Saturday, December 4, 2010

Redeeming my family cook-cred with chicken in leek sauce


Time: 25 minutes
Score: 9/10
Jamie ate it: Yeah

The last couple of efforts I've made to wow Corbey and Jamie with my slow cooker stews and bean soups have not been wildly ecstatic. So, because we're going to be out this evening I decided to cook a nice lunch, with whatever we had around.

What we did have was half a packet of leek soup mix, which I used for one of my slow cooking recipes, some chicken, a lot of onions, peppers and potatoes. Oh, and some fresh parsley.

The result as you can see was sauteed chicken and vegetables with leek sauce. I added mostly milk and water to the sauce, but also some cooking white wine.

Potatoes were boiled then mashed with chopped fresh parsley, black pepper and butter.

Not an impressive or difficult meal by any means, but was a real hit with wife and kiddo! So I'm giving this one 9/10, since Jamie ate his plate clean. Most rare.

Not that this needs much explanation but the procedure was to soften the onions and peppers on low in a frying pan, with some salt and pepper and olive oil. Then I put those to the side and fried the chicken on medium high until brown. Then in a jug I added 1/2 cup of water and milk, and about 1/3 cup of cooking white wine and added that to the chicken with the leek soup mix.

After simmering for about 10 minutes it was good to go.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slow cooking update

So we just ate the meal I mentioned earlier . Although I had it cooking for 8 hours the potato's were still firm and not soft like I like them, but passable. Again I found the recipe kind of bland, I think I'd probably quadruple the amount of garlic and paprika next time, and this time it was saved by a lot of ground black pepper.

Still the recipe itself was good, the chicken and leeks were cooked perfectly. I added milk to the leek soup mix instead of just water, and I may try some light cream next time and some white wine.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crockpot cooking

I was rather disappointed with my cooking efforts last weekend. I made a stew in the slow cooker following this recipe:

Copied from that site in case it moves:

Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
Ready In: 6 to 8 hours (LOW) or 3 to 4 hours (HIGH)
Yield: 6 servings

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1 can (28 ounces) whole stewed tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup nonfat, low-sodium chicken broth
1⁄4 cup fresh basil, chopped
Combine the chicken, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, salt, paprika, celery seeds, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and broth in the 4 1⁄2-quart CROCK-POT® slow cooker.

Cover; cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or on HIGH for 3 to 4 hours.

Since we didn't have a sweet potato I used some salad potatoes instead; the sweet potato seemed to be missed by the rest of the ingredients. Although it had potential it was a bit too watery (probably too much water), and a bit lacking in flavour. Also despite being on for 8 hours the potato's were not quite as soft as I'd have liked.

Although my wife Corbey said she liked it, and it was good enough for left overs the next day, Jamie wasn't keen, and I thought it was about a 6/10.

The only thing I improved upon from my earlier attempt at slow cooker stew was that I put the chicken at the top and the potatoes at the bottom. Carrots and tomatoes were in the middle. My instinct was to stir the whole concoction to get the flavours nicely mixed up, but that stopped the potatoes cooking properly, as they need to be in the hottest part of the pot at the bottom.

Anyway, I love stew and we have some leeks that need using so I'm trying this one tomorrow:


2 1/2-3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, can use any combo of boneless pieces
5 medium white potatoes, cut into small chunks
2 large coarsely chopped leeks, white and light green parts, washed well
1 (1 7/8 ounce) envelope leek soup mix
1 cup water
2 minced garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon pepper
salt, if needed to taste
Change Measurements: US | Metric
Directions:Prep Time: 10 minsTotal Time: 6 1/4 hrs
1place potatoes in slow cooker. Arrange chicken pieces on top of potato slices. Place leeks on top of chicken pieces.2In small bowl, whisk together leek soup mix, water, garlic, paprika and pepper until well-combined. Pour over top of everything in the crock pot.3Cover and cook on Low 5 to 6 hours or until chicken is no longer pink.4Add salt, if needed, to taste.

