Thursday, December 31, 2009

My favourite films of 2009

This hasn't been a vintage year for me in terms of seeing new films. A combination of extreme busyness and Cath not being well has conspired to prevent me from going to the cinema as often as I'd like. But still I've see a few good films and as it's New Year's Eve, I thought I'd select my favourites, and disappointments, for 2009.

First up, my absolute favourite:

From the opening few minutes where an entire life of love and loss is told with very few words, but tremendous emotional impact, I knew this was going to be a slightly different 'kid's film'. True, it got a bit silly at times after that, but there were enough subplots and funny moments to laugh at, and above all, it did emotion without lapsing into sentimentality too much. Of course, there was some, because it's a movie. But overall the film was positive and life-affirming. (And I loved Doug the Dog.)

What next? Well, there have been some strong animations out this year. I really enjoyed Monsters versus Aliens, which was very funny and a bit more than your average cartoon. I also thought Coraline was very well made: a genuinely creepy storyline for kids that made me feel slightly scared at times (I don't do horror films as a rule). Surrogates was an interesting science fiction film that posed some good questions and ended at the right point in the story rather than tacking on another half an hour of meaningless explosions and stunts that some films have (The Island, anyone?). And Slumdog Millionaire lived up to the hype for me and was worthy of its Oscar successes.

But my Runner Up Film of the Year would be a tie between the franchise reboot of Star Trek and one I saw just a couple of days ago: Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law.

I admit, after Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr is my male eye candy of choice. Combined with Jude Law as bickering buddies, in a silly, but excellently well put together adventure yarn, what's not to like? I felt the film captured the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I've read, if not the letter. And as my Mum said, it was so nice to see an adaptation that turned Watson into a character, rather than a dullard to enable Holmes to explain the plot to the audience.

As for Star Trek, well, I was just bowled over by it really. I raved about it earlier in the year, and will probably get it on DVD at some point. All the points I made about it in the earlier review still stand - I liked the humour, the nods to the classic series, the acting. Just about everything worked.

So, I was surprised by how much I liked Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek, but for me the title of Most Surprising Film of the Year would have to be 17 Again, featuring teen heart throb Zac Efron. I watched this DVD with no expectations and enjoyed it a lot. There are plenty of funny jokes, Efron can act, the actors around him were very good too, and the plot was corny but the right kind of corny. Definitely better than I expected and I've even been tempted to watch it again.

On to the disappointments. Well, a few sequels fell flat for me. Fast and Furious was, bizarrely, quite slow-paced, and I don't see the point of a stunt film that uses CGI to make the stunts happen. Also to bill it as a reunion of the original cast and then kill off Michelle Rodriguez five minutes in was a bit crap. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen simply couldn't live up to the brilliance of the original, and didn't. Ironically too many robots and not enough humans did for it.

But my worst film of the year promised much and delivered nothing. Tropic Thunder was a sprawling mess of a movie. The concept could have worked, but it just seemed the director wanted to make too many in-jokes about people in Hollywood. And the problem with in-jokes is that if you're not in on them then they just aren't funny. After about ten minutes I was done, but the movie dragged on far longer, and considering who was in it (Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr) has got to be a contender for worst utilisation of filmic talent ever.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

10 'Best Bits' of 2009

These aren't the only good bits, but they are ten things that made me feel good this year.

1) Getting prayed for by a Bishop before he interviewed me for a job at Lambeth Palace. (I didn't get the job but it was a great experience.)

2) Buying my first new phone in a decade. I need never be out of reach of Facebook ever again!

3) Being rated the number one presentation at our work's Staff Conference, beating all the 'star names'.

4) Being interviewed in the studio by Premier Radio. I've also done several interviews for UCB and will now be doing a monthly slot!

5) Finally getting copies of the book I wrote a chapter for in the post. (I'd written it back in 2007!)

6) Seeing The Tragically Hip in Manchester and Glasgow. And getting to sing into the mic in Glasgow - I still haven't really come down after that.

7) Getting the weather we wanted at Soul Survivor, for once.

8) Two early morning dips in the sea on our youth weekend on the Gower. The water was freezing and yet surprisingly I loved it.

9) Playing on Cathy's Nintendo Wii - getting a gold medal on Tank is one of my ambitions for 2010.

10) Cadbury's going fair trade on a growing number of their chocolates. (Okay, there's rumours they may be bought out by Kraft or the scumbags of evil Nestle, but even so one of the big boys has finally, finally, got the Fair Trade label on their chocolate and apparently others are going to follow suit.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I was someone else's highlight of the year

Just got out of our last department meeting of the year where we were all asked to say what our highlight of the year had been.

My Head of Department said that after a torturous hour and a half presentation at the staff conference, me getting up and doing my bit was his absolute highlight. "It changed the course of the day."

