Archive for July, 2006

Can you feel my presents?

Bizarrely enough, I got up before seven this morning – not bad when you a) settle down to sleep at about 2am and b) don’t have any work to go to. I have stuff to do, however – foremost of which being writing the final table-top edition of my RPG, Empire of Destiny, for Saturday. So this morning I went shopping.

Well, it is only Thursday, and an imminent deadline is often the best way to stimulate creativity. A couple of my friends from St Helens are getting married in a couple of weeks, so I wanted to get them something – can’t talk about it now – spies everywhere, spies everywhere. I got it from Camden Market, though. I waited in awkward silence for about five minutes while the attendant wrapped it in about a million layers of bubble wrap. Then she asked me if I wanted wrapped in another million layers, and given that I’m moving house on Sunday, I thought it best. Five more minutes awkward silent waiting.

I also got a pink pussycat purse for my five-year-old niece. Not sure what I’ll get her slightly younger brother.

And for myself, I got a couple of secondhand reference books (wow! how exciting!) – The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar and The Oxford Guide to English Usage. The grammar book is not as useful or readable as some of the dedicated TEFL grammar books, but at a fraction of the price I’ll happily make do. As I indicated I might do in an earlier post, I also got Classic FM At the Movies. Cheesy, yes, I suppose, but what’s wrong with great music? And let’s face it, film music is far more listenable-to than any ‘authentic’ orchestral music since about 1925.

And – how could I forget? (I did forget – this is an edit) – I got another cat, as well. A wooden one – mid-brown in colour with darker vertical bands. [Oh-oh] Well, it was [must resist!] the only [NO!] pussy I got in London.


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John Steinbeck

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At various points over the last few weeks I’ve been researching South Korea (or the Republic of Korea, not to be confused with the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, as the North modestly and accurately describes itself), and here is a summary of what I can recall right now. Any or all of the following may be as true as North Korea’s full name.

The Korean language doesn’t use ideograms like Chinese or Japanese, but has, instead, a phonetic alphabet. Centuries ago, the Koreans, those of them who were literate, used Chinese, but a king in the 15th century (I think) decided they needed a system of writing that everybody could learn. He set top men on the task and the result was hangul, the world’s only artificial national alphabet. The consonants represent the position of the mouth required to pronounce them, while the vowel apprently symoblise ideas from the I Ching.

Since the Korean War in the early 50s, South Korea has had some dodgy political regimes. But since the late 80s it seems to have settled into the ways of democracy. Up until this year its ruling party was the South Korean equivalent of the Liberal Democrats; however, I think they’ve recently lost power.

The country’s population is around 45 million, making it a little less populous than England (at 50 million), and a bit more so than Spain (at about 40 million). The capital, Seoul, in the northwest of the country, (uniquely designated a ‘special city’) is one of the world’s most populous with something like 11 million inhabitants. The second city is Busan, on the south coast.

South Korea is on the same latitude as Spain and Greece, but its temperatures are on a par with the UK – Europe is, of course, warmer than it has any right to be because of the Gulf Stream. The country has a monsoon climate, though, with a summer rainy season. Something like 70% or more of the country is mountainous.

Average life expectancy is approximately 70 for women, while men are expected to live a mere 63 years. Average height for a man is … shorter than me, and I’m of Tom Cruise-like proportions. (As an aside, someone at one of my roleplay groups mentioned that Hollywood actors are ‘deliberately short’ – meaning, she explained, that short-arses look better, more in proportion, on screen. In an example of esprit de scalier, it later occurred to me to say that scientists refer to this as the Peter Crouch effect. But I didn’t – the moment had passed.)

When choosing a city to work in, the consensus (on the Dave’s ESL Café discussion forum) seems to be that, to imagine what it’ll be like, simply remove a zero from its population. Hence a Korean city of 500,000 people feels more like a town of 50,000. Apparently. This may just be a function of the number of western shops and restaurants there are.

