Sunday, August 21, 2011

Troy (2004) - Director's Cut

Image from IMP Awards

Troy (2004)

Since this is a fairly mainstream and well known film I'm going to make this quick. Director Wolfgang Peterson released a very compromised version of this film theatrically back in 2004. Based on Homer's 'The Iliad', it told the story of the Trojan War, of the armies of King Agamemnon with the heroic Achilles as his trump card battling against the Trojan armies of King Priam led by his son Hector, and of the war sparked off by Priam's younger son Paris stealing a Queen, Helen of Sparta. It was a historical epic that depicted a massive battle and larger than life characters fighting for territory and power, for personal glory and immortality, and for love and honour - it was grand in scale, epic and operatic.

The original film was certainly well made with magnificent sets and costumes and an impressive cast, but it was marketed on the back of some massive and thrilling battle sequences. As a result the film was heavier on the action than the drama. This version restores many of the character moments while also making it bloodier and more brutal, resulting in a significantly better film than the already pretty good theatrical version. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana are both superb as Achilles and Hector, and the supporting cast including Peter O Toole, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger are all very good (yes, even Bloom).

The storyline ignores the Gods of the source material and is, in my opinion, better for it. I'm not certain how accurate it is as an adaptation - certainly the length of the war is significantly reduced from a decade to what seems like a few weeks - but it works on its own terms. It is broad and theatrical and not very subtle, but it never pretends to be anything more than it is, and the end result is a very satisfying film that is entertaining without being stupid and full of mindless action. The re-edited score, sadly, is still severely lacking and remains the main weakness of the film, but it isn't too offensive - just bland and derivative.

If you hated the original this version won't change your mind but if you thought it was passable but could have been better, then the Director's Cut makes the film worth revisiting. For people who've never seen the film before this is the version to watch, and if the genre is of even a passing interest then you can do far worse than spend three hours watching an excellent interpretation of an ancient tale.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Morons of Ebay!

I've been buying a game or two on Ebay lately for my shiny new PS3 (OK it's a few months old now, but whatever). I hadn't used Ebay in almost a decade and returning to it I was struck by how little it has changed. In many ways it looks and feels like a relic of the last century. More surprising though was the behaviour of some of Ebay's userbase, who seem like relics of the stone age.

Let me expound upon that last statement.

As far as I'm aware most auctions on ebay work using a secret bidding process whereby the bidder with the highest maximum bid wins. I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but frankly I can't be bothered finding out what that might be as it's not relevant to this rant. What it means in layman's terms is that when you bid on something you can stipulate what your maximum bid is, i.e. the most you are willing to pay for an item. This bid is hidden from other users. The system then automatically bids on your behalf until you become the high bidder or your limit is reached (i.e. someone else has stipulated a maximum bid that is higher than yours).

Now, if you are bidding on an item the rational thing to do is to immediately enter your maximum bid and leave it at that. There's simply no point in bidding a bit more than the current bid, seeing if you're the high bidder and then bidding again if you aren't. The system automatically bids till one of the maximum bids prevails over the others (I believe the oldest of the two bids wins out if maximum bids are equal).

Unfortunately, a fair number of the users of Ebay appear to be morons. Here's why. What these MORONS do is wait till the last minutes of the auction and then rapidly start increasing their bids, as if they are - like a dramatic movie auction - engaging in some kind of bidding war against the clock.

This phenomenon is irritating to say the least, since on many an occasion I've seen myself as the top bidder for days, only to suddenly lose at the last minute (literally). I never change my maximum bid - after all that is the most I'm prepared to pay for the item. If these idiots put in their maximum straight away then we'd find out who the winner was straight away instead of in the final moments of the auction.

What's hilarious is that on occasions in which I've won I can see (in the bid history) that some idiot tried to outbid me in the dying seconds of an auction by raising their maximum bid in increments and then running out of time because my maximum bid still trumped theirs. News flash moron, if you'd just put your maximum in straight away, you may have beaten me! I on the other hand don't engage in such foolishness and so will not increase my bid at the eleventh hour.

Seriously, is there some kind of explanation for this? Are people that foolish? I suppose in an irrational world where most of the bidders behave this way it makes some kind of sense, but really, if there's something you want you place a value on it and leave it at that. If these last minute bidders beat me then they were willing to pay more, plain and simple. It matters not at all that they beat me 5 seconds or 5 days before the end of the auction.

