Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Bad Film Called Die Hard

Yesterday over dinner, LC noted that she had a lot of work to do. Consequently, I found myself at a loose end. That being the case, given that cinema tickets are cheap on a Tuesday, and also given that I rather wanted to see the film but LC did not, I decided to go see "A Good Day to Die Hard".

My short-version review: this is a terrible, terrible film. It is the worst of the "Die Hard" films by a long way, is worse than at least four of the "Fast & Furious" films (I've never seen "2 Fast 2 Furious"), it's worse than all three "Transformers" films, and is even worse than virtually everything starring Jason Statham. Indeed, it's offensively bad, in the same manner as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". In fact, the only good thing about this film is that the running time is 98 minutes, which is blessedly short.

I'm about to delve into spoilers, so if you're still inclined to go see the film and want to avoid them, you should skip the rest of this post.

The plot of the film is at once quite simple and yet unnecessarily complex. John McClane's son has been arrested in Moscow, and will be lucky to get a life sentence. John therefore travels out there to go see his son, only to get caught up in another really bad day. Meanwhile, there's some business about a file of damning evidence, that ultimately turns out to be a front for yet another simple heist, this time of weapons-grade uranium. And there are the usual inevitable betrayals, the quips, and the catchphrases.

Unfortunately, the big problem with the film is that while the characters have understandable goals, the means they use to achieve those goals are utterly nonsensical - either they take actions that by rights should be of no help at all or, worse, those actions only make sense provided the character magically knows that some other character is going to take action first.

But, fair enough. Let's simply accept that the plot is nonsensical, treat it as a big, dumb action movie, and go from there. Switch off the brane, and we should be able to have fun with it, no?

Well, no, actually.

The problem is that the film has two great big action set-pieces, one a chase scene and the other the climactic confrontation at the end. I don't have any great criticism of the second of these, though largely because I'd long since given up on the film - and that was because of the utter failure of the first.

See, there's this chase scene. Jack McClane and an escaped prisoner are in a van, being chased by the bad guy's minions in an armoured truck, and they in turn are being chased by John McClane in a variety of weapons. So far, so good.

The problem is that, like "Bad Boys 2" and the first "Transformers" film, the quick cuts in the film, coupled with the badly-used shakycam, coupled with the director's penchant for moving quickly across the scene with the camera out of focus meant that it wasn't actually possible to make out what was actually happening - it really wasn't clear where the three vehicles were in relation to one another. In fact, there was one bit where I found myself surprised to find they had turned into oncoming traffic!

Now, while bad, even that's not unrecoverable. A chase is a very dynamic scene, with all sorts of potential for injury and death occurring. There's lots of tension in there, which is why films use them: they're an easy way to build excitement.

Unfortunately, by this point the film has already long-since established that the characters are made of rubber. Jack McClane has already survived a huge explosion, protected only by his equivalent of the nuclear fridge, while John has survived a bone-pulping car crash and then been hit by a Chelsea tractor.

The combination of these two things mean that that chase scene is just ten minutes of bright lights and loud noises, and nothing more.

So, even as a big, dumb action film, this one fails.

But actually, I don't think that just being a "big, dumb action film" is acceptable for this film, anyway. See, this isn't "Crank 2", where we know going in that it's going to be utterly stupid. This is a "Die Hard" film. The reason people bother going to see it is because "Die Hard" was good. By trading on the name, they've given rise to reasonable expectations about the film.

And there's the rub. Despite the then-cutting-edge action, the original "Die Hard" wasn't just a big, dumb action movie. It, like the first "Lethal Weapon" film, "The Terminator", "Predator", the first "Rambo" and the first "Rocky" had rather more to them than that. Sure, the action was solid... but so too were other aspects of the film. That's why those films are still amongst the best in their field, and that's why people will go to the sequels - in the hope that a new film featuring the same characters may capture some of the same magic.

