Friday, January 29, 2010

Films and DVD review: 9, Up in the Air, Cloverfield

Two trips to the cinema within a week is unusual for me. The first one was to the newly revamped Chapter Arts Centre (which is very swanky indeed) to see an oddball animation called 9, produced by Tim Burton, no less.

The set up is this: a small stitchpunk doll comes to life in a strange room in the ruins of a bombed out city. He has the number 9 on his back. He goes outside and meets other like him (numbered 1 to 8). Together they try to work out what happened to all the people.

It’s a promising start, and the animation was done well, but as Cathy said it lacked that certain something. It wasn’t a film I’d take small kids to as it was distinctly more grown up than most animations. There were a few problems with the script – characters seemed to act in quite self-contradictory ways, particularly the traditionalist number 1. So, all in all, I enjoyed it, but it’s not one I’d watch again in a hurry.

We did get to see a trailer for Tim Burton’s next cinematic foray: Alice in Wonderland, which looks like it will be a relatively faithful version of the book in all its weirdness. It’s being made by Disney, but hopefully will still be as dark as a Lewis Carroll/Tim Burton crossover could be.

The second cinema trip was to see Up in the Air, the new George Clooney vehicle. This was made by the same guy who did Thank You for Smoking, which surprised me when I saw it a couple of years ago.

The formula is similar: the main character is a smug git who does a fairly reprehensible job, but does it well, but then has some sort of awakening. There were a lot of thinking points in the film – why is the main character so obsessed with accruing airline miles and loyalty points when he also gives ‘motivational’ lectures telling people to abandon all the relationships that tie them down. That was interesting. What kind of person avoids commitment to people yet value loyalty to corporations?

Helped by a relatively sharp script and some genuinely funny lines, and of course, George in fine form, this film moves along at a good pace. Cathy and I both spotted the twist that was to come near the end, but someone in our audience didn’t, letting out a very loud gasp that caused most of the other punters in the cinema to titter. And generally, I left feeling glad I went, which isn’t always the case.

And now a DVD review. I watched Cloverfield the other day, which I have discovered is a film that bitterly divides people between those who thought it was interesting and enjoyed it and those who thought it sucked mighty ass. As all JJ Abrams projects seem to do.

Personally I’m glad I didn’t see it in a cinema as the handheld camera angle, the running and the shaking were tiresome. But, as a monster movie I thought it worked okay. There were no answers, and characters were left in the dark, which meant you the viewer are in the dark too (literally at one point), but in a way I liked that. I like having to think in a movie and I find them more effective when I have to engage my imagination.

So, for me, Cloverfield worked. I probably won’t watch it again, simply because of time constraints, not because I didn’t like it.

Jongudmund’s Ratings:
9 ~ 5/10 Worth a look
Up in the Air ~ 8/10 Like!
Cloverfield ~ 6/10 One for DVD

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I don't get turned on by Apple products and I don't really understand the strange fascination

Have to admit though, the iPad looks a bit nifty. I won't buy one though because, well, because I don't want to become an easily-manipulated gadegt-buying drone.

Fortunately, I'm not the only one. Having waded through the reams of commentary devoted to the ridiculous over-hyped launch written by techie journos too busy creaming themselves and slavering at the hype, I did find this at The Daily Mash.

And I thought it he-larious. "Shiny thing make it all better!" indeed!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ha ha, Liverpool assumed too much!

I actually caught the last few minutes of the FA Cup replay between Reading and Liverpool this week, and held my breath as Reading held on for an "historic" win at Anfield for the first time ever. I don't know when we started calling such events "historic" but it's become the de rigueur thing to do.

Anyway, it was a great win for Reading. And then today I got the weekly email from When Saturday Comes and, boy, did I laugh when it reported this:

"With online and automated purchases the days of queuing up outside ticket offices are long gone. So well done to Liverpool for organising their FA Cup fourth round tie so promptly. This message was sent out before Wednesday's home defeat against Reading:
As a valued member of the Auto Cup Scheme, we'd like to confirm details for the following FA Cup match:

FA Cup
Liverpool v Burnley (4th Round)
Saturday 23rd January 2010. Kick Off: 12.45pm
The Ticket Office will begin taking payments for the above game from Thursday 14th January.
Ha ha ha! My buddy Matt always say that 'when you assume you make an ass out of u and me'. I bet someone at Liverpool FC feels a proper plonker now!

