Sunday, 30 December 2012

Story: 'Yoghurt Vat Kids: New Heroes for the Probiotic Age!', I

They thought every permutation of superhero had been done, from Bananaman to the Fonzz, but they were wrong. Somewhere under Paris, a brainstorming session took place, one that would change us all forever.


Some weeks later toys began to appear in supermarkets, little figures in half-pot yoghurt cases: Strawb, Lem, Pina, Peachie and Squash. The Five of them together were apparently the Yoghurt Vat Kids! The back story went as thus:
"Apparently the results of illegal cloning experiments that took place behind a dairy company front, each of the Kids had a special yoghurt power, that they would use to defend liberty and embrace justice in the Probiotic Age! Armed with their gifts, and well developed intestinal fortitude, they would face down the horrors of evil restaurateurs and their nemesis Captain Moustache while plumbing the mysteries of their own existence."

People were amused and even a little tickled by the preposterousness of the idea, thinking it a blatant ripoff of the existing Power Rangers concept but little did they know what those brainstormers in Paris, those cads Jean-Pierre Grimaud, Stanley Tedwin and Ernst Lopner, had really in mind. Soon, and inevitably, a cartoon emerged onto screens all over the world, which predictably lasted less than a full season before vanishing off screens in a rush. It seemed the Yoghurt Vat Kids had failed.


Two years after the last episode of the Kids premiered in North America there was a sighting of a mysterious incident in Madrid. A man with a strawberry patch on his sleeve was seen plummeting from the Heavens and subsequently breaking up a mugging before soaring back to his unknown horizon. The following week, a woman emblazoned with the Squash was seen in Copenhagen emerging from the water with a young child that would otherwise have drowned. What was going on?

No one drew connections with 'Yoghurt Vat Kids' for a few months, after numerous sightings of all five heroes and even a sixth with the badge of the banana. People were concerned, feathers were ruffled, and dairies were looked at as suspiciously thereafter as they should have been before. People began to have conversations about the 'Probiotic Age' and what it might mean in the world as they knew it. Finally, a threat to the world emerged that only the Yoghurt Vat Kids could confront as a group. It did not involve a comedically moustached Swiss maniac, but it would raise questions that would last for years to come.

Most of all those questions? 'Why are the Yoghurt Vat Kids'?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Merry Christmas

Christmas is a confusing and somewhat confounding time of year for the professed agnostic. What exactly are we celebrating and what are we anticipating? It's best just to let it all drop away and enjoy the fact that it's a holiday. Meaning is only meaning if it's relevant to us. Otherwise it's just a trapping. Woo woo. New Year, on the other hand, is an even odder occasion. It's such an arbitrary date to cycle the calendar but we celebrate it nonetheless, and in far more varied ways. While we are stuck with the dull traditional roast lunch on Christmas Day we are liberated for New Year and it is wonderful. We can eat anything!

<Thinks for six hours>

Oh, I forgot and it's a little late, but here we go: Merry Christmas! We had some fun here over Christmas, with water coming through the roof and busted heating but all is well now. It must be well as I'm watching 'Quincy, M.E.' and remembering just how good that show was. Jeepers, between it and 'Columbo' there's no need to ever watch another detective show. The 70's were a good decade after all for television. There were those two shows, and 'The Bionic Woman', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'M*A*S*H', 'The Muppet Show', 'Taxi' and more.

As you may have noticed I know a lot about American television. It was a haven for me and remains so, a space where we can learn about human nature on some level. As a fully functional Trek Head I watched all of the first three 'Star Trek' series, as well as the shows I've already named, 'Cheers', 'Frasier', 'Alias', 'Community' and a host of other bizarre concoctions and even domestic British television. Yikes. And then were all the books... Oh, why ramble on about all this?

Looking back on Christmas Day I should mention the 'Doctor Who' Christmas special, entitled 'The Snowmen'. It was far better than I expected, and the new companion Clara was rather fetching and intriguing especially as she has now appeared and expired twice. Interesting! The previous companions really lingered on for too long, as in retrospect they had a perfect write-out at the end of series six and their leaving was foreshadowed relentlessly. Also, it seems that the foreshadowing of the eleventh Doctor's end have been dropped for now, which is welcome. Why foreshadow departures every single time? It spoils the surprise and wrecks the mood way ahead of time.

Back to sleep now. Snore.


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Movie: 'Safety Not Guaranteed' (2012)

Now, there are three movies that I watched for the first time in 2012 that I liked so much that I immediately decided I should buy when the opportunity came: 'The Lonely Guy' of 1984, 'Fish Story' of 2009 and 'Safety Not Guaranteed' of 2012. That last one I haven't written about until now. It's a largely unknown little gem of an independent movie that has captured me by a net of many little ways. It's opening to some kind of release here in the UK apparently so I'll try not to spoil it with details and encourage people to go see it if they are lucky enough to have a screen near them! It's a sweet movie, good and solid, and it features a zither.

Down in the film's story, a Seattle magazine intern called Darius and her two colleagues go to a small town to investigate the person who put the following small ad in a newspaper:
"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

Darius is played by the super-cute Aubrey Plaza who appears in 'Parks and Recreation', and in whom I've had a minor league crush, secure in the knowledge that I'll never have to beat it over the head with reality. I mention that simply to explain any bias that may be apparent. Plaza does well, playing her usual offbeat self, and not leaning into any attempts at heavy acting. It would be interesting to see how her acting demeanour differentiates from what she puts forward as a standup. I imagine it's not too different. Oh, and of course she's lovely in her own unique way, says the bias leaning on my shoulder.

