Thor

Just the one film and an early weekend one at that. It’s been previewing since Monday and we opted for the cornea-friendly 2D version of…

Thor

“Did it work?”

See it if you like: superhero films with more pathos and romance than humour and action. Think Hulk rather than Iron Man.

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Origin story of a Norse god who becomes a mortal on earth in the modern day, and set-up for a team-up movie due next year.

I’ll generally go to see any superhero film that comes out and the majority these days seem to come from Marvel Comics. DC seem to have stuck with churning out more Batman ones, and failing to release new Superman episodes. Marvel, on the other hand, seems content to churn out as many films as it can based on every major character it holds, regardless of quality. Sometimes hit, sometimes miss.

Thor, for me, fell into the latter category. Despite a reasonable cast, it just seemed like a big, gaudy mess. Chris Hemsworth is excellent in the role of Thor himself (but since when did he have a beard? The guy from the comics I remember was clean-shaven) and Anthony Hopkins is fine as Odin. Brian Blessed was apparently considered and I’m glad they didn’t go with him otherwise the whole thing would have looked even more like Flash Gordon.

Natalie Portman seems to be popping up in a lot recently and performs passably as some scientist whose name I can’t be bothered to look up who goes all doey-eyed at Mr Muscles.

The biggest surprise was seeing Shakespearian legend Kenneth Branagh attached as director. Given the kind of story the films tells, it’s perhaps not a bad choice. It is operatic and dramatic, so it does suit him. However, I just found the whole thing completely overblown in its use of effects.

The halls of Asgard look like an overgrown church organ and the Rainbow Bridge seems to have been made by gluing together several million “Ziggy” handsets from early episodes of Quantum Leap.

If there’s a highlight it’s the Destroyer – a genuinely scary and fearsome-looking opponent with a rather spine-chilling sound every time it’s about to shoot fire. Having said that, the battle sequence it features in is just kind of “OK”. Having said that, its appearance on earth leads to possibly the best line in the film.

In response to the quote heading this review, uttered by the wonderful Stan Lee in his expected cameo, I have to say “Sorry, fella. No. It didn’t.”

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Scratch-ing an itch

Scratch logo
Image via Wikipedia

Sorry for the awful pun. It had to be done.

For those who don’t know, Scratch is a programming language geared primarily at younger children. We use it with our S2 classes (around 12-13 years old) although I am aware of many primary schools who also introduce it to children at a younger age.

Frankly, after a bit of struggling to begin with, I’ve found it to be a great language. Sure it doesn’t have a solution to every problem and yes, you often have to fiddle around a lot to get it to do precisely what you want but for the level it’s aimed it, it’s a fantastic tool.

The best thing is the layout. It’s bright, clear and gives very fast results. The colour-coding of different data types makes it easy for children to spot how the programs are put together. There’s no typing necessary (other than the occasional number) as the programs are built using jigsaw pieces with code on. The pieces change shape dynamically as code is formed into loops and the like. All very pretty.

Over the holidays I spent an hour or two with Little Miss (aged 10) who was very impressed with the simplicity. She managed to create a couple of short animations on her netbook. I went into full-on geek mode and created the attached Ghostbusters game (no copyright theft intended – it just seemed like a nice name).

Use the mouse to point your gun in the right direction and the space bar to fire. There are seven levels, on each of which you have ten bullets and have to hit the ghost five times. Clear a level using exactly five bullets and you get a bonus.

You can download Scratch from http://scratch.mit.edu/ for free. There are versions for Windows, Mac and more penguin-oriented operating systems.

My ghost-busting title is available as a single file here: Ghostbusters (ZIP file, 2.8Mb)

UPDATE: you can play the game online here!

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Pipes test

Image representing Pipes as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve just made an attempt to use Yahoo Pipes to merge my feeds and publish them to facebook. This post is a test to see if this import works, and if so then I should have a new Note sometime in the next couple of hours.

I didn’t have much luck with Pipes in the past, and the trial run within Pipes failed claiming it couldn’t connect to the feeds despite a manual check showing that they worked fine.

Well, I guess I’ll find out in the morning…

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Your Highness / Fast Five

A two-film Saturday night courtesy in a change of Gillian’s mum’s shifts. The two which fit nicely into our available timeslot were as follows:

Your Highness

“Quests suck!”

See it if you like: Dungeons & Dragons and drawing cocks on school text books.

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Useless prince has to help awesome brother on a quest to rescue a maiden from an evil wizard. While telling cock jokes.

Your Highness is a very silly film from the people who made Pineapple Express which I’ve not seen. I can see it being a very divisive film – you’ll enjoy it or you’ll think it’s awful. I doubt there will be any middle ground. I also think that watching it over a few beers would be best.

The story tells of Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) and his squire Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) who must help elder brother and all round superstar Fabious (James Franco) rescue his virginal bride-to-be Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux). On the way they encounter tough-as-nuts questress Isabel (Natalie Portman).

There. That gets the cast out of the way. A cast, incidentally, who apparently improvised the majority of the dialogue. Impressive. Even if the dialogue is fairly basic and full of sexual innuendo. And sexism. And tasteless insults. As I said – best watched with beer.

The cast do carry things off very well, and it’s quite a surprise to see Portman in particular move from OSCAR nomination in Black Swan to such completely different fare. Franco overacts in just the right way while McBride and Hardiker pair off well as the useless slob prince and his aide who doesn’t realise what a dick he is.

For an admittedly low brow comedy, the production values are quite high and the special effects and action sequences aren’t badly done at all.

Definitely not one you’ll be taking the kids to see unless you want to start explaining about Minotaur penises and why a hand would be like a vagina. Let your inner schoolchild enjoy it and you’ll have a good time.

