Monthly Archives: May 2012

Richard Hammond’s Crash Course

I’m a bit torn about this show. Let me start by saying that Richard Hammond is, by far, my favorite of the Top Gear trio. And I think he is the most palatable for an American audience. James is too boring and pretentious, Jeremy is too arrogant and offensive. Richard is the best looking, the nicest, and has a sort of boyish enthusiasm that makes him more tolerable than the other two.  So I really expected to like this show. The trailer was great, and I expected a show that was a lot like the challenges on Top Gear.  The point of the show is that Hammond spends each episode learning different ‘work vehicles’, like cranes, demolition machines, tree harvesters, etc. He has 3 days to learn each of the vehicles on a site, and then he has a final exam.

The show started really strong with the Hamster (that’s his nickname) attempting to master the M1A2 Abrams tank.

This was actually my favorite episode of the series. Hammond has to undergo a series of slight humiliations, including an Army workout, and his cohorts at the Army training facilities are not quite as monosyllabic as some of his later ‘coworkers’.  He also starts the tradition, continued in every episode, of destroying a minivan (or several) with whatever equipment he is learning to operate.

There is a quote in a New York Times article about the show, “This is a show that brings out the 8-year-old boys in men. And the show works best when Richard lets that out”, and I couldn’t agree more. My favorite part of every episode was when Hammond got the I’m-going-to-see-a-fire-truck look on his face.

Every episode has at least one moment where Hammond is giggling and grinning–usually this is just after a minivan gets destroyed.

Unfortunately a lot of the episodes are quite repetitive. He introduces the machines, learns how to operate them from people who speak in various ridiculous accents, destroys minivans, and then either passes or fails his final exam. I enjoyed parts of every episode, but overall the format is too monotonous to be truly enjoyable. I’m sure that in learning to operate a tree harvester versus a crane, there are a lot of differences between controls, concepts, etc. But, cinematography wise, the visuals are almost exactly the same.

The best parts of the series involve him trying to form a bond with very blue-collar Americans. Hammond is so personable and so friendly, but I think he has to overcome a prejudice a lot of Americans have when it comes to the British. They hear a British accent and picture Oxford educated men in bowler hats, all of whom live in castles or manor homes and have inherited family fortunes and titles. Of course the reality is that there are just as many working class Brits as there are working class Americans, but they aren’t usually the ones that end up on our TV or movies. In this show Hammond is trying to interact with people that I (and a lot of Americans)  would find a hard time talking to, so there’s a lot of inherent drama in that situation. Picture Dirty Jobs, if they replaced Mike Rowe with Hugh Grant.

There’s also some tension innate to a situation where an outsider attempts to come in and learn how to do your job in three days time, when these guys (and a few women) have been doing these jobs for years, and it took them years to master these machines in some cases. If they do a second season of the show, I hope that they spend more time on those human interactions.

All in all, it was an interesting show, though the best episodes were the first three in my opinion. And, as much as I prefer Hammond to James and Jeremy, I really think the dynamic of the three of them together is necessary for a truly great show.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Last week, I went on my first trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Okay, it’s not exactly British, being in Orlando, but it is definitely relevant to the subject matter of this blog, so I thought I would post a bit of a review and some advice for those who haven’t gone yet.

First piece of advice–you do not need a pass for multiple days. Unfortunately this park is woefully small.  I know they are planning an expansion and might be adding Diagon Alley with a Gringotts ride and Leaky Cauldron restaurant, but that is all conjecture.  I’ll probably go back when that’s done, because, hey, I’m just that big of a nerd.  As it stands, though, the Harry Potter part of the park can be seen in its entirety, twice, in about 4 hours.  Not knowing this, I ended up getting 4 day passes, which meant I got to go back and see it a second time, so it wasn’t a total waste. But it’s smaller than I expected, so keep that in mind.

You have to walk through half of the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure to get to the Harry Potter section. I would recommend turning right once you get into the park, and going around the circle anti-clockwise. This provides the best view of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts when you approach. The other direction brings you around the back.

As you come in, you pass under an archway with the Hogsmeade sign and the Hogwarts Express is clearly and immediately visible.

