Sunday, 18 January 2015

Film Review Time

Hello again and it’s time for my infrequent film review sections. As some of you may already know we have an arthouse cinema about 1 mile away from where we live which shows what I like to think of as Foreign ROad Movies About the Grimness of Existence (FROMAGE) and other such films that you don’t always get at the multiplex.

However increasingly it also now shows some of the mainstream films a few weeks after the other cinemas have shown them in an attempt to cover the losses of the less popular films which get a small but loyal audience: however this time around all of the films I'm going to talk about are mainstream – so there will be no mention of Brechtian overtones today.

First up I should say that during November I had a one-month trial of Netflicks which I subsequently decided to cancel – largely because in that one month I had watched pretty much everything on the lists that I wanted to. However: I did catch up on all the Marvel superhero films I had missed (Iron Man 2 and 3, Thor, Captain America etc) which were of mixed value. I also watched both seasons of Orange Is The New Black (definitely worth a watch) – and then found a new film in my “recommended to you” pile which, during a dull moment, I decided I would give a chance. That film was…

 #1: I Am Number 4

Now I have to admit I had never heard of this, but as I say: I was quite bored and there was nothing else to do – so I decided to watch it. The plot is essentially about a group of 7 children from another planet who are refugees on Earth. Each has a superhero power and a Buffy That Vampire Slayer style Watcher to look after them and keep them safe against the killer from their home planet that has come to wipe them out: a story that can only have been created with the mindset of “how much money can I make from the teen reader market that made the Twilight series so successful”

But this is where the plot gets really stupid – because the killers have to take them out in numerical order. I.e. if they bumped into number 7 now they couldn’t kill them because they haven’t killed number 3 yet. This is never explained to any great satisfaction and is utterly ludicrous.

The film trails along for nearly 2 hours with lots of explosions, some not so impressive fight set pieces and an unrealistic love interest from the previously mentioned number 7 – before I finally realised in the end credits that this was a film produced by Michael Bay – which only goes to show you should read the instructions before attempting anything, because I could have saved myself 2 hours of my life if I’d known that at the start.

My review: give it a miss. There’s nothing much to redeem this story and I can only hope that the sequel book never gets turned into a film. Not as big a waste of time as Iron Man 2 which was essentially 2 very long hours of Robert Downey Jr getting drunk – but close.

#2: Edge Of Tomorrow (or is it seems to have been retitled on DVD – Live, Die, Repeat – Edge of Tomorrow)

Now I have to admit I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise. In fact I would go so far as to say I find him slightly annoying. Even as far back as Top Gun I thought his character Maverick was a little too full of himself and that Cruise came over as being too aware of his own good looks and overconfident. As such I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch one of his films.

However: it seems that I’m not alone – because in the last couple of films I have seen him in Tom Cruise has pretty much played to this facet of his character. In Jerry Maguire he plays an overconfident, slightly annoying PR expert who learns by the end of the film to be a better person and to accept love into his life, in War Of The Worlds he plays and overconfident, slightly irritating everyman who by the end of the film learns to be a better person and a better father and in this he plays another slightly annoying, self-involved PR expert who, through his own cowardice and self-preservation finds himself on the front line of an unwinnable war against a strange alien species that looks like those rubber spiders you used to throw at the wall as a kid and watch climb down the surface.

The plot of this film is a kind of mix of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers – because every time the main character dies he pops back to life again at the start of the same day, slowly learning to be a better person and a better fighter until such time as he is capable of surviving further and further into the day.

Edge Of Tomorrow is one of those sci-fi films where plot and the pace carries you along at sufficient speed that you don’t have time to question all the bits that don’t really make much sense and it looks good enough to make you believe in the world you find yourself. There’s not much here are any intellectual level: no attempt to really find out what the aliens want or why they are attacking, or even to show them as anything other than just brutal killing machines – but that’s not really the purpose of the film.

My only real problem with the film was the ending, which without wanting to give anything away I felt was a bit of a copout.

