Sunday, October 31, 2010

Random Film Review: Shutter Island

Dir: Martin Scorsese | 2010 | USA | 138mins

Throughout the film I wondered in amazement at the hammy acting, numerous basic continuity mistakes and cheap-looking CGI, but by the end I was thinking: was it all intentional? I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio's character has just imagined most of the film, so was it meant to look artificial, cheap and clichéd? Perhaps. But probably not. Nevertheless, the conceit of 'he imagined it all' is just as bad as 'it was all a dream'. It's a cop-out.

Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (who surely anyone with half a brain realised was dead after about ten minutes), when the 'surprise twist' comes at the end of Shutter Island, not only did we guess it at least an hour ago, but we didn't really care one way or the other anyway.

Oh where for art thou, Leonardo? He who was the golden boy in Titanic is now the podgy, average man (though like Matt Damon, still unconvincing as a functioning adult in society) thirteen years later in Shutter Island (which starts on a boat, instantly recalling Titanic; with shoddy CGI, instantly recalling Titanic).

DiCaprio has been in four Scorsese films now. It's obviously just not working: can I suggest he calls it a day? Martin Scorsese hasn't made a great film since 1990 (Goodfellas). That's twenty years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been in a great film (though I grudgingly admit he's been in some real good ones). Did you know he's six foot tall? I always thought he was shorter.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Random Film Review: Phase IV

It's a safe bet Bass didn't design the film's misleading poster.

Dir: Saul Bass | USA | 1974 | 91 min

Are rats and mice forever going to fall for traps? Are badgers and foxes ever going to look both ways before they cross a road? Will rabbits always freeze in headlights? Are animals just stupid or does evolution just take a very long time?

In Phase IV, after an unspecified 'event', two scientists are sent to the Arizona desert to investigate strange behaviour that ants are exhibiting. They're building massive ant nests, displaying high intelligence and evolving at an exponential rate. By the end of the film, the scientists discover that they are in fact the subject of the ant's experiment.

With a cast of millions of ants (I felt itchy throughout) and only a handful of humans in the whole film (half of whom get killed early on), for the first ten minutes there are no people or dialogue at all (just a voice over); mainly just microscopic images of ants. Labelled a 'sci-fi horror' (minus any special effects), most of Phase IV is more like an eerie, psychedelic nature documentary. But its mood and message is in keeping with other classic, intelligent sci-fi films of the period, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and The Andromeda Strain.

I hadn't since Phase IV since I was a child. I did recall it was about ants, though I remembered them being giant-sized (must have been the macro photography giving that illusion). Or maybe I'm thinking of Them! (which does concern giant ants).

Largely forgotten about nowadays, though it has a sort of cult status, being the only film directed by the great graphic designer Saul Bass. Unsurprisingly from the man who gave us the shower scene in Psycho, it's full of eerie, startling imagery: huge close-ups of ants (macro and time-lapse photography were both fairly new at the time); giant ant's nests like monoliths from 2001 (or Easter Island); ants coming out of a dead man's hand (an update of the Bunuel classic); and abstract, hauntingly beautiful shots of landscapes, machinery, and man's (and ant's) relationship to them.

The website goofbutton has assembled a collection of stills from the film, highlighting its visual motifs and colours.

The actress Lynne Frederick was only twenty when she acted in the film; she died twenty years later, in 1994. She acted in Vampire Circus and was married to Peter Sellers and David Frost. For some reason she has several (pretty tacky) fan websites dedicated to her.

If you're a member of you can watch Phase IV for free on their website along with thousands of other films including Let the Right One in and The Mist (both excellent). Please note: this blog has no affiliation with lovefilm and isn't even a member.

It's scandalous that there's still not a decent book about Saul Bass.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Top 10 Google 'How to...' searches

Google's top ten predictive text results when typing 'how to'.

1. Write a CV
2. Lose weight fast
3. Make money
4. Kiss
5. Draw
6. Make pancakes
7. Tie a tie
8. Get a six pack
9. Train your dragon
10. Play poker

If you've mastered all these, you probably have a pretty happy and successful life.

