Sunday, September 30, 2012

Adventures in baking (continued)... Pizza Rolls!

After something of a hiatus since my last baking effort, I turned to humble pizza to see what I could come up with.

Inspired by a 'pin' on Pinterest, I fancied making pizza rolls which looked glorious. Seems in the States you can buy every conceivable kind of dough from the supermarket ready-made: frozen or in a can. Here, in miserable old blighty there's sod all (at least Tesco delivery doesn't sell it) – so I had to make this from scratch. Granted, it's a bit more work but I did feel very proud and smug afterwards.

After making the dough, kneading it for five minutes and leaving it for 1.5 hours (to expand, don't you know) I rolled out the dough ready for the filling. Mmm! Filling!

Today's filling was pepperoni slices, mozarella (grated), mature cheddar (grated) and tomato puree. The puree was slapped on first, with the meat and cheese following on swiftly after. I then rolled the whole thing up to make a sort of elongated pasty thing. It was only after I'd sealed it up that I realised I should have included a sprinkle of herbs (must remember that next time) as I think that technically counts as one of your five a day ... or something.

I made two of the beauties and here they are:
Hmm Not exactly uniform batches, but hey this is my first time. I call the top one long-ee and the bottom one fat-ee.
I brushed the tops with milk and sprinkled on some garlic powder. Don't know why, just seemed like the right thing to do.
I whacked them in the oven for half an hour with great anticipation. I love pizza of almost any variety. They are divine (even the cheap Tesco value ones – I could eat loads of 'em), and makes me think maybe God is Italian.

Anyhoo, after the alloted time, my pizza rolls were ready!
I think they look like bloated burritos. Long-ee exploded while fat-ee managed to contain the ingredients. Well done fat-ee!
Well, the long one expelling its filling was quite a traumatic site. All that filling! It was mostly cheese, which I would say is the glue that holds these things together so that was a shame. Also, the baking parchment I put them on decided to stick to the underside of the rolls, which was annoying because we had to peel it off (which was very tricky). Must remember next time to grease the paper first! Despite all this, the family seemed to enjoy it, so that's good.

Fat-ee was meant as a spare for another meal so I'm going to chuck him in the freezer and hope he keeps. Maybe he'll have a lot more cheese inside which might improve the pizza roll experience.

Overall, it was a dead simple thing to cook. I do enjoy making my own dough and this one was nice and gooey and fluffy. The roll tasted good, I'd definitely have one again. I think next time I will use more tomato sauce (to add a bit more moistness), add herbs and make sure the baking paper is greased. I might also play around with different meats for the filling.

Next time, however, I might just make a normal pizza!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Dredd failed at the box office

I was saddened to learn that Dredd 3D failed to perform at the US box office recently.

I felt the movie had a good chance of making some impact in the States for a number of reasons: it had mostly favourable reviews (on both sides of the pond), a well-known geek star (Karl Urban) playing the lead and it had something unique about it (3D – done well for a change – in an R/18-rated movie).

Obviously, these factors weren't enough.

Dredd is not amused about US Box Office Takings. Heads are gonna roll!
Of course, one can never tell with movies, because there's no magic formula that guarantees a hit. You can even out the risk as much as possible by ensuring you have a big star attached to the movie or cover familiar ground story/character-wise but even these things cannot ensure success.

The thing about Dredd is that it had an uphill struggle from the beginning. Even though I think it's a brilliant film (well, for me anyway. I'm a Dredd fan and I'm totally happy with it. 5 stars and everything!), good films don't necessarily make billions of dollars at the box office. Here are what I reckon are the key factors that dashed Dredd's hopes of being an American smash-hit:

1. The Star
Karl Urban (aka Bones in Start Trek) is a great actor. He was perfect for the role of Dredd. He nailed the character. But – he's no hollywood A-lister despite the geek-worship. His name was never going to be quite enough to draw in the casual cinema-goers.

2. The Budget
If Dredd had cost $3 million to make, the film's performance would actually have been considered quite good. Unfortunately, to make a hard-hitting 3D sci-fi action movie you need to spend a bit of money to get it right. $45 million is relatively small for this kind of film, but that money still needs to be made back. Also, you need to spend a lot of money on marketing and with a film like Dredd you can only really spend so much. I'm sure Dredd will likely break even (with takings in the rest of the world, and DVD/Blu-Ray sales), but that won't please the investors.