Darius's associates Jeff and Arnau have their own subplots, mainly based on Jeff's quest to meet a long lost flame and impress upon the youthful Arnau the importance of acting young while you are still young. They have a very touching little story but the horrifically foul mouth of Jeff really put me off, which I know is a personal problem rather than a film problem, although as he's practically the only swearer in the movie he really breaks the tone. Perhaps that IS a film problem. Comment below if you have an opinion!

The key to enjoying this movie is holding the idea of a fable in your mind, especially as you approach the finale. In a tiny budget time travel movie you will make compromises. and the time machine here is no exception but I love it. No one knows what a time machine will look like, so why not like this? Seriously? And what does time travel look like? We don't know. Rather this than what they do in 'Looper', where it looks like nothing at all.

Pulling it all together, I will recommend 'Safety Not Guaranteed', and not just because I like Aubrey Plaza. There's something charming about it, a sense of fun that pops up so rarely and should always be savoured. The ending is actually, literally, lovely in an understated fashion and unusually fantastic. On the negative side we have some plot implausibilities, Jeff's lonely arc of melancholy, and some blue sky acting which I personally like. If you tend not to buy into sappy finales then this may not be the film for you but if you can... then watch 'Safety Not Guaranteed'. People can argue that it's not a great movie, but personally I like it very much.

Oh, and I'll say again: There is a zither! That's only my second zither encounter after the music for 'The Third Man'. And Aubrey Plaza does her thing. Sweet but lethal.


Monday, 24 December 2012


A cursory reading of my blog has revealed numerous and egregious errors both typographical and nonsensical. Over the next few days I shall revise as many posts as possible to make them more readable, while hopefully not damaging their essences to any great extent. I apologise for the lack of proficient proofreading in the past.


Book: 'Ringworld' (1970)

This is a story about a man. No, it's a story about a giant ring habitat hundreds of light years away. Maybe not, maybe it is about a woman with extraordinary luck. Oh well, maybe its a story about how flawed the Ringworld is because it has no surplus resources and can only allow stasis or decline on a civilization scale. Urk. Well it could be about how we're not human until we've suffered a bit. Whatever else you can say about Larry Niven's 'Ringworld', you can't say it lacks multiple focusses in its narrative. In fact there are too many, resulting in a lack of focus in the narrative once we've landed on the Ringworld, and that narrative becomes even more diffuse once you include the standard science fiction writer's fixation with human sexuality. I think that back in the sixties and seventies there were hordes of science fiction writers just wandering around in a state of monomania. It's bizarre and incongruous and presumably existed to underline that these books were not for children. Anyway, so we have a lack of focus once we land on the eponymous Ringworld. But what is a Ringworld, who are our characters, and what is driving the plot?

In the far future the invention of teleportation, an instantaneous and ubiquitous form of travel, has rendered the Earth culturally and racially homogeneous. Contact with alien life form has been mostly with warlike and feline Kzin and the eccentric double-headed birdlike Pierson's Puppeteers. The human homogeneity and the advent of longevity-giving boosterspice have made it easier for many and harder for some as the boredom of immortality settles upon them. Our protagonist, one Louis Wu, is such a bored adventurer and is recruited by a Mad Puppeteer along with a Kzin and a genetically lucky companion to go forth and investigate a massive artefact outside of known space. The story is about their recruitment, journey, crash, exploration and ultimately the escape.

So, the idea is great and epic, and the concept of the massive artificial Ringworld is awesome in its scope but the story fails once we get there. Why is that? It must be due to the lack of focus, and the fact that not a lot of interest happens on the Ringworld itself. There's much philosophy and sociological commentary but that can only serve to counterpoint a faster and compelling narrative, which does not exist here. There's some half-hearted romance, which serves mainly to underline how the character with genetically engineered luck has been unconsciously manipulating her companions, but it is fairly nominal. In fact, the revelation that her luck has motivated practically the whole adventure for her own self-improvement totally undermines all the other characters and destroys the finale. The final point of the triangle of disappointment is that the exploration of the Ringworld is rather dull.

What is a Ringworld? It's a massive artificial structure, a ring built around a sun with a radius of presumably about an astronomical unit (AU = average distance from Earth to Sun) which is intended for habitation. It's a variation on a Dyson Sphere, where you would build a whole sphere around a sun and live on the inside surface. They're awesome ideas but ultimately abstractions which may never exist in reality. Such a ring would have the surface area equivalent to many dozens or even hundreds of Earths. It would also have no mineral treasure to allow further development or building and would be dependent on imported minerals for such purposes. It would also require the builders to totally clean out their solar system (and neighbours) of all material for the building and even then would be a huge target for meteors. Note, you can't have a Dyson Sphere or a Ringworld without some plan for dealing with meteors and comets.

Now, I've been a bit negative as I tend to be at times. It's not that bad a classic science fiction novel. In many ways it's actually rather good. The narrative simply becomes a bit disappointing and that's sad. Also, dissension is wrought between the characters as that story goes on and it's never resolved well. The main plus is that does have a massive Ringworld outside of known space and a cowardly manic depressive bird thing with two heads. I guess we can call that an even result. Go ahead and read 'Ringworld', it's not brilliant but it's kind of good in an odd way. For brilliance, always read 'Gateway' instead.


Television: James May's Toy Stories, "Flight Club"

I must admit that I cried during this television programme. It was excellent, heart-warming and inspirational. The original series was wonderful but this special was even better. What am I talking about? Essentially I'm talking about toys and James May. Not just any toys but real toys. The toys you had to partly make yourself, and then test, and then maybe modify or plain destroy and try again. What can realistically be done with such toys on a large scale? In the original series they made a real house out of Lego, a 23 metre bridge out of Meccano, a garden out of plasticene, a full scale Airfix Spitfire, a replica of Brooklands race track from Scalextric and a 60km model railway from Barnstaple to Bideford. The train set episode was an awesome spectacle and my personal favourite but now it has an equal in something very special.

