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."