Would You Like To Play A Game?

Games Find above Nature journal's own mini-documentary about DeepMind's proficiency in playing computer games (here a link to the paper). The story has been all over the intelligent media this past couple of days. Here's a version from The New Yorker:
"Deep neural networks rely on layers of connections, known as nodes, to filter raw sensory data into meaningful patterns, just as neurons do in the brain. Apple’s Siri uses such a network to decipher speech, sorting sounds into recognizable chunks before drawing on contextual clues and past experiences to guess at how best to group them into words. Siri’s deductive powers improve (or ought to) every time you speak to her or correct her mistakes. The same technique can be applied to decoding images. To a computer with no preĆ«xisting knowledge of brick walls or kung fu, the pixel data that it receives from an Atari game is meaningless. Rather than staring uncomprehendingly at the noise, however, a program like DeepMind’s will start analyzing those pixels—sorting them by color, finding edges and patterns, and gradually developing an ability to recognize complex shapes and the ways in which they fit together."
The best news is that the programme's not very good at Pac-Man because it's rubbish at forward planning. So far.

Guardians of the IMAX.

Film Back in the olden days, one of my monthly treats was the dvd release of classic Doctor Who, that one thing I'd have to look forward to. These ended at about this time last year and until whatever in the hell's going on with the #omnirumour is resolved, assuming dvds are still a thing, they're not likely to begin again. The one remaining story with extant episodes, The Underwater Menace has also apparently been pulled from release this year. Click here for the inevitable campaign.

Looking for something to replace this lack, I've begun buying MARVEL films on blu-ray on a monthly basis.  Iron Man 3 in January.  Thor: The Dark World in February and for March, although I jumped the gun because I saw a cheap copy in CEX this morning, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Since the Who releases were never in broadcast order, I decided this homage to that schedule was allowed.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier can wait until April.

Either way, I watched Guardians again this evening and despite the lack of the shock of the new, as expected it's still brilliant and all those people who say it isn't are entirely incorrect.  New readers can look here for a long rambly post describing my appreciation for the thing and its implications for the film industry.  I still think it's game changing.  I still think it was the most important film of last year in industry terms.

All of which is preamble to introducing one of the oddities about the blu-ray release in its 3D edition.  In the 3D edition there are two discs, which is surprisingly rare, one for 3D and one for 2D.  Most of the other 3D films I have include both versions on the same disc, so it's curious that this doesn't.  But owning a 3D set-up I ventured forth.  Began watching and beyond the opening sequences, there's a ratio change from 2.40 to filling the screen.

But the 3D is horrible.  Smushy and difficult to watch, which is sometimes the case with my room set-up and eyesight.  I assume it must look better for others, but not for me, so I decided to try the 2D version instead.  So I swap discs, FF through to the point I was at and there is no ratio change.  The 2D edition of this film is a different version of the film to the 3D version, my guess is because the 3D disc contains the IMAX version.

Quandary.  I'd quite like to watch this IMAX version with its extra screen information in 2D please.  It's not supplied.  What to do?  What to do?  

Turns out I can turn the 3D off on the television.  The television will let me watch 3D films in 2D.  How curious, how strange, but in this instance how useful.  So I did.

Two things:

(1)  Why would MARVEL not supply the IMAX version of Guardians as per the Nolan Batman films, Tron Legacy and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2D anyway, perhaps by offering the choice on the 3D disc without having to mess about with the television?

(2)  Are all the MARVEL films like this?  Have I missed out on IMAX versions of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World by only buy the 2D versions of those?  Do you own these?  Can you say?

Either way, the sci-fi vistas of James Gunn's film look utterly gorgeous across my giant flatscreen and if you've not seen this IMAX version yet it's well worth the hokus-pokery.

Here's James Gunn and the cast talking about this IMAX version in promos from YouTube that contains precisely no footage from the IMAX version:

With Charley Pollard: Series One.