Suppose that you used to like to play with homemade gliders, paper planes, or just about anything that flew. Somewhere deep inside there was an wondrous sense of achievement at getting your construction down to the end of the garden from an upstairs window. You could always wonder, however, how much a better achievement you could accomplish if you could only get a little bit higher for the launch. What if you could scale up your model and launch it from thousands of feet in the air? How far could you get it to go then? As always with 'Toy Stories', James the awesome man-child, starts from a lofty idealistic premise of crossing the English Channel and, after some necessary compromises, manages to get his glider to cross a twenty two mile distance.

Now, you may think this is all rather childish, and from a certain point of view I might agree but in general I don't. It's uplifting. These toys, which have been largely forgotten in the last few decades, are some of the best ever to be produced and have been upstaged only by flashing lights and plastics with no scope for creativity at all apart from some fleeting enjoyable role play. There's something infectious in the idea of building the things you're going to be playing with, or even in the fact that the building is the playing, and it so rarely happens any more. I never made a model plane, although there were many many paper planes, but I was mesmerised by the soaring glider as it made its spectacular record-breaking flight, by the palpable joy of the following helicopter pilot and crew, and by James himself and the people who helped him in the doing. Oh, and by the way, the glider made it. I won't tell you where it made it to, as that would be a spoiler, but it did make it.

The key to it all is James May, the nice one from the 'Top Gear' crew, the one you think is pretending the least. James May, the man you'd actually like to have a chat with, and the man who gets all the unfair treatment from the Top Gear 'Other Two'. James May is the key to this whole show, as he really cares about these projects. It would have been easy to make a second series and milk it a bit more with some half-hearted projects but they didn't. They waited for something they could care about and get behind, and that James specifically could talk about with the emotion he has. Everything that works in this is allowed to work by his presence. He facilitates great television, and that's why I cried as an oversized model glider soared more than twenty miles across open water at vertigo-inducing heights, and then circled as it lost height for its landing, and finally did land. Contrary to outdated thought it is manly to cry, especially after such achievement.

Well done to James and all the people who made it possible. Please don't spoil 'Toy Stories' with half-hearted future specials. Do what you've done so far and wait and see if there's something you burn to do and then do it.


(Program broadcast on 23 December 2012, at 2130, on BBC Two. Long live the BBC!)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Torching the peach (revised)

What does it mean to 'torch the peach'? Well, as coined recently in a recent Film Bin commentary, to torch the peach is to explain something via a tortured physical analogy with an overly demonstrative finale. "Now, this peach is the world and this flame thrower is the sun. See what happens when we turn off the electromagnetic shield?" Ouch. A necessary component to any scene where the peach is torched is an absence of due subtlety. True peach torching is rare but it does exist. Any examples outside of the movie which may not be named due to prior agreement will be welcome in the comment section below!

Here in deepest South Wales, the Christmas fortnight has begun with rain, rain and more rain. Ah, there's nothing like predictability to soothe the soul. The one thing you can say about Wales is that it's consistently wet. Wetter than anywhere except a jungle or Ireland. Nothing is wetter than a jungle IN Ireland, and that now forms the ultimate example of wetness. A ten on the Oliver Bain wetness scale is now Cork Swamp, home of their world famous tapioca refinery and pogo stick race course.

Ah, best get back on topic before the nonsense takes over. Where were we? Christmas! That's right, I wish a Merry Christmas for all! And a hat for everyone! With that merriment done, it's time to think of what there is to do for an agnostic/atheist with no real attachment to the ceremony of it all? Well, as mentioned previously we can celebrate the renewal of the seasons and be pagan. Hello, pagans! Seriously though, that renewal is the psychological event of the season and something tangible to celebrate. That does raise the interesting idea of what to think about in mid-Summer? As daylight becomes less plentiful do we celebrate seasonal death of all? Yay? It's a confusing time. If I behave festively am I a hypocrite? If I do not then am I necessarily a curmudgeon? There is no winning, so the festive losing choice is surely superior.

Over the next week or so I'm anticipating a massive increase in my reading and watching of things, as well as the writing thereof. You can expect articles on some of the following books

'Timeline' by Michael Crichton,
'Red Harvest' by Dashiell Hammett,
'Whose Body?' by Dorothy L Sayers,
'Master And Commander' by Patrick O'Brian,

and some of these movies too

'The Philadelphia Story',
'Green Card',
'Safety Not Guaranteed'.

All of this will be dependent real work being done. Mathematics is the primary concern, as always. Maths, maths, maths. Well done everyone. We made it through a whole post without torching the peach. Coming soon: News on the Film Bin Sting Project!


Thursday, 20 December 2012

'Yes... but what if we could'

How many things become possible if we could but utter the words 'Yes, but what if we could.'? How many previously locked down hearts and minds become ever so slightly more open to the world of possibility? 'The Core' has a number of nice quotes amidst the cheesy dialogue and this is the one with the best line reading. Well done, actor known as Tucci. I'm going to try and not mention 'The Core' for a long long time now. And 'Fish Story' too should really go not talked about for a while! Gosh, 'Fish Story' was good...

