Monday, 30 December 2013

Warwick Davis was paid £60 a day for Star Wars role



In a recent interview Warwick Davis revealed he was paid £60 a day to appear in Star Wars.

The actor was only 11 years old when he won the part of Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi.

The break came after his grandmother heard a radio commercial appealing for small people to audition for the third Star Wars movie.

Davis, who co-manages the world's biggest talent agency for performers of restricted growth, told The Telegraph he was paid £60 a day for the role, but that money 'didn't even enter his head.'

He added: "I was paid £60 a day for being able to live out my dream.

"My mum and dad were my agents and we were dealing with Lucasfilm, a very respectable company, so if there was any negotiating to be done, I was looked after properly.

"Looking back, £60 was an absolute fortune, but it wasn’t as important as the thrill of meeting Luke Skywalker. Money didn’t even enter my head, as I’d have done it without being paid."

Saturday, 28 December 2013

R2-D2 announces official Star Wars Tumblr



The force is strong with Tumblr!

R2-D2 announced the official launch of Star Wars on the social media site. This is only weeks after Disney launched an official Instagram account.

A statement on the site reads: "Artoo is pleased to announce the launch of our official Tumblr!"

"We promise there won’t be any cat videos… except maybe a Nexu or two."

Star Wars Episode 7 director JJ Abrams recently spoke about the decision to delay the film’s release date back from summer 2015 to December 18, 2015.

JJ Abrams told MTV: "Before I even came on to the project they were talking about 2015," he explained.

"And they made this announcement very early on, which I understand. But it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the reality of where anything was creatively.

Abrams added: "A release date is great, but you have to release something great. To me, the new release date is a huge improvement."

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Remakes and reboots: is Hollywood in decline?



A sequel discussion between John Hood and Andrew Lewin

After understandably taking a couple of months to lie back and bask in the triumph of our superlative first blogging collaboration "A brave new (media) world".

Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin and I eventually turned our thoughts to ideas for a suitably epic follow-up topic on which to focus on next. And inevitably, things screeched to a halt as we encountered that perennial 'difficult second album' headache.

Any new topic had to be a subject of suitable importance to be able to follow-up our discussion of the future of media in a digital age, while also being something fresh and different so that it didn't feel like a tired retread of our first offering - but at the same time not be so disconcertingly different from the original post so as to put people off who enjoyed our maiden joint voyage. Not too hot, not too cold: how to find this Goldilocks topic for our efforts? No wonder sequels are so difficult to pull off successfully!

And yet one look at the Box Office Top Ten tells you that it doesn't stop studios from trying sequels. All the time, in fact. These days, reading aloud from the list of film titles sounds more like someone intoning the latest football scores. Almost everything seems to be a sequel or a follow-up or a prequel or a series or a franchise or a reboot or a remake. When something wholly new and original actually does show up in the cinemas it doesn't seem to stand a chance against these marketing behemoths. Can this really be good for creativity or for the long-time health of the industry?

Our discussion about what to do for a sequel blog post had turned into a blog discussion about sequels, and the stars had finally aligned for our new collaboration. We had our topic; now all we needed were a few thousand words and we'd have our follow-up post in the can. How hard can it be possibly be? What could possibly go wrong...?

Andrew: So John: here we are again, and here we go once more. And I suppose the big first question to ask is how you yourself personally feel about sequels, follow-ups, reboots, franchises and the like - are you for or against? Are they a good way of ensuring the audience gets a steady diet of reliable product that they know will keep them entertained? Or are they a succubus inexorably leaching out all the originality and creativity from the film industry in the 21st century?

No pressure, then. Go!

John: Obi-Wan Kenobi's disembodied voice: Use the filmic force, John!

I’m instantly reminded of a sequel discussion during the film class scene in Scream 2! There’s a heated debate suggesting sequels suck - or do they? Ironically, Scream's own post-modern sequel proves the former and fails to reprise the tension of the original movie’s first act. However, there’s much to be said for sequels…

The Empire Strikes Back (my all-time favourite film) brings melodrama and complexity to Lucas’ space opera and Aliens brilliantly reverses Alien and subverts the action genre as an anti-war movie to boot. The latter also kick-started my passion for using video cameras.

Andrew: Indeed, the question of 'are sequels any good' was a perennial discussion when I was young and the same candidates were offered up again and again as proof that they could be albeit in isolated cases: The Empire Strikes Back, Godfather 2 and Bride of Frankenstein were the most oft-cited, and then Aliens when that came along. Seems like we don't have too many new examples to add from the last 25 years of non-stop sequelising, although I'd offer Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Toy Story 2, The Dark Knight and The Bourne Supremacy as candidates for films that successfully improved on or at least equalled an already outstanding first outing.

John: Honourable mention must go to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

**Spoiler alert**

It was the first time I witnessed a beloved fictional character making the ultimate sacrifice on the silver screen. The final scene between Kirk and Spock was elegantly simple and all the more poignant for it. As the credits rolled (tears too) the audience sat in stunned silence and James Horner's score exulted.

Fast forward and it's not unknown for Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy to play back-to-back at the Hood home cinema.

Andrew: The Wrath of Khan occurred to me as well when making that initial list - it's certainly better than The Slow Motion Picture (although I have an odd liking for that flawed maiden outing…) but somehow I don't see the film as a 'sequel' per se but rather as part of a much bigger whole.

John: Sequels were taken verbatim during my formative years. The original Star Wars trilogy casts a long shadow and set my expectations for an ongoing saga.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed to engage after the thrilling Klingon battle, which is Star Trek channelling Star Wars (see Star Trek Into Darkness). Anything involving explosions and fast pacing (Mr Rush was my childhood nickname) was enough for my young, pyrotechnically-inclined, mind.

Andrew: Pretty much all young boys of that age are similarly inclined, I think!

John: Between blowing up G.I. Joe action figures and AirFix model kits with fireworks; you'd think I'd be Michael Bay's biggest fan! Incidentally, during a Special FX panel, at the official Doctor Who 50th Celebration, Danny Hargreaves outlined a penchant for 'blowing stuff up' from a young age too. An explosive career ignited by Terminator 2 (T2) and culminating in an exploding Dalek on stage...

Andrew: You can't take that Danny Hargreaves anywhere without something blowing up! Sounds terrific.

John: An audience of 4000 simultaneously jumped as the Skaro mutant met an end worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

Andrew: Of course, "Classic Who" was somewhat budget-challenged to say the least and so it was the story rather than the action or FX that made the show great. That's still true today even though the show looks great and can pull off "spectacular" with the best of them, whereas Bay's movies are a prime example of how too many blockbusters these days have reached such an ADHD crescendo that it's drowning out all of those subtle, quiet moments in films that we didn't think we appreciated as kids but actually clearly did - otherwise you and I wouldn't have such a love for something like The Empire Strikes Back as we do.

John: ADHD reaches its zenith in Michael Bay's Transformers franchise. It's as though the director has no confidence in the audience; nor his own storytelling ability (where duelling robots are concerned). I'll await Mark Kermode's review of T4: Extinction with muted interest.

Andrew: I think Kermode's lost his zeal for any more venting on the Transformers franchise. He just sighs in that "I'm not angry, I'm just terribly disappointed" sort of way.

Stepping back a bit, while Star Trek: TMP was undoubtedly too slow it was still a case that for me the thrill of seeing Star Trek on the big screen, with proper effects, just made me fall in love despite all its flaws. By the way, I trust you noticed that the director of ST:TMP was also the director of the classic original The Day The Earth Stood Still?

John: I had! Fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still on a rainy weekday in the 1980s.

Andrew: I knew that one held a special place in your heart!

John: Unlike the risible remake!

Andrew: Another black mark for sequels, reboots and remakes then, if anyone's keeping score.

Anyway, the Star Trek example shows I'm kind of implicitly leaving out of consideration the long running series that were always expected to be followed-up, so for example in the Harry Potter series the first one – The Philosopher's Stone – is by no means the strongest instalment in the run; The Two Towers is arguably the best of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and similarly Dr No is a great little low-budget film but much improved on by the likes of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and most recently the excellent Skyfall. But I'm not sure I'd consider any of them 'sequels' in the classic sense.

John: Skyfall paid spectacular homage to a 50-year legacy: bombastic lyricism.

Andrew: Bombastic? I'll grant you that a lot of the early Bonds had a certain appealing arrogant swagger, but Skyfall itself was very much an introspective look at the mythos by comparison. I loved it. 22 films in and the series is actually still getting better!

John: Thinking more along the use of shadow play counterpointed with 'splosions.

Andrew: Ahh, gotcha, good point.