There must be some sociological or psychological explanation* for this truly bone headed phenomenon, or I'm missing something fundamental about the way Ebay works. I doubt the latter because apart from the annoyance of it all, at the end of the day I pay no more than I'm willing to pay, and often when I win I pay less than that. It's the rest of the loons who are missing something - probably a few brain cells.

* One theory is that perhaps by increasing the bid value too early they increase the perceived value of the item. I.E. not bidding till the end is feigning disinterest in the product, in the hope that others will also not be interested or will not bid higher values, thereby 'tricking' people into not bidding too high. This allows these last minute vultures to swoop in at the end and win by making marginal increases to their maximum bid. Of course this strategy doesn't work against rational bidders who will still set a maximum for an item regardless of its current bid price (as a basis for comparison I look at how much the item costs on other online retailers' sites and set a maximum bid that is lower than the cheapest of those prices - why bother buying second hand from Ebay if the price goes above Amazon's, for example? And yes, I have seen people paying more for something second hand on Ebay that could have been purchased for less brand new somewhere else! THE FOOLS!)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

The Tree of Life (2011)

I think Terence Malick's The Tree of Life is mostly a brilliant film. It's also a hard one to explain. It's less a story and more a set of thematically and chronologically interconnected events and scenes. There is a narrative framework that bookends the film featuring Sean Penn as the adult version of the protagonist who on the anniversary of his brother's death is seemingly trying to find meaning in his life.

And that, basically, is a large part of what this film is - a look at what life is. And it goes right back to the beginning, the Big Bang itself that brings the universe into being. This stunning sequence goes through the development of stars and the formation of planets, in particular the Earth, and the beginnings of life in a primordial ooze through to the development and extinction of dinosaurs. Yes, there are dinosaurs in this film, though sadly they represent the film's low point.

Flash forward to 1950s USA and into the lives of a suburban family headed by the stern and authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and the almost angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). We witness in condensed form the birth of three sons, their childhoods, their relationships with one another and their parents, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. This comprises the bulk of the film - just scenes of this family and the world around them. Make no mistake, this is unabashedly an 'arty' film with very little dialogue and copious lingering shots of people and plants and animals and beams of light.

I can think of no other film that captures the ineffable feeling of being a child and growing up like this one does. How Malick has done this almost purely with imagery is mind boggling - and the imagery on display here is beautiful and at times awe inspiring. While the specifics of 50s suburban America may not match many people's childhoods, the feeling of growing up, having parents and siblings and experiencing the world is a universal one that transcends culture and race and various other human divides, and this truth is brilliantly captured here.

It seems that the overriding theme of the film is the universal nature of life, and while there is a strong and overt 'spiritual' aspect on display, Malick presents the scientific truth of how we got here front and centre and makes it profound. We're insignificant in cosmic terms but at the level of individual lives we are part of something bigger and we're all bound together by fundamental things that we have in common. Much of this can seem a tad, well, cheesy, but one has to admire Malick for wearing his heart on his sleeve and going for broke when expressing himself.

The part of the film that doesn't work so well are the bookends featuring Sean Penn. They are there to give the film context but just don't approach the level of the rest of the film; there's also a concluding sequence that, while open to interpretation, does cross the boundary into religious territory in a way that feels too literal.

A major part of what makes 'Tree of Life' work is the performances, which are uniformly excellent. The three child actors are so good its easy to forget that you're watching a film. In terms of visuals  it's stunning, and the various pieces of classical music and score throughout make it aurally captivating as well.

This isn't a film everyone will like - it will try the patience of people who require their films to have a conventional narrative with problems to be solved and heroes to root for (quite a few people walked out of the cinema within the first 30 minutes). That's because it is, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a deep and contemplative film that tries to ponder the big questions in life. In a cinematic landscape littered with cartoonish CGI, adaptations, sequels, and prequels, it's a breath of fresh air that should be welcomed!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Senna (2010)

Image from Imp Awards

Senna (2010)

In a word, wow! I haven't been caught up in a documentary in a long time, but this one had me hooked from the start.

