Thursday, April 28, 2011

X-Men: 'First Class' or 'First Farce'

 I am a self confessed geek so expect me to comment regularly on all things geek-related. This being a huge year for super hero movies means there will be an abundance of topics for which to share this particular passion. I wanted to write this post to express my uneasiness with the new X-men movie (X-men: First Class). I am a huge fan of the X-men. Admittedly not as fanatical as the guy pictured below, but a huge fan nonetheless. I have my original comic book collection, graphic novels, all the dvd's (including the first Bryan Singer X-men movie, which was really just a very long trailer for the two installments that were to follow and some action figures from my childhood (ok, I bought them as an adult)

Here is a picture of legendary comic book writer Stan Lee at the exact 
moment he regretted ever picking up a pen in the first place.

What were Marvel thinking? This movie is in essence an "Origins" story. It is however, not the ORIGIN of the X-men. The initial team consisted of Cyclops, Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), Iceman, Beast and Archangel. In 2007 there was actually a series of comics titled X-men: First Class that focussed on their origins. The only similarities that exist between this new movie and that story is the title and Beast! I was not being fanatical ( so I keep telling myself). Did the best selling American comic not deserve to have their origins told as it has always been known?

For those of you who have not yet seen the trailer for the upcoming movie, I have attached the latest international trailer below.

After watching that trailer, I am certain many of you are thinking "What the F**k?" The trailer to the movie looks amazing and it is definitely something I will watch and enjoy. And, ....I agree! All my criticism earlier was based on some serious artistic liberties being taken by the creators. But there was one key thing I was missing which I only discovered tonight. This movie is meant to tie in to the X-men movie franchise (i.e. the Three X-men movies and Wolverine: Origins). It is for that reason that the only characters that could be used in this movie were Beast and Mystique (because they are the only ones whose age could not be determined). You could not introduce Iceman in Origins because they chose to make him a teenager in the initial trilogy (which is a shame because the real Iceman is one of my favourite X-men and is very witty and fun in the comics whereas in the movies, he was a pansy). You may recall that Cyclops was only rescued as a young boy by Prof X in the closing scene of Wolverine: Origins (which was set in the 70's).

OK. I am excited now. This whole thing makes sense to me and I think the movie will be amazing. Bryan Singer (Director of the first two X-men movies) is the writer and producer of this flick and he understands how it is all meant to tie up. The driving force behind my conversion is:
  • The script seems really intelligent, weaving the X-men into such a major world event like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Director Vince Vaughn who directed my favourite movie last year (Kick Ass) and was ironically originally hired to direct X3: The Last Stand.
  • The introduction of the Hellfire Club as villains. The Hellfire Club is an old cabal (founded in 1760) that has for centuries been amassing political and economic power and influence by illicit means. They are the perfect villains for this story, and
  • Finally, James McAvoy as a young idealistic Charles Xavier. This is not a new reason as I am a big fan of his acting and wanted to see what he would bring to the role.
Suddenly June 1st seems like a lifetime away!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My review of Sucker Punch

This is such a difficult blog to write because in essence I am going against the popular choice. All my favourite movie reviewers have given Sucker Punch terrible reviews (Shaun de Waal from the M&G, the NEWYORKER Film File). Even rates the movie at 22% (based on critic reviews) yet surprisingly 55% of the audience who participated in the survey (59 908 people), enjoyed the movie. So, perhaps there is nothing wrong with me after all and finding this movie enjoyable does not imply that I have a fetish for schoolgirl porn or French maid ensambles. To begin, check out the trailer for Sucker Punch if you have not done so already.

When I saw this trailer, I though that this was going to be my 'Kick Ass' for 2011. In a year that Super Heroes re-emerge on the silver screen again ( Thor, X-Men : First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America), will this movie, created and directed by Zack Snyder, the man chosen to resurrect Superman in 2011, deliver a 'sucker punch' to the industry. It did not live up to all my expectations which were admittedly quite high but I still found it to be a highly entertaining movie.

Despite its obvious flaws (the plot is pretty much what you see in the trailer, 5 girls in a mental institution attempt to break out but while undertaking real tasks to aid their escape, they imagine the tasks to be battles being fought in a fantasy realm), this movie is a visual and auditory masterpiece. Regardless of how it does at the Box Office, I am very confident that when released, the Blu Ray Disc for Sucker Punch will  become a best seller. This movie will become the demo disc people will use to show off their home entertainment systems.

The plot appears to merely be a device for getting from one action sequence to another and I believe that it is in these sequences that the movie excels. Zack Snyder has put an obscene amount of detail into each CGI frame of the fantasy parallel universe that this group of heroines find themselves in. These sequences accompanied with the perfect music reminded me at times of Kill Bill. I know that Snyder is no Tarantino (yet!) and I am purposely not explaining too much abouththese worlds and the battles fought therein because what then would be the point of you watching the movie. One reviewer explained it best when he referred to the fight scenes as "an absolute nerdgasm".

I recommend this movie to anybody looking for escapism. For those who want to watch a movie and just enjoy it without having to think too much about social injustices or modern family drama etc. Relating to the plot that is so often criticised, even by myself, I think the movie is smarter than it appears to be and the more you think about it after the movie, the more things start to make sense. The only time that I will enjoy this movie more, is when listening to the directors commentary on the DVD. This will explain some gaps in the plot and also shed some light on the many metaphors found throughout the movie.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Steak Recipe/ Grilling Technique

I have no intention of portraying myself as a man who knows his way around the kitchen or of turning this into a 'Modern Man's Guide to Cooking' but I happen to enjoy eating a good steak. This was very difficult for me to achieve because traditionally the concept of eating steak medium rare was not an option because good restaurants were never Halaal and Indian restaurants tended to prefer serving their steak one degree short of cremation. My wife says that the difference between Biltong and a steak from a traditional Indian restaurant is one is 'dried' while the other 'fried'. Eating rare meat is as foreign to South African Indians as 'Marmite on Toast'.

Then I discovered the internet (well, to be perfectly honest, it took me quite a while to discover the stove) and I realised that I could make the steak of my dreams at home. Bear in mind that this was before the days of Muslim Boutique Restaurants and Halaal Spur franchises. The technique/ recipe below is the culmination of all those failed attempts and new age recipes ( At one stage I used to add freshly ground coffee beans to my steak rub because that's how you make a New York Steak). It would be wrong to call it my recipe/ technique because it is a combination of many very popular recipes out there but in my family of great cooks (Wife, mother, sister and father), I am the 'Steak Man' (they don't really call me that, most of the time). When we are having Grilled Steak, there is no question as to who will donning the apron. (p.s. I have a very manly apron that reads " I am not fat, there is just more of me to cuddle". I know that this post would have been better with pictures but I was too hungry whilst preparing lunch today and my family has left no remains. I may update this post with pictures at a later time. I have included a picture of a steak I found on the internet, just to make you hungrier whilst reading this post.

Some important things to remember when making a grilled steak.
  • Do not use frozen steaks. 
  • The steak must be at room temperature before grilling.
  • Ask your butcher to cut you a steak for grilling (I generally prefer 2,5 - 3 cm  thickness). My preference regarding cuts is fillet, rump, sirloin, porterhouse.
  • If you are too lazy too peel and use fresh Garlic, You Don't DESERVE garlic! (Just kidding, although fresh garlic is best, it is not always an option due to time, laziness or the availability of fresh garlic in your fridge. I have often used the crushed garlic variety that one finds in oil in screwtop jars because of the lazy option)
  • Finally, you need a good griddle pan to prevent your steak from  burning especially if you like your meat well done.
I begin by rubbing my steak with 'Steak and Chops' spice, some freshly ground pepper and garlic (if you are using fresh garlic then please chop these fine). You can either refrigerate the steak now or allow to settle to room temperature before grilling. Whilst this is happening, I prepare the herby chilli olive oil mix. Here you can do whatever you wish really but this is what currently works for me. 
  • Italian herbs (of the Robertson's Dried variety)
  • Some fresh herbs to give your patrons the perception that they are eating something exotic and fresh. Perception is everything hence I use the apron whenever I am in the kitchen :). A few sprigs of rosemary, some fresh roughly cut basil or even origanum leaves.
  • paprika (for some extra spice)
  • And some good quality olive oil (like the kind you find in your local supermarket, not the kind made by monks on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius but if you have the latter, it would work as well.)
I have not added any quantities to the above because I have no clue. Just be reasonable and don't litigate if things don't work out well.

When you are ready to grill, lightly coat your griddle pan with some butter (see last note below) or oil and heat to a high temperature. You then salt the steak (the amount of salt is dependent on personal taste but bear in mind that salt is already included in the steak and chops spice (as in most meat rubs) and then baste with the herby chilli olive oil mix. Place the steak in the pan and press down to ensure that the meat is making proper contact with the pan. Whilst the one side is being done, apply the herby chilli olive oil mix and some salt to the exposed uncooked side. Wait 2 minutes then turn over. For medium, I grill for 8 minutes turning it over every two minutes. For well done, I would add another 4 minutes to this (2 minutes a side). With a good griddle pan, one can achieve that classic 'grillhouse look' by remembering to rotate the steak when turning it. Remember to burn the fat around the edge for a while before removing form the pan. (N.B Cooking times may vary based on the thickness of the cut, the heat generated from your stove and whether you are using a gas stove)

I would then rest the steak (leave it on a plate) for about 4 minutes before serving. Resting allows the juices which have retracted to the centre of the piece of meat to return giving it a juicier taste. If you have a thick piece of meat with a nice piece of fat around it then try and rest the steak standing up i.e. place the fat on the plate. this prevents the juices from escaping from the meat.

Your steak is now ready and can be served with a mushroom or pepper sauce (of the Woolworths heat and pour variety), some baked potatoes/ chips and a salad ( to ease your conscience)

Some additional tips/ ideas to try
  • Add some unflavoured yoghurt to the marinade mix if you want the steak to be softer and more 'melt in your mouth'. The cultures in the yoghurt dissolve the fibres in the meat. I generally do this when not cooking fillet steak (which is your best most tender cut). 
  • Try replacing the steak and chops rub with just salt and pepper seasoning
  • Finally, if you want to really impress someone, you need to use BUTTER. Butter (copious amounts) is the main reason why restaurant food always tastes better than ours. And you thought it was all those years of training Tsk Tsk. I add the butter while the steak is grilling on the pan, before turning over the first time. Then I add a little bit more to the side that has just been cooked.
I hope you enjoyed this post and use it as the basis for your own experimentation. I hope that if I have taught you anything, it was that adding ground coffee beans to your steak rub may sound posh but it would never turn you into 'The Steak Man' of your family.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

'Pro-Affirmative Action' or a 'Racist'? The Choice is yours.

It would seem that life in South Africa today is akin to the same level of polarisation that existed post 9/11 when George W Bush stated, “You are either with us, or against us”.These days you are either 'Pro-Affirmative Action' or a 'racist'.

Just because I found a black company unsuitably qualified to tender for projects does not make me a 'racist'! And,

Just because you are a young black entrepreneur does not entitle you to 'contracts'!

I write today in utter frustration because I was accused of being a racist and not because I had said or done something that could have been racist, but purely because I had the nerve to find a company technically incompetent to undertake contracts for my company. I was assessing the resources of a potential contractor and when the owner could clearly see where this was going, he openly asked me,

“Why do you only approve White and Indian companies? How many black companies have you approved?”