Friday, October 22, 2010


See more of my illustrations here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Die young, stay pretty

Advance apologies if this post sounds a little callous, but have you ever noticed when a child dies in a (usually freak) accident or is perhaps abducted or even murdered, they're always portrayed in the media as being either 'beautiful', 'bubbly', 'full of life' or 'bright'? I mean, does it really matter what they were like? Would it matter less if they were boring, ugly, depressed or stupid? And when a boring, ugly, depressed or stupid child does die, is it just not reported? Is a beautiful (usually white, blonde and female) child's life worth more than an ugly child's? Is it just more news worthy? Considering some 150,000 children go missing every year in the UK (many of which are thankfully eventually found, unharmed), I guess it's hardly surprising we don't hear about all of them, but it would be good to even out the score a bit.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Pheasant season has just began. Did you know pheasants are bred expressly for hunting? Apparently I should have known, having read Roald Dahl's Danny, the Champion of the World (and seen the film) and lived in the country for three years. Well, I know now. It seems a trivial and tragic existence for a pheasant, a handsome yet stupid bird. At least other animals are bred for food, which seems more essential than hunting (though if the pheasants are eaten afterwards, I guess it's okay. In fact they probably get more freedom to roam than most other animals).

We were driving through the country and noticed a line of men waving large coloured flags. Scarecrows? Crazy country folk? I wondered. No, my boon companion corrected me, they are pheasant 'beaters'; men (occasionally women) who drive the birds into the line of fire for the shooters. Sounds like cheating to me. Beating is apparently the new shooting, with one such beater quoted in the Daily Telegraph (never!) as saying he prefers the excitement of beating to shooting. You get a radio and everything.

To me it seems a pretty easy job but apparently there's quite a craft to it. And now an organisation with a website: the National Organisation of Beaters and Pickers Up (otherwise known as NOB; I kid you not... there's a very immature pun to be made about beating and NOBs but I'm not going to go there).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Overheard #6

Two middle-aged men with Bipolar disorder in a charity shop in Westbury, Wiltshire.

– You got any kids?
– What, being Bipolar? You must be kidding. I had the snip years ago. How often do you get attacks?
– It's with me all the time. It never goes away. How about you?
– I have an attack every couple of months. Sometimes I hear voices. I just ignore them. Especially when they tell me to stab my wife.

The man lets out an evil chuckle. Everyone in the shop has heard him, but is not sure if he is joking. We make our way towards the exit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lookalikes #5: Sebastian Roché & Gordon Ramsay

Sebastian Roché, actor, and Gordon Ramsey, Tourette's suffering celebrity chef. The lookalike becomes more apparent watching Sebastian Roché in Fringe. We've just started watching season three.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Now Serving Flat White

After – what? – a thirty year wait, the major coffee chains in the UK are now serving flat white coffee. Originating from New Zealand and Australia in the 1980s, I've been met with blank looks when asking for one in many a UK coffee shop over the years (though several independent coffee shops have been serving it for some time here; most obviously Flat White in London).

I've never had a decent coffee in a chain coffee shop but thought I'd give the Costa flat white a try. Apparently 'Coffee lovers prefer Costa'; they've even based a whole advertising campaign on it which goes something like: 'In head-to-head tests, the majority of coffee lovers preferred our flat white to Starbucks' (this now-widespread competitive advertising I find so juvenile). In small black print (on a dark purple background) at the bottom of the ad are the statistics: out of a 157 sample size, 84 professed to be 'coffee lovers'; 62% of which preferred the Costa flat white, which gives us... 52 people. Wow, that's quite a survey. Mine, BTW, was average. And Costa isn't called Costa for nothing: it cost £2.49.

In my mind, a flat white is pretty similar to a café con leche or a café au lait – both simply meaning coffee with milk (I know there are probably many technical differences*) – amazingly, also pretty hard to get hold of in England. Cafe Rouge, for example, does not serve café au lait (!). It's true – they only have filter coffee, lattes and cappuccinos (none of which are French). And the few times I have been to a Costa or a Starbucks I haven't seen one on the menu. It's not difficult. Go to any cafe in France, Spain or Portugal, and a café au lait or café con leche is readily available (and not a bewildering list of stupid named milk-based substitutes à la mochafuckachino).

