All entries for Thursday 10 June 2004

June 10, 2004

3tunes: Summer songs

I wanted to do a CD review. But (a) the Amazon link-up for CDs isn't ready yet, and (b) who buys (or listens to) a whole CD any more? I've got maybe 1,000 or so songs in iTunes and on my iPod, but not a single album in its entirity. Plus reviewing 10 or so songs all at once seems like hard work. So instead I thought I'd devise a theme and then pick out 3 songs from iTunes that fit the theme and write about those. Easier, quicker, more fun.

So, first theme: Summer songs:-

  • Kate Bush, Eat the Music Kate goes calypso, and manages to make the idea of five fruit portions a day seem strangely appealing.

  • Hothouse Flowers, Don't Go If you could distil happiness and convert it to music this is what you'd get. The words just tumble out – fresh-cut grass, soft sandy beaches, sun sparkling on the undersides of the bridges, and more. It's like a thesaurus of summer.

  • ELO, Mr Blue Sky This song is around a bit at the moment. It's in a US advert for the Beetle, and on the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Terminally unfashionable, and frankly, a man who rhymes with the aid of a dictionary, and not a big one. But they don't come much more strings-choir-guitars-piano-48tracks-all-used full-on pop song than this. How come Abba became retro-cool, but ELO didn't? Time for rehabilitation?

iTunes users in e-lab can find any of these tunes in my shared music collection if you want to give them a spin. Sadly iTunes sharing only works across small sub-sections of Warwick's network, not the whole campus, which is a pity – if it did, there'd be more music than anyone could possibly need just waiting to be explored. Ah well.

Quizzical #2

Follow-up to Quizzical from Autology: John Dale's blog

What links:-

  • Robin Cook (chess computer)
  • George Foreman (pillow)
  • Oliver Reed (inflatable doll)

Why blog?

Over the summer vacation, we'll be preparing BlogBuilder for wider use than its current pilot; every first year will be offered a blog, and other students will also be able to request one if they wish. In preparation for that, we will be working on a whole bunch of supporting information to make sure that everyone knows what a blog is, where you find them, how you work them, and, crucially, why you might want one. I'm working at the moment on some notes about this last point, and I'd be interested in any comments from other users, especially students:-

Why would I want a blog?
  • It's a way to share things with friends, family and peers. Ideas, events, words, photos, available to anyone you want to share them with.
  • It's a way to reflect on your work and life at university, rather than focussing solely on the work that's part of your course.
  • It's a record of your time at university that you may find useful at various points. Extracts from your blog may be relevant when you're looking for a job, considering your options, talking to your personal tutor, etc.
  • It's a way to become part of a community and to find people with similar interests or viewpoints to yourself.
  • It's a way to develop a different style of writing – an authorial voice, if you like. Writing a blog is not like writing for course work or exams; blogs can be interesting, amusing, thought-provoking, charming or insightful – not all of these stylistc traits are necessarily developed or required in course work!
  • Your blog could be something which might benefit other students, either now or in the future. Your experiences at university, how your course works out, the choices you make while you're here, could help to inform and guide other students when they come to university.

Big Cook, Little Cook

Writing about web page

Those readers with young children who like (or are unhealthily obsessed) with the children's show Big Cook, Little Cook should read Richard Herring's surreal, rambling, deeply funny review of the show immediately. Are adults really allowed to mock children's entertainment this heartlessly?

Best sitcom ever?

The recent passing of Friends didn't excite much comment around here, and that's clearly a good thing. But what's the best sitcom ever? Clearly there's going to be some age-related issues here; if you're old enough to remember the prime-time eras of MASH, or Bilko or even I Love Lucy then you might reasonably be tempted by any of those. And if you're Anglophile, you might contemplate Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers. But for me, alas, the contenders are all American. In my "nearly made it" spots:-

  • Seinfeld. A work of genius which managed to stay consistently brilliant for nine seasons, something no other sitcom has achieved, and then had the smarts to stop before it went down-hill. No hugging, no learning, characters who were selfish, self-absorbed and obsessed – and hilarious because of it.
  • Frasier. Misses the number one spot because it has been so patchy over its lifespan. If it had stopped around series 5, it would have been the wittiest, most sophisticated comedy ever. But it ploughed on, lost its sparkle and reduced its characters to cariacatures of themselves. Shame.

