Thursday 30 April 2015

Movie Review - Cinderella

After the enormous success of Maleficent last year, Disney is now setting out on a journey to revisit many of their past fairy tale classics and reintroduce them in a live action setting. Adaptations of Pinnochio, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and even The Sword in the Stone are on the way; but for now, we focus on one of the most renowned of all time, Cinderella.

Much like the original Disney animated film, Cinderella features the eponymous heroine (Lily James) forced into slave labour by her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). Her depressing life soon reaches a turning point when she befriends the adventurous Prince 'Kit' Charming (Richard Madden), who is shortly keen to be Ella's suitor; leading to the illustrious ball hosted in his honour that will change both of their lives forever.

Cinderella doesn't attempt to turn the fairy tale into some dark rehash with more sinister themes, remaining loyal to the original classic with a beautifully saturated visual palette, some charming special effects, and a touch of light hearted humour. The gags stem mainly from the clumsy wicked stepsisters, as well as Ella's animal companions, but such humour is not just what the actors have to offer; Lily James' adorable performance captures the beauty and innocence the character has always been comprised of, and her chemistry with Madden helps to develop their relationship beyond the slightly outdated 'love at first sight' plot device.

The story is sweepingly romantic and often touching, thanks to a superb supporting cast, particularly Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, and an engaging yet simple narrative. In an age where studios seem overly keen to reinvent franchises with darker tones and overly complex ambitions, it's nice to see a pleasant fairy tale brought to life in a wonderful live action setup - with no pretentious attempts to be edgy or sinister. It harkens back to Disney's prime and never fails to embrace it's magical premise, making for an approachable experience for all ages, and a truly satisfying one for long term Disney fanatics.

Friday 24 April 2015

Movie Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

After it's inception with Iron Man in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe maintained a steady quality standard that reached it's peak with the fantastic Avengers in 2012. Then, with the release of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, the series went from good to bad in a steep and sudden transition. Following this, in a huge turnaround, 2014 saw the release of the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the equally amazing Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, after even more buildup, the long awaited Avengers sequel has arrived. A pattern has been initiated: good to bad, bad to good - and now, sadly, a return to bad.

The eponymous superhero squad team up once again to acquire the scepter of their former foe Loki, which is believed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to house the key to unlock Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence that can bolster their path to achieve world peace. However, things take a turn for the worse when Ultron awakes in a distressed and confused state, morphing him into an angry tyrant hellbent on destroying humanity to cleanse it of sin - leaving the Avengers to remedy their mistake and put an end to his evil plans.

The tense trailers made me think Ultron was going to be a terrifying villain that would bring the Avengers to their knees. He wouldn't make jokes or be silly like Loki or the fake Mandarin - he would have a dark, disturbing sense of humour in brief spurts, but all in all would be a merciless foe eager to pursue his goals no matter what. Of course, this is not the case. He is silly, weak, and repeatedly used as the source of many slapstick gags and 'witty' one liners. Yet again, the potential for an amazing villain is wasted on endless stupidity. To add to this, his motivations are barely explored, and so a consequential lack of development makes him incredibly bland and generic. Such light heartedness worked in Guardians of the Galaxy as it developed within a suitable context, but with Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon simply cannot balance any serious elements of the plot with his lust for humour. Not every superhero film has to be gritty and dark, but at the same time, it doesn't hurt to put joking aside for a few minutes and at least try and be sensible.

Whenever a scene appears to get serious, a misplaced gag arises and ruins it. Whedon fails to conjure any decent moments of genuine drama, instead preferring to overexploit the notion of 'fun blockbuster' conventions. Even if he tried his best to be serious, the canvas is still far too crowded with tons of underdeveloped plot lines, which pop up at random moments and are sometimes flat out abandoned for no logical reason. You're never sure which character the movie wants to focus on; as an ensemble piece, it surely focuses on them all? Well, if that was the idea, then it failed quite miserably; because characters tend to leave and reenter the narrative at sporadic moments, further damaging the movie's general structure. To compliment this underwritten chaos, in many occasions, character development established in the previous standalone films for Stark, Thor, and Rogers is completely and blatantly shunned.

Now I'm all for action within a superhero movie; that's a must have convention. But when you favour endless noisy action scenes over developing a genuine, constructive story, then it's not good whatsoever. The action scenes provide many thrills, but even they turn silly when the stakes appear to rise. Literally, the final moments of the film end up being nothing but smashing, punching, shouting, and a mishmash of cheesy one liners. It's tiring, repetitive, and ungodly irritating.

To it's credit, Age of Ultron still has some superb special effects, particularly when it comes to Ultron himself. Despite his awful characterisation, Ultron's portrayal by James Spader through motion capture really injects a masterful level of humanity and realism into his robotic body. He moves and talks exactly like a human being, displaying some impressive animation and hard work from the visual effects team. The performances across the board are generally good, but the script is just too weak for the actors to truly flourish. These minor positives aren't enough to change my general opinion: Age of Ultron is one of the biggest disappointments of all time and, by extension, one of the worst superhero films I've ever seen.

Sunday 19 April 2015

The Best of PortAventura

PortAventura has been one of Spain's many notable tourist attractions since it's inception in 1995, and has grown vastly over the years from an independent project to an expansive resort under the ownership of Uniseral Sudios. With an annual attendance of around 4 million, it's by far the most visited theme park in the country, and one of the most popular in all of Europe.

It's not the best theme park I've visited, but for those looking for thrills and all kinds of entertainment, it's guaranteed to impress. Here's my top five offerings...

#5 - El Secreto de los Mayas

Known as The Secret of Maya in English, this attraction is one that not many people will be overly interested in, but I myself was surprisingly hooked by it. The main goal is to enter the small building and find the exit, however one thing stands in your way: mirrors. The interior is littered with mirrors that, alongside clever lighting and visual effects, make finding the correct route a frightening and tricky task. The optical illusions make for a lot of mindfuck moments and definitely evoke a vibe of some sort of horror set piece. Again, not one of the park's biggest attractions, but I certainly loved it.

#4 - El Diablo

El Diablo (The Devil in English) is an old school mine train roller coaster that opened in 1997. The ride appeals to all manner of age groups, but never restrains from providing intense thrills; riders endure all manner of sharp turns and sudden drops as the train speeds around at nearly 40 miles per hour. Lasting just over two minutes, El Diablo is also one of PortAventura's longest rides; and never gets boring, that's for sure. Going into a lot of detail is difficult as it's not as innovative in today's world, but that doesn't detract from the fun factor whatsoever.

#3 - Furius Baco

Furius Baco is the fastest roller coaster in Europe, launching at 84 miles per hour into a brief circuit filled with sharp turns, concluding with a twist inversion and a steep turn that shoots past the nearby lake. It's less than a minute long, and it's queues can become pretty hectic on busy days, but this is still a must for any fan of roller coasters. The bumpiness the trains endure around the circuit can make the ride a little jolting, but to me it was somewhat effective at complimenting the already chaotic sense of speed. Short lived, but still awesome.

#2 - Dragon Kahn

Dragon Kahn pre-2012, before Shambhala was built alongside it.
Dragon Kahn has been part of PortAventura since it opened in 1995, and is a classic Bolliger & Mallibard roller coaster appealing to the slightly older crowd, or kids who just aren't as sissy as me when I was younger. It features eight inversions, the most of any B&M roller coaster, including a standard vertical loop, corkscrews, a cobra roll, and a zero-G roll. It's a standard thrill ride that keeps you disoriented in the best possible way.

What's even better is that it now intertwines with the most recent Shambhala coaster, making for an incredibly unique and surprising experience when both of them launch simultaneously.

#1 - Shambhala: Expedición al Himalaya 

Opening to the public in May 2012, Shambhala earned milestones as the fastest and tallest hypercoaster in Europe, peaking at 78 meters and reaching a top speed of 83 miles per hour. The trains themselves expose riders to the height and speed without mercy; they're completely flat, with no small barrier on either side of your feet. On top of that, you're only strapped in with a thick lap bar instead of an over the shoulder harness.

After slowly climbing the 78 meter high lift hill, riders immediately swoop down at top speed and face all sorts of steep turns, twists, and sudden drops; including camelback hills, a splashdown, and a unique inclined figure eight element (seen above). You'll experience nearly 4 times the force of gravity during the trip - this combined with the immense pace of the train makes for one of the best roller coaster experiences I've ever undertaken. It alone makes a visit to PortAventura worthwhile.

Interestingly, the trains have on board cameras which allow you to purchase a video of yourself being filmed during the ride, which can be bought as a DVD or a digital file on a USB stick. So, here's my one. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 5 April 2015

Why Job Applications Suck - The Sequel

Back in July 2013, I made a small blog post about how applying for job is absolutely miserable. When hours at my previous job were badly slashed, I was forced to return to the nightmares of searching for a new one. The lengthy search paid off, but not without endless hassle. Having gained more knowledge on the awfulness of job searching on my quest, I feel now is the time to write a second passage as to why job applications really suck.

Job sites. Potential ways for struggling people to find a new career; seems ideal. No. Too many of these sites, be it Directgov, Reed, or CV Library, are over saturated with shady jobs by virtually non existent 'marketing and PR' companies that ask for an immediate start and care not for your qualifications. These relatively unstable looking jobs continue to plague these sites in favour of genuine jobs that would fuel an applicants chance to progress within a well known company. As a result, the sites become virtually useless when you're searching for a proper career.

I HATE GROUP INTERVIEWS. SO MUCH. My central situation was that I had interviews with a number of big name companies, including O2, Barrymason's Law Firm, Cineworld, and even the Apple Store - but never got the jobs! Now for the Apple Store, a group interview took place at nice four star hotel; which consisted of sitting in a room with several other applicants before some incredibly smug Apple employees with ridiculous beards. They sit back in their seats, wearing their casual outfits and saying how Apple is such an amazing company to work for. Apparently you have more chance of getting into Harvard University than the Apple Store, so being turned down from this role came as no surprise.

Zero hour contracts are the most corrupt things in employment history. Referring back to my Cineworld interview, the position was advertised as a full time role. FULL TIME. Now, when the interview took place, the manager promptly said that it was a zero hours contract but he would promise to give potential employees at least 30 hours each week. Of course he would say that. Do you think he would say 'you may get some hours for now but if the money declines then you won't have any'No. He wouldn't. It's just leading applicants into a potentially promising career with flat out false advertising. These contracts offer maximum flexibility, but also allow employers to abuse the system to make sure they get as much profit as possible, not caring for employees who desperately need more work to afford, you know, their life?! Many of them also demand you to work on extremely short notice, which causes unfair strain on your personal life. Maybe negating them is one thing Labour will do right if they take office in May.

We're not done with Cineworld. The group interview there consisted of some 10 or so applicants sat around a table. We would watch a brief presentation of Cineworld bragging about their incredible reputation. Now what comes next you will not believe initially, but I swear on my life it is the truth. They passed around a hat of jelly babies and requested that each person pick three of them. Depending on what colours you had, you say something about yourself; green jelly babies might be your favourite song, red your favourite film, or orange your favourite book. I am dead serious. The only positive outlook on this ridiculous situation is having free sweets. I have never seen such a silly gimmick in all my life.

Maybe I should've titled this post that Cineworld applications suck. But no. Now it's time to expand. You know what the most annoying, patronising, and unjustified actions in the history of job interviews is? I have experienced it many times; the employer phoning you, praising your confidence and saying how much they really liked you - before saying you were unsuccessful. It's extremely rude to lead an applicant on like that; this lousy effort to ease their disappointment is just patronising and inappropriate. When an employer tells me this, I just want to break their nose.

Oh, excuse my language. Also, I am not unemployed. If you suffer my former agony, then keep trying, and things will get better.