Tags: review



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We had an epic front-end pow-wow today. With plenty of Beerleft Goldenrods on hand we ploughed through discussing current client work and then turned to our guests. Today we were joined by Tracy Osborn, who told us all about her lovely new self-published book, Hello Web App. Then we got a demo from our friends at the confusingly named Ind.ie—no relation to the indie web—who gave us a demo of what they’ve been working on. We gave our feedback, including a heartfelt plea to dial down the rhetoric in their public pronouncements.

Then we went to the beach.

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We have a regular gathering at Clearleft every Thursday at 4pm. It’s our front-end pow-wow (there’s a corresponding “UX Laundromat” on Thursdays at 3pm, and every Friday at 4pm there’s a “Design …Thing”).

It’s basically like a design crit, but for code. People show what they’ve been working, whether it’s client work or personal projects. It leads to some great cross-pollination of ideas and solutions.

I wrap it up by going through links I’ve tagged with “frontend”.

Everyone’s welcome to come along, whether they’re a front-end developer or not. If any clients are in the office, they’re invited along too.

Casino Royale

By the end of my trip to Orlando, after a conference, a theme park, and a trip to NASA, I wasn’t up for a hectic night out. Instead, a bunch of us strolled down the street to watch the latest James Bond flick, Casino Royale.

I have a love/hate relationship with James Bond films. I like them for their cheesiness and sheer escapism. I also hate them for their cheesiness and escapism. Even my favourite Bond films — From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — are flawed.

I had heard that this time, Bond was going to be gritty. I was sceptical. That’s what they said when they introduced Pierce Brosnan too.

Casino Royale started with a terrific opening sequence, more like Harry Palmer via John Le Carré than the Bonds we’ve seen so far. Then came the Saul Bassian opening credits. After that, the story proper began… and it was good. Very good.

This time, it really was grittier. I kept wondering when it would descend into cheesiness but — apart from a slightly dodgy closing set piece — it never did. It was like no other Bond film before and yet it had all the classic ingredients: fights, explosions, beautiful women, tuxedos and pistols. Somehow it was simultaneously the quintessential Bond film and completely new at the same time.

It’s not perfect. It sags towards the end with more false endings than Return Of The King but it was never anything less than immensely entertaining to watch.

Much has been made of Daniel Craig’s performance and it’s all true. He’s excellent in the role. His Bond is arrogant and cruel and this only serves to make the character more interesting. He is ably abetted by Eva Green — last seen in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven — who radiates from the screen like a modern Honor Blackman, a combination of wit, intelligence and beauty.

The film-makers took a very brave step and did something that’s all too rare in a blockbuster movie: they didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.

There’s a lot to please die-hard Bond fans here. This is an origin story that explains all the Bond quirks and paraphernalia. At the same time, the film draws a line under all the previous films. Casino Royale acts as if its the first James Bond film. I was convinced.

Objectively, Casino Royale might not be a great film — although it’s certainly the best Bond film by far — but I give it five out of five, mostly because it surpassed my expectations and thoroughly entertained me.

A Scanner Darkly

The Clearleft office was empty on Wednesday afternoon. The bodies that normally inhabit that space were to be found sitting in a cinematheque.

By unanimous agreement, we decided to see A Scanner Darkly. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the book, I was looking forward to seeing this. I wasn’t disappointed. I can’t say the same for the other people who saw the film with me.

I loved it, Richard liked it, Andy, Paul, Aral and Jessica were distinctly underwhelmed. I can understand their reaction, even if I don’t share it. This isn’t a film for everyone.

Personally, I really enjoyed the experience of being immersed in an off-kilter drug-fueled world. But I can see why this world might not seem like the most inviting place to spend two hours of your life. The same dialogue that I found so hysterical (in every sense of the word) could also come across as just plain annoying.

The casting is inspired. It sounds like something a sketch show writer would put together: “So, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr. are all sitting around getting stoned…”

Oh, and using Thom Yorke and Radiohead songs for the soundtrack? Also inspired.

