Sunday 26 August 2007

Hallam Foe (2007) - ickleReview (cinema)

Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot (2000)) stars as the likeable creep, Hallam Foe, in this well made British film directed by David Mackenzie and set in Edinburgh. Hallam lives with his architect father (Ciarán Hinds) and step-mother (Claire Forlani) in a castle-like Scottish country house. His sister is leaving for a gap year in Australia and he should be going to college. His mother died in a drowning accident a few years ago. Since then, Hallam has developed some dysfunctional habits. He spies on people from his treehouse, painting his face and wearing a badger hat. He blames his step-mother for his mother's death, accusing his father of having an affair before she died.

After a confrontation with his step-mother over the content of his diaries, he goes to live in Edinburgh, getting a job as a kitchen porter in a large hotel, his primary motivation being that the HR manager, Kate (Sophia Myles), reminds him of his mother. He continues his voyeuristic habits by spying on Kate from the rooftops. Luckily for him, she likes creepy guys, so they soon have a relationship.

Despite the sinister themes, this is a charming black comedy. Bell is a likeable character and has matured well from his child acting days. His east-coast Scottish accent is convincing enough.

There are some nice touches in this film. We see Hallam practising picking locks in his treehouse before he later uses this skill to break in to a few places in Edinburgh. (Compare so many other movies whose characters magically know this skill already - presumably from seeing other movies.) The plot is more character driven, but still keeps you wondering what might happen next. When his parents catch up with him in Edinburgh, by which time he has been promoted to front-of-house porter at the hotel, there is a genuine sense of drama over what might happen next.

Nugget: a mature British film with some nice small performances, including Ewen Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) as Hallam's fellow hotel concierge.

Friday 24 August 2007

The Frying Pan

MULTIPLE SPOILER WARNINGS! (Fried Green Tomatoes, Citizen Kane, Memento, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense)

A Whalenism, usually applied to films, derived from the twist at the end of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991), in which the body of the murdered Frank Bennett is barbecued (in a frying pan) to conceal the evidence from the police investigation. As Ninny Threadgoode says, "That frying pan did more than fry chicken that night." The meat is actually served to the Georgia police detective Sheriff Curtis Smoote (played by Raynor Scheine) who is investigating the case. He thinks it tastes so good, in fact, that he unknowingly eats a number of portions of the very evidence he is seeking. On enquiring why it tastes so good, he is told "The secret's in the sauce."

Sipsey (Cicely Tyson) kills Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) by hitting him over the head with a frying pan.

"The secret's in the sauce."

That ain't no ordinary barbecue...

Can you spot The Frying Pan?

"The Frying Pan" used more generally therefore refers to any secret or obscure plot twist or denouement that may not be obvious to the more dim-witted members of the movie audience (usually my father, Sandy), who "doesn't always see The Frying Pans". He famously didn't realize on first viewing that Frank Bennett was the meat being barbecued.

Other examples of Frying Pans might be the sled Rosebud, which acts as the MacGuffin in Citizen Kane (1941); the notion that Leonard might be deliberately deceiving himself and taking advantage of his own short-term memory loss in Memento (2000); the twist at the end of Fight Club (1999) that reveals the narrator as a schizophrenic, whose alter ego is Tyler Durden; who is Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects (1995); that Bruce Willis is dead in The Sixth Sense (1999); und so weiter, und so weiter.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Gay characters in Woody Allen films

At dinner tonight I was trying to list Woody Allen films that feature gay characters. This LiveJournal user says the only gay character he has ever seen is in Stardust Memories, which I haven't seen yet. One of the comments on that post adds that there's a flamer in Sleeper, which I can't recall at the moment, and of course there's Meryl Streep's lesbian couple in Manhattan. Are there any more?

Monday 20 August 2007

Lady Chatterley (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

A French adaptation of the second version of D. H. Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover (John Thomas and Lady Jane). I was sceptical at first. How could it work doing an English story about class and language differences in a foreign language? For the first few minutes I maintained my doubts. Why was Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) kissing her husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), once on each cheek to say goodbye as he went off to war? Isn't that how the French do it, not the English? How will they convey the class differences if not by RP accent versus broad regional dialect? How would "Th'art good cunt?" sound in French?

