June 24, 2008

SOAPBox v2.0 is no more…

Writing about web page http://www.alastairsmith.me.uk/

My blog is moving away from Warwick.  If you're interested in staying with me, you can find me at http://www.alastairsmith.me.uk/.  It may take a little bit of time for the DNS update to go through, so the link may not work for you just yet.  Be patient :)


January 18, 2008

A clutch of film reviews

I've seen a number of films over the last couple of months, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on them with you all.  I'll try and keep each review brief, as there are a few :-)

American Gangster

It's easy to say that as Ridley Scott directed this, it was a very good film; he does, after all, have a good track record.  Whilst it was masterfully directed, as one would expect, the real joy of this film is to be found in the treatment of the story and the acting.  Denzel Washington shone, and I'm gaining respect for Russell Crowe who has never in the past struck me as a particularly good actor; I found his performance in Gladiator rather wooden at times, for example.  2004's A Beautiful Mind changed all that; his portrayal of the great mathematician John Nash was truly moving.  He's not as good in this as he was in A Beautiful Mind, but it was another example of how he has discovered or grown his acting abilities. 

In the same vein as films such as Blow, American Gangster tells the story of the real-life drugs baron Frank Lucas (touting heroin in this case, as opposed to Blow's cocaine), his descent as the power and wealth accrued corrupts, and his moral recovery.  That, and how he allegedly helped to bring down a large portion of the DEA for corruption, although the veracity of this claim is being disputed.  Lucas' operation was a marvel of organisation and negotiation, employing the same "direct from the wholesaler" technique to heroin as has traditionally been applied to things like white goods. 

This is a long film, but doesn't really feel it until it's nearly over; there's a lot of story to cram in, and Scott just about manages it without dragging in the detail too much. 

Highly recommended.

4/5.

Beowulf

I've not got much to say on this one, as it was generally pretty rubbish.  I did, however, go to see this in 3-d, which made it worth seeing, not least because a lot of it had obviously been made specifically for the 3-d version.  It was an enjoyable way to spend the time, but it was not a great work in any sense, and the only reason I woud recommend it would be for the 3-d effects and the interesting rendering techniques used.  Seeing it in regular 2-d probably wouldn't give you the necessary distractions from the movie's shortcomings.  

3-d version: 3/5; 2-d version: 2.5/5

I am Legend

Will Smith stars in this story of the last man alive in New York after a deadly virus sweeps the world, killing or mutating the entire population save the 1% who are immune to its effects.  

I am Legend is the tale of Robert Neville (Smith), a military scientist who has stayed behind in New York ("this is my Ground Zero") despite the advice to get the hell out.  He feels responsible for what has happened, and is looking for a cure.  Neville has been in New York, alone, for nearly three years when we join him at the start of the film, and the long shots of New York empty and abandoned are nothing less than chilling.  I literally had tingles running up and down my spine for a full 30 seconds or so.  But even this is indebted to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which did the same thing to London. 

I am Legend is really two films, and this is what what lets it down.  Particularly because the second film is a bit crap.  The first film, running for the first hour of the picture's 1.5hr running time, is an interesting psychological study of a man who's been alone for too long.  Neville's only friend and companion in this first film is Sam, his dog, and it focusses on Neville's use of routine to cope with the loneliness and boredom.  Most people would have gone insane and probably killed themselves in this situation, but Neville is driven by his desire to find a cure to atone for his crimes.  And the deaths of his family.  That's not to say he's compis mentis; he holds conversations with mannequins, knows every line of Shrek off by heart, and has difficult adjusting to human company.  Will Smith plays Neville fantastically, carrying an hour's worth of monologue as though it were the most natural thing in the world - he is Robert Neville.  

The second film is an action-packed half-hour that winds the story up too quickly and in a different direction from the one you might expect.  There's a significant event at the end of the first film that leads us to the second, but it doesn't stop I am Legend feeling like it's spiralled out of control.  The last half-hour contains comparatively little plot development and is mainly zombies/vampires attacking Neville's house, and this is to the film's detriment. 

I had high hopes for this film, expecting it to be on a par with I, Robot but once it leaves behind the sometimes excellent first part, it loses any chance of even clutching at I, Robot's tail feathers.  