The roto-scoping worked wonderfully for the scramble suit. I’m not sure whether it was entirely necessarily for everything else, but it did add to the otherworldly atmosphere to have everything nestled in the uncanny valley. It would be interesting the compare the finished film with the pre-roto-scoped footage to see how much of a difference it makes to the emotional impact of each scene. The film’s style is an interesting way of trying to nail down the right medium for telling this story. It struck me that a graphic novel might actually be the ideal medium: exactly halfway between the novel and the film.

The film is, by and large, very faithful to the book. It is by far the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story to date. But then, A Scanner Darkly, for all its quesy strangeness is one of the more coherent and down-to-earth of Dick’s works. While this film worked wonderfully, I doubt that even Richard Linklater could pull off an adaptation of Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. On the other hand, there’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said… now there’s a great film just waiting to happen.

So maybe it was a relatively easy target, but the film of A Scanner Darkly really captures the essence of a classic Philip K. Dick book. Bladerunner is a wonderful, wonderful movie on its own terms, but it bears little resemblance to the existentialist heart of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

There is a wonderful moment in A Scanner Darkly when subjective and objective reality collide in the playback of a recording captured by a scanner of the film’s title. It’s the quintessential Philip K. Dick coup. Just as you think you have a handle on the world you have entered, the rug is pulled from under your feet. I’ll never forget the corresponding moment from Time Out Of Joint with its Truman Show-esque plot, in which a hot-dog stand winks out of existence to be replaced by a piece of paper reading “hot-dog stand.”

There’s a short story by Philip K. Dick called The Electric Ant which can be read as a version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The comparison is apt. Dick writes Kafka-esque stories: funny, paranoid, and unsettling.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly captures that Dickian feeling. That’s no mean feat.

As much as I loved this film, I’m hesitant to recommend it for your next outing to the cinema. It’s not the most cinematic of films. Wait for the DVD. I have the feeling that the film’s visual style will suit that medium very well indeed.

Gather some friends on the sofa. Pop the disc into your player and compare the anti-piracy warnings that precede the film to the pointless crusade against Substance D.

V for Vendetta

When I heard that V for Vendetta was being filmed, I was very, very nervous indeed. It has long been one of my favourite graphic novels, second only to Watchmen. The film industry hasn’t traditionally done a very good job of transferring graphic novels to celluloid.

When I saw a trailer for the film, my fears were not allayed. It all looked so slick, a million miles away from Alan Moore’s grim vision. I heard about the climax of the film featuring a gathering of people in V masks… that was most certainly not in the book.

I decided not to see the film in the cinema. I figured I’d just be as disappointed as Paul. I mentally filed the film away in the “watch it on DVD” category.

This week, I did just that. Even as the disc was sliding into the DVD player, I was still hoping that I could enjoy it, although I imagined I would probably spend most of the time nitpicking, comparing it to the graphic novel and finding it wanting.

Sure enough, it’s very different indeed. The story has been condensed. Characters have been changed. Everything looks cleaner and more up-to-date.

I should have hated it. But I didn’t. I liked it. A lot.

The graphic novel was a reflection of Thatcher’s Britain. It remains a product of its time. If the film were to stay absolutely true to the book’s look and feel, it would feel dated. Instead, the film is more in synch with the mood of Britain in the 21st century.

Most dystopian visions rely heavily on a sort of pathetic fallacy to show a world that looks dark, depressing and downtrodden. It’s easy, in such circumstances, to sympathise with any protagonist bent on tearing down the system. But what about a totalitarian society where everyone’s doing more or less okay? In a society where people are doing comfortably, with clean clothes and respectable jobs, would you still feel the same righteous desire to rip the fabric of society apart?

It’s this more ambiguous stance that made the film of V for Vendetta such a pleasure for me. In some ways, and this is a somewhat heretical thing to say, the film is superior to the book. Of course, it isn’t nearly as densely packed, but it does flow quicker, with a more cohesive structure than the episodic nature of the book.

I even liked the climax. I was afraid of some kind of Deus Ex Machina scenario, but instead the film builds towards the gathering at Westminster as an inevitable culmination of everything that has come before. It sounds like such a Hollywood ending, but it’s actually a reflection of our own world. Remember, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd wrote V for Vendetta in the ’80s, none of us had seen the embodiment of the human spirit in the gatherings of Eastern Europe or witnessed the sight of the citizens of Moscow facing down the tanks of a military coup.

