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MykReeve

MykReeve
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      10.06.2002 21:52
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      It would be difficult to describe the 'Spider-Man' movie as enthusiastically anticipated. The movie had been in the rumour mill for about as long as I've been watching movies - with more actors suggested for the lead role than I care to remember. In the vast majority of cases, these sorts of delays lead to spectacularly disappointing films, however, I was extremely impressed with Spider-Man. The film is, to my mind, easily good enough to satisfy both the fanboy comic book crowd with its unusually good adherence to the original Spider-Man comic strip (not an easy trick to pull when you're basing a 00s movie on a 70s comic), and the comic-ignorant cinemagoer eager to see an action-packed movie. STORY The story is unsurprising, in many ways. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a geeky high-school kid, who goes on a school trip to a scientific research facility owned by the nefarious Oscorp. Run by the father (Norman Osborn, played by Willem Dafoe) of one of Parker's schoolmates (Harry, played by James Franco), Oscorp has landed an exclusive deal with the military to produce a chemical to make soldiers super strong. In the course of their research, Oscorp genetically engineer a super spider, incorporating genes from different species of spider. Over the course of the school trip, Parker is bitten by one of these spiders which has escaped from its cage, and takes on the super powers genetically engineered into the super spider. Will his newfound powers allow him to win over the beautiful M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), his fellow schoolmate and neighbour whom he has fancied ever since she moved to the area? When Parker's uncle is killed by a carjacker, he decides to use his powers to fight crime. But is it always so easy to judge good from evil? COMICS The comic 'Spider-Man' is a character whose stories are primarily driven by introspection and emotion. Sure, there's a fight in every iss
      ue of the comic book, but inevitably, there's also a substantial amount of dialogue and a lot of time is spent examining Parker's feelings. Parker is a very tragic character, and many of the comic book's stories focus on the fact that he can never get close to anyone as Peter Parker, without revealing his secret identity. This sense of tragedy translates well to the big-screen, and the movie remains faithful to the importance of the character's emotional trauma, rather than focusing exclusively on the action - something that comic book adaptations have been all too eager to do in the past. Without revealing what actually happens, the ending of the film, while possibly disappointing for many cinemagoers, is entirely in keeping with the character of Spider-Man in the comic book adventures - typifying how well the writers have respected the original stories. One thing, which I hinted at earlier, which I was impressed by, was that the story has translated from comic book to big screen with surprising ease, given the social changes that have taken place over the last three decades. Mercifully, the writers have dispensed with the Seventies-isms, Daddi-O, but nonetheless, they've managed to retain something of the original characters' dialogue. At one point, M.J. calls Parker "Tiger" which is a nickname she uses in some of the early comic books. Spider-Man's powers are inherited differently in the movie from in the comic book incarnation of the character. It's a fairly superficial difference - in the comic book, Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, in the movie, Parker is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider. The most substantial difference this produces is that in the comic book, Parker makes his own web-shooting guns which he attaches to his wrists, whereas in the movie, Parker's webs shoot from glands that develop in his wrists. I'm not going to be drawn into the who
      le genetic-engineering debate. Suffice to say that this the movie story is just guff, even if the spider were genetically engineered, a bite wouldn't transfer the genes to Parker, and even if it did, they certainly wouldn't integrate themselves into his DNA. But, hell, this is the world of fantasy, I can suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. Let's just say that in about twenty years time, the idiocy of this means of gaining super powers will be as evident to its audience as the misuse of radioactivity in B-movies of the Sixties and Seventies. Essentially, genetic engineering has taken the "bogeyman" role of radioactivity as something the public fears, and doesn't really understand - and will firmly date the movie in years to come. M.J., or Mary Jane to give her full name, is not Spider-Man's first love interest in the comic book. In fact, there are two characters who preceed her. There is a tip of the head to one of these when Parker first visits the offices of the Daily Bugle - Jameson's secretary. Nonetheless, the movie's depiction of Parker's relationship with M.J. is accurate to the comic book story, and neatly brings home the responsibility with which Parker has adopted his cowl of justice. There are other little touches throughout the film which will satisfy Spider-Man comic book fans. For example, when Spidey chases the man who killed his uncle, he hangs down into a room upside-down - the posture and lighting of the image perfectly match one of the best-known drawings of the masked one. Similarly, when Parker presents Jameson with some photographs of himself (as Spider-Man) foiling various crimes, each of the photographs depicts a scene identical to a panel from the comic book. As regards the film's main villain, the Green Goblin, the depiction of this character is largely consistent with the comic book villain. I haven't read the stories of the Green Goblin's creation, so I d
      on't know how accurate the movie's depiction of this actually is. However, the villain's true identity, and the "multiple-personality" nature of his villainy, is accurate to the comic book. One thing that has altered, presumably to heighten the movie's tension, is that in the comic book, the Green Goblin doesn't have the super strength he seems to in the movie - he could never take Spidey on in a fight, for example. The film's ending is entirely consistent with the comic book... and sets us up nicely for a sequel. Spidey fans will also probably be pleased to discover that, other than in Spider-Man's first fight, the film has dispensed with the witty quips that he normally spouts during fights. Much as it would be consistent to leave them in, they'd break up the action of a fight too much, and the film is stronger for their omission. Oh, and be sure to look out for the brief cameo by Spider-Man creator Stan Lee! THE MOVIE My first observation about the movie is that the pacing is absolutely first-rate. This film was a full two-hours long, but didn't feel like it at all. I'm one of those people who can assess how well a film managed to hold my attention by thinking how many times I looked at my watch during the movie. In this case, I didn't look at my watch at all... which is virtually unheard of. As mentioned above, the characters are largely identical to their comic book counterparts, but does this mean that they are actually believable and entertaining for a cinemagoing audience? I would generally give a resounding yes. There's some sickeningly homespun advice doled out to Parker by his well-meaning uncle (just after he parks his car on New York's Fifth Avenue - um... okay... I suppose you *could* do that), and M.J. lets fly with a few slightly embarrassing Seventiesisms, but for the most part, the dialogue is well delivered. Newspaper editor Jameson
      seems absurdly prejudiced against Spider-Man which, presumably due to time constraints, is never fully justified. In the comic book, the point is clearly made that Jameson is so driven by an urge for money that he can't understand or relate to anyone acting altruistically for no personal reward - therefore Spider-Man must have some nefarious reason for acting the way he does. I also have to heap praise on Sam Raimi, who let me down so very badly with 'The Gift' a couple of years ago. Here, Raimi has really done superb work, producing a good style of presentation, and smoothly directing a first-rate action film. Also, with Raimi has come a small group of loyal hangers-on. Watch for Bruce "Ash" Campbell as the big-chinned ring announcer, Ted Raimi as Jameson's assistant at the Bugle, and (perhaps most entertainingly) Lucy "Xena" Lawless as a Punk Rock Girl! Tobey Maguire is absolutely superb as Spider-Man, accurately conveying his surprise at discovering the extent of his new powers, and portraying the character's inner demons as he has to decide between his love and his self-imposed obligation to save lives. Similarly, Willem Dafoe is excellent as Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin, really enjoying the chance to ham up being a super villain in the scenes where his two personalities confront each other. The only thing which I really found fault with was the computer graphics. Largely they were superb, and I had few of the problems with the scenes of Spider-Man swinging through the streets between the skyscrapers that other reviews have complained about online. However, there is one scene where Spider-Man bounces atop giant inflatables in Times Square, which seemed a little unrealistic - it's not a major deal, but it seemed pretty obvious to me. Although the film was made before the events of September 11th, it manages to convey the sense of American solidarity that we've seen since the
      n. Certainly, there's one line of dialogue towards the end of the film as Spider-Man faces up against the Green Goblin for the final confrontation, shouted by an observer on the 59th Street Bridge, to the effect of "You wrong one of us, you wrong us all", which seems to neatly summarise the American sense of patriotism. CONCLUSION For my money, this is the best comic book adaptation that I have seen to date. Admittedly, that's not exactly glowing praise, but this is still a supremely entertaining, well-paced, surprisingly well-scripted, entertaining movie. It's visually engaging, Danny Elfman's theme fits well with the appearance of the movie, and with only a few exceptions, the computer graphics work well. The story is consistent enough with the original comic books to avoid annoying the frothing fanboy, and manages to produce enough entertainment to keep the average cinemagoer amused. All this and Kirsten Dunst's nipples pressed against wet clothing, what more could you ask for?

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      • From Hell (DVD) / DVD / 4 Readings / 53 Ratings
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        08.05.2002 05:49
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        Recently released on region 1 DVD (US and Canada), 'From Hell' was adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, which was written by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The story visits the Victorian London of Jack the Ripper, and follows an inspector's investigation into the identity of London's most notorious serial killer. COMPARING THE NOVEL AND MOVIE If, like myself, you were a fan of Moore and Campbell's comic books, then you greeted the news of the books' adaptation into a movie with great enthusiasm, anxiously awaiting the theatrical release, anticipating sophisticated characterisation and a complicated multi-layered storyline. It seems many critics had the same anticipations and, upon the film's release at American cinemas, the movie was accompanied by, if not disappointed, then at least, unenthusiastic reviews. So, when the film eventually reached British cinemas, I decided I wouldn't bother rushing to see it, and instead wait for the DVD release. At least then I'd have the option to get some of my money back, by selling it on, if I was disappointed. The main, fundamental difference between the movie and the graphic novel is that of the story's main focus. The movie follows the chief police investigator, Inspector Abberline (played by Johnny Depp) as he attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, as he preys on the city's prostitutes. The book, however, focuses on the murderer (whom, for obvious reasons, I won't name here) following his descent into insanity as he carries out the murders - the driving force not so much being whodunit, so much as why and how. In the book, Inspector Abberline doesn't even appear until Chapter 6, and is far from the focus of the story. He is not the young man with the opium and absinthe addictions portrayed by Depp in the movie, but rather a middle-aged man, who actually doesn't get very close to identifying the
        identity of the murderer. Abberline in the graphic novel is also unfettered by the drug-fuelled visions that plague the movie's lead character, a feature that was presumably only introduced to allow depiction of the violence that our hero wasn't there to witness. The film also ends very differently from the book, at least with regard to two of the major characters. Again, I can't dwell on this without giving away too much of the story, so I will refrain from doing so. Essentially, these are the fundamental differences between the graphic novel and the movie. As you can tell, they are pretty fundamental to the plot development and portrayal of the story, sufficiently so that further comparison would seem counterproductive. The two were produced for very different audiences - the movie for a broad market, and the book for the introspective, intelligent comic audience - and this is reflected in the difference in focus between the two. HISTORICAL ACCURACY The identity of Jack the Ripper in both the movie and the graphic novel is the same - using the conspiracy theory posited by "Ripperologist" Stephen Knight, in his 1977 book 'Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution'. Taken at face value, the theory is not an overwhelmingly persuasive one, and is largely rejected by the Ripperology community. Nonetheless, it has a certain appeal, and is reasonably entertainingly presented in both formats. The beauty of the story of Jack the Ripper is that there is no widely accepted identity for the murderer, but a good number of possible suspects. This means that conspiracy theories gain vastly more plausibility than they do in cases such as the murder of JFK where the "established" truth of the murderer is accompanied by overwhelming evidence. In these cases, conspiracy theories both have to explain the framing of the widely accepted murderer, as well as suggesting a robust theory for an alternate killer.
        In this case, a conspiracy theory can be as wild as possible, and doesn't have to explain why the blame was pointed elsewhere... Before writing 'From Hell' Alan Moore read a good deal of literature on the theme, and consulted a large volume of contemporary material from the time of the murders, as is evidenced by the wealth of annotations at the back of the book. Moore is well known for accompanying his notes for comic strips with copious amounts of information for his illustrators - and Eddie Campbell's illustrations are rich with detail, bringing Victorian London to life with his unique spidery style of illustration. The film's makers seem to have largely drawn their inspiration from Moore and Campbell's work, with many scenes exactly copying panels from the graphic novel. The atmosphere is absolutely first-rate, with Whitechapel's fog-filled streets perfectly reproduced on screen. The film was made near Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the directors had hoped to find streets similar to those of Victorian London. However, rapidly discovering that the modernisation of the city had already made that impossible, they were forced to rebuild the cobbled streets of Whitechapel in a field several kilometres outside Prague. The resulting set is something that the movie-makers are rightfully proud of - the locations where the murders took place are accurate to the sketches and photographs taken at the time, and the area around Spitalfields Market looks superb, complete with a truncated Christ Church (the rest of which was computer generated in the final film). THE MOVIE The story, doing my best to ignore my preconceptions from the book and prior reading into the story of Jack the Ripper, is reasonably well told, but does seem to have lost something on the big screen. Maybe it's just that I've become desensitised, but I didn't really get the sense of lingering terror or horror that I
        really anticipated from a film on this subject, nor was I ever really engaged by the film. The book, by contrast, manages a powerful, discomforting tension that the movie never really manages. The main characters in the movie really never seem to be deeply developed. Abberline, for example, is established as the drug-addicted inspector given to wild, but accurate, visions, but we never really learn that much about him. In fact, there's little to distinguish Depp's performance as Abberline from his performance as Ichabod Crane in 'Sleepy Hollow', other than his (ahem) English accent. I would also have preferred a little deeper insight into the murderer's deepening psychosis. Because the movie strives to keep the murderer's identity a secret for as long as possible, his character really doesn't get the chance to develop that he really needs to explain the increasing depravity and gruesomeness of his deeds, particularly his latter crimes. Needless to say, this is given adequate time and coverage in the 400 page graphic novel... but not in a two-hour movie. Similarly, the dialogue is largely dreadful. Listen to some of the background catcalls from the prostitutes on the streets, or the rubberneckers around the bodies of the victims, and you'll probably be amazed at what inept exclamations slipped through into the final cut. Similarly, Robbie Coltrane's character, Godley is given some spectacularly clumsy lined to deliver - you'll probably wince as much as I did when he announces "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," to the puzzlement of Bow Street's finest. By way of acting, the film's actors produce adequate performances for the most part. However, it has to be said that the Johnny Depp (playing Inspector Abberline) and Heather Graham (playing Mary Kelly) really aren't that great, and their accents are, at times, squirm-inducingly awful, meandering around the country
        from Devon to the East End. Decent performances are offered by British stalwarts, Ian Richardson (as Sir Charles Warren) and Ian "Bilbo" Holm (as Sir William Gull). As mentioned above, the film's most compelling aspect, however, isn't the story or the players, but the scenery, which is truly outstanding. The film is about as atmospheric as you could hope for, with some really first rate cinematography making full use of the huge Prague set that was constructed for the movie. The computer-generated shots compositing London's contemporary landmarks into the picture also work well to set the scene. CONCLUSIONS In many ways, I was disappointed by 'From Hell', mainly because the graphic novel from which it developed was so good. The movie takes a story made interesting and unusual by its focus on the murderer, and turns it into a slightly unusual, but not notably so, whodunit. As the film's producer says, a mainstream Hollywood movie could never focus on a serial killer, and so it was inevitable that the story would undergo substantial changes in its movement to the big screen. It's a shame that these changes have led to the story becoming so pedestrian, and does make you wonder if they bothered to actually read the graphic novel, before actually buying the rights to it. If you hadn't read the graphic novel first, or knew relatively little of the background to the Ripper murders, there's a chance that you might find the tale of 'From Hell' to be compelling viewing, but I doubt it. If you have read and enjoyed the printed version, chances are you'll be disappointed.

