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BlackSwan
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    • Jaws - Peter Benchley / Fiction Book / 5 Readings / 5 Ratings
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      30.08.2014 18:02
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      • "A genuine page - turner and very difficult to put down ."

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      • " but Spielberg found the character unlikeable "
      • None

      A compelling and thrilling novel. Well-researched for its time.

      I recently picked up my copy of “Jaws” and I have to admit that the opening passage is very hard to beat. Consider these very famous lines:


      “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion: an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of a pectoral fin -- as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain. The fish might have been asleep, save for the movement dictated by countless millions of years of instinctive continuity: lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygen-bearing water through its gills, it survived only by moving.”

      Opening passages to novels are vital. It intrigues me how a good author can draw his reader in at the get-go. Anthony Trollope, in his “Autobiography”, puts it very simply: “Of all the needs a book has the chief need is that is be readable”. Maybe it comes from being born into a family that performed without the privilege of being given grants or being patronized by wealthy indulgent benefactors, but I believe strongly that all artists owe something to their audience. A great novel, no matter what a critic will tell you, should have some very attractive first few lines. Please forgive my obvious simile, but Benchley’s words in this passage are siren-like. You are immediately drawn into the depths of the sea and propelled along with the instinctive movements of the story’s lead antagonist into the primal terror that awaits you on the next few pages.

      I first read the novel, “Jaws”, now superseded in fame by the Steve Spielberg masterpiece of film, in an abridged form in my secondary school library. Later I was in conversation with my grandfather, who had read the book when it first came out in 1974, and he said what I was feeling at the time, it’s a book that is very hard to put down. A lot of different factors are responsible for the enduring success of “Jaws”. The film’s expert suspenseful direction, cleverly adapted screenplay, excellent cast, beautiful cinematography and who could forget the primeval chords of John Williams’ memorable score. The movie, as we know, has been heralded as the first summer blockbuster and has gone onto inspire a huge range of films, from its own sequels to many clones involving sharks and other predators of the deep to less obvious masterpieces in their own right, such as 1979’s “Alien”. Part of the book’s own success might be down to the book’s editor, Tom Congdon, suggesting “Jaws” for a title.

      The copy I ended up purchasing cost me £3 a few years ago from a second-hand book shop in Cornwall. It’s a worn hardback – not abridged this time - and was published for a book club on the year of the novel’s initial release. Although this doesn’t quite make it a first edition there is something nice about possessing an edition that was published ahead of the huge success that would follow. This edition was out before Bantam had even bought the rights to publish it as a paperback let alone before it was picked up by film producers. Knowing this helps me appreciate the essence of what became a bestseller before it became the prototypical summer blockbuster. The next time someone tells you that the plot of “Jaws” is not very good and really it was just Spielberg’s direction or John Williams’ score that made it a success, draw their attention to the fact that the novel was immediately accepted by Book of the Month Club, when it was first submitted, and was subsequently picked up Reader’s Digest before staying on the bestseller list for 44 weeks.

      Sadly “Jaws” has suffered from the critics and several relegate it as purely populist success. This is in somewhat contrast to the movie, which although it was an enormous commercial success and spawned some very silly sequels and imitations, has received a lot of favourable criticism. There have been several scholarly dissections of the movie and the Library of Congress selected it in the United States National Film Registry for as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
      I disagree with the critical consensus of the book. That opening passage speaks volumes about the author’s literary skill. The art he has chosen may be sensationalist, but then so was Sheridan Le Fanu’s and Edgar Allan Poe’s. They still knew how to play their populist pieces with style. Yet again, I find myself looking at the artificial lines of artistic merit and finding then being little more than snobbery. I will go more into detail on this in another essay. For now, I ask that you look at that opening passage again and consider the brilliant way it immediately engages the lay reader with looming terror yet fascinatingly interweaves Peter Benchley’s knowledge of marine biology. The idea that a book’s main protagonist is this perfect killing machine that has evolved yet little changed over millions of years gives the sensationalist genre a type of gravitas that easily suspends disbelief. This seriousness and scientific awareness is present throughout Benchley’s story. He was famously against the dramatic and explosive ending that Spielberg insisted on because this did not resemble the behaviour of great white sharks.


      However, despite being inspired by real life events such as the capture of a 2,060kg great white shark off the shore of Long Island in 1964 and the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks, “Jaws” is an exercise in mythological influence. Benchley was working off the theories of the time on sharks. His novel and the movie would prompt an unprecedented amount of interest in sharks, and a greater understanding of these fascinating creatures. Benchley has said that he couldn’t write “Jaws” now knowing that the vast majority of shark attacks were accidents whereby the animal had mistaken a human for its prey. Indeed attacks on humans are considered to be freak occurrences by most marine biologists. Nevertheless, as has always been the case, sensational fiction indirectly ends up creating more awareness about an issue than just about any other media.


      At least Benchley’s work does not enforce a type of pseudoscience or pseudohistory on you, as is the case with Dan Brown and at least “Jaws” isn’t some partisan documentary. Instead what you get is a 1970s take on the Leviathan (a name Benchley considered a few of his title ideas) and Cetus ideas from ancient mythology. As more exploration has been done and more incredible examples of fossilized remains have revealed the existence of the giants of prehistoric times, we see that “Jaws” reflects that fearful wonderment. Although the shark of the book is diminutive compared to its Cenozoic ancestor, it is part of the Megalodon legacy. On that note, I encourage you to read the less scientific but fun novel, “Meg” by Steve Alten, which also has an excellent opening chapter.
      Although Benchley wrote the first three drafts of the script that became the movie, “Jaws”, Howard Sackler did uncredited work and comedy writer, Carl Gottlieb, was brought on to lighten the tone. Benchley’s book has a decidedly darker tone than Spielberg’s movie and it works well as a novel. All of the novels three main protagonists were unlikeable to Spielberg and I guess might have been ahead of the audiences of the time, even 1970s audiences who were into gritty thrillers and dramas at the time. I find them to be simply more complex and I think an audience that has accepted the moral ambiguity of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter” would possibly buy into these less clear-cut characters if anyone dared to make “Jaws” the mini-series.

      I consider the movie “Jaws” to be one of the best films made and certainly one of the best horrors movies in history. However, the book also deserves to be re-appraised. Like “The Godfather”, a piece of classic fiction that is overshadowed by its brilliant movie adaptation and often snubbed by literary academics, “Jaws” is a true “page turner”. Both books have subplots that were completely dismissed in their movie versions, but work well in a literary sense. Despite being in a simplistic thriller mould, “Jaws” is almost a tragedy with the three main protagonists heading towards a type of final reckoning with a force of nature.

      I recommend you go back before the movie and before the rousing score, and consider the original novel. It is great in full, abridged or to listen to as an audio book, especially at night.

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    • One Hour Photo (DVD) / DVD / 8 Readings / 8 Ratings
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      12.08.2014 16:44
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      • " thought-provoking concept and great set design"
      • "Outstanding performance by Robin Williams"

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      • "Would have been interesting to see the director's longer version"

      Williams shines his brightest in a most unusual light

      Plot:
      “One Hour Photo” is a psychological thriller starring Robin Williams as Sy Parrish, a photo technician working at a large supermarket’s one hour photo developing clinic. Living a lonely and solitary life, the painfully shy Sy becomes obsessed with his regular customers, the Yorkin family (Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith), and fantasizes about being “Uncle Sy”…

      Review:

      With the death Robin Williams I was inspired to look back on this very original thriller, which immediately impressed me when it first came out on video. Rather than going the route of most psychological thrillers, which inevitably involve a lot of overt sexuality and vivid depictions of violence, this took a very different and more sympathetic approach.

      Sy represents the alienation of individuals in modern society. The film’s ending provides us with a strong negative motivation for Sy’s desire to be a part of the perfect family, but the bigger picture is a story about how we often treat other members of our society. Sy’s narration discusses the false representation offered by photographs. The tragedies are rarely seen. Instead family albums of photographs are tapestries of smiling happy faces. Sy accepts this is not the true face, but he wants to believe in this utopia. The inspired set designs of the movie depict his workplace as a sterile and emotionless machine that affects a “heaven-like” hyper-reality and his home, where he keeps his shrine to the family he is stalking, is symbolic of Hell. Humans are naturally social creatures but Sy has no family or friends. Humans are driven to improve and be creative, but when Sy gets passionate about maintaining a certain standard in his workplace he is scalded and reminded about his position in the order.

      Given the way digital and social media is today, the film hints at the horrors that lie in wait. Stalking is so prolific now the term has been partly accepted as normal behaviour. A world entertained by reality television has pushed the boundaries of privacy further than the most persistent of paparazzi photographers. However, Williams’ performance conveys the tragedy of the loner who is socially inept and longs for a sense of belonging. Between Sy’s collage of photographs and the false world of his workplace we can see a parallel with the interactive multimedia we use today. The sadness is not just that our society shuns loners like Sy and encourages them move in a dangerous direction, but that the enforced solitary activity of “social” networking with its pseudo-relationships and instant gratification might mean we might all end becoming like him.

      The true genius behind “One Hour Photo” is, of course, Mark Romanek who wrote and directed the picture. Romanek took the “Taxi Driver” lonely man idea popular in 1970s films and delivered a far more sympathetic character in a brighter environment. Rather seeing the dirty, gritty and dingy world of the hardboiled thrillers of this era we see a far less honest world of veneers and artificiality, masks hiding complicated feelings and emotions. The more overtly darker look was something that Romanek obviously played with when he originally booked Trent Reznor to do the soundtrack. Despite being a big fan of Reznor’s work, I definitely think the direction Romanek took paid off.

      To many, the idea of Robin Williams playing a sinister part was a surprise. He had already played the role of an obsessive and murderous psychopath in “Insomnia” and his performance had not been very well received. He won a Golden Raspberry in the Worst Actor category for that year. It seemed to be a step too far for Williams. However, I would argue that “One Hour Photo” is perhaps Williams’ finest moment.
      Much of the persona that audiences had come to expect of the actor was down to his success as the alien Mork in the “Happy Days” sit-com spin-off “Mork and Mindy”. Willaims established himself as a comedy actor and comedian. He became known for being this zany, fast-talking character that could do various funny voices and brought unrelenting energy to the screen. Despite handling many adult topics in his stand-up act and having little prudence regarding the use of foul language, there was something of the man-child in Williams. He could project a vulnerability that has made so many clowns loveable. “Good Morning Vietnam” opened up the possibilities for a deeper Williams. This was despite the fact that he had already shown a lot of promise in the 1982 comedy drama, “The World According to Garp”. Sadly, knowing the depression he suffered, he has fulfilled the cliché so many tragic comedians and comedy actors fallen into. Early reports on his death indicate that he might join Tony Hancock, Paul McCullough, Richard Jeni and possibly Kenneth Williams in that his depression led him to the ultimate conclusion of suicide. The obvious question remains how much of Williams’ pathos on the screen was connected to the depressive flipside of his otherwise jovial personality?