Audio  Here we are then, after all the preamble, with the real opening chapter of the Eighth Doctor audios, albeit with some new retrospective additions.  Half way through the first I realised I first heard these when I was in my twenties.  I'm forty years old.  In chronological terms, there's now a longer period between the original publication of Storm Warning and now than between the TV movie and Rose.  Actually thinking on, the revival has now been on-air longer than that gap too, which is irrelevant to this cause but jiggers, makes me feel old.  But I was only twelve when the classic series finished which makes me younger than some.  Sorry.  Up until this point, my purchasing of the Big Finish audios had been pretty sporadic and remained so.  The Eighth Doctor audios are the only complete run I stuck with which meant that these initial series had the genuine feeling of being in seasons with a long gap in between, and even longer beyond Neverland.  If they seem so familiar listening to them again now, it's because I had them on repeat in the months between seasons.

Storm Warning

At the risk of pitching over old ground, but what I failed to notice while writing my tribute to Alan Barnes's story back in 2013, in the opening ten minutes or so the Doctor isn't talking to himself, he's talking to us, which of course he is, but its in such a way that we effectively become his companions, we become the viewpoint characters. In reintroducing this incarnation to the audience, Barnes makes our process of switching on a cd player (as it was back then) a real world equivalent of Ian and Barbara blundering into a junkyard, Rose into a department store basement or Christmas Clara up a spiral staircase, of entering his world. But what's really interesting is when Charley's introduced later, that doesn't change. He has someone to talk to, but towards the end, when he realises how he's potentially affected time, we're listening to him soliloquise, regarding is new companion from afar, confiding in us as to what he may have done. Sound familiar?

The Sword of Orion

Cybermen! Primarily of interest here is how little it resembles the new Who approach to second stories for companions in that Charley's pretty much TARDISed in already. The visit to the market at the start of the play could be seen as a forerunner to The Rings of Arkanoid, perhaps, but Pollard's already pretty much accepted the concept of time travel and the blue box and all of that business. The closest parallel is Peri in The Caves of Androzani who in the opening scenes already seemed like she'd been travelling with the Doctor for months (and as Big Finish later revealed ...) Also contains one of the scariest moments in Who history as three of the main characters enter a conversion chamber and nothing good comes from it. I've always been intrigued as to how much of the script and story changed from the AudioVisuals version to accommodate McGann. Incidentally, some soul has animated the first few scenes and uploaded the results to YouTube.

The Light at the End

Dropped into this slot by a number of online continuities, thanks to Charley's repeated mention of the R101, apart from the lack of reference for poor Ramsey the Vortisaur, it fits perfectly especially since Eighth is treated as the "present" incarnation and the lead in figure in much the same way as Third, Fifth and Eleventh do elsewhere.  Though it's worth noting that the story generally foregrounds Fifth, Sixth and Seventh, perhaps in order to create some balance due to their lack of major televisual participation during the Fiftieth.  Of the Eighth material, I'm not entirely sure about him sodding off when Charley's in distress but it's not entirely out of character based on what we've heard up until now.  If you haven't it's also probably worth listening to for the world's best Russell Tovey impression by John Dorney as Bob Dovie.  I must confess, having entirely attempted to stay spoiler free on first time of listening, I actually thought it was Russell Tovey.

The Stones of Venice

Which is about as conventional as Paul Magrs gets, which is saying something given that it's about Venice falling to the sea, coaxed along by fish people, so a homage to The Underwater Menace I suppose.  If this first series is about box ticking and the Eighth Doctor, then this is the one with Michael Sheard.  To this day, I'm not sure what I make of it.  On the one hand it's hilariously theatrical in language and performance and you can see its original origins as a Fourth Doctor tale bubbling across the surface but the four episode structure does it no favours in terms of drawing out the action and as with all of these original stories the Doctor's rather dragged along by events rather than motivating them.  But McGann and Fisher are clearly having a ball, their chemistry crystallizing with each word.