Recommended.

3.5/5

Charlie Wilson's War

I cannot recommend this film highly enough; it is an absolute joy to watch.  For fans of The West Wing in its original incarnation, you will recognise Aaron Sorkin's writing at its best throughout this film.  This is an accomplishment itself, because Sorkin's writing often takes a turn for the sentimental and he doesn't handle that sort of material as well as he does sharp political commentary.  As someone once remarked about Sports Night, Sorkin's first success:

It's like all the worst bits of The West Wing thrown together.

Charlie Wilson's War, however, is the exact opposite.  It's everything that The West Wing was when it was at its best, and somehow more too.  The script is sharp, witty, and incisive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a comedy, the jokes come that thick and fast, but it's not.  It has a serious core, and that core is the story of America's intervention in Afghanistan.  No, not the 2001 incursion, but the original intervention, back in the 1980s on Reagan's watch.  It tells the story of the congressman Charles Wilson, who inspired the covert action against the then Soviet Republic's invasion of Afghanistan.  It was America that put the guns in the hands of the Afghan people, and, as Sorkin makes clear towards the end, it was America that didn't clean up afterwards.  

Tom Hanks plays Charles Wilson very well, with — certainly by the end — more than enough humanity to make him a loveable old rogue rather than a man with questionable morals.  Julia Roberts is disappointingly two-dimensional and uncommitted as Joanne Herring (compare this with her excellent starring role in Erin Brockovich), but doesn't appear in the film enough to take the shine off.  Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos steals the show, however, providing pure gold in every scene he is in.  The scene in Wilson's office when Gust and Wilson first meet is a masterclass in comic timing and farce.  

Having seen Charlie Wilson's War, you can't help but feel that actually maybe there is something in all this political rhetoric about Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc., sponsoring terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.  The methods employed are very clever and constantly maintain plausible deniability: for example, using Israel's stockpile of confiscated Russian weapons to arm the Afghans so that there was no evidence of America's involvement, not to mention getting Israel to side with Arabs.

Very highly recommended.

4.5/5

Babel

This is not a film about an American woman (Cate Blanchett) shot on a bus, supposedly by terrorists.  This surprised me initially, as this is what the trailers seemed to promise, and I'm sure that had Alejandro González Iñárritu (most well known perhaps for 2003's 21 Grams) put together that film, it would have been excellent.  What is delivered instead, however, is something far more outstanding and unique. 

It's hard not to draw comparisons with Paul Haggis' Crash, but all those comparisons are favourable.  Crash was an excellent film, but Babel is outstanding.  Babel is to language and communication as Crash was to racial prejudice, but carries it off in a much more subtle manner, despite the obvious allusions of the title and the tagline ("If you want to be understood... Listen"). 

Like Crash, there are multiple and interwoven storylines traced concurrently.  Unlike Crash, they are taken out of sync, and time becomes as elusive as the comprehension the characters so desperately seek.  There's the married couple with problems that are in Morrocco to try and work things out; there's the Morroccan goat-farming family who purchase a rifle to keep the jackals away from their herd; there's the deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to cope with her mother's suicide and rejection by men; and there's the Mexican nanny who takes her two charges to Mexico for her son's wedding and struggles to get back into the US that night with almost tragic consequences. 

The film is at its most vocal when the characters aren't talking; the most comprehension between the characters is gained when they're not actively communicating.  The Tokyo club scene is a clever and subtle exposition of this idea.  

This is a film that will either affect you or leave you a bit cold; it's "arty" in places, particularly with some of the Tokyo scenes, and this might put off some people.  But every story line is as moving as each of the others, as is the underlying theme.  

Highly recommended. 

4.5/5


January 04, 2008

Cars

Ok, so I'm in a position to be thinking about buying my first car.  My first proper car.  A horribly underpowered Ford Focus (that's otherwise pretty nice) doesn't really count, and a Vauxhall Nova certainly doesn't count, so I'm going to forget I drove them for the purposes of this post. 

The main thing to bear in mind here is that I don't know much about cars.  I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I have, to put it mildly, a very poor understanding of torque, and all I know about Brake Horsepower is that it has a silly name, and somehow describes the power of an engine.  As such, I know my Focus has about -2365bhp.  