Of course, almost all the time, that hope is going to be dashed. And if it were inevitable that that were the case, the rational response would be simple - don't go to see them. But it's not inevitable that new sequels will suck. We know this, because there is one (and thus far, only one) example of a good modern sequel - in "Rocky Balboa", once you get past the absurdity of the premise, you actually have a film that deals rather more with character, and actually addresses its themes, than you might expect. (Actually, "Rocky Balboa" is the film that "Rocky 5" tried very hard, and unfortunately failed, to be. If you haven't seen it, it's recommended - as is the first, and only the first, "Rocky".) That film proves that a good modern sequel actually is possible for one of these films, which just makes it worse when all the others fail.

'Course, the down-side of that is that when "Die Hard 6" inevitably comes to the cinema, it's pretty certain that I'll make sure to go see it. And then write a blog post complaining about it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nothing To Say

Just thought I'd post a quick update. Truth is, there's not much to report - I go to work, I come home from work, I sit around for much of the time... I do have a game on tomorrow, which should be good. This is the "Christmas Game" that got cancelled due to poor scheduling, and which is now happening. I'm looking forward to it.

Other than that, there's not really anything to report. My goals are just sitting there, not really progressing but not really suffering any impossible setbacks either. All in all, things are pretty good, if a little dull. But given some of the alternatives, I'll accept dull!

#8: "Death's Heretic", by James L. Sutter (another surprisingly good book in the "Pathfinder Tales" line. It's not going to be book of the year, but I enjoyed it rather more than I expected.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

If You Have Nothing to Say... Say It With Big Words!

I finished "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" last night. I'm afraid to say that I really didn't enjoy it too much - my big issue with it being that while I don't doubt it was an accurate depiction of society at that time, I didn't much like the depiction of society's reaction to Tess. Which I suppose is a good thing, as I rather suspect that was Hardy's point, exactly.


After having finished the novel, I then skimmed through the "bonus features" in the novel, which in this case included some deleted scenes, some discussion of the landscapes in the novel... and an introduction. And, as with "Jane Eyre", I found myself less than pleased with the introduction, although for rather different reasons.

For the most part, my issue with the introduction was that it didn't add anything to the text. The thing is, a good introduction really should be teasing out things that are probably not immediately obvious from a read-through, but which on being pointed out highlight deeper meanings to the text. And, actually, there is one good example of this in the introduction: it points out some elements that were analogous to the fairy tales of the time, which Hardy then subverted. And that's good.

But the introduction spent a very significant amount of text in a discussion of ambiguity in the text, when actually what it actually says about ambiguity could be covered in a single paragraph. Essentially, the introduction is stalling for word-count.

What I found particularly amusing (and also irritating) about the introduction, though, was the use of language. Because where the writer was on strong ground and making solid points, the introduction was quite clear, and written in nice easy language. It had a point, it made it, job done. But where the introduction was struggling for a point, the language used changed quite significantly - suddenly, it was peppered with "hundred-dollar words", words that most people don't know, and so would either look up or, more likely, would simply nod along with and accept the writer's erudition.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with the use of "hundred-dollar words". Sometimes, an obscure word is absolutely the right word for the job, and should be used. And anyway, one of the best features of the English language is precisely the range of words available, giving rise to all sorts of shades of meaning, and allowing great expressiveness to those who can use those words.

However, what we have here is the difference between "Star Trek: the Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Voyager" - in both cases, there are spells in which the characters (usually the chief engineer or resident Vulcan/Android) is busy explaining what he's doing, and resorts to technobabble. In TNG, though, the show made sure to employ science/technology advisors, and so the technobabble more or less makes sense, especially in relation to the science of the day. And so, when the transporters go wrong, it's an issue with the "pattern buffers" or the "Heisenberg Compensator". In Voyager, by contrast, they've decided they don't care any more, and so they just "reverse the polarity" of the "wibbly-doodad" to generate a "bibblytron" pulse. Or something. It's not real science in either case... but one shows an attention to detail that the other lacks.

