Saturday 16 August 2014

Mini-Reviews #2 - Sci-fi Roundup - Apes, Space Raccoons, Bald Men & Betas!

Oh, wow. I've somehow broken the 'one blog per month' curse to do another selection of half-arsed reviews. This time they're all sci-fi themed. Yep, time to embrace my inner nerd...

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The confusingly titled sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (how can the dawn come after the rise?) is a brilliantly made blockbuster. Even if you disliked the previous film, it's worth giving this one a shot as it has a significantly different tone. The film does a good job of keeping you invested and rooting for both sides, though the CGI chimps undeniably steal the show. Koba in particular gets some very scene-stealing moments. The characterisations and mo-capped performances are complex and nuanced even when the film dares to devote entire scenes to subtitled sign-language and simple primal growls. Despite devolving into silly, schlocky action full of apes-riding-horses-with-machine-guns, exploding skyscrapers and overly convenient plot contrivances, it does so in such a way that the film loses none of its credibility while more than fulfilling the Summer blockbuster action itch.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Has Star Wars come early? Er... if Han Solo were a space raccoon and Chewbacca were a talking tree... maybe... Actually, Chris Pratt's Starlord is even more the Han Solo type, making for a likeable protagonist, rolling around with his inexplicably-still-working Sony Walkman. Some good song choices in this movie. It's fun seeing a goofy ensemble sci-fi that doesn't take itself too seriously, but does enough to make us care about what is happening. I'm looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness. Effects can be a little over-flashy and some scenes are derivative of other Marvel films (good or bad depending on how much you're into them, personally I'm a little burned out), yet the film has a lot of director James Gunn's wacky indie charm, a massive likeable cast and does a great job setting up an expansive and completely bonkers world. I just wish Peter Serafinowicz had more to do.

The Zero Theorem
Moving away from blockbusters, here's something that's had virtually no marketing of any kind. A dystopian film from Terry Gilliam, very much in the vein of his classic Brazil (which is one of my favourite films), though this is way more abstract and less accessible. Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz plays Qohen, a bald, deluded programmer tasked with mathematically proving that life has no meaning, or something. It's all very surreal and visually interesting, as one would expect from a Gilliam sci-fi. There are plenty of quirky elements, like the AI therapist who at one point breaks out into rap for no reason whatsoever. The film is only sporadically thought-provoking though, it's mostly just headache-inducing Gilliam nonsense. At one point a character asks, "Do you have any idea what the zero theorem is all about?" which is a very apt comment.

Destiny (Beta)
Alright, now let's talk games. As anyone who's been following Destiny's development probably knows, Bungie ran a beta of their Borderlands-esque Halo-but-not-Halo shooter for the public a few weeks back. I had a decent amount of time with it, but I came away somewhat disappointed. Production values - awkward Peter Dinklage dialogue aside - are incredibly strong, particularly soundtrack-wise, while the controls are as smooth as you'd expect given the company's heritage. It's just that the focus is so much on grindy, MMO-style repetition... I spent nearly two hours trying to grind out a tank boss with a couple of other cohorts and wandered what I was doing with my life. There's just so much repetition in the design that everything rubs off as generic and pointless, in spite of how good it looks. Guardians? Darkness? Fallen? Blah. Thanks Bungie, I'll pass. I think I'm getting a bit sick of sci-fi now.

Sunday 10 August 2014

6 Pointless Observations About Commuting to London

Right, I think I feel like taking a break from talking about mooveez ’n vidya gamez for once. Good gravy! Did I just say what I thought I just said?

As a graduate who has now managed to transition into the perpetual reality that is the world of work, as someone who was used to taking five minute walks into lectures and had to adjust to a daily ninety minute commute into the capital, I thought I’d give a brief overview of some of the less-than-widely-documented things I’ve noticed over the last few months. 6 of the most unceremoniously trivial and generally obtuse points I can think of, which may or may not ring true for anybody else of a similar background. Are we sitting comfortably?

1- Commuting from outside London isn’t as common as I thought it would be

You can always tell when somebody asks ‘where do you live’ that they are expecting the name of a London borough somewhere within zones 1 to 6. Give a different answer and the typical response will generally be ‘which zone is that,’ to which you must calmly explain that there are in fact places beyond the city and it is actually possible to come from “the outside.” Once the shock dials down, the accuser will then proceed to either treat you as one of the wildlings from Game of Thrones or continually ask you bewildering questions about your commute as if it is the most exciting thing in the world. (Spoiler alert, it isn’t, although that hasn’t stopped me blabbing on about it.)

Of course, I shouldn’t complain at the end of the day, because there are still more than enough commuters like me around. Frankly, if there were any more of us, the whole national rail system would grind to a halt. In the grand scheme of things there isn’t much to complain about - the travel time is still significantly less than many people who live within the confines of ‘zone 1-6’ so is it really something to worry about? Cheaper house prices offset the higher travel costs, so in the end of the day, I suppose, the decision of where to live is a matter of personal convenience, and personally, it’s quite convenient being able to come in from such a distance that there’s just enough time to watch an episode of Game of Thrones on the train every day. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned Game of Thrones and I'm still on point number one. I think I might have a problem. 

