Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Another day on holiday

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Today I went out cycling with a group from the local bike shop. The rest of the group all looked a whole lot more professional than me, and it turned out they were. But not quite all of them. I ended up third from last most of the time, which I was happy enough with. Just happy not to be last! In my defence, myself and second last were the only ones riding the shop’s cheaper alloy road bikes, while all the others were riding flashy carbon jobs.

But unfortunately I forgot to start runkeeper, so I have no track of it. And the bike computer was set for the wrong wheel size, so I didn’t even have that. But from the other guys, we did 52 miles, in 3 and a quarter hours.

I then took some advice, and had a dip in the hotel pool.

And then ignored the rest of the advice, and spent the afternoon lying on a sun bed and reading Stieg Larsson’s “The girl who played with fire”, the sequel to the famous “The girl with the dragon tattoo”. It’s quite a read, as I finished it in 2 days. I’m not sure it’s just as good as the first one mind you. My major disappointment is the character of Ronald Niemann, who seems like a James Bond villain unexpectedly dropped into the wrong book. Maybe I am being picky, but I thought that this character kind of cheapened the book. But having said that, I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one, and I suppose that’s the best sign of a good book. 

An unexpected night out

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

I’m still on holiday, in Majorca. One day, as I aimlessly wandered around exploring the resort, I came upon a poster advertising the Pollensa Music Festival. And unexpectedly, I recognised one of the groups performing – the Swingle Singers. 

Although you may not know the name, their work is heard in many an odd place, for example in Glee. singing all the a capella bits. They’ve also been heard in the odd advert and pop tune. Their sound is quite distinctive – a capella means they use no musical instruments at all, and even their drum sounds are done by beatboxing. I think it’s a great sound.

So I managed to get myself a ticket, and then managed to get myself to the venue (no thanks to the local bus company). And what a great night!

The concert was in the Convert of Santa Domingo, in an open courtyard – a splendid venue on a warm summer night. And the group were, as expected, brilliant. I’ll admit that sometimes the harmonies go from being beautiful to complicated, or even just very interesting, but nonetheless it’s the best use of 8 voices that I’ve ever heard. Some of it just made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. And other parts just left me grinning. (Their “Flight of the Bumblebee” is just amazing).

If you don’t believe me, check them out on YouTube or google them.

An unexpected, but very splendid night out!

The Dark Side of the Moon

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Fashion is a funny old thing. Sometimes you’re an early adopted, sometimes you come to the party late. But some things never quite go out of fashion. Some things are just regarded as timeless classics. One of those things is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It’s an album almost as old as I am, that caused a huge stir when it was released, and stayed in the charts for an unprecedented length of time.

I bought myself a Pink Floyd compilation a year or two ago, and quite liked it. It became a favourite when I was in Singapore. But only then did I realise that my favourite tracks  from the compilation nearly all came from one album. So I bought it this month. And I think it’s brilliant.

It’s prog-rock, meant to be listened to as a whole, not a set of unrelated tracks. And that is one of the album’s strengths, that the tracks are related. This is an album about life, in all its richness. The first lyrics are “breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care” and that probably sets a tone for how the album engages with life. As it goes on, it talks about restlessness, missed opportunities, money, war, poverty, madness and lots of other things. Maybe not so much about romance, now that I think about it. Wow. What a great album : )

I’ll admit that I don’t really dig the instrumentals On the Run and Any Colour you Like. But I think the rest of it is pure genius. I love the beauty of the tune of Us and Them, coupled with the sheer humanity of the lyrics. I love the anguish of Time “No-one told you when to run – you missed the starting gun”. I love the ego of Money. You never really know what to make of the Great Gig in the Sky. But on a good day, it’s just sublime, and does what it says on the tin.

But my favourites are actually the final pair of tracks. Somehow Brain Damage manages to be positive, and “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon” is an affirming statement, rather than a negative one. And the final words are pure poetry “Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon”. Everything should be right, and in-tune, and perfect. But it isn’t, because however great and shiny the sun is, the moon manages to get in the way. And boys and girls of the internet, isn’t life just like that?