      In “One Hour Photo” we see Williams possibly learning from the mistakes he made in “Insomnia” and balances the dangerous side of his character with tragic empathy. His role in "Insomnia" is unfairly criticized. Most dangerous psychopaths are really quite pathetic individuals, but perhaps Williams' performance in an already tiring movie just didn't pay off in the dramatic sense. Here we get a far more intelligent dark exploitation of Williams' accessible performances. As some wry observers have put it, "Mrs Doubtfire" has an unintended disturbing message regarding obsession. Strip away the romanticism of "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting", and are these characters really on the level? This picture brings together ideas from several of Williams characters and holds a more realistic mirror up to them. Sy can almost be seen as innocent, yet he is a stalker, a fantasist and an obsessive with the potential to be lethal. On the surface the film appears to be a psychological thriller that works off the cuckoo premise seen in “Fatal Attraction”, “Single White Female” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, but there is far more to the picture than this concept. It goes in a very different direction and a lot of that is down to Williams’ performance.

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      • More +
        11.08.2014 13:34
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        (Rating)

        Advantages

        • " successful soundtrack "
        • " good traditional animation"
        • "Good cast and characters"

        Disadvantages

        • " mismatched soundtrack"
        • "Poor CGI animation"

        Quest for Camelot is not entirely fruitless

        Plot:
        Young Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig/Andrea Corr/Sarah Freeman) is the daughter of one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table (Gabriel Byrne). She dreams of one day becoming a knight. One day her father is slain trying to defend Arthur (Pierce Brosnan/Steve Perry) from a power-hungry and greedy knight of the table called Ruber (Gary Oldman). The villain escapes after Arthur uses Excalibur to defeat him, but swears revenge.

        10 years later Ruber sends his Griffin to steal Excalibur. The creature is successful in removing it from Arthur’s castle, but is attacked by the wizard Merlin’s (John Gielgud) falcon, Ayden (Frank Welker), and the sword is lost in the Forbidden Forrest. Ruber captures Kayley and her mother (Jane Seymour/Céline Dion), intending to use them to gain access to Camelot. Kayley escapes and begins a quest to recover Excalibur. She is pursued by Rubur and his mechanical army, created by a potion he is used to meld humans with weapons. Along her way she will be assisted by the blind hermit, Garrett (Cary Elwes/Bryan White), and the conjoined dragon Devon (Eric Idle) and Cornwall (Don Rickles) as well as Merlin’s falcon, Ayden…
        Review:

        At bedtime my daughter and I are making our way through the various attempts other studios made to challenge Walt Disney Animation Studios. From 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” to 1999’s “Tarzan”, Disney enjoyed what is now often referred to as “The Disney Renaissance”. Collaborating with the highly successful West End musical composer/songwriter, Tim Rice and selecting traditionally popular stories, Disney enjoyed commercial and critical success they hadn’t experienced since the 1960s. However, they weren’t without their competition. Before this period, several other animation studios had sprung up as pretenders to the throne. It also should be noted that “The Disney Renaissance” may owe its success to the inspiration created by ex-Disney animator, Don Bluth. Bluth’s directorial debut was 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH” – a personal favourite of mine – and his fingerprints can be seen in the previous year’s “The Fox and the Hound”. His style was something of a protest at the direction Disney had taken and a championing of the classic style. However,
        “The Quest for Camelot” was an attempt made by Disney’s largest rival, Warner Brothers, and they were more inspired by the tremendous success Disney had experienced with “The Lion King”. Headed by ex-Disney executive producer (for “The Lion King”), Max Howard, Camelot was set to be their first feature length animation.
        “The Quest for Camelot”, which is very loosely based on Vera Chapman’s “The King's Damosel”, had its title somewhat infantilized to “The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot”. Surely British audiences would know the name “Excalibur”. Besides, both titles are misnomers. The quest is for not Camelot. Everyone in the story knows where Camelot is situated. The quest is for the sword. Nevertheless, confusion over the title would be the least of this film’s problems. It was a box office flop, but I think it still has a fair amount of redeeming features that put it above a lot of its competition.

        In hindsight, there were clearly a lot of production difficulties and I fear few of the filmmakers had much affection for the picture. Early on they had lost to Bill and Sue Kroyer who had directed the highly successful Kroyer Films/A. Film A/S/FAI Films feature length animation, “FernGully: The Last Rainforest”. They left due to creative differences. I find myself in a minority in my almost total dislike of this preachy piece of eco-entertainment and dread to think what the film would have looked like if they had been at the helm. Nevertheless, the film’s bombing at the box office seems to be down to a lack of faith from the onset and then in retrospect. The film was badly promoted, relying a lot on “Wendy” restaurants, which had nothing like the clout of McDonald’s or Burger King, which would do a far more impressive job with other family movies. It was originally slated for release in 1997, but withdrawn for fear of competition from several other big hitters, one of which was Fox Animation Studio’s “Anastasia”. However, its release the following year saw it lose out to three very overhyped and disappointing films, “Deep Impact”, “The Horse Whisperer” and “Godzilla”.
        A primary problem both critics and those who worked on the picture seem to agree on is the animation. Budgets ran over and the resulting being a mismatching of styles. The film introduces elements of CGI, most notably with the Rock Ogre, which is somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the animation. However, this really isn’t a massive faux pas when one considers what was going on in animation at that time. Many feature films were making the awkward transition over and dipping their two dimensional toes into the pool of 3D animation. Pixar had already paved the way with their first feature length success, “Toy Story”, in 1995. The year that Camelot was released saw both Pixar and their emerging direct CGI rival, DreamWorks, go toe-to-toe with their respective anthropod box office hits, “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz”. However, other animation studios were understandably wary about using this technology and the fact that Disney’s traditional animation would remain hugely successful at the cinema until 1999 shows a degree of justification. They would continue with mixed critical and commercial success with the traditional format until 2005 when they released their first fully computer animated film,
        “Chicken Little”.

        Earlier on in the 1990s, the new animated “Spider-Man” TV show was already pairing three dimensional landscapes with their 2D characters to good effect. However, the road to full length CGI feature films was not going to be smooth. Four years after the release of “The Quest for Camelot” Disney’s “Treasure Planet” would lose far more at the box office. Despite fairly good reviews, I distinctly remember Jonanthan Ross’s criticism of the unhappy marriage of CGI effects with traditional 2D. I had to agree with him. The visuals were pretty horrible. However, “Anastasia”, Camelot’s feared rival, also attempted this combination and did very well. To be fair, the effects were executed with far more style than Camelot, but Camelot’s traditional animation is as strong as any other feature length animation. “Anatasia” and Camelot both should be praised for experimenting with these two different styles of animation.
        The story is pretty standard and has very little to do with its source material – be it Chapman’s novel or the legends of Arthur. Nevertheless, the characterization is good. Kayley is a likeable hero with her love interest, Garrett, leading the way for strong disabled heroes in mainstream children’s animation. Issues, such as death and respecting differences are amongst the most obvious themes, but nothing seems overly didactic, which is a refreshing change for ‘90s children’s fiction. Gary Oldman is on top form, as the villainous Ruber. I am a fan of most of Oldman’s work and although this is nowhere near the highlight of his acting achievements, he does manage to sing his own song, unlike the majority of the cast. Ruber is my kind of villain with a genuine air of menace about him. After a rather clumsy introduction, he settles in as a very powerful foe that is both as intelligent as his enemies and generally more powerful. I get so sick of comical and especially cowardly villains when their function is to set up a strong sense of peril for the story’s heroes. Ruber more than accomplishes this part. Eric Idle and Don Rickles also prove to be good comedy relief without being annoying.

        Frederik Du Chau seems to be something of journeyman in the animated feature movie world, but he keeps the drama going at a good rate. The film hits all the right notes, going in and out of the action fluidly. He coordinates a good assortment of characters and nothing appears wasted or overly long.
        The film has the dubious honour of having a soundtrack that is far more successful than the rest of the feature. Like the voice cast, it is packed full of famous names including The Corrs, Andrea Bocelli and LeAnn Rimes. Céline Dion even racked up a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for best original song with “Prayer”, which has gone onto become a classic in her repertoire. There is a wide range of styles and some interesting duets. However, besides Eric Idle and Don Rickles’ duet and Gary Oldman’s piece, I don’t think much of it really fits that well. This really is the crux of the matter. One thing that Disney tends to do better than any of their rivals is to construct animated musicals. All of their songs are sung by members of the cast. However, rather than selecting a cast that could carry off the musical numbers Warner Brothers seemed to prefer to throw money at their picture by having both famous actors and singers. The result is a distinct separation between the soundtrack and the rest of the film.
        “The Quest for Camelot” is an entertaining family film, which takes several risks in its otherwise simplistic storyline, which pay off. The cast is strong and the traditional animation is as good as anything else being produced by its rivals. However, it would probably have done better to largely stay away from the musical format and to have not attempted the CGI effects. You can see there was far more cynicism behind its development with Warner Brothers, the world’s biggest entertainment company at the time, trying to mimic Disney’s success rather the passion and love shown the likes of Don Bluth and Bill Kroyer. However, this doesn’t take away from the good work that was put in by most of the team.

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      • The Conjuring (DVD) / DVD / 9 Readings / 9 Ratings
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        30.07.2014 12:34
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        • "Good sets and fluid direction . Popular and critically acclaimed film . "

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        • "Unimaginative . Presents an awkward combination of ropey CGI and 1970s style reimagining "

        Sensationalist Reimagining of the Perron Family Haunting/Possession Case

        Plot:
        In 1971 the Perron family (Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarl, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver) move into an old farmhouse. A series of unusual events lead the family to enlist the help of psychic investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga respectively). The Warrens discover a history of suicides and murders that have taken place on the surrounding land that once belonged to the owner of the Perron’s house. This owner had been accused of witchcraft who had tried to sacrifice her child to the devil and eventually killed herself in 1863, cursing all those who lived on her land...

        Review:
        Not being a person who is typically in sync with populist or intellectual taste, I guess I should not have been surprised by the response that met “The Conjuring”. Whenever someone discussed horror in social media circles this film kept reoccurring with favourable reviews of the possession/haunted house hybrid horror. The general public seem to have found it to be a genuinely scary movie, which has hit the right nerve at a time when so-called “reality” shows like “Ghosthunters” and “Most Haunted” and misleading partisan documentaries about possession have established a strong mainstream following ripe for this type of “true story” horror. The canny team behind the film’s modest $20,000 appear to have got their timing right. With minimal thought “Found Films” and “Torture Porn” along with gory B-movie send-ups saturating the horror genre for well over a decade, someone clearly thought it was time to go back to the 1970s and unearth a few more tricks. That person might well have been the film’s director, James Wan, who first found fame with the original “Saw”. The academic critical response seems to go along these lines. From what I have read their consensus of opinion is that the film executed “old school” proven concepts well, making up what it lacked in originality with sheer style. Even so, I was flabbergasted to discover that “The Conjuring” is one of the highest grossing horror movies of all time and the high praise being heaped upon in horror and general movie review magazines and websites.

