Friday, June 30, 2006

BMW Battersea

My Mini Cooper S, photographed just after I took delivery of itToday my Mini Cooper S went in for its first servicing. It's nearly three years old but with only 8600 miles on the clock it didn't qualify for its first service until now. The first service for a Mini becomes due when it reaches 10,000 miles or 3 years - whichever occurs first.

When I was sold the car I was told about MiniCare coverage which gave me "free servicing and warranty" for three years for just £100. With the three years about to elapse I decided it was time to get the car serviced at MINI Battersea and, in particular, get a couple of irritating problems fixed:

(1) the in-built GPS system which hasn't been able to connect with a satellite for over two months and has become useless because it thinks the car is located about 3 miles from where it actually is. Presumably the GPS receiver tries to guess its position based on the last time it "spoke" to a satellite and the wheel turns and mileage that have been done since. Over the weeks it has got seriously out of wack!

(2) the air-conditioning (which has always been weak and ineffectual) had a light that started flashing a couple of weeks ago.

The car went in under warranty and I received a call to say that the flashing light problem was down to the need for regassing which was not covered under MiniCare and would cost TWO HUNDRED AND ELEVEN POUNDS.

Coincidentally I received a renewal notice for MiniCare - the renewal wants £560 for 12 months cover. And that £560 would not cover me for the £211 charge for air conditioning gas! Do you think I'll be renewing??!!!

When I queried the outrageous charge, pointing to a post on the Mini2 forums from February this year complaining at the 'rip off' £99 cost another owner had been charged, and asking why I was being charged more than double this I was advised that labour charges varied from one dealer to another!

I was then told the car should have been valeted but the rep had just noticed it hadn't been and they'd "do it next time it's in for servicing". How often is this car going to need servicing given that its first one was only due at three years or 10,000 miles, whichever happened first!

I asked how the problem with the GPS had been fixed and was told they'd upgraded the software. "How does that affect the fact it just suddenly stopped working?", I asked. "I don't really know. Software's very funny like that" the Service Manager replied.

I asked to book an MOT (they hadn't been able to do it while the car was in for servicing because "we can only do four MOTs a day and we're all booked up"). "I'll have to talk to Yvonne about that. I'll go and get her". A few minutes later I was given a date (next Wednesday) and said I'd prefer one a couple of weeks away. I waited for confirmation. And waited. And waited. 10 minutes later nobody had come back to me. Lots of staff around, no customers but no interest or action from anybody. I just decided I'd leave and make a phone booking at some other time which would be more convenient. Traffic was building up.

Of course I drive out the dealers and NOTHING has been fixed on the GPS at all. It still thinks I'm miles away from my real location, making it completely useless.

The air conditioning is as weak and ineffectual as it always has been - but at least the blinking light has stopped now!

My receipt for service tells me the car has done 2918 miles - no big deal, but yet another example of the sort of 'care and attention' BMW are always promoting but never delivering on

I wonder what it is they actually did for the "service" other than charge me £211!

I rang my "service manager" when I got home, just after 6pm (before 6.05pm) to complain that the GPS had NOT been fixed. The advertised opening hours of the servicing area are 7.30am-6.30pm. I know this because I got a phone answering machine reminding me of this and telling me that the service area was now closed!

Yuppie-fied entrance areas with "free drinks" are NOT recompense for charging the earth for doing a really shitty job. Needless to say, what with the constant problems I've had with the Mini (five callouts because if the car's left for more than two weeks it won't start) and now this, my next car WON'T be a Mini or a BMW. Or if it is it won't be one from BMW Park Lane (the company that took over my original sales shop) or BMW Battersea (who run Park Lane's servicing).

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Hellbent"I think that Hellbent follows a very familiar formula for a slasher film from the 70's and early 80's", says writer/director Paul Eheredge-Ouzts. And he's not wrong, the difference this time round being that it's a gay-themed slasher movie (the title being a clever play on words, I guess).

I'm always wary of movies that seem to have a high average mark on imdb but when you read the comments you realise that all the positive comments that come with marks of 9 or 10 (out of 10) are from those who saw the movie at a gay festival. Gay voters, or at least those who attend gay film festivals and then go to vote on imdb, seem to follow a silly rule that says 'anything with even a hint of homosexuality or camp should have 8 added to its real score'. I got burnt badly through not realising this fact when I ordered Eating Out a few weeks ago. The movie had an average score of 6.3 and some rave reviews, but I found it to be by far the worst film I've seen in a long, long time. Putting cute gay guys that can't act at all into a movie and shooting it like it's an amateur theatrical production does not a good movie make. The producers of Eating Out were much cleverer than those for Hellbent in getting their marketing right - implying it was actually a sort of modern straight-bi-gay comedy along the line of a cool version of 'Friends' when in fact it's like a bunch of hairdressers from Essex deciding to make a home movie starring their mates for school. It's a stinker that plays like a bad porno movie: unbelievably wooden acting featuring over-exaggeration of facial expressions, with each scene being edited in so that it start several seconds before the actor realises the director has called 'Action' and ends several seconds after the director has yelled 'cut'. Actually it's worse than a bad porn movie because at least bad porn movies feature some sex (a gratuitous scene involving the lead cute actor taking his trousers off for no other reason than to show his naked, soft winkie to the camera so it can be mentioned in despatches does NOT count as sex!) With regard to Eating Out I want my money back!

Hellbent looked suspiciously like more of the same, and in fact does itself a disservice by being promoted as a 'gay slasher' movie, when in fact it's just a well-produced slasher picture that happens to have homosexuals instead of heterosexuals as the victims. One of the producers was the co-producer of the original Halloween movie, so this is not just some cheap low-budget, cash-in job. Personally I think they should have played down the 'gay' tag to get more horror fans - the sort who've made successes of those umpteen spin-offs from Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Jason movies - to put their bums on seats.

If you don't like slasher movies then this probably isn't for you, but if you do like to be scared, whilst also having a few nervous laughs at the same time, this delivers more intelligence, likeable characters, and fun than most of those of the same genre. The 'lambs to the slaughter' guys featured, all together on a Halloween party night in West Hollywood, are invariably cute with good bodies that they get a chance to show off, but more importantly they can act. Although I was surprised to hear in the feature supplement that ALL of them are actually straight in real life, it sort of makes sense.

The characters who get picked off one by one are a safe mixture, made up boy-band like with different types designed to appeal to different audience segments. The hero (I wonder who'll survive ;-)) is the 'nice guy' who spends most of the movie trying to get friendly with a 'bit of rough' who doesn't seem interested. His room-mate is the sex-obsessed pretty boy who will have sex with anyone male or female at any time of the day. There's the younger brother who's got the hots for the school jock. And then there's the successful underwear model who decides for the first time in his life to challenge charicatures by 'dragging up' for a party, whilst still playing himself. They're an interesting bunch, and the producers did the right thing in going for actors first, and sexuality second. Set around a street party and nightclub ('Meat') the main point here is that it's an accurate representation of the young gay lifestyle, without camping things up artificially, or over-sensationalising some of the seedier side of the gay scene. There's no overtly sexual romps, but there's no paying of lip service to avoid offending the Daily Mail readers either. The characters feel real, look real and act real. You can't ask for more than that.

At 80 minutes the film doesn't outstay its welcome, and while there's nothing new here, the gay slant keeps it interesting and adds a certain novelty to the genre. I think the DVD's overpriced at a typical online price of £14.99, particularly when the picture quality isn't really much better than 'good quality VHS' (I suspect this is down to the original footage and low budget) and the only extra's are a 30 minute 'Backlot featurette' and a trailer.

