Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A review of 2017

Here we are again! Another year and another watershed in our lives has come round quicker than expected. To quote Ferris, "Live moves pretty fast."

I'm pleased to say that my blog count for 2017 was better than last year (and the year before that!), having doubled my efforts (Darth Vader would have been proud). 61 posts isn't bad – my best effort since 2012 – and it didn't feel too difficult to achieve (although summer was a bit of a dry spell).

So, 2107 - here goes.

Boys are growing up, again! What is it with small human beings and their propensity for increasing in size?!? Seriously though, number one son turned 10 this year, which made me feel all sorts of conflicted emotions including sadness (he'll be a grown up and leave home before I know it), pride (he's doing well at school and is a good kid) and bewilderment (me? a father? seriously?). Ten whole years since my life was changed forever by becoming a dad. Crazy. What's great is that I am beginning to be able to engage with him more and more like an adult. For example we sometimes have normal grown up conversations - something I've longed for for ages.

My bother and his partner welcomed their third child into the world, a lovely healthy girl, in May – so it seems the next generation are well and truly in full swing.

Wifey and I are getting on well. I'm really grateful that things are solid between us. I think the fact that we are making more of an effort to catch up with each other on a dedicated basis helps (i.e. booking in brunch dates). This should prove doubly important now that we are both serving in the church and the resultant stress / time demands that brings.

I am constantly reminded of how fortunate we are as a family in all sorts of ways - the challenge is to never take things for granted.

My faith has had ups and downs of sorts. Not that I've wavered in my faith to any degree, but I am hyper sensitive when it comes to sound doctrine and all that. The notion of 'false prophets' is  something I find myself often thinking about and I have become a bit disillusioned with the charismatic approach to Christianity (not that I was particularly sold on that movement in the first place). There's a tension between sound biblical living that is right-relating and engaging with the fallen world in which we live in - something which many Christians, I fear, don't really get. Not that I'm an expert. It's often reallly hard to separate truth from lies - it's like trying to separate dust from treacle. Oh well, ho hum. Will keep thinking on that one.

I'm continuing my leadership training course – only four more essays to go, woohoo! – which has been interesting but quite a drain on my time and headspace. Once I've completed it, I hope to find something worthwhile to get involved in in the local community which is linked to the church. Foodbank, maybe.

As for church, I've only just started out as a deacon. I'm sure I will have lots to write about in a year's time but at the moment I have no real idea what it's going to be like. I've already had my first meeting and that was pretty painless, so watch this space I guess.

My travels this year were fairly minimal. Apart from a jaunt to France over spring half-term with most of my immediate family (where we had an amazing time), we didn't get to do much else apart from going to London in the summer (a trip to the Natural History Museum being the main focus) and a visit to relatives in Oxford and Yorkshire over the summer.

For next year, we're off to France again in August (just us this time), but apart from that we have nothing else planned.

I think I've done a bit better with my reading this year. I'm not the quickest of readers but I'm a bit more determined to keep on top of it and make sure I read a variety of genres (not just sci-fi which is my favourite). I've also gotten into the habit of reading 'spiritual' books at breakfast time. It's my way of trying to double up my reading efforts and trying to avoid dwelling on the news (which is very depressing at the start of the day).

I've written an overview of my reading here.

So, I've managed 84 films this year, which isn't bad but I would have liked to have seen at least 100. I guess that's something to aim for next year. The problem is, I rarely have a couple of hours free in the evening these days. After settling the kids for bed, sorting the house out and catching up on work, it's usually 9pm and then watching an entire movie seems a bit much (especially if it's over 2 hours). I have gotten into the habit of watching films in segments, but I don't like to do that too often as it does seem to stop the flow a bit.

