Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hello, 2010

I'm no Woody Allen fan, but this one's always made me smile. "How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans." OK, then, Big Guy, here you go.

Despite the best endeavours of the economy, lawyers, and politicians, 2009 was a truly wonderful year for me, as you probably all know by now. So here's what I'm hoping for from 2010. These aren't exactly New Year's Resolutions, because, like most people, I never keep those. They're more like goals.
  • Get my US residency. I like this country, I like these people, I absolutely love my new family, and I want to stay here. If I'm ever going to be truly successful, it'll happen in America.
  • Create something. I haven't made a movie or written anything in ages, and the only music I've done in the last year has been fairly half-hearted. I don't really care what I end up doing, but I'm damn well going to do something. What I'd really like to do is become a story-teller and learn to use my voice rather than a computer, and tell stories out loud to real people around a campfire.
  • See some new places. I'm probably going to be confined to the USA for most of the year, but there's so much to see in this country. I want to get down to the Everglades, for sure, and I'd love to visit some of the antebellum bits of Georgia. I really want to take a short trip to New Orleans, and, if at all possible, it would be great to get to Hawaii.
  • Give my kids a holiday here. It would make me so happy if they could come out and see where I live. I want to show them so much, and I want them to know that I'm always here for them.
  • Get off my increasingly fat butt once in a while. Most of you probably don't know that I'm a qualified rugby coach. There's a rugby team here in Orlando, and I'd like to help coach their youth squad. I also want to take up tai chi again, or some similar discipline.
  • Go out as much as I can afford. I realised last year how important it was to spend money on experiences, rather than things. I also realised how important it is to get out of the house every day when you work at home. Orlando and the surrounding area has so much to offer, and I want to experience it all: music, food, art shows, movies, gardens, beaches, and all sorts of cool events.
  • See a pro football game. Just one will do. Tampa's not at all far away, neither's Jacksonville, and Miami's only a bit further. I'd like to see a NASCAR race too.
  • Meet new people. Sounds simple enough, but that's what changes your world.
  • Get a bike. I'm in the land of Harleys, and I'll regret it for ever if I don't get one at some point. Though I'm actually more tempted by an Indian, just because.
  • Don't sweat the small stuff. When it comes down to it, most things don't matter that much. They sure as hell aren't worth getting stressed and upset about. I'll be a much happier person if I keep that in mind more often.
Most of all, though, I'm looking forward to spending time with family and friends. I've been given the chance for a complete new start, and I have a magnificent and marvellously supportive lady by my side. If 2009 was the year both our lives changed, then 2010 will be the year where we find out what we can achieve together.

Here's to you all - have a great year, and thanks for reading!

My favourite movie of the year

2009 has been a pretty good year for me and movies. I've seen more films in the cinema than I have for ages, largely because the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the Enzian Theater are such fantastic places to go to. I've begun to watch a wider range of movies at home than normal as well, thanks to Netflix streaming. (They should be paying me, the amount I go on about them.)

Anyway, here's my top three.

I've loved the Dynasty Warriors games since I first saw a PS2. John Woo's Red Cliff is an epic film based on one of the historical battles depicted in that game, so I was fascinated to see what it would be like. I wasn't disappointed. I was stunned to see how close it was to the game, in terms of both the story and the visual design of the characters and the places. They're both drawing on the same sources, and they're both treating it remarkably faithfully. As you'd expect from John Woo, it's a full-on spectacular action film, and the set-piece sequences are jaw-droppingly good. Costumes, sets, and cinematography are all fabulous, in the way that top-notch Chinese movies seem to have mastered these days. I still haven't seen the full 280-minute Asian release, only the 148-minute Western release, but I certainly intend to.

It's a tough call, but I'm going to have to put Avatar in second place. In the last three weeks we've seen the popular response go from "it can't live up to the hype" to "wow!" and then to "yeah, but the story's lame, what's the big deal?" The big deal is this. It's breathtaking. It uses 3D like no movie before it. The animation is incredible. The visual design is astounding. When you see it on a big IMAX 3D screen you become totally immersed in this beautiful, fantastic, magical world and in the film, and you want to reach out and touch it. You get vertigo while sitting in your seat. As for the story, personally, I loved it. It weaves together things from so many sources I've enjoyed over the years: Ferngully, yes, but also Deathworld, Starship Troopers, Aliens, Dragonriders of Pern, Emerald Forest, Dances With Wolves, and a host of classic SF stories. It wasn't at all what I was expecting, but I was absolutely entranced throughout. It's without a doubt the best thing Sigourney Weaver has done in years. It's taken Cameron 10 years and $300m to create Avatar, and he's exceeded all my expectations. It's a true landmark film.

#1 Moon
At completely the opposite end of the spectrum to Avatar, this low-budget sci-fi movie from Duncan Jones is my top pick of 2009. It's the best hardcore sci-fi I've seen in, well, as long as I can remember. It's an engrossing psychological thriller, with just one actor (more or less) and a robotic voice. I'm not going to say anything at all about the plot: I knew nothing about it when I saw it, and was absolutely hooked. It's only 97 minutes long, but you have no sense of time in this eerie world, and you feel completely sucked in. It's even more incredible when you know that it was made for just $5m, and it's Jones's debut movie. The special effects shots are superb, and I was amazed to learn that they're nearly all model shots, not digital, because it was cheaper that way. There's a lesson in there for movie-makers.

There are some good-looking movies coming up in 2010, and I still haven't seen Sherlock Holmes or Me And Orson Welles. I'm really looking forward to Alice in Wonderland, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Clash of the Titans, Legion, The Lightning Thief, Dante's Inferno, Prince of Persia, and Eagle of the Ninth - and those are just the big movies I know about. Who knows what the indie movie scene or the Florida Film Festival will reveal?

Happy New Year, everyone. Whether you're making or watching movies, have fun!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Woman in the Moon

The Netflix streaming service has once again done itself proud. Its growing collection of on-demand silent movies is becoming quite impressive. Today I watched one of the first "serious" science fiction movies, Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (also known variously as Frau im Mond, Woman in the Moon, Girl in the Moon and By Rocket to the Moon).

Released in 1929, it came shortly after Metropolis, and was quite remarkably ahead of its time. SF has been a staple part of film since Melies did his Voyage to the Moon in 1902, but it was mostly Verne-style fantasy. I was expecting something similar from this, with strange beasties or lost civilisations living on the Moon, much like the Soviet SF film Aelita, Queen of Mars, but it's nothing like that at all. If anything, it's more of a forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13, crossed with a 1940s planetary exploration story.

The story's simple enough. A group of people take a rocket to the moon to prospect for gold, but their journey is marred by personal rivalries and jealousy, and once they land, it becomes a fight for survival.

