TV: QI – Series “I”

20120622-155147.jpgCreated by: John Lloyd
Language: English
Length: 15 XL episodes (45 mins) and 1 30 minute episode
Finished watching on: 3 June 2012

The BBC basically made a big hash of this series of QI, which is why I’ve only finished it just recently. One episode was cancelled due to Jeremy Clarkson making some stupid irrelevant remark (which, if I remember correctly, was taken completely out of context), and only shown later in the year, while another was postponed for Shakespeare week or something. Oh, for heaven’s sakes… Basically, one knock-on effect of this is that nobody’s sure what the official order of episodes is supposed to be. Plus, Clarkson’s episode was actually accidentally released on iPlayer because someone forgot to tell the site admin or something.

As for the show itself, it’s kind of more of the same. I like the return of a themed question per episode, last seen a few years ago with elephant-themed questions, and this time with questions with no known answer. A couple of the episodes were a bit tiresome, such as the one featuring a ventriloquist and her dummy (it’s one of those performing arts that I’ve never really understood), but in some others they have quite formidable guests: the eminent Brian Cox in one, Ben Goldacre in another, and they finally accomplished the admirable feat of getting Brian Blessed on for the Christmas episode. Apart from that, it’s nothing special really, just more of the same. Alan Davies is getting smarter though.

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Film #58: The Pink Panther (2006)

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Language: English with some Chinese
Length: 93 minutes
Watched on: 23 May 2012

I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about watching this film, because following on from such a good franchise in the name of an actor like Peter Sellers is always going to be difficult. And Steve Martin doesn’t look like Inspector Clouseau, he looks like Steve Martin with a fake moustache. It’s mainly that white hair that does it.

The comedy in this film just wasn’t that funny, except for some jokes which had been taken directly from the old Sellers movies. It is of course meant to be slapstick, but it is actually possible to do slapstick well, and I don’t think this film quite managed it in many places.

Plus, something about the high production values that we’ve enjoyed in the past decade didn’t seem to mesh very well with the style of humour. When I see slapstick I guess there’s some part of me that kind of expects the production values of the 1960s.

In many senses it was very like Johnny English, which I watched the other month. It goes for very simple humour and has a singer (in this case Beyoncé, weirdly enough) trying to bolster her acting career to little avail, and then actors making fun of the French. It’s got what I’m going to assume will be looked back upon as the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, post-9/11 and pre-economic collapse. And it’s slightly difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what that is, to be honest.

On the subject of 9/11, it did lend itself to an amusing skit in which Clouseau says the wrong thing at an airport, having been to New York (the fish out of water section here was one of the funniest in the movie).

The other thing is it’s kind of embarrassing to see decent actors such as Jean Reno in films like these, clearly below his level.

Anyway, it’s kind of worth a couple of laughs, but if you actually want to see The Pink Panther, you should find the original series. And when you do, the very first film may not be exactly what people are expecting, as it focuses more on the criminal masterminds and less on Clouseau himself, who was originally a minor character who became very popular. So it might even be better to find the second film of the series, “A Shot in the Dark”. After seeing Sellers in the role of Clouseau, this film does just feel like a disappointment.

TV: American Dad Seasons 4-6 (2008-2011)

Created by: Seth Macfarland, Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman
Language: mainly English, some Japanese et al.
Length: 57 (20, 18 and 19 resp.) episodes, 22 minutes each.
Finished watching on: 2, 9, 14 May 2012

I last watched American Dad about two years ago, when I was still in York. At that time, season 6 wasn’t yet out, and I got about halfway through season 5 before I couldn’t find a reliable source for a particular episode and gave up. So watching it this month, spurred on by the gift of season 5 from a friend, was to catch up on the episodes I’d missed. Actually, season 5 turned out to be an incorrectly-labelled season 4, because this (along with Futurama) is one of those shows with inconsistently named seasons. So I ended up watching three seasons.

Frankly, season 6 was nothing special; just more of the same. I can’t really remember anything specific from it, although I really enjoy this show, so I got a few laughs out of it.

