Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sound and vision

D40
I forgot to mention that I got the camera that I have been after for a while, the Nikon D40. I had been mucking around with my Fuji for a year or 2, to see if I could actually take a photo. I am satisfied that I can now, and combining that with a £250 spring offer price-tag, I went for it. This is my first experience of an SLR camera, and I'm completely blown away. I have fallen in love with it, in particular the amazingly versatile lens that comes with the kit: it has an awesome ability to focus really, really close to things. For a depth-of-field freak like me, this is good news, and has allowed me to take this kind of picture (which I never could before):
BlueBreakfast
BreakfastPlant

Talking of Spring, it has been snowing here on-and-off all weekend, which is a good thing. In the UK, we always have one last blast of Winter before the sun comes back. This Easter-time chill means that, in the next couple of weeks, the heat and light will be in evidence. Hopefully this summer is better than last year's damp squib.

Anyway, to the topic of the post (although the rambling on the camera could count as vision).

This week saw the release of an early contender for album of the year. A concept album about the Delorean car by an indie-dance crossover does not sound too promising, but Stainless Style by Neon Neon is a stunner. Songwriting and much of the vocals come from Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals (an awesome pop-rock group who have been strangely underrated for ages) and tunes comes from electro/hip-hop producer Boom Bip. Spank Rock, Fat Lip, and Har Mar Superstar (in full-on Prince mode) lend a hand. The 80s seem to have come back into fashion as an influence in a big way, and this album is as brazen as it gets. Imagine Depeche Mode-style electro with shimmering production values and a Welsh accent, and you're almost there. I love a bit of electro-pop, and this album (in particular Raquel and Dream Cars) is almost as good as it gets. As a superstar-crossover type album, this is better, and much more consistent, than either of the Gorillaz albums. This album is well worth a listen, and it is going to take something really special if there is to be a better album this year.

On the vision side, this week's cinema trip managed to reverse the post-Blood slide. The Spiderwick Chronicles is a straight-up no-nonsense children's fantasy film. It is well-made, well-acted, has nicely-drawn characters and just the right balance of laughs and thrills. Freddie Highmore (of the awesome Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) does a good job playing both of a pair of twins, albeit with an American accent that seemed a bit weird on him. This film stuck to what it needed to do, did it well, and as a consequence was twice the film that either Vantage Point or 10,000BC were.

Now it's time to get ready for the last episode of Lost before the mid-season break, and it's sure to be a good 'un.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Not verbs

Argos: you can't "Argos it".
Medal: you don't "medal in an event".
Podium: nor do you podium.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Delia, no

What has the world come to? Delia just recommended that I use frozen mashed potatoes.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Delia Smith is part of British culture, and nearly every house in the country must contain one of her cookbooks. Many, many people learned how to cook from her, one of the original TV chefs, as Britain came out of the food dark-ages in the 70s onward. She's not known for her cutting-edge style, and there is absolutely no ponciness in her recipes; she is, however, prescriptive and reliable with recipes that work. She has a lot of respect in Britain, enough to get away with drunken rambling at football matches:


So it would be an understatement to say that I watched her much-heralded return to our screens with horror. Her new approach is "how to cheat at cooking", where she thinks that she is showing us how to produce "real" food with the supermarkets doing all the hard work for us. In reality, she is encouraging people to assemble pre-made (and expensive, no doubt) ingredients to pass off as cooking. Her book even recommends specific brands: Aunt Bessie's frozen mashed potato and M&S tinned lamb mice are two examples from the first show. The food did not look appetising, and it was really, really weird to see this legend of cooking kicking the term "recipe" in the balls. She recommended buying pre-grated cheese! How could a home cook even consider paying the high premium for something that takes 30 seconds to do yourself? I'll admit that I'm lazy, but really Delia? Seriously?