There are plenty of other cases where a sequel or follow-up is 'good enough' – which is to say, it might not be a match to the original but is still perfectly okay in its own right. The second Jurassic Park film, for example, or the second (and even third) Die Hard are favourite films of mine even if they don't rise to the heights of the first of their kind. No matter – they were still worth doing.

John: Die Hard, Jaws and The Matrix aren't enhanced by sequels and should have remained one-offs! All heralded as cinematic touchstones by both critics and audiences alike.

Andrew: Can't argue with you on Jaws and The Matrix, but I'm partial to those early Die Hard sequels - but it's true that the first is a stone cold cinematic classic in a class of its own.

John: I may brave A Good Day to Die Hard on Sky Movies this Christmas.

Andrew: Don't. Seriously, just don't.

I guess the question is whether these examples are sufficient to declare the rule that 'sequels are bad' is wrong, or whether they constitute the exceptions to the rule that otherwise holds? I tend to think a sequel should only be undertaken if there is a real, strong, compelling creative reason to do it. If that reason is simply box office takings then it's almost certainly a bad idea and one that will only trash the reputation of the original.

Actually, let's reality check that for a minute: does a naff sequel tarnish its predecessor, do you think?

John: A good question and there's no definitive answer in my book!

Andrew: I think for me there is. I can't think of a single instance where a naff sequel has damaged my love for the original. The Matrix is still wonderful despite the disappointing follow-ups; Die Hard is still in my all-time top ten list despite how execrable this year's A Good Day To Die Hard was. Jaws is still sublime despite the shipwreck of Jaws 3. Star Wars: A New Hope isn't diminished by the spectre of The Phantom Menace. The Star Trek franchise even survived the abysmal fifth film, The Final Frontier.

John: The Thing prequel/remake of a remake falls into that category! It doesn't detract from John Carpenter's The Thing, nor does it add anything to the shapeshifting mythos and the effects fall short of Rob Bottin's seminal body horror wizardry.

Andrew: Agreed. It was a decent and respectful enough attempt but then seemed to lose its nerve and overall didn't know what it was trying to do.

But on the flipside, I do think a good sequel can actually enhance not only the series but possibly even the original retrospectively: the Bond series' appeal is surely partly down to its entire body of work over 50 years. The Star Wars films would be just another isolated piece of hokey SF froth without The Empire Strikes Back, which changed the game just as dramatically as Wrath of Khan and First Contact did for Star Trek.

John: First Contact was a terrific spin on Moby Dick with Die Hard and Aliens mined for good measure. The Borg Queen could have stepped out of an Alien movie and owes much to Swiss surrealist HR Giger - more nightmarish than anything witnessed in the Alien prequel Prometheus.

Andrew: There was indeed something thrillingly horrific about First Contact on so many levels. I hadn't connected the Borg Queen with Giger before, but it's a good comparison.

John: Thank you, kindly. Be sure to checkout HR Giger's Necronomicon if you haven't had a chance. A tome brimming with compelling conceptual art and biomechanical erotica.

Andrew: Sequels, prequels, follow-ups and series aside, how do we feel about remakes? Or as it seems we must call them these days, reboots?

John: Aside from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) reboot, the most satisfying (for me) has occurred on console and PC (sorry if this is cheating a bit by bringing video games into the equation and leaving you out in the cold, Andrew!). Namely this year’s Tomb Raider, which adroitly remakes The Descent with a sprinkling of The Hunger Games and reinvents Lara Croft’s origin story in the process. Rarely have I cared so deeply about a game’s central protagonist. A direct sequel is in the making.

Andrew: Yes, I'm afraid I have absolutely nothing of value to input on PC and console side – you're very much the expert here in that field! Although the original Tomb Raider was the very first (and possibly only) game I've ever played to a finish, so I was quite a fan of old Lara. Didn't last long into the second, though - I couldn't get the same enthusiasm for it.

John: I'll quickly chime in with another video game mention. Grand Theft Auto 5 satirises the studio system's obsession with green screen and remakes during a radio show, which players can listen to as they drive around Los Santos. A sentiment echoed by Radio Times critic Barry Norman who suggests modern films rely too heavily on special effects, sequels and remakes.

Andrew: Barry Norman speaks for me also, as he has done for the better part of three decades.

John: Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man was an enjoyable, if rushed, reboot. However, there’s the spectre of unused movie rights reverting back to Marvel and the Web-slinger graduating over at Disney - perhaps in the midst of Avengers 3? Sony shouldn't release endless Spider-Man movies simply because of contractual obligations and shareholder value.

Andrew: I guess the suggestion that a movie – reboot or otherwise - is being done purely for business imperatives such as retaining the commercial rights is an example of the sort of crushing non-creative reason for doing a movie that is just doomed to failure. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man I don't think I'd call the 2012 movie a disaster by any means - but it just seemed terribly pointless, to basically make the same film done ten years previously and do so little to change it other than to allow Andrew Garfield to stamp his mark on the central role. Do people really have such short term memories we can just make the same film every few years with so little originality? Are cinema-goers really so unwilling to look at 'old' films even ones that are just ten years in the past? That reboot really ticked me off because of that.

The whole 'reboot' fad might be approaching the end of the road anyway. If Hasbro think that they can reboot the Transformers series by keeping on Michael Bay doing his same old tired schtick then I really think that the word 'reboot' might have lost all sense of meaning.

John: Any thoughts on the RoboCop reboot/remake? The trailer suggests a better movie than most might have feared. Ironically, Irvin Kershner was unable to distil the alchemy of The Empire Strikes Back when directing the predictably titled RoboCop 2. Only memorable due to a member of the cinema audience laughing, hysterically, whenever someone got shot and another kept disappearing with a mysterious white plastic bag. I'm laughing at the memory of it.

Andrew: Wow, seems you got a better deal and more enjoyment out of the sequel than most people did!

John: Sometimes what's happening off-screen is more compelling with a vivid imagination.

Andrew: Sounds like it! No, I have no thoughts about the coming RoboCop reboot - I genuinely do hope it's better than originally feared, but overall the response that occurs to be is once again simply: "Why?"

John: What about the Blade Runner II announcement? Do you think there's more to tell in terms of Deckard's story or is Sir Ridley Scott mistaken to return to the sci-fi genre so soon after the divisive Prometheus?

Andrew: I think Ridley Scott is such a good director that anything he does is always genuinely interesting and never cliched or pointless - look at Prometheus for example, which very much avoided being another tired Alien retread (although whether it actually works as a film or not is another matter entirely). If he's doing it then I guess he's confident that there's still something new worth mining there. I have cautious optimism.

John: Our readers maybe interested to Google the alleged early script treatment for Prometheus, which culminates in the Star Beast (the original title for Alien). Infinitely more ambitious than the mishmash that ended up on screen and would have stretched to two prequels.

Andrew: Prometheus 2 and 3, shooting back to back and coming to a screen near you shortly...

John: Will the audience care?

Andrew: It'll be interesting to see!

Your mention of Blade Runner II and especially "the predictably titled RoboCop 2" is interesting though and chimes with the mention in our intro of the top ten box office sounding like the football scores. Exactly when did it become standard to start numbering films in the title? It feels old fashioned - and lots of films like the Star Trek franchise and Nolan's Batman films pointedly refused to use numbers.

But it's actually quite a relatively recent approach. In the 30s, the sequels to Frankenstein weren't Frankenstein 2 and 3 but Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Offhand I can't think of anything before the 70s that used numbers - Godfather 2 might be the first, and then later there was the likes of French Connection 2, Superman 2, Jaws 2 and it became standard to use the numbering. I guess someone in marketing came up with it as a way of ensuring people kept coming to the next entry but it's not only horribly crass it also backfires because people start saying "I'm not seeing Lethal Weapon 3 because I haven't seen 1 and 2".

John: The move to more 'meaningful' titles such as Into Darkness and The Dark Knight Rises lends itself to a more literary approach and is most welcome. Of course I view cinema with the same reverence as other artistic mediums. Well, I need to justify my BA (Hons) somehow.

Andrew: Quite right, too! It was really the one genuinely new art form to really come to flower in the 20th century (I'm reserving video games to be the uniquely new art form of the 21st century, by the way.)

Not sure how much the change in approach to titles really achieves 'a more literary approach' however, much the filmmakers would like us to believe it. As we both know very well, it's not even a new idea: it's how the studio B-movie series (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, The Falcon, ...) were done in the 30s and 40s. I suppose the idea of 'chapters' feels even more literary, yet that was part of the Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers which of course is why Star Wars picked up that style and ran with it (although strangely the Indiana Jones series kind of missed out.)

Since I'm invoking seriously old classic films here - are there any big, classic movies from that era that you think should be remade? Films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Gone With The Wind, Vertigo ... ?