Ultimately I enjoyed this film enough whilst I was watching it – but had no real desire to ever watch it again: so I would recommend that you wait for it to be on telly or to borrow it from a friend (as I did)

#3 Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (DOT-POTA)

I have to admit that I am something of a POTA fan and have now seen all of the films apart from the 1st of the rebooted franchise Rise…

There surely can’t be that many people in the world who aren’t aware of the original Charlton Heston movie where an astronaut arrives on a strange planet to find that the balance between man and ape has been reversed – followed by the inevitable sequels Underneath The…, Escape From…, Conquest Of… And Battle For… All of which was then followed by an ill recieved Tim Burton reboot and a further reboot, which takes us to where we are now.

There have been those who pointed out the really Dawn should’ve come before Rise – because unless they were on a night shift most people, and presumably apes, don’t rise until after the dawn – but this is a niggly point which we will swiftly gloss over (until such time as the 3rd film turns out to be called Weetabix Of The Planet Of The Apes – which is surely the next in the logical sequence of crawling out of bed)

As I said earlier I haven’t seen ROT-POTA, but this film makes enough sense on its own to be viewed alone and actually is extremely relevant to the times we are living in, because if you take away the talking apes what you are left with is a story about racial intolerance and misunderstanding and the consequences of hatred. Both sides have their reasons for disliking and mistrusting the others and ultimately it is a lack of ability to communicate and get past these issues that leads to the problems.

The CGI apes are fantastic, brought to life as usual by Andy Serkis – a man who has so far been foolishly overlooked for a best actor award – who gives Caesar a real sense of personality. It’s a fast-moving film that keep you watching all the way – but it’s only problem is that the ending suffers from this being a middle section of the longer story – i.e. it leave you hanging for the next instalment.

Ultimately I found this an engaging film with enough going on to leave you asking questions and interested enough to want to see the next one.

#4: The Lego Movie

This has been one of the big surprise successes of 2014 – a film about consumerism gone mad, creativity and oddly about individuality in a world demanding uniformity, but with jokes and, of course, Batman.

The story follows an everyday worker who comes to believe that he is the chosen one of a prophecy to save Legoland and his wacky adventures. It’s also a film about how we deal with change: so for a children’s film starring a bunch of CGI animated bricks there’s a lot more going on here than jokes. 

Perhaps it was the fact that I saw it on quite a small TV screen – but although I found this passed the time I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought was going to. I kind of feel that I need to give it another chance on a larger screen and perhaps I might enjoy it more then – but I also saw some episodes of the Lego Yoda Chronicles shortly after and laughed twice as hard at the jokes in that as I did those in the movie.

I’d be interested to know if anyone reading this has seen this film and enjoyed it more than I did as I know a lot of people thought it was amazing – because at the moment I'm a little bit ambivalent.

#5: Paddington

Anyone who has grown up in England, certainly during the 1970s, will be aware of Michael Bond’s stories about a refugee bear who comes to London and moves in with an everyday family – certainly I grew up with the BBC’s animated series voiced by Michael Horden (which had the supporting characters of the Brown family shown as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts and Paddington himself as the only 3-D colour character and was utterly charming as a result)

Paddington is a rare talking bear who wears a duffel coat, red hat and has a fascination with marmalade sandwiches – he is well-meaning but slightly innocent and often gets into trouble by trying to be helpful.

I think there were a lot of people who, when hearing that there was going to be a film, panicked that the charm of the 70s TV series would be lost and it would be ruined forever. Certainly when stories started coming through that the original voice of Paddington (Colin Firth) had been replaced halfway through filming there was a certain trepidation that it was going to be awful.

However – as it turned out we couldn’t have been more wrong. From the opening sequence to the end credits this film doesn’t put a single step wrong and it would take a person much more cynical than myself to watch this film without smiling from start to end and laughing out loud on several occasions. I have never applauded a film as I find it a bit weird to applaud people who aren’t there – but when at the end of the movie the audience began to clap I nearly found myself joining in.

This is a cast that includes Hugh Bonneville as the safety conscious Mr Brown, Julie Walters as the dotty aunt/gran figure, the fabulous Ben Wishaw as the voice of Paddington and Nicole Kidman having a whale of a time as the evil taxidermist. Even the addition of the calypso band D Lime who appear as a small running joke on the streets at various times adds to the charm of this film.