If you like football and you don't get the WSC Howl from When Saturday Comes, then really you should. It's free and frequently hilarious. Sign up here.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A personal view of the recently departed decade

I read a friend’s blog where she listed her personal decade – ‘what the noughties meant for me’, and it got me thinking. Things have been very different at different times for me in the decade that has just gone. I am definitely a very different person. So, it’s interesting to look back and see what has shaped me. Here’s a few of them.

Minimum Wage Hell (2001-2003)
Immediately after uni I set up a business with my wife Cathy, but way back in 2001 I got my first job where I worked for someone else: at UCI Cinemas. As a stopgap job it lasted longer than I expected. It was frustrating and boring, but occasionally brilliant. I learned first-hand that a far higher percentage of the general public are complete idiots than you would have thought. I made some great friends there, collected a fund of amusing stories, and did my final shift two years to the day I joined. UCI is now an Odeon, so this part of my life can never be repeated, really. (Which I’m not sad about.)

Cardiff Vineyard (2003-2006)
Although my Vineyard experience slowly morphed into more painful memories, I still remember the excitement of being in a small but vibrant ‘faith community’. Again, friends I made there have stuck with me. The generosity shown by some people still challenges me in what I do with life. And one Cardiff Vineyard phrase that has been hugely influential on my subsequent faith walk is ‘Let your heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God’. And of course, if I hadn’t been going to Vineyard I would probably never have replied for my current job…

Current Job (2003-2010 and maybe beyond)
I’ve made it a policy to never mention the current place I work by name on my blog, because sometimes I talk about it in less than flattering terms. I work for a large Christian charity and if you think that means it’s all fun and game sand spiritual blessing, then just you try it!

But genuinely, there have been times here when I have felt in the right place at the right time, and known that I was doing something that was more than a job. Other times I’ve nearly gone ‘loco’ and there have been three occasions when I’ve almost walked out and quit.

But doing what I do has opened up a whole ton of opportunities. I have progressed as a writer and earned recognition and payment for my x-trem skillz outside of work too. Which is useful, because working for a charity doesn’t mean I’m earning top-dollar, if you get my drift.

Freelance Theology (2004-2010 and getting bigger with every passing year)
This is my side-project that I’d been thinking about for a couple of years and finally got started in 2004 with the help of a Vineyard friend as a Typepad blog. Now a fully-fledged site, it has really taken off in the past year with radio interviews and stuff. It seems the more time I give to it, the more attention it gets. A bit like most things really.

California (2004)
Our road trip round Southern California remains one of the highlights of mine and Cathy’s life together. The star-strewn skies of Death Valley reawakened a spirituality in me that I hadn’t even realised had atrophied. I learned so much about myself in just two days in the desert – particularly that when it comes down to it I like being hundreds of miles away from other human beings – that I would class it as one of my favourite spots on Earth.

Depression (2005)
I’ve always been of a melancholic bent, but in 2005 I got into a pretty bad spiral of negative thoughts that culminated in suicidal thoughts. It’s hard to describe depression without sounding melodramatic, but it’s a horrible cycle of thinking and you just can’t get it out of your head. Fortunately, I had a very good doctor, very good friends, supportive family. And Prozac.

Glenwood (2006-2010 and pretty-much-definitely beyond)
My downswing into depression coincided with problems in Cardiff Vineyard that eventually led to the church ceasing to exist in 2006. At about the same time Brian McLaren did a day conference at Glenwood Church so I went along to hear him speak. He was awesome, and I encouraged Cathy and friends Ian and Viv to come along and hear him at the Sunday service.

