Living under a Lockdown - Andy's Journal of Professional Crastination

I've been at home for a week, and I think it's time to write down my thoughts about this pandemic. As things were beginning to shut down at university, I elected to go home while I still had the opportunity to do so. This was after a stressful week, as this crisis has happened on the tail end of the University and College Union strike, which had resulted in all but one of my classes being cancelled. This also meant a lot of uncertainty over deadlines and catch-ups, along with the societies closing down. In the space of a week, my social life just up and vanished. So I decided to go home and spend this period of quarantine with my parents, believing it would be safer than spending it on my own.

I'm enjoying the indulgences of home, such as hot baths, tea with milk (I don't buy milk at university because I drink more coffee than tea, and have that black), and the collection of wine and gin. I cook evening meals twice a week, and have to be a bit more creative since having pasta every day has ended up being...untenable. It's actually nice to be cooking different things. I mostly live off pasta at university. I'm not a picky eater or a substandard cook, I just don't feel like putting much effort into meals when I'm only cooking for myself.

I've got assignments to do: two prose pieces, two scripts, and a research paper. Term hasn't actually ended yet, but most workshops are online now, and I'm having tutorials with my lecturers via Skype. And the earlier this week, the university announced an extension for all deadlines. So, I'm doing what I do best: Procrastinating.

I've subscribed to Disney+ now that it's available in the UK. I'm watching through The Mandalorian, and have also recently started watching Gargoyles. I might do a Franchise Review of the Toy Story films at some point in the next month or so. I'm also watching a new series of The Great British Menu. This year's chefs are competing to cook at a banquet celebrating British children's literature. It's a nice stroll down memory lane, with chefs producing some truly creative dishes inspired by stories from their childhood. I'm currently keeping track of how many desserts (specifically desserts) are inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I imagine there'll be a lot, and I think it will be cool to see Willy Wonka's creations de-fictionalised.

On the gaming side, I was going to do another play-through of Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. I finished Drake's Fortune, but then I went home. And I had to leave the bulk of my stuff behind, including the PlayStation 4. There goes that plan, then. But I do have my Xbox 360 and GameCube. I set that up and have been revisiting TimeSplitters 2. I might revisit Assassin's Creed III, mainly to help find inspiration for a tabletop role-playing game setting I've found.

Speaking of tabletop role-playing games, I've joined a lot of gamers in moving their campaigns to online platforms like Roll20 and Discord. I'm running a series of scenarios using my favourite Savage Worlds role-playing system, but am also joining some other games so I can experience the system as a player as well as a GM. Furthermore, I'm writing some supplementary material for running games in a comic fantasy setting I'm developing. It'll serve as a non-academic writing project.

All-in-all, I'm trying to keep busy. But I'm feeling down that I've had to prematurely go home, where there isn't much to do even when there isn't a pandemic. Especially with events being cancelled. I've got Swanwick in August, which I've been looking forward to since last year. That's the highlight of the summer holidays, where I get more social contact in one week than I do in the three months I'm not at university. Plus, I'm running a workshop this year, which gives me something to work on when I finish my assignments. We'll see.

Stay safe, and happy writing.

Word Crawls

Things are pretty quiet at the moment, as most of my classes have been cancelled because of the UCU Strikes (for the record, I do support the strikes). Although it is Sod's Law that the one workshop that isn't cancelled is a 9:00 am. Anyway, I've been trying to pass the time by working on some of my assignments, and stumbled across an interesting writing challenge: Word Crawls.

For those who don't know, a word crawl is a collection of writing challenges which involve a short word count goal, a time goal, or sometimes both. The other day, one of my writer friends tweeted a blog post from the group behind National Novel Writing Month. The post discussed a Harry Potter-themed word crawl. It looked fun, so I decided to give it a go today. I've been asked to bring a draft for an assignment in the workshop that was cancelled, and decided to partially apply that.

This particular crawl was based around the events of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Each challenge is building the narrative of a young wizard on their first year at Hogwarts alongside Harry Potter. Initially starting with a simple warm-up task to write 100 words, the crawl was broken down into five parts, three of which I went through.