As for the show itself, it’s a lot better than Family Guy, despite being made by the same people. Evidently it was supposed to be the political counterpart to Family Guy, but it quickly established itself with a different style of humour, and now that Seth Macfarland uses Family Guy to espouse his political views via Brian, it seems that Family Guy is now American Dad’s political counterpart.

Some of the jokes were getting a bit old with this latest season, I have to say. One recurring theme is that Stan never learns any lessons about the world, and yet he gets a new life lesson thrown at him every week… and still the next week he’s back to his same-old inconsiderate self. And what with the “cartoon time” slowing everything down, Steve is still a 14-year-old virgin even after six years of the show, and that’s also starting to get a bit old.

Hayley, previously neglected somewhat in the recent seasons, has a “B-storyline” in several episodes of season 5 about her romantic relationships, and does get married at the beginning of season 6, so there is at least a bit of character development there.

So yeah, it’s still funny, but I think they will need to come up with new ways to make the jokes fresh sooner or later.

Film #57: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Language: English
Length: 94 minutes
Watched on: 28 April 2012

I’ve watched this film so many times that it’s pretty much lost all the power it ever had to amaze me, which is perhaps a bit of a shame. But I watched it recently because my friend hadn’t watched it, and even on what must be at least my tenth time seeing it (probably more than that, but I only started counting a few years ago), I still managed to notice one gag that I’d always missed before: when introducing London, the establishing shot is of Big Ben, and the camera pans out until you see scaffolding on the Houses of Parliament. Subtle social commentary, perhaps, or maybe it’s just whatever shot they were able to find…

Anyway, it’s still a good film and has a lot of good jokes in it. I want to get around to watching numbers 2 and 3 again, partly because number 3 is set in Japan…

Game #17: Windosill (2009)

Created by: Patrick Smith
Length: 10 levels
Language: none
Played on: 22 April 2012

This game garnered a bit of critical recognition when it was released, and they were even held in high enough regard by the producers of The IT Crowd that they had a special IT Crowd-themed selection of levels made as the menus of the DVD. Indeed, in my review of the same, I specifically complained that the menus had been themed after an “obtuse puzzle game from the internet” that I hadn’t even heard of.

To be honest, having played it, I don’t really know what all the fuss was about. It’s nothing special, and it’s just as obtuse as it had seemed from an outsider’s viewpoint.

Anyway, I only played it because it was in a Humble Bundle… that’s where I get all of my games from these days. I hardly have time to play them all, though, which is annoying. There are plenty of games like Super Meat Boy or Osmos which I haven’t reviewed because I haven’t “officially” completed them yet, which is a perennial problem with me and computer games. I get near the end and kinda get bored or give up, and when I come back to the game, I’m not in the swing of it so it’s too hard. And I’m too neurotic to break the rule. But I’ll get to them someday, I’m sure.

Of course, Windosill isn’t anything like the aforementioned games because it’s not set in some sprawling multiworld complex with hundreds of levels. Indeed, it only has ten. I was honestly expecting more, and this is exactly where the game falls down in my opinion. It’s kind of nice in a way; the graphics are quite smooth and the world is sort of abstract and intriguing, but it doesn’t really go anywhere when it only has ten levels. It felt like it had more potential than that.

The gameplay leaves something to be desired too; it basically consists of pointing and clicking on everything in the playing field until something happens. This is how I feel about most point-and-click adventures, to be fair (even otherwise brilliant games like Machinarium suffer from this problem in my opinion).

So, too much hype in the casual gaming world led to a bigger disappointment for me. I’d say it wasn’t worth my time, but it only takes about half an hour to complete, so you might as well play it, because it is quite nice. That said, I don’t think I’d bother paying money for it; the way I see it, whatever I paid for the Humble Bundle was in order to play Botanicula, and this was like a freebie extra. That reminds me, I ought to finish Botanicula

TV: United States of Tara (2009-2011)

Creator: Diablo Cody
Language: English
Length: 3 seasons of 12 episodes of 45 minutes each.
Finished on: 10 Apr (season 1), 13 Apr (season 2), 17 Apr (season 3)

I can be a bit of a sucker for things involving gay teens, as I mentioned in the previous review, and I discovered this show via something mentioning its gay subplot involving the son of the family. But that’s not really what the show’s about; it’s about the mother, Tara, who has disassociative identity disorder, and frequently transforms into one of at three or four alternate identities at the drop of a hat. That’s it summed up in a nutshell, anyway. Surrounding the mother is a very typical American suburbia and nuclear family.

