Monday 29 December 2008

Frankie Boyle Live (2008) - ickleReview (DVD)

A live recording of Frankie Boyle's stand-up comedy gig at the Hackney Empire. Unfortunately for Christmas purchasers, he uses most of this material in his appearance on BBC's Live at the Apollo first broadcast on 19 December. Many of his jokes were also first heard on Mock the Week, where Frankie made his name and established a reputation for bad-taste jokes to rival Jimmy Carr. The gig is a success and is funny even if familiar. He spends quite a bit of time talking directly to the audience and slagging off what they do for a living, sometimes dovetailing with the material he has prepared.

The DVD includes a few extras of his tour of Scotland and his sketches from Rush Hour, in which he plays a roadside recovery worker who tells his customers what he thinks about their lives.

Nugget: foul-mouthed bad-taste jokes from the sarcastic ginger Scotsman.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

"Meejay Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman.

Documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, "journalist" and writer whose drug-fuelled style became known as "gonzo". He wrote books and articles about the Hell's Angels motorcycle gangs; running for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado; and the 1972 presidential election campaign. He drank and got high on drugs and therefore appeared to write more about his hallucinations than the reality that other people were seeing. At the time, this is precisely what made him a celebrity. Johnny Depp played him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and reads some extracts of his work for this documentary. There are numerous other talking heads, including Senator George McGovern, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, Jimmy Carter, and Thompson's friends, wives, and employers. The best visual parts of the film are the illustrations by Ralph Steadman, which often accompanied Thompson's pieces in Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson eventually committed suicide in 2005 by shooting himself with one of his many guns. A huge monument was erected on his estate featuring the gonzo symbol of a fist with two thumbs.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the Doonesbury comic character Duke is based on Thompson.

Nugget: I'm not really interested in Hunter S. Thompson, so this film was always going to be of limited value to me.

Friday 26 December 2008

Googlewhack Adventure (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

A live recording of Dave Gorman's one-man show about Googlewhacks. Shot at the Grand Theatre in Swansea. Dave Gorman, the man who once contacted and met up with a number of his namesakes, tells a true story about his discovery and reluctant pursuit of Googlewhacks. Gorman is a charismatic speaker. He talks with great skill and enthusiasm with a powerful ability to vary the pace of his storytelling. He's also very funny with a fine sense of timing. The underlying moral of his experience is about finding one's vocation and overcoming procrastination. I won't say too much more as it's best heard from him.

Nugget: well worth the diversion if you get the chance.

Thursday 25 December 2008

WALL·E (2008) - ickleReview (DVD)

Image source: Disney Pixar.

Computer-animated film set in the distant future featuring WALL·E, a lonely robot left behind on Earth to clean up all the rubbish piled so high that humans have long ago abandoned the planet. A return to the early storytelling technique Pixar shorts as the narrative is conducted with barely any dialogue. As with Cars, the inanimate machines are heavily anthropomorphized. It's a tub-thumping parable about environmental waste, commercialism, and the loss of human intimacy. As ever with Pixar, the animation is beautifully detailed, often making me laugh with delight. The running time is just about right at 98 minutes.

Nugget: the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 2.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

All This Assumes Satan Is At Least 35 Years of Age and Was Born in the United States

The following hilarious dialogue appeared in Gregg Easterbrook's column Tuesday Morning Quarterback on 26 September 2006 (I hope he doesn't mind me copying it here. It's fair to say this is comedy gold and deserves to be read instead of festering in the archives):

Last week Jerry Falwell said fundamentalists would work harder to defeat a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy than if Lucifer were running for president. On an exclusive basis, TMQ has obtained this transcript of a recent K Street meeting between Satan and his campaign consultant.

CONSULTANT: Let's go over these focus-group results. First there's the name thing. Voters like casual -- Bill Clinton, Bob Dole. "Satan" sounds kind of stiff and formal. Do you have a first name?

SATAN: I have many names. Abaddon, Ahriman, Apollyon, Asmodeus, Azazel...

CONSULTANT: Gotta be informal.

SATAN: My friends call me Steve.

CONSULTANT: Steve Satan. That's great, sounds like the guy next door. Now let's be honest, you have negatives. For example, you want everyone to suffer horribly for all eternity. How am I supposed to sell that to voters?

SATAN: We've made a lot of changes in hell -- now we're customer-conscious. If you're willing to sell your soul, we pledge to have the demon there with the contract that day or your first month in hell is pain-free. Plus we've got a mission statement and a philosophy of Total Quality Torment.

CONSULTANT: Now your position on the issues. Iraq war?

SATAN: Strongly in favor.

CONSULTANT: Universal health care insurance?

SATAN: Strongly opposed.

CONSULTANT: Immigration?

SATAN: Let 'em die in the desert.

CONSULTANT: United Nations?

SATAN: Don't mention that I run it.

CONSULTANT: Education reform?

SATAN: Everyone should learn Latin. I hate it when people come to hell and don't even speak our language.

CONSULTANT: The television coach will be here in a minute to work with you. We need to eliminate the hissing.

SATAN: Sorry. I do that when I'm nervous. Guess I shouldn't have quit smoking!

CONSULTANT: Fund-raising is going well. I hope you don't object to taking money from Persian Gulf oil sheiks.

SATAN: Of course not. But do you have any qualms about working for me?

CONSULTANT: Qualms! I'm a political consultant.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Mike Carlson interview

Channel Five's late-night NFL analyst, Mike Carlson, is interviewed here in the Sticky Wickets section of PopMatters. It's an intelligent and interesting conversation between two people who know their stuff. Carlson is aware that his dry sense of humour is unlikely to be appreciated by a US TV audience:
If I was doing the same thing in the States, I'd probably be getting lot more criticism, not only from the fans but also from the people themselves.
I also recommend Carlson's weekly column on, Friday Morning Tight End, the title of which nods a wink to Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on, formerly on and Football Outsiders.

Sunday 14 December 2008

The Program (1993) - ickleReview (HD)

Tame sports movie about the American football program at a fictional east-coast college, Eastern State University (shot on location at the University of South Carolina and Duke University). James Caan plays the head coach whose job has come under pressure after a number of under-performing seasons in which his team have failed to reach a bowl game. He recruits a freshman tailback, Darnell Jefferson (Omar Epps), and has a few strong returning players including a Heisman Trophy candidate, Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer), at quarterback and trash-talking Alvin Mack (Duane Davis) at linebacker. Halle Berry plays Jefferson's tutor, Autumn Haley, who showed him around the college when he was being recruited. Darnell wants her to be his girlfriend but Autumn is already in a relationship with the existing tailback, Ray Griffen (J. Leon Pridgen II), so Darnell is not only competing for the same starting position but also the same girl. Joe Kane's love interest is Camille Shafer (Kristy Swanson), an injured tennis player who claims she doesn't date football players.

