Saturday, 30 December 2006

Gosford Park (2001) - ickleReview (DVD)

Outstanding Robert Altman comic drama set in 1932. A shooting party takes place at an English country house. Servants make preparations belowstairs gossiping about their masters' squabbles above. A huge ensemble cast shines with innumerable layers of intrigue so subtly conveyed. The snobbish hierarchy of the aristocracy is mimicked if not outdone by the servants' stuffy conventions belowstairs. Wonderful performances by Helen Mirren as the perfect head servant Mrs Wilson, Maggie Smith as a wickedly snobbish old dame, Alan Bates as the butler, Jennings, and Richard E. Grant as a swaggering footman - amongst many other superb characters.

Nugget: it's almost a shame there had to be a murder, so enthralling are the intertwining storylines of servants and masters.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

A devastating thresher of a film by Ken Loach about the early days of the IRA in rural Ireland, 1920. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to move to the teaching hospitals in London, leaving the provincial life behind him. However, having witnessed the pointless brutality of the British Black and Tans regiment, he is compelled to stay behind in Ireland and joins the Irish Republican Army to drive out the British and establish a democratic Irish republic. Damien leads a small but determined militia against the British, ambushing them to acquire weapons. When caught, the British soldiers are ruthless in their torture and punishment of the Irish rebels.

Paul Laverty's screenplay skilfully covers a number of issues relating to the rebellion: hatred of the cruel treatment by the British, a worker's desire for socialism, the impact of brother fighting against brother, the amateurish training of the Irish rebels, the in-fighting and disagreements about what they are fighting for and what to do with their power once they have it, the involvement of the women, the stubborn pride of the republicans, the moral guidance offered by the clergy.

Loach bludgens his audience with realistic detail and rounded characters. There are token scenes to sketch out the wider implications of the plot, but they don't feel at all clunky. There is, for example, a politically slanted sermon by a Catholic priest to demonstrate how the clergy side with whoever has money and power, and a civil court scene to demonstrate how the women have taken over administrative roles and seek to establish a more just, egalitarian society.

Although it only covers a short period in history, the film manages to convey the hopeless struggle of ideologies and the factions within factions as the men and women fighting for Ireland's freedom have many conflicting motives. Once the Irish Free State is established, not all of the IRA freedom fighters are happy because the senators will be made to swear an allegiance to the King of England still. Yet had the British granted full independence, they would have succumbed to similar nationalist movements all across the Empire much sooner than they did.

Nugget: an important and impeccably observed film with an outstanding performance by Cillian Murphy in the lead roll and a strong supporting cast.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Phone Booth (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a self-centred publicist in New York who is held hostage in a phone booth he has used to call his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), a young actress he's trying to take advantage of. He used a phone booth so that his wife (Radha Mitchell) wouldn't see the calls on his cell phone bill. The caller (Kiefer Sutherland) is holding him at gunpoint from an unseen window with a sighted sniper rifle. Short and sweet at 81 minutes, the tension builds in long takes as the caller exacts a conscience from Stu, enjoying his mind games and manipulation in the sight of TV news cameras, tourists, passers-by and a trigger-itching police presence.

Farrell's performance is impressive. He's in almost every scene of the movie and has lots of dialogue. (But then so does any stage actor, so I don't think he should be singled out just because he could remember his lines.) The long takes build the tension. Joel Schumacher has made an entertaining film on a tight budget and 10-day shooting schedule. The ending seems to come a little soon and doesn't quite pay off. I felt like it should have gone on for another 10 or 15 minutes. It's a little anti-climactic, but at least it's trying something different.

Nugget: next time you see a phonebox ringing, it's best not to pick up. Oh, and don't cheat on your wife.

Casino Royale (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Daniel Craig's first Bond film - and possibly one of the franchise's best. Craig is a much harder, colder, more macho Bond than Brosnan, with no campness. Someone said perceptively about this film that it's what Bond would be like if it was real. The baddies in this one are small terrorist groups and the men who finance them. Bond has just been made a double-O agent. In the opening black and white sequence we see his first kill. For once his turn and shoot towards the camera for the opening credits actually means something. The stunts are grittier and more enthralling than usual, including Free Running (Parkours) specialists. I was impressed with the use of technology: the thought of Bond logging into MI6's secure database using M's username and password, the constant use of mobile phones, the tracking chip that is placed in Bond's forearm by his employers to keep track of him, and so on. The gadgets are ones that we all use - except, perhaps, for the DIY defibrilator that he keeps in the glove compartment of his Aston Martin...just in case he has that heart attack.

The Bond girl, Eva Green, is smarter and harder to get than her predecessors. She's the Treasury's representative at the high-stakes poker game he plays in order to smoke out one of the terrorist financiers. I like the way Bond orders a new drink, the way he says he couldn't care less whether his dry Martini is shaken or stirred, the way we see, for once, characters being affected by the deaths around them.

Some people may object to the product placement, but that's what our world looks like nowadays: it would be odd not to see these brandnames. Richard Branson having a cameo out of focus at a security check point at Miama airport is another matter; although I found that quite amusing. I wonder how much he paid.

It's quite a long one (144 minutes), but the plot deserves the treatment. The changes of pace are welcomed and the downtimes are some of the most interesting moments of the film. Bond even thinks he falls in love. (Shades of On Her Majesty's Secret Service...)

Nugget: good to see some fresh ideas and I'm very impressed with the new Bond.

Scoop (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Woody Allen's second film shot in the UK is about Sondra (Scarlett Johansson), a doh-brained journalism student from America who is staying in England over the summer with her upper-class family friends. When she takes part in a magic trick in Splendini's stage show she receives a tip-off about a murder story from back-from-the-dead reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Splendini (Woody Allen), whose real name is Sid Waterman, accompanies Sondra on her precarious investigation of the lead, which brings them into contact with high-class businessman and politician Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), a Lord's son, whom they are told is responsible for the unsolved serial Tarot Card Murders.

As Match Point was a British remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors, so Scoop* is a refashioning of Manhattan Murder Mystery. It is an enjoyable, light film, taking itself less seriously than Match Point did, and thus has no jarring changes of tone, as happened when the earlier London film brutalized towards the end. The plotting feels smoother and the conclusion less of an afterthought than his previous film.

Johansson's character is ditsy and, after some initially awkward scenes, the Allen-Johansson double act functions well as they botch their way through their hunt for clues to connect Peter Lyman to the murders. McShane spends the film escaping from Death's boat to the Underworld to give Sondra and Sid clues, having been told the scoop by Lyman's poinsoned former secretary.

Allen seems more confident in his portrayal of his London fantasy world of high society, much like the New York rich set that probably doesn't exist either. The locations are more low-key: he does not gawp up at the Royal Albert Hall, for example, as he dallied past Buckingham Palace in Match Point like a tourist. He also seems more comfortable with the British English idiom, even poking fun at it with Sid's refrain "I love you, really. With all due respect, you're a beautiful person. You're a credit to your race." The soundtrack is full of atmospheric classical music rather than his more familiar jazz score, partly because it is a mystery film, not a comic romp.

One wonders why, in December 2006, this has yet to be released in the UK. (I watched this film at the seedy Museum Lichtspiele in Munich, Germany, where they have been showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show every week since its release in 1975. There is no - or ineffective - heating, ineluctable popcorn and Coke spillage, and buzzing, faulty speakers.) Is it to be another Hollywood Ending and sneak below the UK distributors' radar? Surely Woody Allen has earned the reputation by now to be treated with more respect.

Nugget: good to have you back.

