Wednesday 31 August 2005

Last Days (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

The third in a trilogy of films upon death by Gus Van Sant, following Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003), Last Days is a rhapsody upon the suicide of brilliant but troubled young artists like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

Nugget: refreshingly unconventional, but you will need to be patient with it.

To read the full review, go to

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

Sunday 28 August 2005

You've Got Mail (1998) - ickleReview (TV)

Nora Ephron remake of other Nora Ephron scripted movies (When Harry Met Sally... and Sleepless in Seattle), but still with her charm. One senses, though, that there was scriptural interference, as the surface is not always smooth.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a romantic movie. I mean, Hanks is Joe Fox, son and partner of Fox Books, a large chain store who open around the corner from Kathleen Kelly's (Ryan) family owned independent children's bookshop, The Shop Around the Corner. What they don't know is that they email each other on AOL every day and have fallen for each other, even though both are in somewhat unsatisfactory relationships. As Joe and Kathleen there's friction; but as NY152 and Shopgirl the friction turns into sparks. So boy meets girl online. Boy meets girl in person. Boy loses girl before he even gets her. But will boy get girl at the end? Come on! It's a Nora Ephron movie.

There's a load of product placement in this movie: Starbucks, AOL, Apple Mac - but then, I've realized, these products are part of our landscape, and to exclude them would somehow be false. Nevertheless, it's interesting to note that AOL joined up with Warner Bros to form AOL Time Warner not long after the making of this movie (in 2000). Funny how that evil corporate book chain was called Fox. Hmm. What does that remind you of in the movie and media industry?

Okay, so they used cheese to stick the edits together, but, being Ephron, it's still watchable and ever so slightly annoyingly endearing. This is what she does. And she's one of the best at it. Even though you've seen it before. From the very same actors.

Nugget: it's amusing to see how movies made in my own short lifetime are starting to show their age: dial-up internet connections, old versions of AOL. (And on the other side they were still using 3.5" floppy disks in Mission Impossible!)

On a Clear Day (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

British movie, set in Glasgow, about a shipyard foreman who loses his job and his morale. Peter Mullan plays Frank, said down-on-his luck, whose wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), won't tell him she's trying to qualify for a job as a bus driver. He finds talking to his son difficult, too, because the other son drowned when they were kids. This son in turn has twins, who symbolise the lost brothers of the past. One day on a booze cruise with his old workmates, Frank gets the idea of swimming the channel. It gives him a purpose in life because he just can't face getting a job. Chan, the local Chinese chippy owner acts as his coach, which in turn gives him the self-esteem to stand up to the racist bigots who trouble him at his shop.

The premise sounds boring and bleurch, but it's surprisingly handled, not with subtelty, but with charm. It is a feelgood movie - no shame - but it tugs on the heartstrings without first soaking them in schmalz.

One of the most amusing things about this viewing (a free members' preview at my local Picturehouse), was that one of the reels half-way through the movie was back-to-front so that the picture was upside down, the action backwards and the voices like some Baltic tongue. Cue a ten-minute interval while the projectionist sorted it out.

Peter Mullan's performance is quite endearing, although his most expressive scenes are the ones in which he fails to say anything in manly, Scottish reticence. Billy Boyd (a hobbit from The Lord of the Rings movies) plays the clown friend, a rather stock role in British movies, and one which doesn't really stretch him as an actor (as this is what had been asked of him in LOTR). Not all the arty flashbacks and cut ups are successful, and the mis-en-scene is somewhat conventional; but there are some creative shots of the last ship leaving the Govan yards, visible from on top of the hilly streets of Glasgow, above the tenement housetops. It's nice to see Glasgow in the movies again, even if the film overlooks its hardness and sectarianism.

Nugget: a tear-jerker if you're in the right mood and are prepared to let it work on you, not sneer at it too much.

