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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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                      06.06.2012 17:31
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                      All action steam punk take on The Three Musketeers

                      Plot:

                      After being betrayed by the double-agent, Milady de Winter (Mila Jovovich), and losing plans for an airship to the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom), the famed "Three Musketeers" - Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and Aramis (Luke Evans) - are forced to disband. One year later a poor nobleman, D'Artaganan (Logan Lerman) leaves Gascony to pursue a career as a musketeer. Chance encounters with the dastardly Captain Rouchefort (Mads Mikkelsen), the henchman of the scheming, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Waltz), and the aforementioned Three Musketeers, lead D'Artagenan into a series of scrapes. These events will eventually lead him and the Musketeers to embark on a mission that will pit them against Richelieu and Buckingham...

                      Review:
                      Did we really need yet another re-make of Alexander Dumas's swashbuckling novel? Like "Oliver Twist", there seems to be no end of adaptations of this story. However, when consulting online movie guides I note that aside from Disney's stab (or should that be thrust?) at the classic back 2004, there really hasn't been a genuine big studios attempt at it since 1993's "The Three Musketeers". Not even the great Michael Wincott could rescue this "Young Swords" cynical take on the story and the film's heart was sorely missed. I guess it is just that the 1973/74 back-to-back pictures ("The Three Musketeers" & "The Four Musketeers" respectively) worked so well that it is rather difficult for me to see anything else replacing them. The film had such a perfect balance of slapstick buffoonery with action and a strong cast that anything else just seems unnecessary. Comparisons might be made between the beloved "Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory" and the rather coldly received Tim Burton adaptation, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". Sometimes film-makers get it right with the adaptation - even if it is not entirely faithful to the source material - and all films that follow become less about trying to get the book to the screen and more about trying to match the stand-alone picture that bears its name.

                      In 2001 we had the rather badly conceived "The Musketeer", where Asian style action cinema was used to take the picture in a different direction. However, what it did foreshadow was the possible caution film-makers were taking not to have their picture resemble the tone of previous incarnations. In this adaptation we have the steam-punk genre being used. It can be a rather risky thing, as what comes across as imaginative and artistic to some; can be mistaken as being unintentionally anachronistic to others. It all looks pretty glorious. There are slow motion sequences and nothing particularly new from an action direction point of view, but there is some very imaginative special effects. The airship is a trademark of steam-punk and a big visual element as well as a plot device in the movie. Its inclusion is a heavy nod towards the genre as a whole. However, I really liked the ingenious 17th century imagining of laser security and the various pieces of gadgetry. This all works very well. It's a 3D picture, so expect plenty of debris flying towards the scene as well as prolonged sword thrusts. I watched it on a 3D television and so got the full benefit of this aspect, but not watching it this way won't really spoil the experience.

                      The cast is all able with the bad guys getting all the glory for memorable performances. Orlando Bloom plays a villainous Buckingham much in the same way as he played a vain caricature of himself in the comedy series "Extras". Mads Mikkelsen is a capable Rouchefort, but he is no Christopher Lee or Michael Wincott despite having their trademark eye patch (Dumas's Rouchefort never wore one). Mila Jovovich, on the other hand, could give Faye Dunaway a run for her money. Her character is as dynamic as she is cool - creating the perfect image for an all-action duplicitous femme fatale. However, best performance lands in the lap of Christopher Waltz again. Ever since he ate up the entire "Inglourious Basterds" picture with his villainous SS officer and won some deserved awards, he seems to be Hollywood's choice to play the bad guy. He is a perfect Richelieu - cunning, devious and charming.

                      Having said all this, "The Three Musketeers" does not pretend to be anything more than a vehicle 21st century action. There is little in the way or quotable lines and no one is more than a two dimensional character at best. It is a shame that more isn't done with Dumas's characters. Being flawed by design, they should fit in perfectly with today's audiences that are more intrigued with Byronic heroes and sympathetic villains than ever before. Aside from all the enjoyable nonsense about airships, a lot of the story remains faithful to the original as do the characters. Having said that, the direction and editing is done at such speed it is as if someone were whizzing through the novel so they can insert more special effects scenes in. It's going to please some in the term, but hardly make the piece a memorable classic. Then again, it's miles better than "The Wild, Wild West"!

