Sunday, 25 September 2011

Catching Community

“We’re gonna have more fun and be less weird than the last two years combined.”

With that tongue in cheek promise “Community” returned for a third season, all singing, all dancing.

Over the course of two seasons creator Dan Harmon’s community college based comedy has brought us zombies, paintball, stop-motion breakdowns, copious pop-culture references and the most awesome blanket city you will ever witness on a TV screen.

What makes it truly remarkable though is that it has also brought us a number of the most likeable characters to be found anywhere in that bizarre alternate reality most sit-coms seem to exist in. Without them “Community” would grate on audiences; it’s ‘meta comedy’ self awareness and shameless love of pop culture references would end up putting off even the geekiest of fans. With them it becomes something incredible, a show which manages to be in many ways detached and yet so involving.

Focussing on the experiences of 7 students looking to make it through a particularly challenging community college experience who join together to form a suitably rag-tag study group, the show provides character development without feeling the need to spend every episode hammering the changes home.

There’s a whole range of American sit-coms that I love right now, I wrote about two of them here, but what makes “Community” stand out is its originality compared to all the direct descendents of “Friends” and “Frasier”. The majority of shows out there either rely on a group of improbably good-looking 20 somethings falling in and out of love, or a group of socially awkward but incredibly intelligent Americans screwing up but meaning well, and all those shows stubbornly but understandably refuse to acknowledge the influence or Ross and Rachel or Niles and Frasier.

“Community” openly compares itself to the myriad of films and TV shows, from pretty much every genre available, that influence each episode. It’s a move which I am sure has alienated some viewers over its lifetime, but one which led to me falling in love with it. The meta-element of the show threw me at first but it was also what initially hooked me; much as the “Scream” franchise has done for horror films, “Community” manages to parody many of the genre elements while producing one of the strongest examples of this particular brand of TV show. One of the key reasons it works, especially the parody elements, is that it’s such a loving parody; the huge majority of the pop-culture references are delivered with a clear fondness for the subject matter.

I’d been looking around for a new show to watch this summer, something I’d never watched before but heard good things about; it was between this, “Modern Family” and “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and I don’t have some deep or particularly logical reason why I settled on “Community” but decide I did and it turned out to be an uncharacteristically strong gut instinct.

It is definitely a geeky and distinctly self-aware show, but it also has real heart. There are three strongly written and superbly acted female characters who are so loveable that you end up wanting a stereotypically happy ending for all of them whenever the show does draw to a close. There’s a pop-culture obsessed and often borderline delusional guy who is so charming and warm that he makes the geeks of “The Big Bang Theory” look like jerks. A former jock turned geek who is not only the most honest and open of the group but also capable of some of the funniest freak outs ever committed to screen. Even the objectively more dislikeable characters, the ones who are given the darker decisions, motives and attitudes, manage to make you root for them through the subtle touches, depth of characterisation and charming acting.

It is a show which finds that tough to achieve balance; it manages to parody without ever being a parody show.

I get the impression the show is yet to make it big in the UK, I know I found it hard enough to find the two seasons that have been made already and the region 2 DVD of season 1 is only available to pre-order now. It was shown on Viva, a channel more known for music videos than top rate comedies, but I hope E4 or another mainstream channel picks up the show, because it deserves to get a lot more attention than it has.

If you do give it a go, make sure you stick with it for more than 2 or 3 episodes, it takes a while to get used to the quite individual style of the show, but if you persevere you will be rewarded in episode 23 by one of the great sit-com episodes ever when a paintball game gets out of control and ends up involving the entire school. Rarely have I ever watched an episode of any show where it is so clear the writers, director, producer and actors are all enjoying themselves quite so much. Plus who hasn’t imagined their school becoming a war zone during a particularly dull science lesson.

Just me?

The possibly “Glee” baiting opening to season 3 was clever but it would be a damn shame if “Community” did end up being less weird this season; the joyful embracing of all things weird and geeky is what made me fall in love with the show. I watch “Community” and see links to quite literally half of my DVD collection, there was even a "Dr Who" reference this week, while enjoying some of the sharpest writing around.

It’s a show which is clever, funny and when it wants to be, incredibly sweet; what more can you ask for from a 21st century sit-com.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Terrific Television

Throughout my life different things have offered me comfort and distraction. Music is a constant but it varies in importance and it isn’t a dominant thing in my life right now. I go through phases of being able to watch film after film but this summer that hasn’t been the case,I've still been more of a film geek than most people probably are/have time to be, but by my standards I've not been too addicted. The same goes for reading and to an extent writing, but neither of them have been particularly prevalent in the last year or so. No this summer it has been TV that I have retreated to on a regular basis and more specifically American shows.

I’m going to devote an entire blog post to my newest discovery, “Community”, but I’m going to do a roundup of the other shows, new and old, which have been keeping me going throughout this summer.

This week the 7th season of “How I Met Your Mother” started airing; I’ve explained before the reasons that I love that show so much and I’m excited to see where they go in what seems likely to be the penultimate season of the show. I don’t want to talk too much in terms of actual plot developments for those who are not yet up to date with the show and intend to catch up, but I think that within this season we will finally see Ted meet the fabled mother.

On that note I feel a slightly odd sensation of pity for the actress who has that role, both through the hints at her character and the strength of several of Ted's love interests over the course of the show, it's going to be a tough ask for her to live up to the role. Plus considering the romantic gestures and stories those previous women have been involved in, the writers are really going to have to write a pretty intense and epic romance for it to feel justified that she is who Ted and the show's audience have been waiting for. Over the summer I watched all 6 seasons again and it's remarkable how well the show stands up to repeat viewings, a compliment that is rightly always paid to "Friends" and therefore high praise in my view.

