Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (film review)

I thoroughly enjoyed this, despite my misgivings about turning a very short book into three films. I knew there was background stuff that could be developed - e.g. Gandalf's battles with the Necromancer, which is hardly referenced in the book - but I wasn't sure there was enough for three films, particularly as Peter Jackson likes to make very long movies!

However, this zipped by. The story is more fast-paced than the Lord of the Rings, anyway, and I felt introducing more background information, particularly about Erebor, the lost Dwarvish Kingdom, helped the story along.

As in the book, the dwarves seem annoyingly incapable of avoiding scrapes, but Richard Armitage is knock-down brilliant as the exiled Dwarf Prince, Thorin Oakenshield. Sir Ian Mckellan is excellent as Gandalf again, but I'm not sure whether Martin Freeman will forever be regarded as a hobbit, the way Elijah Wood will (and he's back for a cameo). He was good, but he does too many of his trademark double-takes and being polite when offended. Sylvester McCoy was very effective bringing Radagast the Brown to life, as well.

People have already been noting the stand out bits of dialogue. I predict Gandalf's comments about evil being kept at bay through the actions of little people will be much-quoted in the future. I particularly liked the line that real courage is not taking a life but knowing when to spare one. It's the moment when he chooses to let Gollum live that defines Bilbo, and of course spares him from becoming another Gollum under the malign influence of the ring.

There's a lot more to get through for the dwarves and their hobbit burglar. Mirkwood will presumably occupy most of the next film, with a natural ending as Bilbo sneaks into the mountain and meets Smaug for the first time. Then the third film will be mainly the Battle of the Five Armies and Bilbo going home to the Shire, which if the third LOTR film is anything to go by, will involve lots of goodbyes. There are 13 dwarves for him to bid farewell to!

For me the most unexpected thing about this film is how eagerly I now want to see the next two. So, I guess from that point of view, it works well.

Jongudmund's rating: 8/10

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Would you read this book?

So, after a conversation recently with another aspiring author, I feel the need to get my Zodiac Team science fiction story idea back out there. So, here's a question. Would you read it? I'd like to know, so please comment. This is a background piece, establishing the context for the book...

Victorious Earth
The dawning era of spaceflight is well-documented, mainly because it took so long. The 99 years between humans walking on their own planet’s natural satellite and stepping onto the surface of a neighbouring planet was filled with many false starts. Subsequently, the development of inter-planetary and inter-stellar travel was rapid.

Shortly after the Mars visitation in 2068, the human race received incontrovertible evidence that they were not alone in the universe, making contact with the first of the xenoraces, the Vichin, just three years later. The Vichin brought with them the new physics, including the expansion model of the universe, which enables rapid corespace travel over massive universe-layer distances. Within ten years of reaching Mars, human engineers and physicists had built their own versions of Vichin density-matrices and had begin exploring neighbouring systems, forming diplomatic relationships with neighbouring races.

The new Earth-based hegemony included the rapid colonisation of uninhabited planets in what was subsequently called the first diaspora. This came to an abrupt halt in 2091 when the Palloshan Empire declared war on the colonies of Earth, and attacked and destroyed the nearest colony to recognised Palloshan territory, the water-world Oceanica. Several other human colonies, including HuVee, Terralis and Vista, were conquered, with more than 1 billion human inhabitants enslaved. The human prime system also came under attack, with outposts on Titan and Ganymede bombarded and the artificial township and space-dock Trans-Lunar the focus of a failed invasion.

Earth’s first space war turned on three fronts. Firstly, the failure of the Palloshan invasion into humanity’s home solar system, meant the successful defence of Trans-Lunar becoming a rallying point in the war and showed that the Palloshan could be beaten. Secondly, the technological development of Velocity and Vector Matching (VelVem), which meant that Earth-built spaceships could attack Palloshan spaceships within core-space – something that had never been done before and the Palloshan had no defence for. And, thirdly, the establishment of a pan-species alliance that saw human forces aid three other occupied races – the hectapode Repobohre and the insect-like sister-races of the Glyadduu and Klailaxuu – to emancipate themselves from the Palloshan, as well as persuading the Vichin to enter the war; the first time the Vichin had engaged in warfare for over 30 galactic years (approximately 44,000 human years).

The war was mainly fought ship-to-ship, with most of the Palloshan space navy destroyed in transit by human VelVem attack squadrons. The human forces never launched a planetary invasion, preferring instead to engage in hit and run commando-style attacks against key installations, including several on the sacred homeworld of the Palloshan, Pallo Prime. Before the war, the Palloshan had proudly boasted that no alien had ever set foot on their planet. This changed as several key military and industrial sites were targeted for insertion and destruction. The final commando raid on Pallo Prime switched to targeting a civilian site, the historic birthing temple regarded as the source of the Palloshan race, which was dynamited from inside by the most famous of several semi-autonomous commando units, the Zodiac Team.

With most of its fearsome navy reduced to ash in corespace, and commando raids on Pallo Prime now threatening key social, religious and cultural sites, the Palloshan presented an armistice agreement. It was the first time the Palloshan had ever had to sue for peace and the main outcomes of the were regarded as humiliating in the extreme for the Palloshan ruling elite.

There were dramatic limitations on the Palloshan Empire, with several territories and key space routes surrendered to other races. The armistice gave autonomy and reparations to the Repobohre, Glyadduu and Klailaxuu and significant reparations to the Vichin and the human colonies that were destroyed or occupied. The Palloshan were also forced to sign non-aggression treaties with the victorious races, with non-compliance to be treated as an act of war. This significantly limited where the Palloshan could move or station spacecraft even within their own borders.

As the armistice negotiations slowly unfolded, the Unity government of Earth and the Colonies (UEC) realised there was a danger of extremist elements among the Palloshan high command deciding to reignite the space war rather than lose any more prestige. The UEC therefore offered to recycle most of its larger battleships, including the ten massive weapons platforms that served as AI-enhanced mobile bases for its commando units. There were good economic reasons for UEC decommissioning most of its naval units, they were no longer needed and were expensive to maintain and run.

Unfortunately, at the main decommissioning ceremony, one of the commando teams absconded with mobile base number 8. The team in question were the most decorated and celebrated commando team, the Zodiac Team.

A number of reasons have been postulated for the team’s defection. The attack on the Palloshan birthing temple remained a major source of contention in the armistice agreements, and the team may have been worried that they would be tried for a cultural war-crime. One of the team helped develop the weapons platform and the independent ship-functioning AI nano-cultures that helped the huge vessels run on a minimum number of crew. This emotional attachment may have prevented that crew member from relinquishing the ship. Equally, there may have been a residual feeling of distrust towards the Palloshan in the team, who then decided to keep their weapons platform functioning in case hostilities broke out again.