However, having been given Clarkson's latest book, Don't Stop Me Now, for Christmas, it's safe to say I'm quite excited by the prospect of driving a proper car.  One that does 0-60 in less than a day.  One that is a driver's car, because I'm the sort of person that likes driving to be fun.  I'd like to feel the G-forces when I accelerate; you get more G-force from licking a spoon than you do from accelerating in my Focus.  One thing I do love about my Focus, though (and there are more than just this), is the boot.  It's huge for a car that size.

So I'm interested in a number of models, and intend to undergo a long try-before-you-buy process of test-driving everything with four wheels that comes within a sensible budget.  What is deemed sensible is still up for grabs, as is the insurance premium.  

My Holy Grail, perhaps, is the Golf R32.  Less chavvy than the Focus ST, but obviously still a solid driver's car and well-spec'd.  Conversely, a new Mondeo or a Citroën C4 or a less souped-up Golf would do nicely.  The reputed reliability of Citroën is putting me off the C4, though, and I'm not 100% sure I necessarily want a family car just yet, however much fun the new Mondeo looks.  There's also the option of getting my Dad's Mercedes C220 diesel second hand in October.  Not that I'd be able to drive it until I'm 25 in March 2009 for obvious insurance-related reasons.

I don't know whether I should be looking for petrol or diesel engines: I gather that diesel is more economical over large distances, but petrol is greener and cheaper and gives better performance.  Apparently.  Somehow.  A lot of diesel engines seem to be turbo-charged, too; does this bring their performance up to the level of an "equivalent" petrol engine (if that even means anything)?

So, in essence, I'm opening this up for debate.  What sort of thing do you think I should I be looking for?  What can you recommend as being a reliable car that's fun to drive and sensibly-sized and -priced?  What should I test drive first?


December 26, 2007

Doctor Who

Am I really the only person to have been disappointed by the Doctor Who Christmas special?  And consistently so?  The first one was too short to successfully develop the myriad of ideas presented; last year's was better, although I was disappointed to see the Santas recycled, and I'm not a fan of Catherine Tate either (could make Series 4 a tough watch); this year's was the most ambitious of the lot, and had evidently had a lot more money thrown at it. 

As lavish as the set and CGI were (the CGI particularly was a vast improvement over previous series), and as many big names (Kylie Minogue!) they got for the cast, the writing and the plot turns were, as with most of Russell T. Davies' episodes, quite frankly rubbish.  The twist at the end where the baddie has control of the boat's engines and shuts them down remotely defied belief, not least because if that was the case, why did he go to all the elaborate lengths of paying off the captain, controlling the Host, etc.?

The only really nice twist (in the "good" rather than the "nice" sense of the word) was that the bastard stock dealer survived when everyone wanted him dead. 

There was too much cheese in the writing, and Kylie's character, Astrid, was so two-dimensional in a 1950s-Sci-Fi-B-Movie kind of way that I almost didn't feel anything when she died.  Twice.  If it wasn't for David Tennant's masterful portrayal of the Doctor making something good out of a dodgy script I honestly couldn't have given two shits whether Astrid lived or died.  Compare this with Davies' handling of Billie Piper's exit at the end of Season 2 whose pathos almost moved me to tears.  

So, BBC, please get someone else to write the Christmas specials.  Davies does have some great ideas, but they can't be realised in the small time slot allocated to the specials (even this year's longer slot).  Ideally, consign Russell T. Davies to a director or executive producer role where he can retain overall creative control and plot direction over the series, but for God's sake stop him writing scripts!  His episodes are consistently the weakest in each series, carried more by the strength of his ideas than their generally ham-fisted execution, and it pains me to think of what someone like Steven Moffat, whose episodes have consistently been the best in each series, might have produced.  

Good morning, world. 


December 23, 2007

Bali

I've been reading the New Scientist's special report on the Bali climate conference, incidentally whilst sat on the now-closed M3 outside Winchester. The account of the conference is an interesting one, with clear and bubbling enthusiasm for the monumental decisions taken and the extraordinary events that unfolded. Perhaps the biggest credit should go to plucky little Papua New Guinea who reportedly told the US in no uncertain terms where to stick it. I quote:

"Conrad...simply commanded them: "If you are not prepared to lead, get out of the way." And they did."


