Monday, 31 December 2012

#7: The Eye Of The World - An Expertly Crafted Exercise in Cliché

With the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the last decade and George R. R. Martin's most recent foray in to the world of television with HBO's Game of Thrones; not to mention LotR prequel The Hobbit (or at least the first part) coming to cinema's  last month, Fantasy fiction has found itself in somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. Most authors of such fiction find themselves writing trilogies or stand alone novels but every so often there comes an author who doesn't stifle themselves with such restrictions on their world and their characters. Along with the aforementioned Martin, one of these such authors was James Oliver Rigney, Jr, more commonly known as Robert Jordan, author of the first eleven books in The Wheel of Time series, unfortunately he died before he could complete the series which is now being finished by a renowned Fantasy author in his own right, Brandon Sanderson.

Since I've only read the first book in the series, entitled The Eye of the World, I feel a review of the series overall will probably come at a (much) later date, given university commitments and the fact that the series overall clocks in at an impressive 11,004 pages to date. That said however the first book can be taken as a stand alone story, were the reader not to carry on with the series.

It starts with the familiar Fantasy cliché of a small idyllic village full of innocuous sheep-herders and blacksmiths drawing parallels with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings from the get-go. From then on things go from bad to worse as an Aes Sedai, or “witch” shows in the sleepy town of Two Rivers the same night as it is attacked by Trollocs (Jordan's Orc equivalent). From then on events unfold somewhat slow at first and begin to gather momentum as our protagonists journey unfolds around them. There are many similarities between Lord of the Rings and Jordan's epic or perhaps they're common tropes of the High Fantasy genre, such as the dichotomy of good against evil; suspicion of magic(s) and an  unnatural interest in wolves. Clichéd this may be, but cliché can work, and in Jordan's case it does it excellently. If you can overlook the myriad of invented words and the atlas full of new place names (Tar Valon, anyone?) then what you'll find in Jordan's first entry is a fully realised world, with characters you come to care about more than you initially imaged. Sure you've probably read it all before, or if not something similar, but does that really matter if you're a fan of the genre? Jordan has expertly crafted environments and people who are believable. The very black and white divide of good and evil wears quite thin towards the end of the book. Especially for those who are used to the bitter-sweet amorality of Westeros. Quite often during The Eye of the World you find yourself more interested in the aside characters who play integral roles throughout the book. Such as the in-keeps who keep the heroes one step ahead most of the time.

Perhaps not a book for people who are looking for quick fix of Fantasy, or even to those new to the genre, but that said the first book of Jordan's epic saga might not be a page turner in the manner of Martin, but the steady pace it set looks certain to pick up.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

#6: Frank Turner - O2 Academy Leeds - 12/11/12


Former Million Dead front man Frank Turner is an artist who divides opinion. Punk Rock purists resent his political ideologies because they no longer apply to the militant leftism that is synonymous with Punk where as Folk fans clamour for tickets at sell out shows globally. The good news is when the music is as consistently good as Frank's is then there really shouldn't be any need for political standpoints to cloud a music fan's judgement.