John: Any attempt to remake those movies would be an indulgent folly at best! What fresh ideas could a retelling bring to the story? I'm aghast at the news of The Shining remake.

Andrew: Well, I know Stephen King hated what Kubrick did to his story with the original film, so I suspect a little author-led intervention is involved here to do it again and get it 'right'. But to be honest, I'm not sure the author is always (or even usually) right about these things - sometimes it takes a different eye to come up with the perfect result in a different medium even if it's not what the author intended. But like you, I'm not keen on the idea of remaking The Shining: even if it does bring something new to the part, it will always be in the original's shadow and unfavourably compared come what may.

Of course, remakes don't have to be bad news. Theatres have been 'remaking' Shakespeare stories on a regular basis for four hundred years; and the classic versions of The Maltese Falcon and The Wizard of Oz, for example, were not the first films of the source books. And in fact is it even right to refer to something which is a different adaptation of the same source novel as a 'remake' in the first place?

John: What did you make of Disney's prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful? I've yet to sample its frothy 3-dimensional delights on a newly won 47" LG Smart 3D TV from Sky Movies.

Andrew: Oh, just flaunt your new prize before us less fortunate mortals, why don't you! Actually I suspect that I'd recoil from the idea of letting a 3D TV in the front door...

John: So much for subliminal product placement.

Andrew: What? (Stops looking online at prices of 3D flatscreens.)

I have to confess I've not seen Oz: The Great and Powerful but at least it's not a remake of the 1939 film. My first thought was actually of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where director David Fincher bristled whenever anyone referred to his film as a "remake' of the Swedish version and insisted it was no such thing, but a brand-new, original adaptation in and of its own right. I actually had some sympathy with that - so is there even any sense to labelling one an original and the other a remake in this case?

John: Semantics? Actresses Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) and Rooney Mara (The Social Network) imbued Lisbeth Salander with individuality. I'm loathe to choose one performance over the other as both are brilliant character studies. The spectre of James Bond haunted Daniel Craig's inferior portrayal of Mikael Blomkvist. I expected him to brandish a Walther PPK and jump into a fully-loaded BMW (seemingly the car of choice for Fincher's adaptation) to chase down the antagonist.

What about remakes that surpass the originals? John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly transcend their sources and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers inspired nightmares for weeks after I clandestinely watched it on late night BBC 2.

Andrew: Great point - The Fly and The Thing are both perfect examples of remakes that can be better than the original. I guess you can argue that the originals in these cases were cheap inferior B-movies with plenty of room for improvement, but let's not forget that The Thing from Another World was co-directed (uncredited) by none other than Howard Hawks - one of the best American directors in the history of cinema - so to come up with something so vastly better is quite a feather in Carpenter's cap. Perhaps his single best work as a director?

John: The lack of resolution is audacious and something I'd like to see more in mainstream movies.

Almost overlooked Alien in the above list! Take John Carpenter's Dark Star, remove the humour and add a heavy dose of Swiss surrealism!

Andrew: Alien as a remake of Dark Star? Maybe more of a sibling relationship than a remake I think. If Alien is anything, it's the old 'psycho killer in a haunted house at night' reinvented for the science-fiction age.

In the case of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kaufman's version is so entirely different on just about every level that it too is hard to consider a remake - perhaps it's more accurately simply an appropriation of the same title. In this case, I'll take the original over the 70s version, but that's not to say that the latter isn't also outstanding on its own merits. Great new Blu-ray release of the 70s film just came out from Arrow, by the way.

I was going to say that I hope they don't remake Forbidden Planet - one of my all time favourites. One's been mooted for years but fortunately never happened. But then, arguably Gene Roddenberry got there first and repurposed the basics with a little TV series that they aired in the 60s that didn't do so bad.

John: Brace yourself for Forbidden Planet the IMAX 3D Experience!

Andrew: Urgh. Just the very thought of it makes me feel ill. Are there really no new ideas left in the world?

John: Do you feel it’s all a cash-in by a studio system starved of ideas and looking to the aisles of Toys 'R' Us for inspiration? I’m looking at the migraine-inducing Battleship, which seemingly spliced together unused footage from JJ Abrams and Michael Bay movies.

Andrew: Battleship the game is another Hasbro property, right?

John: Yes! There's talk of Risk being given the Hollywood treatment too. Maybe Hungry Hippos could be a satire on studio execs with eyes only for profit?

Andrew: Hahah! Very good! Although I'm not sure we should print that - they might get an idea and start filming next week and then it would be all our fault!

John: A bonafide blockbuster and there should be a tie-in app too!!!

Andrew: Maybe they were going for a 'house style' with Battleship for their stable of films? More likely it's a case of Hasbro wanting to exploit an existing franchise like a board game or toy range and treating a film like it has no other purpose than to be a big advertising hoarding for their merchandising.

John: By the time Return of the Jedi hit cinema screens, many of us were as excited about the merchandise as the movie itself! I owned a collection of action figures and accessories months before seeing Speeder Bike chases and Darth Vader unmasked.

Andrew: I was a few years ahead of you in age, so I, too, devoured the Star Wars merchandise - in my case, as soon as it appeared after the first movie. George Lucas really did incredibly well keeping those rights to himself. I do worry that he might have inadvertently poisoned the film industry with this innovation though - there are some films (like Cars which begat Cars 2 which begat Planes) which seem to only exist because they're huge hits in retail even if the films themselves spiral downwards in quality.

John: Diluting the brand in the process? Pixar is in the midst of a midlife crisis and only serves the insatiable merchandise machine. The last movie from Pixar I cared for was Up. A far cry from the nascent creativity born out of Lucasfilm (itself now owned by Disney) and fostered by Steve Jobs after his ousting from Apple. We know how that story ends.

Andrew: The decline in Pixar has been really quite astounding. I never expected the spark to go out so soon after the merger with Disney and of course the passing of Jobs. Makes you wonder just how big a role the Apple supremo played in the films' creation process that it should all go so wrong so quickly after he left us.

John: Pixar was synonymous with story first, second and third. Vividly recall attending an advanced screening of Toy Story and was in awe of what the pixel-pushing artisans had accomplished. For a decade Pixar overshadowed distributor Disney with superlative fare. Yes, there was merchandise, but it was subordinate and considered as far as such things can be.

Andrew: Truly did. And as you say, the secret was story first, second and third. Once again it comes down to the film having a proper creative purpose in existing other than on the corporate balance sheets. The more depressing aspect is that increasingly audiences don't seem to notice or care when that doesn't happen and they're served sub-standard fare; it's like too many of us no longer mind if we walk into a top class restaurant for a hundred quid meal and it comes to us on a plate still in the McDonald's Happy Meal box.

John: Excellent use of metaphor and a damning indictment, Andrew! I'm squeamish paying more than £6 (a Netflix monthly subscription) to see a movie at the cinema; the only exception is Gravity in IMAX 3D, which critics are lauding as an Oscar-worthy technological tour de force underpinned by emotional resonance with standout performances from Sandra Bullock. Swoon. And George Clooney. Not something you read everyday in the Hollywood trades.

Andrew: I really liked Gravity. It looked totally stunning and was a totally immersive experience. Smart, intelligent sci-fi, a new generation's 2001. And despite the fact that there isn't much of a story in the traditional sense, you're right that Bullock especially and Clooney too both give outstanding performance in the middle of all this technical virtuosity. I didn't even resent the 3D this time, which for me is saying a lot. But these days it has to be special to get me to see it at the cinema - films are a tenner here, more for 3D or IMAX, and you can buy the DVD a few months later for that.

John: A tenner for the privilege of seeing a movie, which may or may not pass projection muster? Wasn't World War Z the first mainstream movie to offer a digital download - as a premium ticket option - day-and-date with the Blu-ray disc/DVD release?

Andrew: Lots of films - even the biggest - are coming out on iTunes or streaming even before the DVD/Blu-ray release these days. The innovation I find really interesting is the smaller indie films like A Field In England that are coming out on all media on the first day of their theatrical release, allowing the audience to decide exactly how they want to consume it. It is, I think, the way of the future - although I can't decide on what the end effect of that will be. Will it provoke more remake/sequel/franchise blockbusters or will it instead allow a wider range of more innovative and creative projects to get made? At the moment all we have to compare is the rise of the made-for-streaming TV productions like Kevin Spacey's House of Cards which seem to suggest that it's amenable to new and daring projects than otherwise would never have been made.

John: Kevin Spacey said it best: Story. I don't mind how it's consumed: from iPhone to IMAX.

Andrew: I think we're nearing a consensus on that, for sure.