The film gives an insight into the dramas of college football: player recruitment, the booster club, steroid abuse, athletes' poor academic performance, Heisman candidacy, positional rivalry; but the writing is limp and the acting often second-rate. Some of the on-field action is quite well shot but is never really dramatic and there isn't much of it; most of the interest comes from off-the-field issues. The opening sequence is ridiculously shot in unrealistic darkness with heavy rain and deep puddles (similar to The Last Boy Scout).

Nugget: cardboard cut-out characters, clichéd scenarios, and limp, unremarkable acting drop this movie below .500. If it were a college football team, it would be lucky to get a bowl bid. Only really suitable for those with an interest in college football, but it's still watchable. One way to keep yourself entertained is to spot a number of continuity goofs.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Carbon Commentary, issue 11

The most recent issue of the Carbon Commentary newsletter features articles by Chris Goodall on jatropha, the tropical shrub that produces a diesel substitute when grown on marginal land; the UK's record on renewable energy; a heavy-handed piece of satire on the government's attitude to nuclear power; the unexplained rise in methane levels; and an analysis of the problems of using feed-in tariffs to subsidize low-carbon energy.

If you want to subscribe to the newsletter to receive updates by email, you can do so here.

The War Room (1993) - ickleReview (HD)

Cinéma vérité/fly-on-the-wall documentary about the campaign team of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential election. James Carville is the charismatic lead strategist from New Orleans known as the "Ragin' Cajun". He really seems to have fun in the "war room", the campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. George Stephanopoulos is the younger, smooth communications director. The film focuses largely on these two characters from the New Hampshire primary through to Clinton's acceptance speech. There is no voice-over, no inter-titles, no interviews; just a camera in the room while these political strategists go to work, first to overcome Clinton's Democratic rivals, then to campaign against the incumbent Republican president, George Bush, and the independent candidate, Ross Perot. The lack of commentary is admirable and intelligent. The viewers are left to make their own conclusions, aided of course by the subtle editing.

Clinton is featured, but Carville and Stephanopoulos really are the stars of the show. Jennifer Flowers makes an appearance, prompted by the Republicans, to make allegations that she had an affair with Clinton. Clinton and his team deal with it with remarkable skill. There are also shots of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. Hillary has remarkably long hair and looks disturbingly a lot like Jennifer Flowers. No wonder she eventually cut it short.

Nugget: a brilliant insight into the excitement and tactics of political campaigning.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Dean Spanley (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

In early twentieth-century England, in the aftermath of the Boer War, an adult son by the name of Frisk (Jeremy Northam) visits his curmudgeonly father (Peter O'Toole) every Thursday. One afternoon they go to a lecture about the transmigration of souls, where they encounter for the first time Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), a minister in a local church with, it turns out, a taste for Imperial Tokay, a Hungarian sweet wine. They bump into him again at Frisk Senior's gentlemen's club. After a third encounter in the church grounds, Frisk Junior invites him to dinner and discovers that the Tokay awakens in Dean Spanley an odd behaviour. I will not say more as it will spoil the charm of the plot.

The highlight of this harmless diversion is Peter O'Toole's masterful performance as a grumpy old man with a sharp tongue and a pocketful of withering one-liners. Judy Parfitt also excells in the supporting role of Frisk Senior's cynical old housekeeper, Mrs Brimley. Bryan Brown (the familiar-faced eccentric Australian character actor whom you may recognize from Gorillas in the Mist, Cocktail, and Along Came Polly - not to be confused with Paul Hogan) plays Wrather, a "conveyancer" who helps Frisk Junior procure his Tokay for Dean Spanley.

Nugget: I started to fall asleep during the climactic scene at the morning preview screening in the Phoenix Picturehouse. I get the feeling I didn't quite get the full effect of whatever snap in the tail this film had. I was enjoying the film up to this point, but it was not gripping enough to force me out of my Sunday morning drowse. But it was worth it just for O'Toole's masterclass.

Friday 5 December 2008

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) - ickleReview (HD)

This documentary is based on the book by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean. It retells the rise and fall of the Enron corporation by following the careers of its founder, chairman, and CEO, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling (president, CEO, and COO). It's an intriguing story because it is essentially a human drama. It is also a film about capitalism, the financial markets, fraud, and corporate greed - none of which is very surprising. In fact, there is an inevitability about the corruption, as if this sort of boom and bust is a natural side-effect of free-market economics. Enron's success sounded too good to be true; and it was too good to be true. The market eventually corrected Enron's inflated mark-to-market self-valuation, a scandalous accounting practice that allowed it to bank profits when a deal was made, before the income was guaranteed. If you create the culture in which bacteria and disease can prosper, then bacteria and disease will prosper. Many of the "innovations" Enron introduced into the financial system in the late nineties to early noughties are still causing problems for other companies in the 2008 monetary slowdown. The financial system has yet to develop immunity.

Although Lay and Skilling are in some senses detestable characters (to my liberal morals) there is something compelling and charismatic about them and their rise to power and wealth. There is something of the Gordon Gekko about them.

It's a slick, fast-moving documentary of talking heads, reconstructions, and stylish montages of stock market tickers, high-rise office blocks, and trading floors. There are some astounding audio tapes of Enron's traders' conversations about manipulating the California power grid during the rolling blackouts. Their greed and ruthlessness is disgusting, but compelling.

Nugget: a hugely enjoyable and interesting documentary, impeccably executed and through-provoking, without being overly polemical or moralizing.

Monday 1 December 2008

We Are Marshall (2006) - ickleReview (HD)

One of those "based on a true story" sports movies. This one tells the story of Marshall University's American football team, who were killed in a plane crash in 1970. All but a handful of players and coaches (who were not on the plane) survived. Matthew McConaughey stars as Jack Lengyel, who is hired to coach the team through the 1971 season. He struggles to recruit new players and encourages the president of the college (David Strathairn) to petition the NCAA to allow Marshall to field freshmen in their team. Conflict arises over whether or not it is appropriate to field a team, whether it will dishonour the memory of those lost by failing to compete at the same level, or whether, in fact, it will help the town of Huntington, West Virginia to heal.

The gist of the film is that there is more to sports than winning (apparently contrary to the American ethos, but well familiar with us Britishers, which is perhaps why Ian McShane doesn't look out of place). Although the movie treatment does conventionalize some of the plot elements, there are some powerfully moving cinematic moments (usually avoiding schmaltz) that can move you close to tears even if you're in a cynical mood. The on-field action is convincing and dramatic without being quite as brutal as Any Given Sunday.

Nugget: not bad as American football movies go. It wouldn't be out of place on a long coach journey, although it's not quite as inspiring or entertaining as Remember the Titans or Friday Night Lights. The film is directed by some guy called "McG" - what's that all about?

