Saturday, November 28, 2009

Great malenky yarbles

Paul W.S. Anderson has earned some deserved notoriety for being a bit shit.
His debut feature, with bright-eyed, chisel-cheeked Jude Law when he was still unfamous, was the grindingly shite Shopping, and a prime vehicle to allow Jude’s rubbish side to shine.

Mortal Kombat followed as Anderson’s first videogame adaptation. Seemingly blind to the steaming afterbirth that was Super Mario Brothers, someone decided that desperately trying to squeeze a film out of a one-on-one beat ‘em up remarkable for its gore was a good idea. The result was a Western action movie in the pre-Matrix days, meaning the action scenes were pedestrian and the game’s gore had been toned down to gain a bigger audience. It’s rancid excuse for cinema didn’t prevent it from spawning a sequel and a TV series. Wonders never cease.

Soldier was Anderson’s fourth feature, was universally panned and was at least an important factor in the downfall of Kurt Russell, who if it weren’t for a few unwise projects could have found himself in the position Bruce Willis enjoys today, mixing interesting work along with the clag.

Resident Evil was the second videogame adaptation, somehow coming up with a plot worse than the original game, infamously bad voice acting and all. Essentially an excuse to watch Milla Jovovich kick ass and use a little bit of dodgy CGI, this is exactly the kind of filler horror bilge that somehow manages to appeal despite the correct knowledge that it will inevitably disappoint. So many people have managed to do zombie movies right, it’s almost insulting when someone cocks one up. Still, I get the feeling that even though I have avoided them so far, the small part of me that yearns to see the sequels will never die.

Whilst not quite evoking the reaction I had to Terminator: Salvation in terms of Franchise Necrophilia, Alien Vs. Predator deserves special mention for making Resident Evil seem like it actually didn’t cock up as a zombie move that badly, in retrospect. Two of the most popular alien horror series had already met in the comic world with some excellent results. A number of stories had envisioned a universe in which the species co-existed and inevitably intruded into the lives of humans, with some success both critically and commercially. So you’d think that making a half decent movie featuring the two xenomorphs would be a piece of piss, and maybe it is. Maybe Anderson went out of his way to fuck it up, just to see if Fox would still release the thing. It achieved an age rating of 15, which can only be seen as a mistake. If your aim is to re-envision it as a subtle psychological horror where any physical trauma is artfully implied rather than splattered on screen, that’s fine, but to go for a halfway house with not enough of anything for anyone we all just go home miserable. And then set it in pyramids, under the Artic ice. Basically a setting as far removed from the earthly or intergalactic arenas you would ideally use, and basically looking like a leftover Young Indiana Jones backdrop that hadn’t been dismantled because they ran out of ideas and money.

Four years later Anderson came back with Death Race one of a number of remakes of classic 70s films that almost certainly didn’t take the original title of Death Race 2000 as it was released in 2008. To be fair, I have heard a number of positive reviews of this, in terms of “it’s good for a bullshit empty action movie”, and it does feature Mr. Jason Statham as the lead, but the trailer really put me off being packed as it is with clichés of clichés in some sort of post-anti-meta-critique of base action films. I did go and see Gamer in the cinema this year, so I think Death Race probably does deserve to get a look in at some point.
The latest project is apparently a return to the Resident Evil franchise; this time subtitled Afterlife, although he did write the two existing sequels so it can’t be argued that he is resorting to a return to past successes. Perhaps this will prompt me to finally watch the sequels in some sort of masochistic Resident Evil marathon which climaxes in a visit to the cinema to see the fourth instalment and a subsequent trip to hospital after gouging out my own eyes?

Speaking of which…

The one Anderson film I haven’t mentioned so far is also unique in that it’s quite good. Event Horizon was Anderson’s third feature, released in 1997, and featured the sublime Laurence Fishburne as our hero spaceship captain, seemingly existing in a universe with an alternate sci-fi film history where none of the films exist that would dissuade one to ever captain a rescue vessel in outer space.

When I say “quite good”, I’m really using the word “good” far more freely than many would be comfortable with, but in terms of Andersons catalogue it is truly a diamond in the rough, Argos diamond or no.