When it comes to bad reasons for making a movie, here's a best case/worst case example: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was on the face of it a lamentable example of a film existing purely to promote a theme park ride. Only, a funny thing happened on the way to the box office: the project fell into the hands of a team that actually made not just an okay film out of it, but a really rather excellent one. Naturally that warmed the cockles of the corporate accountants' hearts and they immediately ordered up more, but look at the leaden messes they got served up when it just became about maximising the revenue stream. What had started as a bit of a fun subversion of corporate advertising quickly lost its heart and soul thereafter. (Although this would also be another case of dire sequels not diminishing my love for the original, incidentally.)

But all that said – what is it that makes the Marvel franchise succeed where even the Mighty Mouse House falters? How are they being able to keep the quality up from Iron Man, Thor and Captain America through to The Avengers (and now S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV, although that seems to be struggling more than I would have expected) and sustain that level of creative and commercial success on what should be just another cash-in on the comic and toy merchandising?

John: Marvel deftly mapped out Phase I, II and III with an Avengers movie as the culmination of each act. It's also a rare example of the studio system co-ordinating between distribution partners from Disney (Marvel's owner) to Paramount: everyone shares prime-billing and a slice of the fiscal action. Warner Brothers has failed to grab a similar audience mindshare in the wake of The Dark Knight Trilogy. There's a palpable sense of risk-aversion at the studio that gave us the gangster genre.

Andrew: By contrast, it's odd just how much DC really seems to struggle to make its formidable stable of iconic characters flourish outside the comics. You'd think they'd be in pole position, but while they have occasional breakthroughs - Superman in the 70s, Batman at the end of the 80s, Smallville on TV, Batman again with Nolan's Dark Knight - they seem to be unable to sustain or build on the success and it simply goes nowhere. Arrow is the current big hope, but it seems to me that they're resorting to simply copying Marvel's playbook.

John: Well, DC continues to prosper on television with award-winning animated series! Since Batman: The Animated Series (the definitive incarnation and introduced 'Dark Deco' to the collective consciousness), the "Timm-verse" (as it is known) has expanded and prospered. Only recently I stumbled across the brilliant Young Justice on Amazon LOVEFiLM Instant. Back to a silver linings playbook (couldn't resist a reference to Jennifer Lawrence).

Andrew: You and your Jennifer Lawrence obsession! But you're right, I had totally overlooked the animated side of things where DC really has had better fortunes thanks to being the brave and the bold and moreover creatively daring.

Marvel's approach to live action is incredibly well mapped out. What they've done is truly innovative: they've treated the films as a sort of multi-comic book series and plotted the development just as they would a graphic novel mini-series. In other words it's creative-led rather than the accountants coming along and saying "We'll have one with Daredevil, then if that works we'll try out something with the Hulk, and then if that makes money we'll give the Fantastic Four a go..." which of course is what they did at the start - to frankly uneven success.

John: The mishmash of output was no indicator of what was to come. Beginning with the revelatory Iron Man...

Andrew: A great film, I just rewatched that one the other weekend and it was even better than I remembered it.

The other thing Marvel has done is get true auteurs to helm the films. Jon Favreau for the Iron Man films, Kenneth Branagh for the first Thor, and of course Joss Whedon for the Avengers. Big names, and not necessarily just big geeks, but talents ideally suited to the type of film being made. I'm very impressed by the way they've approached the entire project, how it puts the artistic and creative first at every step of the way, and I'm happy to see them rake in the cash as a result. It's a franchise (or series, or sequels, whatever we're calling them) that's founded on creative endeavour that just happens to make a pile of cash in the process.

But is the Marvel approach the future, though - or just a one-off anomaly?

John: This could be anomaly on a grand scale: a capricious alignment of the stars within the vertically integrated firmament. Especially given Disney's insatiable acquisition trail. Why bother spending money developing new intellectual properties (IPs) when there are existing ones ripe for commercial exploitation.

Andrew: "Vertically integrated" says it all, doesn't it - it's all down to economics these days and it's all become as formulaic as a car production line. But who are we kidding, it always was - hence we refer to show business and the film industry, it's always been a money-making endeavour first and foremost - works of art, should they appear, are just a happy accident.

John: Disney has announced an exclusive distribution deal with Netflix, which will witness new Marvel superhero franchises exclusively on the platform from 2015. Hopefully these new offerings will redeem the studio in the wake of the lacklustre Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Andrew: So are we kidding ourselves and developing a grass-is-always-greener/rose-tinted-glasses view of this? Were things any different or better in the so-called golden age, or has it always been this way?

John: There's an inherent ideological tension when any art form meets commerce and Hollywood will continue to rise and fall as cultural trends shift. The biggest issue the studio system has will be the distribution of content, which we've debated, at length, previously. Maybe in a few years we'll be writing about a merged Apple Disney Netflix empire…

Andrew: I wouldn't be at all surprised about that, certainly. As for an inherent problem when art meets commerce, does that mean we are being a bit blinkered about the golden era? Hollywood was pretty much the Gold Rush of the 20th century as filmmakers charged to the west coast to get a slice of the action; and we've never seen any 'art form' as mechanised and industrialised as the era of the studio system in the 20s, 30s and 40s - and yet they managed to produce many of the all-time classics.

If I were to try and paint a difference between that era and today, I'd suggest that maybe it's one of ambition and courage. Back then, everything seemed possible and the big studios had the profits they needed from their vast output of movies that allowed them to take more daring chances with a small proportion of them. These days, however, every film is so big and expensive that a single one could be the Heaven's Gate that bankrupts the studio concerned, making everyone nervous, afraid and playing safe - which means ending up with a load of look-a-like middle-of-the road pap controlled by the accountants rather than the director. And the safest such fare of all is the "We'll have another one of those," or "Trade off the nostalgia by remaking another of this."

It's a shame, however inevitable it might be. It was brought home to me the other week during the 50th anniversary celebrations for Doctor Who, when someone pointed out that a show using that pitch wouldn't have a hope in hell of getting commissioned today. And look what we would have missed out on…

John: A sobering thought and our paths may never have crossed had it not been for a mutual interest in the good Doctor's adventures!

As we draw this discussion to a close, Hollywood has announced a new big screen Terminator reboot to be accompanied by a television series! I was fond of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles S1. And Lucasfilm is considering an Indiana Jones reboot at Disney alongside yearly Star Wars movie releases between each chapter of the new trilogy. How long before Marvel vs. Star Wars hits cinema screens?

Andrew: So still more reboots/remakes/TV spin-offs of stalled movie franchises by cribbing from the Marvel 'how-to' playbook. It's just so wretchedly predictable. Honestly, I can't think of anything that sums up my frustration and disappointment at the state of the entertainment industry better than the Terminator announcement in particular.

It all makes me really value and appreciate truly original visions like Gravity, and I'm pleased such films get the success and recognition that they deserve. But I have to admit, I'm certainly not immune to catching a case of sequelitus every now and then - I'm very much looking forward to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug despite how a slim original volume has been over-stretched to a three-part, three-hour bloated epic. I guess there's a place for the odd blockbuster sequel and franchise even in the most curmudgeonly heart after all.

Is that a suitably Christmas note on which to wrap up, do you think?

John: Indeed! Why don't we end with a subtle link to my Christmas top ten, Andrew?

Andrew: What an excellent idea, John!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Disney's free-to-play Star Wars: Attack Squadrons



Disney's announced Star Wars: Attack Squadrons a free-to-play online combat game played via web browser.

This new multiplayer title is being developed by Seattle-based independent Area 52 Games and not EA, which has exclusive rights to produce PC and console games for the franchise following the closure of LucasArts earlier this year.



A closed beta test for Attack Squadrons begins in early 2014. You can sign-up here.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Win a NOW TV Box and get Smart TV this Christmas!



I've teamed up with Sky to offer one lucky reader a NOW TV Box in time for Christmas!

The tiny NOW TV Box lets you stream on demand entertainment straight to your TV, and it's simple too. Simple set-up and the easy to use menu will have you up and running in minutes. With a NOW TV account you can start streaming live Sky Sports, on demand Sky Movies and 10 of the UK's best pay TV channels instantly. All on your TV. Now that's smart.

To be in with a chance of winning a NOW TV Box, just answer this question: Which Marvel super sequel premieres on Sky Movies this Christmas Day?

A. Thor: The Dark World
B. Iron Man 3
C. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Please email the answer, including your name and address here. The competition closes on Friday 20th December and is open to UK residents only.

Special thanks to Sky for providing the prize. You can sign-up for a free 1-month NOW TV trial here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Star Wars joins Instagram: Darth Vader posts selfie!



Darth Vader captures a selfie during the original Star Wars in 1977.