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          08.04.2002 02:33
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          Hi there. Thanks for asking for my advice, surprisingly few people do, you know. Over the course of this opinion, I hope to give you the benefit of my advice about how to write a good travel opinion. Now, before I start offering it, I feel I ought to clear up a potential source of misunderstanding, and attempt to pre-empt some of the criticism this opinion might receive. In this opinion, I will be giving advice about how to write a Travel opinion in a style that I personally find very useful. There are plenty of other ways to write Travel opinions, and by writing this opinion, I am not attempting to reduce the validity of these other styles - I am merely expressing my preferences, and attempting to convey which information I feel is most important to include in a Travel opinion. I trust that this distinction is clear. ABOUT ME The travel bug. Itchy feet. I have these things. The only barrier to my travel is my financial situation. It all started back in 1998, when I was sent to a tiny village, halfway up a mountain in East Switzerland for a population genetics conference. Sitting on a train station in the picturesque little village of Ziegelbrücke, waiting for a connecting train, I suddenly got an odd feeling - a pang of independence, if you will. I was far (well, relatively far) from home, on my own, and it was up to me to get where I was going. With hindsight, it seems pretty inconsequential - it's not as if Switzerland's the other side of the world or anything - but at the time, it was quite a powerful experience. But basically, since then, travel's seemed easy - just a case of making it happen. Since then, I've travelled as much as my meagre finances have allowed. My main reason for writing on dooyoo is to try to encourage other people to travel more. Yes, I'm well aware of the constraints that finances can put on travel... all too well aware, as it happens... but all the same, I tend to reserve my
          greatest enthusiasm for encouraging others to experience other cultures and ways of life. In terms of what I enjoy seeing, I love observing mankind's achievements first hand, so for me, seeing buildings and construction projects are generally higher priority than seeing nature's beauty. That's not to say I don't enjoy seeing natural beauty but, by way of analogy, I enjoyed visiting the Terracotta Warriors and walking through the bustling streets of Hong Kong more than cruising down the Li River. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the latter, more that personally I prefer to see and celebrate human accomplishments. So, during my tenure on dooyoo, I've written some seventy-one Travel opinions (about a quarter of them), of which nineteen have received crowns. Since November 2000, I have been the Travel category guide at dooyoo, and am the longest serving category guide. CLARIFICATION OF MY ROLE As Travel category guide, my role is to read the majority of opinions submitted to the category, and advise dooyoo if I feel opinions are misplaced, inappropriate or worthy of consideration for a crown. Now, at this point, particularly given the ill will over the distribution of crowns that seems so prevalent on the site at the moment, I feel I ought to explain this latter responsibility. Essentially, every two or three days, I email staff at dooyoo with a list of opinions that fall into any of these three categories. In the case of the latter (the "worthy of consideration for a crown" category), I will usually list more opinions than I feel are worthy of receiving a crown, and attach a brief explanation of their merits for the dooyoo staff's perusal. These opinions will all then be read by someone at dooyoo, who will decide which of them, if any, to award crowns to. It is not necessary for me to read an opinion for it to receive a crown, or even be considered for one - all members of the site
          can nominate opinions for crowns, and the staff will also consider opinions nominated in this way. Similarly, if I don't believe that an opinion should receive a crown, it does not preclude it from ever getting one - the decision is taken by dooyoo staff. ADVICE There are two segments to the advice included in this opinion. First, there is basic advice, which applies equally to all the areas within the Travel category, and then there is specific advice for the different types of Travel opinion (e.g. city, individual tourist attractions, airlines, etc.). BASIC ADVICE My first, and most important piece of advice for writing a Travel opinion is that you should actually have visited the place (or used the service) that you're writing about. For self-evident reasons, it's impossible for anyone to actually offer worthwhile advice to other consumers about something that they have no experience of. Probably most people reading this will think this is a spectacularly fatuous and redundant piece of advice, but you'd be surprised how many people try to write an opinion offering advice on somewhere they've not actually been, or are currently planning to visit. One of the worst examples of this is in the case of online travel services, where people have been known to write an opinion about a website that they have visited, but have not attempted to actually book a service from the company. The worn analogy of judging a book by its cover springs to mind in this case. In fairness, if the person has attempted to book a service from an online company, and found their progress repeatedly stymied in some way that prevented them from booking, then their advice and experience would be valuable, despite not having actually fully used the service. My second piece of advice is a fundamental complaint that I have about opinions in general on dooyoo. I find it very difficult to read opinions that do not have good stand
          ards of spelling and grammar. The easiest way to improve your spelling and grammar is by typing your opinions into a word-processor, rather than directly into dooyoo, running them through a spell checker, and then reading the opinion back to yourself aloud. Usually, by doing this, you can spot obvious grammatical errors, or repetitive sections of your opinion that could be improved by editing. If, for example, you write something like "The sea front at this lovely little Greek village is incredibly lovely. There is a series of lovely little shops here, and the sea is lovely and blue," you might not notice your lack of diversity in adjective choice... but the chances are that a reader will, and you certainly will if you read it back to yourself. Similarly, when reading back, I tend to notice where I've used the wrong form of "your/you're", "its/it's", "there/their/they're" and so on. Finally, my third piece of general advice concerning writing Travel opinions is to do with style. There are three main styles of oft-submitted opinion which I don't feel adequately meet the dooyoo brief; the "travelogue", the "travel brochure", and the "guidebook". This is not to say that these styles are not without their merits, but I believe that the most important thing for a dooyoo opinion is to convey information and opinion in a clear and interesting way, and I'll explain why (in general) these three styles of writing don't always meet this brief. --- a. the travelogue Unless you're Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, or William Dalrymple (in which case, what are you doing wasting your talents on dooyoo?) travelogues can be spectacularly dull, particularly for someone who just wants to read information about, and your impressions of, a place or product. For example, let's imagine an opinion on New York City. You're thinking about going
          on holiday there for a long weekend in a couple of months, but aren't sure if it'll suit you, or what to do when you're there. You visit dooyoo and look through some opinions on the city, and stumble across a 4,000 word monstrosity that starts with "One April afternoon I settled down at home with the guidebooks I'd picked up from Lunn Poly earlier that day, and tried to decide where to go. I had picked up many city break guidebooks, thinking that I would spoil myself with a shopping expedition...". Once the writer actually gets to New York, some 1,000 words later, you're greeted with "My first day in the Big Apple! I got up early at about 7:30am, because I was determined to fit everything in, and quickly woke up my boyfriend. He was very tired because he doesn't cope very well with jetlag...". I don't know about you, but by this stage, I'm virtually comatose, and I haven't learnt anything about the city yet. I've learned about how the writer makes their travel plans, and their boyfriend's sleeping habits, but nothing that I actually went to the opinion for. Now, once the opinion actually gets to recounting visits to museums or art galleries, it might become very informative, offering a brief description of what to see there, and the like. But, by that stage, I've given up - particularly if after 50 words about the Guggenheim - we go back to 200 words about an argument over a pair of shoes the writer's bought from Gucci, or something. Alright, I've made that point in a spectacularly overlaboured and exaggerated way, but you see the distinction. A travelogue is rarely the clearest or most concise way to convey the sort of information that a consumer (which could be you one day) would most likely be looking for. However, having said that, travelogues can often give a very good personal account of what it is like to visit a place, and this is the best feature of this style of w
          riting, to my mind. b. the travel brochure This is a relatively rare style of opinion. Essentially, a travel brochure opinion tells me nothing that I couldn't get from reading material from the city or country's tourist information centre, generally attaching a level of overenthusiasm to everything. A hypothetical New York City opinion in this style might read; "Why not visit New York City this Autumn? There's so much to see, from the Empire State Building, with its incredible views over the busy island of Manhattan, to the glitzy shops of Fifth Avenue. Autumn's the ideal time to visit the city, as it gears up for the Christmas celebrations, giving New York a real buzz that makes it the most exciting city in the world!" I've learnt nothing about the writer here, nor do I have any impression that they've actually visited New York City. How do I know I can trust their opinion, when they read like a travel brochure? There are no personal impressions offered (though the writer could claim that the adjectives they've used were their own choice, and reflect their impressions). The other problem with the travel brochure style opinion is that it rarely offers useful information for the would-be visitor - such as how to get to the place being written about, how to get around it, how much it costs to get there, and so on. However, a "travel brochure" style opinion is not without its merits. Generally, such an opinion contains the most important facts that would influence a decision to go to the place. In the case of the hypothetical opinion given above, the opinion does, at least, suggest reasons why someone might want to visit New York, and give a vague impression of what the city is like. c. the guidebook The third type of opinion, and the style which I am most prone to falling into, is the "guidebook" style. This style of opinion focuses on list
          ing what there is to see in a museum or city, without attaching much personality into it, or adequately expressing any kind of opinion. For example, (and I quote from one of my own opinions here, a (rightfully-uncrowned one) on the National Air and Space Museum in Washington), "The 'Air Transportation' gallery, which is where you'll find the main entrance to the museum while the renovation work is carried out, allows you to see the evolution of air transport for carrying people, mail and cargo. Essentially, the planes on display are all from the so called Golden Age of flight, from the 1926 Ford Tri-Motor and Douglas M-2, through to the 1937 Grumman G-21 Amphibian, via the 1933 Boeing 247D, the first modern airliner, and the 1935 Douglas DC-3." Now, if you were specifically interested in where you could see a Grumman G-21 Amphibian aeroplane on display in a museum somewhere in the world, this would be extremely useful information. However, I concede that the majority of readers who would encounter my opinion would have little interest in which specific aeroplanes are on display in each gallery, and a much briefer paragraph describing my impressions of the style of presentation and how informative the exhibition was, would have served much better. The same sort of problem often occurs in opinions on theme parks, which can often fall into the trap of simply listing the rides, with a sentence of description for each. It would be far better if the writer had focused on two or three typical examples, and written more about them, and added a sentence acknowledging that "There were dozens of other rides available too, ranging from childrens' carousels to huge rollercoasters." The advantage of a guidebook style is obvious - the writer informs the reader about what there is to see and do in a place - however, when it does so at the expense of conveying information concisely, this is a problem. -
          -- So, having discussed the positive and negative aspects of these styles, how do I think people should write? Well, the most important thing, to my mind, is that information, advice and impressions of a place or service should be expressed in a clear and interesting manner. Personal experience and individual impressions are vitally important, however, it is important that their description or narration doesn't obfuscate the most important consumer information. If an amusing incident happened to you when on holiday somewhere which you think would amuse readers, it might be good to parenthesise it out, so that a reader who just wants to read information and your impressions can easily skip the anecdote... while leaving it available for those readers who enjoy reading personal accounts. In terms of how to write, personally, I find it useful to have my photographs and guidebooks of places I have visited available when I'm writing about them, to refresh my memory about what I did and where. I always end my opinions with two or three concluding paragraphs now, which summarise the most important information from the rest of the opinion in an easy-to-read way for someone looking for a very brief indication of my impressions of the city. SPECIFIC ADVICE a. City and Country opinions If you're writing an opinion about a city or a country that you have visited, it would be good to start off with an explanation of why you chose to visit that country (if indeed you did), and how long you spent there. This sort of information is very useful to a reader, as it allows them to judge how well your situation compares with their own, and how much they can trust your opinion. For example, someone considering a family holiday to Amsterdam might find an opinion by someone who has chosen to go there for drugs and sex and only spent 24 hours there, less relevant than another parent's opinion on the city.
          Another important issue to include is how you got to the city or country, and why you chose to go there that way. If someone is considering travelling somewhere, they might not be clear about the best way to get there, or might not have considered all the options. Also, it might be worth mentioning early on in the opinion how much of the city or country you saw. If you visited a city for a few days on business, it seems unlikely that you would have seen as much of the city as someone who visited for a week for leisure, and this sort of information might help a reader decide how relevant an opinion is to them. In the case of a country opinion, if you only visited one region, you might have a very biased opinion of it. For example, an Iceland in general opinion written by someone who never left the Reykjanes peninsula might not give a very broad impression of the country. It is also important to mention how you got around the city or country when you were there. Did you use private or public transport? What were the transportation networks like? Someone who visited Paris and only ever used taxis is going to have a very different impression of what it's like to get around the city than someone who used the Metro. Where did you stay? Were the hotels comparable with other places that you've stayed for similar prices? Were other options available? Accommodation is an important part of any holiday, and a rough indicator of the standards that a visitor can expect seems an important part of the opinion. While exact figures of prices aren't really necessary, an indication of the relative price would be useful - e.g. "Guest houses in central Istanbul are cheaper than comparable places in most European cities." What are the options like for food in the country? Are you limited to local cuisine, or are more cosmopolitan options available? How do prices compare with restaurants back home? Are there other options,
          other than restaurants? A brief mention of the shopping options in the city wouldn't go amiss, possibly suggesting some favourite shops, or less obvious souvenir suggestions, and a vague indication of price. What tourist attractions are available? Are they worth visiting, in your opinion? If you didn't visit all of the tourist attractions, it can still be worth mentioning ones that you didn't visit, if you wish you had! It's also worth mentioning any other aspects of the city or country that you think would be interesting to someone considering visiting. For example, in my opinion on Istanbul, I mention the country's rampant inflation - mainly because the economic situation is so dire there that it's worth not getting any Turkish currency until you're actually out there, to ensure that it doesn't devalue too much! Of course, throughout the opinion, as I mention above, it can be interesting to drop in references to personal anecdotes relating to your experiences... but think about how interesting and relevant they would be to a reader who doesn't know you! b. Specific tourist attractions Writing about a specific tourist attraction, many of the same points as in the "City or Country opinions" apply. Why did you choose to visit this tourist attraction? How long did you spend there? Was that about the right length of time, or would you have liked longer? For someone planning how to spend their time on holiday in a city or country, it would be useful to know how long to allow for visiting the various tourist attractions. What were the main things to see at the tourist attraction? What was your impression of the place? Would you go again? Specifics like the entrance fee and hours of opening aren't essential. These details are prone to change, and up-to-date information can be found in guidebooks. If an attraction regularly closes early, it mi
          ght be worth mentioning this, but the details of the exact hours are not essential. Similarly, giving the exact entrance fee isn't necessary, but an indication of roughly how much it was, and whether this seemed like too much or about right, is more important. c. Airline opinions Airlines seem to attract a lot of opinions, but seem to get very few good opinions. The most important factors to cover are the price, the check-in service, and the flight. Firstly, you should mention the extent of your experience with the airline. If you've only flown once with a company, then obviously your opinion could give an unfairly biased impression of the airline, and a reader should be aware of this from the start. Similarly, you should give an indication of the amount of travelling that you do - if you've not flown many times before, the reader would like to be aware of this. Next, it's worth mentioning why you flew with the airline that you did. There's no shame in admitting that the decision was an economic one. If that airline is consistently cheap for the trip that you undertook, than this is useful information for a reader. The airline operates the check-in desk in the airline, so it's worth mentioning the quality of service provided at check-in. How early could you check-in before the flight? Were the queues long? Did they have several desks open? Were the staff friendly and helpful? Are seats allocated at check-in, or at the gate, or do you have to wait till you get to the plane? Next, the in-flight service. I'm sick of reading opinions by people who've only ever flown once complaining that the seat in front is too close. That's how aeroplanes are. If you're going to comment on the amount of legroom available, please try to convey how the amount of legroom compares with other flights you've made. What type of plane did you fly on? Is this the only type of plane that t
          he airline uses? Did the plane look old? How clean was the interior? What was the in-flight entertainment like? Were there any television screens? If so, where were they located? Was there a choice of programming? Were any complimentary food or drinks included in the price of your ticket? What were they like? If you specified a special meal, did you get it? Could you buy duty free gifts en route? Was there a wide choice available? How long was the journey scheduled to take? Did the plane leave on time? Did it arrive on time? Did you have to confirm your flights beforehand? If so, did you have any trouble contacting the airline by phone? d. Airports In writing an opinion on an airport, there are a large number of subjects to consider, much as with the airline opinions. How easy is the airport to get to? How far is it from the city centre? Is it served by rail, coaches, etc.? If you drive to the airport, is ample parking provided, and how expensive is it? How expensive is public transport to the airport? Is there a large taxi rank outside? What sort of destinations do planes from the airport serve (short haul, long haul, package destinations)? Within the airport itself, how well organised is it? How is the signposting? How clean is the airport? If the airport has several termini, can you get between them easily? Is it easy to work out which terminus to go to for your flight? Could you find the check-in desk for your airline easily? What are the shops like in the main concourse? What are the shops like after the security check? How do you get from the main concourse to the gates (is there a monorail system, as at Stansted and Chep Lap Kok, for example)? How do you get from the gates to the planes - via buses, by walking across the tarmac, or do the planes directly link to the gates via umbilici? e. Services To write a good opinion about a travel service (information websi
          tes, online accommodation or flight booking sites, and so on), it really is necessary to have actually used the service. It scarcely seems relevant to comment on how useful a site seems, unless you've actually had cause to use it. It's difficult to give specific questions to be answered in this type of Travel opinion, due to the sheer diversity of subjects that could be written about. The important thing to do really is to think about what questions you'd like answered, if you were considering using the service, (or would have liked answers to before using it yourself), and then write about your experiences answering these questions. SUMMARY The most important factors to writing a good Travel opinion: - Provide information in a clear and direct way - Think about the information you would have liked to know about a place or service, and make sure you answer those questions for other consumers - Include your personal impressions of the place or service - If you want to provide anecdotes, think how useful they'd be to someone who didn't know you. If they're not important, then consider parenthesising them, or leaving them out. As I explained earlier, this is just my opinion of what constitutes a good Travel opinion, and what I look for when reading them every couple of days. I'm not trying to suggest that this is the best, or the only, way to write Travel opinions, just that I find opinions written in this way to be the most useful style of presentation for consumers - who are, after all, the group that dooyoo opinions should be aimed at.

