Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Films I've seen of late 2017 (February)

#8 The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
The LEGO movie spin off fails to disappoint with tons of action and laughs thrown together with pop culture references galore. Batman learns to get in touch with his softer side while battling pretty much every foe Gotham City has ever produced. The various Batman in-jokes are particularly well-played. Great fun.

#9 Tank Girl (1995)
Lori Petty was perfect casting for the lead role in Tank Girl, so it's a shame everything else doesn't quite live up to the promise of the source material. Full of zany action, one-liners and sets it has a 90s charm but you can tell it's not quite the film it should have been.

#10 I Am Your Father (2015)
Documentary about David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader in the original Star War trilogy. An interesting insight into his experience playing the iconic character and how he was affected by having his voice re-dubbed by James Earl Jones and Vader’s face being portrayed by Sebastian Shaw in Return of the Jedi. Culminates in David re-creating Vader’s death scene (annoyingly, though, they don’t actually show it – presumably because of copyright reasons).

#11 The Choice (2016)
A love story that centres around a male veterinarian and female trainee doctor who initially hate each other – but before too long get entangled in a relationship while the doctor's boyfriend is away with business. Fairly predictable chick-flick that is still watchable, the North Carolina scenery is gorgeous and Tom Wilkinson puts in an appearance to raise the standards a bit.

#12 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
I've seen this several times, but mostly in bits, and last weekend I actually got to watch it all the way through. Even though Roald Dahl didn't like it, the 1971 version of his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a worthy adaptation despite taking numerous liberties with the story (probably mainly owing to budgetary constraints). Terrific fun with memorable moments and great gags (both visual and verbal), the late great Gene Wilder steals the show as the mischievous, enigmatic yet creepy Wonka.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oreo Red Velvet!

One of my birthday presents was a packet of Red Velvet Oreos from my brother, imported from the States and no doubt containing all sorts of unhealthy, possibly carcinogenic, ingredients.

Seeing as I'm not planning on incorporating them into my regular diet, I figure one packet isn't going to do tooooo much harm, especially if I space them out a bit.

So, what do they taste like? Well, um Oreos funnily enough. They have a 'cream cheese' icing sandwiched between two red-ish Oreo cookies, but these two quirky properties don't really make them vastly different to their regular cousins (I suppose that's kinda the idea, though). The cream cheese icing doesn't particularly remind me of cream cheese, and the biscuity bit tastes like normal Oreos. I think it's more of an appearance thing, rather than a flavour thing.

Going back to the unhealthy ingredients (see the packaging which says: 'Artificially Flavored' - yikes!), there is something of a slight metallic aftertaste. Best not think about that too much.

Verdict: Tasty, but don't overdose on 'em. You might go blind...

More Oreo reviews from the archives:
Oreo easter eggs
Snowy Oreos
Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich
Oreo Peanut Butter Flavour
Oreo Thins 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Are you a dreaded talker?

I'm an introvert. I like my own company. I'd rather spend an evening in a quiet pub with a couple of mates than hang out in a noisy nightclub full of people. I don't like being the centre of attention, although I'm not averse to a bit of public praise when it's due (not too much, though - I'm quite modest as well. Ha!).

Being an introvert, I'm quite sensitive to being around other people. Not in an anxious way, but I'm always conscious of others and how they are relating to me and those around them. I can't help myself, that's just who I am - sue me.

One group of people I am particularly sensitive to are 'Talkers'. Yes, the ones who yak away incessantly without due regard to social norms. Of course, I'm generalising a bit here, but these people exist and they are out there ... amongst the regular people like you and me.

The difference between Talkers and normal people who like to engage in conversation is that Talkers don't seem capable of listening. It's always a one-sided conversation. They are happy to tell you what they think about something or other but don't actually think about asking your opinion, and if they do ask, they don't listen anyway.

Some Talkers are worse than others. The pathological ones drone on about the same subject for fifteen minutes solid without giving you a chance to contribute. You come away from the encounter emotionally bruised and battered because all you've been thinking about the whole time is how you can a) say something (anything) in the gaps b) excuse yourself without offending your captor c) smash their face in (metaphorically, of course).

I think what makes Talkers who they are is their lack of self awareness. That all-important ability to look beyond yourself and regulate your behaviour. I reckon I'm pretty good at it. I'm not one for talking at great length but if I am talking for an extended period (say, more than a minute), I become very conscious of it and feel the need to wrap up what I'm saying and let someone else have a turn. I guess because I know what things annoy me, I try not do them myself to others.

This is in no way a scientific, psychological analysis of the whole human social interaction thing. It's just my thoughts based on personal experience (I've probably nullified any point I've made by saying that, but it's good to get these things out in the open).