Event Horizon could hardly be accused of being original and lifts elements from
Alien – space rescue going wrong
Various haunted house movies – hallucinations of ghosts caught just going off screen, through doorways, up ladders etc.
2001 – cramped, circuit-board lined passageway
Jaws – crash zoom in said tunnel
Star Trek - the Event Horizon echoes the design of a Klingon Bird of Prey
Hellraiser – hell as a dimension, Neil’s Weir character ‘going native’ and becoming a demon involves a fair bit of self harm (ultimately the worst hell has to offer is physical pain, with the psychological element used to butter you up, whereas it should be the other way round)
The false ending of Scarlet(?) dreaming that they are rescued by Weir is a well worn horror staple, found memorably in Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.
One of the deleted scenes features Neil’s Weir climbing headfirst down a ladder after Cooper and Scarlet, in bloody demon mode, and in the commentary for the scene Anderson admits it was inspired by the deleted “Spider Walk” scene from the Exorcist, making it unlikely that the similarities with myriad other films are coincidences. Most films, of course, can rarely avoid being influenced by previous works, but in this case it smacks just a little too much of recycling.
Two sequences in its favour are both based around vacuum – the well worn genre staple of a hull breach causing violent air loss is enhanced by Captain Miller’s rag doll buffeting as he struggles to escape, and an excellent sequence of a rescue mission for a crewmember caught in an airlock and about to be exposed to space without a suit.

One of the original elements comes from the set design, which does often try to offer something a little unusual even if it doesn’t always work.
The captain’s chair design, suspended from the ceiling of their ship, means that Fishburne’s Miller looks odd, like a toddler sitting at the grown-up’s table with his legs dangling.
The random spikes and ornate symbols on the surface of the gravity drive and its chamber seem highly unlikely for a scientific experiment – ornate decoration doesn’t really go hand in hand with cutting edge technological development.

To expand on nonsensical choices somewhat, the idea that no one on Earth would have attempted to analyse the first message of the newly returned Event Horizon, leaving the crew to have a quick crack at it on the way also seems unlikely. There’s an argument that the rescue mission would have been assembled with haste, but they undoubtedly would have wanted to try and get an idea of what they were sending the team into.

Thankfully the cast are good, with Fishburne standing out in particular as an evident leader who desperately tries to keep control in both himself and his terrified crew as everything goes tits up, and Sam Neil managing to keep close to the line separating camp from menace which probably adds to the atmosphere of unease. Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee also feature and help to avoid the cats becoming characterless victims waiting for their death scene.

The CGI tends to stand out, these days it’s so ubiquitous that for every shot of a car jumping into a helicopter for which you think “aah, CGI” there are a thousand shots with added buildings, added people and altered skies that you will never notice. All of the CGI shots here just look that bit too shiny and basically computerised, though they tend to only be used when necessary, to depict zero gravity for example. This may seem a cheap shot at a film made in 1997, but when Moon was released eleven years later with such excellent use of model work it is hard to believe that CGI would be the better choice, either aesthetically or economically.

For all its faults Event Horizon is perfectly enjoyable and doesn’t compare too badly to more recent examples of the genre such as Sunshine, so it’s a shame that based on the rest of Anderson’s output it looks like a fluke the likes of which he won’t produce again.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Comfortably numb

All About Lily Chou Chou is a study on contemporary Japanese youth culture, an attempt at examining the situation that has led to some Japanese teens becoming violent and despondent, an outcome which has bewildered the older generations since the Japanese economic bubble burst back in the early 1990s.

Centred around a young teen named Yuichi, the film deals with bullying, shoplifting, prostitution, suicide, rape and murder, and how he and his school mates submerge themselves into their culture to escape their grim realities - in this case an obsession with the titular pop star, Lily Chou Chou.

Rather than just being a gritty expose of modern Japanese youth, the film is often lyrical to the point of being willfully abstract, with the long opening scenes consisting of little more than Yuichi standing in a rice field listening to a discman, whilst text from the fansite he runs dedicated to Lily flashes on screen, as different fans discuss Lily's music and the idea that it taps into an alternate state of being, known as the "Ether".

The films is shot on handheld DV throughout, most obviously in a long sequence following Yuichi and his school friends on holiday on a southern island in Okinawa, which is shot in POV of the boys’ own hand-held cameras.
These scenes are a welcome escape from the school and home life of the characters, but as the sequence plays out it’s obvious that getting away doesn’t help the boys get away from themselves.

