Update: His Pick Her Pick, and Plans for April

Firstly, Rachel Wagner and I did another His Pick Her Pick video yesterday, this time looking at historical movies based around space. My pick was The Right Stuff, and Rachel’s was October Sky – I enjoyed this one as I was able to talk a bit about my interest in space exploration.

Meanwhile, I’ve put together another YouTube video, as an introduction for a project I’ve got in mind for April. As April will mark the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I’ve decided to spend the month watching and reviewing the various films (and a few TV programmes) based around the disaster, and looking at the different approaches taken to portraying it.

I’m finding that editing these videos can be quite a long process. If there’s any particular software that you recommend, please let me know in the comments!

That, meanwhile, is on top of Camp NaNoWriMo, which I think is going to be a combination of writing and editing this month. Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew, but it’s all in good fun!

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Film review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

In my childhood, our house contained VHS tapes of Disney animated films from the 1940s onward, and we watched them over and over again – but the ones I still feel the greatest affection for are those that I actually got to see in the cinema, from Beauty and the Beast to Hercules. I consider Beauty and the Beast my favourite only because, while I love Aladdin and The Lion King about as much, BATB has the highest quality. It was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and is still considered one of Disney’s greatest masterpieces. So, like many people, I was rather unsure when I heard that the film was being re-made for live action. The 2015 remake of Cinderella was lovely; it was faithful to the big picture of its source material, while updating little details to make it more palatable to a discerning modern audience. But aside from a few well-documented plotholes (e.g. just how old the Beast was when he was cursed, the inconsistencies of how far the castle is from the village), the original Beauty and the Beast is pretty much perfect (not to mention, much younger than Cinderella), and how can you remake what is already perfect?

If you’ve seen the original, you’ll know the story, and the film sticks to it for the most part – but there are little changes here and there. The film successfully strikes a balance between changing too little and too much, though admittedly, some of the reiteration of original dialogue feels forced, like in the prologue. The overall atmosphere is also slightly more grim, though there is still plenty of humour and lightheartedness interspersed throughout. Most of the plotholes are fixed: for example, the Prince is shown to be an adult in the prologue, and there is no mention of just how long the curse has lasted before Belle comes along; also, the castle is shown to be well hidden, and part of the curse is that everyone in the village has forgotten about it. Also at one point, Gaston declares that the Beast has placed Belle under a dark spell; this could be a subtle shot at the people who claim Belle has Stockholm Syndrome, or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

One change I didn’t like was the treatment of Gaston in the first half. The original Gaston begins the film as loud, obnoxious and unashamedly egotistical; it’s clear both that he’s meant to be the antagonist, and why Belle isn’t into him. The live-action Gaston, however, is quieter and a little more subtle and charming in his attempted wooing of Belle; he doesn’t set up a wedding on her doorstep, for one thing. It’s only about halfway through the film that he does anything outright villainous; until then, he doesn’t seem like a bad sort, which makes his role rather more confusing when treating this as a stand-alone. The longer run-time for the film gives us more scenes of Belle and the Beast alone together – which do manage to serve the romance – and some extra backstory about Belle’s mother and the Beast’s parents, which doesn’t really add very much.

As a live-action musical, the film works very well: all the original songs are included, and staged with wonderful co-ordination and splendour. I wasn’t that taken with the rendition of ‘Belle’, though that might be because I was still warming to the film at that point – but all the rest brought a smile to my face. ‘Be Our Guest’, in particular, has visuals worthy of a Disney World night-time spectacular. There are even some new songs, though most of them are short and unmemorable. I did, however, like ‘Days in the Sun’ (sung by Belle and the servants) and ‘Evermore’ (sung by the Beast after Belle’s departure), which both had some real emotional power.

