Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Review: The Zen of Muhammad Ali

Sports writing, and boxing in particular, isn't really my thing. But I was attracted to this after hearing a recent Tim Ferriss podcast which featured someone who'd interviewed Muhammad Ali and Ali sounded like a fascinating character so I resolved to read something about him when I got the chance.

This book is a collection of magazine articles and as a result there's some overlap, even repetition of phrasing - and my overall impression is that I gained most insight into the author. But the writing is as times beautiful e.g. on Ali, Miller writes:

"He no longer aches with the ambition and the violence of a young god. 

About a third of the book is devoted to Ali - and the last essay sadly describes a falling out and subsequent distancing between the author and Ali's entourage which leaves a bitter-sweet taste.

The rest of the book is a selection of essays on Sugar Ray Leonard, Bruce Lee (a critique of a drama documentary which serves as framing device for a short biography of Lee's life) as well as the author's own fiction and memoirs. The best of these is a poignant story of an early romantic interest which manages to capture all of the hope and awkwardness that is characteristic of teen love.

I can't say it transformed me into a fan of the sport of Kings but I did gain a new appreciation of the mindset, dedication and beauty of those taking part in it.

Verdict: Not entirely successful experiment (on my part)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review: The Right Stuff

During the recent run of space based science-fiction movies a friend recommended The Right Stuff - the dramatised story of how early test pilots became the astronauts of the 60s.

Overall, it's an engaging cast in an involving film, but the running time is a bladder-stretching three hours and I felt a tighter edit could have easily brought that down by at least half an hour without hurting the story.

Certain liberties have been taken, e.g. it wasn't Yeager's first time in the X-1 and nor was it apparently unplanned.  Nor were relationships between the astronauts and the German scientists on the programme anything like as difficult as the film suggests. I guess these and other points fall into dramatic licence although I can well understand why those involved feel aggrieved. 

Apart from some of the iconic scenes e.g. breaking the sound barrier - one thing that stood out for me was the pushiness of the press. Some of those scenes felt uncomfortably claustrophobic. 

The picture quality of the DVD is fairly rough in places. There are extremely high levels of grain with anything involving people set against a darkening sky and some early scenes feel too dark. But that may be a problem with the source material rather than the encode. Still, I cannot complain too much - the DVD was just 25p in the charity shop remainder bin. 

Verdict: Lengthy & good docudrama

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Review: Passengers

Visually spectacular and unusual take on Robinson Crusoe story.  The basic premise, that of a passenger on a long (more than a lifetime) space voyage wakes up from hibernation to find himself alone is a fantastic one - and it could have gone in a number of directions.

The resulting film does hint at some of these. For example, there's sometime spent exploring the deteriorating mental state of the main protagonist, but this is no Castaway - even if it does have a Wilson in the form of Sheen's robobutler). There are also moments of mild horror which suggest the effects of isolation like the Shining.

But in the end, Passengers settles for redemptive love story between the leads, the circumstances of its formation being deeply suspect. It would be more plausible had Pratt's character been allowed to do the legwork.

It's an interesting choice, giving Lawrence top billing as while she is undoubtedly the more well known and better performer, it is mostly Pratt's character's film.

Verdict: Fantastic premise, simpler execution.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Review: Gravity

It's been a few years since I first watched Gravity on the big screen in 3D at the cinema  (or 2.5D as the purists rightly say). It was a breathtaking vertiginous experience and I came out of the cinema awed.

So a few years on, I wondered how it would like in 2D and on our home projector?  I felt it held up pretty well, even stripped of the deep immersion that big screen 3D had provided.

Essentially, it's a single handed Bullock chase movie vehicle despite the attachment of Clooney to the billing (although his role is a valuable one).  It's mostly a physical role for her too, although as a long term fan, it was hard not to be charmed by her dog impressions.

