Tuesday, 31 December 2013

All the Bond films, from best to worst

A while ago I watched the first ten Bond films and put them into a list. Now I've watched all the others, and put them into the same list. It's a long list. The best ones are at the top, the worst ones are at the bottom, and some things happen in the middle. It looks about right to me. I gave this a lot of thought. For some of them, almost five minutes. Here it is.

1. Casino Royale
2. Skyfall
3. Goldeneye
4. Goldfinger
5. You Only Live Twice
6. Moonraker
. Live and Let Die
8. Dr No
9. Tomorrow Never Dies
10. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
11. From Russia With Love
12. The Man with the Golden Gun
13. The Spy Who Loved Me
14. Quantum of Solace
15. Die Another Day
16. The World is Not Enough
17. The Living Daylights
18. A View to a Kill
19. Octopussy
20. Licence to Kill
21. Diamonds are Forever
22. Thunderball
23. For Your Eyes Only

Skyfall is very good. I think it's the best looking, best directed Bond film, and a solid, significant story. It seems like a change of pace. It's almost atmospheric, particularly in its build-up to one of the creepiest Bond villains. It deserves to be right at the top, but really, I just prefer Casino Royale. These films come down to a blend of serious and silly, and Casino Royale gets that exactly right. Its story might be less clean and a bit sprawling, but where Skyfall is grim, Casino Royale is escapism. It's got high-stakes poker in a fancy casino and sinking buildings in Venice. For pretty much all of Skyfall Bond is in a mood, but here he's funnier and more confident and sure of his own invincibility. It does all that while still seeming weighty and important, with real characters and plot. That seems like a strange thing to say, but when it comes to things like character and plot, most of these films don't bother. There isn't always a story. Sometimes it's just bits of talking about missiles and satellites to string the action together. Casino Royale and Skyfall are about the people, and that's why they work so well.

They're not the best because they're new. Quantum of Solace is proof of that. It's a flimsy series of action sequences held together by nothing at all. It seems like a better film than it is because of Daniel Craig, but even he can't save it. There's nothing there. Nothing memorable. There are others, that even when they're not bothering to be serious, work because you can remember than, and they're just good fun. I was worried that Goldeneye might be all nostalgia, but it really is one of the best. After that the Brosnan films go downhill, with the quite-good-really Tomorrow Never Dies, and the really-very-boring World is Not Enough. Die Another Day is only worth talking about as context for how off the rails things went. The invisible car and ice palace are fine, but the bit where he surfs down a crumbling cliff then rides the wave to safety is so out of place it could have ruined the entire franchise.

I'd like to write about the Dalton films, but I can't really remember them, which probably says more than enough. At least they were better than the last few Roger Moores. For Your Eyes Only is at the bottom of the list for being more boring than all the other boring ones, even A View to a Kill, which is the one with the airship. Trying to reboot it with a serious tone didn't work as well with Dalton as it did with Daniel Craig. It seems like the series goes through cycles. It doesn't always know what it wants to be. When everyone gets tired of the jokes they put on serious faces, and when that gets old they try to have more fun again. It's when the two meet that things go best. And anyway, this list is just how I saw it, and it's not always easy to judge. I know that I enjoyed Moonraker more than I thought I would, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still just hanging around, maybe a few places too high. I might have been too mean on Thunderball - it was only at the bottom of four films before all the others piled on top of it. And who really knows or cares whether Octopussy is better than Licence to Kill?

When it comes down to it, their age is irrelevant. It would be easy to say that the old Connery ones are the best, but they're not. If you ignore what you're meant to think about the style of the classics and the unfair advantage of modern special effects, Casino Royale is a better film than Goldfinger. It's harder to judge the present, but a good film can be made at any time, and the best work on this series has been done this century. That being said, they are hardly ever consistently good, so the next one might be rubbish.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Earthbound is the game I missed twenty years ago

In 1994 Nintendo released a game called Earthbound on the SNES. At least, they released it in most parts of the world. It didn't come out in Europe until this year, possibly because they forgot about it. So I hadn't played it until now. I could have downloaded it from some dodgy website, but I like to be nice and legal, and I didn't really care that much. But it's a classic, both in the sense of it being really good and quite old. It's an adventure, about a boy leaving home to fight aliens with his friends. It's funny, and inventive, and charming, and reminded me how special games can be.