English is taught in a number of different institutions: there are state schools, universities, business and private language schools called hagwons. The hagwons don’t have a good reputation. They are obviously dependent on how many students they can get, so no students, no hagwon, no job, and their owners seem to be pretty much out for what they can get. Well, that’s their reputation – I’m sure there are plenty of very good hagwons, too. In fact, I damn well hope so because I’m likely to end up working for one. For one thing, they seem to form the bulk of the positions vacant, and for another, they offer ideal hours for me – afternoon to evening: no struggling with getting up in the morning.

I’m pretty sure I must have learnt other stuff about South Korea, but I can’t remember it. Hmm. If I can’t remember it does that indicate that I haven’t actually learnt it?

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After the damp squib that was book five, I’m glad I went straight into book six, because this was a much stronger novel than either of the previous two volumes. The action concerns Senator Gregg Hartmann (who is also secretly the sadistic and manipulative Puppetman) and his struggle to win the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in Atlanta in 1988. Unfortunately for him, there are people trying to stop him.

Ace in the Hole is as good as the excellent volumes two and three in this series, and, like those two books and unlike four and five, is written in the true ‘mosaic novel’ format – the chapters are presented as chapters, rather than separate-but-interlinked novellas. This tactic really pays off at the book’s climax, where we skip from character to character, getting different points of view on the same dramatic events. Some of the writing here is also superior to previous volumes.

The denouement is complex. Some people fail and some succeed, but each state is tempered with its opposite. I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted the bad guys to win – bad guys is too simplistic, the villains here are rendered with sympathy and depth. Justice is done, but it’s not quite satisfactory. And that’s a positive comment on the storytelling, not a negative one: the multiple authors have pulled off something quite compelling and moving here.

Sadly, I haven’t yet secured a copy of volume 7, Dead Man’s Hand. I’m looking forward to it though – after all, some of the storylines introduced in book four have yet to be fully exploited and concluded.

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Review of Superman Returns

I was almost unaccountably excited by the prospect of this film. Having seen a couple of documentaries and Superman: The Movie on TV the previous weekend I was quite hyped up. I hadn’t seen the original film for a long time, but I knew that many considered it the best comic book adaptation and I was eager to see it with adult eyes.

Firstly, the music. I’ve had the Superman theme running through my head for nearly a week almost non-stop. What an utterly rousing and diverse piece! I’ve downloaded a midi file of it and am learning to play the main tunes; and I’m seriously considering buying a CD of film themes – for this music and those other John Williams classics: Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think I might be slightly obsessed.

Secondly, Christopher Reeve. Apparently, the makers of the film wanted an unknown for the part (as one contributor to one of the documentaries said, Can you imagine Robert Redford in the tights and cape?) and they stuck gold with Reeve. He plays both Superman and Clark Kent to perfection – yes, both personae are comic-book clichés, but he makes them gently charismatic and real. And he looks the part, too.

Mostly, though, Superman: The Movie was a bit of a disappointment. The first two sections – baby Kal-El’s departure from Krypton and Clark’s youth – while essential background information, drag on a little. And, while the film may have been the most expensive of its time, it would have benefited massively from present-day special effects. Some of the disasters the eponymous hero has to avert are pretty modest – like straddling the gap in a railway track to prevent the train derailing. Finally, the manner in which he turns back time to bring Lois back to life is just bizarre – a feeling I think I had even as a child. Reversing the world’s spin would result in tidal waves and earthquakes, the like of which would give any modern blockbuster a run for its money.

On to the review of the thing I’m supposed to be reviewing, then.

Firstly, the music. Having been reminded how fantastic the music was, to sit in the cinema and have it blasting out at full volume was one of best moments I’ve had in a cinema. No, really.

Secondly, Brendan Routh. He’s not bad. He’s not as good as Reeve, though, but he has the clean-cut good looks and build. His acting didn’t quite have the charm as his predecessor, but then he also didn’t seem to have that much to actually say. One thing I find a little hard to get my head round is the fact that, having been gone for five years, he comes back looking ten years younger – Lois, too. That’s the youth-obsessed world we live in, I suppose.