The cruelty that adolescents are capable of inflicting on each other is always disturbing, and the situations here ring true as similar incidents are a regular occurrence in the news, but the film's attempt at elevating the kitchen-sink subject matter with an arthouse eye doesn't entirely succeed, instead serving to highlight the insular thought processes of the kids and thereby making them less sympathetic. The concentration on the look of the film brings the audience away from the characters and results in you investing less into what happens to them, leaving you to passively absorb the injustices rather than be pricked into anger or sorrow. The essential core to the story is that one of the bullied becomes the bully, and is even worse than those that came before – it’s a situation that should evoke feelings of bitter irony but the isolation of the characters, whilst on the one hand doing a good job of conveying the numbness they impose on themselves to cope, results in the audience feeling a similarly subdued reaction.

The performances are all decent but some of the characters are less than well rounded, particularly the bullies, and this lends the atmosphere a more exaggerated cartoony feel that only detract from the more artistic directional aims.

Extras are confined to a trailer for the film and trailers for other ICA DVD releases.

It's not a bad film but the subject matter has been handled often within Japanese cinema and more imaginatively, and although shot two years before Gus Van Sant's Elephant it still manages to feel like a cheap copy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The flavour of the weak

It’s time for yet another fizzy dip.

Spar, the convenience store chain that have apparently been the official sponsor of ‘European athletics’ since 1996, have their own branded cola range. It seems that their marketing people decided that the nationality of the cola is what entices the consumer, hence their decision to go with “american diet cola” – “real american style, real american taste.”
It’s confusing enough that the label seems to call it american cola diet, but the instance of lower case for american is nearly as confusing as the idea that a cola is able to taste American. They even have a little logo on the bottle with a smidge of what looks like a New York skyline, proclaiming “Authentic American Taste” (this part is all capitals but I’m not going to replicate that here unless absolutely necessary).
They might have a point if the recipe wasn’t all chemicals, but the ingredients are the same as most colas. It does say in the blurb that it’s produced in the UK form cola flavourings imported from the USA. Because we don’t have taste labs in the UK, obviously.
Anyway, their heart’s obviously in roughly the right place as they care enough to include the adult GDAs for calories and salt and such, despite the fact that the levels in the drink are all ‘trace’.

On pouring the drink is fizzy, building a good head that lasts a fair few seconds, and leaving a good numbers of bubbles around the perimeter of the glass for a few minutes after the pour. The smell isn’t strong, giving a faint hint of cola bottle sweets. The taste is also faint, barely registering to the point that you could be forgiven for thinking it was slightly flavoured carbonated water; holding a mouthful before swallowing in an attempt to maximise the flavour makes little difference, if I didn’t already know I was drinking a cola I think it’s possible that I wouldn’t be able to identify what it was, besides it being sweet and not fruity.
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to decide which is more important – for the cola to have a strong flavour or for that flavour not to be foul, but ultimately if you’re so very close to drinking water the only difference here is the added caffeine. Stereotypically the USA isn’t renowned for it’s subtlety, so attempting to sell this on the back of its american-ness isn’t going to do it any favours.

Spar do a vanilla flavoured version of their cola, though unfortunately only in the sugared variety.
Like the diet, this cola has only a faint whiff once you open the bottle, the vanilla is definitely present but there’s a lot less fizz on the initial pour.
First impressions? These are not the droids you are looking for. Taking a good nosefull at the edge of the glass brings in the kind of vanilla smell that you get with a vanilla coke with vodka, except that the mix has been poured in favour of the vodka leaving the acrid, poison smell of the alcohol tainting the bouquet. Hardly a good start. The first gulp fares no better; the vanilla taste is there, but in an oppressive way, coating the roof of your mouth. It is the vanilla of ice cream, but not some rich Devonshire vanilla ice cream, no, instead it has the taste of the cheapest most synthetic vanilla ice cream you could imagine – the panda cola of vanilla ice cream.

After the first couple of gulps the smell doesn’t lessen; that bitter warning remains suffused within it – “stay away, stay away”. And the taste continues to coat the roof of the mouth, barely lighting upon the tongue as if it works along the lines of a strange, reversed gravity.
It seems more and more likely that this cola was brewed using some dark magic.
Safe to say I’ve not found my diet vanilla Coke substitute in this offering.