Minuet in Hell

Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart! Fly meet ointment. As his Datacore entry shows the post-classic series timeline for the Brig is all over the place, having him either live until at least 2050 thanks to his own regeneration in the New Adventures or dying in time for Kate Stewart to talk about him the past tense.  The audios have never quite managed to work out how they work in relation to the books.  On the one hand, at time of production, the Sam mentioned here was supposed to be Sam Jones (later retconned to be Samson) but makes a nonsense of The Dying Days which was also the Brig's first encounter with Eighth.  Either way, I always find Minuet in Hell desperately difficult to get through, overlong and unfunny as it is in places, only really snapping into place when the Doctor's memory returns (and how often is that the case with this incarnation?).  His and the Brig's final conversation is incredibly poignant.

Destiny of the Doctor: Enemy Aliens

Bloomin' marvellous.  The Eighth Doctor entry in AudioGo's contribution to the 50th anniversary this was the unexpected pleasure which brought Charley as close to canonicity as we thought she could ever be until McGann said her name on actual television (albeit on the red button).  A Buchan pastiche of all things, as I said at the time, you can hear India remembering how to play the character after a few years out as it goes along, slipping from simply reading the text to acting it about ten minutes in, with her scenes with Michael Maloney's mysterious helper Hilary offering some brand new audio drama.  Writer Alan Barnes is in his element, inventing a missing adventure which occurs just before this in the same time period which sounds like the kind of messy, overfl but thrilling story which might have turned up in the novels.  One of the highlights of these stories was hearing the given reader offer us their Matt Smith impression and this doesn't disappoint on that score either.

My Favourite Film of 2007

Film Watching Danny Boyle's Sunshine was an odd experience because unlike my latter spoilerphobic ways, I'd been following the production of the film through the blog on the official website written by Gia Milinovich. Here she is sneaking onto the airlock set early in filming.  Produced at a time when blogs were still in their imperious stage, just before more Facebook, Twitter and other social media came along and burnt it all down (where this is posted surely but smouldering embers), it struck a balance between teasing story elements, investigating the science (including videoed talks with her husband Dr Brian Cox who was the science advisor on the film) and glimpses of the production.  It's all here and here.  Gia offers some general memories about the experience here.

What was odd was that even after all of that reading, sitting in front of the giant screen at, I think, Picturehouse at FACT Screen Two, everything fell away.  Much like Soderbergh's remake of Solaris a few years before and Gravity a few years later, once the luminous, awe inspiring mass of the celestial body filled the screen, I entirely forgot that I was watching a fictional construct (almost), my suspension of disbelief fully engaged.  That's usually how I know I'm enjoying a film.  My liberal arts knowledge about genre and editing and narrative and stars and all of that, my critical stance, disappear (usually - sometimes I'll grow to love film because of those things, that it knows that I know and so does something amazing because of that).

None of which stopped me from writing a review of this film for this blog in which I singled out Chris Evans as a "mega star in waiting" but as I noticed there hadn't been many films in that period about "giant ships flying through deep space on the big screen without a Jedi or Vulcan piloting them" (last year MARVEL produced huge blockbusters so I was already predicting the success of the MCU a year before the release of Iron Man).  It is a film which has grown in stature across time and along with Moon and the afformened Solaris and Gravity demonstrate that intelligent, or at the very least meditative science fiction is still being made (I'd also add The Last Days on Mars but no one saw that).  Certainly there aren't many films of this ilk which could provide enough material for an hour long discussion like this:

My dvd copy of Sunshine was bought at the old Zavvi shop at Liverpool One just before it transmuted into Head then closed anyway.  Watching it again that evening on a smaller screen (well small than cinema) did little to diminish its power and indeed increased it as often happens when you know the fate of characters, the mundane moments before disaster strikes given extra poignancy because you now have knowledge about their lives that isn't available to you with your unpredictable future.  Ignoring the disaster element of that sentence, that's also why production blogs like Gia's are still compelling.  After having seen the film, it's a way of looking back to a time when outcomes were uncertain, when we didn't know what the results would be.  I wonder what Gia thinks about her blog now.


Film The people who follow me on the social media that wasn't hip in the early noughties will have noticed that for the best part of a week I've been watching my way through the Harry Potter films for the first time since they were released. Potter's been a fair weather friend to this blog, me never having been that much of a fan. Should you care to glance through this search you'll find the odd review, links to some news items, awards predictions and the odd bit of commentary, notably from back in 2010 when regular reader Annette asked for my opinion of it during the end of year Review in 2010.  She'll be displeased to know (judging by the comment) that I still haven't read the books.  I don't read much fiction especially if I know it's going to be turned into a film.  But that's a discussion for another time.