Even by the standards of 1994, this is not a very good looking game. But at the same time it is a very good looking game, because sometimes all you need is a few pixels in the right place. And it's also just a basic RPG, even though that makes it constantly compelling. The thing that makes this game special is that, more than anything else I've played recently, there's a sense of adventure. At the start, a boy wakes up in his bedroom, says goodbye to his family, and goes out to save the world. He wanders around the town, eating burgers and fighting snakes. He goes to the next town, saves a friend from a brainwashed cult, then goes to the next town to fight zombies. Soon you're on a different continent altogether. There's a long way to walk, and it's always strangely brilliant. It's funny, and I don't just mean there's a few jokes. The entire game is a surreal comedy, both in the script and the way it plays around with gaming conventions. This was back in the days when games were made by a few people, and this is all the vision of one Japanese designer, Shigesato Itoi (and translated to English by one guy). It's a very personal game - to the people who made it, and to the people who played it.

I didn't realise how wrapped up I was in all this until I was standing in a desert and a monkey taught me how to teleport. Suddenly, after plodding around the whole world, I could warp to wherever I wanted. I didn't go straight for some item shop or old dungeon. The first thing I did was teleport home. There was no reason, even in the story, for me to go back to the house where I started, but that's what I felt I needed to do.When I got there my mother was watching television, and said she was proud of me for saving the world. My point is that with simple graphics and brilliant writing, this game from twenty years ago made me care. It's a shame I didn't play it back then, because good game + time = nostalgia. I know it would be something I'd look back on as being part of my childhood, as many other people do. More than any other media, games are what I remember from that long ago. The best ones can take you back to another time, even by just hearing the soundtrack. They are different worlds that never change. Parts of your childhood that you can always go back to. To a lot of people, Earthbound is that special. To me, twenty years late, it's just a very good game.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Modern cinema doesn't work with my eyes

A few years ago I went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D, and wrote that I was pretty sure I couldn't see the 3D effect. Now I've seen Gravity in 3D, and I'm definitely sure I can't see the 3D effect. Maybe the fact that it was three years between these films shows that I might not be that interested in 3D. But I saw many other films in that time. Nice, enjoyable 2D films that displayed easily visible images. The problem is, as I have already said twice, I can't see the 3D effect. I don't really know what it is, but it sounds impressive when other people describe it. Things fly out of the screen and hover right in front of you, like you can touch them. But around 10% of people can't see this, and it disagrees with some people so much that it makes their head hurt. It's not so dramatic for me. When I put the 3D glasses on they only have the underwhelming effect of turning a blurry mess into a normal looking film, which is useful, but I didn't need an extra pair of glasses for that before. It looks like the film is on the screen, but a bit darker. There definitely isn't anything getting closer to me. There is nothing hovering, and I don't feel like I can touch it.

I have pretty normal eyes. They are short-sighted, or long-sighted (I can't remember), so I wear glasses. I can see real things that are in front of me, and can see when things are getting closer, because they are really there. But there is some technology in these 3D films that doesn't work with my eyes. This isn't really a problem, except that it has ruined a good film for me. I'm sure Gravity is good, because I was able to see most of it. The effects were very impressive, even when I'm wearing what are now just effectively rubbish sunglasses. But I didn't enjoy it. The main point of Gravity is the visual spectacle, and I couldn't see the visual spectacle, at least not the good bits everyone else was seeing. At no point was I immersed in the film, because I was always wondering what I was missing. I wanted to know what everyone else could see. This has never happened before. I've seen lots of films. I think I'm quite good at watching films. This was the first time I felt inadequate.