December 20, 2007

Fog!

For the last two days, I've not been able to see Morrison's for the particularly dense fog.  Hold on, I'm saying that like that's a bad thing...  Woo-hoo!!! I haven't been able to see Morrison's for two days!!!

Additionally, the weather forecast is telling me that it's currently -4°C outside.  I'm not sure I completely believe it, as it is the forecast for Cambridge.  Worryingly, as Cambourne is in the middle of nowhere, it is usually colder here than it is in Cambridge.  There is, at least, no wind, and all the trees and things have a beautiful layer of frost on them which, if there were any sun and no fog, would be glittering beautifully. 


December 17, 2007

In other news…

...I am now officially down to a 32" waist again, and have been for a couple of weeks now.  Woohoo!  My hard work at the gym (that has admittedly fallen by the wayside a little bit recently) has paid off! 

Also, Gethin and Camilla were robbed.  I need to go and watch Saturday's show, because apparently Matt and Flavia danced very well (it's good that Matt finally got a hold on his nerves after last week's abysmal performance), but I think Gethin deserved it more; he's come so far in the last couple of weeks, and he totally deserved a place in the final.  I was looking forward to a showdown between him and Alesha.  It was a shame that Kelly Brook dropped out a couple of weeks ago, too, on a number of levels ;)  She had a similar amount of raw talent as Alesha and it would have been a very interesting final had it been down to the two of them.  

Apparently Rhydian was robbed too.  I care less about this, having only seen two shows of The X Factor ever (both this series, coincidentally), and not really being a fan of ITV television generally.  Two interesting points to note having watched the final with Lorna on Saturday, though:

  1. Pairing Rhydian with Catherine Jenkins possibly swung the competition somewhat.  He really showed her up for the beautiful but talentless <insert your choice of word here> she is, and her mic was too loud in comparison with his.  Mind you, her mic will always be too loud for me.  I felt dirty having had my ears sullied by her voice.
  2. Leon's face after his duet with Kylie was an absolute picture.  He was a bit starstruck, but by the time he left the stage you could clearly see the dirty thoughts of threesomes with the Minogue sisters running through his mind.  They were coming on to him quite a bit (particularly Dannii), it was rather amusing!

Winding down for Christmas

This last week has been a busy one.  On Monday, I visited Paul at his flat in Cambridge for a quiet night in; we spent most of it watching funny stuff courtesy of the BBC's iPlayer.  Tuesday was my one free day last week, so I spent it catching up on some TV, that sort of thing.  Wednesday saw me travelling to Huntingdon with a couple of mates from work to see American Gangster; this is an excellent film, if a little long at 2hrs 40mins.  It is also somewhat unusual in that it's a slow burner from Ridley Scott of all people, but it's carried off very well and both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe give sterling performances.  I highly recommend it.

On Thursday, Paul came round to my flat for another night in, although a little less quiet than Monday's was! We got some beers in, watched The Negotiator (a thoroughly enjoyable film with performances of the quality you'd expect from Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey) and then spent the rest of the evening playing Portal from Valve.  This is a truly fantastic game; the black sense of humour pervading the game, along with the innovative Portal gun and the powerful Source game engine combine to provide a top-class experience.  I cannot recommend it enough, you will want to play this to the end the moment you pick it up.  

Friday saw me leaving work a little early to pick up Lorna from the station.  She came up to visit and accompany me to the Citrix Christmas party which took place on Friday night.  It was a low-key affair compared with last year, but not at all in a bad way, and both Lorna and I had a very enjoyable evening.  We left at about 1am after consuming a rather nasty bottle of rosé between us (although I think I ended up having most of it) and stayed up for about another hour chatting about Heroes and Lost and other random stuff.  

