Month: June 2014

The Susan Parable

(or Susan has a really bad day when the internet goes down)

This is the story of a woman named Susan.  Susan lives and works in flat number 427, in a big building in Stanley Road.  Susan’s job was simple.  Every day at 9 0’clock she would begin the process of cleaning flat number 427.  She swept and dusted and mopped, as though she had been made exactly for this job.  Then, at midday, she would log in to her computer to browse the net, and check her Facebook, email and twitter.  This was what she did every day of every month of every year.  Susan felt that she was part of a big cyber family, all pressing computerised buttons  –  and Susan was happy.

And then one day something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Susan, something she would never quite forget.

Susan got up as usual and began to clean.  Some would consider this soul rending work but Susan relished every moment.  Then she logged in to her computer and waited for her life to upload.  Nothing happened.  The screen was blank.  No photos from friends and family showing last night’s dinner.  No links to hilarious youtube posts.  No inspirational lifestyle quotes.  The screen remained void, completely empty.  Susan checked the internet connection; the internet was offline.  The phone that she carried everywhere was ominously silent.  She speed dialled a friend but there was no sound, not even voicemail.  She tried the landline, the phone was dead.  She opened a window and was met with eerie silence.  Susan sat staring at the black screen for the longest time – something was very clearly wrong.  She felt shocked, frozen solid, never had she felt such complete isolation.

Eventually Susan got up from her chair, walked down the hallway and came to two doors.  She took the one on her left, the one that led to the kitchen.  She would make herself a cup of tea, that would make her feel better.  Susan reached for the tea bags but then decided she’d have coffee instead.  Immediately she heard a voice inside her head.

‘Susan always drinks tea.  This is because she is an incredibly boring person who never deviates from her achingly dull routine.  Perhaps the shock at not being able to connect to her virtual world had temporarily impaired her cognitive processes, and made her forget that she always drinks tea.  Susan should stop making instant coffee this instant  (childish wordplay – how amusing) and switch back to tea.  She is, however, under the laughable impression that she is in control of her own destiny.  Does Susan even know what they put into those coffee jars?’

This voice sounded very much like an omnipresent male narrator.  Susan decided that, in future, she would definitely not be playing any more ironic, narrator-driven computer games; if this was going to be the result.  Susan also knew that hearing voices was the first sign of madness, and so resolved to ignore the narrator’s smug, supercilious tones.  After all life wasn’t a gigantic computer game was it?  She carried on making the coffee.

Susan sat down at the kitchen table and began to drink her coffee.  She tried to put her thoughts in order.  The voice in her head rudely interrupted her flow.

‘Susan tried to put her thoughts in order.  This was difficult because she happened to be a monumentally stupid person, with a brain the size of one of the coffee beans she was currently drinking.  Moreover, she had ignored a sign mysteriously placed on the kitchen cupboard door.  This clearly stated:

DRINKING COFFEE IS VERY BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH
I’D STICK WITH TEA IF I WAS YOU

 

Susan looked up at the cupboard and sure enough there was the sign.  Was she now hallucinating?   Was there something wrong with this coffee?  Perhaps the jar had been contaminated by a vengeful shop floor employee.  Susan’s thoughts ran wild, but it was too late, her cup was empty.  She looked around and her eyes came to rest on the piano in the adjacent room.  Immediately she felt an overwhelming desire to play.  She walked over to the piano and sat down.  Suddenly she was overcome by existential panic.  Was she real?  Did she exist?  She took a selfie on her mobile phone and the screen remained blank.  If she couldn’t capture herself in digital form, did that mean she wasn’t actually there.  Susan thought about life, the universe and everything.  If she couldn’t post her life to the internet, did that mean she didn’t have a life.  What would happen if she couldn’t sum up her thoughts in a daily 140 character tweet.  Would she continue having thoughts at all.  The annoying voice broke in again:

Susan wondered if her life had any meaning without her various social media platforms however, did she but know it, this was the least of her worries at this present moment in time.  She had chosen to drink coffee, despite an explicit warning not to do so, which had led her to the piano, where she had yet again ignored another mysteriously placed sign.  It clearly stated:

THIS PIANO CONTAINS A NUCLEAR BOMB (YES REALLY)
PRESSING ANY KEY WILL OBLITERATE THE PLANET

 

Susan had ignored this sign because she was used to living her life via her various mobile devices.  She had become incapable of seeing what was right in front of her eyes.’

Susan told the voice what he could do with his ridiculous signs and equally ridiculous end game scenarios, and hit a key on the piano.  Immediately Susan and the house vanished in a vast mushroom cloud of smoke.

