Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More movies - some good ones this time!

The Pursuit of Happyness: Will Smith is a down-on-his-luck father trying to become a stock-broker, while pretty much everything goes wrong. This is a very good film, but almost painful to watch at times.

The Last King of Scotland: A film mostly about Idi Amin, named for his obsession with Scotland and all things Scottish. Another very good film, and again one that isn't an easy film to watch. By far the best thing about the film is Forest Whitaker as the man himself. Scarily, he portrays him in such a manner that most of the time you can't help but like the guy, only to be really really scared and horrified by his later actions. As I said, a strong film indeed.

Gridiron Gang: Take "Coach Carter" (great film, by the way), and replace basketball with American football, and replace Samuel L. Jackson with the Rock, and this is what you get. It's an okay film, but just not as good as the other. However, like "Coach Carter", it does prompt some difficult questions about the state of certain parts of American culture, and is worth having made just for that purpose.

Notes on a Scandal: A teacher, played by Kate Blanchett, has an affair with a pupil, while another teacher, played by Judi Dench, nurtures an unhealthy obsession about the former. Judi Dench is great in her role. The rest of the film is barely passable.

Deja Vu: At first glance, this is a really clever time-travel film wherein Denzel Washington attempts to prevent a terrorist attack that has already happened and, not incidentally, save the life of the love interest after she has been killed. Unfortunately, if you scratch the surface just slightly, the whole thing falls apart. With time travel, there are two possible interpretations: either you can change the past or you can't. If you can change the past, then Marty McFly can get his father to beat up Biff Tannen, and everything works out for the best. In the latter, it turns out that the efforts of the time traveller are actually the very thing that caused the problems in the first place; he just didn't know it.

"Deja Vu" applies the first premise most of the time, except where the second is more convenient. The result is a film where the sequence of events doesn't work if the time traveller doesn't go back... but we're supposed to be watching from a universe in which he hasn't gone back. As such, it is broken. Oops.

The Fountain: This was billed as a complex tale of love and morality about two lovers whose lives are entwined over a thousand years. Well, it turns out that their lives don't quite entwine over so long, it just feels like it. Avoid.

And that's your lot for now.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Teeth update

I actually went to the dentist on Thursday, fully expecting to be given a damning report of the state of my teeth. Instead, they're absolutely fine. That was something of a surprise, but most definately a pleasant one.

Back when that show was called something else...

It's fair to say I'm not a fan of Torchwood. The first season had a couple of outstanding episodes, but mostly failed to live up to its promise. The second season has been generally better, but has lacked any particularly good episodes. The best episode was quite clearly the first one in which Martha Jones turned up, and that was because she brought some much-needed lightness to proceedings, and also reverted Jack back to the happy-Jack of Doctor Who, a character who is infinitely preferable to miserable-Jack as we see every other week. Sadly, things then proceeded to get rather morose in the following weeks.

However, one thing that was bothering me all through the second season was the feeling that I'd watched that show before. There was something about the premise that seemed familiar: a strangely-immortal character assembles a team of agents around him and helps the helpless against all manner of alien and supernatural menaces. Really, all that was missing was a similar, younger "Time Agent", preferably played by James Marsters, to appear and cause trouble, motivated by some mysterious relationship with the lead...

Yes, it is, in fact, "Angel".

In a similar vein, I have recently felt that my Sunday-night double bill has been rather lacking, what with "24" being postponed due to the writer's strike in the US. However, last week I was able to add the "Bionic Woman" remake to "Lost", and thus bring things back to a semblance of normality. Or so I thought.

It turns out that the "Bionic Woman" remake is pants.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this show, though, is that I used to enjoy it, back when it was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", or "Dark Angel" or "La Femme Nikita". And, really, it should work the same way. I mean, all the elements are there: the super-powered ninja-chick heroine, the standard-issue absentee father, the mysterious government agency that probably aren't benign, the "mirror-image" villainess...

Speaking of "Lost", it has now gone on to it's mid-season break, a consequence of the writer's strike. And, frankly, I don't think I'll miss it. Allegedly, we've had a whole bunch of answers over the last several weeks. However, they are yet to answer the most important question of all: when are they going to get on with it? Seriously, we're eight weeks in, and a grand total of four days have passed on the island. Yippee.