However, what makes this film remarkable is the hardcore scientific setting, described by most critics as "prescient". The rocketship, which predates the pulp days of magazines like Astounding, is something both Werner von Braun and NASA would recognise instantly. It's absolutely not Flash Gordon. Much of the movie is taken up with the spectacular launch and flight to the Moon. His characters are worried about how to survive the g-forces during blast-off, and we see in detail how the acceleration couches are sprung to minimise the risk. It's a liquid-fueled multi-stage rocket, and we see the boosters drop away. Throughout the ship there are footstraps and bars so they can move in zero gravity, and yes, there are floating sequences, including a great bit where they're pouring drinks that turn into liquid bubbles they have to catch. We see them using retro-rockets to decelerate before landing, and we even get an explanation of the gravitational fields of the Earth and the Moon. The spacesuits are obviously diving suits, but they're more realistic than much of what followed in the hey-day of Hollywood SF. And when they land, we see them lighting matches to test for oxygen.

It's hard to remember that when this was made, it was 40 years before the first manned flight to the moon, and 25 years before even Sputnik. Lang worked closely with Hermann Oberth, one of the world experts on rocketry, and he drew his inspiration and design mostly from Oberth's influential textbook Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Planetary Space) which was first published in 1929, a few months before Frau im Mond was released.

Of course, it's not all perfect science. For a start, there's breathable air on the Moon, so they can wander around happily. And while gravity's low, they're fine with heavy-duty diving boots to keep them anchored to the surface. The costumes are pretty cringe-worthy too: I couldn't help laughing at the men's outfits of everyday clothes (with a tie, of course) and a woolly cardigan.

However, that aside, this is a work of absolute genius, and deserves to be better known. In its day, it played a key role in firing popular enthusiasm for rocketry and space exploration. If it had been a sound film, it would probably have survived in the public consciousness much better. As it was, silent films were all but obsolete a couple of years later. Not until 1950's Destination Moon did we see a science fiction film that was so heavily based in real science.

It's available in a nicely restored print on DVD from Kino, and, as I said at the start, on Netflix streaming. If you love science fiction movies, do yourself a favour and watch it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Things I love about Florida

So, rounding off my week of mini-rants, let's end on an upbeat note. Things I love most about this place.
  • The food. Oh, Gods, the food is so good here! I love Southern food, and the range of other stuff on offer is just fantastic. Cuban, Thai, Vietnamese, Spanish, Italian... We eat well. Let's leave it like that, and not mention the fact I've grown out of all my clothes and now need XL.
  • Palm trees. I've always loved palm trees. They make me feel kinda exotic, like I'm in the Arabian Nights. Now I'm surrounded by them. And lizards. They're cool too.
  • Lightning. This is the lightning capital of the USA, apparently. The storms here are truly incredible.
  • The music. There are few things I enjoy more than going to a sleazy little bar, drinking cheap American beer, and listening to a kick-ass blues band. There are some seriously talented musicians here.
  • Southern hospitality. These people are wonderful. I was expecting a load of hostile rednecks, but they've made me so welcome here. In the shops and the restaurants, they have a natural politeness that you just don't get in LA or New York or London. Socially, there's none of the standoffishness and reluctance to engage you so often get in England. I'm surrounded by smiles, warmth and genuine kindness wherever I go, and my new home is a place of happiness, laughter, and joy. And that, my friends, is truly one of the most fantastic feelings in the whole world. I love it here. I really do.
Happy Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Things I don't miss at all

So far this week, I've talked about things I miss most, and things I expected to miss but don't. Today, I'll tell you a few things I'm really glad to have got away from. (Watch out, Rude Word Zone ahead.)
  • CCTV cameras. Over here I can walk down the street or drive my car anywhere I please without feeling like I've got the fucking Stasi watching me all the time. They have rednecks with guns here, and they have crazy-ass cops with heavy weaponry, and they're all paranoid about fanatical communist muslim terrorists who want to destroy their way of life and suspicious of foreigners, but they haven't let that erode their basic freedoms and way of life like we have. That alone makes me want to stay here, and not come back to the surveillance state Britain has become. It's hard to express how different it makes me feel, and almost impossible to do so without comparing Britain to Germany in the 1930s, invoking Godwin's Law, and having to censor myself. I'll settle for quoting Santayana. Those who do not learn from history...
  • British politics. Gordon Brown. David Cameron. Some other bloke in the Lib Dems. Nick Griffin. Where's the leadership? Where's the inspiration? Where's the reason to vote for any of those self-centred useless fuckers? All they do is talk shit and give money to their City friends. At least the American banks are now paying their bailout back, not giving themselves big bonuses and demanding more money from taxpayers. And Obama is kicking people's butts every day to change America. He's the sort of politician we need in Britain - someone who can get people off their arses to make a difference. It scares me that the BNP may well get an alarmingly good result next election, just because they're the only party who actually appear to stand for something and want to make a real change. (Godwin again. Sorry.)
  • The X Factor. Seriously, you guys still care? The RATM protest was interesting, but only because so many otherwise reasonable people thought it was important enough to stop Simon Cowell getting a Christmas Number One. So what? It matters about as much as who won Big Bleeding Brother or I'm A Celebrity Look At Me Making A Prat Of Myself.
  • Cold, wet weather. It's snowing in England, and meanwhile I'm wearing shirt sleeves, and at Christmas I'm going to lie on the beach with rum & Coke. Snow's pretty and all, but words cannot express how happy it makes me feel not to wake up feeling cold and damp, not getting soggy feet trudging through slush, not having to swaddle myself in layers of sweaters, overcoats, scarf, hat and gloves just to go to the corner shop, and not arriving at the office feeling miserable with a cold red nose and a stinky cold. English winters - you can keep 'em.
  • Car parking. Driving on English roads in general is pretty horrible. Taking a bike out for a blast round country roads is fun, but most of the time driving in England involves boring crowded motorways or being stuck in traffic jams in towns and streets originally designed for horses. And then when you eventually get where you're going, you have to spend ages trying to find a parking spot and end up having to leave the car miles away. Here, everywhere has plenty of parking space, and you just get out right where you want to be. And it's almost always free. We can park at least six cars on the driveways outside our house, and that's before we start parking on the grass. After Cambridge, where you're lucky if you can park just one car in your own bloody street half the time, and where parking your car at the office is something to fight over, that's a real luxury.