        It is my guess that a lot of the things that made the film the darling it has become, grated on me. The fake true story premise is a long established method. The 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is perhaps the most notorious example of using this method with its film having even less tenuous links to the murderer and body-snatcher, Ed Gein, than “Psycho” or “Silence of the Lambs” (neither of which used this device). “Inspired by true events” is probably a less deceptive description of such films, but I guess it is all in line with the oral tradition of telling campfire urban legends. The film heavily dramatizes the events in the Perron household, which is only to be expected, but it the way the film really tries to force you to believe in the film’s heroic psychic investigators that I find annoying. Early on we have a rather clumsy scene created to demonstrate Ed Lorraine’s integrity. We are shown that he knows the supposed difference between a haunted house and natural phenomena that a client mistakes for a haunting. Needless to say, this was much better handled in 1999’s “Stigmata”, where we see a world weary caught off-guard.

        Ed and Lorraine Warren get the dubious credit of taking the archaic practice of demonology and combining it with Victorian Spiritualism and turning it into a business. By giving it a type of mainstream religious respectability via Christianity – especially Catholic exorcism - and actively publicising their various sensational-sounding cases, they laid the seeds for the blossoming ghost hunting industry we see today. Indeed, many of today’s psychic investigators were trained by this duo. Looking back through their history, we see they rarely missed a trick. The Warrens career included them tackling various different colourful spiritual entities, including a werewolf spirit and the case of “The Amityville Horror”. Of course, “The Conjuring” is the witch episode. The witch, in question, turns out to be Bathsheba Sherman, a relative of Mary Easty, one of the many unfortunate victims who were hung for witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The implication here is that Easty was a witch, which is an outright insult to her memory and the other innocents who perished in a time of terrible ignorance and superstitious belief. With Ed Warren now deceased, Lorraine was a consultant on this film and even got a cameo. Imagine being involved in such a deeply disturbing case, where you were taken to your mental and physical limits, and then coming back to appear in a Hollywood dramatization of said event to appear like Alfred Hitchcock/Stan Lee for your fans. The mind boggles.

        From dolls and music boxes to the type of demonic possession scenes that haven’t moved on a great deal since the original “The Exorcist”, the film seems to be a buffet of paranormal horror clichés that lacks any sort of charm. I don’t like the effort that is made to suspend disbelief, which seems to be worryingly preachy. Even “The Exorcist”, which was backed and pushed by the Catholic Church, and based on a novel written by a believer who had been inspired by the story of a young boy’s exorcism, did overtly push this onto its audience. Like any art, it is often spoiled if we feel like we are being persuaded. As if to undermine this serious approach taken throughout the film, we get special effects that are reminiscent of “Paranormal Activity” and seem at odds with the 1970s atmospheric style of movie James Wan seems to be trying to recreate.

        My review has come across largely as negative, but I think that is more of a reaction to balance the overzealous response I fee has been heaped upon a largely uncreative picture. The acting is reasonable if not outstanding in any particular way. The dialogue is unmemorable. The sets are excellent. The visual effects look set to date very fast and out of sync with the movie’s feel. This is not always the case, as can be seen in the most recent adaptation of “The Woman in Black”. There is certainly flow between the scenes and tension is built relatively well, which is no less than I would expect from this particular director. There is no denying James Wan’s ability at handling genre films, but his recent work on “Fast and Furious 7” appears to show that he is probably closer to the Michael Bay cynic than the Peter Jackson geek in this respect.

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      • The Wolf of Wall Street (DVD) / DVD / 11 Readings / 8 Ratings
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        18.06.2014 10:41
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        • " excellent stylistic direction and Oscar worthy writing"
        • "Strong main cast performances"

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        • "Largely two-dimensional supporting characters "

        A stylistic, lavish and detatched reveal of Wallstreet's greatest rogue

        Plot: Based on the autobiography of the same title by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), ?The Wolf of Wall Street? is a black comedy about the self-made millionaire who rose to fame through the stock market and founded Stratton Oakmont. Jordan Belfort begins his career in 1987 working for a big city stockbroker firm only for the firm to go bust due the Black Monday Wall Street crash. He discovers the penny broker business and builds up his own empire. However, Belfort''s life of excess, fraudulent enterprises and pursuit of money have some dire consequences? Review: ?Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust.? Zig Ziglar The above quote was randomly generated on one of my email servers today and I thought it was very apt for the theme of the film I viewed yesterday. Ziglar''s quotes seem to be in the very fabric of modern American ideas about success. So much so, that I have found myself tripping over them in my dealings with various aspects of cut-throat business and self-help culture. I doubt this guru of both respective fields would care for me associating him with this review, but nevertheless the life story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is provides the archetype for the alpha salesman in the modern age who eventually became a motivational speaker. Ziglar''s quote is echoed in the lessons Belfort tells his trainee brokers. The myth of the equal relationship between the client and broker is destroyed within the early stages of the film, and we see its principles laid raw in drug-dealing, stockbroking, money-laundering and self-help. ?The Wolf of Wall Street? is anything but a subtle film. This makes sense given that we view the picture through the eyes of a man who unashamedly measures everything by the acquisition of wealth, and believes they way to do is to be brash and aggressive. It is on-the-nose (or maybe up it) in the way it screams at the viewer that addiction is the road to ruin. However, Scorsese holds back from making the picture a typical tragedy of errors and the film has received criticism for lacking a moral compass. The said addictions of sex, drugs and especially money are seen as accepted pitfalls of what is required to succeed in this particular lifestyle choice. From the film''s outset the newly employed Jordan Belfort is coached by his first stockbroker boss that he will need casual sex for the relief of the stress that the job entails and drugs to help him operate throughout the day (different drugs serving different purposes). The money, of course, buys both and just about every other one of Belfort''s wishes. He is unashamedly superficial and materialistic, believing, like most men of his ilk, that he is just being honest. Obvious parallels to ?The Wolf of Wall Street? are ?Blow?, ?Wall Street? and Scorsese''s own ?Goodfellas? and ?Casino?. It is familiar territory for Scorsese, but there are distinctive differences in this film from his other stories of over-reaching rogues. The regular pairing of Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio has marked a very divergent era than the times of the Scorsese and Robert De Niro partnership. I would consider the De Niro films to be generally better as individual films. They had a cleaner style and better all-round performances, but I think the DiCaprio run has been more daring and varied in content and approach. ?The Wolf of Wall Street? might not necessarily be a better movie than any of the aforementioned parallels, but it certainly is braver. Scorsese adopts a rather unbalanced approach to his storytelling. Belfort breaks the fourth wall and delivers semi-soliloquys, saving his big philosophical rants for his concert-like motivational sales speeches to his stockbroking employees. We also get voice-over narration from Belfort and, on the odd occasion, hear his thoughts when in a meeting. Here we sometimes get a quick shift in perspective, revealing the thoughts of another character. Such a move was interesting given the way Belfort''s character dominates the film so much with his opinion and charisma. Having these very small asides, hints at Scorsese''s desire to present a more well-rounded view of the story. This has shades of ?Casino?, which used changing first person narratives in a very exciting and sometimes unpredictable fashion. ?The Wolf of Wall Street? is visually very impressive and needs to be in order to help viewers see the world from Belfort''s opinion. Rodrigu Prieto was a good choice as cinematographer in this instance. No stranger to lavish epics, but known for taking eccentric risks he seems an ideal choice for the direction that Scorsese wanted to go in presenting his regular theme in a different light. There are some impressive wide shots and great visuals using natural lighting. Prieto wanted to present the visuals in a way that depicted Belfort''s moods, using ?anamorphic lenses with shallow depth of field for his lack of clarity, and spherical lenses and more depth of field for sharpness of clarity?. [i]His personal favourite scene occurs in a nightclub, where we see the effects of the various drugs Belfort takes. However, I feel that a pivotal scene on the yacht where Belfort faces his FBI nemesis for the first time is a great example of Prieto''s expertise. This must have been a challenge and it really stood out in my memory. Here we have beautiful sunshine and Belfort is keen to display his wealth and power in order to influence the agent as would do a client or business associate, and yet he is facing perhaps his most deadly opponent, a different type of human being that has an entirely different objective to anyone else Belfort has encountered. However, my liking for this scene might come from the film''s writer, Terence Winter, the man responsible for creating the outstanding ?Boardwalk Empire? and a regular writer for the critically acclaimed ?Sopranos?. I haven''t read Belfort''s autobiography, but on the strength of this film I think Winter''s work is a worthy nomination for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars. It is not so much the actual storyline, which is pretty basic and lacks depth, a bit like Belfort''s outlook on life, but the dialogue scenes are highly entertaining. There is definitely a case of style over substance in the picture, which is quite understandable given the source material, but still it would have been better to see more below the surface. The downside of living life in the fast lane is nothing new in drama. There is plenty of black comedy that reveals the lack of humanity the pack mentality of Belfort''s brokers possess when dealing with their clients and just about anyone else outside their company or anyone in the company that does not conform to their rules. There is also a degree of very funny slapstick humour that reveals DiCaprio''s range as a physical artist when he hits the "cerebral palsy" stage of drug usage. However, I would have liked to have seen a bit more contrast with Belfort''s antagonists. Scorsese exercises a lot of restraint in his handling of these people, presenting them as dark and dry figures standing in the shadows. However, there were some tantalizing possibilities when we heard the odd aside from individuals who despised Belfort and I would have liked a little more exploration. The cast was certainly strong and this might be Leonardo DiCaprio''s greatest performance to date, allowing him to show a wide range of ability as we followed the various aspects of Belfort''s life. Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff (a fictional character loosely based on Danny Porush, who threatened to sue over the way he might have been depicted) also really comes into his own. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are two dimensional stereotypes. I get that they might have seemed that way to the self-obsessed Belfort and it works to a certain degree, but not when Scorsese and Winter clearly wanted to also show other perspectives. These are relatively minor quibbles, but a film of this magnitude always highlights its own shortcomings more than a less grandiose production. I am not going to get into the animal issue surrounding the picture too much other than I would be very wary of the motivations and claims made by the groups voicing these concerns. I know the family animal sanctuary that did the training and can vouch for their high level of competence, professionalism and animal welfare. I don''t doubt that the lion and chimpanzee were very well cared for and their inclusion made for some very effective scenes adding to the epic feel of the movie. Given the film''s title and the way Belfort happily embraced the symbol placed on him by describing his office as a ?wolf-pit?, animal references can provide for some interesting symbolism. I would have liked to have seen more if anything, but I am very biased in this respect. Despite having personal dislike that verges on complete revulsion and despair for the Wall Street type subculture I have little problem with an 18 certificate movie that is morally ambiguous. We are in an age where partisan documentaries, shamelessly spouting propaganda, have established themselves on the big screen and are in direct competition with mainstream feature films. Why then shouldn''t art take a more dispassionate position? True, not all of the consequences and repercussions of Belfort''s actions are covered in any detail. In fact, you mainly just see how it directly affects him. However, I would like to think that the vast majority of viewers see enough to draw a balanced opinion on this individual and what he represents. Due in no small part to DiCaprio''s performance, you feel sympathy for the man and you can see the attraction to his world. It is presented as explicit money pornography in the same way that the use of heroin is justified in ?Trainspotting?. Much like ?Trainspotting?, the lead character is self-aware of his addiction and never descends into self-loathing and doesn''t go into conventional redemption either. I didn''t leave the theatre liking Belfort much. He wasn''t even attractive in a Byronic way. He was only courageous and bullish when he could wield his single weapon of bluff and persuasion or the influence of money. He comes over as a failure as a father and a husband. He is useless lover despite being a self-confessed sex addiction, cannot fight anyone who won''t be bought by money and ultimately is a weak friend. Such points, which are never brushed over, can be lost in the overload of the visuals that Scorsese lavishes upon audiences with depictions of all that money can buy. However, that is the point and, to most well-balanced people, the test. Belfort might revel, justify and bask in his lifestyle, but besides the pack of wolves he employs or the hookers he pays, he laughs alone. This is starkly shown in his efforts to win over the FBI agent who makes it his job to take him down. The message, if there is one, is decidedly human and only provides a degree of insight rather than opinion. [i] Hollywood Reporter, ?''Wolf Of Wall Street'' Cinematographer Talks Filming Tricks for Buzzy Quaaludes Scenes? by Carolyn Giardina, 27/12/2013