Senna tells the story of the late Brazilian Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna. It is composed entirely of archival footage from the late 70s through to the mid 90s sourced from TV shows, documentaries, home videos, and race footage. Eschewing a narrator, the story is conveyed by sound bites both old and new of people who were involved in the events depicted, including Senna himself. The film captures the key moments of Senna's career and presents them in dramatic fashion, starting from his early go-karting days through entry to Formula 1 and the accumulation of successes and controversy, including a bitter rivalry with Alain Prost.

While there is an element of idolising at play, it never feels fawning or overly biased. Senna was clearly a remarkably skilled driver and a charismatic individual, with some of his achievements and dramatic moments putting a lot of fiction to shame. He is the star of the film and in much of the footage he freely expresses his views and feelings. It's easy to become fully invested in his journey as events build up towards his untimely demise. And, speaking as a person who is not a fan of motor racing, the racing sequences are thrilling affairs edited to encapsulate the most exciting and interesting moments of the races and set to a lively soundtrack and excited commentators.

In short, it's a terrific film. Director Asif Kapadia's achievement in assembling all of this footage into a documentary that is thoroughly informative while being entertaining and absorbing is remarkable. As an insight into the life of a sporting legend and the sport itself during his time it is brilliant; 'Senna' deserves to be seen.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hanna (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

Hanna (2011)

Director Joe Wright, better known for his period dramas like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, decided to direct an action film. The end result is original and unconventional while still adhering to all the trappings and formula that goes with the genre.

The story revolves around a young girl, the eponymous Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), who at the start of the film is being raised in the snowy wilderness of Finland by her father Erik (Eric Bana), who is training her to be an assassin. They are hiding from an agency and an agent, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who for reasons that are initially unclear wants them captured and possibly killed. Wanting to experience the world for herself, Hanna enters civilization for the first time in her life and must elude both Marissa and her sadistic henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander).

At face value and in terms of plot it seems uninspired and indeed there are some action movie cliches and coincidences that are eyebrow raising, but there's more to this film than a synopsis can convey. The characters have substance and their own personal stories; in particular, Hanna's getting to grips with society, people, and adolescence is handled entertainingly and intelligently. The characters are organically integrated into the plot, which in turn is propulsive (even when stretching the boundaries of plausibility) and reveals itself in layers, building up to a satisfying if low key conclusion.

The performances are great and deliver on the promise of the cast, especially the much lauded Ronan in the lead role, who is equal parts naively wide eyed girl and lethal killing machine. Bana is reliably badass and I would've loved to watch a whole movie about his character; the always reliable Blanchett is believably ruthless and scheming (and complex), and the less heavily advertised Hollander rounds out the cast with a twisted and darkly comical portrayal.

Wright, outside of his drama safe zone, excels with the dramatic elements of the story but most surprisingly delivers on the action front as well, with several exceptional sequences each of which is stylistically different and satisfying. It's a visually appealing film and the thumping soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers really rounds things off.

Hanna is an excellent action film that doesn't quite attain the level of 'brilliant' due to a few trite genre elements and some ill advised marginal characters Hanna runs in to who are hit and miss. Definitely worth a watch as long as you don't go in expecting an action fest, as the bouts of action aren't exactly abundant (but are worth the wait). It's more a mixture of drama, thriller, and action, and all the better for it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Arcade Fire - Hyde Park 2011

I hardly ever talk about music on this blog, primarily because it's not something I take an active interest in or feel like talking about in any serious way, as I do with films. I know what I like and I know what I don't like, and I guess I could articulate why I do or don't like something. I'd also like to think I know what constitutes crappy music and great music, to some extent, but I certainly lack the knowledge and ability to 'review' music. In short, this isn't a review, but rather a recollection of an experience.

I've been a fan of Arcade Fire since I heard one of their tracks on the trailer for Spike Jonze's 'Where the Wild Things Are' (turns out Jonze is a fan and collaborator as well, having directed some of their recent videos). I've subsequently bought all of their albums and they are among a select few where I actually listen to and like most of the songs as opposed to two or three standouts. This is starting to sound like some kind of promotional post, but fuck it it's my blog and I dig 'em. To my ears they sound distinctive and engaging, with lyrics that are more thoughtful than your average pop/alt-rock band.

I'm not really into going to live musical performances but I was fairly keen on Arcade Fire (and, just FYI I'd also include Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Cranberries, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Pixies on that list; and The Ramones and The White Stripes if they were still around) especially considering they have a reputation for being an exceptional live act. So naturally, when the opportunity arose I snagged a ticket (A brief aside here, apparently it's some kind of social faux pas to attend a live music event on one's own - not only was I repeatedly asked who I was going with, I also noticed very few people who seemed to be there on their own).