To say that there is a Delia backlash going on is an understatement, and I'm afraid I have to join in. Check out the reviews of the accompanying book on Amazon for a flavour (the reviews are either die0hard Delia fans or harsh critics). The mashed potatoes seem to be infamous already. I know it's not a new idea: an American TV "chef", Sandra Lee, has been pulling this shit for years. The point is that Delia is in a position to show us how to cut corners whilst "keeping it real", but she seems to have taken the easy way out and pandered to the lazy by making them think what they are doing is cooking. I eat the occasional ready-meal, but I don't kid myself about what it is.

So you've messed up, Delia. I'll watch the rest (or at least more episodes) of your show, in the faint hope that the first one is unrepresentative of your new approach, but I'm not holding out hope. The sad thing is that there was an excellent template for what she should have done just last year. Nigella Lawson came up with Nigella Express, a programme and book that showed how to cook good food in short amounts of time. There were pre-made ingredients, but they were used judiciously in nice recipes that you genuinely want to eat. That book is welcome in my house; in fact I have it and have cooked a number of excellent dishes from it already. I can't say the same for Delia's newest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Last week

Someone got here by typing this into google:

"times frequency average french say ooh la la"

What?

Sebastien Tellier blew a lot of people (myself included) away a couple of years ago with a song called La Ritournelle. You can listen to it here as you read my witterings if you like:

Lovely stuff, eh? Like Unfinished Sympathy but French. Unfortunately, the album that it came off was seriously bad. It had oompah music, and sounded like it was made by a Belgian, even though he is French. It was all over the place, quality-wise, and is certainly not a pleasure to listen to.

He recently released a new album, Sexuality, that is way better. That's not to say it is a masterpiece, but at least there is a consistent and coherent sound. I suspect that this comes from being produced by one half of Daft Punk. Sexuality is basically an 80s-influenced synth-pop album, and I daresay it will sound terrific on a summer day later in the year. It's nothing very substantial, but I like a bit of leftfield pop like this so can recommend giving it a listen.

Anyway, I should probably get round to the point of this post, shouldn't I? One of the tracks, Divine, leapt out as being in the best 3 or 4 on the album. And this weekend I hear that it is the French entry into Eurovision. Seriously. Vaguely credible pop music up against a turkey (literally) from Ireland. Bizarre. Here it is if you want to hear it. Apologies for the spinning French Flag, which nobody should have to look at, but there does not seem to be an actual video yet.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Fillums

After the majesty of There Will Be Blood, everything else was bound to be a bit of a letdown. If that film was a towering example of how cinema can be great, the next two films that I saw were examples of everything that can be wrong with it.

I went to see Vantage Point because of the decent trailer, and the fact that it was packed with decent actors (including Jack from Lost). This film thought that it was ultra-modern and clever, and clearly borrowed a lot of its visual style from the last two Bourne films. It was, however, truly terrible. A creaky plot was told through a clunky device of telling the same 20-minute time period repeatedly via 7 or 8 (I can't remember, and frankly don't want to) different viewpoints. I suppose the makers thought that this would be a brilliant way of telling a twisty thriller story, which is all very well if you don't have a plot in which even a slow child could spot everything coming a mile off. Poor stuff, compounded by a truly horrible action-oriented final third. Even the Friday-night cinema crowd were moaning with derision after about half of the film. If you lose that easy-to-please crowd, you're in trouble.

Probably more enjoyable, but in my opinion more guilty of bad film-making, was 10,000 BC. This comes from the man who brought us Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Before I slag this one off, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed those two, with their ridiculous central premises: Will Smith defeats an alien invasion, and Jake Gyllenhaal punches a wolf in the face. 10,000 BC carries on the line of outlandish films, being a bizarre mix of faux-history, The 300, Apocalypto, and Stargate. The accuracy of the history in the plot is pretty much an all-time low here: the protagonists hunt mammoths in (presumably) central Europe, which is but a few days walk away from Egypt, where the Pyramids are being built 8,000 years earlier than expected. With mammoths as labour. Putting aside the poor anthropology, the film is still no good. The plot is incredibly (scarily so) cliched, and is as formulaic as I have ever seen. Poor dialogue, poor acting, poor plotting. The film was a perfect example of what is wrong with a lot of films: they under-develop characters and story, so that when something happens to them (or someone dies) you simply don't care. You have to earn it if you really want us to care. And I didn't.