Monday 22 August 2005

Cookie's Fortune (1999) - ickleReview (TV)

Robert Altman movie set in smalltown Holly Springs, Mississippi. Cookie (Patrician Neal), a grand old lady with a cheerful demeanour but still grieving at the loss of her husband, Buck, commits suicide. Camille (Glenn Close) and Cora (Julianne Moore) try to disguise it as a murder. Camille is hungry for the inheritance of her aunt and claims not to want to bring shame on the family; Cora is too dumb and simple to object. Meanwhile, Willis (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie's best friend, ambles around the town running errands with the Best Walk in Motion Picture History, before he is arrested on suspicion of murder, even though everyone at the Sheriff's office knows he didn't do it. Emma (Liv Tyler), Cora's illegitimate daughter, sits in the open cell with him, playing Scrabble, making him coffee with bourbon, and escaping now and again for a quickie with her boyfriend, Deputy Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell), even though she's the town's petty crook.

An endearing and mildly humorous story of backwoods smalltown America, gentle police incompetence and complicated family relations. Glenn Close's character, Camille, stands out as an uppity snob, lacking the easy-going nature of the rest of the town - and it comes back to bite her in the end.

Nugget: a leisurely paced film with quirky characters, slightly exaggerated in the quaint way that Hollywood tends to portray the Deep South. Race, it seems, is no longer such a big issue in this part of Ole Miss. But worth watching just for That Walk...

Sunday 21 August 2005

Blogger for Word

Blogger have started a new thing to publish from Microsoft Word. Let's see if it works.

Scent of a Woman (1992) - ickleReview (video from TV)

Al Pacino shines as a blind ex-Army Lieutenant Colonel who's a right ol' bastard. Chris O'Donnell is Charlie Simms, a prep school scholarship student from Oregon who chaperones the Colonel on a Thanksgiving weekend jaunt to Manhattan, where the Colonel splashes out on a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, dinner at the Oak Room, high class prostitutes and tailor-made suits - living it up before he plans to blow his brains out. Charlie carries the weight of the word upon his shoulders having witnessed some misbehaviour back at school but refusing to name the culprits, thereby keeping his honour among the rich kids but jeopardizing his chances of going to Harvard.

This film is so bursting with schmalz that Al Pacino has to carry the weight of the whole film upon his shoulders. But, being Pacino, he pulls it off - and indeed won a Best Actor Oscar for it (not that that means anything). Of course it was an Academy Award vehicle with the rest of the acting so hammy and stilted you could almost smell, nay taste, not the scent of a woman, but the stench of bacon fat-soaked cardboard. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the spoilt rich kid who won't squeal but then gets his powerful daddy to help him out of a jam. James Rebhorn turns out his conventional authority-figure character acting as headmaster Mr Trask, the victim of the practical joke that causes so much trouble for Charlie.

The scenes are long and drawn-out, like unbreakable Cheestrings®, making the film feel calorie-heavy at 157 minutes; but most of them feature Pacino and his honeysuckle bonecrunching voice, so it's good to loaf, if you like the taste. The title comes from the Colonel's ability to guess a woman's name, appearance and personality by the perfume she is wearing. He's a real womanizer, but has great charm and charisma; unlike preppy O'Donnell, so stiff he'd never be short of work as a bookend. There's a muddied moral pickle at the end, set up for a great speech by Pacino (but not quite at the standard of his half-time pep-talk in Any Given Sunday).

Nugget: thick tosh, but a glut of Pacino. A little heavy on the cheese.

Friday 19 August 2005

Oxford Muse portraits

Here are the Oxford Muse portraits I have created:
  • What you can discover if you do not drink or dance: self-portrait (also available here)
  • Why being a hairdresser satisfies the need for perfection: Alan Cooksley
  • How a retired human resources manager copes with being a widower: Brian Edwards
  • What to do with the clutter of life: Chris Fitzgerald [unpublished] :(
  • Why I painted my face, tooth and glasses black: Anna Jackson [unpublished] :(
  • Nobody told me about the starting gun: Why the years from sixty to seventy were the best of my life: Eve Hoare
Other portraits I've encouraged during the creative process:
  • Finding other places: Mark Grimmer [unpublished] :(
  • "How does it matter whether you gain the world or not?": Melanie
  • Over and over again...: Johanna Sohn
To find out more about the Oxford Muse and what it does, visit the website: To join our email conversation group, visit here.