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          • More +
            01.04.2002 01:00
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            • ""Freak show""

            The 'Body Worlds' exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery in the East End of London has attracted a great deal of controversy, even prompting questions to be asked in the House of Commons. Essentially, it is an exhibition of dead bodies and organs, superficially presented in the name of art. The bodies and body parts have been preserved using a technique known as "plastination", developed by Professor Gunther von Hagens - a technique by which the water within the body has been replaced by resin. To my mind, the issue of whether the exhibition should go ahead or not shouldn't be a matter for governmental decree, and certainly needn't be debated before Parliament, and I find it a great affront to the nation's "democracy" that it reached that stage. I'll dwell briefly on the issue of the exhibition's ethical issues, before talking about the exhibition and my opinions of it. If this isn't something that interests you, you can skip this section without missing anything notable. ETHICS All of the people whose organs and bodies are on display in the exhibition volunteered their bodies for this style of presentation. All of the people who have gone to see the exhibition have known what they were going to see, and have chosen to pay their entrance fee to do so. Why then do some people feel the need to attack the exhibition? So far, after only a week of being open, there have been two attacks on the exhibits - one person threw a blanket over an exhibit before throwing paint around, and the other attacked one of the exhibits with a hammer. Well, it seems that some people in this country have a skewed understanding of democracy. If something offends them, then therefore it's wrong and corrupting for anyone else to experience it - why let people make up their own minds, when you can make them up for them? This is the same mentality that keeps the Daily Mail's sales going. The second of the two attacks substantially damaged the exhibit - one entitled 'The Organ Donor', a skilfully dissected body, split vertically to expose the internal organs. In the figure's right hand, the body holds its cirrhosis-covered liver as though offering it to visitors. Now, even if the concept of that exhibit disgusts you, you can surely accept that that body was once a living human, who donated their body to the exhibition to be displayed in that way. Who is more wronged by the "demonstrator's" actions? The patron, deprived of the chance to see a skilfully presented piece of work, or the man who donated his body to the exhibition only to have it mutilated in a thoughtless act of vandalism? Well, OK, you can probably see where I stand on that issue, but I think the point does stand. I think that it's scary for the state of British democracy that questions about the exhibition were raised in Parliament. As I say earlier, those on display have all agreed to be, those who've chosen to see it have all known what they're going to see. As ever, the media and the government turn to its increasing band of misguided but vocal public rent-a-mouths. Ideally, for this situation, they could stick cameras in the faces of those parents affected by the insensitive treatment of their childrens' bodies at Alder Hey hospital. With sickening insensitivity, the press ask them for their opinions on a ridiculously different situation, and reproduces their reactions as though they were more worthwhile that yours or mine. (cf Leah Betts' parents every time someone dies of drug abuse, or Sharron Storey every time there's a story about inadequate health care, or Denise Fergus every time an issue concerning youth justice needs a spokesperson). These aren't experts in the field, nor do they generally have any substantial understanding of the situation. Yet, nonetheless, their tragedies are supposed to make their
            opinions more valuable. The tabloid press, fuelled by statements made by Nobel Prize winner Gunther Grass, have drawn comparisons between Hagens' work and that of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who carried out unspeakable experiments on concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz. This is a spectacularly fallacious comparison. Mengele's victims were not willing participants, Hagens' exhibits were all willing volunteers. Quite aside from the fact that Mengele's torture was carried out on the living, whereas Hagens' treatment is only carried out post mortem. The only reason to draw a comparison like this is to queer public opinion against the exhibition. So ultimately, the decision about going to the exhibition is one that every visitor has to make on their own. If you don't like the idea of seeing partially-dissected human bodies put on display as works of art, then don't go and see the exhibition. If you don't think anyone else should see it, or think they need to be made aware of the controversial nature of the exhibits, why not start a leaflet campaign or stand outside the exhibition and talk to those going in. Don't destroy - to use my own brand of tabloid sensationalism, that's one step away from book burning. THE EXHIBITION Phew, having got that rant out of the way, it's time to talk about the exhibition itself. Hagens' exhibition has toured the world over the last few years, since 1997, attracting millions of visitors. This is its first visit to the United Kingdom, and the gallery chosen for the display is a former brewery in the East End of London. The gallery space is a little smaller than others within which the work has been displayed, and for this reason, some of the exhibits are missing. The Old Truman Brewery, now known as the Atlantis Gallery, is situated on Brick Lane, flanked by rows of Bangladeshi restaurants. If you're not familiar with the area, it will
            take substantially longer than the leaflet's claimed "7 minutes" to get to the gallery from Liverpool Street station, as you wind through the rabbit warren of narrow East End streets. Although I'm sure it's quite safe, single female visitors to the exhibition may want to make the journey during the hours of daylight, because the walk can seem quite menacing after dark. Tickets can either be booked in advance over the internet (in which case, you have to pay a £2.50 booking fee per ticket, and print and cut them out) or bought at the exhibition on the day. The queue was quite long to buy tickets on the day when I visited, though I suspect that as the controversy dies down, the queues will shorten. Audio guides to the exhibition are available, and cost £2. If you listen to the full audio guide, touring the exhibition will take two and a half hours. I managed without the audio guide, and found that the labels on all the exhibits provided more than enough information, and still took around two hours to tour the exhibition. The exhibition itself is split between three rooms within the gallery. The first, smallest room, on the ground floor, begins by showing the human skeleton and giving a vague introduction to anatomy. The second room, the exhibition's largest, contains the majority of the exhibits and is organised by anatomical system, starting with the locomotive system, through the circulatory and digestive systems, through to the reproductive organs. The third room consists of two elements - pre-natal development and blood vessel arrangement within the whole body. Given the attention that the exhibition has received as an "art exhibition", the presentation is remarkably educational and clinical, which will probably surprise many visitors. Where much of the press attention has focused on individual pieces - the man on a horse, the reclining pregnant woman, or the chess player - little has been mad
            e of the way that these pieces are actually presented in the exhibition. All of the figures are accompanied by heavily-labelled pictures pointing out organs, muscles and bones (as appropriate), and text explaining why the body has been arranged in this way. For example, the figure of the man on a horse is accompanied by a block of text suggesting that visitors compare the musculature and bone structure of the man with the horse. The chess-playing figure has been dissected to expose the structure of nerves leading off from the spinal cord, and the text encourages visitors to look for the path of the large sciatic nerve. In addition to these "whole body" plastinates, in each section of the exhibition, individual organs are put on display in glass cabinets. In each cabinet, two or three "normal, healthy" organs are displayed, alongside increasingly diseased or mistreated organs. For example, in the respiratory system section of the exhibition, normal lungs are displayed alongside the lungs of a "twenty-a-day" smoker, a tuberculosis sufferer, and a pair of cancer-ravaged lungs. Probably the most upsetting of these were the aortas on display. The smooth inner surface of a healthy aorta was displayed alongside aortas with hardened walls due to arterial sclerosis - the build-up of fatty deposits on the aorta walls. A fourth specimen of an aorta is bloated and contorted out of shape with enormous blood clots and aneurysms. It's a particularly harrowing exhibit, almost begging a "Repent Now! It's Not To Late!" sign to be hung nearby. First and foremost, it seems that the exhibition's purpose is an educational one - giving its visitors a spectacular chance to see the internal workings of the body first hand. However, the dissection is not skilful enough, at least to my mind, to be greatly to medical students. A degree of artistry has been carried out in the dissection to make them more aestheticall
            y pleasing, and yet retain a degree of educational value to the non-expert. For example, one of the exhibits that I found most fascinating in the exhibition, entitled "The Runner" shows a body posed in a running stance. The muscles have been separated from the skeleton at the "inner" attachment, and splayed out, as though forming lines of movement. From a superficial, non-medical point of view, it's an educational piece because it shows the sheer number of muscles that contribute to fluid human movement. However, I couldn't help thinking that a medic would gain little from the exhibit, in that it was impossible to see where the separated ends of the muscles once attached to the body - and it was here that I felt aesthetics and art had overtaken education. Not that I'm saying that it was a bad thing. The exhibition wasn't put on for medical students, but for the public, and I had to keep reminding myself of this. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the artistic value of the display would be more appreciable to someone who had previously seen human dissections. For someone for whom this is their first experience of human dissections, the educational value is probably vastly greater, at least at first. CONCLUSIONS In many ways, I found the exhibition highly fascinating, however, I found it hard to escape the feeling that I was walking through a modern equivalent of the Victorian freak show. As you walk around, looking at contorted spines, deformed aborted foetuses, polycystic kidneys and hypertrophic hearts, it can be an upsetting experience. The "whole body" plastinates, by contrast, are in many ways, less shocking. The blurring of the boundary between art and education largely depends upon the individual visitor's familiarity with anatomy. Both myself and the friend I visited the exhibition with had carried out numerous dissections (admittedly not on humans) during our
            Biology course, and I felt this made it easier to appreciate the aesthetics of the presentation, without getting drawn too much into the educational presentation that the exhibition concentrates on. The aesthetics of the presentation, once you get past the educational value, is pretty good. The presentation of some of the whole body plastinates, such as the reclining pregnant woman and the "muscleman with his skeleton" are very striking. The pregnant woman's pose is strangely reminiscent of the women of Renaissance paintings. Ultimately, I couldn't help thinking that despite the uniqueness of the exhibition, the entrance fee (£10 for adults) is prohibitively high. It's an exhibition that is definitely worth seeing, even if only to shock you into actually doing something about your health! Those Bangladeshi restaurants along Brick Lane that seemed so appealing on your way to the exhibition suddenly seem a little less enticing.