Tomorrow: things I like most about this place

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Things that, to my surprise, I don't miss

Yesterday I told you about the things from England I miss most. They aren't necessarily the things I was expecting to miss. These are a few of the things I thought it would be hard to leave behind but I seem to be coping quite well without.
  • Marmite. I couldn't survive without Marmite. Fortunately, they sell it in Publix. It's stupidly expensive compared to the price in England, but I have a tiny jar of it in the cupboard, and every so often I treat myself to toast and Marmite, and I don't miss it as much as I thought I would. There's so much else to have for breakfast!
  • Beer. Two surprises here: first of all, I'm quite happy drinking American beer. Secondly, there's plenty of imported beer, and I can get all the Belgian beer I want. OK, so I can't get most of my favourite English beers, but the temperature's all wrong here anyway.
  • Pubs. I know this is heresy, but American bars have a charm of their own, and in many ways I'm starting to prefer them to English pubs. I've even started to tune out the twenty-three TV screens all showing different channels. There are still some wonderful places I intend to revisit when I'm back in England, but Odin's Den and the like are doing me just fine right now, and I'm not sitting around moaning about how I can't get a proper drink.
  • Walker's Prawn Cocktail Crisps. Every time I feel the need for a bag of these, I distract myself with honey mustard pretzels, garlic bagel chips, or something funky from the Saigon Market. It's not like they're short of crunchy snack food in America.
  • English accents. On every previous trip, I've found myself really glad to hear the dulcet tones of Croydon from the cabin attendant as I step on board the Virgin Atlantic plane. Now, it doesn't bother me any more. I'm quite used to hearing American wherever I go, and I've just begun to accept that I need to speak the local language. So yeah, I say tom-AY-to, sidewalk, trunk, and pants. Expect me to talk funny when I'm next in England!

Tomorrow: things I'm really glad to have left behind.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Things I miss

Florida is feeling more and more like my home now. I've been here for nearly five months, and England is beginning to feel somewhat far away. I still miss a few things about the old country, though.
  • Sausages. Of all the foods I expected to miss, it's proper English sausages, with mashed potatoes I miss most. The stuff they call sausage here just isn't right. And salami and wurst, while they're also sausages, are just not what you need for bangers and mash. If I really felt like it, I could get some at The English Shoppe (sic) but I can't quite bring myself to go in there. When I get back to England, expect me to gorge myself on sausages for at least three days.
  • Decent Indian food. The Thai food is fabulous here, and the Asian food in general is astounding, but I still haven't found a good curry. I love making it myself, but I haven't cooked a proper curry in ages, because I just don't have the ingredients. I've been told a few places to buy good Indian spices, but I do miss having a huge selection in every supermarket, and I really miss having Mill Road on my doorstep.
  • Fish and chips. Yes, they sell fish and chips in the local Irish pub. It's not the same. It's really not. I crave Tommy Tucker's. (You may detect a food-related theme emerging here...)
  • Top Gear. Yes, yes, I know you can get it on cable. And I know you can torrent it. But we don't have cable, and I can't be arsed to torrent it. Top Gear was pretty well the only show I watched on British TV in 2009, and I just used to like settling down on a Sunday evening with a beer watching the Hamster.
  • Old stone buildings. I grew up in school buildings 600 years old. I went to university in buildings 500 years old. I owned a house with bits well over 400 years old. It's weird being in a place where anything older than me is called "historic". Orlando and Winter Park literally did not exist 120 years ago, and most of it is only a few decades old. I yearn for places where you can sense the passage of time. Maybe ancient Indian mounds will do the trick.

Tomorrow: things I expected to miss, but don't.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bye bye DVDs, hello Netflix streaming

I've always had a comparatively large collection of videos and DVDs, numbering well into the thousands. Even before I inherited my uncle's movie collection, I had a lot, but then it got ridiculous. However, when I came to the US, I left my entire collection behind apart from about a dozen I couldn't bear to be parted from. I was a little apprehensive about how I'd feel about that, but as it happens, it's worked rather well.

Recently, we've started using the Netflix streaming more and more, ever since we got a disk that allows us to stream video on demand through the PS3 directly onto our TV (as well as being able to watch on our computers). The quality's fine, with just the occasional hiccup, it's very affordable ($15 a month, which also gets us unlimited DVD rental), it's convenient, in that we can watch stuff wherever and whenever we want, and the range is staggering.

Right now, we have about 200 items queued up, including the following:
  • The whole of Xena, Heroes, Jeremiah, Californication, Weeds, Star Trek: TOS and many other American TV series I never got round to watching or which didn't make it to the UK
  • Classics like You Can't Take It With You, The Palm Beach Story
  • A bunch of silent movies, including Fritz Lang's Destiny
  • A huge selection of foreign language films, covering not just European movies, but Moroccan, Israeli, Korean, Japanese (live action & anime), Chinese and lots of Bollywood musicals
  • British film & TV ranging from Merchant Ivory classics and BBC dramas like Pride & Prejudice to Mighty Boosh, Eddie Izzard, All Creatures Great and Small, Coupling, Little Britain, and Dr Who from Troughton to Tennant
  • Weird indie & art-house movies I've never heard of but which look like they could be interesting, or which I loved and want to see again, like The World's Fastest Indian
  • Documentaries galore, from Ken Burns to Walking with Dinosaurs
  • A ton of kids' movies and kids' TV, from Golden Compass to Prince Caspian by way of The Storyteller and High School Musical.
There's more appearing every day, faster than we can possibly watch them, but it's quite manageable, because their recommendation system is quite astoundingly good. It really does seem to have a handle on what we like: it will suggest things like "period romantic movies with a strong female lead", and as often as not, it's pretty well spot on. We never have problems finding something to watch, although making a choice is sometimes hard! We don't have cable, and we don't miss it. Between this and music, we're pretty well covered for evenings in.

Obviously it doesn't have everything on here that I could possibly want to watch - it's noticeably short on recent blockbusters, but I can still get those from Netflix on DVD - but that's not the way to look at it. My DVD collection, extensive as it is, doesn't have everything either. However, Netflix' collection is growing a damn sight faster than mine, it has stuff on I wouldn't mind seeing but don't necessarily want to pay even $5 to own, and it has more than enough to provide me with entertainment whenever I feel like it. And, to be quite honest, I can find things a lot faster electronically than searching through shelves and shelves of boxes. It's also completely legal. No torrenting, and no overnight waits.

Since between all four of us we probably watch about five things a day on average, that works out at 10c per item. (That's 6p in English). Or, to put it another way, we watch about 150 movies for the price of owning one or two. When I look at it in those terms, I'd have to really, really like a movie to make it worthwhile buying it.

I've said for a while that eventually we'll get to a point where we can watch videos by paying a flat rate subscription to watch anything we want on demand. That's nearly there. I don't really see much future for DVDs, Blu-Ray or the like. The only real advantage of a DVD is that it has extras which I may (but usually don't) want to watch. This is cheaper, more convenient, more extensive, doesn't rely on a platform that may become obsolete (like the thousands of VHS videos that ended up in landfill) and doesn't fill up my house.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Matt's Guide to 2012

2012 isn't nearly as unremittingly bad as some people make out, as long as you approach it in the right way. Here's my handy five-step guide.
  1. Make sure you have a few beers beforehand. Three or four should suffice. You don't want to get too drunk at this stage.
  2. Spend the first 30 minutes of the movie in the bar with some more beer.
  3. Spend the next 30 minutes of the movie in the bar with yet more beer. (Don't worry, you're not missing anything. Some dudes figure out the world's about to blow up.)
  4. Go into the movie and watch the world blow up for about an hour. Take beer in if it's that kind of cinema. Watch LA fall into the sea. Watch Hawaii burn. Enjoy!
  5. As soon as you see the flying elephant, LEAVE THE AUDITORIUM. (You'll know what I mean when you see it.) Do not stop to collect personal belongings. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Return to the bar and drink beer while laughing at the complete absurdity of what you just saw.
A final word of advice. Do not try this at home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So close...