If there’s one thing I can say for this show, it’s that it’s really addictive. I basically watched all but one episode of the first season on my day off, and I’d finished the entire run in about 7 or 8 days. It’s just unfortunate they’re not making any more.

The characters are great, and all the acting is good, especially from the lead actress who effectively has to portray quite a few characters all at once. The show is good in that it doesn’t focus exclusively on the mother, even though it’s ostensibly about her and doing so would be tempting, and the other characters all get development too.

In its portrayal of the disorder it seems very sensitive, and although there is a decent amount of comedy that derives from the antics of the alternate identities, it’s handled in a way that isn’t mocking. I have to wonder how real it is, though. I’ve never had any experience of such a disorder, and it seems a bit too much like it was made up for TV. There is a skeptic character introduced in the third season to sort-of address this; amusingly, he’s played by Eddie Izzard, which I have to say I wasn’t expecting. And the woman’s sister fulfills this role at the beginning of the show.

I guess to criticise it I would perhaps point out that they’re clearly quite rich and middle-class, and live in a parallel universe where almost everyone is extremely attractive, which makes me feel a bit distant from them. And the aforementioned son doesn’t get much character development beyond being gay in the end – bemusingly, he has a coming out storyline in the second season after being clearly gay in the first (it seems he had come to a final decision). Although he’s not camp, his interests include classic film, literature and music and seem stereotypically gay to me. He and his sister don’t really have a constant storyline throughout the series like the mother, though; they have a different storyline in each season instead, like a different boyfriend each, for instance. It’s most obvious when she conveniently dumps her boyfriend in the last episode of one of the series.

In the end, I started to identify more with the daughter character, who just wants to get out of Hickville and explore the world. She even almost goes to Japan at one point, so I guess I’m a few steps ahead of her there.

Anyway, it’s a great show that’s not very well-known (you’ll have to download it outside the US). Its plot is great and has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing what’s going to happen next, and I really enjoyed it for that. Definitely recommended.

Film #56: Monmon the Water Spider (2006)

aka: 水グモもんもん (Mizu gumo Monmon)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Language: none
Length: 15 minutes
Watched on: 11 Apr 2012

A sweet little film that was the icing on the cake of my visit to the Ghibli Museum back in April. The museum is very well worth a visit (if you’re ever in Tokyo!); it’s inexpensive at only ¥1000, although you have to buy it at a Lawson convenience store (charmingly shortened to コンビニ combini in Japanese) kiosk, which doesn’t have an interface in English – I rolled up at a Lawson store somewhere between Tokyo Tower and Roppongi in March and on a whim decided to get the clerk to help me with the machine. It was complex enough for him… I don’t know how I’d have managed it without help!

Anyway, despite the longwinded process, and the Lawson store being quite far away from my house, the museum itself is between Kichijoji and Mitaka stations on the Chuo line; actually very near my house and only a bus ride away. (It also gave me the opportunity to discover a Moomin milkshake stand in Kichijoji, and I went on my first visit to Inokashira park. And all during the cherry blossom season, so everything was beautiful even though it was a little cloudy that day!)

The museum takes about a couple of hours to walk around, and there is a lot of memorabilia from all the different films, and a lifesize catbus, which was pretty cool. As for the films that they actually show there in the small cinema, I think there’s about 4, and they rotate, so maybe on a different day there would be a different film. They’re all about 15 minutes long.

Anyway, this was a sweet little silent film with nice music, and depicts some kind of weird interspecies romance between a water spider and some kind of creature that skims around on the surface of the water. They protect each other from the predator fish, and it takes a while for the spider to win the skimmer’s trust; he finds her (oh, yeah, the genders are obvious here; whether that’s desirable or not in unanthropomorphic creatures I’ll leave up to yourselves) beautiful but not vice-versa.