3. The Competition
No film ever opens without some competition, and so it must be the hardest thing to try and second-guess what other studios are planning to release at the same time. The films it was up against (End of Watch and Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve for example), weren't exactly blockbusters but probably familiar enough for audiences to choose them over Dredd.

4. An R-Rating
The decision to make a violent and visceral version of Dredd was, I believe, the right thing to do. This is because the comic itself is very violent. Unfortunately, this restricts who can go see it, particularly the masses of young geeks who like to spend lots of money on action flicks.

5. Sylvester Stallone
Stallone got it wrong. So wrong. In 1995 they butchered the legacy of Dredd, trying to cram in all the best bits from the comic and ending up with a codpiece-laden buddy buddy space-cop movie that bombed. There were some interesting moments and decent SFX, but ultimately the character on screen wasn't Dredd and his reputation as a bona fide comic book character ripe for the silver screen had been ruined.

In some ways, however, you could say it paved the way for Urban's Dredd. While the 1995 Dredd failed at the US box office, Stallone's star power still had some draw and quite a lot of people have probably seen it since (it's always showing on TV and one pirated version has had over 1 million hits on YouTube). Stallone at least introduced the idea and concept of Judge Dredd, admittedly very badly, to a wider audience. You'd think then, that people might be interested to see a new, more violent version (and one endorsed by the hard-core fans) – but sadly not.

6. The Character
Of all the factors that contributed to Dredd's lukewarm US reception, this has got to be the killer. Dredd is not a very nice person. While he's cool in a brutal and violent way, and his story arc since the 80s has gradually touched on Dredd's inner struggles, people who don't know anything about him just see him as an emotion-free fascist with little time for moralising. In fact, he's less human than Robocop (who, interestingly, was based on Dredd).

Also – and this is key – most Americans still haven't heard of him. Or if they have, it's because of the Stallone fiasco (see above).

The thing is, American's don't get Dredd. They never have. Sure, the comics have sold to some degree across the Atlantic but I'd say those US readers are probably the more discerning comic fans (and I salute all of them!). Comics in America are overwhelmingly dominated by American comics. Just like the movies, most of the stuff they consume is home grown. If it's not DC or Marvel, (mostly) nobody cares.

Which is a real shame because Dredd has a lot to offer. It's dark, violent and gritty but can also be funny, surreal and moving. The canvas of Mega City One is so rich and deep that you can pretty much write any kind of story there: romance, crime, thriller, horror, adventure – you name it. Dredd's home comic, 2000AD, has always struggled to gain any recognition in the States. But it's not that British comics are crap, they've made a huge cultural contribution. Many Brit artists actually cut their teeth working for 2000AD before ending up working for the big two in America. 2000AD has influenced a lot of writers, actors, artists and futurists in all spheres.

It's just that, well, Dredd is British (he's not, of course, but you know what I mean). Like Doctor Who or Red Dwarf, Dredd is rooted in British sensibilities that Americans might find charming but ultimately can't relate to. He's borne out of a British vision of future post-apocalyptic USA and is probably more relevant to us than the Americans. They have no ownership of the character and probably never will. If Dredd had been conceived by DC, Marvel or a US Independent, I'm pretty sure we'd be on the third movie re-boot by now.

Anyway, I don't really mind that Dredd hasn't been the huge success in America that everyone was hoping for. The main thing is that they made a decent version that stayed true to the comics. It buried the 1995 version good and proper, so I can't complain.

What's disappointing is that we'll probably never see a sequel. Without the interest of US cinemagoers, no one is going to be interested in spending millions of dollars on more films, which is such a shame because films set in Dredd's world could tell some really interesting stories.

If Dredd succeeds in other parts of the world I guess there's a slim chance a sequel will get the green light, but I won't be holding my breath. I just hope that after the dust settles, someone decides to keep on carrying the flame of British comic book characters. 2000AD is a goldmine of great stories and characters that are ripe for TV or cinema. There's always the option of doing a Dredd TV series (live action or CGI), which could be less risky than more feature films.

Maybe Dredd fans should just give up trying to convince the Americans about Dredd, and just enjoy the comics. You can never please everybody, and cultural stuff ... sometimes it never translates.

There's a possibility – albeit very slim – that one day, America will realise what a great character Dredd is. They will lap up the multi-level irony, the socio-political commentary and the hilariously extreme violence. They will hire the right actor, recruit the best director and spend a ridiculous amount of money bringing Mega City One to life.

Maybe then, justice will be done.