Part 1: Diagon Alley

The first challenge in this part is meant to represent a visit to the Gringotts wizard bank to withdraw funds. This consists of a ten minute writing session, which awards Galleons (gold coins) based on how much you wrote in the session. You should keep a note of how many Galleons you have, because you can pay them to skip challenges later down the line (this gets more expensive as the crawl progresses). Unfortunately, I only managed 130 words, which is worth just one Galleon (and ten words off getting two).

Following on from this is a trip to Ollivander's to buy a wand. This is a simple word count challenge, based on a die roll. I rolled a one, so that's another 100 words. And also means my wand's core is made from unicorn hair. Being a Dungeons & Dragons player, I did make a joke about what die to roll.

The third challenge in this segment was a 15 minute writing session representing a search for a pet. The options are a cat, a rat, or an owl. And including the chosen pet in the story grants an additional Galleon. I probably should have left that to a Twitter poll, but I settled with an owl because it seemed like the most fitting for what I was working on.

Part 2: The Hogwarts Express

The train ride to Hogwarts is represented by a simple exercise to get your word count to the nearest thousand. But if you need to write more than 500 words to reach the milestone, you receive an additional Galleon.

There is only one other challenge in this segment, but you have to pick one from a list of four (or pay a Galleon - meaning that in narrative terms you're paying a bribe not to buy sweets). To make things more random, I conducted a Twitter poll in which I innocuously asked what confectionary from the Harry Potter universe people wanted to try. The overall winner was the Chocolate Frog, which brought with it a simple five minute writing session (from chasing down the frog). That came off as something of a relief, because one of the other options was Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. And the challenge for that involves trying to write 500 words in five minutes in a challenge known as the "50 Headed Hydra" (in the narrative, you're trying to get rid of the taste of the earwax-flavoured bean you just ate).

Part 3: The Sorting Hat

The first challenge in this segment involved a simple ten minute writing sprint, representing time spent socialising with other first year students while waiting in the main hall of Hogwarts. Nothing much to that one, really.

Anyway, the next challenge is another one in which you have a choice of four. As the segment suggests, this represents what house you're being sorted into (your house also allows you to skip certain challenges without paying any Galleons). I consider myself a Ravenclaw, because the Wikipedia page claims the house values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit. Their challenge is simply to calculate how many words you need to write to get to the next thousand, and then write them. That one took the bulk of the session.

The third challenge represents you socialising with other people on the table and your house ghost during the welcome feast. The exact challenge is one known as "The Three Digit Challenge", in which you share the last three digits of your word count with another participant, and they have to write that much. Because I'm a lonely stick-in-the-mud, I simply paid two Galleons to skip this challenge.

As I applied this challenge to 2,250-word short story, I opted to wrap things up there. However, I still had fun with it, and might try it again with a bigger project at some point in the near-future.

If you want to give this a go, the full details can be found at the NaNoWriMo forum here: 

Until then, happy writing.

City of Vice

Credit to IMDB
Some ideas can be lost in the vestiges of time. While I was looking for inspiration for an upcoming assignment, I was watching "Policing London", an Extra History serial about the history of law enforcement in London during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Reading further into it, I was directed towards a TV show called City of Vice, a period police procedural originally broadcast on Channel 4 in 2008.

Taking place in London in 1753, we follow Ian McDiarmid as Henry Fielding. Once an accomplished playwright and the author of Tom Jones, Henry serves as a magistrate for Westminster with his half-brother John, played by Iain Glen. In a bid to curb the activities of criminal gangs operating in London, the brothers assembled a hand-picked team of parish constables led by Saunders Welch (played by Francis Magee). Known as "The Bow Street Runners" after their headquarters at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, they would become London's first organised police force. The show follows them as they solve a different crime each episode, while also trying to convince their sponsors in Parliament that they're up to the task.

