Category Archives: Journalism

Die Hard (1988)

Attending a screening of Die Hard at Newcastle’s historic Tyneside Cinema has become somewhat of an annual tradition. Monday’s visit provided me with the third attempt since 2015 to relive all the action and splendor of this rather unexpected Hollywood hit on the big screen. And despite originally being released in July 1988 the film has gained a remarkable amount of traction in the intervening years as a Christmas Classic.

Of course, Die Hard strains from the traditional narratives of most action films of its period, and with good reason. The story (if you’re completely unaware) is about New York Policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane is travelling to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. Arriving on Christmas Eve he finds a work party interrupted by the arrival of terrorists, led by German Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and quickly decides to tackle the groups intentions and fight back alone.

The casting of the film in itself was an interesting choice, as the studio had little faith in Bruce Willis ability to command the role. Early promotion of the film featured attention towards the action in the plot rather than the star and even Willis has admitted to only truly deciding key facets of McClane’s character mid way through shooting. On the reverse, Holly’s character has a much more prominent involvement than you might expect from the traditional “damsel in distress” and Gruber’s own calm, collected exterior is essentially the narrative of the story.  Without his plan to extort money from the Nakatomi corporation the film has little to no basis. McClane’s estrangement from his wife could be settled in a few minutes as a will he or won’t he.

Credit must also be given to the films use of notable film actors from the era. Paul Gleason,  William Atherton and Robert Davi all perform small but pivotal supporting roles that – added to their performances in Ghostbusters, The Goonies and The Breakfast Club (for example) – make it seem almost like extensions of those characters. The film also strays from the traditional in other areas too, for example, a scene in which McClane and Gruber meet on the roof of the building. It’s unconventional as neither the two should meet until the climax, but was the result of a realization on set that Rickman could do a convincing American accent and so was hastily included.

Seeing the film on the big screen after 30 years also helps us realize mistakes, especially if we’ve watched it a few times before. In one scene where McClane descends a stairwell as sprinklers fight a blaze, a Christmas tree is seen to fall from behind him. Monetarily he checks, unaware as to whether there is a terrorist lurking behind, and you can just make out the silhouetted shadow of the stage hand who pushed it over. Other scenes, such as Ellis’ “negotiation” with Gruber allows us to revisit the traditional – with a deliberate pause on audio as someone pours a can of Coca Cola. How little things change.

The film displays all the qualities of a Hollywood Summer blockbuster but the decision to set it during Christmas (a decision which predated the script, based on the original concept, the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever) actually places it in a rather unusual demographic. Appealing to those who love the holiday, and those who don’t, it uses Christmas to it’s full advantage in some of the most memorable scenes – including when McClane hides a gun on his back with wrapping tape and when he uses a Santa hat and a yuletide message on a deceased terrorist. But the amount of violence and action resolves to make the message that even those offended by Christmas cheer will have something to enjoy in this one.

The only enigma in the film is that of Sgt Al Powell. The character, who provides John McClane with support and assistance throughout the film, received fourth billing in both this and the films sequel (despite only making a brief cameo in the latter) and the actor who portrayed him appeared in both this, Ghostbusters (as a correctional officer) and Crocodile Dundee – arguably three of the most iconic films of the decade – yet sadly Reginald Vel Johnson never managed the successes of Bruce Willis or Alan Rickman.

At it’s core, Die Hard is the ultimate action film – it contains no end of action and suspense while also fulfilling in dialogue, story, condition and humor. And all you need to do in exchange is survive the mummers in the audience as an attendee recites the classic quote you’re just about to hear just before you hear it. Michael Kamen’s score leads to welcome us to a use of ‘Ode to Joy’ and we’re inclined to agree. Not one to be missed.

Die Hard plays at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, on Saturday December 23rd 2017

https://www.tynesidecinema.co.uk/film-and-events/view/die-hard

Having a McDoubt; Living in the Age of Sexual Harassment Hollywood

Earlier today a friend contacted me through social media. I hadn’t heard from them in a while, and saw the notification on my phone as a chance to reconnect, albeit all too briefly in this super information highway kinda world. When I read their dialogue, however, it was nothing like the pleasantries I’d expected to hear. My “friend” had taken exception at the use of a promotional picture on my website.

