Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Brüno (2009) - ickleReview (cinema)

Brüno, after Ali G and Borat, is the third of Sacha Baron Cohen's comic TV characters to be given his own full-length feature film. Like Ali G and Borat, Brüno also works better in small doses. Don't get me wrong: this is a funny - and at times hilarious - film. But too much of it is uncomfortable viewing and it left me feeling a bit bleh when I left the cinema. I quite like to see taboos being broken and boundaries stretched; I'm fond of a bit of bad taste. But I'm not sure any of these characters is suited to the sustained narrative that movies demand. (Compare how Jackass: The Movie (2002) didn't quite make a successful transition on to the big screen.)

Brüno is an overtly gay Austrian fashionista, who claims to be only 19 years old. He is the host of Funkyzeit mit Brüno, "the top-rated late-night fashion show in any German-speaking country, except Germany". In order to generate a plot for the film, Brüno is sacked after causing mayhem at Milan Fashion Week for wearing an all-velcro suit (one of the funniest scenes in the film, like Borat in the antiques shop. Sacha Baron Cohen is a master of slap-stick - a legacy of his training with one of France's best clowns). Brüno therefore decides to leave behind the "shallow" fashion world to become a celebrity in Hollywood. Cue a number of set-up skits with agents, fortune-tellers, TV focus groups, anal bleachers, swingers, usw. It's best left unsaid what he does in each of these situations so that the shock-value of his comedy isn't spoilt.

The most pointless aspect of the film is the creation of the character Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), Brüno's assistant's assistant, who follows him to Hollywood. Brüno didn't even know his name before. Lutz has a heavy crush on him. As with Borat, one of the filmmakers must have thought it was necessary for Brüno to have a side-kick. (Borat gave us Azamat Bagatov (played by Ken Davitian), with whom he had the naked fight throughout the hotel.) Most of the Lutz scenes are unfunny and boring. They needn't have bothered.

Nugget: good in parts, but not entirely satisfying.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Hot Fuzz (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

A comedy about a high-flying London policeman (Simon Pegg) who gets transferred from the Metropolitan Police to a quiet Gloucestershire village because he so out-performs his colleagues he makes them look bad. Amusing stuff by the makers of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, but at 121 minutes it's far too long, overstaying its welcome by at least half an hour.

Nugget: hardly unmissable.

Eastern Promises (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

A British-made Russian mafia movie set in London by the makers of A History of Violence (2005). A midwife (Naomi Watts) gets involved with Russian gangsters when a young prostitute dies during childbirth leaving behind a diary in Russian, which implicates members of the ruling mafia family. Viggo Mortensen plays the ruthless driver and hitman, a real bad-ass. Armin Mueller-Stahl is the menacing godfather figure.

It plays with some of the clichés of the modern gangster movie genre (I'm thinking The Godfather trilogy (1972-90) and Goodfellas (1990) rather than The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)) but it is refreshing to have a new setting (London) and a different kind of gangster culture (Russian). The tattoos they have tell their life story and play a significant role in the plot. At times it's comical like a Guy Ritchie film with stereotypical baddies in black leather coats and non-Russian actors putting on that Russian accent. The plot feels predictable at times. I saw a number of things coming and was annoyed when a subtlety of the plot was reconfirmed in the dialogue in case anyone had missed it. That said, there were a few unexpected twists and a pleasingly ambiguous ending.

Nugget: shot inobtrusively with unflinching gorey scenes and an interesting take on twenty-first-century people-trafficking. It would be interesting to see a Russian-made mafia movie.

Coraline (2009) - ickleReview (in-flight movie)

Clever animated adaptation of a novel by Neil Gaiman, aimed at kids but also appropriate for adults. I don't agree with some critics who claim it's "too scary for kids". I agree with Mark Kermode that's it's good to be scared.

Coraline (not Caroline) moves with her parents to a big old house in Michigan. They are too busy to give her any attention, so she explores the house and its surroundings by herself, discovering a tiny door which leads to another world in which her parents appear to treat her better but have buttons for eyes.

The story cleverly avoids the old it's-just-a-dream cliché, although it does threaten to play with it at some stage. The visuals are delightful, but I'm not sure it would be all that much better in the 3-D version. Some of the scenes seem to be contrived specifically for 3-D e.g. the removal men unloading the lorry towards the camera at the beginning.