Understandably it's not as immersive as previously, but I still found it incredibly tense at times although having recently mainlined most of Chris Hadfield's ISS videos, the science is rather dodgy at times - and I couldn't fail to remember his anecdote around disrobing after a spacewalk. Apparently after a spacewalk - everything aches, your hair is matted with sweat, you have chafed skin from contact with the inflexible suit and one colleague even had nerve damage.

Verdict: Tense and majestic viewing.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Review: The Mummy Returns

The second in the Weisz/Fraser helmed turn of the century Mummy series resorts to doing what most action sequels do which is add in more action, more explosions and more SFX.  It's still quite a lot of fun, but not as coherent or humorous as the first.  Nor does it rival any of Indiana Jones movies, in story, fun or action.

Thrilling sequences, like the outpouring of a horde of beetles or the Mummy's restoration,  are often beat for beat lifted from the first film and simply made bigger/quicker and so lose their impact. Another notable borrow comes from Jurassic Park II.

The addition of Boath as the adventuring couple's son proves to be a great choice as he gets many of the best comedic moments (a role Hannah had in the first film). I particularly enjoyed those where he annoys his captors through restless finger tapping and repeatedly asking if they are there yet. By the end, I was beginning to feel the same.

Verdict: Fun, but no Indy.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Review: Star Trek: Discovery - first six episodes

I'm a bit of a late comer to Star Trek: Discovery for several reasons:
  • Outside of the first of the recent films, none of them have quite gelled with me. 
  • Its well documented production troubles were not exactly encouraging
  • Most Trek series have taken at least one, and sometimes several seasons to find their feet - and I just don't have that kind of tolerance for poor TV anymore. 
  • I felt Trek's time was probably past with its utopian exploration of strange new world's message and there's wasn't much left to say. 
  • I was a big fan of the Next Generation, but have only watched a scattering of episodes from the other series. 
But buoyed by encouraging reviews on a forum I occasionally frequent I decided to give it a go.  Star Trek: Discovery turns out to be one of the more interesting TV Trek outings. 

The first couple of episodes are set up and they bring movie like production values to an edgy encounter with some new look Klingons at the frontier of Federation space. So far, so Star Trek.

But hold up, the second in command stages a mutiny and things go rapidly pear-shaped from there. It does not end well for a certain guest star and the ship which doesn't share its name with the title of the show.  They might as well as given them a red shirt. 

The mutineer eventually finds herself on a Black ops science vessel - the Discovery - now charged with giving the Federation an edge in a war they are losing with Klingons. And it's a game changer in more ways than one. It brings brand new technology and a moral ambiguity - particularly in the form of its traumatised yet determined to win at all costs captain.  

As each episode unfolds, the complexity of the situation and wider political dynamics is gradually revealed.  Add in rather more gruesome violence than we're used to - and while this is still Star Trek, it's not Trek as we know it.  It's Trek filtered through the lens of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica. 

But perhaps it's the Trek we deserve for a post-truth, post-911, post Iraq war world. 

Verdict: Early signs good, Captain

Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: Doctor Who: Phantasmagoria

Even if his name hadn't been attached to this second Big Finish Doctor Who release, it's easy to identify this as a Gatiss tale as it has the usual hallmarks.  Namely, it is a decently executed pastiche which combines elements of the supernatural and period detail while folding in an unremarkable central mcguffin.

In many ways, it feels like a sequel to the Visitation, but the more obvious influence is Talons of Weng Chiang.

Davison's capturing of the fifth Doctor is solid, while Turlough's character has had some of the edges knocked off it. It's a welcome evolution, although Strickson takes a little while to settle back into it.

Verdict: Good second album.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Review: The Princess Bride

Metafictional fairy-tale oddity which weaves the "author's" knowing commentary on the book's events into its corpus.   The effect makes for disjointed reading, and as it a result it never quite becomes a page turner. But the characters, including places and the author, are memorable and have considerable tongue-in-cheek charm.

Do not skip the introduction on this one. I did and found myself having to flip back once I appreciated the central conceit.

Overall, I'm not sure it's quite as successful as something like Neverending story, but I did enjoy the author's pointed barbs at Hollywood, other authors and their publisher as well as the fairytale story they encompass.