Star Wars: Episode VII maybe two years away. However, Disney's marketing machine has embraced Instagram in the run-up to the new trilogy. Fans will be hoping for some sneak peeks.

The infamous Sith Lord appears to be holding an iPhone!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Sky Store takes the battle to Blinkbox



Sky Store is now open to everyone!

From today you'll be able to rent a wide range of movies from 99p for older titles and up to £3.49 for new releases such as Man of Steel and Despicable Me 2. Films can be watched for up to 48 hours.

Previously Sky Store was only available to Sky customers and ratchets up the company's streaming war with Blinkbox, Netflix and LOVEFiLM during the festive season.

Nicola Bamford, Director of Sky Store, commented: “Millions of Sky TV customers already enjoy the choice and value of Sky Store. Now we’re delighted that millions more homes can access hundreds of box office smashes alongside best-loved movie classics. All you need is an internet connection and away you go.

With Sky Store there are no late fees and no waiting for the post. Customers simply sign up and stream the film they want to watch, when they want to watch, wherever they want - these days it couldn’t be easier to enjoy the perfect movie to suit your mood.”

NOW TV Box owners can download the Sky Store app from the Roku Channel Store.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

NOW TV Box gets 4oD



4oD is now available on Sky's NOW TV Box and can be downloaded, free, from the Roku Channel Store.

Gidon Katz, Director of NOW TV, welcomed the latest addition to its NOW TV Box catch-up bouquet, which includes BBC iPlayer and Demand 5.

"There is now even more to watch. The launch of 4oD means the NOW TV Box delivers an even bigger choice of on-demand TV," he stated.

"It’s available alongside flexible pay-as-you-go access to must-see sport, the latest movies you missed at the cinema and the TV shows everyone’s talking about."

Laurence Dawkin-Jones, Director of Commercial and Business Development at Channel 4, said the broadcaster is always looking for new ways to offer its content to viewers.

"Bringing 4oD on the NOW TV Box represents the latest device launch in a busy year for Channel 4 that has seen us extend our content reach to many new platforms," he stated.

It's worth noting NOW TV recently launched an Entertainment Pass for £4.99 per month. This includes Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts and Disney Channel.

Friday, 15 November 2013

R2-D2 returns to Star Wars



Bad Robot, JJ Abrams' production company, tweeted the return of R2-D2 in Star Wars: Episode VII!

The diminutive droid most recently appeared as space debris in Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Gravity: A Survival Odyssey



Ever since Sandra Bullock's breakthrough role in Demolition Man, as chirpy Lenina Huxley, I've hoped the Oscar-winning actress would return to the realm of blockbuster science fiction again.

In Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's orbital thriller taking 3D to the nth degree, Sandra Bullock does just that and then some.

Director Alfonso Cuarón deftly drops the audience into spectacular 3D space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (Solaris) at their career best as astronauts Dr Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski respectively. Trying to survive a downbeat predicament comparable to Alien, Silent Running and Solaris replete with lush mythological undertones.

There's serene beauty in the darkness of space. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki imbues this technological tour de force with beguiling and haunting imagery befitting the emotional resonance.

I'm not going to spoil the plot for readers. This is a movie best viewed on the biggest digital 3D screen. Dr Ryan Stone's breathless journey of survival will terrify, amuse and move you to tears.

A sumptuous slice of quintessential cinema? Quite possibly. Try not to blink.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Star Wars: Episode VII gets release date



Save the date. Star Wars: Episode VII debuts in theatres on December 18, 2015.

“We’re very excited to share the official 2015 release date for ‘Star Wars: Episode VII,’ where it will not only anchor the popular holiday filmgoing season but also ensure our extraordinary filmmaking team has the time needed to deliver a sensational picture,” Alan Horn, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement released Thursday.

The line starts here...

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Resolution revolution transforms television!



Longtime readers already know I'm obsessed with sci-fi and technology! So, when Panasonic invited tech writers, including myself, to an exclusive event in Covent Garden. Resistance was futile.

The Japanese electronics giant unveiled its flagship 4K Ultra HD TV.

Smart VIERA TX-L65WT600, the world’s first Ultra HD TV with a 4K 50/60p input designed based on HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2a specifications. Offering up to 60 frames per second 4K playback, the WT600 is the ultimate choice for consumers looking to access the next level in home entertainment, as well as professionals – such as those working in small TV studios – for whom picture quality is imperative.



At an eye-watering £5500. The WT600 is a future-proof investment for the home cinema enthusiast who won't accept comprise. A well-appointed television that embraces 3D for those with a penchant for Hollywood's current obsession with frothy optics.

James Cameron's Avatar remains the most successful use of 3D technology to date, and the director worked closely with Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory (PHL) to affect such startlingly imagery.

As is de rigeur, the television includes a comprehensive collection of catchup channels and social networking apps accessed with built-in Wi-Fi. Panasonic has a dedicated 4K channel (requiring a minimum broadband speed of 30Mbps) and Netflix is trialling Ultra HD streaming in the US. NOW TV is a notable omission due to a timed exclusive with Smart TV partner LG.



Users can create individual login profiles much like on a Mac, PC or PS3. Customising and curating their own Home Screen, and can be recognised using face and/or voice recognition via automatic pop-up camera. Thanks to a built-in dual HD tuner, owners will be able to watch two sources at once and can wirelessly stream to a companion device such as an iPad in another room.

Wisely, Panasonic hasn't lavished this model with form factor spoiling speakers. Most (if not all) home cinema systems will already include separate speakers (mine are KEF) and HDMI AV systems. It's all about the screen. And what a screen...

To suggest it's comparable to IMAX would not be marketing hyperbole. There are no image artifacts and it boasts the deepest black levels I've ever seen on a consumer product. This is a THX-certified 4K display, which can be calibrated using the included remote or companion app for Android and iOS devices.

If the thought of calibrating a television makes you squeamish: there are THX presets. However, I'd encourage experimentation; you can always switch back to default settings at anytime. For the record I calibrate televisions using Which? magazine's laboratory test results and DVE to set below black.

Blu-ray discs are upscaled to 4K and look fantastic (as evidenced by the photo of Megan Fox in Transformers). It's worth noting 'Remastered in 4K' Blu-ray discs are not native and the benefits of the higher resolution won't be fully realised until an industry-wide codec is agreed upon.

As a self-confessed geek. It would be remiss of me not to mention voice control!



Panasonic has included a voice recogniser, which looks like a Star Trek Communicator from the original series. You'll be able to issue voice commands in your best Captain Kirk impression. But, I was also reminded of Apple's Siri technology and what an Apple television might be like as envisaged by the late Steve Jobs...

Special thanks to @PanasonicUK and @Spreaditfast for making me feel so welcome. There was pizza for the win.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

JJ Abrams to take Star Wars back to the dark side



JJ Abrams, talking to The Times Magazine, wants to take Star Wars back to its grittier space western roots and reignite a sense of mystery and wonder (themes that run throughout the director's work).

"I loved how Star Wars had that sense of a world far beyond the borders of what you can see and have been told – it's one of the things it did so brilliantly.

"If you watch the first movie, you don't actually know exactly what the Empire is trying to do. They're going to rule by fear – but you don't know what their end game is.

"The beauty of that movie was that it was an unfamiliar world, and yet you wanted to see it expand and to see where it went."

Scriptwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) has been replaced by JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan famously co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

NOW TV Box bundles available in-store for Christmas



Since the summer I've been evangelising the merits of owning a NOW TV Box to family and friends. I own two, myself.

From today consumers can purchase the NOW TV Box online and in-store from Argos, Currys and PC World, with John Lewis to follow. These include a range of bundled passes for Sky Movies and Sky Sports.

You'll be able to buy a NOW TV Box with a 24-hour Sky Sports Day Pass for £15 or you can opt for a bundled 3 month Sky Movies Pass for £25 - a saving of between £5 and £10 respectively.

“The NOW TV Box lets customers instantly transform their regular TV into a Smart TV and these brand new bundles make it even easier for people to access great live sport and the biggest and best movies on their main TV,” said Gidon Katz, Director of NOW TV. “With Christmas just around the corner, we believe that the NOW TV Box will be this year’s ultimate stocking filler.”

An in-store presence is an inspired move by Sky and steals a march on its rivals Netflix and LOVEFiLM.

You can read my five star review here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Star Wars: Tiny Death Star launches first in Oz



Disney has begun rolling out its first Star Wars game since acquiring Lucasfilm.

Tiny Death Star, by Tiny Tower developer Nimblebit, is available for Android and iOS devices in Australia. The game is similar to Tiny Tower in that you must earn coins (free-to-play with divisive, but optional, in-app purchases) in order to construct your very own Death Star as Darth Vader.