The featurette is a curious affair, with 15 wasted minutes of the actors talking us through the story, with lots of clips we've already seen - it's as if it's a TV programme intended as a free advert for the film, albeit one giving the whole story away if you haven't seen the movie. The final 15 minutes are much better, with some interesting comments from the directors and the producers that include information on the special effects, choice of music and reasons behind the decision to make a 'gay slasher' movie. In truth, this is definitely a rental rather than a purchase, but if you're not turned off by 'slasher' pictures it's a good rental. It's very much a 'popcorn' movie that has jumps, if not outright scares, aplenty and lots of blood but not too much violence, with a good dose of humour too. It's hard to imagine anybody, other than those who just don't like horror movies in any form, getting to the end of this and not saying 'That was fun', regardless of their sexual orientation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

From Here To Eternity

From Here to EternityAs part of my ongoing mission to catch up on the classics, I watched From Here To Eternity, for the first time this week.

The DVD, released four years ago, but still selling at a premium price - so it has staying power, is packaged in a rather cheap 'colorised' cover which I found rather offputting. Big movies were being made in widescreen and in colour back in 1953 when it was first released, but director Fred Zinnemann preferred to go with the 'standard' format size and use black and white, against the advice of the studio. The few snippets of the film shown in colour on one of the accompanying extra's can't help but make me think it would be more approachable to modern audiences if it had been made in colour.

The transfer to DVD is excellent, although the picture is not up to the 'digital restoration' standard one might hope for - there are a lot of white flecks throughout the film, presumable because of problems with finding a quality negative to use as the source. But it's certainly better than many of the transfers of similar classics from around the same period.

The lack of colour is only a small criticism because ultimately the film stands up very well, even today. A mixture of drama, comedy and buddy war movie the script is sharp and quick-moving, and the cast are uniformly excellent.

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are probably the names most associated with the film because of the infamous beach scene where the two are embracing on the sand as waves rush over them - very racy stuff for the time, with the censors apparently wanting the speed of the wave rushing towards the couple slowed down to make the scene seem less steamy! But for me it's Montgomery Clift who steals the show. He plays the rebel of the movie, Prewitt, but unlike the James Deans and Marlon Brando's, who were also playing somewhat stereotypical rebels in other movies released around the same time, Clift plays a rebel with morals and a good heart, and he delivers a wonderfully subtle performance that has you on his side from the get-go. The actor has real on-screen sex appeal that makes the studio's initial insistence that he was not right for the part, and his real life problems with his sexuality all the more tragic.

Other movie stalwarts Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine put in strong performances too, and it's amazing to read that the whole movie was made in just 41 days for a budget of under $2 million.

The DVD features a commentary from Zinnemann's son and one of the minor actors, and for 45 minutes it's interesting and informative, but then they run out of steam and it all starts to fall apart. The 'Making of' featurette also included is more like a trailer than anything else - just a few minutes long. An interview with Zinnemann is more interesting, the more so because it includes the director's own colour footage behind the scenes. And there's even a little booklet with chapter index and production notes included too.

The film was a huge success and won eight of the thirteen oscars it was nominated for - and it's not hard to see why, given that it still holds up well more than fifty years after it was made. After seeing Casablanca a few weeks ago, and now this, I'm beginning to realise just how much I've missed out on by ignoring some of the great cinema classics of the past.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good LuckIt's only a few months since I saw Good Night, and Good Luck at The Clapham Picture House as part of their members' free preview showings, but it was a good enough film to want to own it on DVD and to hear what co-writer/director/actor George Clooney had to say on the commentary track.

The oscars helped raise the profile of this movie, but one suspects not enough to give it the screen outing it deserved. It's hard to sell black and white 'talking head' movies to a potential audience that for the most part comprises teens raised on a diet of MTV, computer video games and superhero/slasher movies. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big superhero movie fan myself, but variety is the spice of life and the film equivalent of eating ice cream all day gets very tired very quickly. Whenever I get depressed about the sheer volume of lowest-common-denominator tripe that Hollywood turns out these days and which goes on to top the box office in spite of the universally negative reviews, I remind myself that there is still hope while films like Good Night, and Good Luck manage to get made and written about.

The film tells the story of how broadcaster Ed Murrow and his team at CBS took a public stand against the bullying Senator McCarthy in the early 1950's when communist paranoia was at its height in the USA. The subject matter was chosen by Clooney (whose father was a news man himself) as being particularly topical given the modern trend for dumbing down at the cost of any kind of real investigative journalism, with the current US media coverage of the war in Iraq allegedly being the main spark that lit Clooney's directorial fire.

David Strathairn is an actor's actor, and here gives a stunning performance that (for once) genuinely deserved a Best Actor Academy Award nomination allegedly being the spark that lit Clooney's fire. Cleverly, the director uses McCarthy himself to play the role of protagonist, with frequent use of archive footage of the senator showing what a bullying fear-monger the senator was, in a way that, arguably, no recreation with an actor, no matter how gifted, could have bettered. The cast are uniformly excellent, as one would expect given they were chosen by a director who's a leading Hollywood actor himself.

For me parts of the movie didn't work - the repetitive use of shots showing a live music recording to punctuate the drama and underline it lyrically seemed artificial and 'arty' in the wrong sense of the word: after the first couple of times this editorial trick is performed it starts taking you out of the story rather than placing you in it. And the reliance on archive footage, while understandable for McCarthy himself, as well as some of the advertisements and interviews of the time (Liberace is a particularly wonderful gem), doesn't work for the long court scenes that would have been better re-enacted by actors if only because of the poor quality of the original broadcast media.

But these are minor criticisms. A movie that recreates the mood of the 50's so authentically and so beautifully, whilst showing itself to be of direct relevance to us today is to be applauded for just managing to get made!

Sadly, the commentary track on the DVD turns out to be a big disappointment. Co-writers George Clooney and Grant Heslov are old friends, and indulge themselves too much, spending most of the commentary joshing each other about the movie or fellow cast members, rather than actually telling us very much about the movie itself. I learnt that the director of The Station Agent is one of the people photographed in a group at the dinner featured over the opening title sequence, and that the lift scenes are filmed showing different floors by having the lift turned 180 degrees round while the doors are closed rather than moving up and down, and that was about it. Not the best investment of 90 minutes of time!

The DVD transfer is superb, capturing perfectly the beautifully lit scenes of smoke and paranoia, but other than the commentary and a very short featurette that focuses for the most part on a visit of some of the original journalists to the film set, there's little here in terms of extra's. Worryingly, the usual "major movie" discounts don't appear to be available online (this sells for £14.95 where the more typical price for a fairly 'vanilla' release is £11.89) and in fact my usual DVD supplier didn't even have this title available for pre-ordering until just a couple of days before release, where normally there's a good six month pre-booking period. I suspect this indicates that 'Good Night, and Good Luck' is not seen as a big hitter in sales terms, in spite of the media coverage given it because of Clooney's involvement. All of which is a shame, as it's a movie that should be seen by a lot more people than it has been.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


CasanovaCasanova, which had been released in cinemas just a few short months ago, is one of those DVDs I nearly gave a miss. The critics were pretty unanimous - this was a real turkey. But Heath Ledger is always an interesting actor to watch, even when the material he's given to deal with is sub par, and there has to be a reason why the average score on imdb is a pretty good 6.5.

Having now seen the film, I have to wonder just why so many reviewers felt they had to stick the boot in when reviewing it. Sure, it's not a classic - but then it doesn't pretend to be. It's a bit like a cute blonde - pretty but vacuous and a bit of nonsensical fun. And we all like looking at things that are pretty and fun, don't we?

What we have here is a quirky Shakespeare-like comedy/farce set in Venice, which features so predominantly it should be considered a leading character in its own right. And it looks stunning! This is a beautifully shot movie that really shows the city off to its best advantage, and it's been beautifully transferred to DVD.

The standard farce elements are all here, with people impersonating other people and chance encounters and misunderstanding playing a large part in the plot. As with most good farces, everything works out alright in the end, although at several points one thinks things surely can't get worse for the hero of the film's title and his seemingly doomed-to-fail love interest. Think a 'Carry On' movie, but with a much stronger cast, a lot less innuendo... and a lot more class, and you've pretty much got the hang of it.

