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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.



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.  



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.



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. 


December 17, 2007

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.

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. 

October 06, 2007

I'm absolutely shattered…

Since Thursday, I've had Neill, a friend from college, staying with me, which has been really good.  Thursday night, soon after he arrived, we went to Kym Moy on Mill Road for a brief bite to eat, and then met one of his University friends, Daisy, for a drink.  We got back about 11.30pm and I got to sleep soon after midnight. 

Last night, we went to Daisy's for a few drinks and a couple of rounds of a variant of Mille Bornes (both of which I won :), then later moved on to the student bar at Churchill College where we played a couple of games of pool and a game of table football.  We did the traditional late-night kebab van run at Market Square, and got back to Daisy's house at about 2.30am.  I crashed on her couch, and after a a few fitful bouts of sleep, left at 8.30am to get the bus home.

So given that my sleeping patterns are still a bit disrupted (I'm waking up at 6am every day now, and not really falling back to sleep properly, just dozing lightly), these two late nights are now taking their toll on me.  I'm shattered: my legs are aching, my feet are caning, I have a tiredness headache (that kind of dull, thick, ache at the back of your head), and I'm wondering how I'm still awake.  

My Mum told me the other day that I was born middle-aged, albeit in a very different context, and I'm starting to think she's right :)  I had a lovely bath earlier, with some jazz (Diana Krall, mainly; she's got a lovely smooth, rich voice) on in the background, and found myself thinking that the only way it could be improved would be with the addition of a nice glass of red and a good "cultural" book!  Also, however much I enjoyed last night (which was a lot, don't get me wrong; it was my first good night out in quite a long time...), I'm starting to wonder if I'm maybe getting a bit old for these late nights.  I certainly didn't find myself missing the kebab van, and the best bit of the night for me was when we were sat in Daisy's lounge drinking, chatting, and playing cards.  

I also found out last night that my bladder is made from steel. 

September 18, 2007

The mornings are the worst.

Waking up way before my alarm, realising it's not all a bad dream, feeling sick at the thought, trying to fall asleep again.  Waking up again.  And again.  And finally crawling out of bed too early and into the shower. 

As the day goes on, I find that my mind eventually gets engrossed in the tasks of work, and I start to feel better.  These last couple of days, I've also had things to engross my evenings too, and so the days are easier.  The first weekend that I spend truly alone (25-26 September) is going to be hard, but I don't know if it will be harder or easier than the last weekend I spent sort of alone.  I also don't know what I'm going to do with it yet, which could make it harder still.

Last night I depped for the Cambridge Philharmonic, an orchestra I'm hoping to join following my audition next week.  It was a good rehearsal; the orchestra are of a high standard although none of them are professional, and the focus is more on musical detail than was the case with the UWSO (no disrespect meant to the UWSO there - they're a fantastic orchestra!).  The social side seems to be lacking from what I can tell, with the mid-rehearsal coffee break being the extent of this as far as I can see so far, but given that I was only depping, and for a rehearsal at that, it's unlikely that I would have got much more of an impression of this.  

I also went for a run this evening.  I managed 30 minutes of almost continuous exercise (I needed a break after about 15 mins as my asthma was starting to kick in), and it felt good, in a really knackering way.  I might even do it again...  And afterwards I spent an hour or so at the pub with a colleague, which was nice, and of course good to get out of the flat. 

And for the first time in quite a few days, I might actually fall asleep with relative ease.   

September 11, 2007

Ups and Downs

Again, it's a few days since I last blogged.  I'm not doing so well at what was intended to be a better attempt at regular blogging, but there we go. 

Today's been a beautiful day in Cambourne.  It's been still and sunny and warm all day, and this is what I love about September.  What I don't love about September is that the nights start drawing in (it's now dark before 8.30pm) that remind me that autumn and thus winter are not too far away now.  It will be interesting to see Cambourne in winter; I've only ever seen it in summer so far (with the exception of the day I spent here for my interview in December).  

And I love iTunes' not-new-at-all Party Shuffle feature.  For what is actually just glorified random-play functionality, it still gives off the impression that it's doing something funky in the background.  Only in my iTunes library will you get Party Shuffle that looks a bit like this:

A Quick Peep - Oasis
Lonely Stranger - Eric Clapton
Please Don't Die - Robbie Williams
Creep - Radiohead
Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart - Manic Street Preachers
Lesson Learned - Limp Bizkit
Façade - William Walton
49 Percent - Royksopp
Danse Des Petits Cygnes from The Nutcracker - Tchaikovsky (John Lanchberry and the Philharmonia Orchestra recording)
Ticket to Ride - The Beatles
and so on...