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      • Quartet (DVD) / DVD / 28 Readings / 28 Ratings
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        02.03.2014 16:06
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        A well-made and enjoyable gentle comedy drama

        Plot:

        Every year on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday Beacham House, a retirement home for musicians, holds a concert to raise funds. This year the house is in particular trouble and the residents are reliant on the success of the concert. Lifelong friends and house residents, Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Reggie (Tom Courtney), step forward with former colleague Cissy (Pauline Collins) to put on an especially important performance. They wish to end the show with a quartet. Reggie is a hugely respected singer, matched only by his ex-wife, the former grande dame of the opera house, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). Jean joins the home wishing to respectfully leave her career behind, but Wilf and Cissy know her presence in the quartet alongside Reggie will create enough public interest to save Beacham House. Reggie is still heartbroken from Jean's admitted affair and Jean has no desire to sing long past her prime. Meanwhile Cissy's dementia becomes ever more evident. Can Wilf's energy and good humour prevail upon the true spirits of his friends?

        Review:

        There are now a good number of films that deal with the age and garner a lot of affection. I would go so far to say that these productions nearly always get a respectable amount of critical acclaim if they don't necessarily do well commercially. I wonder whether a good number of are made as guaranteed Oscar fodder. The great Bette Davis probably inspired later producers and directors that critics and the general public alike are far more forgiving on established stars in their twilight years than at any other period of their career. What she might have also demonstrated to the more quality motivated filmmakers is that some of these years can often provide us with their best performances. Nevertheless, there is nearly always a type of cheer or smile of recognition when an actor like Christopher Lee appears in a cameo performance. Therefore, it is little surprise that "Quartet" having a highly respectable aging cast and credible writer will mainly receive positive reviews from professional critics. However, I have to say that the response is totally justified. I went in with little knowledge of the source material and was prepared sit through an imitation of "On Golden Pond" or "Saving Grace" in terms of style and structure, and was pleasantly surprised.

        "Quartet" is a gentle comedy drama, as predicted, but there is no attempt to hit us with an outrageous comedy scene as many British films of this ilk are want to do. There are no standout scenes, but we are saved from predictably descending into bad British tragic comedy cliché the likes of which the TV series "Derek" is the worst mainstream example. Death and the fragility of life are touched upon with gentleness. Being set in a retirement home we don't need crassly reminding of their presence. There is more than enough interesting drama and humour to keep the viewer's attention. The build to the climax is almost written and directed as if it had elderly viewers in mind who might suffer heart failure if there was too much suspense. Similar and, I guess, wise restraint is shown in not having any of the lead cast either attempt to sing or mime.

        Being based on a play, "Quartet" is very much an actors' film and I think it might put over the argument that many actors do some of the best performances during their greying years. I do not mean that as a slight on Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut. The understated style matches the storyline very well and Hoffman really allows the actors to breathe. I guess this might come from Hoffman's own background as a method actor who appreciated little interference. It might also be in respect of the pedigree of veteran actors, Sir Tom Courtney, and the great Dame Maggie Smith.

        Tom Courtney is not seen much on the screen in recent years, preferring live work, but he is cast very well. His distinctive voice has a slight tremble to it that portrays well his character's unhealed emotional wounds. Maggie Smith has enjoyed something of a revival in the past 10 years, winning younger audiences through the Harry Potter franchise and constantly stealing scenes as well as the best dialogue as the cutting and witty voice for dying tradition in the "Downton Abbey" drama series. For these reasons she gets top billing her performance is fine, although the celebrity status of her character is so close to the affection the general public feel for the actress that it is a little hard to see if the role was particularly challenging.

        The expression "Don't tempt fate" applies a lot to Billy Connolly. As much as the brilliant comedian likes to deliver very funny anecdotes about his past, he is often prophetic in his subject matter. His very funny piece on prostate cancer examinations - "You get used to it, but you never get to like it" - might be viewed with a sense of dark foreboding now given his recent albeit minor operation. However, his hilarious and very apt description of opera, which he admitted to loving, could be viewed as a pleasant preface to "Quartet".

        Despite a very respectable ensemble cast of aging lovable actors, Connolly's performance finally shines out against the heavyweights. He has quite a history of holding his own against the best - the most memorable being his co-starring role with Judy Dench in "Mrs Brown" - but his performance tends to be that of a very able supporting actor and offers little that one could consider to be outstanding. However, his development of this approach comes into its own in "Quartet". By playing the role of a lesser singer against the two hugely respected headline stars, Connolly's character proves to be the life and soul of the project. His character reminded me of the Tom Ballard character in the TV series, "Waiting for God", with his flirting and determination to enjoy the rest of his life. Connolly's performance is to take nothing away from Courtney or Smith's entertaining acting or, indeed, the other member of the quartet, Pauline Collins, who provides a lot of pathos in her character's struggle against dementia, or Michael Gambon's wonderfully pompous portrayal, but rather shows how well Billy Connolly, the actor, can do given the right contrasting material.

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        • The Company Of Wolves (DVD) / DVD / 28 Readings / 28 Ratings
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          21.02.2014 02:09
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          A wondrous and creative yet scary horror film

          Plot:

          Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) is a young girl asleep in her bedroom. As her angry older sister (Georgia Slowe) bangs on her locked door for stealing her make-up, Rosaleen dreams of living in a fairytale village where her sister is killed by wolves. Here she lives some of her time with Granny (Angela Lansbury) who tells her about werewolves and how to avoid life's dangers. Based on several of Angela Carter's short stories, contained in her "Bloody Chamber" compilation and her radio play, "The Company of Wolves", this is a hugely symbolic film dealing with various themes regarding a girl's journey into womanhood.

          Review:

          First off, let's really try to forget the Twi-S**** styled rendition of the Red Riding Hood story that even poor Gary Oldman couldn't save. For the best adult interpretation of the tale look no further than "The Company of Wolves". Based on selected short stories from Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber", including her two versions of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, "The Company Wolves", is a surrealist fantasy that rarely fails to impress.

          Secondly, when it comes to the fascinating shape-shifting favourite of folklore and horror, the werewolf, there really aren't that many great films. Most are really, really bad. However, the early '80s saw three of the best - "American Werewolf in in London", the original "The Howling" (the sequels descended to depths no audience should have to endure) and this wondrous piece of cinema. By working closely with the great author of the short stories this film is based, we received a truly original werewolf film.

          Neil Jordan is an excellent director with a wide range ("Mona Lisa", "Interview with the Vampire" and "The Crying Game" give you an idea of the man's breadth of expertise) and his recent work on TV ("The Borgias") is testament that his abilities have not waned over time. Jordan had a genuine love for Carter's incredibly lucid and witty surreal ideas not to mention her very insightful feminist philosophy. Like just about anything you read of Angela Carter's, the film plays a very clever balancing game between entertaining classic narrative and expressive surrealism. It neither falls into the very easy pitfalls of the werewolf horror genre, where the best often trip, nor over-indulges into pretentious art-house snobbery.

          Rick Baker is often considered to hold the gold when it came to creating the best full werewolf transformation sequence as shown in "American Werewolf in London". The scene deserves all the praise it gets and I love Landis's idea that it is something of a metaphor for the mental agonies some males experience during adolescence as their bodies make drastic changes. Jordan's film presents Carter's other side of the story. Here the lead protagonist is a girl making the change to womanhood. The wolf transformation takes Carter's warning of male predation literally - the most dangerous wolves were those that grew their hair on the inside. There are two particular transformations that show the literal wolf within and they're both especially memorable.

          I first, rightly or wrongly, viewed the film as a child. Seeing the Red Riding Hood story ripped apart shocked me and moved me. It was a coming of age for this young boy of sorts. The film does well to put over Carter's brand of feminism. She presents the image of the adolescent girl being guided to stay within the boundaries of the path by her patriarchal family and community, and to be wary of the males who would prey on her. However, Carter asks the scarier question for such a society, what of the freedom the wolf presents? What if the girl does not want to be kept within the strict confines of her secure yet regimented order. What if she were to covet the mantle and the spirit of the wolf?

          Carter's sexually charged and liberating ideas are given due respect and homage by Jordan, who had the author on board during the filming. Most horror, including the greats, tend to carry conservative messages through them. Some are outright propaganda for religious establishments, echoing the type of repressed imaginations of prosecuting clergy that led to the lurid and colourful confessions of numerous apparent witches, necromancers and oculists of the past. We have seen such horrific depictions of the supernatural and the macabre being used to illustrate the works of fundamentalist religious writers like Dante and Milton. Likewise the great classic horrors like "The Exorcist" were supported by the Catholic Church and the original fiction written by authors who believed in the fantastical ideas being presented. Unfortunately more liberally minded writers and directors tend to produce a lot of dross. Without a type of moral compass at the heart of a horror the anarchy can come across as ineffective. The "Hostel" franchise is pretty terrible because its leering direction seems clumsily self-indulgent. Other horrifying works that do not condemn the horror, such as "Salo" (based on Sade's work, which Carter was greatly influenced by), are not films designed to strike fear into the audience. I argue that this is a horror - hugely under-rated for these merits on its release - that works despite defying the conservative messages present in most of the best of the genre

          Besides its dated sounding synthesizer soundtrack (a particular problem that taints many period classics made in the 1980s) and some the more dated elements of the animatronic wolves (although give me a ropey wolf dummy over a badly executed computer generated one any day), my only real gripe with "The Company of Wolves" is its framing device. It didn't need to be presented as a dream. There are some great moments that reflect the toys of childhood scattered around Rosaleen's bedroom, but these could have been handled in a different way. Carter's magical realism is admirable and as the story steps into surrealism I resent it being justified by the reminder that this is all the imagination of a young girl. Not to spoil anything, but the film's ending, although visually one of the most stunning in the picture with Gill Radding's excellent Alsatians doubling as wolves*, tries to somehow take this back with a dark twist in the real world, but doesn't quite work for me. Other framing devices contained within the dream are far more effective. Hearing Granny tell us traditional tales of predatory werewolves that seduce unfortunate virgins progress into stories

          "The Company of Wolves" takes the viewer through different points of view as we follow Rosaleen on her journey to womanhood. We empathize with the fear of threat to the order - in this instance the threat to the alpha males who protect the females and the elderly women who do their best to make sure young girls learn the rules to co-exist comfortably in this ordered society. We rightfully fear the predatory outside who seeks disruption for his own greedy ends. Yet the film also provides us with the budding recognition of temptation, leading us first to a fear of the self for feeling them and finally to the point of decision. Rosaleen's transformation takes her from the point of innocence to the acquisition of knowledge and experience. Having Carter involved in writing the screenplay, which had its origins in her the radio play she adapted from her stories, meant that we get a further exploration of her ideas and some original metaphors to help mythologise Rosaleen's journey. Never one to stint on symbolism, this journey involves such vivid scenes as when Rosaleen discovers rouge, a hand mirror, feathers and four eggs containing the figurines of men in a stork's nest (traditional symbol of fertility) prior to her fated journey to Granny's house. On this journey she will encounter the embodiment of her patriarchal order's fears. Here Jordan and Carter mesh the image of the rescuing huntsman - the traditional masculine representation of a knight in shining armour - and the wolf - the wild outside corrupting force of the enemy male predator.

