Thursday, 23 December 2010

Top 8 Rubbish Christmas Songs

8. Basshunter - Jingle Bells

Obviously I have nothing against Jingle Bells. I do have something against it being turned into yet another piece of chart trance shit. This doesn't even have a hint of tongue in cheek about it.

7. Ronan Keating & Moya Brennan - Fairytale Of New York

When the original is so good, why would you bother to remake this Christmas song? Especially in such a bland, sanitised way. It's always going to be compared to the original, and when this actually makes the song sound like nothing special that's never going to be a good thing. Awful, but more importantly, totally pointless. This is what The Pogues episode of Glee would sound like.

6. Cliff Richard - Millennium Prayer

Cheap and nasty Y2K cash-in from Cliff Richard. He didn't write the music (it's "traditional", so Cliff didn't even have to pay to use it) or the words (those would be God's, and I'm sure he didn't ask for any royalties either). Fair enough it was for charity, but that doesn't stop it being pants. Still rears its ugly head around Christmas time every so often. Would be higher if it had more exposure today.

5. John & Yoko And The Plastic Ono Band With The Harlem Community Choir - Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

A controversial choice I suppose, but I always skip this when it crops up on my Christmas compilations. I have my reasons. For one, it's just really dreary. Slow, almost dirge-like in places. Second, it's pretty depressing. I'm sorry, but I don't want to think about war at Christmas. I can think about how terrible war is and what I can do to help the rest of the year, but I don't want two hippies preaching at me through a Christmas song about it. Band Aid did it the right way in the '80s, but Lennon misses the mark here. Thirdly, Yoko Ono "sings" on it, and any Christmas song warbling all over it can just bugger off as far as I'm concerned.

4. Robson & Jerome - I Believe (Click here)

Awful, just awful. The only reason this isn't higher is that it seems to have sunk without a trace in recent years (along with R&J's music careers), but it's still cropped up on a few Crimbo compilations in its time. The only claim this can have to being a Christmas song is having a bloke dressed as Father Christmas in the video and Robson and/or Jerome stating the fact that it's meant to be Christmas. It wasn't even Christmas number 1.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood - The Power Of Love

Nothing to do with Christmas, apart from the tenuous link that Christmas is a time for love. I'm pretty sure this one only crops up on Christmas compilations because of the music video, which is Christmassy, although apparently only because the song was released near the festive season. Also, it's dreary and just boring, and that's not what I look for in my Christmas songs.

2. East 17 - Stay Another Day

Crappy boy band ballad sung by four blokes who clearly had a hand in the creation of chav culture. No part of the song has anything to do with Christmas in any way. The only thing that links the song to Christmas is that it happened to be 1994's Christmas number 1. And no, putting on parkas, shoving some snow over the top of your music video and some tubular bells at the end of your record doesn't change that. I really really wanted to put this as my top pick, but I just couldn't put the atrocity that's there anywhere else...

1. The Wombles with Roy Wood - I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day

A "mash up" which essentially destroys two 1970s Christmas songs at the same time: one that's pretty forgettable (A Wombling Merry Christmas by, well, The Wombles surprisingly); and, much more distressingly, one that's undoubtedly a modern Christmas standard - Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. Have a listen if you've never heard it before. Starts harmlessly, if pointlessly, enough. Roy Wood sounds like someone doing a bad karaoke version of his own song, which is pretty pathetic. But then we get to the chorus. Oh dear lord, the chorus! THE CHORUS!! How did anyone hear that travesty of bodged lyrics and crowbarred extra notes that simply don't fit, and think this was worthy of releasing? It's just dire. It makes my skin crawl. This one has so much wrong with it that it beat East 17 to the top of my list - that's how much I hate this one.

Christmas Movie Haiku

Home Alone

Culkin foils the thieves;
But the true miracle is
Pesci doesn't swear.


Jingle All The Way

Festive comedy:
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars...
Festive comedy?


Love, Actually

Christmas equals love
As long as you're white and straight.
Merry Middle Class!


The Holiday

Transatlantic love
Standard sappy rom-com fare...
What the fuck - Jack Black?!



Ferrell's tall and thinks
He's an elf but he isn't.
That's the only joke.


The Muppet Christmas Carol

Caine sings with puppets?
A blue furry Charles Dickens?
Sharp retelling? Yes!


Sunday, 19 December 2010

'00 Ten Part Four: "This Is England" (2007)

It's through sheer chance that, since rewatching This Is England for this entry into my list, I've also watched the TV drama serial-cum-sequel This Is England '86. Although I don't want to take up a great deal of space reviewing the series rather than the film, it does give a useful launch pad for the reasons why I've included This Is England in my ten.

Whilst one of the most emotionally pummelling and, at times, truly gruelling TV series I have ever watched, This Is England '86 is also one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and well crafted pieces of television I have seen for some time. Its overwhelming success was only possible from the outset, however, due to the original film from which it came. Whilst my admiration of TIE was already secured before I watched the TV sequel, watching the series served to highlight even further all the things that really are special about the original film.

Essentially, the series would not have worked if the film which it follows wasn't so brilliant. That's not to take anything away from the series, and also makes it seem as though it's simply a cash-in by TIE writer and director Shane Meadows, which it isn't. Meadows himself said that he wanted to make '86 because of the wealth of opportunities and untold stories that the film left behind. Again, that's not a criticism of the film, being as it is a tight and masterfully crafted piece with a definite beginning, middle and end. The two complement each other beautifully, but the fact remains that '86 could not exist in the way it does without TIE.

Meadows is a master of characterisation, as demonstrated throughout his canon of films. But nowhere is this skill more finely demonstrated than in This Is England. Shaun, the main character, is portrayed superbly by Thomas Turgoose (incidentally, another reason why TIE is deserving of its place here is that it's the only film I've seen since 1999's The Sixth Sense where the main character is played by a child, and yet not only was I not irritated by them once, but I didn't even consider the fact that they were a child, seeing them simply as an actor so strong and mature was their performance). Turgoose's performance is by turns humorous and sympathetic, but always incredibly genuine. From the moment you first see Shaun, you can relate to him. He's clearly an ordinary boy from an ordinary upbringing. And yet the things he experiences, both preceding period the film covers and during the story we see, are never short of extraordinary. The relationship Shaun still has with his late father, both vicariously through his mother and through the raw emotions he harbours inside him about his death in the Falklands war, is incredibly touching. But it is the keen juxtaposition of the tenderness of Shaun's feelings towards his father, and the extreme consequences of the decisions he makes based upon these feelings throughout the story, that provide the emotional driving force which runs through Meadows' film.

Opposite Turgoose is Stephen Graham as Combo. In Combo, Meadows and Graham have jointly created one of the most fascinatingly compelling characters in cinema. Combo shares traits with Hitchcock's Norman Bates and Coppola's Michael Corleone. From the first moment you see Combo on screen, his every scene is loaded with such energy and power through the performance of Graham and the writing of Meadows. His scenes are simultaneously captivating and excruciating to watch. The mastery behind the character is the sense we get that what we see is only a very small part of who Combo is; underneath there is a great deal more going on.