Even outside of the songs, the film certainly looks great for the most part. I personally prefer the stylistic choices of the animated film, but a lot of effort has been put into the remake’s sets and costumes, with more emphasis on the French setting providing inspiration. One of the main worries I had from watching the trailers was how well the designs of the Beast’s servants would translate into live-action. Cogsworth is probably the best one, with his eyes and mouth fitting into his clock face fairly well. Lumiere, Mrs Potts and Chip do look a little more disconcerting, but I got used to them quickly. However, I might have been rather frightened by the pupil-less eyes, large mouth and wild movements of the wardrobe, were I a small child.

I really believed Emma Watson as Belle: she captures the charm, intelligence and independence of the character very well, and while you can tell her singing is autotuned, it does the job. I especially liked her little cry of joy after the Beast shows her the castle library. Dan Stevens, playing a CGI Beast for most of the film, is also very good: I liked the various aspects of his development over the film, down to how he speaks; his awkwardness as he and Belle start warming to each other; and how you can sometimes see traces of the prince he used to be in how he acts. As previously mentioned, Luke Evans as Gaston isn’t best served by the script, and Kevin Kline’s Maurice is a bit too reserved, but I very much liked Josh Gad’s performance as Lefou, comedic without being too slapsticky.

So, is the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast as good as the original? No. Did it need to be made? Probably not. Is it worth your time, and will it bring some pleasure to Disney fans who watch it? Personally, I say yes. Rating: 4/5.

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Kerbal Space Program: Starting Out

This week, I started playing a PC game I’ve had my eye on for a while: Kerbal Space Program. This game involves building rockets and aircraft, which are generally limited by realistic laws of physics, and piloted by little green beings called Kerbals; with the right setup, you can launch your rockets into space, and even visit moons and other planets. To me, it sounded like the perfect game. By the time I was able to play it, I’d already watched a number of YouTube videos on KSP, by experienced players like Scott Manley, and I hoped I’d be able to take something away from those. But it didn’t take long to realise that I’m going to need a lot of practice to be even halfway competent at this game: I’ve made quite a few mistakes already.

The main part of the game is Career Mode, where you have a limited amount of money, and launch missions to fulfill specific contracts and unlock new parts. But after completing some of the Training videos, I thought I’d be better off starting in the Sandbox, where all parts are available and money is not a factor. Deciding to try a sub-orbital launch first, I built a little rocket which I dubbed the Kestrel. With the intrepid Jebediah Kerman seated inside the capsule, the rocket was transferred to the launchpad, and…ignition!

The Kestrel lifted off successfully and began maintaining a straight course upwards. It didn’t seem to be climbing as fast as I’d hoped, but by the time the rocket ran out of fuel, I found that it had built enough momentum to climb to an altitude of about 400 kilometres! (Space begins at 70 kilometres in KSP.) Brilliant…or was it? I had tried to steer the rocket sideways a little during launch, but clearly this had not been sufficient, and the capsule was now going to come down very steep and very fast. And with no fuel left, there was nothing I could do about it.

As Jebediah’s capsule commenced its alarmingly fast plunge back into the atmosphere and I jettisoned the spent booster, I also realised that I had neglected to add a heat shield. With flames beginning to surround the capsule, I hoped that just maybe, it would survive anyway. The G-force meter started climbing to levels I really didn’t want to see – then, at about 15 Gs, there was a bang. The capsule exploded, and Jebediah with it. Damn.

Well, I would just have to learn from my errors. Aside from adding a heat shield, I kept the Kestrel as it was for the next flight, but made sure to follow a shallower flight profile. This time, Valentina Kerman was fortunate enough to get into space, and return home to tell about it. Hooray!

Now to try for a rocket capable of reaching orbit. I put together a two-stage booster, with two solid rocket boosters at the bottom; I named it The Beast, which was what my high school chemistry teacher called his favourite Bunsen burner. Valentina was in the pilot’s seat again for launch, but the Beast’s ascent was nowhere near as smooth as the Kestrel’s. It rolled and veered north, and after the SRBs were jettisoned, the first stage fought my attempts to correct the flight path. Once the second stage was firing, I was able to get the craft back on an eastern trajectory, but probably wasted a lot of fuel in the process. Once the fuel ran out, the capsule was certainly not going to reach orbit, but Valentina did come back down without any problems.