******

Susan was sitting at her computer staring at a blank screen.  How long had she been sitting here looking  at nothing?   Suddenly the familiar hum of her PC filled the room.  A message appeared on her screen:

PRESS ANY KEY TO RE-START YOUR LIFE

 

Not this time Susan decided, she wasn’t going to be dictated to by a machine.  She turned off her computer and promptly………….

‘How strange, we appear to have been left hanging in mid-sentence.  I wonder what happened.  Had Susan become a virtual character in her own virtual world?  Did Susan turn off her computer and then vanish, never to be seen again.  She was certainly unable to make a move without recording it for digital posterity.  She appeared to be happy to let life pass her by while she sat staring at an HD screen…………well, you get my drift.  Perhaps she had simply run out of ideas for this obvious Stanley Parable parody.  I fear we may never know the answers to these deeply philosophical questions, and more’s the pity I say.

Now where was I;  but where are my manners?   Dear reader, forgive me, I didn’t see you there.  Shall we break the fourth wall and mull things over together?   Please don’t be concerned that I the omniscient (if I do say so myself) narrator am now speaking directly to you the reader; we’re all friends here.  Do you know, I think Susan was making some kind of meaningless (I do apologise, I meant MEANINGFUL)  comment on the nature of society’s dependence on social media but, on the other hand, do we really care?   Good heavens, is that the time!  I’ve enjoyed our little encounter, I really have, but might I suggest you stop reading this rubbish (someone had to say it) and let’s get back to our lives.  Something absolutely riveting could be occurring on Facebook right this second;  in fact I’m off to check @thenarrator right now – who knows what earth shattering news I’m missing.   It’s time, I think, to end this game.’

 

Wallace and Gromit: Is This The End?

Wallace: Hey up lad, she’s writing an article about us for that internet contraption thingy.

Me: It’s for my blog – Charlie’s Mum’s Blog.

Wallace: Charlie’s Mum’s what?  Are people going to read it on those iPad, mobile phone thingamajigs then – give me a good old fashioned newspaper any day. Hang on a minute, what do you mean come alive? Did you hear that lad, she thinks we’re not real. How am I talking to you then Mrs?

Me: Good point. But you’re a figment of my imagination, for the purpose of this article.

Wallace: Ah figments, very nice biscuits them. Talking of biscuits, fetch us a nice cup of tea Gromit lad will you?

Me: You’re also a figment of Nick Park’s imagination, and he recently said there may not be another Wallace and Gromit film.

Wallace: Ooh crikey! Who’s this Nick Park fellow then?

Me: Put the tea on and I’ll tell you.

Nick Park was born on December 6th 1958 in Preston, Lancashire. I’ll just mention here that Walt Disney was born on December 5th 1901. Of course this would be more remarkable if they’d been born on the same day, but it’s still pretty coincidental don’t you think, oh alright, it’s tenuous I agree. But surely I’m not going to compare Mickey Mouse and the magic kingdom to you and Gromit? No, but I am going to say that Nick Park is probably as important and ground breaking to the British film animation industry, as Disney was in America – he’s just not as cool. And that’s your appeal, you’re simply not cool.

Wallace:  I once turned into a were-rabbit you know, that was pretty cool.  Not as cool as a werewolf I grant you

That’s your main attraction though. You and Gromit take us back to more innocent times; to a land of two up-two downs, tea cosies, doilies on the table, grinning garden gnomes and slippers by the fire. Quintessentially British, your humour ‘nods’ to the comic slapstick of The Beano and Dandy, to the garrulous Norman Evans chatting over the garden wall, even to the quiet, nostalgia of Last of the Summer Wine. And that brings me to Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace.

Wallace: What’s garrulous when it’s at home? Hang on a minute, what do you mean the voice of Wallace? I use my own voice thank you very much.

Me: No, you’re voiced by a very good actor who’s now 93.  

Wallace: Bimey, Well fly me to the moon!

Me: You went remember, back in 1989.

Peter Sallis played Clegg, the philosophical, long suffering character in Last of the Summer Wine. A character very much like Gromit, so it’s rather ironic that Nick Park chose him to voice the over enthusiastic, accident prone Wallace.

Wallace: Who’s she talking to now Gromit, thought she was telling us about this Nick Park fellow.

Me: I’m addressing my readers directly now, so you’ll have to excuse me.