Bigger Stronger Faster* (2008) - ickleReview (HD)

This is an insightful documentary directed by Chris Bell who tells the story of his and his brothers' experiences of body building and anabolic steroids. As kids, Chris, Mad Dog, and Stinky, grew up wrestling each other for fun in their basement, inspired by the all-American hero and wrestler, Hulk Hogan, who peddled the American Dream by telling his fans to eat their vitamins and say their prayers. The brothers were also fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Silvester Stallone. But it turns out all three of these supposed role models used anabolic steroids, so the image they promote (like most of those connected with the American Dream) is not quite as it appears on the surface.

The Bell brothers were slightly fat kids and not exactly the most gifted at sports. But they trained hard at the weights and found they could achieve quite a lot with dedication and hard work. They became accomplished weight-lifters and one of them went on to play American football at college. However, he found training there too tough and turned to steroids for help. The other wanted to become a professional wrestler, so he, too, took steroids. Chris, the middle brother, followed his dream to work out in the same Gold's Gym that Arnie and Hulk Hogan had used in Venice Beach, California. Their success stories created the myth that if you could build a perfect body, the opportunities could come your way. There is a sad interview with a 50-year-old who is still working out, hoping his day will come.

Chris is more troubled by the moral quandary of taking steroids. He wonders if it is ethical, if it is cheating. The film explores the arguments in detail. Although it doesn't come down clearly in favour of either side, it suggests that steroids are perhaps a symptom of deeper problems within American culture: the belief that "bigger" and "better" are synonymous, the damaging obsession with body image, the hyper-competitive culture in sports that spreads into other parts of life, including politics and military power.

This is both an indictment of those who choose to take steroids, but also an empathetic portrait of them, revealing some of the reasons why some athletes abuse this substance. This comes highly recommended for sports fans; but it will also appeal to a wider audience interested in American culture.

Nugget: a personal documentary in the style of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Good stuff. The asterisk in the title points to the tagline or subtitle: "The side effects of being American."

Friday 21 November 2008

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) - ickleReview (HD)

A mild romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan who are only very briefly on screen together. Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, whose wife dies before the start of the film. He moves with his son, Jonah (Ross Malinger), from Chicago to Seattle for a change of scene. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Ryan's character, Annie Reed, is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), a nice enough guy but hardly the love of her life (as she soon comes to realize) and annoyingly allergic. One night, driving home for Christmas, she hears Dr Marcia Fieldstone's phone-in radio show. Jonah has called up to say his dad needs a second wife. Dr Marcia asks to speak to Sam and names him Sleepless in Seattle (whence the title). His sad story garners thousands of phone calls and letters from female listeners keen to get his address. Annie eventually becomes one of them - convinced that he could be The One for her.

Nora Ephron co-writes and directs this film, which is in a similar vein to her other stand-out writing credits When Harry Met Sally... (1989) and You've Got Mail (1998), both of which are more successful: the former for comic wit; the latter for intricate meet-cute plotting.

Nugget: more You've Got Mail than When Harry Met Sally...

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Carbon Commentary, issue 10

The latest edition of collected pieces from Carbon Commentary includes data on UK energy consumption trends, an assessment of the economics of Scottish wind power, and on using offshore wind farms as part of the pension planning of individual investors. Articles on global average temperatures in spring 2008, the connection between biofuels and rising food costs, and UK government energy policy complete this newsletter.

Carbon Commentary has recently been included in the Guardian Environment Network.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Jericho Days (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

A collection of amateur archival footage of my neighbourhood, Jericho, in Oxford, shot in the late 1950s by Wally Peedell. Most of it was filmed on an 8mm camera with no sound. At the beginning of the film there are video interviews with some old ladies reminiscing about life in Jericho when they were younger. The rest of the hour or so of film is of special occasions in Jericho such as the street parade, the flooding, Guy Fawkes' Night, election day 1959, summer festivities, and playtime at St Barnabas School. Most of the people in the audience at the Phoenix Picturehouse were local pensioners. There were frequent giggles of delight and recognition of the old shops and way of life. People seem to have fond memories of community life in Jericho 50-odd years ago. The 8mm film looked great. It was accompanied by a pleasant musical soundtrack. The inter-titles were sometimes amateurishly fashioned and not always readable. These were essentially home movies of everyday life. An hour was just about the right length. It was just starting to get a bit boring when it ended.

Nugget: free to get in and probably just a one-off showing for the locals. Don't expect to find this at your local multiplex.

Friday 5 September 2008

Fast Food Nation (2006) - ickleReview (DVD)

This is an unusual but powerful fictionalized adaptation of Eric Schlosser's non-fiction book about the production of fast food in the USA. Director Richard Linklater tells the interweaving stories of Mexican migrant workers; the Vice-President of Marketing for Mickey's (Greg Kinnear), a leading burger chain (like McDonald's); a Mickey's employee (Ashley Johnson); and lots of other characters around them. The impressive supporting cast of familiar faces includes Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Avril Lavigne, Luis Guzmán, and Bruce Willis.

Guzmán plays a people trafficker who helps Mexicans cross the border at night and ferries them to Cody, Colorado, a commercial strip of a town with a depressingly long line of fast food restaurants. The Mexicans have come to work in the meat packing factory that is fed by the huge cattle ranches. It's gruesome and dangerous work, but they can earn more in a day ($80) than they would earn in a whole month back in Mexico. Kinnear's character, Don Anderson, has been sent by his boss at Mickey's on a fact-finding mission to investigate claims that faecal matter (i.e. cow shit) has been detected in the patties used in Mickey's successful Big One burgers, which are manufactured at the meat-packing factory.

It feels like a John Sayles film with a powerful political message. It's not always subtle, but then it is dealing with a brutal trade in people and animals. It's a brilliant way to realize the documentary quality of Schlosser's investigative journalism in a narrative fiction format.

Nugget: polished and important stuff.

Knocked Up (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

Comic film about an unwanted pregnancy with some bad taste jokes that are on the borderline of going too far, but still made me laugh most of the time anyway. The characters are likeable and it's quite sweet in parts without being too mushy. Seth Rogen, who plays the main character, Ben Stone, reminds me a bit of someone I went to college with: Ben McDermott.

Nugget: a slightly more grown-up take on the gross-out movie.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Stardust Memories (1980) - ickleReview (DVD)

A disappointing Woody Allen film shot in black and white. Allen plays a comic film director who no longer wants to make funny films. He goes to a film festival that is showing a retrospective of his films. He stays in the Stardust Hotel and reminisces about his life. There are three female love interests. The film doesn't have a clear structure. It's a bit like Fellini: artfully shot, good-looking, but a bit boring and lacking in substance.

Nugget: one of Allen's missable misses.

Monday 1 September 2008

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) - ickleReview (DVD)

The premise of this spoof documentary is great: what would happen if the Southern Confederates had won the American Civil War? Slavery would still exist in America! The reality is a somewhat slow and boring film, which is witty rather than laugh-out-loud funny. It's cheaply produced and made to look like a TV documentary produced by the "British Broadcasting Service", complete with ad-breaks and programme trailers. Part of the problem is that it doesn't look real enough - especially the spoof film excerpts. I'm sure it would be funnier to someone who knew more about American history and so would understand the clever tricks the writer/director Kevin Willmott is playing. I was so bored by it, though, that I couldn't face sitting through it all again to hear his director's commentary. I was hoping to see more of what life in Confederate America would be like now, but the only glimpses you get of that are in the hammy adverts and the last few minutes of the film. Most of it is a subjunctive retelling of American history.