My favourite films of 2017 (in no particular order) are:
- American Made
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
- Bright
- Baby Driver
- The LEGO Batman Movie

Having upgraded our Virgin package and subscribed to Netflix, we are following a whole load of TV shows. Here's what we've been watching:
- Mad Men (We are still plodding through this, having arrived at the eighth - and final - season. Eventually we'll get there).
- Designated Survivor (We're now onto the second season of this drama set in a parallel world where the US President is actualy a likeable guy determined to do the right thing).
- Stranger Things (Season two was as good as the first. I just hope they don't screw it up going into next year).
- The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season two felt less funny than season one. Still, the characters are great and there seems a bit more mileage left in it).
- Master of None (hilarious observational comedy with plenty of pathos).
- SS GB (dark and thoughful drama set in an alternate Britain where the Nazis won the Battle of Britain).
- Star Trek: Discovery (I started watching it, but lost interest halfway through. Not sure I can be bothered...)
- The Handmaid's Tale (Powerful drama not a million miles from home which is kinda scary).

I saw very little this year in terms of shows/theatre this year, but I did get to see a show by proxy because I was filming it on behalf of a friend who was one of the actors. Called 'Quiet Hands' it told the story of an autistic boy who is being bullied by his housemates. It was just three actors on a bare stage but it was very powerful and moving.

We were very lucky to get to see Coldplay in the Millennium Stad - er, Principality Stadium (dang, keep doing that!) in July. It was a breathtaking show, even though we were stuck right at the back on the top tier. Good memories.

For Christmas, we usually take the kids to a show of some kind and this year we went to see Wind in the Willows at the Sherman theatre. It was brilliant - with great songs, terrific acting and a gorgeous set. Hopefully we'll go again next year to see Alice in Wonderland.

Work has been plodding along as usual. Not much to report on, but I have been encouraged by new networking opportunities - plus I invested in a couple of decent cameras and other filming equipment (thanks to a hefty bank loan) which has really improved the quality of my work.

I've been working on some short films, but haven't done as much as I would have liked. The only one that came out in 2017 was 'Timicide' which we shot at the end of 2016. We did a couple of other shorts, but just mucking around really. One of my shorts is languishing in post-production which is frustrating (all my own fault though). I hope to do more this year coming, but it all depends on time and capacity.

I also had the opportunity to edit a feature film for the first time. It was a low budget crowdfunded sci-fi thriller but due to lack of funds and various setbacks its release has been delayed signifcantly. Only time will tell how long it will be before it's completed.

I've only been properly ill once in 2017 (in May), which is a record because I'm usually grotty two or three times in any given year. Not sure what to put it down to, but it may be something to do with the fact that I'm trying to eat more healthily (well, I'm *trying*). I'm definitely eating more fruit and vegetables these days, and while my exercise regime is a little sporadic I'm pretty much on top of it most of the time. Would be great to get rid of the belly, though.

I did have a 'back episode' back in August when my back went completely and I was in pain for weeks. It was almost debilitating but thankfully subsided eventually. It sure made me feel old!!!
I do exercises now to try and compensate and hope it will prevent any future problems.

World Events
Well, we had the divisive General Election, Trump's appaling presidency and the ugly fallout of Brexit. With a smattering of terrorist attacks and various disasters it was a pretty downbeat 12 months. But then, aren't they always? It's all too easy to focus on the negatives when there's plenty of good stuff happening that often gets underreported, ignored or suppressed by the bad news.

I was struck when, watching something related to the 80s, there was the same level of hysteria and panic about various world news from the time. Stuff that has been and gone, consigned to the history books. I just made me think that we shouldn't be troubled by what's going on in the present. Yes, react to what's going on - don't just let bad people get away with bad deeds - but don't allow these things to dictate our sense of wellbeing. It's easy to forget that most human beings are good, kind and trustworthy – and that most events are fleeting and temporary.

Other Stuff
We had the – ahem – joy of caring for stick insects in 2017. I say 'we', I actually mean 'I'. I became the sole care giver and, despite losing a few initially have managed to keep them alive all this time. Fascinating and curious beasts, I wouldn't say I have any affection for them - just a spot of loyalty I guess, seeing as they were a gift to my boys from my younger brother. How long they'll live for is anyone's guess as they're not in the most ideal environment for their species (it's a bit cold here in Wales!).