* NB This has nothing to do with Evelyn Waugh's eponymous 1938 novel about the bumbling war correspondent William Boot sent to Abyssinia.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

16 Blocks (2006) - ickleReview (DVD)

Bruce Willis police action thriller. The old man plays Jack Mosley, a broken, alcoholic cop who, after a long nightshift, has to escort a witness 16 blocks through New York City rushhour traffic to the courthouse before 10am when the jury expires. The prisoner/witness, Eddie (Mos Def) is a talkative baby-voiced crook who is going to testify against police curruption, affecting Jack's ex-partner Frank Nugent (David Morse) and other precinct colleagues who try to chase them down and prevent the testimony in a familiar good cop/bad cop routine.

After a few twists, it all ends happily and everyone gets a slice of birthday cake. The alternate ending on the DVD is more complicated but more intriguing and implausible and would have lost more audiences.

Nugget: pretty standard stuff.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) - ickleReview (DVD)

Love story about two Scouse girls who meet a couple of Russian sailors out one night in Liverpool. One of them (Margi Clarke) is looking for a good, care-free time; the other, Elaine (Alexandra Pigg), wants romance. Sergei (Alfred Molina) and Peter (Peter Firth) duly oblige. However, the sailors have to go home the next day, which leaves Elaine, who has fallen in love with Peter, desolate.

Had it ended here, it would have been a bonnie enough film, akin to Before Sunrise but without the eloquence. Yet it moves on to a second act in which Elaine, rather implausibly, writes to the Russian president to intercede in her situation: she wants to marry Peter but he is not allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

The film looks dated with 80s fashion disasters around every pub pint. It is now a period piece for Thatcher's Britain. Pigg and Firth give the best performances, although Eileen Walsh is amusingly course as Elaine's mother.

By no means a bad film - the first half is sweet - but the second is less engaging. Writer Frank Clarke is at his best creating Scouse banter on a night out.

Nugget: nothing to write home to Russia about, but not to be written off either.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) - ickleReview (TV)

Spike Lee's two-part feature-length Storyville documentary about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on New Orleans and its largely black, underprivileged underclass. It follows the events in sequence through the hurricane, the rescue missions, the "refugee" crisis (although this is a word the victims took offence at, as if they were not citizens of their own country) and the diasporal aftermath, showing how the survivors are trying to rebuild their homes in a devastated city.

It is often tremendously moving as the survivors tell their stories with real intimacy and - at times - humour. There is a great deal of hard feeling against FEMA and the incompetant Bush administration. One feels this is the reason why some leftists parts of the British press were so sceptical about the election of a stupid president in 2000: his foot-in-mouths are inconsequential in comparison to the uncaring bunch of cronies he appointed to his government.

Nugget: it's amazing these people don't question their faith when it appears their suffering has been caused by an "act of God".

Monday, 18 December 2006

Q&A with the directors of "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"

My Q&A with the directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, makers of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, is now published on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Monday, 11 December 2006

Forrest Gump (1994) - ickleReview (TV)

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) was a dumb, crippled kid from Greenbow, Alabama who grew up to be an all-American hero: college football star, Vietnam war hero, ping-pong player, shrimp boat captain, corporation owner, inspirational long-distance runner, und so weiter. It's a cross between Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. His life story is wonderfully implausible, narrated waiting on a bustop bench to whoever is sitting there, not always listening. His life-long sweatheart, Jenny (Robin Wright Penn), abused by her father as a child, struggles through life as a stripper, hippy, drug addict and waitress, never far from Forrest's thoughts, which are predominantly simple, sometimes profound, always endearing. The film is focalized through Forrest's low IQ of 75, told with a naivety that looks at the world anew and that shows but doesn't tell the (presumably smarter) audience what's going on: that Jenny's father is an alcoholic widower whose hugging and kissing of his daughters isn't as loving as it sounds; that there are rather a lot of political assassinations in America's recent history; that drug addicts died from AIDS, and so on.

In the mid-nineties there was excitement over the film's CGI faux-documentary footage of Forrest Gump meeting the president (twice) and appearing in news footage about racial segregation while at college. Twelve years later these inserts still stand up quite well, but look a little shakey. I suppose they were always supposed to look a little odd - a bit like those video mixes of Blair and Bush singing "Gay Bar".

Nugget: some wonderful touches and still compelling to watch after a number of previous viewings. At 142 minutes it is stretching running-time etiquette but I think, in this case, it is justified because there are simply so many crazy stories to cram in. I wonder what quirks they left out.

A room with a view


The view from my bedroom window this afternoon at sundown.

Cricket sledging

I suspect there may have been more F-words used in these gentlemanly exchanges at the crease. I like the one about the biscuit.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Borat Sagdiyev is another character creation by Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave us Ali G. Borat is a TV presenter from Kazakhstan who is sent by the Ministry of Information to make a documentary about America ("US and A [...] the greatest country in the world").

Along the way Baron Cohen in the character of Borat tries to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible, including random New Yorkers walking the streets of Manhattan, veteran feminists, gays, blacks, Jews, women, college frat boys, polite dinner parties, a rodeo audience and, eventually, Pamela Anderson.

It's much like his short sketches from Da Ali G Show strung together with a flaky plot. It's a road trip movie with Pamela Anderson as the spur to cross coast to coast in a second-hand ice-cream van with his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) in tow.

There are many laughs in (or maybe at) this film, as well as a quite deflating poignant moment, but it needn't have tried to force a narrative out of it. Borat is much funnier when he's just causing havoc with people you're never really sure are in on the joke.

Nugget: the film suffers a little from over-exposure. I'd heard too many of the jokes and encounters in reviews on radio, TV, and in the press, weakening their impact on screen. (They're still funny, but they were funnier first time round.)

The official movie website, though, is a masterpiece.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Bloom (2003) - ickleReview (DVD)

Film adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), one of the greatest novels ever written in any language. Having read the book twice and studied it over the past five years, it's difficult to give an objective view of Bloom as a stand-alone film. I'm not sure if it would work for someone who knows nothing about the novel. Director Sean Walsh has certainly done a lot of creative cutting: entire chapters are omitted or condensed into a scene or two. From what I could make out, the most cinematic chapter of the novel, "Wandering Rocks" (chapter 10), which features an interpolative narrative technique similar to parallel editing, and the "Sirens" episode of the sing-song in the Ormond Hotel bar (chapter 11), were missing.

The film begins at the end of the novel with Molly's monologue in bed with Bloom at the end of the day, and then comes full circle, like Joyce's final work, Finnegans Wake, returning back to where it started with Molly, and ending with her famous last words "yes I said yes I will Yes."

The film is about a day in Dublin, 16 June 1904. Leopold Bloom makes breakfast for his adulterous wife, Molly (Angeline Ball), who fucks Blazes Boylan while Bloom is out of the house later in the day. Stephen Rea's Bloom is more melancholy than I imagined him. Rea and Walsh emphasize his sadness at the death of his son, Rudi, and foreground the anti-semitism he faces in Dublin. Meanwhile, Stephen Dedalus (Hugh O'Conor) has breakfast with his friend Buck Mulligan (Alvaro Lucchesi) and their English companion, Haines, at their Martello tower home outside the city. He then teaches a lesson at school and walks along the strand into Dublin. (Small factual error: he should be walking north, with the sea on his right, not south with it on his left, as he does in the film. Many other artistic liberties are taken: Bloom's home at 7 Eccles Street, for example, does not have a front garden or a path, and backs straight on to the pavement.) The rest of the film follows them about the city until they meet up later at night, drunken, in a brothel.

Walsh achieves, on the whole, the right tone and casts some characters such as Molly, Mr Deasy (Des Braiden) and Buck Mulligan particularly well. The central characters are weaker. Rea does not convince me his is Bloom; O'Conor is too cheerful as Stephen.

Nugget: don't neglect to read the book!

I've also written a different review of this DVD for FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Blogcritics redesign

Blogcritics has improved its site design. It's still quite cluttered and text-heavy, but that's because there's so much material contributed by its 1,700 reviewers. The ads cheapen it a little, but I guess they're a necessity. On the whole, though, it looks so much better, especially with a slightly smaller font size. Arial looks mince when it's too big.