It's like being on a rollercoaster, but my car takes a slightly different track that doesn't have any loops or drops, and just ambles along. I can see everyone else speeding around me, but I have to just fold my arms and feel annoyed. That's what Gravity made me feel - annoyed. It's not intense, or gripping, or a brilliant showcase for the wonder and awe of cinema - just annoying. I don't think they were going for that. And so the obvious solution is to not watch 3D films. I can do that, because they're not very important and very easy to avoid for years, but I just wonder what I'm missing. I want to know what these floating things look like. I want to know if it would really seem like something was hurtling out of the screen towards me. And I want to know what it's like to watch Gravity.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Some thoughts on some television

The advantage of having a blog is that I can write down random, half-formed thoughts and keep them forever, as if they were important. So here's some words on two things that have no connection other than being here on the same page.

Boardwalk Empire
This show is still a mystery to me. It's on its fourth season now, and it's pretty good, but I completely forget about it when it's not on. Completely, like I hadn't been watching it for thirty hours. And then there's new episodes, and I'll watch them and enjoy them and be reminded of all these men in hats. I still don't know some of their names, but a lot of them want to murder each other. Often in very stylish, violent ways. The problem is, I wouldn't mind if I never saw another episode, even though it's impressive. I don't know what it's doing wrong. It has some of the best performances on television (Michael Shannon, in particular, always looks like he's about to burst) and some of the most intelligent, thoughtful writing. Maybe I'd enjoy it more if it was focused on one tight group of characters. Having a vast and separate cast can work brilliantly, like in The Wire or Game of Thrones, but here it might be too big for its own good. I want more of Richard's story, and Nucky's relationship with his brother and Margaret, not more conversations with gangsters I'm not sure I recognise, who mention other gangsters I don't think I know. I will watch every episode and enjoy them, I just wonder if, outside of a few brilliant characters, Boardwalk Empire will be remembered as one of the greats.
The Newsroom
I liked the first season of The Newsroom. I wrote a long defence of it, which usually happens when I'm annoyed that other people have different opinions to me. It was a show that had problems, but I thought it would be better in the second season, when it could really settle in. Now, after nine new episodes, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the second season is a huge improvement over the first, and one of the most enjoyable pieces of television this year. The bad news is that I have to praise it rather than rant about it, which is less fun for me, and makes shorter blog posts. So this time there was a proper running storyline, less focus on real news, and no silly love stories. We've spent time with these people now, and they're still a family. Don and Sloan, who weren't much of anything before, become two of the most likable characters. And that's it, the whole thing is likable. It would be easy, and boring, to over-analyse the politics of it, and miss how much fun it is to spend time in Sorkin's fantasy newsroom. There needs to be more.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The end of Dexter still bothers me

(Spoilers. For Dexter) After watching Dexter for eight seasons, I was expecting big things for the last few episodes. I wanted to see what they had been building towards the whole time. Would Dexter finally be revealed and be hunted by his friends? Would he lose his grip and descend into nasty madness, and still nobody would notice? Whatever it was, they'd been promising big things for years, and it would be worth the wait. Except, as it turned out, they didn't really have anything.

The problem is, I thought it was a different show. It's not adventurous. At least, it hasn't been for a long time. The writers were taking it season by season, making important things up as they went along. The decision they made, in the end, was to make Dexter nicer. So nice that it turned out he didn't have to kill anybody, even though he always told us he did. And an irrelevant villain appeared in the last few episodes. And everyone hung around cooking lovely dinners until Dexter could get on a plane. There were new characters, new developments, and other things that didn't matter at all, because all I wanted was the insane explosion of a season I'd been promised. It didn't happen, and then poor Debra, who had put up with a lot, died, and it was even sadder that by that point I didn't seem to mind. The last episode was strangely boring, being mainly focused on whether Dexter's girlfriend could catch a bus. If I was ever really promised something, I didn't get it.