You'll recognise a lot of British character actors from TV shows like Black Adder or Victoria Wood turning in strong, fun performances, but it's the big names that really impress. Ledger is believable as Casanova, and looks like he's enjoying himself, and Sienna Miller turns in a strong performance with real on-screen chemisty between her and Ledger. But perhaps most enjoyable is the performance from Jeremy Irons - I find it hard to forget his unbelievably wooden performance in the appalling Dungeons and Dragons movie, but here he redeems himself somewhat, adding real classical acting chutzpah to the movie, whilst also being happy to play the buffoon when the script demands it. Great stuff!

And a special mention for the music soundtrack which, like Venice, seeps from every pore of this movie. Handel and Vivaldi pieces suit the Venice ambience very well but it's Alexandre Desplat's original music that stays with you throughout, seamlessly fitting in with the classics. It's not often I like a movie soundtrack enough to order the CD, but this one had me hunting the album out online.

If you don't like farce, albeit farce given a fresh interpretation by director Lasse Hallstrom, then this isn't for you. And, truth be told, it's a rental, rather than a 'must buy so I can see it again', but really this film is nowhere near as bad as the critics have made out.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


CleopatraCleopatra is still, forty-three years after it was released, the most expensive movie ever made, at least if inflation is taken into account. The story of the troubled production, a shoot that lasted five years, and one that nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox is fairly well documented in film history. As is the fact that this is the movie where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor first fell in love. Those facts alone make it a movie well worth seeing.

I think I may have seen this epic as a child, perhaps when broadcast on TV, but most of it seemed new to me. Critics were fairly dismissive of the film on its initial release in 1963, and one can see why - it's a long movie and a rather slow moving one. But it lives up to the word 'epic' in a way that modern movies don't.

Director Joseph E Mankiewicz allegedly wanted the six hour edit he originally put together released as two separate movies, and effectively disowned the movie he almost died for when Fox insisted on trimming it back - first to just over four hours in length, and then, on its worldwide release, to just over three hours. Even Elizabeth Taylor complained to anybody who would listen that the severely truncated commercial release was not the film she had made. With an intermission 90 minutes in, the film certainly does come over as two separate stories - the first featuring Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra and Rex Harrison's Caesar up to the time of his death, the second featuring Cleopatra's love affair with Richard Burton's Mark Anthony. Alas, much of that original footage appears to have been lost (how can that happen?!) and so we're unlikely to see the original six hour version that Mankiewicz wanted us to see.

The movie is certainly a feast for the eyes, and Taylor and Burton positively sizzle on screen. Rex Harrison turns in a creditable performance, but Roddy McDowell is probably the stand out in a very strong cast indeed - an oscar-winning performance if ever there was one, albeit one that wasn't recognised because of an administrative error that was made by the studio when submitting nominations!

Even in its truncated form there's a lot to like about this film, and it has a 'reality' that is severely lacking in more recent attempts to recreate such epics with the over-use of CGI that just feels hokey, Troy perhaps being the worst recent example.

The DVD transfer is excellent, and this is a classy digital restoration - not perhaps quite up to the benchmark standard set by the recent special edition of Ryan's Daughter, but not far off it, and pretty remarkable given the film's age. On the three disk set that comprise the currently available 'Special Edition' there's an excellent two hour documentary on the making of the film which is, truth be told, more gripping than the film itself. It tells the all-too-frequent story of shattered dreams, studio excess, and people working so hard they damage their health only to find themselves stabbed in the back as their dream project nears completion. All-in-all the movie and accompanying documentary are essential viewing for anybody interested in the cult of celebrity and the inner workings of Hollywood, and at a currently available online price of £16 for a deluxe packaged product, it's a steal.

Dear Diary (on Nostalgia)...

This blog has turned into more of a 'What Ian watched on DVD this week' than I'd originally intended so here's a 'We interrupt this service' posting to just wibble about a few little bits and pieces that aren't about the DVDs I've watched. Or to put it another way here's a quick post of Ian procrastinating rather than getting on with work he needs to do to ensure next week isn't as hellish as the last week has been!

The theme for this entry has to be nostalgia I think, as it's something that appears to be particulary prevalent this week, even on the DVD front (I got around to finally watching the Special Edition of Cleopatra last weekend, and Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who: Inferno during the week - blog entries to follow if/when I make progress on today's TODO list on the work front). I don't know if it's because I'm harking back to happier times because of the situation on the work front or whether that's just the natural order of things as you pass the 40-year milestone and realise the 50-year one is directly ahead of you.

Aaron Spelling is dead! Now there's a name most of us are familiar with, even if we're really not sure why. And today apparently he's no longer with us. I always confuse him with Irwin Allen for some reason. Go figure!

Top of the Pops has gone! There were times, even as late in life as my late 30's, when this was a 'must see' show, and they're killing it. The shifting around the schedules and channels was deliberately designed as the excuse to kill it I think, and I take the 'you've got MTV and other channels now' excuse with a large grain of salt. Is it me or has the BBC become a greedy corporation taking huge wads of money from its captive audience so it can waste seeming millions of it on endless web site self-promotion (or Jonathan Ross' salary) that has no relevance to its direct charter. At work somebody showed me a really impressive 3D camera-from-any-angle BBC web site that replays world cup goals. It's a VERY impressive piece of software that will have cost someone an absolute fortune to produce - and there are countless examples of it all over the BBC. All being paid for by us Brits to increase the corporation's world standing with non-Brits who don't contribute a penny towards the license fee that pays for all this 'waste'. In the meantime the Beeb fob us off with endless, cheap reality shows on the TV whilst trying to increase the license fee even further. For what? To encourage more such vanity projects that make them a household name in other nations? Since I have no choice (even though I rarely watch TV) I'd rather see the money spent on keeping 'Top of the Pops' going (and not over teatime on Sundays on BBC2, thank you very much!), but given that the show is sold all over the world I think there's some reason other than viewing figures behind its demise. Grrrr! Oh well, maybe it will get a Doctor Who -like makeover and reappear in 20 years time (in which case we've got a year of a pretty good, albeit expensive, revamp to look forward to, followed by a mockery of a viewing experience as the show gets completely trashed because the concept and the quality of the original version gets lost in the second year). Grrr and Grrr again, I say!

I was going to have a rant about cyclists at some point in this blog life, but now there's no need as my friend David Weeks has posted a blog entry about the subject, covering it in much better fashion than I could. Speaking as a pedestrian rather than a driver, I want to punch some of these people on an almost daily basis. Not good for the stress levels and blood pressure!

In other news I've been saved from the studying somewhat with the cancellation of my exam on June 30th (the last possible date to take advantage of a 'free second attempt later if you fail' offer) - just as well really as I was nowhere near ready and it would have meant a day's lost pay on top of the exhorbitant £100+ exam fee. At the last minute the exam centre have said the builders are in and I need to reschedule, which in my case means I have to cancel, wait for a credit card refund and then book a new exam. It seems that for the £100+ fee the exam centre takes it responds to queries asking them to reschedule by telling you that they can't and that you need to go through the whole process yourself online, even though they've left it to the last minute to tell you they've screwed up. So much for customer service. In the meantime the training kit for the newer Microsoft MCTS exams have arrived and are much more interesting so I'm procrastinating (again!) on whether to bother with finishing off the old MCSD certification at all. Two exams to go (I've taken three) for THAT certification, but in subjects that don't really interest me, vs effectively starting from scratch on the newer stuff immediately. Tough decisions!

Exams aside, I have a dinner date tomorrow night with Pete Hoggett in Fulham. I bought a 1990's copy of Film Review, the annual movie review book from Pete and then discovered he had the complete set from the first year of publication (1944!) available and succumbed to buying pretty much the whole set. It's always good to talk movies with a fellow fan and I met Pete and his partner Gurnos a few weeks ago when I went to pick up some of the volumes (and found some other movie book gems available for sale too). We've emailed several times since but it's scary how I put the email world in one part of my brain and the real world in another. When he rang to invite me to dinner and said his name followed by 'You don't remember me do you?', to my embarrassment I had to say 'Errm. No'. It's funny how those computer-friendly email names don't translate to real names in the brain. Around the world I've met people who've had trouble equating 'Ian Smith' with the 'Eeraskian' they know from web sites and emails so I guess I'm not alone. Just for the record the pronounciation of 'Irascian' is the same as the words it derives from ('irascible' and 'ian'), although I'm kind of inured to the incorrect pronounciation after so many cold-calls from salesman wanting to speak to 'the managing director of Eeraskian'.

