Thursday, 13 November 2014

Review: Welcome to Night Vale - live at the Shepherd's Bush O2 Empire

Welcome to Night Vale had me at ‘hello.’

Well, it really had me at the introduction to its first episode:

‘A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.’

Night Vale is a podcast, written and produced by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. It’s the fictional news show of a fictional town out in the vast American desert: a town where any conspiracy theory can be true. Black helicopters circle above, earthquakes seem to show up on instruments but can’t be felt by the inhabitants, and agents from a vague-yet-menacing government agency attend press conferences but never say a word.

It’s all narrated in the deep, warm, sonorous voice of Cecil, the radio host who manages to make everything seem perfectly normal. Sentient glow clouds, women giving birth to detached hands instead of babies, houses which don’t exist (‘It seems like it exists, like it’s right there when you look at it...’), all are discussed so calmly it almost tricks you into missing the aberrations.

I love it. The laid-back, understated humour, the surrealism, the gently meandering plot lines. I have been an addict for over a year now, and I actively look forward to the 1st and 15th of every month, when a new instalment will be posted online.

So when they announced that they were planning a European tour, I had to go.

The rather aptly blood-red theatre...
When I arrived at the Shepherd’s Bush O2 Empire an hour before the show was due to begin, the queue for the unreserved seating was already wrapped around the back of the theatre. It was a chilly night, with threatening rain, and you know what? It was the nicest queue I’ve ever stood in.

The only thing I can compare it to was the energy in the air when I went to see John Green the last time he came to the UK. There was a buzz of anticipation, and underneath that, there was camaraderie. We chatted and smiled, complimented those who had come in costume, and couldn’t wait for the show to begin.

Purple and black was the theme. Some people had come in Night Vale shirts or hoodies, some in lab coats – two ladies I sat next to were dressed as librarians, blood on their mouths and gore-stained copies of Helen Hunt’s biography (one of the few biographies stocked by the Night Vale Public Library) in their hands. Everywhere I looked, the show’s purple-eyed logo blinked out at me, printed on clothing or drawn on people’s foreheads. Most of the audience were in their 20s and 30s, but there were a few families and older groups as well. We’re a mixed bunch, us Night Vale fans.

The show was The Librarian, an episode written for live performance – it’ll be recorded and sold early next year. I hadn’t been entirely sure of what to expect: how could one person and a few guests standing on a stage talking be that interesting?

Cecil Baldwin. Photo: Liezl Espitona.
I had reckoned without the formidable skills of actor Cecil Baldwin, who plays the narrator of the same name. At first dwarfed by the big stage, he drew us in with the skill of a born storyteller, and kept us spellbound for an hour. There were a few visitors, including both writers making appearances as a ghostly presence and an intern, but mostly it was just Cecil – and it worked perfectly.

Often when comedies do live shows, the temptation is to wheel everything out at expense of coherency. Every character needs an appearance or a name-check, which is fun but exhausting. Here, the writers struck the perfect balance: The Librarian managed to get in a few in-jokes (horoscopes, the community calendar, a mention of Steve Carlsberg), but was admirably restrained, focussing on the main issue of an escaped librarian.

From the sarcastic and funny opening spiel from ‘proverb girl’ Meg Bashwiner (‘We all like to use our phones. I use mine to call my mom. Please don’t do that during the show – call my mom, I mean. She would be very confused.’) to the weather by musician Mary Epworth and the brief moments of audience participation, The Librarian was a brilliant experience.

If you get the chance to see these guys live, do it without hesitation. If you don’t…well, you can still listen to the show. Go on. Go and listen to it. Just the pilot. You can do it here.