Like last year's post, I'll end this with a brief mention of a funeral I attended this autumn. My aunt sadly died of cancer and it was an honour to join my family at the service. I don't always feel affected by funerals, but it was a very moving occasion and unsurprisingly made me reflect on my own mortality (as well as others around me). I remember my aunt as a very gregarious and uplifting person. I wouldn't say I was particularly close to her, but she did her auntie duty well and always took an interest in us, even though we didn't see her very often. From what I understand, her final months and days were not very dignified (whose ever are?), but my memories of her are positive – someone who was ready to be life and soul of the party. I think that's the best way to remember her.

And on that note, dear reader, I shall sign off from my first post of 2018.

Have a good one!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Here are my thoughts on the latest Star Wars movie, one which seems to be more divisive that The Force Awakens. You could almost call The Last Jedi the Brexit Star Wars. Or the Trump Star Wars. Or the, erm Phantom Menace Star Wars.

Okay, maybe not.

Okay, so overall I liked it. It’s quite long and it seems to lose its way in the middle (probably because of its runtime), but it felt like a Star Wars movie and that’s what counts.

Yes, some fans didn’t like it. Yes, there are issues with it - but I think the main take away is that it was a bold direction to take the series. Rain Johnson could have played it safe, but he didn’t and I think that’s a good thing even if it does feel a little uncomfortable.

My gripes were:
- Luke expressing green milk from an alien cow’s breast. Silly and unncessesary in my opinion.
- A complete dismissal of basic space physics (I can live with sound effects, but when gravity gets ignored that is frustrating as hell).
- Leia’s space angel scene.
- The Resistance’s daft military strategy choices.
- A bit too many samey bits as The Empire Strikes Back. See: imperial walkers fighting speeders, master teaching a jedi, a dodgy wheeler/dealer character (DJ), Yoda for goodness sake!

My likes were:
- The lightsaber battle in Snoke’s throne room. Epic and clever.
- Planet Crait and its unusual geology. It does look a bit like Hoth, though.
- Rey’s discovery of the force.
- Rey and Kylo’s relationship.
- Kylo and Hux’s rivalry. A refreshing theme to have in the series, and funny too.

What I like about Rian’s choices for the story is his exploration of what it means to be a Jedi, and that you don't have to be from noble royal blood in order to achieve greatness (or indeed to be a Jedi). Also, there's the subject of failure: Poe's, Finn's, the Resistance's and Luke's. Luke's wrestling with his own mistakes and doubt – and the ultimate release from his angst at the end of the movie – are mature and defiant decisions.

What this film does is take Star Wars in a new, unpredictable direction and challenges our preconceptions about the franchise, and I really do think that's a good thing.

Some may disagree and feel that their 'childhood' is being ruined but I think they're missing the point. If you've grown up with Star Wars as a kid, don't forget that you'll always have the old Star Wars. The original trilogy are still there to be enjoyed (although admittedly not in their untampered state, but that's a different issue). That stuff can't go on forever. Just enjoy it for what it is!

The new films should be about starting over again and breaking new ground. The Force Awakens was a way to gently break us into that, and The Last Jedi is another step closer to moving on (that's why it has similarities to Empire, I guess). We've lost Han Solo, now Luke (and sadly Leia because of Carrie Fisher's untimely death). The baton has been passed to the next genertion. Hopefully, episode IX will be even more different. Rian is working on the next three episodes after, and presumably he'll be taking Rey and co. in a new and fresh direction. Which can't be bad, right?

Of course, if episode IX features a giant Starkiller Base 2, copying Return of the Jedi, I'll eat my words and drink some of that lovely green milk.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Films I've Seen of Late (December)

#72 Collateral Beauty (2016)
Intriguing drama about a bereaved father who can’t move on from his daughter's death. His business partners try to remove him from the company so that they can make a crucial deal that will secure their business’ future, and employ three struggling actors to help them out. With a great cast and layered storyline, Collateral Beauty is a compelling and moving experience.

#73 The Polar Express (2004)
A boy who's losing his belief in Santa is invited aboard the magical 'Polar Express' to visit him at the North Pole. It seems like kidnapping and overly friendly old men are OK when it's Christmas time - the rest of the year it's a criminal offence. Anyway, back to the Polar Express. An interesting premise, but the ancient CGI (yup almost 14 years old) is distracting and some of the plot points feel clunky.