Hopefully it won't be too long before Tiny Death Star is launched internationally.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sony announces four official PS4 bundles for the UK



That's some sweet box art!

Sony has announced four official bundles for its upcoming PS4 console launch in the UK.

The first bundle is a basic package containing a PS4 and a DualShock 4 controller for £349.

The second and third bundles includes Killzone: Shadow Fall or Watch Dogs for £399.

The fourth bundle (pictured) includes two controllers, a copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall and a PlayStation Camera for £449. Sony previously stated the 'Mega Bundle' would match the Xbox One price of £429.

These are in addition to bespoke retailer bundles.

The PS4 will be released in the UK on November 29 and you can pre-order here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

JJ Abrams apologizes for using lens flares



In an interview with Crave Online, director JJ Abrams admits his use of lens flare has become a problem.

"I know I get a lot of grief for that," Abrams said. "But I'll tell you, there are times when I'm working on a shot, I think, 'Oh this would be really cool ... with a lens flare.' But I know it's too much, and I apologize. I'm so aware of it now. I was showing my wife an early cut of 'Star Trek Into Darkness' and there was this one scene where she was literally like, 'I just can't see what's going on. I don't understand what that is.' I was like, 'Yeah, I went too nuts on this.'"

At one stage ILM had to remove lens flare from footage.

"This is how stupid it was," J.J. Abrams added. "I actually had to use ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) to remove lens flare in a couple of shots, which is, I know, moronic. But I think admitting you're an addict is the first step towards recovery."

Perhaps Abrams will take a more nuanced approach to the use of lens flare in Star Wars? Reserving it for the clash of lightsabers!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Star Wars Reads Day II



This Saturday marks the second annual Star Wars Reads Day!

Thousands of young Jedis, as well as their parents, will celebrate the thrill of reading with Star Wars-related events and activities. To find or set up an event visit Star Wars Reads.

Last year more than 1,200 Star Wars Reads Day events took place across America. Ashley Eckstein (The Clone Wars) was interviewed by Geeks are Sexy.

If you're attending an event, please take a photo/video and send it over! Thanks.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Star Wars 1313 would have starred Boba Fett



According to IGN the cancelled Star Wars 1313 would have seen gamers play Boba Fett in a galaxy-spanning storyline. This was meant to tie-in with a live-action television series.

Development of Star Wars 1313 was junked in April following Disney's $4.5 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm in October 2012, and the announcement of a new movie trilogy (set after Return of the Jedi). The first of which is to be helmed by JJ Abrams (Star Trek).

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Virgin Media pilots Netflix on TiVo



This week Virgin Media will invite 40,000 customers to trial the Netflix app prior to a full rollout of the streaming service on TiVo. Customers will need to sign-in or sign-up to Netflix.

Netflix is available on multiple platforms including PS3, Xbox 360 and iOS. The device limit is generous unlike competitors such as LOVEFiLM Instant or NOW TV.

Virgin Media already offers access to YouTube through TiVo, and has expressed an interest in bringing the Amazon-owned LOVEFiLM Instant to the set-top-box too.

Since Virgin Media was bought by Liberty Global there has been a sea change: a willingness to partner with competitors in a fickle market dictated by savvy consumers.

Bill Holmes, global head of business development, Netflix, said, "The U.K. has given Netflix a fantastic welcome and we're excited to be partnering with Virgin Media to bring an amazing Netflix experience to Virgin Media customers."

Going forward. Virgin Media offering a Netflix subscription, as part of a broadband bundle, would be a compelling added-value and no-brainer. For example I didn't hesitate to subscribe to Amazon Prime + LOVEFiLM Instant (saving money in the process) a few months ago.

Looks like TiVo owners get a chance to enjoy House of Cards and more...

Wonder what Andrew Lewin (my occasional blogging partner in crime) makes of this latest development?

Monday, 9 September 2013

Disney Infinity: What lies beyond?



A hot summer, and flip-flopping between BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, has prevented me reviewing Disney Infinity in a timely fashion! However, Matt's explored Disney's $100 million dollar toy box. Here's what he discovered...

Guest post by Matt Charlton

I've been looking forward to Disney Infinity since it was announced and have had the game on pre-order with Amazon since January. Everything that I saw and heard about the game whet my appetite for something that was able to truly capture the Disney magic and encapsulate it into a tangible experience for fans (myself included).

I'm somewhat of a Disney addict! Whilst I'd never consider myself an expert; I love the movies; I love the theme parks; I love the history and stories behind everything. The idea of a construction kit that would let me craft worlds using IP from the biggest vault of them all? Far too tempting to pass up. Sandbox games have always been top of my genre list.

The last Disney games I can remember playing and enjoying (I wasn't a fan of Kingdom Hearts) were The Lion King and Aladdin games on the Sega Megadrive. Quintessential 16-bit platforming magic. Digital sounds from the movies, the levels played through the story and they were very well put together and very fun to play.

Some of the gameplay videos I'd seen in the months leading up to release seemed a little choppy, as though the hardware underneath that game engine was struggling either with draw distance or animation. I was a little concerned but as more and more videos surfaced in July, things appeared to be improving.

Release day arrived and I was really excited and eager to play, alas Royal Mail decided they'd rather like to hang on to the parcel for another 24 hours so I didn't get chance to play until Saturday evening. I'd ordered just the Starter Kit. As it happens, I was working on Saturday and happened to have access to a GAME store at lunchtime. I had a wander down to have a look at the other packs that were for sale and any add ons. I ended up parting with another £90 and coming away with the Cars playset, the sidekicks bundle, the power disc album and 5 packs of power discs (an addiction that still plagues me to this day, which I'll expand on shortly).

I got home and immediately my 2-year old son took to the 'toys' like they were his own and he took them away from me. He's recently become very fond of Monsters, Inc. So, Sully and Mike were straight into his little hands, along with Jack Sparrow for good measure.

I managed to get the game installed and distracted him with Lightning McQueen, so that I could steal back one of the toys - I decided to begin with Mr Incredible...

The Starter Pack comes with the game, a playset piece (hexagonal base used to grant access to playsets which corresponding IP based characters can complete missions in) and three characters:

Sully (Monsters University)
Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Mr Incredible (The Incredibles)

This grants you a single player experience in each of the three playsets of which there are purportedly 4-6 hours of gameplay in each. It is possible to play 2-player co-operative games inside the playsets, helping one another out with the missions, but in order to do so you will need to acquire one other character from the relevant Disney IP.

Some examples of these are:

*Captain Hector Barbosa for Pirates of the Caribbean
*Mrs Incredible for The Incredibles
*Mike for Monsters University

We can't have Jack Sparrow running amok in Metroville with all of those Omnidroids running around now can we? Just think about what would happen if those things got hold of all of the rum?

A little blow for anyone wanting to jump straight into the game with a friend. But, it maintains the magic of the experience by enforcing this rule. All three games feel similar but just different enough from one another, you complete missions and gain rewards and unlock abilities, items and toys (for the toy box) whilst progressing the story. If I had to sum up what the game felt like I guess it would be a mix of the fun quests from World of Warcraft mixed with Lego Pirates of the Caribbean.

There are also multiple challenges all over the game world (collection challenges for example where you have to pop an ever increasing number of balloons with less time to spare) and character specific characters and unlocks. Each playset contains a 'vault' with a special item inside that can only be accessed if each character available for the playset has interacted with it - for playsets which have 5-6 playable characters (each at £12.99 each) this can soon be an expensive experience.

The gaming experience can be enhanced by the use of power discs - discs that can be placed under your character avatar to grant them special powers (chance of invulnerability or extra strength for example).

There are 20 power discs in Wave 1. They are purchased blind in packets of 2 for around £4 per pack. The 5 packs I bought at GAME above contained the same disc 4 times. Very poor out of a selection of 20 possibilities!

3 of the 20 discs are chase discs. These are orange in colour and have a holographic picture on them, it is said that you can find the rare discs by scratching the top disc through the packet with your fingernail - you should be able to feel the resistance of the hologram lines. I couldn't possibly comment on this practice nor condone its use (it works btw). I hope that this is something Disney improve on with Wave 2.

Buying blind is very fun but very expensive and very addictive. To date I must have bought 20 packs of discs. I've managed to swap a few with work colleagues and sell sets of 5 at face value (£10 with it being £2 per disc essentially). Communities and eBay are rife with people looking to make a quick profit.

I've never felt anything like this before - especially with regards to purchasing a binder where every power disc has its own place - I couldn't rest until I had them all! I'm not sure whether that's something I need to deal with on a personal level or whether or not Disney have done something with the power discs to make them so desirable you'll want to drop £50+ on completing a set.