I must be honest, the boldness of his questions took me quite by surprise and I answered him. I then remembered that I was the one doing the assessing here and not the other way around but it was too late. I had opened the door. What followed was not pretty. I defended myself. Gave him stats. Tried to elaborate on my struggle credentials (doesn't everybody have them these days?). Explained my involvement with the welfare of African children in Durban. Here comes the shameful part. I actually considered giving him the approval he required to prove to him (and perhaps myself) that I was not really a racist.

Luckily sanity prevailed and my shame turned to anger. I was not here to do a BEE scorecard. I was here to perform a technical accreditation of a potential contractor. I was interested on whether the company had suitably trained staff to operate the heavy machinery required, not what their directorship looked like. I was accompanied by another black engineer to undertake this assessment and he concurred with me that this guy was incompetent for the task at hand and extremely unprofessional in his behaviour. Why so frustrated then, you may ask? He failed the assessment, right?

Because of the insinuation that I failed this company because I am racist and have a personal vendetta against him, senior management have asked me to explain my findings and ensure that I was indeed being fair. That was frustrating for me and sad. That regardless of all my ideals and naïve belief in our country that all it took was the accusation that I am racist, for my integrity to be second guessed.

I understand the need for affirmative action. I would be a lot more comfortable with it if it had a shelf life because one has to agree that if it continues indefinitely then it would in essence itself be a form of racism. I benefitted greatly from affirmative action. Bursary for my undergraduate degree (although I would like to think that my school record helped), Scholarship for my Masters Degree which was called the Black Masters Programme (you have to remember that these were the days before Jimmy Manyi and his ilk) and a great job that I love. Ultimately I believe that managers still choose the best person for the job regardless of colour. That is not my aforementioned naivety speaking, but logic. Most managers are responsible for a departmental output. Although affirmative action may form part of your job compact, the major contributor would always be departmental output. An appointment based purely on affirmative action (i.e. the candidate is not suitable qualified for the job) would have three consequences:

> That the manager will have to undertake the extra work (unlikely)
> That existing staff will have to work harder to maintain the output (very likely)
> That departmental output will decrease resulting in decreased levels of service delivery.

When young non-black staff are demotivated or upset when they are passed up for promotions or training opportunities, I believe that that does not make them racists. It just makes them human. These are the guys that studied with their black peers at the same institutions. The people who benefited from Apartheid are by now deep into senior management and it is actually affirmative action itself that is ironically holding back the development and upward mobility of young black staff. These senior managers, now thanks to affirmative action, have nowhere to go hence they remain in their position. The only way to bypass them would be to duplicate the position or split the workload but both these options make little sense in the corporate world as it would imply double the operating cost for the same output. Regardless what any company writes in it's mission statement about socio economic responsibility blah blah blah, at the end of the day they are in business to make money. Sad but true.

I believe that another thing that needs to be looked at, is the awarding of bursaries. Most companies look at bursaries as a means of solving their future affirmative action targets. They thereby give their bursaries primarily to black students. This is sensible and should actually be encouraged however, somebody needs to be looking out for the interest of non black students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be extremely intelligent and in need financial assistance to be able to pursue a career in their chosen field. It would be terrible for the country if people with the aptitude and attitude to complete their undergraduate degree in Engineering, Medicine etc. end up not studying due to financial constraints. I believe that this support should come from private donors or civil society. I am not suggesting that private donors only consider awarding bursaries to non-blacks but rather that these private scholarships be awarded on merit only i.e. those candidates that have a financial need and the smarts to pursue a professional career, regardless of race.

I believe that the wrongs of the past have not yet been cleared and that 'affirmative action -like' policies are still needed but as it stands, it has failed the majority of the previously disadvantaged. There is no difference between a White Capitalist and a Black Capitalist. Government need to now review these policies to determine how best to address the inequalities of the past (target job creation and poverty) but at the same time plan for a future that is more identifiable with the 'free and fair democratic rainbow nation' image that we portray to the world.