Fast Five

“One last job, then we disappear forever.”

See if it you like: the thought of Newton spinning in his grave

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Members of the casts from all four previous films get together to pull off one last huge job before the franchise retires.

The gang’s all here – and then some. Pulling in cast members from all the films, including the somewhat sideways jump of Tokyo Drift, Fast Five aims to finish the franchise with a bang (although there are rumours of a sixth…)

We watched the fourth instalment the other night in preparation and I realised how slow it was. Gillian really didn’t enjoy it either. A few action sequences held together with a rather dull plot. Definitely the weakest of the series so far after the novelty of the first, buddy/buddy laughs of the second and scenery change of the third.

Fast Five manages to take all the ridiculous madness of the previous four, shove them through a blender, syphon off anything to do with Newtonian physics and pour the mixture onto celluloid. My only regret about watching this film is that I didn’t see it on IMAX.

As I think I hinted at, I think the laws of physics shit themselves when this film hit the screens. It makes no sense whatsoever. On the other hand… who, seriously, cares? It’s got cars, babes, muscle-bound men, explosions, crashes, trains, dirt, guns, grenades, rocket launchers, laughs, spills, fights, romance…

OK, so the plot in brief. Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom (Vin Diesel) team up to pull a huge job in Rio, taking down a drug lord and making themselves massively rich. In a not-very-well-hidden nod to the likes of Ocean’s Eleven they require a group of specialists. This is where they raid the back-catalogue of characters.

The cast definitely seem on a high and there are some really funny moments and great dialogue as they bicker and cajole. This fleshes out the utterly mind-blowing action scenes. If you thought the opening stunts in the last few films were a little over-the-top, you’ve seen nothing yet.

And that’s nothing compared to the final sequence. Good – and indeed – grief. For those with as much as a Physics GCSE, kindly partition off that section of your brain (particularly the segment to do with friction, force, acceleration and so forth) otherwise you’ll just turn in to a gibbering Newtonian wreck. I opted to sit there and giggle at the incredible destruction and sheer ludicrousness of the entire thing.

I know it’s only April, but I can see this ranking as one of the best action films of the year by the time we hit Christmas. Like all the best shows it leaves the audience wanting more. Whether we’ll get that is anyone’s guess.

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Why are people so different?

 

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

I’ve just been going through the “in progress” work that the wonderful Kristian (of Loondesign) is doing for Blue Dragon‘s website. The new “Kid’s stories” page details three tales of children who have found themselves fortunate enough to receive help from the crew at BDCF. Courtesy of a discussion I was having with someone on facebook recently, the third one made me wonder – why are people in different countries, yet in similar situations, so different.

 

I can’t link to the story directly as the site won’t be uploaded in its new form for a week or so, so I’ve pinched the relevant section:

Hanh’s story

Hanh grew up in Bac Ninh province with her mother, Khanh. Hanh’s father walked out on her even before she was born, so that mother and daughter were homeless and had to live in abandoned houses.

When Blue Dragon met Hanh, she was 12 years old and living in a decrepit old house with no electricity or water supply. The roof had caved in and snakes infested the toilet area.

Hanh was still going to school, but her mother could not afford to pay the fees much longer. This was a family in crisis.

Blue Dragon immediately offered Hanh support to go to school, and then we set about securing land for the family and building a house that they could be proud of.

Today, Hanh is in the final years of High School and looking forward to university. Their new house is kept immaculately clean, and Hanh displays her certificates of achievement from school on the wall for all to see.

Let’s get this down to the simple facts. A family of two living in horrid conditions as a result of being left with no money manage their best for 12 years. Someone offers them help. They get a new house, the child goes to school and does well. The house is cleaned and maintained – by them – and kept as good as new.

Compare this to the UK where we have a benefits system to help people who find themselves in such a situation. Before I begin, I know that not everyone is the kind of person who will do what I’m about to rant about, but a ridiculously large number of people are.

First of all, there wouldn’t be a the 12 year wait before someone “found” them. Shortly after financial problems started, they would be able to apply for assistance. A house would be forthcoming, or at the least a flat. Their rent would be covered and assistance given to find work. Schooling is, of course, free in the UK. As a nation, we are incredibly fortunate.

Given where I lived for 13 years (Bradford) and specifically the area within it, I saw far too many examples of people who took the free house and turned it into a complete dilapidated  pit. Lawns turned to jungles, rubbish left lying, windows broken. Absolutely filthy. The simple thought being that it cost them nothing and if it got bad enough they’d just be moved somewhere else – again, for free.

Children would refuse to attend school, assuming their parents bothered to try to get them to go. Instead, they’d spend their time loitering, committing crimes and ending up as the type of people who would be demanding another house of their own as soon as they were legally able.

The only major difference is that the Vietnamese family realised exactly how lucky they were to be given a fresh start. The appreciated it and showed their gratitude in taking this gift and showing how proud they were of the house and fresh start they had been given. A home to be proud of, academic achievements to boast about and a future they could never have dreamed of beforehand.

Here in the UK, we’re so used to getting something for nothing that we take our good fortune at being born in a comparatively wealthy country for granted. We’re like spoiled children – we want everything with no explanation as to why we’re getting it. To some extent it’s human nature to take the easiest route to solving a problem but some people, unfortunately, take this to extremes. Why put effort in when you can get something for nothing?

I think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed working in Vietnam so much, and especially with the children at the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. Everyone there appreciated what was being done for them. The vast majority took this piece of good fortune and turned it very much to their own advantage through hard work and with a great spirit. They knew they wouldn’t have another chance, and that they would have led a significantly worse life if they hadn’t.

If only we could make our own citizens realise how fortunate they are in comparison.

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