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate these people. As a Christian, I know I am called to love the unlovable, to show mercy and kindness to my fellow human beings. That said, it's OK to acknowledge your feelings – and I can't help feeling the way I do about dreaded Talkers. Argh!

So, if you happen to be one of those dreaded Talkers, just take my advice and learn to sit back and listen rather than open your gob.

You'll be doing your friends a favour as well as yourself.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sticky Pets

For Christmas my little brother got the kids some stick insects, which was probably the most random present they got.

Unfortunately, however, as soon as we got them home about half of the little beasts dropped dead. How do you tell if an insect that tends to stay still most of the time is dead? Well, all you have to look for is the most clich├ęd signs: these critters chose to show their deadness in the most helpful way i.e. by lying on their backs with their feet in the air.

Thanks guys.

I'm not sure exactly why but it may have been the lack of food and moisture (it took a while to figure out the best conditions for them). Or it may simply have been a case of Darwinian natural selection - only the toughest stickiest stick insect can survive our household it seems.

I've become quite attached to them, and find them almost more interesting than our hamster (although he wins hands down when it come to cuteness). Being nymphs, they are still growing and apparently this particualr species – Eurycantha calcarata (I think) or New Guinea Stick Insect – get quite big so that's something to look forward to. Or be terrified of. They are pretty fierce-looking for harmless insects.
We've already witnessed a couple of them shed their skin, which is fascinating, and now I've located an endless supply of bramble on the other side of Roath park rec so they won't ever go hungry.

Hopefully the remaining survivors will live a long life (for their species anyway). After all, I've raised two human children of my own and they seem to be doing OK so far.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Oreo Thins!

Oreo have recently launched their 'Thins' in the UK and as soon as I saw they were available, I had to try them, more out of curiosity than out of any huge desire to consume them.

My initial thought was that it seemed a waste. Being thin, there would be less creme and less biscuit compared to any other kind of Oreo. Double Stuff Oreos are amazing because there is a generous helping of yummy creme in each cookie.

Surely you want more of a good thing, not less of it?

Weirdly though ... they work. I like them. What's nice is that, unlike the standard variety, they aren't so brutal on the mouth when you crunch into them. Delicate is probably the most apt description and that makes them easy to scoff.

I can guess why Oreo have made these. I reckon they're aimed at people who want to watch their calories and so if they eat a thin it's like eating half a regular Oreo (whether that actually stacks up I don't know - I haven't checked the KCAL numbers).

Whatever the reason, Thins are a great addition to the expanding of the Oreo line up (and my expanding waistline maybe - ulp!).

More Oreo reviews from the archives:
Oreo easter eggs
Snowy Oreos
Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich
Oreo Peanut Butter Flavour

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Birthday Cards Roundup

This week I turned the ripe old age of 42 (the answer to life, the universe and everything, apparently).

I had several cards, but only the chosen few get to be featured in this here blog for being either funny or interesting:

Honesty can be the best form of humour.
Interesting play on words. I would never ever own a land rover though.
Anything based on movies is alright in my book. My favourite: Where Beagles Dare
More honesty...
Who doesn't like a lion wearing shades?

Rogue One: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?


There's a well-known saying that goes 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. Whilst this is probably a bit simplistic (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/is-one-mans-terrorist-another-mans-freedom-fighter/257245/) when discussing revolutions, uprisings, insurgencies and the like, I think it does have an element of truth to it. Watching the recent Star Wars film Rogue One reminded me of this saying.

You can read my review of the film here.

In case you didn't know, the movie follows a group of resistance fighters who are battling against the evil Empire, a totalitarian space government hell bent on complete domination of the galaxy (with the ultimate aim of galaxy-wide peace, apparently). These rebels are out to get plans to the secretive Death Star, a weapon of mass destruction so terrible it can vaporise entire planets, thus eliminating billions in one strike. The rebels hope these plans will enable them to exploit a fatal weakness that will easily destroy the weapon, dealing a devastating blow to their enemy.

In order to achieve this goal, the rebels cross paths with various military, law enforcement and administrative personnel of the Empire – many of whom who are killed for getting in the way. It's not just Empire staff that are in danger, however. The very first time we meet him, one of the Rogue One team kills an informant in cold blood.

Sure, the Empire is evil (although it's never very clear in the movies exactly why they're evil). They're developing a humongous floatey grey ball that can extinguish billions of lives in an instant, so yeah they're pretty bad. But does this fact justify the murder of innocent people in the name of a 'cause'? No doubt the bigwigs at the top (Darth Vader, the Emperor et al) are evil through and through, but the regular guys lower down the ranks probably aren't on the same scale of evilness. I expect they're just trying to get by, keep their head down and provide for their family – but unfortunately they are the ones who usually get slaughtered.