The show is mostly presented as a drama, but they also try and maintain a factual element. The grim depiction of London uses a visual style almost reminiscent of Hogarth's painting. Transitions between locations are handled a "travel by map" sequence using a map of London published by John Roque in 1746. As it zooms in, it becomes a 3D model before finally converting to an establishing shot. While the CGI looks fairly cheap, I still think it's pretty neat. The dialogue's pretty good, and the Fieldings are well-established characters. Henry has a great voice as he narrates. While suffering from gout, he tries to crack the cases, but his reputation is also marred by his past as a writer and a scandalous marriage to his housemaid whom he had gotten pregnant. Meanwhile, John is blind, but said to recognise a large number of known criminals from voice alone.

What's a real shame is that there only five episodes. I would have liked to see more, but at the same time, they wouldn't have been able to carry things on; Henry Fielding died in 1754, and that would mean losing Ian McDiarmid, who pretty much carries the series. You can find all five episodes on YouTube quite easily, and I recommend that you check them out.

Happy writing.

Film Review: Snatch

Last week I had a look at Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Because I'm procrastinating too many ideas at the moment, I decided that I'd look at the "sequel" or "spiritual successor" or whatever you'd like to call it. Two years after his previous success, Guy Ritchie decided to do another caper film, whis time with an increased budget and bigger names in his ensemble cast.

The film has two parallel storylines:

  1. Frankie Four Fingers, a professional thief played by Benicio del Toro, arrives in London with a large diamond he acquired during a heist in Antwerp with Russian mobsters. One of his accomplices directs him to his brother, an arms dealer known as "Boris the Blade" (played Rade Sherbedgia), with whom he hatches a plan to steal the diamond. Boris preys on Frankie's gambling addiction, hiring two pawnbrokers named Vinnie and Sol (played by Robbie Gee and Lennie James, respectively) to rob him as he goes to a bookies to make a bet on Boris' behalf. When "Cousin Avi" (Dennis Farina), a New York jeweller who sponsored the heist, learns of Frankie's disappearance, he travels to London to find him. In the process, he enlists the services of a hired mercenary named Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones).
  2. Small-time boxing promoters Turkish and Tommy (played respectively by Jason Statham and Stephen Graham) attempt to move up in the world of unlicensed boxing. To this end, they join the underground boxing network of the ruthless gangster Brick Top (Alan Ford). Just before their upcoming bout, Tommy and their fighter, Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty), go to buy a caravan from a group of Irish Travellers. When the deal falls through, Gorgeous gets into a fight with and is hospitalised by an unintelligible bare-knuckle boxer named Mickey (Brad Pitt). Not wanting to incur Brick Top's wrath, Turkish recruits Mickey for the bout. But Mickey's refusal to abide by Brick Top's strict conditions lands them into more trouble.
Like its predecessor, Snatch features a wide array of characters within the two stories, and tries to develop them as much as it can. Alan Ford is especially good as Brick Top. He may be the antagonist, and is utterly ruthless, but he produces a ton of funny lines. That doesn't detract from his aura of menace though. Who else can say "Goody gumdrops" or "I'm sweet enough" and still sound threatening? His most memorable moment is probably a monologue he gives about the benefits of using pigs to dispose of a body. In fact, his dialogue is so memorable that someone actually made a fan video in which his lines are dubbed over Darth Vader's in Star Wars. To Alan Ford's approval.

Also like its predecessor, the film utilises a lot of black comedy. But I think this one's a little more humorous than the first film. Funny moments include Mickey's dialogue which is so unintelligible, not even the subtitler knows what he's saying. Vinnie and Sol are comically inept, along with their getaway driver Tyrone (Ade). The same goes for Tommy. In fact, I think Turkish is the only character in this film who isn't greedy, crazy, or just plain stupid. Well, Tony is fairly level-headed too.

As for the story, Turkish and Tommy may be the closest thing the film has to protagonists. Similar to the four boys in Lock, Stock, they're not as involved in the story as the rest of the characters. Well, Turkish doesn't really do much other than enter business with Brick Top and then suggests using Mickey as their fighter. That said, Snatch does have a tighter story, with all the most important plot elements making it into the final cut. Speaking of which, I finally saw the deleted scene in Lock, Stock which explained Harry's grudge against JD. Going slightly off-topic here, but the fact that such an important scene was cut from the film was one of that film's major issues. That's something which was rectified in Snatch. The two stories are intertwined really well.