So my winner would be my dark horse candidate: Scrubs. In a way, that's unfair to longer-running shows, because it's only had three seasons, so it could easily go horribly wrong in years to come. But for those three seasons, it's had the best characters, the funniest lines, the most whimiscal diversions into surreal fantasy, and of course The Todd. If you've never seen it I recomment giving it a try; Season 3 will probably be starting in C4 some time in the next few months.

Any gems I've forgotten?

Day After Tomorrow: movie review pt 2

Still here? You are such a geek. Those effects in more detail, then: the opening helicopter move over the ice and water was pretty good; all CG right up until we see our heroes, and then blue-screened. I‘d bet it was done with Maya and mental ray. The helicopter sweep was well done, the water was fine and the ice was mostly okay, but you could see the fractals where they modelled thin snow on top of translucent ice. Fantastic matte painting though.

Ths shots from outer space were also very good for all-CG work; really big volumetric displacement mapped objects (the clouds), and the lighting was excellent – global illumination for sure. Must have taken forever to render. And the big flood scene was excellent; some miniature work but CG for the spray and the elements that the water picks up and throws around. In general the particle work for the frost, snow and ice was flawless, but the water was slightly off here and there.

The scene where ice races down the sides of building and then chases our heroes (!) was ridiculous, but the ice effect was really well done; it‘s fiddly to do translucent material on top of something else, because calculating the proportions of reflection and the internal bouncing around is hard. But without it, it would have looked more like dust or plaster.

The sunlight breaking through in the final scenes with the helicopters was exaggerated to the point of lunacy, but that‘s the cool thing about sunlight and cloudscapes; you can go nuts on them without bothering the audience, because crazy lighting effects do happen – albeit rarely – in real life. They were also unusually restrained in resisting the God camera with the helicopter shots; with CG scenes, you can put the camera in places that would be unworkably difficult or dangerous in real life, so one dead giveaway for CG is a shot where the helicopter flies within 6 inches of the camera, or the camera goes places a real camera clearly couldn‘t. In general too, they were quite good about showing their effects in bright light, in long shot, and in reasonably long takes – the mark of confidence in your work. Effects that you see mostly at night or in the rain (Godzilla) or in very quick edits (Armageddon) or close up so you can‘t judge scale or context (MIB2) are normally being disguised for a reason.

Things that didn‘t work so well: the wolves were only partially successful; the fur was great, but the facial expressions were pretty ropey. it was done in very fast cuts though, and I suspect that was as much to cover up the naffness of the modelling as to generate tension. And the digitally added clouds of breath never looked quite right; they‘d have been better comping in real breath clouds rather than doing CG. Perhaps that was why they were so casual about whether they bothered to add it in or not.

If you went to see it just for the effects, I reckon you‘d be pretty satisfied. But that‘s a pretty poor excuse to see a movie, and frankly a ridiculous thing to write a review about. Won‘t happen again. :)

Day After Tomorrow: movie review pt 1

Movies like this are tricky to review. The plot is ridiculous, there are no characters to speak of, and the structure is all over the place, with almost everything of interest happening in the first half of the film. Even the science, which the makers have laughably claimed is exaggerated but plausible, is risible. (At one point, the storm sucks vast quantities of frigid upper atmospheric air down to the surface, supposedly flash-freezing any living thing caught outside. However, any A-level physics student could tell you that the air would warm on its descent in response to the requirements of the Ideal Gas Law, and would never be able to flash-freeze anything. One scientist in the movie seems to remember his school-book physics and asks, "But wouldn't the air warm as it descends?" But his colleague replies, "No, it's moving too fast!" Argh! The Ideal Gas Law applies no matter how fast the air is moving.)

So it should be completely devoid of merit, right? Almost. Like many summer movies, DAT stands or falls pretty much entirely on the quality of its effects. As silly as it sounds, we seem to have reached the point where audiences have become complicit in the idea that film-makers can discard literally every element that's normally taken to matter in film-making, as long as they provide some impressive scenes of spectacle in their otherwise meritless movie. And by "spectacle", interestingly, we seem to mean "wholesale destruction".

So. The review pretty much stops here, unless you have an unreasonable interest in visual effects, in which case see part 2. If you don't (or like Chris and Chris you think you're better off not knowing about them) then DAT is two hours of talentless drivel with perhaps fifteen minutes of reasonably impressive spectacle. If that sounds like a fair trade to you then you'll like it. If not, then don't bother.

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