Outwardly, Combo is a racist bully, a powder keg that can - and frequently does - explode without prior warning. He is manipulative and power hungry. But it's the subtle touches, the short scenes that could so easily be overlooked in the overall story of the film, that make Combo such a brilliant creation. Way below the hardened and volatile exterior, Combo is also an emotional and proud creature. The scene which he shares with Lol (within the perfectly chosen claustrophobic confines of a car) during which we learn a little more about the two characters' previous relationship, exposes a depth to Combo which takes us aback when compared with what we've seen before. By the end of the film, the character's name takes on a deeper meaning: he truly is a complex combination of a great many elements, meaning that by the end of the film it isn't as easy as we would like it to be to straightforwardly condemn him, despite the atrocities he has clearly committed.

In Shaun and Combo, we undoubtedly find two masterful creations from Meadows. But it is in the supporting characters where Meadows skill genuinely shines. Several other characters feel multi-dimensional and authentic despite the fact that they are largely absent from the majority of the film. Woody is a key example here. Joe Gilgun creates such a likeable character in Woody, and one of the easiest characters to relate to in the entire film, to the point where it's easy to forget that Woody barely features in the second half of the film. Woody provides an important counterbalance to Combo in the film and it is significant that he is largely sidelined once Combo is introduced to the story; it is also a credit to both Gilgun and Meadows that Woody is such an integral part of the film to the point that it is almost difficult to believe that he isn't there right to the very end.

Woody's key role in This Is England '86 also demonstrates how well-crafted he is. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that so many of the more minor characters in This Is England are so masterfully created, the sequel series simply would not have worked as brilliantly well as it did. And through no other character is this demonstrated as well as through Lol. Lol is one of the least prominent characters in the original film. Largely removed from the main story, she receives only one major scene (the one shared with Combo mentioned previously). But it is through the expert craftsmanship of Meadows coupled with a brilliant performance from Vicky McClure that Lol feels real: a peripheral character in Shaun's story, but a key player in other stories not yet told. And Meadows proves this through '86, shifting the focus off Shaun and telling Lol's own story. '86 would not be able to be the powerful, high quality drama series it is if not for the groundwork provided by the original film.

Through This Is England, Shane Meadows demonstrates his incomparable way of creating characters who are as real as they come in cinema. Meadows creates very authentic, very ordinary but very memorable people who have very extraordinary stories to tell. This is a common trend through the entirety of Meadows' cinematic canon, but nowhere is it more apparent and more masterfully demonstrated than through This Is England.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

'00 Ten Part Three: "Primer" (2004)

Not so long ago, I watched Charlie Kaufman's most recent film, Synecdoche, New York - a fantastic film, both beautiful and intelligent, and one that narrowly missed making its way onto this list. When it came to describing the mental journey that film took me on, I opted to call it "the most cerebrally challenging film I've seen since 2004's Primer". However, after making this comparison, a small niggling feeling stayed with me that it had been a good couple of years since I last watched Primer, therefore making the comparison a little unfair on both films. Therefore, having just rewatched Primer I can now confirm that the statement I made in reference to Synecdoche, New York is indeed accurate. I can also supplement it with an additional statement: Primer is, to date, the most cerebrally challenging film I've ever seen.

So mindbending are the concept, plot and narrative of Primer that every time I watch it, I go through a similar mental process. Before watching, I remind myself of the general idea of time travel behind the story and the principles that are established within the universe of the film, and convince myself that I will have a slightly better understanding of the story as a whole than I did last time. I begin watching, with certain scenes and elements of the film ringing bells in my head, allowing me to begin the process of piecing together the elaborate jigsaw that director Shane Carruth is laying out in front of me. And then, as the film reaches its climax, I realise that my understanding of the story isn't any better than it was last time (in fact, the second time I watched it, I actually understood the story much less than I did the first time), and I ultimately come to the conclusion that no matter how many times I watch Primer, I'll never fully get my head around it.

So, why has a film that in many ways I don't understand made it into my ten defining films of the decade? Well, there's quite a lot of reasons actually. Firstly, it's the fact that the film doesn't really care whether you fully understand every single thing it shows you or not. Carruth as writer and director refuses to dumb down his story or the way he tells it, and by doing so keeps both his own integrity and that of the film incredibly high. Throughout Primer, Carruth provides the absolute minimum of exposition, with what little that is there being present simply because it's part of the story and not to hold the viewer's hand at any point. He describes the main characters at the start of the film as "clever" but not geniuses, and masterfully keeps the characters' language and attitudes to that level - to have them begin explaining all the science and technology used in the film would simply mean they wouldn't ring true to who they are meant to be.

By the same token, Carruth makes sure there's plenty in the film that the characters are experiencing that they themselves don't fully (or, in a handful of cases, at all) understand, lending the characters depth and genuineness, which in turn makes the whole situation presented by the film feel all the more authentic and real. Carruth also shows bravery and confidence through his filmmaking by leaving certain elements pretty much completely unexplained, instead only referring to them and leaving the audience (and the characters) to make of them what they will. The effect that time travel has on the handwriting of Aaron and Abe, the two main characters, is a prime example of this. The fact that Carruth simply chooses not to explain why the two men can't write in more than a scrawl after time travelling several times renders that particular facet both intriguing and chilling. The inclusion of touches such as this again adds further dimension to the story and concept Primer presents to the audience, and proves that each thread of a film does not necessarily need to be tied up neatly or explained away before the credits roll to make for a satisfying experience. If anything, it left me pondering the film for much longer after I'd finished watching than if everything had been nicely wrapped up.

The second reason Primer deserves its place on this list is that it is a masterclass in low budget filmmaking. When I first watched the film, I knew it wasn't a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster, but when I found out that the entire film had been made on a budget of approximately US $7,000 (on a rough calculation, using 2004 exchange rates, no more than £4,000) I was completely dumbfounded. If anything, I would encourage people to see Primer for this reason more than any other, as even if you don't understand one single thing that's happening in the film, it's impossible not to be impressed with the film Carruth has created on such an extremely small budget. In comparison, the budget of Transformers, one of the biggest sci-fi films of the last decade, was approximately 21,429 larger than that of Primer. And there's no doubt in my mind which is the superior film (hint: Transformers won't be making an appearance in my list of ten).

Maybe a comparison with such a huge CGI-heavy blockbuster is too vast a cinematic gulf to traverse, but the numbers alone are enough to show how minuscule was the amount of money with which Carruth completed his film. The amount becomes slightly more understandable when you find out the fact that the vast majority of people involved in the film were Carruth's friends and family, from the catering staff right the way up to the actors - another fact that astounded me considering the consistent high quality performances throughout the film. There aren't any powerhouse Oscar-worthy turns, but equally there are no performances that stand out as weak or amateur or that let the film down. But perhaps most astounding of all is the list of roles Carruth himself fulfils throughout the film. IMDB lists Carruth as writer, director, actor (he plays main character Aaron), producer, soundtrack composer, editor, casting director, production designer and sound designer. A mind-boggling list, made even more impressive by the fact that Carruth's background is not in filmmaking, but in maths and engineering. Essentially, Carruth took on everything he could in making Primer, and the result shows what can be accomplished with what in filmmaking terms is the bare essentials.