#74 Justice League (2017)
DCs most famous characters come together for this comic-book ensemble piece that, in my humble opinion, hits more than it misses. Following events from the much-maligned Batman vs Superman, Justice League balances story with its various heroes and villains well - although Steppenwulf the bad guy is a bit, well, vanillla. Still, good old-fashioned popcorn entertainment.

#75 Café Society (2016)
Woody Allen writes and directs this 30s drama about a young New Yorker who moves to LA in search of employment and excitement. He falls in love with a secretary who works at his uncle’s agency but this relationship proves complicated when she reveals she’s having an affair with an older, married man. With great writing, set design and costumes it’s only let down is its fairly muted ending that doesn’t really satisfy.

#76 John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves is a badass hitman who comes out of retirement after a Russian gangster pushes his buttons. Violent, slick and dark, John Wick shows no restraint as he goes on the rampage, but Interestingly he’s not portrayed as invincible - in amongst the mayhem there are moments of vulnerability and weakness which at least humanises him a bit. A solid thriller, but not for the faint hearted.

#77 Friends with Money (2006)
The ups and downs of life, love and money for four friends in their forties. Some good characterisation and an interesting story - it just ends without much of a satisfactory conclusion.

#78 In Bruges (2008)
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two hit men, sent to Bruges In Belgium after completing a job. It soon transpires that they are not there just to lie low, but for something more heinous. A dark comedy with great acting (esp Farrell as a tortured, dim-witted soul), In Bruges is so much more than your typical hit man action flick.

#79 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
A solid return to the franchise with events continuing immediately after The Force Awakens. The Resistance are seriously depleted in numbers and are on the run from the First Order. It's up to Finn, Rey, Poe and friends to save the day - but can they do it against such odds? There are some odd directorial choices and plot holes (as always), but overall a worthy addition to the never-ending saga.

#80 The Star (2017)
Kiddie-friendly re-telling of the Nativity story from the perspective of Mary's donkey and various other animals. Does a reasonably good job of keeping the little ones entertained and conveys just about enough of the Christmas story to be true to it – but keeps it as 'safe' as possible.

#81 Die Hard (1988)
A seminal action movie that inspired countless copycats, this 80s thriller is nothing but flawless. Some may dismiss it as dated but I prefer to see it as aged and matured like a fine wine. Great fun.

#82 The Grinch (2000)
Jim Carrey hams it up as the green-skinned recluse who hates everything to do with Christmas, looking down upon the residents of Whoville with hatred and contempt. While similar efforts haven’t been quite so successful, this is a decent stab at Dr Seuss material.

#83 Bright (2017)
Lord of the Rings meets Training Day in this fantasy buddy cop mashup that, surprisingly, works. I can't understand the negative reviews. It's well-paced, gritty – and doesn't lecture the viewer with tons of backstory about how humans, elves and orcs are all somehow living together in LA. Will Smith is his usual good self, and Joel Edgerton is great as his orc partner. Looking forward to the sequel.

#84 Hidden Figures (2016)
Based on the true story of the black women working behind the scenes at NASA during the space race in the 60s. In spite of institutional racism and sexism, they soon become indispensible to America's journey to space. An inspiring and moving story, it serves as a reminder (as if we needed it) that intelligence and ability are not the preserve of white men.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Books I've read this year (2017)

Unlike movies, I get through books achingly slow. I tend to read seven or eight titles a year, depending on the kind of book and how busy life gets for me. Here's what I managed to read in 2017:

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Now that Amazon have produced a TV series based on the book, its source material has been eclipsed by its flashier, more in-depth screen version. I've only caught a few shows from the first series, but from what I have seen, Amazon have created an impressive show that explores the concepts in Dick's book with tremendous attention to detail.

Clearly, the book was written before the fad for 'world building', franchises and 'cinematic universes', as it is surprisingly brief and leaves you longing for more. Even so, Dick's writing is masterful enough to convey all that comes with the premise of an America defeated by its Axis enemies during World War Two, and the ongoing struggle to resist against a formidable German Reich and a not-so-formidable-yet-victorious Japanese Empire.

Its brevity disappoints in that there is no real satisfactory conclusion and leaves many questions unanswered, but then maybe that's the point.

