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.