As cola variations dwindle I have to diversify. To this end, bring on Idris drink company’s Fiery ginger beer. “Try me if you dare!!” The double exclamation marks clearly point to a beverage even more extreme than Pepsi MAX. Imagine!
Who Idris are I don’t know as it clearly states on the back that Britvic makes the drink. It uses ginger root extract, but is it fierier than other ginger beers? Not being a ginger beer connoisseur I have no idea, but I can at least see if it’s fiery.
So, fizzy on pouring but no head, the odour isn’t immediately noticeable on cracking the can, and the colouring is that of cloudy lemonade. A whiff from the glass brings a hint of ginger, but also a lot of lemon as you may expect what with citric acid being a main ingredient. And what does it taste like? Sweet lemon with a very slight ginger kick that mainly takes effect at the back of throat, lingering long after the swallow and threatening to build like hot spices, but never doing so, in a similar manner to the many moments of tension building in the film The Orphanage that see no release. Is it right to use Spanish cinema references in soft drink articles?
If you buy Fiery ginger beer in an attempt to cement your Extreme reputation then you’re likely to be disappointed, I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly resistant to spice and I find this particularly weak.

So, what’s Cherry Diet Coke like? One of Coke’s more enduring flavour experiments, Cherry Coke has been around since 1982, according to Wiki, with the diet variant around since 1986. Cherry happily seems the perfect fruity fit for Coke as it’s sweet enough not to be drowned out and yet retains its particular flavour in the mix.
Pouring acts like Coke, unsurprisingly, producing a fair amount of fizz and an average head before settling down. The smell hits straight away, though, even though the can was cracked a foot away – that unmistakeable, artificial ‘Cherry Drop” twang.
At the lip of the glass the smell is there, and for a fan of cherry-flavoured boiled sweets it’s tantalising. Nothing is given away in the ingredients to hint at where the origin of this nasal sensation is born, but the catch-all term “flavourings” no doubt masks the very same parentage as that of Basset’s Cherry Drops (Wiki search, no I don’t mean “Baroness Cherry Drums”).

And the taste? More fruity than Cokey, though the punch of the cherry is disappointingly subdued compared to the smell that this brown ooze gives off. There’s also a bit of that coating feeling that you rarely get with diet fizzy pop, particularly clinging to the tongue like a second skin. Definitely more viscous than standard Diet Coke, which dribbles down a lot more closely to standard tap water, it’s probably that mysterious chemical that does it.
Not unpleasant then, and a welcome alternative to your common or garden Diet Coke, but definitely not a vanilla beater.
Still, even if Coca Cola are unlikely to win any ethical awards any time soon they can at least bask in the pride of producing one of the most belch-worthy beverages on the shelves. Most gaseous.

Not being a man’s man, I hate ale and beer and this dislike extends to anything sharing the moniker, meaning I tar ginger beer and root beer with the same brush. Whereas the Fiery ginger beer tempted me with a promise of a challenge, root beer I have been recently informed, usually contains some amount of vanilla and so is now naturally tempting.
The Bundaberg Australian Root Beer bottle has an old school beer theme to it, the style of labelling, font, brown glass and the way the kangaroo image is used with the lightburst behind it all conjure a certain association, perhaps making this the tipple for kids to drink so that they feel like grown ups? The liquid isn’t very bubbly and the odour isn’t strong enough to carry; the colouring is very similar to cola and ultimately belongs to the same family of beverages that at one time would have been branded as tonics rather than alternatives to water. Even at the rim of the glass the odour is weak, and reminds me of the mouthwash that they use at the dentists to give you a rinse. It tastes like that to, and is a little thick, definitely leaving a bit of a sweet coating on the back of the tongue as if the sugar decided to hang back after the liquid had made its way to your epiglottis. Definitely not a taste I could get used to as the medicinal quality is never outdone by the sugar, no matter how natural the ingredients or the brewing process are supposed to be. I can detect the liquorice and the vanilla bean to some extent, but not the ginger and I’ve no idea what sarsaparilla or molasses are meant to taste like. Not something to revisit.

My tastes have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so, on from the time when I would refuse vegetables or foods with sauces (which are legion), but this small and unadventurous taste exploration into the world of the pre-prepared Western soft drink proves that I am still quite limited.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Doctor, look out!

