Saturday, 22 March 2014

Newcastle Film & Comic Convention - March 2014

It may be time to consider the title of this blog as I am spending more time in the North-East with the significant other! A couple of weeks back, I was enjoying myself at the Metro Arena for the first - and clearly not the last - Newcastle Film and Comic Convention.

Organised by the clearly experienced Collectormania company, the Convention nonetheless made local headlines when the two-day event was swamped beyond all predictions, leaving many - including some with advance tickets - queueing for hours in the bitter weather. According to the BBC's local news, attendance reached 15,000 which is a staggering figure outside London!

I luckily avoided this issue by sheer luck, turning up at around 10:00am on Saturday to buy on the door. Only an hour after doors opened, and the queue stretched the length of the Arena, but moved at a fairly impressive pace. Once inside, we decided to buy advance tickets for the following day in case the queues were longer. It wasn't until the early afternoon that I noticed visitors stopped at the doors - by this point the Convention was operating on the frankly barbaric one-in, one-out policy.

In Collectormania's defence, nobody could have anticipated the explosion of enthusiasm in Newcastle - when the cult convention circuit is dominated by the MCM Expo events of London and Manchester. It's heartening to see such focus moving further up the country, and I fully anticipate the convention staff being ready for a similarly impressive turn-out next year. Letting down advance ticket holders is a serious failing, it should be observed, but at the same time it is a rite of passage for convention attendance, when one realises the importance of turning up early!

A core component of these events, and a major motivation for my attendance, are the guests and NFCC scored a hat trick with the signing of three former Doctor Who main stars - Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann. Always firm favourites amongst the fans, even Colin Baker's inability to attend didn't dampen their enthusiasm. It was well-rewarded too - Sylvester McCoy is a consummate showman, and peppers his hilarious anecdotes with the clowning mischief that defined his early portrayal of the Seventh Doctor.
That mischief seemed most obvious when he casually dropped into the Q&A his knowledge that Peter Capaldi would be facing perennial nemesis The Master at some point - seemingly so effectively killed during John Simm's tenure. The sound of so many people gasping at once is quite unusual, I can assure you!

There were no spoilers from McCoy's replacement (in more ways than one), Paul McGann. The remarkably fresh-faced veteran actor wears none of his fifty-five years, and instead was a dry and witty spirit who seems to personally enshrine so much of the Eighth Doctor's charming bemusement. His reaction to the riotous fan approval of The Night of the Doctor was atypically British astonishment, his passion for the Audio adventures that have extended his Doctor's life is conversely so apparent. Although I have seen McCoy at conventions previously, McGann's Q&A was a new delight and I only believe it could have been bettered by having both men together. However, I doubt anyone else could have got a word in edgeways!

Fan enthusiasm also manifests itself in the Cosplay, easily the most visual component of any Convention. From obscure Japanese anime characters to expertly armoured members of the elite 501st Legion of Stormtroopers, via impossibly young and pouting clones of the BBC's Sherlock, the turn-out at NFCC was another healthy indicator of the fan potential in the North-East.
In my own small way I contributed, clearly to Sylvester's amusement - although any fan worth his salt knows McCoy personally disliked the most garish element of his outfit, the question-mark pullover. A core component of the recently-passed Ken Trew's design, McCoy has mellowed on his outre outfit in recent years, but between the novels set after the 1989 finale and the 1996 telemovie, McCoy's outfit never again featured that novelty knitwear!

Returning on the Sunday - this time with early-bird ticket clutched tightly in hand - we were whisked inside promptly and back for another circuit of the traders and merchandisers who make up the third, core part of a successful convention. Obviously the greatest portion is given over to the sale of back-issues of comics and DVDs of classic films, with the infamous Star Wars holiday special now in the front-lines of any self-respecting stallholder. The merchandise is catching up rapidly, and for the recent convert entire stalls exist to furnish the willing with whatever novelty headwear or mock weapons their costuming fantasies desire.