Thursday 18 August 2005

What to do if you're an Elgin Marble

Dionysos or Herakles, British MuseumDismayed at the loss of his hands, Dionysos could not think what to do with his time.

(Actually, it could be Herakles as well, but the curators aren't sure.) I think it's about time we owned up and stopped calling it the British Museum. How much of the stuff in there is actually British? Is there a single item that wasn't pilfered? It's like a giant pickpocket's hoard. Actually, it's more blatant than that. [What the] British [stole from the rest of the world and refused to give back, even when asked] Museum.

The wain

Rebecca is her name. She was born on Tuesday 16 August, a week before her mother's birthday, but six weeks premature. She's been in an incubator, but she's already breastfeeding, which is great news. They used a steriod during labour to ensure that she'd be breathing when she came out; and when she did, she was bawling, so at least her lungs work. Laura, my sister, said that the world is a different place with Rebecca here. Both she and Andy, the father, are delighted. They sound different, somewhere dreamy.

Laura had been at work all day, complaining of stomach ache as she minded the gallery in Cork. Then on the train she found herself crying amongst all the other passengers uncontrollably. When Andy picked her up from the station in the car, he could tell it was on the way, so they went straight up to the hospital. It was born with little fuss, although the nurse at first didn't realize Laura was in labour. Every time she was examined there was a period of calm; then when the medics left the room the contractions started again - they thought she was having them on!

Laura's going home tomorrow, but the little one - as Moira, the grandmother (and what a grand mother she is) calls her - is staying in hospital for up to another ten days. Laura will keep going back to feed her, though.

So this all makes me an uncle, or a nuncle, as I prefer to say, as the clown in King Lear says. Rebecca Angel her name will be. Not a miracle - don't be ridiculous! Just another ordinary, happy birth; but one closer to home than usual. I look forward to seeing her in mid-December at the end of my first term back studying in Oxford. Maybe by then she won't be quite such a baby dwarf at 4lb 11oz.

Happy birthdays!

I've been writing this website for three years now. Some sort of landmark, I suppose. And yesterday I became a nuncle! I think my sister will either call her Aoife ("Eefa") or Lamb. It wasn't due for another month, but when I spoke to Laura on Sunday we were joking that it could pop out at any moment. And so it has.

Tuesday 16 August 2005

The Shining (1980) - ickleReview (DVD)

Stanley Kubrick adaption of the horror thriller novel by Stephen King. In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the winter months - the place totally abandoned, except for the newly hired caretaker, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duval) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Jack plans to work on a writing project, so in the job interview he welcomes the prospect of solitude; nor is he disturbed by the story of the former caretaker Charles Grady (Philip Stone), who in 1970 killed his wife and two daughters with an axe, chopping them up neatly into little pieces before shooting himself in the throat with a double-barrel shotgun - cabin fever, they call it.

Danny, the son, is a solitary child, with an imaginary friend, Timmy, in his right index finger. The departing chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers - what a name!), shares his powers of perception and intuition. They are both people, he says, who "shine". Timmy tells Danny bad things about the hotel, about room 237, and Danny starts to see visions of the two murdered daughters and a river of blood flowing down the corridors as he plays, alone, riding along in his tricycle.

Jack, too, begins to break down, acting harshly towards Wendy and later threatening to "correct" his wife and child after a vision of the former caretaker, Mr Grady, whom he encounters as a waiter at a party in the Gold Room of Jack's now disturbed imagination.

As ever with Kubrick, the film is beautifully shot, with breathtaking helicopter aeriel views of Jack's car winding its way through the Rockies over the opening credits (look out for the helicopter's shadow!). The rest of the film is shot on very sumptuous and realistic sets in Elstree Studios, England. The empty hotel, with echoes of the life out of season and its threatening maze outside, is a character in itself.

The soundtrack is particularly chilling: harsh, disonant strings rarely let you relax and can be really quite frightening when paired with the visuals. There is something Omen-like about the steadicam shots of Danny on his trike, wheeling down the empty corridors, not slowing down as he rounds the corners. One always expects something to jump out and scare him (and us!) on the other side.