We also get a glimpse into the daily chores of the spider – getting air from the surface, storing bubbles under a leaf, eating plankton, and so on. It’s not something I’ve ever seen committed to film before, and seems more like something out of a nature documentary for a few minutes, until the wistful norm that Ghibli films consist of comes back with full force when the second character enters the picture. And the two characters aren’t given hardly any anthropomorphisation, except perhaps the eyes, so the spider is “ugly” in the eyes of the humans watching the film. So it’s certainly something fresh.

Obviously, it’s only 15 minutes and has no talking, so it’s meant to be nice and not engrossing, and it fulfills that quite nicely, so as long as you go in not expecting too much out of it, that’s the best thing. It’s definitely nice! And as for the music, I only remembered that it was good and fit the tone of the film well, rather than anything more specific. The Ghibli museum is definitely worth a visit, though.

Film #55: Jitters (2010)

AKA: Órói
Directed by: Baldvin Zophoniasson
Language: Icelandic (and a bit of English)
Length: 97 minutes
Watched on: 10 Apr 2012

A trite waste of time.

Oh, you want more than that? Well, I guess I can put it all into context first. I’ve always had somewhat of a soft spot for films involving gay teens, and those involving Iceland, and the opportunity to watch this film came up recently. It came after a long day off in which I watched the entire first season of “United States of Tara” (a review will be forthcoming) and went on an unsuccessful date with a boring twat.

So I’d gotten somewhat drunk while out on said date (I managed to find cheap beer in Tokyo!), and when I watched this film, I just found it terrible, and this feeling was exaggerated by the tipsiness.

When a film bills itself by comparing itself to another film or TV series, that’s always a bit worrying. In this case, the advertising declared the film to be “the Icelandic Skins”. Oh dear… no. Skins actually had definable and interesting characters and didn’t focus so heavily on drunken parties (despite using them extensively in the advertising, in a weird logical loop).

Perhaps it’s just that I’m too old now to be interested by coming-out stories… after all, for about half the film I was just getting angry at the guy for not being honest to his friends, and for apparently being paranoid about coming out in one of the most accepting countries in the world. As for his lying, it was just totally unbelievable.

Then at the end, the film makes cheap drama by killing off an unimportant character to make the others learn an important lesson about mortality… I guess? I don’t even know who it was who died, since I wasn’t emotionally involved with the characters, and it happened offscreen anyway.

So, unrealistic and boring. Plus points, well, it’s always nice to listen to Icelandic.

Game #16: Continuity 2: The Continuation (2011)

By: Guy Lima Jr, Stefan Mikaelsson, Elias Holmlid
Length: 51 levels
Finished on: 22 Mar 2012

A sweet little game that I played on my phone recently. The original Continuity was a free Flash game, simple in its conceit and ending with very hard levels. It’s a puzzle platformer, in which you can zoom out and slide the rooms round to make a new arrangement.

This is more of the same, but only for iOS (which annoys the piss out of anyone who hasn’t got such a machine, naturally). If you think about it, the reason for restricting it to a mobile platform might become clear eventually – a certain added mechanic to the game that I don’t want to give away at the moment! But in general, restricting it felt a bit pointless and annoying, at least until I actually acquired a device capable of using it.

The controls are pretty smooth – you touch one side of the screen or the other to move, and swipe up to jump, and it’s a double-touch to zoom out and play the characteristic sliding-puzzle game. I haven’t found another game yet with such simple controls, although to be fair I haven’t really been looking very hard.

As for the levels, they were suitably complex, keeping me busy for a few days, although there was only one that was truly difficult – it was the type of level for which it’s easy to see what to do but very difficult to pull off (I know them all too well from Lemmings!), to the point where you start to doubt that that could possibly be the solution. And then it does eventually turn out to be that way.

Definitely worth a play if you have an iphone and a spare dollar, anyway. If you don’t have an iphone, it’s worth trying to see if a friend will let you play it on theirs. Don’t expect anything too fancy, though. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, Continuity 1 is available for free as a flash game, so actually, maybe you should just go and play that!