Verdict: Metafictional fun.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Doctor Who: Sirens of Time

The first release of Big Finish's Doctor Who audiobook range, Sirens of Time is a bit of a 90s wish fulfilment fantasy - a multi-Doctor story with the fifth, sixth and seventh incarnation who never managed to meet each other on-screen.

As is normal for multi-Doctor stories, Gallifrey is under threat from some unknown malevolence - and each Doctor has a mini-adventure on their own before coming together for a face off with the big bad.

Each Doctor sounds and acts distinct from the others providing a good showcase for their characters.

Of the separate adventures though, Davison's Doctor probably comes off best with a first World War historical which unusually isn't set in the trenches.  The final episode is a tad confusing with various reveals that don't quite work.

The sound design is already good, but the dialogue and effects is a bit cliched at times. Lastly, a word of warning: there is a pantomime witch character that feels like she's wandered in from an episode of Rentaghost.

Verdict: Early promise.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: War for Planet of the Apes

Part primate road movie, part monkey version of the Great Escape/Spartacus - War for Planet of the Apes is more a few skirmishes than all out war.  But despite not quite living up to the promise of the title, it's still an absorbing if overlong conclusion to the prequel trilogy.

Much of that comes down to the ape performances and accompanying CGI.  In some cases, though notably not the main protagonist, Caesar, the CGI is now so good to be near indistinguishable from the real thing. Maurice, the orang-utan remains particularly impressive and lifelike.  As a result, I think it would be rare person who wasn't rooting for the apes by the end of this movie.  I wasn't a fan of Zahn's Bad Ape though which seemed to be shoehorning in some unnecessary humour.

On the human side, Harrelson's Kurtz like Colonel is unusually and chillingly humourless - and given unexpected depth when his level of personal sacrifice is revealed. Miller's debut is also amazingly good given the restrictions on her character.

A word also to the score, it uses tribal rhythms in a non-cliched manner which occasionally recalls the missus' homeland of Borneo. Some of the key action scenes are otherwise soundless and unusually cut to the music which is as breathtaking as Baby Driver.

My favourite of the trilogy is still the first with its more intimate human-ape relationships and greater distance from the original films.

Verdict: Good Ape End.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Hadfield - the Bowie covering space educator  and commander of the ISS -  turns much of conventional self-help and superhero "wisdom" on its head to talk about what it really takes to be a successful astronaut:

  • Realistic expectations i.e. you might never go into space, and should be OK with that. 
  • Continuous learning
  • Sweating, and enjoying the small stuff
  • Collaboration over competition - and aiming to be an active positive (plus 1) contributor.
  • Anticipating problems and preparing for them. 

The early chapters are also particularly evocative. His descriptions of lift-off and the experience of being in space itself are by turns terrifying, vertigo inducing and extraordinarily and wonderfully uplifting.

I also appreciated how humble Hadfield was and how he'd overcome obstacles like a fear of heights.

Meeting Chris Hadfield

Chris was due to give a keynote at IBM conference on disruption earlier in the week, and since it's a topic relevant to my work, I thought I would go.

As the event got nearer,  I wondered if it might actually be possible to meet him? An email to the organisers wasn't exactly encouraging. Chris was expected to leave immediately after his speech and wouldn't have time to sign anything (but they were also really excited to see him speak). Disappointing, but perhaps not unexpected. Still, and taking a leaf out of Chris' own book, I thought why not prepare for the eventuality in case I happened to meet in him in the corridor?

A day later, I had a hard back copy of his book in my hands, and I picked up and tested the Sharpie I got from Poundland.  Unfortunately, on arriving at the conference I was seated at the back without a great view - but managed to get an aisle seat (an unexpected bonus of the broken ankle).

As his inspiring talk came to an end, I got my book and pen ready - unsure which direction he would leave the stage. As it happened he left on the opposite side to me - and I doubt you have ever seen a man walking so quickly with a crutch as I raced to intercept him.