The CGI of Paddington is such that you completely accept him as a real character and you genuinely find yourself on the edge of your seat at times of peril and at 90 minutes the film feels exactly the right length. Although this is essentially a children's film it's intelligent and funny enough to please any adult and to bring out the inner child.

I know this film may be hard to find outside the UK – but if you get the chance to go see this please do, because this is quite simply the best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Schrodinger's Socks

It is often said of quantum physics that anyone who says that they understand it needs to go back and have another look, because they clearly don’t.

For instance: there is a wild and wacky world of subatomic particles. If you take two waves in a tank of water and fire them off at the same time when they meet they will interfere with each other, creating further waves. So far so simple.

However if you take a single subatomic particle and fire it at a wall it will, like a 13-year-old boy with a poster of Lady Gaga, interfere with itself (and yes, I’m aware that’s a slightly disturbing analogy). Subatomic particles also react differently depending on whether you observe them or not.

Now there are those that say that quantum physics has no real-life applications: however, they are wrong… especially when it comes to the subject of socks. For instance: take a bunch of washing, including a variety of socks in pairs and put them into your washing machine.

No matter how hard you observe them there will be no correlation between the amount of socks you put into the machine and the amount that you take out.

This is known as Argyle’s Uncertainty Principle, which also goes on to talk about the differentiation between the amount of socks taken out of the machine, hung on the clothes line and eventually paired up into socks.

There is currently no theory as to why this number, expressed mathematically as S = ((WM/CL)x(Px2)), again fails to explain why you can never find a pair of socks in the morning.

It is also a little-known fact that Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment initially had a different subject.

As some of you will be aware Schrödinger postulated that if you were to take a cat and put it in a box with a radioactive isotope then there were 3 possible options: 1) you would open the box to a hissing the ball of fur and claws and win a free trip to hospital, 2) you would open the box to find the cat had asphyxiated or 3) you would open the box to find that the cat had died from radiation poisoning – however until such time as you open the box and observed the contents the cat existed in a state of quantum flux where all 3 possibilities existed at the same time. 

However what is generally less well-known is that after a visit from the Cat Protection League, where Schrödinger spent a very frustrating 12 hours patiently trying to explain that in fact he didn’t even own a cat (something he couldn’t entirely prove because the mere fact that it wasn’t there wasn’t necessarily evidence he didn’t have one), he initially decided to publish his theory as being about being given socks for Christmas: which went likethis...

A present under the Christmas tree that looks like socks, feels like socks and is from a relative world renowned for always providing you with socks does, in fact, only have the potential to be socks until such time as it has opened – until when it could equally be a packet of Jelly Tots, completely empty or something that was actually intended for different relative entirely.

So when your relatives turn up on Christmas day take a moment before you open your presents to hold one up and say: “I don’t know if you realise it, but I am holding in my hand the essence of quantum physics” – they will either be mightily impressed, or they will run for the hills: which depending on how you feel about your relatives can be considered a win-win solution

Merry Christmas and hope to see you in 2015

Monday, 8 September 2014

Little Boxes

It’s late.  The world outside has long since turned to darkness.  The station is empty; only the echo of distant footsteps and the constant blare of the tannoy give it any sense of life.  The doors of the train open and I step inside, making myself comfortable for the two hour journey, turning the space available into my world: enclosing myself away from the rest of the train as I plug in my headphones and listen to the podcast on my phone.

The train is busier than I expected it to be: each person settling in to position in their own way: one is reading the free newspaper from the station, another watches downloaded content on their tablet whilst a third stretches himself over his bag and sinks slowly into sleep.

A few stops down a young couple enter the train and sit opposite me.; their legs intertwining, arms resting on each other’s arms, heads naturally leaning in towards each other.  They talk in low tones as he pulls a receipt from his pocket and draws a grid of dots: ten by ten, resting the paper on her knee. Taking it in turns to pass the pen they draw line after line, trying not to give the other a chance to draw a box.  They are totally lost within their own world now and I try not to watch too intently: choosing instead to pick up a paper or watch their reflection in the darkened window. They could have the whole of the train to themselves but instead they linger in an ever decreasing space, shut off from the rest of the carriage.

The game becomes more serious as she makes a mistake and leaves him open to make a box, putting his initial in the centre and taking an extra turn.  She flirts, perhaps trying to distract him, whispering into his ear: their heads almost touching now.