Recognition of that effort is also embraced by convention staff, and on Sunday I was actually collared by organisers of the Cosplay Masquerade, a procession of attendees in notably unique outfits. Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently paid my modest respects to the passing of Harold Ramis, and in keeping I had donned the original children's toys from the Eighties that comprised his outfit.
This originality had piqued the interest of the Masquerade staff, and before long I was stood on stage before several hundred convention visitors, who were cheering as I posed for photographs and laughs. Looking back, if anyone was to ask me - rightly so - what a grown man was playing at, wearing fancy dress like a child, I would tell them the satisfaction of giving amusement and entertainment to so many is utterly incomparable. I might not have won the Masquerade competition, and sincerely have no regrets. To take part is a singular honour, and gives such satisfaction in and of itself.

Wearily now, my friends and I took our leave, pausing only by a fan-made replica of the TARDIS console from Paul McGann's single televised excursion. Looking at this magnificent reproduction, I have to congratulate the organisers of the Newcastle Film and Comic Con for setting up - but even more so, I must praise the fans for convincing people to host a Convention here at all, and to turn out in such numbers and enthusiasm to make it all so very worth while.

My thanks to you all, and I shall see you all next year!

Monday, 17 March 2014

REVIEW: Wes Anderson's 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

Agatha is one of the myriad characters in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, who works in a bakery, crafting exquisite cakes that one might associate more with the confectionery of Switzerland. Nevertheless it’s excellent visual shorthand for the generic Eastern European locale in which the titular hotel is situated, and a perfect metaphor for Anderson’s comedy-drama epic.

An elegantly spun, saccharine tasting construction, light on the palette, the film is gorgeous, lavish with vision and design and style. It venerates the cloying decadence of the last century, which still endures at the titular hotel in a kind of bubble – overseen by Ralph Fiennes’ polished, flowery, highly-strung Concierge, M. Gustave. Indeed, another character describes how Gustave maintains an illusion of the cultured excess of European ultra high-class, even as the continent itself slips inevitably into the horrors of the industrial age – a world war is the menacing shadow cast across proceedings.

Under his dedicated watch, the Hotel turns like greased clockwork – another metaphor for Anderson’s direction, as the film clicks neatly through its sequences at a brisk rate. Equally dedicated is the Concierge’s attention to the wealthy, unsatisfied and rich dowagers in a darkly comic sequence. It is the untimely demise of one of M. Gustave’s ‘clients’ – portrayed by the chameleonic Tilda Swinton – that propels our protagonist into a madcap adventure through snowy high-speed pursuits, dramatic hotel shoot-outs and grim train-bound confrontations.
Familiar faces flash by like stations we aren’t visiting – Bill Murray’s quasi-angelic concierge ex machina, Edward Norton’s dogged Javert-style policeman, Jeff Goldblum’s ponderous and unflappable Freud-inspired lawyer. Even the full-time villains – twitching, crazed Adrian Brody and impressively sadistic William Dafoe – feel like they are wheeled onto set, deliver their performance and are quickly shuffled back into storage until their next scene.

Illusion is at the heart of Grand Hotel Budapest. The Hotel is a safe haven for those fleeing reality – fleeing loveless lives for Gustave’s embrace, fleeing impending war for the pampering of nineteenth-century indulgence, fleeing nemeses to escape in its endless, echoing halls. By the end of the film, F. Murray Abraham’s character Zero has fled all his losses of his life for the now decaying and decrepit hotel, which is his last link to a happier past. All are illusions of safety and contentment that collapse, one by one, like dominoes falling, and the delicate icing on the start of this movie has become sour crumbs.

As the film concludes, we find we are leaving an old man’s reminiscence, only to find ourselves back with the author who wrote the story based on his tale. We then find we are leaving his reminiscence, and find ourselves with the young girl who read the author’s book. There are so many layers to this film, and yet each is the only the depth of a mirror or a fantasy. You’ll find it a glorious spectacle that enthralls so long as it is seen, and disappears as easily as a half-remembered dream the moment you step through the cinema doors.