In short, it was a blast and I had a great time! Taking place in London's Hyde Park with somewhere around 60,000 in attendance, there was plenty to occupy one's attention before the main event, including a smorgasbord of food and drink stalls, an arcade booth, a mini cinema screening a rather disappointing short film by Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze, and the obligatory merchandising booths. A brief and inoffensive interlude of rain aside it was a bright and sunny day, a relative rarity in the British Isles.

With the exception Beirut the other opening acts who preceded Arcade Fire were ones I was unfamiliar with. Owen Pallett, The Vaccines, and Mumford and Sons (yeah these guys are famous but hey, I don't really keep track of music!) are definitely on my radar now, and discovering new music on the day was a massive plus.

I planted myself relatively close to the stage early on when the crowds were thin and the opening acts were going strong. Mass movements of people between performances caused me to be moved around like a bottle in the ocean and inadvertently got me a bit closer. When Arcade Fire finally showed up the impatient crowd exploded and were extremely vocal throughout. This was actually a bit of a problem at times as the volume levels of the band weren't all that high (due to noise restrictions in the area, apparently!); it wasn't an egregious problem but it was the only noteworthy blemish on the day.

Arcade Fire were great, energetic and enthusiastic throughout and clearly keen on putting on a good show. I had forgotten how many of them there were and the variety of instruments they had at their disposal; they would often swap instruments in between and sometimes during performances with manic intensity. Their setlist covered songs from all three albums and there was one unreleased song that was apparently a live debut. There was some interesting and sometimes surreal imagery on the screens behind them, and an exuberant use of stage lighting that may have caused seizures in any epileptics unfortunate enough to be in the audience!

It was a tiring experience that involved over seven hours of standing beginning to end, but my conclusion several weeks on is the same as it was several minutes after it ended. Totally worth it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard Feynman was one of the most famous physicists of the twentieth century - a bona fide genius and, if this book is anything to go by, a fun guy!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is in essence a transcript of taped anecdotal conversations he had with his friend Ralph Leighton. It covers Feynman's life from childhood and college through the Manhattan Project, his winning of the Nobel Prize in the mid sixties, and beyond.

Given the nature of the source material for the book, it should come as no surprise that it has a very laid back and talky style. Feynman vividly recollects and recounts various incidents, people, and ideas from his life. This covers a broad spectrum that includes his time at various universities and a lengthy section on Palo Alto. He describes his work in biology and passion for languages and music, for tinkering (he became something of a safecracker at one point!), and his late success as a painter.

Despite his obvious brilliance he never comes across as condescending or arrogant. He makes frank (often blunt) and insightful comments about people, institutions, society, and ideologies, all in a very accessible and engaging manner, and often punctuated with humour. He was also a bit of a ladies' man and he speaks with the same enthusiasm about his encounters with the opposite sex as he does when talking about physics. Speaking of physics, there are bits in here that may be too esoteric and inaccessible for the average reader, but these are few and far between and certainly don't derail the book.

The disjointed nature of the book makes it more a collection of short stories than a continuous progression, but they are all bound together by Feynman's unmistakable voice. While few people can possibly hope to achieve even a small fraction of what he did, they surely can't fail to be inspired by his unbridled curiosity and love of life, and by how his intellect was checked by modesty and humility. It's a fascinating look into the mind of a genius!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand

I didn't actually finish reading The Fountainhead. After enduring one third of this appalling book I simply gave up. This is not because of my thoughts on Rand's self centred philosophy (I wouldn't have bothered starting it if that were the case, plus there are aspects of this philosophy that I subscribe to), but rather to do with the fact that it is poorly written, overlong to the point that calling it bloated would be an understatement, repetitive, one note both tonally and in a narrative sense, and features bland, self important, one dimensional characters.

There are many things in the world that I don't like that other people do. In most of these cases, however, I can understand the appeal - at least to some extent. This leaves me with one question about this novel (and presumably Atlas Shrugged) - what on earth do its fans see in it? What is there in this novel that is of value, that makes it worth reading, apart from the fact that it is famous (not a good reason at all).  Perhaps reading it to its conclusion would enlighten me, but a quick read of the synopsis on Wikipedia suggests that the final two-thirds are as much an exercise in endurance as the first.