I had the strange experience today of giving up on a book 20 pages from the end. It was a harmless enough book, The Execution Channel, a thriller about a series of terrorist attacks in Britain - or are they in fact the start of World War Three? It's billed as science fiction, but it's not really what I generally think of as SF. It's in a slightly alternate universe (Gore won), but otherwise it's just technically literate: these people communicate via blogs, understand the net, and so on. Anyway, that's not the point.

I read some of it last night, and then carried on this morning. About an hour before starting work, I got up to make coffee, and by the time I got back to bed, I realised I didn't actually care about what happened in the end, and couldn't be bothered to read the last 20 pages. That's a really odd feeling. I mean, having got that close to the end, why not finish? Or if I really wasn't enjoying it, why didn't I give up earlier and read one of the other dozen library books by the side of the bed?

I'm actually very intrigued by what it is that makes us decide to give up. How long do we persist with a book or a movie before we decide it's not worth going on? What is the trigger point that causes us to make that decision? If you quit too early, you miss out on all those experiences where the start's a bit slow or a bit lame, but once you get into the characters or the story, it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And what about those acquired tastes - movies or pieces of music that you don't much like at first, but gradually grow on you - how many times are you prepared to sit through something you don't like in the hope that it'll start to become enjoyable? (Like Shostakovich string quartets or 1950s French movies.)

This is hugely important for what's happening with TV. Many shows take a while to get into. The first few episodes of a new show are often slow, while you're getting into the characters. Firefly and Dollhouse were both good examples. So you watch 4 or 5 eps, it's looking OK but nothing great - do you continue? You've just spent 4 hours on this show, and you're not really enjoying it. That's a big investment of time, and logic says give up. So you give up. Viewing figures drop, and the network immediately respond by canceling the show. Meanwhile, the hardcore continue, and then the word of mouth starts to go out that it's worth persevering, because by ep 7 it gets brilliant, but it's too late, and you kick yourself for not sticking with it, and everyone screams at the dumb network for canning such a superb show. Well, that's scenario 1. Scenario 2 is where it doesn't get any better, and you mentally file it under Shit I've watched on TV when bored out of my skull.

TV networks are desperately chasing ad money, and that means having to respond very fast to audience figures. If people stop watching a show, they'll can it within weeks. With so much available at the click of a mouse these days, you only have to lose your audience for a few moments and they're gone elsewhere. That's a harsh world to be in. So, for a writer, or anyone else creating entertainment, it's critical to understand what it is that makes us decide not to watch the next episode, or not to turn the next page. I don't think anyone's figured that out yet, except perhaps the teams behind X Factor and the like. Part of their secret is that they're working live, so they can judge the audience on a day by day basis, and adjust their show to fit the audience's mood. Mind you, the audience eventually turned on Big Brother, so reality TV doesn't have all the answers. I sure as hell don't.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn't a bad book. I'm sure if I hadn't got up for that coffee, I'd have finished it quite happily. It was more like that feeling of getting up to answer the phone near the end of a meal, and when you get back to the table, you just can't be arsed with the last couple of mouthfuls.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What makes good TV?

Over on Facebook, I've been making a load of comments about various TV shows, usually none too complimentary. It's not that I've been rude, it's more that much of what I've been watching hasn't really lit my fire, even when it comes to really popular shows like House or West Wing. Some readers seem to think that I'm simply not taking to American TV, but it's not that at all: I barely watched TV in the UK either for the last couple of years, so I've been catching up on various series on DVD to see what I've been missing, and mostly finding myself disappointed.

I don't like reality TV, I can't stand makeover shows, and I find most talk shows vapid. I really don't like comedy that's too close to my working life, so shows like The Office and the IT Crowd drive me crazy. I don't enjoy police procedurals, particularly not of the CSI vein, and I don't like medical dramas. I don't like gritty depressing reality, I avoid soaps like the plague, and I get bored by "monster of the week" supernaturals.

It's not that they're bad TV. Some shows of these types are really good, and I'm not for a moment denigrating them as a whole. But I've watched way too much TV, and now I'm bored by most of it, just as I'd finding it increasingly hard to find books I like or films that hold me riveted to the screen.

Anyway, one person eventually asked me the obvious question. What do I like?


That's actually a tricky one.

The only broadcast TV shows I've watched in the last year were Top Gear, Mock the Week and QI, and that surprises even me, as they're not really the sort of thing I normally watch.

I like to watch stories: drama, adventure, action, mystery, and intrigue. I like exotic or historical settings, larger than life flamboyant characters, and plots that stretch the imagination and the credulity. I like either a good long story told as a serial, or I like simple, snappy, self-contained episodes that you can pick up piecemeal, rather than "arc" programming where you sort of need to see the individual episodes in order or you can get mixed up. I like touches of humour in serious drama, and I like to be awed and amazed occasionally by both the breadth of the writer's vision and the visual richness. But most importantly, I like not being able to write the next line of the script or being able to predict the plot twists. I like to be surprised.

My tastes aren't defined by any particular genre. I like science fiction, for example: Firefly was superb, Dollhouse was really good, the first three seasons of Babylon 5 were brilliant, I loved the first two seasons of Battlestar, and the recent Sci-Fi channel Dune mini-series were outstanding. On the other hand, Star Trek doesn't do it for me, Farscape was so-so, and I think I grew out of Doctor Who when I was about 15. I can't just say "I like sci-fi". I'm picky. Very, very picky. (Or "selective", as I'd prefer to call it.)

Similarly, Deadwood was one of the most enjoyable series I can remember, but that doesn't mean I want to watch more Westerns. In historical programming, Rome was utterly compelling, (and so utterly different from I Clavdivs), I've watched every episode of Sharpe repeatedly, North and South was good, if dated, but Charles II was dull, and Blackbeard was utterly dreadful. (He was from Bristol, for crying out loud, what on earth possessed them to make him a Scot?) It doesn't have to be serious, either: Middlemen is wonderful cheesy fun, and Warehouse 13 is good, tongue in cheek adventure.

In a nutshell, I never know what I'm going to like, and I often find the shows I like best weren't the shows I expected to like.

