Category Archives: Reviews

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

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.

Wonderlands Expo 2017

Fans of graphic novels were in their element recently with the return of the ever popular ‘Wonderlands’ Expo to Sunderland. Now in its third year, this free celebratory event was held at City Space, Sunderland University, and paid tribute to the comic in all its forms, with a wide variety of workshops, panels, stalls and talks.

Ordinarily home to the Sunderland City Predators, a converted basketball court was the stage for a variety of stalls, featuring work from a plethora of talented national creators and designers. Artists like Track 11 Design, Drew X and Castle Rock’s Bob Turner were on hand to provide caricatures and commissions as well as examples of their latest work. Others, such as Alan Henderson’s The Penned Guin, provided a humorous example of parody and design with selections from previously established catalogues.

Guests of honor gave talks throughout the day, with a particular fan favorite being Liverpool born John Higgins, colorist on Watchmen; the seminal series from DC Comics written by Alan Moore and later a major motion picture directed by Zack Snyder. “We can’t believe how friendly people are” John said, “The Northern friendship is just magic. I think the thing I enjoy most about it is that you get to meet the fans. 90% of the time we spend at home is in a darkened room drawing, so to actually get out and meet fans is just so important and the fact that the University is presenting it in such a considered way we can give a bit back about how we created the characters and share that knowledge is fantastic”.

In a time where more and more graphic novels are making that leap to the big screen, John discussed the Watchmen adaptation: “I loved it. It was so close to what I’d like to see on screen. For me it worked on so many different levels. The fact that they actually got a tint of my colour in it, even though it was a completely different medium they had a tinted cast to represent my input, I thought it was so adventurous and definitely brought in new fans”

The events strong foot fall was just one indicator of its popularity and continued success. Organizer Hannah Matterson, Events and Development Coordinator for MAC Trust, said: “We’re thrilled that Wonderlands [is] back for a third year. We’ve worked hard to make sure the event stays free and we’ve been awarded money from Arts Council England to help support the event.”

Providing an introduction for younger people, ‘The Wonderlands Anthology’ was a brand new comic book available for free – a collaboration between pupils at Farrington Community Academy and St Aidan’s Catholic Academy in Sunderland – where students contributed their own short strips for inclusion and then collected their published work at the event. It was another reminder that Wonderlands catered for all ages and exposures.

Beano illustrator Nigel Auchterlounie travelled from Whitley Bay, on hand to make a rare public appearance at Wonderlands showcasing works like ‘Bunny Girl and Pig Boy’ and leading an informal design workshop. “It’s great here, I’ve never been before” he remarked, “I think events like these are important in widening culture, showing another medium, there are so many other ways to tell a story than television – like in comic books”.

Bob Turner of Castle Rock, who travelled from Edinburgh to host his stall, said that comic books are about looking at how stories are composed. His latest project, DTH, follows a non uniformed narrative, as he explained: “It’s about looking at how stories are constructed, for me the emphasis with Castle Rock is about producing something with that didactic element. It’s entertaining but there’s something interesting there, I want to encourage people to look into something themselves.

I think there are rules people follow in comic books whereas I look for the unusual pass through in design and narrative. Comics for me, have something you can’t do in cinema, you can’t do in other mediums. They bring a sense of creativity and expression”

Other attendees to the convention used comics in more serious, yet still entertaining light. Comics vs. Cancer are an innovative forum in which Scottish writer Gordon Robertson used the medium to talk about taking a stand against cancer. “I was diagnosed with cancer” said Gordon, “I wanted to write a blog about it. But there’s so many great cancer blogs out there, things that are heart rendering.

I didn’t have that bad of an experience [with cancer] so I felt I couldn’t do that…I created a comic called ‘Arse Cancer’ and that’s where it went. I taught we could use it to raise money for charity. I had bowel cancer, my first wife died from breast cancer and my current wife has also had breast cancer. Humor is a great way of getting things across we wouldn’t normally discuss, so if it helps people recognize symptoms it could save lives and make a real difference.”

Wonderlands ended on a high, being a positive event for Sunderland, encouraging people to expand their minds, get to know a little bit more about graphic novels and share similar interests. A resounding success for the region.

Record Store Day 2017

They say old habits die hard. Vinyl, once considered an antiquated format for music consumption, has made an astonishing revival in the past decade to dominate shop shelves and storefront windows; everywhere from Urban Outfitter’s to Sainsbury’s is selling copious amounts of plastic.

But there’s one special day on the calendar no Vinyl enthusiast could have afforded to miss, with the regions premier Independent stores celebrating the tenth anniversary of ‘Record Store Day’ on April 22nd. Shop’s like Hot Rats and Pop Recs are home away from home for many loyal music fans throughout the year, with this special day being their chance to come together and celebrate shared passions.

The event, first begun in the US, is hailed by many as the force behind the Vinyl revival and sees independent record stores selling local fans exclusive releases created especially for the day.

For many years Hot Rats was Wearside’s only independent record shop and still keeps patrons awash with an eclectic mix. Proprietor Marty Yule is no stranger to the realities of Vinyl, being a former member of Punk band The Toy Dolls and beginning the store almost 25 years ago as initially something to do in-between tours.

“Originally the day was to encourage people to pop down to your local independent record shop and perhaps spend a couple of quid at a time when shops were closing at the rate of one a week. Now it’s pretty good business for both the shops AND the suppliers / distributors.” says Marty, “It’s become pretty important, it’s certainly the busiest day of the year. More importantly it seems to get more people into vinyl every year and there’s plenty of press, thanks to ERA, the body that looks after the day.”

Planning and preparation for Record Store Day takes place long before the morning of the event itself. Beatdown Records in Newcastle, themselves a regional favorite amongst music fans, are hard at work in the days approaching.