The train rumbles on through the night: the occasional voice of the tannoy announcer the only reminder that there is a world outside our little enclosure.

Finally my stop arrives and I get up, taking a last look at the scrap of paper before I head towards the door.  He is winning the game: but I wonder who is winning the war.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Run Up To Christmas List-o-Fives

Well it's nearly that time of year and Santa has come early to our house - or at least to a member of our household.

That is to say that one of our presents this year was a box of goodies that we cleared out to make space on the floor - only for Giles to decide that the box was a fantastic new place to sit.

And so it is that several days later the empty, decorated box is still in the centre of our floor - only now it is slightly more of an obstacle because of the semi-resident cat.

So whilst Giles prepares himself for Christmas how are the rest of the Pixie Clan getting ourselves in the mood for some Chrimbo Cheer whilst working ever-so-hard (honest) in our jobs in the run up to some much needed time off?

Well, as the long suffering readers of this blog will know I am rather fond of creating List-o-Fives (none of which ever add up to only five) and so here's a list of things that we often share to get us in the mood:  

Christmas Televisual Feasts (available on "terrestrial" TV - ie non-subscription channels): 

#1: Doctor Who (Christmas Day)
Back in the 1960s a single episode of Dr Who aired on Christmas Day.  It was, for the officianadoes out there, a middle episode of The Dalek Masterplan (13 episodes long) called "The Feast Of Stephen" - it was the last time the show would air on Christmas Day for 40 years.  However, ever since the re-boot of the show about 7-8 years ago it has been an annual thing.  This year sees the final story of current incumbent in the title role Matt Smith running around yelling a lot and waving a sonic screwdriver at anything and everything - threatening to assemble ad-hoc furniture at every turn (presumably).  The last few have been a bit disappointing so I am hoping for a return to form this year as we see the arrival of Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor...

#2: The Sound Of Music
Some time in the 1980s they passed the Von Trapp Law meaning that it was illegal for The Sound Of Music to be left out of the Christmas schedule from thereon - or so it feels as every yuletide the screens fill with what feels like six hours of tap-dancing nazis.  After all: what could be more festive?  The way that most people watch this film is in bits -the first hour one year, the last hour another year and the twelve hours in between in odd bits whilst avoiding the Queen's Speech.  Very few people watch it in a single sitting unless they are really, really bored.

#3: Cassablanca
Don't ask me why this is part of the festive programming but as with Sound Of Music it is now on every year.  A fascinating fact is that Ronald Regan was, at one point, in line for the role of Rick so we must be eternally greatful that they elected him President instead...err.....

#4: Father Ted Christmas Special
The hapless residents of Craggy Island get lost in Habit-hat (a specialist shop for Priests...) and narrowly avert a scandal thanks to the quick thinking of Ted: who is awarded a Golden Cleric award as a result.  Father Ted was a fantastically daft and funny sit-com, cut short too soon by the death of it's star. 

#5: Blackadder's Christmas Carol
Ebeneezer Blackadder, the white sheep of the dastardly family, is visited by the spirit of Christmas who inadvertently shows him how much better off he'd be if he were evil.  Blackadder is still one of my favourite all time sit-coms and this subversive version of Charles Dickens is amongst the best on offer.

#6: It's A Wonderful Life
So it turns out that my mother has never seen It's A Wonderful Life and, when i described it to her, she said "well that doesn't sound much fun" (or words to that effect).  She is, of course, wrong - the film is rather odd because it's mostly slightly depressing until the uplifting bit where if you don't cry then, quite frankly, you have no soul.  James Stewart is, as always, a joy to watch - but be warned: if I find out that if you watched the colourized version instead of the original black and white i shall be severely disappointed with you to say the least.