I've contributed a few of my ickleReviews.

Sunday, 29 October 2006

The Producers (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Remake of the 1968 Mel Brooks movie musical about a flopping Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986); I could establish no relation to Joyce's Leopold Bloom), who run a scam to produce a deliberate flop show to maximize their profit from the investment money. They pick Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell)'s Nazi paean, Springtime for Hitler, and hire gay-as-you-like director Roger DeBris (Gary Beach) and Swedish chorus girl/secretary/receptionist Ulla (Uma Thurman). The only problem is, with Hitler camped up, will audiences really take offence?

At 129 minutes it's a little flabby and uncinematic. The exposition scene between Max and Leo is far too slow to develop and is not as funny as it thinks it is. Ferrell is brilliant as the tall lederhosened German with Nazi-saluting pigeons, and Thurman manages to be ridiculously sexy without being arousing.

It's a fun film with some great choreography and production design, and a marvellous tune in "Springtime for Hitler", but it remains a little flat throughout.

Nugget: I'd have to see the 1968 original before I can pass fair judgement.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Handkerchief Drill (1949) - ickleReview (cinema)

Amusing one-minute short public information film produced by the British government's Ministry of Health to encourage its citizens to use handkerchiefs when sneezing. In the style of Mr Cholmondley-Warner. This black and white film has recently been restored by the BFI and is being screened before performances of The History Boys.

Nugget: surely this sort of thing was made with tongue inserted firmly in cheek.

The History Boys (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

In 2004 Alan Bennett's play The History Boys was a huge success at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. Its run was extended to meet audience demand and it toured with similar popularity in New York and Sydney, receiving numerous awards. This film crystallizes those immaculate performances, preserving them on celluloid for future generations, who would never be able to see the same cast performing the play. Already the boys were becoming young men. This film came before it was too late. It's so rare that the entire cast and the director (Nicholas Hytner) are able to carry on over into the film adaptation of a play.

Set in a Yorkshire grammar school in the early 1980s, The History Boys is about a class of exceptionally smart boys who return to school for one final term after their A-Levels to prepare for Oxbridge entrance exams. The school does not have a tradition of sending candidates to these two most prestigious universities, so the headmaster (Clive Merrison) hires a young teacher called Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to tutor the boys and teach them how to stand out. Irwin's journalistic slant on History, turning it upside down, taking the controversial angle, is at odds with the teaching philosophy of Hector, their beloved English teacher (Richard Griffiths), who fills their heads with poetry and useless knowledge, not to pass exams, but for the sake of it. Their History teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) has taught them hard facts and taught them well, but Irwin finds their essays correct but boring. Gradually the boys learn Irwin's method of doing the unexpected thing, although they also begin to understand the value of what Hector has taught them.

The strength of the play was its characterization, which is happily carried over on to film. When Bennett was writing the play, he had no characters for the boys in mind. He just wrote "Boy" in the speech heading. It was in rehearsal for the National Theatre production that the company discovered who said what. Even sitting at the back of the theatre, when the actors' faces were out of focus, their characters emerged in sharp detail. Only Rudge could define history as "just one fucking thing after another". Only Posner could have a crush on Dakin. Only Timms could incur the fond wrath of Hector, be hit over the head and called a "rancid little turd". It was a relief (but no surprise) to find these characters had only grown stronger on film.

The plot and dialogue are effectively the same and the strong writing of Bennett translates superbly across media. It's still a wordy film, but it never feels like a recorded play. Even though I knew it was coming, I still couldn't help welling up when Hector and Posner discuss Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge" in a private one-on-one tutorial, so poignant are their softly spoken words, flirting around the edges of a confessional.

Nugget: a film of joy. Full of the wonder of a type of teaching no longer possible in our curriculum incubus schools. An inspiration to teachers and to anyone who ever had a teacher as wonderful as Hector. I did. His name was Mr Williams (PSW) of Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, who always read "in [his] own inimitable style".

This review was also posted on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Monday, 23 October 2006

Wide Sargasso Sea (2006) - ickleReview (TV)

Made-for-TV BBC feature-length adaptation of Jean Rhys's prequel novel to Jane Eyre. Sumptuously shot with a minimal cast, it focuses on the troubled marriage between Edward Rochester (Rafe Spall) and Antoinette (who became the madwoman in the attic). Their courtship is touchingly but concisely portrayed, forced together by family pressures. Edward Rochester is the second son of a family with a good name and has been sent to Jamaica to find his own fortune and marry a well dowried wife. Antoinette is a beautiful creole with £30,000. Their early passion is soon cooled by a whispering campaign amongst the local servants and Antoinette's half-brother.

The dialogue is often dubbed over jumpy editing and creates an unsettling effect, augmented by the heavy soundtrack of wildlife and atmospheric music, when, really, the actors were doing a good enough job by themselves. The soundtrack does, however, recreate the over-sensuous feel of the book, the bewildering over-stimulation of love in a strange place.

Nugget: at 85 minutes this is sensibly concise. Just a shame it had to be cut in half by the 10 O'Clock News on BBC1.

Red Road (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Set in a scabby part of Glasgow, the Red Road of the title refers to a towerblock housing estate where much of the action takes place. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works in a CCTV control room, reporting crimes and keeping track of her favourite citizens, including a dancing late-night cleaning lady and a man with an incontinent dog. One night she spots a face she recognizes, one she wasn't expecting to see. Clyde (Tony Curran) has been released early from prison. Jackie begins to stalk him, but it is unclear how she knows him, what the nature of his crime was, and why she is putting herself in such danger. Martin Compston (who brilliantly debuted in Sweet Sixteen (2002)) is a schemie friend of Clyde's called Stevie, a role he plays particularly well.

The plot unravels slowly. We are never sure until the end about what went on before and how the characters are related to each other. It's creatively shot, much of it from what appears to be real CCTV cameras. They are intrusive, but the way Jackie watches out for her favourites is also affectionate, and it makes you realize how, in a violent city like Glasgow, they keep us safe. The director Andrea Arnold is a confident and proficient storyteller with an eye for colour and beauty in a bleak urban landscape.

Nugget: solidly acted, engagingly told thriller not afraid to show the scary sides of Glasgow. Doesn't exactly make me homesick.

Saturday, 21 October 2006

37 Uses for a Dead Sheep (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

BBC4 Storyville and ARTE France documentary about the Pamir Kirghiz tribe of central Asia, who migrated from Russia to China, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the twentieth century before settling in eastern Turkey in 1982. The filmmakers collaborate closely with the Kirghiz community who re-enact seminal moments from their history in a patchwork of film stocks made to look like newsreels and early Soviet films.

Nugget: amateurish in the pejorative and positive senses it approximates the essence of a people without the patronizing tendency of anthropoligical studies.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Proof (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

John Madden/Miramax actors' vehicle starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis. Based on David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play (on which Madden and Paltrow collaborated), it tells the schizophrenic Lear-like story of a brilliant maths professor at the University of Chicago (Hopkins) who loses his mind and mathematical "machinery" becoming a burden on his favourite daughter (Paltrow). Gyllenhaal plays his student determined to rescue his reputation by finding a breakthrough proof in his legacy of over a hundred notebooks, most of them filled with gibberish. Davis is the unfavoured other daughter who's made a success of her life in New York but now returns to Chicago after her father's death.

Nugget: the plot is cleverly structured with hypotheses and proofs, but doesn't quite pay off. An above average film.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Moonlight Mile (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

Perfectly formed minor masterpiece by writer/director Brad Silberling that was ravaged by the critics when it first came out. It's best not to know anything about this film, just watch it and let it grab you. Strong cast on top form with Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, newcomer Ellen Pompeo and Holly Hunter.