Besides, if you really want to, you can turn to Amazon for more.

Intercessory Prayer by Dutch Sheets
It's hard for me to critique such a book as this without sounding like a heretic, and yet there are some important spiritual truths within. This is despite its heavy charismatic leanings that make me feel slightly uncomfortable and wary. To sum up, it's vital for Christians to pray for all occasions and in all circumstances - and to do so on a regular, fervent basis. I couldn't agree more, so let's leave it at that shall we?

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
Unsurprisingly influential, this book is an important commentary on man, technology, politics and ecology. Three men find themselves aboard a myterious submarine that has become a menace to shipping across the oceans. They come to know its owner, Captain Nemo, and voyage under the seas exploring all manner of watery wonders. Nemo's sinister motivations, however, soon become clear and his guests endeavour to escape their aquatic prison.

What is remarkable is how this book was written in 1870, when things were so different to present day. There had been no world wars yet, electricity was in its infancy and the political map was very different. Verne's writing is scarily prophetic, mainly when it comes to the workings of Nemo's underwater vessel marvel, the Nautilus. Because of this, '20,000 Leagues' is still relatable and relevant today and continues to be an inspiration to many science fiction and adventure writers.

The Time Machine by HG Wells
Like Verne, Wells is superior in his writing and understanding of technology, science and the human condition, despite coming from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although his grasp of space-time physics may be a little primitive (not that we're all experts in this day and age, of course), the story of a man who builds a time machine (probably the first incident of a time travel vehicle being committed to fiction) and propels himself thousands of years into the future is not just an exciting adventure yarn but full of social commentary as well. An astonishing piece of fiction for all sorts of reasons. 

Red Moon Rising
Telling the story of the 24/7 prayer movement, this is one of those books that gives you an incredible sense of awe about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who risk it all for God's calling. Not only that, it's the amazament that God continually uses the insecure, doubtful and broken to fulfil his mission on Earth. On the flip size, the stories in Red Moon Rising make one feel just a bit left out and inadequate. Of course, not everyone is called to mission in such ways, and the book often points out that with every success (or vistory), there are copious amounts of failure, disappointment and grief - which is kind of reassuring. Still, inspirational about prayer and perseverance.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin
I've deliberately steered well clear of the Game of Thrones books because of the hype but got this book when I needed something to read (and there wasn't much else to choose from). A prequel to the immensly popular fantasty books, I was pretty much hooked from the start, and may well end up reading the others (although there are a lot of them - it's quite a commitment). It balances fantasy with historical fiction really well. There are only hints of magic, sorcery etc. and the real focus is on the realtionship between a hedge knight (the lowest rank of knight) and his squire (who just happens to be a prince in disguise) as they try and make ends meet in the cruel and merciless world of Westeros.

Metroland by Julian Barnes
A sort of English version of Catcher in the Rye, Metroland contains musings on life and philosophy from the point of view of a man at three stages in his life: adolescence, early adulthood and middle age. A lot of the observations are about sex and relationships with a typical 60s sexist slant. Well-written and interesting, but very much a window into a different age rather than anything insightful for the 21st century.

The Grandfather Invasion by John Peel and The Forgotten Son by Andy Frankham-Allen
Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart is a much-loved character from Doctor Who and Candy Jar Books has produced a series of licenced novels about the Brigadier which sees him fighting off all sorts of weird and wonderful baddies. I've read two of them so far, and you can read my fuller review of the Grandfather Infestation here and The Forgotten Son here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas Oreos!

I was delighted to come across chocolate covered Oreos (milk and white choc!) in the supermarket this Christmas.

I've had them in France before, but not in the UK since back in 2009 when I blogged about it with excitement (my most popular blog post of all time!).

Totally unhealthy but every shade of yummy, this is one of the best versions of Oreos I've ever tasted. There's something about encasing them in chocolate that makes them the epitome of perfection.

The only downside is that I'll probably have to share them with the rest of the family.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Doing the Deacon thing

A few months ago Wifey and I were approached by our pastor who asked if we'd be interested in joining church leadership - her an elder, me a deacon.

It was a bit of a crazy request, mainly because it's unusual for husband and wife to both be in church leadership (especially if they have a young family), but he felt it was a possible prompt from God so thought it worth exploring.