Nugget: reminiscent of Tim Burton's visual style in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which makes sense because Henry Selick directed both movies (duh!). Voice artists include Teri Hatcher as the mother, Dakota Fanning as Coraline, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Ian McShane, and Robert Bailey Jr. as the local weird boy, Wybie Lovat (short for Wyborn i.e. "why was he born?"). Interesting to note that Robert Bailey Jr. is a black actor playing a white kid: how often does that happen?

He's Just Not That Into You (2009) - ickleReview (in-flight movie)

Tame, generic romcom with an all-star cast including Scarlett Johansson, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Connelly, Busy Philipps, Kris Kristofferson, and Luis Guzmán. It brings nothing new to the table but instead peddles the same old bullshit about the game men and women are supposed to play in dating, relationships, and marriage.

The film is structured with inter-titles like "...if he's not calling you", "...if he's having sex with someone else", and "...if he doesn't want to marry you" (lifted straight from the book), and "real-life" documentary-style interviews, which is an idea stolen from Nora Ephron's infinitely superior When Harry Met Sally... (1989), which remains by far the best film in this genre.

As Roger Ebert pointed out, there is at least one good line from Drew Barrymore's character:
I had this guy leave me a voicemail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies.
Nugget: I only watched this because I was on a transatlantic flight and because it had Scarlett Johansson in it. She plays a similar role to her Woody Allen characters in Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): naïve, voluptuous, a siren of adultery. It passed the time, but I wouldn't pay to see it. The flight-edited version contained some amusingly obvious over-dubbed swearing e.g. Aniston saying "bullcrap" instead of "bullshit". Based on the self-help book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, which sounds like one to avoid.

Everything in This Country Must (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

Short film based on the short story by Irish writer Colum McCann, another one of those token Irish writers which many United Statian universities feel they must have on their faculties. A brilliantly controlled piece of filmmaking about the occupation of British soldiers in the North of Ireland during the Troubles and their uneasy relationship with the locals. To say any more would spoil it.

Nugget: a clever piece of adaptation whose only weakness was the use of a brief voice-over to preserve some of the short story's prose and narrative voice. One United Statian member of the audience I saw this with at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo unbelievably didn't get the frying pan of how the two halves of the film were related. There's always someone...

Following James Joyce, Dublin to Buffalo (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

An enjoyable documentary about the life of the twentieth-century Irish writer James Joyce, tracing the path of his biography from Dublin to Trieste, Zurich, Paris, and ending in Buffalo, where the bulk of his manuscripts are held. Directed by Stacey Herbert and Patrick Martin, the film features talking heads of Joyceans and academics talking about yer man (90% of whom I've met on the Joyce conference circuit). A joy to watch.

Nugget: suitable for the novice with still enough to interest the expert (mainly the curiosity of seeing familiar faces on the big screen).

Looking for Eric (2009) - ickleReview (cinema)

A Ken Loach film about a depressed postman called Eric from Manchester whose two stepsons take advantage of him and whose wife has left him. He has a good group of friends at work who try to raise his spirits, but it isn't until the Manchester United legend Eric Cantona comes to him in a cannabis-inspired vision that he begins to rebuild his self-esteem and take back charge of his life.

Cantona gives an amusing performance as a slightly exaggerated version of himself as footballer-philosopher-god. He becomes a mentor for his namesake, Eric, a life coach, if you will, an imaginary friend. The hilarious climax nicely overcomes the darker side of the film, which at times is reminiscent of Loach's Sweet Sixteen (2002).

Nugget: not just for Cantona and Manchester United fans. A grand ensemble piece with a beautifully balanced performance full of pathos by Steve Evets as Eric the postman. One of his stepsons, played by Gerard Kearns, appeared in The Mark of Cain.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Mark Kermode doubles as Russian mafia hitman?

Mark Kermode and Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai in Eastern Promises (2007).

Not content with reviewing films on Simon Mayo's Friday afternoon Radio 5 Live show, Mark Kermode has recently been seen threatening blonde midwives outside Russian family restaurants in south London.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

Left to right: Tammy playing Hazel (Emily Watson), Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Sammy Barnathan playing Caden Cotard (Tom Noonan). Image source: Culch.ie.