The absconding team were tried with desertion in their absence and were officially declared enemies of the UEC. However, the versatility of their mobile base and their military and strategic prowess meant their services were frequently in demand in the more remote human colonies and in territories beyond official human control, or controlled by xenoraces.

These are the tales of the Zodiac Team.

Comments welcome!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Things I'd like to see less of in 2013

Presuming the apocalypse turns out tobe a non-event, here are some things I'd like to see left in 2012

People Facebook tagging me in photos of their babies
I know you think everyone in the world wants to see every photo of your precious bundle of joy, but trust me on this, nobody in the world finds your sproglet as enduringly fascinating as you do. I’ll see your photo on my timeline anyway. I don’t need notifiying that twenty-seven people like a photo that I’m tagged in when I’m not even in it. It’s annoying. Next person to do it to me will get a comment about how ugly their child is.

Media fawning over the Duchess of Cambridge
It’s nothing personal. I’m sure Kate’s a nice gal and there are far worse people who could be in the papers every week (cough, cough, Katie Price, cough). But she should be allowed to be pregnant in private. We don’t need ridiculous baby bump photospreads taking up acres of newspaper space. Leave her alone!

Adverts for staged 'reality' TV shows
Just the adverts for Made in Chelsea annoy me. If I wanted to listen to a collection of narcissists awkwardly pontificate as if everything they say is cosmically significant, then I’d pay attention to the pundits on Match of the Day. Speaking of which...

Montage introductions to the ‘big’ game on Match of the Day
I tune in to watch the goals, flashpoints and other highlights in the football, not to be subjected to the work of the film studies intern who thinks banging together a load of fuzzed up footage over an indie track is somehow ground-breaking. There was one a couple of weeks ago that was so tenuously linked to the game in question even Gary Lineker, the master of non-sequitur segues, said he didn't know what it was about. It wasn't so bad when it was a very occasional bit of filler. But this is a case when less is definitely more. And none would be better.

I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey because, like Twilight before it, it looks godawful, people who’ve read it say it’s terribly badly written, and it’s incredibly popular, which as a general rule of thumb means it’s going to be trash (the lowest common denominator is firmly at work when it comes to culture, witness the unwatchable crud of Saturday night TV schedules). Unfortunately, judging by the garbage clogging up the supermarket bookshelves, it seems every publishing house is now trying to cash in on the Fifty Shades success, even down to making sure there’s a ‘colour’ in the title and the cover is a random object artfully shot in black and white.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The selfish gardener (a short story)

Once there was a man who was a very keen gardener. He spent many hours working in his garden to make it look beautiful. His flower-beds were immaculately weeded, with many rare and exotic blooms. There were always some plants and bushes flowering, no matter what the time of year, around the exquisitely manicured and perfectly flat fresh green lawn.

The man was very pleased with his garden. The only thing he didn’t like was the way his neighbours and indeed anyone who happened to be passing would stop and stare at his handiwork. Sometimes people would even stop their cars on the road that ran next to his house, get out and admire the beauty he had created.

‘They haven’t done any of the hard work, and yet they get to enjoy the colours of my garden,’ he said to himself.

So he built a high fence around his garden. But that wasn’t enough. If anything, it made things worse, because people would jump up and down to catch a glimpse over the hedge, or sit on each other’s shoulders. Some even brought stools to stand on and one fellow even carried a stepladder right up to the fence so he could look over.

The gardener was even more annoyed by this and so he hatched a plan. On the other side of the fence he dug a wide ditch. And then he threw some sprouting brambles into the ditch. Within a year, the brambles had grown into a wide thicket. It was impossible to get near the fence, let alone look over it.

The gardener was able to enjoy his garden all by himself.

This lasted a while, but a few years after he had dug the ditch and planted the brambles the man fell ill and was unable to leave his bed. Fortunately, the people who came to care for him realised that he missed his garden, so they moved his bed to the window so he could look out on at the flowers.

But the people who cared for the man were not interested in the garden. So the man watched as first the exotic plants that needed the most care died, and then other plants started to wither and fade. The bushes that needed careful pruning grew knotty and stringy. Weeds began to appear in the flower beds, and moss made dark patches in the lawn. A mole made a little hill right in the centre of the lawn, and soon other hills of dirt marred the surface and the lawn began to get bumpy as the mole tunnels underneath it sagged inwards.

And way out beyond the fence the brambles grew high and dark and threatening.

That winter the fence was battered by a gale and fell inwards. The brambles that had been pressing against the fence toppled into the garden, a dark mass of grasping thorns. As the days began to lengthen and the iron hard ground began to thaw, the brambles put out green suckers, reaching beyond the fallen fence towards the enriched earth of the flower-beds and the lawn. The brambles plunged into the welcoming earth, taking root, nestling and putting forth more and more suckers.

By the end of the summer the garden was awash with cloying briars. The remaining flowers struggled to bloom among the thorns and the lawn had disappeared.

The carers still came to the house every day to look after the man, and they noticed that when he looked out of the window he would usually start to cry.

And nobody outside stopped to look at the garden any more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

In 1995 Cathy and I were given a Christmas tree by some family friends who were replacing / upgrading theirs. It has served us very well, but this year we decided to buy a new tree for the very first time. We captured this moment on camera, with Cathy managing to take several unflattering photographs of me.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Provenance 2: The story of Durer's 'praying hands'

A couple of Sundays ago, we had another example of 'telling a dubious story to illustrate a sermon point'. This time it was about Albrecht Durer's 'praying hands' drawing.

The story goes that Albrecht came from a large family and had one brother in particular who was also an aspiring artist. They couldn't afford to both to university to study art, so they flipped a coin and Albrecht won. He went to art college while his brother worked to support him and five years later he came back home to work while his brother went to college, except that his brother's hands had been ruined by the rough manual labour of the last five years and so he couldn't go. Albrecht then drew his brother's careworn hands and they became the 'praying hands'.

The moral of the story is one of faithfulness and sacrifice and enabling others to achieve their dreams. Which is fine and dandy except that, like the Itzhak Perlman story I wrote about, it annoys me when people draw important life lessons from stories that aren't true.

It didn't ring true for me firstly because I'd heard the story before, except that time Durer's brother ruined his hands working as a shepherd. This time round it was down the mines. When details like that change, it makes me suspicious that I'm hearing an urban legend.

Durer's life is fairly well-documented for someone who lived over 500 years ago. For starters, he didn't go to university to study art. At 15 he became an apprentice to a local artist and engraver. Yes, he had a lot of brothers, but that was common in those days. The 'flip a coin' plot device was pretty unlikely. (Albrecht's brother, Hans, also became a famous painter.)

