Saturday, July 21, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Gonna keep this one very, very spoiler-free, so instead of going into detail about what I did or didn't like about the story or elements, I'll just compare it in broad strokes to the two other summer comic-book movies I watched, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man.

The Dark Knight Rises rounds out the summer comic-book movie blockbuster season, and, if reports are to be believed, the Christopher Nolan/ Christian Bale collaboration on the franchise. And it's a fine swan-song. Enjoyable, but not the pinnacle of comic-book movies that some people seem to be claiming. There are huge, tumbler-sized plot holes throughout, some missed opportunities, and it could stand to be trimmed by 30 to 45 minutes.

While Banes voice has vastly improved from when I saw the opening six minutes at the start of Mission Impossible 4 in IMAX, there are still some terribly mumbled scenes, and I missed several lines of dialogue. Worse, I even found it difficult to catch what Gordon was saying in one particular scene, and got two characters completely confused, which led to me not understanding a key plot towards the end of the movie. Full disclosure: No one else made the same mistake, so it my have just been me getting bored at that point in the film.

The Avengers still stands as the best the summer offered. It was the perfect blend of action, character moments and well paced, super-powered fights.

If I'm, being honest, TDKR is probably a better movie than The Amazing Spider-Man for most people, but as a big fan of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, my bias has to be taken into account when I say that I had a better time watching Spidey than Batman.

I deconstructed the movie with some friends after, and the general agreement was that it was better than I thought. Take from this what you want.

In summary, it's far from a bad movie (I'm looking at you, Prometheus), but it's nowhere near a great movie either. I feel it will do well in the box-office figures, but given time, people will sour to it as the problems it has sink in or become more obvious with repeated viewings.

Friday, July 20, 2012

From Begins To Rises

With the third Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, due out tomorrow, I thought I'd post a quick recap for anyone who has forgotten the story up to now, or readers who plan on jumping in at this point without seeing the previous two[1].

Everything you need to know about the most recent movie version of Batman.

Steve Wayne is this dude who crashed to earth as a child and was raised by Amazonians before his uncle was killed in front of him down a dark alley. Wallowing in self pity, he was driving along a lonely road when an alien crashed, bestowing a powerful ring to him, powered by vengeance. Using the ring to form a hammer that can call down lightning, he hunted down this immortal dude from Star Wars, before battling the Clown Prince of Crime, Deadpool, and destroying most of the city he calls home, causing millions and millions of rupees in damages.

Somewhere along the way he successfully funneled billions of his own company's money, spending them on ridiculous inventions and experimental technologies for his own private, personal use.

Apart from that, all you need to know if that the police and, inexplicably, the citizens who have to put up with his wanton rampages and the resulting increase in taxes to cover city-wide repairs, allow him to continue operating. He's the hero the city needs, not the one it wants. Remember, he doesn't have to kill people, he just doesn't have to save them... which makes about as much sense as a cock flavored popsicle. While we're on the subject of nonsense, Batman never uses guns, unless they're on his car, the Quinjet, at which point it's okay to use only high caliber machine guns capable of shredding a person in half, but rockets as well. Also, he drives over people in their cars too while in his 2.5 tonne personal tank.

There's a reason the city doesn't want him.

You're welcome.

[1] - This was written for a friend who plans on doing the latter, so I hope I covered all the important points. In case I missed any, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Monday, July 09, 2012

A Learning Experience

The International Experience Canada (IEC) program is a wonderful opportunity to visit an incredible place. Having been through it twice now, once via a brokerage and once on our own, I feel I've earned some valuable gems of experience that are worth sharing. Note: While some tips can be applied to any holiday visa, everything is from the experience of an Irish citizen dealing with the Canada process.

1) Do it.
Just do it. Canada is a truly magnificent land, filled with fantastic people from across the world. Get out, explore, see how life operates outside where ever you grew up. You won't regret it.

2) Do it yourself. Don't use a brokerage.
I know, I know. This sounds like a ridiculous statement based on all the trouble we went through by ourselves versus going through the brokerage. But the application process is actually pretty straightforward, so long as you read and learn from our mistakes and the advice we gleamed from making them. A brokerage is just going to charge you more but the processing time is exactly the same. They get no preferential treatment from the Canadian Immigration offices. In fact, Canadian Immigration prefer to deal with you directly, and will be phasing out all brokerages by 2015.