I’ve never been much of a radio listener, so when I hear adverts on the commercial stations the form of the audio-only advert always strikes me – the techniques involved; the different methods used in the absence of visual aids. One advert that I noticed while staying with family recently (one of the few situations where I actually listen to radio, as opposed to podcasts) was on Kiss FM, and was a government sponsored anti-drug ad targeted at the mostly young Kiss audience. An actor played out a situation where they smoke a spliff, become paranoid and then get violent. I was reading a paper at the time and the radio was little more than background noise to me at that point, but once I focused on the ad I couldn’t help but release an audible exclamation. I’m sure that situations where cannabis users get paranoid exist, and a proportion of these may lead to extreme or even violent behaviour, but the idea that they were trying to promote this as likelihood rather than outside possibility incensed me.
I never enjoyed smoking cannabis back when I was a teen, though did sometimes enjoy the sensations that resulted, and I haven’t smoked or otherwise taken any in likely twelve years, but I can’t stand the hypocrisy that is flopped out time and time again when dealing with cannabis as opposed to the treatment given to alcohol. True, the government never condones binge drinking and the like, but you don’t need to binge to get a much higher proportion of people having reactions to alcohol that are far worse than those to smoking gear.
This is the TV version of the advert:

Despite the recent surfeit of blokey comedies in recent years, many of which are connected to the Apatow stable (who surprisingly has only directed three films to date but seems connected to dozens), it’s the Hangover that seems to be the enduring hit in the UK and is still screening in 21 screens as of September 12th despite having been released on June 12th, I’d be surprised if Mamma Mia had lasted much longer.
For a ‘bad taste’ comedy which not long ago would have invited comparisons with the films of the Farrelly brothers, the Hangover is pretty so-so with only a handful of belly laughs to be found in the overly familiar situation of people going to Vegas, over indulging and then engaging in a spot of OMG!!11! as they try to piece together the previous night. Perhaps the Great British public find the situations involving binge drinking comfortably familiar.

Unfortunately I’m no stranger to the concept of the lost night. A number of times I’ve found myself regaining consciousness the morning after and having no memory of what happened after a certain point. Regaining consciousness is not the most accurate way of putting it, as this implies passing out rather than blacking out, which is the phenomenon that I experience – a complete lack of knowledge of what I did or said, and then suddenly I’m back. A lot of the time it has to be said that it involved situations where a free bar led to me not keeping track of how much I’d had, or drinking at home or at parties meant that self-poured drinks contained undefined measures, but many is the time that I have eaten three meals, slept relatively well and only had 5 or so drinks before suddenly finding myself somewhere else at a later time. One study (GOODWIN, D.W; CRANE, J.B.; AND GUZE, S.B. Alcoholic "blackouts": A review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics. American Journal of Psychiatry 126:191-198, 1969) suggests that it is the concentration of alcohol in the blood that leads to blackouts, which is supported by the self-mixed and free-drink instances, although it would be interesting (and useful) to discover what variables resulted in blackouts in the cases where I consumed far less quantities and in seemingly ‘safer’ circumstances.

Some sort of homing instinct seems to get me back every time, though most recently I vaguely recall not being able to get into my flat and taking apart my wallet chain in order to try and pick the lock. I sat in my front doorway until half three in the morning when I remembered that my keys were in my back pocket.
I had been to a gig that night but do not remember a second of it; two CDs and a t-shirt testify to my presence there, and perhaps that I enjoyed it?
It’s not a happy time, as though I rarely get up to anything that I would be ashamed or embarrassed of in the cold light of day, it is uncomfortable to think of myself not in control of my actions. Am I really getting on with it, but much more drunkenly than usual, while the alcohol destroys the brain cells that record the memory of events? Or does another part of my consciousness take over while I am out of action – if so who is this version of me and where is he when I’m sober? More likely, but no more comforting, is the idea that excessive drinking leads to a form of anterograde amnesia – a state whereby you are unable to retain information so that you can still utilise skills you have learnt and can remember things before the amnesia took hold (usually due to brain injury), but anything that you experience afterwards is lost to your long term memory (most famously the basis for Christopher Nolan’s Memento).
Obviously in the case of binge drinking the effects are only temporary, with the ability to retain experience returning after the alcoholic influence subsides, but the idea that you can lose memory so utterly is disquieting.
Memory is ultimately the backbone of your very personality, formed as you are from the experiences and interpersonal exchanges that you build up over time – without these the ‘you’ that you take for granted when performing even the most cursory self reference as you look in the mirror in the morning would simply cease to be. You can lose snatches of it and still retain your essential self; but lose the lot and you are dead in mind if not in body. I find the physical connection between brain tissue and memory, and therefore the physical body and consciousness, to be the strongest argument against the popular idea of the immortal soul or reincarnation. Should the soul exist, it very well may ‘live’ on after your body dies, but once your brain is gone your consciousness goes with it – the ‘you’ that is reading and processing these words right now will cease to exist, which kind of makes the idea that you will meet your loved ones in heaven impossible – if brain damage can potentially destroy any memory you had of a husband or wife and a decades-long marriage, there’s no hope of retaining that information beyond the flesh and into the ethereal.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Arm me with harmony