That was long and rambling. But anyway, I like this album. I’ve now loaned it to a friend, so it’ll be interesting to head what they make of it.

The End of Lost

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

On Monday, with fanfares and simultaneous transmission at stupid times throughout the world, the final 2 episodes of Lost were shown. Well, sod that silly o’clock stuff. I taped the repeat on Tuesday, and watched it today.

It’s been a long ride. I remember being keen to see the pilot, because it started with a plane crash, and I was such a frequent plane traveller at the time, I thought there might be something I would learn in case of emergency. Needless to say there wasn’t! But the first series was quality stuff, and attracted a lot of viewers. As time has passed, and the confusion has increased rather than decreased, a lot of people let it go, and stopped watching, but I hung on in there. It remained a series with remarkable vision throughout – it had deaths of major characters throughout, plane crashes (yes, more than one, and seen from all the possible perspectives), mysterious computers, conspiracies, messages from the dead, time travel, and even a nuclear bomb!

And now it’s over. So what did we learn? In the end many of the mysteries were not answered (how did they keep their hair looking so good throughout?), many of them were (we did find out why the island was important) , and some were sort of answered (what was happening with that parallel timestream?).

The final episode reminded me how much I liked the character of John Locke (the actual Locke, not the Locke Monster), and in many ways, although the actor that plays him won’t get the modelling jobs that some of the others have, I think he stands out as one of the best parts of the show. Mind you, I’ve liked him in other things too. The episode also made me think about how beautiful the real island of Hawaii is, which has been a great backdrop to the series.

But what of the ending itself (spoilers here)?

I guess it did what the makers intended it to do. With the end of any series, there’s often a desire to give some completion, but to make it open-ended enough to give the implication that the characters go on to do other things (“The road goes ever on and on” as Tolkien says). By having two different finishes, on the island and back home, it gave them the opportunity to do that. It’s clear that some of the characters went on to do other things – Hurley’s compliment to Ben about being a great Number 2 speaks volumes of lives spent together on the island in the years to follow.
I liked that Ben continued to be a conflicted character and didn’t get a simple on-screen redemption, but seems to have gone good in the end with Hurley.
I am pleased that they did explain why the island was important (thank goodness).
I liked that Desmond got quite a bit to do in the last few episodes, as I always liked him.
Likewise, it was nice to see Rose, Bernard and Vincent the dog again, as they were always cool.
But we never find out why Walt was so special (he wasn’t even in the final ever-so-religiously-neutral church scene).
Or where the polar bear came from.
Or what Widmore wanted to do with the island.
Or how the Locke Monster interacted with  Widmore’s group when they were living on the island, or why they left it.
But I like that Hurley got his moment in the sun as the new guardian – that’s fitting.

Over all, I am not displeased, though I am still at a bit of a loss how the parallel time-tracks thing fitted together. I guess it didn’t – it would seem that it was invented by the characters as the lives that they would have had if they hadn’t gone to the island. Or something. That could have been better resolved.

But part of me is just glad it’s over – it got dragged out quite enough I think!

Paulo Nutini – Sunny Side Up

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

I often complain about the music listened to by those young people. Often it’s not actual music as such, just semi-structured, or even insufficiently structured noise. (Was that curmudgeonly enough? Oh good.)

But recently I had to break a twenty pound note to get change for a car park machine (boring story – don’t let it worry you), so I popped into HMV in Milton Keynes and decided to buy a CD (rather than something from Starbucks, since they’d cost about the same).

And so I bought Paulo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up. And what a delightful album it is.

It starts off joyfully and raucously with 10/10, a ska track, complete with plenty of brass and lots of emphasis on the off-beats. I have no idea what he’s saying most of the time, but it’s a great track.