Worse, brokerages impose restrictions and time-limits on you that the official channel won't. When we traveled first in 2011, we had to be out of Ireland by the end of January, and we had to have flights booked before the'd even begin processing our applications. We also had to book those flights through them, and get our travel insurance through them, all bloated in costs by their commissions. While we didn't have to worry about flights this year, our processing fees and travel insurance were significantly cheaper than before.

3) Have documents ready in advance.
You'll need a Garda Clearance Certificate, available from your local station. If you've had one done in the last few years, they can just reissue that. This is particularly handy for the second year, as it significantly decreases how long it takes for them to issue the new cert. Request it in early November to have for when the application process opens in December. You'll also need recent passport photos (less than 6 months) and a copy of your resumé.

4) Read everything, sign everything, reread everything. 
Once the application process opens, fill out the PDF forms on your computer, print out the documents and sign where requested. This was where we made our mistake. We missed one signature. Pay particular attention to pages or sections that don't apply to you, such as declaring a spouse or children if you don't have any. There is usually a line below these to sign declaring that this section doesn't apply to you. Sign it!

Also, if there is a request for a signature that you don't need to sign, write N/A, or Not Applicable. It didn't affect us, but I've heard of someone who was apparently rejected for not signing the section to declare that he was not married, despite the fact that he was, and had declared as much.

So my advice is to read, sign, and reread. If it asks for a signature, acknowledge that you're seen and read it by either signing it if appropriate, or marking it if not. Finally, give the forms to someone else to read over. They might spot something you missed.

5) Put everything together.
    i) Get all your documents together in an envelope. Completed application forms (including medical request form, if applicable), passport photocopies, passport photos, resumé, Garda Clearance Certificate and any other forms they request. Do not use my list when checking this. They provide a clear list of everything you need in their information packet. Use it, check everything twice.
    ii) Put them in the order they request.
    iii) Do not include any fee payments at this stage! They will reject your application and return everything if you do. They will request payment once your application has been approved.
    iv) Have someone else recheck everything for you. This is the last thing you have control over. Don't make a mistake this late in the game.

6) Post.
Use UPS, Fed-Ex or some other registered postal service. If you're posting from Ireland, the standard registered post provided by An Post is fine. It's just going to London, and will arrive in a day or two. If this is your second year application and you're posting from Canada it's worth paying extra for a 48 hour courier service, just to waste as little time as possible.

7) Look around at travel insurance options and upcoming flights.
Don't book anything just yet. Wait until everything is completed and you have your Letter of Introduction. Your year in Canada starts when you enter the country, and that letter lasts for 12 months from issue anyway, so you have 12 months to authenticate your work permit, and then your 12 months working and enjoying the Canadian life. That's loads of time to route out the appropriate travel insurance and cheap flights.

8) Note the minimum time the processing should take.
The IEC program does not, by policy, reply to inquiries regarding applications before a specified time period, usually the average time it takes for applications to be processed. Mark this date on your calender. If you haven't heard from them after that date, start inquiring by sending a polite email about your status, remembering to include your unique application code. They won't always contact you if there is an issue, as I learned through experience.

I was lucky enough to be applying at the same time as Claire, so when she was accepted but I got nothing, I knew something was amiss. Sure enough, on inquiry, I discovered that they had misplaced my payment confirmation and had halted processing my application, without sending any notification of that action to me. Once I confirmed that my payment had been made within the allowed time-frame, they re-activated my process.

9) Contact them if your medical is done outside Ireland.
For my second year application, I got my medical examination done in Canada. At the bottom of the Instructions For Medical Examinations form, it states that, "The onus is on you to advise this office immediately via email should you arrange to have a medical exam performed outside the U.K. and Ireland." Do not forget to do this.

10) Consider NOT authenticating your work permit immediately.
This is a trick I only learned after I was here for a while, and so did not get to use. In hindsight, it would have actually saved us a lot of the hassle we went through over the last six months, so listen up!

Once you get accepted and make it to Canadian soil, enter the country initially as someone on holiday. Finding work in Canada is not too difficult, but it's not usually instantaneous either. A holiday visa allows you to stay in Canada for 6 months, but you can't work under it. That's okay. You can still look for work and apply for positions. Most people will spend the first few weeks getting a place to live, finding their feet, and just enjoying being here.