My hunt for soft drinks continues.
Resigning myself to the fact that there is no adequate vanilla cola substitute out there, I still find myself as a night person with a normal nine to five job. This means a certain amount of sleep deprivation that can only be controlled by liberal ingestion of caffeine. As I’m not a proper grown up I don’t drink tea or coffee and so have to rely on fizzy pop alternatives. Red Bull is the obvious choice, its 250ml cans packing the punch of two filter coffees, but this concentration is sometimes a bit much so the next best thing is the 330ml cans of coke and the like, which carry about the same as a cup of tea.
There aren’t that many soft drinks besides cola that actually contain caffeine, and being a drippy ethical sort I’m not comfortable with blissfully quaffing away at the products of the Coke and Pepsico mega corps who aren’t exactly squeaky clean.

The A.G. Barr soft drink company has apparently been around since 1875, is based in Scotland and is arguably most famous for Irn Bru. Irn Bru and Coke regularly fight over the top spot as Scotland's soft drink of choice, but as far as I can tell Barr don’t indulge in any overtly unethical business practises, you know, like condoning the murder of trade unionists.
Thus I was simultaneously pleased to find that I had a taste for that bright orange brew made from girders, and dismayed that the diet variety is pretty hard to come by round these parts. Two litre bottles are found in the odd supermarket but aren’t ideal for a desk-based drink at work, and so far I’ve only found cans in my local shop over the road. For a medium sized cornershop their selection is pretty comprehensive, and not only do they have the cheapest vanilla Stolichnya I’ve seen but also a fairly wide variety of Barr’s other products.

Barr Cola seemed an obvious choice; where would it sit in the cola pantheon?
The smell hits you as soon as the brew pours into the glass – the cola qualities are all there and not dissimilar from Coke itself. A sniff taken from the rim of the glass gives more of a hint of that cola bottle, chewy sweet scent, though. The froth builds quickly and rides high once the liquid hits the glass, but it’s very short lived and soon settles down to a mostly calm, slightly bubbling state.
It’s a very odd taste sensation. Despite being a full-sugar version, it’s not especially cloying, but somehow there is no taste in the meat of the gulp. It is almost as if you are drinking water with a cola lining, the taste seems to be contained in only the outermost edges of the liquid mass that you decant into your maw. The lack of that cloying feel is echoed in the viscosity; Barr’s Cola slips down very easily (probably due to the aforementioned lack of density in carbonation).
Whilst not particularly tasty, this could become a regular alternative to Coke, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in a sugar-free variety so is no good to me.

Then there’s Ka, the ‘sparkling Karibbean Kola flavoured drink’. That label design doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.
A lot less fizz than Barr’s simply titled Cola on the initial pour, but it settles in the same way moments later. The smell isn’t as obvious on twisting open the bottle, but at the rim of the glass its bouquet betrays a definite citrus element. There’s fruit in there somewhere.
It just tastes weird. Not very cola-like at all, the fruit seems like some hybrid mix of berry and melon. Is this really “A Taste of the Caribbean”? As with the Barr Cola it only seems to be available in a sugared variety, but like Barr Cola it also is not cloying and slips down smoothly. Again it’s quite a pleasant little concoction but my tooth rot fear precludes me from making it my drink of choice. Besides that, caffeine is not even listed as ingredient, so it becomes even more redundant for me. Still, it’s not the hideous Panda cola-esque abomination that the packaging design might have you believe.