I modified the Beast with four SRBs instead of two, and winglets for extra stability, and tried again. The winglets – and possibly the additional symmetry of the boosters – certainly prevented the lack of control I had experienced for the first launch, and as the second stage crossed the boundary into space, it looked like I might be able to make orbit. Adding a manouver to my flight path, I began firing the engine, but which would run out first: the fuel, or the prescribed time for the burn? With a sliver of fuel remaining, I shut the engine down, with a few seconds to go on the burn. I was technically in orbit – but to my disappointment, the periapsis (lowest point) was at 50 kilometres, and once the spacecraft got to that point, it was slowed by the atmosphere and could not maintain its path. Despite a little tumbling on re-entry, Bill Kerman also got back alive, having come closer to a proper orbit but still not quite there.

In the meantime, I also headed to the Hangar to try building a plane. Throwing a little one together called the Falcon 1, I transferred it to the runway and started the engine. It gave a brief sputter and then died; I hadn’t given it a jet intake. When one had been added, the plane successfully accelerated forward. I prepared to pitch up and hopefully take flight – but then the plane started veering inexplicably to the left and off the runway. I hit the brakes and started some comical attempts to get the plane back onto the runway, going back and forth like a learner driver trying a three-point turn. Then, while accelerating in a reasonably straight line, the plane went over a bump and became airborne; I retracted the landing gear and hoped for the best – but it came straight back down again, and the pilot, Valentina, perished in a fiery explosion just like Jebediah.

Since then, I have managed to get into orbit on the Sandbox – by building an absolutely massive rocket. I think I need to figure out how to get a smaller design to work before I have a real hope at Career Mode. Hopefully not too many Kerbals will have to be sacrificed along the way.

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My Birthday!

So today, I finally turned 30, and thus officially became a grown-up! (Even if I’m not sure whether I feel like one.)

It’s been a low-key but enjoyable birthday; I went for a little walk around Blackpool and Lytham – having a look for lizards in the dunes but not seeing any – and then had a pleasant dinner with my family in the evening. And I also decided to make a little webcam recording and test out the process of making YouTube videos of my own. Seemed like a good day to do it!

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Film review: Logan

Logan, the tenth film in Twentieth Century Fox’s X-Men universe, is a very different film from the average superhero fare. Usually, when we watch superheroes onscreen, they’re either just starting out or already in their prime, settled in the middle ground which both allows them to show off their skills to their best effect and maintain room for sequels. Logan, on the other hand, shows a character whose best days are long behind him, and who may in fact be nearing the end of his story – not inappropriate, considering that Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are both bowing out of the franchise with this film.

In the year 2029, the X-Men are no more and new mutants have apparently ceased to be born. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is finally starting to show his age, with his healing powers significantly diminished. He now works as a limo driver around the US-Mexico border, while supporting his mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart); now in his nineties, Xavier is suffering from a degenerative brain disease which makes him prone to seizures and dangerous bursts of telepathic power. Logan’s only hope for the future is to escape to more secure isolation, but this is disrupted when a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), with mutant powers very similar to his own, is placed in his care. With Xavier in tow, Logan sets off on a long journey to deliver Laura to a safe haven, with sinister forces in hot pursuit.

While I’m happy with superhero films trying different approaches, I still wasn’t sure just how interesting Logan was going to be after seeing the trailers. Fortunately, it definitely provides a good, well-written story. I was getting some Terminator vibes as Logan and co drive through the wilderness, never quite sure how close behind them the enemy is. The background of what led the characters to their current situation is revealed in bits and bobs, with some details of offscreen events left deliberately ambiguous. And being set at this point in time, with Logan and Xavier shadows of their former selves, more tension and uncertainty is generated as to where they can go from here – as well as the rest of mutantkind, if it even still exists. The action scenes are also much more brutal than previous films; when Logan’s claws come out, people get skewered in plenty of bloody detail, while a few heads and limbs part company with bodies.