Of course my 'bit' included this:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Something I never thought I'd hear my Dad say...

"If you didn't see it, you can always catch it on i-Player."

Seriously, if you knew my Dad you'd have had your flabber totally gasted just like I did.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Musical review: ‘Cappuccino Girls’ at The Gate, Cardiff

Billed as ‘Sex and the City meets Desperate Housewives’ and with predominantly pink posters and other marketing, this show obviously wasn’t aimed at blokes. As my mate Ian said “It was alright… if you have ovaries.” Cathy disagreed. She has ovaries and she wasn’t keen on it.

So what was wrong? Well, technically it was very good. The songs were good, the acting was generally of a very high standard (two actors were much better than the others, but that’s always the way), the plot was okay (with some ‘twists’ you could see coming from the middle of the first act), the venue was, well, if you’ve been to The Gate, you’ll know how it looks like a good venue until you actually have to sit in it for more than five minutes.

But as a show it left me feeling dissatisfied and slightly uneasy. [[[spoiler alert]]] The concluding happy ending happens when one character comes into money – more specifically £20million – and is able to pay for a bone marrow transplant and bankroll her friend’s magazine. So, money is the answer to all of life’s problems, is it?

Well, fine and dandy if you have an estranged dad to leave you £20million, but if you don’t, it’s fair to say you’re screwed. A far more satisfying story would have been if the girls had to find a happy ending without the financial fallback of a sudden windfall. Maybe one of them would have to give up their childhood sweetheart in order to stay with her husband, the bone-marrow donor, or another scenario. It would have been a darker show, but a better one.

Every musical has a message, for good or ill, and this was no different – a father trying to make good his wrongs and set his child free. But there are other ways that could be done on stage, without the insinuated message that money sets you free and solves your issues for you.

And there’s also the edge that this was billed as a celebration of independent women, drawing strength from each other, and taking on the world. But their independence in the end stemmed from a fortune left to them by a penitent father, rendering all their independence as a result of paternalistic largesse. Instead of the respect earned by building up a magazine circulation and reputation from scratch, being bank-rolled by a millionaire friend isn’t exactly the triumph of hopes and dreams that it was portrayed as.

Hardly a celebration of emancipated womanhood.

Ultimately, Cappuccino Girls lived up to its name. Frothy like the coffee, and girls, not women, living out a fantasy where they are saved from the harsh reality of life.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Tragically Hip - Live at The Garage, Glasgow

The night after we saw the Hip in Manchester we drove North on the M6 until it became the M74 across the border in Scotland. It didn’t take too long to reach Glasgow, or to find our hotel, right in the centre.

The gig was at The Garage on Sauchiehall Street, the long main street in Glasgow with just about everything on it. Our hotel was on one of the streets off Sauchiehall Street, and was literally about 300 yards away form the venue. We walked up the street, and turned left and there it was.

Again there were several Canadians present in the crowd. I got talking to one who was incredibly excited to meet a British fan! Her partner was very chatty too, although he’d never really heard of the band.

Like the previous night, the Hip did two sets. They started off with New Orleans is Sinking – the song they’d concluded with the previous night. In a bizarre way, that made it feel like the gig was a continuation of where they left off. For the first set I left Cathy in the safety and comfort of a booth (yes, they had seats!) and pushed my way to the front of the crowd. I was ecstatic when they played Fireworks, my favourite song, which had been omitted from the Manchester set-list. They also played The Drop-off, which I love, despite containing the rudest borderline blasphemy in any Hip song.

For the second set I joined Cathy in the booth, where we could stand on the seats (naughty us!) and get a great view over the crowd. They began with a couple of acoustic numbers, like the night before, but played different ones, including Wheat Kings, which the crowd swayed along to. A few people even held up lighters, which is rare at gigs nowadays.

Again, Gord Downie’s interaction with the crowd was worth the ticket price alone. He told one person to lower their Canadian flag in the most egomaniacal way possible: “Don’t let your nationalism obscure people’s view of me!” His rampage off the topic in At the Hundredth Meridian included quizzing members of the audience about where their camera-phones were when security had to intervene in a scuffle. And then he did the most brilliant thing ever!

During the final song of the set (My Music at Work) he jumped off the stage into the crowd. Then he climbed up on the first booth near the front. He climbed over the seat into the second booth and hugged the large drunk lady who was standing on a table. Then he climbed into the booth next to us.

I thought ‘He won’t keep coming’. But he did. The next second he had climbed into our booth and was pointing the microphone at me in time for me to sing ‘My Music at Work’. He passed the mic to another guy, hugged the girl next to me and then jumped from the booth into the audience and pushed his way back through to the stage.

