). It's lightweight, has all the ports I need plus it's pretty fast. True, it doesn't have a DVD drive, but the times I need one are so few these days I don't really miss it. Besides, I have a plug-in USB Superdrive just in case.

As for other Macs, the rest are in dire need of an update, especially the Mac Pro that is currently a 2013 version (yes, over three years old!). Why anyone in their right minds would shell out over three grand for it is beyond me. And why Apple thinks anyone would want to is even more bizarre.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised 'great desktops' are coming, but judging by their efforts with the MacBook Pro, I'll be surprised if they're great enough for people who make a living using Macs.

My brother, a creative who has been a long-time Mac user, has told me he's moving over to Windows. He's fed up waiting for a high-end desktop from Apple and I don't blame him. Ultimately, his work is what's important and if he can achieve the same results on a non-Apple machine at a lower price then why stick with out of date equipment?

Yes, the Apple operating system is user-friendly, reliable and secure (most of the time – it's not perfect), but Windows has come along in leaps and bounds since the low point of Vista and Microsoft are not shying away from attracting disgruntled Mac users over to the other side. After all, these machines that we spend our hard-earned cash on are just tools and, ultimately, only the dedicated hard-core fanatics will stick with a neglected line of products.

If the rest of us can do our work easier, cheaper and faster then we probably will.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A review of 2016

As I write this, I am painfully aware that I haven't posted much since the summer. I vowed to write more often this year, but this simpy hasn't happend. At least I've written more posts than in 2014 (yay!).

I think, to be honest, I've run out of puff. Available time for writing seems to be non-existant these days and I'm increasingly being pulled in different directions when it comes to work, family and other activities. I will, however, do my best to maintain some kind of presence on this blog, even if it is very sporadic. If I can do at least 25 posts then that will be a good start (although I said 50 last year - erk!).

So here goes number one!

Family life is as hectic as ever. While the boys grow older, their demands are still there – just slightly different. Having two strong-willed boys in the house means tantrums and fights are a common occurance, but I have been trying really hard to be at peace about it. Both Wifey and I are doing our best to ride through the various storms that come our way and I think we are just about coping. My only hope is that as the boys mature, things will settle down a bit.

One thing Wifey and I recognised was that the demands of raising children has meant our marriage has been somewhat neglected. Working to address that, we have been going through a marriage course and have taken advantage of my flexible working hours, carving out time during the week for just the two of us to spend together.

2017 may well see some interesting changes as we have been exploring the possibility of fostering, and this year is when we begin down that route in earnest. Whether I am ready for this remains to be seen – but we won't know until we try!

I had two trips abroad this year. One was with family and the other with work. We went to France Eurocamping in August which was great, although I've come to the conclusion that I really can't be dealing with tents. They're OK for a one-off weekend, but for an entire family trip it's not my cup of tea. This is mainly because of the lack of sound proofing from other campers (who kept me awake in the night) but also the inconvenience of no toilets in the immediate vicinity, amongst other things. I do like my creature comforts! Next time, we'll be staying in caravans at the very least ...

My other trip was to Mallorca in May. I'd been asked to help out filming a wedding over there, and while we were only required to film for the one day I was gone for four days in total (what with travelling and all). It was ... an interesting experience. It felt a bit weird to be hanging out with the family (who I'd never met until the day of the wedding!), as we were all staying in the same hotel. It was also the time of the Brexit referendum and waking up (after leaving the reception at 1am) to find Britain's future in disarray was bewildering to say the least.

I've read three really good sci-fi books this year. One is called Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, which revolves around the power struggle between several families who have control over different resources on the Moon. It's been described as Game of Thrones in space and even though I've not read those books, I know enough to see where that description is coming from. It's gripping reading and I hope a sequel is in the works. The second book is called Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and is set on a vast spaceship that is heading out into deep space to colonise the star system Tau Ceti. Needless to say, things don't quite go according to plan and the crew of Aurora face all sorts of problems both on the journey and when they finally arrive at their destination. The book poses all sorts of questions that arise from the hugely difficult scenario of colonising the stars and is very thought-provoking indeed. The third book is The Time Machine by HG Wells. My first encounter with Wells' writing, I was incredibly impressed with how forward-thinking he is, written over a century ago well before computers and many other technological marvels we take for granted in this day and age. One of the greats of sci-fi literature, it's a shame the book is quite short – but impressive nonetheless.

Other books I've read: After the Funeral by Agatha Christie (I'm not a big whodunnit fan, but it was my first read of Christie), In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (an incredibly detailed account of the horrific murder of a family in Kansas and the subsequent capture of the culprits).

My favourite film this year was Arrival, which was deeply atmospheric, emotional and thought-provoking. A big film that didn't feel like a big film (apart from its subject matter), it managed to avoid being too similar to other alien invasion films (e.g. Independence Day).