Hugh Jackman’s final portrayal of Logan is as respectable as ever, still showing off the old gruffness and ferocity, while also taking the character on a new arc. Logan has been at plenty of low points before, but now he’s really badly broken, unable to see any potential meaning in the rest of his life, and seeking just to buy a boat and hide away from the world he’s found himself in. And when a potential new purpose arises in the form of Laura, he’s reluctant to embrace it. Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, does an impressive job; given that the character doesn’t speak for most of the film (but does shriek a lot), it’s a mostly physical role. Once the audience has seen how dangerous Laura is when provoked, she generates a certain amount of tension even in her calmer moments – but she has an endearing side too, with her unfamiliarity with the world. Meanwhile, the film’s portrayal of Charles Xavier may be more challenging than previous ones, but of course Patrick Stewart pulls it off perfectly; Xavier’s illness leaves him confused and vulnerable, but his old personality hasn’t quite gone away.

Like most X-Men films, Logan isn’t really spectacular, but provides solid, engaging entertainment. Admittedly, given its cynical atmosphere, it’s worrying to imagine that this is the ultimate future for the characters we’ve been watching for years – though, given all the different timelines, who really knows? Rating: 4/5.

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MS Herald of Free Enterprise: 30 Years On

Thirty years ago today, in 1987 – just over a week before I was born – the Townsend Thoresen ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, in the worst peacetime maritime disaster involving a British ship in 68 years.

On 6th March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise arrived in Zeebrugge from Dover, and began taking on passengers – mostly British tourists – for the return journey. As a roll-on roll-off ferry, she took on vehicles as well, on two of her decks. Once loading was complete, the open bow doors which allowed vehicles entry were naturally supposed to be closed. Unfortunately, the crewmember who had this responsibility, assistant boatswain Mark Stanley, had gone for a nap during his scheduled break, and did not wake up when the crew were called to their stations for departure. In his absence, nobody else thought to assume the responsibility or make sure that the task had been completed – and at 7:05pm local time, the ferry departed, the captain having no way of knowing that the bow doors were still open.

At 7:24pm, as the Herald left the harbour and accelerated, a large enough wave was generated for water to start pouring into the lower car deck through the open doors. To make matters worse, the Herald was already sitting relatively low in the water, having filled her ballast tanks in port to accommodate the loading ramp and allow vehicles to drive onto the upper deck. As water sloshed around the lower deck, carrying vehicles with it, the ferry began to lurch back and forth. Less than two minutes after the crisis began, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized onto her port side and the lights quickly went out.

Hundreds of people were now trapped inside the ferry as it filled with freezing water. Fortunately, the Herald had come to rest on a sandbar and her starboard side remained above water; and as she was still relatively close to shore, rescue vessels, helicopters and divers were soon on the scene. But they couldn’t save everyone: of the 539 people onboard, 193 lost their lives.

The disaster led to many design changes to improve RORO ferry safety, including CCTV and indicators to let officers on the bridge know whether the bow doors were closed. The captain, first officer and Mark Stanley were determined to have been negligent by the investigation, as well as the ferry’s owners; the captain and first officer received suspensions. The Herald of Free Enterprise herself was righted in April 1987, and scrapped the following year.

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His Pick, Her Pick – Quirky Romances

Time for another His Pick, Her Pick with Rachel – and with February being Valentine’s month, we decided to do romances. An earlier instalment had already covered romantic comedies, so we both chose some more unconventional films: I picked Amelie, a quirky film and one of my favourites; while Rachel picked 500 Days of Summer, which introduces itself as a boy-meets-girl story, but not a love story.