Excuse me a moment while I fend off the frenzied Clomp. He was sprayed with some soap and went into a berserk rage. <Pause. Changes curtains. Removes all the molten marzipan.>

As we approach the end of the Mayan long calendar, which so many people interpret as the end of the world rather than as the end of an era, it's a good time to consider the power of possibility. There are so many problems in the world, apparently intractable, and so many challenges that it seems to be impossible that any of us could affect a positive difference in any way. But what if we could? What if there could be tranquillity in the Middle East, food for all of the world, exploration beyond the stars and time for all to be fulfilled. Wouldn't it be nice? The task therefore seems to be not to fix the problems but to allow people to think it's possible we could. Just that smallest hope would be enough for it all to happen. Kennedy said we would go to the Moon and we did.

<"Bah, I scoff at your naivete!" BOOF! "And I don't like liquorice!">

Sigh. If only the world believed it could be better then it could happen. Education is the key and it's not happening. Maybe the end of Mayan world will cause a change of some kind.

Looking back and looking forward there is much happening. In the next few days Christmas will happen. Even in my atheistic state I do appreciate it as an event, backing up the Solstice as it does. Black Month can be declared over with the advent of tomorrow and daylight shall increase once more. The annual cycle shall be renewed. That's what the Mayan calendar was really about. A long, long cycle that would eventually renew in the creation of a new world, a world unrecognisable from that at the beginning of the cycle. Their world is dead now, and ours shall be when next the Mayan long calendar recycles. I have waxed philosophical and now shall wane.

Bad things happen. People destroy buildings full of people. Planes are hijacked and brought down. Mass murders happen in schools. People say these are unsolvable problems and that we can't prevent such things from happening. Well, yes... but what if we could?


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Movie: 'Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World' (2003)

This movie is directed by Peter Weir, and Peter Weir makes good movies. He is almost unimpeachable. My favourite moment in 'Master and Commander' involves a weevil and a particularly cheesy joke but the actors and the movie itself sell it so that it becomes awesome. We can say the same about the movie overall. There are problems with it, there are always problems, but it pulls off a feat I wouldn't have thought possible and it must come down to Peter Weir ultimately, and to Russell Crowe.

This film is loosely based on two of the novels in the legendary series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, centred on Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin and their adventures during the Napoleonic wars. To make the movie they've condensed down the two novels ('Master and Commander' and 'Far Side Of The World') into a solid adventure movie, perhaps a definitive adventure movie, cutting out the dirtier and gritter and muck encrusted bits. It's really up there with Star Trek II as an iconic seafaring movie, with Russell Crowe providing the dynamism and the essential thinking manly man performance of his career. He holds in his ebullience and really makes the character his own confection.

So, what's this film about? Well, it's about a number of things. First, HMS Surprize is on a mission to stop a French man'o'war steaming toward South America. Second, Jack is having some problems with friend Stephen who has signed on as an overqualified surgeon to see the world as a naturalist. Third, a midshipman called Hollam is having problems proving himself. Fourth, the Surprize may be jinxed. Fifth and finally, Jack and Stephen play string duets when there's nothing else happening, on violin and cello. The music is wonderful, and fits intrinsically into the mood of the movie, and perhaps illustrates how hard it is to describe this epic beast of a film. Without Russell Crowe it would be an elaborate tapestry but with him it's an epic beast and deservedly so, balancing practically every aspect of every story and managing to avoid melodrama almost all the time.

The second lead is Paul Bettany as Stephen, solidly pulling off a sometimes petulant role with some gravitas and charm. The supporting cast is incredibly dense with people you think you've seen in a thousand other places. The child midshipmen are as good as can be expected, while the story of doomed Hollam is handled tenderly. I can only presume that the suicide in 'Dead Poets Society' is handled as well, that being another famous movie of Weir's. Gosh, it's hard to categorise Peter Weir movies, they're just one-offs. 'The Truman Show', 'Dead Poets Society', 'Witness', 'Master And Commander', 'Green Card' and probably others don't fit in boxes. Isn't that wonderful?

Getting back to the movie, it's a bit long. I like long movies but if you like movies where a lot happens quickly then maybe it's not for you. The trick at the end that allows Jack to win is not particularly original but what would be? Would officers do such a dishonest thing to win a sea battle? I have no idea. Ultimately it doesn't matter as the movie signs off in the best way possible: In the middle of a new chase. If I made movies, lots of them would start in the middle of action and finish at the beginning of a new caper that we will never see. That is exactly right. That's life. We don't need things set up and explained, by humbug!

There was never a sequel to this film, and if I switch to movie studio mentality I can see why. It cost $150,000,000 and only (any profit is good to me!) grossed $212,000,000 according to Wikipedia. Now to me that's a massive profit but studios aren't people and they really don't understand adventure movies. Studios like cheap comedies and popcorn effects movies and they won't make anything else now. Nothing. Long gone are the '80s where they'd make a horde of mid-budget movies and see what stuck to the wall in the aftermath while making an overall profit. It was cynical then and it is cynical now but in a different way. There is no sequel because they don't get a movie with no bad language, no women and very little violence. I on the other hand adore it for being different, while reminding myself to feel a little bad for being a prude. I would have loved two of three more movies. There were eighteen books still left over!

It's a good movie and I haven't articulated myself well. A good adventure movie, with lots of shipboard dramas, naturalism on the Galapagos Islands, some self-surgery, and string music. It's kind of the way movies should be.


Monday, 17 December 2012

Story: 'Spikes'

Spikes is the mutant cactus currently spectating from the back of the garden. On occasion he jumps forward and tries to get into the kitchen and raid the fridge but we've developed a security system to counter him, which involves tripwires and several low-intensity lasers. Why would we want to hurt Spikes? He's been really nice on several occasions and even drives away the beastly dogs next door!