Nugget: good idea, poor execution. Profoundly disappointing.

Murderball (2005) - ickleReview (DVD)

Murderball bad-ass Mark Zupan. Photo source: United States Quad Rugby Association.

is a sport invented in Canada also known as wheelchair rugby. It is played by quadriplegic athletes in teams of four and is a cross between basketball, rugby, and ice-hockey. Each athlete is given a points value of 0.5-3.5 depending on their level of ability and movement. A team can have no more than 8 points on the court at a time. A quadriplegic is a person who has impairment in all four limbs, usually from a spinal injury, but it can also include amputees. This documentary directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro follows the USA quad rugby team for two and half years from the 2002 world championships in Stockholm to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. It also tracks the Canadian coach, Joe Soares, star of the USA team at the 1996 Atlanta games. The USA and Canada were the two best teams in quad rugby leading up to 2004.

This is a great sports movie. The athletes have a brilliant attitude. Some of them say their lives changed for the better since they became quadriplegic, mainly because it has given them the opportunity to play quad rugby. It is a thrillingly fast and violent sport, played in customized wheelchairs with added armour and rollerblade front wheels, which look like the machines from Robot Wars.

The filmmakers give the film balance by telling the stories of long-term quadriplegics like Mark Zupan and Joe Soares alongside Keith Cavill, who sustained a spinal injury in a motocross accident shortly before the film was made. We see Keith in rehab, coming to terms with his new way of life; and we see Zupan, who has lived with his wheelchair for 11 years, since he was 18, and Soares, who had childhood polio. Zupan is a real star. He's an asshole, just like he was before he got injured, but a likeable asshole with a fuck-you attitude well suited to the tough, intense sport of Murderball, where one of the main aims is to run into your opponent so hard that you knock him over, out of his wheelchair, and out of the game.

It's quite appropriate that one of the extra features on this DVD is a Jackass Murderball special. That's the sort of attitude to life that some of these players have. These characters are surprisingly ballsy, overturning some of the stereotypes attached to people in wheelchairs. They still have an active sex life, enjoy drinking and going out, and are fiercely independent.

The film is given a natural trajectory by the build-up to Athens, and a plot-line through the rivalry between the USA and Canada. Coach Joe Soares fell out bitterly with the USA team when he was dropped for being too old and too slow, so he moved to Canada in defiance. Some of the American players and officials goad him with betraying his country. He just wants to win to prove them wrong.

Nugget: Murderball is a tremendously funny and moving film. It will change the way you think about people with disabilities.

Friday 29 August 2008

Blue Blood (2006) - ickleReview (DVD)

Boxing is a full Blue sport at Oxford University, alongside rowing and rugby. Those students who aspire to win a Blue by competing against Cambridge in the annual Varsity match see it as a great honour and are prepared to make many sacrifices to get it. This documentary by Stevan Riley (a former Oxford University boxer himself, although he never won a Blue due to a concussion) follows a number of boxing novices in their first season. There's Kavanagh, a spindly first-year Philosophy student; Charlie, a doe-eyed Fine Arts student who sings and paints nudes; Fred, a gritty Biochemist from a single-parent family who resents his father and takes to the sport like a natural; Boiler, a Mathematician rugby player desperate to win a Blue to impress his father; and Justin, an American Astrophysicist from the US Air Force Academy who fancies himself as a Christian Chuck Norris. They're coached by Des, a local builder.

The Varsity season gives the film a perfect teleology, although for many of the boxers, the experience of training and getting in the ring, of winning their Blue, seems more important than beating Cambridge at the end.

Having watched the boxing Varsity match myself a few years ago, it is a special occasion with a raw and passionate atmosphere. You cannot really appreciate how brave and brutal a sport boxing is until you see it live and up close. It's also much more about technique than fighting ability. Some of these boys are badly exposed due to their inexperience. There's a trip to Sandhurst to fight in front of the Army; and the annual Town vs. Gown match hosted in the Oxford Union debating chamber where students fight non-students.

It's odd seeing people I know on camera in a proper film. I played rugby with Boiler. I also recognized Andrew Buchan, Mark Hudson, and James Glancey (in the gym), Andrew Clements, Graham Barr, Ed Wilson, and James Grigg (in the crowd), and Guy Reynolds (who is briefly interviewed as Boiler's former rugby team-mate, and who captained the U21s in my second year).

Nugget: an excellent film that really immerses you in the spirit of Varsity, but also doesn't take itself too seriously.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Somers Town (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

Beautiful little Shane Meadows film set in Somers Town, a high-rise housing estate near St Pancras station in London. Thomas Turgoose (whose face will be familiar from Meadows's previous film, This Is England) plays Tomo, a young boy who has come to London from Nottingham. It's not clear why he has left home, but he doesn't want to go back. He makes friends with Marek (Piotr Jagiello) a Polish boy who lives in one of the high-rise flats with his dad, Mariusz (Ireneusz Czop), a builder working on the new St Pancras International rail terminal. The two boys befriend and fall in love with Maria (Elisa Lasowski), a pretty young French waitress from the local café who let Marek take her picture.

There isn't really a plot to this film; but this is not a flaw. We never find out why Tomo left Nottingham. Meadows only sketches a faint background for the characters. But they are warm and believable. It's an affectionate portrait of Polish migrant workers. Both Marek and his dad are noble and upbeat characters. Mariusz is proud that his boss says he is one of the best workers he has ever had, which is typical of the work ethic the Polish workers have earned for themselves all over the UK. The film also deals with violent youth culture as Tomo is mugged by three local lads who take his bag with all his possessions in it and his money.

The film is shot in black and white with the exception of a short colour sequence at the end, the details of which I shall leave as a surprise so as not to spoil it any further. Gavin Clark's acoustic soundtrack perfectly complements the images.

Nugget: a lovely, gentle film about friendship, love, and life in modern Britain, which works perfectly alongside the short film Dog Altogether with which it was shown at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford.

Dog Altogether (2007) - ickleReview (cinema)

Short film directed by Paddy Considine starring Peter Mullan (from My Name Is Joe) who plays a horrible man who kicks his dog, is racist to his local sub-postmaster, and violent towards young boys in the pub. He is a hateful character, but Mullan's performance elicits great sympathy. Olivia Colman plays an English Christian charity shop worker who prays for him and gives him the love that is obviously lacking from the rest of his life. Presumably set and shot on location in Glasgow.

Nugget: a great wee film shown before Somers Town at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford.

Operator (2008) - ickleReview (cinema)

Nugget: funny little animated short film about a man who calls up God via the telephone operator. This is a Virgin Media Shorts selection that was shown before Dog Altogether/Somers Town at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford.