Why not read about what happens when Christians review Dredd 3D?

Chocolate, Cider, Science and God - My faith journey Part One

A recent post by a friend musing on why he's an atheist has prompted me to write about why I'm a Christian (thanks for the idea, Tel!).

I've mentioned my faith numerous times on this blog but never really given any background, so I figured it's about time I wrote something about how I got to where I am now. Here goes...

For me, my experience of coming to faith in the early 90s will always remind me of chocolate, cider and science.

Ever since I was a kid, I'd kind of assumed there was a God. It never occurred to me that there wasn't a God and that we were all alone in the universe trying to survive on a big spinning ball of rock. I didn't really think beyond the idea of a God, however – I just assumed He or It was 'out there' somewhere.

It wasn't until I went to university that I started questioning things and tried to explore the meaning of life. My housemate, who was a few years older than me, was on a similar journey trying to work out his spiritual journey and it was through numerous late-night conversations that the subject of faith and God and religion regularly became the topic of debate. Often, this would revolve around consuming (sometimes copious) amounts of cider and chocolate.

The science bit came along when I attended a series of seminars about God and science. I can't really remember the details of those talks but it challenged my assumptions that science had 'disproved' God and that they were two opposing forces battling it out against each other (and that, in today's enlightened age, science had ultimately won). On the contrary, it seemed the original reason for scientific discipline was to explore God's creation and find out how He did things, to simply discover the divine at work all around is. I came to see evidence of God in all aspects of nature, from galaxies billions of light years away to the unseen microscopic building blocks that make up our frail bodies.

As time went on, I eventually joined my housemate in going to church. I must admit, it was pretty weird at first. It was one of these 'free' churches which was nothing like my previous experience of the Christian faith (ie dull and lifeless Anglican services). We met every Sunday at 10am in a school hall. Most of the churchgoers were abnormally happy, positive and friendly. They sang happy clappy songs and did weird stuff like praying and falling over ('in the spirit' apparently). I soon got used to it, though and enjoyed spending my Sundays there (not least because we often got invited round to someone's house for Sunday lunch afterwards!).

I also started joining the Christian Union at University, which had events and meetings throughout the week. Obviously catering for students, it was very different to the church I went to as most of the attendees were my age. This was a great community of people and I got on well with the guys there, enjoying being part of something new and exciting.

And then women problems reared their ugly head.

Not long after becoming a Christian, I fell for a girl who also went to CU. It was as if everything was falling into place. I was doing well in my studies, I'd found God and then I'd met this amazing girl who seemed to like me. She played hard to get, but eventually agreed to start dating. I had a new girlfriend and life was peachy!

Sadly it lasted all of two weeks. She spent an entire evening ignoring me during a CU social and when challenged later, said it was probably best to end things.

Needless to say, I was absolutely devastated.

Suddenly I'd gone from elation to depression. I felt betrayed somehow by my new-found faith and the whole experience left a painful mark that took years to heal (it sounds a bit extreme but I was very sensitive back then). Not that I blame the individual lady concerned. We were both young and naive with our own individual hang-ups – me, I fell deeply in love with someone too quickly, combined with the fact that my experience of relationships was hugely flawed and inadequate. I wince when I think back at some of the things I said and did.

Not that I suddenly lost my faith and renounced everything. It took a while, however, for me to 'tip my toe' back in the water properly. I did blame God for my relationship shortcomings, but deep down I knew He wasn't going to go away and that a little 'women trouble' wasn't a particularly good reason to suddenly pursue some other belief system (or drop it completely).

So, licking my wounds I carried on with this Christian malarky. I went to 'Noel Richards' concerts (he looked a bit like Francis Rossi), joined in the 'March for Jesus' parade (including waving, er, rainbow banners proclaiming 'Jesus loves you!') and wrote a few Christian drama sketches for the CU (only God could forgive the drivel I came up with). I also fell in love (again!) with someone else and completely screwed the whole thing up having not learnt a single thing from my previous relationship disaster.

All in all, my tentative first steps in being a 'Christian' were pretty tragic, but like a drugged-up puppy with nothing better for distraction I kept going to church and doing the Christian 'thing'. It was only when I left Uni that I got stuck into doing my faith properly. For a while, it went great.

And then it went pear-shaped. Again.

To be continued....