When Spikes first arrived we were confused and a little perplexed at how an ambulatory cactus monster could have arrived in our garden in South Wales, in the midst of an icy winter, and why he (we use 'he') would stay. As it turns out Spikes is an exile from Bristol Arboretum and we could nothing else about his... peculiarities. I guess it might be something to do with Clomp von Clomp but the little blue menace is remaining silent.

Spikes seems to like the greenhouse, which is understandable, but he also likes the dried up pond feature and lurks behind a bush when feeling modest. He's a nice cactus and he is very hard to anger. When the little dogs breach our boundaries he stands fully upright and plants himself firmly in the ground. His points bristle and the dogs jerk to stillness akin to statues. If they don't bolt, Spikes flexes his forks and leans forward in his most fearsome manner and then the little dogs race away.

In the winter, and indeed it is winter now, Spikes gets a bit brittle and hides in the deeper recesses of the garden or in the greenhouse. Sometimes our dog Tess gets uppity and barks but she seems to have a soft spot for the gangly succulent. When first he moved in to the garden, before we tried the exorcism or called in MUTT labs, she used to run away at his slightest approach but now she'll happily lounge in his shadow. The day that Spikes arrived was in early spring a small number of years ago. My sister had recently moved out and I was staring vacantly out of the kitchen window into the back garden. After an eternity of false nostalgia I returned to myself and realised a strange figure covered in canvas bags was shuffling behind the shed. Extracting a rusty putter from the wardrobe I quietly shuffled up the garden in my slippers and whooped in an attempt to scare off the figure. It went very very still.

Brandishing the putter I warned off the canvassed figure but nothing happened. Then I poked it and still nothing happened although I noticed it was very solid. Finally I lifted a bit of canvas with the metal part of the club. There was green beneath. Spikey green. I lifted it more. And more. Apparently we had acquired a cactus? Yes, Spikes had arrived, and right now he's doing a little dance as I type.

What a dopey mutant cactus he is.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Lots of books

On my shelves there are a large number of books. So many that it took a very very long time to make a list of them all. As time goes by I'm building a virtual listing on LibraryThing, which I'm beginning to rather like. Go, LibraryThing!

I've been thinking a lot about Sherlock Holmes. It seems like the very best performances as Sherlock Holmes have been by people who fit both a performance and an image to the role. Well, that's always true, isn't it? Arguably the best Sherlock Holmes for me was on radio, in the BBC Radio 4 dramatisations where Clive Merrison nailed his performance on every single one of the fifty six Conan Doyle stories. They adapted, and faithfully, the whole canon and even made Watson interesting via the awesome performance of Michael Williams. Great. The other most notable performance for me is from Benedict Cumberbatch, who excels despite occasionally shoddy scripts (I'm looking at you, Gatiss). It seems as if the quest to make a good Sherlock Holmes movie is an ongoing one, and with it there's the quest to find someone to fit the visual on the big screen. Honourable mentions go to Nicol Williamson in 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' and Christopher Plummer in 'Murder By Decree' but they're both only ninety-per-cent right, and limited by the movies they're appearing in. Basil Rathbone did well but never seemed to inhabit the role and I won't even mention Robert Downey junior. Robert Stephens gave a very creditable performance in an ironic movie. It's a topic I'll return to many times, I believe, as I love Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and for the record, I didn't like Jeremy Brett on television much if at all. Throw your fruit through the screen now.

Looking ahead, and in response to all the media I've been getting through, it looks as if I'll be writing about the following things in the near future: 'Master and Commander' (film), 'Safety Not Guaranteed' (film), 'Timeline' (book), 'Ringworld' (book) and maybe even writing some stories. It should be fun!

Wrapping up, I can report that the next Film Bin Commentary, see FilmBin, will be for 'The Core'. This epic of questionable quality has long been one of my popcorn favourites and hopefully we'll give it a good examination. Yes the science may be dodgy, and yes some of the dialogue is corny beyond belief but we will be recording tomorrow for fairly prompt publishing. It shall be fun. It was kind of nice to have a corny science fiction movie that wasn't from the 1980's.

'propinquity: the fact of being near to someone or something, or closely related to or very much like someone'

Probably I like 'The Core' for its propinquity with who I am. That's why I liked 'The Last Starfighter', 'Explorers' but not 'The Goonies', 'Independence Day' and of course 'The West Wing'. Oh, the 'West Wing'! Can it really have been so many entries without even a mention of 'The West Wing'! Who's my totem character? Toby of course! I love 'The West Wing'! Right, that's it, the next post will be on Toby.


Friday, 14 December 2012


I graduated yesterday! Hats were flung (by other people) and I even made it across the stage in good order. Actually cocky walks across stages are becoming a speciality of mine. For the people curious to see what a nerdy mathematician looks like, see Twitpic. Yes, that person managed to finish a doctorate in Mathematics! Really!

It was a good trip. Squeezing two five hour legs of car travel into two days is a pretty hard thing and my parents and I are all pretty exhausted but I have the certificate and it's never being taken away. It's mine!

Now, one of the most interesting thing about the Graduation trip was the reading I did. I read 'The Thin Man' over the car trip and even a portion of 'Timeline' and the contrast between the two is amazing. The quality of the writing of Hammett is so far above the pulpiness of Crichton that they shouldn't even be in the same medium. I'll write more about them both in coming days but it is surely time to champion Dashiell Hammett again. For every garland Raymond Chandler received, Hammett should have gotten ten but it never happened. He had Communist sympathies allegedly and it was not a good time to believe in anything.

Everyone should go read the complete novels of Dashiell Hammett. Come back when you're done. Trust me, you won't regret it, especially 'The Glass Key'. Despite a previous bad start I've picked up Larry Niven's 'Ringworld' and started another go at that too. Lots of reading.