The artwork itself isn't considered one of Albrecht's finest. The 'praying hands' we have is a preparatory sketch for a piece of work known as the Heller altarpiece, which was destroyed in a fire in 1729. Durer painted the artwork when he was in his thirties, long after he would have returned from the mythical university. Presumably he waited to paint his brother's hands so they could get even more battered and holy-looking... except the hands in the 'praying hands' aren't the hands of a manual labourer. They are manicured, long-fingered and show no signs of arthritis. Experts think they belonged to a professional hand-model of the day - and some people even think they know who it was.

So, where does this story come from? The earliest provenance I can find for the story on the web is, unbelievably, a book written in 1990 called A Better Way to Live by American self-help guru Og Mandino. From there it has presumably made it's way into the chicken soup for the soul end of the web, and ended up as a sermon illustration. I have no idea where the international art historian motivational speaker Og Mandino got the story from. I plan to email his disciples.

But, on a more serious note, this is a story that is circulating, and was preached in a church to illustrate supposedly timeless truth, without any credible evidence. It didn't take me long to find out the story is baseless. (One quick trawl on Google in a lunch break.) But the thing is, as I've said before "if we’re just making shit up, then where do we draw the line?" Stories of healings, miracles, stuff like that? Your testimony, Mr Preacher?

I think this sort of thing matters. If you claim to have a truth that will set people free, then you don't need schmaltzy stories to sell it. And if you don't check that what you're saying about historical facts that can be verified is true, then how can anything you say about matters of faith that can't be historically verified be considered reliable?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Skyfall - a review and a reviewer's unease

I watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, recently with my cinebuddy, Connor (shout out to him!). I know the critics seem to have been lining up to praise it to the rafters, but it left me feeling a real sense of unease.

***From here on in there will be spoilers, because this is a critique***

Technically and cinematically, there's not much to criticise, but I don't want to do that thing of saying how well it was made and then raise a few queries about the content. Instead, I think that's part of the problem with films, people see the stunts, and the nicely framed, well-lit scenes and it stops them thinking about what they are really watching.

Bond has become an antihero. An alcoholic, remorseless killing machine, who describes his employment as murder. He is so emotionless in this film he may as well be a replicant. People criticise Daniel Craig's woodenness, but alternatively, he is playing a character who has gone so far through trauma he has emerged on the other side of insanity.

Bond has always been a rogue, but in this film his character is truly amoral. He promises to save a beautiful woman who has been used as a sex object since childhood, but then doesn't even flinch when she is brutally executed in front of him, mere seconds before the cavalry show up to rescue them.

Along the way Bond assumes she wants to have sex with him and joins her in a shower. It's not exactly non-consensual, but this scene turns Bond into another person to use her sexually. She obviously didn't mean anything to him, even if as the man who promised to save her, he meant something to her. Krish Kandiah has pointed out how uncomfortable this made him feel. And it should make us feel uncomfortable, otherwise we are ourselves halfway to reducing women to vessels for sex.

I found the relationship with 'M' as disturbing. After she admits that she handed over the one-time spy who is now the 'villain' of the piece to another country's secret police, who tortured him to the point where he tried to kill himself, Bond says nothing. There is no judgement made of M's actions. She shows no remorse for betraying someone else's trust.

What are we meant to make of that? The film doesn't ask whether M deserved to be targeted for revenge. It seems to imply that doing something wicked for the greater good is acceptable, but I don't buy that. Betrayal is always betrayal, just as murder is always murder. Killing in the name of the greater good is just as morally reprehensible as killing in the name of God, profits or 'the people'.

So, that underpinning ethic left me feeling very uneasy. And then, there's Bond himself. When he returns to London M asks him where he's been and he says 'Enjoying death'. But that seemed to ring hollow. We'd seen his preceding activities and he looked to not be enjoying himself at all.

For me, it would have been much more satisfying if he had been reintroduced playing football and bantering with some new found mates on a Brazilian beach rather than trying to outdrink a scorpion (or whatever that was). Then he would hear about the bombing in a copacabana sports bar surrounded by rejoicing team-mates who loved the fact he'd just scored the winning goal over their fierce rivals, and realising that he had to leave this new life behind to go back to save Blighty again. That would be a heroic giving up of an 'enjoyable afterlife'.

But, no. The real reason he went back was because he had nothing else to do in his life, but gun up and start killing again. He doesn't seem bothered that M lied to him about his fitness for duty - another betrayal in M's catalogue of crimes against her own agents. He doesn't care about his own safety because he doesn't care if he lives or dies.

And that. ultimately is what depressed me most, that we are supposed to root for a man who is despairing. There is nothing heroic about nihilistic self-destruction. It is the ultimate form of narcissism - to declaim that there is nothing worth loving in the world, including yourself. And I just couldn't bring myself to buy in to that bleak view of the universe.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cardiff South & Penarth By-Election - it's polling day!

Just a quick catch-up. Since my last review round up of all the people standing, we have had even more electoral communications, from the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and Labour.

The Conservatives leaflet didn't really say anything new, but it does include a photo of the candidate looking gormlessly star-struck shaking David Cameron's hand. Bit of a vote turn-off.

The Liberal Democrats have definitely found their theme - their candidate lives LOCALLY, is a LOCAL activist, is for LOCAL people and LOCAL businesses and so on. The huge emphasis on local-ness is at least a bit of a relief from the relentless badmouthing of Labour. The LD's sound like an obsessed, embittered ex trying to turn you against their former partner the way they go on. Also, they have no pictures of Nick Clegg, but they do have one of Gordon Brown who is apparently to blame for everything.

The Labour leaflet is a bit run of the mill, but the guy who knocked on my door was amusing. "Hi I'm Brian," he said, handing me a leaflet. "Are you thinking of voting Labour." I was non-committal. Then he earnestly told me what a good candidate the Labour guy was before adding, "Sorry, I'm a bit biased. I'm his dad."

Well, fair enough. I'd like to think my dad would be a bit biased if he was canvassing for me. Brian seemed a nice guy and he was out in the dark and the cold asking people to vote for his son. And, sentimentalist that I am, I was impressed by that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The most disturbing 'If' in advertising

Cathy pointed this out to me yesterday. An advert for Aptamil came on and she said 'listen for the most disturbing sentence on an advert.'

The Narrator starts talking as a woman brestfeeds her baby... "There's nothing better than breast milk for your baby. But if you decide to move on, then use Aptamil follow-on milk." (is the general gist of the ad).

The problem is the 'If'. 'If you choose to move on...' - Does anyone choose not to? Surely the right word here is 'When you move on...'

Monday, November 12, 2012

An alternative voting system

A conversation I had with Cathy after reviewing the electoral bumf that came through the door...

Me: "It looks like the BNP aren't standing this year."

Cathy: "Yay! I don't have to vote."