Agree? Disagree? Want to gush at another Night Vale fan? Leave a comment!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Halloween for Grown-Ups


Halloween can be sort of awkward for grown-ups, or at least for people who once loved Halloween as a child and slowly grew out of all the socially acceptable activities therein. I’m convinced that is the reason to have kids, so you can keep going trick-or-treating and have an excuse to dress up and have a whimsical night out and share your tooth decay with a tiny person who won’t judge how much you eat in one sitting. The costumes, the decorations, the constant fear of something or someone jumping out from a dark corner; these are the things that make life the wondrous and contradictory thing that we find ourselves caught up in, against our will, all our endings plagiarized. I love Halloween, ask anyone, they’ll tell you. It’s my one chance a year to be anyone I want to be, unhindered by skill or ability or money (if you’re a creative costume maker) or distance or any of the other infinite numbers of things that hold us back in this life. Halloween is, for me, pure magic. But even for me, Halloween as a grown up is sort of awkward. 

Why? Because I like the whimsical version, the candy coated, tacky plastic jewelry, glowing pumpkin version, and when you get older some of that is lost. If you love going out and getting drunk, then problem solved. And don’t get me wrong, I do love to do just that every now and then, but that’s not my priority on Halloween. This year one thing struck me much harder than ever before about Halloween as a grown-up, and this is where this blog post becomes relevant to the topic of this blog: I don’t watch enough TV to dress up for Halloween as an adult. 

I have never felt so out of touch than I did Friday night, out with some friends for a spooky good time on the streets of Charming Charm City, the part of town I assumed would be full of hipster versions of Disney characters and lots of bloody masks. And yes, these two categories were represented in abundance, however most of the costumes I saw were characters from TV shows that either happened in the prime of my generations’ TV watching years, or are still currently happening and watched by people my age. All I saw were girls wrapped in plastic bags and others carrying logs and lots dressed as cartoon characters I only have a vague awareness of. When did this happen? When did I get so out of touch that I don’t even recognize the most popular characters that TV has to offer? It's not like watching TV takes any effort, it's not something you have to try to do or make time for or practice to be good at. You just put it on, job's done. I’m not ashamed to be unaware of which Housewife of some county just passed me by at the bar, but when there was probably a character from Mad Men there as well that goes unnoticed, that’s when you know you have a problem (I have not watched a single episode of Mad Men). The only TV costumes I understood were Carmen Sandiego (there is always one, and I’m always jealous it’s not me), the Hound from Game of Thrones (which I’m still not even caught up on, but thanks to the internet, is completely spoiled for me regardless) and a gigantic and impressively constructed Cyberman from Doctor Who. Although I’ve only seen the Matt Smith Doctor Who episodes, so I don’t really know anything about Cybermen, not really, just what they look like. So that barely counts. Also in attendance however was Max from Where the Wild Things Are (classic) and Good Cop Bad Cop form the Lego movie, which just made me so happy that I momentarily forgot how I’m basically an old woman living under a rock. At least I saw the Lego movie. 

So what I’m really trying to make quite clear is how deeply unqualified I am to be writing on this blog, this great blog that none of us give enough attention. I either need to step it up, watch more TV, go to the movies more often, or read even more books than I already do to make up for it. Although at this point I don’t think that’s really humanly possible unless I quit my job, and that’s not happening. I really dig my job. 

Next year I need to do things differently. I need to team up with someone who lives in a neighborhood that gets trick-or-treaters so I can rain candy on all the tiny Darth Vaders and Supermen and Ladybugs, complimenting them on their fantastic costumes that don’t make me feel out of touch and out of my mind. 

Onward and Upward,


Monday, 13 October 2014

A eulogy: Utopia

So, they did it. They cancelled Utopia.

I found out in a Guardian article, and I have to express my sadness here. Don’t worry, I’ll keep my adulation as short as I can.

Let me start with the one good thing about this cancellation, which is the same ray of light we can take from Firefly’s demise: there has never been a bad episode of Utopia, and there never will be.

I’m rarely evangelical about television shows, but Utopia is in a different league. I was hooked from minute one, devouring the first three episodes like a drug addict shooting up, eyes wide and desperate for more. The acting was flawless. The shots were so beautiful that every scene could have been lifted from the panel of a graphic novel. The plot was daring, the script was inspired. I loved it utterly and completely.