We were a bit surprised, but offered to go away and think/pray about it. Having done so, we felt it was right to accept, but to stagger things slightly - Wifey to start 'Eldering' first and me to 'Deac' a few months later.

Wifey has taken to her new role well, and is realy in her element. Me, I've only just been voted in (it was unanimous I think, so there's a vote of confidence!), so I have yet to find out what it's like.

It's dawned on me that I am of the age where me and and a lot of my peers are now the ones in church leadership, which is sort of scary. Years ago, I used to watch the leaders from the congregation and see them as older, wisened 'grown up' people, and it's a bit weird to think that maybe younger people now see me that way (maybe not the 'wisened' bit - just the 'older' bit).

I don't feel at all qualified, but I guess I have a reasonable length of life experience to draw upon (although maybe not so much when it comes to churchy stuff).

Who knows? Maybe I'll end up being a pastor one day (cue copious amounts of laughter and derision).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Justice League - a review

Warning: spoilers!

Justice league picks up after the events of Batman vs Superman, with a world left reeling from the aftermath of a cataclysmic battle between Superman and a kryptonite monster.

Fearing that something even worse will come to destroy the planet, Batman sets out to form a team of metahumans in preparation for the looming threat. With Wonder Woman already on the team. Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg eventually join – just as the lucifer-like Steppenwolf wreaks havoc looking for three of the ‘mother boxes’ (devices containing unlimited power).

Overall, I liked this film. It managed to handle its varied elements well and struck a decent balance between darkness and humour. While it was mercifully tight in terms of running time, it did feel slightly rushed. There was a lot to pack in (introducing new characters, setting up the threat,

Each of the League members brought something to the party: Batman’s gadgets and know-how, Wonder Woman’s level-headedness and kick-ass moves, The Flash’s comedic lines (and ultra-fast speed, of course), Cyborg’s tortured intensity combined with superior hacking skills and Aquaman’s demigod surfer dude-ness. Whilst the team chemistry hasn’t quite gelled yet, I think this is a good start and hopefully can be built upon in the follow up (if there is one).

Last of all, there’s Superman – coming back from the dead and predictably saving the day, although his role is small it’s not insignificant.

In some ways it’s a miracle this film ever got made and is in any way coherent. Not only did it suffer from its director pulling out after the tragic death of his daughter, but it needed $25 million of reshoots which also included the infamous digital removal of Henry Cavill’s moustache. It’s kind of noticeable if you’re looking for it, but if you didn’t know you’d be none the wiser.

One thing that disappointed me about Justice League was the aspect ratio it was shot in. Batman vs Superman was shot in 1.44:1 but Justice League in 1.85:1 (I think, anyway - IMDB is a bit confusing on this). Because of this, the former film felt more epic to me. The widescreen aspect helped convey the sense that this was an ‘event’ film. Justice League, on the other hand, felt like a bog-standard movie to me. It may have something to do with the cinema I saw it in (they have a tendency to keep the lights dimmed throughout the film, which is kind of annoying), but with a film like this I want to feel totally immersed in the experience.

Another disappintment was the character of Steppenwulf. He could have been big and scary and monstrous enough to prove a worthy baddie, but being a completely CGI character took away from anything he could have been. Why do filmmakers insist on this? It looks totally fake and pulls you out of the movie. It's not a DC thing, either. Marvel are just as bad with their woefully CGI'd Thanos.

As for the soundtrack, it was great to have Danny Elfman scoring the music. I have great affection for what he did on the Michael Keaton Batman films, and so it was nice to have him return to caped crusader territory. The original Batman theme tune was thrown in here and there (as well as the John Williams Superman fanfare at one point).

Overall, Justice League did a good job in my opinion (with the odds stacked against it in numerous ways), but the cracks in the DC Extended Universe seem to be all too clear.

Maybe DC should cut loose from Warner Brothers (a la Marvel) and do a reboot to their intellectual property. Even though it's not meant to be a competition, their comic book rivals are steaming ahead and can't seem to put a foot wrong.

And that's a real shame, because DC have some great characters that deserve decent treatment on the silver screen.