Also this week has seen “The Big Bang Theory” return for a 5th season; it’s not my favourite show in the world, at times feeling a little one dimensional in terms of real character development/depth but it does however have one of the best characters in any current sit-com, Sheldon Cooper, the pinnacle of the incredibly intelligent but socially awkward character type. He carries the show in a lot of episodes, giving it momentum and the majority of the laugh out loud lines. Having watched the last season again over the past few weeks I'm definitely looking forward to the coming season, though not with the same intensity that I anticipate "How I Met Your Mother".

In terms of dramas there have been three which have particularly stood out over the course of this summer. Firstly there is “The Pacific”, the Spielberg produced WW2 drama about the battles for the islands of the Pacific ocean. Incredibly intense and exhilarating, the show manages to be entertaining and action packed while also looking at the psychological impact the brutality of warfare has on the young men that fight and survive. If Joseph Mazzello, who plays the youngest of the central protagonists, Alabama born Eugene Sledge, doesn't end up making it big as a Hollywood actor it's a damn shame because even amongst a strong cast he stands out.

Though not quite on the same level as that, the other two shows have also kept me entertained throughout these months. “Game of Thrones”, the swords and fantasy tale of warring families and supernatural threats which stars Sean Bean, is not ground-breaking but it has a great sense of scale and manages to convey complex political manoeuvring alongside some exciting sword fights and pitched battles.

Moving from fantasy to sci-fi, the final drama I want to mention is “Falling Skies”. Set 6 months after a successful invasion of Earth by an alien race the show details the efforts of a resistance cell in America fighting to protect a group of civilians and strike back against the invaders whenever possible. It made a nice change to watch something about an alien invasion where it was clear that the humans have been defeated rather than just as all seemed lost discovering a surprise weakness in the aliens. By also investigating what the alien race would be like as an occupying force it gives more depth to the species; they have motivations and emotions that go beyond the normal ‘kill everyone’ fare of the alien invasion genre. It’s far from perfect with some frustratingly generic characters and uninspired acting, but the concept and a few strong central performances saw me consume the 10 episodes of season 1 in just over a week.

I can't guarantee whether TV will remain as my first choice escape from reality over the next few months, but it has definitely helped pass a comparatively uneventful summer with a minimum of boredom.

Monday, 12 September 2011

47 Days

I feel like I should explain the fairly sustained absence of blog posts over the past couple of months. After more than 100 consecutive daily posts BT decided they were sick of me rambling on and took the drastic step of taking away my home's internet, on demand TV and phone line. They claimed it was just a technical fault but if they’d simply asked me to stop posting I would have, there was no need for them to react quite so badly.

As it panned out we were without their services for a good 3 weeks and as a sign of how internet dependent I am, they were painfully long weeks. It started off as the simple frustration of being disconnected, not being up to the date with social or global news, but after a week you start to become aware of all the little things that the internet provides us with. After the 15th time that you see someone in a TV show that you recognise from something you watched years ago, you begin to truly appreciate the wonder of IMDB and Wikipedia. The same goes for songs and Youtube, it takes surprisingly few days before the question of whether you’ve heard so and so’s latest song becomes incredibly annoying. Then there’s TV; I pretty much never watch a show at the broadcast time, I’m utterly used to watching a show when and where I want after it’s TV showing and the realisation that I had to rearrange my plans around when a show was on came as a bit of a shock.

I’m happy to concede that so far as the blog was concerned I was actually a little glad of the enforced hiatus at first; though I was happy I’d been able to keep up the daily posts for so long it was beginning to feel like a chore rather than something I wanted to do, and until I am being paid for this blog I don’t want to write if I’m not enjoying it. However the delay has stretched beyond the period I didn’t have an internet connection and there are a couple of reasons for that.

After 3 weeks and after watching what felt like every DVD in my house, BT felt they’d punished us enough and internet was restored. However the next day I was offered a paid week at the Derbyshire Times, the paper at which I did a week of work experience at earlier in the summer. The week was great but working a full day’s work after a summer of inaction left me with little energy to restart the blog.

The fortnight or so between the week at the paper and Sunday’s post can be explained by a combination of laziness and uncertainty. The laziness is simply a product of me being me, but the uncertainty is a little more complex. After such a long break I wanted the first post to matter, to be something which stood on its own rather than be either something trivial which seemed to continue where I left off without explanation or this kind of post where I justify the absence without any clear sign I intended to post more.

9/11 and the whole incredibly complex range of thoughts and emotions it triggers was the perfect reason to restart the blog. It was a topic worthy of an isolated post, something I care a great deal about and an ideal way to return to my melodramatic but well meant rambling. So 47 days after the last post, about a music festival in Sheffield, I'm back and though I have no intention of resuming posting every day, I hope to write reasonably frequently from now on.

Today’s song is one I rediscovered my love for during the time away, a song from an album which provided the soundtrack for the majority of the time I was writing my story a couple of years ago.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Day of Remembrance

The 9/11 attacks will be one of the defining events of my lifetime, both historically and personally.

The historic importance of the terrorist atrocities committed on American soil that day is well documented and people across the world are still experiencing the aftershocks of those events, through the wars fought in part because of them and the laws that were passed after them.