Choosing Sallis (who agreed to do the first short A Grand Day Out for £25, as a favour to a struggling young film student) was a stroke of genius. His dulcet northern tones (Sallis himself is from London) brought Wallace instantly to life, and even went on to shape Wallace’s wide, grinning mouth, after Nick Park heard the first audio.

wallace

Nick Park is nothing if not a stickler for detail. He began work on A Grand Day Out in 1982, whilst studying at the National Film and Television School, and completed it SEVEN years later. Considering that this film lasts just 24 minutes, its completion time demonstrates the attention to detail that Nick Park brings to every project.

He realised, when making this film, that Wallace’s primary characteristic (inventing things) was subconsciously based on his father, who had loved tinkering about in his garden shed. Wallace loves inventing contraptions in the style of W Heath Robinson, and his enthusiasm for building things is matched only by his ability to cock things up, and this is where the faithful Gromit comes in.

In a recent interview Nick Park explained that Gromit began life as a cat. Park however soon realised that ‘sausage’ shapes were easier to mould in plasticine, and the cat became a dog. Gromit was originally going to have a mouth, but Park found this too much work, animation-wise. He found that Gromit could ‘say’ everything just by raising his eyebrows, and a classic character was born.

In 1985 Park was employed by the Aardman Animation Studios in Bristol, after they saw footage of A Grand Day out, and he completed this first W &G short at Aardman. Park also worked on commercials and music videos for Aardman during this time, most notably the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel in 1986, in which Park animated some peculiar headless, featherless, dancing chickens, which were nowhere near as recognisably Nickparkian as the stars of Chicken Run.

Once Park had established his two main characters he was off and running – even if he was off and running very slowly. Fans had to wait years between each film short. A Grand Day Out and Creature Comforts attracted notice in 1989, The Wrong Trousers followed in 1993, A Close Shave in 1995 and A Matter of Loaf and Death in 1998. Because Park’s chosen medium was clay, his short films took a very long time to make, involving hundreds of animators working with multiple sets. Park himself has said that he sometimes becomes tired of his own work, as it can be such a time consuming and frustrating process.

After Wallace and Gromit took off (quite literally when they rocketed to the moon), Nick Park made an equally successful foray into feature films. Chicken Run and Curse of the Were Rabbit enjoyed huge success, as have Nick Park’s many other ventures – Shaun the Sheep, Timmy Time, Wallace and Gromit’s Cracking Contraptions and numerous adverts for TV.

Nick Park has won 4 Oscars, 6 Baftas and numerous other prestigious awards. However he remains an elusive, quirkily British film giant, despite the fact that Wallace and Gromit are seen all over the world. Of his two famous clay characters he most resembles Gromit, the long suffering, hard working, quiet genius behind Wallace’s foolhardy exploits. Their success transcends their humble, clay beginnings. They are iconic; as famous a double act as Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Tom and Jerry or Martin and Lewis. One of the few British entertainment exports capable of conquering the planet, so I raise a nice cup of tea to you Nick Park and, PLEASE, could we have just one more grand day out with Wallace and Gromit.

Me: Well that’s done, what do you think Wallace?

Wallace: Didn’t know that Nick Park fellow was such a big cheese!  That reminds me – pass the Wensleydale Gromit!

(Although Gromit remained silent throughout this entire discussion, he would like it to be known that he is in fact a close friend of Nick Park, he just hasn’t told Wallace)

Candy Crush and Me

I’m stuck on quest level 102. I’ve been stuck on level 102 for seven days (yes, I’m counting.) Quests are for those of us who refuse to play via Facebook – Facebook and Me; now that’s a whole other story. No way am I going to abjectly beg for lives, and wait anxiously for a reply from the Facebook ether. But, Level 102 I hear you cry – Man-up woman! Wait until you reach level 9 squillion and 43.

I suspected things had taken a turn for the worse when the sinister creeping chocolate appeared, and then the deceptively sweet meringue but, no, things have become desperate since the arrival of the TIME BOMB. I hear its ominous ticking in my head (like the approaching crocodile in Peter Pan) even before it actually starts ticking.

Just a few months ago I was a Candy Crush virgin; a novice, an initiate about to be welcomed into King.com’s sweet gaming apps world. I remember those pre-Candy Crush days with fondness (I’ll pause here to gaze wistfully into the distance.) Days when delicious, sweet and tasty referred only to my favourite foods. Days when flying fish (still don’t get the flying fish) meant that my channel surfing had landed on Discovery. Days when a crush (I’m old school) was something you got on your favourite movie star. Those days are gone.

Now I’m a CC junkie, a sweet-toothed addict, out for the next sugar crush high. Waiting for those multi-coloured fish to fly, knowing that only 3 stars will satisfy the craving. I go to sleep with visions of dancing candy before my eyes, and dream I’m following the candy yellow brick road. And those clever software engineers at King.com? They craftily fill your world with primary colours, and reward you with positive feedback via the invisible, almighty Candy Crush King, as you smash those lined up sweets into crunching oblivion.