It's nice to graduate. This is probably the first time that I've truly felt the PhD was over and that it is time to move on to the next thing. There are so many false endings to a doctorate: First submission, viva, and final submission. There is nothing after graduation. It must be over.

<Oliver departs, smiling>


Monday, 10 December 2012

Book: 'The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher' (2008)

When is a hawk like a handsaw? When is a murder really a murder? And how can it be that some secrets go the grave with their keepers? Some of these questions are relevant to this book, which has the alternative title of 'The Murder At Road Hill House'. In 1860 a child was murdered, bloodily, and the culprit not satisfactorily detected although his half-sister and half-brother were suspected, as was his governess. The case became a media frenzy, drawing attention upon the relatively new detective policemen in operation and their methods and galvanising what had been the conventions of sensational fiction at the time into the more rigid and less destructive detective fiction which had only been pioneered by Poe in 1841. Five years later the half-sister confessed and the furore subsided but there were holes and doubts remained thereafter. This book is that story, with all its framings, consequences and speculations attached.

When reading a historical crime narrative it becomes hard to categorise what it is we're reading. This is no novel, nor does it pretend to be. It can be called a historical text, albeit it a rather populist one or a group biography as it has those trappings, or even an organised scrap book of all the things connected to the case, or a narrative on the formation of detective fiction seen through the lens of Road Hill. I think that perhaps that is the problem I have with this book: It's trapped between rocks, hard places, beaches and sandy coves. The detective fiction aspect is fascinating, as are the references to Dickens and his close examination of detectives and their methods. Things pop out that I hadn't considered previously. There was a time when witnesses were believed to the extent that physical evidence was of a low priority. Confessed criminals might be asked to sign the charge that was being levelled at them, and syphilis was rife in an era where people didn't know enough to protect those close to them. It was a strange time indeed. Taken all together the historical portions of the novels, and analyses of how things worked and what kinds of things happened, work for me. It's the biography that I don't like. Much as portraits have no appeal to me, nor do histories of people.

Writing about a book is harder than writing about a movie. It's a more intellectual process. As I sit here, it almost seems futile. I think some 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea' is necessary to counterbalance the intellectual trauma. Go Nelson!

In any murder, the human element is the most distressing and is the part that people get past to enjoy the mystery. Someone is killed, again bloodily, and someone kills. Perhaps some people get separate themselves from such things better than I but it's very uncomfortable to think about the people who could have done such things, their reasons, and their possible insanities. In the end, maybe Constance Kent didn't kill her half-brother but we will never know. Maybe she was covering for someone else. Maybe her family was horribly abusive and scarred with numerous child deaths and stillbirths due to a negligent syphilitic. It's all so tawdry and that's thematically where the book begins and I end, in the crudeness of it all. The newly formed detective forces were disapproved of and feared by the public, whose homes were inviolable and had been in living memory, and now there were spies. Spies who in unusual circumstances could get permission to investigate and poke their noses into mysteries and murders. It was a turbulent time and we have a lot to thank those brave early pioneer detectives for.

It's a well written book, excellently researched, and with a well established narrative that touches on many different aspects of history and biography. I find biography dull but maybe you wouldn't.



zing: a lively and pleasant quality, taste, or feeling

The world is a mad, mad place. I can say this for certain as I can feel the zing in the air when chaos rules and all we can do is smile and wait for the cocoa that follows. We can delude ourselves as to patterns in the madness but only some of them are true. As a mathematician it's often supposed to be my job to work out which are the true ones and write the formulae that fit them best. That's maths.

In my subtitle it says, at the moment: 'The Quirky Muffin: The mental meanderings of a maths researcher with far too little to do, and a penchant for baking'. I have never said a thing about baking in this blog! Here in the deepest meanderings of Black Month I must confess that I bake a lot, although not as much as when I was in Hungary. In the last few weeks I have committed some acts of bakery both successful and not. I shall confess only at this time to the chocolate cake with melted chocolate topping that excelled and the carrot cake that really failed on many many levels. Apple tarts and rhubarb tarts are amongst the best things I can make, and the best recipes can be pinched from public domain books on Project Gutenberg. For example, in Mrs Beaton we find an excellent mix for sweet short crust pastry:


1211. INGREDIENTS.--To every lb. of flour allow 8 oz. of butter, the
yolks of 2 eggs, 2 oz. of sifted sugar, about 1/4 pint of milk.

_Mode_.--Rub the butter into the flour, add the sugar, and mix the whole
as lightly as possible to a smooth paste, with the yolks of eggs well
beaten, and the milk. The proportion of the latter ingredient must be
judged of by the size of the eggs: if these are large, so much will not
be required, and more if the eggs are smaller.

_Average cost_, 1s. per lb."

while in 'Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking' there's a rather too sweet apple crumble pie:


6 tart apples
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
pastry for 9" shell

Pare apples and cut into thick slices. Mix half the sugar with the
cinnamon and sprinkle over apples. Put into unbaked pastry shell. Blend
the flour, the remaining sugar and the butter and work into small
crumbs, with your fingers. Sprinkle the crumbs over the apples. Bake in
hot oven (425-f) for 10 minutes then reduce to moderate (350-f) and bake
for 35 minutes more. Serve with cheese."

If you combine the pastry and eliminate the crumble you come out with a rather excellent apple tart. Or substitute the apple for rhubarb, or add berries. Trust me, I'm a doctor. There may be more baking in the future so please take notes.