They did and we all liked the service, so we decided to try a ‘normal Sunday’ and went the next week. However, the next week was the end of ’Holiday Club’ and was themed on an ‘Oscars night’. We enjoyed the service though and decided to come back and try a ‘normal Sunday’. But the next Sunday was something else again, so we decided to come back and try a… well you get the idea.

Eventually we realised (after about six Sundays) that ‘normal’ isn’t something that Glenwood does very often. But by then we’d been recruited by a friend to a new ‘life group’ and we were getting settled in. So we stayed. In Autumn 2007 I started helping out with the youth (who I now refer to as ‘my’ youth) and I don’t think I could leave now.

Significant Loss (2002, 2006, 2009)
We have faced some significant bereavements in the noughties. Back in 2002 Cathy’s Dad died as a result of an infection he picked up in Torbay Hospital. The subsequent inquest, as hospital staff covered their backs and tried to shirk responsibility, was extremely upsetting. I wouldn’t wish having to attend an inquest on anyone.

In 2006, Cathy’s Granny P (her mum’s mum) died. This time it was less of a shock but still very hard. I’d always had a good relationship with her and still miss her. Then last year my Granddad died after being incapacitated by a stroke for the best part of a year. I still can’t adequately explain how much that loss has affected me, because I simply don’t know. Occasionally I am ambushed by a memory or an overheard conversation and I’m reminded of him and I feel a weight on my heart.

Utah (2008)
My final staging point for the decade is in the summer of 2008, although, of course, plenty of things happened after it. But Utah marks a significant point for me because a) it was another amazing road trip, and b) I came off Prozac. I have been drug-free now for a year and a half, and despite last year’s bereavement, and some incredible stress at work and two winters, I have not gone mad or returned to the suicide-contemplating depressed state.

I think it was in Moab, driving next to the Green River down the Potash Road to look at ancient rock carvings that I suddenly realised I could see sunlight properly and joyfully for the first time in years. The serotonin-inhibiting drugs were washing out of my system, and the world was alive in colour and light. That memory is one of several from that trip that are etched on my brain. Utah has become my happy place because it’s there that I was able to experience happiness again unaided.

So that’s it for the noughties. Roll on 2020.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Oh, there's really a lot of work going on here...

I overheard this 'corridor conversation' the other day. I walked into the corridor and both dialoguing parties paused as if they were sharing some proprietary information, then after I walked past the conversation started up again like this:

"I think you'll find that often when a doctor regenerates..."

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

This Christmas card was a bit political

But cute!

(We didn't get sent this, it was one my mum and dad recieved; produced by an NGO working with Palestinians.)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Year's Eve sadness at the sight of Borders standing empty

A trip into town on New Year's Eve (picking up contact lenses). In the Hayes, the fire sale is over and Borders has shut its doors for good. Sigh.

Monday, January 04, 2010

As a writer, things like this make me shudder

One word: FAIL.

[In more words: why do they give people who don't know the basic rules of the English language a marketing budget? 'That looks great, I see nothing wrong with it...' Dolts.]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Continuing the theme of the best bits of 2009, I now turn to music releases

Bit of a tough one this. On the one hand The Tragically Hip released a new album, 'We Are The Same', which would ordinarily be a shoe-in for my favourite album of the year, by virtue of being an album from the Hip, whatever it sounded like. And as it's probably the third of fourth best album they've ever released, that's got to be a pretty strong contender. A couple of the tracks in particular nearly instantly made it onto my ever-changing 'Hip faves' playlist.

But then, you see, the All American Rejects released 'When the World Comes Down' and that's a truly awesome album. As a band they keep getting better and better (as I've said before), and I really like WtWCD. So, there's a conundrum.

And there's the outsiders. At the moment an album I just love and can't seem to grow tired of is 'Lungs' by Florence and the Machine. I was saying to Cathy earlier, I just don't know what it is I love so much about that album, but you know how somehow you really like something and you're not sure why? That's how I feel about Florence and the Machine.

Other bands? Although I haven't listened to it as much as other albums '21st Century Breakdown' by Green Day continues in the vein of 'American Idiot', even if it doesn't quite match it. Plus, The Killers released a live album, but I don't know whether to count that or not.