None of this matters and nothing was lost in translation. In fact, thinking about how it might have seemed in English, I believe doing it in French is the better way. It would sound overly quaint now to ham up the differences of speech and the formalities of social interaction between master and servant. What we're left with is the human and the physical drama. It felt at times like a heterosexual Brokeback Mountain (2005). Two lovers say very little to each other but communicate physically and with silence and looks. Their passion and sexual attraction for each other is elicit and dangerous for both of them should they get caught.

When Clifford, a wealthy factory owner, returns from the Great War, he is paralyzed from the waist down. His dutiful wife, Constance (Lady Chatterley), becomes his nurse, but this soon wears her down. A local widow, Mrs Bolton, comes to stay with them to nurse Clifford in her stead. Constance, lonely and loveless, wanders around the grounds of their country estate. One evening she is sent to give the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), a message from the cook and sees him naked to the waist washing behind his hut in the woods. Something is triggered. In the following months, she gravitates around Parkin, finding a wonder in the natural scenery that is his domain. Their interactions are at first awkward and stiff. They are overly aware of their relative social status. Eventually their relationship develops into an affair that invigorates both their lives. But both of them know they are breaking social codes.

The director, Pascale Ferran, marshalls impeccable performances from his cast. Coulloc'h is rustic without being uncouth: the gamekeeper, Parkin, is an intensely private man but he is no idiot. Hands is wonderfully uninhibited. She is beautiful but has the skill to say so much with her body and face even when she has no lines to speak. There is often no need for dialogue. The sex scenes are erotic without being uncomfortably or unnecessarily graphic.

The film is shot in beautiful countryside throughout the seasons. The camera lingers to breathe in the air and conveys that awakening sense of wonder in the natural world that comes from being in love: noticing the beauty of the sunlight playing on the undersides of leaves, of an eagle circling above a field, fresh water trickling from a brook.

Ferran explains some of the reasons behind basing the film on the second version of the novel in a statement on the film's official site:

D.H. Lawrence wrote three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The novel known by this title is the third version; the one Lawrence considered definitive and which he published at his own expense in March 1928, a few months before his death.

[...] between each version, Lawrence would put the manuscript aside for several months and go on to something else. When he came back to his project, he didn't work from the previous manuscript to modify it, but entirely rewrote a second version. And later, he rewrote the third version as well. Therefore, certain plot points and circumstances are common to all three versions, but entire passages are not strictly similar and no dialogue is identical. The characters themselves, the novel's four main characters - Lady Chatterley and her husband Clifford, the gamekeeper (whose name changes depending on the version) and Mrs. Bolton, Clifford's nurse - vary significantly from one version to another. As a result, we are dealing with three independent versions, each one coherent from the first page to the last.

[...The second version, published by Gallimard under the title Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois, published in English as John Thomas and Lady Jane] is simpler, more direct in dealing with its subject, less tortured. The book is more focused on the relationship between Constance and Parkin, the gamekeeper, and the two characters themselves are quite different. For example, here Parkin is a simple man who logically should have been a miner, but who chose to be a gamekeeper in order to escape life in society.

In Lady Chatterley's Lover he is an ex-officer in the British Indian Army who has chosen to live as a hermit. His culture and origins make his relationship with Lady Chatterley less scandalous, however. In a way, intellectually, they are practically from the same world, which explains how they can discuss together what is happening to them.

In Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois, they don't discuss things, they experience them.
(Source:, then follow links to About the Film/About.)

The film is somewhat episodic, but the inter-titles and occasional voice-overs ensure the changing of seasons and circumstances dovetail neatly.

Nugget: a surprisingly accomplished adaptation of a notorious novel. All of the pitfalls I had been expecting were avoided. In French with English subtitles.

Saturday 18 August 2007

How to create a favicon

I found a nifty wee tool for creating favicons: Dynamic Drive's FavIcon Generator. I recommend using a square image.

Favicon maker - Create a favicon from any image

Here are the favicons I've created so far today:

5 years old today!

This blog is five years old today, which probably makes it considerably more longevous than most other blogs, which crash and burn as their authors lose interest or create another one, although I'll have to admit I've only been posting with any sort of regularity (once every three days or so on average) since the summer 2004 when I finished my undergraduate degree at Oxford. It's not the first time I have marked the occasion: I did so in 2005. I thought I'd select one of my better or more significant posts from each year of its existence to give you an idea of how it started and how it has progressed over the years. You could do this for yourself by browsing through the archives.