Arriving fashionably late to Leeds O2 academy I found the place to be packed already with more than several people already well on their way to a Tuesday morning hangover from hell. After a brief but sweaty fifteen minute wait Frank Turner and his backing band The Sleeping Souls took to the stage with their usual gusto and aplomb. Opening with one of his more recent songs I Am Disappeared was a sure fire way to get the crowd going; and get the crowd going it did. During the first four songs not once did the crowd relent, singing back every word to every song as though it were an encore. The energy with which both Frank and the Sleeping Souls perform with is a joy to watch and the rapport he has with his fans is something only someone truly passionate about their music can hold down. His set was peppered with moments of occasional poignancy, such as the track Long Live the Queen from second album Love Ire & Song which was a welcome addition to the set list and Isabel which is a personal favourite of mine. Another highlight of the night came in the form of Wessex Boy from the most recent album England Keep My Bones. There was something strangely charming about hearing a room full of people in West Yorkshire sing with such sincerity about hailing from the south of England. Although that isn't to say any sense of locality was lost amongst fans who, on more than one occasion, started chanting “Yorkshire” as if just to clarify and remind Frank just exactly where he was. As well as fan favourites there were three new songs taken from his as-of-yet untitled new album; Plain Sailing Weather; Anymore and Three Little Words, of which the latter two are particularly good. Three Little Words could easily be the leading single from the aforementioned album which is due next year. It was a shame to see the ever-popular Ballad of Me and My Friends left out from the set given that the American leg of the tour got to hear it. That said however he has specified in the past he doesn't want to play it live for whatever reasons (another point of contention amongst fans and critics alike). The traditional three-song encore was nothing short of fantastic. It started with his most recent single If Ever I Stray which got perhaps the loudest sing along of the night save for the next song, a rousing rendition of Photosynthesis which as ever, was superb. Since the aforementioned Ballad... was dropped the climax of the show came in the form of a Hardcore version of Dan's Song which while perhaps not as resonant as Ballad...was entertaining nevertheless.

Frank Turner is someone who is consistently good at what he does. He knows how to work a crowd and enjoys himself while he's doing it. He may have critics in the form of jaded Million Dead fans who think his departure from Punk and from leftist politics was a poor decision and one which has been led by money at that, but those people are blinded by ideals and image. Why should personal political belief be an integral part of an artist who has already “hung up his banner”? His gig's aren't political discussion forums, they're places for people to get together as strangers and enjoy his music as one. And as long as he keeps making it, that's what people are going to do. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

#5: Give Us A Day And We'll Show You The World

First off it should be noted that this is the first film by director Jia Zhangke that I have watched. A bit of background study in to him as an auteur has shown that while this is probably his most popular film, it detracts from the impact that his some his previous work has had despite still covering the matter of globalisation in China and the country's move in to post-modernity.Secondly I want to avoid mentioning or discussing any main plot points unless they are pivotal in understanding the films commentary on globalisation, spatiality and the post-modern.

Even though the film was made seven years ago, the necessity of the overarching narrative is still evident, arguably even more so, now. The film is set in Beijing with the cities theme park Beijing World Park, and follows an array of working class employees who have come to the park from the surrounding countryside and further afield to make ends meet. The theme park features many of the world's most famous landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, and the Taj Mahal. While this global symbolism isn't particularly important to the over all narrative per se; it does allow a continuing theme of travel to recur throughout. And makes for a striking backdrop for Zhangke's narrative of the “impact of urbanisation and globalisation on a traditional culture.”

The film is viewed in a section of vignettes, interspersed by colourful animated transition scenes between each one. These animated sections also allow the films interest in new media technologies to be exhibited, and how they effect the relationships between the characters. Almost every one of these animations has a translated text message between partners included. These text messages reveal the more intimate and honest side of the often-reserved Chinese characters. This suggests that as teenagers or young adults the staff at the theme park are happier to talk about their feelings towards one another from behind the screen of a mobile phone, in much the same way social networks such as Myspace were used around the time is was filmed. While these transitional scenes certainly show the importance of new media technologies within contemporary youth in China, they detract from the overarching beauty of the filmed sequences and appear in an stylistic fashion more suited to that of airport chick-lit than an award winning film.
Perhaps what is most striking about this film (cinematography and camera work aside) is it's ability, at least at first, to allow the characters to play the role of backdrop, whilst it is the park and it's spatiality that carries the narrative. That is until you become riveted by the understated yet almost soap-opera like qualities of the characters, their relationships with each other and their surroundings.