My final reason for including Primer in my list is simply the way it so perfectly holds a mirror up to the 21st Century everyman. The way in which Abe and Aaron deal with their time travel discovery and what it enables them to do as the film progresses twists and evolves until the very last scene. When they first realise what they've stumbled upon and how important it is, they decide to keep it entirely to themselves, even bluntly cutting out the two friends from work with whom they have been working. The first thing we see them use time travel for is to make money on the stock market. The two men are selfish and without morals, and we as the audience condemn them for it. But it's hard to imagine a couple of ordinary office workers doing anything else. If we'd seen them do anything other than entirely protect their own interests and use their discovery for their own gain then Primer's authenticity would have no doubt suffered severely.

The more entangled the two men become within the intricate time web of their own creation, the more we see them run the gamut of emotion and morality, stretching to the limits their friendship, their health and their humanity. And we continue to struggle with how to react to their actions, but at the same time see within them more of the society in which we live. We find some of the things the men do questionable, others deplorable, but if we saw them do anything else they would neither be as authentic as characters, nor would they so sublimely reflect the zeitgeist of the period in which the film is set and was made. Abe and Aaron aren't bad men, they're just men. In his creation of Primer, one of the most original films made, not only in the last decade but also in any decade, Shane Carruth has both created a truly fantastical scenario and a breathtakingly authentic portrayal of the society of the time.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Smells Like Meme Spirit

Okay, so this entry has at least one foot in the "cheap and easy entry" category, but seeing as my more legitimate posting seems to have fallen behind somewhat over recent weeks this seems like a good entry to put together to get myself back into a blog writing mindset.

With two of my more eclectic musical interests being mash ups and cover versions, it's hard not to notice which musicians and songs occur again and again in both of these fields. For example, in the world of mash ups, the acapella version of Eminem's Without Me has been used so much that it's now become almost unusable (the fact that it seems to fit over almost any other song has also put off those who wish to produce something that will be seen as skilled and credible). Without Me is an extreme example; there are other songs and artists that crop up again and again in both cover versions and mash ups that always sound fresh and original, or at least demonstrate the craft that went into the original version. And the song that comes to my mind as a prime example of this before any other is Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Smells Like Teen Spirit is a song that is ingrained into the zeitgeist of the mid-1990s. Whether you love the song, loathe it, or couldn't be more indifferent, it's hard not to see it as part of the soundtrack of (at the very least Western) culture and society of the time when it was released. And it endures, and has endured, through its Louie Louie inspired guitar riff, Kurt Cobain's indecipherable lyrics and the general aura that it seems to ignite around it. Even the music video has become a cultural reference point. Smells Like Teen Spirit has become a musical meme.

So, here's some of my favourite versions of the song, both mash ups and covers. Neither definitive nor exhaustive, and almost certainly incomplete, as I doubt very much that SLTS is likely to go away any time soon.

1. Dsico That No-Talent Hack's cover version

2. DJ Lobsterdust - NirGaga (mashed with Pokerface by Lady Gaga)

3. 2 Many DJ's - Smells Like Booty (mashed with Bootylicious by Destiny's Child)

4. The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain's cover version

5. The Moog Cookbook's cover version

6. Paul Anka's cover version

7. Weird Al Yankovic - Smells Like Nirvana

8. Patti Smith's cover version

9. The Flying Pickets' cover version

10. And finally, more for comedy value than musical excellence, this is teh fuhnehz

So yeah, enjoy. And if anyone knows any other decent versions/mashes of SLTS, let me know.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Over the line.

I've enjoyed the world cup so far - there've been some upsets, some good goals, and, of course, a good dollop of controversy too, not least on Sunday, as England and Mexico exited the competition. Both teams were the victims of mistakes which use of technology might have prevented, and in both cases, the mistakes did not matter (at least mathematically, if not temporally) to the final result. One thing that has really irked me, though, is the way that the media (specifically BBC and ITV in their live coverage and analysis) have addressed the issue of technology.

Both broadcasters have pushed the line that they cannot understand why video technology is not being used; indeed Mark Lawrenson makes this point so often and with such ferocity that it would almost be unsurprising to find a monthly cheque from the producers of Hawkeye landing on his doormat. Both broadcasters made it a major thread of their post-match discussions, but while opinion was somewhat divided amongst the pundits, there was never a strong argument made against its introduction. Those with reservations, such as FIFA, were cast in the role of Luddites, and equally mocked for their lack of foresight and demonised for the effect it had on the English team's defeat.

I find it annoying that rather than taking the opportunity to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of technology in the game, this complex issue was presented by both broadcasters as an obvious solution being held back by pencil pushing "suits". This characterisation is misleading at best and tabloid at worst, and such a visceral reaction will not have been at all persuasive to those whose votes are counted on the matter.

Also, sorry it's been so long since I posted - it's very clear now that life is getting in the way pretty much permanently. I make no promises on the timing of my next effort, but hopefully it'll be easier now that I've broken my silence.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Comedy Playlist

Browsing around the BBC's comedy website, I stumbled across what I think is a fairly novel concept: the comedy playlist. It pretty much does what it says on the tin - a selection of comedy sketches and clips chosen by one person. The only one I've watched so far is Stephen Merchant's (although at the present time there only seems to be his and Johnny Vegas' playlists on the site) which contained some absolute gems - I particularly recommend Adam Buxton's Nutty Room, the Big Train sketch and No More Women (a game I'm planning to play with whosoever is willing to try it with me).

So, naturally, I decided to have a go at my own comedy playlist. Below is a collection of ten clips, mainly resourced from YouTube, from comedy shows that I've enjoyed over the years. It's not my definitive top ten; more accurately it's a collection of ten clips from some of my favourites series that first came to mind, that I found just as funny on a fresh viewing and, just as important, I could find online. I may have a go at more than one of these, maybe around specific themes or something, if this one proves successful.

Merchant includes a very brief description/introduction to each of his clips, but I'll just let mine speak for themselves.

It'd be good to see anyone else's playlist if they fancy giving it a go...

1. Big Train - Cakes

2. Monkey Dust - Clive Pringle: 24

3. Henry 8.0 - Pope And Glory

4. Harry Enfield - Women: Know Your Limits

5. Jam - Casual Parents

6. The Fast Show - Posh Cockneys Up North

7. Man Stroke Woman - Minstrel
(I could only find this one attached to a second sketch, which is also funny, but my chosen sketch finishes at 2:09)

8. Fonejacker - HMV

9. The Office - The Brentmeister General

10. The League Of Gentlemen - Jedd Hunter's Commercial

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

'00 Ten Part Two: "Shaun Of The Dead" (2004)

Shaun Of The Dead holds a peculiar honour, in that it is possibly the film that speaks to me the most over any other in terms of a realistic representation of the culture and society in which I live and have grown up. Peculiar indeed, considering the large amount of reanimated corpses present. But, unsurprisingly, it's not the zombies that make SOTD a film to which I can really relate, but the misfits, misanthropes and moaners who find themselves caught in the film's situation and the way in which they react to it. And it is in this respect that SOTD succeeds so comprehensively.