Jack Nicholson in The ShiningThis edition of the DVD includes Making "The Shining", a documentary shot by Kubrick's then seventeen-year-old daughter, Vivian, much more interesting and revealing than the typical big studio Making ofs. Shelley Duval is made to look like an awful prima donna attention-seeker, jealous of Nicholson's charisma and popularity (but then the rumour is that Kubrick made her do 127 takes for a single shot! Looky here on IMDb for some more interesting trivia). Nicholson himself says that the average celebrity meets in one year ten times the number of people an ordinary person meets in their lifetime. The film suggests that Kubrick was not always easy to work with, that he didn't always want his actors even to contribute their ideas; but they nevertheless respect him afterwards - and he certainly produced tremendous (and in this case very successfully scary) films.

Nugget: features one of the most famous images and soundbites in cinema: Nicholson's demented "Heeeere's Johnny!" with head showing through an axe-hewn door - also rumoured to be improvised.

Monday 15 August 2005

Small Time Crooks (2000) - ickleReview (DVD)

Woody Allen movie in which Allen and Tracey Ullman play a married couple, Ray and Frenchy, from New Jersey, unusually for Allen, working class. Ray is a bit thick, nicknamed sarcastically "The Brain" when in prison. He has a plan, however, to rent a shop a few units down from the bank and tunnel into the vault. Frenchy's cookie business, intended only as a false front, is so successful, however, that they make a fortune out of that instead.

This early part of the movie, covered mostly in the trailer, is over very quickly. Despite all their money, they do not fit in with the New York socialites, so Frenchy hires David (Hugh Grant), a private art dealer, to educate their manners and cultivate a taste appropriate for high society. Frenchy wants to become a patron of the arts but Ray would rather eat turkey meatballs and watch TV in his underwear.

The beginning is it its strength: there is a wonderful rooftop scene at sunset over Manhattan, beautifully composed with Ray and Frenchy visible in the mid-ground through a gap in the washing hanging on the line in the foreground. It's refreshing to see Allen writing and performing about a different strata of society, more down to earth, but a little cartoony, yet not without a great deal of affection for the way they talk and behave.

Nugget: a weaker Woody movie in the writing, perhaps a little too ambitious, but not without its glorious moments.

Sunday 14 August 2005

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - ickleReview (DVD)

Woody Allen movie, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Larry Lipton (Allen) and his wife Carol (Diane Keaton) are invited in by their neighbours Lillian and Paul House (Lynn Cohen and Jerry Adler), who bore Larry silly with the husband's stamp collection. The next day, however, Lillian dies of a heart attack. Carol suspects murder, but Larry is doubtful; so Carol colludes instead their mutual friend Ted (Alan Alda, a regular Woody Allen actor), who is more drawn to the conspiracy theory. A light comedy, easy on the soundtrack, but with some beautiful footage of Manhattan at night.

Also featuring Anjelica Huston as Marcia Fox, a writer at Larry's publishing company who helps them piece together the plot when Larry also gets involved in the intrigue of the chase. There's a surprising cameo by Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) as the Lipton's son, Nick.

Nugget: an enjoyable, light-hearted comedy with an amusing performance by Allen as a nervous sidekick to Keaton. There's a brilliant thriller scene with guns in an old cinema, in a room full of mirrors behind screens showing old black and white movies such as Double Indemnity - very stylish.

Thursday 11 August 2005

The bollock(s) they print in the local rag...

Here is a picture published on page 54 of the Oxford Mail on Wednesday 10 August 2005. It's the men's steeplechase at the World Athletics Championships currently being held in Helsinki.

"So what?" you might ask. "It's just a picture of some guys clearing the water jump."

Well, here is a loose reconstruction of what seemed like a routine call to newsdesk.

"Hello, Oxford Mail newsdesk...Yes, sir...Page 54...I see...Okay...Thank you. I'll let the editor know...Good bye."

[Puts phone down.]