By not authenticating your work permit immediately, you don't loose out on the relatively short time you have on your permit. As soon as you find someone that will give you work, you just have to authenticate your work permit. You can do this a number of ways:
    i) Mail the application to Ottawa. This takes much longer than the other options.
    ii) By plane: Fly to the US and back, authenticating at the airport on return.
    iii) By train: Travel to the US and back, authenticating at the train station on return.
    iv) By car: Drive to the US and back, authenticating at the boarder.
I would recommend the car or train. When we flew over in 2011 it took us hours to get through immigration at the airport with the plane-load of other Irish travelers. This year we just popped over the boarder by car and it took mere minutes to process in the office, despite a minor hiccup.

Don't do it by bus. Your additional processing time will hold everyone else up at the boarder, and no-one will appreciate that. On the other hand, immigration by train is done in the Vancouver train station, so you won't be delaying anyone if you choose this option.

11) Enjoy Canada!
You've made it. You have your work permit, you have a job, everything is great. If this is your first year, you can go through most of this again next year, as Irish citizens are permitted two working permits for Canada, each lasting 12 months. If this was your second run through the obstacle course, you better start looking for an employer who will sponsor you if you want to stay in the country beyond the next year.

But for now, you've done it. Relax and enjoy. Well done.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Saga Of The Canadian Visa Part IV

Part I: Mid-December - April 24th
Part II: Early May - June 16th
Previously, in Part III:
June 20th: Medical Examination taken
June 26th: Medical Examination sent to Ottawa
July 5th: Receipt of Letter of Introduction

And now, Part IV: 

Claire asked some of her friends if one of them would be willing to drive us across the US/Canadian boarder on Saturday, July 7th, in exchange for lunch and the pleasure of our company for a morning. The first one she asked was kind enough to agree and we met up in the morning before setting off on a road trip south on a glorious, blue sky summer day.

The US/Canadian boarder is only about 30 minutes south from where we live along the highway, but the queue to cross was enormous, and we spent at least that time again waiting to reach the crossing. Everyone hears horror stories of crossing into the US, but we've never had any issues, and on that day, once again, US boarder patrol proved themselves professional and courteous. We had to go into the offices so that Claire and I could fill out some forms, but everything was fast and friendly.

We headed across into Blaine, which turned out to be, literally, right on the boarder, no more than 60 seconds away from the boarder gates! We took a walk around the small town, enjoying the fantastic weather, before heading to a steakhouse for lunch. Then back in the car, and back across the boarder once again.

At the Canadian checkpoint we informed the officer that we needed to validate our work permits, and were sent to the offices on this side of the crossing. We entered the cool air-conditioned offices, got called up to the desk and explained our situation.

"Our computers are down."

Nothing is ever easy.

The officer asked us to take a seat for a while, before calling us back up, asking a few questions and then telling us that he could fill out the forms manually, but that he'd have to post out the full colour, holofoil stamped, official document during the week. Or we could come back Sunday or Monday, go through the whole process again and do it then. We chose the postal option.

With our hand written forms attached to our visas, we got back in the car and headed back into Canada and home.

Six months of worry, stress and anxiety had come to an end. Thanks to the efforts of countless people, everything worked out for the best, and we have another 12 months working in Canada to look forward too. Sure, hard lessons were learned, and that's what I'll be sharing in my next post.

To Be Continued in A Learning Experience

The Saga Of The Canadian Visa Part III

Part I: Mid-December - April 24th
Previously, in Part II
First Week Of May: Claire receives eligibility notification
May 14th: Start to inquire about own status
May 24th: Informed of apparent lack of payment
May 24th: Email proof of payment
May 28th: Eligibility notification
June 15th: Documentation for medical exam
June 16th: Claire receives Letter of Introduction

And now, Part III:

I attended my medical on June 20th. After filling out some forms and before meeting the doctor I was sent for my chest X-ray. Unlike in Ireland, the center had everything under one roof, so it was all done over the course of a morning. When I met with the doctor she went through all the standard questions and checks before looking me right in the eye.

"Do you have a tremor?"

Crap. I had developed a slight tremor in my left hand some time in March. I put it down to stress, anxiety, poor diet (I was low on fruit and vegetable intake at the time), and far too much Xbox gaming. It had been getting better since early June when I almost completely stopped playing Xbox, and things had been stress-free for a while.