So, I think I'm going to stick with the Hip and the All American Rejects for my albums of 2009, with Florence and the Machine running them a (very) close third.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

TV highlights of 2009

The reason for doing this a couple of days into 2010 is that I can talk about David Tennant's last foray as Doctor Who, which occurred on New Year's Day.

Overall I thought the 'double episode' was a bit disappointing. The first half saw a resurrected Master, brought back to life for reasons that were never very clearly explained, and who was some kind of flesh-eating creature to boot, and the plot seemed to build to one joke: the establishment of the "Master Race" as humanity was turned into 6 billion copies of the Master.

The second bit was better, with some more humour, Timothy Dalton as the psychopathic Time Lord leader Rassilon (nice nod to Dr Who lore there), and a bit of pathos. I personally thought the ending was too drawn out, as the Doctor toured time to say goodbye to old friends. And they blatatly ripped off the cantina scene in Star Wars at one point. Still, it was nice to see a Sontaran for a few brief seconds, although how Mickey and Martha became married freelance alien hunters opened up a whole new can of worms.

It's hard to know where Dr Who, with a new Doctor, will go from here, and I have to admit the past year's offerings haven't impressed me much. So what, TV-wise would I say was great about 2009?

I really liked the adaptation of Day Of The Triffids shown just after Christmas. I'm always a bit wary when I watch an adaptation of a book I love. But this one worked for me. True, some bits changed - the convent scene was different, Eddie Izzard's character Torrance was more developed, the tribal mask back story was grafted in along with the hero's Dad. But overall, I think the update worked well.

The thing about Triffids the book is that it's a slow build. Triffids kill people and then wait for the flesh to rot before they eat them. In the TV show dead bodies were absorbed rapidly through rooty tendrils, but I guess that made more effective TV. Also, and a huge bonus point in my book, the Triffids were never aliens originally, so their discovery in darkest Zaire and subsequent breeding for Triffid oil was much more in line with the original story.

So, I thought it worked, although the critics lashed out at it. But as a fan of John Wyndham, it caught the sense of much of his work - that actually we have the capacity as humans to be the architects of our own downfall. That message was nicely played out in this most recent TV work.

I also loved the second series of The Big Bang Theory (the third series has just started too). This is the most recent comedy from creative genius Chuck Lorre (responsible for Dharma and Greg and Two and a Half Men), and ticks the boxes for me of nerdy cultural references and some genuinely funny moments.

I liked the episode where the four geeks met Summer Glau (the girl Terminator from The Sarah Connor Chronicles) on a train and conspired to talk to her. The show has set a high standard for itself, but the episodes of series 3 I've seen so far seem to show a show that is improving with time.

But my favourite telly show of 2009 has to be the second series of Chuck. If you haven't seen Chuck the premise is very silly - Chuck, played by Zachary Levy, is a computer nerd who has a top secret military computer ('the Intersect') downloaded into his brain. He subsequently needs protecting from various bad guys by two federal agents, one of whom is the very lovely Yvonne Strahovski, and the other the snarly Adam Baldwin. And every week something implausibly ridiculous happens that causes chaos in Chuck's life.

The first series of Chuck was cut short by the Hollywood writer's strike, so series 2 is the first full-length one. It got a little bit dafter as it went on, with a huge undercover evil operation (headed up by Chevy Chase no less!) that reminded me of Alias. But it was entertaining every week and series 3 is coming down the track. Yipee.

Other stuff I've enjoyed this year:
The QI Christmas special, and QI generally
Mock the Week, even after Frankie left
Rules of Engagement (import on Comedy Central) has had it's moments
'2 Good, 2 Bad' on Match of the Day 2 - possibly the funniest regular bit on any regular sports programme
Major League Baseball coverage on ESPN America (after the demise of Setanta Sports)

I didn't bother with Big Brother this year (who did?) and I tried to tune out the X Factor after the first couple of weeks. And, frankly, I was too busy having a life to get into any of the 'reality' shows.