2 - Everyone walks around with smashed up phones

Now this is a weird one. I get the principal, really, you’re working in London, you’ve had a few pints and you’ve dropped your phone. The screen is all buggered… where’s the warranty? Your phone is on a contract, ooh but what’s this? Next year’s model is about to be released? Never mind - you can wait until then to get it fixed. But seriously? The amount of smashed up phones I see being used on a daily basis is quite bizarre to me. It’s at least one per day and often three or four, be it on the tube, out and about or in the office. I’m not talking minor scrapes or scratches either, I’m talking full-blown shattered glass.

Maybe it’s the fashion these days to be unable to see 95% of your screen thanks to cracks so deep they make the pixels around them bleed into one another. I can’t imagine it’s very good for productivity - try sending a legible text message when you can’t use certain letters ‘cos there’s a massive gaping hole in your screen. What exactly is going on here? Are people this prone to butterfingers with their mobiles when travelling out and about in the capital? I don’t remember ever noticing this trend anywhere else, maybe it’s just me? Maybe the sheer density in population is making it appear like this is more commonplace than it actually is. I guess the moral of this story is to take care of your phone, but if you smash yours up to the point that it’s almost unusable and want to feel less bad about it, I guess you should go to London.

3- There’s a knack for catching the right train at the right time

Alright, listen up whippersnappers. I’m going to break the commuters’ code and give y’all some actual advice right now. It’s hard to quantify this but there is a system, there is a way to make sure you always manage to get on a train that’s A) a fast train, B) always has a space to sit and C) doesn’t break down suddenly. The first point is obvious, you just have to know in advance which ones will have loads of extra stops and which ones won’t. If you want to do some more detective work, mix up your routine from time to time. Figure out which trains regularly have large pauses at signals at specific times (the ones with more stops won’t always be slower) and which ones tend to be the most crowded. 

As for point B, you don’t have to get to the platform super early, although it can help. If you’re staring at the departure boards waiting for an incoming train’s platform number to be announced, you can usually rely on simple deduction to figure out which platform it’ll be, and if not, I’ve noticed that the average King’s Cross’er doesn’t have particularly good reaction time when the boards refresh, even when they’re fixated on them. It’s pretty satisfying (in a kind of devilish, OCD way) to be the first one in a massive crowd to have twigged which platform a train’s gonna arrive at - and once you’re ahead of the masses, remember you’ve got first dibs for seating. If you’re not going to be early, I find that the best place to get on a long train is about a third the way down the platform. People will generally get right on the front of the train if they’re completely rushed, but many will try to go all the way down the platform and fill up from the opposite end, so you often end up with this weird lull about a third down the platform shortly before the train departs. That’s my advice, anyway. What do I know? I’ve not been doing this for very long, so I’m probably not qualified to write a whole bloody essay on it. 

Oh, as for point C? Yeah, ok, that was a lie. Good luck with that one...

4- Finding something productive to do on the journey isn’t hard, but plan ahead

More advice? What’s come over me? 

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoy watching stuff on the train. However… If you’re trying to watch something on your phone in the middle of Summer, it can be pretty damn impossible to hear any of the dialogue with the sound of the wind rushing past, even with maximum volume booming out of your headphones. Frankly, nobody wants to shut the windows on a hot day, probably not even you. So download some subtitle tracks beforehand. It’s not hard to get them synced up to whatever you’re watching - use an app like VLC if you’re doing this manually. The other point of course is to make sure you’ll be able to get to a good stopping point in time. If you’re gonna sit playing games or even do some actual work on the train then the same advice stands. You don’t want to be missing your destination ‘cos you just had to beat that damn level / fix that spreadsheet (delete as appropriate)

I’ll confess to occasionally watching things at 120% playback speed. A little mental, I know, but faster-than-normal dialogue becomes surprisingly unnoticeable with practice (as long as it’s not pitched up.) So if you need to make a 50 minute show into a 42 minute show to fit the travel times, give it a go, and let me know how much of a nutter I am.

If all else fails, just take a nap. It’ll be good for you. I like to do that in the mornings, since it helps soften the blow of getting up at stupid o’ clock. Again, don’t miss your stop. It can happen.

5- Don’t eat food on the tube

Just don’t do it. I don’t care how empty the carriage is, it’s just not on. I’m not sure where this rule originated from but I could hazard a guess that it’s because you pretty much can’t find anywhere less hygienic in the whole of London, and that’s saying something. Oh, but feel free to go nuts if you’re on a National Rail train. At rush hour it’s like everyone's just come from an all you can eat buffet. 

That’s all I want to say about the underground. The less said about it, the better.

6- Beware the King’s Cross escalator hologram lady

She even has her own Twitter page these days. Shut your eyes! There is no escape!