Nugget: bravely drawn-out exposition keeps you learning about the characters throughout the film.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken. But, lucky for you, I kept a backup.]

Jake Gyllenhaal 4-Disc Box Set: Moonlight Mile DVD (15)


Dir: Brad Silberling, 2002, USA, 114 mins
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Pompeo, Holly Hunter

Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal)'s fiancée is dead: shot as a bystander in a smalltown New England diner. He's staying with her parents Ben and Jojo Floss (Hoffman and Sarandon) for the funeral and its aftermath. They treat him like a son-in-law. There are warm bonds between them, beyond just the dead girl they have in common. Yet Joe isn't being quite honest with the Flosses or with himself.

Writer/director Brad Silberling has produced a perfectly crafted minor masterpiece. Impeccably acted by a strong cast, including Holly Hunter as Mona Camp, the lawyer prosecuting the man who murdered the Floss' daughter. Newcomer Ellen Pompeo plays Bertie Knox, a girl Joe meets who is also going through a grieving process for her lost lover, Cal.

Set around 1973, the unrest in the outside world is a faint background to the Floss' problems. The family dog is called Nixon and it's implied that Cal is missing in Vietnam. Like the soundtrack of low-key B-sides, these details deftly determine the mood. (The music never screams "Listen to me!" like Tarantino or John Williams.) Silberling admits he writes to music and encouraged his actors to listen to the same songs on set. The lyrics often complement the onscreen situation.

Hoffman and Sarandon are a natural couple. Their imperfect but loving marriage is indelibly plausible. They seem to be coping admirably with their daughter's death; but each character in turn chokes towards their breakdown. When the three of them are sitting in front of the TV, Ben cryptically acknowledges, "I almost slipped and he broke my fall," at once thanking Joe for rescuing him in a moment of emotional weakness, while protecting Jojo from this knowledge. Gyllenhaal gives an assured performance, much of his acting without words (he jokes on the commentary that he's all "ums" and ellipses); yet when he does speak, the lines are flawlessly delivered.

The relationships between the characters aren't telegraphed; they emerge gradually through dialogue. Joe is so intimate with the Flosses that it appears at first he's their son. The lost fiancée/daughter, Dianne, is a constant presence in the film, and yet she only appears in a glimpsed photograph, a half-waking dream. (No need for schmaltzy flashbacks.) In some ways the film is about how a person lives on in the lives of the people who loved her. In a typically delicate touch, Jojo wears her daughter's watches, winding them each day, as if to keep her alive by keeping her time going.

The plot revolves to reveal its unironed creases, keeping us interested without gimmicks. The exposition extends well beyond the hour-mark: a brave filmmaking decision; one that is closer to a play script. It's best to know as little as possible about this film, just to watch it and let it grip you.

Extras:
Includes two commentary tracks by the director, and the director and cast (Hoffman and Gyllenhaal) with some amusing rapport and fascinating insights into the filmmaking process; deleted scenes with director's commentary; and a 22-minute bog standard promotional "making of" documentary about casting and production.

Also in the collection:
DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT
THE GOOD GIRL
PROOF

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Highly polished documentary about John Lennon's life in America from 1966-76 at the height of his involvement in the anti-war movement.

Nugget: contains some rare footage from the Lennon archives and a soundtrack almost entirely of Lennon's songs.

Read the full review on FilmExposed, where you can also find my Q&A with the directors, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Good Girl (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

The Good Girl doesn't know who her daddy is. Bastard offspring of One Hour Photo (2002), Fargo (1996) and Gigli (2003). Starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, the real strength comes from the supporting cast, who provide most of the humour to off-set the semi-tragic love story between frustrated wife (Aniston) and intense writer-type (Gyllenhaal).

Nugget: this certainly wasn't the run-of-the-mill date movie the packaging led me to expect, but it wasn't quite successful in the generic detours it decided to take.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003) - ickleReview (DVD)

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a documentary adaptation of Peter Biskind's book about the New Hollywood era spanning from the collapse of the old studio system in 1966 to the advent of high-grossing blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977).

Nugget: essential viewing for anyone interested in these filmmakers.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Recut of the 2001 original with 20 minutes of additional footage, redesigned sound and visual effects, a slightly reordered soundtrack of songs, and a commentary track by director Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith.

Nugget: elucidates some of the ambiguities of the original version without spoiling it, as I had feared. A good complement for fans of the film, but should not be treated as the superior version.

Note: this review refers to the Region 2 single disc edition.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Romanzo criminale (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Italian mafia film about a gang of boys who form a criminal gang after an adolescence of petty crime and take on the established mafia in Rome, murdering their way into a position of power. At 152 minutes it's a very long film, but doesn't have the epic thrust of a Godfather to justify so many reels. I was getting bored after about 90 minutes.

The opening half hour has a curious tone: the characters speak all the gangster clichés but it feels slightly fraudulent. Either the film is badly scripted and acted (or the subtitle translations wear away the cool idioms), or the characters are supposed to look like newbeats adopting a pose before they truly find their criminal vocation.

The film tries to tell a parallel story about the Machiavellian world of Italian politics and its resemblance to the criminal underworld, even suggesting the two are deeply related; but to someone who doesn't know twentieth-century Italian political history in any detail, the weaving of archive footage (if indeed it was genuine) into the plot made no great semantic impact.

The most intriguing character is the bald-headed State representative, who performs the same clean-up role no matter who is in power. There is a glimmer of a twist involving him at the end, but again it was opaque.

The best aspect of this film is its soundtrack. Reasonably stylish, yes, but based on what appears to be a pulpy novel (the title translates as Crime Novel), it has little original to say in the genre. At least it makes the gangsters more human and amateurish than the slick professionals of Scorsese and Coppola.

Nugget: average mafia Joe, although at least this time it's made by Italians. Curious, though, that they learned the syntax to tell such a story from American films.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Wedding Crashers (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Another good one to watch on a bus journey. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn get their kicks from crashing weddings to score with chicks. During one season they do 17 of all denominations. One time they get caught up with a couple of powerful American families, the sort who could run for President, and get a little too involved with two of their daughters (including Home and Away's Isla Fisher, who plays a nymphomaniac).

Nugget: good fun with amusing gags, plus Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell in smaller roles, but hardly a classic and nothing to be proud of.

The Football Factory (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Adaptation of John King's books about life as a Chelsea football hooligan. The film is updated to the present day, whereas the book was set in the early 90s. Captures the nastiness of these men who arrange to fight on matchday using their mobile phones, with young boys as scouts on the lookout. Infectious levels of swearing in cockney and an impressive ruckous scene between Millwall and Chelsea. Doesn't do any favours for the reputation of English football fans, but at least it tries to justify their behaviour by putting it in the context of Britain's history as a warring nation. (Still, not everyone acts like this.) Some of the characters are a little 2-D, but that's because the narrative is told from the perspective of Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer from Human Traffic (1999)).

In the violent genre of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) but with a different feel from another football hooligan film, I.D. (1995), in which the fighters actually bothered to go to the match.

Nugget: I remember being more scared when I read the book.

Starsky & Hutch (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

Remake of the 1970s TV series. Enjoyable enough in a rugby coach with Ben Stiller as Starsky, the uptight stickler cop and Owen Wilson as Hutch, his more easy-going partner. They try to bust a big cocaine deal and pick up some girls along the way. So what's new? Not a lot, but it passes the time.

Nugget: good for a few laughs. The car didn't feature as much as I'd been expecting.

Friday, 29 September 2006

The Bicycle Thieves (aka Ladri di biciclette) (1948) - ickleReview (DVD)

De Sica's masterpiece of Italian Neo-Realism. Shot in beautiful black and white in post-war Rome, it tells the story of Ricci, a poor bill poster who loses his livelihood when his bike is stolen. He searches all over the city for it, helped by his devoted son, Bruno.