There is a distinct dichotomy of open and enclosed at work within the film. Several characters are shown fairly early on performing a traditional Indian dance in the vast open air of Beijing World Park. However this is juxtaposed fantastically well against the squalled and cramped conditions of the 'back stage' area in which they get ready each day. Not only is this shown throughout the park itself, but several other settings show how trapped within their own lives the characters are. A further point of emphasis, as I have mentioned above, is travel and this is obvious throughout the whole film. A Russian and a Chinese women become and unlikely paring, despite the language barrier between them. This illustrates the theme of globalisation perfectly. The women cement a friendship (that Zhangke could have elaborated on a little more perhaps) irrespective of the cultural divide that separates them (language). This lack of distinction between countries is becoming more and more prevalent with language being one thing a country can hold on to keep it's national identity.

There is further focus on that of the contrived. Everything about the film I set up and designed to juxtapose with the realism of the slowly developing characterisation and relationships throughout the film. “Give us a day, and we can show you the world” is a sign in the park. And that is what the park aims to do. It's these contrivances which make the film stand out as more then just a drama. One scene show's a couple sat on a 'magic carpet' within the park, flying up the Eiffel Tower, beaming and waving at the camera. However before this is shown, we see the couple sat on nothing more on a rug-covered box in front of a blue screen, with the camera being tilted from side to side by the woman operating it. Sure this might just be a theme park gimmick, and something you would find in any theme park, but the importance of this scene is the way in which the scenario is constructed, even the emotions of the couple seem to be forced. A further point of contrivance, is seen outside of the park, when a sweatshop owner meets her degenerate gambler brother. While this is a scene of utmost realism in terms of the characters, the scene takes place in a vacant theatre, with the characters talking in the background, while the setting of the theatre becomes the focus of the scene, suggesting perhaps that life as a whole is a performance and the world or The World, is our stage.
The camera work throughout the entire film is second to none. There are lots of scene in which the camera is completely stationary, allowing the events to unfold before it as it were just another spectator within Beijing World Park. These stationary moments are shot with an almost photographic composition to them. Breaking the 'image' down in to rule of thirds or framing the characters on screen with props such as pillars within the park, and the fantastic global backdrops such as the Arc De Triomphe, as you can see below:

Not only does the concept of Beijing World Park lend itself brilliantly to the cinematography and mise-en-scene within this film, but the backdrop of the Beijing skyline is also impeccably represented by Zhangke. One note worthy scene shows two central characters in the back of a truck on their way away from the park. Both characters seem pensive, yet happy that they're out of the confines of the behind the scenes squallor they live in with the park. The camera is borderline stationary here, despite being set up on the back of the truck with the characters. It's occasional and slow moving pan gives a sense of going-nowhere, as the background doesn't change until the end of the scene, suggesting a sense of aspiring-mobility that will never quite be realised because of the girls social positions.

To conclude, this film is one that makes a concious and successful effort to illustrate the effects of globalisation on a burgeoning Chinese underclass. We find ourselves inexplicably drawn in to The World through expertly crafted camera work and believable situations. If the characters are the spearhead of the film then the shaft is the solid. sturdy and almost ironic (given the nature of the film) cinematography and camera work. Clocking in at just over two hours and a quarter this film might not be for everyone, least of all those who are looking for the over-the-top gorefests of predominant Asian film-making such as Ichi the Killer or Oldboy. Instead we find ourselves drowned in the fantastic costumes and soundtrack of the parks workers, which are wonderfully contrasted with the dank and peeling walls of their living quarters where they spend their free time. Globalisation is a double-edged sword, and we can see it at play better than ever within the choreographed dance routines. Chinese girls performing Indian dances with the same vigour they should be performing traditional Chinese customs with is a sorry site. With such focus on mobile technologies and Mcdonaldisation how long will it be before all national identities are homogenised?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

#4: A Theoretical Reflection of Leeds as a City

Leeds, like many British cities, wasn't once the confident centre of consumerism that is has come to be known for, it was once a city of industry. During the Industrial Revolution, the city, began to move away from wool (although it was still it's primary product) and moved towards flax and contemporary production methods such as printing, before finding itself as a city of commerce during the 20th century. I want to show this shift away from industrialisation and modernism by illustrating the close proximity in which the classical architecture of the city's churches and other such buildings are to their post-modern counterparts; such as apartment buildings and shopping centres/arcades.

