Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July – month of films

 I feel 2011 has been a quiet year for me in terms of film-viewing, but that has changed this month with four trips to the cinema.

Three of the four films I’ve seen on the big screen have been sequels. I’m not sure what that really says about the risk-averse culture in Hollywood at the moment, but it’s been interesting to see how differently they’ve approached things. [Warning - contains information some people may regard as spoilers]

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon takes some of the main characters from the first two films and runs with a continuing story. Of course, the most interesting story about the movie was the public spat between female star of the first two movies, Megan Fox, and the director Michael Bay. Fox got dropped from the third movie, although it’s not clear who was exactly the winner there.

So what can be said about Transformers 3? Not much. It’s better than Transformers 2, but so is just about any other movie ever made about anything. The ‘plot’ is fairly formulaic. I’d issue a spoiler alert here, but the story is so obvious that when you watch it, if you can’t spot what’s going to happen then you really shouldn’t be going to movies. You know that Optimus Prime is going to be double-crossed. You know the Autobots aren’t all dead. You know that Patrick Dempsey will turn out to be a baddy.

Still it’s vaguely entertaining. I went with the lowest of low expectations and as a result found it quite enjoyable.

Kung Fu Panda 2, meanwhile, is a top-notch sequel. Moving on from the original movie in a quite unexpected way, we learn about Po, the Dragon Warrior’s origins and why his father is a goose not a panda. Cue an incredibly moving scene at the end of the film about discovering who you really are and who your real family is. I had a moist eye moment and had to manfully struggle to keep it together.

There are one or two clunky moments, but generally this film gets it right from the very first visual in the Dreamworks logo that features the wise old turtle Ugway fishing from the moon. It also has possibly the funniest final showdown shouting match between Po and the psychopathic bad guy Shen (superbly voiced by Gary Oldman), who can’t hear what Po is saying and so misses the bold statements about the justice that Po plans to mete out on him.

So to the only original movie in the quartet: Green Lantern. I quite liked this, although it was a bit slow. It felt a bit like a feature-length pilot for a TV series, especially as there was a lot of narration. The sfx varied in quality, and the acting was generally okay, but there wasn’t much to set this apart from any other about-average superhero flick.

There was some humour – when Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, tries to woo his lady friend as his alter ego she recognises him and asks whether he thought she wouldn’t know it was him just because she can’t see his cheekbones. Also, it seems you can’t make a movie these days without anticipating the sequel – a micro-scene at the end seems to set up the next chapter in the story.

Finally, we went on the opening night to see Cars 2. This has been aggressively promoted just about everywhere, from TV spots through to a new Lego range. Unfortunately, the calibre of the film didn’t warrant such attention.

Strangely, considering this was an animated film, my main criticism is that it felt too much like a cartoon. Lightning McQueen and Mater bopping wheels together in a gangsta-style best friends’ handshake near the start of the film set the tone for the rest of the movie. Cars don’t do that. The cars in Cars didn’t do that. But the cars in Cars 2 do. It was annoying.

The other defects in this film included poor characterisation, an obvious villain ‘hidden in plain sight’, and an unnecessarily convoluted, unconvincing plotline surrounding ‘lemon’ cars with a grudge against society discrediting alternative fuels. Oh yeah and racial stereotypes aplenty.

There was a great short film starring the Toy Story characters in front of the main feature, which genuinely made me laugh, so the studio hasn’t lost its touch, but you can almost see the Disneyfication of Pixar happening in real-time as its imagination is commoditized into product inventory. Pixar generally have set the bar so high for themselves they were bound to fail at some point. Even so, I was surprised that Cars 2 was so mediocre and unimaginative.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two things I don’t miss about working in a Christian organisation

Just over a year ago I started a new job, moving out of a Christian charity where I had worked for six and a half years to take up a role in the public sector.

Since then a number of Christians have asked me if I have found it difficult working in a non-Christian environment. I think my answer has surprised many people. No, I haven’t found it difficult. In fact, I would not rush back into working for a Christian organisation.

That feels like it's a vaguely heretical thing to say, and I do feel like I'm breaking ranks here.

It’s not because Christians are terrible to work with (although some are beyond difficult), or that there is anything inherently wrong with explicitly trying to create a Christian ethos in a workplace. There are one or two things I miss, like opening meetings with a prayer, but working outside the Christian bubble has helped me identify two of the things that really irritated me when I was inside.

The first is the ‘assumption of grace’. This basically runs that a person can act in any immature, selfish, ignorant way, and because ‘we’re all Christians here’, they will be ‘forgiven’ for it. Now I sometimes lose my temper in work, I say things I regret. We all do and I need grace from my colleagues and managers as much as the next person.