Enough pontification - there's studying to be done :( (with Heath Ledger's 'Casanova' waiting on DVD as a 'reward' if I can make good progress). Must resist urge to pretend I've made progress before I actually have!

An Audience with Kevin Williams

An Audience with Kevin WilliamsAs a child I used to enjoy listening to the BBC comedy show Round the Horne, a show which still makes me laugh out loud today.

One of the regulars on that show was Kenneth Williams with the weekly two poof 'Sandy and Jules' sketches, although of course as a kid I didn't get that aspect of the humour.

In 1980, as a fan of the show and in a fit of nostalgia I bought Williams' heavily promoted and hyped book Acid Drops which had received great critical reviews, but which I found a huge disappointment. I experienced the same sense of disappointment and over-hype again this week with the DVD release of the 'Special Edition' of An Audience with Kenneth Williams.

Acid Drops had been disappointing for two reasons. Firstly it was an extremely thin volume - the sort that could easily be read in less than an hour as I recall. But more importantly it didn't strike me as very witty at all, being mostly 'famous' quotes or anecdotes that seemed to contain a great deal of filler that were neither 'memorable quotes' or 'acidic'. In a book of so few pages it seemed scandalously over-priced, more befitting of the word 'pamphlet' than 'book'.

Even at that young, less cynical (well, OK, perhaps not ;)), phase of my life I felt that the critics had become somewhat obsessed with the idea of Williams as a cult British film figure from the Carry On films, most of which, let's face it, were the film equivalent of 'The National Enquirer' or 'The News of the World'. With the Carry On films it's as if a nostalgic glow and love for things past have removed all critical faculties so that everything we once loathed and hated at the time gets forgotten, and those things that we once thought average somehow become something special.

Until now, I've enjoyed all of the An Audience with broadcasts that I've caught, and I've enjoyed the ability to catch up with those I originally missed, on DVD. The series has turned out to genuinely contain some of the very best work of some of our very best comedians - the Barry Humphries, Bob Monkhouse, Ken Dodd and Victoria Wood shows come immediately to mind, but I'm sure there are others I've missed.

But this show featuring Kenneth Williams left me curiously cold.

Heck, let's not beat about the bush, it left me bored and distinctly unamused! I didn't laugh out loud. Not once. I smiled once or twice, but over a 77-minute period that isn't enough, and given the rave reviews I'd read that made me order this DVD at the last minute, I'd expected a lot more than that.

Ultimately, I guess you either 'get' Williams' particular brand of camp comedy or you don't, and I've never been a fan of camp for campness' sake (Julian Clarey comes to mind as a comedic act that lived well past its prime, although I enjoy him when he's not doing a simple stand-up act). However, even if we push that dislike of 'too easy' camp innuendo aside, what we have here is a rather tedious telling of Williams' life, made all the more difficult to follow because of his overly-effected neighing, whinnying and clipped tones throughout the telling. In a show that's supposed to be funny, a few outright jokes, might have been nice too.

There are some, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks amongst them apparently, who think that DVD extra's are spoiling the magic of cinema. I love my DVD extra's and the insights they often give, but have to admit that Messrs Spielberg and Hanks may occasionally have a point, and this DVD - although based on a TV show rather than a film - is a classic example. Previously released in 'vanilla' form, this 'Special Edition' contains three decent-length interviews from the likes of 'The Russel Harty Show' or daytime TV with Gloria Honeyford. The same anecdotes heard on 'An Audience with...' are regurgitated on these chat shows, taking away what little spontaneity the original 'live' show might have had, at least for everybody other than completists who must have every recorded inch of celluloid there is. In adding the extra's just like the ending of 'The Wizard of Oz' the mechanics of the limited magic on show get somewhat lost.

Let's be honest here, these anecdotes aren't even Williams' own stories for the most part (does Stanley Baxter get royalties?), with most being prefixed 'xxxx told me once that...', and whilst one wants to give credit to Williams for actually admitting they aren't his own stories, they really aren't THAT funny to start with.

Fans would no doubt argue that the TV show and extra's on display here were of a gentler time, a time before the dumbed-down and crude world of Ali G, Jonathan Ross and biting satire, but I'd counter-argue that they weren't really very funny even at the time of broadcast. The truth is that I watch Williams and it's like listening to an old relative, reminding me of infrequent visits to my nan in Stoke-on-Trent when I was a child. Where others find amusement and laughter (usually 'at the expense of', rather than 'along with') I just see a sad, rather boring person whittering on endlessly, getting more eccentric as time passes and their loneliness becomes heavier upon them, while others around them indulge them, encouraging them to further excesses. Very sad. And as a DVD, one to miss!

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Hidden'The truth is always hidden. That's how it is in the real world.'

Director Michael Haneke is justifying the many ambiguities in his film, Hidden (Caché), a film that some have called 'pretentious', but others 'the first great film of the 21st century'.

I don't hold with the group who deem this pretentious - that's just lazy criticism, although I'd say that calling this the best film of the century is a bit over-the-top too!

The film appears, on the surface, to be a tense 'whodunnit' thriller, albeit one where the ending isn't tied up with a nice neat tidy bow. There are many different answers to the central question of 'who' in this film - all there in the film if you look (check the final scene as the credits roll for one possible solution that opens up a whole new set of ambiguities) but to concentrate on the 'who', rather than the 'why' is somewhat missing the point.

Essentially this is a film about morality and guilt and how people deal with it - guilt that can arise through immoral actions, or just by having tried to do the right thing. Although the film has as its starting point an incident involving France and Algiers in the 60's, it seems particularly relevant in the light of recent revelations about the Iraq War, Guatanamo Bay or even the recent police incidents in my home area of Stockwell or north of the river at Notting Hill Gate. It's a thought-provoking piece of work.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a seemingly happy and successful couple with a young son, who one day receive a two hour video-tape of their home, demonstrating that they are being watched. Things quickly escalate from there, and to say more would be to ruin the film for anyone who hasn't seen it. It's a gripping film, albeit an irritating one if you're expecting a nice, tidy ending, but for me, unlike say Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, the continual ambiguities and lack of a clear-cut answer strengthen rather than weaken the film. This is a film that will provoke many discussions amongst those who've seen it, and one that stayed with me for several days after seeing it.

Althugh released in the cinemas just a few months ago, the movie is already out on DVD (in stores tomorrow) and DVD purchasers have the advantage of a fifteen minute interview with the director where he explains the ambiguities of the different clues that are scattered throughout the movie, some of which are easy to miss. A 'Making Of' documentary is not the usual fluff piece - instead being primarily an 'on the set' diary which shows how much of a perfectionist the director can be, and how difficult that can make life for those having to work with the director (Juliette Binoche in particular comes across as having suffered from the director's continued irascibility in his drive for perfection). None of the difficulties of the shoot matter of course, where the audience is concerned, particularly when the end results are this good. If you want a 'feel good' movie or a straightforward tidy Hollywood ending, this is not the movie for you. If you want a film that's as real as life itself, raising as many questions as it answers, leaving your brain in work-it-out overdrive then you're going to love this. Highly recommended!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year ItchAs part of my ongoing attempts to catch up on classic cinema history, I saw The Seven Year Itch on Friday night. The movie has just been released on DVD as part of the excellent Fox Cinema Reserve series and will be in stores this coming Monday.

This is a fun movie - not a classic by any means, for reasons I'll come on to - but given that it was made in 1954, it remains surprisingly watchable. In fact I was surprised at how well it's stood the test of time, with some wonderfully racy lines despite the whole central theme of adultery having had to be ditched after pressure from the Hays censorship office. Lord knows what the more puritanical members of 1955's movie-going audiences thought of some of the raunchy lines we get here. I particularly enjoyed the knowing-but-unknowing references to two male tenants sharing an appartment with a throwaway line about them being 'interior designers'. Some things never change, it seems!