And for those of you who have been following my Facebook status updates, you'll probably have picked up on the fact that something's been up the last few days.  Zoë and I have been going through a hard period for nearly a week now, centering on the stress of us both moving on from University.  This led to a particularly tough weekend this week, which seemed to be about fifty times longer for not seeing her.  Things are looking somewhat promising, in that we have found one of the roots of the problems, and I'm hoping that we will be able to work through the problems.  We are seeing each other again this weekend, and there will be much talking going on about this.  

Work has been an up, though.  I finally started some real work today, playing with a beta of Server 2008, code-named Longhorn, which is essentially Vista Server.  And it's actually alright.  Some of the annoyances of Vista are there - User Account Control, for example, and the fact that just looking at it makes you feel lost as you realise that everything has moved, again - but it's actually really well designed.  You don't get the classy Aero interface (duh, this is a server), but the other interface improvements are there, such as the new address bar in Explorer, and the revised Start Menu, and they work.  Well, for me, at least.   I'll still be waiting at least until Vista SP1 is out before inflicting it on my personal machine, though, however much I want the shiny new Media Centre functionality (because I can't seem to get anything else to work...). 

So, my life is full of ups and downs at the moment, as this post reflects, and it will be a while before things are fully resolved.  We shall see what this weekend brings, and beyond.  And at the very least, it will be so good to see Zoë again. 

September 02, 2007

Short weekends

It rather seems that the weekends are getting shorter.  Maybe it's excitement about starting work tomorrow that has shortened this weeked, maybe it's the fact that the nights are drawing in and it's now dark at 8.30pm (in Cambridge at least), or maybe it's the fact that yesterday was spent clearing my flat and dashing round town looking for a door stop before popping to the cinema to see The Simpsons Movie.  Whichever it is, this weekend has gone very quickly indeed. 

I was supposed to spend it getting my flat tidier so that it's a bit more bearable when I come home from work.  I was supposed to be preparing myself for starting work.

I don't feel in the least bit prepared.   I'm a bit nervous, but not scared.  I feel like I should have done more, but I don't know what more I can do (I've printed off and filled in a P46; my contract, etc., was signed and sent back in January).  I'm tired, but I'm not sleepy.  I can't wait to start, but I don't feel ready.  Would I ever feel ready?

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life, as the cliché goes.  And yet, it doesn't seem real somehow.  I could almost forget to go into work tomorrow, as it feels like it is the same as every other day I've spent here in my flat.  But I know I won't, because when I wake up, I'll be feeling better about it.

I guess it's nerves, and that sleeping on it will help.  Only a few hours until I do that.  In the meantime, I'll kill time with more clearing, a bit of bassoon practice, some more 24, Day 1, and maybe a spot of cleaning too...  Who knows?

August 30, 2007

One step forward, two steps back…

I'm back in Cambourne now.  The run back from Southampton was pretty good, all things considered (including the remains of an accident and spillage between the M3 and Staines on the M25...), and it's quite nice being back in my flat. 

Except my flat is a tip.  I somehow managed to get a whole car load of stuff out of Southampton having expected to be collecting basically my clothes, CDs and books, and now I've got boxes strewn around the flat again.  The lounge is a mess, with boxes full of collapsed boxes (left over from before I left because they're so big), boxes full of my stuff, and empty boxes strewn around the floor.  I bought a rug to go under my coffee table which I can't currently even unpack because of the mess.  The anal, organised part of my brain is very very unhappy.  

But there's some respite for that corner of my mind; I've completely unpacked my CDs into my new CD rack.   The "popular" music is sorted alphabetically.  Classical music is divided into ballet musical, chamber music, choral music, compilations, concerti, general orchestral music, solo music and symphonies, and each section is ordered by composer.  Then Jazz is stuck on the end; I don't have enough Jazz yet :(  The CD rack is full to overflowing, and, as with the matching DVD rack, some of my boxsets don't fit.  I hope to do my books tomorrow, and I may need to make another trip to Argos to buy another bookshelf...

All fun and games at the moment, as you can tell.  In other, more exciting news, however, I've settled on a TV and DVD/HDD recorder; I'm just waiting for DFS to contact me regarding my free credit for my sofa, and then I can get on with buying those!  The snappily-titled Panasonic TX32LXD700 and Panasonic DMREX77EBK will be mine, and then I can watch and record TV, and play Gamecube and Wii, to my heart's content.  I can't wait! :)

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