Then we move on to Coming Up Easy, which is a bit more laid back, but still with a bit of a soul feel to it. For most of the track I thought it was just okay, but then at the end Paulo turns into Van Morrison repeating the mantra “in love I was created, and in love is how I hope I die”, which really makes the track for me. In this one, I can kind of work out what he is saying, but still have no real idea what the song is actually about.

We then have a couple of good tracks, more laid back, storytelling sort of songs – quite good songs, but less exciting. But I’ve got to move on to Pencil Full of Lead, a fantastic song, basically impossible to describe or categorise, but described by a friend as “like something out of the jungle book”, which is a pretty good comparison, as it’s not very unlike I wanna be like you, in terms of feel. As I’ve said, a great song, which got a lot of much-deserved airplay and is completely positive and uplifting – “I got food in my belly and a license for my telly and nothing’s gonna bring me down” is a great philosophy. The highlight of the album.

But then when you think things are settling down, we get track 8, High Hopes (this live version is cool, but the album version is more delicate). It might sound unkind when I say it sounds like the closing credits song for a Disney film that hasn’t been made yet, but it’s got an innocence about the sound of the recorders, ukulele and harmonica, and a positivity about it that gives it that sort of feel. I like this track almost as much as Pencil full of lead. And another fine positive message in it too “there’s no harm in being wrong you know – to me it’s common ground”.

From there it does calm down a bit, but picks up yet again with Simple Things, a pure country and western song. Or at least it would be, if he wasn’t so Scottish. This one starts off quite sensibly, and then goes mental half way through. And who can argue about the value of the simple things “like going round his mums house for his tea”.

I got this album pretty cheap, but I can honestly say it was worth every penny – one of the things I most often complain about in modern music is that it is often quite depressing. Even if the words aren’t depressing, the sound of it is depressing. Well, this album does what it says on the tin, and I enjoy Paulo’s sunny disposition.

Though he is clearly bonkers, of course.


Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I finally caught the end of Dollhouse tonight, and I thought it was worthy of comment. It was the latest tv show from Joss Whedon, the legendary maker of sci-fi and fantasy programmes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spinoff Angel, and Firefly.

And just like Firefly, it didn’t last very long – its cancellation was announced early in the second season. But I enjoyed it while it lasted. Indeed, I almost think it may have even been better that way – the cancellation meant that the timescale of the programme’s story got accelerated, and the final few episodes have covered a lot of ground.

Dollhouse tells the story of a group of “dolls”, people who have chosen to have their personalities erased as part of a contract with the mysterious Rossum corporation. Rossum then use their bodies to fulfill various jobs by implanting new personalities into them, so that the dolls aren’t merely actors, but completely believe all of the false memories and skills that have been implanted. But as the story goes on, the dolls start to redevelop personalities again, despite having their brains repeatedly wiped. Victor and Sierra find love in the sterile environment of the dollhouse, while Echo’s desire to help others despite her programming (or lack of it) asserts itself.

There’s been some good stories about the effects of this unexpected technology (a highlight was the story of the woman investigating her own death in the body of a stranger, which was very poignant), and the morality of science and power. There’s also been some great acting, as the cast have played such a variety of different people inhabiting the same bodies. But I think the strongest thing has been the storytelling along the way, getting sucked in by the unlikeable as well as the likable characters, and some marvellous plot twists.

The premise behind Dollhouse has always been hard to explain (see above!), and I suspect that made it quite hard to sell to viewers and other television channels, but I think it’s been worth following. I suspect it won’t quite receive the critical acclaim that Firefly did, but I predict that in retrospect it too will find a niche in the sci-fi hall of fame. I might even splash out on a box set.

The Stand

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I started reading Stephen King’s The Stand just before Christmas, and finished it at the weekend.

“The end of the world as we know it” is very fashionable just at the minute. Over Christmas, we had the Day of the Triffids on television, and Survivors is just starting up again. In the cinema we had 2012, and we’ve now got The Road and The book of Eli arriving. I don’t know whether this has been caused by environmental concerns, swine flu, or the global recession, but there’s certainly a lot of it about.