Let us consider the landscape of British cinema into which Shaun Of The Dead dared to tread. Big British films released around the same time as SOTD essentially fall into two distinct categories. Films in the first bracket present life in Britain, and in general, as a cross between an episode of Teletubbies and a Waitrose advert - all bright and fuzzy and colourful with absolutely no offensive content or sharp corners, and at the same time exceedingly prim, proper and upper-middle class in an oh-so-charmingly awkward yet frightfully optimistic kind of way, where the most taxing problem is who gets the last slice of Taste The Difference summer fruits torte. Love, Actually and Wimbledon are two prime candidates for this category that emerged around the same time as my chosen film. Essentially the cinematic equivalent of an overly-sugary marshmallow, with characters as one-dimensional and bastardly as they come, I pretty much despise every film that falls into category one.

Films in the second category have never been summed up better than by The Fast Show. So instead of trying to trump it, I'll just show you instead:

"Pukka", I hear you whimper. Think Snatch, think Layer Cake, and you're very much in the right area. Whilst I do find some of these films enjoyable on their own merits, the characters within them are anything but a relatable portrayal of the British people amongst whom I grew up.

So then, in 2004, came Shaun Of The Dead - so much more than just a comedy film, or even the "rom-com-zom" (romantic comedy with zombies) that its marketing purports it to be. Strip away the plague of shuffling, flesh-hungry cadavers swarming the country and Shaun Of The Dead presents to its audience the finest portrayal of - and most heartfelt tribute to - 21st Century suburban Britain.

Before we look at why this is the case, let us first cover all the other ways in which Shaun Of The Dead is cinematic perfection as well. Firstly, it's incredibly original. Looking at the film as a parody of the horror genre, it spoofs the situations and settings of horror movies, particularly zombie movies, not only incredibly accurately but also respectfully. Scriptwriters Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who plays the eponymous Shaun) lampoon the genre through clever subversion of conventions and cinematography, but also show what huge fans they are of zombie flicks through the cavalcade of references and tributes that charge at you throughout the film. Not being much of a zombie film buff myself, I picked up only a smattering of these, but a quick google reveals just how many nods there are to characters, actors, dialogue and a huge amount more from not only a great many zombie movies, but also a wide variety of other films and TV shows.

Second of all, Shaun Of The Dead is very, very funny. The basic premise of the film takes one of the most fundamental rules of successful comedy - either place extraordinary people in an ordinary setting, or ordinary people in an extraordinary setting (in SOTD's case obviously the latter) - and runs with it superbly. The humour in SOTD regularly comes organically from the inspired concept of normal people trying to deal with a zombie epidemic interrupting their day-to-day existence. To come up with an idea so simple yet so ingenious is a sublime feat in itself.

However, it's also in the finer detail that Shaun Of The Dead's comedy brilliance comes to light. The writing is incredibly sharp, with even seemingly the simplest of sequences being formulated to perfection. The opening scene is a prime example of the razor-sharp wit present throughout. We enter the film on a profile shot of a vacant Shaun sitting alone in the pub, eyes glazed and pint in hand. We quickly realise, however, that Shaun is actually in the middle of a fairly serious conversation with his girlfriend Liz (played by the fantastic Kate Ashfield). Then, as more and more of the gaps in the conversation are filled for us, it soon becomes apparent that what we perceived to surely be a private conversation between Shaun and Liz about spending time together away from their friends is actually taking place in full view and earshot of both Shaun's flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) and Liz's mates David and Diane (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis). The opening reaches its peak when Shaun softly explains to Liz that Ed is a bit of a loner, indicating one of the reasons he likes to spend time with Ed is that he feels sorry for him. Ed then comprehensively obliterates this argument, and any sympathy Shaun may have conjured for him, with the unforgettable interjection: "Can I get... any of you cunts... a drink?". Not only has Wright created a brilliantly authentic suburban London pub setting within the first few minutes of the film, but he's also set the bar for the comedy within the film incredibly high - a bar which is maintained throughout.

However, raising Shaun Of The Dead from being just a very successful comedy to one of my top ten picks of the last decade is, as I said before, its affectionate and uncanny representation of suburban England. The characters are multi-layered and authentic, but also undeniably and authentically British. Shaun as the main character provides ample proof of this throughout the film. After a night on the booze, waking to a Britain overrun with the living dead, the hung over Shaun autopilots to the newsagent oblivious to the destruction around him. Once he and Ed realise what's happening, Shaun's first choice of action is to "have a sit down". Their plan for survival involves picking up Shaun's mum (Penelope Wilton) and now ex-girlfriend Liz, then settling down with a cup of tea and waiting for "all this to blow over". Their plan only changes in beverage choice, from a cuppa to a nice cold pint, when their eventual choice for a stronghold is local pub The Winchester Tavern (as it's safe, familiar, and somewhere Ed can smoke).

Essentially, Shaun, in both his attitude towards and strategy for survival of the zombie plague, is relentlessly optimistic with a tendency to consciously downplay the severity of what's happening, and ultimately a little bit crap. In short, very British. He's a hero, but not a particularly good one. Any time he tries to be even a little bit cool he immediately falls on his face - quite literally at one point when attempting to leapfrog a garden fence as a shortcut to the Winchester. But it's not just Shaun who exemplifies Britishness in Shaun Of The Dead. Nick Frost's Ed is essentially a mischievous boy caught in a slobbish twenty-something man's body. Lucy Davis brilliantly creates Diane as a dippy optimist repressing her frustration with her boyfriend David, an irritating know-it-all almost entirely driven by ferocious jealousy of Shaun and played superbly by Dylan Moran (a wild departure from his most famous role as alcoholic misanthrope Bernard Black in Black Books, which allows Moran to really demonstrate his skill as an actor). Wilton as Barbara, Shaun's mum, and Bill Nighy as dry stepfather Philip, bring in yet another facet of Britishness - a hybrid of "stiff upper lip" and "ignore it and it'll go away" mentalities, with Philip not wanting to make a fuss over his zombie bite as he's "run it under a cold tap", and Barbara combating the zombie threat by closing the curtains.

All very British indeed. But Shaun Of The Dead is always highly authentic, never hackneyed nor offensive, in its portrayal of the British social psyche. This is down to a combination of Pegg and Wright's superb writing, Wright's direction, and the collective cast's exceptional performances. I relate to each and every character in the film not only because of the depth of writing and quality of acting, but because I recognise pretty much each one from some part of my life, from main character Shaun's underachiever and Ed's idiotic rogue, right down to those on the periphery, such as Peter Serafinowicz's belligerent killjoy Pete. But as well as recognising them, even though some characters are more obviously likeable than others, none are clear-cut as "good guys" and "bad guys". Each character is flawed, and whilst you might hate some of them for the majority of the film, you can almost always relate to their point of view.

In a perverse fashion, it is the element of Shaun Of The Dead that is most removed from the real world that demonstrates how truly special it is in reflecting the reality of British people, and humanity in general. Through each of the characters' reactions to the dead walking the earth, we see one aspect of what makes up who the British people are - illuminated in a surreal, masterful and incredibly genuine way.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

'00 Ten Part One: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)

(Okay, so it's been quite a while since I stated my intention to run down my ten films of the last ten years, and my plan to make a prompt start clearly hasn't quite come into fruition, mainly because I simply hadn't had the opportunity to rewatch any of my selections in order to write about each film with it fresh in my mind. I can only apologise and shake my head at my own epic failure.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the films are presented here in no particular order. This isn't a countdown towards my number 1 film, nor is it a chronological list. I'm simply writing about these films in the order that I rewatch them in order to write about them here. O Brother, Where Art Thou? just happens to be first to be written about because, out of all my choices, I fancied watching it first.)

