Sunday, March 26, 2006

Orange belt!

I passed my second grading today, and got my orange belt. Although I did a lot more than my yellow belt grading it didn't seem as hard, perhaps because I had an idea of what was coming this time. I have another lesson tomorrow, but hopefully it'll be something unrelated to the syllabus as I'm sick of doing katas right now.

One thing I forgot to mention in my last post was that on Feb 26th I went to see the incomparable Daniel Kitson. This chap is possibly my all-time favourite comedian, and this is the only the second time I've ever seen him. The first was back at uni, in 2000. I'd never laughed so much in my entire life...until tonight, that is. His humour ranges from the crude (he says c**t more than anyone I've ever known), to the intellectually fulfilling (the guy has a vocabulary the size of Encyclopedia Britannica). Gems included a 10 minute hysterical rant on the dangers of smoking, and a deconstruction of reality TV shows that encourage cruelty, such as Pop Idol:

"What did you do today, daddy?"
"I shattered someone's dreams."

The show was about 2 and a half hours with a break, but I could have listened to him for twice that. Quite simply, Daniel Kitson is a genius and if you get chance to see him live, you need to go. Even if it means stabbing someone in the face with a blunt pencil to get a ticket. I hope I don't have to wait another 6 years to see him again.

A few films I've seen recently:

A History of Violence - excellent little thriller, where a smalltown diner owner (Viggo Mortensen, minus a sword) becomes a hero when he fends off two armed robbers who break in and threaten his staff. This sets off a chain of events that affect him and his family, right up to an interesting and original final scene. Whilst quite gory in places, the film asks questions such as "How much violence is too much?" and "Is it right for good guys to be violent, and bad guys not to be?". I've been deliberately vague about the plot, since even reading the smallest spoiler could ruin it for you. It's well worth watching though.

Rounders - No, sadly not a gratuitous, "no holds barred" look at the all-girl UK team who play the game of the same name; this film's about poker. Not so interested? Well, it'd be a shame to miss out as this one's a treat. Mike (Matt Damon) is a law school student paying his tuition by winning poker games; that is, until he loses everything on one game against a Russian mobster, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). 9 months on and going straight, his friend and old poker partner Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison with debts to pay, and soon drags him back into the game. It's an effective, gripping little comedy-drama with great acting, but Malkovich steals every scene he's in. I've not seen a supporting actor put so much into hamming up a role since Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham. His accent is ridiculous: what is that? Ukraine? Uzi? Yet, it matters not, because the film is worth watching for him alone.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - Gilly's choice (it has Robert Downey Jr. in it...), this was an entertaining and very funny film noir tribute, complete with narrative. The plot is far too complicated to explain and has more twists than I can remember, but even if you don't fully understand what's going on, you'll still enjoy it.

Timecode - There's not many films I've given up on. Creep was one of them, and that lasted about 45 minutes. With Timecode I managed 26. No, it's not a wacky time-travel film, nor is it about a bomb. If only. This is one of those pretentious "arthouse" movies that look interesting, until you realise that if you keep watching you may actually slip into a coma. The screen is split into 4, similar to the way 24 lays out its different stories. The main difference is that with 24 the scenes that are happening simultaneously are shown on screen together for a maximum of five or six seconds. With Timecode there are 4 different continuous shots of four different stroies going on all the way through the film, with the volume being raised in the section of the screen that the director wants you to pay attention to. When you consider that each of the sections was done in one continuous take with improvisation by the actors all the way through, it all starts to sound impressive. The main problem is that every one of those four stories is deathly dull. They all apparently converge near the end of the film but in order to get the viewer hooked, there needs to be something to grip them. There was nothing. It says something about the state of a film when Salma Hayak making out with another woman still doesn't keep my attention. So there you have it - 26 minutes. Maybe you'll like it and last longer than I did. Good luck to you.

I finished my first Philip K Dick book recently, Vulcan's Hammer. It was an interesting short story (only 150 pages or so), and so I decided to buy a compendium of five more of his best. Should be here in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I've got the last book of Phillip Pullman's series to read (thanks Gilly!) and then I think I may finally start Chainfire by Terry Goodkind. His new one - Phantom - is out in June.

Started playing a really freaky point-and-click adventure today: Sanitarium. When a game's installer gives me the creeps, I know I'm on to something a bit disturbing. 2 chapters in, and it's not bad. The voice acting's a bit dodgy but the general weirdness is refreshing and makes it a lot easier to play than Syberia 2 (which I'm still struggling through).

Right, that's about all for now. After a weekend practicing and then performing Bushido, I'm in need of some gaming time.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Passage of Time

Almost two months since my last Things have been busy; perhaps a little bit too busy for my liking. So here's a quick summary of the most important things that have happened since I last started typing here.

Ray Meredith, James's father, unfortunately died from a heart attack in February aged 83. A lovely man who I had known for almost 20 years, he will be sadly missed.

Bushido: it looks like my hip is fine, so it's lots of painful stretching that is needed in order for me to kick higher. I went to a weapons seminar last weekend and did 4 hours of bo staff training which was good fun, although my left leg decided it didn't want to work too well for the next couple of days. I've got two weeks until my orange belt grading, and I think I should be OK, but lots of practice and stretching will be needed.