But getting a medical, even when you know you're fit and healthy, can be a little stressful, especially when your work permit and immediate future plans all depend on it. My hand was shaking like a paint mixer.

She examined the tremor, agreeding that it seemed to be nothing too serious. I still had full strength, control and dexterity. Regardless, she was obliged to mark it down on the medical, news I did not need right at that moment. Worse, she had to refer me to a neurologist, and told me that they can be expensive, and that it might be cheaper for me to go home to Ireland if anything needed to be done. Again, this was news I really did not need right then.

I thanked her for her time, went downstairs to get my blood taken and headed home, feeling, once again, pretty low. According to the doctor, the medical files would be mailed to Ottawa the following Tuesday, June 26th.

I went home and the next few days were spent reviewing my future. According to the information packet that came with the medical forms, "an assessment is normally made ... within 10 working days", so I wasn't going to hear anything until early July. Worrying about everything at this point was just going to stress me out even more, so I relaxed, learned how to draw on a graphics tablet and waited out this last stretch.

At around noon on July 5th I received an email containing my Letter of Introduction, bringing to an end a roller-coaster six months back and forth, as both Claire and I finally had our authorisation for new 12 month work permits.

Now all we had to do was cross the boarder and reenter Canada with all our relevant documentation.

To Be Continued in Part IV

The Saga Of The Canadian Visa Part II

Previously, in Part I:
Mid-December: Applications open
Mid-January: First application submitted
February 8th: Confirmation of receipt
March 1st: Rejection
Early March: Second application submitted
March 23rd: Confirmation of receipt
April 23rd: Acceptance notification
April 24th: Payment made, confirmation of receipt received

And now, Part II:

During the first week of May Claire got the news that her application was complete and she should expect to hear from them in six to eight weeks, but for the first time in our application process, I got nothing. This didn't set off the alarm bells it probably should have, as I knew I had requested a full medical examination to allow me to work in childcare in Canada. I just assumed my form was being passed up the chain to the next level, and I would hear from them soon. After all, I hadn't gotten anything to tell me I hadn't been accepted either.

By May 14th I was getting worried. I emailed a few addresses I had and got automated responses. I continued to email the official contacts over the next two weeks, until, on May 24th, almost a full month after Claire had been accepted, I got a response informing me they had not received my payments.

This is why you keep all your paperwork on file, for dark days just like this. I scanned all our bank documents and emailed them on to the address provided, along with a copy of the confirmation of payment email I had received from them dated April 24th.

The next four days saw me hit my lowest moral level in memory. I could do nothing to cheer myself up, and Claire's efforts were equally doomed to failure. By the time I awoke on May 28th, the day I turned 32 years old, I just couldn't even bring myself to leave the house to celebrate my own birthday.

Which, as it turned out, was for the best.

Some time in the afternoon of May 28th I pulled my attention away from whatever was playing on the Xbox to check my emails, an action I was beginning to refine into a state of almost obsessive compulsiveness. The subject text "IEC Eligible, sent to CIC" turned out to be the best birthday gift I could ever get right then. As I discovered, I had received the standard confirmation letter that my payment had been received and my application would be processed. No apology, no explanation regarding misplacing my payments, just confirmation of acceptance. I didn't care. It was perfect.

It still took until June 15th for me to receive the information and forms for my medical in the mail. I made the booking immediately with an approved medical officer in Vancouver. The earliest I could get was the following Wednesday.

By an amazing coincidence of timing, the next morning, on June 16th, Claire got an email with her Letter of Introduction, the final document she needed to get her work permit.

But, as I should have learned by now, things still weren't to go smoothly for me.

To Be Continued in Part III

The Saga Of The Canadian Visa Part I

Visa application for Canada opens, usually, in December each year. The application process takes about three months, but our work permits expired at the end of January, about seven weeks after we could have possibly started the application. The trouble was, as it was considered a new application, and not an extension, we needed to get a new Garda Clearance Certificate, which we only thought of once we saw the application forms. By the time we had that reissued it was mid-January when we couriered both applications to London at the cost of $80 for the swiftest mail service.

We got an email on February 8th confirming the receipt of our applications.