So, my inaugural entry to my ten is 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the cinematic canon of Ethan and Joel Coen. In some ways O Brother... may seem a strange, even perverse, choice: it isn't my favourite Coen Brothers film of the decade - that honour would most probably go to The Man Who Wasn't There - but as I said before, this list isn't simply going to be my favourite ten films of the '00s. It's also probably not the first, or even second, Coen film from this decade that would come to the mind of many. No Country For Old Men is probably their most notorious and highly lauded, and others such as Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty are usually mentioned in the same first breath, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? relegated to the second and brought up after a little more brain-racking. But I have good reasons for placing O Brother... into my list above other Coen offerings, as well as all the other films made during the 2000s.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, when all is said and done, one of the most finely crafted films the Coens have ever created. The story is simple: in Depression-era America, three men break off a chain gang in order to track down a hidden treasure. It would be so easy to finish off that synopsis with the oh-so-clichéd phrase "with hilarious consequences" - applied to every half-baked, hackneyed and unfunny comedy since the dawn of time. But it in this case it would be absolutely, one hundred percent true.

O Brother... is unashamedly Coen in feel and execution. Chronologically, the film was never going to have it easy, directly following the Coens' flawless character comedy and topper of many a film fan's list of all-time favourite movies, 1998's The Big Lebowski. Regarded by many as the brothers' finest film, and with both mainstream praise and a huge cult following that thrives and grows to this day, whatever film the Coens made next was going to be held up against the might of The Big Lebowski and picked apart relentlessly. So, did the brothers opt to try and outdo themselves and out-Lebowski The Big Lebowski itself? Or did they decide to head in a totally new direction with the arguably wise decision that a film of Lebowski's popularity and critical acclaim should not try to be replicated? Well, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? they kind of tried both.

The film has definite comparisons to The Big Lebowski - three guys on a quest without much of a point, where the humour comes from the situations they find themselves in and the interactions between them - ultimately, the characters are much more important than the story. So far, so Lebowski. But, at the same time, O Brother... is nothing like its predecessor, largely due to the different threads running through it that give it a decidedly less sprawling feel than that of The Big Lebowski. Homer's Odyssey ties together the events occurring and the journey that the men take. Some of the references to the Greek epic are clear (the seductive sirens on the rocks, John Goodman's larger-than-life cycloptic Big Dan Teague), others more subtle (the character of Pete, for example, can often be seen to represent the more mutinous and rebellious faction of Odysseus' men, and his "transformation" in the middle of the journey also has echoes of the temporary metamorphosis of the soldiers into pigs in Homer's epic poem). Attempting such a "loose" recreation of one of the most highly regarded and influential pieces of classical literature is arguably setting yourself up for a fall in many ways, but the Coens don't just manage it - they succeed in every way.

There is also the historical and cultural setting which forms a thematic link throughout the film. Placing their odyssey in the middle of America's Great Depression of the 1930s allows the Coens to present us with some bleak yet beautiful landscapes; the washed-out, almost sepia look of the film is exquisite throughout, with the tones and hues of each shot expertly chosen and crafted. The way the Coens play with light and shadow is also a joy to behold. The scenes in which the characters sit around a campfire produce some of the most photographically wondrous scenes I've seen on screen. We also see throughout the film the ways in which people from all walks of life cope with the hard times they are experiencing. The travelling trio experience everything from a religious congregation atoned of their sins by a priest in a river, to a gathering of a very different kind - a hooded Klan meeting complete with burning cross and prearranged lynching. We see an isolated farmer in a field of corn bewildered by electoral candidate Homer Stokes pledging to "stand up for the little man", complete with a midget companion to hammer home his point. And at one point Pete's cousin Wash tells the men that he's afraid the meat they're currently enjoying is "starting to turn" as he slaughtered the horse it came from several days previously. From start to finish, the troubles of the Depression are relayed in both serious and comedic fashion, but always with expert skill.

Music is also used constantly throughout the film to hold together the proceedings. Music is seen to give hope, such as through the extreme popularity the men garner (albeit entirely unknown to them) as The Soggy Bottom Boys, a collective moniker they adopt when recording a song simply to earn a little money to feed themselves. When they are finally revealed (entirely accidentally) as the band, the excitement and joy in the audience demonstrates how powerful music can be in bringing positivity into the seemingly most hopeless of circumstances. Music is also used to punctuate some of the more dramatic moments in the film, such as when a trio of aging black gravediggers, upon finishing their work, sing the three fugitives to their planned execution with contrabass acapella gospel. The Coens' use music perfectly throughout for both setting the historical scene and the atmosphere, as well as an important device in telling their story.

The characters created in O Brother... are some of the Coens' most wonderful creations of all of their films. John Turturro follows up his sublime supporting role as Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski superbly in a more central and entirely different role as the ever-cantankerous and oppositional Pete. Tim Blake Nelson is brilliant as the simple and good-hearted Delmar, who gets some of the most comically perfect lines of the whole film (in deciding who is the leader of the group, Pete claims "I'm voting for yours truly", to which George Clooney's Everett replies "Well I'm voting for yours truly too; after a glance at each of the other two men, Delmar earnestly tries to resolve the situation: "Well, I'm with you fellas".)

But it is George Clooney who provides one of the most memorable Coen characters of their entire canon as the main protagonist. Ulysses Everett McGill is unforgettable for perhaps two main reasons. Firstly, his undeniable "gift of the gab", which Clooney makes his own from the first word he utters on screen. Everett's constant yet eloquent chatter gets the men into trouble as much as it rescues them from it. It also shows Everett up for what he really is: an intelligent man in the company of two knuckleheads such as Pete and Delmar, but not nearly as clever as he likes to think. This helps to raise him above the cartoonish or allegorical feel of some of the characters in the film, giving him dimension that is both likeable and pitiable. The second readon is Everett's obsession with his hair. Waking several times through the film with a semi-conscious utterance of panic about his follicular appearance, obsessing over his beloved Dapper Dan pomade throughout their journey, and even going as far as to enquire whether cousin Wash has any spare hairnets that he can use whilst they stay with him, this facet of the character is simple yet inspired comedy that the Coen Brothers do better than anyone else, and have possibly not nailed quite so perfectly before or since as they do in Everett

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is therefore an important film to the decade in many ways. It showed the Coen Brothers had the ability to follow up huge success with an original and authentic film that stands in its own right. Its grounding in literature, history and culture show that it is a film of substance, and yet it is still a film that can be watched and enjoyed as a light-hearted farce and finely crafted character comedy. And it helped form a turning point in George Clooney's career, which had in the years before featured more typically Hollywood roles in rom-coms, action thrillers and (yikes) Batman & Robin. The only less mainstream role Clooney had taken before O Brother... was 1996's Robert Rodriguez-directed and Quentin Tarantino-penned From Dusk Till Dawn; many Coen aficionados originally scoffed at the idea of Clooney in the starring role of the Coen's first film of the 21st Century, preferring that the part be filled by a Coen regular, or at least an actor used to roles such as that of Everett. But Clooney silenced them all. Ten years on, Clooney has collaborated with the Coens twice more very successfully in 2003's Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading in 2008, and has cemented himself as an actor of great skill, credibility and diversity. After 2001's Ocean's Eleven, the deal was sealed on Clooney, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? undoubtedly played a key part in the journey to where George Clooney is now in his acting career.