The show follows a group of people brought together by their mutual love of a graphic novel, The Utopia Experiments. They know one another from a chatroom dedicated to the book, and agree to meet when one of their number claims to have obtained a sequel. The novel itself has a background of conspiracy theories and shady dealings: its author penned it obsessively in a mental hospital before committing suicide. When the group meet up, they discover that all the theories were right: there is something awful behind The Utopia Experiments, and now everyone is out to get them.

It’s violent, often shockingly so. Written by playwright Dennis Kelly, (author of, in an odd juxtaposition, Matilda The Musical), the script is unflinching and brutal, with perfect pacing and believable characters. It took risks (such as beginning the second series with a flashback episode which featured none of the characters we were expecting), and the acting was absolutely top-notch.

Oh, I can understand why they cancelled it. I can only imagine the amount of complaints that the violence must have received. But it was original and unexpected. It had three female protagonists, one over the age of 50 (if you don't think that's a big deal, name one TV show which can say the same) and I will continue to describe it to people as the best British TV show of the last ten years.

In short, Utopia made me glad to have paid my license fee. It was funny, political, thrilling, philosophical, and I will miss it. David Fincher is attempting to improve on perfection by creating an American version, and I wish him well.

Channel 4 has said:It’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which are launching on the channel throughout 2015.

Well, Channel 4, and all you Gods of television: I hope you come up with something half as good as Utopia, because we’ll be watching. With spoons held behind our backs.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Why this Star Wars Fangirl cried durring a Star Trek movie: a love letter to JJ Abrams.


Star Wars in Concert- 2009.
Firstly, is has to be made clear that I am a huge Star Wars fan. The original trilogy have been my favorite movies for as long as I've been expected to have one, stretching back to a time when most girls my age were watching Disney movies and through that phase where I totally missed seeing 10 Things I Hate About You. I have Star Wars bed sheets that were given to me for a high school graduation present (yes, at the age of 17), which I then proudly displayed in my college dorm room, much to the great confusion of my former prom queen, Kenny Chesney loving, much-more-feminine  roommate (who I got along with very well, for the record, despite the fact that in real life, we would have never even met). I can tell you exactly what is happening in any of the old movies just from hearing sections of the soundtrack, I know what the TIE in TIE fighters stands for (Twin Ion Engine), and I have a life sized cardboard cutout of Han Solo (blaster in hand, battle pose) back at home that was displayed proudly in my bedroom for three years in college, and would be in my room now if it was socially acceptable to buy an international plane ticket for a man made of cardboard.  I’ve been to Star Wars in Concert, dressed as Princess Leia, stood in line for the midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith, again in costume, and I own Star Wars Monopoly, although I hate the game with a fiery passion. 

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s proceed to why I love JJ Abrams. I think you can see what this is all leading to. 

It all started with Lost- that sprawling, mysterious, confusing, action-packed TV show that, perhaps cursed by its own name, left many viewers very lost after the first three seasons, many jumping ship for the calmer waters of 24 and maybe Heroes (I don't really know what else was on- I was watching Lost). However I stuck with it and to this day it is still the only TV show I’ve ever watched live, as it came out, in its entirety. In the digital age we live in, this is quite a feat. The longevity of my viewing had little to do with the plot- as soon as the polar bears showed up I stopped caring what was really going on. It was for the characters that I stayed around, and not just because they were hot (but a little because they were hot). Sun and Jin, Sawyer and Jack (let's forget Kate ever happened- not my favorite), Charlie and Clarie- so many stories to be told and new ones to be made. Those episodes were so emotionally packed that I came to love the characters so much that I genuinely missed them when they were gone (no matter how much I hated the last episode. Go into the light, really? It was all I hoped it wouldn’t be). I have the soundtrack to the first season (of course) and every time the track plays when we thought for a brief moment that Charlie was dead (before the episode when he actually died), my heart swells and I'm instantly shot back to a time when the line between fiction and reality was blurred more to my liking, a time full of Lost themed cakes and many a late night viewing party with those just as obsessed as me. Lost was a leap of faith that I gladly took. 

Lost cake- 2006.