However on a personal level it will always carry a huge amount of importance that goes beyond the socio-political ramifications of Al-Qaeda attacking the American mainland. The 11th of September 2001 was the day that, as cheesy/melodramatic as this sounds, I lost some of my innocence about the wider world.

I was 10 years old, coming home from school when my best friend’s mum told us that America had been attacked. I doubt I even really understood what that meant when she said it, but I went home and sat down in front of the TV on my own and watched the news for around 4 hours, trying to understand what had happened and more importantly why.

I’d already had some exposure to the cruelty humans are capable of through my already well developed fascination with WW2, but this was different. At that age events 60 years ago may as well be 600, they’re so detached from the life I was living and to some degree they may as well have been fictional stories I was reading. This was different, I sat and watched the events unfolding live, seeing the confusion, the panic and most of all the destruction.

I wanted to try and understand what the news readers meant when they talked about concepts like religious extremism, terrorism and martyrdom. That September day woke me up to some of the realities of the world; the fact that killing based on religion, politics or just hatred wasn’t some historical phenomenon but something that was still happening around me.

It wasn’t an immediate shift but I know both from memory and my parent’s assurance that I took a growing interest in politics from then on, an interest that has now led me to study politics at university.

The 10 years since the attack have seen more events that like 9/11 have had huge political ramifications but also played a huge part in forming the current 20 year old version of me; Afghanistan and Iraq, 7/7 and the Oslo shootings, Obama’s election and the Arab Spring, but none of them will ever have that same power as the day I sat and watched New York under attack on the BBC.

Though the 10 year old me wouldn’t have been able to express most of this, especially the wider desire to understand how people could carry out acts of terrorism, take so many innocent lives and believe they were right to do so with such certainty, that day expanded my awareness and my inquisitive nature in a way no other has. A decade later, I've consumed countless books, articles and TV documentaries on the subject and I sit here on the 11th of September 2011 aware that I still don’t fully understand the events I watched unfold that afternoon or the motives behind them. I could list a whole range of political, religious and social factors that may or may not have had an influence on that tragic day, but the truth is that I doubt I will ever understand the mind-set that could lead to what I saw on that TV screen. I don’t think I want to either, 9/11 may have changed how I viewed the world, chipped away at the shiny veneer with which you look on life as a child but I don’t think the actions making sense would bring me any comfort.

Memories fade over time and even a day as formative as 9/11 isn't immune to that; I can't guarantee I remember all the things I thought and the emotions I felt, I can only write about the day as I remember it and from what my parents have told me about my reaction. However one thing I clearly remember is the anger that filled me that afternoon. It was a simpler and purer anger than I am able to muster now. Modern disasters and atrocities still make me angry, but it is a more complex feeling, anger diluted by a knowledge of the complex motives and various groups that might be responsible, aware that in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries no country or religion comes out smelling entirely of roses. I'm also more aware of and fearful about the repercussions, the responses whether foreign or domestic that can follow a bomb attack or shooting. The adult me sees the million shades of grey, on that 2001 afternoon I saw only black and white and it granted me a righteous anger, assured of who the good guys and the bad guys were, who were the heroes and who the super villains. I don't know whether I'll ever feel that mix of confusion, sadness and anger again, it's hard to imagine a situation that the current, politically aware me could view with that same cocktail of emotions.

9/11 changed the world and to varying degrees will have impacted on each and everyone of us in the years since. My thoughts today are with the families of those who died on 9/11 and with everyone who has lost loved ones at least in part due to the actions of those terrorists in the decade since.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Embracing Sci-Fi

I’m someone who makes a conscious effort not to be too greatly influenced by public opinion when it comes to the various forms of media, especially film, TV and music. I say it’s a conscious effort because I am aware that I, like most people, do on some level want other people to like the same things I do, it’s a kind of affirmation of your taste. Sure some people take pleasure in liking things precisely because everyone else dislikes them, but that’s always seemed a little pointless to me, so desperate to avoid conformity that they become incredibly predictable. I try and find the happy middle ground between those who like things only if they are popular and those who instantly dislike things for the same reason.

One area where I find the perceptions of what is popular and what is not to be particularly damaging is with TV shows that are labelled as Sci-fi or Supernatural shows. Of course every so often a show from one of those genres manages to make the jump into popularity, ‘Lost’ springs to mind, but as a general rule those genre labels and mass popular appeal/acceptance don’t tend to go hand in hand.

Two shows I feel have particularly suffered from this are ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and the modern reimagining of ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Both shows have a cult following and have attracted a decent amount of critical acclaim, but they’re rarely given the credit I believe they deserve. They’re dismissed as geeky, immature or trivial, but they actually have the freedom to take on some of the big topics in life while providing entertainment at the same time. I would list both of them amongst any list of the top 10 greatest TV shows, yet I know I’m unlikely to be in the majority with that assessment.

‘Buffy’ has always been one of my favourite shows, I remember watching them when they were shown on the BBC several years ago now and my family own all the DVDs. I say that fully aware that I won’t be garnering any of those fabled ‘cool points’ everyone’s after with that admission, but it’s true. I whole heartedly believe that the Joss Whedon created show is one of the best examples of TV out there; tightly scripted, well rounded characters, sometimes very dark, often incredibly funny and always entertaining, ‘Buffy’ has pretty much everything I look for in a TV show.