On Saturday Lorna and I headed into Cambridge for a spot of Christmas shopping, feeling rather brain-dead.  I say "a spot"; what I mean by that is that I needed to do all my Christmas shopping, and Lorna needed to do a bit!  I didn't get up until about 11.30 or so, and Lorna about 12-12.30, so it wasn't until 1pm that we actually left.  We arrived in Cambridge at about 2pm and headed straight to The Gourmet Burger Kitchen for lunch (my new favourite place to eat; their burgers and milkshakes are to die for).  We staggered back on the bus at about 6pm after a lot of shopping and a good rest in Costa at the top of Waterstones including, of course, a bowl of tea that you can lose your face in.  We settled down in front of The X Factor Final for a couple of hours before it was time for Lorna to head back to London.

Yesterday, all told, was a much more relaxed day, with boring things like a to-do list.  On the plus side, though, I completed everything on my list (bassoon practice, Christmas cards, pub quiz, washing) and got through some old TV too; most notably, the last episode of Top Gear.

And so here we are: the final week of work before Christmas; I have my first review coming up after Christmas, and an initial discussion with my manager today regarding my performance over the last quarter.  From what he's said so far, though, everything seems to be going swimmingly, and I'm confident that the review will not throw up any major issues.  

More to come soon, I hope.


November 12, 2007

A truly lovely weekend

So, I was a little apprehensive about going back to Leamington this weekend, but I am now so glad that I did. 

On Saturday, Sarah hosted a wine and cheese night at Russell Court.  This was part of the source of my apprehension; I hadn't been back to Leamington, let alone Russell Court, since Zoë broke up with me, and I was concerned about how well I was going to take it.  Most of Saturday was a slight downer given a number of factors including the cold and the slight rain, not being able to buy new shoes, and a crap morning involving an alarm that should have been turned off the night before and not being able to get back to sleep again.  I also developed a bit of a headache Saturday afternoon, partly due to dehydration, and possibly partly due to my scarf being tied too tight around my neck (!), so all in all I wasn't feeling 100% up for the event.  But having a chat with Sarah before it started really sorted my head out (I've come to this conclusion before: I really need to learn to pick up the fucking phone when my head gets there, because talking always sorts it out now), and by the time people started arriving sometime after 7.30, I was really excited to be seeing everyone again and well up for the night's events.  

In addition to the wine and cheese, we indulged in some YouTube-based mirth, including the fantastic Armstrong and Miller sketches of the WWII RAF Airmen (you really have to watch these if you haven't already!), a piss-take of Pachelbel's Canon, and the very funny Harry Potter Puppets (the second clip is better than the first...).  It was so good to see my friends again, and it really surprised and touched me how sympathetic everyone was, and the level of concern they expressed.  I guess I'd never realised the true value of the friendships that I have with these people, nor how much of an impact I make with the people that I meet.  The event alone provided self-validation in truckloads, realising that, unlike previous relationships, I actually have my own relationships with this shared group of friends, and they appreciate and value me in and of myself, rather than seeing me as the appendage of their friend, which is how previous friendships have felt at times.

As good as the wine and cheese night was, though (and it was fucking awesome, just so you know ;), the icing on the cake of the weekend was having lunch with Zoë on Sunday.  We went for a meal at Strada just off the Parade in Leamington, "our place" for eating out, and it was in so many ways just like old times.  Certainly, it was everything I'd hoped it would be, and it has left me feeling that my friendship with Zoë is actually going somewhere and, more to the point, going somewhere good; something that I wasn't at all sure of previously.  For me, the most telling moment was as I was leaving this evening: Zoë lingered at the door of her flat watching me leave.  Obviously, I don't claim to know what was going through her mind at the time at all, but my interpretation is that it was disbelief at what she was seeing. 

So this will be my mantra from now on for any day when I'm feeling even slightly down: I am a fucking good person, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I'm pretty fucking happy, too.  I am infinitely stronger and more confident than I was, and I now know how to carry myself. 

As I left Russell, Lorna asked me if I was all right.  I nearly burst in to tears at this point, and a number of other times over the next half hour or so, because the answer was purely and simply "yes".  I've said it before and I'll say it again - just as you think you're done crying, something new comes along.  But this time, it was tears of happiness and relief, and not tears of pain and hurt, that were welling up.  I'm mended; fixed; repaired.  I'm me again, and I have a fantastic bunch of friends who will love and support me no matter what.  And the most special person in the world most definitely falls into that category too.  