There is, however, a shining light in "Lost", one character who might actually do something (anything, really) this season. I am surprised, though: I never really expected a US TV show would make their best character a former Iraqi torturer. It's an odd choice.

Still, I can't help but feel that "Lost" would have been a much better show if it had focussed on Sayid and Hurley, rather than on dull Jack (with his Messiah-complex that is compounded by his inability to actually do anything), or useless Locke (with his unresolved daddy issues - you'd think that arranging for Saywer to kill him might help matters, but no. He's just transferred his focus to Ben), or stupid Kate (remember how, ages ago, I commented that I liked the character? Well, forget that - I can't bring myself to like someone who is that dim).

On the other hand, the new "Terminator" series is absolutely fantastic. It has much of the feel of the movies, especially the first two, but also has reached a point where the characters aren't just running and hiding - they're actually being somewhat proactive in opposing the machines. Really good show.

I've also been watching "Life on Mars", which I didn't see when it was first on. That's another good show, despite being an obvious parody of real policing in the 70's. And the American version of "The Office", "Two and a Half Men", "Scrubs" and "South Park" are all solid as always.

So, really, TV isn't in too bad a shape at the moment.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

On the other other hand...

Socialism only works if everyone (or at least the overwhelming majority) play 'by the rules'. By that I mean that the very rich should pay the taxes they 'should' pay, without using the system of exemptions, loopholes, tax havens and whatnot to avoid as much tax as possible. At the other end of the scale, people should claim only those benefits to which they are entitled, and then only taking as much as they need for as little time as they need (but, it's important to note, claiming those benefits that they actually do need). This maximises the amount of money left in the pot, so to speak, and keeps the whole system ticking along.

Instead, we have a tax system so convoluted and arcane that many of the richest members of our society pay virtually no tax, through the wonders of clever accounting. At the other end of the scale, one in seven of the adult populace of Glasgow are claiming incapacity benefit. That's right - allegedly one in seven adults in Glasgow is too sick to work.

Of course, this creates a major pressure on the system, which the government can only make up through taxes. So, those of us in the middle get hit with crippling fuel bills (and despite living right next to a railway station, and working about a mile from an airport, I cannot effectively take public transport to work - I have to commute, which means I have to pay), excessive tax hikes on our little pleasures (55p a bottle on whiskey? I'm sure that will cut down on teenage binge drinking), and cannot make use of the services to which we're entitled because all the sodding dentists have gone private.

Under those circumstances, it's really hard to fault the Thatcherite thinking of "I'm all right; to hell with everyone else".

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Doesn't that just kill you?

Captain Ric's comment on the dentist post requires a longer answer than I can really give in a comment.

The question is this: given that I am paying for NHS services through taxation, and am now paying again by virtue of having a private dentist (not to mention having private health insurance through work), doesn't that just kill me?

The answer, of course, is both yes and no.

On the one hand, it is extremely galling having to pay twice for the service. It is especially galling when one considers that I would be right at the bottom of the NHS priority list for allocation to a dentist, being a single man with no dependents. And this despite the fact that I pay the same taxes as everyone else (as a percentage sum), or rather more than the average (as a raw numeric figure), and am a very low user of services (being a single man with no dependents, in full-time employment and in good health). One would have thought that, on principle, in those cases where I do need access to services, they really should be available.

(When it comes to allocation for a GP, I am rather higher on the priority list, working as I do in a high-stress sedentary occupation, being somewhat overweight, and with various elements in my family history that suggest that, statistically speaking, I died three years ago. As I mentioned in a earlier post that only Chris read, it is apparently the case that being married increases a man's life expectancy by some ten years, at the expense of his wife's life expectancy. Which is rather an impressive wedding present from her to him, I must say. Unfortunately, efforts to work this into my chat-up routine have thus far failed to bear fruit; I suspect I'm not phrasing it quite right...)

Anyway, on the other hand...