Saturday 23 August 2008

True Stories: Biggie and Tupac (2002) - ickleReview (4oD)

Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Photo source: Razor & Tie Media Services.

This Nick Broomfield documentary is about the murders of US rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G., Christopher Wallace). Broomfield snoops around the dodgy characters that surrounded these people, including ex-LAPD officers, Voletta Wallace (Biggie's mom), Marion "Suge" Knight (Tupac's producer at Death Row Records), body guards, associates, and lawyers. It's a very confusing case, and Broomfield doesn't really do anything to clear it up. There are too many names all loosely related. Too many conspiracy theories and rumours, such as that the FBI were involved in the murders to smear the reputation of hip-hop. The East Coast - West Coast rivalry stops hip-hop being positive and thus supposedly prevents hip-hop becoming a uniting and revolutionary force like the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and 70s, which the government would see as a threat.

Broomfield is often on camera with his boom microphone. One of his potential interviewees actually complains about one of his previous films that makes Broomfield look clever and all his interviewees look stupid. He is good at just letting these characters come out on camera. They are sometimes surprisingly candid, but these hip-hop people tend to speak in code, so when they say, "You know what I'm sayin'?" it's often not clear at all what they're getting at because they assume you know so much more than you do.

Nugget: not a particularly good film. Certainly don't watch it if you want to know what actually happened.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Be Kind Rewind (2008) - ickleReview (DVD)

Bit of a weird one, this. It's about an old video rental shop in Passaic, New Jersey, where jazz pianist Fats Waller was born (according to legend). Mike (Mos Def) works in the video shop owned by Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover). Mike's friend, Jerry (Jack Black), gets himself electrocuted during a sabotage attempt on a power station. This doesn't kill him. He is magnetized. When Jerry returns to the video store, he unwittingly erases all the tapes. To make up for the blunder, Mike and Jerry record their own version of Ghostbusters for Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), one of Elroy Fletcher's best customers. The DIY remake is a success and starts to generate unprecedented interest in the store in the local community. Soon, customers are queuing around the block to place their own requests for "Sweded" movies. Meanwhile, Elroy Fletcher is scouting out local rivals West Coast Video, who have made the successful transition to DVDs. His business, "Be Kind Rewind" (no customers ever rewind their rented video tapes), is failing, and local real-estate developers are threatening to have his building condemned so that they can replace it with high-end apartments. Will the "Sweding" project be able to generate enough income to save the store, the legendary birthplace of Fats Waller?

This is an uneven and on the whole unsuccessful film, although it did make me laugh out loud with Jack Black's slapstick humour and some clever visual jokes. It is directed by Michel Gondry, progenitor of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and music videos for Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers.

Nugget: more miss than hit.

Friday 27 June 2008

Punk's Not Dead (2007) - ickleReview (DVD)

Ashley and Ursula at the Drunk Tank house. Film still from Punk's Not Dead.

How many punk rockers does it take to change a light bulb? None, because punk rockers don't change anything. Thirty years on from The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Ramones, punk bands are still making the same bad noises, protesting against the same failures of society, and wearing the same clothes and hairstyles.

Punks never were good musicians. And that's partly the point. "It didn't matter if anybody had any talent or could do anything," says Bruce Loose from Flipper. "It was whether they had the balls or the guts to get up and do it." This is DIY music for the underdog, music that anyone could get up and play in their local basement club (and anyone often did get up and play). Punk was a reaction against prog-rock, arena gigs, 7-minute guitar solos, vocal harmonies, and light shows. Punk was music with a message, a raw message screamed in your face with all the subtlety of a toddler's tantrum. Punk was "hippies with teeth". But hippies didn't change the world with their message of peace and free love; and neither did punks. "Things that we sing about could be construed as cliché, as far as punk rock is concerned," admits Kevin De Franco, lead singer of The God Awfuls. "But it's not us that is cliché. It's the fucking world. Nothing ever changes."

Kevin De Franco of The God Awfuls. Film still from Punk's Not Dead.

But as Punk's Not Dead so clearly shows, punk itself has changed. Green Day, The Offspring, Good Charlotte, and Sum 41 have brought their brand of pop-punk to the mainstream - "brand" being the operative word. The Warped Tour is backed by big corporations. Kids can buy their entire punk outfit from Hot Topic stores at the mall. The whole look of punk has been commercialized as advertisers realize there is a self-made demographic to exploit for profit. This selling out has made the older generation of punks quite snobbish and protective of their punk status, claiming that the new generation of commercially successful bands aren't punk because they sell too many records, play to large audiences, and exploit the capitalist mass media to get their music out there. Punk is now more of a fashion statement than an ideology. But as Tim Armstrong from Rancid says, "Who am I to say you're not [a punk rocker]?"

Director Susan Dynner pokes a safety pin into all of these issues, but lets the punks speak for (and against) themselves. Her beautifully crafted documentary features some of her own vibrant photos of the Washington, DC punk scene in the 80s alongside rare (and raw) live footage that really captures the excitement and variety of punk in its various forms. Punk is such an umbrella term, meaning something slightly different for each individual and each punk scene, that the film can offer no coherent answers to the questions it raises, except that punk is still alive and well, if a little richer, more professional, and more mainstream than it was in the beginning.

Dynner also debunks the myth of a punk renaissance. As punk historian Alan Parker points out, there seems to be an invisible line from The Sex Pistols breaking up at Winterland to Nirvana, a gap of some 15 years when punk disappeared from the mainstream consciousness. There was certainly a low point for punk in the late 80s, but it didn't cease to exist; it simply went back underground, where its roots always have been and continue to thrive. Old school bands like Stiff Little Fingers, Social Distortion, UK Subs, The Adicts, and Subhumans have either kept playing or reformed and are still on the road. "Yeah, give it to them raw while you're still alive," says Subhumans front man Dick Lucas.

Dynner used the internet to solicit material from DIY punk scenes all over the world to contribute to the film. 86 minutes in, she includes footage from New Zealand, Serbia, Iceland, Indonesia, Lithuania, Belgium, Russia, Israel, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Finland, Austria, Uruguay, Japan, France, and Australia, capturing the old underground DIY spirit of the early days of punk.

It's this sort of material that makes the film stand out from conventional music documentaries that always feature old-timers proselytizing nostalgically about the old days and harping on about how cool they used to be. There is a fair bit of that in this film, but it's also refreshing to focus on the people and the scene they created rather than the heard-them-once, heard-them-all stories of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' boring roll. (If that's the sort of film you're after, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003) and New York Doll (2005) do it very well.)

Punk's Not Dead is fast-paced and stylized, observing a scene talking about itself, rather than seeking to box it into a corner. One of the rare subjective interventions by the filmmakers is a brilliant piss-take montage of new generation pop-punk bands bouncing in slow-mo to Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz. One senses that Dynner is on the side of the oldies, but is still happy to let the new kids have their fun in their own way.