          "The Company of Wolves" has a great cast - Angela Lansbury gives the film's most memorable performance - and suspends belief comfortably all these years later with its well-made sets and animatronics. Neil Jordan paces the screenplay he wrote with Carter well, leading us to a satisfactory conclusion in the dream story whilst working on a variety of fears in a more subtle way than the majority of horror movies.

          *This was the film where my friend Gill got her first taste of working with animals in film. It should be noted that the job was Roger Farr's of Academic Animals who supplied two real trained wolves for some sequences.

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          • Hitchcock (DVD) / DVD / 35 Readings / 35 Ratings
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            12.01.2014 19:19
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            A very entertaining, interesting, heart-warming and inspiring biopic

            There are many ways to approach a biopic and "Hitchcock" goes for the easiest one. It's a choice that results in success for the most part. By opting for a pivotal moment in the main protagonist's career, writer John J. McLaughlin was not forced to wade through Alfred Hitchcock's imposing career, cherry picking what would make for a good dramatic narrative. Life, not being a piece of dramatic prose, is rarely a linear path. It takes a bold director and writer to tackle the full biopic approach and the result is usually what seems to be little more than a dramatized resume that fails to deliver an interesting central theme.

            The single episode approach loses the epic feel of the comprehensive biopic, but is effective for good story and character development. For example, it was used very well in Michael Mann's "Ali" and Christopher Menaul's "The Passion of Ayn Rand". It's an approach that seems to suit director, Sacha Gervasi, who is best known for his award-winning documentary, "Anvil! The Story of Anvil". The biopic is, in many ways, the cousin of the cinematic docudrama and Gervasi transitions into this genre very well. There is certainly nothing dry about "Hitchcock". Being known as a documentary director, Gervasi might be demonstrating good restraint on his own ego - something that could rarely be said about Alfred Hitchcock - in his decision to try to mimic the "Hitchcockian" style. I can imagine there was a temptation to do this, given the tension involved during the build-up to get "Psycho" from novel to big screen and with Hitchcock's huge reputation on the line.

            Gervasi's resulting work is very playful and has an understated surrealistic streak in its analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's psyche. Here the great director, known as Hitch to everyone, finds himself talking over the progress of his movie and its various obstacles with an imaginary incarnation of real-life inspiration for the novel, "Pyscho", Ed Gein, played by the great Michael Wincott, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors. Key moments of Gein's life are presented up to mirror different stages of the turbulent journey Hitch took towards his movie's completion. Wincott is a very convincing Gein, competing even with Steve Railsback's uncanny portrayal of the perverse murderer.

            This is an interesting juxtaposition that a few might find disturbing. We have what many, including me, consider one of the world's greatest movie directors conversing with one of history's most iconic killers. Both have independently exerted a huge amount of influence over popular media. Hitchcock's films set the bar and established a bonafide style for suspense thrillers, despite his films being very diverse with their themes and storylines. Gein, of course, inspired at least three huge horror classics, "Psycho", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Silence of the Lambs". The fact that two of these titles were originally successful novels, as well as very influential movies, only goes to show how deeply Gein's morbid legend has ingrained itself into American culture. Having said this, it is refreshing to see the film show Hitch remarking on the poor quality of villain the real Gein presented. Demonstrating the huge chasm of difference between the pathetic figure of real life demented murderers and their demonic celluloid representations, we hear Hitch referring to Gein as resembling Elmer Fudd. Despite John J. McLaughlin's choice to dabble in such dark concepts, the film never loses its playful edge. These surreal asides are linked to the film's prologue and epilogue, which mimic the darkly comic introduction and conclusion Hitchcock used in his television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".

            However, surprisingly the film's success is not down to the person playing the titular role. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the title would be a misnomer if it weren't for the interpretation that "Hitchcock" was much more than the man who bore the name. The institution of Hitchcock was a double act consisting of Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, the talented editor and his former boss, Almer. Therefore it is something of an extreme exaggeration of this couple's dynamic to say that Helen Mirren's Almer trumps Anthony Hopkins' Alfred Hitchcock. Hopkins said he tried hard not make his portrayal of Hitch as a caricature, but sadly the great actor fails in this precise act. The make-up doesn't help, but we could see beyond that if Hopkins didn't insist on constantly presenting us with an impersonation of how Hitch came across on camera. I am not saying it isn't a tall order, given how hard Hitchcock worked on establishing his egocentric presence, but Wincott's performance as the hillbilly, Gein and James D'Arcy's Anthony Perkins are good references for how it can be done. Both show a good balance of reserve in their performances of personalities that had distinct mannerisms. D'Arcy, in particular, gives us an ambitious and anxious Perkins auditioning for his defining role and even though it is far from being an exact impersonation you buy into his portrayal. Having said this, Hopkins just about manages the role, if a bit self-consciously, and both the other actors' performances come alive due to having the great man to bounce off in their scenes.

            However, bringing me back to the point I touched on in the previous paragraph, it is Helen Mirren who steals the show. She plays Almer with depth and affection. The role isn't straightforward. A lesser actor and writer would have turned her into Hitch's sole voice of reason and conscience, the Fool or Cordelia to his King Lear. Instead we see a complex woman who struggles to deal with her husband and creative partner's huge ego. Hitch's obsession with his leading ladies is also touched upon, but wisely not overplayed, although it adds to our sympathy for Almer. Almer's desire for some identification and appreciation leads her away from the marriage and partnership. She might be the only person who could rein Hitch in, give him the support he needs and ultimately do the world's most under-rated task of editing his film, but we see that she will never have his vision and has her own fallibilities. The screenplay provides us with a strong argument that the "Psycho" we know today was the result of the collaborative effort that was "Hitchcock". Their love is portrayed as chaste and very conservative yet when Hitch does show Almer affection, Mirren is able to convey a wonderful sense of restrained warmth that is more emotive in the viewer than the vast majority of superficial romantic schmaltz out there today.

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            • Hellraiser (DVD) / DVD / 26 Readings / 26 Ratings
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              05.01.2014 15:12
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              Wellmade and imaginative horror

              Plot:

              Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) solves a mysterious puzzle box on the promise it will lead him to hedonistic and sensual pleasures beyond the mortal world. He meets the spectral sadomasochistic cenobites who tear him apart and drag him into an eternal hellish existence. Later, Frank's brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into Frank's old house. He lives with his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who previously had an affair with Frank. Blood from a wound Larry incurs whilst moving into the house brings part of Frank back to life and frees him from the cenobites. However, in order to be whole again he needs to feed on the blood of the living. He enlists the help of Julia who agrees to kill for him. Meanwhile Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter, is about to step into the midst of this hellish situation...

              Review:
              Perhaps it is the simple fact that the 21st century has yet to yield a bonafide horror classic that has made me look back on Clive Barker's "Hellraiser". Although the film is not on my list of all time horror films, it certainly stands the test of time. In a time where CGI overloads us from the lowest z-grade movie to the most bloated of corporate blockbusters, it is a good reminder of a time where our disbelief was easily suspended by good prosthetics and lighting. Made in 1987, only the lightning bolts, reminiscent of Disney's Hocus Pocus, look dated. Long before the torture porn overkill of today, "Hellraiser" sensualized cruel violence and repulsive gore in a manner that got the right horrified reactions from its audience.

              The world's most successful horror author, Stephen King famously rated the film with the prediction, "I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker". Despite the film's dubious torture porn legacy in the 21st century and sequel franchise that ensued, I don't think King's prediction came to pass. This remains Barker's most famous work. However, it is a triumph for the auteur method. Barker directs the film, which is based on his short story, The Hellbound Heart, and he extends on his prose in a way that works very well for cinema. This is mainly down to the fact that he wrote the story as a move towards directing his first film, so there was a clear vision in place before studios had been approached.

              "Hellraiser" borrows a lot from classic horror in an era of slasher films and science fiction, but provides an interesting layer of twisted titillation. Much of the film recalls the British gothic films of the '60s whereby a monster or mad person was kept in the attic or a cellar. Films like "The Ghoul", "The Beast in the Cellar" and "The Shuttered Window" come to mind. Those who haven't seen the original film, but are aware of the lengthy franchise that followed might be surprised at the lack of onscreen time is given to the creature known as Pinhead. Incidentally the lead Cenobite is not referred by this title and Clive Barker hated the name. Much of the film's narrative is taken up by the relationship between Frank and Julia, and Frank's quest to become fully human again.

              Unlike the original story, there is little explained about Frank's initial relationship with the Cenobites. It is covered very briefly in Frank's discussion with Julia. Nevertheless, it is quite clear what has happened in the events leading up to the film's main focus.

              Just as the atheistic and progressive "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley provided us with a story that could easily be viewed as a Christian moral story regarding the evils of playing God, Hellraiser could be seen as an argument against sex. The film presents us with varying levels of carnal personality. Despite its use of sadomasochistic imagery, it is easy to identify a conservative moral message found in most slasher horror movies. There is not only a chaste "last girl" character, but also a Jezebel counterpart who acts as a servant of evil and even the evil itself can be seen as representatives of damned souls. This is not to say that Hellraiser fits into the slasher mould - it doesn't in anyway - but it arouses the surface more than it disturbs anything beneath. In this respect its use of lurid horror might be viewed as a 1980s update of 1300s to 1600s melodramas, comparable to the hellish medieval visions of Dante's "The Comedy of Errors" and the gore and cruelty of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus". Its synopsis, of course, comes from the legend of Faust with its main tragic character having the most hedonistic of ambitions, so loathed by Abrahamic religions: carnal desire.