The introduction to "Tess...", then, makes uses of literary-technobabble. When struggling for a point, it throws together a whole slew of fancy words which sound really good... but don't actually mean anything. (I don't have the novel to hand, but there's one particular sentence that was particularly egregious - it was assembled of nothing but those "hundred dollar words", but didn't actually say anything at all.)

Anyway, that was that. My next book is a Pathfinder Tale, which I suspect is unlikely to make use of many big words... and which almost certainly not bear anything like the same analysis as "Tess...". But that's good, too.

#6: "Strata", by Terry Pratchett
#7: "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", by Thomas Hardy (a book from The List)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Valentine's Day

Once again, this Valentine's Day was marked by my constructing an elaborate three-course meal, as is my wont. This year, all three courses were experimental, and all three came from Lorraine Pascale's "Fast, Fresh and Easy Food". Rather than blog about each course individually, I have decided to deal with all three together.

Starter: Red Pepper, Tomato & Basil Gazpacho with Salt & Pepper Croutons

Ah, Gazpacho soup...

Memories of Red Dwarf aside, this was a very quick and easy soup to prepare. It consisted of roughly cutting up all the ingredients, stuffing them into a food processor, blitzing until fairly smooth, then transferring them to the liquidiser and finishing off. From there, it was a simple matter of chilling in the fridge overnight, and then making the croutons before serving.

Note: I originally tried to liquidise the soup using the liquidiser from the start, thinking that was an obvious step. However, it turned out that the blades hacked through the low-level ingredients, and then couldn't get any traction on the higher ones - the additional step of using the food processor was required.

Eating this was a bit of an odd experience, what with it being a soup, but served cold. But it was nice - lots of flavour, a nice texture, and the croutons were great. Huzzah!

Main: Five-spice Roasted Duck Breasts with Cherry & Shiraz Sauce & Sesame Noodles

I'm a little confused by this one: if the duck is cooked entirely in the frying pan, in what sense is it 'roasted'?

In the event, I found this course to be rather difficult to handle. There was a lot going on all at once, and everything seemed to take longer than it should. In particular, I found I just didn't trust the duck when it first came from the pan - I felt it needed chopped up and then given several more minutes. And even so, I wasn't 100% convinced (although we seem to be okay...).

All in all, I wasn't terribly happy with this course, although LC really liked it. Every time I've had duck, I've found it to be quite fatty, and that really put me off of the crunchy skins, and thus I lost a lot of the flavour.

On the other hand, the sauce was absolutely brilliant, and the noodles were quite nice too.

Dessert: Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries

Like the Gazpacho, these were put together on Wednesday and chilled overnight. And they were pretty spectacular. Huzzah!

I did have a couple of issues putting these together. Firstly, my mixer singularly failed to properly beat the eggs - I had to complete this task by hand (which wasn't entirely easy!). Then, I misread one of the instructions, and so added the chocolate and cream to the egg white, and then added the egg yolks to the egg whites, and only then realised that I should instead have added the yolks to the cream... the next step was to gradually add these mixed ingredients to the whites.


Still, it all came together well, and everything was fine. So that's good.


Two successes out of three is pretty good.

I've had a lot of success with Lorraine's various books, and they're quickly coming to rival Hugh's "River Cottage Every Day" as my go-to cookbooks. Though quite often I do find that they don't come out looking much like they do in the book - sometimes, more pictures of the dish as it is prepared would be very useful.

#5 "Pathfinder: The Dead Heart of Xin", by Brandon Hodge

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

After several failed attempts (no, really), LC and I made it out to see Disney's latest on Monday.

Basically, if you take the concept of "Toy Story", but with video games instead of toys, and cross it with the "bad guy tries to reform" plotline from "Megamind", you get this film.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The thing is, originality is wildly overrated. After all, there are only a handful of plots in literature, and the film industry tends to stick with only a subset of those anyway. So, chances are that everything is reminiscent of something else.

But what we have here is a fairly simple story told well. Plus, the characters are likeable, they have actual motivations for what they're doing, and even for the means they use to do it.