Nugget: a wonderful, sad, but touching film.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Blow-Up (1966) - ickleReview (TV)

Film by Michelangelo Antonioni set in London, based on the short story Las babas del diablo by Julio Cortázar. A photographer (David Hemmings) inadvertently photographs a murder when he is taking pictures of a couple cavorting in a park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) asks for the pictures back when she sees him, but he refuses. She tracks him back to his studio. He fobs her off with the wrong film and develops the right one after she has left. It is then when he is blowing up (enlarging - hence the title) the pictures that he notices a gun and a corpse in the bushes.

There are early scenes of him shooting models in the studio. He treats some of them quite harshly. He is over-exposed to beautiful women and doesn't treat them with much respect. Yet the women are desperate to be photographed by him and use their bodies as lures; but because he sees so many beautiful women, he is hard to impress. When he does let a couple of groupies in, there follows a number of artful but nevertheless gratuitous and quite inexplicit semi-nude erotic scenes.

The remarkable thing about this film is the almost total lack of significant dialogue. Most of the story is told just in pictures. It's so pervasive one doesn't notice the characters aren't speaking most of the time. This is nicely rounded off at the end when the photographer watches a group of mime artists collecting money for charity play a mime tennis match without balls or racquets. They even make the photographer go to fetch the ball and throw it back to them.

For film buffs, the most interesting thing about this film is the influence it had on Brian Da Palma's Blow Out (1981), which develops the detective aspect much further. The best scenes are those in which the photographs are being developed in the dark room. The pictures-within-the-picture are telling a hidden story within the pictures.

Nugget: not quite the blow-me-up-and-away cinema classic I was led to expect. Not a bad film, but not a world-breaker either. Some rather artificially lit night scenes when the photographer goes to look for the corpse and the fact that he never appears to have to change films when stalking the couple outdoors puncture the plausibility of the film.

This review was also posted on Blogcritics.

Amores perros (2000) - ickleReview (cinema)

Debut feature by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who went on to make 21 Grams (2003). This film about dog owners, set in Mexico City (and hence in Spanish with English subtitles),is indebted in some respects to Quentin Tarantino in its structure of three interrelated stories told out of chronological order, which collide - in more ways than one - in a car crash at the beginning of the film, which recalls the crash scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) when Butch (Bruce Willis) runs over Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Octavio (Gael García aka Gael García Bernal) and his buddy are being chased in a car when the film opens. A body is bleeding on the back seat. Only later do we realize it is a fierce fighting dog called Cofi. In their attempts to escape their pursuers, they crash side-on into a car at a crossroads.

Octavio, we later learn, as the film goes back in time, has an infatuation with his sister-in-law, who has fallen pregnant for the second time and is afraid to tell her husband Ramiro (Cofi's owner), a violent, volatile thug who robs convenience stores and fucks checkout girls at the place he works. Octavio builds up a stash of money using Cofi in highly profitable dog fights and asks the sister-in-law to run away with him.

The second story, whose characters we have caught glimpses of already, is about a magazine editor who leaves his wife for a perfume model. They move into an apartment together, overlooked by one of her huge billboard advertisements. They have anything but a smooth start to their lives together and even lose her beloved dog, Richie, when he falls down a hole in the floorboards, chasing a ball.

The third story features a tramp, also a dog-owner, a former university professor who became a militiaman and now survives by doing contract killings. He, too, has appeared in the earlier stories and ends up nursing the wounded fighting dog, Cofi, back to health after the car crash. He claims to have given up being a hitman, but agrees to one more job, killing a man's partner.

The film is quite long at 153 minutes, but each story is engaging and could be a film in itself. It doesn't reflect very well on dog owners. (There is a disclaimer right at the beginning of the film that no animals were harmed during the making of the film. Usually this appears in the end credits.) The dogs become characters, a big influence on the lives of their owners in each stratum of society.

Iñárritu is a compelling storyteller, ingeniously linking the three stories. After the first crash, one can sense it coming from the other characters' points of view. One of the best aspects of this film, uncommon in Hollywood narratives, is the lack of plot resolution; but nevertheless it retains a sense of closure.

Nugget: a fresh way of storytelling. The title translates roughly as "Love's a Bitch", punning on "perros" meaning "dog". The main characters are all, of course, driven by the love of their dogs.

This review was also posted on Blogcritics.

Saturday, 16 September 2006

Turning the vicar's bike around

The euphemism "I'm just off to turn the vicar's bike around" means "I need to go to the toilet". I am fond of this expression and can be heard using it in special company.

Books I have read

Here is a list of books I have read recently. Each time I finish a book, I'll add it to the list. You may also be interested in what I'm reading on t'interweb.

* denotes a book read (either whole or in part) while turning the vicar's bike around.

May 2017
123) Andrew Fusek Peters, Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands

April 2017
122) Chris B. Brown, The Essential Smart Football

January 2017
121) Alan Alda, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself

November 2016
120) Jon Ronson, The Elephant in the Room

July 2016
119) Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

May 2016
118) Dave Eggers, The Circle

March 2016
117) Michael Lewis, Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House (aka Trail Fever)

January 2016
116) Michael Lewis, Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code

December 2015
115) Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times
114) David Lodge, Changing Places

September 2015
113) Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths: How to Develop Your Talents and Those of the People You Manage

June 2015
112) Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain

February 2015
111) E. M. Bard, Test Your Cat: The Cat IQ Test

December 2014
110) Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book
109) Tom Gauld, You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack

November 2014
108) Aleks Krotoski, Untangling the Web

September 2014
107) Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

May 2014
106) David Eagleman, Sum: Tales from the Afterlives (2nd reading)

December 2013
105) Michael Lewis, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life
104) Michael Lewis, Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood

August 2013
103) David Eagleman, Sum: Tales from the Afterlives
102) Michael Holley, War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team

February 2013
101) Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction
100) Margaret Forster, Diary of an Ordinary Woman

January 2013
99) Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics

July 2012
98) Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live

June 2012
97) Hugh Warwick, The Beauty in the Beast: Britain's Favourite Creatures and the People Who Love Them
96) Hugh Warwick, A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs
95) Rob Brydon, Small Man in a Book

May 2012
94) Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work
93) David Allen, Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-Free Productivity
92) H. G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream

December 2011
91) Michael Lewis, Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour

August 2011
90) Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (audiobook)
89) Simon Gray, The Early Diaries: "An Unnatural Pursuit" and "How's That for Telling 'em, Fat Lady?"
88) Michael Lewis, Next: The Future Just Happened (audiobook)

December 2010
87) Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

March 2010
86) Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
85) Reviel Netz and William Noel, The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the Blueprint for Modern Science

February 2010
84) Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art
83) Lynne Truss, Get Her Off the Pitch!: How Sport Took Over My Life
82) George Plimpton, Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback

January 2010
81) Simon Gray, Key Plays: "Butley", "Otherwise Engaged", "Close of Play", "Quartermaine's Terms", "The Late Middle Classes"

December 2009
80) Deirdre Wilson, Slave of the Passions
79) Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker
78) Michael Lewis, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
77) H. D., Palimpsest

November 2009
76) Richard Ford, Women with Men

October 2009
75) Stephen Potter, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship; or, The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating

September 2009
74) Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot
73) Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

July 2009
72) Joe Simpson, Touching the Void

June 2009
71) Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

April 2009
70) William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
69) Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot
68) A. Walton Litz, The Art of James Joyce: Method and Design in "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake"
67) Little Gidding: An Illustrated History and Guide
66) Mark McCallum, Home Truths: The Peel Years and Beyond: Real Stories from British Life as heard on BBC Radio 4

March 2009
65) Azar Nafisi, Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
64) Philip Welsh, The Single Person
63) Tom Paulin, The Secret Life of Poems: A Poetry Primer *