For those who think the show lacks the depth, subtlety or range of some of the more widely acknowledged great shows, like ‘The Wire’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘E.R’ or even ‘Friends’, I advise that they watch ‘The Body’, an episode from season 5 (obviously I’d advise you to watch the whole show from start to finish, but if you wanted a one episode justification for my love of the show go for this one). It is one of the most powerful episodes of any show, subtle yet powerful and heart-wrenchingly honest and human take on the grief of losing a loved one.

I don’t rate ‘Battlestar Galactica’ quite as highly as I do ‘Buffy’ but I maintain that it is a great show dismissed by many due to it being a sci-fi show with a now very dodgy looking 80’s predecessor that takes place in space. You think space based battles and exploration and you can’t help but think of ‘Star Trek’ but ‘Galactica’ is an entirely different animal to the frequently corny and much more light hearted tale of the Starships Enterprise etc.

‘Galactica’ is the story of the last remnants of humanity fleeing across space after the robots we created rose up against us; so far so ‘Terminator’. It’s a pretty classic set up, the idea of the dangers of sentient machines, but it’s one that not only looks at how humanity behaves when it’s very survival is in question, but also how sentience leads to emotions and lots of very human weaknesses. The robots, ‘Cylons’, are given depth and development that raises the show above others from its sub-genre. It asks the question of whether sentient thought can exist without also having to deal with faith, love and prejudice.

It’s a fascinating TV show throughout all 4 seasons and the feature length episodes they released between seasons. It’s got exciting space battles and soldiers v robot killing machine firefights as you’d hope from a show about a species fighting for it’s very survival. What makes the show special though is that the action is set against a plot which takes in a wide range of the big questions that define humanity even at the best of times; the role of religion, political violence, racism, class structures and the psychological impact of constantly fighting for your life.

‘Galactica’ perfectly highlights just what the sci-fi genre is capable of, why it is so unfair that it is dismissed as somehow less worthwhile than other genres. It gives directors and script writers the opportunity to tell stories about very real and contemporary issues against a fantastical and epic backdrop.

Watch them both, it may turn out that you don’t rate them as highly as me, perhaps you’ll hate them, but just don’t dismiss them because of the genre they fall within.

Today's song is a Youtube upload by a guy I went to school with, a friend who I saw play a lot of gigs while in a band with some other guys from my school. He's now more focussed on solo acoustic stuff and he's come a long way, with both his singing and guitar playing reaching an impressive level these days. Give this, and the other covers he has uploaded a listen.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Folk Forest

It’s no secret that I think Sheffield is the greatest city on earth. I’ve been to Paris, Berlin, London and Amsterdam, loved them all (especially Berlin) but I’d still rather live in Sheffield. It’s just the right size, a bit above 500,000 people at last count, it has a long history of sport and music, it has a ridiculous number of hills and most importantly it is so beautifully green.

You can make it from a point about 20 minutes walk outside the city centre to the countryside solely walking through the many parks and barely having to cross any roads. That’s incredible to me, a busy city with an industrial past, yet absolutely covered in parks and gardens. Within 5 minutes of leaving my house I can either be in the countryside or at the top of a hill from which I am able to look out across half of the city.

This photo isn't one of my own, I googled views of Sheffield from Crookes and this came up, but it's a photo which perfectly summed up my point; I could leave right now and be in the spot where the photographer who took this shot was stood within at most 10 minutes.

This weekend Sheffield has hosted Tramlines festival, one of, if not THE, biggest free music festival in the country, where bands are playing in a range of open spaces, bars and clubs. It’s sad but I haven’t been able to do the festival justice this year, I went for a wander in town yesterday but for various reasons I didn’t get to see Los Campesinos or The Crookes, the two main bands I really wanted to see this weekend.

However there was an hour this evening that almost made up for the disappointment of missing out on the rest of the festival. I went to one of my favourite parks in the city, Endcliffe Park, to experience the final hour of what the festival organisers were calling ‘The Folk Forest’. That hour was a performance by Martin Simpson in a small area enclosed by trees and a almost too picturesque stream. I’m going to try and upload a video I recorded in the next couple of days, but for now you’ll just have to try and picture what a folk legend playing in a woodland glade as the sun begins to set.

It was one of those moments that come all too rarely, where everything possible seems to have come together to create the kind of moments you picture in advance but never actually believe will take place.

So in conclusion I didn’t do justice to Tramlines this year but there was an hour this Sunday evening which almost made up for it. And perhaps one perfect hour is actually better than two days worth of trying too hard to enjoy a festival. No I’d rather have spent the entire weekend at the festival, but I will be grateful for what I did enjoy.

Today's song is one of the ones Simpson played this evening, a song that showcases the kind of music he makes and just how good a guitarist he is.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Rest In Peace

It has been a sad day today. Waking up to find that the death toll in Norway is so much higher than was being reported last night is truly tragic; it is one of those events that on some level defies explanation yet makes everyone desperate for one. No matter what degree of analysis his political or religious alignment gets, there will never be an entirely satisfactory explanation for what motivated this man to kill so many other humans.

There was the instant surge in Islamophobia over Twitter and Facebook when news started to break of the bomb attack, before the anger and rhetoric swung towards condemning right wing fundamentalists as the real identity of the terrorist emerged. In all honesty I don’t believe it matters or helps the people of Oslo and Norway as a whole to start pointing fingers at groups or religions. A whole lot of people pointing at each other saying “it was your group who did it” helps no-one and only serves to enforce the idea of ideological lines in the sand which we must fight over and spill more blood.