Marilyn Monroe is excellent and suddenly I can see what the fuss is all about. She's sex with a capital 'S' in this movie, playing the ditzy blonde that she would later grow to detest, to maximum effect. The film features arguably her most iconic moment - that of her struggling to hold down a skirt which is being blown above her waist by a pavement vent expelling air from a subway system.

The script shows its Broadway play origins - being both polished and witty (although most of those involved reveal that the best lines had to be cut because of the overly oppressive Hays Office of censorship). There were several places where I literally laughed out loud - no mean achievement for a comedy movie written and produced in the 1950's!

However, ultimately one is left with the impression that a much better film could probably have been made. Part of the problem is that this is a film about adultery, but because of the censor's involvement, the act of adultery was never allowed to occur or be hinted at. Another part of the problem is the film's origin in the theatre - it shows, and too often what we're seeing comes across as a filmed theatre play rather than a movie in its own right. Too many of the shots are static, with nearly all of the action taking place on one single set. The very long 'spoken out loud' soliloquays seem too artificial by modern day standards and although the male lead Tom Ewell delivers a great THEATRICAL performance, one can't help thinking a better film would have resulted if the originally planned lead and the director's personal choice, Walter Mattheau, had been allowed by the studio heads to play the part.

This is the eighth title in the 'premium' Cinema Reserve series, and arguably the most lavish. An excellent two hour documentary The Final Days gives background to Marily Monroe's last film Something's Got To Give from 1962 (including a half hour version of this uncompleted last film from recently discovered archive footage), the problems she caused everyone in her last weeks and the events that lead up to her premature death. In addition there's an excellent episode of the American Backstory series, focussed on The Seven Year Itch itself, as well as a 90 minute black and white documentary on Monroe made not long after her death.

The film itself is in pristine condition thanks to a superb digital transfer, and features an informative commentary from director Billy Wilder and biographer Kevin Lally.

Rather worryingly the usual Cinema Reserve introductory titles are missing from this release and there appears to be no news (either in the booklet included or in the trailers section) of forthcoming releases, as has been the case with previous releases in this series. I sincerely hope this isn't the last release in the series, because the eight releases to date have been real treasures, with this being one of the highlights of a series that has set very high standards indeed. At a typical online price of around £14 this two disk release in the usual lavish metal tin with booklet comes highly recommended.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

One Day in September

One Day in September

While the rest of the UK was watching
the latest lacklustre performance of our World Cup team, I was watching the Olympics, albeit via an oscar-winning documentary on the 1972 variant thereof.

The documentary is officially out on DVD this week for around £14 online, but available for a bargain £4.89 from HMV - at least in Kingston. It's a shame I hadn't had a chance to watch this before I watched Spielberg's Munich last weekend (and reviewed here on my blog earlier today) as it serves as a great lead-in to that film.

The documentary in question is called One Day in September, was originally released in 1999, and won its Academy Award in the 'Best Feature Documentary' category in 2000. Frankly, it's not hard to see why it won.

While Spielberg's movie focuses on the events after the Munich hostage crisis, the documentary focuses on the event itself, interspersed with overly jolly German 'Wilkommen' marketing films for the Olympics event, interviews with partners and families of the deceased and, amazingly, a crucial interview with the only one of the terrorists known to be still alive and in hiding, giving his side of the story.

I remember the 1972 event very vividly, if only for the iconic photo of one of the balaclava-clad terrorists on a balcony that featured on so many newspaper covers and TV reports of the time. What I had forgotten was exactly how it all ended, and, indeed that this was the event that woke the world up to the fact that there were a group of people called Palistinians who were being treated atrociously and wanted the world to finally take notice.

The documentary unravels the whole story, with the help of some inspired music, building slowly to the climax where one can only sit open-mouthed at the incompetence of the officials, the insensitivity of the Olympic committee, and the sheer scandal of the subsequent 'staged' hostage taking (twelve passengers on a large jumbo plane) that meant Germany could quickly 'negotiate' a swap of the terrorists that survived the slaughter so that they weren't its problem any more.

You can see the root of the whole terrorist problem, with continued Western indifference, apathy and sheer stupidy backed up with endlessly repeated incompetence as a particular scenario unfolds. In the case of Munich the viewer is continually put in the position of thinking the various authorities involved couldn't possibly make one more cock-up, just before they do, again and again and again! And one fears that nothing at all has changed!

The DVD itself is very bare-bones, with just a trailer added to the basic film. The picture quality is pretty poor since it centres mainly on old footage of the time and TV reports that haven't been cleaned up at all. But none of that matters when the story the documentary has to tell is this gripping. Well worth a viewing, especially if you can pick it up for the bargain price I did.



Munich is a movie that I missed at the cinema, despite its oscar nominations. The trailer had been deadly dull and most of the critical reviews were luke warm. Truth be told, Steven Spielberg is one of those directors I find it hard to get excited about and have always felt to be somewhat over-rated. He's a 'safe' director who can be relied on to provide a certain quality, but much of his recent work has been safe and uninspiring and, in my opinion, he rarely achieves true greatness in his movies.

Having watched Munich now, out on DVD this week, I still can't really make up my mind about it. It's better than many of the critics had implied: a 'worthy' account of what happened after the Munich Olympics hostage crisis in 1972 for sure, but one that is tension packed and which keeps the attention throughout its two and a half hour running time.

Eric Bana turns in a strong performance, certainly one I preferred to the rather wooden one he gave in Hulk or that God-awful pile of poo Troy, and he's joined here by a great cast. The irritating modern fad of desaturated colours is here throughout, but the murky lack of color and poor contrast enhances the sombre mood of the film, so I can probably forgive it for that.

Critics had suggested that Spielberg had laid on 'the message' (you know the one about 'hate' being wrong) with a trowel, and over-sentimentalised the story, but I honestly didn't feel that. This is a Hollywood movie after all, and compared with the sort of sacharine we have come to expect at times from Spielberg, I thought the way 'the message' was delivered erred on just the right side of acceptable.

But for some reason the film failed to really excite. It just felt like too many movies I've seen before, with nothing special to elevate it above the others. Worth seeing? Certainly. Better than the critics had implied? Yes. And yet... something's missing!

Movie aside, the DVD release is a big disappointment. One can put the murky lack of real contrast down to the original film treatment, but one can't blame that for the appalling lack of extra's, especially when you consider the US release had a two-disk edition with a ton of good stuff on it.

All we get here is a very short intro from Spielberg (Don't watch it before the film - it contains spoilers!) and a short featurette called 'Munich: The Team, The Mission' which is very obviously a short chapter from a much longer set of featurettes.

What with Jarhead, The Island and other high profile releases suddenly getting two-disk releases pulled at the last minute in favour of a bare-boned single disk, we seem to have suddenly become a 'third world' nation when it comes to what we get on our high-priced DVDs. I've stuck with Region 2 since I got my second DVD player which wasn't region free moded, but I'm coming round to the conclusion that we're getting too much of a raw deal in the UK. From hereonin I'm going to be doing a bit more research on releases and buying Region 1 DVDs that not only have more in the way of extra's but are typically cheaper too!

It's depressing to read that although the new HD-DVD format which has just launched in the States has initially launched as region free the movie companies are already talking about region encoding newer releases, so the situation isn't going to improve even with the new formats. We get screwed again and as the profits go up what we get for our money (less extra's, no booklets, adverts that can't be skipped) gets less and less. And then the movie companies wonder why there's so much pirating going on!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Back on 'Old' Street

Taking a day off work to attend a Microsoft MSDN training event (read my work blog entry for more details on that), I found myself back in the area where I used to live before I moved south of the river - Old Street near Hoxton and Islington.

The street lived up to its name, making me feel very old indeed!