#7: The Box Of Delights
A children's TV series that first ran in the early 1980s about a magic box, an incredibly posh young boy and a ripping adventure yarn that could only ever be written in England.  True some of the special effects were naff even then but it still has a certain sense of magic.  The best way to watch this is episodically so that the final episode falls on Christmas Eve (which is when it is based to happen)

Some other films for your consideration:
The Wizard Of Oz (Herself insists its on at Christmas - not aware of it myself but it wouldn't surprise me in the least)
Scrooged/The Muppett Christmas Carol - one or the other of these is always on and both are worth your time

Merry Christmas to all bloggers

Saturday, 23 November 2013

An Unsung Hero: Terrance Dicks (Dr Who 50th Anniversary Post)

I've been thinking a lot over the last week how best to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of science-fiction phenomenon Doctor Who.

It's hard to believe that fifty years ago this weekend William Hartnell first appeared on screen in the TARDIS, the programme delayed in transmission by the incoming news of John F Kennedy's assasination and I doubt that anyone involved in that first story could have had any idea that it would still be going half a century later.

I only really started watching in the late seventies when the great almighty Tom Baker was Doctor - and in his portrayal I found a character that would be my hero for all the years to come: strong, corageous, vulnerable, always a pacifist and with a great sense of wonder at the world.  Tom would always enter a room as if it were the most fantastic place he had ever been to and his childish joy was infectious.

But every bit as much as I loved the TV series I was even more hooked on the novelisations.  Back in the days before home video recorders (or when they were too expensive for most people to own) reading the adaptations of the old stories whether borrowed from the library (I think my first novelisation was Meglos, with a picture of Tom Baker covered in cactus thorns on the front), found at a seaside shop, in WH Smiths or, later on, at a second-hand book shop where I spent all of my meagre weekly income they were a window to a world of imagination where anything was possible.

So on the anniversary of the first broadcast of what is now a TV icon I would like to celebrate Terrance Dicks.  Dicks was script editor from Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor), Jon Pertwee (3rd) and into the early 4th (Tom Baker) and would continue to write occasional scripts into the Peter Davison era (5th)

However it was in the 70s that Target Books first acquired the rights to novelize old stories and it was to Dicks that they first turned when individual writers were not interested in amending their scripts for the meagre salary on offer.  This meant that Dicks would eventually write about 70% of the books published during that period.

The books had a strict remit: no more than 120 pages per book: meaning that Dicks was forced to take stories that had been padded out into ten episodes and strip them down to the bone, so that you got all of the story, all of the action and none of the boring bits.  This made the books tremendously exciting to read for a young boy and lead to a lifelong love of reading, as well as influencing my own writing style.

So whilst there are many names that contributed to the longevity of the show it is to Terrance Dicks that I give thanks.  Long may his contribution be remembered and celebrated: and long may young people across the world be encouraged to read and to find doing so as genuinely exciting as I did. 

Monday, 11 November 2013


We weren't initially sure about adopting Willow.  Not that we didn't want her: I think we both fell for her charms the first time she wandered into the house and ran past us, we just weren't sure that she would settle somewhere new.

She was so nervous around people, running for cover if you approached, complaining loudly if you picked her up: so when we first agreed to adopt both her and Charlie we took him in first and waited for him to settle in...and waited...and waited.  

The truth was, however, that he just wasn't happy without her and so we opened the door and let her in.  For about the first half hour she stood and miowed at the door asking to go out and then, without any further complaint, came and sat next to me on the chair, asking to have her belly rubbed.

From then on she became famous for her loud demands for fuss and attention, poking her nose into my food, even starring on many of my conference calls for work where the inevitable question "Have you got a baby there?" would be met with my, "No, that's just Willow"
Willowpuss had a very distinctive method of going down stairs, two paws at a time in a bunny like lollop which always  caused her bell to jingle as she went.  On a hard surface her constant tap-tap-tap was like a woman walking in stilettoes and she had to fight Charlie for food: choosing to pick and return later.

When Charlie died in 2010 she took it as a signal to take over the rest of the house and would come and join us on the bed, or sometimes be found hiding under the covers looking for warmth.  She was much more of an indoors cat, being somewhat elderly, but on a good summer's day she would venture out into the back garden and sit in the sun by the shed or, in the winter, she would be found in her bed by the radiator.

When Giles first arrived she was not overly impressed, and objected several times by weeing on the bed until we were left with no laundry other than a sleeping bag to huddle under and she finally realized that he was staying.  On the whole they got along after that, although Giles would sometimes chase her around the house and she rarely came onto the bed again after he made it one of his places.