In the above image you can see the classical architecture of Leeds cathedral juxtaposed with the post-modern design of the apartments behind it. This is a recurrent theme throughout the skyline of Leeds, and throughout this essay. This is perhaps most evident at Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane. As you can see below the church (taken from 4 different angles) is in the middle of the current building of Leeds Trinity shopping center. This juxtaposition of faith and commerce backs up what Marc Augé has said about “non-places”. The church, while still a place of worship for those of faith, has it's cultural impact detracted from with the addition of the shopping center arguably a non-place, contrived only for commercial means that houses myriad 'places' (shops). However, contradictory to Augé, Shaun Moores would argue that the shopping center (as in my example) is a place for those who work there every day and for them it is not a point of transition between shops. Furthering this idea he claims that new media technologies actually pluralise space, and those of us who carry mobile phones have the ability to be in several places at once.


If I were to argue from Augé's perspective, then it is entirely viable for me to suggest that, at least in some ways, for me, Leeds, as a city, is a non place. This is because, despite living there, my main interaction with the city is as a place of transit between both the tangible places of my flat and university, and between when I arrived and my overall destination of graduating.

Another way in which the progression of Leeds is evident is within the city's indoor market. Built in 1904 (from whence it takes its name) the market hall has always been a place of commerce. However now more modern shops populate the hall and clash with the turn-of-the-century fixtures within it.

Here the garishness of the neon sign advertising mobile phone repairs is completely out of place and dwarfed within the market, however it still depicts Leeds shift in to post-modernity whilst exhibiting the public’s obsession with new media technologies.

Perhaps one of the best examples I found was this photo of Bridgewater Place, taken from the corner of Swinegate. The building dominates every inch of this photo whilst competing against the Sky Plaza to dominate the Leeds skyline. Juxtaposing itself against the three-storey buildings that line the street, Bridgewater Place is a typical example of post-modern architecture, and gives the photo as a whole a feeling of placelessness and globalisation; the building could have been erected in any city in the world.

Like Leeds Town Hall, The Corn Exchange is Victorian in it's design. Even though it is still used for its former purpose, that of trade, the businesses that operate within it's confines are a far cry from that of its original, corn. It now houses boutiques and restaurants, a drastic change from when it opened in 1862.
A further way of looking at Leeds would be as Appadurai sees cities; as an area of 'scapes' This way of thinking takes different aspects of a city and forms meaning around that aspect. For example; given that Leeds has shifted away from the industrialisation of the 19th and early 20th centuries and found itself (like most cities) to be a city of commerce. Arguably then, this shift has allowed Leeds to become what Appadurai would term a financescape (centred around the movement of global capital – not just retail capital). However, the fact that Leeds is broken in to quarters suggests that there are more 'scapes' involved. For there to be a successful financescape, there must be shop workers and tourism adding to their global capital, this then brings a second 'scape' in to play; the ethnoscape, which is, as the name suggests, people-centric. As a result then of the growing population, a mediascape will occur, notable within the cultural quarter of Leeds where the BBC building is. The 'scapes' however, are not always distinguishable from one another and many times will overlap each other both geographically (shops within the financial quarter, people distributing newspapers and flyers within the commercial areas of a city) and less tangibly, as you can see above; one 'scape' gives birth to the next and so on and so forth. Thinking in terms of 'scapes' then, I personally contribute to the ethnoscape of Leeds. But since I buy food and consumer goods in Leeds I also contribute to the financescape. Furthering this I also contribute to the mediascape of Leeds, as both a student of the media and as a writer for The Met Online student blog. Using these examples it becomes clear how several different societal aspects come in to play to form the over all image of a city, in this case, Leeds.