Friday, September 21, 2012

It's the Friday video post! Love Running Cardiff

Our church was involved in Love Running Cardiff this year, with a large team of people doing the Cardiff 10k run. Originally started in Bristol, the idea was to create a social group that was inclusive of non-churchgoers which also benefitted good causes. It's a great concept, and the group managed to raise over £10,000, which is fantastic.

I chose not to run, basically because I am too exhausted with the new baby. It did mean, however, that I was free to make a short video about the event, which you can see below. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Movie Review - Dredd 3D

Ever since the embarrassment that was Stallone's version of Judge Dredd in 1995, fans of the futuristic lawman have been hoping that one day things would be set straight. Now, they can rest at ease. A decent, faithful adaptation of the comic legend has finally been made.

Dredd 3D is dark, gritty and shocking. From the moment hard-ass cop Dredd hits the streets it's bloody mayhem and violent destruction. It's a faithful adaptation that puts the previous incarnation to absolute shame and proves that throwing large sums of money at something doesn't necessarily give you a quality product.

Pretty much every review I've read about Dredd 3D has been consistently positive about the film. They've all commented on Urban's excellent performance as the titular anti-hero, and Thirlby's similarly good portrayal of rookie Anderson. The slow motion filmography has impressed, and the tight narrative has shown that you don't need overly-complicated plots and subplots (a la Dark Knight Rises) to tell a story.

Urban nails the character of Dredd perfectly. The gravelly voice is spot on, as is the way he carries himself. Dredd is a terrifying sight to behold – tough and violent justice embodied in a single man who's as hard as nails. Not only that, he keeps his helmet on. Stallone, on the other hand, played Dredd as a bit of a ponce. I'm sure he didn't mean to, but in trying to play down the violence of the comic (to keep the film's rating down), he diluted the character of Dredd so much he came across as something akin to a florist – as my friend aptly put it – which is simply not Dredd. Plus after fifteen minutes he took the helmet off (an absolute no-no when it comes to this character).

Dredd's home of Mega-City One is a truly terrifying place. Worse than any present-day crime-infested slum city I can think of. Criminals are everywhere and the Judges are hopelessly under-resourced (as Dredd casually mentions to Anderson, only 6% of crimes are ever dealt with by the law. The rest go unpunished and undetected). It's not a place I'd ever want to visit.

The comic's vision of MC-1 has tended to play with a high-concept futuristic look, with gleaming mile-high skyscrapers, flying vehicles and robot servants. Such a portrayal would always be limited by a movie's budget and I can understand why the producers (with limited cash) opted for the more budget-friendly retro-decay vision of the future.

Still, there are futuristic elements, just to keep the sci-fi geeks happy. Take Dredd's Lawgiver, for example. Like in the comics, his primary weapon has multiple firing modes and you get to see them in action throughout the film. Stallone's Lawgiver was impressive-looking but a bit silly. One of the shots was called 'Double Whammy' (seriously – what?) and when it fired it sounded like some 8-bit videogame crossed with a washing machine on rinse cycle. Also, it had a 'signal flare' option. Since when were the Judges of Mega-City One planning to take a boat trip?

I also loved the various references to Judge Dredd's wider world from the 2000AD comics. The mention of things like Iso-cubes, Juve-cubes, Resyk and Meat Wagons (all MC-1 everyday parlance) made me (inwardly, at least) squee with delight (in er, a manly way of course). Added to that, references to other characters was great fun: Chopper,  Kenny Who? and Wulf Sternhammer (from Strontium Dog) all received a nod.

One thing occurred to me while watching this film. When I watch other comic book movies, most of the heroes are endowed with special powers of some kind (like Superman), or have an array of nifty gadgets (like Iron Man). I watch these films and think 'Wow – that's kinda cool. I'd quite like to go around sorting out bad guys like that.' While Dredd is an awesome character, I would never ever want to step into his shoes. His daily routine typically consists of lots of people intent on killing him and all he's got is a gun, bike and heavy leathers for protection. No force fields, inherent invincibility or God-like powers.

Nah – I'll leave it to the hardened clone who's been trained in crime-busting since he was five.

I'm hoping to see this film again soon, and recommend you do too (unless you're under 18 of course).

Verdict: 11 out of 10 (yes, I'm that biased!)

Why not read about what happens when Christians review Dredd 3D?

Friday, September 7, 2012

It's the Friday video post! Dredd 3D

Being a long-time Judge Dredd fan, I am super-excited about seeing the Dredd 3D film tomorrow (hopefully it won't sell out like the last film I went to see!).

To celebrate the things Dredd-ful, here's a few videos: