Life, the universe, and everything! 42!

A new milestone was reached last Tuesday – the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything!  42!  But I don’t feel a day over 41.

I took myself off to the movies to watch Deadpool 2.

ALAS!

I’d forgotten quite how uncomfortable the seats at Ambassadors Cinema Woking were.  They kind of force you to slouch in a reclining position which makes it difficult to support the lower back.  After about an hour, I had to keep twisting and turning to remain comfortable.   Why didn’t I go to the Odeon?  Long story.

I cancelled my Odeon Limitless pass earlier in May before the next payment was due.  There’s no way to cancel the Odeon Limitless pass online.  Doesn’t even tell you if/when it’s going to renew.  But from previous experiences, it just expired.

ALAS!

It doesn’t expire, it turns out.  It just moves onto a 30-day rollover.   So, having cancelled the direct debit thinking I’d be safe and they’d just cancel the Limitless pass, I was immediately contacted by Odeon’s payment processor (Harlands Group) who threw down a £10 administration charge.  Here’s the letter (delivered by email):

“It may be a mistake, but we’re going to add a £9.99 penalty anyway”

Spot the mistake (clue – I have to email Energie Fitness Club?!).  After a couple of phone calls, it was resolved – yet they told me that I’d receive confirmation of the cancellation with 5-6 days.  It’s now been nearly two weeks.  Also never received any GDPR information from Odeon either.

As for “harlands-cloud.co.uk”, it’s leaking the version of PHP being used and also tells me which version of Ubuntu Linux is being used too.  Both very out of date.  CloudFlare will do so much.  This is terrible for any company dealing with financial data.  So I’m not at all impressed with Harlands Group.

Given the mess that Odeon Limitless has given me as a member, I’d rather not go back to an Odeon cinema again for a very long time.

Another tale of woe from using Odeon Limitless:

So that’s the reason why I decided to pay the Ambassadors Cinema in Woking a go.  Having bought my drink and made my way into the cinema, I was trying to get comfy when the film started.

ALAS!

The curtain on the screen didn’t open properly, resulting in a 4:3 aspect ratio presentation of Deadpool 2.  I waited a couple of minutes before I left the auditorium to find somebody to fix it.  Somebody went up to the projection room and shortly after the film stopped.  The curtains drew back properly, and the film began from the beginning again.  Except the lights remained on.  After another 2 minutes, somebody else went outside to complain.  Another 2 minutes later, the lights dimmed.

Cramped seating and poor presentation made me regret my decision.  Though I had to go back as I had also booked to see Avengers: Infinity War the next day (no spoilers: it was excellent).  Deadpool 2 was a good film, but the marketing team appear to have done a better job than the filmmakers.

In other news: sold the Apple Homepod.  Siri was truly a massive pile of donkey manure and thing just would just get confused when other Siri devices were about.  Sold it for a decent price – and replaced it with a webcam, since as I use a desktop now, and that I work from home on a semi-regular basis, Google Hangouts is a thing for me these days.

The Shape of Water & Black Panther: Two films you don’t want to miss

Last weekend I went to the local Odeon – the one where I had a lot of fun collecting tickets from an online booking for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

ALAS!

While I initially booked The Shape of Water without any difficulty, I decided, while I was having a coffee at Costa coffee at Guildford station, to book to see the much-hyped Black Panther afterwards.  I got my phone out and attempted to make the booking, except, well, I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves:

Did they try hitting the server repeatedly with a mallet? Works for me!

So I tried again.  ALAS!

Given the misadventures of last time, I now have no idea whether (a) they’ve taken credit from the gift card and (b) whether I have a seat or not.

So I made my merry way across the road and across the river, muttering under my breath how much the quality assurance of modern technology drives me insane, and went up to the box office, which – being Saturday – was open.

I explained the situation to one of the box office folk who had a look at the booking and presumably having given my name was able to confirm the seat.  Only he had to handwrite it for me:

Proud owner of one of only a few handwritten cinema tickets..

Now, two things happened here.  The first was that the ticket I had ordered for The Shape of Water had a seat reservation.  What you see above is NOT the seat I had reserved.  Had I paid for the premium seating, I would have flipped my lid.  The seat I ended up with wasn’t brilliant, but perfectly adequate.

Cinema escapades aside for the moment, The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro is everything that people say it is.  It’s a stunningly beautiful love story that just happens to feature what is presumably the Creature from The Black Lagoon.  Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa is nothing short of extraordinary – conveying her emotions physically and communicating entirely in sign.  Doug Jones as the Creature is otherworldly, yet is still capable of great kindness and compassion to those who are not out to kill him.

(Be warned, cat fans, as there is one unsettling scene which is really a bit of a misunderstanding (though the poor cat which is at the receiving end of said misunderstanding would hardly say that was the case.))

The film is brutal, romantic, lovely and surreal across the 2 hours it plays for.  It’s an adult fairytale and Del Toro took risks making it (including turning down the sequel to Pacific Rim amongst other projects).  But it pays back in spades.  It is well deserving of the BAFTA awards it has picked up (Soundtrack, Production Design and Director), and well worthy of picking up even more at the forthcoming Oscars.

So, after a stonking good two hours of fishy romance, I pretty much went straight into Black Panther.  I took my seat and waited.

ALAS!

Odeon double booked the seat.  Whatever happened at the Box Office didn’t properly reserve the seat, and whatever happened with the web app also failed to reserve the seat.  So I went back to the Box Office and explained what happened.  Thankfully seating was still available, and decent seating at that, so it was all booked without any fuss and I was able to go back into the cinema to enjoy the film.

Black Panther, it must be said, is perhaps Marvel’s best ever effort at making a superhero movie.  Not only does it feature decent character building of the good guys, but gives the main villain a decent background from which you can actually understand where he’s coming from.

The story centres around the kingdom of Wakanda, a central African nation that is technically superior to any other on Earth thanks to a mineral called vibranium which fell to Earth from a meteorite millions of years ago.  It leads to the people of the region to embrace its properties, which, thanks to the enrichment of the soil due to the mineral, grows a particular plant which if imbibed, gives the person superhuman strength.  Thus Wakanda was born, and of the 5 tribes, 4 yielded to the Wakandans and were given protection and access to the vibranium, with the fifth deciding to go their own way and live up in the mountains alone.  The subsequent rulers of Wakanda have become the Black Panther – a protector and warrior.  However, Wakanda remains hidden from the rest of the world.  To us, Wakanda remains a poor country – though in all its history, refused any aid.  While Wakanda’s neighbours were colonised and taken as slaves, Wakanda did not intervene – they stayed hidden.

Fast forward to modern times, and events after Avengers: Age of Ultron.  King T’Chaka is dead, and his son, T’Challa is to become king of Wakanda.  Meanwhile, a South African arms dealer (played by Andy Serkis) has just stolen a weapon from the British Museum, unbeknownst that it is made from vibranium (and hence originates from Wakanda).  Along with the South African, an American (Michael B. Jordon) shows a keen interest in the weapon and its origins…

And so begins a well-paced movie that explores multiple themes.  One of which is belonging, and another being whether Wakanda should share its technology with the rest of the world.  The result of the secrecy is one of the reasons behind the American finding Wakanda and, well, it becomes a feud of epic proportions.

The film features a gadget sequence that would be Q to shame.  T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (played magnificently by Letitia Wright), would put Tony Stark to shame.  At point in the film when Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett Ross, awakens in her laboratory, she greets him with, “Hello, coloniser”.  We can pretty much assume not many western white people have been this way..

The women of Black Panther are fierce as heck.  Special mention must be made of Okoye, played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, who is the general of the Dora Milaje, the elite (female) bodyguards that protect the royal family.  She wields a very pointy and shiny spear which she uses to great effect.  No more so than the casino sequence in which hits, stabs and throws people about like rag dolls.

The entire film is absolutely wonderful.  The Afrofuturism is well done, and most importantly, believable.  I’m about to start reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, about a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted into a prestigious galactic university.  If Neil Gaiman loved it, I’m sure I will to.

But getting back to Black Panther – this is definitely the best Marvel film to date, and long may we see sequels.  We’ll be heading back to Wakanda for quite a spell in the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, so it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces.

Long live King T’Challa!  Long live Wakanda!

Porgy and Mess: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

I finally went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week after waiting it out and trying very hard to avoid internet spoilers.  My patience was rewarded (of sorts) as I went to see it outside of peak hours at the local Guildford Odeon.

ALAS!

Using my Odeon Limitless pass to book the showing was one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced so far during the time I’ve had the subscription.  I wanted to go to an earlier showing, but for some reason, the Odeon’s website was playing up.  I wasn’t able to book the same slot again, or the later slot.  For some reason, Odeon’s website locked off all uses of the Limitless cad and refused to let me use it.

More error codes then there were stars in heaven.

As the Odeon is now very heavily reliant on the website for bookings, the availability of customer service via telephone is rather limited (9am – 4pm Monday – Thursday, 9am – 5pm Friday at all other times).  I was booking this on Friday evening.

What really got my goat was that Odeon does not publish email addresses.  Internet standards are ignored – an email to [email protected] bounced.  This is extremely bad practice, Odeon.  Let me, as a customer, choose how to contact you.  Web forms aren’t always appropriate.

I had to wait until the following morning to call and try and sort this out – and even then, not much could be done.  The system enabled me to book for the later Monday performance, but there wasn’t confirmation that credit I used from an Odeon Gift card to upgrade seating would be refunded immediately.

I popped along to the Odeon on Monday and found this:

As I didn’t use a debit or credit card for this booking, I usually pick up tickets at the Box Office.  So I had to go to the confectionary counter to figure out what was going on.  I was told that the ATM machines can dispense tickets with a booking reference, but it’s not entirely obvious from the choices on display:

Perhaps Odeon needs to reword that third option – just say that if you have a booking reference, you can pick up tickets using that rather than implying it may only be for Tesco and Business Voucher holders.

The third complaint was that it appears Odeon do not sell Butterkist Toffee Popcorn.  I’m not a fan of the sweet or regular flavoured stuff served in buckets the size of my head.  In the end, I chose Aero mint balls and the smallest Coke Zero at the extortionate price of £6.68.  I’ll pay it, however, because I do like the Odeon and would still like to see cinemas remain in business.  But if I had a family, kids and all, this would definitely bankrupt me if we visited regularly.

As for the film?  It was alright.  I think the sooner the main franchise moves away from the Skywalkers, the better.

Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.