As for Irn Bru itself? Just like the other Barr drinks, the fizz settles down early on, leaving a few bubbles to make for the surface, but on taking a sip you find that there is still a fair amount of fizz present. Whilst it still goes down as smooth as Ka and Barr’s Cola, a lot of gulping in quick succession is going to leave you in danger of rather plosive belching.
The odour has a pleasant fruitiness to it, echoed in the taste that has a definite citrus tang, leaning heavily toward oranges. It makes for a much lighter and refreshing alternative to Red Bull, which seems deeply entrenched within its artificial nature. At least Irn Bru has the good grace to disguise this.
Whilst neither of the Barr colas had ingredients out of the ordinary, Irn Bru does have one thing as a point of difference – ammonium ferric citrate (0,002%), which is presumably where the Irn comes from. Essentially the compound serves as an acidity regulator, so it would be interesting to know if this is an industry standard or serves to add to Irn Bru’s uniqueness. Presumably the standard ‘acidity regulator’ description would be used if the actual type was unimportant?

It’s interesting how certain urban myths are perpetrated and why. Was the MMR jab scare of a couple of years ago down to a slow news week or was there another agenda at stake? The vilification of sweeteners used in some soft drinks is another unsubstantiated rumour that is now taken as read in the same way that most people believe that the Godzilla remake is rubbish even if they’ve not seen it (and I am one of that number).
The article linked below aims to look at how you can dig deeper into the background of a website to try and ascertain its worth as a source, and it just so happens to cover one of the stories that spread about the artificial sweetener Aspartame. It has been cited as the cause for any number of conditions, but as yet none of these have been backed by any sort of scientific research or evidence, and yet it remains one of those common misconceptions – that diet soft drinks are bad for you; the sweeteners cause brain tumours; they can cause cancer; carbonated drinks rot tooth enamel.
Caffeine is about the only exception that has documented effects on health, and yet those who cry foul on diet sodas are likely to be coffee or tea drinkers themselves.

Are soft drinks evil?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I am fail

I've always wanted to be a writer (after muppeteer), but since my late teens I've felt that my imagination had dried up and died, and I had no stories to tell. This lack of ability for fiction didn't stop me wanting to get into criticism, particularly of film, but with a lack of effort on my part and a very limited opportunity to make a living it will take a massive amount of will power to take that road.
In the meantime, as I ambled along with a bit of criticism thrown out here and there on various websites and my own blog, I was introduced to the idea of the 'drabble' by friends. Essentially an exercise in focus and restraint, it is a short story contained within exactly one hundred words and it seems like an ideal format to try and come up with and use ideas without being daunted by the idea of a novel or even a short story. Unfortunately it's a lot harder to fit ideas into one hundred words coherently, and the below is an example of overspill.


Of course it was ironic. She couldn't envisage actually telling people
about this, assuming that she even survived.
After years of panic and worry due to her phobia of air travel, Sally had given in to her desire to see new cultures and more of the world. Trains and coaches across Europe and Western Russia, and the brief visits to Northern Africa via ferries across the Med had only exacerbated her desire for adventure, rather than extinguishing it.
Three weeks ago she boarded a frieght vessel at Southampton, thanks to months of wrangling and a sympathetic captain who had a pteromechanophobic wife. They set off along the West coast of Africa, rounded Cape Agulhas and made their way across the Indian Ocean en route to Bangladesh. Sea travel agreed with her, the rythmic lurching of the vessel and the salty whip of the air raised her spirits; she looked forward to seeing India, the Far East and on into the Pacific.
It wasn't pirates that did for them in the end. The ship had been old and rickety,
and whilst this had added to the charm of the voyage in her eyes, the tornadoes that hit were the worst in three decades, and the ship broke up before the night was out.
She didn't remember how she came to leave the ship, whether she made one of the life boats or hit the water, when she fell unconscious. All she knew was the here and now - the bright, cloudless sky, the small island of rock and sand, so tiny she could see the entire perimeter from where she sat.
The boxes washed up from the ship, damp not just from the sea but from the slow melt of their contents. Part of the cargo had been a large number of pudding items from one of the UK's premium luxury food producers, kept frozen on board and destined for the tables of India's burgeoning upper middle class.
A dessert island.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Mr. Funny Shoes

In the run up to the August 2007 release of Bioshock the game and its developers received a large amount of positive press, highlighting not only a new direction for the now mainstream First Person Shooter, but also a game that was seemingly steeped in ideas regardless of gaming genre.
The setting itself was a breath of air as fresh to the FPS as it would be stale and salty within Rapture itself. Whilst to this day many stable mates don't dare to venture beyond the well-trodden path of the space marine (see Gears of War, Fracture etc.) or WW2 soldier, the idea of an underwater utopia based on the principles of free markets and the stimulation of art and science is a large departure in and of itself, let alone envisioning this fleetingly proud city sliding into corruption and decay, and resulting in a mini eco-system consisting of psychopathic gene-altering survivors, sinister little girls who harvest corpses for valuable genetic-altering material (Adam) and their protectors, the hulking, diving-suited Big Daddies.