The conductor stands in front and poses for pictures with whomever wants one. There’s also a Hogsmeade ‘station’ which is really a place to put your stuff in Lockers if you’re nuts enough to go on the Dragon Challenge ride.

So, here’s the real scoop about what is disappointing about this park.  When I went on their website they have this big list of the shops that you can go into, everything from Zonko’s and Honeydukes to Ollivanders, the Owl Post, Dervish and Banges, Scrivenshaft’s…the list goes on.  But, unfortunately, there are really only about 3 of those shops that are real. The rest are just storefronts with ‘Back Soon’ signs, etc. So let me take you through geographically.

On the right is the train, and on the left are Zonko’s and Honeydukes, which are really just one large shop with two entrances.

There are tons of products in here, mostly little joke bits on the Zonko’s end. I wasn’t particularly tempted by any of the products in there. They have bits from the Skiving Snackboxes, plus stuff like U-No-Poo, Sneakoscopes, and Extendable Ears. The packaging on all of these is really cool, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.  Honeydukes on the other hand! I was slightly disappointed that the Chocolate Frogs were so large, and as far as I could tell without buying one, were about the same as an Easter bunny, but a frog obviously. I was more intrigued by the Peppermint Toads, the Bertie Bott’s, and Cauldron Cakes. It was a really cute shop and they also had ‘homemade’ fudge behind the counter.

After these two shops you’ll find the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head.

Again, these are two separate entrances but inside they are open to one another. Slightly inaccurate, but I’ll forgive them. At the Three Broomsticks, you can order food and drink (non-alcoholic). The Hog’s Head serves all the non-alcoholic drinks plus some beers on tap. They have a Hog’s Head brew, which I didn’t try as I hate beer. If you go on a really busy day, I’ve heard that the Hog’s Head is a better place to get your Butterbeer or Pumpkin Juice, as the lines are generally shorter. I have to say, as a vegetarian, there wasn’t much for me to eat at the Three Broomsticks. I ended up getting corn on the cob and roast potatoes. Good, but they were two sides, not a meal in themselves. My boyfriend got Shepherd’s Pie, which he enjoyed. It seems to more closely resemble actual food than a lot of places inside your typical theme park. And the drinks? I tried a frozen Butterbeer, a regular Butterbeer, and Pumpkin Juice. Frozen Butterbeer was the best by far (possibly aided by it being 90 degrees that day in Orlando). It tasted like a cream soda smoothie of some kind. The pumpkin juice wasn’t really juice, for the record, but seemed to be basically a pumpkin flavored soda.  I wish they had made it an actual juice. I know there are recipes online for something that is actually juice, so I may have to try those this fall when pumpkins are so cheap (i.e. November 1st or so).  Anyway, the Butterbeer is highly recommended!

Across from the 3B’s and the HH, you’ll find the entrance to the Dragon Challenge.

Background info: I am terrified of heights and roller coasters.  I have never been on a coaster that went upside down and had absolutely no intention of going on this one. My boyfriend did go on it however! While you’re waiting in line you get to walk past the Ford Anglia and some Triwizard posters and the cup. He said that the red coaster, representing the Chinese Fireball, wasn’t too bad. When you exit the ride you can hop back in line and ride the other one if you want. So he did, and the green coaster, representing the Horntail, is way way worse. I couldn’t have even successfully waited in line without passing out, but good to know if I ever suffer a head injury and then think that sort of thing is fun.

Past this ride is the Owl Post, one of the bigger shops that seems to mostly have wands and clothes. That is right next to Ollivander’s.  Here’s the deal with Ollivander’s: The line is usually really long. Our first day there, there were about 100 people in line, and it takes about 10-15 minutes for each group of 15-20 people to go. So it’s a long line. And they don’t even have a little sign telling you how long it will be. We ended up going back on a day when it was raining, when it was almost evening, and had only a 15 minute wait. So I am glad about that. You’re ushered into his shop and he picks ONE person who gets to try out a few wands. It’s pretty cool. He measures you and he’s snarky, and he gives the spiel about the wand choosing the wizard.  That one person gets to go up and try a few wands. They have effects rigged so shelves fall down and he repairs them with his wand, etc. But even if you are lucky enough to be the one person who gets picked, you still have to buy your wand in the shop next door. Everyone else just watches, and then it’s over. Worth seeing if the line is short, or if you really hope you’ll be the one person, but not essential in my opinion.