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            • About a Boy (DVD) / DVD / 4 Readings / 62 Ratings
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              29.03.2002 01:00
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              It's odd, much of the time, I'm dismissive of romantic comedies. Given the choice, I probably wouldn't pay money to see one. However, on those occasions when I do watch a film from the genre, I generally enjoy them. I think it's a frame of mind thing, if I've paid money for celluloid thrills, I expect more than a few implausible situations and overindulgent discussion of relationship angst. However, having said that, I did really enjoy 'About A Boy'. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a great deal more than your standard romantic comedy, but it did surprise me in a number of ways. Not least of which was the fact that here I watched a film with Hugh Grant in it, from beginning to end, without once cringing. The comedy is as sharp as you'd hope for, and the acting is invariably very good. Of course, we wouldn't expect anything less from a book adapted from one of Nick Hornby's novels, by Paul and Chris Weitz, the directors of 'American Pie'. THE PLOT Will (Hugh Grant) is a thirty-eight-year old Londoner - he's rich and single, and plans to stay that way. When his best friends set him up with a single mother, he discovers a whole untapped source of dates, and joins a single parent help group. Inventing a son for himself, named Ned, he begins to seduce another member of the group, Susie (Victoria Smurfit). Going on a picnic with the single parent group, he meets 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the son of one of Susie's friends, who has asked her to look after him for the day. When Susie and Will take Marcus home in the evening, they discover that his mother, Fiona (Toni Collette) has attempted suicide. Over the course of the film, Marcus and Will strike up an unusual friendship - Marcus teaching Will how to be more responsible, and Will teaching Marcus how to fit in. THE FILM Well, to judge from the plot description I've given abov
              e, it's difficult to actually see where the comedy's going to come from. I mean, within two paragraphs of plot summary, the viewer's presented with an attempted suicide. However, it's worth mentioning that the suicide attempt is probably the only really dark scene in the film, which is largely driven by Grant's character, Will Freeman. Fundamentally, the majority of the comedy comes from Will's lack of social graces, and Grant's skilful portrayal of the character. Will's naïvete and attitude stem from the fact that he has never had to work - his father having written a successful Christmas song, the royalties from which are sufficient to fund his lifestyle. This means that Will is fundamentally selfish and inconsiderate - even more so than one might expect a single guy in his thirties to be. Throughout much of the film, Will's internal monologue is provided as a voice-over, providing his reaction to the events going on around him - which was often alarmingly similar to my own thoughts, were I in his place. Will's reaction to learning that the woman his best friends have set him up, at the beginning of the film, is a single mother, is absolutely priceless, for example... and his clumsy attempts to disguise his reaction only add to the amusement - "I would have been disappointed if you hadn't had a son." The film also boasts an incredible plethora of witty one-liners, and as is always the case, when prompted to quote one, I instantly forget almost all of them. Ah, here's one: When Will's best friends ask him to be godfather to their newborn daughter, he points out that it wouldn't be a good idea - when she reaches her 18th birthday, he'll only take her out and "try and get her drunk so that [he] can shag her". Similarly, there are some entertaining moments when Will witnesses Marcus's singing for the first time - "don't close your eyes!" This is very much a zeitgeist film, much like 'Bridget Jones's Diary'. Will settles down in front of 'Pet Rescue', 'Countdown' and 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?', he listens to his vertical-loading Bang & Olufsen CD player, and fights with sophisticated coffee making appliances in his kitchen. When Will goes out with the single mother at the beginning of the film, we see him at her place watching television, and the monologue kicks in telling us that because he has to stay at her place, and she doesn't have a DVD player or cable, they "always end up watching late-night BBC1 real-life dramas about a child dying of leukaemia." In this regard, the film does a good job of illustrating contemporary social mores, and the difficulties of modern relationships. Single guys, particularly single guys in their mid-to-late thirties, will identify with Will, much as they did with Rob in 'High Fidelity', even if they can't relate to his peculiar financial situation of never having to work. The story is very good. There are no fundamental surprises in it, but the characters are well observed, and the pacing is good throughout. The comedy is very well observed, as fans of Hornby's work expect. Unlike 'High Fidelity', 'About A Boy' has been left in its original setting of North London, around Kentish Town and Clerkenwell, which serves it well. In terms of the performances, I will say that I felt an initial twinge of "This isn't a role for Hugh Grant", in fact, an audience would be tempted to conclude that this has John Cusack written all over it, particularly after his excellent performance in 'High Fidelity'. Nonetheless, it wasn't long into the film that I began to warm to Grant's performance. I'll tell you now, I'm not a fan of Hugh Grant, but his performance here really surprised me. To an extent, there's the same degree of awk
              wardness as he is well known for injecting into his roles in 'Four Weddings' and 'Sense and Sensibility', but it's here combined with a barely disguised hint of arrogance and superiority, and he carries it off believably. Nicholas Hoult is also superb as young Marcus. He manages to mix the right degree of childhood innocence with world-weariness, as he copes with the many problems life throws at him - from bullying, to a suicidal mother. The only thing that slightly unnerved me about him were his peculiar eyebrows. Toni Collette, probably best known for her role as the mother in 'The Sixth Sense', puts in a strong performance as Marcus's mother. Her confrontations with Will are well observed and handled, and it is testament to her performance that her stereotyped "hippie" character remains believable. Rachel Weisz also appears in the film, as Rachel, a single mother that Will falls for against all the odds. Her part is much smaller than those of the above three, and I can't say that she was overwhelmingly convincing in it, but her weaker performance is, to an extent, ignorable due to the strengths of the other cast members. CONCLUSIONS All in all, 'About A Boy' was far more entertaining than I had anticipated. The film is peppered with many "laugh out loud" moments, and much more entertaining than the combination of "romantic comedy" and "Hugh Grant leads" has any right to be. The performances are, for the most part, outstandingly good, and Grant's delivery of Will's internal monologues are superb. Overall, however, there are no surprises here, and the ultimate conclusion is precisely what the viewer would expect. Whether or not that is a reason to penalise the film is, to a certain extent, dependent on how much you expect of it. So, no, don't expect to be surprised, just go expecting to laugh a lot and you'll have
              a good time.

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                25.02.2002 01:00
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                This was my fourth year visiting the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain. As ever, as soon as the exhibition started, the inevitable ignorant backlash began in the newspapers, and the public immediately began their grumblings about the nature of art. "If it ain't a painting, then it ain't art", "My five-year-old could do that", and so on. No, of course, most of them hadn't been to see the exhibition - the very idea of parting with hard-earned cash in order to go and actually see the art is glorious anathema to them. Cosseted in their ignorance, they're happy not to actually go and see something, simply passing judgement without experiencing the thing that they're criticising. The fact is that the majority of contemporary art is conceptual. Much of its value comes from the unlikely surroundings in which the art is found. Take, for example, Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed, in last year's Turner Prize exhibition. Yeah, anyone could just stick an unmade bed in an art gallery. But did you think of it? No, you didn't. And that's the point. The last thing you expect to find in an art gallery is the accoutrements of someone's life laid bare. The presentation of a bed in an art gallery, particularly one in the state in which Emin's bed was left, is unexpected, and that's part of its appeal to me. Essentially, the point of the piece was to lay bare the state of her life for the world to see. If you're the sort of person that needs an analogy, this is like Van Gogh painting the famous self-portrait after cutting his ear off. At the time, Van Gogh didn't expect to sell the painting, nor did he make any money from it in his lifetime, but just wanted to artistically express his state of mind. His painting would, were it now to be sold, fetch a multi-million dollar price at auction. For Emin, given the space to present her art in the Tate Britain, she chose to dis
                play her bed, in the state it was left after finishing a long-term relationship. This is something many people can relate to - the pain, the anguish and the frustration. All of these are woven into the knotted bedsheets, the discarded tissues around the bed, and so on. However, the masterstroke, the thing that makes the piece "art" rather than a mere piece of furniture, is that it is displayed in an art gallery. The simple action on the viewer's part of having to go to an art gallery, and then walk through the building to actually see the bed affects the viewer's perception of the piece. Seeing a picture of it isolated from this atmosphere on the television, and passing judgement on what it's like to see the art, is like looking at a photograph of a Caribbean beach and pronouncing that it is fantastic there - when for all the viewer knows, there might be a heavily-polluting power station just beyond the edge of the photograph. Context is fundamentally important to art, and this seems to be something that most people fail to appreciate - mainly due to an unwillingness to actually experience something before passing judgement. The fact is that, in order to be offered exhibition space in the Tate Gallery, particularly in the Turner Prize exhibition, an artist has to be technically competent, and has to have proved themselves as an artist. The artist is then free to choose how to express him or herself in the gallery space that they are offered. Imagine that - freedom to do whatever you like, in a room in one of the city's most visited tourist attractions. Is it any wonder that so many artists seek to shock and surprise? It is this sense of shock and surprise that I crave. I love discovering something unexpected and original in an art gallery. The sheer amount of work that an artist has to put in to gain the right to display an exhibition in the Turner Prize surely justifies that people should make the effort to at least see i
                t in person before passing judgement. Although, one of this year's exhibitors, Martin Creed, produced an exhibit that was about as minimalist as you could possibly imagine, he had to do a lot of work in order to earn the right to display that exhibit. His decision to display the art that he did was entirely his right, and although on the face of it, it is very simplistic, the statements that a viewer can infer from it are potentially strong ones, and I'll come to this later. THE EXHIBITION As ever, the exhibition space given over for the Turner Prize nominees was at the far north-east corner of Tate Britain. It's a large space, divided into four sections - one for each of the four nominees. Each area was presented to the exhibitors with bare white walls, and bare wooden floorboards. As with the exhibition space in the rest of the gallery, the rooms were well lit, with ceiling skylights and neon lighting. In previous years, visitors would pass through each of the exhibitors' exhibitions in turn. This year, however, the nature of Mike Nelson's exhibition led to a peculiar layout which meant that visitors could completely bypass his exhibit without realising that they'd actually missed anything. Nelson claimed the far corner of the exhibition space, and entry to his "room" was only possible via a closed, brown door, which looked like the entrance to a broom closet in the corner of Creed's exhibition space. The exit to Nelson's exhibition space was similarly innocuous, marked by another closed, brown door, which could only be opened from the inside. RICHARD BILLINGHAM The first of the four nominees for the 2001 Turner Prize was, for me, probably the dullest of the four. Visitors to the exhibition pass into a room, on the walls of which, several paintings displaying six of Billingham's photographs. The most interesting of these, for me, was his untitled 1999 triptych of pi
                ctures of skin, viewed close up. These three pictures all had a banding pattern of horizontal lines across them, suggesting that the photographs were taken of a television screen showing the skin. The combination of the two textures - the organic lines and liver spots of the hands, with the regular horizontal banding of the television picture - created an interesting effect. The other photographs, depicting trees and a Cephalonian landscape, seemed less engaging to me. In a neighbouring room, Billingham displayed a video entitled 'Tony Smoking Backwards' (1999). The video consisted of a tight zoom on a mouth, which periodically absorbed smoke from the air around it, and then took in a cigarette. Basically, it was, quite literally, a film of someone smoking played backwards. The video was projected to fill the entire wall, and at the base of the wall, a couple of small speakers played the ambient noise presumably recorded at the same time as the video - repetitive musak and faint (backwards) speech. Again, I wasn't that inspired by the video, which seemed remarkably uninteresting. There was nothing novel or surprising about its presentation. Alongside this room, a darkened room displayed a video entitled 'Ray In Bed' (1999). The camera slowly panned over a man in bed, straying in and out of focus as it travels, or struggling to focus on objects too close to the camera. It was a gentle, soothing image, but at the same time, the dull surroundings of the room around him serve to document the working class poverty that Billingham grew up in. Ray, Richard's father, appears frequently in his art. Billingham seeks to chronicle aspects of his life as a document of what life is like for many British people - it's not judgemental, and he refrains from making any kind of political commentary, instead electing to simply present his art as a visual record of the period. MARTIN CREED From Billingham's exhibition,
                visitors pass into Creed's exhibition area. Martin Creed's exhibition for the Turner Prize 2001 consisted of just a single room, with just the one piece in it - 'Work #227: The lights going on and off' (2000). The room is completely devoid of content - the walls are plain white, the floor is bare wood. The only thing that distinguishes the room as a work of art is that the lights (a combination of spotlights and neon tubes) turn on and off at five second intervals. OK, before I offer my interpretations and thoughts on the exhibit, here's what the Turner Prize exhibition programme had to say "Creed celebrates the mechanics of the everyday, and in manipulating the gallery's existing light fittings he creates a new and unexpected effect. In the context of Tate Britain, and institution displaying a huge variety of objects, this work challenges the traditional methods of museum display and thus the encounter one would normally expect to have in a gallery. Disrupting the norm, allowing and then denying the lights their function, Creed plays with the viewer's sense of space and time. Out negotiation of the gallery is impeded, yet we become aware of our own visual sensitivity, the actuality of the space and our own actions within it. We are invited to re-evaluate our relationship to our immediate surroundings, to look again and to question what we are presented with." The first thing that I felt, upon entering the room, is a feeling of being on show. As there is nothing in the room, the feeling of being "within the art" is more intense than in any other piece I'd seen. Part of the experience of visiting Creed's work is to observe how others react to it, whether they stride through it purposefully rushing to reach the explanatory text in the far corner of the room, or slowly move through it looking into the corners and at the other visitors. As I walked through the room, I couldn't help th
                inking that in many ways, Creed was seeking to make a statement about the progression of contemporary art. His implication being that less and less effort is needed in order to produce art nowadays. Now, personally, I see nothing wrong with that, were it Creed's actual intention. That statement would be no less valid than any other. There is a certain braveness in choosing, when offered exhibition space in one of the world's best known galleries, to present an empty room. Having said all this, the fact that the piece itself challenges the notions of what actually constitutes art, means that it creates debate. For me, that is fundamentally important to contemporary art. Anything that makes people talk about art is a good thing - when was the last time that you talked with co-workers about Mondrian or Kandinsky? I'm willing to bet never. But I bet most offices had idle lunchtime conversations about that bed, or the lights going on and off. Yes, most of those conversations were dismissive and negative, but the fact that they actually happened at all was, to my mind, a good thing. Creed isn't even the first artist to present art such as this - as early as 1958, Yves Klein presented a piece entitled 'The Void' consisting of completely empty, white gallery. There, there wasn't even the disruption of an unconventional lighting system to break the monotony. But more important than all of this, what was my opinion of it? Well, overall, I wasn't inspired. Yes, there's the initial surprise of entering a room that's actually devoid of any content, but I have to admit that beyond that, it does have an element of Emperor's New Clothes about it. I got the point intellectually, but part of me wondered if it was actually a point that needed to be made. As it happened, the tabloid reaction showed that it was... MIKE NELSON From one corner of Creed's room, visitors passed through a nondescrip
                t brown-painted wooden door into Mike Nelson's exhibition - 'The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent' (2001). This is precisely the sort of exhibition that I love. Nelson specialises in large-scale architectural installations. He uses the historical nature of the site, and its geographical location, to influence his design, and then creates his installation by constructing internal walls and decorating it with found materials. A month before the Turner Prize exhibition, I visited an exhibition by Mike Nelson at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The exhibition took the visitor through a series of rooms, each with a different theme and appearance, before guiding them through a series of labyrinthine passages into the bar. It was one of the most intriguing exhibitions I've ever visited, so I expected big things of Nelson's Turner exhibit. I wasn't disappointed. Nelson plumped for a piece similar to his earlier works - with a series of twisting turning corridors, leading into a giant "storeroom" at the heart of the exhibition. The installation attempted to look as much like what the Tate Britain looks like behind the scenes as possible, and achieved this brilliantly. As I mentioned earlier, it appeared so like a store cupboard, that the entrance to the exhibition could easily be missed by someone that didn't know it existed. The dingy corridors and the adequately-lit central storeroom both looked more or less how you would imagine them to look in areas of the building not visited by the gallery's visitors. The distant echoing footsteps of the other visitors to the exhibit added to the atmosphere. The storeroom held a series of wooden panels and doors, photographs, an arcade console, chairs, fans, and all the sort of things you can imagine being stored in a disused corner of the gallery's basement. For me, this was the most fascinating of the exhibits, the fact that you had to "fin
                d" it within the exhibition made it more intriguing, and the busy-ness of the exhibit (particularly alongside Creed's empty room) made it very engaging. There's something fascinating about Nelson's attempts to recreate something that the visitor wouldn't normally see, and yet to deliberately do so in an intentionally unlikely and muddled way. ISAAC JULIEN At the exit to Nelson's work, visitors could turn left or right, in order to watch either of the two video installations submitted by Isaac Julien - 'The Long Road to Matzalán' (1999) to the left, and 'Vagabondia' (2000) to the right. 'The Long Road to Matzalán' is a very colourful piece, filmed in San Antonio Texas, consisting of a three-panel video wall, with the three panels arrayed horizontally. At times the three images combine to produce a single wide image, and at other times the three panels display different images - usually different views of the same events. The video deals with issues of male masculinity and repressed desire - essentially showing a series of glances between two men dressed as cowboys, in a series of different scenarios. For example, in one scene, one of the men poses a la 'Taxi Driver' in front of a mirror, posing the question "Are you looking at me" (rather than "Are you talking to me?") while the other peeps at him through the window. The imagery was outstanding throughout the video, borrowing from Western films by directors such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, making it fascinating to watch from beginning to end, in spite of the lack of any substantive narrative. 'Vagabondia', by contrast, follows the fictional custodian of the Sir John Soane's Museum in London - an impressive museum packed with hundreds of architectural artefacts from around the world. The video consists of two panels, which mirror each other along a vertical central line. The imag
                es on the two panels begin completely in sync with each other, separating slightly as the film progresses. The video images, generally filmed through a fish-eye lens, provide a distorted view of history - combining narratives of imaginary figures from history with costumes figures walking through the museum. Again, Julien's eye for imagery is superb, recalling scenes from films by directors such as Orson Welles and Jean Cocteau. Both of Julien's videos were very beautifully presented, with beautiful locations and cinematography throughout. I enjoyed sitting through both of them. CONCLUSIONS Overall, I didn't feel as inspired by the 2001 Turner Prize exhibition as I have been by previous years' exhibitions. There were some intriguing pieces on display, but neither Creed nor Billingham really managed to inspire me, and it was only Nelson's exhibition that really caught my imagination. It is worth noting that the Turner Prize is awarded on the basis of all of each artist's exhibitions in the last year - and not just on the exhibits displayed in the Tate's Turner Prize exhibition. These exhibits are just a selection of each artist's work from the past year, selected (or created) by the artist for this exhibition. Inevitably then, it would be unfair to judge the individual artists' suitability as an award recipient exclusively on the basis of these exhibits. As I said earlier, I think that it's difficult to judge a piece of art without seeing it in its appropriate context - and hence it's important to actually go and see art before commenting. In the event, I was uninspired by Creed's 'The lights going on and off', but, on the other hand, I did experience unexpected feelings upon actually seeing it. It may not be one of the most sensational or inspirational pieces ever displayed, but it definitely elicits feelings in the viewer - for good or bad - and that can on
                ly be a good thing. --- The Turner Prize exhibition 2001 ran from the 7th November 2001 to the 20th January 2002. Admission was £3, but I got in free, because I'm a friend of the Tate Gallery.