Newsroom buzzes with intrigue. Has another nutcase phoned in to compain about the "wogs" on the front page? Has another ticket agent scammed the innocent public, expecting to hear light opera (no reduced fat)? Have Oxford United signed another no-hope striker or sacked their sixth Latino manager in four days?

No. It's just bollocks.

Or one bollock, to be precise. (Journalists are wont to get their facts right.)

Now look more closely at the Moroccan athlete on the right of the frame. Notice anything unusual about his appearance? He has his eyes closed! How embarrassing. No, that's not it...His number doesn't match his shorts? No, that neither. His shoe's come off? Close, but no cigar. Shall I tell you?

Take a look at this close-up. (You may want to squint out the corner of your eye.)

I did warn you.

Tuesday 9 August 2005

Last Days

I've been commissioned by FilmExposed to write a review of Gus Van Sant's Last Days. I went to the press screening today in London. I'll post a link here when my review is published on their site.

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

Saturday 6 August 2005

Sweet and Lowdown (1999) - ickleReview (DVD)

Woody Allen movie about the fictional second best jazz guitarist in the world, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Talking heads in the documentary style recount various infamous episodes from the musician's life, very little about which is known. It's the 1930s and Emmet is a heavy drinking and unreliable performer, who either turns up tight or late or not at all. One day he meets a mute girl, Hattie (beautifully played by Samantha Morton), whom he keeps with him for a time, indulging her with presents, before suddenly walking out on her. We later learn that he marries an amateur writer, Blanche (Uma Thurman), but still refuses to express his feelings in any other way than through his music. He idolizes the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, but makes only a few recordings because he's afrait that when he does, other musician's will be able to steal his stuff.

Penn plays Ray as petulant, egotistical and slightly hammy, with the quickjerky movements of an undercranked film. Morton is adorable as the simple mute, somehow managing to speak without words. Allen's pencilled sketches are plausible within the Hollywood biopic genre, but the whole thing has a Miramax give-me-an-Oscar feel about it without any of the genuine polish of the big studios.

Nugget: an entertaining film, nevertheless, with a superb soundtrack and plausible miming by Penn at the guitar.

Friday 5 August 2005

Everyone Says I Love You (1996) - ickleReview (DVD)

Woody Allen movie musical starring Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, and a young Natalie Portman. The plot is not as icky as most Broadway shows. Joe Berlin (Woody Allen) is still friendly with his ex-wife Steffi Dandrige (Hawn) and her husband Bob (Alda), a rich couple who live on Park Avenue with their four girls and a boy (a conservative Republican hawk, in contrast to the rest of the family who are liberal Democrats). Joe and Steffi's daughter, D. J. (Natasha Lyonne from American Pie) coaches Joe through a courtship with Von Sidell (Roberts). They know all her secret fantasies because the sisters' friend's mother is her shrink.

Holden Spence (Norton) is a friend of the family, engaged to Skylar Dandridge (Barrymore), who keeps swallowing her engagement ring because he puts it in her food, thinking it would be romantic when he gave it to her.

The songs are not all that frequent and aren't an inconvenient bore - as they can be in some musicals. The dance numbers are fantastic, full of energy and with a knowing, slightly understated campness that is a delight to watch. Particularly wonderful is the dance in the hospital corridor where an escaped mental patient flees his nurses in a strait jacket and porters bounce off the walls and skid along the floors.

Like any mid-late Allen movie, the plot is engrossing. It could be a film on its own without the music, but Allen blends the two parts together with real aplomb.

Nugget: a tremendous score with many of the numbers performed by the actors themselves, accompanied by the brilliant Dick Hyman and the New York Studio Players.

Thursday 4 August 2005

Deconstructing Harry (1997) - ickleReview (DVD)

Harry Block is a writer who loosely veils his own sexual foibles and family life in his novels. He's about to be honoured by his alma mater in upstate New York, even though he was kicked out as a student, but he can't find anyone to go with him; so he takes a black prostitute called Cookie. Then his friend, Harvey, with a heart complaint, joins him before he kidnaps his son, Hilly, from his school chaperone.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (one of three), ex-therapist (one of six), Joan (Kirstie Alley), is irate with him and keeps interrupting a session with one of her patients to shout at Harry for being such an unapologetic lover of whores and a terrible influence on their son. Oh, and this: "So now you're blaming me because I don't go out with you enough, to meet strangers to FUCK!" (He had been sleeping with one of her patients.)