The film spills over into some valuable extras on the DVD that are rightfully cut from the main feature. Had they been kept in, the documentary would have lost its clear through-line and punk aesthetic of being short, fast, and in your face without messing about. The extras sketch out the wider punk scene, looking into punk housing; Jimmy Carter's presidential decree bribing major record labels not to sign punk bands by offering them tax breaks; as well as short histories of legendary punk clubs CBGB (New York), The Roxy (London), and The Masque (LA). They also include outtakes such as one of the ageing Adicts falling onstage during a gig and being unable to get up; and some of the interviewees messing around with ventriloquist puppets and telling jokes.

Nugget: what emerges from the film is that punk isn't so much about the bands or the music. It's a way of life. It's about the people, the social exchange. The bands are just a point of gathering, an inspiration for creating a radical change within each individual subscriber to the punk ideal. Has punk rock changed the world? "I don't know," says Dick Lucas of Subhumans. "It's changed my world and a lot of other people's."

This review was first posted on Blogcritics.

Note: Punk's Not Dead is being released on DVD (in the US?) on 8 July 2008. It doesn't appear to be stocked on Amazon yet, but it is available through the official movie website. Thanks to Rachel Glass for sending me the screener. The unconventional way of soliciting this review - emailing bloggers like me at random because I appeared to review films - is in keeping with the DIY punk spirit of the film, which, as I said above, includes internet-generated content from local punk scenes all over the world.

Friday 23 May 2008

BMW TV ad contains grammatical error

As "emissions" is a plural noun, shouldn't it be "Fewer emissions"? How embarrassing for BMW and their advertising agency! See an explanation of the difference between "less" and "fewer" on the AskOxford website. I realize that they're going for the "less is more" connection, but I still don't forgive them.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Jesus Camp (2006) - ickleReview (TV)

In America there are 30 million evangelical Christians. As Ted Haggard, pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, says: "If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election."

Jesus Camp is a 47-minute* documentary about the indoctrination of children at evangelical conferences and summer camps. Children as young as six are told they are sinners; that warlocks are the enemies of God (ergo Harry Potter is evil); are made to pledge they will fight against abortion; are encouraged to worship a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush; and are, seemingly minutes after their arrival at camp, scared to tears by the fear-mongering preachers. This is a bizarre film, so absurd it's hilarious.

Here's that Harry Potter proclamation in full:

Becky Fischer: And while I'm on the subject, let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God and, had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!
Crowd: Amen!
Becky Fischer: You don't make heroes out of warlocks!

Becky Fischer, the organizer of these "Kids on Fire" Bible camps (although there weren't many Bibles in evidence - funny that), can be seen with her staff blessing the electrical equipment before the campers arrive:

"Let's just walk around the pews and stuff and just pray over the seats. Yeah, yeah, in the name of Jesus we just speak over every person that's sitting in these chairs this week. And Lord we just ask to be covered with the blood of Jesus. Open hearts, Lord, open hearts! Father we pray over the electrical systems. We pray over the electricity will not go out in this building, in Jesus' name, because of storms or any other reason. Now I just pray over this equipment. We speak over the PowerPoint presentations, all of the video projectors, and we say, devil, we know what you love to do in meetings like this and we say YOU WILL NOT, in Jesus' name, YOU WILL NOT prevent this message from going out. No microphone problems, in Jesus' name. In the name of Jesus we speak that."

The style of worship, when it's not faith-healing, is hip-hop happy-clappy: "He was born to a virgin called Mary on Christmas Day. He bled and then he died on the cross to take sins away. You take him high. You take him low. You take JC wherever you go. Tell me who's in the house? JC! [...] Jesus Christ is in the house. [...] Dance! We're kickin' it, we're kickin' it for Christ!" Another girl likes Christian heavy metal, although she doesn't seem to realize that a lot of the music that would have influenced these Christian musicians is bordering on the Satanic.

Many of the children in attendance are home-schooled. Amongst the parents there is a deep suspicion of public schools and the evil, evolutionary teaching that goes on there, telling children that they are animals rather than gifts from God. Many still lament the banning of prayers in schools, a Supreme Court ruling that was based on the fundamental principle of the separation of Church and State enshrined by the Founding Fathers (particularly Thomas Jefferson) in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Another thing they won't let go is the abortion issue.

These children are brought up to think they are part of a special generation that can somehow reclaim America for Jesus. They truly believe in the Rapture, that the Second Coming is nigh. What's so disturbing for me about this kind of fundamentalism is that it is deliberately channeled as a "culture war". Pastor Becky Fischer again:

"It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have...excuse me, but we have the truth!"

There really is a martial intent to this. These are child soldiers, trained from any early age to fight in the army of Jesus Christ. Levi, a twelve-year-old preacher, is home-schooled. His father signed up to join the US Army in Iraq because he felt compelled to go there to fight as a Christian. Do they think it's the Crusades?

The film focuses on two kids in particular. Levi, with the ridiculous ponytail and a bright orange college-style T-shirt that reads "Jesus: King of Kings"; and Rachael, a nine-year-old who goes up to a pretty blonde girl at the bowling alley and tries to witness to her about Jesus Christ because she suspects she may be a sinner because of the way she looks.

It's no surprise when Pastor Ted Haggard turns out to be a hypocrite, allegedly being caught with a male prostitute after condemning homosexual activity to his huge congregation. Becky Fischer has also discontinued the summer camps at Devil's Lake, North Dakota after adverse reactions to the film (it was hardly good publicity!).

Nugget: although this will make you laugh, it's also really disturbing. Laughter, I find, is often a defence mechanism. Jesus Camp was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2007 but lost out to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

* The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists the running time as 87 minutes, so the version I saw on Channel 4 in the UK would have been edited for TV. I'd love to see what they left out.

Sunday 13 April 2008

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) - ickleReview (HD)

Woody Allen light comedy set in the early twentieth century. Three couples meet at a country house the day before two of them are to get married. Andrew (Woody Allen) and Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) are the hosts. They are having marital problems and haven't slept with each other for six months. Andrew is a crackpot amateur inventor. The bride and groom are Leopold (Jose Ferrer), a pompous but likeable ass of a philosophy professor, and Ariel (Mia Farrow), a younger woman whom Andrew once knew. The third couple are Maxwell (Tony Roberts), a doctor who seduces his patients - a real ladies' man - who believes that "marriage is the end of hope", and Dulcy (Julie Hagerty - Jane, the air hostess from Airplane! (1980)), a nubile nurse whom he has invited along for the weekend.

One of Andrew's inventions, a spirit ball, appears to upset the couples' relationships and reveal their deeper desires. The inevitable partner-swapping ensues (I would call it "bed-hopping" except that most of the love-making appears to take place outdoors by the brook).