Synecdoche, New York is a weird film, but that's what you'd expect from something both written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Spike Jonze originally developed the project with Kaufman intending to direct it himself, but when Jonze was unavailable, Kaufman took on his first directing role. This gave him more freedom than he would be allowed when working with another director. He worked with Jonze on Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), and with Michel Gondry on Human Nature (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Although these films are oddball, they are not quite as extreme as Synecdoche, New York gets in parts. Kaufman certainly takes risks.

Curiously inverse, the film is about a director taking on his first project as a writer. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a stage director working in provincial Schenectady in upstate New York. He directs Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with young actors cast in the lead roles. The production receives favourable notices, but Caden's life is still miserable. He is plagued by haywire bodily functions and diseases; his marriage to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is miserable; their counselling sessions are dreadful opportunities to say horrible things to each other; and their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) has green poo and an annoying whine. Adele, who paints miniature pictures, leaves to pursue her art career in Berlin, taking Olive and her best friend (lesbian lover?) Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with her. Even his affairs with the buxom, nubile box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) and lead actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams off of Dawson's Creek and Brokeback Mountain) are unfulfilling.

When Caden wins an arts fellowship, he sets out to write and direct his own play for the first time, aiming to create something brutal and true, which ends up being about his own life and the everyday lives of everyone around him. By this stage normal reality has broken down; a confusing, dreamlike, mixed-up temporal world remains, which is something like a cross between The Truman Show and any other Kaufman film. He hires out a giant abandoned warehouse in New York for rehearsals and performance space, constructing a life-sized replica of the city inside it. (It was only towards the end of the film that I realized this was like the huge studio hangers in which sets are constructed - duh!)

The film sometimes moves at a bewildering pace. I often found myself confused about the identity of the female characters: who was his wife, his daughter, his wife's lover; which girl is the real Hazel, which is the actor he hires to play her in the stage version of his life? I didn't actually realize the real Hazel and the stage Hazel were played by two different actresses (see photo above), so similar did they look, especially as they aged, which is a credit to the casting director, the make-up artist, and the costume designer, as well as the actors' performances (plus my ignorance). It was often enjoyably unclear which level of reality I was watching.

Some of the small details in this film are beautiful. When Hazel is still in the early flirting stages of her relationship with Caden, the second time we see them together, he sits outside the theatre in Schenectady on a beautiful sunny day. The previous scene in that location he was stressed out, talking on the phone, trying to escape the stresses of his production. Hazel arrives in her car and comes over to sit next to him on a bench. In that two-shot, I noticed they were wearing shirts in matching shades of brown, subtly complimenting each other - a small hint in costume design that they were really more compatible than Caden and his wife Adele, and that an affair was likely to ensue.

Hazel later buys a house that is on fire. No explanation is ever given and although the characters notice it's on fire, they don't react overly concerned, as if it's a minor complaint, or even a sellable feature. The house remains on fire for the rest of the film, its rooms dark with smoke and small fires all over. Hazel eventually dies from suspected smoke inhillation, one of the many unexpected jokes in the film. Kaufman's attitude is that these sorts of things don't have to mean anything:
"It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it's funny in a weird way. You don't have to worry, 'What does the burning house mean?' Who cares. It's a burning house that someone lives in - it's funny. You can get more than that if you want to. Hopefully the movie will work on a lot of levels and people can read different things from it depending on who they are." (Press kit production notes)
It doesn't matter what this means, but it could be some kind of metaphor for the way our houses and possessions eventually end up killing us.

Ultimately, the film isn't entirely successful. It is perhaps a little long, a little out of hand, but at least someone has taken these risks. They pay off in installments. I certainly agree with Kaufman's belief that the film is not static: that it would seem a little different each time on repeated viewings. It plays cleverly with synecdoche (a figure of speech which will be familiar to most students of English literature - meaning a substitution of a part for a whole, a whole for a part: the screen for movies, or the law for police). Here is the definition according to Richard A. Lanham:
"Synecdoche (syn EC do che; G. 'understanding one thing with another') - Intellectio; Quick Conceite.