Watch out, world; here I come! :-D


October 26, 2007

A bit of an update

I've had an interesting and busy couple of weeks since I last blogged.  I'm feeling a lot better about my new life in Cambridge now, and am settling in to work well.  The tasks that I have to work on now are much more involved and time-consuming than the ones I started with, and I've had a couple over the last month or so that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  One task, to support a new feature in our flagship project, kept me occupied for something like two weeks, and was a good level of challenge.  More recently, I've started working on some tasks related to smart card authentication (basically using chip-and-PIN technology to log on to our products), and it looks like I'm going to become my department's smart card bitch :)

Additionally, the Citrix iForum in Las Vegas this week has created a bit of buzz (not least because we've started showing off the products of our acquisition of XenSource), and it's reminded me just what an exciting company Citrix is, and what a good thing it is to be working for them.  Whilst Citrix is a nearly-20-year-old $1.5bn multi-national company homed in the US, it still has a feel of a fresh start-up, and part of this is because of the sheer level of innovation going on in the company.  There are some really amazing things happening at the moment.  The emails from the upper echelons praising our hard work were a nice touch, too.  

Outside of work, I have recently joined a gym, and I am continuing with my bassoon lessons.  I've had a few good workouts at the gym, and as it has a pool too I have been cooling off with a swim afterwards which has been really good.  It does, however, mean that I'm at the gym for a good couple of hours, which is no bad thing unless I want to be doing something else with my evening too!  I've also found that I can't practise after going to the gym, as I'm generally too worn out.  This is causing some problems — I haven't practised in about 2 weeks now :( — but I'm aiming to rectify that, starting tonight.  

I've been working on very technical exercises since I started here, as I really wanted to undo the four years' worth of accumulated bad habits and get somewhere close to the standard I was playing at when I started University.  Recently, I had started to feel as though I was losing my focus a bit having been pooled for the Cambridge Phil and not practising as much, and I was almost starting to wonder if I was wasting my teacher's time and my money.  I realised soon into this week's lesson, however, that I was actually starting to play well again, and producing a particularly nice tone, and that if I could just get myself back on track with the practice, I could achieve my aim.  It's not a good feeling to feel like you peaked at 18, and I don't think that's necessarily the case: with determination and hard work, I think it is possible to be playing as well as I was.  I'm still young, and my fingers are still nimble; they just need to re-learn how to move quickly, and I need to re-learn confidence in my playing.  And this is why I think my new teacher is going to be good for me.  She's fun, enthusiastic, encouraging, and has started dropping phrases such as "someone of your standard" into the lesson. I had a couple of reservations before I started learning with someone only a couple of years older than me, but she knows her stuff as well as my second teacher did who used to play with the BSO.  It's also quite telling that my bassoon lessons are the only thing that I don't have any doubts about going to, even though my teacher is a 20-30 minute drive away near Trumpington.  This is all buoying me confidence-wise, and I hope that I will have many more good lessons to look forward to.

I also met up with Paul, one of my housemates from Uni who's doing a PhD at Cambridge now, last week, and we hung out at his with a bottle of wine chewing the fat.   It was really good to see him again and catch up.

I spent last weekend in London with visiting Lorna, and Sarah came down to see us both too.  It was a lovely weekend, and an emotional one too, as Lorna has already hinted.  We wandered around London for most of Saturday, visiting the Tate Modern in the afternoon before settling in for the rugby.  The crack (Shibboleth 2007 by Doris Salcedo) was impressive in size, but disappointingly artificial.  Having read a bit about it before going there, I was intrigued by the idea, but as Zoë later pointed out, it doesn't really say anything in and of itself; you have to read the leaflet to find out what Salcedo is trying to say with it (in a nutshell, it represents the divides in society).  I was disappointed by the fact that it was so obviously artificial, but maybe that was part of the point of it; that the social divides are artificial.  

And finally, I'm going to go buy myself a TV and DVD recorder tomorrow!  They are the last piece in the puzzle for my flat, so I will be properly sorted in a couple of weeks' time!  I'm then heading on down to Southampton to stay with my parents for the weekend before heading back late Sunday afternoon. 

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