I can only imagine that the theme of unappreciated genius that perseveres in the face of an apathetic and sometimes downright hostile society holds some appeal to people, but in the case of this book that theme is presented with such precious little subtlety and with such an excess of childish simplicity that this theory seems unlikely; still, it's all I've got!

This marks my first and last foray into the writings of Ayn Rand.

Splice (2009)

Image from Imp Awards

Splice (2009)

Looks like the IMDB collective isn't overly fond of this one!

Splice is a sci-fi horror film about a couple of genetic engineers (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polly) who, as they tend to do in movies, take things a bit too far and secretly create a creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) that's part human and part... other things. It starts growing up rapidly and the two are forced to take care of it, adopting the role of surrogate parents. As with most infants, the creature - named Dren (nerd backwards) - yearns to escape its confinement and experience the world, which leads to some undesirable consequences.

It's a far more cerebral film than it initially appears to be, and despite the cliched 'scientists making creature in lab' premise writer/director Vincenzo Natali seems to have something more to say. Although the ubiquitous meddling with nature theme is initially front and centre the parenting, childhood, and sexuality metaphors become more dominant as the film goes on, making it more than just a creature feature. Having said that it is still a dark and moody film with very well done designs and effects that help create some icky/freaky/gory scenes. Brody and Polly are decent in this but the standout by far is Delphine Chanéac as Dren who with the aid of great makeup and CGI really does come across as an advanced but mentally immature life form.

The film is not without flaws. Many of the 'twists' in the story are telegraphed in advance and don't have nearly as much shock value as they could. Genre cliches are embraced and well executed but some of the more shocking scenes seem arbitrary. It's not overly long at 100 or so minutes but drags a bit and felt longer. Also - and I may just be really jaded - none of the scare scenes come close to being scary.

Flaws notwithstanding, it's a pretty good film that should appeal to genre fans, but not so much to the casual viewer expecting a typical horror film. It's more ambitious than that but doesn't do quite enough for me to call it a great film, just a very good one.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Source Code (2011)

(Image from Imp Awards)

Source Code

Continuing the sci-fi theme, Source Code is another film that managed to surprisingly exceed expectations. The trailer did little to inspire confidence despite the film being from Duncan Jones, the director of the superb 'Moon'; and, despite what it's title appears to promise, it has nothing to do with computer programming.

The plot reads like something from a Twilight Zone episode. Soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself in a bit of a predicament - thanks to a rather implausible combination of quantum mechanics and the last memories of a dead man, he is repeatedly sent back in time (in a sense) to inhabit the body of said dead man in the last eight minutes of his life. Said life ended when the train the man was on exploded in a terrorist attack, and the unwitting Stevens' mission is to try and determine the identity of the bomber from among the passengers in the carriage, including his fellow passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Each time through Stevens gets to relive the same eight minutes to try and gather info before the train explodes and he's returned to his own body in the present, where he is grilled by members of the 'Source Code' project (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) before being sent back again.

This sounds like a very grim version of Groundhog Day sans Bill Murray, but fortunately the film wastes little time trying to surprise its jaded 21st century audience with the mechanics of its concept as if it were a novel one. On the contrary it jumps right in with an initially incredulous Stevens trying to work out the identity of the bomber, sometimes in surprisingly humourous ways. Gyllenhaal plays earnest and desperate very effectively, with a little tortured soul vibe thrown in for good measure, and he and the reliably vivacious Monaghan play off each other nicely. The train is populated by a varied group of characters who are - fortunately - interesting without reaching Hollywood levels of quirkiness.

Another compelling aspect of the film is the downtime between iterations when Stevens deals with the Source Code team and his own personal baggage. It's made apparent from the outset that they are hiding something while putting pressure on him to determine who the bomber is before he gets a chance to strike again. This aspect of the story also works surprisingly well despite seeming trite at first glance, and it's helped along by Farmiga's performance as the stern yet compassionate liaison and Wright's borderline comical Dr Rutledge, the project's founder.