Store Manager, Nick Wrightson, said: “A lot of blood sweat and tears goes into preparing for the day actually, it’s a logistical nightmare trying to make sure you’ve got the space to get it all in, the knowledge to know what will sell and what won’t. It’s a bit of a juggling act but it’s also a lot of fun.

One of the major contributors for the continued and increased interest in Vinyl is due to the ambitions of younger collectors, who are eager to make up for lost time and add as many pieces as possible, especially those students from across the UK who spend their Education in Sunderland. Grace Tonkinson, of Heaton Manor Sixth Form, and Lilly Thompson, of St Anthony’s Girl’s School in Sunderland found themselves perusing Vinyl on the day but for slightly different reasons. “We’re walking around taking photo’s for Grace’s art” Lilly explained, as best friend Grace clarified that “it’s to do with my A Level Art project, I’m doing a theme on human form and in different environments. I thought this was a good environment to use because it showcases peoples personalities so well, enjoying music.” And there’s certainly plenty of that.

Michael McKnight, Manager of Pop Recs in Sunderland, looks forward to the day and the live music in store, saying: “It’s always great to remind people that we’re here, so I guess it’s a nice excuse for a bit of a party. We have the Cornshed Sisters, This Little Bird and Chelsea Lynch playing on the evening. I’m really looking forward to that.”

And speaking of performers, there was at least one on hand to pick up Vinyl in Sunderland from the moment the store opened its doors early that morning. The euphonious Frankie of Frankie & The Heartstrings took a moment out of his busy schedule to speak with me about Record Store Day, saying that “I think it’s good, I came in today, no idea what the guys were selling and picked up this ‘Bollywood The Psychedelic Years’; which you probably wouldn’t find on a usual day in a record store, so I think it’s a good cause. I think that it’s great that it highlights the plight of the record store…it’s great that it’s celebrated in mass media.”

Although still considered ‘the new guy in the band’, Pop Recs has made a lasting impression across all generations in Sunderland, first opening their store in June 2013 and then launching an incredible Kickstarter campaign in 2015 when the store was forced to close temporarily and relocate. That project saw 642 backers pledge £14,292 and reaffirmed both Pop Recs importance to the region as well as their continued influence among the positivity of inspiring people through enjoyable music.

This year’s Record Store Day provided many treats for fans. One particular favorite was a limited reissue of The Beatles 1967 7” ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ backed with ‘Penny Lane’. The single was originally released to gap the bridge between the bands albums Revolver and it’s follow up, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 1st. “You’re never going to be left with a Beatles album or a Bowie album” Nick tells me, proving classic artists are still as popular with punters today as they’ve always been.

Customer Maxine Wilson was queuing early, her shopping bag to hand and a list filled with relatives and friends choices, those who were unprepared to brave the Sunderland morning themselves. “I queued with a friend two years ago in London” she explains, “it was a bit hectic cause we were out overnight but I got everything I wanted and I was hooked.”

Mistaken for thinking Maxine is a seasoned spin master, she tells me that actually “I take them to my Dad’s because I haven’t got a vinyl player yet, I’m saving up to get a decent one…but I’m going to Vegas this year to get married so I might have to put it back.” Maxine confesses further she’s spent at least £100 on vinyl this month, with no player in sight, proving the records themselves might be more tempting than the ability to hear them.

There has been criticism, given such high profile re-releases, that many exploit the nature of the day, collecting limited items to resell them at profit at online auction sites. This in turn prevents more genuine collectors getting these items at Record Store Day prices.

“If the company’s release interesting stuff fans and collectors will come and buy it. You of course get a percentage of eBay ‘flippers’, but thankfully they seem to be getting less” says Marty, with Michael adding that “I’d guess you’d have to be a mad collector as the records are so expensive. I only ever buy vinyl that I want to listen too”

But the morning’s queue was headed by the purist of the pure, with local man Philip Carrington having the distinction of taking first at the door of Hot Rats. “I was here at five…” Phillip tells me with bloodshot eyes, his tired complexion aside, he’s proud of the achievement, “I’m after the dead or alive…last year was my first one, it’s on the build, the more people and record companies get involved the better it gets”. Gary Weeks, second in the queue, is tight lipped about what he’s looking for but does tell me about a friend of his queuing in Brighton. Apparently he turned up at 2am and was only fourth.

Bronze Medal in the Hot Rats queue goes to Anthony E, his coat pulled against the rain, the heavens opening for a shower as we speak. He’s queued a few years now and it doesn’t seem the weather’s improved, but he sports an optimistic smile and tells me that “I’ve supported the football team all these years so I might as well support my local record store” and then gives Marty a wave as he arrives to open up.

At its heart, Record Store Day is a celebration of everything positive about the impact of good music and comradeship in collecting. It’s brought money to Sunderland this morning and it’s brought a crowd, soon gathering attention from onlookers, to part with their hard earned for records. Whether we celebrate its twentieth or thirtieth anniversary is unclear, but regardless, there’s no denying the positive influence it has had on the landscape of music across the region.

As we ended the celebrations on the day itself, we were given some parting words of wisdom about safely storing and caring for those treasured purchases, so that we might be able to enjoy them for many years to come.

“It’s always worth putting your LP’s in poly lined anti-static inners. Store them upright and away from any heat sources. NEVER touch the vinyl surface with your fingers, hold by the edge and label.” Marty says: “If at all possible don’t play them on them horrible ‘dancette’ things. You need to spend a few hundred pounds on an amp, speakers and deck.” Nick agrees with this, saying that “store it vertically, keep it clean, don’t buy one of those cheap record grinders if you can help it but most of all play them and enjoy them, they do no good sitting on a shelf not being touched”.

A note upon which we are all perhaps agreed then, with Michael adding simply that “As long as people are listening to them, I’m happy”