In the UK I usually end up opting for a latte, though it is like a coffee milkshake, especially when served in those ridiculous knickerbocker glory glasses (which I'm sure are only meant for women and children). A latte is too milky, a cappuccino too frothy, a filter coffee too... boring. All I've ever wanted is a decent flat white/café au lait/café con leche. It looks like I'll have to wait til I'm next in New Zealand/France/Spain to get one.

(*Costa's How to Make the Perfect Flat White: 1. Perfect the grind; 2. Extract every drop; 3. Treat the milk with respect; 4. Pour with care; 5. It's all about bollocks, I mean balance. Apparently.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Velvet Underground Live 1972 & 1993

'The unanimous opinion was that we were ten times better live than we were on records'
– Sterling Morrison

The Velvet Underground are famous for their live performances in the late 1960s but two very different and interesting post-60s shows are available (sort of; they're out of print now but can be found on eBay or bought secondhand on Amazon): Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico at Le Bataclan '72 in Paris, 1972, and The Velvet Underground Live MCMXCIII in 1993, also in Paris, at the L'Olympia theatre (about a ten minute drive from Le Bataclan).

I only discovered these two albums recently: the former I'd never heard of until a few months ago, the latter I dismissed at the time but thought I ought to have a proper listen to. You know what? It's not that bad.

After disbanding in 1970 (the album Live at Max's Kansas City was recorded in 1970 but not released until 1972), these two shows are all we have of (most members of) The VU live post-1970. After being a bootleg for thirty years (it now seems prescient for Lou Reed to mumble at the beginning, 'Took us a while to get here'), Le Bataclan finally got an official release in 2003. It's as close as we're ever going to get to The VU Unplugged; there are acoustic, after hours bar-room sounding arrangements of VU classics (Waiting for the Man, Black Angels Death Song, Heroin, Femme Fatale, All Tomorrows Parties), given a laid back bluesy treatment. The trio also play songs from their solo careers; Lou's deadpan introductions to his songs include, 'It's my Barbara Streisand song' before Berlin and 'It's a new song. It's called Wild Child. It's about a wild child... funnily enough' before Wild Child. After three John Cale songs comes Nico's set, and it's as if we've been transported from a basement Parisian bar to an austere German Gothic cathedral. Listening to Nico is an acquired taste. I like Chelsea Girl but albums like The End and The Marble Index can be painful at best.

Just over twenty years later, The Velvet Underground reformed with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker for a series of live shows, their last appearances together (Reed and Cale had yet another tiff; Sterling Morrison died in 1995). Just seeing them all together again was enough of a minor miracle for most fans; and though the music mostly is pretty good, Reed's vocals are mostly awful. Watching the DVD (released in 2006) of the concert, everyone apart from Lou seems a bit nervous and awkward; Reed looks like he doesn't care at all. I think I caught him smiling once (nothing unusual there) and there are moments when the band gels and it's magic (Pale Blue Eyes); there are other moments when it's embarrassing (Velvet Nursery Rhyme). There's also a new song, Coyote, disappointingly average. Still, over all, it's pretty good if unremarkable.

Recent Lou Reed being troublesome:
I love Lou Reed when he offends people (almost a full-time job for him). My headline of the year so far has got to be: Lou Reed Makes Susan Boyle Cry (he wouldn't let her do a cover of Perfect Day). Priceless.

In June this year 'fans' yelled obscenities and walked out during the Montreal Jazz festival when Reed, partner and fellow experimental musician Laurie Anderson and John Zorn (also pretty experimental) performed an improvised instrumental set of free-jazz (not so free at £62 a ticket though) with no vocals and very little melody.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Single Father Films

Single Father is a new BBC four-part series starring David Tennant (trying to distance himself from Doctor Who as far as possible) as the eponymous father, whose wife is killed in a road accident, leaving him with four kids to raise.