Gordon Willis is the director of photography. The night scenes are shot day-for-night with filters and are pretty unconvincing because of all the sunlight on the leaves and the bright sky (although it's not as bad as those old James Bond movies). There are some clever long takes in the interior as the conversations continue while the characters walk out of shot. In one of them, Andrew and Adrian can be seen talking in the kitchen through their reflection in a mirror. There are some other majestic long shots and a beautiful scene-setting sequence of the countryside flora and fauna in midsummer to the soundtrack of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) in A Minor. The best laughs are generated by Allen's slapstick: crashing his insane flying machines and falling down the trellis at the side of the house (later repeated by Tony Roberts).

Nugget: a mildly enjoyable light farce, accompanied by the music of Felix Mendelssohn. It has, as far as I can tell, little to do with Shakepseare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (except for the love games, the spirits, and the fact that's it's midsummer in a wood), although Mendelssohn's music of that name does appear on the soundtrack.

The Thin Blue Line (1988) - ickleReview (HD)

Erroll Morris documentary about the murder of a policeman in Dallas County, Texas in November 1976. Morris interviews two suspects from the case, Randall Adams and David Harris, a number of policemen, eyewitnesses, the judge, and the defence lawyers. It's a gripping film. The story of what happened that night keeps changing as new people offer their perspective. There are numerous reconstructions of the murder, slightly adapted to fit each person's account.

Nugget: a grave indictment of the US justice system and a superb documentary.

Shadows and Fog (1992) - ickleReview (HD)

Woody Allen film shot atmospherically in black and white and set presumably sometime in the late nineteenth century. A strangler is committing a series of murders. Woody Allen's character, Kleinman, is co-opted into a vigilante gang to catch the killer. Meanwhile, at the local circus, Irmy, the sword-swallower (Mia Farrow) has an fight with her boyfriend, the clown (John Malkovich), when she finds him making love to the acrobat (Madonna). Irmy runs away and is welcomed into the brothel for a meal. When a group of students arrive, one of them, Jack (John Cusack), persuades her to sleep with him for $700. The other prostitutes include Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster. All the while the killer is on the loose. Also includes brief appearances by John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson), and Donald Pleasance as the doctor who carries out autopsies on the murder victims.

Nugget: mildly amusing, beautifully lit and shot, but not one of Allen's best.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) - ickleReview (HD)

Woody Allen film starring Mia Farrow as Cecilia, a movie-loving waitress in Depression-era smalltown New Jersey. Her husband (Danny Aiello) is an unemployed layabout who treats her badly and sometimes beats her. She escapes her dreary life by going to the movies, sometimes watching the same picture over and over again. One particular film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, catches her imagination. She is so lost day-dreaming about the movie world that she is sacked from her job. When watching the picture for the fifth time, one of the characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), steps out of the movie and into the "real" world, having noticed Cecilia in the audience, and runs away with her. This causes an uproar. The cinema manager (Irving Metzman) calls Raoul Hirsh (Alexander Cohen), the film's producer, who then puts pressure on Gil Shepherd (also played by Jeff Daniels), the actor who played Tom Baxter, to find the Tom Baxter who has escaped and get him to go back on screen. Both Tom and Gil fall in love with Cecilia. She has to choose between a perfect fictional person, or the real world.

Nugget: an intriguing scenario that is executed with a light touch. Another one of Allen's period films, capturing the power of the movies as a form of escapism during the 1930s. Quirky stuff. Woody Allen doesn't act in this one.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Charlton Heston's hands are cold and dead (at last)

As is generally the case these days, I learnt of Charlton Heston's death through Facebook a few minutes ago (this also happened with my friends' RIP status updates about Heath Ledger). Wouldn't it have been sweet poetic justice if he had been shot dead by one of those dark-skinned immigrant types? You know, the ones he needed a gun to protect himself against, as he claimed in Bowling for Columbine? "From my cold, dead hands," eh?

Carbon Commentary, issue 9

Chris Goodall has changed the way he writes Carbon Commentary. Instead of publishing six articles together in a newsletter every fortnight, he writes them as irregular blog posts as and when the need arises. This is because he is busy writing another book: Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. The articles are still being collected and sent as a newsletter, and this week I produced the latest issue. It contains pieces on recent trends in UK domestic electricity consumption; the adverse effect that the government's active support for nuclear power is having on the prospects for offshore wind; BT's inaccurate claims about the power consumption of its home phones; the overblown promises of a company raising money to build ethanol-from-wheat refineries; and a report on a presentation given by scientist Roy Spencer to a conference of climate change sceptics.

You can read the newsletter in its excerpted format here; or download the printer-friendly PDF version here.

Friday 4 April 2008

Alice (1990) - ickleReview (DVD)

An on-the-whole serious Woody Allen film starring Mia Farrow as Alice, the wife of a rich New Yorker (William Hurt). Her life is luxurious and comfortable. She has servants, a maid to look after her two young children, never has to worry about money, goes shopping on Madison Avenue whenever she likes, and has a personal trainer to keep her fit. However, one day she meets a striking dark-haired man (Joe Mantegna) when picking the kids up from school and can't stop fantasizing about him. She visits Dr Yang, a China Town acupuncturist, to treat her back pain, but he hypnotizes her and she begins to talk about her feelings for Joe, this strange dark-haired man. Over a number of visits, Dr Yang gives her his infamous herbs, which in turn act as an aphrodisiac, make her invisible, summon ghosts from her past (Alec Baldwin plays the ghost of a former boyfriend, Ed), and cause men to fall in love with her.

On the surface, there's the same old Woody Allen plot line of extra-marital affairs, a sister who has taken a different course in life (Blythe Danner), someone who wants to become a writer, and so on. There is a brilliant short comic appearance by Bernadette Peters as Alice's Muse, who even has a pair of trademark Woody Allen thick plastic black-rimmed glasses.

Nugget: a good example of Allen's ability to make semi-serious films, even if some of the plot mechanics (Dr Yang's herbs) are a little bit of movie magic. Features a cameo by Elle Macpherson as a shopper in the Madison Avenue Ralph Lauren store.

Monday 31 March 2008

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) - ickleReview (DVD)

Woody Allen period film set in 1940. Allen plays W. C. Briggs, an insurance investigator who feels threatened in the office by the new efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) who is having an affair with the boss, Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd). On an office night out, W. C. and Fitzgerald are both hypnotized under the Curse of the Jade Scorpion. The trigger words "Constantinople" and "Madagascar" remain effective after the evening's entertainment. The hypnotist later calls W. C. [good initials, by the way] and gives him instructions, under hypnosis, to steal a valuable collection of jewels. The next morning he is on the case, investigating himself, but not knowing that he is the thief.

Like Radio Days (1987), another of his 1940s nostalgia flicks, the period detail is finely observed. There is a real old-school feel to the insurance office, when women were still treated as objects to be not-so-subtly ogled at. Elizabeth Berkley is one of W. C.'s office floozies, while Charlize Theron plays a notorious high-society playgirl blonde, both, of course, implausibly attracted to the Allen character (he never lets us down - hey, it's the movies!).