Substitution of part for whole, genus for species, or vice versa: 'All hands on deck.' Of this figure, Kenneth Burke has written: 'The more I examine both the structure of poetry and the structure of human relations outside of poetry, the more I become convinced that this is the "basic" figure of speech, and that it occurs in many modes besides that of the formal trope' (The Philosophy of Literary Form, p. 26). If this is so, at the center of figuration stands scale-change. To define A, equate it to a part of B, derived by magnification. Experience is described in terms of other experience, but at a different level of magnification. Scaling has certainly formed a central part of postmodern aesthetics, and of the aesthetics of computer-generated electronic text as well. And similarity of part to whole, self-similarity as it is called, is a central characteristic of the fractal geometry introduced into modern thinking by chaos theory. The putative centrality of synecdoche is receiving at least a fair trial in the current sensorium.

See also Antonomasia; Metonymy." (Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 148)
Synecdoche is realized, for example, in Adele's miniature paintings, which she paints through magnifying glasses, and which patrons at her exhibition have to view through special magnifying spectacles: an example of scale-change. The individual illnesses Caden develops, such as not being able to produce tears or salivate, are indicative of his wider social malaise: an example of part for whole. Schenectady is also deliciously close in pronunciation to synecdoche, a suggestion that it is also representative of more than just itself.

I sensed watching this film that Charlie Kaufman has a lot of "issues". And he's not afraid to share them with us. Another director might have been able to silence a few of these. But since Kaufman was in the director's chair, there was no one to say "no" to him. My suspicions are indeed confirmed by how Kaufman and Jonze talk about the writing process:
"My process is to start by thinking about something and see what comes," says Kaufman. "I'm not very interested in things like writing towards an end." "Charlie would call and say I want to put this idea in the film and that idea in the film," says Jonze. "And suddenly there were dozens and dozens of ideas. Charlie has a real desire to put everything he's thinking and feeling into the thing he's working on at the time." (Press kit production notes)
No shit.

I'd certainly watch it again, now that I'm a little wiser. It could stimulate hours of discussion. I'm sure each viewing would make me a little wiser still, as well as a little more confused. There are a number of remarkable moments, such as the minister's speech towards the end, which comes out of nowhere (and indeed was written the night before it was shot). It stands, to some extent, as a summary of the film; and could be Charlie Kaufman's own voice coming at us a little too directly:
"Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you'll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it's what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I'm so angry and the truth is I'm so fucking sad, and the truth is I've been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I'm OK, just to get along, just for, I don't know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen." (Source: IMdB)
Which reminds me a bit of this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, which I happened to read the day after (but maybe that's just critical paranoia on the loose, rather than synchronicity):

Click on the image to enlarge it. Source: Transmogrifier and the "Calvin and Hobbes of the day" iGoogle gadget.

Nugget: if you liked Kaufman's previous films, this is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Man on Wire (2008) - ickleReview (HD)

A documentary about the French tightrope-walker Philippe Petit, who walks between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 shortly after their completion. A film so beautiful I was moved to tears. There is a particularly breathtaking sequence about an hour and a quarter into the film accompanied by Erik Satie's Gymnopedic No. 1.

I just realized I watched this film in French without subtitles (I saw it a few weeks ago on Sunday 3 May). My French was good enough to cope, but this does illustrate how skilful the visual storytelling is.

Nugget: Makes no mention of 9/11. A silent tribute?

These images are still photos captured from the film.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Hillsborough (1996) - ickleReview (HD)

Made-for-TV dramatized documentary about the Hillsborough stadium disaster on Saturday 15 April 1989 in which 96 Liverpool Football Club fans were crushed to death on the terraces at the Leppings Lane end of the Sheffield Wednesday football ground. Jimmy McGovern's script follows a number of the victims' families before and after the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The first half of the film reconstructs some of the events on match day; the second half documents the effect of the disaster on the families and the proceedings of the inquest up to 1991. The drama is based on fact using court transcripts and eye-witness reports.

The film is heavily critical of the police's management of the crowd problems at the game and of their insensitive treatment of the families in the aftermath. Chief Superintendent David Duckinfield is portrayed in a particularly bad light, seemingly out of his depth and unable to respond quickly enough to the over-filled pens behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end, which he witnessed from the police control tower and on television monitors.