Well, here I am, stuck again. I’ve used my 5 lives (even cats get 9), and have 30 minutes to kill until the next life appears. Level 102 involves meringues, liquorice, time bombs, an impossibly high score and very few moves; and it’s currently laughing right in my face. A coloured bomb appears and feels like a gift from on high, but goes on to do sweet FA. I match up four candies to get a striped one, and even mix two striped ones together, and still NOTHING. But I know how those devilish minds work at King.com. I’ll keep on playing, and I’ll keep on waiting for those precious lives, then suddenly there’ll be coloured bombs all over the place, and those stripey humbug things will pop up from nowhere, and I’ll have cleared the board in 3 moves, with no idea how I did it. But who cares, the Pavlovian reward system and I will be close friends, I’ll be savouring the taste of victory and……….hang on a second, my 30 minutes are up.

Dralion, Cirque Du Soleil – A Review

Question: – What would you get if you crossed the mythical Chinese dragon and lion?

Answer:    – A Dralion! (there are no trick questions here.)

Question: – What do you get when you combine song, dance, mime, aerial acrobatics and an accompanying soundtrack that could blow your ears off?

Answer :   – The Cirque du Soleil, or Cirque du So-loud (which is what I’ve just re-named them.)

This energetic, vibrant and colourful crowd pleaser appeared at the O2 between 4th– 8th June, which means, if you’re reading this review and didn’t book a ticket, then you just missed out on a show which is a true theatrical spectacle.

In Dralion, Cirque du Soleil incorporate ancient Chinese circus tradition into a more avant-garde, almost big top style format. Maintaining the company’s street entertainer roots in Quebec 30 years ago, Dralion opens with a trio who provide comic relief (and I use the word ‘comic’ loosely here) between the gymnastic shenanigans that make up the show. Think the three stooges, without the violence, or a trio of circus clowns, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of their act.

The elder statesman of the three enters the arena ,without any introduction, to provide a bit of audience warm-up, and then the rest of his little troupe appears, intent on wreaking havoc in the audience – this included polishing a bald man’s head in the front row, and ‘marrying’ a young girl, who happened to be sitting right next to yours truly, then walking her down the auditorium ‘aisle’, whilst audience members threw handfuls of confetti, in what was probably the least weird part of their act.

Audience participation was an integral part of this act, but it soon became clear that one unfortunate audience member, who became the butt of all their jokes, was clearly ‘in on the act’, however this didn’t detract from his entertainment value. In homage to middle aged men everywhere, they also performed what can only be described as the ‘dance of the pot bellies’, ending in the unfortunate demise of one of the trio. Even if you were there, this was as surreal as it sounds.

The acrobatic show that we’d all come to see began in a deafening explosion of music, light and colour. The circus tent, that had draped the rear of the stage, was raised to reveal a massive, metallic, curved wall which served as an acrobatic prop and multi-level stage. The musicians, seated beneath this wall, took their inspiration from Africa, the Middle East, China and India to produce a stunning soundtrack, which successfully fused ethnic style music with Western pop-rock. If this music isn’t available to download, then it should be.

Dralion is a show for our environmentally conscious, multi-ethnic age. The planet is here represented by its four elements – earth, water, air and fire. This makes for stunningly colourful costumes, in ochre (earth), blue (air), green (water) and red (fire), and each earth element has its own segment in the show. We were held enthralled by African tribal drums, Chinese dragons and Lions prancing round the stage and balancing on giant rubber balls, a juggler who somehow managed to break dance at the same time, a woman falling from the roof held only by blue cascading ribbons of cloth, and a man rapidly circling the stage inside two interlocking hoops.

The cast members of Cirque du Soleil proved that human beings are as capable of producing awe-inspiring ‘special effects’ as any mainframe computer. The Cirque du Soleil gymnasts climbed walls like Spiderman and flew through the air like Superman.  They spun themselves around in large metallic rings and balanced on one hand, whilst contorting into positions that should be impossible.