The NHS does not have an infinite pool of money available to it. With a growing and aging population, the strain on the system is evident, and will only become worse as time goes on. That being the case, a strong argument could be made that those who can afford private healthcare and private dentistry really should spend the money to avail themselves of these things, and thus reduce the burden on the public system.

Which is not to say I support the Tory notion of a few years back, that those who opt for private healthcare should therefore be able to recoup some of the costs from the NHS. This strikes me as rather defeating the purpose. And I dread the day when private health insurance becomes, effectively, a necessity of life, as it is in the US system. Sadly, I think that day is approaching.

(The only other fix I can see to the resourcing problems of the NHS is draconian methods towards those who represent an unreasonable burden on the system. To a certain extent, this already happens, in the form of extreme taxation on cigarettes. However, one could roll out a system whereby everyone has a certain credit in the system, which gets expended whenever you go in for 'preventable' incidents - including anything drug, alcohol, tobacco or obesity-related. Once the individual's credit runs out, they don't get treated. Of course, the problems with such a scheme are fairly obvious with only a slight analysis, and some of the outcomes are too monstrous to contemplate. So, I think I'm going to advocate "those who can afford not to overburden the system should not do so" as my solution of choice.)

Note to self: try not to think about politics; it's too depressing.

Thoughts, anyone?

Friday, March 07, 2008

What I did on my holidays

I have been on holiday from work all week. I have done basically nothing all week. It was fantastic.

Well, okay, there were one or two things done...

Monday: Waited for the Sky engineer, who re-wired the dish so I can actually watch TV again. Went to band.

Tuesday: Caught up on all the TV I'd missed. Lost was actually fantastic last week, which was a bit of a shock. Started work on the Gygax-tribute game I'm going to be running on Saturday.

Wednesday: Went round to the parents to wait for another engineer, this one intent on fixing their dishwasher. Took the opportunity to do all my washing. All very exciting.

Thursday: Went to the opticians. Went to band.

Friday: Shaved. Found a dentist. Updated my blog.

As I said, it was fantastic doing absolutely nothing all week.

Not the best of hosts

And, speaking of the Captain's big day, we had the Stag Night last weekend. Now, it's important to note that what happens on the Stag Night stays on the Stag Night. So, I won't be speaking about it, ever, and so don't ask.

That said, part of the events of the day involved a very large number of people descending on my Fortress of Solitude, which led to me playing host to a fairly large party.

I don't like crowds. Therefore, for most of this spell, I found myself banished to my own kitchen, conversing with whoever happened to be there. It's fair to say that I may not be the best host for a party in the world.

(Alternately, it might be fair to say that I am the best host for a party, on the grounds that I just let people get on with having a good time without getting in the way. I suspect this latter isn't true, though.)

Hmm, odd

As I'm sure I noted a couple of months ago, I decided not to shave my festive beard in January, in large part because my nephew seemed to prefer it. However, this turned out to be largely illusory, and the beard started to get annoying and require a disturbing amount of upkeep. Plus, I didn't really feel that I wanted to be wearing it in the wedding photos for the upcoming event, so it had to go.

The strange thing is that my chin is now cold. Plus, I'm not at all convinced that it's an improvement. Perhaps I'll regrow it after the Captain's big day.


Okay, I now have a dentist. In the event, I had to go private, but the prices seem not unreasonable. Of course, that's before they decide all my teeth have to come out...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Goodbye Gary, and thank you

The co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, E. Gary Gygax, died today. It's odd how someone you've never met can have such an effect on your life.

In honour, I shall steal some words from "Knights of the Dinner Table":

The Empty Chair
Eulogy for a Gamer

There is an empty chair,
at the table this day.
A hallowed place where,
a friend once played.
The roll of his dice,
my ears long to hear.
Or perhaps it would suffice,
if he should suddenly appear.
With character sheet in hand,
and a bag of Cheeze-doodles to share.
All his friends would stand,
as he sat in the empty chair.
I hear his voice a-callin’,
and it ties my heart in a knot.
For he cries, “Though a comrade has fallen,
You must play for those who cannot.”
We conquered worlds on the run,
he and I in the name of fun.
And as others may come and go,
I make both both friend and foe.
But what I long for most,
is our past now long a ghost.

Thanks Gary.