There may be some weak elements, including a villain who achieves snicker inducing levels of cliched and an ending that may disappoint some (I found it satisfactory and earned), but despite that and the seemingly shaky premise Jones and his cast and crew have crafted an entertaining and intriguing sci-fi mystery thriller that doesn't shy away from toying with grand themes like free will vs destiny (though, unlike with Adjustment Bureau, in a more pseudo-scientific way) and individual liberty. The characters are also more than just mere hackneyed plot devices, which adds considerable depth to the film.

While it is ultimately a padded out short story that still only barely crosses the 90 minute mark, what it does it does very well. Smarter and better made than most mainstream sci-fi efforts and still accessible to the average (non-retarded) film fan, it's worth your while and would make a great double bill with the Adjustment Bureau (I didn't watch them as a double bill but did see them consecutively).

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Adjustment Bureau
Romance and sci-fi are not genres that sit well together very often, so chalk this one up as one of those rare exceptions. Based on a Phillip K Dick short story, it tells the story of a an impulsive politician, David Norris (Matt Damon), who on the eve of losing a Senatorial election meets a woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), in the men's (!) while rehearsing his concession speech. The two hit it off immediately and the inspired Norris subsequently knocks his speech out of the park.

Turns out this wasn't all random chance. A secret organisation of what appear to be angels are actually pulling the strings and directing the fate of mankind, including Norris's. His meeting with Elise was orchestrated. Unfortunately this 'Adjutsment Bureau' aren't perfect and a second unplanned encounter between the two puts their grand plans for Norris in jeopardy as the pair threaten to fall in love and alter their destinies.

The film is part romance and part sci-fi thriller, and while it never gets your pulse pounding it does tell its story very well. Much has been said by critics about how well Damon and Blunt play off each other, and it's true, they do - this seems to be half the battle in any kind of on screen love story, and in this the two make a believable pairing - helped along by some decent writing - which makes their dilemmas and choices feel earned instead of contrived. Damon's the star and his affable demeanor helps sell the premise together with the very capable supporting cast of agents/angels played by Anthony Mackie, the ever icy Terence Stamp and scene stealer John Slattery.

In an era of bigger is better blockbusters, Adjustment Bureau is defiantly low key. It never gets bogged down in its grand themes of fate vs free will (though it does raise the issues) and instead focuses on the characters. Nor does it try to be large scale in terms of action or effects, though there are very effective action sequences and some wonderfully understated effects. The mechanics of the Bureau are only explained as far as is necessary for the plot, and to be honest I never felt the need for any further explanation.

This isn't going to go down as a classic, but it achieves what it sets out to do very well. It's entertaining and charming and funny, and despite there never being a genuine sense of danger in the story it manages to remain consistently engaging and even somewhat thought provoking at times. I enjoyed it and it's definitely worth a watch, even for those without an inclination towards science fiction.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Green grass, Strawberries and Cream...

... These are some of the trappings many associate with arguably the most prestigious and hallowed of tennis tournaments, the Wimbledon Championships, which are currently underway at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. As a fan of the sport of tennis for many a year, I've always wanted to make my way to Centre Court at SW19 and soak in the atmosphere while watching some of the world's finest duke it out.

Sadly, I had to settle for the Aegon Queen's Club Tournament instead, one of several warm up tournaments that take place prior to the Grand Slam of grass-court tennis. Next to Wimbledon, some would argue that this is akin to settling for a Big Mac with fries instead of a delicious treat from a more renowned purveyor of burgers. They may be right, but seeing as I'd never watched a professional tennis match outside the constraining boundaries of a television screen (or computer monitor, if you're going to be pedantic), the experience of watching some of the top men's players in the world in person is one that I shan't soon forget!

Saturday the 11th of June 2011 was the scheduled semi-finals day at Queen's Club. The weather leading up to the day had been a bit miserable, as it sometimes rather inconveniently tends to be in the British Isles. I got there early and armed with an umbrella. I also had my precious and woefully under-used camera with me, and the photos you see in this post were taken by yours truly (as if you'd mistake them for photos taken by an actual photographer!)

There is a hint of the quaint and old fashioned at Queen's Club, and perhaps a slight dash of pompousness. Upon my arrival I didn't spend too much time in the main grounds and instead proceeded to the courts. I caught Juan Martin Del Potro practicing for his delayed Quarter Final doubles match (which he went on to lose). He looks much bigger and stronger in reality - or maybe he's bulked up. This only held my attention for a short while, and I moved swiftly on to Centre Court and took my seat, snapping photos occasionally and wondering if so many ushers and burly guards were required. They probably are, but it was a little unexpected nonetheless. I guess it takes a LOT of people to run an event like this.