So how was The Stand? Well, Stephen King is well known as a master of horror, and so I guess I was expecting this to be gruesome. But the story is a bit more subtle than that. The first third of the book tells the story of the plague, and the tales of the individual survivors. While it didn’t give me bad dreams, it is unsettling, especially in the context of this year’s swine flu. The second part of the book is the story of how the groups come together and form a community. What I found most interesting here was the character of Mother Abigail, and the fact their dreams led the survivors to an old Christian lady. I somehow can’t imagine that being the case in a more contemporary book, and I found her to be a beautifully written character. The final section is then the climax of the story, when the communities of good and evil collide. And there’s lots to like here too. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that good triumphs over evil not by resorting to evil themselves, but because evil defeats itself. And yet at the end, there is no definitive happy ending – the human race has survived, but what will the society that they build ultimately look like, and will they just create the same problems all over again?

This is a big book, but it’s a real page-turner that’s very easy to get into, and not a difficult read. It’s a little dated now, not surprisingly since it was first published in 1978, but I thought it was a good book, that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Doctor Who – The End of David Tennant

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Well, it had to come sooner or later, and it came too soon.

But last night, New Years Day, brought the final episode of Doctor Who as we have known it, with David Tennant, Russell T. Davies, Julie Gardner, and Phil Collinson. The next time we see it, almost everything will be different. So how did it end?

Warning – if you haven’t seen it yet, then stop now – spoilers follow.

What was good:

  • I have to admit that it was a real joy seeing Bernard Cribbins’ name in the titles. He is a legend, and it was cool to see him get a major role. And it worked very well. As a side note, I noticed that the Doctor seldom accepts salutes from anyone, but he accepted them from Wilfred. I liked that too.
  • In some ways, the timing was good – I’d hate to have to wait a year for the next episode.
  • The Master was good. As a crime of opportunity, cloning himself onto the entire human race was very in character, and John Simm was fantastic as all the different copies of himself at the end of part one. In part two, there was less of that comedy, and instead we see the Master as the ultimate survivor, happy to join any side as long as he survived. I’ve always liked the Master, and though I think the character has been all wrong recently, I liked him in this.
  • It was great to see the return of the Time Lords. I’ve been waiting for this. And to have Rassilon as president was a gorgeous touch. The Time Lords, in their desperation, reached back to find a leader of dubious integrity, but unquestioned power. That seems in character for them. And the plan to end the war by ending time itself seemed in character given the mood they were in.

What wasn’t so good:

  • The Time Lords finally return, but leave again. That sucks. The Doctor has always rebelled against authority, and that stemmed from the fact that he was a rebel and an outcast from his own people. When he was the last of his people, he went from poacher to gamekeeper, which I think explained his actions in the Waters of Mars to some extent. I think it would have been better to have kept the Time Lords in place after their return, for the possibilities that it would have given. But it was not to be.
  • How long can we drag out an ending? I was watching it online, so I could see that the plot ends had been tied up, but there was still a lot of time to go. I wondered what kind of plot twist was to come. What I didn’t expect was a farwell tour from the Doctor. I know why Russell wanted to do it, but I didn’t love it. And I don’t like Martha’s new hairstyle.
  • In some ways, the timing was terrible – I complain quite a bit about Eastenders at Christmas, where they put so much effort into making sure that all the characters have the most miserable time possible, which I think is horrible. To be honest, I’d rather have had a Christmas special that was more upbeat, and kept the regeneration until later in the new year. But of course, then the BBC wouldn’t have had the huge ratings, and I suppose that’s what it’s all about (and not the okey cokey, as is so widely sung).