Notable films I've seen in 2016 (in no particular order): Interstellar, Wreck-it Ralph, Coraline, Django Unchained, Boyhood, The Martian, City of Ember, Brooklyn, Whiplash, Kung Fu Panda 3, The Guard, Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, Kubo and the Two Strings, Ant Man, Ex Machina, About Time, Rogue One, Jurassic World, Spectre.

We're not regular theatre-goers or anything but we did get to see three shows in 2016. In February we saw The Lion King in London. A truly epic performance – the sets, costumes and actors were amazing. Number 2 son wasn't particularly engaged, but at least he didn't throw any tantrums in the middle of it. Next up, in September we went to see The Mousetrap in Cardiff's New Theatre. An Agatha Christie whodunnit that's been in the West End for years, it evokes all of the tropes of the genre without seeming tired or unoriginal. The cast was great and the set – an old manor converted into a hotel, where all of the action takes place – was first class. Finally, we got to see a panto before Christmas (according to family tradition). It was Pinoccio at The Gate in Cardiff. Aimed squarely at the kids (with a few nods to the adults), Black Rat Productions helped get everyone into the panto / Christmas spirit. The actors did an impressive job playing multiple characters and the sing-a-long sections were fun.

Whilst I was in Mallorca, the family were lucky enough to be in Cardiff during the 'City of the Unexpected' Roald Dahl celebrations. They got to see James and the Giant Peach crash land in the middle of Cardiff, as well as Fantastic Mr Fox running around the city centre. It was a shame I wasn't there as it looked like a lot of fun.

Working as a freelancer has become the norm for me now. I can't imagine working for someone else again (unless I really had to). It still has its moments of frustration and difficulty but at least I'm my own boss and being able to fit work around family commitments is a definite plus. The business has grown steadily over the last twelve months, which is a real encouragement. I could always do with bigger and better work, but the way things are at the moment it it feels like I'm in a good place. Next year I hope to invest in new equipment and focus on more creative projects as best I can.

One positive aspect of my working life is the fact that I have the freedom to explore personal projects. This has meant I was able to direct my first short film this year. Entitled Refuge, it was inspired by the refugee crisis and can be seen here. My second short, which I directed as well, is a sci-fi comedy and was shot just before Christmas. I hope to have an edited version ready within a month or two.

Ugh. There's the elephant in the room. Do I need to say anything? Brexit was a total cock-up and the lowest point in British politics (probably ever). I dread to think how things will pan out over the course of our EU withdrawl, but I have to remain optimistic I suppose.

And then there was Trump.

The orange, misogynistic, racist clusterfunk of a man became the most powerful leader in the world and thre's nothing we an do about it. God help us. No really, God better help us.

I am even more disillusioned with politics than I was after the last general election. I must admit, I haven't been able to get that heavily involved in the political process, apart from signing countless online petitions and writing to my local MP (which was never replied to), but now I'm beginning to wonder if the only thing we can do is just let things run their course. Surely we will slide into some kind of economically retarded fascist hellhole, but hopefully the masses will eventually realise what total twats everyone's been and rise up against the Farag-ist Trumpetons lording it over us, thus restoring peace and justice to the galaxy. Or something. 

My faith bumbles along as usual. I still believe in God, so that's a start, and actually with all the crap that we've witnessed in 2016 I can't begin to imagine how hopeless it must feel for those that don't have any faith. I mean, at least if everything falls to pieces, I've got my hope in the future: spending eternity in heaven with the Most High God which is pretty awesome and reassuring. Given that, I suppose I should be able to ignore the bile and fludge going on out there and just get on with being, y'know, a good Christian like what I am called to be.

Earlier this year, I enrolled on a Christian leadership course which takes place once a month (apart from the summer and Christmas hols). I was hoping it would prove useful in terms of building up my faith and my confidence as a leader, but I'm not entirely convinced at this point even though most of the material is good. I'm committed to doing it over two years, so I've got a way to go – hopefully it will be worth the effort in the end (and I will at least get a qualification once completed).

Other stuff
In November I invested in a new MacBook Pro after my old one died in the summer. It's not one of those new-fangled magic touchbar ones (not enough decent ports, too expensive), but a 2015 model. In computer terms it's ancient, but it suits my needs just fine and is nice and zippy compared to my sluggish iMac. Whether I will be a Mac user for much longer remains to be seen, as Apple seems to have completely given up on their professional customers. 2017 might be the year I finally give in to the lure of the accursed Windows platform, but hopefully Apple will sort themselves out and I won't have to.

In September I attended the funeral of an amazing and inspiring friend, Eileen Younghusband. I had worked with her on and off ever since she was featured in an NHS film I was involved in back in 2008-ish I think. She was a formidable woman who was working pretty much right up until her death at the ripe old age of 95, leaving behind a legacy of books about her life and her role in the Second World War, amongst many other worthy achievements. I didn't see as much of her in her last few years as I should have, which seems to be the common regret when it comes to those who have passed away, but perhaps it was because I was convinced she would keep on going well into her hundreds.

And on that cheery note, I shall welcome the new year with open arms and hope that things will be a bit brighter this time around. Chin up, let's doooooo this.

Bring it on 2017!