I didn't have long to wait before the afternoon's proceedings, err, kicked off. The first order of business on court was for the ground-staff to set up the net, which was followed by the ball-girls making their way on to the court. Shortly thereafter, the players for the first semi final, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, were introduced to enthusiastic applause, particularly for the latter home-town favourite. The players did the usual routine you see on TV at the start of any match - settling in to their seats, getting their equipment and drinks sorted, and going through the formality of the coin toss - before starting their warm up.

My vantage point wasn't exactly stellar (the photos can be misleading, such is the benefit of having the ability to zoom!), but I had a clear view of most of the court from what I found to be a favorable angle. It was a bit strange at first, witnessing these routines play out from a fixed angle and distance. I'd become so used to watching them on TV with multiple camera angles and close ups and stats on screen, that this felt far more, well... ordinary. Roddick and Murray are both top 10 players, but now they appeared to be just two guys practicing on a tennis court - albeit two obviously highly skilled tennis players.

One of the benefits of the real world view was that I could choose to observe whatever I wanted, as opposed to whatever the broadcast director dictated. You get to notice some of the peripheral details a bit better this way. There's a plethora of activity around the court with the ball girls running around and distributing balls, operating in sync with the efficiency of a well oiled machine; this activity is continuous from beginning to end.

The announcer introduced the players during their warm up while I snapped as many photos as I could - I'd already decided to focus during the match proper instead of distracting myself with the camera. The allocated warm-up time was soon spent, and a hush descended upon the stadium. This made me realize something about sound - in broadcasts it is usually selective and overlaid with commentary with the end result being that it does not accurately represent the buzz of the crowd, or at least the buzz of the crowd one experiences being IN the crowd!

The players walked out to their positions and the match commenced. Now, this may be stating the obvious but watching these guys play in real life is quite different from watching them on TV. Television adds a level of detachment and a larger-than-life aura to proceedings, and as such it's hard to compare it directly to what you know of people playing in 'real life'. I'd seen club level players before but couldn't really appreciate how different the skill level of a professional actually is in comparison (although at an intellectual level it is somewhat obvious!) The speed and agility of a top player's movements around the court and the power and spin being consistently applied to the ball are impressive to say the least. One particular aspect that is very hard to appreciate from a TV angle is how low over the net a lot of these shots can be, passing seemingly an inch or two over the net time and time again.

The match itself was somewhat disappointingly one sided, but there was still quality on display. Roddick

There was a second semi final to follow, as well as the doubles semi. I shall say no more about these as there's nothing particularly to say about them that I haven't already mentioned in this post! The weather was fortunately excellent for most of the day, and I stayed right up to the end when well over 75% of the crowd had fled (it steadily dwindled during the doubles matches). Total time spent at the court clocked in at around 6 hours, and I have to say it's unlikely I've ever clapped as much as I did that day; polite applause between points is de rigueur.

Before I conclude this post, I do feel the need to say something about doubles matches. I hardly ever watch them on TV, but watching them here made me realize that they can be entertaining and exciting even though they lack the drama and intensity and depth of the singles game. Watching the number one ranked Bryan brothers and former Indian greats Bhupathi and Paes was a treat!

In conclusion I will say that - as a fan of tennis - attending semi finals day at Queen's club was an absolute blast, certainly the most memorable tennis event of my life thus far. Mind you, this doesn't mean I intend to revisit Queen's Club any time soon (though I certainly wouldn't mind). I'd rather try to attend a Grand Slam; if you're going to spend time and money it might as well be for the biggest and best. This isn't a knock on the non Slam events as they are essential and worthwhile, just a testament to my desire to allocate my financial resources in the best possible way! Next up, hopefully Wimbledon or the ATP Year End tournament.

Fun fact - between two of the matches I tried to guess how many people were in attendance. It was a full house for the singles matches, and I approximated around six thousand. Turns out the capacity of Centre Court at Queens is seven thousand. Not too bad for a very rough estimate I think, and I still remain amazed at how so many can fit in to so small a space (and how little 7000 people actually is in a visual sense).

Friday, March 11, 2011


Let's try this again. Blog reborn complete with cheesy sequel name and tacky template.