Overall, Snatch is a great film. It's difficult to decide which of the two films is superior. I suppose Snatch does rectify the issues Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels had. But it the same time, it does seem to re-tread the same ground. I like them both though, and they're worth viewing.

Film Review: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

I've recently discovered a UK-based convention for the Savage Worlds roleplaying system, and one of the games being advertised is Harrison Hunt's Tuffguys, a Guy Ritchie-esque crime story set in London in the 1990s. With this in mind, I decided to take a look at one of the films which inspired the setting; Guy Ritchie's 1998 cinematic debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This sepia-toned caper features a large ensemble cast, and served as breakout role for Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, and Vinnie Jones.

Since it's an ensemble piece, it'll take a bit of explaining.

  • We'll start by looking at the four long-time friends who serve as our protagonists:
    • Bacon, a laid-back and straightforward street vendor, played by Jason Statham
    • Eddy, played by Nick Moran, an optimistic and naive card sharp who acts as Bacon's shill
    • Tom, an opportunistic business-minded grocer, played by Jason Flemyng
    • Soap, a pessimistic and anxious chef, played by Dexter Fletcher (who's also quite fond of knives)
The friends raise £100,000 so that Eddy can buy into a weekly high-stakes card game run by "Hatchet" Harry Lonsdale, a sex shop owner and loan shark played by P.H. Moriarty. Unfortunately, Harry is holding a grudge against Eddy's father JD (played by Sting), and rigs the tournament so that Eddy and his friends are saddled with a substantial debt and only a week to pay it off.

This is actually where I have my biggest criticism: What is Harry's grudge against JD? I'm assuming that JD had played against Harry and won, investing his winnings in his bar. Harry's debt collector, Big Chris (played by Vinnie Jones), visits JD and suggests that hands the deed to his bar over to Harry. I've heard the director's cut explores this a little more, but I haven't seen it. Having to seek those out doesn't always make for a good story.

Anyway, we've established the main story, now we'll look at the subplots:
  • Dog (played by Frank Harper), Eddy and Bacon's next door neighbour and the leader of a ruthless gang of extortionists, is planning to rob a group of chemists who are running a highly lucrative cannabis-growing operation. When Eddy hears about this, he hatches a plan to ambush the gang and steal the cash and drugs.
  • Harry's right-hand-man, Barry "The Baptist" (played by Lenny McLean), hires two bumbling Liverpudlians named Dean and Gary to steal a pair of antique shotguns from a bankrupt lord. Instructed to get "everything inside the gun cabinet", they unwittingly sell the two coveted shotguns because they weren't in the cabinet, and are intimidated into bringing them back. The buyer, a fence called "Nick the Greek" (played by Stephen Marcus), sells them to Tom for their heist. He also arranges to sell the stolen drugs to a sociopathic gangster named Rory Breaker (played by Vas Blackwood).
The film tries to develop all the groups of characters, but I fear it does so at the expense of the protagonists. The main thing the four friends do is get saddled with the gambling debt and then rob Dog's crew. After that, most of the conflict is between the other characters. However, this still provides a great climax, and allows the four friends to avoid the worst of the consequences. While their story ends on both a literal and figurative cliffhanger, there are still some plot threads which they could have addressed. The main one is that of Winston, the lead chemist (played by Steven Mackintosh), who recovers the stolen drugs and leaves. It's not stated what happens to him or his housemates after the robbery.

While these are a few minor issues, they're still difficult for me to overlook. But the dialogue and black comedy more than make up for it. There are a ton of quotable lines, such as a monologue by Soap about why knives are superior to guns. It's established that Soap got his name because he likes to keep his hands clean of anything unlawful, so this is a side to him that we haven't seen. And neither have his friends, who become more afraid of him than they are of Dog's crew. Yeah, there's violence, but most of it is implied.