The sad plight of a baddie's goons has no doubt been discussed many times (and even made fun of in the excellent Austin Powers), but every time I see nameless henchmen take a bullet for their evil masters it always makes me wonder about the morality of our hero. It doesn't take a massive leap of imagination to see the heroes as terrorists, but because they are framed as the 'goodies' we the audience are happy to cheer them on as they blast away faceless stormtroopers in the name of freedom.

Okay, now don't read too much into what I'm saying here. I'm not equating the rebellion with ISIS / DAESH, for example. The ideals of that real-world terrorist organisation is in no way, shape or form 'noble', and the atrocities which they've committed in the name of it means they should be stopped at all costs. Also, Star Wars is fantasy and no actual people are being killed in the process, obviously. Real life is not like the movies, and that's something we should be constantly reminding ourselves of. Art is simply a mirror held up against our culture, after all.

Curiously, given one of Rogue One's themes (armed struggle against oppression), it seems to me that Disney – that great, magical provider of wholesome and wondrous entertainment – is advocating guerilla warfare. This is automatically, by association, of course. I don't think Disney have actually ever released a press release stating as much, but if our heroes are killing people in the name of their cause and we are meant to be rooting for the hero, then we should be aligning with that cause at least to some degree. This means that we're on the side of the armed struggle and Disney is too (because they wouldn't be on the side of the Empire, would they? Would they??).

Apparently, a load of blogger moms were invited by Disney to a special preview showing of Rogue One because they were worried that the advance word about it being a 'war film' would put parents off from taking their children. As it was a preview, they only showed about twenty minutes of the film (probably all the safe bits, with K2-SO giving his comedy quips), but I'm sure they did their best to try and allay any fears the adults might have. If this was the case, it's a classic example of corporate deception. Rogue One is very much a war movie, despite the fact that it falls under the Star Wars banner. I must admit, when I heard that Rogue was going to be more 'gritty', I thought twice about taking number one son. Since the rating was a 12A, I thought it would be alright (Force Awakens was the same rating), but it's certainly darker than other Star Wars films (just compare the end battle to the one in Phantom Menace. It's like they're from two completely different franchises).

So, going back to my freedom fighter / terrorist thought ... I'm not necessarily saying it's wrong to feature characters overthrowing an oppressive regime, but I'm questioning the morality of murderous acts committed in the name of such causes. You could argue that freedom has a price, and that those who stand in the way of freedom pay the ultimate price – their lives – for deliberately getting in the way. To quote another famous space-based franchise: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." (https://youtu.be/KqpcmQhnl48). This is particularly poignant in modern times, as freedoms in the West are becoming more and more threatened (see: Snoopers charter, Trump, Putin etc.). We've recently seen protest marches against Trump across the globe, and one common thread has been the notion of 'resistance'. Even some Trumpists are accusing Disney of comparing the current US administration to that Empire. The parallels between Star Wars and contemporary society have never been more blatant.

I hope I'm never in the position where I have to choose between living under an oppressive regime or being a rebel fighter against it. Sure, I like to think I'd chose the side of the goodies over the baddies, but no armed struggle has ever been a picnic – for either side. So let's pray that in the not-too-distant-future the only time we see freedom fighters battling it out against a fascist regime is in a galaxy far far away...

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

2017 Book #1: The Forgotten Son by Andy Frankham-Allen

I was given a copy of The Forgotten Son to read before Christmas and although I'm not a massive Doctor Who fan, I was intrigued by the idea of reading a spin off of the show.

Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is a much-loved character from Doctor Who, first appearing in the show's 1968 episode Web of Fear. The Brig (as he came to be known) returned numerous times to Who (including various spin offs, novels and audio plays) up until the actor Nicholas Courtenay's death in 2011 – and even got a posthumous mention in one episode of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor. 

The Forgotten Son is set just after the events of Web of Fear, when the Great Intelligence tried to conquer earth. I haven't actually seen this episode, but there was enough explanation for me to understand what was going on (I think!). The events in the book pick up after the Doctor has defeated the alien invader and disappeared off on another adventure, leaving behind Lethbridge-Stewart (who isn't a Brigadier yet) and the rest of Britain's military to clean up London in the wake of the alien invasion's aftermath. 

The Great Intelligence has already returned, however, attempting to take over the world (again) by infiltrating a spooky abandoned manor house near a quiet Cornish village.

When L-S is asked to investigate strange goings on in the village (which just so happens to be the place where he grew up as a boy), it soon turns out that things are not a coincidence and that the village holds a lot more significance for him than he'd bargained for.

With rampaging mechanical Yetis, re-animated dead soldiers and ghostly apparitions all with a bucketload of 60s references, The Forgotten Son is a well-crafted tale that feels very much a part of the Whoniverse but still manages to feel fresh and stand on its own.