January 2009
62) Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

December 2008
61) Simon Gray, Enter a Fox: Further Adventures of a Paranoid
60) Gillian Butler and Tony Hope, Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide

November 2008
59) George Bornstein and Ralph G. Williams, eds, Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities
58) Simon Gray, Coda

September 2008
57) Eviatar Zerubavel, The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books
56) Sarah Dillon, The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory
55) Ed Morrison and Derek Robinson, Better Rugby Refereeing: Guidance, Tips, Warnings, Insights and Advice on Refereeing at Every Level
54) Simon Gray, Fat Chance
53) Simon Gray, The Last Cigarette

August 2008
52) Sarah Dillon, The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory

May 2008
51) Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

April 2008
50) Geert Lernout, The French Joyce

March 2008
49) Michael Groden, "Ulysses" in Progress
48) Fritz Senn, Joycean Murmoirs: Fritz Senn on James Joyce, ed. Christine O'Neill
47) Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of "Ulysses": And Other Writings

February 2008
46) Richard Bath, The Scotland Rugby Miscellany *

January 2008
45) Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
44) Karl Beckson, The Religion of Art: A Modernist Theme in British Literature, 1885-1925

December 2007
43) Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
42) Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Geoffrey Wall

October 2007
41) Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land
40) Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, ed. Clive Hart

September 2007
39) Laura O'Connor, Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization
38) Know Your Traffic Signs *

August 2007
37) The Mays, 15, ed. Sean O'Brien, Colm Tóibín, and others
36) The Highway Code, rev. 2004 *
35) Fitz Hugh Ludlow, The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean, ed. Stephen Rachman

July 2007
34) P. G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus: The Mating Season; The Code of the Woosters; Right Ho, Jeeves
33) Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite *

June 2007
32) Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes *

May 2007
31) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson
30) Clive Hart, ed., James Joyce's "Dubliners": Critical Essays
29) Thomas F. Staley and Bernard Benstock, eds, Approaches to Joyce's "Portrait": Ten Essays
28) Ian Halperin, Fire and Rain: The James Taylor Story *
27) James Joyce, Stephen Hero, ed. Theodore Spencer, John J. Slocum, and Herbert Cahoon

April 2007
26) David Norris and Carl Flint, Introducing Joyce, ed. Richard Appignanesi *
25) Steve Fuller, The Intellectual: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking... *
24) Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper: James Joyce's Early Years, ed. Richard Ellmann
23) Conor McPherson, The Seafarer
22) The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, ed. George Harris Healey

March 2007
21) Pound/Joyce: The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce with Pound's Essays on Joyce, ed. Forrest Read

February 2007
20) Samuel Beckett, Happy Days
19) Conor McPherson, The Weir
18) Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, translated from the French by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky

January 2007
17) Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd rev. edn (1982)

December 2006
16) A. S. Byatt, The Biographer's Tale

November 2006
15) Homer Obed Brown, James Joyce's Early Fiction: The Biography of a Form
14) Richard Ford, A Multitude of Sins
13) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson
12) Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944 *
11) Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942 *
10) Roman Krznaric, The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis *
9) James Joyce, Stephen Hero, ed. Theodore Spencer, John J. Slocum, and Herbert Cahoon

October 2006
8) Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation
7) Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast *

September 2006
6) Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
5) James Joyce, Exiles

August 2006
4) Tom Stoppard, Rock 'n' Roll *
3) Tobias Wolff, Old School

July 2006
2) Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare & Company *

June 2006
1) The Mays, 14, ed. Don Paterson, Jeanette Winterson, and others

See also books to read.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Movies beginning with V

Looking through my list of ickleReviews, I realize I've reviewed a film for every letter of the alphabet except V. Any suggestions for how I should plug this gap? V for Vendetta springs to mind, but I've never been particularly keen to see that. I'm sure I've seen a few V's in my time, just not in the past couple of years.

Shin

Don't step on my blue suede shoes!

Clouds above Oxford


This one looks like a painting. I love the way the sun highlights the top right corner.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Documentary featuring Al Gore's slideshow presentation about global warming and climate change. For a film so full of scientific evidence, Gore does a much better job of presenting it than The Corporation (2003), without the sense that he's bashing you over the head with it.

Gore comes across as so much more statesman-like than he did in the 2000 presidential election campaign. He is a highly skilled, engaging spokesman. The visual aids he uses come across superbly on film. There is no doubt at the end of the film that global warming is a real and impending danger; and yet Gore's message is uplifting, not depressing.

The film is all about Al Gore. It's called "his" film about global warming in most media summaries, although he doesn't direct it (Davis Guggenheim does). It is a cutting together of a number of slideshow presentations he gave in cities across the world.

There are some moments (shot away from the presentation in hotel rooms, in the back of cars, in airports) where he talks about nearly losing his six-year-old son when he was run over, which feel like a presidential TV commercial, showing that he is a real person, not some political robot. He also has an annoying habit of calling the scientists who supply his data "a friend of mine", "my friend Joe Schmo". He probably has befriended them or knew them at college, but drop the act, bozo!

Nugget: everyone, including George W. Bush, should see this film.

Every Little Thing (aka La Moindre des choses) (1997) - ickleReview (DVD)

A documentary about a French sanatorium where the inmates rehearse and perform an annual summer play.

Nugget: not Philibert's best, but certainly still worth watching.

Please go to FilmExposed to read this review.

See also In the Land of the Deaf (1992) and Être et avoir (2002) by the same director.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

In the Land of the Deaf (aka Le Pays des sourds) (1992) - ickleReview (DVD)

A magical, informative and entertaining documentary of the highest order, In the Land of the Deaf brings a whole new meaning to the concept of foreign language film by exploring sign language and the lives of deaf people in France.

Nugget: on a par with Être et avoir.

Please go to FilmExposed to read this review.

See also Every Little Thing (1997) by the same director, Nicolas Philibert.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Monday, 4 September 2006

Eeking into the top 10 in the world

My housemate Emma-Kate Lidbury, a journalist at the Oxford Mail, only started competing in triathlons a year ago. Now she has finished 8th at the World Triathlon Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. Well done, Eek! I wonder if she'll make it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when she'll only be 28.

Devastating new drugs craze

Drug users in parts of Yorkshire have started to inject ecstasy into their mouths. It's called "E by gum".

Source: my housemate Dafydd.

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Dogville (2003) - ickleReview (cinema)

Quite simply one of the best films you will ever see. Lars von Trier reinvents allegory for the modern day. Filmed on a bare soundstage with chalk lines marking out a set that isn't there, the visual paucity of this movie is at first unsettling. We hear the scrunch of feet on a dirt track or the sound of a door opening and closing; but we cannot trust the images alone. After a while, the understated flare of the acting takes over, suspending our sense of disbelief.

Nicole Kidman's performance is enchanting. She plays Grace, a gangster's girl mysteriously on the run, who finds temporary asylum in the Southpark-like secluded town of Dogville. At first, Grace finds it difficult to fit in; the townsfolk won't even let her lend a helping hand; they deny that their life could be made any better. But then, as Grace becomes more accepted, thanks to the support of the frustrated writer Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the people of Dogville begin to take advantage of what she offers them. The purity of Grace and the innocence of the Dogville townsfolk gradually become besmeared as the nine pre-defined episodes progress. It seems inevitable that the gangster Godfather/God the Father (James Caan) will come to reclaim Grace.

Von Trier was co-founder of the Copenhagen "Dogme 95" group of directors who devised a set of avant-garde rules a decade ago known as "The Vow of Chastity" designed to reclaim the new wave in film. Yet Dogville consciously disobeys some of these rules - stating its intention in the mesmerizing opening crane shot, which slowly tracks in from a high-angle bird's-eye-view, all the way to street level. (Dogme dogma states that "The camera must be hand-held.") Despite the loss of "Chastity", the Dogme ethos is never lost: Dogville looks and - more importantly - feels unlike any other film. It seems to be leading you one way, only to baffle your suppositions, leaving you feeling wounded by the end, and lingering with you for hours, even days, afterwards.