My car cost £250 to get through the MOT. But it's still alive, thankfully. I really can't afford another car at present. I may even get round to washing it sometime. After 3 years without a soap sud near it, even the birds are giving it a wide berth.

Gilly is appearing in Iolanthe at Portsmouth's New Theatre Royal on the 15th-18th March. I'll be there for the final night. Go and see it (if only to see the costume she's being forced to wear...) ! :o)

Oh yeah, I guess there was the small matter of my birthday in January too. I went up to Castleford to check out Neil's new house with almost a dozen other Miltonites and we went for bowling and a curry in XScape. It's a pretty cool place, there's a bar overlooking an indoor ski slope so you can watch people falling over as you drink your pint. Marvellous.

Wayne and I are both trying to brush up on our writing skills, so I cunningly came up with a writing "challenge" where one person would pick a topic, and we would both then write something around that topic. I chose "Thief" to start with, and you can see my effort by clicking here. It wasn't a bad first attempt, the overall setting could have used some more atmosphere as it basically could have been set anywhere. Wayne chose "The Pilot" as the next topic, and I opted for something a little different. This will probably mean nothing to those of you that don't visit the DVD Forums but I've added it for the sake of inclusivity. This month's topic is "Fairy Tales", and I've got something even more interesting planned. Whether I can pull it off effectively or not is a different matter.

Speaking of writing, I've worked my way through a few books recently. I didn't mention finishing The Dumas Club but it was a good read, and far, far better than the film that was based on it - The Ninth Gate. Since then I've read Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman, and am now onto book 2: The Subtle Knife. I also finally got round to finishing A Feast for Crows, which was a little bit more padded out than George R R Martin's other books, but very enjoyable nonetheless. I assume book 5 will be similar, as it will be building up the story of the other half of the cast which didn't feature in this book. Then hopefully books 6 and 7 will round things off with a bang (when they're published in the year 2020, or something). There was even time to squeeze in The Rule of Four which was little more than a clone of The Da Vinci Code but without the exciting parts. The ending was limp too, but then so was Dan Brown's book. So in that respect at least, it was a successful replica.

From time to time, I even manage to dip into The Complete Calvin and Hobbes which my lovely girlfriend bought me for my birthday. Cartoons never get old. I say "dip", because this collection contains every single cartoon that was published in syndication; 10 years worth of material exquisitely bound into three huge volumes (450+ pages each) and stored in a sturdy illustrated box. Absolutely fantastic - thank you Gilly :o)

On to's the rundown:

24 - Wow. This season kicked off with a stormer of an opening episode, perhaps the most intense yet, and the pace has certainly kept its momentum through the 12 episodes shown so far. Last week's double header (in the US) ended with a jaw-dropper, and nicely set up the remaining half of the series. Ignore the fact that Jack has a pocket teleporter, and enjoy the most exciting series on TV at the minute.

House - After watching the first couple, the show got me hooked. I devoured the first series in the space of a week, and I've now caught up to the current series. As expected, the rest of the cast were developed nicely and there's usually an interesting twist each episode with regards to the personal lives of the staff to keep things bubbling.

The Thick of It - Only seen one episode of this political comedy and the satire was bone dry, unsurprising since it was penned by Armando Iannucci. It's less immediately accessible than Absolute Power but I think, like a good wine, it will mature nicely to give a more rounded flavour in the end.

The IT Crowd - Slated by critics, Channel 4's new geek comedy had me in stitches through the first two episodes but the third and fourth were pretty awful. When you have lines delivered by Chris Morris such as: "That's the kind of place this is, Jen. Lots of people not doing much, and having affairs." then it's hard not to laugh. It's just a shame he's hardly in it.

Lost - Finally getting its act together and realising that back story, whilst necessary, can't actually divert the viewer away from the fact that people are stranded on an island. You can only ignore it for so long. I hope the end of the series actualy gives us something of interest to make up for all the filler.

Alias and Commander-In-Chief are out till April, Prison Break is back on the 20th, Everwood returns next week, and The West Wing resumes tonight, so there's lots to look forward to. Bones is still trundling along in the category of "drama that's worth watching if there's nothing else on", and Joey really needs to get canned as soon as possible. If it makes it to a 3rd series, it will be a disgrace, especially when Firefly didn't even get the benefit of a full run.

Which leads nicely on to Serenity - the DVD sales of which have pushed the film into the black, and made up for its (relatively) poor theatrical release. Good news? Possibly. Fox still own the rights to Firefly so a new series is unlikely. But I don't think fans will want another film if there is any sort of chance of a new series. So I guess it will depend if Fox and Universal discussions take place, which will most likely depend on how Joss's next films (including Wonder Woman) turn out cash-wise.

A few films I've seen recently:

Robots - amusing animation, pretty much carried by Robin Williams, but good fun for a night in.

The I Inside - Decent psychological/time-travel flick in the same mould as The Jacket, but actually better even if it does star Ryan Phillippe, and it has an ending that makes you go back and re-evaluate the little clues that were left for you to find. Well worth watching.

Bushido grading is in two weeks time, so I suppose I better go and get practicing.