Now, fast forward to the present. Lost hit me in those crucial teen years when everything is more real, when fiction matters as much as real life and when everything I watched/read/saw started to form everything I would one day come to believe/believe in/care about. So needless to say, when I heard that JJ was doing the new Star Trek revamp, my inner teen jumped for Joy with a capital J (see what I did there?). Not everyone agreed, not everyone loved Lost like I did (rightfully so- that shit was wack), but my inner child who I usually let dictate all my adult decisions and feelings could not have been more pleased. Previously, I’d been very skeptical. Why do the old Trek’s need to be redone? Were they not awesome enough as they were? Why must someone always defile my childhood? Were the Star Wars prequels not enough? Although I do like the prequels more than your average nerd, in their own way. Don't judge me- that's a whole different blog post.

Those of you who don’t know me (if anyone ever reads this besides myself and Alex) might be confused that such a self professed Star Wars fan would care about Star Trek at all, so let me clarify- although the Star Wars universe is my heart’s true love, this love also spawned a love of the entire Science Fiction (specifically space related) genre. I can’t relate with people who like only one or the other when they have so many similar qualities. Yes, I know I know I know, they are at opposite ends of the SF spectrum, but to me, they both involve space, spaceships and cool characters, so I’m on board. 

So, despite my initial harsh judgment of the new Trek direction, of course I was going to see it. Duh. Just because I didn’t agree that another Spiderman movie needed to exist did not in any way mean I would ever miss seeing it. Put the word ‘Wars,’ ‘Trek,’ or ‘Star’ in the title of anything and I’ll be in the front of the line. So I did- I saw the new Star Trek movie, and I loved every moment of it. And this is simply because JJ did a perfect, amazingly good job. 

A few weeks ago, I went to see the latest Star Trek film, but this time with a new frame of mind. Not only was I about to see another film by a director that was fast becoming one of my favorites, one that I knew was going to most likely be very, very enjoyable and action packed- this time it was so much more. This time, I was seeing a film by the director who is going to make the next Star Wars film, something everyone is very nervous about. And this is where the crying started. And the spoilers- beware. 

In the end of Star Trek, Into Darkness, we (those of us who have seen the original series films) were presented with an all too familiar scene: the Enterprise is about to die, along with everyone on board, and it’s up to one crew member in a suicidal act of bravery and selflessness to save the day.  As our favorite green-blooded alien once said; the needs of the many out way the needs of the few, or one.  But this time it was not Spock making the ultimate sacrifice, its Kirk, showing us JJ’s parallel universe in full force.  From the moment that Kirk punched out Scotty so he wouldn’t follow him I knew where it was going- honestly I should have guessed it earlier, like the moment that Cumberbatch turned out to be Khan. Either way, by the end of the film we’re presented with the iconic scene of Spock and Kirk separated by glass, but this time Kirk is the one dying to save the ship. And I cried. I’m not talking huge, crocodile tears or anything- I haven’t cried like that since Toy Story 3- but still, my eyes welled and one did manage to fall down my cheek. 

But the funny thing is that I was not crying for Star Trek. I mean, I was, but that wasn’t the main reason. I was crying for Star Wars. Because if JJ is able to do what he’s done for Trek again for Wars, we’re in for one hell of a movie. Trek was cast to perfection, had amazing space fight scenes, an awesome story, lots and lots of funny bits, and basically everything you need to produce a great Science Fiction movie. So, like one of my friends so poetically put- just like saying an ex’s name at that exact wrong moment, my first thoughts as the credits rolled were not of the amazing Star Trek movie I’d just seen, but of the incredible Star Wars movie I’m sure is yet to come. 

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of JJ for bringing back the Spock/Kirk death scene- I’ve heard that it didn’t carry, for other people, the same emotional weight of the 30+ year relationship between the characters that it did in The Wrath of Kahn, and therefore didn’t do the same thing.  But I completely disagree- I think it carried that entire 30+ relationship, plus the new one that we’ve so keenly watched since JJ rebooted the story. We were not just watching a friendship literally die, but a friendship that we’ve already seen start and end before, and to me that carries more weight than the critics give it credit for. But that’s just me- I’m a sucker for this kind of thing anyway. 