Past these buildings are a few of the fake shop fronts I mentioned.  Then there’s an open space where they have photo ops with some people posing as characters–not the main characters, but Hogwarts students or Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students.  They also have shows like the frog choir a few times a day.

Past that is the Flight of the Hippogriff ride.  This is technically called a family friendly roller coaster, so I steeled up my strength and went for it! While you’re in line you can look at Hagrid’s cabin, and while you’re going through the ride you get to bow to Buckbeak. It’s a really quick coaster that goes more in circles than up and down, which is what I vastly prefer. Highly recommended!

Past this, there’s just the castle itself! You can go through on ‘the tour’, which gives you the same experience as those riding, or you can go on the ride, or, I guess you could skip that and just go into the store at the back. I went on the ride twice, and on the tour. So…I’ve been through the castle three times.

You go in and you sort of catch bits of conversation between portraits, talking about how muggles have been allowed into the castle on these tours and we’ll be learning about the castle from Professor Binns. Along the way you see stuff like the Mirror of Erised, bits of the Quidditch team lockers, then into Dumbledore’s office.

He (through a Tupac-esque hologram) talks to you about the castle and hurries you along.  In the next little room you’re in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and Ron, Harry, and Hermione appear from under the invisibility cloak. Holograms, obviously. They tell you that you definitely don’t want to sit through Binns’ lecture, and you should follow them if you want to see the real Hogwarts. They also mention the fact that Hagrid has misplaced a dragon. Then Ron makes it snow with his wand accidentally, and real snow comes down from the ceiling. That part is really cool, and you do feel pretty integrated into the experience. I think they did an excellent job of making the waiting in line just as interesting as the ride itself.

So, the Forbidden Journey ride…I went on it twice. The first time it made me a bit ill, but I did have a full stomach at the time. The second go through, on a different day, went much better. You’re strapped into four-person carts that really move forward, back, vertical, and turn you damn near upside down. You zoom over Hogwarts with the trio, meet Hagrid along the way, and then you’re sort of sucked along, running away from his missing dragon out to the forest where you encounter Aragog and his very large family (a particularly worrisome moment for my arachnophobic boyfriend), and into the Chamber of Secrets where the Basilisk skeleton is waiting for you, and then you’re hit with dementors, and a minute later you successfully arrive back at the Great Hall and the ride is over. It’s really fun, but keep your eyes open. I closed my eyes the first time and it only made me feel more ill, and I missed bunches of stuff.

When you’re done with the ride you get spit out into the largest shop of all, Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods.  I bought so much stuff! They have lots of clothing at that shop, plus winter gear, stuff for your house, flagons and coffee cups and stuff, all the books (in hardcover!), the movies, and lots of stuff that isn’t in the other shops. I ended up buying, over the whole course of our time there, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, Peppermint Toads, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, a Hogwarts flagon, a Ministry of Magic coffee mug, a Marauder’s coffee mug, and a Hogwarts Express key chain.  And, yes, it’s expensive. On the other hand, this was the first time I had ever been to a theme park as an adult, so why the fuck not?

So, my thoughts on the place? It was awesome. If you’re a big HP fan like me, it’s a must see.  It’s hard not to get excited to see stuff like this, even if you know it’s not the real Hogwarts.  My best advice is try to go during the school year, and on a weekday. It wasn’t too busy when we were there, which I am thankful for. I don’t think it would have been nearly as pleasant in July, when all the kids are out of school, it’s 10 degrees warmer, and the lines are all an hour long.  Also, plan on spending more than you think you will. Theme parks are notoriously expensive, but between the souvenirs, the overpriced food, and the taxi rides after walking 7-10 miles a day, I spent several hundred dollars more than I planned on.


Also, the most important bit of advice: remember to wear comfy shoes!