Me: "But UKIP are..."

Cathy: "Awww. Now I have to vote."

Just to clarify - it's not that Cathy won't vote unless there's a right wing party to vote for. Quite the opposite. Not being a fan of any of the main parties, she feels it's important to vote for someone other than the people she really doesn't like. She's voting to keep the BNP out.

Which leads to an interesting idea. What if you don't have a preferred candidate but there are some people you definitely do NOT want to win? Would more people get involved in voting if we had the choice on the ballot paper of marking the candidates we hated the most, even if we felt there was nobody we actually wanted to vote for?

That would surely temper some of the politicians' arrogance as well. It's not that you were considered the best, you're just the least hated.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Candidates contact details put to the test

I tweeted yesterday's blog post and got a tweet back from Luke Nicholas, the Plaid candidate. I was impressed, because I'd tagged all three parties who put a Twitter handle on their bumf and he was the only one to reply directly. He also retweeted it, which I guess he would as Plaid topped my rating system.

Ashley Govier, representing Labour, also retweeted it, which was brave as I didn't rate Labour very highly. I also got a cynical anonymous comment on the blog saying that minority parties can promise the world because they know they won't have to deliver. That's one way of looking at it. Or you could say mainstream party candidates make vague promises so that they don't have to deliver anything if they get elected. Tomayto, tomarto.

I'm going to award some bonus points for interaction, because if you're going to have contact details on your stuff, then you should respond when people use them. In the past I emailed people and awarded bonus points if they got back to me. I haven't got time to do that, so we're going to go for the social media bonus points, adding +1 for an interaction. That takes Labour up above the Lib Dems in my ratings and extends Plaid's lead at the top.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

It's a by-election this week

After many years my local MP Alun Michael is waving bye bye to his constituency as he bids to become the new Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales. So, it's a rare event - a by-election in Cardiff this week. And that means the Pantperthog to Knockando tradition of rating the candidates based on the stuff they've stuck through my letter box.

This time I'm going to rate them according to the number of pieces of post through the door and the number of definite promises they make, and the candidates contactability (all the ways they offer you to get in touch, not including generic websites) minus the number of other people they blame for the mess we're in, and the number of negative comments about other parties. I'm also going to award some arbitrary bonus points for things I think are noteworthy. I'm going to list them alphabetically by surname

Hey, ho, let's go...

Candidate: Stephen Doughty
Party: Labour
Info: 1
Promises: 5 vague promises, but only 1 definite one - a new watchdog on energy prices, so 1 point
Contactability: Phone, email, Twitter = 3 points
Blames: "Tory/Lib Dem cuts" = -2 points
Negative comments: 5 references to "Tory/Lib Dem cuts", although two of these are in 'quotes' from concerned members of the public. Still, -5 points.
Grand total: 5 positive and 7 negative = overall score of -2

Candidate: Rob Griffiths
Party: Welsh Communist Party
Info: 2
Promises: 9 (including cutting VAT, closing tax havens, nationalising utilities, withdrawing from Afghanistan)
Contactability: Post, email, phone, FB and Twitter = 5 points
Blames: Bankers, career politicians ("Please don't vote for me if you want a Blues, Yellow, or Pink Tory who's looking for a cushy career"), and "an arrogant, rich and corrupt elite" = -3
Comments: 4 jibes at politicians of any kind = -4
Total: 16-7 = 9

Candidate: Andrew Jordan
Party: Socialist Labour
Info: 2
Promises: Lots of vague references to opposing things and wanting more jobs, but only two definite ones - to get the same funding for Welsh schools as in England, and also to bring vacant council housing stock up to Welsh Quality Standards. Mentions closing tax loopholes, so a generous 3 points.
Contactability: Public meeting, phone, YouTube, email, Twitter = 5 (it also included a general UK address for the party, but I'm not giving them a point for that)
Blames: Nobody
Comments: Describes all candidates from the other four parties as "another nodding head in Westminster" if you vote for them, so -4
Bonus Point: Endorsement by Ricky Tomlinson = 1 point
Total: 7

Candidate: Bablin Molik
Party: Liberal Democrat
Info: 2 (although one of them was a 'survey')
Promises: No congestion charge in Cardiff, raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 = 2
Contactability: Post, phone, personal candidate's website = 3
Blames: Labour for all that is wrong locally = -1
Comments: - 6 digs at Labour, including calling their candidate a "career politician" and a "spin doctor", plus dismissing the Conservative and Plaid candidates as non-local careerists as well = -8
Total: -2

Candidate: Luke Nicholas
Party: Plaid
Info: 7 (the most of any party)
Promises: Semi-nationalisation of Welsh railways, a Welsh Procurement Bill, green energy = 3 definite promises among vague stuff about apprenticeships and jobs. 3 points.
Contactability: twitter, facebook, email = 3 points
Blames: "the establishment parties" for ignoring Wales and "the Government in Westminster", so -4
Comments: Digs at Westminster, but no direct comments on other parties, so 0 points.
Bonus point: Luke mentions that he follows the Welsh football team home and away, so 1 point for that! (I told you the bonus points were arbitrary!)
Total: 13

Candidate: Craig Williams
Party: Conservative Party
Info: 1
Promises: Electrification of the railways, £546 in tax cuts in 2014 = 2 points, also mentions the Police Commissioners as a Government way of reducing bureaucracy. (But that's not a promise)
Contactability: Phone, email, freepost address = 3 points.
Blames: Labour for local problems = -1
Comments: Attacks Labour for 'cutting' the NHS in Wales, and says they "have failed the next generation" on education. Claims Labour caused the rise in police bureaucracy. "Cardiff has been let down badly by a complacent Labour party" and Gordon Brown. 4 negative comments = -4.
Total: 1

Candidate: Simon Zeigler
Party: UKIP
Info: 2
Promises: "Investing in UK public services instead of wasting money in the EU" is the kind of vague statement that earns you nil points. No definite promises = 0.
Contactability: Phone, web-page = 2
Blames: "The tired old parties" / "The career politicians in Westminster" = -2
Comments: Has unflattering photos of the three main party leaders, and blames career politicians, so -3.
Bonus point: The phrase 'Kick them in the ballot box' was quite amusing. +1.
Total: 0

So, in conclusion after this unscientific review, how did they do?

Plaid Cymru - 13 points
Welsh Communist Party - 9 points
Socialist Labour Party - 7 points
Conservative Party - 1 point
UKIP - 0 points
Labour - -2 points
Liberal Democrats - -2 points

I'm not sure any of this will make a difference to who I vote for, but it's interesting to compare it to last time around. The Liberal Democrats are a lot less negative, possibly because they have a new candidate for the first time in ages. The Communists and other redder then red parties do well because they make lots of specific promises. Overall, though, the vagueness of what people promise, or even just raise the issue without making any comment on how to solve it, is frustrating. There's still time this week for more leaflets to influence my decision. I'll update as we go.