As a Cirque du Soleil novice, watching their brand of surreal, comically grotesque, acrobatic mayhem; I’d not hesitate to recommend seeing their show the next time they visit the UK (just take a couple of ear plugs – you have been warned.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past Review

Somewhere, in an alternate MARVEL universe, the fate of mankind rests in the hands of Patrick Stewart (the bald one from Star Trek) and Ian McKellan (the not so bald one from Lord of the Rings.) Unless they can prevent Jennifer Lawrence (here reprising her role as a very large smurf) from killing that nice little bloke from Game of Thrones, then the world will end as we know it – if the world you know involves kick-assing smurfs and mutant dudes that is. If this sounds like your psychedelic cup of tea (and it’s now mine), then go watch X Men Days of Future Past (or X Men Back to the Future, as I like to call it) NOW, and if you’ve already seen it, go see it again NOW. Where else, except in your wildest, nerdiest dreams, can you get to see your heroes from four major film/TV franchises in one place – Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Comic book fans may have just died and gone to nerdy heaven.

Following on from its predecessor (X Men First Class), this movie maintains the nostalgia theme by revisiting the 1970s (1973 to be exact), and what a feast of psychedelia it is – there’s nothing more hallucinatory than seeing the X Men and President Nixon share the same screen. Bryan Singer continues the ‘spaced out’ theme by using a lava lamp – yes, a lava lamp (in what may be a cinematic first) – as a segue from the future into the past (it worked for me.)

We begin with Patrick Stewart (Xavier) setting the scene, as that commanding, baritone voice informs us that the X Men’s future is one filled with dread, as they fight their nemesis the Sentinels. This future is a predominantly dark and hopeless place, where various new (and old) X Men jump in and out of time warping holes to escape the giant, robotic, shape-shifting Sentinels. It’s a relief therefore when we ourselves time-warp back to the decade that gave us long hair, flared trousers, and men in flowery shirts to find (as in X Men First Class)that Patrick Stewart has morphed into James McAvoy, and Ian McKellan has morphed into Michael Fassbender – I don’t think we could ask for anything more.

Hugh Jackman’s saturnine Wolverine is tasked with going back to the 70s (with the help of Kitty Pryde) to find the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (then sworn enemies), and attempt to bring them together so they can stop Raven (aka Mystique) from killing Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels – are you following me so far? Trask has been performing dastardly, Nazi-type experiments on mutants, in order to create his Sentinels, and this knowledge motivates Raven’s desire to kill him. However, his assassination will set off a chain of events which will lead to the final days of the X Men.

Meanwhile, back in 1973, Professor Xavier is an alcoholic, drug addled, long haired recluse, whose dreams of an X Men school have been shattered by the onset of the Vietnam war, as most of his students have been called up. He has also lost Raven, the most important person in his life, and harbours a hatred for his erstwhile chum Magneto. Magneto is also down on his luck, very far down actually, being secured in a concrete pit deep beneath the Pentagon (accused of killing JFK apparently – the bullet curved!) – just go with it, it’s as good as any other conspiracy theory.

Wolverine’s first task is to get Xavier off the booze and then free Magneto from his impenetrable cell. This makes way for the showcase segment in the film, at the same time introducing us to Quicksilver (a scene stealing performance from Evan Peters.) Quicksilver is a little known X Man, with the ability to move at what looks like the speed of light. Quicksilver’s vanishing tricks enable our X Men to get past Pentagon security to whisk Magneto from the building, but not before a scene of special effects awesomeness take place, in which Quicksilver runs rings (literally) around everyone in a Pentagon kitchen. It has become a cinematic trope to juxtapose scenes of intense action with emotionally poignant and lyrical music, and Bryan Singer gives us a surprising and very effective example of this, as Quicksilver plays out his Slo-Mo antics to Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle – a lesson in how music choice can completely change the resonance of a scene.

Anyway, this psychedelic cornucopia of a movie brims over with special effects coolness, thanks to the wonderful talents in the VFX world, and also brims over with acting talent, with a prestigious cast rarely brought together on the same screen. James McAvoy never disappoints. Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellan bring Shakespearean gravitas to the fantastical Marvel world, while Jennifer Lawrence provides effective eye candy for teenage boys (and probably a few grown men.) That’s not to diminish her role in this film – the dream-like airport sequence, where Xavier talks to Raven remotely, using various waiting passengers , is another highlight.

If you’re new to the X Men movie franchise (as this reviewer was) then worry not. This film stands alone as an enjoyable, rollercoaster ride, with no prior knowledge of characters, or their back story, required.

Let’s not forget the gifted Peter Dinklage in the role of Trask. The irony was not lost on this viewer that, whilst Trask is out to kill all mutants, he himself is also ‘different’, and also in possession of extraordinary talents. And I think that’s the message we can take away from the X Men universe. We’re all different to some degree, and how we choose to live with those differences is what defines us, for good or bad. Our differences are what make us unique, and the cast and crew on this film more than succeeded in making this movie-going experience, for this movie-goer, unique.