But, plot changes aside, this film was always going to stand or fall based on one thing: the character of V. I was impressed with how the film depicted this man, and not just because they kept the mask on the whole time — something that’s almost unheard of for a leading actor. He is a hero and a villain. He is a murderer and a terrorist, yet he is charming and sympathetic. V was a complex character in the book, and he is equally complex in the film, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s great performance and the decision to keep V’s dense, lyrical dialogue intact.

I found myself enjoying V for Vendetta immensely. It was thrilling to see scenes from the graphic novel brought to life. And where the film veered away from the book, it always made sense in the context of the modern setting.

I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings. Watching that film, it became clear very early on that it was made by someone who has an equal love for the original material and the medium of cinema. The real art is reconciling those visions.

V for Vendetta certainly split the critics. Much of the negative criticism is aimed at the perceived politics of the film, as is much of the praise. In truth, the film is a cipher. It’s impossible not to bring in your own political opinions and belief system. Far from being a watered-down, wishy-washy Hollywood adaptation, this film turns on its audience, confronting them with uncomfortable juxtapositions and questions… much like the book. The film does the best possible job with the thankless task of transferring a much-loved cult work to a mainstream audience without compromising the integrity of the piece or insulting the intelligence of the viewers.

This isn’t a frame for frame, word for word adaptation of the the graphic novel. But it is faithful to the spirit of the book. Had the film-makers slavishly transferred the story from book to film, the result would have been a curious historical document. Instead, this is one of the most topical, engaging and well-crafted films I’ve seen this year.

V for Vendetta is available on DVD now.

A tipping point for microformats

My spidey senses are tingling. Something has been happening in the last week or so. Microformats are getting noticed.

Until now, microformats were trapped in a chicken and egg situation. Few people wanted to publish microformatted content unless there were tools that would then make use of those formats. Meanwhile, the tool makers didn’t want to make applications to harness microformats until a critical mass of people were already publishing with those formats.

Technorati have broken that circular argument with the introduction of microformats search. It’s still in beta but already it’s started a new wave of interest in microformats. This is the killer app we’ve been waiting for.

I’ve been contacted by quite a few different people lately with questions about implementing hCard or hCalendar on their sites. The reason is pretty straightforward.

What’s the first thing you do when you’re presented with any new kind of search engine? That’s right… you ego surf. If your name isn’t returning any results from the Technorati kitchen then you’re going to want to do something about it.

So it may be ego, not altruism, that is driving the current push of increased microformat usage. Whatever the reason, I’m just glad to see more and more data being published in a format that I can take with me as part of my local infocloud.

It’s also a real time saver for the people providing the data. Publishing the same data in more than one format is a pain.

Michael Heilemann created an iCal schedule for Reboot 8. Jon Hicks has done the same for @media. All that effort wouldn’t have been necessary at all if the original schedules on the conference websites were marked up with a few extra class names.

Mind you, the @media site does have all the speakers marked up in hCard. You can use the wonderful Tails extension for Firefox to isolate the contact information or just point that page to Brian Suda’s vCard extractor on Technorati and you can instantly add all of those people to your address book.

I’ve been doing my bit for the microformats revolution over on The Session. There are hReviews in the Amazon-powered shop and there’s a brand new section that I launched a few days ago. The events page lists user-contributed details of upcoming concerts, festivals and workshops, all marked up in hCalendar. Right now it’s a handy way for someone to discover places to go for some fun in Ireland this Summer. In the future, I hope to build on the microformatted content to provide personalised information tailored to people’s location and schedule.

Like I said in my talk at Reboot:

Microformats are the nanotechnology for building a semantic web.

(By the way, there are a few microformats hidden in that article: I took a perverse pleasure in marking up the Renaissance with class="vevent").

Remember, the microformats community isn’t even a year old yet. This is just the beginning. I’m quite certain that we’ll see many more cool tools that harness microformats in the coming months.

Of course, we’ll probably also see the introduction of microformatted spam (hSpam? Ham?). That will be surest indication that a technology has really hit the big time: just look at what happened to email, blogs, comments and trackbacks.