Yes there is a serious problem with militant right wing groups in Europe, just as the world is right to be concerned about the threat of groups like Al Qaeda but what matters right now is bringing people together and emphasising the point that this was carried out by one inconceivably cruel and deranged individual, rather than damning entire cultural, social or religious groupings. Divisive statements and accusatory mud flinging only serve to sow precisely the kind of discord I imagine this man hoped for, people like him, the people who value human life so little and have the mental capability to carry out such acts want attention, they want to cause pain, anger and suffering and so the best response the world can have is to join together in condemning the man, calmly and rationally looking at the groups he claims to be aligned with and, without wanting to sound like too much of a hippy, not answer hate with more hate.

The victims of the attacks can be better honoured by people looking to do everything they can to avoid another attack of this kind rather than spreading more animosity and vitriol. Their families will draw more comfort from sympathy than from their loved ones death’s being used for political point scoring. The key problem with any mudslinging is that it is rare anyone comes out looking particularly good.

This evening the news also broke that Amy Winehouse has died. The singer was only 27 and though it hasn’t been confirmed in anything I’ve read that the death was drugs related, the assumption is forgivable due to her long history of problems with substance abuse. It is a tragic event, because regardless of her issues with drugs, the death of any 27 year old is a sad event, especially one who clearly had so much to offer the world. I don’t believe she, or her family and friends, deserve less sympathy due to her personal life; Amy Winehouse deserves our sympathy and pity for ending up so addicted to drugs and drink that she couldn’t find a way out, even with the help of professionals. People making jokes about how she ‘should have gone back to rehab’ etc are pathetic and slightly sickening, to try and find humour and some sort or pleasure in the untimely end of a woman who clearly was troubled. It shows a lack of basic humanity in them if they decide that it’s funny that she died because she was addicted to drugs. As my sister accurately put it, would they be making jokes about rehab if their sister or best friend had died from a drugs overdose? I’d hope they wouldn’t and so that poses questions about why it is ok to say it about Ms Winehouse, just because she’s a celebrity.

Then there’s the depressing number of people stating anger and disappointment at people showing so much sympathy for Amy when something so terrible has happened in Norway. I have two main problems with those people. The first and lesser issue is that I didn’t see the majority of them posting anything last night or this morning about the attacks in Norway, there were no messages of condolence and sympathy then, but now they can make an aggressive and negative comparison they are jumping on the opportunity in the manner that seems so common on the internet.

The second and much more pressing reason is that I don’t understand why they seem to believe sympathy for one person must take away from the other situation. I can only speak for myself, but I have it in me to feel grief for the people of Norway affected by the attack AND a singer who died far too young. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t express sadness at the death of Amy Winehouse just because another tragic event occurred recently. One doesn’t cancel out or dilute the other and the likely self inflicted nature of one doesn’t make it any less sad.

I am deeply saddened that there are people so utterly evil that they can commit atrocities such as the attack in Oslo and I will mourn the passing of a talented but troubled singer. If you don’t have it in you to do both then maybe you need to take a good hard look at yourself.

There is only one song that could finish this post, the song that Amy Winehouse will be remembered for, the song that proved that despite whatever else went on in her life, she had an incredible, passionate and soulful voice, one which will sadly no longer be heard.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Apathy and Sympathy

Another short post today, tiredness and an irritating sense of apathy mean that I don’t really feel up to writing anything more lengthy.

I do want to use this blog to add my voice to the outpouring of sympathy for the people of Oslo. The twin terrorist attacks are horrific and disgusting so I am aligned with the rest of the world in hoping that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

In other news I am planning to go into town for the next couple of days, Sheffield’s hosting its 3rd annual free music festival, Tramlines, this weekend. The line up isn’t quite as strong as the last couple of years but there are still enough good bands and artists to make me want to wander into the city centre. The fact is that even without any really big name draws I love the atmosphere in Sheffield during Tramlines, music, lots of people and a wide range of food stalls mean that I can always find some way to entertain myself for the duration.

Today’s song is the one I’m most hoping to get the chance to hear live tomorrow, one I have seen performed once before at one of the best intimate little gigs I’ve ever been to.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Peril of Procrastination

If you’re someone who’s read a few of the earlier posts this week on my blog you will have seen that I’ve been planning to write a piece on the Daily Mail and their possible involvement in the phone hacking scandal. I’d been waiting for a chance to write it when I was fully awake and able to do it justice because with anything of this nature, where I’m writing about serious issues and where there are questions of legality, I want to be very careful in case one of my tiny number of readers notices something illegal and gets me in a whole heap of trouble that this blog really isn’t worth.

Sadly all this procrastinating about this particular blog post has led to me being pipped to the post. This morning Samira Shackle wrote a piece that was published on The New Statesman website about exactly that topic, referencing the same report I was going to use. It’s a little frustrating, but I’m humble enough to accept that someone else has written an article on the same issue, but probably a better version than the one I would have done.

It’s a good read; a well written article on a potentially very interesting additional strand to the whole phone hacking scandal.

I don’t have much else to write about today, the Daily Mail blog was the one I’d got planned, so for the time being I’ll just have to think about what I’m going to write tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How Many Centre Midfielders Do You Need To Change A Lightbulb

In many ways reality can often be a disappointment when compared to the various fantasies and alternate realities we embrace on a regular basis.

Take my experiences with the football team I support, Nottingham Forest, this afternoon. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon playing on football manager, one of my many addictions, and I was enjoying guiding Forest to the third consecutive Premiership title, with a 4th consecutive FA cup final and a 2nd Champions League final to look forward to. The team is full of world beating stars and exciting young players.