              The film's main sympathetic character is Kirsty who comes over as a virginal young woman - she has a boyfriend, but we see little more than friendship between them - efficiently dealing with the curse that has been inflicted on her family via her wicked stepmother's adultery. Kirsty is sharp-witted, fast-thinking, courageous, physically and loyal to her family. She is unhindered by and not tempted by the need to fulfil carnal desires on any level. She sees the evil for what it is and understands how to fight its advances. Her focus might be seen to be on self-preservation, but not at the expense of innocents and ultimately she is an agent for restoring order.

              Larry, her father (a character known as Rory in The Hellbound Heart who is simply Kirsty's friend), is in an orthodox sexual relationship with his wife and is presented as the everyday middle class American father. Despite not breaking any sort of mainstream moral code, perhaps the very fact he engages in pleasurable sex with his wife, as we see him do, is enough to dull his senses to the horror that goes on around him. It is his innocuous accident that prompts Frank's return after all. Larry is destined to be a victim and under constant threat from the villainous Frank.

              Julia, the stepmother, provides a certain degree of moral ambiguity. She is on the side of the sinners, but it is clear she has some feelings for Larry. She can also be seen as a naïve acolyte to the dark and brooding Frank who is an exciting contrast to her husband. Frank shows us the ultimate extension of the path Julia is embarking. His pursuit of carnal pleasure has left him unfulfilled in the mortal world, but his initial fate can be seen as a consequence of his carnal addictions.

              The Cenobites represent the destructive final level where pleasure diminishes and sexual identity disappears. The creatures are represented as a meshing of religious and modern extreme fetishism. At Barker's request, Dough Bradley played the Lead Cenobite with intelligent reserve. Barker saw Christopher's Lee's depiction of the Dracula character as a strong source of inspiration. The Lead Cenobite is an immediate contrast to the leering and wisecracking Freddy Kruegar, who is the only other notable speaking horror icon of that era. As is the nature of film business, studios jumped on the iconography of the Lead Cenobite and later films had him feature more prominently. The name "Pinehead" was not used by Barker, but came from the costume department. The author does not recognize its usage.

              "Hellraiser" has a strong story, good characterization, a convincing cast and impressive visuals. These elements are proven by the way they are so easily applied in its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, as if a perfect wardrobe of structures and ideas were firmly in place for another filmmaking team to slip into and carry on the story without much difficulty. Hellraiser initially met with mixed reviews, but I disagree strongly that it lacked originality. There are some time-honoured plot elements in there, but they are played creatively and delivered with some very imaginative coverings. The tragedy of Frank, which is at the film's heart, provides us with an interesting take on the vampire legend. The cenobites, which would be exploited to their full in subsequent sequels, are wisely applied with reserve in the story. However, when they do appear they are impressive and fascinating explorations into punk Gothic art. Nothing looks clichéd in Hellraiser and I would argue that the effects have stood the test of time better than the majority of its contemporaries. In conclusion, Hellraiser may not be one of the best horrors of all time but it is one of the best 1980s horrors and certainly as good as the best horrors that have been produced since 2000.

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              • Turbo (DVD) / DVD / 31 Readings / 30 Ratings
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                18.10.2013 13:20
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                Easy, fun family viewing

                Plot:

                Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is a common garden snail who dreams of becoming a champion racer. His hero is the five-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). However, he is regarded by all his fellow snails with disdain and he is constantly worried about by his elder brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who manages health and safety in the snail garden. One day a freak accident leads Theo, who nicknames himself Turbo, to become imbued with powers that grant him the speed and abilities of a racing car. Another chance encounter leads Theo and Chet to be captured and then befriended by "Dos Bros" Taco driver, Tito (Michael Pena), who races snails with other shopkeepers at a failing strip mall. Theo finds a kindred spirit in Tito, who has spent most of his time working with his weary brother (Luis Guzman) thinking of wild ideas to generate more business. Seeing an opportunity with Theo's incredible powers, Tito and his fellow snail racers decide to take the supercharged mollusc to race in the Indianapolis 500. Here Theo will need all the advice and support he can get from his new found racing snail friends, led by the charismatic Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as the love of his long-suffering brother as he faces Guy Gagne in the upcoming race...

                Review:

                While it seemed half the country were still falling over themselves to see Ron Howard's latest "important" film, "Rush", my daughter and I were set to watch the "other" racing car film, "Turbo". It seems odd to cast this picture in the same role as its titular character, playing the underdog, but that is the way it felt on that cold and wet Sunday afternoon. The latest in Dreamwork Animation's rapid stream of big budget child-friendly, family-targeted 3D feature films, "Turbo" seems to present itself as the cynical mainstream option over Howard's art project. However, I guess that is the rub with me. The critic's choice just seems to be an opportunity for boys who like movies about racing cars to pretend they are watching an "important" film and Howard's usual middle-class middlebrows to be entertained without feeling like they have watched "Days of Thunder". I am, of course, being grossly unfair, especially since I am the only genre-drawn male in the UK that hasn't seen "Rush", but my final point of this issue is that "Turbo" seems more honest in its cynicism.

                So how does this film measure up? As to be expected, it is predictably formulaic, fitting both the format set by Dreamworks' most successful franchise, Shrek, and the now notoriously strict Hollywood blockbuster template. It fits the Cinderella pattern and there are plenty of references to movies with a similar theme. In fact, these references and clichés are all but screamed at the camera. Theo is both told he is the "underdog" and there is even a remix of "Eye of the Tiger" played over some of the film's climatic race sequence. The film is clearly aimed at a young audience and my five year-old was amused enough to last through to the end. There is plenty of action and the soundtrack, a la Shrek, is a mixture of classic pop songs and new material, including work from one of the voice actors, Snoop Dogg. The classic selection is obvious, even including Queen's "We are the Champions", but works to keep the film moving.

                Turbo clearly parodies many other films and genres. The most obvious one, which is implied in the film's tagline, is The Fast and the Furious. A pivotal scene in the movie sees Theo get sucked into a street racing car's supercharger and hit with nitrous oxide. If the film's premise of a snail racing in the Indianapolis 500 set in in a world of anthropomorphized snails wasn't ludicrous enough, we also have a superhero style origin story that doesn't even try to make sense. However, the biggest comparison I noticed was with Disney Pixar's Ratatouille. The lead character is a lowly creature that has ambitions in the human world that are the polar opposite to the image of his species. In Ratatouille it was a rat who wanted to be a chef, in Turbo it's a snail who wants to compete in a major racing car event. They both befriend a human misfit whose success depends on the animal's success. Ratatouille is a far slicker film, but Turbo has a nice turn in the respect that the human inspiration for the lead character's ambitions is also his arch-rival.

                All the supposed twists are very predictable, but you get the impression that this is intended. There might be plenty of cheesiness with its storyline, but the film achieves charm without dripping with the type of sickening sentimentality we see too much of in Disney. This is particularly evident in films featuring animals. Turbo only casts the snails as the other talking and intelligent creature besides humans. Unlike the majority of Disney's list of animated features all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, there is no harmonious animal utopia going on here with everyone happily co-existing. This works well with the film's acceptance of the fragility of life in the wild. Thankfully we are spared from a conservation message or, worse-still, some misguided and partisan ideal about animals. We see snails being regularly picked off by hungry crows and the snails stoically accepting their fate. Such scenes are delivered with enough black comedy to not upset the under-10 target audience. Crows are also killed and even submitted to the will of hero characters. And it is with these characters and the rest of the cast, that Turbo really succeeds.

                The cast includes some obvious stereotypes, including the Asian nail technician, but the supporting snail cast are a colourful band of personalities with some great voice talents. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly the most distinctive member of the cast and Whiplash is obviously modelled as a caricature of Jackson's most streetwise and tough guy roles. Ryan Reynolds makes a youthful Theo who is a little reminiscent of Nemo the hero of another Disney Pixar feature, Finding Nemo. However, it was Paul Giamatti's appearance on the credits as Chet that most surprised me. The last time I saw him he was exerting some terribly ruthless acts of torture on prisoners as King John in the semi-tragic medieval action movie, Ironclad. It is these characters' one-liners, monologues and conversations that make this a watchable film for the whole family. It might not be particularly funny or original in concept, but there is plenty of fun to be had from start to finish.

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              • More +
                30.06.2012 01:44
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                Online shopping cuts out the hell of offline shopping

                "It does seem really hard to get consumers to do the right thing. It is stupid that we use two tons of steel, glass, and plastic to haul our sorry selves to the shopping mall. It's stupid that we put water in plastic bottles in Fiji and ship it here."- John Doer
                Me vs Street Shopping - The Battle Begins

                I like to think that I am in touch with my so-called feminine side, but even I struggle to meet the metrosexual fashion of loving the shopping experience. The street shopping experience for me, which hasn't happened properly in a long time, is typically faced with "weekend eyes". I am tired and unenthusiastic. Arguments with partners nearly always inevitably arose from shopping excursions. It is a constant theme with me, so the blame probably rests squarely on my shoulders and I acknowledge it. I clearly do not want to be there and my every action is a move to get to the checkout and away from the place. When it comes to most types of street shopping I want to go in and get what I came for

                The Shopping Community
                Next to tourists, protesters, religious fanatics and people with contagious diseases, the community I feel least comfortable around are "fellow shoppers". They can display some of the worst traits humanity has to offer. From nosey shop assistants and pushy salespeople to aggressive trolley rammers and bustling crowds, you sometimes feel that wearing a suit of spikey armour should be an essential requirement for a rush hour shopper. Supermarkets are probably the worst of places for... just about everything! A major pet hate are the aisle gossipers. These blockages on the artery of time management cluster together to block your progress with their inane chatter about their and just about everyone else's lives - "Of course, our Martin is no longer with Marjorie... No, never did like her". Then, when you have made it through there, often narrowly avoiding screaming children or ensuring your own hasn't picked up items you don't intend to pay for, you face the checkout. Here, if you are unlucky, you can be treated to the worst examples of equal opportunities serving you. People who you would think twice allowing access to a squared piece of paper will eat up more of your valuable time as yet another item does not appear on the system and they have to ask Craig - it is often a Craig, I don't know why - to check for him. You will remember Craig. He is the individual you asked on isle four to look out the back to see if there were any packets of your favourite cereal left. Craig inevitably goes out the back to have a crafty smoke break, only to return empty handed. His equivalent in a convenience store is only marginally better. His favourite line is "If it isn't on the shelf then we haven't got it". Then there are the petrol station cashiers who have interesting questions of their own. Like when you have asked to pay for your food and fuel separately, and they ask whether you want a VAT receipt? No, I clearly have a severe version of OCD and I get freaked out when my fuel and food are mixed!

                So, if you are lucky you get to the checkout in reasonable time. Unfortunately this only happens at certain times of the day and inevitably they aren't the times you can make it. This means you have to contend with Derek who insists on getting the right change out (actually I have been a bit of a Derek at times, so admitted hypocrisy there). Worse still is Mabel who wants to chat to the cashier she has known for years about her children who are now grown up and live in Australia!