Check out the video below!

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Book review: Under The Dome


Under the Dome – Stephen King

This novel begins with a simple concept: on an ordinary Saturday morning, the little town of Chester’s Mill in Maine is abruptly surrounded by an invisible force field. The dome extends for miles both up and down, appears to be totally inpenetrable, and nothing physical can get in or out. The residents of Chester’s Mill now have to live off their own food and fuel supplies, with no outside assistance beyond communication. Our protagonist, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, is a former lieutenant turned chef who was just about to leave Chester’s Mill when the dome appeared; instead, he finds himself being chosen by the outside world to find out where the dome came from and keep things under control. But Barbie faces many obstacles, not the least of which is local politician James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as an opportunity to tighten his personal grasp over the town.

Under the Dome is the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to, at over 34 hours. It took me two-and-a-half months to get through it (admittedly, I was listening to some other stuff in the meantime), and I eventually saved a little time by using the Audible app’s speed adjusting function. The book’s length is particularly surprising when you consider the fact that the timeframe of the story, from beginning to end, is just over a week. Granted, it’s a very eventful week for Chester’s Mill, but the story certainly takes its time, showing you what a host of characters are doing in a particular period. And yet while tackling a book of such length can be daunting, it doesn’t feel too long. Nothing really feels unnecessary; King uses the space efficiently, with everything we see either feeding into a later event, or teaching us something new about the characters.

As I listened to the story, I was frequently predicting where it was going to go, only to be proven wrong. Discussions towards the beginning of how long fuel supplies can last under the dome create the impression that it will become a long-term survival story, while Jim Rennie’s steps towards creating his own personal dictatorship become clearer as time goes on. Yet things just keep cropping up to deflect the story from more predictable paths. The one exception to this is that the dome somehow gives some local children limited prophetic powers, causing them to paint a picture of what the climax has in store; the repetitiveness of these predictions did get a bit wearisome. Even in the aforementioned timeframe, King does a great job detailing the impact of the dome in as many contexts as possible: the environmental effects for the town, how the outside world reacts, and especially what it does to the community. It brings to mind the Second Law of Thermodynamics: in a closed system, all things tend towards entropy.

There are literally dozens of characters to follow, which certainly helps keep the story stimulating. King does so well in making me root for Barbie and his fellow “good guys” that listening felt quite painful a lot of the time, because they have to take a lot of abuse from the more unsavoury customers who are all too happy to thwart their well-meaning plans, usually under the malevolent guiding hand of Big Jim Rennie. It’s been a while since I’ve loathed a character in fiction as much as I did Big Jim. For a couple of King’s other stories, Doctor Sleep and Mr Mercedes, I complained that the villains didn’t have much luck on their side; Rennie, on the other hand, has things going his way more often than not. It would be wrong to call this luck, however, given what a frustratingly competent strategist he is. Raul Esparza, the narrator of the audiobook, gives Rennie a self-satisfied drawl that makes it even easier to hate the guy.

(Warning: spoilers)

Then there’s the revelation of the dome’s purpose, which some might find anticlimactic in the same way as some other Stephen King stories – but personally, I felt it added a fascinating new dimension to the story. Learning that it’s nothing more than a game for some extraterrestrial children, who exist on a level beyond what we can imagine, make everything that happens under the dome feel truly insignificant, the scurryings of ants – and I actually like stories which explore themes like this. For me, such a thing felt more profound than disappointing, and I was satisfied with it.

(Spoilers end)

Under the Dome is comparable to The Stand in many ways, such as its epic length and huge cast of characters. For me, it didn’t quite reach the heights of The Stand, but it certainly came close, and was more than a worthwhile listening experience. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Film review: The Lego Batman Movie


“Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement?”
“No, Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic.”