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                  24.02.2002 22:07
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                  This was my favourite of the beer halls I visited on my recent trip to Munich. It came highly recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but despite their glowing praise, hadn't become as packed with tourists as many of the city's other halls, and managed to retain a strong atmosphere. There are three Augustiner beer halls in central Munich; this one, which is located alongside the Augustiner brewery; the Augustiner Keller, on Arnulfstrasse, on the north side of the station; and the Augustiner Grossgaststatte, on the pedestrianised Neufingerstrasse of the Altsadt. Of these three, only the Augustiner Keller has a beer garden - and a particularly large one, at that, seating no less than 5,000! I visited Munich in Winter, so the lack of beer garden at the Augustiner Bräustuben wasn't much of an issue. Of the three Augustiner beer halls, the Bräustuben was by far the smallest - you could probably pack about 500 people in there, but it would be a hell of a squeeze. Nonetheless, when we visited on a Friday night, although it was busy, it was easy enough to get a seat. LOCATION Getting to the Augustiner Bräustuben involves a fairly long walk from the city centre. Heading west along Landsbergerstrasse, the road immediately to the south of the Hauptbahnhof, the beer hall about ten minutes' walk away, on the south side of the road. It's not particularly eyecatching from the outside, but if you're walking along the road after dark, you'll easily identify it as the only place that's still open. It has to be said that this doesn't feel like a particularly safe walk. More cautious visitors might want to take either tram 18 or 19 west, and get off at the Holzapfelstrasse stop, which is only a few yards east of the entrance to the Bräustuben. The hall's about as far from a U-Bahn station as you can get in central Munich - about five minutes walk north from Theresienwiese station - or abou
                  t five minutes walk south from Hackerbrucke S-Bahn station. LAYOUT Upon entering, you pass through the usual thick walled curtain just inside the door, to keep the cold winter air out. There are two areas to the Augustiner Bräustuben, a more conventional bar area to the left, and the beer hall proper to the right, up a few stairs. I can't really comment on the bar area, as I only went into the beer hall. The beer hall is a long hall, which immediately struck me as considerably smaller than the Hofbrauhaus, which was the only other beer hall I'd visited in the city at that time. On the right hand side of the hall, attached to the wall, were huge old barrel lids extending from floor to ceiling. In front of these were a series of long benches pointing out into the room. On the left hand side was the kitchen area, and beyond it, the bar at which all the beer is dispensed. Between the two, set back a little from the hall, are the entrances to the toilets. Between the toilets is a large display window, through which visitors can peer in at the brewery's Percheron horses, and see the cart that they pull through the city in the Summer. SERVICE, FOOD AND DRINK When you enter, just sit wherever there's a space - they don't stand on ceremony here! Check to make sure that there's no sign above the seats saying "Stammtisch" - which means that those seats are reserved for regulars. I don't remembering seeing any Stammtisch spaces in the beer hall of the Bräustuben, but it's best to be aware of the general rule, so as not to upset anyone! Shortly after sitting, your waitress will rush over with a menu, and a basketful of pretzels. The menu will be in German, so unless you can read German, or fancy a fun game of "food roulette", it might be worth asking for an English one. Evidence that the Augustiner Bräustuben doesn't receive that many non-German visitors was pro
                  vided by the fact that our waitress took a very un-German while to find the English language menus, and that the prices on it were still printed in Deutsche Marks rather than Euros. The pretzels cost just 1DM each (about 35p), so it's important to keep track of how many you've had. When your waitress comes over with the bill, when you're ready to leave, she'll ask how many you've had and add them to your bill. Beer comes in three sizes - "vom Fass" (a half litre stein), "Schnitt" (a half litre stein, but with more head on the beer than you could possibly ever want), and "Mass" (a full litre stein). Essentially, there are three types of Augustiner beer that are available in the beer hall - Edelstoff, the normal light-coloured beer, which you will get by default, if you don't specify which type you want; Hell; and Dunkles, a dark beer. After ordering the beer, the waitress will return with it faster than you would believe humanly possible. One word of advice though, not many locals seemed to be ordering the Mass size of beer - most seemed happy with the smaller vom Fass steins. There is no financial benefit to choosing the larger size, and it's considerably more unwieldy than the smaller size. Nonetheless, I found that there was something very satisfying about the sheer size of the Mass stein... perhaps I was compensating for something... I only drank the Edelstoff beer here, which was excellent - very light, with a slightly creamy flavour, which went down very smoothly. A Mass of Edelstoff cost 9DM (about £2.80) - certainly one of the cheapest prices for that quantity of beer in a Munich beer hall. [Hell is fractionally cheaper, and Dunkles is the same price]. The food menu at the Bräustuben was very diverse, and was supplemented by a series of specials up on a chalk board. The specials seemed popular with the locals - two of them got wiped off the board during the
                  course of the evening, as they sold out. If you're more adventurous than I, or faster with your phrase book, you'd probably do well to give them a try. The largest chunk of the menu is taken up by "Bavarian specials" - primarily pork dishes, generally served with potato dumpling and a selection of other vegetables. I plumped, however, for the baked Schnitzel. If you've not had Schnitzel before, it essentially consists of a flattened, tenderised pork fillet, covered with breadcrumbs and fried. A Wienerschnitzel (which you will also see on menus), is veal, rather than pork. The Schnitzel came with a mixed salad, and was priced at 15,50DM (about £4.80). I can honestly say that it was the best meal that I had in Munich. The pork was superbly tender and had a wonderful slightly spicy taste. The salad was crisp, nicely presented, and topped by a light dressing. After a couple more beers, a dessert seemed like a good idea. The dessert menu isn't exactly massive - only seven options, but most appealing of these is unquestionably the fresh baked apple strudel, a snip at 7,80DM (about £2.40) for a big chunk, served with vanilla ice cream. The strudel was superb - clearly freshly baked with a lovely texture and flavour. Essentially, everything I ate here made me want more of it - not because it wasn't filling, but because the flavour was so good! The service was also consistently swift and efficient. ATMOSPHERE The atmosphere in the Bräustuben was very good, and the locals seemed very friendly. Being seated at long benches inevitably forces you into close proximity with strangers, and the locals I met here were very pleasant company, and enthusiastic about their city. CONCLUSIONS The Augustiner Bräustuben offers good beer and superb food, with efficient service, for a very good price. Possibly the only down side is that the beer hall is quite a long way from the city centre,
                  and it's not a particularly pleasant walk to get there, after dark. Although the Bräustuben gets busy, it's generally fairly easy to get a seat here, even on a Friday evening. The beer hall has also, unlike some of the city's more central ones, managed to retain something of a traditional atmosphere. Unlike some of the city's more central beer halls, there's no souvenir shop within the hall itself (though you can buy T-shirts or steins if you want to). It is surprising that more tourists don't make the effort to come out to somewhere like this - particularly given its enthusiastic description in the Lonely Planet guide. I can only assume that it receives more tourists in the Summer - after all, most tourists visiting Munich in Winter are just stopping there on their way to the ski slopes. It's their loss!