I know as well as anyone that there's no such thing as a truly original story: all stories are reworkings of existing material, and there are certain conventions that we expect story-tellers to follow if they're going to produce a "satisfying" story. However, there is still scope for originality. I love genre-crossing - that's why I enjoyed Firefly so much, with its "cowboys in space" riff. I like genuinely unusual characters, not the usual "tired/rebellious/maverick cop with an incongruous taste for jazz/opera/blues", or the formulaic "buddy duo forced to work together who then become friends" (and if they're opposite sex, several seasons of will they, won't they). I'm really looking forward to No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I wish I'd seen more of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and I'm thoroughly enjoying watching Young Indiana Jones.

So, in short, my formula for TV success is this:
  • Take me to a setting that takes me away from my everyday life;
  • Show me characters that aren't cliched, even if they're stereotyped;
  • Make me laugh, make me gasp, and surprise me, all in one episode;
  • Give me sharp, tight writing, and;
  • Either stay faithful to the source if that's what you're doing, or bring together elements that haven't been combined before.
Of course, that's no guarantee of commercial success. If it had been up to me, I'd have turned down most of the successful TV shows of the last 15 years. I'm aware that what I like isn't what you'd call mainstream entertainment.

But that's the beauty of the Net, and it's where machinima and other low-budget or zero-budget techniques really win. No TV company, especially in today's economic climate, can afford to take a chance, but amateurs can. I'm finding more and more that my entertainment needs are supplied by Web series and amateur movies such as The Mercury Men, and their production values are getting better and better.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Elephant's Trunk Nebula

Image (c) Paul Beskeen Astrophotography, 2009.

Wow. This is not a painting. This is the real thing, shot by my friend Paul, using the telescope in his back garden.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Leapin' Lizards!

One of the things I like about this place is that there are lizards everywhere. And, to my surprise, they jump!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A nice cuppa

I'm slowly getting used to the fact that when I ask for tea in Florida, I'm not going to get one of these.

Nope, what you get is something completely different. For a start, it's cold. If you want hot tea, you need to specify hot tea. Then the chances are they'll bring you something made with green tea. You see, you should have said black tea if that's what you wanted. Then they helpfully go and put cream in it instead of milk. And then, if you wanted it sweetened, they pour honey in it. There's not much else they could do different. It is, in the words of the late, great, and much lamented Douglas Adams (who was, like me, an alumnus of St John's College, Cambridge) "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea."

It's easier just to accept that this is tea, and the good old English cuppa is something to be enjoyed in the comfort of my own home.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Little things

I've been in Florida for just over a month now, and while it's easy to focus on the big differences (huge thunderstorms, palm trees everywhere, people talking in strange accents, and everything being so much bigger), it's often the small things that make all the difference.

Take light switches, for example. They're all upside down. Down is off, and up is on. Well, the ones on the walls, anyway. The ones on lamps are strange twisty things instead of clicky pushy ones, which requires way more digital dexterity than I can manage last thing at night.

Now, coffee. We all know Americans are coffee experts. So, you want a cup of coffee. You boil the kettle, then you... uh, hold up there. The kettle? They don't have kettles here. If you want hot water, you boil up a pan of the stuff on the stove. If you're really classy, you can get an old-style kettle for the stove, like my great-grandmother used to have. You can go to Wal-Mart and choose from one hundred and sixty-three different models of coffee machine, but they offer precisely one type of electric kettle. They have machines for just about everything else in the kitchen, but not for making hot water. Weird.

This, my dear American friends, is a kettle...

... this is a piece of antiquated steam-age technology.

If you really want to confuse them, use a 24-hour clock. You'd have thought, given how militarized this place is, that they'd all understand what time 1645 is. But no. Seventeen hundred hours, sure, you can probably get away with that. But most of the time you're best off sticking with 12-hour clocks.

And then there's driving. Most of my driving in the US has been in California, and it's not quite the same here. As Maus pointed out, in Florida, they drive on both sides of the road. However, I haven't been brave enough to try that yet, and I'm sticking to the right for the time being.

Let's start with speed limits. As my instructor pointed out to me regularly, the speed limit means the maximum you can drive at. It doesn't mean you have to do that speed. And ever since I got pulled over for doing 32mph in a 30mph zone, I've always been seriously careful to stay below the speed limit. not on it. Here, though, it basically means that's the required speed. And since you don't get prosecuted until you're 5mph over the limit, the required speed is actually somewhere between 3.5mph and 4.5 mph over what it says on the sign. Drive at the speed limit, and you're likely to find yourself hauled over for driving suspiciously, holding up traffic, un-American activities, and anything else they can think of. 5mph over, and you're a dangerous lunatic who deserves to be run off the road. Since the speed limit changes every couple of hundred yards, the age of the computer-controlled car with sensors that know the current speed limit and adjust your speed accordingly cannot come fast enough.

No this isn't a local sign, but I loved the pic.

I was also fairly rapidly introduced to the concept of the "California stop". They have these STOP signs all over the place, which I've always understood to mean that you slow right down, pause, and then take your turn before proceeding. Not so in Winter Park, apparently. That's a California stop, and it's Bad. Very, Very, Bad. Here, STOP means STOP. Come to a complete halt, recite the Lord's Prayer under your breath, and then move off. Failure to stop at a stop sign is a monumental vehicular crime, the magnitude of which can only be compared to mowing down a crowd of school kids and war veterans in the midst of pledging allegiance to the flag during a Sunday church service on a site of national historical significance, and then smashing into a state memorial. Or hijacking the mayor's personal golf cart. Roll through a stop sign and it's Stop, Do Not Pass Go, Go Straight To Jail, Do Not Collect $200. Well, pay $200, or $400 if they feel like it. But you get the idea. And why do they have such odd amounts for parking fines? At the Winter Park Village, if you park in a handicapped space, the fine is $212, except in the space nearest the door of the shop, where it's $213. That makes sense. Don't park in that space, honey, it's an extra dollar if they catch you. Riiiiight.

Speaking of golf carts, though, the Winter Park police ride around in them. This is a country club city, so they fit in well. And in Orlando itself, they have bicycles. That's cool too. Up the road in Seminole Country, whoo-boy, that's a whole different story. The Sheriff's Department got a load of money from Jeb Bush a few years back, and they spent it on buying tanks. Yup, I said cops in tanks. Run a red light in Seminole, and you can have a 76mm shell up your tail-pipe and 5000 rounds of machine gun ammunition in your gas tank in under 3 seconds. (Actually, that might count as quite a big difference between here and England.)

And why, for God's sake, why is all the money the same size? It makes life so easy to sort your cash out when the notes are different sizes. I keep thinking I've got down to a small stack of dollar bills, and then I find a twenty in there. Or else I'm rifling through, hunting for the fifty I've lost in the middle of them.