If there's anybody who steals the show, it's Vinnie Jones as Big Chris. I've already stated that he's Harry's debt collector, so you can imagine he's a tough guy (like most of the actor's subsequent roles). But he's also accompanied by his son, Little Chris, whom he deeply cares for (to the point where he scolds people for swearing in front of them). He also seems genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of others (whom he isn't shaking down).

All in all, it's worth a watch. It's been emotional.

Firefly Marathon: Serenity (The Film)

In 2005, after a successful fan campaign, the cast and crew of Firefly re-united with a movie deal from Paramount in order to give the series a more definite conclusion.

Some time has passed since "Objects in Space". Both Inara and Shepherd Book are no longer travelling with Malcolm Reynolds, while the Alliance's relentless pursuit of River Tam has made it harder for them to find work. Mal takes River with the crew as they rob a bank on a frontier world. Unfortunately, the job goes south when the town is attacked by Reavers and the crew barely escape with their lives. Afterwards, Simon announces his desire to leave Serenity with River, but they're reluctantly taken in after they attract the attention of a new foe known only as "The Operative".

As Serenity was made as a sequel to Firefly, watching the series is recommended beforehand. However, it doesn't allude to the events of the series too much. This is handy if you haven't seen the show, but doesn't answer a lot of questions if you have. For example, River was pursued by two men in suits known as "The Hands of Blue" in the show, but they're absent from the film. The Operative fills that role here. Now, I know there was a comic which filled the gaps, but I haven't read it. As a general rule, requiring knowledge of past events doesn't always make for a good story.

Unanswered questions aside, it's still great to see the crew of Serenity reunited. Speaking as someone who did watch the show, it's also a great build-up to the Reaver plot thread. The Reavers never actually made an appearance in the show. There was an encounter with a Reaver ship which the crew narrowly escapes from, and there was another episode dealing with the aftermath of a Reaver attack, but it mostly the mention of the name which instilled a sense of dread in people. In the film, they finally show up in force.

Mal is also shown to be a lot more ruthless in the film. Yeah, he wasn't the most heroic figure in the show, but here he doesn't hesitate to shoot a man who has just been seized by Reavers, shoots The Operative when he tries to parley, and later executes an Alliance soldier who tries to surrender. This could make it harder for newer audiences to root for him.

If there's anyone who does steal the show, it's The Operative. He's methodical and ruthless, but he's also well-spoken. As stated above, he does try and negotiate if he can, but he becomes a force to be reckoned with if he can't.

Whether you watched the show or not, the finely-crafted witty dialogue is still there. My favourite conversation is probably when the Operative visits Inara, who agrees to contact Mal with a job offer. Mal realises it's a trap right away. And the rest of the crew - who had been listening in on the conversation - are convinced when they realised Mal and Inara weren't bickering.

Well, that about wraps it up. Happy New Year, if I haven't said it already, and Happy Writing.

Firefly Marathon: Wrap-up

Well, I've come to the end of the TV series, and I'll review the film later.

Short-lived as it was, I think that Firefly is a great show. I love the dynamic between the characters, and they all seem realistic and believable, plus they produce tons of memorable dialogue. I love the imagination behind the world-building, with the blending of Western and Eastern cultures within the Old West aesthetic. I also love the independence themes, and the notion of living away from conventional society and out of the government's reach. In recent months, this has been something which rings true for me.

I think my top five episodes are as follows:

5) Shindig - I love the "fish out of water" element, and the sword fight between Mal and Atherton
4) Out of Gas - I love how it shows the characters at their bleakest, and how this is interspersed by flashbacks of how they joined the crew
3) The Message - Another one with poignant moments, along with some great humour and badass moments from the crew
2) Trash - A great caper story with interesting twists and humour
1) Jaynestown - One of the funniest episodes, but the situation also gets pretty deep at times

That's about it. Watch this space for my review of Serenity, but for now I'll end on a song.
Keep flying.

Living under a Lockdown - Andy's Journal of Professional Crastination

I've been at home for a week, and I think it's time to write down my thoughts about this pandemic. As things were beginning to shu...