In conclusion then we can see cities that were an integral part of the industrial revolution such as Leeds and Liverpool, have been uprooted from their initial roles within industry and now have much more in common with metropolitan, European cities of culture and commerce. We can also see how many different aspects of societal life act as the building blocks which are fundamental for any contemporary westernised city to function, and see how their journey from industry to an established cultural city is one that has been felt by a huge majority of successful capitalist cities throughout Western world.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

#3: Verbose and Socially Aware: Northen Hip-Hop just got better

The UK hasn't always been the hotbed for Hip-Hop it's come to be today. The current popularity of Don't Flop has catapulted rap battles in to the mainstream media over the past two years with the brand growing quicker than Gary Glitter's court cases. It's no surprise then that the talent isn't just sectioned to the south of England, artists such as Blizzard (whose rap battle with school teacher and poet Mark Grist is still racking up views on Youtube) are bringing Manchester to the forefront of the scene outside of London. Manchester already has a number of established emcees merging with the ranks of Indie royalty, but it's their relatively unknown contemporaries that should be causing a stir over the next year; enter Crowd Reaction.

Described by  founder, producer and rapper Smky as "label that produces music and videos for local artists", Crowd Reaction has just dropped it's first mix-tape Dirty Anti-Fiction featuring 3 rappers from South Manchester. It's a non-profit business venture that's dedicated to getting local talent noticed. Not just limited to music either Crowd reaction encourages anyone to get in touch with them if they want their talent exhibiting, and are eager to help people who would otherwise go unnoticed get the recognition and the exposure they deserve. All contact information will be provided below.

Produced in four months once the tracks were written, Dirty Anti-Fiction  is a "quick production to get the ball rolling". Quick or not, the mix-tape is a staggering first effort from the DIY label/media enterprise that's the brainchild of Robert 'Smky' Costello and Adam 'Sweed' Humphrey. The usually consistent lyricism suggests an intelligence and a societal awareness that was integral to making the mix-tape what it is: a social commentary. Jaded by the current coalition Dirty Anti-Fiction acts as a mouthpiece for a youth disaffected and mostly condemned in the mainstream media. Over the course of 8 full tracks (and one skit) the EP paints a picture of South Manchester life, with the final track Prejudice by the aforementioned Smky being the highlight of the whole thing that serves as a how to... guide to life that most people would benefit from adhering to. Rather than harbouring a guns, bitches and bling mentality, Crowd Reaction have distilled an ethos that digs deeper than most UK rap cares to. Those who aren't fans of Grime or Hip-Hop will more than likely be turned off by the colloquial accents of Smky, Tense and Dynamic, but for those who want to see a picture of Manchester painted with unusual eloquence and verbosity for the Hip-Hop genre should definitely cop this free download, or get in touch with Crowd Reaction for a hard copy. Expect big things in the future, you won't be disappointed.

Listen now: Prejudice - Smky


Saturday, 20 October 2012

#2: Tony Hawk's HD Review

For years now fans of the Tony Hawk's franchise have been clamouring for a return to the series roots. The past two games in the series have left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth's of die-hard fans and critics alike. The most recent of the two, Shred, sold only 3000 copies in it's first week on sale in America, and, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, was responsible for publishers Activision putting a halt on the series. While it is arguable that these two games (and Downhill Jam on the Playstation 2) are spin-offs from the main series with different development teams behind them, it certainly isn't arguable that they were let downs. Big ones at that. Fast forward two years and one development teams behind the ill-fated 'spin-offs' have decided to turn their hands at the ever popular HD collection trend.