Informally launched in February 2017, I’ve tried to update this page when I can, but work commitments and real life have made it somewhat challenging – especially when I like every piece on the site to at least have something entertaining or informative to say representative of my voice. Otherwise, I might as well post other peoples original or copied content on my personal space, and that’s what Facebook is for.

Also working within the media bubble, such as film, radio and television; the message informed me that the sender would very much like if I removed a picture from my website featuring myself and director Morgan Spurlock. For those who don’t already know, Spurlock is a director who first shot to fame with the documentary Supersize Me in 2004. Although criticized afterwards for its overreaction and flamboyant tabloid esque journalism, Supersize Me actually raised questions in the cinema going public about their consumption of fast food (in this case, predominantly McDonalds) and also the health concerns it might pose if someone was to include it as part of their staple diet.

In 2008 Spurlock created the now largely forgotten (and well aged) Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?; a documentary allegedly focused on finding Osama Bin Laden in the hills of Afghanistan. I’ve only seen this film once, but I remember it clearly, because I met Morgan Spurlock after the screening. He’d been in Dublin on the European leg of a media tour to help promote the movie and I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of people who didn’t realize he was actually going to attend the screening in person and answer questions afterwards. In a mad rush to the escalator, I managed to be the first person to leave the screen, asking Mr Spurlock if he’d mind posing as a random man (who was attempting to reach the toilet) agreed to take our photo.

Director Morgan Spurlock (a huge early inspiration for me) and myself in 2008, pictured in Cineworld Dublin

I’ll never forget how excited I was going into work that evening at Chartbusters Video Store to tell everyone I’d managed to take the greatest photo with one of the coolest handlebar mustaches in Hollywood. And, being fair, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt I was wearing at the time obviously helped seal the deal. It was one of my first photographed experiences meeting “celebrities” and as I look back on the photographs in my possession also one of the oldest I have.

Fast forward nine years from that brief meeting, and a friend is sending me a message, asking me to remove the photo from my website. Primarily, they say, this is because my association with said photo is embarrassing in light of Spurlock’s recent admissions of sexual misconduct. And they’re very serious about it too.

Admittedly, this is a new one for me. I’ll admit to being very indifferent when I first heard the news of Harvey Weinstein and, in similar vein, Kevin Spacey.  I’ll admit to being a fan of Kevin Spacey’s work, House of Cards has been one of my favorite shows of recent years, and films Spacey has made – such as ‘The Life of David Gale’ and ‘Ordinary Decent Criminal’ have a pride of place in my collection. Not because I own every copy of every film he’s made, but because I rank his work as an actor very highly, and separate the man from the entertainer in the role he’s playing. 

That, I would hope people agree, is very different from me saying we should immediately hire Spacey to work on every project available to him and ignore all misgivings. We should not. But there should be a fine line, particularly in Journalism, where writers are quick to maintain the difference between an entertainer performing a role and a man who has acted inappropriately – and allegedly, illegally – in a number of personal cases. Hulk Hogan’s recent court case brings to mind this very principle, where do we draw the line between the performer/entertainer and their personal identity.

The question with Spurlock remains unchanged, however, should I immediately decide to erase any – albeit extremely brief – association with him from my website because of his actions. And the answer is no. I condemn Spacey and I condemn Spurlock for his personal actions but I will not begin purposefully ignoring to watch the films he appears in or pretending he has never existed or directed. And this is simply because, when it comes down to it, I don’t know the man on a personal level and he hasn’t wronged me in any way. In Spurlock’s case specifically, this photo is a memory for me, a good and positive memory in my media career – am I to undo this and simply pretend it didn’t exist?

There might be arguments that there are other photos, other potential memories to share, but it forces me to invoke censorship in my own life. It forces me to remove something I actually care about, not because of the individuals involved, but because of the memory and the time it represents.