All this is a long way of saying that I saw two very bad films after one great one. I'm not sure what is out in the next few weeks that can reverse the trend...

NorLon

Hey dudes. As per my last post, I'm still busy, busy Justin.

Two weeks ago was Norway. A day in Bergen was followed by 3 in Stavanger, which I have only briefly visited previously. It was nice to get a look around, and the city was, well, nice. Nice and compact (around 100,000 inhabitants), everything in the city centre was within walking distance of our hotel. Due to the ridiculous costs in Norway, that hotel cost £220 a night, and a main course cost from £15 to £30. Fancy a pint? That'll be £7, please. I'm glad I got to go there with work instead of on my dollar... We had an afternoon free to have a look around the city (some pictures here), but the weather decided to thwart us by first snowing and then raining. Maybe it'll be sunny next time.

Last week was London. This trip was a bit stressful for a number of reasons. On Wednesday morning I had a meeting in Sunbury, near London. Or so I thought. When we arrived at the alloted time our client said that they weren't expecting us until the next day. Oops, I had switched the days in the schedule. This led to a hectic dash towards Reading to try and not be too late for the meeting that I was supposed to be at. Only to be told, upon calling the client to apologise for running late, that they were actually in London and my office had told me the wrong location (and company, but that's a whole different story). So at 1130 we arrived for our 0900 meeting in a building less than 20 minutes from our hotel. Which we had left at 0700. To compound matters, on the way home on Thursday we got caught up in the aftermath of the security scare and I didn't walk through my door until midnight. A fairly hectic week, then. On the plus side, London was its usual iconic self, and at my colleague's urging we went on the London Eye. I don't know why I was so hesitant, as it was amazing. We went on at sunset, and saw the city transform from day to night in a beautiful panorama all around us. Pictures here. I don't really like heights, so the top was a bit scary, but the rest was excellent. Thoroughly recommended.

No more trips for at least a couple of weeks then. Maybe I'll get a chance to get my ass in gear and do all the things that I need to here in Aberdeen.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

This and that

Busy, busy Justin.

I've been hard at work since I got back from the US, and now I'm preparing for a few days (tomorrow to Thursday) in lovely Norway. That's not sarcasm, by the way: Norway is lovely, but bloody expensive. Lucky work is paying...

You can read on without fear, Simon. I have just watched episode 5 of Lost, and as I predicted (due to it being a Desmond episode) it was an absolute humdinger. Last season's Des episode was my favourite ever, but this may just edge it. Incredible stuff.

Also incredible was There Will Be Blood. I saw it last week, and am still reeling. What an extraordinary (literally) piece of work. I was pre-disposed to like it, as I think that the director is a genius (Magnolia = top 5 films of all time), but I wasn't expecting something so out-there but brilliant. Day-Lewis is on a whole other level to pretty much every other actor in history; his performance is possibly the best piece of acting that I have ever seen. I'm gushing about a film that, on paper, is not great: there is actually not a lot of plot and story, and absolutely no exposition. The story is driven purely by character and situation, with stunning camera-work and music (from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead) driving it along. You must see this film.

Have you seen it yet? No? Then stop reading this and come back when you're done.

Right, I'd better pack my bags and gather together my mind, which is reeling after that episode of Lost. Here's some stuff to watch:

You get a second of pay-off at the end here, but the build-up is so worth it:


Amazing water balloon video:


Here's the exploding windmill video that's been doing the rounds:


And click here for an awesome Soviet-style animation of Mario.