2002: my first ever blog post (written in Munich five years ago to the day)
2003: some poor wee kid I saw at the football (written in Ayr)
2004: my first ickleReview (written in my temporary room in Hertford's Old Ab annexe during the long post-Finals summer)
2005: that letter I got from Pot Noodle (written in Oxford at KR3)
2006: that time I got a bit carried away with Beatles song titles (written at KR3)
2007: the day Broad Street was on fire (written at the Waltons in Ox)

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) - ickleReview (cinema)

The third part of the Jason Bourne franchise. In part one, Matt Damon ran around, surprised at all his special agent skills, trying to figure out who he was. In part two, Matt Damon ran around, exploiting all his special agent skills, seeking revenge for the murder of his girlfriend in a CIA assassination attempt aimed at him. In part three, Matt Damon runs around, still exercising his special agent skills, and eventually finds out who he is and how he got there. We go through Moscow (diplomatically pronounced both Moss-kow by the Americans and Moss-co by the British), Turin, London, Madrid, Algiers, and New York.

The security correspondent of the Guardian newspaper, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), writes a special report about who is Jason Bourne, having met an important insider source in Turin. As he arrives back at Heathrow - neither losing his luggage in baggage reclaim (he was travelling light) or encountering anti-aviation protestors - he speaks to his editor on his mobile and mentions the word "Blackbriar", which triggers a keyword alert in the CIA substation in London (based, by the looks of it, not all that far away from Blackfriars, so I wonder how often they got hyper when monitoring people's calls). That's the new name for Treadstone, the top secret black op that created agents like our man Bourne. The CIA track poor Ross down in an attempt to intercept his source. In the confusion, they think it's Bourne, who is trying to protect Ross and find out his source for himself so he can finally use a passport with his proper name on it. Jean Charles de Menezes replay ensues.

Cue enthralling chase to Madrid (scene of another recent terrorist attack), where he meets up again with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a fellow agent who had been on the baddies' side in the earlier films; Tangiers (appropriate location for rooftop chases and leaps through windows across narrow alleyways); and, finally, New York, where squabbling CIA barnets, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Noah Vosen (David Strathairn - last seen in Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)), are tracking Bourne's movements in a high-tech operations room where they apparently have control over every CCTV camera in the world, know everyone's phone number, and can even tell what you had for dinner a week last Tuesday (maybe not the last one). When agents are sent to storm an apartment in Madrid to where they have tracked Bourne, they hold portable video cameras next to their guns so that NYHQ and we can see what's happening - a nice touch given all the amateur footage that 24-hour news channels now screen whenever something big happens (I even heard the police were appealing for photos taken on mobile phones to help the investigation into that Hell's Angel shooting on the M40 last Sunday).

Fans of the previous two films will know what to expect, and director Paul Greengrass once more delivers. I'm not sure what the ultimatum of the title is, unless it signals the final (ultimate) part of the series, but room is left at the end for another installment, perhaps a prequel to find out more about how and why Bourne was made.

Nugget: continues to set the standard for breakneck action with a bit of brains, even if the final reveal of the MacGuffin that Bourne has been chasing falls a little flat. It's pleasing to find a trilogy that doesn't woos out.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

This Sporting Life (1963) - ickleReview (TV)

Richard Harris (The Guns of Navarone (1961)) stars as ex-coal miner Frank Machin in this black and white British sports movie based on the novel by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson. Machin lodges with the widow, Mrs Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), and her two young children. Her husband was killed in an industrial accident working for a company owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel), the owner of the local rugby league club. The club's scout, Mr Johnson (William Hartnell), whom Machin confusingly calls "Dad", negotiates a trial for Machin, who impresses the club's management in his first match with his aggression and determination. He is signed as a professional rugby league player and soon becomes a star of the team.

Machin continues to lodge with Margaret Hammond, despite the fact that he could afford better with the money he is earning. She reacts coldly to his clumsy advances and still polishes the boots of her dead husband. Machin falls out of favour with Weaver because he has caught the attention of his wife.

Most of the plot is told in flashbacks from Machin's point of view. The rugby league action is at times overly choreographed, but at other times impressively realistic (many of the players were real-life professionals from Wakefield). One sequence is filmed in front of a large, spectacular crowd, filling a real stadium, which, had the film been made today, would have been pasted in with CGI.