I believe that Waves 2 and 3 of power discs are planned and that there are several sets of toys planned between now and next year - Toy Story is due in October (cannot wait!) and Frozen (an upcoming Disney film) not long after that. I'm pretty sure that Jack Skellington from Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas will also be making an appearance in the next month or so. Just in time for Halloween!

I've also picked up the Disney Infinity bag/satchel. It stores up to 20 figures and a bunch of power discs and will house the infinity base and is a great place for the toys to be based. I say based because the toys are currently strewn across the living room as my son (quite rightly) believes that they are for playing with. They are made of very sturdy stuff and I have no doubt that they are able to withstand a little more creative play albeit in the real world rather than the virtual toy box. He proudly says 'Jack' whenever he sees the figure or a photo of Johnny Depp now. Adding to the magic of the whole experience for us.

I've only experienced one issue with the infinity base whilst playing. It told me it was unable to read the play piece whilst playing through Pirates and kept losing connection. Worried that Harry had been a little too rough, and had damaged the RFID assembly on the base of Jack Sparrow, I checked the figure and the base and couldn't figure out what the problem might be until I realised I had placed the base on top of the power disc album containing 19 (Marlins Reef still eludes me despite attempts through eBay to procure him) discs. I guess they were all fighting with the base to be recognised! I placed the base on a normal surface and all was well with the world.

So far I've spent around 4-hours playing The Incredibles game and 3-hours playing the Cars playset. Monsters, Inc. I've spent around an hour in. I found it a little like Crackdown with regards to the collectable toy box unlocks and XP points in capsules and found as I progressed and got access to different equipment, some of the capsules that were well out of my reach were easy to get. You can get a little OCD with regards to wanting to collect them all. So the structured game parts are very good, but what will keep you coming back for more?

Simple answer - The Toy Box.

Any character you can put on the base will also grant you access to the toy box. There are a number of pre-built worlds for you to have a play around with and you get the option of starting with a blank canvas. The most important thing to remember here is that this is effectively a game engine. There are triggers which can be linked to actions and items to make things happen under certain circumstances. You can build your own games and share them with your friends! The possibilities are, literally, infinite.

I built a huge race track that went under Cinderella's castle, into a big ramp and had a bridge over a lava pit (Revenge of the Sith - Ed). I haven't managed to unlock everything I need to tie up lap counters and finish lines yet but when I do, I'm making a sugar rush clone (racing game from Wreck-It Ralph). I placed both of the Wreck-It Ralph hexagonal power discs on my Infinity reader and my toy box was transformed. The skies were pink and the horizons filled with scenery seen in the game in Wreck-It Ralph, the music playing was the Sugar Rush theme tune. Where trees had stood previously I now had candy canes, my race track gone from a scalextric style to something sparkly that could almost be made out of sherbet. All of a sudden I realised why Disney hadn't seemingly capitalised on releasing a stand alone Mario Kart clone - it's much more fun to build your own.

You don't start out with much in the toy box, a few pieces that you can place. As you play through the playsets you unlock more and more pieces to play with - you start with a few simple race track options but can soon unlock special barriers and ramps to make your race track much more exciting. There are also capsules to collect in both the toy box and the main game which will unlock more and more items for you to use.

As you progress your characters through levels, they gain 'spins' on the Disney vault. This is a random page of around 12 things that can be unlocked for your toy box. These range from mini stylised autonomous avatars (such as Snow White, Dopey, Gaston, Toy Story aliens) to more interesting pieces of race track (loops anyone?) and additional scenery blocks. It is said that there are 1000 things to unlock from the vault. So far I think I've unlocked less than 50.

The most fun I had was dropkicking a miniature Dopey off the side of a cliff and watching him deploy a parachute to fly to safety. The way that everything is stylised and implemented within the game shows the immense care and attention that has been put into making this game. The introduction and tutorial alone were enough to give me goosebumps and make me realise that this game was something special.

Disney are in this for the long haul. They've stopped development on any separate licensing and it's clear to see that they are putting all of their eggs into this infinity basket, any new IP which comes out will get characters and playsets to add on to the Disney Infinity experience. The opportunities are endless and from what I've seen so far I think that the future of Disney games are safe and very, fun ad infinitum.

Follow: @mattcharlton

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Disney Infinity gets free BioShock and TRON DLC



Polygon reports Disney has released free user-generated DLC based on BioShock Infinite and TRON for Disney Infinity.

Toy Columbia is a family-friendly version of the terrifying floating city that is the setting of BioShock Infinite and includes Carl's house from Up. BioShock Infinite is a contender for game of the year and Elizabeth evokes Disney's Belle and actress Zooey Deschanel.

Trench Run sees players flying a TRON Recognizer through a trench clearly inspired by the Death Star in Star Wars.

Leveraging community-created content is a smart move and an indication the company is looking at Disney Infinity as a scalable franchise that will be around for years to come: parents and collectors beware.

Have you taken the plunge or are you waiting for Marvel and Star Wars packs?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch cast in Star Wars?



Amid rumours of Ryan Gosling, Zac Efron and Leonardo DiCaprio auditioning for roles in Episode VII at Disney. Allegedly Benedict Cumberbatch will be the first casting announcement from Lucasfilm. If true. This would reunite the actor with Into Darkness director JJ Abrams.

The Sherlock star has admitted he was a Star Wars fan, like so many of us, as a child.

He told Total Film: "I was much more connected to [Star Wars] as a kid, in the way that a lot of kids are because it’s immediate storytelling, very simple – a beautifully, outrageously simple narrative in a way – and a wonderful three-act melodrama, opera. And I loved them.

"I really, really loved those films and I always wanted to be Han Solo. Everything Harrison Ford did I just thought was the coolest thing ever."

After Benedict's brilliant turn as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. He should play a Sith.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Disney Star Wars channel for Apple TV



Streaming services continue to gain ground and Jedi News has an interesting rumour for Star Wars fans who own Apple TV and iOS devices.

Jedi News' source told the site the following:

“A Disney branded app for Star Wars will launch on Apple TV devices, with plans to distribute the final Clone Wars episodes exclusively digitally only through the Apple TV device for a limited period of time. This will happen in this holiday season.

In 2014, plans are in an early stage to use the platform to deliver SW7 production news ‘live’ from the sets, followed with Star Wars Rebels in late 2014 taking us all the way through to SW7 release.”


The source followed this up:

“Distribution will only be on Apple TV devices capable of running iOS 7 and there has been no confirmation if the same app will be available to other iOS devices such as iPad or iPhone."

Is the force strong with iOS? Stay tuned for more news.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Microsoft rebooting Blake's 7 for Xbox LIVE!



Microsoft will be bringing 1970s cult sci-fi television series Blake's 7 back, with Casino Royale director Martin Campbell at the helm, according to the Financial Times!

Series creator Terry Nation (mastermind behind the Daleks) cashed in on the success of Star Wars with a weekly, brightly lit, space opera that ran between 1978 and 1981.

This deal would replace SyFy's proposed remake and mirrors Netflix and LOVEFiLM Instant's move into original programming. Netflix has enjoyed critical success with House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black.

Xbox Entertainment Studios has already announced a live-action Halo series with Steven Spielberg. Blake's 7 may beat it to the punch...

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Return of the Emperor in Star Wars: Episode VII?



Interesting Star Wars snippet from Jedi News.

The site states: "An unnamed source has informed us that Ian McDiarmid is set to return to the galaxy far, far away for a part in Episode 7."

The site continues: "The specifics of the role are unclear, but it seems likely that McDiarmid will be returning to his signature role of Palpatine," adding: "Whether as the original [Palpatine] or a clone of, we are yet to discern."

Jedi News has updated the story to debunk the theory that Palpatine will be a clone as seen in Dark Horse Comics' Dark Empire trilogy. Apparently he will appear as a ghostly apparition much like Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Xbox One unboxed by Major Nelson



The much-maligned Xbox One will include a chat headset! Earlier Microsoft had indicated it would not include a headset with the next generation console.

Following Microsoft's DRM U-turn and GPU speed boost from 800MHz to 853MHz. Launch editions of Xbox One will mimic Xbox 360 with the addition of a chat headset revealed by, brand ambassador extraordinaire, Major Nelson during a QVC-inspired unboxing on Xbox Wire.

The chat headset offers "3x the sampling rate of the Xbox 360," Microsoft said. It is also described as "super lightweight"--weighing in at 44 grams. The headset also features a padded earpiece that can be worn on the left or right year, as well as a rotating mic.