Mind you, some things are considerably more complicated than they at first appear. I've just about got my head around the fact that courgettes are zucchini and aubergines are eggplants. Except, apparently, in posh restaurants where they're courgettes and aubergines. I guess it's like fancy restaurants in England where they give things French names, so you feel stupid if you don't know the foreign words. "Would Monsieur care for some pommes frites with his poulet avec fromage?" Uh, yeah, cheesy chicken & chips will do fine, thanks. Fries. Whatever. Oh, and there's a Science Center and an Arts Centre. See, it's classier in English. But they still don't understand if you ask them to hold the tom-AH-to. It's tom-AY-toes or nowt.

Still, I seem to be surviving well enough.

Seriously, though, you know what's really different? Not having goddamn CCTV cameras everywhere you go, on every street corner, every road sign, every shop, and every public building, recording your every move and keeping tracks on everywhere you go. Now that, I like. A lot.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eatin' my way thru O-Town

It's kinda traditional for Europeans to take the piss out of Americans for being, how shall we put it politely, fat. Well, just try living here. Honestly, it's not their fault. Even if you avoid all the nasty greasy fast food, there's so much good eating on offer it's impossible to maintain a svelte figure without spending four hours a day in the gym. 

I've become a regular at the local farmer's market on Saturday mornings, where I load up with aubergines (eggplant) & courgettes (zucchini) as well as top quality honey, and oranges, and then feel morally obliged to stuff myself with cinnamon buns and Venezuelan pastries.  And then we've been working our way through the enormous Vietnamese supermarkets and filling the freezer with dim sum. Our current favourite is the Saigon market, which has a counter of unbelievably tasty French-style Vietnamese pastries. And, of course, there's now a Spice & Tea Exchange in Winter Park, so we have Pirate's Bite and salmon tea rub. So cooking's pretty much covered.

When it comes to eating out, there's loads of choice.  Highlights so far include:

The Enzian. OK, it's a cinema, not a restaurant, but the menu there is impressive. You don't get a huge portion, but it's really delicious stuff.  Just check out the meatball sandwich, for example.  Meatballs made with grass fed bison and fresh local pork, truffle parmesan tomato sauce, sauteed shiitake mushrooms. I mean, c'mon, how can that be bad?   Eating this while watching a movie makes for a great date.  The selection of wines and beers is pretty reasonable, but the absolute killer is the manchego cheesecake. It's cheesecake turned up to 11. It was a real struggle to finish one portion between two of us. 

The Black Bean Deli. This isn't eating out, in that there's nowhere to sit, so if you want to get picky, yeah, it's take-away. (Or take-out, as I'm learning to call it.)  This is the best Cuban food I've ever had.  Well, if I'm honest, it's the only Cuban food I've ever had, but everyone tells me it's the best I'm ever likely to find anywhere outside Cuba. The medianoche is filling and yummy - ham and cheese on Cuban sweet bread, and the chorizopan is similar, but with chorizo instead of ham.  One of their sandwiches for lunch, with a tub of rice and black beans, and then a flan to follow... oh yeah!  I can see this becoming a regular mid-week thing.  Set something rendering or uploading, a 10-minute drive down 17/92, grab myself a bag full of Cuban goodness, and then not bother with dinner.  No, really, no more food today.

El Bodegon. My benchmark for good tapas is whether it's as good as the Tasting Room in St Augustine. El Bodegon most certainly passes that test.  Tapas isn't really their speciality, but like any good Spanish place, they have a good selection on offer. Not so great for vegetarians - if you're OK with seafood, you'll be fine, but you really need to be a carnivore to enjoy this place. We munched our way through five plates with a pitcher of sangria.  The serrano ham was some of the best I've ever tasted, the patata bravas were just perfect, and the garlic mushrooms were succulent and mouthwateringly mushroomy. The piece de resistance, though, was the chorizo flambeed in brandy. Chorizo is good anyway, and I love the effect of pouring liquor on food and setting fire to it. We'll definitely be going back there for evenings when we can't decide what to eat and fancy a little bit of everything.  

The Nile Ethiopian Restaurant. No prizes for guessing the speciality of this place tucked away off I-Drive. Ethiopian food is quite unique, and something I love.  It's good communal finger food: it comes on a big tray, with piles of different dishes, and you eat it by scooping it up with pieces of pancakey sourdough bread. When it arrives, you wonder whether you've ordered enough. Two thirds of the way through, you wonder whether you can finish it all. The yasa tibs (fish) is truly gorgeous, the doro wat (chicken stew) is total yumminess, and I seriously recommend the veggie combo, even if you're not a veggie. Don't skip the coffee. They roast the beans right there, and then bring the pan round for everyone to have a sniff. It's the best coffee I've had that isn't Turkish. Try it if you're looking for a friendly meal with friends that's a bit out of the ordinary.

And there's more...  Urban Flats had a variable selection: basically posh pizza, the good ones were good, and the rest were mediocre.  Chipotle is just a Mexican fast food chain, but they do a damn good pork burrito, and it's all free-range, hormone-free meat, so it's actually good food, just served fast.  Tomorrow, we have a big family meal at Buca di Beppo, where I intend to eat pasta and chicken saltimbocca until I look like Luciano Pavarotti  Next, I need to try the various steakhouses (Ruth's Chris and Colorado's both recommended, for completely different reasons), and find myself some catfish and some grouper, and at some point I really need to get back to the bagel place...

We've been making the most of coupons from Basically, you buy a $25 coupon for $10, so there's an instant saving of $15.  But it gets better. As the month goes on,they discount the coupons that haven't sold yet, and you can pick up a $25 coupon for $2.  We just spent a mighty $10 to buy ourselves $125 off in various St Augustine restaurants which we intend to use in about a week while we're on honeymoon.  And yes, that includes the Tasting Room. 

Oh, God, please can I have just a salad now? Before I explode?

The Pope Room in Buca di Beppo. Look, that's the Pope in the middle of the table. Holy spaghetti,  Batman!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"Boy meets Girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t." 

OK, that's all I'm going to tell you about this "postmodern love story and fresh and funny “anti-romantic” comedy". That's all I knew about it when I went, and all you need to know. 

It's post-modern. Yes, in the sense that it's deeply infused with irony, cynicism, and bleakness.

It's a love story. Yes, sorta, in the sense that it's a story about love.

It's funny. Hell, yeah. It has real laugh out loud moments throughout, in the dialogue, the filming, and everything else. Even the opening credits are funny.

Anti-romantic? Uh, sorta. Actually, I think it's a very romantic film, but not in the lovey-dovey sense.  Well, if you stick to the end, anyway.  Is that a spoiler? No, I don't think so. It's a will-they, won't-they film, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is inherently romantic. It's about how love can make you feel wonderful, and how no other feeling can come close.

I loved it. I also loved the rather wonderful Enzian, which has now become my favourite movie venue.  (Sorry, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, you'll always be special to me, but this place has you beat.)  You get to sit at a table, in a comfy chair, and they don't just let you take drinks into the movie, they bring you food and drink. And it's extremely tasty food and drink.  Check out the menu. I can recommend the meatball sandwich. Meatballs made with grass fed bison and fresh local pork, truffle parmesan tomato sauce, sauteed shiitake mushrooms... how can that be bad? And their beer selection is pretty reasonable too.  