Miss Willow had been having kidney problems for about three years: had been on special food, when we could keep it away from Mr Giles and, more recently, on nightly pills for her blood pressure and kidneys: but other than that her health had mostly been good until this last five or six days when it became obvious that she was not eating properly.  She even turned her nose up at cheese, when she had previously been famous for hearing a slice of cheese being cut from forty paces.  Also she was spending a lot more time sitting on laps, something which had always been a rarity.  She even sat on Herself's lap, which was almost unheard of.

Finally it became obvious that she was losing weight and having some trouble climbing onto the sofa.  Then on Sunday, yesterday, she was struggling to walk in a straight line and this morning it was clear that she had been distressed and over-preening herself.

We took her to the vets first thing, realizing it would be cruel to make her suffer any longer, holding her and stroking her until it was over.  Herself and I stood in the car park afterwards, holding each other in the rain.

Goodbye sweet Willow puss, we love you x

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Combat Rock

Oxford Street is never quiet.  Even at 8pm when most high streets would be closing, the barriers coming down whilst tired shop assistants trudge towards a distant bus, it is frenetic: the coffee bars showing no sign of bringing in their seats for the night, the loud music still blaring from the speakers of the fashion establishments.

At lunch time it is worse: the crowds closing in on the pavement, making it impossible to move without playing a never ending chess game of manoeuvre, take and retreat to reach your destination.  

I only have about half an hour so I'm moving fast and trying to think ten steps ahead as I cross the road, turning right into the edge of Soho.  Immediately it's a different world.  The paint on the buildings seems more worn, the streets narrower and the tone of the shops changes from chain store to struggling business.  As I pass the travel agents, the hairdressers and the eateries here I feel sure that if I were to step inside and ask the right questions I would be directed towards the Ladies Of Negotiable Virtue waiting on the upper floors to deal with my enquiries (1)

Just down the road is the shop I'm looking for.  Apparently it was once a hang out for the disassociated youth but now it looks like it is mostly between jobs: taking whatever temporary trade comes its way.  I step inside and am pleased to see that there are others present and that they are more genteel than perhaps I was expecting.  On the left as I enter is the inevitable Over Priced Merchandise store with an array of T-shirts, mugs, albums and other purchasable paraphernalia whilst at the back I can see some evidence of what is to come in the shape of two elderly, battered and yet still inviting electric guitars.

Behind the counter where the shop assistants stand is a flight of stairs heading down below the ground and again I can hear murmured conversation from beneath.  There is a good crowd down here too despite the fact that the exhibition has been open for more than a week: mostly people who are a) slightly older than me and b) in my youth I would have steered clear of.

There's a coffin like container against the far wall, in which lies the shattered remains of a bass guitar that was smashed into three large pieces by its owner, generating one of the most iconic rock images of all time (see above), to the right there is a wall of perspex and through the letters of the name of the band I can see the other items on display.  Some are more interesting than others: the gold disks for instance are perhaps inevitable,  but the hand written set lists, type writer containing lyric sheets and even a chord diagram drawn by one of the members hints at much more.  Scattered in between the rare 7" singles are jackets and boiler suits worn by the band and just the occasional hint of the wider scene that they were a part of.

The only shame is that I have so little time and before I've really had a chance to look around I have to be going: heading back up to the ground floor where I take a brief second to wonder whether spending £20 on a Punk Rock T-shirt is a sensible decision for a Man Of My Advancing Years (yes, I decide, it is) and head out.

Across the road I catch a glimpse of an independent record shop called Sister Ray, which tells me all I need to know about the establishment (2) and I take a brief look inside: sure enough it is a dimly lit rabbit warren filled with nervous looking men in long jackets spending their days looking in vein for an original pressing of some deleted Frank Zappa album.  I know I will have to come again.

(1) I think Ladies Of Negotiable Virtue is a much nicer phrase than Prostitute don't you?  Plus it also sounds like a good name for a band.
(2) Sister Ray - a Velvet Underground/Lou Reed tracks

NB: For all those not familiar with the British punk rock scene of the 1970s let me bring you up to speed by telling you that The Clash (whose pop up exhibition this post is about) were probably one of the most important and influential.  If you don't believe me watch the below