Taking levels from the first two games, Robomondo does a fairly good job, overall, of bring them in to the present. There's still something exhilarating about rolling down the ramp in the Warehouse level to the sound of Goldfinger's Superman, before clearing a half pipe and landing sweetly on the other side. Mechanics are in place from the first two games such as the ability to elongate combos through manuals. That said however that's about all you can do. Want to spine transfer? Sorry. Want to throw in a cheeky revert on a quarter pipe? Can't do it. Feel like getting off your board? Not a chance. While these things don't necessarily take away from the overall feel of them game; especially to those of us who remember not even being able to manual on the original THPS way-back-when, it will still cause some frustration to fans of the series who joined on the Playstation 2 when their combos are cut short despite tapping R2 to perform said revert. The level choice is generally quite good (with the exception of Downhill Jam, a personal worst level for me, but it must have some fans given the spin-off title). Classics like Hanger and Marseilles are back, as well as School II and of course the Mall. Despite the generally good choices I still feel that 7 levels (the one I've not mentioned is Venice Beach) is not enough for the title, although Robomondo have plans for DLC in the future. The soundtrack is again generally good with classics such as “No Cigar” by Millencolin and “You” by Bad Religion punctuated by more modern songs. However, like the level design I think there could have been a significant amount more songs added given how often the songs tend to repeat themselves and offer no semblance of order, with more than on one occasion changing level to hear the song you've just heard start again. Something noteworthy is the ability to restart your run without the track repeating; something that I hated as a kid playing the original titles. The graphics are impressive when viewed in their intended high definition, but personally I'm using an old TV to play (my more recent is in my flat in Leeds) and it looks like a decent PS2 title (though that's to be expected).

The reason I'm reviewing this game so late after it has come out is because a) it took me a while to get round to playing it, and b) the first few weeks I had it I couldn't get enough, and so would have given it a rather more rose-tinted review. Once completing this game the fun didn't run out; unlike the nostalgia. Upon completing every single objective with one character you unlock a series of projectives which are “much more difficult” than the original ten of the level. This sounds like a good idea. Until you realise that they're the same across all 7 levels, with the exception of the score objectives which get harder as you progress. This, in my opinion, is just laziness on the part of the development team who could have mixed it up a bit and not just rehashed the same 5 goals. There are also other types of game as opposed to career such as the newly introduced Hawkman, which has you collecting tokens in a combo, different colours mean different rules of collection. And Big Head Survival, which sounds like it would be more at home on an a Tekken game than a THPS revamp. 

Despite sounding overly critical of the game it is still something I will go back to given my nostalgic nature and the games ability to make me feel 12 years younger. Had this game had a little more thought and planning, and perhaps integrated the first four THPS games instead of two; and been a full retail game it could have been something really special. As it happens it escapes feeling like a cash-in but with the prospect of DLC looming that could change depending on how reasonably the content is priced. New skaters in the character selection take away from the nostalgia but that isn't important to the game as a whole since none of them feel any different from the others anyway and only have a marginally different skill set between them unless you manually change each character's individually in the Skate Shop menu. As a whole the game plays as smooth as anything from this generation, and the lifelike reactions of the characters when they land 'sloppy' are fantastic and long overdue. The occasional physics glitch that sends players hurtling in to the air are more amusing than irritating unless they mess up a combo, and will especially make players familiar to the original games smile. Worth a download if you're looking for a less realistic skating game than what's the Skate series offers, and with DLC on the horizon it could expand THPSHD from something good, in to something brilliant.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


In hindsight starting a blog 5 weeks in to my final year at university is probably quite late, but what can you do. I've turned my hand at blogging several times over the past five years and for one reason or another all are now gathering dust on the shelves of cyberspace. I think the reason I became so disenchanted was mainly due to Tumblr and how it managed to become a prototype for Instagram. There are only so many black and white, badly focused images one person can take before deciding enough is enough and going on to search out a less hipster-orientated means of blogging.

I'm aiming to keep this blog going throughout my final year and going on to post-graduation. I might not update daily but I'm quite sure stuff worth blogging about doesn't happen daily. Does it? I'll update with reviews of games/films/gigs etc if I feel something is particularly worth talking about. I'm passionate about music, but will probably get further writing about it than actually making it.I wasn't blessed with musical greatness.

I'm a firm believe in social media and use both Facebook and Twitter regularly but then again who doesn't?

I'll try to keep this going, and have every intention of doing so despite the increasing workload from university. "Best laid plans..." and all that.