And then there are the references, and this was where the fun really came. Because while on the surface the story is enjoyable, if you know your video games it's even more enjoyable. And if you really know your video games, then there's a whole new level of fun to be had. So, yeah, although Ralph and Felix are entirely new characters, the game portrayed feels exactly like games that I played way back when. And when Ralph goes to Bad-anon (the support group shown in the trailers), a great many of the characters present were immediately recognisable.

So, yeah, a good stroy well told, just enough nostalgia to hit me just right, and a lot of good fun. As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One more thing to note: a few years ago, it wasn't worth bothering with Disney movies unless they were, in fact, Pixar movies. Apparently, Disney recognised this also, because they proceeded to buy Pixar and then, in a stunningly wise move, they basically put the Pixar guys in charge of their animation studios.

We're now starting to see the benefits of this. As we know, Pixar films are usually preceded by a short film, which while entertaining in their own right, are also used by Pixar to develop the technology for their new films, to let staff learn new techniques, and to tell stories just for the joy of it. "Wreck-It Ralph" was preceded by "Paperman", a short film that does exactly the same thing. Likewise, it definitely looks like WiR started with a good story and then built from there, rather than the recent Disney approach of developing toys to sell and then trying to craft a film.

All of which can only bode well for the future. Because Pixar make good films, and if this now means that we're going to get more good films (even if they're supposedly "kid's films"), then I'm all in favour. I wonder what they'll come up with next?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The "Pancake Day" Double Rant

Yesterday, I noted that Tesco's "seasonal goods" aisle included pancake mix, on account of it being Pancake Day today. Which is not only wrong, but is in fact doubly wrong:

  1. Firstly, pancake mix has no business being a thing. Get a bowl, and a coffee mug (clean). Fill the mug with flour, and tip it into the bowl. Refill the mug with milk, and tip it into the bowl. Crack an egg into the mug, make sure there's no bits of shell, and then tip it into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt if you're feeling adventurous. Mix all these things together. And that's it - there aren't even any special techniques for the mixing, or rules for making sure you've got enough air in there, or anything of the sort. If you can't manage that, then step away from the frying pan - you don't deserve pancakes!
  2. The reason we have "Pancake Day" is that tomorrow is the first day in Lent, and the tradition was for people not to consume various things (notably fat) during the run-up to Easter. And so, on the last day before this fast started, they would have a massive blow-out, getting rid of all the things they had left over from the winter. Which, since that generally included some fat and some eggs (plus milk and flour, of course), meant that they'd make batter - and from batter they would make pancakes. So, really, Pancake Day should actually be "whatever's in your fridge" day. My point, such as it is, is this: going out and buying pancake mix, or even the ingredients for pancakes, rather defeats the notion of using up the leftover luxuries.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering, I'm not doing the whole "Extreme Lent" thing I talked about last year. The reason for this is pretty simple - it is my wont to cook a special dinner for V-Day, which this year is going to include a chocolate mousse for dessert. Kinda tricky to do that while also observing the fast. So, maybe next year. (I will, however, be giving up Irn Bru, and indeed other drinks in the "sugar water" genre for the duration. Which could prove difficult in itself, since Tesco forced me to buy four bottles yesterday.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Experimental Coolery 2013: Bananananana Ice Cream

For Christmas, my parents-in-law bought us an ice cream maker. Which is itself a somewhat interesting story - when I opened it, I had the box held so I couldn't actually tell what it was, and so looked somewhat uncertain, in turn prompting them to be concerned that I didn't like it. Of course, when I used the secret Jedi technique of "turn it round so you can see", all became clear.

Anyway, we made our first use of the new toy on Sunday, making one of the suggested recipes. (Originally, we were going to make strawberry ice cream, but of course strawberries are way out of season. The only ones Tesco had were both very expensive and also rather manky-looking - they'd been 'ripened' under a sun lounger, and so were red in the middle but green at both ends. So we passed.)