McGovern alleges that the police tried to cover up their incompetence by asking officers not to note down what they had seen on the day in their notebooks. They also tried to shift the blame on to the fans by asking the relatives how much they thought the victims had had to drink when they entered the ground. A number of policemen thought the crowd trouble was caused by rival fans fighting each other rather than poor crowd management by the police as too many fans were forced down the tunnel into the two central pens behind the goal.

There is no attempt to place the Hillsborough tragedy in its wider context within the state of football in 1989. Throughout the 1970s and 80s there had been a number of football disasters in which violent fans were partly to blame, most notably the Heysel stadium disaster before the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus in Belgium on 29 May 1985. Although that narrow focus biases the tone of this film, it was obviously not the aim of the filmmakers, who instead portray on the effect that Hillsborough had on the families of the victims.

Nugget: an important polemic about a terrible event. The cast includes Ricky Tomlinson and Christopher Eccleston.


Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Good Bye Lenin! (2003) - ickleReview (HD)

Image source: Filmmuseum Potsdam.

German film with subtitles set in 1989 in East Berlin. Shortly before the Wall comes down, a mother suffers a heart attack and goes into a coma. By the time she wakes up, the Wall has fallen and East and West Germany are being reintegrated. Her grown-up son and daughter undertake a massive ruse to pretend that nothing has changed in case the shock of the news gives the mother another heart attack and kills her.

A touching film with a neat perspective on the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lightly comic without being over-sentimental. Shows the old East Germany with affectionate but not blinkered nostalgia. We are prepared to suspend our sense of the implausibility of maintaining the charade for so long.

Nugget: enjoyable reflection on the differences between life in the old East and West Germany.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Afghan Star (2009) - ickleReview (TV)

A Channel 4 True Stories documentary about the popular TV singing contest in Afghanistan - their version of Pop Idol or The X-Factor. From 1996-2001 singing, dancying, music, and TV were banned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. After the founding of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2001, the people were allowed to listen to music again. Tolo TV produce a singing talent contest, which taps into this explosion of musical expression. The show has none of the polish of the British and American versions. Contestants sing Afghan traditional and popular songs and any kind of dancing is still deemed too risky in the Islamic cultural code, so most of them sing standing still with their hands by their sides.

2,000 people take part in the show with regional auditions then being narrowed down to a final ten. There are only three women contestants, two of whom make the final seven and are profiled by the filmmakers, who follow a couple of the male contestants, too.

The show introduces much of the Afghan population to participatory democracy as viewers are allowed to vote for their favourites by text message on their mobile phones. Supporters also campaign for their favourites like political canvassers, handing out flyers, putting up posters, and trying to get out the vote.

Some of the contestants preach a message of national unity and supporters breach traditional tribal and regional loyalties. One of the women causes a scandal by dancing to her final song after being voted off the show, letting her headscarf slip. Her improper conduct (under the rules of Islam) puts her life in danger.

Nugget: an interesting perspective on a complex country. A little slow-moving in parts. It won the two awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Kolja (aka Kolya) (1996) - ickleReview (DVD)

Czech film about Frantisek Louka (Zdenek Sverák) a cello player who is only allowed to play at funerals after he was banned from the Philarmonia. Struggling to make enough money, he agrees to a fake marriage with a Russian woman so that she can obtain Czech papers and he can earn enough money for a Trabant and to pay off some of his debts. Shortly after the wedding, the Russian woman runs away to her lover in Germany, leaving her son in Prague with her grandmother. When the grandmother dies after a stroke, the little boy, Kolja (Andrei Chalimon), is left for Louka to look after.

Louka is a ladies' man, previously unmarried and with no intention of settling down or starting a family. His music takes priority, along with a string of younger female lovers. All this changes when he has to think of Kolja before himself. The little boy only speaks Russian, but gradually picks up a few words of Czech.

This beautifully shot film is set in Prague on the eve of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. There are a couple of startling incidental shots featuring a bird of prey and a red squirrel in the foreground of basic continuity sequences of Louka travelling in his Trabant. The opening few minutes introduces the viewer to Louka with subtle touches - playing the cello in church in plain clothes and in socks with holes in the toes, boiling a kettle during a performance, using his bow to lift the skirt of the solo soprano from behind. He is a talented musician but is frequently late to his jobs playing at funerals all over the city since he has to use public transport. There is light, delicate humour throughout, mainly thanks to Sverák's endearing performance as Louka.