Shifting topic, 'Fish Story' has reminded me of how sometimes movies can be good. Can you believe that movies can sometimes be good? It was based on a Japanese novel apparently, which probably has never been translated. I may have to go back to learning Japanese. Also, on rare circumstances I've finished a book that I was less than interested in: 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' by Kate Summerscale. I finish lots of books but often times the less than interesting ones become blocks in the book pile and nothing happens for weeks. This book did that for a few days but knuckling down occurred. I may write more but in essence it's a good historical overview of a landmark detective case which illustrates how detective fiction developed as an art form around it. It ends in a very humdrum manner though, descending into biography. Ho hum. The last book that I stumbled on was Carl Sagan's 'Contact' which left me cold for a stretch in the third quarter and really had to be relearned. Maybe it had no zing.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Movie: 'Fish Story' (2009) [spoiler-free]

Wow. Amazing. I really appreciated and even loved this movie. It was endearing, misleading, non-linear and fascinating without quite being a masterpiece. I love that it was not a masterpiece. You can't love masterpieces; You can only admire them. To love something there have to be flaws to latch onto and adore. 'Fish Story' has flaws and for that I really quite like it. (I've said this before for something, but it remains true.)

Now, how does a failed punk band's iconic swansong in 1975 manage to save the world from a cataclysmic meteor in 2012? Well, I can't tell you as that would spoil the whole thing. 'Fish Story' tells four flashback stories - which may or may not be connected - within the framework of a present day story of three men in a music shop. Two of those men are happily talking music as the rest of the word futilely seeks refuge from the meteor, its ensuing deadly consequences and the end of everything, while the third has been tootling around on his wheelchair and knocking over motorcycles with his stick. Why is he so stroppy?

The mystery behind this movie is what drives it onward. Why is a ship's cook who calls himself a Champion of Justice important to our plot? What is the relevance of that guy who hears a scream in the infamous minute of silence within 'Fish Story'? Why did Gerekin break up after recording that song? Does any of it mean anything at all? Rest assured that it does mean something, and that it's an excellent movie in the unravelling. The unravelling is all once you've seen it and that unravelling is sweet.

Now there are many things that naturally remain mysterious in a foreign language movie. One has no idea of how well the actors are performing or whether the spoken dialogue is much superior or inferior to the subtitles or whether it's an authentic representation. These are all things that get swept away by the language barrier. It's entirely possible that this is a cheesy mess of a movie for someone who speaks Japanese but I really don't care. The different mini-stories are all interesting, the movie as a whole is arresting for its running length of 112 minutes, and the actors all seem solid. As a British person I was confused briefly by the 'is that the same guy I saw earlier?' confusion of similar Asian features once or twice but they're mostly quite distinct.

The narrative or narratives are straightforward, although there are misleads that you don't realise until the end and that makes it all the sweeter. The best misleads are the ones you don't spot as misleads for a long long time. What else can be said without spoiling? The music consists of almost only one song, 'Fish Story', which is played many times and doesn't ever wear. That in itself is very interesting and revealing. The atmosphere of the movie stops the song from wearying in our minds, and that atmosphere actually transitions between each story. It's fascinating. The atmosphere actually changes numerous times. Sometimes the director's horror film background dribbles through effectively and sometimes a fairy tale glimmers through and it all works. There is a flat period in the middle, as there is in every movie but it never entirely lets you go.

Summing up, 'Fish Story' is the best of the (two) Japanese films I've seen and now I'm really very curious about all the others. 'The Seven Samurai' really didn't work for me but it's due a re-viewing as circumstances on the last were less than ideal. Here the acting is great, the plot fascinating and intricate, the direction solid, production values excellent and the music arresting. In short, I think you should go get it.

'Fish Story' rocks. And it's hard to write a non-spoiler review.


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Movie: 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971)

It's hard to write reviews of movies you wholeheartedly like. Let's state outright that Willy Wonky is a fantastic movie, and one of the most wonderfully dark family movies ever realised. It simply is. It's so good that it looks like a movie much later in time with sensibilities of a much from much earlier. It's just that tiny bit transcendent. Amazing.

Chief amongst the strengths of this excellent little movie is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, a giant amongst screen stars and more evidence, if evidence were needed, that we just don't make movie stars the way we used to. Genuine or not, the mark of all-knowing wisdom in Gene Wilder's eyes can captivate whole rooms full of people. He also gets to deliver a very freaky monologue on a speeding paddlesteamer ferry.

The rest of the cast is a mix of solid supporting players and character actors, with Roy Kinnear as the most recognisable. The story runs thusly: Impoverished Charlie Bucket lives with his mother and bed-ridden grandparents in a dilapidated house in a generic British town which happens to contain the site of famed chocolatier Willy Wonka's factory. Willy Wonka has been a recluse for many years, with an unknown work force but one day he announces a competition involving five golden tickets hidden inside Wonka bars and the grand prize of a grand tour around his factory...

Now, if there are flaws to be picked at we could easily point out that Charlie's family is so impoverished as to be totally unrealistic. Living on cabbage water is not possible, nor is supporting four bed-ridden grandparents on a single laundress salary. Perhaps all my tiny problems are with the portions involving Charlie's family, even the one dull song which his mother sings. Are we also led to believe that the saintly Grandpa Joe was fully ambulatory this whole time and simply lazing about in that bed? The cad!

Hmm. Music. The music is good and the kid performers well suited to everything asked of them. The main bulk of the musical heave lifting is born by the Oompa Loompas, who were wonderful and I will not spoil for anyone uninitiated into Oompa Loompa-dom. I miss Oompa Loompas. The Effects are extraordinary and not at all dated in that way that good practical effects can't expire. In comparison CGI effects have an incredibly short shelf-life. What's more to say?

It's dark, it's dank, it has a chocolate factory and a standout performance by Gene Wilder. The music is good, the effects are good. There is confectionery. And at least one of the kids is a bad egg.