I have to admit, I thought the original Lego Movie was only okay. I really liked how it brought together so many different characters and how it utilised its Lego foundations, but I didn’t take to the main characters all that much. However, I’ve been really looking forward to The Lego Batman Movie for a while, both for the really great comedy which was on display in the trailers, and – as with the first movie – the mass of characters it was going to use. Plus I love Batman, and a new story built around this more satiric version of him, and the Gotham City he inhabits, looked like it would be worth watching. As it turned out, I wasn’t disappointed.

This particular incarnation of Batman (Will Arnett) revels in how awesome he is, and is strongly opposed to accepting help from, or forming a lasting bond with, anybody – his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is the closest thing he has to a friend. Neither his inadvertent adoption of young Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), nor the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) proposing more direct co-operation between him and the police, hold much attraction for Batman; he will not even acknowledge the Joker (Zach Galifanakis) as his ultimate nemesis, leaving the latter heartbroken. When the Joker abruptly turns himself and every other super-criminal in to the police, Batman is convinced that the Clown Prince of Crime has a trick up his sleeve – the alternative is the terrifying prospect of no crime in Gotham – and resolves to banish the Joker to the Phantom Zone, without considering that this alternate dimension already holds some of the most dangerous villains in all of fiction…

It’s very clear from the beginning that this movie’s tongue is so firmly in its cheek, it should be incapable of speech. After Batman gives a running commentary of the opening logos (“DC – the house that Batman built”), we are treated to an opening sequence that references the 1989 film, The Dark Knight, and even takes a shot at Suicide Squad when Killer Croc activates a bomb and declares “I did something!” This sequence is a classic example of the sheer indulgence that Lego makes possible, as Batman has a massive fight scene with all his major enemies, plus some more obscure ones (right down to the Condiment King). And once the Phantom Zone is opened, a whole bunch of non-Batman characters get thrown into the mix, making this feel just as much like a child’s game as the first movie: “Now Voldemort comes! And the Gremlins! And let’s have Velociraptors too!” It’s so much fun that if your favourite character doesn’t get much screen time – an inevitable consequence of having such a huge cast – you’re not likely to be troubled.

The barrage of jokes is practically constant – there’s some kind of quip or visual gag about every ten seconds on average – and most of them hit the target. The trailers may have given away many of the best jokes, but that’s still a small fraction. The animation and action is excellent; the film is fully aware that it’s taking place in a Lego world, where you can do things like ‘master-build’ using any convenient pieces that come to hand, and doesn’t see any need to explain itself – it’s just a Lego world.

The only thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with was the story itself. As befitting a family film, it’s a moral tale in which Batman, the selfish, solitary jerk who is too afraid to form a real connection with people, has to learn the value of companionship and teamwork and become a nicer guy all round. It’s a nice lesson for kids, but it felt a bit too old and simplistic for me – and I didn’t really care as much as I should have about whether or not Batman learned his lesson. Maybe that was just because it’s Batman, and even though this is meant to be a different – and certainly not serious – incarnation of the character, I’m too used to seeing him remain stoic and brooding no matter what gets thrown at him. I did like how other characters were used, however, such as Barbara Gordon’s role as the competent, responsible and highly practical cop, and the Joker acting as much like Batman’s rejected boyfriend as he’s allowed to in a kids’ movie.

The Lego Batman Movie is a wonderfully indulgent pleasure to watch, with not just a laugh a minute, but several – most audiences should enjoy it, but if you’re already a fan of Batman, you should get a particular kick out of it. Rating: 4/5.

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Ranking the Harry Potter Movies

Tonight, me, Rachel, Jeremy and Abby got together one more time, to bring our Harry Potter film discussion to a close by giving our own rankings of the nine films (the eight in the Harry Potter series, plus Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).

Jeremy and Abby put Fantastic Beasts higher than me or Rachel, and I put Half-Blood Prince higher than everyone else, but overall, our thoughts were quite similar. Frequently, Rachel’s ranking for a film would be one step above mine so we would talk about the same film one after the other!

Check out the video below!

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