(So yeah, I'll try to make sure Part 2 of this list doesn't take quite so long to materialise here, but for now I hope you enjoyed this opening entry into my ten. I'd love to read any comments anyone might have on this, whether they are in agreement or to tell me I'm talking utter piffle.)

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Review: The Dark Forest and Th13teen (Alton Towers)

Preamble: So, one facet of my, er, multi-faceted geekery is a rollercoaster geek. It's a side that's still developing, as my experience of rollercoasters abroad is nil, and within the UK is still fairly limited. That said, I've loved rollercoasters, and theme parks as a concept, for a long while and it's a love that I intend to develop and nurture for a long time to come. My geekery is also (at the moment) not particularly technical. I don't know all the different names for the many variants of rollercoasters that exist, nor do I know the ins and outs of all the different rollercoaster manufacturers out there, and the intricate physics clearly involved in rollercoaster design is something that will almost certainly elude me forever. What I really love about rollercoasters is the way they make you feel and the willing suspension of disbelief that they can induce. A well-designed and themed rollercoaster can make you feel the same about it no matter how many times you ride on it. Anyway, that's just a bit of build-up as to why I'm about to write the following review...

I can't remember a rollercoaster being hyped as much in the UK as Th13teen at Alton Towers since Oblivion opened at the park in 1998. Since reports that the ageing Corkscrew rollercoaster was to be retired and removed at the end of the 2008 season, I'd been following the progress of Th13teen since it was announced to be the next Secret Weapon, number 6 (5 had been Air, 4 was Oblivion, 3 was Nemesis, and 1 and 2 were unused plans for rollercoasters at the Nemesis site). A Secret Weapon essentially means two things: Alton Towers is spending a lot of money on the ride, and they expect it to be huge when it opens. Alton Towers generated much of the hype themselves through "leaked" videos and pictures, as well as starting rumours of age restrictions and waivers to sign for those who rode the new rollercoaster (rumours that have now proven to be nothing more than part of the build-up).

So I and the thousands of others anticipating the opening of Th13teen had extremely high hopes for the rollercoaster. In keeping with Th13teen's supernatural crypt theme, the area of Alton Towers previously known as the prehistorically themed Ug Land has been transformed into the Dark Forest. So, out with the dinosaur skeletons and giant boulders, in with the wraiths and eerie music. Upon first approach, the area looks good. If anything, at the moment it looks too new. The sign that greets you looks creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, but just a bit too clean and polished. The statues are appropriately gothic, but again could do with a bit of natural weathering to really get the right look. As you go in to the area itself, the retheme has been done well, but the same slight niggle continues. New trees have been planted to make the area look like a forest, but at the moment it's clear that these trees have just been planted. If you want the full impact of the Dark Forest theme, it might be better to visit the park in the 2011 season - when the trees have grown a bit more and everything looks a bit more worn in.

One part of the retheme that does work well is the new look Rita (formerly Rita: Queen Of Speed). The drag racing themed rollercoaster was completely at odds with Ug Land. Many expected the park to completely retheme Rita, with new names even being suggested (Rita: Queen Of The Forest, anyone?). What Alton Towers have chosen to do to fit Rita to the Dark Forest theme is more effective than a complete overhaul. The back story to the Dark Forest is that an "unexplored" area of the woodland around the park has come alive and taken over what used to be Ug Land, transforming it - including the existing Rita coaster. So, Rita's colours have been dulled and dirtied, her queue area has become a wasteland in contrast to the rock 'n' roll/caveman oddity it was before, and the control centre has become swathed in creepers and vines. Even the coaster's new logo is a dark and rusty spin on the old one. Essentially, Rita's new theme is an abandoned version of its former self that has been possessed by the Dark Forest. An intelligent and postmodern choice by Alton Towers, and one that I applaud. By keeping links to the old Rita fans of the ride can still relate to it easily; the rollercoaster most definitely fits into the new area of the park as well.

As you venture deep into the Dark Forest, you eventually come across the entrance to Th13teen. The entrance theming is promising, as are parts of the queue line. At one point
you double take as there appears to be a park employee standing in the woods; closer inspection reveals that this is an employee's uniform filled in with branches and vines - an employee apparently engulfed by the "living" woodland. Another point reveals a crashed Alton Towers van with vines growing through it and "holding" it. We also see shallow graves, one of which has a hand in the grip of some roots protruding from it. The sounds are typical spooky fare, more akin to something from the film The Ring than Hammer Horror, which fit well - we hear a hoarse female voice counting up to thirteen, before emitting a muted scream as if she has been grabbed. But that's about it. The young trees suffer from the same problem as those throughout the Dark Forest, so as those grow that will add to the atmosphere created. Maybe it was because I ended up waiting in the region of 2 hours and 15 minutes to ride on Th13teen that I found the visual stimuli in the ride queue to be somewhat lacklustre, but this is something that Alton Towers could easily add to in future seasons, and hopefully will.

As the ride station comes into view, things get a bit more impressive. The station is a clash of ancient crypt and contemporary building site, as the grey stone turrets stand next to tarpaulins and iron scaffolding. Essentially, the idea is that the crypt has somehow taken over mid-excavation, hence the scaffold being left seemingly half-constructed. This continues as you get into the station itself, and is the part of the theming I felt was strongest before embarking on the actual ride.

So now we come to Th13teen itself. Anyone who hasn't been on the ride yet, and wants to go on without knowing exactly what happens, this is your SPOILER ALERT.

So, the rollercoaster. I very much felt that the ride could be split into three parts. The first part is essentially a fairly conventional rollercoaster. As you embark onto the train, the thing that will strike you before you leave is the restraints, in that they are incredibly simple. There's no shoulder restraints of the other big rides at Alton Towers such as Nemesis and Rita. All you have is a lap bar akin to what you find on the ghost train ride Duel. Admittedly, Th13teen's lap bar feels much more sturdy, but the feeling of being more exposed than you presume you should be on a rollercoaster is definitely there.

You exit the station and turn the corner onto the first big lift hill, which the train climbs at a fair pace. As you reach the top, there is little time to prepare yourself for the steep downhill plunge into the first banked turn (where, slightly unexpectedly for those who know what's coming, the on-ride photo is taken). There are a few more turns and airtime hills, before you enter a different part of the "crypt". I really enjoyed this first section. It weaves through the real woodland, and so at the moment I feel probably doesn't give the full impact - a lot of trees have had to be cut back in order to actually construct the ride, so the feeling of travelling through the forest is lessened somewhat. Once this grows back it'll only add to the experience.