There's isn't anything in this piece I don't still agree with and having forgotten most of what I'd written there, because I forget most of anything I write here, there's some analysis in there which I thought again this time around as though it was all new, especially about the screenplays and narrative and how unlike typical Hollywood screenplays but like art house films, they're not especially goal orientated in the traditional sense, the screenplays (mainly by Steve Kloves) favouring cumulative, episodic incident that beneficially ignore three or four act structures in favour of the broadest of linking tissue between scenes that eventually leads to a climactic struggle about something connected to the title.  As a series it resembles levels of a video game generally with each film's Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts as the end of level boss and he who shall not be named as the main boss at the end.

Having watched it in tandem with the fourth season of Game of Thrones, it's also possible to see that now that the Potter film cycle is completed, it most resembles is an eight episode television mini-series of single episodes ending in a two-parter (the recap at the start of The Deathly Hallows Part Two is nothing so much as what's always happened in Doctor Who).  Perhaps if modes of production had been different back then, if Warners hadn't been desperate to have its Lord of the Rings follow-up, the best place for these stories would have been television, where JK's texts would have had room to breath, with incidents and characters so obviously abbreviated in the films given room to develop.  Though there's obviously little chance you would have gotten this cast and this quality of production design on the small screen even with a network like HBO taking a chance, and it's impossible to think of these characters being played by anyone else now.

Perhaps this is just me, having spent that past week with those actors and characters and this story somewhat desperate to see more of it, because, well, I confess, I've become something of a fan.  Not necessarily of the story.  However enjoyable the meander, there is a lot of waiting for something to happen via delayed exposition (see below) but the atmosphere, the incidents, the humour, the, well everything which exists during those waits.  There are moments, such as when Luna (one of the best characters to appear on film) simply turns up to dinner in fancy dress as a lion for no particular reason and no one comments on it which are just awesome.  To watch the #potterwatch hashtag on my Twitter account over the past week, is to watch someone falling in love with a series of films in a way which has surprised even me.  Why should this be the case?  Since I've written myself into a corner, here are at least three potential reasons.

(1)  Hermione Granger.  Yes, yes, Emma Watson is amazing, but under the pen of JK, Cloves, this actress and the production team, unlike similar figures so many similar clones, as is acknowledged throughout the films, of the three central characters, Hermione's the most powerful and more importantly the cleverest.  Even when she's catatonic during The Chamber of Secrets, she's the one who ultimately points Ron and Harry towards said receptacle.  Hers is a story of empowerment, fighting against the patriarchy at every turn and as Buzzfeed video it would be wrong not to link to right now says giving "zero fucks".  This against a background of extra prejudice within the wizard world thanks to her "muggle" origin.  Plus despite all that, despite theoretically being capable of getting any man, she falls for Ron Weasley, which feels really normal and human and with due deference to JK, having her turn into Harry's arms would have been just wrong.

(2)  Storytelling.  I've already touched on this but there's some very clever adaptation which seems to have gone on here.  Book readers will be able to correct me, but the approach to adaptation seems to be to have essentially hacked out anything which isn't in Harry's POV then gone in and concreted the cracks where necessary.  There are only a handful of scenes which don't have him somewhere in them, which means that there are also few occasions when the audience is privy to information he isn't.  In terms of audience identification, it's brilliant even if it goes against the natural tendency of drama (see Hitchcock and the bomb under the table) and leads to plenty of scenes which feature Harry sitting around being told stuff by individuals and groups.  Bless Daniel Radcliffe for being able to do this convincingly.  If you want to see how young actors incrementally develop their craft, watch these films back to back.