The Iron Lady

I have mixed feelings about this movie, partially due to my mixed feelings about Thatcher herself. The movie is excellent, don’t get me wrong, but in the same way that an excellent movie about Hitler wouldn’t make you like Hitler, I’m not left with much affection for Thatcher at the end.  I am left with a better understanding and a lot of empathy.

I didn’t realize beforehand that the majority of this movie was told through flashbacks.  Our first glimpse of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher is of a small, doddering old woman out to buy a pint of milk.  Not recognized or respected, she’s just another of the large percentage of elderly people in England. She returns home and we discover that her husband is dead and she is mostly cared for by paid workers. She has hallucinations that her husband is still with her. That’s a powerful place to start a story about a powerful woman. I can’t say I expected anything like it from the trailers.  And by the end of the movie I started to feel that it often resembled the Notebook, because ‘MT’ is clearly a bit mad, a bit forgetful, nothing compared to her former self.

The movie jumps around a lot. We see snippets of high-school aged MT, meeting her future husband at Oxford, her first (unsuccessful) bid to become an MP, the assassination attempt, her bid for leader of the Conservatives, and her time as PM.  None of it in that order, however. It’s not terribly hard to follow, but you do have to keep your wits about you. Also, the movie assumes a lot of knowledge about what was going on in England at that time–why people were rioting, why there were strikes, etc. etc. I took a Contemporary British History course so I understood most of the reasons behind footage of striking workers and riots, but I’m not sure how cogent the movie would have been without that background knowledge.  I suspect it would still be a good movie, because the majority of it is about her and her ambition and her love for her family, and the rest is just background noise that affected those main three things.

So this is a portrait of a woman who…I think in her own head she just wants to do what’s right, to stand up for what she believes in.  But in reality, that desire is fueled by a need to overcome her roots (as a grocer’s daughter) and to prove that she is someone to be taken seriously.  I don’t know that being leader of the country was ever particularly her goal, but the desire was to be important, and in some way to show all the people who underestimated her because she is middle-class, and a woman, and a conservative. It’s an ambition spurred on by insecurity.  And like all insecure people, there is a tendency toward egomania.  By the time she is elected leader, and finally given that recognition, she isn’t inclined to listen to anyone else.  Least of all the members of her own party, it seems.  She still feels the need to prove that she is the most important person in the room.

And with her family it’s just the same. She doesn’t just need to be important to them as a mother or wife, she wants to be, in a sense, so important that she doesn’t have time to be a mother or a wife.  She does always want to be the center of attention. she is always the center of attention.  I read an article during that course I took about how she would always confuse her children’s names with her secretary’s and vice versa.  Work came first, essentially. Perhaps if she had been born 10 or 20 years later, she wouldn’t have had children at all.  That’s what I would guess.

But through the movie you do see an absolutely beautiful love story that made me weep.  She’s not always pleasant to her husband, and as we are looking back through her memories and not his, there may be quite a bit of mistreatment not included or remembered.  But her affection for him and her reliance on him is very obvious.  And that reminds us that she is human, and not such a terrible person after all.  She is an obstinant, extreme, egotistical person, but she is also not a bad person.

On a side note, the acting is great. Jim Broadbent (aka Professor Slughorn) is really wonderful as Denis Thatcher, and there is something really quiet and sad about Olivia Colman as her daughter Carol. The young MT was really quite good too, but I have to say I loved Harry Lloyd as Young Denis.  Apparently he’s in Game of Thrones, so I’m sure we’ll see more of him, but he’s quite charming in this movie. I can’t help but be charmed by any man who listens to a woman talk about how she will not spend her life cleaning and cooking and then ‘die while washing up a teacup’ and says that’s why he wants to marry her.