                Self-Checkout - The Answer to my Prayers?
                When a system for scanning items yourself and paying was first introduced my heart leapt. At last I could avoid those issues I have with the normal check-out. Now we had a filter. No more would I have to deal with the frustration of people who treat the check-out as an essential part of their social life or want to fiddle with change. We busier people could just get going! That is until my daughter can be trained not to keep leaning on the checkout and ruining my order or Mabel decides to wants to take on the new technology! Oh man! This is not supposed to happen. We are clearly at a crossroads of evolutions here and surely, if we are to follow Darwin's laws, the machine should terminate those who haven't the foggiest how to use it and insist on calling an assistant.

                Childhood is Over...
                I guess my big problem with street shopping is that I never grew up. As a kid, shopping could be fun. Yes, I got bored, but between hanging off the back of trolleys and looking forward to eating chips at a café at the end of the shopping trip, I got to look at stuff I liked and wanted, and sometimes got. If someone told me a shopping trip would involve me looking around different bookshops and music/video stores with a realistic supply of money, then just call me the happy shopper! I can browse forever in a good bookstore. Hell, I can browse forever in a bad bookshop. When it comes to clothes shopping, food shopping or any other type of shopping, it's a chore.

                Christmas Shopping - Avoiding Armageddon
                There are few things to dampen any concept of Christmas spirit than shopping during the festive time. Here that community I don't really enjoy at any time of year turn into something I last saw trying to breach Helms Deep. All the traits that Christmas is supposed to represent are woefully forgotten as everyone scrambles and fights their way into the shops to pay extortionate prices for items that will never get used. Of course, intelligent and organized people will have already done their Christmas shopping well ahead of time. Their presents will already be sorted and wrapped by the time the first set of Christmas lights go up. Others will have bought carefully throughout the year, paying sensible prices and actually getting items that recipients will enjoy or find useful. However, for the rest of us great unwashed we will be panic buying at the last moment and just about holding onto our sanity at the endless and relentless stream of awful Christmas pop songs being played throughout the shops. Wizard's "I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day" seemed the most inappropriate tune for my mood and the damn track became the anthem to my annoyance and frustration.

                Online - A Better Way
                The online choice eliminates all that nonsense. It is not without its faults. These faults include broken connections and problems with delivery. However, the worst problem with online buying is that is perhaps even worse than street shopping in getting you to spend more than you had intended. For the first time, I could empathise with those shoppers who can't resist all the "bargains". With books and films going on Marketplace websites for 00.01p it is hard to resist. Plus Amazon has its suggested accompaniments and generates whole pages of delicious related material based on your purchases. It is like being tempted by the Devil! However, for the most part it cuts out the unpleasantness of street shopping. You have more time to play and educate your child rather than hauling them around the place. You don't have to put up with the blatantly rude or the incurably dithery. And you don't end up taking it out on your friends and those closest to you. I recall getting supermarket orders to my front door certainly cut out those rows on the way home. Furthermore, when it comes to presents you have a far wider scope to choose from. Although, as you might guess, I am still inclined to think of a film or book that the receiver of my present might want.

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                • More +
                  29.06.2012 11:32
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                  Children's self-protection aimed at parents

                  "Protecting the Gift" takes the principles of professional threat predictor (never can get his official title!) Gavin De Becker's most famous work "The Gift of Fear" and applies it to parents. More precisely, it takes ideas explored towards the end of "The Gift of Fear" - violence and sexual predation of children, including child on child abuse - and expands upon them.

                  As is the nature of De Becker, the basis for his personal security and threat prediction of potential predators lies in his belief of the active listening to one's intuition. Intuition is what De Becker believes we generally term as "fear". He sees it working on a subconscious level, picking up on potential threats and warning signs. De Becker says that upon interviewing survivors of assaults he has revealed how the victim actually foresaw the danger that engulfed them ahead of time, but they went against their instincts. The same principle is applied to worried parents; the fabled "mother's intuition" if you will.

                  The book begins with "The Search for Certainty". Thankfully De Becker, for all his insights into the manipulative side of people, is not the sort of personal security expert who buys into the sensationalist propaganda we see associated with child abuse. He actively promotes more independence for children and addresses the increasing fear parents have in leaving the children with other adults. Although he does not promise to offer the much sought after certainty, he does say that he can equip parents with more skills that will help them better assess other adults and better train their own children how to listen to their own instincts.

                  The next two chapters deal with real fear or intuition and "artificial fear" or worry. Again, De Becker gets top marks for helping to steer parents away from the draw of paranoia. Quite rightfully, he warns of the dangers of allow unnecessary worry to consume and therefore distract parents from legitimate concerns. As in "The Gift of Fear", De Becker places the blame for this warped sense of reality on the media.

                  We are then reintroduced to the "Survival Signals", which are the cornerstones of "The Gift of Fear". These are the signals given off by a potential human predator that betray his actions long before he executes them. Unsurprisingly they are very similar to what high pressure salesmen and women are taught. These are methods of manipulation, persuasion and deception designed to take control of a situation and a person before a physical act takes place. Readers of self-help books and pop psychology might be amused by the convenient number of signals given by De Becker: seven. However, they are good common sense methods, on the whole, and should be taught in some way by good self-protection coaches. To give them credit, I once went through nearly all seven when a certain individual was pressuring, by text, a close female friend of mine to see him when she didn't want go out. The experience was enough to convince the girl not to leave her house and to stand firm.

                  I am with De Becker all the way in his dismissal of the "Stranger Danger" gimmick. He has a chapter that teaches parents how to teach their children to talk to strangers. Furthermore, he debunks the whole unworkable and highly confusing "Don't talk to strangers" concept. De Becker even had this arrange live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where horrified parents watched as their children failed not to be lured away by strangers during a set-up scenario. Like it or not your child is often left at the mercy of strangers and their ability to identify people they can trust and those they can't is a vital survival skill. Children need to have the confidence to speak to people who can help them when they are lost or in trouble.

                  This nicely dovetails into "The Changing of the Guard", a chapter that addresses the growing independence of a child. It lists "The Test of Twelve", which are general points a child should know and understand before De Becker feels they should ever be allowed alone in public. Next we move onto a very thorough - some might say intrusive - way to screen nannies and babysitters. This is followed by a chapter on children away from home.

                  We then take a look at sexual predators and, more specifically, signs that a sexual assault has occurred. I am not quite sure of De Becker's credentials in this area, but he handles it in the same way he deals with all other issues. There are case studies and set procedures on handling the issue.

                  The next two chapters deal with teenage girls and teenage boys. The teenage girl issue deals primarily with the ominous "first date" anxiety felt by many parents. The teenage boy issue is more to do with the fear of youngsters being involved in firearm crimes. It addresses bullying too, but I think a lot of this might have been tied in with the narrative of the time. De Becker has his own theories about gun crime in schools and, once again, it comes down to the media. Much like Grossman, he seems to buy into many of the misconceptions that were raised around the Columbine shootings. This theme flows into the next chapter "Friends as Enemies". Arguably he delves deeper and into the less talked about areas of potential child abuse in "All in the Family". We panic so much about strangers when statistically it is overwhelmingly more likely that abuse to a child will come from someone they know and probably who they are related to. Here, De Becker argues, we more likely than in any instance to deny our survival signals and intuition. It is probably one of the strongest chapters in the book.

                  The final chapter concerns the outlook for the future; how to make a better and safer society for our children. It is a fair conclusion and I like De Becker's positive attitude towards it all. His interest is not in increasing restrictions for children, but rather better educating parents on how to give their children more independence and how to tell the difference between real fear, which should be listened to and acted upon, and the aforementioned worry or paranoia.

                  "Protecting the Gift" is in danger of being a cash-in on "The Gift of Fear" and it is nowhere near as well-known. However, I have no issue in justifying its existence and recommend it as a must-read for parents. There was a time, not long ago at all, when I considered De Becker's works to be the final word on self-protection soft skills. I based a good amount of my coaching on understanding intuition. Growing up on a travelling circus, around wild animals and in the presence of all sorts of people, I was taught early on about being switched on - not just to my environment but to my instincts. However, total reliance on intuition is not a very scientific way of looking at things. For all the examples of people saying that their intuition got them out of trouble there are numerous more cases of luckless gamblers who lost due to trusting their "gut".

                  A gripe I do have with the book is its lack of acknowledgement of false accusations and witch hunts. It does well to debunk a lot of unnecessary concerns people have and the sensationalism of the media, but at the same time it smacks of hyper-awareness when it comes to adult/child relationships. There is only one instance where De Becker comments that a lone adult sitting in a playground might be innocently enjoying the atmosphere created by children. Everyone else seems to either be predators or distraught parents.

                  On the whole, "Protecting the Gift" is one of the better personal security books for parents. Aside from falling into the odd trap, it does not pander to media sensationalism and sticks to a lot of common sense. De Becker is a very strong writer who uses anecdotes in most of his chapters to help illustrate his points well. This is something that helped make "The Gift of Fear" so readable to Oprah Winfrey's followers.

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                  • More +
                    26.06.2012 00:12
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                    Self-protection book for children

                    "The Safe Zone" is a rare educational book addressing a very important issue: child self-protection. As a self-protection coach, and a specialist in this particular area, books like this are an essential resource. Thanks to well-meaning but misguided campaigns, parents and children are inundated with misinformation regarding crimes against minors. From the myth and unworkable concept of "stranger danger" to the idea that there is strength in numbers to sensationalist headlines, it is small wonder that we are seeing an increasingly more paranoid and disempowered population of families. "The Safe Zone" is a no-nonsense approach to teaching your child how to avoid danger, control a situation before it becomes dangerous and last resort tactics to enable escape from a human predator.

                    I am in general agreement with the chronology of the nine sections, if not the chapters, contained within "The Safe Zone". The non-physical side of self-protection - what we term "personal security" - is rightfully given the lion's share of the nine sections with only the final section focusing on the physical side - what we term "self-defence". Each section, aside from the last one, begins with a chapter entitled "What if..." This looks at popular questions on several different scenarios relevant to the section. Each section finishes with general answers to the questions posed.

                    The first part, "The Basics", deals with awareness, instincts and self-esteem. Awareness is typically the first thing most self-protection instructors teach. It seems to fit. The best way not to be involved in an assault is to simply not be there or to spot one well ahead of time. The information given here is good common sense and there is little I can dispute. However, over time I have come to believe there is something more fundamental that needs to be in place. I would prefer self-esteem or, more specifically, attitude to be there first. However, the authors of "The Safe Zone" are clearly more interested in promoting confidence in a youngster, which is pretty essential to help defeat victim selection and also to be able to take control of a situation if it happens. Self-esteem is becoming an increasingly controversial issue. At the time "The Safe Zone" was written the trend to build a person's self-esteem was at an all-time high. Unfortunately matters aren't always as simple as increasing a person's self-esteem. See "50 Myths in Popular Psychology" and "Columbine" for more on the dangers or inefficiency of raising certain individual's opinion of themselves.

                    As with Gavin ("The Gift of Fear") De Becker's work, the authors focus a lot on teaching children to listen to their instincts. Again, there are inherent dangers in allowing one's intuition to rule one's life, but here it is very relevant. A child needs to understand his or her "gut feelings" and when it comes to facing a potential predator the better-safe-than-sorry principle is best followed. Very important skills like learning how to use your voice and watching body language are among the best chapters in this particular section.