Mostly, though, Superman Returns was a bit of a disappointment. Yes, its special effects are light years ahead of the previous films, but they almost seem underused – this may be a factor of the SFX-fests like PotC2 we get these days, it may also be due to the relative slowness of the plot. The main problem, I think, was that it was too reverential. At the beginning of the film, Superman returns (as it were) to earth in a crystalline pod, crashing near the Kent farm. We then see a young Clark jumping hundreds of feet in a single bound and discovering he can fly. At several points, dialogue from The Movie is recycled for Returns. The pacing, too, a bit too slow, is very similar to the original film.

There were a couple of things I couldn’t help thinking. A) How on earth does Superman decide which things he’s going to deal with, given that crimes and disasters happen all the time all over the world. And B) what does he see in Lois Lane, anyway? Margot Kidder at least had a bit of charisma and individuality; Kate Bosworth, however, could be pretty much any character in any film or TV series. And Lois is not really that nice towards Clark – surely Superman would want someone to love him for who he is, not just for the free air travel.

Having said all that, I have to say, though, that Superman Returns is still a good film. Its pacing, while not entirely satisfactory, makes a change from other movies that are all go, go, go. Kevin Spacey is entertaining as Lex Luthor. There is an attempt to make Superman a bit more three-dimensional (like when he spies on Lois’s home life with his X-ray vision). But the makers seemed to want, not just to create a story, but a mythic tale, and they don’t quite pull it off. However, things could get an awful lot more interesting in the inevitable sequel.

I’m off to hum to myself for a bit. Daa da-da-da daa, daa daa daaa …

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My recent review of book four in this series mention how addictive it was and that that volume hadn’t been as good as the previous three. Well … book five was considerably worse. In fact, I can’t even remember that well what happened in it – but there’s a reason for that beyond its lack of quality (see below).

The first part of the book is set concurrently with the previous volume and the whole (ah – I’ve just remembered the overall plot) deals with events in Jokertown as a) a war breaks out between the mafia, the Shadowfists (another criminal gang) and the jokers, and b) there are fresh outbreaks of the wild card disease.

The reason this volume doesn’t work as well as others is that it’s too disjointed, too transitional and in the end it lacks a decent climax – the source of the outbreak just goes away by itself (it’s more complicated than that, of course). The various threads of the plot don’t seem to hang together well – the gang war seems almost forgotten by the end, for instance.

So having finished this disappointing fifth instalment, what did I do? I started reading book six, obviously. And, having now read the volumes pretty much back to back, I can appreciate that seeing them as separate stories is totally fair – each book is a chapter in an ongoing story. Reading them so quickly means that I haven’t forgotten too many important details between books, but it also means they tend to all blur into one.

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… or Atomised, as it’s known in English. This is definitely the kind of film you need to see, as I did, between summer blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Superman Returns. It’s an unglorified, understated character study of a pair of rather love-lorn half-brothers and it’s about 80% excellent. We’ll come to what that means later.

One of the brothers, Michael, is an emotionally blank scientist who faces his problems with a phlegmatic smile and seems to just hope that they’ll go away. The other brother, Bruno, is more outgoing, but is more evidently tortured by his own demons – such as the fact that he’s no longer able to perform in his marital bed. And it’s this character who is more engaging, even though I empathised more with his brother.

The acting is very good, particularly for the Bruno character – it never goes over the top, but you can see his inner torment and helplessness written on his face. Michael, meanwhile, provides much less opportunity for the actor – he’s a closed book, he speaks little, answering many comments with nothing but that gentle smile.

For the most part, the shy brother’s half of the story is also slightly weaker: his solution is pretty much handed to him. His half-sibling, however, goes out to find love and eventually does. But. The last 20-30 minutes of the film just don’t work: firstly, the film is slow-moving anyway and the last section makes it too long, and secondly, the additional plots twists were just too much – rather ridiculous, in fact.

Up until that point, it was a extremely good film, and if you pretend that it ends there and stop watching you might enjoy it more. As it is, it’s merely very good.

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