PS Don't trust Slugworth.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Story: 'The Shed And Spirit'

I was crawling through the undergrowth toward the shed of notorious repute. The shed lay at the bottom of a school headmaster's garden and had been seen exhibiting unusual behaviour on numerous occasions. I had been sent by the local bishop to examine the behaviour and probe the reasons. The headmaster looked nervously from his kitchen window, twitching the curtain from time to time.

Colours shifted and swirled on the periphery of the shed and finally I was close enough to peek in the window and see the truth of what lay inside: It was a Spectre. Spectres are not wholly dangerous or even violent unless provoked and there were tried and tested methods for dealing with them which I was always ready to use. Sneaking back to the kitchen I explained to the Headmaster how I would deal with his visitor.

"You'll WHAT?" He asked after the first telling.

"I shall use my Carrot."

"Ugh?" As Headmasters go, this one wasn't all that articulate.

"My carrot? My sacred carrot that was blessed by the Bishop this morning?" I waved my carrot at the man, oblivious for a few moments more as to the layman's ignorance on these matters. "The Invalidation Operatives always carry a Food Parcel for these missions. The Carrot's always coming in useful. Got a steamer?"

The man passed over the steamer in a confused state and I got to work, cutting and preparing. Finally a bowl of steamed carrot, covered in paprika, lay before me and I prepared myself for one of the more amusing Invalidation procedures. Slapping a cover over the concoction I left once more, openly went down to the shed, and finally knocked brazenly on the door. The Spectre opened the door in an agitated state and I lifted the cover from the bowl.

At this point it seems opportune to point out how Spectres are not unique in their irresistible passion for steamed root vegetables. Indeed, vegetables had lowered the mortality rate of Invalidators in the line of duty to ten percent since the steamer took hold in households across Britain. Banshees love parsnip with a touch of parsley even at the cost of their own existence and Grimeballs can seldom stay in their dank basement when red cabbage is being wafted about above them.

The Spectre's eyes widened and he looked at the carrots. Sweat formed on his half-translucent features and his claws tightened on the wood hammer he had been using, apparently on the chair being built in the shed corner. Finally it gave up all control and devoured the carrot, despite all the paprika that would end its time here and send it back to its own dimension in time and space. A blue aura grew, the Spectre faded, and then all was done. No-one had ever worked out where the Creatures went specifically, except that God doubtlessly treated him well, as He did all things.

I handed the wood hammer back to the Head Master as I left, handing him his donation slip should he feel generous.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Story: 'Night Trials', V

As I sit here uploading film review podcasts to Film Bin, I wonder what on Earth is going on today. It feels like the last few days have been some hideous ordeal instead of the reality of being quite pleasant. Humph, best to try and relax and stare vacantly at equations with no clearly defined intent! Film Bin is diversifying and has incorporated the 'Spoiler Filled Film Conversation Hooray' review podcast that was in fact its precursor and now peer! Check out Film Bin for reviews and commentaries of varying sense.

And now, with no further ado, let's continue 'Night Trials'. When last we checked in with Sheriff Bob he had just invalidated his guard and is stepping through the slimy doorway into Wandering Yip, knowing not what he will encounter.


Night Trials: Part V
(Parts IV , VI)

Leaving his prison behind him, Bob, stepped out into the world he'd left behind. The town looked different but hauntingly familiar. The houses looked the same except for the unshuttered windows in the darkness. Something was wrong. He looked behind him at the house he'd left; Mitch Scanlon's place. Where was Mitch? The ooze could be seen through the open doorway but none was seen outside in the street. Bob closed the door and sidled down the street in the shadows. There were lots of shadows as the lights weren't lit.

The night was quiet, far too quiet, and the boards of the surrounding houses creaked in the cooling air of the night. Where should he go? Finally, he went northward to the Sheriff's post to evaluate his position. Moving up the street on the sidewalk away from the town hall he reached his office and gingerly pushed open the door. A mass of ooze slimed out of the door and he pulled it shut with a shudder. The office was probably gunked up to the ceiling. Ducking off down the street and then through a side street he went up to Duck Evans's door and repeated the process he had used at the office. There was no gunk here at his deputy's house and he slipped in.

The place was deserted, but Duck's spare weapon and ammunition were under the boards as usual. Bob snooped around and found some cold meat and bread that weren't in too bad shape and ate quietly, wondering what to do. What can you do, he thought, when you didn't know where the enemy were, how many of them there were, if they had the towns people captured somewhere, or even what they looked like? The lack of townspeople worried him enormously. With no better ideas he settled by the window and watched awhile.

Some time later he roused himself from a hazy reverie and realised a thirst was growing quickly and daylight was approaching. The saloon was over on main street and the nearest water pump was two houses away here on this parallel. Grabbing a flask he snuck out for the pump and worked his might, filling the flask with water of life. Light began to trickle down the street as the sun emerged over the horizon and Bob knew that soon a lot of his questions would be answered. He ducked back to Duck's house and went back to his window vigil.

The sun was fully visible before action commenced for the day. A few people emerged from the houses - far fewer than normal - and walked woodenly about the town fetching water, food and everyday materials. Mostly they were women. There was the sound of a disturbance over on the main street, with some shouting and crunching, which Bob assumed was the discovery of Zack. He gathered some necessary items together in a sack and got ready to run or fight. Rainbow lights scattered above the houses that separated him from the scene of activity and a few moments something totally unexpected came down the street and stopped outside his door. It was an alien, a short wide alien, oozing through some metallic clothing of some kind as it floated. A baleful eye looked at him directly through the window.

Bob made his decision as the alien pointed a green scatter of light at him. He ran.

To be continued?