Nugget: this is apparently one of Allen's favourite movies of his own making - this usually means the production process went well, with few flaws and much luck. The result is certainly an entertaining and amusing 98 minutes. There are no great secrets about the plot; the joy is in watching it unravel under Allen's customary directorial charm.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Zoolander (2001) - ickleReview (DVD)

Silly film about male models and the fashion industry. Ben Stiller is Derrick Zoolander, three-times winner of Male Model of the Year, who is recruited by evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) to assissinate the new Malaysian prime minister, who has promised to stop child labour and hence disrupt Mugatu's supply chain of cheap sweat-shop materials. Zoolander is first humiliated, and then assisted, by Time magazine journalist Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor) and upcoming "he's so hot right now" male model Hansel (Owen Wilson). The film includes lots of celebrity cameos, including Victoria Beckham, Natalie Portman, Lenny Kravitz, Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, David Bowie, Winona Ryder, Billy Zane, and many others.

Nugget: get your popcorn ready. Occasionally hilarious and eminently quotable amongst friends.

Sunday 23 March 2008

Radio Days (1987) - ickleReview (HD)

Woody Allen film set in the early 1940s when life revolved around the radio. Allen narrates a string of nostalgic, loosely related stories about a Jewish family from Rockaway, New York, which involve the radio in some way. The jazz soundtrack is pretty much non-stop. The cast includes Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson), Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, and in smaller roles Larry David (as a Communist neighbour), Jeff Daniels, Diane Keaton, and William H. Macy. The period details are pervasive. As there's no real plot, the last third of the film drags a little, even though the running time is only 88 minutes.

Nugget: not one of the best or the funniest in Woody Allen's oeuvre, but still good stuff, especially for the soundtrack.

Monday 10 March 2008

Overlord (1975) - ickleReview (DVD)

An exceptional war film, part documentary, part fiction narrative, about the Allied invasion of France on D-Day, 6 June 1944, which was codenamed "Overlord". The film is directed by Stuart Cooper and photographed by John Alcott, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), the Oscar-winning Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980). 30% of the film is archive footage from the extensive Imperial War Museum collection and required 3,000 hours of research to find and select. Overlord won the Silver Bear for Direction at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival.

Nugget: one of the best and most original war films I've ever seen.

Read the full DVD review on FilmExposed.

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

Saturday 2 February 2008

How to install an HP ScanJet 2200c scanner on Windows Vista

In its questionable wisdom, HP has decided not to support some of its older scanning hardware for Windows Vista. Here's what it says on its website:

"We are sorry to inform you that there will be no Windows Vista support available for your HP product. Therefore your product will not work with Windows Vista.
If you are using the Windows Vista operating system on your computer, please consider upgrading to a newer HP product that is supported on Windows Vista. HP has numerous products on the market that support Windows Vista."
It's clearly a commercial - rather than an environmental or customer service - decision. I bought my scanner - see picture above - in the summer of 2002 and it was still working perfectly on Windows XP. HP would clearly prefer their customers to buy a new Vista-supported scanner.

Anyway, there shouldn't be any need. It is possible to install an HP ScanJet 2200c scanner on Windows Vista using Vista's compatibility settings. Here's how (my solution is based on this post on iP3K, to whom much thanks):

  1. IMPORTANT! Unplug your scanner.
  2. Download the ScanJet 2200c driver software from the HP website.
  3. Right-click on the file you have just dowloaded (by default named sj646en.exe) and select Properties and then the Compatibility tab.
  4. Check the box next to Run this program in compatibility mode for: and then select Windows XP (Service Pack 2) from the drop-down menu. Click OK.
  5. Double-click on the file named sj646en.exe to install the scanner software and drivers. You may see a Security Warning dialogue warning you that the publisher could not be verified. The file comes from the HP website, so it is safe. Click Run. You may then see a WinZip Self-Extractor dialogue. Take note of the folder that it is being unzipped to i.e. the default location is c:\sj646. Then click Unzip. The Setup program should start automatically. Make sure you exit all Windows programs before proceeding with the Setup program. Proceed through the series of dialogues to install the program.
  6. Once it has finished installing, go to the folder in which it was installed i.e. the default location is C:\Program Files\Hewlett-Packard\HP PrecisionScan\PrecisionScan LTX (unless you changed it during the installation process) and sort the contents of that folder by type (this will be easier if you are using the Details setting in Views).
  7. There should be 9 Application (.exe) files:
    • hpgreg.exe
    • hpipcopy.exe
    • hppsapp.exe
    • hpsjrreg.exe
    • pietro.exe
    • regipe.exe
    • sendAOL.exe
    • sendMapi.exe
    • SendTo.exe.
    Repeat step 3 and 4 for each of these files i.e. set their compatibility mode to Windows XP (Service Pack 2).
  8. Now plug in your scanner. Windows Vista should recognize the hardware and use the drivers already installed.
The only problems I've found so far are that the scanner occasionally crashes, depending on how friendly Vista is feeling at that particular moment. Plus, the quick start buttons on the front of the scanner itself don't appear to work. But, on the whole, it works like a joy.

I was very disappointed with HP's (lack of) support policy. Even though I'm very happy with the product itself (and my HP LaserJet 1000 series printer - see picture left - which does work on Windows Vista without any problems), I may take my custom elsewhere next time because of this unsustainable after-"care".

Update (6 March 2015): My HP LaserJet 1000 series printer is still going strong! Here's how I got it to work on my Mac.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Monday 14 January 2008

How capitalism works (and sometimes doesn't)

In his recent LRB article, John Lanchester observes that "under Communism children from primary school upwards were taught the principles and practice of the system, and were thoroughly drilled in how it was supposed to work. There is nothing comparable to that in the capitalist world. The City is, in terms of its basic functioning, a far-off country of which we know little." What follows is a brilliantly lucid layman's explanation of what banks are doing with other people's money in the capitalist system, which leads up to an account of how Northern Rock is getting what it deserves: a bank run.

John Lanchester, "Cityphilia", London Review of Books, 30.1 (3 January 2008), 9-12; [accessed 14 January 2008].

Saturday 5 January 2008

Die Another Day (2002) - ickleReview (TV)

On-the-wane James Bond movie starring Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, and Rosamund Pike. Bond is captured after an assassination attempt in North Korea, then beaten up and tortured for 14 months before he is released. M (Judi Dench) withdraws his 00 status, so he has to continue on an unofficial basis. The plot feels even more cursory than usual. There's a stupid invisible Aston Martin "Vanish" Vanquish, some badly rendered green screen and CGI, and over-used slow-mo/whiplash camera techniques in the vein of The Fast and the Furious and The Matrix. Alongside this attempt to modernize, there are some nostalgic nods to Bond gadgets from earlier movies, and of coursee Halle Berry's Ursula Andress impression coming out of the sea in a bikini.

Nugget: it's easy to see why this was Brosnan's last Bond.