Then I close the game and I’m faced with the real world. A world where Forest were 1-0 down in a pre-season friendly to Northampton (we’re now winning 2-1, but it’s hardly thrilling either way) and we’re being linked to George Boateng as a dramatic new signing. I have nothing against the 35 year old midfielder, he was a really good midfielder several years ago, but I don’t really see what he’s going to offer to us. He’s being signed (at this point it’s not been 100% confirmed but it looks likely to be completed in the next couple of days) in addition to Andy Reid and Jonathan Greening and I can’t say I’m overly inspired by the signings. Reid and Greening are really good players, but they’re central midfielders and that’s arguably the position that least needed strengthening.

We already have Cohen, Moussi, McGugan and Majewski who play there, all of which I really rate as players, so I can’t help but wonder why we need another 3 central midfielders. Especially when you consider that we still do not have a left back other than a youth team player who isn’t ready to be relied upon. We’ve also lost Earnshaw, the striker who has arguably been the most consistent striker we’ve had, which isn’t really saying all that much. We need a good consistent goal scorer, a left back and an out and out winger, preferably left footed.

Then again perhaps McClaren’s master plan involves us playing 2-7-1 and just passing it around in midfield for 90 minutes without actually getting anywhere, just boring other teams into submission.

Maybe though I’m just being pessimistic and cynical and in the next couple of weeks Boateng and co will be joined by some good, exciting signings. If not I can always escape back to Football Manager, where Forest are one of the best teams in Europe and the fans are treated to displays of footballing quality week in week out. It’s what the game is there for.

Today's song is from Elbow's 1st album, one which is really under rated and full of great songs that deserve a lot more recognition than they've got.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A Month's Worth Of News In A Day

The headline may be an exaggeration, but it is only a slight one and that is a testament to just how much has happened on this particular Tuesday.

I’m still trying to gather my thoughts on the afternoon’s events so far as the hacking scandal is concerned. Ever since the Guardian broke the story that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone on Monday 4th July, a mere 15 days ago events have unfolded so quickly as to leave the paper issues of every newspaper seeming redundant before they even hit the shop shelves. This afternoon was always going to be a particularly heavy news period, with Sir Paul Stevenson and John Yates attending one hearing and Rupert and James Murdoch along with Rebecca Brooks attending another. My twitter feed, which is always dominated by political and journalistic figures, has been going crazy all day, with up to 30 new posts every 15 minutes or so, and it’s showing no signs of slowing anytime soon.

Even as I type more stories are breaking in relation to Neil Wallis, deputy editor of The News of the World at the time of the hacking, being an informal advisor to Andy Coulson during the period that the latter was working for David Cameron. Normally not all that incriminating for the PM because it is likely to be quite deniable so far as his knowledge of the role goes, but as part of the larger picture, with more and more people around him clearly having been involved in criminal activities, it adds to the pressure on him.

As part of the questioning of Yates this afternoon, he made reference to emails between himself and Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron’s chief of staff, that included what appears to be Llewellyn advising Yates not to raise the issue of phone hacking with himself or anyone attached to 10 Downing Street. It seems to be the subtle political equivalent of sticking his fingers in ears and going “la la la I can’t hear you” so far as phone hacking was involved.

The committee’s sessions with the Murdoch’s didn’t include many major revelations, though I did get the impression that they both must have been on one epic decade long bender, so large are the gaps in their memory and knowledge of what was going on. Rupert can perhaps legitimately claim that The News of the World is such a small part of his media empire that he wasn’t particularly aware of individual practices there, but James has no such excuse, yet tried to use it anyway.

Frustratingly some idiot attacked Rupert Murdoch with a custard pie during the later stages of the hearing, merely succeeding in making him look like an 80 year old victim for the first time in the past fortnight, not an angle that helps anyone hoping that those responsible for the whole sorry scandal are brought to justice. It is also deplorable on the more simple level that it was an attack on an elderly man who, whether or not you agree with his politics or business strategies, does not in any way deserve physical attacks. Even more frustratingly he is a member of UK Uncut, though the group was quick to point out that they were in no way involved in what happened. It does sadly give the right wing press, who already have an axe to grind against the anti-cuts movement, more ammunition. From the footage I’ve seen it looks like Rupert’s wife got a good hit in on the attacker and good for her, the guy deserved both that and any criminal punishment that follows, it was a callous and stupid attack that also trivialised a serious political issue.

A sign of just how busy a day of news it has been can be reflected in two stories which have barely got any coverage.

Last night a group of hackers going by the name LulzSec managed to get past the online security of the Sun newspaper’s website, initially redirecting traffic to a fake version of the page with a lead story about Rupert Murdoch having committed suicide and then later linking straight to LulzSec’s twitter account. Normally a hacker or group of them hijacking one of the nation’s major newspaper’s websites would be big news, dominating front pages and online debate. However in this current climate it barely caught anyone’s attention, and as little seems to have come from the hacking in terms of big revelations discovered in emails or anything of that sort, the public’s attention only turned most fleetingly to that story.

It was the public being distracted that also led the Health Secretary to choose this particular day to announce that more than £1b of NHS services were going to be opened up to competition from private companies and charities. It’s a great example of a government taking an opportunity to bury bad news, aware that everyone will be looking in the opposite direction.