I shall not be removing this photograph because it represents a time and a place. And because, although it might be critical to say Morgan Spurlock has admitted to sexual misconduct to capitalize on both it’s (and his) relevance within the world media; these are the actions of private individuals behind relatively closed doors. 

I feel that if there is one thing the Hollywood allegations have done it has brought to my attention the step down of the male gender in 2017. And I want to be very clear before I elaborate that this is not a sexist or underhanded attack on female gender or empowerment. I welcome equal rights for both sexes and I condemn sexual misconduct in the strongest terms and support any person affected by #MeToo but I ask where – in a world that holds Donald Trump as the most significant example of white male power – a young man might look for an example of hope? In a world every Johnny Depp is forgiven and every Mel Gibson recovers, who are the positive male role models we can depend upon?

5 Delightfully Obscure Easter Eggs You Missed In Portal 2

Valve’s 2007 first person puzzle game Portal was a surprise hit for everyone. The game acted and felt like a first person shooter but you just didn’t go around killing anyone. Instead you solved puzzles based on some simple – and some not so simple – physics problems. Introducing us to GLaDOS – one of the most maniacal robots in Science Fiction since the IG 88 assassin droid – and Chell, a “silent partner” whom the player took control of and completed a series of puzzles without any real indication as to how or why, Portal was a revolution in gaming.

Portal 2 exposed Portal as the prototype it was always meant to be, however, introducing new characters and completely expanding, redesigning and reintroducing us to the story. Despite being set thousands of years after the first game it might as well have been the next day for character Chell, as she made her way through the very history of Aperture Science and you were given a history lesson nobody was likely to forget. But just what did we learn throughout the game’s mysterious second act?

As Chell advances deeper through the history of the company – from the profitable 50’s to the bankrupt 80’s – there’s hardly any time travel at all. Instead we’re given clues and hints to the past and forced – mostly due to the silence of our character – to figure a lot out for ourselves and consistently break down that fourth wall. This is just one of the most enjoyable reasons that you should play this game because Valve have created a way to keep you thinking about this game hours after you’ve completed playing it.

You’ll go back and attempt missions just to check hidden corners and cracks for that secret plaque – not because you have too – but because you’ll want too. Of course you’re also welcome to review this list and have a tiny bit of help getting you started in the right direction. Naturally, there will be spoilers!

5. One of the most entertaining parts of Portal 2 is undoubtedly the voice of ‘Cave Johnson’ (played by the legendary J.K. Simmons) as he directs you through the ruins of Aperture Science’s testing areas. Although you neither travel through space or time there’s an adventure through three decades of Aperture history as Johnson’s narration gives a lot of the insight into the particular companies history during these periods and pieces together a lot of cryptic answers to questions that allow the gamer to ‘break the fourth wall’ and better understand why certain things are in certain places.

When you first encounter GLaDOS (short for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) she isn’t happy – probably because your character is responsible for her death in the first Portal game – or probably because you are then responsible for her disconnection and resurrection as a potato-battery. In chapter 7, hidden between the first and second orange gel test spheres, is an office with a portrait hanging on the wall. Its a portrait of Johnson, and we’ve seen lots of photos of the man but this is the only one in which he’s joined by his assistant Caroline.

Upon encountering this photo GLaDOS exclaims that these people look so familiar and if you’ve managed to put the pieces together by this point you notice you’re looking at something far more significant, GLaDOS as a human, before she was uploaded into a robot. There are a lot of theories pointing to Chell’s parents being Cave and Caroline and this portrait is a solid piece of photographic evidence showing a distinctive likeness between the trio.

4. Did anyone else think it was just slightly odd that there was a ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’ included in Portal 2? The remnants of this rather bizarre event include what appears to be a Science fair featuring a number of alternative ways to harness power. As we progress through the room we’re shocked at the discovery of a potato which has seemingly been allowed to grow over the millions of years since it was first placed there and subsequently has large roots going into the ceiling. But if you take a look at the board next to this item you’ll see something quite shocking right in the corner. The project appears to have been designed by a girl named Chell.