This time I've ensured we follow the recipe exactly, I went out and bought some white potato's and some leek soup mix, so I have my fingers crossed for something more in the 8/10 range.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vacation day 7 : Valemount to Vancouver

Date of trip 27/08

Distance travelled 746km

Valemount to Vancouver

This last day would be our longest drive so far, but by now we were confident veterans. We stopped halfway at Kamloops again, this time by accident we found the hotel we stayed in our honeymoon in 1999! Deciding to stop and check it out, we were hungry enough that a fried Breakfast at Denny's seemed like a good idea, and it certainly was. While we ate we got to listen in on a bunch of tweens comparing different pain killers in terms of the high, and the side effects. I remembered being in the hotel room back in 99 watching out the window as Friday night revellers stopped by Denny's, fighting and laughing with each other in the car park.

From Valemount to Vancouver

The drive from Kamloops to Mission went quick and soon we were in Langley but it seemed to take forever to get from there to Port Moody, even using the new toll bridge. I guess you get used to just hitting 120km along the highway, just slowing down for the occasional semi or RV as they struggle up the steep mountain roads.

From Valemount to Vancouver

We arrived home and back to summer, as it was still bright and sunny in the late afternoon when we got to our apartment. That was it, then end of the trip. In a week we'd covered over 3000km, and discovered a new Canadian city. Despite previously not being keen on the car part of the trip, I actually found it way more enjoyable than I expected, and it's so convenient on vacation to have your own vehicle with you. Now I'm wondering when we will next be able to spend the day at Waterworld, and at the same time planning a new road trip, this time south of the border, possibly to California!

Vacation day 6 : Edmonton to Valemount

Date of trip Thu 26/08

Distance travelled 488km

We got up early and spent an hour in the hotel pool, which we had to ourselves, then had cereal before starting the long drive home, which we would do in two parts. The first leg was to Valemount, which we'd already passed through, but today we would be spending the night at the Motel 7

It was the second last day of the vacation and my turn to drive, so Corbey directed me out of Edmonton, and it was her turn to make a mistake with navigation so we ended up driving around random suburbs, not for the first time, before we made our way back to the highway. On the way I noticed some cool place names like Camp He Ha Ho and a big Ranch called Mokoyoko (or something similar).

We stopped at Hinton for lunch which is about a third of the way to Valemount, and is a small town with some big stores and lots of chain restaurants. Sadly it would be our last fill up at Albertian gas prices.

Arriving at Jasper National Park gates we told the cashier we took the option to not pay the park fee, which means you're not allowed to stop in the park at all, but that was fine with us. It takes 40 minutes or so to drive through it and we had no time to visit Jasper again anyway. Although you're not allowed to stop in the rest areas, so this option means emptying your bladder before you enter.

The day was a little overcast, and Valemount was very quiet when we arrived in the early evening. The Super 8 motel was run by a young woman who seemed to do everything there; when she wasn't at the front desk greeting guests she was doing a tour of the rooms with towels, light bulbs and solving other problems. Despite her efforts there wasn't much that went smoothly with our stay. The room had only one bed instead of two, there weren't enough towels, and there was no lightbulb in our bedside lamp. So I took quite a few trips to the front desk. Jamie and I checked out the spa, which was one very old hot tub, a sauna that was marked closed with yellow tape and a steam room that was locked with a "staff only" sign on the door. Bizarrely it was one of the most expensive hotels on our trip, and she congratulated us on getting such a great rate.

Regardless we were comfortable in the hotel, and after a few minutes research I decided we were going to the Caribou Grill for dinner. The restaurant is a giant log cabin a couple of km off the highway, filled with authentic looking Cowboy and Indian knick knacks, including moose heads, saddles, bow and arrows and guns. I had a really good feeling about the place which increased when the waitress was super speedy and friendly. The food was fantastic, probably the best I've had in BC; I had Pork Tenderloin. In fact it was so good I had my arm twisted into having dessert. The NY Cheesecake was also excellent. It was about 9:30pm and dark when we left, happy, rosy faced and barrel shaped.

Happily we drove back to the hotel and went to bed. Next door to the hotel was a tiny greyhound depot, and a couple of times in the night a large bus arrived and backed up right past my window. Being a light sleeper I was wide awake for quite a bit of the night. Waking up about 6am I opened the curtains to find a large old bare chested man looking up at me from the patio, and disturbed I went back to bed for another hour.

Vacation day 5 : West Edmonton Mall - Galaxyland

After we ran around at Waterworld on Tuesday until we were exhausted we slept in a bit later today, but Corbey managed to get Jamie and I out of bed before the maids arrived, just. We had breakfast cereal in the hotel (yes I'm thrifty and I plan ahead) and went to the mall again for one more day.

First we went to Galaxyland, which like most of the mall is somewhat dated, and a few of the rides were closed for maintenance. The most exciting looking ride, a roller coaster, I couldn't quite bring myself to go on, because Jamie wasn't tall enough and would have been way to jealous. We did go on a medium sized roller coaster instead, and made up for the lack of extremity by screaming and laughing all the way around. Honestly, I didn't think Galaxyland was that great; and by the time I'd spent $50 on ride tickets and lost a few tokens in crappy broken arcade machines I was ready to check out the rest of the mall.

We had lunch in the food court, then checked out the ship in the centre of the mall, which is nicely maintained. It's a replica of the Santa Maria, the ship Columbus sailed to America. We paid a couple of bucks to go in it, and were apparently the only people inclined to do so. Funnily enough the ship was built in Vancouver and had made the same journey that we just had, also by road, to it's home in the WEM. One striking thing was how small the ship felt, when you considered that the crew of 30 lived below deck together for the 70 day long voyage.

Also interesting, although we didn't go inside, was the Sealife Caverns. They have a giant tank right in the mall where sea lions and other large creatures do shows throuhgout the day. Without paying for the attraction you can watch the shows from behind a glass wall, just 15 feet or so back, which was fine for us. Throughout the day we did a bit of shopping, almost entirely window shopping. We took advantage of Alberta's low sales tax to buy clothes for Jamie, and he spent his saved up pocket money on an awesome Star Wars lego kit.

Next we played adventure golf, which was a little crowded so we spent more time waiting than playing shots, but pleasant enough for an hour of fun. Later in the evening we watched a handful of local kids, who could skate like NHL stars, whiz about on the ice rink in the centre of the mall, while we drank coffee in Tim Hortons and tried to ignore the staff mopping our feet to encourage us to leave.

Here's a handy page with the facts you need for WEM

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vacation day 4: World Waterpark

On our first day at the West Edmonton Mall we went to the giant indoor World Waterpark.

I was excited about the waterpark, having spent many blissful hours in them in Majorca and Portugal as a kid. Jamie has been to some aquatic centres with wave pools and slides but nothing on this scale, so I was looking forward to his reaction too. In my research about the mall before the vacation I read that there may be a line up just to get in, and then lines on all the popular slides. So I bought tickets in the hotel on the way at a decent discount (they sell a ticket at a fixed price which you can use at the water park or as an unlimited ride ticket at Galaxyland), and we made sure we got there just before 10am when the pool opens.

As it turned out the line up was about 20 minutes if you don't have tickets, and only a minute or two if you did. There was plenty of family changing rooms, and it wasn't long before we'd put our belongings in the lockers (which are about $8 on top of admission). Shortly after that Jamie and I were heading to the very top of the park up a maze of staircases. Jamie and I came down a ride marked 'Extreme' first, which was a long and fast ride with lots of turns that whapped you into the side.

After that we went on all the slides, except I didn't let Jamie go on the big red ones that plummet straight down, almost vertically. I went on them and it was amazingly fast. My shorts were around my armpits as I plopped into the pool at the end, which was surprisingly deep. All the slides were fun, and in the morning there were no waits at all. As it got nearer to lunchtime the lines got a bit longer, and by the afternoon there was a 15-20 minute wait at the popular slides.

The wave pool is brilliant fun, with 5-6 foot waves coming in groups of 3 or 4. Each one would bring dozens of people on big yellow tubes (that you can rent) coasting right over our heads, and after each wave we'd try to find Jamie, who always managed to paddle off on his own just as the big wave was about to hit. None of us got hurt, but it's pretty wild with feet and legs flying everywhere as the waves roll by.

Also worth doing is a slide where you sit on a plastic float and then shoot down a 60 foot water slide and then skip along on top of the water at the bottom for another 60 feet. There's also a giant blue bowl which you slide into, then spin around before dropping through a hole in the bottom in the pool below.

For lunch we had hot dogs and chips at one of the cute little cafes dotted around the pool, and were quickly back in the water. We watched someone do a bungee jump, which is done over the end of the wave pool. Looked pretty wild, and I would have done it too, but my shoulder is not quite in one piece again yet since breaking it in a bike riding accident.

Although there's not much to write, it was the most fun day of the holiday. We were in the water park for from about 10am to 4pm in the afternoon. Once we were thoroughly exhausted from all the sliding, we went back to get changed. I vaguely remembered hanging my shirt up in the change room, but not putting it in my bag, so it turned out I'd lost it. It wasn't in the lost and found, so someday I may go back to Edmonton and see someone wearing the free shirt they got that day. Slipping back into my towel we slipped out the back door and went back to the hotel to get another one.

We returned the mall for further exploration, in particular the restaurant section which had a reasonable selection of different style restaurants. We decided on Mr Mikes, since Jamie and I were both in the mood for steak.

Feeling pretty tired after that we went back to the hotel and bought a movie on the hotel TV (Furry Vengeance).

West Edmonton World Waterpark

(The pictures from are from this Flickr stream, as we didn't want to take cameras in with us.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Edmonton blog day 3

Jasper to Edmonton

Date of trip Mon 23/08

Distance travelled 355km

Edmonton day 1

Since we'd already been to Jasper, albeit 11 years ago on our honeymoon, it was exciting to be heading for the first time into new territory. The last leg of our journey would take us from Jasper to Edmonton, and is about 4 hours along the Yellowhead Highway (AB-16). First though we decided to retread some old ground, and take a short drive to Pyramid Lake, just 10 minutes from the guest house in Jasper.

From Edmonton day 1

I wanted to go for a horse ride, but it turned out the stables near the lake were closed, but luckily the canoe rentals were not. While we considered whether to try it or not, another family with two young boys hopped into boats and paddled into the distance with little effort. Next to the lake is an up-market hotel and restaurant, which takes care of the boat and bike rentals. We rented a big canoe, put on life jackets and paddled into the lake.

From Edmonton day 1

There were some scary moments as the canoe was very sensitive to tipping, and Jamie, wanting to help, kept leaning right over the boat to stick his oar in (literally). So it was that the Heyes-Jones family made it's way, neither effortlessly or quietly, into the centre of the lake. Making pretty good progress we paddled around corner out of view of the hotel (and any chance of a rapid rescue) and towards a small island. Despite the sun, the morning was cold, and once around the corner there was a strong breeze trying to turn the canoe. So it was, that after an hour we arrived back at the boat rental with dirty hands and bright red faces with the effort of paddling.

From Edmonton day 1

Leaving Jasper, we stopped in the Petro Canada and spent a small fortune on chips, gas and coffee, realising by now that you can't eat too much on a road trip (you somehow burn calories just sat there in the driving seat). Although we were now in Alberta so gas was about $0.86 per litre, compared with about 30c more back in Vancouver.

From Edmonton day 1

Not long after leaving Jasper, the mountains suddenly fall behind you, and in their place is a giant blue sky. There's not much between Edmonton and Jasper, as far as I could tell, except for farm land; wery much like the England green hedge lined countryside I grew up in fact, except scaled up to fill this vast flat area.

From Edmonton day 1

There are a couple of small towns you can stop in along the highway but we had plenty of supplies so stopped only in a rest area. On the way I was delighted to see what looked like a large grey fox running along the median. Jamie and Corbey were less delighted as they didn't see it time.

We arrived in Edmonton in the early evening, and I used my smartphone with GPS and google maps to drive us to the wrong part of the city in rush hour (I guess it's not smart enough to know when the user doesn't type the post code in correctly), so we spent 30 minutes touring the road works on Whitemud Drive. We also incidentally drove to the campus of the University of Alberta, instead of the West Edmonton Days Inn Hotel.

On reaching the right area for the Days Inn, we couldn't see it anywhere, and I, not trusting my smartphone any more, decided to use it as a dumb phone and call the hotel for directions. Unfortunately I'd used up the battery almost completely, and the hotel put me on hold. Still they came back on the line just in time, and were friendly and helpful despite the fact that we were getting tired and our brains were mush.

After checking in to our hotel room, which was really nice and a 5 minute drive from the West Edmonton Mall (WEM), Jamie and I hit the pool which we had to ourselves. It was deep and pretty big for a hotel pool, with a hot spa on the side. After that we showered and went for dinner. It was about this point I just gave up on navigating in Edmonton and let Corbey take care of it. The maze of one way streets were a puzzle I was not quite in the mood to solve. We had dinner at the Olive Garden which is a family favourite; the service was good and friendly which was a distinct pattern we were noticing with Edmonton folk.

That evening we were itching to check out WEM, so even though it was due to close any minute we drove over there to investigate. Looking through the windows at a giant rollercoaster got Jamie super excited. We were able to wander through the mall, even though the stores were closing, and plan out our next couple of days. Jamie was blown away by Galaxy Land, Water World, and the fact that there is a full size ship right in the mall.

From Edmonton day 1

Finally we went back to the hotel and settled into the giant comfortable beds.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Road trip to Edmonton day 2

Clearwater to Jasper

Date of trip Sun 22/08

Distance travelled 317km
We woke up to the sound of light rain, and Jamie enjoyed riding his bike around the big car park while we packed. Then we crossed the street to the restaurant attached to the Motel, the Dutch Lake Village Restaurant. In the evenings this is a Chinese buffet, but in the mornings they make great fried breakfasts. In fact in the evening before I had been dreaming of bacon and egg, so I was delighted. The food was good quality, not obscenely greasy, and the waitress super efficient.

From Clearwater to Jasper

Hitting the road again, this time Corbey as the wheel, we drove about 200km before stopping in Valemount for lunch. When we arrived we'd reached that critical level of hunger where you don't want to spend a lot of time looking for food, so we decided to go to a gas station and buy sandwiches. Corbey couldn't find anything she liked in the two we tried, so as a little black cloud grew over my head we got creative. Seeing a little cafe with a sign for sandwiches, I went inside. Turned out the store was actually a launderette, busy with hikers and campers and the air thick with steam and soap smells. As we were about to turn around a little lady came out of a side door, and showed us that she had a little kitchen and dining area (with exactly one table) set up in the other side of the store. So there we sat, the three of us, as she brought out a pretty nice selection of sandwiches and some great coffee. Even better while we ate she entertained all of us with stories of bear encounters with campers in the night. Her eyes even looked a little bit bear-like and I couldn't help entertaining the idea that maybe she turns into a bear at night! Turned out to be a lot more interesting than eating Petro Canada sandwiches in a minivan.

From Clearwater to Jasper

Just outside Valemount we stopped at the majestic Rearguard Falls, recommended to us by the bear-lady, who told us we may see salmon jumping up-stream. We didn't see any, and it looked virtually impossible against the sheer power of the water. But I know from the fact that Salmon are not extinct that they must be able to do it, which is incredible.

Shortly after that we arrived at the Jasper park gates and I paid the $20 for a 24 hour park pass. You only need this if you intend to stop in the park, which also includes pulling off the highway for any kind of break. In our case we were intending to stay the night.

From Clearwater to Jasper

Arriving in the town of Jasper late afternoon we were pleased to find a warm welcome from the lady that runs the Miette Guest House, and even thought it was slightly older and smaller than the other grand houses on the street, it was very clean and nice inside. Built on a slight slope, most of the house was at the back at basement level and hidden from the street. There are about six rooms, and the one we had was big enough to run around in, and Jamie set about doing that right away, possibly to the annoyance of the more grown up and sedate other guests.

Once our baggage was dumped in the room we returned to the main street, which was just a few minutes walk from the guest house. Accidentally I was seperated from my smartphone for the first time since I bought it a week prior, and made more of a fuss about it then I ought to have. Meanwhile Jamie found a toy shop and several desirable purchases there. I told him that since we were going to be in the West Edmonton Mall in just a couple of days, he would have to wait until then for a better selection (and non-tourist priced toys).

For dinner I had a fairly reasonable Lasagne at a Greek Restaurant called Something Else. The service was quick and friendly.

From Clearwater to Jasper

Despite Vancouver still being lit with warm summer sunlight, Jasper was pretty cold, and somehow I'd managed to arrive with no rain coat or even a sweater of any kind. I got cold enough we checked out the local gift shops, but the cheap "Jasper" sweaters were so crappy I didn't think it was worth it and decided to risk dying of cold instead.

There's not a lot to see in the town really, once you've eaten and done any shopping, there's just the bars and movie theatre left. It's strange, but because the town of Jasper is built facing a railway, and the view is obstructed by goods trains, it has a very beach front feel to it. There's a pretty cool train and tourist centre, so we checked those out before returning to the guest house.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Road trip to Edmonton day 1

Port Moody to Clearwater

Date of trip Sat 21/08

Distance travelled 465km

Edmonton trip day 1 picasa album

We set off about 10am and made a stop in Abbotsford to refuel the car at Petro Canada and ourselves at Tim Hortons. In about 2 hours we got to Hope, about 145km and stopped at Othello Road to check out the Othello Tunnels; a series of railway tunnels (date). Quite beautiful scenery as the railway ran alongside a crystal clear river threading it's way through the Coquihalla Valley. The tunnels are 5 minutes drive from the highway, and the walk took about an hour including stopping for a quick picnic lunch on the way. Jamie had a great time climbing the rock walls and looking into caves.

We continued up the BC-5 for another hour or so, and our next stop was for drinks and snacks at Merrit, BC. All we knew about that city was that there is a music festival there every year. The highway looks down at the city which is about 10 minutes from the exit, and spreads out across the bottom of the valley. Driving into the city was a sparse and dated looking light industrial area which did not look very active, and when we reached the downtown area we saw this amazing looking hotel and bar. Pulling over to take a shot of it we parked outside a store and intended to look for a little cafe to grab a drink. Some interesting looking characters came out of the place which turned out to be a liquor store, and after 15 minutes of walking around we figured out that nearly every body in that part of town was pretty drunk or otherwise messed up. On that basis we decided not to carry on looking for a quaint local coffee shop and instead hit up a Petro Candada/7 Eleven instead.

Seems like Merrit, which was a booming town at one time due to the railway stopping there, at least the old downtown area is somewhat down on its luck. The Hotel we photographed, which has an ornate copper turret, was closed due to fire damage, yet was once the best hotel in the interior. The Southern end of the town, which we passed only on the way out, seems to be sprouting up brand new condos, fast food and the big box stores you see anywhere else in the country.

As we left Merrit and continued North the air started to darken with smoke from forest fires burning in the Cariboo. We drove through literally hundred kms of mountain road where the trees were sparse and had been burned to black sticks by previous fires, which gave this part of the journey a somewhat post-apocalyptic feel.

By late afternoon we arrived at Kamloops, which was also smokey enough there was a dark haze across the sky, and you could both smell the smoke and fell it as a dryness on your tongue. We drove down to the waterfront park, where, despite the smoke, plenty of kids were playing in the water park, and mine soon joined them. Exploring the beach we found a dead fish that had been stripped of its insides, presumably by hungry creatures, and we decided it was time to eat. Without the energy or the time to try a local restaurant we decided to head out of town to a large commercial area just off the highway. After having Wendy's for dinner where the staff were notably pleasant, we continued on our way.

It's 124km to our first hotel, the Dutch Lake Motel in Clearwater. This is a pretty old place, but set on a lake front just off the highway. They offer canoe hire and free wifi. The rooms were large and clean with everything we needed, and we took advantage of the large property to take a walk to the lake shore as the sun set. Jamie also enjoyed riding his bike around the big quiet car park.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

In this, my fifth Studio Ghibli movie review, I look at the 1986 work Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Based in a world where people once lived in the sky, some disaster had brought everybody down to earth again. The Castle in the Sky is the last city still airborne, lost to the modern world and hidden amongst storm clouds.

As with virtually all the movies from SG, the story is told from the point of view of children. Sheeta, a girl who seems to have some connection with Laputa, and a magical pendant, teams up with Pazu (who's adventurer father had taken a picture of the Castle in the Sky).

Sheeta and Pazu are pursued by sinister government agents and a gang of pirates lead by an old woman called Dola (who looks very like Yubaba, the witch from Spirited Away).

The movie was somewhat disappointing as it is an epic tale, but compared with more recent SG movies it looks rather dull. Although it has plenty of action and some hilarious slap stick comedy moments, it doesn't have a lot of character and life, and I didn't feel that emotionally involved with the characters.

The sound track is lively and simplistic 80's music, which sounds somewhat retro now (in a good way).

Laputa's story has a slightly environmentally friendly feel to it which I liked, at one point Sheeta recites:

Put down roots in the Earth;
Let's live with the wind;
With seeds, make fat the winter;
With the birds, let's sing of spring.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Grave of the Fireflies

Fourth in my reviews of Studio Ghibli movies, is Grave of the Fireflies. Made in 1988 this is the only Studio Ghibli movie which Walt Disney does not have the US distribution rights for, as it was made with Shinchosha, the company which published the book by the same name. (All the movies are funded by a parent company called Tokuma Shoten).

That the story is semi-autobiographical makes it all the more heart breaking, yet that is also probably the reason the movie is so human, and so authentic.

The city of Kobe in Japan was fire bombed on March 17th, 1945. Over 300 US bombers took part in the attack which targeted the wooden homes of civilians, and in the resulting fire storms over 8000 people lost their lives. This tale begins at the end, in Tarantino style, with the death of a pre-teen boy, Seita, and his younger sister Setsuko. He dies of exhaustion and starvation in a busy train station, where his dead body is treated as an annoyance by callous cleaners. His spirit rises from the body and he walks out to meet his little sister who is waiting for him. They are lit by the rosy glow of fireflies fluttering in the night.

Then we return the real beginning, as sirens wail and they make preparations to head for the bomb shelters before the bombers arrive. Their mother rushes off, leaving Seita and Setsuko and telling them to meet her their quickly. Caught in the fire bombing, yet escaping injury they flee to a river bank where they wait in relative safety.

Injured in the firestorm, their mother can no longer take care of them, their father is in the Navy at war, and Seita and his younger sister go to live with their extended family. The woman treats them cruelly and eventually they decide to leave, and find an abandonded bomb shelter by a lake. Things get much worse as their rice supplies dwindle and Seita turns to more extreme measures to support them.

Things continue much like that, and it sounds like a very grim tale, and not at all entertaining. But as with movies like Schindlers List, what makes the story worth telling is not the terror and the stalk reality of adult war meeting the innocent world of child, but the humanity and hope, that can prevail, even if only ephemerally.

Seita is the perfect big brother, doing everything he possibly can to mitigate their terrible circumstances; even braving air raids to steal from empty homes. Setsuko is a bubbly and happy girl, always playing and shouting for her sibling with a cute little voice. Firelies being a theme of the movie, she collects together a handful that have died, their fire extinguished, and makes them a little grave by their lake.

What stands out in the movie is the active cruelty towards the children, or at best callous disregard for their plight, and in contrast is the hope and dogged determination that Seita instills.

Although it's a very grim story, it is never overtly graphic or horrific. Probably not recommended for young children, but I wouldn't be over-squeemish about showing this to older children.

As you can see in these screen shots, the orange glow of fireflies is used to great effect to emphasize the warmth of the relationship between Seita and his little sister. A cute little box of candy lasts the duration of the movie, and mirrors the gradual decay and eventual resurrection in the after life of the two children.

Finally an amusing fact; this grim anti-war movie was released as a double-feature in Japan with the much more light hearted My Neighbour Totoro! Quite a contrast. Although not a great success financially at the box office in Japan, the sale of Totoro toys (Cat Bus and Totoru) soon made up for that, and firmly established Studio Ghibli for it's future movies.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was made before Studio Ghibli existed but is often included in their list of works, and is really the beginning of the studio. I watched a pretty decent dubbed version with voices from the likes of Alison Lohman and Uma Thurman. Alison's voice is really perfect for the main characters voice; the princess of the valley known as Nausicaa.

The movie was made in 1984, and the music is very 80's; sounding somewhere between a sleazy porn movie and an 8-bit video game. The movie looks very surreal, being set in a post-apocalyptic world where most of the planet is covered by a toxic jungle. Humans cannot enter the jungle without masks to prevent them being poisoned by spores. It is filled with dangerous creatures, including giant Ohm's, which are huge caterpillar like things, covered in eyes which glow red with fury when they are provoked.

Nausicaa is a princess loved by her people; who is able to communicate with and calm the creatures of the jungle, as well as people. She's a genuine hero, she flies a jet glider skillfully, she always does the right thing, she's an environmentalist and animal lover. Needless to say when her world is threatened, we feel bad for her and want to save it.

It's definitely one of the best SG movies so far, and my son who is 8 loved it too; one that we will watch again and again.