Nugget: won the 1997 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Heart-warming fun without being overly schmaltzy.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson

This latest offering by Wooden Ally (I mean, of course, Woody Allen) is, as the title suggests, about two girls in Spain. Vicky (Rebecca Hall, daughter of Peter Hall) is an American student researching her master's thesis on Catalan identity. She is engaged to a rich, clubby New York businessman (Chris Messina) but has come without him to Barcelona for the summer with her friend, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who has just finished making an unsatisfactory 12-minute short film about love.

The two friends have opposing views about love and relationships. Vicky is loyal, conservative, conventional, and monogamous; while Cristina has had a string of passionate but doomed love affairs.

One evening at a party, and later in a restaurant, they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome painter who has been through a violent divorce with his wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). He propositions them, inviting them to spend the weekend with him in Oviedo. Vicky is reluctant, but Cristina is game. The way he propositions them is so blunt it is comic. He tries to seduce them, says he will make love to them, which of course he does.

When Vicky meets Juan Antonio's father, she begins to see a different side of him and eventually gives in. As they kiss for the first time, I noticed the two-shot was slightly out of focus on Vicky. Was this deliberate; or just an error that went unnoticed and was left in? If it was deliberate, what could it mean? That Vicky's old identity and values are dissolving.

The two girls look like opposites: Vicky is brunette; Cristina blonde; thin vs voluptuous; modest vs confident in her sexual allure. But at the beginning there is a slight confusion about their names. Juan Antonio has to make sure he's got them the right way round. I also assumed Scarlett Johansson would have the leading role (as she had in Match Point and Scoop) and so would be named first; not the case.

As ever, the moral of the story is serious, but the way it is played out is somewhat comic. Is the audience's laughter at inappropriate moments nervous, a kind of defence mechanism against the social mores Allen is probing? Does anyone actually behave like this?

Cristina ends up in a ménage à trois when Marie Elena, Juan Antonio's wife, returns to stay with him after a suicide attempt. Vicky begins to regret the conservative choice of marriage to her wooden but decent husband, always making plans about the house they might buy in New York, meeting business associates who aren't really friends. Juan Antonio offers a different sort of life of passion and excitement.

Nugget: an entertaining diversion but unlikely to live long in the memory.

Moneyball does basketball

Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets. Photo by Robert Seale. Source: New York Times.

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, has done it again: written another brilliant profile of an obscure athlete in a major American sport. This time it's Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, who doesn't produce great conventional stats (points scored, rebounds, shots blocked, steals) but does dramatically hamper the effectiveness of the opposition's star players, whom he guards on defense. The article is full of fascinating insights like this:
Last season when the Rockets played the San Antonio Spurs Battier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, Manu Ginóbili. Ginóbili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes are not in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier. Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when Ginóbili entered the game. "No one in the N.B.A. does that," Morey says. "No one says put me on the bench so I can guard their best scorer all the time."
Battier is one of those players who is undervalued. But the Houston Rockets, like the Oakland A's, seem to be one of those teams who want to embrace the dark arts of new statistics, which actually tell you more about a player's effectiveness than conventional measurements. You can read the full article here.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Sexing a tap

My kitchen tap: is it male or female?

I want to buy an aerator for my kitchen tap to improve the flow of water and make it soft like all those lovely taps in Zurich, Switzerland (it also reduces water consumption by up to 60%), but I don't know which kind to buy: male or female. This website says:
For taps with a thread on the outside you need a Female Aerator. For taps with the thread on the inside you need a Male aerator.
Does this mean my tap is female? I wouldn't call that a thread and I don't think I could unscrew it.

Can you help?

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Carbon Commentary, issue 12

Another issue of Carbon Commentary hit the tarmac of the Information Superhighway last week featuring a controversial proposal about the future of Formula 1, the impact of the d-word on environmental policy, falling sterling and the nuclear threat, a major woody about green jobs, carbon capture and storage, the Tory's energy policy, and the need for prudence in the government's approach to climate change. Y'all can read it in one downloadable PDF here.