Consider for a moment that this project is indeed the work of a young Chell. It meets with the requirements that her parents worked for Aperture (as hinted by GLaDOS) and is even more shocking when you think that their names apparently also began with the letter “C” – I’m not going to put this all together for you but if you’ve even been paying the slightest attention to what I’ve been writing then you should see the significance straight away. What’s even more unusual is that this suggests Chell is responsible for the design which essentially saves GLaDOS programme from deletion for a large portion of the game. It’s all a bit creepy isn’t it?

3. Valve created Half Life and later created Portal 2. In a statement early on the developers made clear that Portal 2 would definitely have some reference and insider knowledge for fans of Half Life. And they didn’t disappoint. Aperture Science proudly displays that on three occasions (in 1949, 1952 and 1954) they received the runner up award in a contractor of the year competition.

When we first encounter the earliest examples of Aperture they’re talking about the invitations extended to Scientist’s and Astronaut’s who have come to test with the program. In the next area Aperture has aged about 15 years, with Johnson mentioning they may be known to the homeless people who have volunteered to test because of the 1968 senate hearings into missing astronauts, hinting at the fact that this is part of the reason the company has run into difficulty. There’s also a photo of Johnson, looking significantly older than in his photo with Caroline, hanging in the lobby of the foyer in this area. Whats perhaps more significant is that while observing this Johnson makes a direct reference to ‘Black Mesa’ saying they can “kiss my bankrupt…” before being cut off by his assistant, Caroline. He alludes that his disgust is due to companies who have managed to steal ideas that he created. Black Mesa using Aperture technology? You never know…

2. Despite being an all powerful super computer GLaDOS obviously weakness appears to be Ornithophobia. There are many unanswered questions about the appearance of this solitary bird in Portal 2 such as how it got that deep into Aperture labs, how it survived, whether this proves the existence of intelligent life above ground and why the only living creature (asides from Chell) to be featured in Portal 2 is this solitary bird. At one point in the game it appears that the bird is looking over a nest although whether he – or she – is protecting eggs was left completely unexplained until the DLC at which point GLaDOS interacts with some baby birds in Art Therapy.

This in itself poses a more fundamentally important question as to where the birds’ mate is? The Caroline portrait and the possibilities of it’s meaning come back to us at this point. It also leads to a different theory which is perhaps even more fascinating: the many, many connections between Portal 2 and the Greek legend of Prometheus, who was “punished by the gods for giving the gift of knowledge to man…cast to the bowels of the earth and pecked by birds.” Many cultures have different superstitions regarding birds in the house. In traditional Irish culture, for example, if a bird flew into the house, it was a portent of death. Interesting that GLaDOS is being pecked by birds as Chell awakes from her fall into the bowels of Aperture science. Maybe you’re both already dead by this point? In fact, perhaps the whole game is a mythology based around death, which just sees Chell on a journey to the afterlife.

1. This reference takes the top spot on this list because of it’s ability to cross the boundaries between games and reality. Anybody whose ever picked up a personal turret from the likes of Forbidden Planet (or any other good alternative retailer) can attest to that. In the game you see turret’s being assembled and packed for shipment which almost seems pointless given the collapse of civilization (or so you’d assume) in the years previous. You might even wonder where the finished turrets actually go and if there are nothing but warehouses and warehouses of finished and packed turret’s ready to be shipped?

You see the turret box at various points throughout the game, but the side of the packaging with the most surprising information is only visible in the room where Wheatley tries to kill you with a circle of faulty turrets. According to this illustration sentry turrets were designed – or at least marketed – with the intention of nursery protectors. That might explain their soft voices and gentle tones. I also want to give full credit to the makers of the official ‘Turret Sentry’ action figure which features the same – identical – artwork upon it’s side. Full credit for detail. Personally I’m only disappointed you can’t get a real life sized turret to guard your nursery.

Life sized turrets have been made by fans and are available through certain custom outlets, but without those soft tones and the ability to attack intruders its just not the same.