I've done this before, if you'd like to look back.
The 2010 election
2009 Euro Elections
Welsh Assembly 2007 elections plus update 1 and update 2

Friday, November 09, 2012

Move over Optimus

I'd like to see this character in the proposed Transformers 4!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Nothing says Christmas more than festive packaging

It's November 2nd. Already the stores are full of Christmas stuff. Argos is already playing Jingle Bells.

But I'm not sure why we need Christmassy packaging on these...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Summer of science fiction (and superheroes)

I've seen a goodly number of science fiction films over the last few months, from the summer through to now. I've seen most of these with my cinema buddy Connor (shout out), who may yet revive his blog and give his verdict on these films.

Avengers Assemble - I liked this a lot. Lots of action. Smart script. Humour. Built well on the preceding films. Probably one of my favourite superhero films to date.

The Amazing Spider-Man - I wasn't sure about whether this film would work as it seemed too soon for a reboot. But it was pretty good. I preferred Andrew Garfield to Tobey Maguire. The pace was quick. Aunt May wasn't as annoying. It had Martin Sheen in. The only let-down was the villain as The Lizard just doesn't have the same screen presence as Green Goblin.

Prometheus - Just about everyone I've spoken to was disappointed with this. I spent most of the film thinking about how it could have been a better movie. That's a bad sign. Perhaps the pre-event hype got to me. I do think, though, that the major problem with this was the characters doing completely nonsensical things. Science fiction is usually nonsense, but its characters have to follow the internal logic of the movie for it to work. This didn't.

The Dark Knight Rises - Meh, Batman. I went right off this after The Dark Knight. I went in the hope it would be a redemptive moment for the Batman series. It wasn't particularly  and the underlying political message was ropey. Apparently if the proles ever rebel against the downtreading classes, the result will inevitably be anarchy. Batman is a protector of the privileged because without them society would slide into chaos. Seriously.

Total Recall - I enjoyed this. There were a few nods to the Arnie original. The central gist of the story was a bit confused (and physically impossible), but the tech was cool. I want a hand phone. Definitely better than expected for a remake.

Dredd - I've reviewed this on the blog. A brilliant rendering of the original comic books, but gory and nihilistic. Not a feelgood movie, but one I want to watch again.

Looper - I'm still trying to work out whether this worked or not. Time travel movies tend to fall down when you try and piece together the timeline after all the monkeying about. But it was very well made and acted and I really liked it, so would recommend it and would watch it again.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A special ceremony

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

I had the privilege of attending the Laying Up of the Standard of the 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment (Airborne) at Exeter Cathedral last week. It also marked the disbanding of the ex-serviceman's association linked to that battalion - which was the unit Cathy's Granpy served with during World War II.

The Airborne were the guys in gliders who landed in Northern France on D-Day to establish bridgeheads, most notable at Pegasus Bridge. Granpy's unit fought in the Ardennes and crossed the Rhine. They were among the first British troops to pass concentration camps, which they had to walk past leaving the forces coming behind them to liberate the prisoners. After marching across Europe they ended up somewhere on the shores of the Baltic where they were mistakenly shot at by Red Army soldiers. 

Granpy doesn't talk much about the war, or the time he spent enforcing the British mandate in Palestine in the years after VE Day. When he came home he wanted to forget about what he called the worst time of his life. He only got involved in the Association of those who served and survived relatively recently. 

It was poignant to see him standing among the handful of men who are left from the battalion. Many wore their medals. I always find it difficult to express the gratitude I feel to all those who left the safety of their homes to do the unthinkable, to shoot and be shot at, to risk death in gliders crash-landing at night in occupied territory. 

It was an honour to go and see the Standard committed to safe-keeping in the Regimental Headquarters and to sing the regimental hymn alongside these soldiers who have grown old, against all odds; to recognise their bravery and sacrifice.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Let the mayhem recommence

After a gap of eight years, Friday night saw my friend Bryan and me doing battle again in Blood Bowl. For those who don’t know, this is a Games Workshop Warhammer-American Football mash-up that was reasonably popular in the late 80s. Two teams – in this case one of humans plus assorted other races, and on of orks – scrap it out in a table-top game. It’s pure nerdy fun.

Neither of us could believe it had been eight years since our last Blood Bowl encounter, but the dates on the old team-sheets in the box don’t lie. (Yes, there are team-sheets. I told you it was nerdy.) I’d freshened up the teams a bit – renaming them the Bromfield Street Berserkers and the Grangetown Greenskins. As per usual, I took control of the mainly-human team (the Berserkers), while Bryan ‘managed’ the ork team (the Greenskins).

Despite Bryan claiming the dice gods weren’t on his side, the first touchdown took ages to happen, mainly because we were trying to get used to the rules – not easy after such a hiatus. The first score went to the Beserkers – new team member Lex Kevlar scoring it to cap a man-of-the-match performance that included winning all five of his first five tackles or blocks and killing an opponent in the process. (Yes, it’s that kind of game.)

The Berserkers went close again with only two heroic tackles preventing further scores with the ball literally a yard from the scoreline. The throws were going well – Blitzer Gudmund Halo putting together a ‘long bomb’ at one point to the Elf Catcher, Diamos Swift, who had run clear. Swift was one of the victims of a heroic tackle, taken out just as he was about to score. As a consolation, the tackler was stretchered off, stunned.

But then the Greenskins fought back with a good rushing play down the right wing. A successful Blocker-to-Blocker pass got them into the endzone and back on level terms. (Blockers subtract one to dice rolls for both throwing and catching to the pass was an excellent roll.)

The favour of the dice gods had obviously turned. Two Beserkers, including one of the fearsome Dwarf Blockers got injured trying to make extra yards to take possession of the spilled football. Then the other Dwarf Blocker was injured in a tackle after inflicting several injuries on opponents. Both Blitzers went down in the same round of Blocks and with the Beserker defence horribly incapacitated or out of position the board was free for a Greenskin counter-attack.

The vulnerable Beserkers were only saved from defeat by time being called at that point. Both sides finished honours even, insofar as there is any honour in Blood Bowl of course.

1-1 was probably a fair result, but both sides will feel they could have won the game. But that at least raises the stakes for the next time these rivals meet.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dredd - when all you have is justice

DREDD movie poster 3 imageJudge Dredd has always been one of those comic strips I have unaccountably loved reading. Always interesting, often quirky, sometimes horrible. As a fan of dystopian future-fiction (1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Blade Runner, and to a lesser extent, Equilibrium), Dredd has always been the comic strip that fed my pessimism about the way the world is heading.