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                    12.02.2002 04:43
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                    Every once in a while you stumble across something unexpectedly beautiful. Even when the guidebooks liberally use words like "picturesque" and "amazing", and even if they provide photographs, sometimes the actual appearance of a place can take you by surprise. Visiting Schloss Nymphenburg was like that for me, and was an unexpected highlight of my visit to the city of Munich. The area of Bavaria around Munich has more than its fair share of castles and palaces, thanks to the Wittelsbach rulers' preference for elaborate and ostentatious dwellings. Some, such as the "fairy-tale" Schloss Neuschwanstein, you expect to impress, but others are unexpectedly impressive. Building work on Schloss Nymphenburg began in 1664, as a villa for Karl Ferdinand's wife, Electress Adelaide of Savoy. The palace and its grounds expanded until 1758, and the site became the royal family's summer residence. Today, both the palace and grounds are open to the public. LOCATION AND GETTING THERE Schloss Nymphenburg is located to the west of the city. The easiest way to get there from the centre of Munich is by tram or bus. Both tram number 17 and bus number 41 head west along Arnulfstrasse to Romanplatz, where they head north onto Notburgastrasse. If you watch from the left hand side of the bus, you'll see Schloss Nymphenburg a few minutes later, at the end of the long tree-lined canal. Get off at the next stop! The nearest U-Bahn station is Rotkreuzplatz (on U1 and U7) and the nearest S-Bahn station is Laim (three stops west along any of the S-Bahn lines from the Hauptbahnhof). However, both of these stations are about half an hour's walk from the palace. You'd be better taking the bus or tram. Really. APPROACHING THE PALACE From Notburgastrasse, as you look west along the tree-lined canal Nymphenburg, you get your first glimpse of Schloss Nymphenburg. When I visited Munich in Ja
                    nuary 2002, the canal was frozen, and children were skating up and down it. The snow-covered gardens in front of the palace made it look like something from 'Doctor Zhivago'. It was a really beautiful sight, the sort of thing that you'd see on a Christmas card. Like most Prussian palaces, Nymphenburg is very broad, but not very deep. In fact, if you looked at the palace from the air, it would look something like a square bracket "[", with the open side pointing to the east. So, as you approach the palace along either side of the canal, the palace appears to open up in front of you, stretching out to the north and south. At the western end of the canal, in front of the palace, are a series of huge tiered pools. The lowest of the tiered pools is the largest, and was frozen over when I visited the palace. Strips of the frozen pool had been polished, and wooden stakes had been driven into each end of the polished ice strips, so that locals could play a local variant of curling on the ice. Instead of curling stones, they slide objects resembling a Frisbee with a joystick stuck on top across the polished ice strips. Near the pool was a shed hiring skates and the Bavarian curling "stones", alongside a wooden stair down onto the canal, so you could kill a few hours on the ice. The other tiered pools in front of Schloss Nymphenburg were labelled with signs warning that the ice wasn't thick enough to skate on safely, and sections of ice had been cleared for the palace's swans to swim on. "Mad" King Ludwig II, the best known of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria, was born in Nymphenburg, and used to feed the swans here. In winter, the fountains and statues in front of the palace are kept covered up in wooden crates. THE PALACE Just to the north and south of the central part of the façade of the palace are a series of gates leading to the grounds of the palace. At the centre of the pa
                    lace, on the eastern side, is the entrance to the shop, and the palace itself. You first have to visit the shop, to buy your tickets, the entrance to which is at ground level. The Nymphenburg shop stocks more guidebooks, in more languages, than you could ever possibly need, as well as a selection of the usual souvenirs (pens, pads, paperweights, and so on). I heartily recommend the excellent guidebook produced by the Bavarian Administration of State Castles and Palaces, A ticket for admission to all the parts of Schloss Nymphenburg will cost you 6,50 Euros (about £4), an admission ticket to the palace along will cost 3,50 Euros (about £2.20). The main entrance to the palace is up the external staircase on the eastern side of the palace. The first room that you enter is undoubtedly the most stunning of the rooms in the palace which are open to the public - the Stone Hall (Steinerner Saal), a vast, two-storey dining hall, which spans the width of the palace. It's a very bright room, with its huge walls covered in frescoes framed in gilt Rococo swirls of stucco. The room is lit by enormous windows on both sides of the palace, with vast chandeliers dangling from the ceiling high above. The most impressive feature of the room, however, is the beautifully-painted ceiling of the Olympian gods. The north wing of the palace is less interesting than the south, with rooms decorated for Electors Max Emanuel and Karl Theodor. Probably the most amusing of the sights is in the Karl Theodor room - which boasts portraits of the man himself, and both his first and second wives. Looking at the portraits, it is perhaps easy to guess what turned Karl's eye from Elizabeth Auguste to the considerably younger and more svelte Maria Leopoldine. The north gallery is also worthy of note, with large veduta paintings of Max Emanuel's palaces, including Nymphenburg and Starnberg Castle. The south wing of the palace boasts several
                    impressive rooms. Passing through the sumptuous apartments of the electors' wives, and through the south gallery, which is decorated with more large veduta paintings of electoral palaces, you enter the South Pavilion. The highlight of the South Pavilion is, for most, the Queen's Former Dining Room, which now holds Ludwig I's Gallery of Beauties - a collection of paintings commissioned by the King, reflecting King Ludwig's idea of beauty. These are extremely impressive paintings, made all the more interesting by the fact that this collection of pictures have been arrayed without consideration of their subjects' social rank - a painting of a royal princess hangs alongside another of a cobbler's daughter. There are thirty-six such portraits crammed into the room, and each is as beautiful as the next - Ludwig's eye for beauty was seemingly far more in touch with modern aesthetics than his peers' tastes. The same room also holds some remarkably well-preserved photographs of the Wittelsbach family, and their friends. There are several photographs of King Ludwig II and, one of the best-known recipients of his patronage, composer Richard Wagner. The bedroom in the South Pavilion was where King Ludwig II was born in 1845. All of the rooms in the South Pavilion, other than the Former Dining Room, have been maintained with their original furniture, and the bedroom contains a couple of small busts of Ludwig II and Prince Otto as young boys. THE PARK The park to the west of Schloss Nymphenburg is absolutely enormous, and could easily take a whole day to explore fully. It contains several smaller royal residences, all of which are open to the public. Unfortunately, we arrived at Nymphenburg quite late in the day, and had time to visit only one of these pavilions - the Amalienburg hunting lodge. If you bought the 6,50 Euros admission ticket, it will cover you for entry to all of the small pavilions - otherwise, y
                    ou have to pay a separate admission fee of 1,50 Euros for each. The park is divided from west to east by the continuation of the canal. The Pagodenburg and Badenburg pavilions, are located to the north and south of the canal respectively, and are each about a kilometre from the main palace. The Magdalenklause is about half a kilometre from the palace, in the north side of the park, and the Amalienburg is a similar distance away, to the south. Looking through the guidebook, all of the pavilions are sumptuously decorated - the Pagodenburg boasts a beautiful red-lacquer Chinese Cabinet Room, the Badenburg has a huge banqueting hall and a Baroque bath, and the Magdalenklause has a beautiful little Grotto Chapel covered with tiny shells. However, the Amalienburg lodge appealed the most to me of the park's pavilions, with its gorgeous Hall of Mirrors. The grounds of Schloss Nymphenburg are very impressive even in winter. Although, when I visited, the ground was covered with snow, the sheer scale of the gardens was impressive. All of the statues and fountains were encased in wooden crates, as those in front of the palace. The wooded areas were beautiful, with small streams running through them, and winding paths that must be wonderful to walk through in the summer. AMALIENBURG HUNTING LODGE The Amalienburg hunting lodge was built by Elector Karl Albrecht for his wife Maria Amalia. Visitors enter through the dog and gun room, where hunting supplies were kept, with a line of kennels at ground level around the outside of the room. It's a relatively plain room, with its plain yellow and blue painted walls, certainly in comparison with the other rooms of Amalienburg. As I mentioned above, the highlight of Amalienburg, if not Nymphenburg itself, is the stunning Hall of Mirrors - a circular room at the centre of the pavilion, with windows on the west and east sides, doors to the north and south, and mirrors on the rema
                    ining walls. The mirrors are surrounded in spectacularly ornate silver-coloured stucco work, with only occasional gaps allowing you to see through to the pastel blue coloured wall beneath. Around the edge of the ceiling are arranged beautiful silver plaster figures and animals, looking down on the rooms' occupants. It's an absolutely stunning room - the sort of room that one imagines Austen heroines standing in, clutching love letters to their breasts, and spinning while their heart soars. More in keeping with the pavilion's role as a hunting lodge, is the Hunting Room, next to the Hall of Mirrors. While it is similarly extravagantly decorated, the Hunting Room is essentially a picture gallery of court hunts held by the electoral couple. It's another beautiful room, its walls are straw yellow in colour, where you can see past the silver-coloured stucco that is used to form frames around the paintings. The kitchen of the Amalienburg is well worth a look too, its walls decorated with beautifully painted blue-and-white Dutch tiles showing Chinese scenes and flower vases. OTHER THINGS In addition to the above, there are several glasshouses open to the public in the park, as well as a Museum of Mankind and Nature (closed when I visited), and a museum dedicated to painter Erwin von Kreibig. To the north-east of the main palace is Nymphenburg porcelain factory which was built in the 18th century, and is still in operation. It has a salesroom. DETAILS You can take photographs in the palace and pavilions of Schloss Nymphenburg, so long as you don't use flash. (So, that'll be the 400 speed film then). The palace of Nymphenburg is open every day of the week, so if you're here for a long weekend, it might be a good idea to come here on the Monday when most of the city's other attractions will be closed. The palace is open from 9am to 6pm in Summer, staying open until 8pm on T
                    hursdays. In winter, the palace is only open from 10am to 4pm, though people skate on the canal and play Bavarian curling in front of the palace until it's too dark to keep going. The same opening hours apply to the pavilions within the park. CONCLUSIONS There is easily enough to do on the grounds of Schloss Nymphenburg to take up a whole day. If you're only in Munich for a few days, however, you might not want to spend that long here. My recommendation, if you're on a tight schedule, is just to visit the main palace and the beautiful Amalienburg, which will take about three hours (not including the time to travel out to Nymphenburg from the city centre). Schloss Nymphenburg is beautiful - the view toward the main palace from along the canal is absolutely stunning, particularly when the canal is frozen over in winter, and the interiors of both the main palace and the pavilions are sumptuous. Admission fees certainly aren't excessive, and the palace is only about twenty minutes tram ride from central Munich. Well worth visiting.

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                      03.02.2002 22:54
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                      • "Unexpected early-morning construction work"

                      The aim of my recent trip to Munich was to try to keep the cost of the holiday as low as possible. So, I shopped around online to try to find a reasonably cheap, but comfortable hotel in the city. I ultimately settled on the Hotel Alfa, booked through Hotel Connect (www.hotelconnect.co.uk), which worked out at £270 for five nights in a twin-bedded room. LOCATION The hotel was within a couple of minutes' walk from the Hauptbahnhof in central Munich on Hirtenstrasse, making it nice and easy to get to, even when weighed down with luggage. The easiest way to get to the hotel from the airport is to take either the S1 or S8 S-Bahn lines to the Hauptbahnhof, take one of the Arnulfstrasse exits from the station, and walk to the hotel. If you're either feeling flush or lazy, then you can take a taxi, which takes about 25 minutes, and costs around 50 to 60 Euros (£30-37). In terms of proximity to the city's main attractions, the Hotel Alfa is about fifteen minutes walk from the Marienplatz, and maybe twenty minutes from the Residenz palace. The location is also very convenient for the S-Bahn and U-Bahn (from the Hauptbahnhof) and for buses and trams, which run along Arnulfstrasse. There are several excellent beer halls around the hotel, most notably the Augustiner Keller, about five minutes walk to the west along Arnulfstrasse, and the lovely Augustiner Braustuben, about ten minutes walk to the west, on the other side of the station, on Bayerstrasse. The less-welcoming, but nonetheless pleasant, Lowenbraukeller is about five minutes walk to the north on the corner of Nymphenburgstrasse and Dachauerstrasse. SERVICE Checking-in wasn't a problem. Hotel Connect send you a slip that you just have to hand over when you reach the hotel. All of the reception desk staff at the hotel spoke excellent English, and the check-in form was printed in both English and German. The lobby of the hotel was warm and welcoming, w
                      hich is particularly pleasant on those cold Bavarian winter nights. The staff at the reception desk were generally very friendly and helpful, particularly the morning receptionist - a native of Munich who seemed keen to ensure that visitors enjoyed their visit to his city. Unfortunately, I can't offer quite so much praise for the French evening/late night receptionist, who seemed more interested in increasing his commission than in ensuring that we enjoyed our visit to the city. One evening, as we were heading out to a beer hall, as we handed in our key at the desk, he asked us where we were planning to eat that evening. "At the Lowenbraukeller," we cheerfully replied. "On a Saturday night?" he asked incredulously. "It'll be very crowded. And why would you want to eat German food anyway? I know an excellent restaurant just a few minutes from here. Opus One. I'll book you a table if you like." Smooth. Real smooth. As we headed off to the Lowenbraukeller, we saw Opus One, which boasted "authentic Californian food and wine". We continued to the beer hall. It was busy, but certainly not very crowded, and we had some superb Weinerschnitzel. ROOMS Our twin-room was large (by European hotel standards) and comfortable, certainly it was a good deal larger than I had expected for the price. The design of the room seemed somewhat odd, however. You had to walk through the carpeted bathroom, in order to enter the room proper. The en suite toilet was in a separate little room just off the bathroom. The room included a minibar, with the usual selection of overpriced soft drinks and miniatures, a telephone and a television. The television offered around thirty German and Austrian channels, and CNN, which was the only English-language channel. If pay TV floats your boat, there was the option to pay a few Euros to watch 'A.I.' or 'Valentine' in German, or two emba
                      rrassingly amateurish-looking hardcore porn movies. You could get a fair idea in the couple of minutes of free viewing you were allowed each day. Germany's strongly ecological stance ensured that we were reminded of ways to save energy at every turn. The bathroom boasted the usual emotive sticker imploring us only to leave towels on the floor if we really wanted the world's natural resources to be wasted on cleaning them. Both the bathroom and the main room were equipped with eco-friendly slow-to-light bulbs. Even the corridor outside the room was lit by bulbs on strictly time-controlled circuits - hit the switch when you reach your floor, and then race to your room before you're left in darkness. Rooms were cleaned by maids at around 11am each day, shortly after breakfast had finished. The maids did a pretty thorough job, remaking beds, vacuuming, and even neatly folding your pyjamas, if you'd carelessly left them in a dishevelled heap at the foot of your bed. Oh, and yes, they did fold the end of the toilet paper into a little V-shape. BREAKFAST The Hotel consisted of three buildings, all connected by a central courtyard. The breakfast room was in building C, on the ground floor. Breakfast was a standard continental buffet affair, and was open between 6.00 and 10.30am each day. When you sat down at a table, a waitress came over to ask if you wanted tea or coffee, after which you were left to your own devices to pick and choose from the comestibles on offer. A couple of newspapers were available each day - a German one, I'm afraid I don't know which, and the International Herald Tribune. The newspapers were locked into those big wooden stick things to stop you walking off with them, but this also meant that you couldn't read the columns nearest the staples. I can't say I was overly impressed by the breakfast options. There were four fairly stale breakfast cereals available, a bowl
                      of slightly elderly apples and oranges, and a basket of fresh bread rolls. At one end of the buffet, in a heated tray, was a little dish of unappealingly clotted-looking scrambled egg, and a few rows of hard-boiled eggs. At the other end of the buffet was a refrigerated cabinet with a selection of cheese slices, and cold meats. Compared to other continental hotels I've visited, it was a fairly uninspiring selection, but it was adequate to tide you over until your next meal. I was surprised by how few other guests were present at breakfast, whatever time we headed down there. I'm not sure if this reflected a lack of guests in the hotel, or a lack of enthusiasm for the breakfast options by the other guests. Only on one occasion was the breakfast room busy enough to justify opening the more sumptuously decorated extra seating area, which most of the time remained closed. CONSTRUCTION WORK When I was staying at the hotel, the windows of the rooms on the top floor of the part of the hotel we were staying in were being replaced. Work, consisting in the main of drilling and a lot of hammer thumping, began at 8am on our last two mornings. It didn't matter too much on our last night, because we had to get up early to get back to the airport for the flight home. However, the previous night, I would have liked the opportunity to have had an extra couple of hours in bed. I think my main complaint isn't so much with the fact that the work was being done, but with the fact that we weren't warned to expect it, and the hotel offered no apology. It wasn't a major irritation, because it did force me to get up and spend more time sightseeing, but the stay would have been better without it. CONCLUSIONS The Hotel Alfa offers a good location and good comfort for a reasonable price - only £27 per person per night for a twin room. My only problems with the hotel were the commission-hungry night porter, the unins
                      piring breakfast buffet, and the refurbishment work, and for these reasons, I have to reduce my rating for the hotel.