But to assume that grace will be shown isn’t helpful. Incompetency gets glossed over and no one ever gets called on it. When you’re talking planning projects with significant budgets, or a co-worker you have to go through who always does it ‘their way’ that seems to add unnecessary steps to a simple process, that’s not so great.

It’s quite hard to genuinely forgive someone when there is an expectation that you will show grace, however big a jackass they are being. All those things that are left unsaid build up. Eventually you anticipate failure and you lose focus and commitment. Your work becomes mediocre. You cease to care.

Quite simply, you can never resolve the issue because you can never vocalise how you really feel because if you react to provocation then you’ve failed as a Christian. Never mind that the provoker is free to continue provoking.

The second thing is the over-spiritualisation. ‘We’re facing a lot of opposition, here’ says the manager whose primary problem seems to be deficient planning skills.

I was in a meeting once with a member of our fundraising team who stated explicitly to me that the appeal mailings that had been re-written under strict direction from senior managers were now ‘awful’. A few months later, when the mailing had bombed, there were urgent calls for staff to pray about the financial straits the organisation was in, which was presented as a spiritual ‘attack’.

At what point does incompetency, organisational inertia, bad logistical planning, or just a plain old mistake become a spiritual issue? Normally, when it becomes apparent because the money isn’t coming in, or an event is happening the next day and the materials for it are still at the printers.

Finding spiritual explanations for low quality business working would be a very interesting subject to explore more fully some time. Oh, I have stories.

So, those are two things I don’t miss. True, there are frustrations in my new workplace, and probably every workplace, but they are less troublesome to me because they are at least grounded in reality. If someone is being a bit of a pratt, you can call them on it. If things go wrong, it’s usually because of a fixable issue, rather than being the work of Satan.

I find that a much more rational and helpful working environment.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some more photos of Scotland

When it wasn't raining the scenery was quite breathtaking. Here 'the tank' enjoys the early morning sunshine on Mull.

Later on the mainland, an oystercatcher searches for supper in Loch Sunart.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some other bits of writing & stuff

Occasionally I engage in some self-promotion.

A pessimistic article I wrote for When Saturday Comes has attracted at least one angry commentator detracting my status as a Shrewsbury fan. Surprisingly I'm less than bothered.

I don't usually plug stuff I've written for work, but I was involved in the creation of a recent white paper about the guiding ethos in the NHS, and whether its founder, Aneurin Bevan, would recognise it. I found it fascinating to write it and maybe you'd find it interesting.

While we're on the subject of work stuff, I had the privilege to direct some information videos about work being done to prevent falls among elderly and infirm people back in May. They're now online, so if you want to rate my ability as a documentary film-maker, you can watch them here. I suggest the ones filmed in Cardiff and Llanidloes - if you like dogs you have to watch the one from Llanidloes. (I was helped massively by a very talented cameraman / editor - this is his website.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Torchwood goes west (big mistake)

Although other people have said some favourable things about the new Torchwood series that started last Thursday, I was less impressed.

First off, this was an 'establishing' episode that only really existed to take you to the next episode and explain how Captain Jack, Gwen et al end up in America. As that kind of episode it was done to an okay level. Quite why a black ops helicopter was trying to blow the crap out of a house on a beach in Wales where Gwen and Rhys were holed up was never adequately explained, but presumably it will be. Also the casting of Bill Pullman (who has aged significantly it seems) as a creepy child-murderer could well be inspired (and is a bold role for anyone to take on).

But - and it's a big but - nothing actually happened or got resolved in the episode. There was one exceptionally gross scene where they detached a head from a barely living charred corpse, and the head remained alive. But no answers. Only a very long teaser for the rest of the season.

I don't mind TV series having story arcs, although too-rigid story arcs killed The X-Files, Alias, even The West Wing in the end. The problem an episode that is all about the arc and nothing else really happens is boring in the extreme. Exhibit A: those X-Files episodes that just seemed to be mysterious characters sitting round tables smoking cigarettes talking about codenamed projects. Snore off! You want to see some kind of conclusion in an episode, even if the conclusion is open-ended so the bad guy can return to wreak havoc later.

For me, the emphasis on a story arc instead of having a story is a minus for the new Torchwood.

So is the relocation of the series to the USA. I recognise why they're doing this - the American TV audience. It's the same reason the news series of Doctor Who unnecessarily kicked off in Monument Valley in Utah instead of the Rhondda. But it misses the point of what made Torchwood interesting to start with.

If I wanted to watch overblown science fiction in an American setting I could tune in to repeats of the X-Files, or watch more of the new series of V. There are enough good programmes made in America already to satisfy my lust for all things American - Castle, Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, to name a few.