The aesthetic choice of the setting is interesting as it is firmly rooted in the ‘Golden Age’ of 1950s Americana, possibly the one period in which the US could lay claim to its own unique cultural stylings as in the centuries before World War 2, fashion, architecture and so on were heavily influenced by the myriad cultures that emigrated there, whilst from the 60s onward North American culture became more and more pervasive globally, leading to an inevitable dip in individuality as it became ever more ubiquitous. It is likely not a coincidence that one of the more aesthetically striking games in the short time since Bioshock achieved critical and commercial acclaim is Fallout 3, set in a post-apocalyptic 1950’s influenced America.
To be fair much of the architecture in Rapture itself is based on earlier movements, but the atmosphere of the 50s in terms of behaviour and dress is undeniable.

Aside from the visual stylings, the influence of Ayn Rand and Objectivism is central to the conceit of Bioshock’s world, and explicit in the naming of Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan, whilst the setting is ripped straight from Atlas Shrugged with a character named Atlas supposedly leading the resistance against Ryan’s rule and Rapture itself peopled with ‘great minds’ invited by Ryan to a retreat beneath the ocean (rather than into the mountains of the novel). Laissez-faire capitalism is implicitly blamed as the root of the breakdown of the fledgling society as no one oversees the rampant research into gene technology or stops the populace from abusing it before possible consequences are understood. Objectivism is echoed in the ideas of freedom of choice and action and character progression within a scripted medium - is the man asking 'would you kindly?' and giving you the illusion of choice similar to the game programmer giving, via interaction, the illusion of choice that the audience does not get from more passive mediums such as film, music and literature?

After the integral philosophical and cultural influences on the game (the fact that it had any was a cause for celebration in itself), much was made of the moral choices that would be presented to the player on arrival within Rapture. Essentially this boiled down to your choice of whether to "harvest" (read: murder) the little sisters for their Adam, or save them from their apparently benign co-existent relationship with the Big Daddies. You could usually decide to opt for neither and leave them to their own devices as they wandered the sub-aquatic halls, but both options resulted in rewards to power up your plasmids (gene-alterations that work in the same way as magic, basically).

On reading all of the preview articles, I got an impression that the idea of freedom of choice was rather more free than it actually turned out – on my first encounter with a (gene) splicer, bent over a baby carriage and sobbing, I thought that I might have the opportunity to talk with the character, to perhaps try and appeal to reason rather than violence. But the choice not to fight is never an option (unsurprisingly as your avatar sticks to the usual FPS convention of being mute).
The chance to decide whether to be 'good' or 'bad' has long been present in RPGs, with varying degrees of subtlety, and has been extant on console iterations of the genre for years, with the most widely-known examples being in the two Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games and in the first Fable on the Xbox.
Being presented as the 'crucial' moral choice of harvesting in Bioshock rather overstated the matter, especially as the consequences of being the good guy and foregoing the power ups gained through murder were rather mitigated by getting gifts of power ups for being so gosh darned nice.

Regardless of the promises unfulfilled, Bioshock remains one of the high points in the evolution of the FPS since it began around seventeen years ago, standing alongside such greats as the Half Life series, mainly down to the attention to detail in creating an immersive world within which the well-honed point and shoot game mechanics could be enjoyed.
It will be interesting to see where they go with Bioshock 2 now that the ‘shock twist’ or Rapture’s story has been used and similar limited quandaries about freedom of choice and morality ultimately won’t have the same impact second time around. Making you the prototype Big Daddy smacks of the usual trend for sequels to have more and bigger bangs, but even if the new iteration follows the usual sequel formula it will still be refreshing to revisit Rapture after so many urban warzones, Normandy landings and bug hunts.