The Enzian is home to the Florida Film Festival, and I'm looking forward to many more enjoyable evenings there, both at the movies and at the charming Eden Bar. It's a great place to sit and have a drink before or after the movie (though do remember that the Winter Park cops are wont to patrol the back lanes as well as the main roads!), and stare out at big green leafy things, palm trees, and purty flowers, or else look at the murals and chat to other cinema-goers. Mimosas at $2.50 all day? Bring 'em on!

Oh, yeah, that movie I was talking about half a page ago? See it. Maybe not rush-out-and-catch-it-before-it's-gone see it, but stick it on your rentals list for sure. 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ponyo. Oh.

Studio Ghibli movies occupy a unique place in many people's hearts. Just as Disney did when I was growing up, and which Pixar & Dreamworks battled over ten years ago, they've carved out a niche of "kids' films that adults can enjoy, and admit to enjoying, even if they haven't got kids of their own". Until relatively recently, most kids hadn't even heard of this amazing Japanese studio: it was only a few die-hard anime fans who even knew of them. I introduced my mum and my kids to My Neighbor Totoro, and the Japanese were amazed that us gaijin had any idea who Totoro was. It wasn't really until Princess Mononoke got a dubbed US release (featuring Gillian 'X Files' Anderson and translated by Neil 'Sandman' Gaiman) that they began to become even remotely mainstream.

Miyazaki has established a growing legion of fans in the US and UK, and now every Ghibli release is eagerly awaited. Ponyo, however, has surpassed them all in terms of the anticipation and distribution. Last weekend it opened at a massive 927 theaters across the US, compared to just 38 for Mononoke and a mere 26 for the critically acclaimed Spirited Away.

It's loosely based on The Little Mermaid - very loosely. "Inspired by" would probably be more accurate. I won't spoil the story: if you really want to know, you can just Google around. (Or Bing, I suppose. Does anyone actually Bing?) As usual, it's beautifully animated. Miyazaki continues to avoid 3D animation, and sticks with traditional 2D. As with Howl's Moving Castle, he combines flat-coloured figures with painted scenery, giving a clean, fresh look that's worlds away from Wall-E and the like. It's reminiscent of pre 1960s Disney, but with the brightness and detail that modern film stocks and animation can give.

Sadly, though, this was the first time I found myself not enjoying a Ghibli movie. It's not a bad film. In fact, it's a very good film. It's beautifully made and charmingly told. Some may argue that the US script is a bastardisation of the original Japanese version, but frankly, that doesn't bother me. I was quite happy to watch the US dub, and don't feel the need to locate a subtitled version to compare them.

Simply, it was just too childish for me. Under tens will love it, and it's a great movie for curling up on a sofa with the little ones. But it didn't really do anything for me, and I ended up feeling unsatisfied. The hero is, after all, five years old, and the film doesn't really have the action-based appeal that Howl, Mononoke, Nausicaa, or - my personal favourite - Porco Rosso have. And while Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are also pretty childish, they are at least aimed at slightly older kids.

It felt - and make of this what you will - like an anime Disney film. Sweet, saccharine, and something I've grown out of. I'm not saying it's not worth seeing. Just be prepared for something a little younger than Miyazaki's usual offerings.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I seem to be settling in well in Florida. I have found that adopting local dress and local customs seems to be working better than expected, and they are now inviting me to their secretive tribal gatherings.

Apparently the tradition here is to consume gallons of cheap beer-flavoured water and shove vast quantities of greasy cheesy dead animals into your increasingly distended stomach. I did that for a while, until the locals accepted me, and then partook in the ritual of sliding along a soapy inflatable slidy thing until I was thoroughly soaked.

The reason for this was at first unclear, until I realised that the purpose is to cause the females' shirts to become transparent (see right), upon which one utters the cry "yee-haw!" and makes crude sexual advances, involving lewd descriptions of what acts one could perform in the back of a pickup truck.

This, so I am told, is the irresistible mating dance of the Red-Necked male, a species common throughout this part of the United States. It's clearly a highly successful reproductive strategy, as the species seems remarkably fertile, and most females over the age of 17 seem to have several infants in tow at all times.

Dress for the females seems to involve small pieces of string around the waist and passed conspicuously between the buttocks, as modelled in the picture to the left by Annie-Mae, a native lady with whom I have struck up an acquaintance, and who is acting as my guide to the region. The facial features are accentuated by the use of a gum-like substance, which is chewed compulsively to demonstrate that the female has strong jaws. (See picture below.)

As you can see, it can also be blown into bubbles to prove that she has strong lungs, and is therefore capable of screaming loud abuse at any stranger who dares to look at her exposed cleavage without being invited.

This, of course, is a cunning strategy on the part of the female, since the correct response to the challenge "Are y'all staring at mah titties?" is, of course, "Wayull, I shore am, you sweet thang." This identifies the male as one who is prepared to risk a possible fatal confrontation with another male (who may or may not exist, and who may or may not have a gun) merely for the possibility of contributing to the gene pool.

This ritualised call may then lead to a further exchange of endearments, followed by mating in the aforesaid pick-up truck, and then more consumption of beer-like liquid and bragging to other Red Necks.

This has so far proved to be a most interesting assignment, and I shall continue to report on the strange ways of these fascinating people. I am happy to report that despite the recent loss of their beloved leader, Dubbya, the Red Necked Americans do not appear to be in any way endangered, and appear to be thriving.

We will doubtless hear more of them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ring of Time

Nuove Terra's Ring of Time by squirrellygirl is a machinima series that gives me a sense of pride. Not because I had anything to do with it, but because of what it represents.

When Dave and I started Moviestorm, many years ago, we had a saying: "In the 20th century, everyone had a book in them: in the 21st century, everyone's got a movie in them." We had this crazy idea that bands would use Moviestorm to make their own videos, and authors would use Moviestorm to bring their stories to life. Ring of Time is one such.

Shirley Martin wrote the book, and self-published it on Lulu. A 600-page epic, it's the sort of thing that may get picked up by a publisher or not, depending on the vagaries of the business.

In the beginning there were three worlds, until the creation of a fourth magical world. This is the world of Nuove Terra. A world in which all magic and mythical creatures exist. It is into this world that twin children Sam and Sarah Donovan are thrust. On a chilly September evening figures cloaked in blood red robes descend on their suburban home and change their lives forever. Gone are thier parents and with them any sense of comfort and family. In order to find out what happened the children must learn to fit into this strange new world and with that learn to use magic. Together with their new friends, Pat and Melinda, as well as a strange, eccentric wizard, a werewolf who works for the Magical Creature Protection Agency, and a dragon who teaches history the children begin to unravel the hidden past of their parents and the secrets behind the Ring of Time.