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                      • Vanilla Sky (DVD) / DVD / 3 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                        30.01.2002 02:15
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                        • "The ultimate conclusion"

                        You know, I don't like director Cameron Crowe... and if you didn't, you do now. It's difficult to put my finger on exactly why, but I think it's the fact that he attaches an unhealthy degree of wholesome sentimental Americana to everything he touches. I liked the idea of 'Jerry Maguire', but rapidly found myself struggling to endure the sickening soppiness that the film unrelentingly threw at me. I really liked 'Almost Famous' right up until the cloyingly sentimental ending. So, on the face of it, you're probably wondering why I went to see 'Vanilla Sky', Crowe's latest movie, reuniting him with Tom Cruise. Well, the main reason was that it was very enthusiastically recommended to me by a friend who works at Total Film, whose exact words were "the American critics are wrong, and stupid... and wrong again". I can't say I always agree with him, but it's rare for him to gush with praise for a film, so that sold me on the idea. My overall impression isn't quite so positive. I was impressed that Crowe managed to avoid quite so much nauseating sentimentality, but disappointed by a couple of aspects of the plot, which I'll address later in this opinion. THE PLOT Adapted from the 1997 Spanish film 'Abre Los Ojos', 'Vanilla Sky' follows the life of a New York magazine publisher, David Aames (Tom Cruise), told in retrospect to his psychiatrist (Kurt Russell) as he sits in jail wearing a prosthetic mask. As the film starts, Aames is regularly sleeping with "just a friend", Julie (Cameron Diaz). When he meets, and is immediately struck by, the beautiful Sofia (Penelope Cruz), Julie becomes jealous, and it soon becomes clear that she sees herself as more than just a friend. When Aames spends a night chatting to Sofia in her apartment, he leaves to find Julie waiting for him outside. Julie convinces him to get into her car, and
                        as she drives off, she confronts him about their relationship. When she realises that he never took their relationship seriously, she crashes the car in an attempt to kill them both. Aames survives the crash, but his face is horrifically disfigured, he loses the use of his right arm, and is left with a limp. But what happened between the car crash and his arrest? Did he kill someone? If so, who? THE FILM Mention New York City to someone and it's likely that they'll think of the films that have been set there - perhaps the final scenes of 'Sleepless in Seattle' atop the Empire State Building', or the ghosts flying over Manhattan in 'Ghostbusters'. Maybe they'll think of Woody Allen beside the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Manhattan' or Audrey Hepburn peering into Tiffany's before it opens. The image of Tom Cruise running through a deserted Times Square from 'Vanilla Sky' will surely take its place alongside these. Yes, if there's one thing that 'Vanilla Sky' excels at, it's its depiction of New York City. From the opening shots looking down on the city from above, through to the filthy streets of Hell's Kitchen, the city has seldom looked so good. There's a truly beautiful scene with Cruise and Cruz in an autumnal Central Park, creating a sense of romance to the location that few visitors are likely to actually experience. But this isn't the only good aspect of the film. The actors performances are really first rate. We had a chance to see what Cruise is capable of in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Magnolia', and in Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut', but here he really does put in an outstanding performance. Both as the feckless, womanising Aames before the car crash, and the desperate, lonely Aames post-crash, Cruise is very believable, and as the plot twists and contorts toward the end, he reacts well to the course that the film take
                        s. Penelope Cruz is also superb as the beautiful, coquettish Sofia - unsurprising really, given that she played the same role in the original Spanish film 'Abre Los Ojos'. Throughout the film, she puts in an excellent performance, and her real life relationship with Cruise may well have enhanced its believability. And yes, in case you're wondering, you do get to see nipple. Cameron Diaz is very good as the obsessive Julie, sending Aames on a remarkably convincing guilt trip before attempting to kill them both. In fact, between this and 'Being John Malkovich', we can conclude that Diaz is a far better actress than 'The Mask' or 'There's Something About Mary' ever suggested. Aames's best friend, Brian Shelby, is played by Jason Lee, a familiar face to fans of Kevin Smith's films. Lee's playing his favourite role, that of the amiable guy who dispenses relationship advice to order, and making crude jokes, of course. Kurt Russell produces a strong performance as psychiatrist McCabe - a performance which takes on an additional, impressive dimension as the film reaches its ending. The script is very strong, with some very memorable lines, such as Sofia referring to Julie as "the saddest girl ever to hold a Martini". In fact, the dialogue between Sofia and Aames the first time they meet, as the two ignore Brian, is very well observed. Also, as I commented earlier, Julie's confrontation with Aames as she drives them away from Sofia's house is remarkably convincing and well-written. On top of this, the film has a truly outstanding soundtrack, incorporating tracks by R.E.M. ('Sweetness Follows'), Leftfield ('Afrika Shox') and Sigur Ros ('Svefn-G-Englar'), as well as opening with the haunting 'Everything In Its Right Place' by Radiohead. Where Crowe seems to have raided my father's record collection for 'Almost Famous', h
                        e's been through mine for 'Vanilla Sky'! So, there is a lot to recommend the film, for sure. The actors' performances, the direction, the script and even the music are very good. Don't get me wrong, I largely enjoyed the film, but I did have two major problems with it. Firstly, the extensive plot exposition that the audience is treated to at the end, which goes on far too long, and ham-fistedly forces what might have been (in the hands of a better director) a clever resolution down the viewer's throat. Inevitably, this is a tricky thing to write about without spoiling the film for someone who hasn't seen it. Suffice it to say that the ending is an ambitious one, and this necessitated some explanation of what had happened for the audience - I just can't help thinking it didn't need the degree of over-explanation that Crowe expends on it. As another dooyooer (TJ-Mackey) commented to me after seeing the film (and before I saw it), the original Spanish film almost certainly doesn't patronise the audience quite so much. Of course, having said this, I was chatting to one of the usherettes at the local cinema as I was leaving, and she said that she'd overheard quite a few of their patrons commenting that they'll have to see the film a second time, in order to understand what was going on... Perhaps the average Barnet cinemagoer needs a Crowe level of patronisation, and I'm being too harsh. But, for my money, the film's conclusion felt overlaboured and didn't seem to credit the audience with enough intelligence. *** MINOR SPOILER *** And secondly, the ending itself was a disappointingly "deus ex machina" one - the clues are there, and there is a chance that a very astute audience member might be able to work out the conclusion. However, the ending struck me as an only slightly cleverer version of "Phew, it was all a dream!" - which seemed s
                        omething of a disappointment after such a compelling and intriguing story. *** SPOILER ENDS *** CONCLUSIONS 'Vanilla Sky' contains a lot of scenes that will stick in the mind for days after watching it - particularly the scenes of Cruise driving through a deserted Manhattan, and running through an empty Times Square. Combine this strong imagery with some superb acting, a strong script, and one of the best-used soundtracks I've heard, and you'd think we'd be heading for an outstandingly good film. However, for me the film was let down by a disappointing conclusion, and an inadequate assessment of the viewer's intellectual ability by the director. There's no denying that the ending was an ambitious one, but I can't help thinking that it must have been handled more intelligently in the original Spanish version of the film. It's well worth seeing 'Vanilla Sky', there's a lot to recommend it, but just don't expect the ending to be as good as the rest of the film was.

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                          25.01.2002 20:25
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                          Sitting on the S2 S-Bahn, heading west out of the Hauptbahnhof in Munich, there's an odd sense of mutual embarrassment. I clutch my Lonely Planet guide awkwardly, and am all too aware of the effort being made not to catch my eye by the man sitting opposite me. The fact is that any tourist travelling on the S2 out of Munich can only be going to one place - a place which has a terrifying and shocking past, but which is only a few hundred yards from a suburban residential area. So, there's a peculiar awkwardness to making the journey there. Locals are embarrassed by their area's history, and you feel embarrassed about your desire to see it. You start to question why you want to see it - why you should want to see a place where so many thousands of people suffered and died. Isn't it embarrassing enough for the locals that a huge area of land on their doorstep has been kept as a memorial to the suffering that their nation perpetrated in the past, without the constant reminder of sharing their daily commute into the city centre with tourists? I know that when I left for Munich, I had little desire to actually visit the site of the Dachau concentration camp, in fact, I had more or less decided that I wasn't going to. Why? Well for one thing, I anticipated the sense of mutual embarrassment, and secondly, I expected to be very upset and depressed by the place. It was only after talking to some other tourists, who had come to the city specifically to visit the camp, that I felt that I ought to. It's unlikely that I would be coming back to Munich for a fair while, and I didn't want to feel regretful that I hadn't visited it. HISTORY Probably the most shocking fact about the concentration camp - something I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't aware of before visiting - was that it opened in March 1933, long before the Second World War started. Although the world was aware of the existence of these c
                          oncentration camps, and even what went on in them, no action was taken against Germany until the invasion of Poland. Built on the grounds of a former ammunition factory, Dachau was the first concentration camp, for the isolation of "political opponents" to the Socialist regime. More than 200,000 registered prisoners entered the camp between 1933 and 1945 - more than 31,000 of them never left. THE CAMP TODAY Efforts have been made to keep the appearance of the site of the concentration camp unchanged since its closure in 1945. The large "Wirtschaftgebäude" building, which originally housed the kitchen, laundry and storage rooms, which lies along the eastern side of the site, has been converted into a museum. Immediately to the west of the building, an international memorial has been constructed. All of the original barracks were torn down after the camp's closure, and only their concrete foundations remain. Two barracks (at the eastern end of the camp site) have been rebuilt, one of which has been filled with wooden beds to show how it would have looked when the camp was in use. Each of the barracks was built to house 208 prisoners, but camp records show that some held upwards of 1,700 by 1945. At the western end of the camp, four religious structures have been built on the site - a Catholic chapel, a Protestant church, a Jewish memorial temple, and a Russian Orthodox church. The electrified barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp has been largely retained, as has the huge wall. However, the ditch around the camp has been filled in, apart from in a few areas. VISITING THE CAMP You enter the camp through the northeast corner of the camp site, passing a guard tower. A little further inside the camp, on the north side, a section of the ditch that originally surrounded the camp site has been redug, alongside one of the watchtowers. - MUSEUM The first port
                          of call for most visitors is the museum in the former Wirtschaftgebäude. The museum was opened in the mid-Sixties, and is showing its age. By far the majority of the exhibition consists of photoenlarged photographs and documents, which are generally accompanied by a line of explanatory text in English, French, German, Italian and Russian. Many of the documents show evidence of wear where numerous visitors and tour guides have pointed out details, often making it difficult to see what was actually being pointed out. Unfortunately, there is no translation provided of the documents, which are invariably written in German. A guidebook is available at a small desk at the beginning of the exhibition, containing reproductions of all of the exhibits in the exhibition, along with English translations. The guidebook costs 13 Euros (about £8), which goes to the Survivors' Association of Dachau. A plan of the site is available separately for 0.50 Euros (30p). When I visited the camp, in January 2002, the museum was in the process of being renovated to reopen in 2003. As a result, only the first half of the museum was actually open. This part of the museum dealt with the seizure of power by the Nazis in the early 1930s, the establishment of the camp, and the persecution of the Jews. A room in the centre of the building chronicles some of the horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp. The second half of the museum (judging from the guidebook) would have dealt with the execution of prisoners, and the liberation of Dachau. There is a cinema in the museum building that shows a short film about the camp in different languages throughout the day. In fairness, the museum does make a fair attempt to objectively show what happened at the camp. Although the documents are impossible to read for non-German-speakers, the images on display speak volumes. There are some very upsetting images in the museum, and visitors are likely to be upset
                          by the content. Certainly, the photograph of a prisoner who chose to commit suicide rather than endure the horrors of life at Dachau is difficult to forget. - ENTRANCE The original entrance to the camp lies to the south of the Wirtschaftgebäude. The building itself isn't open to the public, but you can walk through the infamous gate to the camp, with its inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work makes you free"). - BARRACKS As mentioned above, the original barracks have all been demolished. Nonetheless, the concrete foundations remain, along with a small concrete plaque displaying the number of each barrack. The two easternmost barrack buildings, which would originally have been infirmary barracks, have been rebuilt. The northern of the two rebuilt barracks is open to the public, and several of the rooms have been restored as dormitories and living rooms, as they would have been at different stages during the camp's operation. The first room represents the dormitories at Dachau in 1933 - each dormitory is designed to house 52 prisoners. The final room of the barracks shows a typical dormitory by 1945 - prisoners would have had to be packed into the long beds like sardines to accommodate around 400 prisoners per room. Each of the rooms is accompanied by an explanatory passage of text, photographs, and quotes from some of the prisoners who survived the camp. Visitors can walk down the long central path of the camp, between the sites of the barracks. The path is lined with poplar trees that were planted by the prisoners. As you wak along this path, you're aware of the stillness of the place. When I visited, there was next to no sound on the site of the camp - no birdsong or traffic. In a way, the silence was quite oppressive, adding to the intensity of the experience of visiting the site of the camp. - THE CREMATORIUM To the south-west of the site, just outsid
                          e of the wall around the camp, is the crematorium. I must confess, I didn't actually enter the building as it seemed a little too intrusive, although visitors can do so if they wish to. The building houses two large furnaces, in front of which a sign hangs, simply stating "Prisoners were hanged from here". In addition, within the crematorium building is a large gas chamber, camouflaged as a shower room, which was never actually used. Instead, prisoners selected to be gassed were moved to concentration camps in the east. The approach road to the crematorium from the main part of the camp is a singularly depressing, and upsetting walk. It's largely unchanged from the walk that thousands of prisoners must have been forced to make during the operation of the camp - over the ditch, through the gates, past some trees, towards the towering chimney of the crematorium - and it is probably the lack of any kind of explanatory sign that makes it so moving. I can't say whether other visitors are affected in the way that I was - certainly, many visitors seemed willing to walk through the crematorium building - but nonetheless, it's a sobering experience. - MEMORIALS Alongside the crematorium, just outside of the camp itself, is the Russian Orthodox chapel, built in 1995. It's a beautiful little chapel, with bare wooden walls, topped by a large onion-shaped spire. In the south-east corner of the camp is the Protestant Memorial Church, built in 1965, a stark concrete building. To the north of this, at the western end of the main path through the camp, is the Catholic Chapel, built in 1960. The Catholic Chapel has been constructed from rough stones, in a "C" shape, with a separate short bell tower to the east. To the north of this is the Jewish Memorial Temple, also built in 1965. The Jewish Temple is very dark, approached by descending a sloping walkway from the east, with fences in the s
                          hape of twisted barbed wire on either side. Around the Wirtschaftgebäude, there are several memorials. The most obvious of these is the International Memorial, built in 1968, which stands to the west of the building - at the eastern end of the main path through the camp. It's a very modern memorial, in terms of appearance, reminiscent of the work of Picasso, with contorted long-limbed bodies, standing above the inscription "1933 - 1945". To the south of this is a monument bearing an inscription in German, English, French and Russian - "May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1939 - 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man". To the north is a stark monument bearing a simple inscription in Yiddish, German, English, French and Russian - "NEVER AGAIN". GETTING THERE To get to Dachau, your main choice is whether you want to go on an organised trip, or make your own way there. Regular organised trips leave from the Hauptbahnhof each day, and are organised by Radius Tours (their office is in the Hauptbahnhof itself) and Autobus Oberbayern (their office is on Arnulfstrasse, opposite the northern entrance to the Hauptbahnhof). Organised tours include travel to and from the camp, as well as an English guided tour of the site. If you decide to make your own way there, as I did, you have to take the S2 S-Bahn out of the city towards Petershausen. Get off the S-Bahn at Dachau, and take the 726 bus (Monday to Friday) or the 724 bus (weekends) from just outside the station to "KZ-Gedanstätte". The bus leaves the stop just outside Dachau station about three or four minutes after the S-Bahn arrives, and the journey costs 1 Euro each way - although your journey to Dachau on the S-Bahn is covered by an "XXL" Tageskarte, the bus journey is not. There are English
                          guided tours, organised by the site, at 12.30pm each day. The cinema shows the film about the camp in English at 11.30am and 3.30pm each day. Admission to the site is free. The camp is open from 9am to 5pm every day except Mondays. CONCLUSIONS It's difficult to really to describe the atmosphere of the site of the former concentration camp at Dachau. I found it to still have a surprisingly oppressive atmosphere, due to the surprising silence throughout the site. The weather in Munich in January added to the atmosphere - providing a light covering of snow, and making everything look uniformly grey. It's certainly something that's worth seeing if you're in Munich for any period of time, and visiting the site is a very moving experience. Note, though, that both the site itself and the Lonely Planet guide recommend that a visit to the concentration camp is unsuitable for children under 12. In many ways, the museum was something of a disappointment, mainly because of the lack of translation throughout. I assume that this is something that will be redressed in the new museum that is scheduled to open in 2003. Nonetheless, the guidebook provides full translations, and is well worth the cost, serving as a moving reminder of a visit to a place where so much terror took place. = NEVER AGAIN = 1939 - 1945 =