Andy Frankham-Allen's writing is spot on. It's well-paced with a climatic ending worthy of any of the Doctor's adventures. Andy clearly knows his subject well and L-S's character is portrayed with utmost respect and reverence, albeit with a twinkle in his eye.

Great stuff.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Too much TV?

When our Freeview box died before Christmas it was time to get a replacement. I found a YouView box which seemed a pretty decent deal: all the terrestrial channels (including HD ones) with a 500GB hard drive for recording programmes. So far, so great.

Not long after we got the box, however, Virgin Media rang up to offer us a TiVo box effectively for free, which included a Sky Cinema package.

Even better. We now had two TV boxes with more TV and movies than you could shake a remote control at.

We did think about returning the YouView box but when we realised we can't get Channel 4's On Demand service on Virgin, we thought we'd keep both and switch between the two as needed.

Our TV choice had suddenly quadrupified, and that was great.

Then we got Netflix.

This is how many remotes we have. From L to R: YouView, TV, Old Freeview, Virgin, DVD Player

We went from having virtually no TV (because, let's be honest - there's not that much to watch on free telly), to virtually limitless programmes and films.

It kinda feels a bit overwhelming.

We have never been big TV watchers. It's not like we spend every evening glued to the box. And now we have the kind of choice that is unheard of ten years ago and it's all a bit scary.

I think our approach will be to take it one series at a time and only once we finish it, decide what to watch next.

Otherwise we might be those kind of people who watch TV and don't do anything else...

Why I think Trump will ultimately fail

A lot of people are comparing Trump's rise to power to what happened to Germany in the 1930s. There are many signs that point to this fact and it's terrifying: attacking minorities, extreme nationalism, a contempt for the media and free speech, normalising lies and half-truths etc.

Whilst the parallels with events eighty years ago are striking, I don't think we are in exactly the same situation. Yes there are similarities, but we live in a very different world with very different key players on the world stage.

I am hopeful that Trump's time in power will be short-lived. Whether that's four years or less I can't say, but there are certain factors that I think are against him:

- He's a fool
Compared to a lot of other fascist dictators, Trump's approach doesn't seem to be that well thought out. I really do think that he was trying his best not to get elected, given all the outlandish things he did and said. Now that he's in power, it's almost like he's trying to get himself booted out of office as soon as he can. Don't think there's a 'master plan' or anything – he's making it up as he goes along.

- He's a narcissist
Anyone who's examined Trump's behaviour will conclude that he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'humble'. His achilles heel, he cannot stand criticism or being made fun of. When you're one of the most powerful and well-recognised people on the planet you are going to be the butt of many jokes, and the world is going to turn up the ridicule button to 11. Constantly seeing red, Trump will likely lash out and say things even he regrets. All the associated stress could possibly make him deeply ill and incapacitated.

- His misogyny
Trump's attitude towards women is reprehensible. Yes, he will publicly deny any wrongdoing, but his track record on the opposite sex is not good. If he continues to rile half the population he will have a serious fight on his hands.

- He has no idealogy
Compared to other dictators, he has no obvious end game. Hitler wanted purity of the Germannic race and living space for his country. Trump has made no such noises (although white extremists will say he supports them). Yes, he's nationalistic and bullish, but I don't think that's quite the same.

- He has strong opposition
There is a lot of opposition out there, in spite of his adoring fans. The Democrat leadership appears to be largely spineless, but the media in particular is mostly left-wing and any attempt to quash their output will be strongly resisted. Then there's tech companies such as Apple, who have begun to make noises about their disapproval of Trump. Tim Cook, for example, resides over a multi-billion dollar company, and that has to have some clout. Not only that, but government officials and agencies have been vocal about their opposition to Trump. These guys could be the ones leading the struggle against Trump in days to come.

- He is living in the 21st century
Everyday people have the kind of communications and computational power unimaginable in the last century. Even with some restrictions, which would be vehemently opposed, people have more power at their finger tips than ever before and this will be extremely difficult to retract. That power will come in handy when it comes to resisting any attempt at a new order. Also, 1930s Germany was rife with extreme poverty and suffering, but while there are surprising levels of poverty among people in the developed world, most of us have access to the bare necessities: food, water, electricity and clothing.

- He's not doing anything new
The problem with trying to establish a fascist state in modern times (which Trump seems to be doing, although maybe not intentionally) is that it's happened before, and pretty much everyone knows how things turn out (i.e. very bad). We do have the lessons of history on our side, so hopefully people in positions of power and influence will recognise the warning signs and act accordingly.

How will it all end, I wonder? Is it possible that Trump calms down and just rides it out for four years? Or will the tipping point come with a final act of stupidity that gets him unceremoniously booted out of office?

All it takes is a spark, and I can see it going one of two ways: with a rising tide of angry indignant protests and strong political willpower – or with the tragic firing of a gun.

Let's hope it's the former rather than the latter.