I’m sure by the time a lot of people read this, the post will already be out dated and outpaced but that is kind of the point; this story, with all its separate but interweaving strands is moving so fast as to make systems like the Guardian’s live blog one of the only effective ways of keeping up to date.

I’ve got more to write on the hacking scandal, especially in relation to The Daily Mail and a previous inquiry into hacking and blagging carried out in 2006, but I will save that for another day.

For now I will leave you with a song from an artist that I keep meaning to check out more extensively than I have so far; Robyn. It’s an acoustic version of a song from her ‘Body Talk’ album.

Monday, 18 July 2011

An Example To Fear

Earlier today the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges of aggravated trespass against 109 UK Uncut activists who staged a peaceful protest at the upmarket Fortnum and Masons store in London on the 26th of March. Charges against another 30 are still to proceed and their cases will be heard in November.

I never understood the arrests from any point of view other than serving a political agenda; these people were in a shop that was open to the public and as far as I can tell were engaged in a remarkably calm and good natured protest against the coalition’s austerity measures and tax evasion by major companies. The Guardian even quoted one of the police officers at the scene, Chief Inspector Claire Clark, as saying that the protest was non-violent and sensible.

Adding to the sense that this whole affair was far from the police’s finest hour is the fact that the protestors were told they would not be arrested or kettled upon leaving the store and were tricked by the police before being arrested and held for up to 24 hours in police cells. The video of the police’s assurances is here. It's worrying if as citizens exercising our democratic right to protest we can't trust the police to at least be honest about their intentions.

Now almost regardless of your political stance or your vie of UK Uncut and their actions, this case must have seemed like a waste of time. Prosecuting a group of non-violent protestors for occupying a shop seems odd when surely the courts could be put to better use. As it is I feel the problem goes beyond that to cover the fact that the police and the courts seem to be trying to make examples of some protestors in an effort to put off future demonstrations.

You only have to look at the sentence of 16 months in jail for Charlie Gilmour to see the kind of excessive use of the law to punish protestors. I am not defending Mr. Gilmour’s actions, he was a drunken and drugged up idiot that day who desecrated one of Britain’s most important war memorials (though this wasn’t actually a crime he was sentenced for) and who was involved in some minor acts of vandalism towards a car in the convoy carrying Prince Charles and towards the window of a Topshop store. Not behaviour I in any way support, but also in no way is it behaviour deserving of that length of custodial sentence.

It would seem to be a clear statement by the courts to other protestors that future protestors will have to expect to be prosecuted at the absolute extreme of the law, without genuine perspective towards the severity of his crime. Gilmour did not assault anyone, he was more a danger to himself than to others and the degree of punishment is in my opinion highly unfair.

Gilmour deserved to be taken to court, perhaps he even deserves some time in prison, though I’d argue that the nature of his crime would suggest a community service order would be more productive all round. He isn’t a danger to others, but he could be useful to his local community.

Sadly though he has been made an example of, and it is still to be seen whether the remaining 30 protestors from the Fortnum and Mason case suffer similarly excessive punishments or if the CPS sees sense and throws out those cases like it did 109 today. The cases aren’t in the public interest to prosecute, nor is it in the public’s interest for a 21 year old student to be imprisoned for 16 months because of an idiotic, drug fuelled day that in the end caused no physical harm to anyone and who has shown clear remorse for his actions.

As a student and someone who shares the views of many of the student protestors and members of UK Uncut, the kettling, the arrests, the drawn out court cases and the excessive sentences all seem to have an additional purpose that goes beyond simply trying to enforce the law; it seems that the government and/or police want people to be scared to go out and protest in the future. They want people to remember that you can protest entirely peacefully and still be taken to court, they want people to remember that attending a protest may mean being kept on freezing cold streets, cramped together without access to basic amenities for hours at a time, subject to police charges on horseback and they want people to remember Charlie Gilmour and how little he actually had to do to earn himself a long stay in a prison cell.

As is often the case, I don’t want to post a song following a more serious blog post like this.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Mid July Musings

Currently watching the Women’s World Cup final and am really impressed by the quality on show, both the U.S.A and Japan are technically very good teams, a good degree better than England I have to concede. It’s a shame that this is the only match the BBC have decided to show on an actual channel rather than only available via the red button; as I said in a previous post, tournaments like this are a great opportunity to raise the profile of the women’s game and remove some of the stigma and prejudice surrounding it, but it will need a bit more bravery on the part of major television channels. I’m rooting for Japan as they’re the under-dogs but on the basis of the first 66 or so minutes, a U.S.A win would be probably the right result.

In other news the basket beneath the News International guillotine is getting a little full, with Met Chief Sir Paul Stevenson joining the list of people jumping before they were pushed. I’m planning to write a full blog on the current state of the scandal either tomorrow or on Tuesday, though by then I imagine the picture will have changed yet further. It’s a rapidly changing situation and there are still an awful lot of questions to be answered.

Jonathan Ross has posted a link to a blog post detailing allegations of illegal activities at The Daily Mail. There’s a temptation for me to say that I’d let Murdoch retreat now with no further repercussions if The Daily Mail was taken down in return. I make no secret of my opinion of that particular newspaper, it is a virulent and hate filled production more concerned with peddling it’s particular agenda than with journalistic standards, perspective or truth. It is a paper which employs Jan Moir and Richard Littlejohn, which surely says all you need to know.

I also intend to write in the next few days about the sentencing of Charlie Gilmour for his part in the student fees protests last year. It might not come as a huge surprise that I’m not particularly happy with it.