Chris Hadfield and me
I breathlessly caught up with him, and somehow gasped out, "Chris, Chris would you mind autographing my book?" His minder turned, saw the Darth boot and figured I was probably harmless - while Chris simply said, "Sure, come in here" - and I followed him into the green room.

A quick scribble later (he'd got into the habit of putting the cap on the end of Sharpies to avoid losing it, and it made it easier to handle) - and I was done. I thought I wouldn't chance my arm by asking for a photo as well - but as it turned out, I saw him again on the conference floor and after comparing injuries (he was recovering from a broken hand) and he kindly posed for one.

The missus reckons I look like the cat that got the cream in the photo - and perhaps she was right.  I've always wanted to go into space, and meeting an astronaut as quietly inspiring as Chris might be the closest I'll get.

Verdict: Mission accomplished. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: Bladerunner 2049

If you'd asked most fans (including myself) about this movie a year or two ago, the response would likely have been something like this is sequel no-one was expecting or really wanted - especially as the most recent cuts of Blade Runner have only added to the ambiguity about the nature and fate of the principal characters.

But Bladerunner 2049, turns out to be a good pastiche of the original. It even manages to carry the original's flaws and strengths for the most part.  Despite other glowing reviews in this regard, visually it's not as striking as its predecessor. The pace is now bordering on indulgent.  The soundtrack has nice callbacks to Vangelis' - and they remain the standout elements.  The plot is still fairly weak for the running time, although better than the original's.

All of this sounds like I didn't enjoy it very much, but I did.  The deftness of re-exploring and updating the old themes on the nature of what it means to be human, and unboxing/reboxing regarding the nature of individual characters while maintaining the mystery was very welcome.

Thematically, I felt it could have gone further on whether self-determination really exists as Homo Deus debates, or the moral implications of AI as per Superintelligence.

There is a CGI human which is another step forward (from Rogue One's Cushing & Fisher) in terms of climbing out of the uncanny valley - and my view, it is about 95% of the way there. The eye mapping feels slightly off, but this technology is rapidly advancing to the point where you can criticise the acting rather than the CGI.

Overall, it  does a similar job as The Force Awakens in that it revisits/renews/reimagines old themes as well as providing a decent sequel or even a jumping off point for further extending the franchise.

Verdict: Effective updating of classic.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Review: K-Pax

Effective sci-fi comedy drama with Bridges as the doctor and Spacey as the patient who may or may not be an alien called Prot from the planet K-Pax.

The film works best when it becomes a two-hander between Bridges bemused psychiatrist and Spacey's enigmatic alien (or not) as they have great chemistry.

The only wonder is where all of the money ($68m) went as for sure it is not on screen.

Verdict: Decent idea, well-executed.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Review: Blade Runner

Quintessential film noir set in a rain-streaked dystopian city of the near future. Often copied, but rarely rivalled - while on the surface it's a story about a detective hunting down rogue robots, at its heart, it's a mediation on what it means to be human and the shortness of our individual existence.

It's not without its weaknesses. It's not an immediately accessible film, particularly in the newer non-voiceover cuts. That hardly matters to me as I've seen it so many times that I'm familiar with the meaning of the various allusions to the possible true nature of one of the principal characters and other iconography.

The plot is also not particularly strong either. But the visuals, oh my goodness. From the dirty, neon- crowded street level scenes to the ones soaring above it all - they were awe inspiring when I first saw the film in the late 80s, and they still feel remarkably current - especially in their use of light. That's an incredible achievement considering the film is more than 30 years old.

Verdict: Mediative and visually-striking.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review: Night Shift

The last and best of the Midnight trilogy by Charlaine Harris.  Finally, each character's back story is fully fleshed out, and they feel less like individual cyphers and more like a community of interesting people.

There's only one mystery to solve, and it's a slow to get going. The resolution is somewhat obvious, but overall this is a much more satisfying read than the previous books.  This is because the characters feel individual and that they have agency rather than being there to simply move the plot on.