Nugget: charming and unnerving; highly-suggestive, without ever being heavy-handed, John Hunt's quirky narrator tells it like a bedtime story, relating choice details which grate against his idyllic tone of voice. A pile-driver is pounding in the foundations for a nearby penitentiary, but it seems that Dogville is too innocent to be harbouring criminals. Outward appearances often hide a grotesque inner vision; but Dogville is beautiful by the very virtue of its darkened grandeur.

AKA (2002) - ickleReview (cinema)

Three is the magic number in director Duncan Roy's ambitious digital video portrayal of identity fraudster Dean Page (Matthew Leitch). Miserable in his middle-class life in Romford, Essex, with no chance of going to college and an abusive father, 18-year-old Dean is mesmerised by the glamour of the high-class clientele in his mother's posh restaurant.

Through a succession of lucky breaks, Dean slithers his way into the upper echelons of Londons fashionable Eaton Square, where he is adored by the camp aristocracy. Soon he too is wearing expensive clothes and eating in exclusive restaurants, all paid for on a bogus credit card. Dean's naïvety leads him into a homosexual Bermuda love triangle with fellow con man Benjamin (Peter Youngblood Hills), on the run from obscurity and family troubles in small-town Texas, and David Glendenning, a detestable free-loader who lives by the axiom that he makes even the royal family look "positively middle-class".

But Dean's masquerade soon melts under the heat of passion and the pursuit of two credit fraud investigators who hunt him down following his lavish spending trail in London, Paris and the south of France. On the brink of being accepted into the high society that he craves, Dean ultimately faces a choice between love and society status.

Roy tackles this re-working of his own true-life experiences with a refreshing vigour of originality. The entire film is presented in three simultaneous square frames, which show the action from concentric camera angles - sometimes in sync, sometimes ahead of each other, like a Bruce Nauman video installation at Tate Modern. The first twenty minutes of viewing is consequently very demanding, but one soon adapts to the format and appreciates the nuances it allows. The action appears to be filmed from three cameras recording at the same time, but the triangulation reveals that each frame represents a different take - as if three versions of the same story are happening at once.

Nugget: the end product is a visual banquet; but Roy's writing is at times unbelievable and potholed. Despite flashes of genuine humour and pathos, it is nowhere near as accomplished as Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley, but perhaps this is a deliberate move to mimic the crass falsity of polite society. Nevertheless, the sheer bravado with which the film ravishes class posturing in late-1970s Britain makes it more than worth a three-way look.

Documentary: The Margins of Reality (2005) - ickleReview (book)

Timely but disappointing short study of the documentary form in cinema.

Nugget: there will be better books on the subject out there with fewer irritating ticks.

Read the full review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Saturday, 2 September 2006

Pierrepoint (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Film about Albert Pierrepoint, the best of Britain's last generation of executioners.

Nugget: one of the best British films of the last decade, with a brillig performance by Timothy Spall in the title role.

Read the rest of the review on FilmExposed.

[Update: Friday 17 June 2011: looks like FilmExposed is no more, so that link is broken.]

Tuesday, 29 August 2006

A Bug's Life (1998) - ickleReview (TV)

Pixar animation about a colony of ants who live on an island, terrorized by grasshoppers, who demand they provide food for them. Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) is a clumsy, unpopular male ant who keeps messing things up. He is sent away for knocking over the huge stockpile of food the ants had prepared as an offering for the grasshoppers. Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the leader of the grasshoppers, orders the ants to gather twice as much food by the time the last leaf falls at the end of the summer. Flik ventures to the city to look for help and finds it in a rag-bag of failed circus performers, including a German catterpillar called Heimlich (Joe Ranft), a gender-conflicted ladybird called the suitably unisex name Francis (Denis Leary), and a stick insect called Slim (David Hyde Pierce), butt of many jokes e.g. slapstick after being slapped, who return to the ant colony with him to fight against the grasshoppers.

Nugget: not the best Pixar movie. Roughly level with The Incredibles (2004) for laughs and Monsters, Inc. (2001) for character appeal, but nowhere near the standard of Toy Story 2, which remains my favourite.

Monday, 28 August 2006

Bug Juice

Yes! I've found it at last! This brings back fond memories of the summer of '98 when my sister and I used to watch this every morning. It started off as a bit of a joke. A bit like Friends, we thought it was a bit naff ("Real kids at summer camp!"); then it started to grow on us, to the extent that I would set the video to record it if I was going to miss it.

Don't knock it until you've tried it and watched at least three episodes.

Saturday, 26 August 2006

Bullets Over Broadway (1994) - ickleReview (video)

Woody Allen comedy set in the 1920s. John Cusack plays David Shayne, a struggling playwright who sells out to the mob to produce his new play on Broadway. The gangster financing the spiel, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), insists that his flapper chorus girl, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), is given a part and is protected by her bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri). Dianne Wiest is hilarious as the prima donna star actress Helen Sinclair, for whom David soon develops an infatuation as she has him entirely under the thumb. He begins to compromise his artistic integrity, even taking writing advice from Cheech, effectively rewriting the whole play. Jim Broadbent plays Warner Purcell, a talented but over-the-hill British actor with a compulsive eating habit whenever he gets nervous. There's barely a scene in which he's not eating.

Brillig fun, this film, made with real affection for the jazz age of gin joints and chorus lines, mobsters and thesps. The best line is of course delivered by Dianne Wiest's character talking to John Cusack on a train, flattering his ego after an off-Broadway opening in Boston: "You stand on the brink of greatness. The world will open to you like an oyster. No...not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina."

Nugget: up there with the best of Allen's light-hearted comedies. Certainly one of the best films in which he doesn't act himself.

Remember Animal vs. Buddy Rich?



Remember this post? Here's the proof that I was right. (The video is in Italian; but the drumming is in the universal language of ROCK!...well, okay, jazz.)

Friday, 25 August 2006

Butterfly on a Wheel (2007) - ickleReview (cinema)

I've been asked by the UK production company Telescope Pictures to remove my review from this blog and delete my posts on the IMDb and Empire - Future Films message boards. I shouldn't have written the review in the first place - not without permission. Suppose I was abusing a privilege. Sorry about that. If we had been warned about this sort of thing before the test screening, and been made to sign an agreement not to post any reviews or comments on the internet, then none of this censorship would have been necessary.

Nugget: regardless of what I thought about Butterfly on a Wheel (it's actually pretty good; just not the sort of film I usually go for), I don't think my scribblings would have done much damage. Surely any interest generated in the film (positive, negative or indifferent), especially amongst fans of the actors (who are going to see the film and talk about it anyway), is a good thing: viz. Snakes on a Plane, which seems to have embraced the internet buzz culture and is set to make a packet at the box office.

Rob Gonsalves, "Radfahren Im Herbst"


Acryl auf Leinwand, 1994

I nicked this from the Zizek conference poster from the School of European Studies, Cardiff University. I have no intention of attending; I just liked the picture. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Why do I still do this every day?


I wrote a post about this sign on the M40 between Oxford and London back in December 2004. Now I have finally managed to take a picture of it. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Heat (1995) - ickleReview (TV)

Michael Mann crime thriller starring Al Pacino as an LA police detective and Robert De Niro as the criminal gang leader he's chasing. Made with Mann's distinctive flair. At 171 minutes long, it does become a little sluggish. The plot and dialogue are a bit noir, so you're not entirely sure what's going on, but at least you have to pay attention. The violent action scenes are brutalizing: there's a stunning robbery of an armed van and a spectacular shoot-out in daytime city streets after a bank robbery. The most impressive sequence is the climactic chase between Pacino and De Niro near an airport runway, puckered by silences and dramatic changes in lighting.