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                        01.06.2012 18:34
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                        Title says it all!

                        Plot:
                        Dave (Johnny Vegas) and Ferris (Mackenzie Crook) are potato delivery men. Obsessed with sex, they and their co-workers, Jeremy (Mark Gatiss) and Tolly (Dominic Coleman), embark on a disastrous series of adventures.

                        Review:
                        In the short documentary for "Sex Lives of the Potato Men" Andy Humphries set out his simple premise: to create a comedy centring on the bad sex lives of the British. Fear not, this isn't a story about premature ejaculation, impotence and the disproportionate number of males who think the clitoris is a category of fruit. Rather it is about how the fantastical porn-influenced expectations of average British men are dashed against the realities of finding a parking space outside a house that is hosting group sex. From odd kinky addictions involving jam to the rather unpleasant and unexpected problems of being objectified by women, the potato men are a disparate collection of believable individuals who all feel hard-done by the females in their lives.

                        Johnny Vegas is in a role that was simply made for him. From physical humour to ranting, he works some of the film's funniest scenes. Vegas's Dave is the stereotypical lazy, overweight and delusional husband and father who is completely oblivious to his own responsibilities and, instead, feels his monogamous existence goes against nature. Vegas achieves the right balance for the character; self-centred and irritatingly lacking in self-awareness, but also undeniably sympathetic. We shake our head at his self-righteousness and self-pitying, but cannot help but feel sorry for him at his disastrous attempts to live out his fantasies. He, more than any of the cast members, is the loveable loser British comedy loves so much and it is for this reason that he takes centre stage.

                        However, this is not to say the other potato men are not unmemorable. This is far from the case. Mackenzie Crook's Ferris is a worthy sidekick, representing everything that Dave yearns for and yet demonstrating how truly pathetic an active sex life without a real life partner can be. Both bounce off each with their respective problems and the banter is so fluid that they seem like a fully-formed comic double act. Of course, as funny as Vegas can be, especially when given good material, Crook clearly has a wider range of acting talent. Both have backgrounds as stand-up comics, but whereas Vegas became in this profession, Crook, who wrote comedic sketches, was lured by theatre early on. He may have first made it onto the big time as the very memorable zombie pirate Ragatti in "Pirates of the Caribbean" this was little more than a two-dimensional comic character. Crook's real potential was shown in his role as Gareth Keenan in "The Office", a character that matched Ricky Gervais's David Brent for dramatic irony. Here we get an entirely different role, which is no less realistic. Ferris might be able to get sex more than any of his luckless co-workers, but it is at the cost of losing every last remaining shred of dignity he still possesses.

                        Dominic Coleman's Tolly is closest to a real deviant in all this - addicted to a certain sexual act he engaged in with his ex-girlfriend, he desperately searches for the right experience and the right girl. Again, as repugnant as his character's obsession is you cannot help but wish him luck on his journey.
                        The same, of course, can be said for the ever-impressive Mark Gatiss playing the role of the jilted-boyfriend-turned-stalker. It's a role perfectly suited for Gatiss who can blend the sinister, the pathetic and hilarious well, given his background and as one of the comic-horror team, "The League of Gentleman". We have all the hurt and delusions of his "Crème Brule" forgotten rock star character form TLOG with the sinister nastiness of an obsessive predator, kidnapper and even a peeping Tom. In a way, it's a great satirical mirror for the type of morals we often see in romances like "The Graduate", where persistent males are rewarded with romance. And still we cannot help but see him as a loveable guy who has had his heart broken. In fact, aside from the peeping Tom episode and one his sad attempts at writing an erotic love letter, Gatiss's Jeremy character is apparently the least sexually motivated. He just wants someone to love. Aspects like this are often forgotten when the entire film is written off as a smutty piece of "lad humour".

                        "Sex Lives of the Potato Men" was almost unanimously condemned by critics and garnered controversy when it was revealed that some of the film's budget came from a Lottery grant. The response was quite predictable. Sex comedy is an embarrassment to the British movie intelligentsia, but nevertheless a consistent mainstay. However, as bawdy and lowbrow as the majority of the humour is I cannot see how it resembles the postcard humour of the "Carry On" movies or the soft porn of the "Confessions" series. First of all, none of the men or women characters are portrayed to look particularly attractive or act very sexy. There is not one scene of nudity and only the most peculiarly wired would find anything erotic in any of the scenes. They are all grotesque parodies, portraying the clumsiness and seediness of the sex lives of people who have little else to really do. Secondly, as smutty as the humour might be there are plenty of the core traits of typically British humour. Pomposity is deflated and embarrassment is never far away, thanks to the lack of self-awareness displayed by the four main male characters.