And what would Dexter do? Would he get away with it? Would he be killed? No, he... did something irrelevant. It wouldn't have seemed so bad if he had ever mentioned lumberjacks, or said something about logs, or beards, but he didn't. It came out of nowhere. I understand that he wanted to live alone, but this isn't how television is meant to work. You can't introduce something random in the last minute. Eight seasons, I was watching this. Ninety-six episodes. Ninety-five hours, fifty-eight minutes, then lumberjack. He could have given us at a hint. He explained everything else to the ghost of his father inside his head, but not this. After all the murder and lies, the close escapes and near misses, the drama and the tragedy and the psychopaths, it finally comes to an end and then, lumberjack. I still don't understand.*

This was a good show, for at least the first four seasons. And the seventh. And even when it was bad it did a good job of pretending it wasn't. It's a shame, then, that I'll always remember that the end was nonsense.

* After reading this, it might not be the writer's fault.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Finding something good to read

Good books come from different places. A friend might recommend something to you. You might overhear something being mentioned. Sometimes a good book just makes itself known, by being in the right place at the right time, or by strange coincidence, or by just being really famous. Sometimes I don't know what to read next, but a good book always turns up, by the mystical forces of whatever. What doesn't work, is going to look for one. Especially on a computer. I don't think computers have any idea what a book is, even though they help to make them. To a computer, a book is just a collection of words that someone has typed, bits of data that become an object you can buy. Sites like Amazon don't give recommendations based on the real content of a book, they just know that somebody who bought this also bought that, and so you should buy it too. It's logical, but not very useful. Only a person knows what a good book is.

I made an account on Goodreads*. It's a website that recommends books. That's the whole point of it. You tell it all the books you've ever read and it shows you other things. I think, though, it might be a bit useless. My first mistake was saying I really like a Haruki Murakami book. It's response seemed to be, 'here are some more writers from Japan'. Never mind. And it's divided everything into genre, like fantasy, sci-fi, and 'mystery', because if there's one thing your book collection is missing, it's discipline. I've never thought, 'yes, I would like to read some science fiction now, I will go and look for some science fiction'. I just want something I'll enjoy. I don't know what genre things are half the time. Goodreads says that one of my favourites, The Road, is science fiction, despite that not being true at all.

The biggest problem with all this, though, is that it will never recommend something completely different to me. Something I never would have thought of. Only a friend can say 'this is brilliant, you should read it'. And that's the only recommendation I'm going to trust. Stupid internet.

*Like all social media, it does a good job of making you feel inadequate in a really blunt way. The first thing it tells me is 'You have no friends yet'. Oh.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

No, but really, Google are actually making these glasses?

A while ago I wrote a post about Google's glasses, and their awful, awful video. And, to be honest, I thought they were joking. But it turns out they're making these things. They're glasses that do everything you'd expect a smartphone to do, except that it's on your face. The thing is, this is obviously a bad idea. Anyone can see that. Why would you actually want to wear one everyday, in your life? Who would want that? Apparently, some people do, according to their YouTube comments. "I've wanted something like this for years," says an actual person. At least you'll know who to avoid.

It looks silly, but real glasses probably looked the same at first. The problem is that you'll be talking to somebody with a contraption on their face, and they can take pictures, and record you, and analyse your voice patterns to send back to headquarters for processing. Every now and then they'll stop talking, go cross-eyed to check IMDB, and then look back at you, if you're still there. Then, distracted by the glowing icons in front of their eyes, they walk into a lake

It's obviously going too far. The main difference between this and a phone is that they don't want you to glance at it and then put it in your pocket, they want you to see through it all day. We're already constantly connected to the internet, so why do we need it on our face? It's adding technology to ourselves in a way that is far too invasive. Anyone wearing this would literally be seeing the world through the internet. It would become part of them. It's not so essential that we need to attach it to one of our senses. We don't need to look through a wall of icons and messages. That doesn't need to come first. What's even more sinister, is that this will be connected to Google's social network. Everything you see will go through them, turning people into Googlebots. They must realise this sounds fairly evil, but they're still doing it. It's like the start of an episode of Doctor Who.