It seems only yesterday that I used to rush to Old Street every Friday and Saturday night (and Sunday lunchtimes too) from my temporary Bejam-supplied flat in Stanmore, because The London Apprentice was the best venue in town, playing great music in its basement dance floor area with a friendly, clone crowd, decent ale and a closing time past 2am. I liked the venue so much I ended up moving into Islington, not far away and got my first DJing break there which led on to my opening up my own night at The Paradise Club just up the road and then getting the Bromptons gig in Earl's Court and finally Heaven in Charing Cross and The Fridge in Brixton. Happy days!

Arriving early for the Microsoft event I took the opportunity to revisit Old Street itself and I hardly recognised it. The run-down street has turned into an up-market yuppified area where the 'greasy spoon' caff I was looking for has been replaced by endless bland 'salad and fancy coffee at inflated prices' franchises everywhere you look. I wonder if the Mildmay Mission Hospital where I used to do volunteer work at weekends is still there? Alas, I ran out of time to go and check.

But seeing all the changes, it suddenly occurred to me that what had seemed like 'yesterday' was actually more like 'fifteen years ago'. The area is probably safer now, with its high rise glass office blocks and up-market coffee bars, but it's turned what was an area that had real character into just another expansion of the City. You know you're getting old when you find yourself reminiscing for the 'good old days' of an area that has dramatically changed!

Monday, June 12, 2006

I've won a DVD!

Or at least I think I have. Each Sunday night I listen to William Gallagher's UK DVD Review podcast. Last week he had a competition and I entered. On last night's show he said that the competition had been won by 'Ian Smith of London'. I wonder if it's me! I'm the sort of person who could buy 10 raffle tickets when only 11 are on sale and I wouldn't have the winning ticket, but maybe my luck has changed?

I'll be watching my postbox carefully in the hope that it has (mind you, with the postal services round here so much goes missing it will be hard to tell). Fingers crossed!

And since I don't have a photo that really goes with this blog entry, here instead is a photo of my nephew Alex, taken with his mum Helen, yesterday afternoon. It has nothing to do with my prize, but I like the picture.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Flagging Support

Flagging SupportWhen I worked in Kuwait, one of the great sources of annoyance for the majority of the British ex-pat community was National Kuwait Day. The streets and shopping centres would be unpassable - blocked with cars and youths screaming and shouting as they waved Kuwaiti flags from stationery vehicles caught in a logjam of congestion. What was amusing for a few minutes - horns continually blairing, chanting of the national anthem - quickly became very, very annoying. One shudders to think how much worse it might have been if Kuwait were not a 'dry' state when it comes to availablility of alcohol (at least to its natural citizens).

'How sad that they're so insecure about their own country that they have to put on a display like they won World War II any time they have something that's in any way positive happen to their country', I remember one colleague, wearily and dismissively saying.

How times have changed! And now, who's the 'third rate' country, performing the 'tin pot' ritual up and down the land! Why, Engerland, of course!

It's somewhat ironic, fifteen odd years later, to witness the same sort of scenes around the 'phenomenon' that is the World Cup. The reaction of most of my fellow Brits to this rather tedious exercise in watching ignorant yobs paid millions for simply kicking a ball and 'being famous' (or in the case of yesterday's England vs Paraguay match, being so pathetic they have to let the other side kick the ball for them for any chance at a goal) is pretty much the same, albeit with commercially-sold 'air horns' replacing the car horns of Kuwait.

Yesterday's paper carried a report that there are now, on average, three or four England flags dropped on every mile of the A13 - flags of support for the national football team that have fallen off cars! No worry - our wonderful taxes will help make sure that they eventually get picked up and ferried off to a land fill in some third world country, no doubt!

I think it was Scatman John who wrote a pop hit that had the line "What's the point in winning, if winning means that someone loses?" and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly, although the economy knock-on side effects (retail sales, particularly of booze, consumibles and big-screen TVs are significantly up) are great. I just suspect that like any great party there's going to be a terrible hangover any day now, sooner rather than later, given our ridiculously overpaid national team's abysmal performance in their first match (quelle suprise! Not!)

The photo at the top of this blog entry shows the twelve full-sized flags draped over the flats opposite, as seen from my kitchen. I find this rather 'sad' tribalism as pathetic as my colleague found the Kuwaiti celebrations all those years ago. Tribalism just encourages mindless affinity and exclusion based on nothing other than the luck of where you happened to be born. People are people the world over, and as I read this morning of the three suicides at the Guantanamo base, the way troops in Iraq are now treating even civilians under the age of five as 'the enemy', I can't help but remember, with sadness, the wonderful Iraqi friends I made when working in Kuwait. Just like the other Arabs and Asians I worked with, they were people - just like you and me - and yet we arbitrarily segregate them into groups that are either 'with us or against us', without doing the basic homework to find out what we have in common (which is a lot!)

Admittedly I've never liked football. It has to do with the trauma of being thrown into a school team of strangers at a very young age, without the rules being explained so that one minute I was getting a bollocking for not stopping a ball going over a line, and the next getting a bollocking for having done it, for no glaringly obvious reason. So I'm slightly prejudiced against the 'national obsession'. But the World Cup always starts with bringing out the best in people (the smiley faces everywhere) and ends up bringing out the worst (from the relatively minor 'rise in sickies at work' to the fatal stabbings and rampages of drunken fans). The endless flags everywhere are just a constant reminder to me of how we've made the trivial important, and the important trivial.

On a happier note, I read the afore-mentioned A13 flag report in Saturday's newspaper while having breakfast and a pint of shandy in the blazing sun over on the South Bank. And very enjoyable it was too. Walking home I stumbled across the Carnival de Cuba festival - an odd mixture of small stalls selling wares, and a stage playing live music. Disorganisation was evident throughout and while part of me admired the organisers for the hard work and enthusiasm they were putting in for an event that had to compete with England's first match showing on the telly, after queueing for over 20 minutes at a tent where the staff outnumbered the potential customers by a ratio of about six to one, for a 'Cuban slush puppy', I gave up and wondered how it was possible for so many people to be gathered under one tent, seemingly so busy but achieving so little!

Happily, the weather was fantastic and the band on the main stage, despite the relatively low numbers, were doing a great job at lifting the atmosphere, at least initially. There's something about live music, especially with brass instruments, that just makes you feel good, and I was all set to join in the event for the whole afternoon, even without a drink for sustenance. Alas, the incomprehensible Cuban patter between each song got longer and longer, and the slower, drearier numbers seemed to get more profuse as the minutes ticked by so I ended up seeking cooler climes in the flat back home.

The evening was rounded out with a very pleasant pizza at 'The Lavendar' with a friend. Sat outdoors with the cooler evening gradually settling in, generally putting the world to rights, and discussing movies and movie lore, it was the perfect end to the perfect Summer's day. More Saturdays like this please!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

La Haine

La HaineOne of my all-time favourite movies is Francois Truffaut's
Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), a French black and white "social drama" that I first saw in my late teens and eagerly sought out on DVD when I got my first player.

La Haine (Hate) reminds me very much of everything I loved about that film. I'd seen the rave reviews from the critics when the film was first released about 10 years ago, but I'm one of those people who thought City of God was a 'good' movie, but not neccessarily one I'd want to sit through again, and, with the false impression that La Haine was very similar, didn't put it high on my list of 'Films to see or watch on DVD'. The violence and language of these sorts of films (or so I thought) get rather tedious after a while, and there's enough of that in the real world, without spending your leisure time watching more of it too. My mistake was in not realising that La Haine isn't a film about violence or continual bad language - it's a film about politics. And a fascinating one too - one that tries to play fair with both sides of the political divide that exists.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary the movie was released last Monday in a new 'Ultimate Edition' - actually an individually numbered limited edition (I have number '708 of 10000'). I've mentioned Fox's 'Cinema Reserve' luxury releases in previous blog entries, and although this isn't part of that series, it could well have been included. This latest DVD release of the film (its third in the UK) comes in the same fancy tin packaging as the Cinema Reserve releases, and contains a luxurious booklet about the movie, as well as two DVDs and a CD of the musical soundtrack. At a typical online selling price of under £16 it's a bargain.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What's the movie like?