                        Whatever our chin-stroking middle-class critics in London have to say, I have yet to find anyone I have recommended this film to who hasn't found it very funny and entertaining. Britain has produced many great intelligent pieces of comedy - from the surreal to the satirical - but this isn't one of those. Nor does it pretend to be. Sometimes, you just got to kick off the shoes and unplug the brain and just, well, laugh.

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                        • Ironclad (DVD) / DVD / 32 Readings / 31 Ratings
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                          31.05.2012 22:21
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                          A brutal fantastical imagining of the siege of Rochester

                          Plot:
                          A medieval action film set after the signing of the Magna Carta, "Ironclad" covers the story of King John (Paul Giamatti) of England's backlash against the barons who opposed him. The ink is barely dry before the vengeful King recruits an army of Danish mercenaries to re-take his kingdom and punish those who have opposed him. This led to an all-out war and the film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle. William d'Aubigny (Brian Cox), one of the 25 guarantors of the Magna Carta, leads his group away from the vengeful king, along with a wronged Knight Templar (James Purefoy), and to the apparent sanctuary of Rochester...
                          Review:

                          "Have you ever killed a man, squire? It is not a noble thing. Not even when it is for God!"
                          Since the advent of TV series like "Rome", historical action drama has taken a decidedly more adult turn and reaped the financial benefits. At the higher end we have the lavish, superbly casted, beautifully produced and cleverly-plotted "A Game of Thrones" - its sex and violence never taking anything away from its clever plot twists, intriguing character development and very quotable dialogue - and then we have bottom-feeding dross like "Spartacus", where every scene is a vehicle to take us to the next piece of pornography. The Brits don't seem to have fared that well. "Camelot" was a classic failure of low budget and groping for the lowest level of entertainment. However, if "Ironclad" is anything to go by, it would appear that old Blighty might still have something worth saying about adult historical action films.
                          Of course, when I say "historical" I mean that as a rather loose term. "Ironclad" may have the look and feel of harsh medieval England and there certainly was a siege at Rochester Castle involving William d'Aubigny, where starvation was a major factor, but that is where the history pretty much stops with this picture. Instead director Jonathan English decides to ramp up the brutality and lead us into a dark battle between a deeply vengeful King, asserting his "God-given" right to rule, and the defenders of liberty and honour.

                          It's a fairly black and white affair in terms of character development. James Pureloy is adequate as the Knight Templar at the end of his term, falling in love and wanting revenge on the spiteful king. As the indomitable and courageous warrior he clearly takes the heroic centre stage, but doesn't fare well against the supporting cast. If this was intended to be his star vehicle it was ill-advised. Brian Cox is as impressive as he ever was playing the brave and resolute d'Aubigny who proves he will stand anything to the bitter end for his beliefs and those in his charge - playing martyr to his cause and his people better than Mel Gibson ever could. Derek Jacobi weighs in as Reginald de Cornhill, who was constable of Rochester Castle. Perhaps unnoticed by the more casual of viewer's Jacobi's Cornhill could easily be mistaken for a coward and humourless man of power with a trapped much younger wife. However, I was impressed by the way Jacobi revealed him to be a realist and a man of no lesser sense of responsibility than d'Aubigny. Another notable is McKenzie Crook who is doing a fine job working in straight roles. Here he plays an archer on the side of the barons. Finally, Paul Giamatti gives us a ruthless, spiteful, vicious, driven and unreasonable King John that would have been more than a match for most Robin Hoods. Here and there we get glimpses of his reasoning for his ruthlessness and religious excuse we see associated with Richard I, Henry V and Charles I. Sadly, none of the female cast members stand out and it is little surprising, this is clearly a lad's film dressed up in historically accurate settings and costumes.
                          However, this isn't to say it isn't enjoyable. The real star of the piece is the film's director, Jonathan English. Among English's CV is the horror film "Minotaur" and this is somewhat key. Viewers have remarked on the film's realism, which is never more evident than in the film's battle scenes. However, I would go one step further. For a 15 certificate, even by today's standards, the violence is incredibly brutal and often cruel. I appreciate the floodgates have been opened since the rise of shows like "Rome", but the film's tagline says it all: "Blood will run!" Viewers get an eye-full of blades slicing through limbs, necks, heads and so on, often with the camera leering at the anguish and pain. This is an action film that uses the violence of a horror picture and I have to admit it is very effective. It has its moments of heroism and contains excellent fight choreography, but there is clearly an interest to showing the viewer the realities of fighting a battle.