What I’m not sure about:

  • The Doctor’s speech before he saves Wilfred. I can understand it, and it was a very human thing to do. But the Doctor isn’t human, and I’m not sure I like it – I don’t think it’s very in character for him. But I can certainly understand it.
  • The regeneration setting the Tardis on fire. It didn’t do that last time, or any other time, so why should it this time? I believe I know the reason why – I’ve heard that the new series will have a refitted Tardis. But it still doesn’t make sense.
  • There was an opportunity to show the Doctor’s actions in the Great Time War, but once again, it wasn’t done. It’s clear that he was fighting in the war, but not quite on the side of Gallifrey, which I guess we already knew. But it’s still a great untold story, unfortunately.

So there we have it. The end of an era. I said to someone recently that I could now die happy, because after all these years I have been proved right – that Doctor Who really is cool, and extremely important, as shown by the complete media saturation over Christmas. It’s extremely pleasing for those of us who kept the faith through the poor years of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, and the wilderness years of only books and CDs. It’s been wonderful to see Doctor Who back on top again.

And yet I keep having the same conversation with friends. We are all worried about what will happen next, when a whole new team takes over. But I have some faith in that new team, with Stephen Moffat at its head, and we haven’t too long to wait. In the meantime, in the words of the Doctor himself:

One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. 

A Christmas Carol

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I went to the cinema yesterday afternoon with the Youth Club to see the new animated version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

I have to admit that my expectations where not very high. After all, it’s a well-known story, that’s we’ve all seen in a dozen different ways over the years. And since this is an animated version, I had assumed it would be if not childish, then focused on the children’s market.

I was wrong. I really enjoyed it. It is very faithful to the original book, with language that probably will go above the heads of children in a few places. But that original story is shocking – when Scrooge is asked for a contribution for the poor and responds “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”, there is genuine shock at just how selfish he is. It’s not played for laughs – this is a horrible person.

Likewise when Marley’s ghost enters, chained to several heavy money chests that he must drag around with him in the afterlife, and says that they are “the chains he forged in life… link by link, yard by yard”, it is both appalling and challenging.

Indeed, although the film is rated PG, I would say parts of it would be hard for children to understand, and other parts might be a bit scary.

I will admit that the film probably slips a bit as it goes on, but there is a great story of a life examined and changed, and none of us are beyond the need for that. I think it deserves to be a Christmas classic.

Dallas – Day Eight

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Okay – I’m sorry about this, but there is no justice.

I raced out of work at 6:30 across to the hotel to grab my dirty clothes, and take them to the cleaners around the corner. The guy in the cleaners asked me if I was enjoying Texas, and we chatted. He asked where I was from, and I said I was from Ireland. He said he had two free tickets for the U2 concert tonight that he couldn’t use, and U2 were from Ireland, and maybe I would like to go and see them. I was lightly stunned. But he insisted I should take them, since he couldn’t use them.

So I raced back to the office to confer with the rest of the guys to see who would use the other ticket. Then Prashant and I raced off to the all-new Cowboys Stadium, and an hour and a half later, the car was parked, and we were going in! The tickets turned out to be completely legit, and we watched U2 for the best part of two hours.

That's Bono way down there on stage and big screen!

That is Little Bono on the tiny stage, and Big Bono on the big screen

It was a good concert. The stadium is vast and amazing, with a lot of clever features like large glass or open areas, instead of walls, so you can see and hear what’s going on when you’re outside the main arena. U2 rocked. They played a lot of newer stuff that I have to admit I don’t know, but also lots of old favourites. And while Bono did his bit to save the world, I have to say it was well done, and I respect him for it. “Walk On” was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, who featured heavily on their magic video wall, and Amnesty International were name-checked. “One” was introduced by a video from Desmond Tutu, who I have a great fondness for. And since it was Texas, George Bush even got a mention, for his investment in Aids work in Africa (which needless to say went down very well with the home crowd).

So wow. What a night. And sorry to all the folks who are bigger U2 fans than me. It was just a bizarre case of being in the right place at the right time. And the guy in the cleaners deserves a great tip!