So what about Meryl Streep?  Well, quite plainly, she is amazing. The majority of the movie is just her, and even when other people are in the room it’s hard to remember who they are or why they are there. She’s the only one that matters (which is sort of an interesting mirror of her own idea about her place in the world).  Meryl Streep is spectacular in this movie, and she goes on a real transformation from a young MP to the leader of the country to an old and senile woman.  It’s very moving and an excellent film.  Despite my reservations about Thatcher, I definitely recommend it.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I just finished this novel yesterday. I was excited to read it because I love Zadie Smith. I read On Beauty during a Contemporary British Lit class a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Smith is a great writer, and has the ability to combine snarky humor, some really complex themes, and and beeeautiful prose. After reading this, I have a serious girl crush on her. This was even better than On Beauty.

White Teeth is a really unique novel, in my opinion. Or, unique for this century. In a way, the book is really Dickensian. Let me explain. There are dozens of characters, a lot of which are related. There are characters from diverse social backgrounds and from different countries (which is I think the modern equivalent of Dickens’ habit of having lowly orphans rubbing shoulders with rich gentlemen). There are presumed-dead characters who return years and years later to be important plot points.

I know that Smith is a fan of late Victorian literature, because On Beauty was based loosely on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. So this can’t just be my imagination.

The book is hard to summarize because there are so many characters, but I’ll give it a shot. There are (roughly) three families involved: The Jones’s, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens.

The Jones family: Archie (English), his wife Clara (Jamaican Mormon), their daughter, Irie.

The Iqbal family: Samad (Bangladeshi Muslim), his wife Alsana (Bangladeshi Atheist), and their twin sons Magid (atheist) and Millat (fundamentalist muslim).

The Chalfen family: Marcus (Jewish geneticist), his wife Joyce (waspy as fuck), and their son, Josh.

Confusing enough? It gets moreso. The timeline jumps all over the place, with action taking place in 1907, 1944, 1976, and 1992, plus some bits in between. We spend time with Samad and Archie stationed together in WWII, with Clara’s grandmother who was essentially a slave for an Englishman in Jamaica, but the majority of the action occurs during the adolescences of the children (Irie, Magid, Millat, and Josh).

All of this late 20th century action takes place in North London, in Willesden Green. I lived quite near Willesden Green, so that was fun and familiar for me. The London of the book is sort of its own character, as we see all of these different ethnicities, religions, and ideals coming together in one place. I know America is known as the melting pot and all that, but London is just ridiculous. According to Wikipedia, 13.1 percent of Londoners are of South Asian descent (mostly Indians, but also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), 10.7% are Black (Black African and Black Caribbean). The wiki also claims that more than 300 languages are spoken in London. And I think some of that is represented in the book–the benefits of having this multicultural existence, but also the extreme difficulties of the immigrant experience and the second generation experience. Obviously, I’m not really in a position to be able to comprehend this fully, but Smith does a good job of making you think about parts of the population you might not normally see/consider on your own. I’ve certainly never spent much time examining the ideas/opinions/reasons of fundamentalists muslim groups.

What I love about Smith is the absolute complexity and believability of all her characters. They sound and seem like people you know, with all the small hypocracies and varied motives that make up a real human being. She captures little moments of truth and purity that are really wonderful to be a part of.

Occasionally, I feel like maybe she takes on too much, that it’s too complicated for me to really take away anything definitive. Similar to real life, in that way. But I never feel like I’ve wasted time reading her books. I love spending time in her world, and I adore her snarky humor.

My only complaint has to be the ending. I’ve heard a lot of writing teachers say that after the climax you should wrap it up as quickly as possible, but this was taking it a bit too far. Between the climax and the end of the book there were only 1-2 pages, and none of it particularly satisfactory. I think this is a trend in literary fiction nowadays. Of course wrapping everything up in a neat bow after spending 400 pages constructing a varied and complex world can seem overly simplistic. Still, the audience needs some sense that they have been along on this story for a reason, and this story is now done. I didn’t get enough of that with the end of White Teeth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’m normally not much into cold war era stuff; between the bleakness of the whole Soviet situation and the incredibly bad fashion choices, I’m just not interested.  I am not someone who thinks the idea of espionage is cool or glamorous.  Okay, I enjoyed the first Bourne movie, but that’s about it. I loathe James Bond. I find any of the spy movies that treats it as fun or fabulous or anything other than dreadful to be totally moronic.  And I only liked the first Bourne movie, since the girl snuffs it about 10 minutes into the second.