I'm sure they mean well really, but outside of their imagination and a few silly people, who is going to want this?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Ten James Bond films

I've been watching the James Bond films in order from the start. There's a lot of them, and they're all mostly the same, but all mostly good. I realised I haven't seen a lot of them before, so it's a bit like connecting the dots between the famous parts. There's the bit where he runs over crocodiles. And the bit where the car flips over a bridge. And a woman gets covered in paint. And all this other stuff happens in between. So much stuff that I need to organise it. I need to make a list of some sort. A list that ranks the quality of the ten films I have seen so far, and is almost completely infallible.

1. Goldfinger
2. You Only Live Twice
3. Live and Let Die
4. Dr No
5. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
6. From Russia With Love
7. The Man with the Golden Gun
8. The Spy Who Loved Me
9. Diamonds are Forever
10. Thunderball

I have no idea about On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It was, really, a bit boring. He spent a lot of time in a rubbish disguise in Blofeld's allergy centre and, well, I can't remember the rest of it. But it's the one that sticks out, because he gets married, and then he isn't married anymore, and George Lazenby is there. He's a different Bond. One that can't act very well, but seems vulnerable and more serious. This is a film that's better when you're not watching it. It's interesting, rather than brilliant. So it sits in the middle of the list, out of place and a bit awkward.

They are always rubbish when they end at sea. Things blowing up on the ocean are always boring in Bond films. The Spy Who Loved Me was going fine until the water-fortress bit at the end. Thunderball is too long, and most of it is incomprehensible swimming. Diamonds are Forever just isn't very good. These three films are at the bottom of the list. It seems that everyone likes The Spy Who Loved Me apart from me, but I did like half of it - the first half, when he was in Egypt. Then hundreds of people were running around a submarine, and I didn't care anymore.

There's a lot more to come. After watching the first ten, it seems like James Bond films don't really know what they want to be. Sometimes they're really silly, sometimes they're serious. They take weird detours into whatever is popular at the time (he goes into space in the next one; he's an astronaut). But they are always recognisably the same thing. He goes to other countries and kills people, and the women like him even when he's old. Some people say that the modern films aren't comparable to these, that the new ones are better in a different way. I think it's unfair to the quality of (some of) the new films. Casino Royale could have been made in 1970, if they'd wanted to, and it would have been just as good. There's nothing wrong with being silly, if it's done well. Compare You Only Live Twice to Die Another Day. They're both nonsense, but one is good and the other has computer effects. I'm trying to judge these films outside of the time they were made. That being said, there's still a lot of Roger Moore to get through.*

* I actually think he's quite good, but I'm feeling pessimistic about the rest of his films. There's a lot of them, and one is called Octopussy.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

I watched The Cabin in the Woods

Considering the years of pain some people went through waiting for The Cabin in the Woods to be released, it felt a bit strange to just sit down and watch it. There was a time when it looked like this film was going to drown in a financial hole, making it a lost Whedon classic that nobody was actually going to be able to see. And after all that, I still didn't know what it was about, because every review was desperate not to tell me. As it turns out, it's a horror film. Or a version of a horror film. Part parody, part incredibly inventive horror-comedy-fantasy-sci-fi-action-adventure-thing. It enjoys playing with your expectations. Five killable friends go to a house in the forest that's a long way from the emergency services, but close to evil monsters. And when all the nasty things are happening in the woods, it cuts to a control room where Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are controlling the horror. It diffuses the tension and adds a comic layer to what is already a lot of self-referential cleverness.

I could write about how postmodern this all is, and use more words like 'diffuses', but that would be ignoring the fact that this film is just a lot of fun. Despite all the gore, it's friendly in that familiar Whedonish (or Whedonesque) way. It doesn't really want to scare you. It wants to invite you into its club of nerdiness, where everything is an in-joke. And it works as a film. It's an hour and a half, cut down to the essential bits without a moment that drags. And it's got Bradley Whitford in it. If, like me, you've spent half of your life watching The West Wing, you'll just expect him to start shouting about voter turnout. But he doesn't. He looks like he's going to, but then he talks about zombies instead.