The contents of the Xbox One Day One limited edition package include the console itself, the Kinect sensor, a branded Day One controller, a chat headset, 4K-rated HDMI cable, power supply and a redeemable code for a Day One-exclusive achievement.

Ironically, the black bag, used to protect the Xbox One in transit, evoked the premature demise of my original Xbox following the infamous 'catching fire' issue in 2005! Microsoft posted a cable with a trip switch to affected customers. I binned the machine and never envisaged owning another Xbox again...

Is the Xbox One pack-in enough to persuade you to pre-order? The launch titles are more intriguing than those announced for PS4, but the form factor, lack of backwards compatibility and Kinect (can be disabled) means I'm sticking with Xbox 360 S for now...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Star Wars Rebels logo and concept art revealed



Disney's unveiled a new logo and concept art teasers for the upcoming Star Wars Rebels series on Disney XD!



The colour palette evokes the original and prequel trilogies and draws heavily on the art style of celebrated concept artist Ralph McQuarrie.

Monday, 5 August 2013

"We're gonna need a bigger chopper."



SyFy's Sharknado, a cult monster movie and social media phenomenon, premieres on UK television this Wednesday.

Unlike Steven Spielberg's seminal blockbuster Jaws. This shark tale is best viewed with copious amounts of alcohol and fast food.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Review: NOW TV Box



There's a multitude of streaming devices available to consumers: from Apple TV to Roku and PS3 to Xbox 360! Many of which will cost you in the region of £50 or, in the case of consoles, much more...

Enter the NOW TV Box. Sky's newest Trojan horse in its war with BT Sport, LOVEFiLM and Netflix.

Launched last Friday amidst the lollapalooza surrounding Google Chromecast. £9.99 (including P&P) gets you everything you'll need to start streaming albeit with Sky, understandably, as curator. The pack-in includes the svelte NOW TV Box (based on a Roku LT), a HDMI cable, remote and AAA batteries. Sky hasn't skimped on anything.

Setup is a breeze, thanks to an intuitive modern UI, and you don't have to subscribe to NOW TV to use other apps: including BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, Spotify, Facebook and VEVO from the Roku Channel Store. Sky promises to add more apps in the future!

Once connected, wirelessly to a router, HD is a respectable 720p and I noticed nothing deleterious whilst streaming Prometheus with the monthly Sky Movies Pass.



Obviously rivals LOVEFiLM and Emmy-Awards nominee Netflix are missing from the app roster for now. But, 4oD, ITV Player and YouTube are odd omissions. This tragically nixes the notion of a one-box solution where space is at a premium. For an extra £40 Roku LT will better serve Netflix subscribers who don't require Full 1080p.

A Sky Movies Month Pass is £9.99. You can cancel at anytime and resume on a month-by-month basis. This'll be a boon at Christmas time! Then there's the Sky Sports Week Pass for £10.99. And you'll need a robust wireless network because there's no Ethernet. However, I experienced no problems connecting the NOW TV Box to AirPort Extreme.

It would be great to see a companion app for iOS given its Roku heritage.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to continue subscribing after the free trial. For those without a so-called smart TV, or catch-up device, it would be churlish to pass up a NOW TV Box for the bedroom, kitchen or study. It's a very slick streaming player and a decent HDMI cable will set you back £10. What's not to like? I'll take one, two...

***** out of *****

Special thanks to Sky for providing the NOW TV Box.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Angry Birds Star Wars coming to a console near you!



Angry Birds Star Wars II is launching on mobile platforms this September. However, its predecessor arrives on every current gen console known to humankind this October.

The console versions will contain 20 exclusive new levels, as well as brand new competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Is this the script for Star Wars: Episode VII?



With enigmatic flair, JJ Abrams' production company, Bad Robot, tweeted an image of some scripts with the description "Hot off the presses. Can you guess what's behind the cover? #FoundAtBR #MysteryScript"

Is this Oscar-winner Michael Arndt's script for Star Wars Episode VII?

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Join the Pork Side in Angry Birds Star Wars II



Rovio will demonstrate its first sequel to Angry Birds Star Wars during this week's Comic-Con. It's based on the prequels, but there's no confirmation on Jar Jar Binks making an appearance...

In a nod to Activision's Skylanders and the upcoming Disney Infinity. Rovio is joining forces with, fellow Star Wars licensee, Hasbro to bring interactive toys to the franchise following last year's standalone tie-in with the Pawtucket-based company.



Players will be able to buy playsets called Telepods, which can be scanned with your iOS and Android devices to "teleport" that character directly into the game.

"Some of the most amazing character additions are versions of young Anakin, Mace Windu and Darth Maul," said Rovio's executive vice president of games Jami Laes in a statement.

"Hasbro's Telepods technology also provides a great way to extend the experience beyond the app and bring a whole new dimension to the gameplay."

More than 30 toy characters will be available when the game launches on September 19th. Also, look out for Return of the Jedi in the original Angry Birds Star Wars! Excited?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Skyfall streaming on NOW TV for PS3



Following a short public beta trial. NOW TV has been officially launched on PlayStation 3, almost a year after the service bowed on Xbox 360! Just in time for Skyfall's premiere on Sky Movies...

Gidon Katz, Director of NOW TV, comments: “More and more consumers are demanding easy access to a greater choice of high-quality entertainment over internet-connected devices – and NOW TV is here to meet that demand. Following the addition of PlayStation 3, our customers now have another way of streaming to their main TV screen, while continuing to enjoy access out and about via iPad and smartphones. At the same time as we’re rolling NOW TV out to new platforms and devices, we’re also preparing to increase the range and choice of great Sky content that our customers can access.”

Fergal Gara, Vice President and Managing Director for Sony Computer Entertainment UK said: “Adding Sky’s amazing content via NOW TV to the PlayStation 3’s services is a real boon for our millions of UK customers. Streaming great and exclusive sports and movie content to the family TV is a huge enhancement to the PlayStation entertainment portfolio.”

Sign up for a free 30 day trial here.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Star Wars: Course of the Force



It is a time of peace in California thanks to the inaugural Course of the Force, a charity lightsaber relay down the coast to San Diego to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. But the Make-A-Wish Foundation is still in need and the Course of the Force High Council has been summoned a second time. Starting at Skywalker Ranch runners will carry the lightsaber down to the 2013 Comic-Con International in San Diego.

On the eve of the relay race, Nerdist member Matt Mira has journeyed to Industrial Light and Magic to retrieve the Course of the Force lightsaber...

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

LOVEFiLM streams Star Trek and The Walking Dead



It's been a busy fortnight for LOVEFiLM, the Amazon-owned company, beginning with the announcement of an exclusive deal to stream The Walking Dead in the UK.

“Securing the exclusive streaming rights to The Walking Dead is another exciting development for us," said Chris Bird, director of film strategy at LOVEFiLM.

"It is seriously impressive that the show has become one of the most-watched drama series in basic US cable history, and a real testament to its quality. We are thrilled to bring this great content to our members, especially as we are the only subscription service in the country to do so.”

If zombies aren't your cup of tea. LOVEFiLM is also bringing classic Star Trek franchises to Instant starting with The Original Series and Voyager!

"We're excited to partner with Lovefilm and their terrific subscription service on an agreement that will bring their UK and German subscribers a range of CBS content that audiences around the world are very passionate about," said Amando Nuñez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group.

"This is another example of the growing licensing opportunities available for CBS' world class content in a dynamic global marketplace."

Perfect late night binge-viewing fodder.

Further to this. LOVEFiLM has rolled out a significant, and much-needed, app update across multiple platforms, including PS3, Xbox 360 and Sony Blu-ray players with Bravia Internet Video, in its escalating battle with Netflix.

The addition of a recommendation engine and Watchlist witnesses some regained ground. However, there's no in-app rating nor surround sound support - the latter is a major oversight.

The company has begun migrating customers to Amazon accounts. Presumably ahead of any possible rebrand and Kindle TV launch later this year. My money is on LOVEFiLM morphing into Amazon Instant Video.

What do you think?

I'm off to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe...

Friday, 21 June 2013

Xbox One Eighty: has Microsoft done enough?



Has this week's DRM policy reversal changed your mind about Xbox One? It happened much sooner than many of us thought!

Microsoft interactive president Don Mattrick said the company had "heard loud and clear" from its customers.

"You told us how much you loved the flexibility you have today with games delivered on disc," Mr Mattrick said in a statement posted on Xbox Wire.

"The ability to lend, share, and resell these games at your discretion is of incredible importance to you. Also important to you is the freedom to play offline, for any length of time, anywhere in the world."

The statement went on to backtrack fully on the controversial aspects of the company's DRM ambitions:

"An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games - after a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24-hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360.

"Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today - there will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360."