It's at this point that you know Th13teen isn't a white knuckle ride in the same way as previous Secret Weapon rides. The main experience you get from the ride comes from the fact that you feel almost completely exposed, which comes from the lack of shoulder restraints or anything other than the bar on your lap. The first drop is fantastic, and the airtime hills are exhilarating. It doesn't trigger fear in the same way as Oblivion does when it dangles you over its pit, or in the way Rita does when it shoots you like a bullet out of a gun into the ride. But it's also clear that Th13teen was never designed to do this. Th13teen's target is the more complex psychological response than simply putting your brain in a situation where it automatically fears for your safety.

The second section of the ride takes this further. You enter the crypt as stated, and find yourself facing an ancient wooden door and surrounded by statues and gloomy lighting. Creaking noises are heard. The train shudders down a few inches. More creaking, and a second later the car falls through the floor down what must be between ten and fifteen feet, plunging you into a second area of the crypt with supernatural theming (I have to admit I didn't fully take in exactly what it was) but in almost complete darkness. The "free fall drop" is definitely thrilling. Again, not to Oblivion levels, but it's certainly very effective.

We then get the third and final segment, which was my favourite part. The train is suddenly launched backwards at speed through a tunnel in total darkness. There are a few banked turns before the train emerges back into the light. The track then switches to allow the train to complete the ride moving forwards back into the station. Again, this section wasn't so much terrifying as it was psychologically unnerving. You still feel totally exposed by the lack of restraints, and I defy anyone to feel completely at ease travelling backwards at speed in pitch black.

So, how do I rate my first experience of the Dark Forest and its signature ride? Well, I'm a fan of the Dark Forest. It has imaginative elements, such as the new look Rita, and I feel those people who have bemoaned the new look for many of old Ug Land buildings (as opposed to completely new structures) are kind of missing the point of the area. It's a postmodernist take on the spooky theme park area. You're supposed to recognise parts of Ug Land, because the Dark Forest is Ug Land. Or rather, it's where the theme park area of Ug Land used to be, which has now been taken over by some supernatural force that resides in the woodland. The theme is not "spooky area" (such as Gloomy Wood elsewhere in Alton Towers), but "theme park taken over by something spooky". When you're in the Dark Forest area, you're meant to be aware that you're in a theme park, but a gothic and uncanny theme park where everything's creepy and unnerving. Rita's new theme sums it up perfectly. It's not meant to be anything but a rollercoaster. But it's a rollercoaster that's been possessed by something and engulfed by the surrounding creepy area. I guess it's like the difference between a film being a "horror" or a "supernatural thriller". The Dark Forest isn't perfect by any means. As I said before, it needs time to grow and settle into itself. The trees need to develop. The sign needs to dull a little. The stonework needs to weather. Once that happens in the next year or so, the Dark Forest will be a great success.

As for Th13teen, I'm also a fan. I don't think it's perfect, and all the technical problems the ride has had since it opened will not help it at all. On the day I went, the rollercoaster didn't open until about 4pm due to a technical fault. When it did open, only three of the five carriages on each train were being used, leading me to assume the fault was in some way related to the weight of the trains when on the free fall drop section. There have been several days since the park opened in mid March where Th13teen hasn't operated at all, and a significant amount of days where it has only operated for part of the day. My advice at the moment would be that, if you're mainly visiting to experience Th13teen, wait until later in the season, or even until next year when Alton Towers will have had the off-season months to do any major repairs and modifications that the ride may need.

But technical problems aside, I enjoyed the ride. What I do think is that Alton Towers have set themselves up to disappoint many riders of Th13teen. The new rollercoaster has been billed as "the ultimate rollercoaster" and described in the media by Alton Towers representatives as every ride you've ever dreamt about all rolled into one. By codenaming it as a Secret Weapon, Alton Towers also caught the attention of enthusiasts, automatically putting Th13teen on a par with Nemesis, Oblivion and Air before it had even opened. This was only furthered by the emphasis on the "world's first" element - the free fall drop. All of this hype was only going to lead to disappointment for many.

I would also question Alton Towers' approach to marketing the ride. The adverts and promotional materials have made the ride seem quite adult in its theming. However, after experiencing the ride I would say that, although I certainly enjoyed the ride, this is not quite the case. I wouldn't go as far as calling Th13teen a family ride, but it's definitely not as extreme an experience as I was expecting. Maybe if the park had followed through on the age restriction then the theming could have been ramped up to something a little more intense, in which case the advertising campaign would have felt slightly more accurate. There's even a post-watershed version of the TV ad; I'm not entirely convinced that this was necessary. That's not to say it's not an effective promotional campaign, because it is. It just doesn't fit the end product once you've ridden on the rollercoaster.

I thoroughly enjoyed riding on Th13teen, and it's a rollercoaster I'm looking forward to going on during visits to the park in the future. The three elements that go into the ride work well to create a psychologically thrilling experience that doesn't produce the same kind of thrills as Oblivion or Nemesis, but it is certainly a worthwhile and exciting addition to Alton Towers. I waited over two hours to ride, and it was worth it to experience a brand new ride for the first time, but I would only be willing to wait about half that amount of time during any future visits. The slightly off-the-mark promotion and over hyping of the ride, coupled with the technical problems which seem to be ongoing at the moment, mean that Th13teen is likely to have a tough first few months as Alton Towers newest attraction. However, once it has settled in, much like the Dark Forest that surrounds it, I'm sure that Th13teen will become a favourite for many an a fixture of the park, and in the next few years it will be hard to imagine Alton Towers without it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

An Adventure into Driving

I can't (legally) drive. I've had a few lessons so know the basics, but if it came to it and I had to drive a car any real distance along side other drivers, I'd fall apart. The problem is that there’s just too much for me to think about when driving, and I haven’t yet had enough practise for everything to become natural. If I could just steer, i’d be fine, if I could just work the pedals, I’d be fine, if I could just change gears, I’d be fine, but when I have to do it all at the same time, I can’t cope fully.

Recently, on a trip back to the homeland (Liverpool), I was fortunate enough to spend a bit of time tinkering with my good friend, Jonathan Mullin’s Mini. This was about as awesome as you can get for things to do. I love Minis, they’re utterly fantastic, and I love pulling things apart, so you’ll understand, I was in my element. We were working on the clutch and gear system, so we needed to see what happened when the clutch was depressed and clutch pedal, something I was keen to do, as boring as it sounds, because I got the chance to get behind the wheel of a Mini and feel like I was in control. Admittedly the car has no battery or wheels so it’s not like I was going to be going anywhere, but it was still cool. Having fiddle around with the clutch mechanism and bleeding it to remove all the air, we then went to the gears, something I was also keen to do. I remember as a youngster, getting into my parents car and practising changing gear, something I still do at 25, It felt good that I could shift from first to second to third to fourth and then into reverse, not advisable on the road of cause, without too much difficulty, which is hardly impressive. So anyway, the upshot of this is that I felt like I was driving, or at least in control of, and old, smelly Mini, which was marvellous. With luck, as Jonny and I are going to be getting a house together, we will somehow get the wheelless, broken Mini down to London so we can continue to work on it, and with luck get it to a drivable state, in which case I will be learning to drive a Mini, which will make me very happy.