This meant that we knew in advance that we were going to be unemployable for a short while through February, March and even into April. But we were okay with this. We had a nice bit of savings, and could happily survive for a while without too much trouble, as long as we were careful with our expenditure and stuck to eating at home.

Unfortunately, we suffered a setback on March 1st when we both received an email informing us we had been rejected. As it turned out, we had missed a single signature at the bottom of a section that didn't apply to us, on an entire page that didn't apply to us. We had to restart everything again. Except we had, as required, sent away all our original documents. This meant that we had to get our Garda Clearance Certs reissued once again, and resubmit everything, double, triple and quadruple checking every signature, page, line and letter. In their defense, they did return the original, rejected documents, but it was still faster to get everything reissued.

Our second application was sent some time in early March. The notice of receipt arrived on March 23rd, but it took a full month before the acceptance email arrived, on April 23rd. Once accepted we were permitted to complete payment, which we did the very next day. The confirmation emails arrived within minutes, and that's when things got really complicated.

To Be Continued in Part II

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Movie Review: Spidey On Spidey

Hi ho, Readers! It's your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man here! Denis has kindly allowed me to do a guest post on his blog, as we're reviewing the newly released "The Amazing Spider-Man".

I'll try not to be as cliched as to use such adjectives as "amazing" or "spectacular" while writing this review, but one or two might slip in, as the movie was, in my humble opinion, incredible! Director Marc Webb proved himself worthy of the task at hand, living up to the comic action and proving he wasn't just chosen for the comedy value of seeing his name in the opening credits! He did a great job on not just the action scenes, but everything from the softer, quieter moments, to my loud-mouth, mid-fight quips.

I was especially impressed with the choice of cast. There wasn't a weak link among the lot of them, from the always wonderful Martin Sheen to Dennis Leary, an actor who I feel deserves more roles than he seems to get. Andrew Garfield was a great choice to play my civilian identity, and Emma Stone played a powerful and strong-willed Gwen Stacy, pretty much as I remember her...

Sorry. Had to take a moment there. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The entire cast was superb. My only complaint about the cast, in fact, was that some didn't get as much character time as I would have hoped. Everyone was so strong in their role, I would have been happy to see more time given to any or all of them. My friend Stan Lee gets his best cameo yet in this outing, inciting laughs throughout the theater during his short scene on-camera.

But what of the star himself, me! The new costume is wonderful. I might have to try to get myself a custom version, as the kids will only recognize me in that now. Assuming they didn't hire one of my many clones as the stunt double, the CG me is a great facsimile. It really looked like it had mass behind it, and moved better than previous attempts to fake me on-screen. I was especially impressed with my training scene in the warehouse, which looked like a lot of fun. Special shout-out to whoever reproduced my webs. They had lots of tiny details, and looked great on the big screen. They were especially effective in 3D.

Which brings me to the hot topic of modern cinema. Let's talk 3D.

First and foremost, if you're wondering how I managed to watch the movie in 3D, thankfully, the lenses in my mask are polarized, so I don't have to wear those silly glasses. That's doubly good, as they'd be enormous on me, and I don't have ears to hang them on. Normally, I prefer to see movies in 2D. However, in this case, the 3D was really good!

No, no, no! Bare with me. I know. I usually hate 3D too (As do I- Denis). But it really was used extraordinarily well here (As much as I hate too, I have to agree- Denis). There is a great use of 3D with web-lines in a sewer, and the web-swinging through Manhattan worked much better in the final movie than it ever did in the early trailers. It still wasn't much compared to doing the real thing, but a good try. To be fair, if one hero was going to benefit from 3D, it was always going to be me! I even flinched during one scene, something I haven't done in any other extra-D movie.

Finally, I have to say something about the soundtrack. This is especially worth mention, as I noticed and enjoyed it so much. The score was fantastic, with some noticeably beautiful pieces throughout. It was truly orchestral at times, really adding to the emotion or action on-screen. While my friends in the Avengers still reign supreme as the best super-hero movie overall, I think I deserve the "Best Score" award.

Unlike some, I was a big fan of the earlier Spider-Man movie series. Well, the first two at least. Even then, this one blows those previous efforts out of the water, for story, character and effects. There is so little to complain about for me, despite the fact that it doesn't strictly follow my personal mythology. It really is an exceptionally fun piece of cinema, even if it'll never win an Oscar and I give it two Spidey thumbs-up all the way! Highly recommended.