Harris has an impressive bulk. He looms above the camera in Mrs Hammond's poky little house. He is a brute but despite his protective arrogance he does have a gentler, more appealing side to his character, such as when he takes Mrs Hammond and her kids out for a drive in his new Bentley and plays football with the children like a father. Roberts is brilliant in her role as the widow with the stiff upper lip.

Some of the intricate relationships between the characters take a while to figure out, but Anderson relies on the intelligence of his audience rather than patronizing them with telegraphs. It keeps one interested anyway. Although it's a sports movie, there is actually very little on-the-field action, which is probably just as well. It does look and feel a little dated in parts; one might even say primitive. It's supposed to be set in the north of England, but Harris's accent occasionally veers towards Irish (perhaps that's a deliberate affectation by the character) and some of the other characters have a tad too much RP, but perhaps that's just an indication of their social class rather than the actors' lack of range. Nowadays I fear we'd overdo it (cf. The Fully Monty, Brassed Off, und so weiter).

Nugget: a pleasing contrast to the typical Hollywood sports movie, where the plot arc is clichéd into banality and the only interesting thing is the sports action. In This Sporting Life the drama occurs off the field, not on it. Note, also, that this is rugby league not rugby union - a mistake that I fear is too often made by those who don't know the difference and just call it a rugby movie.

Sunday 12 August 2007

Rafa Benitez: the new Arsenal manager?

Why has Rafa Benitez recently been sighted in Islington; and what is that Islington trendy from the Private Eye cartoon It's Grim Up North London doing in the Liverpool technical area? He was even meditating during a penalty shoot-out last season, viz.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991) - ickleReview (DVD)

Watching Fried Green Tomatoes again has made me realize what a wonderful film it is. Even though I could remember the twist at the end, I could not remember all the twists in between. It's simply a wonderfully told and beautifully acted story. Well, two stories, actually.

Level one is set in present-day Alabama. Evelyn (Kathy Bates) goes with her husband, Ed (Gailard Sartain), to visit a sick elderly aunt in a nursery home. In the visitors' room she gets chatting to a chirpy octogenarian, Ninny (Jessica Tandy), who tells her stories about the people she used to know between the wars in Whistle Stop, an abandoned small town beside the railroad. Evelyn confides with Ninny about her marriage problems (Ed is more interested in watching sports on TV than spending quality time with her), her obesity (she eats a dozen candy bars a day), and her slide towards old age through the menopause. Ninny's stories and friendship give her a reason to live and the spirit to make her life better (hormones help as well).

Level two is the long flashbacks that Ninny narrates. They are about a local girl called Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) who was accused of the murder of Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) from Georgia. We learn about Idgie's close relationship with her older brother, Buddy (Chris O'Donnell); her friendship with Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and the Whistle Stop Cafe they ran together; and the events surrounding the murder of Frank Bennett.

The two narratives are brilliantly intertwined and each episode in the story is skillfully developed so that it never seems like a filler for what comes next. I am reluctant to go into too much detail because knowing too much would spoil the craft of the story as it is told. The screenplay is based on the novel by Fannie Flagg and follows in the long and proud tradition of Southern American folk tales that has produced writers such as William Faulkner and Richard Ford.

What makes this film so special is its characters and the superb performances by the actors. There are four exceptional female roles for Tandy, Bates, Masterson and Parker, all of whom excel. There is a short but sweet role of O'Donnell as the kind and caring older brother. Each character is so carefully developed without any of the clumsy, clichéd slap-dash that often spoils Hollywood movies. Idgie is a tomboy, an outcast, but a surprising do-gooder, who treats the family's black servants, Big George and Sipsey (played with quiet dignity by Stan Shaw and Cicely Tyson), with a respect that riles the local KKK gang.

It is supremely moving, funny, enlightened, embracing so many themes: love, death, family, marriage, racism, crime, memory, storytelling - without treating any of them lightly. I was frequently in tears of joyful poignancy. It is a weepie, but thoroughly uplifting.

The director Jon Avnet (Jon Who? I know) has not made anything of note since, but this in itself is a gem. I cannot fault this film.

Nugget: the inspiration behind the Whalenism "The Frying Pan", which I explain in another post. (SPOILER WARNING!)