The girl next to me (who had raised her pint glass to me because I knew all the words to the bit in Hundredth Meridian where it talks about Ry Cooder) was immediately shouting into her phone. She had called Canada to tell a friend about her close encounter. Meanwhile I was just stunned. Fortunately, Cathy had got a photo of it so I knew it had actually happened!

They came back on for a short encore, and played the song that everyone had been fruitlessly shouting for in Manchester: Little Bones. Then the lights came up and we spilled out onto a fairly quiet Sauchiehall Street. I was slightly punch-drunk with excitement and texted as many people I could think of who would in any way care.

The funny thing is that after Manchester, I had wondered whether we were being silly going on to Glasgow. In the morning in Manchester Central Travelodge, I had temporarily regretted buying tickets for both nights. We’d seen them once. Was it really worth seeing them again?

Turns out it so was.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Tragically Hip – Live at Manchester Academy 3

It’s been a week now since I saw my favourite band live in Manchester and I feel I ought to write it up even though no one has heard of them or could care less really.

We arrived in Manchester and checked in at our hotel really easily. After a short wander round the Christmas markets and tea at Pizza Express, we walked about a mile south to the University Campus.

Academy 3 is a small room on the top floor of the Union Building. It had a low ceiling, a bar, a sound-desk, and just about enough room for 400 Canadians. Hip singer Gordon (Gord) Downie described it as “a bunker” during this show. It sure felt like that, particularly as the sound came at us like a wall of noise.

The reference to Canadians in the previous paragraph was intentional to reflect the ethnic diversity of the crowd. Basically, it was full of Canadians. They had an unofficial Canadian uniform on – beards, check shirts or hockey jerseys. I went to the loo during the interval and as I walked back to ‘our spot’ I didn’t hear a single British accent. It was like going to a gig in a foreign country like, er, Canada.

When we arrived there was a queue. I was surprised and checked with the doorman that we were in the right place. The Canadians in front of us were very interested in the fact that we weren’t Canadian. The girl in the group had been to several Hip concerts before, but all massive festivals. Afterwards she said this was the best gig she’d ever been too.

The band did two set lists, coming on as their own support act, and taking a half hour break in-between. If you are at all interested in what they sound like, you can hear a lot of their stuff on their website. However, even though I’ve listened to them over and over, they were something else again live. Gord Downie is a cross between a comedian and an utter mentalist, naturally entertaining and a little bit scary.

Trying to start the gig with a new song (Love is a First) and expecting people to know the words and sing along form the get go was ambitious, and didn’t really work. But things picked up after that with a rendition of Courage (the opening track of their stand out album Fully Completely).

They played a number of my favourite songs, including Bobcaygeon during a couple of acoustic numbers at the beginning of the second set, and an amazing version of At the Hundredth Meridian, which included a rambling monologue between Gord and the crowd, which was very amusing. He also held up a flag someone threw on the stage that had a Maple Leaf superimposed over a St George’s Cross, and had a tangential conversation with the person who threw it about nationalism that was three hundred years out of date, and also how he couldn’t use it as a handkerchief.

Oh, yeah, that was another thing. He sweats a lot. So he was constantly wiping his face and head with handkerchiefs that were tossed onstage by the roadies. Whenever he threw them, used, out into the crowd, there would be surge of people trying to get to them like desperate bridesmaids trying to get the bouquet at a wedding.

The gig ended on a high note with the band playing New Orleans is Sinking and the crowd jumping along. We bade farewell to the Canadians we’d met in the queue and who were driving back to York that night, and made our way back to the Travelodge, psyched up and ready for the next stop on our tour…

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Micro SD Cards and the pace of technological change

Almost two weeks ago I bought a new phone. My previous phone was one of the first ‘flip phones’ produced by Samsung, which had a ‘call screen’ on the top so you could see who was ringing you before you flipped the phone open.

My new phone is also a Samsung. It’s an iPhone wannabe with touch screen and scrolling menus and other gizmos. Like just about every phone these days it has a camera. I can get the web on it and update my Facebook status and so now I am constantly fiddling with it like a teenager!

It also has a Micro SD port to ramp up the memory. I bought a 2 gigabyte card which promised me space for 250 songs, 1200 photos, and 3 and a half hours of video. The card was tiny – about the size of my fingernail.

Just over ten years ago, when we set up our own business, Cathy and I paid a small fortune for a ramped up computer with 6 a gigabyte hard disk! At the time it was the most we could afford.

Years later we took that computer apart for spares and the hard disk was the size of a dinner plate. Now I’m carrying around a third of that space as an optional extra in my phone, and if I’d bought an 8 gig card, then I’d be carrying round a more powerful machine in my pocket than we bought for our desktop back in the day.