Traditionally I guess it's unusual for a father to raise his children alone; I don't know, perhaps the BBC thinks it's being original or even daring, but there's a long tradition of motherless movies, and the concept seems to have gained in popularity in recent years. Mostly, the films are either pretty lame (A Simple Twist of Fate, Jersey Girl, Big Daddy, Mall Cop, The Holiday, Inkheart) or portray the father as incapable (Jack and Sarah with Richard E Grant, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 10 Things I Hate About You); usually a bit of both (an exception may be Michael Douglas as a single father in American President; he has a pretty responsible job and it's not a bad film).

(Certainly, single mums in movies are portrayed as capable and managing to have some fun too: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Kate Winslet in Hideous Kinky, Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, Keri Russell in Waitress, Renée Zellweger in Jerry McGuire).

Each decade seems to have its blockbuster single father film: in the 1970s it was Kramer vs Kramer (1979) with Dustin Hoffman; the 80s gave us Three Men and a Baby (1987); in the 90s it was Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Mrs Doubtfire (also 1993); the jury's still out on the 00s – perhaps Love Actually (2003) with Liam Neeson providing the single father strand or The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) with Will Smith?

I occasionally wonder who decides (and why) to make a child motherless in a film: (presumably male) writer, studio executive, director? In the case of Knowing (2009), it was the actor Nicolas Cage. A single father himself for some eighteen years, Cage wanted to expel the movie myth that a man couldn't capably raise his child on his own. I'm not sure having a film about a boy who hears whispers from aliens and eventually leaves earth in a UFO is the best way to go about re-addressing the balance, but full kudos to Cage for trying.

Indeed, either having the father and child in an extreme situation (it's the end of the world in Knowing) or the father being less than fully in charge of his faculties seems a convenient way out for some films. The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, has Viggo Mortensen and son trudge through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. I am Sam (2001) has Sean Penn as a mentally retarded father; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) stars Dick Van Dyke as crackpot inventor Caratacus Potts who doesn't bother sending his children to school; Nanny McPhee (2005), a Mary Poppins ripoff, has Colin Firth as a bumbling dad. But what runs through these films, no matter the circumstances, is how much the father loves his child.

Disney films, surprisingly perhaps, considering they're meant to be 'family' films, have a long tradition of broken families and in particular single dads, from Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950, though the single father dies at the start of the film) through to more recent classics like King Triton in The Little Mermaid (1989), (another) crackpot inventor, Maurice, in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the Native American tribe chief in Pocahontas (1995), the neurotic clown fish dad in Finding Nemo (2003) and Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted (2008). Indeed, single fathers far outweigh single mothers in Disney films, with only Dumbo (1941) and Toy Story (1995) featuring lone mums. The Sony Pictures Animation feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), also features a single father, who speaks in fishing metaphors and has very little control over his son.

One Fine Day (1996) and The Parent Trap (1998) get points for being about both a single mum (Pfeiffer and Richardson respectively) and a single dad (Clooney and Quaid respectively).

The Guardian Weekend magazine recently had an article written by a father of four children whose wife had died. He said women now found him irresistibly attractive and he could get any woman he wanted (unsurprisingly, this provoked something of a backlash in the letters page the following week). There's an assumption that the father hasn't got a clue how to raise children; that he needs help; that he's also caring and sensitive. Apparently women love this kind of stuff. Perhaps this is why many leading men are lining up to play single fathers.

I wonder how many are going to line up to play Bunny Monroe in a possible TV-adaption by John Hillcoat of Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Monroe. Bunny becomes a single dad when his wife commits suicide and he's forced to acknowledge his son's existence; even then he's more interested in getting laid.

Given the influx of single dad films, you'd think mothers are leaving their families (or simply dying) in droves. They're not. It's still the father who is far more likely to walk out (or die).

Abrams's and Spielberg's sentimental, retro monster movie, Super 8 (2011), contained two single fathers: one uptight, the other a mess.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Anvil vs. Spinal Tap

Even after watching the documentary – or rockumentary – Anvil! The Story of Anvil and afterwards, looking them up online, I'm still not sure they're not a spoof band. I mean, their music isn't even as good as Spinal Tap's (who have fallen into that strange grey area of being a fictional band who have actually released a record and gone on tour).