The film is excellent. Well-made, if a bit gory and gruesome in parts. But you'd expect that. And although it is gory, there's a realism to it. This is a world where bullets rip people apart, a bit like, er, our world, and not like the cartoonesque attitude to gunshot wounds you usually see in Hollywood movies. So, it worked.

Sets were good. Believable. Story was simple and effective. Actors were well-chosen. Not much to complain about. Although given its 18 certificate and the amount of blood spraying around at times, not for the faint-hearted.

And, although I couldn't really recommend it to everyone, I do think it has an important message. Dredd is a judge. He is the law (that's his catchphrase). He knows every sentence for every crime and he passes them without equivocation. If it's a capital crime then he executes people on the spot.

Dredd, the film, like Dredd the character, takes no prisoners. It is a grim - in the proper sense of the word -story. It's bleak because it's a story about justice, but there is no mercy, no grace, and no hope.

Whatever the faults and failings of our legal system, and there are many, there is a sense that there is hope. Prisons are meant to be correctional facilities, not just punishment camps. There is some small element of mercy - no crimes in this country carry the death sentence; no matter how hideous the crime.

From a religious perspective, justice without grace is harsh and ugly and totally without hope. I know that people, particularly those of a Calvinist persuasion, want to emphasise the wrath of God as fueled by 'justice', but what kind of world would a wrathful God create, ultimately. Maybe a dystopian one, possibly even a bit, or a lot, like this one. But it would be a place without hope.

I sometimes think the way people talk about God they envision God as a Judge Dredd type figure, dispensing a harsh and almost cruel form of justice. Dredd the film is a reminder of what the Kingdom of Heaven could be like if there is no mercy and no grace in your theology. It's not a vision any sane person would want to share.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Two books about 'myths'

One of the things I love about my book group is that I get to read stuff I would never have otherwise bothered to pick up. First, I should explain, my book group isn't like many other book groups. We don't have a set text that we all have to read and then discuss. Instead you read what you want to read, bring it along and tell the group about it.

It works well because you aren't stuck with some awful book (like 'Walk Among the Birds' in the movie Date Night), and you can borrow each other's books, expanding your library through the libraries of however many other people are in the group.

I borrowed two books off Elaine that are part of the Canongate 'Great Myths' series: Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman.

I loved Ragnarok, but then I have always loved the Norse myths. Byatt is a clever storyteller, interweaving some vivid childhood fears and the sense of dread and doom that I know I often felt as a child into a story that also captures the essence of the Norse myths and makes them accessible.

It is an excellent piece of writing, and she drew an interesting exegetical point from it - that the gods knew Ragnarok was coming, but they didn't have the imagination to avoid it. The parallel between our current culture's collision course with catastrophic climate change is thought-provoking.

Pullman meanwhile has tried to demythologise and then remythologise the story of Jesus. I've dissected this a bit on freelance theology already, but my main criticisms were over his unbalanced handling of supernaturalism. Plus, as I say on freelance theology, stealing a joke from Monty Python is naughty for an author like him.

I have no real issues with Philip Pullman saying what he wants to about God, Jesus, the historical basis for Christianity or the Church. I might disagree with him, but some of his points are interesting. But this book just isn't as good as the author seems to think it is when he writes about it in his essay afterwards. I can forgive him for being rude about religion. But I don't really like how smug he seems about his own work.

Still, perhaps worth a read. But read Ragnarok first.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I left my phone at home this morning.


I realised as I was on my way to work. I almost turned back, but thought I could make it through the day without it.

I was foolish.

I felt bereft all day. While I waited for my computer to power up I reached absent-mindedly for my phone to check Twitter, only to realise it wasn't there. Every time I got up to go to the kitchen or the loo or downstairs to move some boxes I looked for my phone. It wasn't there. I always take it with me. Today I couldn't. It felt weird.

Cathy says this is evidence of something that she has known for a long time - I spend too much time looking at my phone. I think she may be right.

Monday, September 10, 2012

1000 ways to die

Recently I've started telling people that my day job is - at its most fundamental level - finding out new things that could kill me with little or no warning. Not good for a mild hypochondriac.

The past six weeks or so I've been learning too much about a particular silent assassin that could bump me off called sepsis. This is because we're building up to World Sepsis Day and I've been involved in producing the comms for it.

That's included this leaflet, which I'm particularly pleased with. I don't brag on what I do much on this blog, but this ended up being a nice, concise piece of print with a clear message. It took some work to get it there - it's a long way from my original idea of a postcard. But the collaborative effort has paid off. It's going to be given out in almost every hospital in Wales on World Sepsis Day (Thursday). You can read the full leaflet here.

I also had round trips to Llanelli and to the North Wales coast as part of producing the promo video for World Sepsis Day. This one was unusual as I am firmly behind the camera in the videos I've produced previously. However, this time round we needed a narrator. I'm not overly impressed with the sound of my voice introducing it, but this is the video, if you're interested.

Bigger version on YouTube

(The trips round Wales were more bearable because I was travelling with this camera-toting freelance video professional. Thoroughly recommended.)

Sunday, September 09, 2012

A time of change (farewell to 'the tank')

My beloved Golf finally reached the point where money spent fixing it would be money wasted. For the past fortnight and a bit I've been driving my 'new' car, a Vauxhall Vectra. Having learned to drive in a classic boxy Cavalier back in the early 90s, it does feel a bit like coming home.

The Golf, known to us as P-TAB was a great car, though. I drove to Mull twice in him, although Mallaig was the furthest North we went in him. I tried to work out the extremities of our journeying - furthest south would be Hastings to the East and Plymouth to the South. We took him to Northumberland and the Eastern borders of Scotland. We even went to Llanidloes. You don't get much more wild west than that.

When I sold him on to those people who say they will buy any car (any, any, any!), he had over 175,000 miles on the clock. I put 75,000 of those miles on him.

I took these photos just before saying farewell to the car I affectionately called the tank.

In all his battered glory

The clock - 75,000 of those miles were mine

Setting off on the last journey

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sorry for the self-serving blog post

I was talking to my friend Elaine last night about how my blogging slowdown (she admits to a similar malaise), but here's a quick post about some other stuff I've been doing.

Firstly, the current When Saturday Comes has a season preview including a small bit by me about how Shrewsbury Town might fare this year. It's a big ask, as they've gone up a league. But I went to their first game of the season - an away trip to Bramall Lane in Sheffield - and they played quite well against Sheffield United who are widely touted to be champions this year. I'll try and report more on that soon.

When Saturday Comes is available at various newsagents / supermarkets, or online.

I've also preached twice at Glenwood Church this month on the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Sower. If you're interested in hearing the talks they are available on the Glenwood website, although the Sower was only yesterday so it might not be live yet.