The movie has a fast-paced feel with jump-cuts like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Intercut are scenes from Harry's fiction, such as when the Harry character is caught fucking his sister-in-law by their blind grandmother while the rest of the family are outside having a barbecue; or the short story about Mel, an actor (played by Robin Williams), who goes out of focus on a movie set and has to make his family wear thick, black-rimmed glasses to see him in focus.

There is a great cast including Billy Crystal as Harry's writer friend who marries Fay (Elisabeth Shue), a young admirer of Harry's whom he tells not to fall in love with him before falling for her himself. Crystal also plays the Devil, who has some brilliant lines:

Harry: What? You have air-conditioning in Hell?
The Devil: Sure! Fucks up the ozone layer!


The Devil: You ever fuck a blind girl?
Harry: No. That I never did.
The Devil: Oh, they're so grateful.

Plus Demi Moore, Mariel Hemingway (from Manhattan (1979); Ernest Hemingway's granddaughter), Tobey Maguire and Bob Balaban (a regular in Christopher Guest's movies).

Nugget: written, directed by and starring Woody Allen - as if you hadn't guessed by now.

Monday 1 August 2005

Gerry (2002) - ickleReview (DVD)

Minimalist Gus Van Sant movie starring Matt Damon, Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) and a lot of sand. Two guys called Gerry drive into the desert and get out to follow a "Wilderness Trail" on foot, looking for what they call "the thing". It takes 7 minutes for the first words to be spoken, Van Sant putting the audience on something of a "Wilderness Trial" (sic.) of their own. The long takes reveal, slowly, that Gerry and Gerry have "gerried" a turn, losing their way in a barrenness of dry shrubs and tumbleweed, devoid of any landmarks by which to navigate.

Initially their mood is amusal. They spend a night by the fire, smoking and talking nonsense. Affleck's Gerry talks about what sounds like a roll-playing computer game such as Civilization or SimCity, in which he conquered Thebes, but then was overrun in a revenge attack when he couldn't grow wheat and consequently couldn't raise an army because he only had 11 horses when he needed 12. Another time they talk about a gameshow sounding like Wheel of Fortune where the contestant can't guess the final lettering in "BARRE_ING DOWN THE ROAD", guessing "Y" instead of "L"

There is a comic sequence when they agree to split up and return to "the spot" if neither of them finds anything. For a few terrible moments, we fear that they have lost each other. Eventually, with a long shot of Damon with Affleck in the foreground, they come back together - only problem being that Affleck is stranded on a high rock outcrop. Damon has to build him a "dirt mattress" to break his fall - a terrifying moment, farcical and frightening.

In one shot of 7 minutes' length, the landscape is like the planes of Death Valley at sunrise, turning them from silhouettes into colour and the sand into what looked like ice. In another, we see the Gerrys' heads side on, bobbing up and down in synch, then out of synch, one eclipsing the other, then revealing it again; accompanied by the scrunch of their boots, urgent through the gravelled sand. The takes are as drawn-out as 2001: A Space Odyssey with landscapes reminiscent of Kubrick's Fall of Man.

As they get further and further lost, they talk less, yet Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides convey their characters' inner frustration, partly by replicating it in the audience, who must show patience and a willingness to let the shots develop. If they do, they will be rewarded with a surprising beauty - much like Van Sant's Elephant, which was to follow a year later.

SPOILER WARNING! Towards the end, when both are collapsing from exhaustion and thirst, Damon crawls up to Affleck as if to hug him in consolation, yet appears to suffocate him - presenting the audience with a mirage equivalent to what both wanderers themselves have been suffering.

Nugget: director Gus Van Sant at his best: fiercely independent, not worried about commercial success. A great kidname for this movie would be My Own Private Idiolect, in honour of Van Sant's earlier movie and this one's private language between the Gerrys.