The similarities between Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) and This is Spinal Tap (1984) are just ridiculous: indeed, the characters and dialogue from This is Spinal Tap seem to inform Anvil! The Story of Anvil throughout. Both bands (real and imagined) were big in the 1980s, then vanished into obscurity, and after trying to make a comeback finally became big in Japan. Both are heavy metal bands. Both have a Rob(b) Reiner. Both have volume dials that go up to 11. And the Stonehenge connection. Spinal Tap are certainly more real to me than Anvil.

We all now know that I'm Still Here, the recent documentary – or cockumentary – directed by Casey Affleck about his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, was a hoax. This involved Phoenix being a dick for two years; putting on weight, growing a beard, being obtuse in chat shows, admitting to giving up acting and starting a rap career. Knowing it's now a hoax essentially means Phoenix was acting a part (in public) for two years.

So what I'm waiting for is the makers of Anvil! The Story of Anvil to admit that the band are a hoax; that they've been planning the film since 1973, when two of the band members met at school, and have been acting their parts for the last thirty-five years, just for the film about them to be released in 2008. (At the same time, I'm also thinking, you just can't make these guys up can you?)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Burton's Bedouin Tent Tomb

In a small cemetery in leafy Mortlake, south west London, stands the imposing tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and his wife, Isabel (1831-1896). Explorer, adventurer, soldier, writer, translator, linguist: by all accounts Burton was an amazing man; he spoke some 29 languages; disguised himself as a Muslim to sneak into Mecca; and searched for the source of the Nile. His fondness for erotic literature (and sex in general) made him a controversial character at the time. He is perhaps best known for his translations of One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.

His wife Isabel wrote to her mother, "I want to live... I want a wild roving vagabond life... I wish I were a man". She would always live under the shadow of her husband (this was the Victorian times) but was said to be 'striking, intelligent and unconventional' (being Burton's wife, she would have had to have been); she also wrote some travel and history books.

Their tomb is extraordinary, especially considering the surroundings; the graveyard is tiny and the Burton's tomb sticks out like an oasis in the desert. Round the back of the tomb there's a small window where one can peek in and see their coffins.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Notes on The Brian Jonestown Massacre

They're from San Francisco and real good – much better than their once-friends The Dandy Warhols, who were loads more successful than BJM. They are the subject of DiG!, a 2004 documentary by Ondi Timoner, exposing their lead singer, Anton Newcombe, as a passionate and charismatic yet somewhat crazy and self-destructive individual. BJM have had nearly as many personnel line-ups as The Fall, and like lead singer and songwriter Mark E Smith, Anton Newcombe has been the only consistent band member over the years.

They have released twelve albums and numerous EPs over the last two decades (they formed in 1990), the latest being this year's Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? All their albums are pretty good, and they've been steadily getting more experimental.

They got their name from two sources: Brian Jones, guitarist with The Rolling Stones, who drowned in a swimming pool in 1969; and the Jonestown Massacre, where the Rev. Jim Jones, cult leader of the Peoples Temple, persuaded his almost 1000-strong congregation to drink Kool-Aid poisoned with cyanide and commit mass suicide (in the end 918 people died). This was in Guyana, a tiny country in South America in 1978. There's a good documentary about it called Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

They've named-checked as many bands as musical styles they've used: their band name and album Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request (The Rolling Stones); Bringing it all Back Home Again (Bob Dylan); My Bloody Underground (My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground); Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? (The Beatles). Their musical style has been a combination of psychedelic rock, shoegaze, folk rock and experimental.

A few years ago they were giving away all their albums as mp3s on their website (I don't think they are any more, but they do post radio shows and demos from time to time). I downloaded most of their albums but still haven't listened to them all yet. A few weeks ago I got a BJM compilation in Oxfam, 2004's Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective, a double album which is a good introduction, containing songs from throughout their career as well as live performances and a few rarities.