                          "Ironclad" rises above most action films in many ways. It is beautifully shot, well-acted, has authentic historical settings and enough twists to keep the momentum of a siege story going. Don't expect a character driven piece, even though it has a strong cast, but a fairly unpredictable action picture that pulls no punches when it comes to showing how fights are won and lost.

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                            22.05.2012 20:39
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                            A scathing insight into the cult of positive thinking

                            Positive thinking has become so integrated into the value system of our modern culture, it might seem somewhat odd to find an argument against it. And yet that is exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich does. The release of this book, which was published as "Smile or Die" in the UK has corresponded with the publication of more bold books, willing to challenge the power of positive thinking. A little while back I read Steve Salerno's unrelenting attack on the self-help movement, "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" and since then we have had "The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self Help Book" by Neel Burton. Even the great psychologist Richard Wiseman has taken positive thinking to task and looked at the real science behind self-help in "59 Seconds", which came out the same year as "Bright-Sided". This book was not an overt criticism of the self-help movement but rather a genuine attempt to use case studies, raw data and proven psychological methods to help people improve their lives. However, in keeping to the science Wiseman highlighted just how much of the self-help movement was bogus and even damaging. His first chapter, "Happiness", began with a total debunking of positive thinking and revealed that far from being innocuous at worse, these techniques endorsed by the vast majority of the self-help movement could actually be harmful.


                            However, out of all these books Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided" seems to be the most comprehensive and distilled in its deconstruction of the whole philosophy of positive thinking. She begins with her first clash with the cult of positive thinking after being diagnosed with breast cancer in around 2001. Ehrereich's award winning "Welcome to Cancerland" article, which was published not long after she started receiving treatment, demonstrated the writer's annoyance with the whole positive industry surrounding victims of cancer. The article inspired several people to question the so-called empowering methods being employed at all levels of cancer care and support. It even inspired the 2011 documentary "Pink Ribbon Inc.", which further explored the exploitative industry of those who were supposedly trying to help victims of the disease.
                            In "Bright-Sided" she has far more space to go through her own personal experiences on forums and support groups, which led her down the path of investigating the whole nature of positive thinking. Ehrenreich noticed that not only were pseudoscientific products and ideas being hawked to help strengthen a patient's immune systems against cancer on the back of positive thinking, but also that positive thinking was putting extra pressure on some victims of the disease. Worse still, terminal cancer patients were being made to feel they had somehow failed. Ehernreich noted the perverse extremes the philosophy of cancer support gurus who told "survivors" to be thankful for their cancer. Working through restriction and seeing opportunities through bad situations is all well and good, but that is a world apart from thinking that being affected by a disease like cancer is somehow a blessing!

                            America, as the author, notes in her prologue, is a country known for its positive attitude. The sign-off "Have a nice day!" and perpetual ivory white smiles are the trademark of the nation. Whereas Britain had the stereotyped stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, their cousins over the Atlantic did much more than stare down their problems with calm and a dry sense of humour, they "embraced it" with open arms.

                            Looking outside "Cancerland" Ehrenreich's attention was drawn to the way positive thinking had become a part of the very society lived in and had gone on to infect the rest of the world. I was particularly interested in the way traced this national philosophy back to the USA's Christian roots. Positive thinking has a distinctively puritanical hard work ethic at its core, which the author linked back to Calvinism. She then traces how it evolved through the emergence of American religion such as Christian Science and the 19th century mystical idea that people could be healed through thinking in a certain way.