Pitmen Painters – Sunderland Royalty Theatre

If there’s one thing that Lee Hall’s script for ‘Pitmen Painters’ does, above all else, it is to remind us of our obsession with social mobility. Over eighty years later and the story portrayed by these miners is as true now as it was then, loyalty to working class routes and a struggle to see art as anything other than an exclusive domain for the wealthy, the underlying theme being a fixation on an individual’s role in the social strata. What one could, as opposed to should, achieve.

The story follows a group of pitmen, who take an art appreciation class from 1934 unable to find an economics tutor, hoping for something a little different. What they soon experience is that they’re actually very talented artists, fit for exhibitions and public displays of the work, working class routes and lack of life choices expose their own renaissance, like Van Gogh before them (an artist with which they resonate) they offer something different to an art world, and social class, devoid of change yet constantly hungry for something new.

Graham Alex’ has, arguably, the most important role in his part of ‘Harry Wilson’, Dental Mechanic. Harry is a socialist, probably because of his complete disillusionment in faith following his service in the Great War. Through his dialogue the experiences he’s had in the trenches and his subsequent return to the “normality” of working life clash violently with the groups art teacher, Mr. Lyon (David Farn), who leads a privileged lifestyle and less hazardous occupation but also served in the Somme. Both men are attempting to define art for the benefit of the group, but there is an underlying theme that neither man is right nor wrong, they simply have different ways of seeing the same challenge.

Helen Sutherland (Corrine Kilvington) offers Oliver (Matt McNamee) a patronage. He turns this down because of his conflicts with breaking from a group dynamic. Scared to leave the mine, as it’s the only thing he knows, there is a clash within him to see painting as any sort of profession.

So too does Sam Elliot’s unnamed young man clash with his Uncle George Brown, the fantastic Kristian Colling. Unemployed and looking for definition at a young age, Elliot abandons a chance at a prescribed occupation, going instead to fight for King and country. Killed in action, his removal on stage comes as a void, he is unseen and unheard in passing, albeit briefly, but we do notice his absence. It’s a dialogue heavy play and much of that is driven by six men who always seem to have something to say, their artistic pursuits are universally the same, but individually – much like a rock band – the members have individual tastes and styles they fight to assert. Even silent in the background, none of the performers drop their character.

As the play draws to a close, there is a toast given on the eve of nationalization, a hope for a better future and that the experiences of two world wars in a generation have improved chances for the working man and a fairer distribution of wealth. Over half a century later and it seems we’re still hoping. That said; director Caroline Chapman and cast produced a performance which had me hanging on every word. And when something resonates this much, we’re not really loosing that much at all. Outstanding.

Sunderland Remembers Ruby Presidential Visit on Wearside

A Sunderland resident has been fondly remembering an historic visit from US President Jimmy Carter to Wearside. Michael Gough, an amateur documentarian and filmmaker, captured the event using his Super 8 millimeter film camera on May 6th 1977. “I remember the moment of deciding to buy a cine camera in 1967 very well” Michael says, who also used the device to capture footage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Mr. Carter, who served as US President between 1977 and 1981, was America’s 39th President and visited Sunderland on this month forty years ago in an official capacity. Having just three weeks notice to prepare, the visit was very informal by Presidential standards, Tyne Tees Television capturing the event for American networks and the footage of which is now preserved, alongside Michael’s work, by both Yorkshire Film Archive and the North East Film Archive.

Mr. Gough, a now retired educator who moved to the area in the early 1970s with his wife Linda, captured the President’s visit much like any other event he felt might have been of greater significance. “I realized that if I only made family style home movies there would be a very restricted audience so I explored subjects that would appeal to wider audiences” he said recently, speaking to reporter Wayne Madden.

“When I decided to film Jimmy Carter my expectation was that it would be a newsreel filler which might remain of interest for a couple of years. Who was to know that ‘Welcome to Washington’ would do so well and still be shown 40 years later?” Michael remembers the day itself very well, but says that there wasn’t much time to stand on ceremony off camera.