Some examples of where this works well: When Ron disappears in The Deathly Hallows, a more conventional film would have crosscut the two Hs in the tent with lonely Weasley but instead it stays with Harry and we're left to wonder, like Harry, where his friend is and what he's doing.  When he returns, Ron tells us his story giving Rupert Grint one of the best speeches in the trilogy by forcing our imaginations to create some magic which could have been entirely conventional if it had simply been put on screen.  Plus I can't think of a flashback which isn't seen or experienced through Harry receiving some potion and we're left, like him, to knit the actuality together across the years with Snape's motivations only properly revealed in the final film (see this montage which edits them all together in chronological order and sob).

Sometimes it can be frustrating but there's an in-story reason for Harry not being told about things and so the information being withheld from us too.  His connection with Voldemort.  Though its not ensuated clearly at the beginning, there's a constant fear throughout that this dark lord could easily break into Harry's mind and steal this information which is why its on a need to know.  Realising this during the Philosopher's Stone puts an extra complexion on the films as we're essentially we're sharing the frustration with Harry.  It would have been very easy to have simply shown us the conversation between the Order of the Phoenix during that film before Harry arrives, but the tension's far more palpable in making us and him wait for it.  That's storytelling which has been thought about, that is.

(3)  Imagery.  These are simply gorgeous looking films filled with spectacle.  Although granted some of the creature designs don't quite work in places, notably Hagrid's brother Grawp, the production design is spectacular.  The Department of Mysteries, a totally digital environment, has all the qualities of an art piece, especially as it implodes, the blue light of the crystal balls and shelves shattering into one another.   The middle hour of The Deathly Hallows Part One is one of the best pieces of fantasy cinema ever, both because in the midst of this massive expensive blockbuster and it's about three people losing their sanity in a tent and they're doing it against an ominous wilderness away from all their civilisations, portrait like close-ups against wide-angle landscapes.

None of which really does it justice.  Even the flaws, like Tom Felton's one-note performance until the very late stages (not helped by only really having a surname as his single line of dialogue) and Quiddich making little to no sense as a sport (is there ever a match when a seeker doesn't catch a snitch thereby disavowing the need for the rest of the team) are part of the joy of the thing.  Even I was saying "Potter!" along with Draco Malfoy by the end.  Will I read the books now?  Not sure.  I can't quite decide if the thing I like about Harry Potter now is what's in the films only or the underlying mythology and if, as I suspect, the things I do love about the films would be spoilt by seeing what's been left out or changed.  We'll see.  Either way, I was sorry to get to the end and if JK and the rest decide to revisit the characters at some late stage, I'll be right there.  Now.

Oscars 2015. Reaction.

Film The short version:

Here's the long version.

As has been the case since Sky co-opted the legal UK rights, I didn't stay up for the Oscars this year (also because I wanted to sleep what with being in the middle of a working week) (it's complicated).  Having seen the results, I'm not entirely unhappy.  As I've said above, having not seen Birdman I can't make the comparison but just like Gravity and Inception and There Will Be Blood and countless others in the past this feels like the Academy choosing the safe option and not rewarding the film that it really should.

Last year I ended up making a similarly cautious statement about Gravity and then when I saw 12 Years a Slave found a relatively conventional film not necessarily doing anything I hadn't seen before and certainly not potentially changing the way films are made.  Perhaps when I've watched Birdman with its "single take", timed explosions, cast full of people I like and a director I've admired in the past, I will say fair enough.  But Boyhood, is, well Boyhood, over a decade in the making with all kinds of potential artistic jeopardy.

Anyway, here's how I did. Probably easier to list what I got right.

Patricia Arquette for best actress.
Ida for best film not in the English language
Big Hero 6 for best animated film
Grand Budapest Hotel for score, costume, production design, makeup and hairstyling

Wanted Boyhood to sweep. Didn't. But I did predict The GBH to do well in the craft categories, which is something.  Perhaps once I've seen everything, I'll be able to judge better...

The Unexamined Life.

TV Here's a short Q&A which took place in 2012 at the BFI after a screen on The Hollow Crown (series one!) in which Richard Eyre talks to Sam Mendes about the difficulties in writing the script and Simon Russell Beale on the process of acting.  Much of it is as you might expect until the closing moments.  Well, just watch.