I'd welcome comments - please do leave them here.

Sorry for the self-serving blog post. But better something than nothing, eh?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Turns out I'm really going to miss the Olympics

I must admit I was a bit of a grouch about the Olympics in the run up. All the hype was getting to me. But somehow I have become transfixed by it all. From the opening ceremony, which had so many brilliant moments in, through to watching Olympic football matches in our local world-class stadium, through to night after night watching highlights of success in sports I didn't even know existed.

For me, this may be my favourite photo from London 2012. Mo Farah and Usain Bolt saluting each other as only true sporting legends can.

Real life beckons and I am really going to miss the excitement, the novelty and the all-round cheerfulness of the Olympics. Sigh.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Thomas the Tank Engine gets off his face

I saw this from the window of a train on a tourist steam railway. I really don't know how parents would explain this to their kids.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Don't keep calm - get angry

I have been political in the past on this blog, but reading ‘To Isaiah’ by Dr Don Berwick this week has stirred up some more feelings of agitated anger towards some of the things being perpetrated by our ‘compassionate conservative’ government.

Don Berwick is an inspirational figure in the field I am currently employed in and was hand-picked by President Obama to introduce the reform of the American healthcare system so villainously and stupidly opposed by right wing America. ‘To Isaiah’ is the commencement address to the graduating class at Harvard University medical school. That sounds dull. It really isn’t.

There are three quotes in Don Berwick’s address that have particularly struck me. The first is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“To become a man is to be responsible; to be ashamed of miseries that you did not cause.”
I am deeply ashamed – mortified to the point of anger by the on-going widening inequality between the rich and the poor in this country. I feel helpless with barely controlled rage when smarmy Dave Cameron and his equally clueless toffee-arsed chums bleat on about how they understand that life is hard for ‘hard-working families’ but ‘we’re all in this together’. I find it shameful to be living in a country where job centre managers are being given suicide prevention training because of the numbers of desperate people they are seeing each day. It hounds me to the core.
The second quote is from the late Senator Hubert Humphrey:

“The moral test of government is how it treats people in the dawn of life, the children, in the twilight of life, the aged, and in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
So, how are we doing on this? How are the people living in the shadows? I tweeted recently how thousands of people are being denied disability living allowance under tough new governmental rules – and how, hypocritically, millionaire David Cameron and his wife Samantha claimed DLA themselves when their disabled son, Ivan, was alive.

I felt sorry for David Cameron when Ivan died. But I wonder what kind of bereaved father would wilfully turn the screw on parents who are going through the same experience of living with a disabled child.

Let’s be clear – the austerity cuts, the assault on the NHS, the denial of basic services to the community and particularly to the poor and needy are only ideological. They stem from a Tory conviction that the rich should not have to ‘subsidise’ the poor, that you are not your brother’s keeper, that if your neighbour only has one cloak you should take it from him if he owes you money, that compassion is only due to those you consider ‘deserving’, that the market is the divine authority and that the poor will always be with us so why bother trying to change things.

A remark on Twitter caught my eye today – on forming a government the Conservative’s priority was dismantling a working NHS. The rotten-to-the-core irredeemably corrupt banking system, which has yet again been exposed for the criminal racket it really was, attracted no attention. Bankers caused the global economic crisis that has been handily used as cover for the undermining, underfunding and destruction of the welfare state infrastructure. Have bankers been punished? Have they even been investigated?

There was an alternative to austerity – close the tax loopholes that allowed huge thieving companies like Goldman Sachs and Vodafone to pay less tax than the average corner shop. Deals were cut between HMRC and the accountants in those companies that were as unscrupulous as anything the traders at Barclay’s have been up to recently. Did the Tory government act when these came to light? Well, you know the answer to that.

And that gives the lie to the necessity of the austerity cuts. That gives the lie to the necessity of further impoverishing the disabled, the blind, the ill and the poor. That emphasises how these swindlers and conmen in government are in cahoots with the conmen and swindlers in the city and how the deliberate removal of what amount to a pitiful percentage of government expenditure, but means everything to the needy, is motivated by nothing more than an ideological, implacable hatred of ‘scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ by the wealthy.

This has happened by carefully and calculatingly distracting people. Firstly by the mythical debt that we had to pay off – although nobody I have ever asked could tell me exactly who this debt was owed to. Then by the righteous anger directed at the rioters, most of whom were uneducated dumbass kids from the worst of London’s sink estates. Then, by the wickedness perpetrated by journalists, although once that crept close to the government’s door it has been far less of a soapbox issue for politicians. And then by the Jubilympics, the endless stream of Union Jack tat, and the artificial excitement encouraged by a government led by a man who wanted everyone outside at street parties rather than paying attention to what was going on.

All this has happened in a haze of denial – encouraged by the incessant variation of a common theme: Keep Calm and Carry On. This ubiquitous message, to be quiet and shoulder the burden and just get through to the sunny lands promised on the other side of the long, hard, trek to freedom, is a meme that keeps coming back, and very convenient it is too. It appeals to the British stoicism, the ‘mustn’t grumble’ brigade, the ‘it’ll turn out alright in the end’ wishful thinkers.

But, no! We shouldn’t keep calm and carry on. We should get angry and change things.

This thought-train started by reading ‘To Isaiah’ (although much of it had been brewing for a while). I want to end with an original line from Dr Don Berwick that I found irresistibly prophetic:
 “A nation that fails to attend to the needs of those less fortunate among us risks its soul.”
Where is our soul?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The best company NOT to work for

I was told about this a while ago but forgot to look it up.

The charity which made me and 30+ other people redundant 2 years ago has included a picture of me in its most recent review. I'm on page 8.

The irony is it's about the 'Best Company to Work For' Accreditation that I helped them achieve. No mention on that page or anywhere else that I no longer work for them. Or why I left. Or how many people left with me.

Incidentally, it's not that they used the picture that bothers me so much. It's just I know plenty of people who still work there and nobody bothered to ask if it was okay. Which is a bit insensitive. (But I guess sums up the decision-making and management style I disliked when I was there.)

Ah, well, I've moved on to something better and enjoy my work a lot more now. Things like this encourage me that it was for the best.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Scary government

We moved into our current house in 1995. It's now 2012. For those not good at maths it's now 17 years since the previous occupants moved out.

That didn't stop the Department of Work and Pensions sending a letter to our house addressed to the previous occupants this week to advise them about claiming winter fuel payments.

Here's the thing. Firstly, it's summer, so why write now? That seems a bit daft. Secondly, how old is the database they are working off and how few checks do they run? It's not as if the government has an easy-to-access database of where everyone lives in the country, oh wait, yes they do - in fact they have several, council tax details, the electoral roll, the two census forms I've completed since moving here, the land registry.