In the mean time I will be learning on this

I bought this the other week and have been having fun driving around like a lunatic in the various racing game I have. It’s good fun and makes driving games much more enjoyable, if not a little harder. I’m still not at the point were I can work the gears as well as the pedals and driving, for the afore mentioned reason, but hopefully I’ll get there eventually. It’s fully equipped with force feedback, so the wheel has some weight to it and will turn itself if you hit a bump or drive on gravel, which makes it all very fun/arm straining. I’m still working out all the various nuances of the different game and driving techniques required to make it round a course without crashing or spinning or generally ruining your hopes of first place glory, but it’s all a learning process. I can hardly say that any of the techniques I’ll pick up here will transfer to actual driving, but you never know when you’ll be racing around a circuit in a high performance car.

So essentially, I’ve had the most car filled couple of weeks possible for someone who doesn’t even have a full driving license.

Monday, 8 March 2010

'00 Ten

So, in order to get myself writing here again, I turn to one of my most favourite topics to write about: film. In that sense, it's an attempt to make my next lot of entries here somewhat easier. But looking at the task I'm setting myself, in many ways it's a hefty task to undertake. That said, the last hefty task I undertook here seemed to go pretty well by several accounts.

I'm going to attempt to pick my ten films of the past decade.

A quick Google search shows that several media outlets have already attempted to do this, giving their opinions in lists extending all the way to top one hundreds. These lists make interesting reading, with everything from Borat to Team America: World Police making it into top tens, and serve to highlight the films that have ingrained themselves into the zeitgeist of the decade and the psyche of those who lived through it. However, it's difficult to see them as anything other than subjective lists. By the very nature of what is being attempted, I fail to see how anything else could possibly be produced. But it has still spurred me on to produce my own subjective rundown of my films of the last ten years.

In the last decade, I've grown from a teenager who watches a lot of films at the turn of the century, to a twenty-something cinephile at the end of 2009. In choosing my ten, I'll attempt to bring together the films that have played the greatest roles in this journey. They won't all come from the best films of the last ten years, or my favourite films, or the films that define the decade - much more likely, they'll be a mix of all three with a handful of other factors thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, they'll be my films and nobody else's. If you agree with my choices then wonderful; if you disagree, equally wonderful. Either way, we'll have plenty to talk about.

I plan to put together a review/explanation for each of my ten films, so expect my first selection here soon (if I get my act together, later on this week).

Monday, 22 February 2010

Furry + foreign = funny

It's been a little while - nearly a month - since anyone posted anything here, which is a shame considering the surge in activity FOTSLJW experienced at the end of '09. On my part, this is partly due to laptop problems, partly due to life getting in the way, and partly due to just being a bit crap. Seeing as the first problem is now seemingly sorted, and the second has momentarily died down somewhat (unfortunately I'm still crap though), I've got a couple of posts I plan to start working on this week if possible. But for now, to break the silence, here's a couple of "blooper reels" from an enduring ad campaign that I must admit is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. It shamelessly deploys hackneyed cliches, such as cute furry things selling stuff, and foreign accents being endlessly hilarious. But they're cute and furry! And he's got a funny foreign accent! Look at him! Listen!

Proper posts will resume shortly.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Poem of the Week #4

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me, with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me, on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither like water held in the hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis Macneice

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

BamBi's Filmography 2009

You know the drill (see 2008 and 2007's versions in case of any confusion). All the films released in 2009 that I saw, each reviewed in twenty five words or less and a score out of ten.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Pitt is fantastic, and Blanchett supports superbly. Absorbing with some beautiful cinematography. Highly polished and crafted. Wonderful.

Slumdog Millionaire
The story kept me hooked from start to finish. Some powerful scenes are peppered throughout. A gritty fairytale told through high quality cinema.

Marley & Me
Very average, very safe. Wilson and Aniston are decidedly bland, with Arkin providing some relief in his scenes. Oversentimental and a bit too long.

Starts well, but loses pace and focus, concluding in an unsatisfying and preachy way. A couple of impressive disaster scenes, but ultimately poor.

Monsters Vs. Aliens

Genuinely funny all the way through, even though the story is a bit too simple. Great characters and some clever humour.

17 Again
Never terrible, but never special. Efron has potential, Lennon provides a few funny moments.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Stays safe, delivering a film lacking in point or substance. The story in the opening credits would have made a much more interesting film.

Ice Age 3: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs
Buck is an excellent addition, but some established characters feel sidelined. The Scrat segments are potentially the best we've seen.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
Broadbent and Felton largely save a half-hearted, patchy and at times incomprehensible adaptation. Even the magic is underwhelming. Not awful, just distinctly average.

The Proposal
The collective charm of Reynolds and Bullock drags this below-average rom-com back up to average. One or two funny scenes, but ultimately forgettable.

Night At Tbe Museum 2
An enjoyable and lighthearted sequel that in many ways is better than the first. An endearing film that's great fun.

Land Of The Lost
Ferrell on autopilot and one-dimensional characters bumble through a second-rate parallel universe of dinosaurs and ice cream vans and make boob jokes. Lame.

The Time Traveler's Wife
Sold as a chick flick, but ultimately more than that. Flawed and at times oversimplified, but intelligent and enjoyable at the same time.

Terminator Salvation
Strong casting in Bale, Worthington and Yelchin and an absorbing depiction of the post-Judgement Day world make a very enjoyable addition to the franchise.

(500) Days Of Summer
Wonderfully difficult to define. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb. Structurally, comedically and emotionally intelligent. Apart from an overly corny ending, an excellent film.

Inglourious Basterds
Sets the bar incredibly high and achieves everything it attempts. Flawless casting, astounding script and direction. A Tarantino masterpiece.

Emotional, funny, expertly crafted. The first twenty minutes are some of the finest cinema I have ever seen. Another Pixar masterpiece.

Star Trek
Great action sci-fi reboot. Strong cast, fairly tight script and an interesting story if somewhat oversimplified in places. Very good opening film to the franchise.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
A quirky, fun take on the Roald Dahl story. Never reaches the heights of Wes Anderson's previous films, but still worth seeing.

By-the-numbers action disaster. Impressive CGI, rubbish script, overlong story, flat characters. Just watch the best bits in the trailer.

Hamlet 2
Disappointing and dull stuff from Coogan. Realises its complete misfire too late to save itself. Some funny songs in the final act.

Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past
Tries to be more than an average rom-com by desecrating a Dickens' story. Fails. Michael Douglas hams it up fairly well.

Not as excruciatingly bad as it could have been; low expectations made it better. Wootton grates in every scene.

Style firmly over substance. By-the-numbers forbidden romance story set in a breathtaking CGI environment. Good action-fantasy-sci-fi. Cameron makes it work.

Sherlock Holmes
Not as clever as it thinks it is, slightly lacking in character depth and robustness of storyline, but a strong cast makes this very good.

And the one's I never got round to seeing:
Sunshine Cleaning
The Soloist
Public Enemies
In The Loop
Funny People
District 9
The Informant!
The Invention Of Lying
A Serious Man
Where The Wild Things Are
The Men Who Stare At Goats
Me And Orson Welles
The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus
Harry Brown
Is Anybody There?
Looking For Eric

So, that's 2009 wrapped up. There seem to be a lot of "best films of the decade" lists going around at the moment, so I may start work on one of those if I feel it's not beyond me and a worthwhile exercise. For now, 2010 has cinematically begun very much on a high for me with the excellent Up In The Air. Review to follow.