“I was working only a few minutes’ walk from Washington Old Hall. I filmed it during my 1 hour lunch break so I only had about 45 minutes free on location. The filming was a rush to get crowds before Jimmy Carter came, see him at the Hall, then rush away before he planted a tree on the green. There was no planning at all. I simple [sic] responded to what was happening and tried to get enough pictures to tell the story. It was all a bit too rushed to feel any particular emotion or recognize the historical significance.”

President Carter visited the city as part of his tour of the North East, taking a tour of Corning Ltd glass works accompanied by then British Prime Minister James Callaghan. The centre, which was originally part of Sunderland Glass Works, was bought out by the American Corning in 1973 and closed its doors in 2007. Corning in America has worked exclusively with Steve Jobs since 2006 and are perhaps most famous for providing the hardware glass which encases the iPhone.

President Carter arrived in the region when Air Force One officially landed in Newcastle Airport at just after 9:30am on 6th May. As part of his visit to Sunderland, his Presidential motorcade traveled over the Wearmouth Bridge, cheered by people lining the route. Seated in a Daimler car he was formally greeted upon his arrival in the city by the then Mayor of Sunderland, Charles Slater as well as Fred Willey, then MP for Sunderland North, Gordon Eagier, then MP for Sunderland South and other distinguished guests.

President Carter also took time to visit Washington, particularly Washington Old Hall, where he laid a tree sapling alongside Prime Minister Callaghan. The Old Hall is the ancestral home of George Washington, first known as the “de Wessyngtons”, who settled there from 1180AD. One of the smallest buildings in the possession of the National Trust, it is from a member of the family in the thirteenth century that departed Durham, from whom President Washington could trace his lineage. It is also one of the reasons why Sunderland City and Washington USA signed a unique ‘Friendship Agreement’ in 2006 leading to the establishment of Sunderland Shorts Film Festival.

The Washington coat of arms has been said to have inspired the flag of the United States. An example of the Washington coat of arms or shield can be seen in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral. Holding a special ceremony of American Independence every year, the building is often overlooked by tourists in the region, an H-shaped manor house in the heart of Washington village.

Indeed, it is this friendship and jovial attitude which filmmaker Michael Gough remembers most clearly from the day itself, a parallel on how things have changed in the intervening years regarding visits from such a high profile head of state. “I remember being amused by the intended anonymity of the American security guards who stood out like sore thumbs as they wore hearing aids and secretly talked up their sleeves.”

Mr. Carter made a second, far less public, visit to the region in 1987 by which time he had left Presidential office. In 2013 he sent a letter of thanks to Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes after Mr. Forbes had returned to him a framed photo taken on his original visit. Speaking directly to our reporter Cllr Forbes said: “Newcastle has great memories of President Carter’s visit”. “As a result of it our city was twinned with Atlanta – a great transatlantic friendship which has remained strong for the last 40 years. I took a photograph of the event with me on a recent visit to Atlanta, which the mayor’s office arranged to be presented to President Carter.”

The former President, who turned 93 in October, is still very much active in public life and was seen attending President Donald J Trump’s inauguration ceremony earlier this year. This is despite the nonagenarian recently informing an audience he had voted for Bernie Sanders.

At a talk on human rights issues, Mr. Carter went on to say “dissatisfaction with the existing system of politics” resulted in President Trump’s election. “People were willing just to take a chance and to abandon democracy and what we knew about its basic principles and try something new, no matter what it was,” he added.

In Feb 2017 Sunderland AFC Manager David Moyes issued Donald Trump an invitation to come and meet the team ahead of their mid season trip to New York. “If Donald Trump wants to come and see the boys, he’s very welcome,” Moyes is quoted as telling The Express. In a four day bonding session the team were photographed jogging around Central Park and being put through their paces on several exercise routines.

It is not believed that Mr. Trump was aware of or was able to respond formally to Mr. Moyes invitation. When our office contacted the Office for Presidential Correspondence on the matter we were unsuccessful in receiving a response.