She then decided to turn the story into a series using Moviestorm and iClone.

Now, to be fair, there are a lot of rough edges in this. It's competent, but it doesn't have the polish of a professional production. Story-wise, it's easy to dismiss it as a Harry Potter clone, but by the end of the first episode, you can see that it is going in a different direction. It's clearly a labour of love, though. She's been working on this first episode for about six months, and it's been fascinating watching it come together.

However, the quality isn't the point. The important thing is that machinima has given Shirley a way to bring her story to another medium and a new audience. Filming that story as live action would be prohibitively expensive; filming it as machinima is comparatively quick and easy. Just as the word processor and the internet has allowed aspiring authors to bypass the traditional publishing business, machinima and the internet allows them to bypass the entire film and tv production and distribution business.

So that's why I get a happy glow when I watch Ring of Time. In our own small way, Dave and I have helped Shirley do something that probably wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. And, better still, she won't be the only one. I'm sure we'll see more squirrellygirls telling more stories based on their own novels. And I, for one, would far rather spend an evening with stories told by ordinary people who are passionate about their art, whatever their flaws, than with uninspired stories created by corporate mass entertainment machines.

Y'know, I might even buy the book. I don't care if it's not as good as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or whoever. Hell, it's not a huge outlay, and that book would have more meaning to me than a DVD of another crappy TV series or identikit by-the-numbers novel. And that, it seems to me, is what this is all about. I wouldn't have heard of Ring of Time if it hadn't been for the machinima. And neither, I suspect, would you. But maybe, just maybe, you're intrigued enough now to click on some links, and maybe watch it for yourself. And maybe even take a look at the book. And just possibly, put a few dollars into an author's pocket. That'd be a win.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ibn Battuta: Beyond Cinedome

The more time I spend messing around with movies, the more I fall in love with the tried and trusted format of a nice, simple 16:9 aspect ratio 2D film, on a screen that fills my field of vision without overwhelming it. Too often, I find that alternative formats don't tell the story as well. They're gimmicks, beloved of film-makers, and the films made with them exist primarily to show off the format, not to tell a story.

I've said my piece about 3D. Today, it's the turn of the ultra-big screen. On Monday, I went to the Dr Phillips CineDome in the Orlando Science Center, which claims to be "the world's largest Iwerks domed theater and Digistar II planetarium, with 28,000 watts of digital sound." The screen is 8 storeys high, and it's like sitting inside half an eggshell. Walking into it is a bizarre experience, as it makes you feel slightly nauseous. The roof is a long, long way above you, and the shape of the dome utterly screws with your sense of perspective. You climb what feels like several flights of stairs to your seat, sit back, and wonder where to look.

We'd come to see Ibn Battuta's Journey to Mecca, a documentary based on the travels of the famous 14th century Moroccan explorer. Ibn Battuta's always been a hero of mine, and I've always been fascinated by the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make once in a lifetime. This documentary, narrated by Ben Kingsley, retraces his journey, and combines it with footage shot inside the Great Mosque, something which I will never be allowed to see in person. Let me just quote the introduction to the movie:
Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Moroccan traveler, set out in 1325 from his native Tangier on an epic journey to Mecca, the historical and cultural center of Islam. By the time he returned 29 years later, he had traveled the world from West Africa, Spain and India to China and the Maldives, covering some 75,000 miles and three times further than Marco Polo. At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated his reminiscences, which became one of the world’s most famous travel books, The Rihla.
Journey to Mecca is an IMAX® dramatic and documentary feature, filmed in Saudi Arabia and Morocco in both English and Arabic, with background Berber. The film tells the amazing story of Ibn Battuta, the greatest explorer of the Old World, following his first pilgrimage between 1325 and 1326 from Tangier to Mecca. His perilous journey resonates with adventure while presenting an unforgettable picture of Islamic civilization during the 14th century, culminating with Battuta’s first Hajj.
The story is book-ended by a close-up look at the contemporary Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that draws three million Muslims from around the world every year who perform rituals that have taken place for over 1,400 years.
The Hajj, the longest running congregation of humans annually on planet earth, is definitely a unique experience for the medium. For non-Muslims it is the closest they will ever come to witnessing this extraordinary event, and for Muslims it takes on an even deeper significance.
In terms of the content, this was a fascinating, engrossing, and beautiful film. However, I would have preferred it as a straightforward documentary. I spent most of the movie wondering where to look: in front of me, to my left, to my right, straight up? I felt overwhelmed. If you want to show me the planets or deep sea, then sure, overwhelm me. And yes, the shots of the desert worked really well. But the shots of people didn't. I don't need to see a face forty feet high to pick up the emotion it's conveying. The result was that instead of feeling part of what was going on, I felt distanced and uninvolved. Unlike a TV screen, which you look at, or a cinema screen, which you look into (to quote veteran film editor Walter Murch), you look around a dome. You can't possibly take it all in, and you're aware that something's always happening out of your field of view. The skill of the film-maker is to direct your view to the most important thing on the screen. In a dome, you're in control where you look, and the chances are you're looking in the wrong place - or, which is just as bad - you feel you're looking in the wrong place.

Worse than that, the camera angles were unbearably strange. Every shot seemed to be a tracking helicopter shot, trying to show me huge vistas, panning over everything. The image was always in motion. To show a caravan plodding through the desert, we started on a shot of the ground, swung upwards onto a person, along a line of people, then up, up, until we could see just how many there were, then - BAM! - back onto another detail, pulling out, and swooshing the camera around. The effect was disorienting and incoherent, and, frankly, not nearly as effective as similar shots in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible or Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. When you get close into a crowd, the effect of the dome is that you have the tops of people's heads above you and all about you, as if they're standing on the walls and the ceiling. If you're looking at the side of the image, the distortion when it starts to move is quite unnerving, and you start to wonder if someone's spiked your drink with something.

The whole point of a surround screen is that you can move your head - the cameraman doesn't need to be your eyes in the same way he would in a normal screen film. Moving the camera is like moving the world, and your audience can't settle when you're shifting the world around.

The overall impression I came away with was that they were so focused on trying to make use of the sheer scale of the IMAX format that they forgot they were trying to tell a story. IMAX works best when you want to awe people with the immensity of what you're showing them. Particularly in a dome, just show the audience something huge, hold the camera absolutely still for a while, and let them look around at their own speed, and take in the details of what they're most interested in while you talk to them about what they're seeing. They'll nudge each other and point out cool stuff. It's spectacle, not film as we know it.

There was a lot to like about Journey to Mecca, and I'm glad to have seen it. It was a real treat to see the shots of the Ka'bah, and the images of the desert were truly jaw-dropping. But on balance, it's a deeply flawed movie. The story sections, while interesting, simply didn't work on the giant dome screen, and the camerawork was way too busy for that size of screen. It leaves me wondering whether IMAX is suitable for anything other than nature documentaries. I suspect not.