What this all boils down to is this: I have faith in JJ Abrams. I have faith that he will make the Star Wars movie we've all been waiting for, the one we were disappointed to not find with the prequels. JJ Abrams is, if nothing else, clearly a Fanboy himself. He respects all that has come before, he respects the cannon he is working with, and clearly works very hard to give audiences the same feeling they did when watching the originals. That’s all I can ask for. I know a lot of people are involved in making a movie, and a lot of other things can still go wrong, but still- I have faith that JJ will pull it all together and make something new with the same fun and excitement of the old movies we all love so dearly.

It’s a leap of faith. Who’s with me?

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Ketchup Clouds - Annabel Pitcher

Reading Ketchup Clouds was rather like watching an episode of Hollyoaks.

Take a girl writing to a criminal on death row, add a Love Triangle between two brothers, a murder that the girl alleges to have committed, and then chuck in a father who’s lost his job, a sister who’s being bullied, another sister who is deaf, a mother who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown….it was soap opera, pure and simple, and the contrivances started getting on my nerves very early on.

Add to that the fact that the plot hinged on a Love Triangle, and I was having serious problems. Love Triangles are never interesting (the day I read one where I honestly can’t work out who the main character is going to pick will be an EXCELLENT DAY.), and they are almost impossible to write without the reader disliking one or more of the characters. Can’t pick one? Try NOT snogging both of them. Want both? Tough luck, sweetheart, you can’t have both – unless they’re happy to have a threesome.

When a book is losing me this fast, only one thing can pull it back: a great main character. I don’t even need to LIKE the protagonist – I just need to care enough about them to keep on reading. Maybe you could call it ‘respect’. I need a character to give me a reason to carry on with them. I need to respect them.

The main trouble I had with Ketchup Clouds was our narrator, Zoe. Partly, I blame my upbringing - I was raised on Jane Eyre, Lizzie Bennett, and that icon of standing up for yourself and not taking shit from anybody: Scarlett O’Hara. My blood flows pure red. Once you’ve read Scarlett, you never go back.

This means that when faced with difficult life choices, I ask myself one key question: What would Scarlett do? The same applies to female characters in books. If a protagonist is weak, or stupid, I can cope. It’s when they lack plain ol’ survival instinct that I cease caring. And Zoe really needed to take some life lessons from my guru.

Scarlett O'Hara is not impressed
You get hot and heavy at a party with a boy. The next day, you find out that he has sent a topless photo of you to his friends.

 What would Scarlett O’Hara do? Smile politely to his face, never speak to him again, and do her best to get her own back if the opportunity presented itself.
 What did Zoe do? Forgive him almost instantly, and give the hot and heavy thing another go.

I lost respect for her in that moment, and after that I was gone – and she did nothing to change my mind. She clearly didn’t respect herself, so why should we? I wouldn’t want to spend half an hour with this girl, let alone a whole narrative. I read books for enjoyment, and I stopped enjoying Zoe’s character….so I stopped enjoying the book.

My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece was Annabel Pitcher’s first novel, and it is utterly brilliant. Ketchup Clouds sadly doesn’t measure up – I know that Pitcher can do better than this, and I think that’s why this book irritated me so much. Stop making it about selfish, stupid teenage girls, and give me more nine-year-old boys with real problems.

And make sure your protagonist can pass the Scarlett O’Hara test.

What do you think?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Secret Garden (1993)

Cousin lovin’, had me a blast. 
Cousin lovin’, happened so fast.
I met a boy, crippled and mean,
I met a girl, thanks she’s a queen.
Medlock’s motivation is always unclear.
But oh oh those creepy garden witchcraft nights!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Oblivion - Tom Cruise

Three things I have learned from Oblivion:

1. Nuclear weapons are always the answer.

2. Suicide bombing is definitely the right thing.

3. A woman won't really mind if you die, as long as the next one looks like you.