Well, like Les Quatre Cents Coups, it's in black and white (although filmed in colour, with some of the original colour shots being included in the accompanying feature-length documentary about the film) and it's in French with subtitles, which will probably kill a lot of potential UK sales. But it's a lot less depressing than I'd expected. There's humour here. And friendship. And, above all, an honesty that I haven't seen in movies for a long time. But most of all there's incredible direction.

On the accompanying feature-length '10 years of La Haine' where the recent Paris riots are contrasted with the 10 year anniversary and making of the movie, one of the producers reveals that director/writer Mathieu Kassovitz's motto throughout fiming was 'One idea per shot'. And it shows. Boy, does it show! There are some truly stunning and original set-piece sequences here, and although one might criticise these as being a bit gimmicky, or criticise the director for his love of continuous shots rather than use of cuts, they left this viewer with images that will be hard to forget. One is never bored by the style of filming in this movie. Particular favourites were an incredible helicopter shot that takes the viewer from a DJ playing on his decks out across the estate on which the main characters live and on to Paris. There's a clever 'talkie' scene set in a public lavatory where the use of mirrors in cinematography has, in my view, never been bettered. There's a 'Vertigo' inspired scene where the whole of Paris suddenly rushes in on the main characters - an old trick, but never done so dramatically as it is here. There's some sensational 'move around the character' circular shots that give you the character's viewpoint in ways that wouldn't otherwise be possible, despite the universally outstanding performances from all the cast. Bottom line: the camera point of view is never boring or static. There isn't a single shot in this film that feels surplus to requirements or dull.

And just when you're getting ready to leave the warmth of your chair, thinking the film has done all it can, there's the killer closing scene. Not dragged out and played in slo-mo, as would have been the case if this were a Hollywood movie, but sudden, totally unexpected and lightening fast, so that as the final credits roll you're stuck to your seat in shock and silence at what you've just seen.

The politics of the film are not as left wing as the reviews had led me to believe. Stories of council estate youths vs the police and gun hate crimes may not sound your cup of tea (they're certainly not mine), but the film is about a lot more than that - it's about humanity, human failing, and the tragedy that is our inability to understand and get on with each other. If the film has a message, it's a very simple one - that hatred breeds hatred. The film shows both sides doing good things, and both sides doing bad things, demonstrating how an ingrained 'us vs them' can only lead to escalating violence and tragedy. In the light of the recent Paris riots and the situation in Iraq it's probably even more relevant today than when it was first made 10 years ago. Thought-provoking and definitely
worth 90 minutes of your time if you can rent or buy it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

North Country

North CountryCharlize Theron is an actress I admire, and I thought she thoroughly deserved her oscar for Monster, so I was looking forward to her new film North Country, which gets a very speedy release on DVD (out tomorrow in the UK).

The critics were not enthusiastic about this movie when it was theatrically released a month or two back, and, unfortunately, I think they pretty much got it right.

The film tells the story of a 'sexual harrassment' class action case brought by women who worked as miners in a small community based in Minnesota, and although many of the reviews had implied this was a retelling of a real life case the phrase 'Inspired by a true story' shown at the beginning of the film gives the more accurate description: What we have here is a Hollywood retelling of a real-world event, with a lot of invention that ultimately weakens the real story that had inspired the movie to be made in the first place.

The makers have introduced an episode (I can't say what it is without spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it) which ends up being what swings the jury in the final decision, but which has no real relevance to the central charge of sexual discrimination, and should have had no bearing on the decision actually reached. It's meant to be a 'twist' for the audience, and in that sense it works, but it's a twist which then considerably weakens the real story and point of the whole movie. Instead of a story about a ten year legal battle for women to get their rights we get a 'day in court with flashbacks' drama with a silly twist at the end.

It's such a shame, because poor structure and unnecessarily fabricated stories aside, there is a great movie waiting to emerge from what we see here. The acting, particularly from Theron, is first rate. Richard Jenkins, perhaps best known as the 'dead' father in Six Feet Under, gives a wonderful performance as Theron's chauvenistic father, even though his part is somewhat poorly scripted in terms of explaining a fundamental shift in character. Frances McDormand, who impressed in Fargo, gives a heart-breaking performance as Theron's character's best friend dying of cancer, and even the minor roles are well played and believable throughout.

The cinematography is good, if not stunning, with some wonderful sweeping helicopter shots of the Minesota countryside and the mine at the heart of the community. And the sense of 'small town' isolation seeps through every frame of the movie. And yet director Niki Caro, best known for Whale Rider, while getting great emotional performances from her cast, seems to have totally missed the heart of the story. In the 'Making of' extra that accompanies the DVD the scriptwriter tries to justify the invented scene that is to have such an impact on the court case by saying this is a movie not just about the court case, but about the relationship between a mother and son, but that mother and son story isn't really needed and could have been adequately conveyed without inventing a scene that then has a major impact on the main 'real' story, such that it becomes weakened and implausible.

This isn't a bad movie and certainly it's one I'm glad I saw, if only for the wonderful acting from Theron. But with a better script and some fundamental restructuring it could have been a great one, and ultimately this is a disappointment, or as one imdb user put it 'a huge disservice to what should have been a powerful story'. Worth seeing, but the critics were bang on the button when they described it as a near miss.

Thank You for Smoking

I went to an advance screening of Thank You for Smoking - a satyrical comedy written and directed by Jason Reitman - and thoroughly enjoyed it. At the time of writing it has an average imdb score of 8.1, and it's not hard to see why - some wonderful performances from Aaron Eckhart, the always excellent William H Macey, an alarmingly old looking Robert Duvall and, in fact, from all the supporting cast.

A movie with a message, and some wonderfully witty lines that had me laughing out loud to boot, this is a movie that I will probably enjoy just as much on second viewing as some of the dialogue is fast and sharp. Special mention too to the opening title credits - it's been a long time since I saw this sort of care, attention and just downright appropriateness of the opening titles. Catch this one if you can when it goes on general release in a week or two.

After all my complaints about recent screenings it was nice to see a print projected brightly with little evidence of any damage, although I could have done without the couple next to me, who arrived late and seemed to think that anything other than five star service from the ushers or the best seats in the house constituted a huge rip-off that should be complained about at length, even if the showing was a free one

My friend Brian Sibley was also at the screening so we grabbed lunch together afterwards, sat outside the cinema restaurant which did an excellent brunch, tea and Pimms for a very reasonable price. A very pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, and with the free newspapers and wi-fi available in the cinema's restaurant and bar areas which open out into the sun I may well be spending a couple more Sundays at the Clapham Picture House (if not inside the actual movie theatre) over the Summer.

Dr Who in 'Decent Episode Broadcast' Shock!

Like many (but not the critics who seem to have lost all objectivity where this particular sacred cow is concerned), I've been whingeing about how third rate Doctor Who has been this series, and pointing the finger largely at Russell T Davies who, despite being a Who fan, just doesn't seem to 'get' Who. Truth is that despite a rather good episode from Stephen Moffat a few weeks back, the second series has been so poorly written, paced and performed I hadn't intended to watch it last night.

Which would have meant missing a great episode.

OK, so let's get the negatives out the way first. The story was completely derivative ('Event Horizon' was the template for this one) but then Who always has been, even in its original incarnation. We had one awful 'I love you humans' as Tennant gurns and hugs one of the cast members moment. We had the usual 'Billie Piper pouting like an ugly trout' moments and 'David Tennant getting too enthusiastically shouty' moments which kill all the good work everybody else is doing in making the scenes believable. And, worst of all, we had the dreadfully cacaphonic music dominating far too many of the scenes as the composer once again went into one of his 'I wish I was talented enough to score a proper action movie' spasms. But Who can survive any of that if the atmosphere, plot and pacing are right. And in this episode they were, thank God!