In amongst those political posts I’m sure I’ll write a couple of film related pieces, and perhaps I might do a blog on the final of ‘The Apprentice’ but those are less set in stone.

For now though I’ll leave you with a song I listened to earlier today, a song off of a great, if a little repetitive album released last year.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

My Favourite Films (12/15) - Crime

Favourite Crime Film - The Town (Affleck, 2010)

Choosing the Ben Affleck directed 2010 film ‘The Town’ over Michael Mann’s classic ‘Heat’ wasn’t an easy decision. In fact I was very tempted to just call it a tie and write a joint piece, but as I’ve eventually managed to settle on an outright winner in every other genre it didn’t feel right taking the easy option here.

Unsurprisingly on its release ‘The Town’ drew a lot of comparisons to the 1995 film which pitted De Niro against Pacino in a cat and mouse game between a master criminal and the detective charged with stopping him. The surprising thing was that, considering the high regard ‘Heat’ is held in by a lot of film critics and fans, the majority of comparisons were highly favourable.

It’s a fairly classic crime film set up; a skilled and professional criminal and his gang of accomplices are attracting the attention of a determined cop, who closes in on them. There’s the girl who makes the thief want to change his ways and the “one last job”. There’ve been plenty of films that try to make the audience relate to the criminal more than the police officer, the anti-hero is a staple of most film cultures, but Ben Affleck’s character Doug MacRay is more straight forwardly likeable and engaging character than most. ‘The Town’ is a film about people who feel trapped by where they grew up, forced, or perhaps more accurately, raised into a life of crime where robbing a bank seems almost like a regular job.

Affleck gives the character a real subtlety and depth, dealing with a range of elements of Doug with a nous that, perhaps if applied to ‘Pearl Harbour’ could have made the film a whole lot more likeable. Then again maybe Affleck has suffered somewhat unfairly for his involvement in that particular travesty of a film; in a film where he has either received good direction or directed himself he’s actually been quite consistently strong. Sadly ‘Pearl Harbour’ has left a scar across his career that will probably not fully fade. A few more performances than this though and perhaps people will forget it’s there at least.

Whether dealing with his ex (Blake Lively) and the daughter from that relationship, the girl who he likes (Rebecca Hall), his convicted felon of a father or his best friend and borderline psychopath James (played superbly by Jeremy Renner who I’m yet to see do a bad performance), Doug is both incredibly believable and painfully pitiable. He’s a strong individual, yet you can’t help but feel that with a few more lucky breaks he could have been so much more than the bank robber he is.

I think Affleck/Doug is the reason I prefer ‘The Town’ to ‘Heat’. Mann’s film is one about men so focussed on their pride in their respective careers that they damage everything they touch and seem unable to really relate to others; utterly fascinating to watch but difficult to empathise with. Affleck gives all of the central cast in ‘The Town’ a degree of humanity that is deliberately left out of ‘Heat’ and for me that was the deciding factor in why it gets the nod for my favourite crime film; when the final showdown rolls around I felt a passionate attachment to Doug that I simply didn’t for De Niro’s McCauley or Pacino’s Lt. Hanna.

Tightly scripted and paced throughout no scenes feel like filler and every conversation feels important. It has to be admitted that it doesn’t have a scene to rival that coffee shop scene in ‘Heat’ but it has several moments that suggest Affleck has a long and productive career in front of him as a director and actor. One scene during a dramatic escape with a lone police officer is beautifully underplayed and subtly comic, while the scene between Doug and John Hamm’s Special Agent Frawley may lack some of the delicious tension and mutual respect of the equivalent ‘Heat’ scene, but has one of the most deliciously aggressive and un-PC rants by Frawley being met with utter nonchalance by MacRay going for it.

‘The Town’ wouldn’t exist without ‘Heat’ having been made almost 15 years earlier; the similarities can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored. However I believe Affleck created the superior film because, without sacrificing any of the moral confusion of rooting for the criminal, he also created a fantastically human character in Doug who not just holds the plot together but gives the film it’s complex, but beating heart. Renner, Hamm and the late Pete Postlewaite are superb as the men who Affleck relies upon and fights against, sometimes at the same time, Lively and Hall are similarly excellent, but it is Affleck who deserves the respect for this film. To direct a great film and give a great lead actor performance are rarely combined in the same film and he’s gone a long way to establishing himself as one of the most talented people involved in Hollywood right now. Perhaps one day reviewers like me will even forget he was ever in ‘Pearl Harbour’ at all.

For now he will have to comfort himself with the knowledge that if he can build on this and the impressive ‘Gone Baby Gone’ then he will definitely go down in history as one of the greats of the turn of the century and rightfully so.

Another mark of just how good ‘The Town’ is, is that it’s one of the few films I’ve ever dedicated more than one blog to, reviewing it briefly a couple of months ago, but I feel that this post has perhaps done better justice both to the film in its own right and its relationship to Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’. I advise you watch both of them and I don’t really mind which you prefer, because you’ll have watched two extremely good films and that’s what matters more.

Today's song was going to be from one of the bands I'm excited to see at Tramlines next weekend, but I'll save that for a later post, because this just came on my iTunes as I've currently got a playlist I made a few years ago on shuffle and it brought back a lot of memories. It's off of one of the first CD's I ever owned, a Christmas present when I was 12 or 13 if I remember rightly, and I was amazed to find that this evening I still remember pretty much every word to this song, which was always my favourite on the album.