What made Torchwood fun was that it was set in Cardiff, and, okay, that might be because I live in Cardiff and location-spotting was amusing. But it also set it apart from just about anything else in the schedule. Turning it into an American-based drama removes the one thing that made it a must watch for me. It will be hard now to pick it out from a line-up of similar, high-end, slickly-produced, drama serials.

I think trading the dorkiness of being based in a little big city that few people have ever heard of for trans-Atlantic bright lights is a big mistake. So far no amount of aliens, government duplicity, mysterious time travellers, or poor TV scheduling have managed to kill Torchwood off.

But this decision might.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Building a model railway part 2: needing a new plan B

So in a follow-up to yesterday's post I discovered last night that I had affixed the new track substantially more securely than the old track I pulled up before. I can't take it up again, so I have to live with the overly long passing loop and that the whole lay-out is skewiff with the side of the baseboard.

To add to the sense of frustration taking up the last remaining original track caused me a major panic when I inadvertently broke one of the new sets of points I had put in. Thankfully I was able to reposition the spring, but it was touch and go for a while. I also have a nagging feeling that now it's relaid it isn't as true as it was originally.

Disappointing, but a valuable learning experience.

The good news is I was able to then shift attention to a new part of the project - building a card kit of a signal box. I did this with the help / guidance / project-management of my wonderful wife Cathy, without whom I think the whole exercise would have been doomed to failure. My cutting and sticking skills are less than rudimentary.

Anyway, a few hours later (and a lot of PVA glue on my fingers), I think the finished article looks pretty good.

The kit came with the added bonus of the other two structures, seen in the photo - a lineside hut and a fuel shed. I'm pretty pleased with it / them.

The only thing that is slightly out of place with it is that it's based on a LNWR prototype, so isn't really "correct" for a West Cardiff location (GWR was generally the theme around here). I have two answers to that conundrum. Firstly, this is going to be a railway heritage centre and it's not uncommon for signal boxes to be demolished at their original site and rebuilt in a preserved railway environment. Secondly, it's my railway and I like it, and that's really what matters.

This is the first in a series of buildings I want to add to the railway. My next task is to find the 'right' engine shed that will fit the space and house two track lanes. At some point I also want to have a water tower, and some platforms. I think I have a creative way of addressing the spacing issue to get the platforms running along the long stretch of track - but more on that later.

I'm also looking into adding rolling stock. I plan to publish a full manifest for the WCRHC at some point, but I've just won a new wagon off eBay so I'm going to wait until that arrives before I start taking photos and posting them for your enjoyment.

(I know this is geeky, but I'm loving it.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building a model railway part 1

Recently I got my old model railway baseboard out from the cupboard where it had lain dormant since about 2004. I've always liked model trains and in the past 2 weeks the bug has bitten deep.

I decided to take up some of the track and reformat the layout. The orginal lay out looked like this - a loop and two sidings.

It was pretty basic and so I decided I wanted to add in another siding and maybe a reverse siding (or two) to lead to an engine shed.

There was a problem, though. When I laid this track I had made the passing loop far wider than it needed to be by adding in some non-standard pieces of track. Unfortunately that threw off my intended new siding so that it ran at a crazy non-parallel angle.

The non-standard add-in piece can be seen in this photo. Removing it also meant I could fit in an extra siding without losing too much track off the top siding.
So up came the track! And down went new track after painting on a roadbed for it.

You can see how the loop track is much closer together, leaving room for two extra sets of points.

The small divergence at the bottom of the picture will eventually be inside an engine shed. I have put in a loop of wiring to power the track from both ends, which means the reverse siding has power. (Bit of trial and error but it works.)

There are still issues with this layout. I'd like to run a platform on the left-hand side, but that track isn't straight on the baseboard (it's the last remaining original length of track from the old lay-out). I have a growing urge to take it all up and relay the lot of it, with proper measuring this time.

I could also shorten the loop and add a few valuable centimetres to the second siding. This is important because the theme of the railway is going to be a railway heritage centre, and I need extra space to store rolling stock.

Speaking of which, now I've bought all the track I felt it was time to treat myself to something new to go on it. I already had 11 wagons and 2 locos from when I first put it together (mostly gifts from my Dad, it has to be said). But today I went and bought myself a crane train from the Hornby Railroad range. HR is the cheaper Hornby stuff made using older moulds, but that kind of fits the bill for a heritage railway! The crane works and I'm very happy with it.

There's plenty of work still to do and I'll be posting updates!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Hooker haiku

(This is based on something I saw last week, and also a book I'm reading by J.D.Salinger, which made me think about writing haiku. Can't beat that for inspiration, really.)

Street girl seeks patrons
Flowered leggings; plastic bag
Coke and a sandwich

Comments welcome