                    "Setting Boundaries" brings in the perfect platform to build good self-protection tactics and techniques. If you have read Geoff Thompson's "Dead or Alive", "The Fence" or "Three-Second Fighter" and are familiar with the fence concept then you will see how this section perfectly aligns itself with controlling potential attackers. The chapters deal with controlling personal space and understanding the concept of setting boundaries.

                    Going beyond the boundaries the next section, "My Body is Mine", is pretty self-explanatory. Obviously this helps reinforce the previous sections underlying principles and helps teach a child the important concept of the "unwanted" or inappropriate touch. We are also introduced to "strangers", which was very much aligned with popular ideas about "stranger danger" being taught at the time. I have my issues with this, but that is another article.

                    The fourth section deals with the issue of bullies, which is pretty essential in any self-respecting book on children's self-protection. Chapters identify the reasons behind bullying, how to avoid bullies and how to best deal with them. It's a specialist topic addressed by many books as a single item and so it forgivably given one of the shortest sections.

                    The fifth section deals with household security. This addresses home intruders, strangers on the phone and even internet safety, which is relatively cutting edge for the time.

                    This is followed by a hefty section - the largest in the book - on safety away from home. This is where many coaches fall down and really gets to the core of good self-protection for youngsters. Being away from home often forces a child into self-reliability. It is here where parents have to accept that their children will probably have to talk to strangers and one chapter discusses alcohol and drugs. Other chapters look at planning ahead, advice on using public transport, safety at school and what to do if you are lost. Appropriately the chapter revisits the basics of listening to your gut, using your voice and awareness.

                    The next section looks at getting help. This is an area that I generally address after looking at the physical side of things, but it works well in this chronology. This is the shortest section in the book and would also work as a postscript. In fact, there is a chapter in the conclusion that is also called "Getting Help", but gives information on several different resources.

                    The penultimate section deals with strangers and it offers pretty good advice, even if the whole stranger thing can be unnecessarily confusing for children.

                    Finally we get to a pretty thorough section on self-defence. The advice is good and provides solid low-maintenance/high percentage techniques that will work under pressure if trained properly. Sadly the controversial and yet consistently effective issue of pre-emptive striking is not addressed, but not denied either. Keeping it pretty comprehensive, there is a chapter on weapons.

                    The conclusion provides a list of resources. The only self-protection system is recommends is IMPACT. They have a presence in several American self-protection books, including Gavin De Becker's work. It is a good if limited approach to self-protection. "Getting Help" lists various helpful organizations and even websites. The last chapter provides a list of publications that address the various topics in this book. They are all published in the 1980s and there is barely a page of them, which goes to show how lacking this area of concern has been addressed.

                    "The Safe Zone" is clearly aimed at an 8-12 year old readership and is illustrated with photographs, including pictures of typical scenarios. It is written in a factual and engaging style, and never descends to patronizing its readership.

                    It comes to something when a book written 14 years ago, is currently out of print and published in the United States is still the only decent written self-protection resource for children. We live in an age where the fear of violent and/or sexual crime is at an all-time high. And yet books of children's self-protection are disproportionately rare. What little is available is either thinly veiled martial arts training manuals for kids, often with a combination of stupidly simple information, urban myths and dangerously ineffective physical techniques or books targeted at parents. This is the reason what inspired me to write my own book!

                    As can be expected "The Safe Zone" looks dated and is written for a late '90s youth audience. The awareness of the internet shows how cutting edge it was for its time, although issues like "cyber-bulling" and mobile phone trends like "happy slapping" had not yet been popularized. It has far more text-only pages than one containing photographs. I don't feel any of the text could or should be edited out, as it is all very relevant. However, the photographs are not particularly very detailed, especially when it comes to the execution of physical techniques. The book would definitely have been improved by some step-by-step instructions. Nevertheless, if you cannot wait until my addition to this seriously undernourished field is published I cannot recommend this classic enough to keep you sated with decent information.

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                    • Mobsters (DVD) / DVD / 26 Readings / 26 Ratings
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                      15.06.2012 00:23
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                      The rise of "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky and The Commission

                      Plot:
                      "Mobsters" follows the rise of Charlie "Lucky" Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer "The Brain" Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor) and Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (Richard Greico). The story takes you through their careers as street hoodlums to successful bootleggers and founders of The Commission via the Castellammarese War.

                      Review:
                      "Mobsters" is one of those guilty pleasure movies I could never get enough of as a teenager. Like "Swimming with Sharks" it seemed to be constantly playing late night on Sky and it grew on me in a big way. To many it was just another gangster flick, but for me it was a film full of quotable lines and an apt analogy for the dog-eat-dog world capitalist society. For better or worse, the film left an impression on me. To this day whenever I think of networking, scheming or whisperings at parties I can't help humming Michael Small's enjoyable score. This was never going to be a gangster film to compete with "The Godfather" trilogy, "Scarface", "Angels with Dirty Faces", "Good Fellas" or "Once Upon a Time in America", but in some ways it is more enjoyable.

                      The film's main themes seem to revolve around enduring friendship and loyalty, and intelligence over brawn. One of the interesting things about the history organized crime in America was the way cultural, religious and racial boundaries were crossed in the interests of business. The Sicilian Luciano and the Jewish Lansky did become friends, and remained that way until the former's death. The film regularly shows the prejudice Sicilians had against Jews. This is mainly demonstrated by the cruel Maranzano whose dislike for them seems to stem from his Catholic faith.
                      "Balls and brains. You have them; you don't need an army" so announces Arnold Rothstein to his young protégés. Intelligence is exalted throughout the picture. Luciano is a frustrated youth who wants to use his brain rather than inherit his father's work. The word "stupid" or rather "stoopid" is used by several characters throughout the picture. Benny "Bugsy" Siegel is criticized for having lack of control by Lansky - "Sometimes you are so stupid I can't stand it". Luciano tells those who attend the formation of The Commission that the old ways of fighting over territories is "stupid". Even "Mad Dog" Coll (Nichos Sadler) announces with annoyance to two people trying to kill him "You people are so stupid!"

                      The move to team up four hot young Hollywood darlings against the old guard of Anthony Quinn and Michael Gambon is both cynical and ingenious. It is a pretty obvious attempt at a "brat pack" movie, using a popular and established genre, the gangster film, as a medium. However, it works so well because all the key cast members are not only very capable at putting in strong performances, but they all work well together. We can believe that Slater and Dempsey have the sort of relationship that the cunning Luciano and brainy Lansky did, Mandylor is a rather understated Costello and Grieco pulls off a borderline psychotic Siegel. Likewise, Quinn and Gambon are perfect as the merciless and jealously protective "Moustache Petes". However, the film's best performance must go to F.Murray Abraham in a mentoring take on the great gambling gangster, Arnold Rothstein.
                      Believe it or not, I don't fly in the face of popular or critical opinion on purpose. I didn't realize that "Mobsters" had received such an overwhelmingly negative response. It is formulaic and has just about every Prohibition era cliché in the book. There are plenty of speakeasies - "This is why they made alcohol illegal" - and rows of sequinned girls dancing to the Charleston between blazing Tommy guns and bowls of pasta. The direction has been called self-important, but Michael Karbelnikoff seems to run things on an even keel. Quinn and Slater were both nominated for Razzies. Okay, they are not the most convincing Sicilians, with Slater playing Luciano more along New Yorker lines, and Quinn playing heavily on an overweight caricature of Masseria to the point of being cartoony, but these factors flow fine with the rest of the film. It is very violent, even cruel in its brutality, but this is clearly a 1991 natural progression on the torturous sequences that shocked early viewers of "The Godfather" and 1982's "Scarface".

                      In conclusion, "Mobsters" is an enjoyable feature that deserves a higher regard than it often receives. It's a genre movie and doesn't follow the rules of a tragedy as just all the classic gangster flicks do. A key thing I feel most viewers are not happy with is the simple fact that the real-life bad guys are promoted as "Young Guns" style heroes; their ruthlessness held up as a virtue. It's a fair point. The real Luciano, Lansky, Costello and Siegel were not very colourful and charismatic. They bit and clawed their way to the top, stabbing people in the back, making money out of other people's misery and condemning their families to a life of misery. In the end Luciano, a glorified pimp, was exiled to Sicily, Lansky was never permitted residence his homeland of Israel and did not make nearly as much money as his legend tells us. Costello came across as uneducated and gauche in front of the media, shattering the general public's perception of the confident gangster. Siegel may now be idolized as the man who made Las Vegas, but his ignoble death at the behest of his own kind was a result of the fact that his business management was at least as bad as his temper. But, having said all that, "Mobsters" is an entertaining ride and there are certainly plenty of "classics" that took liberties with history. So, give it some slack and enjoy the pantomime.

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                      11.06.2012 12:24
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                      Stephen Fry looks at the way we value knowledge through the eyes of London cab driver

                      Stephen Fry has established himself as the man who made brains cool. The success of the celebrity comedy quiz show "Q.I.", which Fry hosts, has shown that we are as keen as ever to gain knowledge. Therefore, he was the obvious choice to narrate BBC Radio's "The Knowledge", where he explores the nature of knowledge and our fascination with its acquisition. Using the fact that a taxi driver once won Mastermind and the extraordinary amount of knowledge people in that profession often possess, Fry takes us through a veritable archive of BBC programmes and interviews with individuals, focusing on our love of knowledge.
                      Fry addresses the issue of defining knowledge and our changing values of it. After the nation was shocked at the success of a London cab-driver, Fred Houesgo, winning "Mastermind" back in 1980, many have pondered whether cabbies generally have a large capacity for retaining knowledge. Housego had left school aged 16 with one "O" level, but self-educated himself during his time working as a postman and driving his taxi. He read vociferously and indiscriminately, building up the perfect resources for expertise in general knowledge. Cab drivers typically engage in conversation with a huge variety of people all day and all week long, memorizing complex routes and traffic information as well. It's not difficult to see why one would ponder the possible correlation. Therefore, the entire programme takes it from this perspective. Housego, who is now conveniently a BBC radio personality, is interviewed for the programme. There is another rather twee connection to taxi driving, Fry owns a London cab!

                      The problem with "The Knowledge" is that it isn't so much as an investigation into knowledge and what it means, but more an articulate negotiation around BBC archive material. Aside from some interviews there is nothing particularly fresh. We don't go much into the history of knowledge; only as far the BBC archives takes us. This is rather limiting and really just leaves Fry to try to draw his answers from the way entertainment uses knowledge, which isn't really what the programme is all about. Fry is entertaining enough, as always is, but for a topic that demands a bit of depth it all comes off as rather whimsical and unenlightening.

                      In conclusion, if you are looking for a trip down memory lane of broadcasting history and the topic of knowledge, then this is a fun programme. It is well-produced and Fry is always a joy to listen to. However, if you are looking for a serious discussion on the way we value knowledge then you may be a little disappointed.

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