Too many of the standalone episodes have been rushed, while the two-part Cyberman story was a single very weak 35 minute story dragged out tediously to an hour and a half, but this first episode of a new two-parter was right on the button. No fat on it at all with LOTS of genuinely scary moments, including a cute pre-titles 'cliff-hanger'. Scaring the shit out of the kids is always what Who used to be about and RTD and his selected writers seem to have forgotten that for the most part, with their obsession with pop-culture references that will date the series terribly when viewed in the future, and complete disregard for anything other than 'let's get the sonic screwdriver to dig us out of any situation we've written ourselves into' when it comes to plotting. Thankfully that was rectified with this episode.

As one wag over on The DVD Forums put it 'Wet beds up and down the land this week I fear'. Hoorah!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany'sMy knowledge of movies made prior to the late 70's is scandalously limited. Although I was a keen cinema-goer in my late teens (in the late 70's) and at University through the Student Film Club, cinema's never showed the old classics and for some reason I was never into watching old movies on TV, which is how many of my generation seem to have caught these old classics for the first time. Even the advent of DVD hasn't changed things much since there are never enough hours in a day to catch up on all the classics I missed whilst in the Middle East in the early 90's (there were no cinemas in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait), let alone stuff made in the last decade that I missed for various reasons.

I've recently been trying to catch up on some of those early classics (saw Casablanca for the first time a couple of weeks ago and loved every second of it). There is something rather melancholy about these older movies, especially those made before I was born but which somehow seem to be as relevant today as they were when they were made. There's something very sad about seeing some of the Hollywood legends on prints polished to perfection on DVD, and realising that these screen legends, so alive when shown on a 50" plasma screen, are no longer with us.

Tonight I watched Breakfast at Tiffany's (Anniversary Edition) which I hadn't seen before. It's released on a new digitally restored 'Special Edition' DVD that's officially in the stores on Monday. The picture quality is as stunning as one would hope for, given the age of the movie, and, based on a novella by Truman Capote, it is a real treat, if you can suspend disbelief. Generally rom-coms are a genre that have totally passed me by: I watch a rom com that's had a high rating on imdb (over 7 out of 10 marks) or rave critical reviews in the press and find myself resenting the time wasted watching such drivel. So finding myself enjoying what many have called 'the original rom com' has come as a bit of a surprise.

It's the two leads, Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, coupled with a strong director, that make the movie so enjoyable. This is all the more surprising since most critics of the time, and Audrey Hepburn herself, felt she was mis-cast in the role of Holly Golightly which was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe. Director Blake Edwards points out on the accompanying (very short) 'Making of' that he didn't want to cast George Peppard and still wouldn't cast him today (without telling us why, and whilst saying he liked him as a person) and I guess Peppard could be criticised for underplaying the role, but sometimes underplaying is sexier than overplaying and sexy is what's needed in a rom com. For me they both positively sizzled on screen, particularly Hepburn who goes from sexy designer clothes in one scene to a simple men's shirt (and not much else) in the next and oozes sex appeal every second that she's on screen. Peppard has the classic leading man good looks and one wonders if the scenes with him half-naked in bed were regarded as almost pornographic back in the 60's, given that they still look sexy and feel very modern today.

Mickey Roonie is the only real flaw in the movie - totally miscast as a charicature'd Japanese tenant who hams it up something chronic. He makes Peter Sellars as an Indian look like a really class act!

As with all rom coms the plot is a bit far-fetched and there's a lack of 'real world' believability about what happens, but when the movie's this much fun that hardly seems to matter. Only the very dodgy back-projection during a car conversation scene towards the end of the movie really betrayed the age of the movie for me. This is the film that gave us Moon River and amongst the trivia revealed over at imdb is the news that the 'Moon River' theme used throughout was not only written for the film, but also for Hepburn who was not a singer - hence its reliance on notes in a single octave.

Director Blake Edwards does a fantastic job too, with some neat visual flourishes throughout the movie. The cocktail party scene alone is worth the cost of admission, or rather the cost of the DVD. Yet again this is a reminder of what the success of DVD means for some of the old classics which can now be restored and shown in better format than would have been possible at time of original release in the majority of the theatres of the time (at least in terms of dust and scratches which affect even premiere showings of blockbusters that are made today). It's nice to see Paramount give this release the DVD transfer it deserves. If you want to see a 'feel good' classic, treat yourself to this one.

Summer's here - FINALLY!

The last couple of weeks have been grim for all sorts of reasons, and the continual cold weather hasn't helped lift the spirits. So thank God for the sun today. At last the British Isles weather system has recognised we're in June!

Sod's Law says that I'm going to spend a fair amount of the glorious weather tomorrow in a darkened room, watching Thank You for Smoking - a free 'advance' viewing that comes as part of my membership of The Clapham Picture House - highly recommended as an alternative to the over-priced, corporate and impersonal cinemas in the West End. One of the problems with making the tickets free is that people book the seats so that the screening is 'sold out' and then don't bother turning up. My last visit for a similar free 'sold out' screening was for Good Night, and Good Luck, with the cinema being more than half empty when it came down to it. I suspect with the great weather this weekend there may be a similar number of 'no shows' at the 11am screening tomorrow.

But that's tomorrow. Today the windows are open, a cool breeze is blowing through the flat, and with music playing it feels like Summer is here at last.

I bought a couple of new CDs last weekend which have been on heavy rotation the last few weeks. The Pet Shop Boys new album Fundamental has been on heavy rotation, but frankly, it's a huge disappointment. The press reviews are universally ecstatic and over-the-top, which is just ridiculous given how melodically weak and 80's-sounding the album is. If you've heard I'm with Stupid (the first single from the album) you've got a pretty fair idea of how weak the new material is compared with the band's glory days at the top of the charts. So why all the 'best album since 1987' rave reviews throughout the press? I suspect this is 'ex-journalist (Neil Teannant) using all his contacts' syndrome that I also saw with St Etienne (a seriously over-hyped group when you compare reviews with actual popularity) when I worked for a short time in the music industry. I get more and more depressed at the quality of so-called impartial journalism these days. Admittedly my opinion has probably been coloured by the arrival of the latest issue of SFX magazine this morning which is, frankly, like the worst kind of primary school attempt at producing a magazine - very thin, little real content and nothing but fawning to try and get access for future issues - time to cancel my subscription methinx!

Anyway,I wondered if it was just me that felt this way about the PSB offering but it's interesting that I had a phone call from a friend (Hi Birdy, if you're reading this) who's also a big Pet Shop Boys fan last weekend and rang purely to ask me what I thought before giving his opinion. It turned out he felt he'd been had by the rave reviews the same way I had - this is a weak album with a distinct lack of good melodic hooks and catchy pop choruses. It just recycles weaker tracks from previous albums and Trevor Horn, in his role as producer, seems to have failed to lift it out of the doldrums or even give it a better sound. Very disappointing, even if lyrically it stands up well to the best of the PSB's work. With so many other PSB albums already available this adds nothing new and is probably best avoided unless you're the sort of fan who must have everything the group have produced.

Watching a Channel 4 documentary on the group last week (whoever does the group's promotion deserves a medal - they always seem to get TV and prime time radio when they have a new album out) the Chairman of EMI completely rewrote history when he kept saying that the Pet Shop Boys album 'Behaviour' had been dissed by the critics. It actually received rave reviews - similar to those for the new 'Fundamental; album - but it turns out the sales were the lowest the group had ever had. Good to have my opinions of that album confirmed (it's the only album by the band, until this latest one, that I haven't really embraced!) I wonder if in 10 years time we'll have the same chairman commenting on how the critics weren't kind to 'Fundamental', conveniently forgetting all the five star ratings and 'their best album for decades' synopses.

On a happier note, one album I'm loving to bits is the soundtrack album from the Johnny Cash biopic movie Walk the Line. It may be tagged 'country', but to me this is out-and-out pop of the sort The Pet Shop Boys used to know how to produce. It's exhuberant, it's bouncy, has a modern production feel and it gets your foot tapping the second it starts off. I would suggest that, unlike the PSB album, it's perfect for Summer!