                            Ever the anti-capitalist, it would have been out of character for the author not to have picked up on the way materialism became part of the whole positive thinking fad as it took hold of America's value system. Suddenly doctrines in Christianity that saw the virtue in poverty and humility were replaced by the idea that God wants Man to prosper. To be a successful and wealthy businessman went hand-in-hand with being a good Christian. Positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues fuelled the mega-churches and the rise of evangelism. The obvious attraction of enthusiastic and happy people - genuine and otherwise - meant that such institutions would be successful.

                            Of course, American Christianity, as powerful and hugely influential as it is, does not have a monopoly on positive thinking as a method or ethic. The book makes a strong point that the allure of the attitude easily permeated the New Age movement from its earliest beginnings. Deepak Chopra and others fully endorse the mind over matter ideas that first became popular in 19th century America. This has allowed the gateway to open for all sorts of spiritual marriages with the acquisition of wealth. Concepts like cosmic ordering and the law of attraction, championed by the bestselling pseudoscientific book "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne, straddles New Age spiritualism and secularism with ease.

                            It is with the idea that positive thinking is just a given to be good for you, Ehrenreich makes the case that its misuse is responsible for the fall of businesses and a strong component in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and global recession of the late 2000s. She has a good argument that compliments the cognitive dissonance/self-justification theory illustrated in Carol Tavris's "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)". Looking at it both we see an interesting picture of self-justification and refusal to accept personal error or responsibility fueled by a culture of "yes men". The "yes men" element, of course, comes from Ehrenreich. Many large corporations have adopted a policy of firing advisers who were not positive enough. This type of delusion led employees of banks and businesses to refuse to listen to those who erred on the side of caution or presented a picture that was anything less than positive for the future.

                            What seems to key in Ehrenreich's critique is the way that overzealous positivity prohibits the voices of reason. To not be positive has become a sin. And yet this has not always been so. There are plenty of fables that praise the person who is willing to stand against madness, delusion and flattery to deliver the hard truth. My favourite is Cordelia from Shakespeare's "King Lear". The youngest of the abdicating old king's daughters refuses to follow the flattery of her sisters, Goneril and Regan. They have competed for their father's affection in public in order to be given the biggest portion of the kingdom as possible. They play to his vanity. Cordelia, Lear's actual favourite, will not do anything but tell her father the truth. Lear ends up banishing her and suffers the consequences when his elder daughters reveal the true, cruel and ruthless natures. Cordelia, it is argued by many is also replaced The Fool, Lear's court jester, who continues to remind the king of his follies and his errors of judgment. The truth is that every great leader needs their Cordelia. They need the person who has the strength and cares enough to tell the truth.

                            The audiobook production is straightforward and slick. There are no whistles and bells, as befits the tone of the book. My only criticism is that Barbara Ehrenreich might not be to everyone's taste or rather Kate Reading might not have been the right choice to narrate her book. I don't know who's feet to land the blame. I get Ehrenreich's dry humour and delivery, but a fellow listener commented that it sounded a little robotic. This is a problem with a lot of members of the sceptical movement. They might be witty and articulate, but that cold logic they bring to their subjects can permeate into their delivery, making them less appealing to the middle ground. It is a small observation and I reiterate that it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the work.

                            "Bright-Sided" is a sobering and bold piece of non-fiction. I believe it opened the floodgates for more works that have dared to challenge impractical, exploitative and delusional concepts at the very core of modern society. This is coming from someone who counts life-coaches and self-help counselors among his friends. I even wrote a forward for a delightful collection of motivating essays written by a dear friend who is an incredible positive thinker. I don't think that we should be deeply cynical about those who motivate us or tell us to think positively and neither does Ehrenreich. We may have some interesting arguments for applied pessimism in recent non-fiction books and perhaps nihilism will make a return to the fore in the wake the damage over-the-top optimism and unrealistic idealism has done to the financial factor. However, Ehrenreich is not putting the case for an opposite approach to positive thinking. Her final chapter, her postscript in fact, is perhaps the best piece in the entire book. Unlike Salerno's "SHAM", Ehrenreich acknowledges that the reader needs some sort of alternative solution to unrealistic and unchecked positive thinking. She looks at the way pessimism can be applied practically without destroying ambition and how science enables us to best understand the way the world works. She argues for a sense of proportion, balance and realism.

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