Nugget: an intelligent and nuanced film that will reward a second viewing, but at almost an hour too long, a re-view is asking a lot.

Monday, 21 August 2006

The Cooler (2003) - ickleReview (TV)

Las Vegas casino drama starring William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello. Bernie (Macy) is a "cooler", a casino employee beset by infectious bad luck, which he takes to the table whenever someone is getting too lucky. His very presence breaks their winning streak. He's indebted to an old friend and casino owner Shelly (Baldwin), who once smashed up Bernie's knee, giving him a permanent limp. He runs his casino the old-fashioned way and refuses to modernize, despite the advice of Larry (Ron Livingston), who wants to rebuild the place to ensure it's not left behind by its rivals.

Bernie is a week away from retirement but Shelly doesn't want to see him go, so he pays Natalie to seduce him to give him a reason to stay in Las Vegas. The plan doesn't quite work out for Shelly as Bernie's luck begins to change.

Nugget: interesting complement to Casino (1995), Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Ocean's Eleven (2001), but not quite up to their standard of entertainment. Good performances by the three principals, nevertheless. They do their best with the material they are given.

Double Indemnity (1944) - ickleReview (TV)

Classic Billy Wilder film noir, part scripted by Raymond Chandler and based on the novel by James M. Cain. An insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets involved in a plot with the wife of one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband and claim accident insurance against his death. "Double indemnity" is a clause in the policy that pays out double in certain unlikely scenarios, such as death on a train.

The story is narrated in retrospect by Walter Neff, confessing his involvement by recording a memo to his claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The dialogue is snappy and stylized, hard and witty - if delivered a little woodenly, especially by MacMurray.

Neff has a habit of lighting Keyes's cigars for him by flicking a match with his fingers. He smokes heavily himself and has an old-fashioned attitude to "dames" and "babes" and a cock-sure chat-up technique.

The plot is compelling, despite these quaint distractions of mannerism; twisting and wriggling towards the end. Nothing is quite "straight down the line" as Neff keeps saying to Phyllis Dietrichson.

Nugget: what makes this a classic? It's fun and a grand example of its genre. Part of its charm now is that it's dusty and old hat: they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Match Point (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

On a second viewing Woody Allen's first London film is still enjoyable yet uneven. Jonathan Rhys Meyers acts some of his scenes astutely, creating an awkwardness, an unease, believably manipulating his girlfriend Chloe (Emily Mortimer)'s plans for the evening to get his own way or cringeworthily denying he'd been spotted in town by a friend of his brother-in-law's. In other scenes he is dreadfully wooden, delivering his lines plain wrong - no one speaks like that! The fault may be with Allen for choosing the wrong cut or simply not being able to get the right delivery from his actors.

Scarlett Johansson is breath-takingly sexy and voluptuous as the failing American actress Nola Rice. Allen really cast and wrote for her well. He has turned her into a fantasy woman and yet, within the same film, made her disgusting. It's brilliant the way Chris (Rhys Meyers)'s two women fluctuate in his affections.

Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton are perfect as parents-in-law.

Still worth seeing despite its flaws.

Nugget: spot the chicken picture on the wall when Chris fails to break up with Chloe.

See also my comment on Blogcritics.

Blow Out (1981) - ickleReview (video from TV)

Brian De Palma thriller starring John Travolta, who plays Jack Terry, a movie sound man who witnesses and records a car accident at night in which a wheel is shot and blown out (hence the title) and crashes off the road into the creek, killing the driver. Jack Terry dives in to save the other passenger. The driver turns out to be Governor McRyan, the presidential candidate; the other passenger, a girl called Sally, is a type of hooker/escort girl, whom the campaign team and police try to cover up to avoid embarrassing the governor's family. It turns out the "accident" was also caught on camera, so Jack Terry adds his sound to the film in an attempt to prove that it wasn't an accident, that the governor was murdered, to reveal the truth. He gets tangled up in a political conspiracy involving police corruption, endangering his own life and that of the girl, Sally, played by Nancy Allen.

This is a very stylish film, with nods to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) in the comical slasher-movie opening sequence and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) with the killer's-eye-view photography. It is very much about the making of films themselves: piecing together the soundtrack with the visuals, synching them up. Jack Terry recreates the film of the accident by animating still magazine photographs of it - translating back across media. The shots of the tape running through the machine and the gradual interpretation of the soundtrack are reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974).

Nugget: the last quarter of the movie gets a bit silly and implausible, slightly tainting the rest of the film. Overall, though, an enjoyable, clever romp, indebted to Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966).

Sunday, 13 August 2006

A Scanner Darkly (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Richard Linklater movie using the same interpolated rotoscoping animation technique he developed for Waking Life (2001). Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, the story is set seven years into the future. Substance D is the superdrug that is crippling the American population: 20% are said to be addicted. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, who works as a narcotics agent for the Orange County police department. He has to spy on his group of drop-out friends, played by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane. To protect his identity, he wears a scramble suit, which conceals his image beneath an ever-flickering montage of over one million appearances. The plot has the confusion and verbiage of a film noir. The look of the film is really what justifies the means. CGI could not have achieved the unnerving opening sequence in which Freck (Cochrane) is infested by imaginary bugs in a Substance D-induced psychotic episode. At times the re-animation is sparse, revealing the real film underneath.

Nugget: I was probably too tired to enjoy this film as much as I could. It's not as mentally stimulating as Waking Life but it is a proper cinematic spectacle.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Stevie Wonder's world tour stops off in China

Stevie Wonder is currently on a world tour and, last night, gave a concert in Beijing, China. At the end of the gig, he received a standing ovation, which lasted for a good few minutes. In the front row a man called out, "A jazz chord! A jazz chord!" So Stevie played a brilliant five-minute improvised jazz solo on the piano. When he was finished, he received another rapturous standing ovation, which lasted for over five minutes. Bunches of flowers were thrown onstage and a small girl ran on to present him with a teddy bear. The same man in the front row called out again, this time louder and more demanding: "No, no! I want a jazz chord! A jazz chord!" Slightly bewildered by the high demands of his Chinese audience, Stevie assumed his previous encore had not been jazzy and creative enough, so he sat down at the piano again and this time improvised a full ten-minute jazz solo to accompany his scat-singing. This sent the audience into orbit - wild with delight. They stood up on their seats and screamed with joy. It took them almost 15 minutes to calm down. By this time Stevie was exhausted with all his bowing and waving, and his cheeks ached from smiling so much. When the noise died down a little, that same man in the front row called out again: "No, no, no! You don't understand. I want you to play 'A Jazz Chord to Say I Love You'!"

Source: my new housemate, Dafydd Elis.

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Down the Mine

Deutsche Bank statues, TriesteTJS 1 Originally uploaded by domeheid.

These statues outside the Deutsche Bank in Trieste remind me of George Orwell's description of the "fillers" in Part I, Chapter II of The Road to Wigan Piers, an essay also known as "Down the Mine":

"But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron - hammered iron statues - under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are."

Orwell was a great Communist propaganda writer, championing the worker. His enthusiasm and admiration is infectious. It makes me proud of my paternal uncles and grandfather who all worked down the pit in Dalmellington in Ayrshire. Had my dad been born ten years earlier, he would have been a miner, too.

Later in that same essay, I'm tickled by the bit about the mice down the mine: "It would be interesting to know how they got there in the first place; possibly by falling down the shaft - for they say a mouse can fall any distance uninjured, owing to its surface area being so large relative to its weight."

I wonder why Eric Arthur Blair chose the pseudonym "George Orwell". I thought of this as we drove over the River Orwell south of Ipswich on our way north towards our Suffolk holiday cottage a few weeks ago. Wikipedia confirms that he chose it because of his love for the river.

Thursday, 3 August 2006