This movie though, is not a regular spy movie. It does not treat espionage as glamorous, it does not trade in heart-throbs drinking martinis.  It is a lot closer to what I imagine MI-6 or even the CIA would have been like in the sixties and seventies. Which is not to say that I really enjoyed spending time in the world of the film.  But it does allow me to take the movie seriously, which I usually can’t do with anything relating to spies.

This was a movie I had to see from the first moment I heard about it, despite my reluctance to see spy films.  There would never be a movie with this cast that I wouldn’t go see.  It stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt (aka Mr. Ollivander), Benedict Cumberbatch, and also has Tom Hardy and Toby Jones (most recently he appeared in Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries. He was the little bloke with the mean Irish wife.)

So you know the acting is going to be good. The film is about a semi-retired intelligence officer (Oldman) who has to conduct a secret investigation to find the mole within MI-6.  It’s a classic, trust-no-one, sort of movie where you spend half your time wondering if you are being tricked and Oldman is the mole.

The film is very interesting in its pace and its slow unraveling of realization and of facts.  It takes a long time to figure out what’s going on, and it can take some patience to remain focused throughout.  In that way, it sort of mirrors a real investigation–there are moments of insight and action, and moments of tedium and lack of progress.  Also, the filmmakers have chosen to portray a ’60s-’70s Britain that is just as dull visually as you can expect it to have been in real life.  This is not the bright colors and ludicrous outfits of Mad Men.  This is bleak old furniture from the ’50s, the sort of government-sponsored buildings that all look like elementary schools or hospitals, and the tedious environment of gray file cabinets and early electronics yellowed with cigarette smoke.  The very un-visually appealing nature of the movie is sort of visually appealing in its own way.  It adds verisimilitude, I guess. Or maybe I’m projecting my own values onto it.  I think that espionage, that living a life of lies and ambiguity would be necessarily bleak and awful, so I see the bleakness of the film as reflecting that truth.

At any rate, it’s a quiet, subtle film and in that way the exact opposite of Bond’s bright colors, invisible cars, jumping out of planes, etc.  There are no combat scenes.  The violence is realistic and horrifying.  We mostly see the aftermath.

The overwhelming impression (I got) of the film is one where this is not a life you would particularly want.  There are a few characters who come out of the action unscathed, but the majority of them are seriously fucked over by their time doing intelligence work. And, not to provide any concrete spoilers, a few died by the end.

It wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed being inside of, as I said.  But I think the subject it covered was covered really well, accurately, believably. It didn’t glorify or glamorize any of the dirty business of espionage, but it also gave me a sort of thrill to be able to figure things out along the way.  Because of the way it’s structured, you can discover little clues and figure things out from bits of information dropped in your lap casually 40 minutes earlier.  Like a scavenger hunt. There was some sort of accompanying pleasure to do with picking up the pieces. But, overall, it wasn’t a pleasant film to watch.

The acting was brilliant, though quite understated and no one was given enough time or lines to really and truly shine. The only characters with a lot of screen time were Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Gary Oldman’s.  Gary was playing a truly seasoned spy, and as such I think he downplayed his emotions quite a bit.  His character doesn’t reveal much of anything, doesn’t react to much of anything.  The sense I got from him was just of one big brain processing all possible information coming his way. Always thinking. Benedict’s character is younger (obviously) and less experienced, so I think it’s right that his character is a bit more ruffled by everything that’s going on.  He does a really great job, though I must say he is a terribly ugly crier!  Everyone else was only on film for moments here and there, so it was hard to really see them.  I wonder if maybe they were in the movie longer than I think they were, and this just isn’t the sort of movie that lends itself to much emotion.  Not to be stereotypical, but there are basically no women in it. Either way, there wasn’t much there.  The only exception was Mark Strong, which wasn’t a name I recognized.  He did a brilliant job with his part, though there was a part with a bird that I really disliked.

All in all, I think it’s worth watching, but don’t expect an action movie, don’t watch it if you’re tired, or if you like to think of the spy life as something out of Alias.  It’s the sort of movie you have to be in the mood for.