Verdict: Good paranormal fantasy.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Review: The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Slow Down Aging, Live a Long Life, and Make Every Second Count

I found this to be a quixotic read as it bills itself to be predominantly a hands-on guide, but the author spent the vast majority of their page count on discussing the theory of how our brains work in terms of perceiving time.  As is often the way with these books, I was hoping for a practical step by step guide focussing on application rather than an overview of the field and a few pointers.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't useful and thought-provoking read.  I can see myself returning to many of the ideas within it.

The key tips I took away were:
  • Introduce more novel experiences to build more memories. Even taking a different route to work does this.
  • Focus on collecting pleasant memories
  • Build anticipation through planning experiences
  • Increase mindfulness and pay more attention to what's going on at the moment
  • Slow down.
  • Induce flow by paying more attention to the task at hand.
Of those, the ideas around flow, novel experiences and collecting pleasant memories were of most interest.

Verdict: More thoughtful, than practical.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review: Moonlight

Moving film which effectively subverts the "traditional" African American coming of age in a tough neighbourhood story to show a much more nuanced and vulnerable side to masculinity.

The cast is near-uniformly excellent, although Harris is exceptional. This is hardly a fast paced film, but the framing is at times exquisite which made it impossible to take my eyes away from the screen.

If there is a fault - it's in the sound design which made the dialogue difficult to follow at times.  That poses a real problem because the Amazon Video version we watched didn't have subtitles and key plot developments - like the fate of particular characters - can hinge on a single line of dialogue which allows you to infer something that happened off-screen.

Verdict: Rarely told story.

Review: Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain

Entertaining account of two young friends' attempt to travel from Land's End to John O'Groats starting with nothing more that a pair of Union Jack adorned boxer shorts each.

I breezed through this within a few hours, drawn in by the sheer ludicrousness of the experiment and easy writing style. Would they really be successful in relying on the kindness of strangers for clothes, transport, food and shelter for the entire trip?

I won't spoil the book, but it's fair to say that Britain has retained its tolerance for eccentrics.

It has plenty of comic moments, but like the protagonists I was beginning to tire of the trip as they settled into a routine of blagging and the places and characters they encountered became less distinctive - especially once they crossed the border into Scotland.

Verdict: Chilled-out fun travelogue.


Review: My Boy Jack

Made for television 2007 film starring Haig, Radcliffe, Cattral and Mulligan covering Kipling's son's wartime experiences. It's a poignant rather than redemptive story.

Haig is excellent as Kipling. By turns, he portrays Kipling as a rabble rousing war propagandist, a domineering father determined to live vicariously through his son and yet also a loving man. It would be easy to judge him harshly, but he was a man of his time.

Radcliffe doesn't have a great range - but the role of John Kipling - a young man unable to stand up to his father, but quietly determined in his own way suits him. It's not just in physical resemblance that his character resembles his on-screen father.

The standout scenes, for me, are of the trench where Kipling Jr's platoon are waiting to go over the top.  Somehow, it manages to capture the nuances of different members reactions much more effectively than most wartime dramas.

Also of personal note, the film features an early Douglas motorcycle. As a child, I helped a neighbour restore a slightly later example. The distinctive livery brought back a lot of memories.

Verdict: Satisfying wartime drama

Review: Purple sweet potato

The missus has been raving about the purple sweet potato from her native Borneo in the last week - and so I resolved to taste one if I could.  The only trouble is I live in North Wales with only a small town nearby.

But the universe must have been feeling kind this week (and no, I don't believe in any of that The Secret stuff) as I somehow found myself in town on market day - and local veg stall actually had them.  I selected the biggest of the tubers and handed over my quid.

The missus was only partly impressed. Apparently, it was not purple enough.

Returning home yesterday I found the missus had steamed it. The mid-purple flesh was firmer, more flavoursome but more subtly sweet and less watery than the orange variety. The skin had some bitter notes, but not overly so.

Verdict: Superior sweet tatws.