Making the ice cream is a really easy process, with one caveat: you need to freeze the bowl first, requiring 24 hours of notice. The instructions recommend keeping it permanently in the freezer, but that's really not an option - our freezer is usually heaving with good food.

And the result? Well, it tasted bananananana-y, and it felt ice-cream-y, so that's pretty much ideal.

The only real issue I have is that it's not much cheaper than just buying ice cream (even good ice cream), and it's not as good as those good ice creams (but it is at least as good as the cheaper ones). The consequence of this is that it's like making bread - it's not going to be worth the effort to use it to make 'standard' ice creams (or to bake 'standard' breads), but what it does allow, and should be ideal for, is the option of making custom ice creams - flavours that you don't get.

Basically, it's an excuse to make lots and lots of ice cream, for "experimental purposes". In particular, I'm intrigued by the notion of an orange choc chip* ice cream (because mint choc chip is good, and because although mint chocolate is good, orange chocolate is better). Oh, and I can't help but think that the bananananas may be improved by the addition of their partner-in-crime, the walnut.

* Of course, this might prove to be awful. After all, if it was actually good, you'd think you'd be able to buy it. But, hey, that's why it's called an experiment.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Worst Idea Ever

For Christmas, I got the boxed set of the first four seasons of "Clone Wars". I had already seen the first three of these on Sky, but never saw the fourth do to a change of channel (coupled with a failure in advertising the same). So, over the past several weeks, I have been gradually watching my way through the series, and reached the end this weekend.

For the most part, "Clone Wars" is an excellent show. Indeed, for the most part it is vastly superior to the prequel trilogy, with the caveat that if the episode synopsis mentions Jar Jar or C-3P0 (or mentions Padme but not one of the Jedi as well), you can be pretty sure that the episode is going to suck. But even that's not too bad, since it's only 22 minutes until the next one.

However, right at the end of season three, and then at the end of season four, they made a massive, massive mis-step: they decided to bring back Darth Maul.

This was probably inevitable. In fact, I've been hearing reports of him coming back (as a cyborg, as a clone, or something else) almost since "Phantom Menace" was released. And, superficially at least, it seems like a good idea - he's an incredibly popular character, and probably the most compelling new character introduced in TPM.

Alas, while it might sound like a good idea, it's really not. Like Boba Fett, Darth Maul's legend has always been inflated way beyond the reality. He looks cool, and he was a very good lieutenant for the Big Bad, but he actually does very little, he has almost no character to speak of, and in fact he doesn't even actually do anything evil in the film - just lots of standing around beside the actual bad guys.

And, of course, his death was pretty unambiguous. Cut in half and thrown down a bottomless shaft? Yeah, that's dead.

But no. More than ten years later, up he pops in the "Clone Wars" as some sort of mad hate-fuelled Drider Maul. Sigh.

And the funny thing is, it's entirely unnecessary. The same arc that has led to the resurrection of Darth Maul has also gone to all the trouble of introducing a 'brother' for the character - another Zabrak force-user, trained by Count Dooku, using a double-bladed lightsaber - Savage Opress. (And, what's more, he's voiced by Clancy Brown, and therefore inherently a better character!) With him in the show, there's absolutely no need for Darth Maul; conversely, if you've got Darth Maul, Savage Opress is redundant. Basically, there can be only one.

There's one other thing that really bothers me about all this: one of the key, signature things about Darth Maul is that he has all of three lines in "The Phantom Menace". And, in fact, that's really three too many - the nature of that character is that the less he says, the more effective he is. (It's just a shame that his very best line was cut from the film, and only appears in the trailers.)

So I was a little dismayed when he proceeded to start monologuing at the first available opportunity, and basically didn't stop.

(Plus, I was rather dismayed in the Mon Calamari episodes when Captain Ackbar never once referred to traps...)

On the other hand, I'm very much looking forward to the fifth season boxed set, so I can see what happens next. Could be cool.

#4: "Desolation Island", by Patrick O'Brian (yes, I'm already quite far behind on the reading...)