Sometimes people expound ludicrous theories of government conspiracies, but given that some government departments seem unable to post a letter correctly, I think we're safe. The really scary thing is that government agencies can be so ineffective and useless.

(And, yes, I know, it's impolite to open other people's mail, but when you pick up the post you don't think it's going to be for somone who moved out nearly two decades ago.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The long road to the Olympics

My Olympic tickets have arrived, for events in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. This is approx a mile from my house, maybe more, but certainly less than 2 miles away. When I go to events there I amble quite happily. It takes about half an hour max - even if I have to walk round the stadium to get in the other side.

The Olympic organisers are very worried,though. They keep emailing me asking if I've planned my route yet and telling me to research it thoroughly in advance.

Maybe if the emails weren't being automatically generated by machines, I wouldn't get the frankly ludicrous emails. But then, machines only do what they are told to. The stupidity is human.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Location is an important element in advertising

Nothing wrong with this poster. I'm sure any woman would appreciate the chance to shine for summer

Especially the women standing up to pee...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Once in a lifetime?

The Olympic torch relay came through Grangetown this morning. I got up to see it carried down Corporation Road at 6.30am. There was an entourage convoy, with people saying 'Hello Cardiff Bay'. Which was a bit disappointing. Once you cross the bridge it's Grangetown!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Big furry film and DVD round up

Had the luxury of seeing a few films recently, so here are some reviews - starting with one we saw in the most apt cinema ever.

Being Elmo
This is a documentary about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who pretty much created the character of Elmo on Sesame Street. Despite the title, it was more about the man behind (or inside) the muppet, rather than about Elmo. His obvious love for his craft and for the character that is really a part of his soul is evident throughout, and his story of achieving his dream of joining the luminaries of the Jim Henson Company, including the late Jim Henson himself.

We saw the film in a most suitable location - Sinema 2 at Chapter Arts Centre, a room that is decked out in a very Elmo shade of red. The seats were very comfortable too.

As a documentary I'd really recommend it. It's an encouraging story about how if you love something really enough to pursue it as a dream, then you can make it. Seeing Kevin giving a tour of the studio to a small kid with a similar love and fascination of puppetry at the end of the film was touching - as he passed on his secrets, hints and tips to possibly the next Sesame Street wunderkind.

Jongudmund's rating: 8/10

Captain America: The First Avenger
I've been wanting to watch Captain America since it came out last year, partly because I really liked Chris Evans in The Losers, and partly because it looked cool. I've enjoyed how they have been setting up for the full Avengers movie that is in cinemas now, but actually taking the time to set the scene. It struck me today that what I really appreciate is that they've gone and made the prequels first. (I know, that means they aren't technically prequels, but you know what I mean!)

So, this is the Captain's back story, as he battles the villainous Red Skull, head of the Nazi Hydra organisation, during World War II. Chris Evans and Tommy Lee Jones are excellent, as is Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. The story is cogent and very well-executed. Marvel movies seem to be absolutely top drawer these days - ever since Iron Man. The script is witty and understated, and I really enjoyed it, although (spoiler alert) the denouement is a bit of a downer, which made the film quite melancholic.

On the DVD there is also a very interesting extra about the Captain America costume. I did like how they included the classic Captain America look into the movie, and allowed it to naturally evolve into something that looked 'real'. Marvel are clever at referencing the original comic book look and feel, and I'd go as far as saying this film is almost the perfect comic book adaptation. (Although not quite as perfect as Hellboy.)

Jongudmund's rating: 8/10

And so, on to my other pre-Avengers catch-up: Thor. I knew very little about the Thor backstory, so I was glad that this film really got into it quickly.

There was an added bonus as well, with Natalie Portman as a rather glamourous scientist who gets caught up in the craziness of Thor's quest to find true heroism while exiled to Earth. I like Natalie Portman and will watch pretty much anything with her in (even the Phantom Menace!), so to find out she was in this was a real plus. Anthony Hopkins was very good as Odin as well.

So now I know the stories of Thor and Captain America, I can get on and watch The Avengers Assemble (or whatever they change the title to next), but I would say Thor is worth watching on its own terms. Again Marvel have got a pretty good script, it's interesting to see how they meld comic book fantasy in with Norse mythology, and there aren't too many overblown headache-inducing action scenes. A good all-round film, with some interesting stuff about what makes a hero heroic.

Jongudmund's rating: 7.5/10

I sawthe trailers for this and was quite excited by it. Bradley Cooper is very watchable. It had Robert De Niro in. And it seemed an interesting concept - if you could take a pill that would make you superhuman, would you? So, with all that in place for the film, what could go wrong?

Well, quite a bit actually. There is one classy bit of filmwork - before Cooper's character takes the magic pill the world is washed out and grey. Afterwards, everything is in bright technicolour, as if he's landed over the rainbow in Oz. And that's where the cleverness stops. The big problem is that most of this film is narrated - e.g. a threatening underworld type menaces Cooper and he tells us in a needless voiceover.

It's not that he's got a boring voice, but eventually I grew tired of it because it felt like I was listening to a long rambling anecdote. While it's an interesting concept - you take a pill that allows you to use the bits of your brain you don't normally use to become mush more smarter and perceptive, the protagonist goes off and plays the stock markets with his new found talents. It's hard to make that interesting. And De Niro grimaces his way through his few lines like someone doing an unconvincing impression of Robert De Niro.

So, all in all, it was a bit of a snore off. And (spoiler alert) it does contain a rather gross scene involving blood and use of a hypodermic needle as a close combat weapon. So be warned.

Jongudmund's rating: 4.5/10

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday, May 04, 2012

Paris - Day 4 (the voyage home)

We had a final morning in Paris, so we went shopping.

I found an arcade of stamp shops (the Passages du Promenades). Yes, I bought something.

We were also the first customers of the day in this creperie. I had a crepe au sucre et citron.

The thing about Paris is is seems every street you walk down has some sort of massive monument. Arches are everywhere.

I liked the cheeky lion on this one.

But it was time to leave. In a station cafe I had this lemonade. It tasted better than you'd think, given the name.

There were a pantheon of trains at the Gare du Nord, including several TGVs.

But back at an English station, Cathy met a celebrity!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Paris - Day 3

Day 3 was a long one. But we started it well with pastries from the bakery.

This photo doesn't really do them justice.

We went to Ile de la Cite and visited Notre Dame. There was a massive queue, so we just walked around it instead of going inside.

The rear is as ornate as the front.

There's a bridge to the Left Bank that has become a popular place to leave a padlock with your name on - a modern-day folk ritual.

The bridge of padlocks does afford some good views back to the cathedral, though.

That evening we went to see the light show on the Eiffel Tower.

It had been raining, which came in handy to get a double view of the monument.