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                          • More +
                            25.01.2002 00:12
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                            Munich possesses a public transport system that manages to be both efficient and stultifyingly confusing at the same time. On one hand, the city has an impressive network of suburban trains (S-Bahn lines), subway trains (U-Bahn lines), trams, and buses, which run regularly throughout most of the day connecting the city's major tourist attractions, and which are all covered by the same ticketing system. However, it is this ticketing system that causes visitors considerable confusion. Munich's public transport system operates on an honour system - whichever type of ticket you have bought, you have to validate it before travel, by inserting them into the blue Entwerter (E) boxes on buses and trams, and at the top of escalators leading down onto U-Bahn and S-Bahn platforms. Plain-clothed ticket inspectors on the platforms and on the trains, buses or trams check tickets at random, and there are substantial fines for not having a validated ticket. Don't even think about playing the "dumb tourist" card - they've heard it all before, and you'll still get the fine. On the positive side, the system has been unified, so that a validated ticket for public transport travel can be used on any of the different systems (S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses and trams). However, there are four different types of ticket on the Munich public transport network - "single tickets" (Einzelfahrkarte), "strip tickets" (Streifenkarte), "day tickets" (Tageskarte), and "3-day tickets" (Karte für 3 Tage). Although each of these four options seems pretty self explanatory, there are numerous sub-options for each, it's probably easiest to look at the options for each type of ticket in turn. - EINZELFAHRKARTE ("single tickets") This type of ticket covers a single journey, as you've probably guessed. However, there are two different types of Einzelfahrkarte - the "short journey&q
                            uot; ticket (Kurzstrecke) and the longer single journey ticket. If you look on a ticket machine, when you're going to buy a single journey ticket, there's a list of destinations for which you need only buy the cheaper Kurzstrecke, which will cost a mere 1 Euro. If you're going further afield, then your best bet is to look down the list of stations, and see which zone your destination falls in. Each ticket machine has an extensive list of destinations along with three columns. The orange column tells you which zone your destination is in. Simply press the numbered button with the zone number next to your destination, and the screen displays the cost. In general, a single ticket will cost 2 Euros, plus a further 2 Euros per zone you have to travel. The Einzelfahrkarte allows you to break your journey, however, it only covers you for the most direct route to your chosen destination. If you accidentally travel beyond your destination, and decide to travel back, you're going to have to buy a new ticket, or run the risk of a fine... again. - STREIFENKARTE ("strip tickets") If you've been to Copenhagen and used their public transport system, you'll be used to how the Streifenkarte works. Essentially, you buy a 10 strip ticket, which costs 9 Euros, and validate the ticket a certain number of times at the Entwerter boxes on the trams or buses, or before going onto the train platforms, depending on how far you want to go. Before making a journey, using a Streifenkarte, check the list of destinations on the ticket machines. The number in the blue column next to your destination tells you how many strips you need to stamp to go to that destination. Where the Streifenkarte differs from the Copenhagen strip ticket system is that a single ticket can be used to cover several people. For example, if two of you want to travel to a destination two strips away, simply validate the ticket fo
                            ur times. - TAGESKARTE ("day tickets") As a tourist, this is likely to be the sort of ticket you'll use most. However, inevitably, it's not just a simple case of buying a simple day ticket to cover the whole city. There are four different zone-types of Tageskarte; the Innenraum, the XXL, the Ausenraum and the Gesamtnetz. There are 16 zones on the Munich area public transport system (apparently distinct from the zones used in calculating Einzelfahrkarte fares). Fortunately, the plans of the network aren't covered with concentric rings showing you where all these zones begin and end. There are only two borders that a visitor to the city need worry about. One is the border between zones 4 and 5, which represents the edge of central Munich - this is either represented by a white background on the map (as opposed to the red, yellow or green backgrounds representing outer zones). The other is the border between zones 6 and 7, which is more ambiguously represented by a blue box around the names of the stations on the border. The reason why these two borders are so important is because they will allow you to determine which of the types of ticket you need for the place you're going to. The "Innenraum" ticket covers you only for journeys within the central four zones. The "XXL" ticket covers you only for journeys within the central six zones. The "Ausenraum" (which is unlikely to be used by most tourists, and cannot be purchased from ticket machines in the city centre) covers journeys only within the outer zones five to sixteen. Finally, the "Gesamtnetz" ticket covers the entire sixteen zone area around the city. For most sightseeing in Munich, the "Innenraum" ticket will be adequate. However, visiting the site of the concentration camp at Dachau will require an "XXL" ticket, and the bus journey from the S-Bahn stop there isn't included. You
                            'll need a "Gesamtnetz" ticket to travel to and from the airport on either the S1 or S8 S-Bahn journeys. If you're uncertain about which of the zone-types of ticket you want, look at the yellow column next to the furthest destination you want to go to on the ticket machine - this will say either "I", "XXL", "A" or "G" depending on which zone-type of Tageskarte you'll need. Now, in addition to offering these four zone-types of the Tageskarte, there are two different types - the Single and the Partner tickets. A Single Tageskarte will cost between 4.50 and 9 Euros, depending on the zone-type, and covers a single person. A Partner Tageskarte costs between 7.50 and 15 Euros, and covers up to five people (two children count as a person). The Partner Tageskarte probably represents the best value for money for tourists, at only 9 Euros (about £5.60) for the "XXL" zone-type. The Tageskarte remains valid until 6am, the day after its validation. - KARTE FÜR 3 TAGE ("3-day tickets") Essentially, this type of ticket is identical to the Tageskarte - but is only available for the "Innenraum" zone. There are both Single and Partner versions available, costing 11 or 17.50 Euros respectively. - TICKET MACHINES Ticket machines for the public transport system can be found throughout the city - in U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, at many bus and tram stops, and even on trams. In addition to this, you can buy "single tickets" or "strip tickets" from bus drivers as you board. Some of the machines, apparently only the ones on trams, do not accept notes - so if you leap on a tram without a ticket, you'd better make sure you've got enough coins to pay for one. The ticket machines, unlike those of Berlin (the only other German city I've been to), are spectacularly hostile for the non-German spea
                            ker. There is no option to display information on the machine's screen in other languages, so you're left to struggle with the overwhelming amount of information, buttons and codes. It's not uncommon to see a crowd of puzzled tourists standing around the ticket machines in the Hauptbahnhof, or the airport. - SERVICE In general, the service offered by the city's S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses and trams are very good. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn run consistently to time, and some of the more central stations have digital displays telling you how long it will be until the next train arrives. Display boards also tell you how many carriages long the U-Bahn trains will be, so you can make sure you're waiting on an area of the platform where the train will stop. Like the Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn networks, it's worth knowing what the last stop is on the line you want to use, in the direction you want to go, as rather than labelling the platforms "Eastbound" or "Westbound", instead they are labelled with the trains' ultimate destinations like "U7 Rotkreuzplatz" or "U5 Laimer Platz". En route, announcements on the train tell you what the next stop is going to be as soon as you leave each station. For a few stops in central Munich, the message is repeated in English. Doors on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains do not open automatically when the train pulls into a platform. Users either have to press a little button on either side of the doors, or manually pull open the sliding doors. The doors do close automatically before the train moves off though. Mobile phone users will be surprised to find that their networks continue working on the U-Bahn system, explaining how that girl is able to receive a phone call on her Nokia 5510 while singing on a U-Bahn platform in that television advert. Tram stops are either in the middle of the road, on either side of the tra
                            mlines, or at the side of the road. They resemble bus stops, with large green "H" symbols in a yellow circle. Trams stop at every stop en route, and boards by the side of the stop give the name of the current stop and the next stop. Central tram stops have a digital display board telling you how long you'll have to wait for different numbered trams. Bus stops are by the side of the road, and are also indicated by large green "H" symbols with a yellow circle. Buses will not stop at every stop en route, so you should press one of the buttons to alert the driver that you want to get off at the next stop. Neither buses nor trams will wait for you if you're running to catch them - they're determined to stick to their tight schedules! TAXIS There are several taxi ranks throughout central Munich - most notably to the east of the Hauptbahnhof, on Karlsplatz, and on Odeonplatz. Taxis are easy to identify - they are all cream-coloured Mercedes cars. Taxi fares aren't too dear for a major city, but obviously work out more expensive than public transport. A taxi to the airport from the Hauptbahnhof takes about 25 minutes, and will cost about 50 to 60 Euros (£30-37) depending on traffic. CONCLUSIONS Once you get used to the idiosyncrasies of buying a ticket on Munich's public transport system, you realise what a supremely well-organised and efficient network it is. Getting around the city is remarkably easy, and all four systems (S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses and trams) run promptly, and are scrupulously clean. It's also very cheap to get the Partner Tageskarte to explore the central Munich area, if there are two or more of you - just make sure you get one that covers all the zones you'll want to visit. The main problem is unquestionably the confusion of trying to work out which ticket you want, which is nigh-on impossible if you don't understand German, partly bec
                            ause the ticket machines don't offer the option to display messages in other languages, and partly because of the dizzying number of options available.

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                            • 2001 / Archive Movie / 0 Readings / 59 Ratings
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                              11.01.2002 04:41
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                              As ever with these top ten film lists, they're made more difficult to compile if you haven't actually seen every film released, and hence you inevitably end up with a list which is biased according to your individual tastes and preferences. For example, there are some films, released in 2001, which really didn't appeal to me on the basis of their plots. Had I seen them, I might have found them to be the best thing ever, even better than jam, but I didn't. My criterion for whether or not films are eligible for this category is their UK theatrical release date. If a film received its first theatrical screening in this country during the year 2001, then it qualifies for the list. By this criterion, 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (2000) and 'Mononoke Hime' (1997) both qualify. 'Ali' (2001), however, would not. Typically, I've just made it a lot more difficult for myself to compile this list, because by far the majority of films that I saw at the cinema during 2001 were foreign or arthouse films which were actually released over the last few years. In addition, I managed to miss several of the films which made it onto most people's top 10 lists of the year - 'Moulin Rouge', 'The Others', 'Bridget Jones's Diary', 'AI', 'Traffic' and 'Cast Away'. Similarly, I managed to avoid several of the year's worst films - 'Planet of the Apes', 'Evolution', 'Jeepers Creepers' and 'Pearl Harbor'. However, that's not to say that my taste was impeccable this year - I wasted my time (and money) sitting through such dross as 'Along Came A Spider', 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider', 'The Gift', 'Hannibal', 'The Mummy Returns', 'Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back', Disney's 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' and 'Shrek'. So, having bored you with that preamble, and hav
                              ing already mentioned twenty-one films, I suppose you're wondering if there are actually ten decent films left for me to write about! Well, let's get on with the list then: 10. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE (2001) My enjoyment of 'Harry Potter' was probably artificially increased by the fact that I really didn't expect it to be any good. I've not actually read any of J. K. Rowling's books, and my only pre-film experience of the story was a brief snatch of one of the audiobooks, overheard while working in the laboratory one day. My instant judgement on the story was that it sounded like remarkably generic fantasy - and indeed, to an extent it is. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) discovers that there is another world beyond the one we all live in - a world of magic, in which he is already known, where he goes to study wizardry at Hogwarts School. However, the realisation of the film was actually surprisingly good, and although the story wasn't particularly inspiring or original, I found the film to be impressively immersive. Director Chris Columbus did an impressive job of converting Rowling's vision to the big screen, creating some impressive and memorable locations for the story's events. That's not to say the film was without flaws - the child actors and the special effects let it down to a certain extent, and pacing was patchy. But, overall, the film was a nicely diverting jaunt, which managed to fill two and a half hours without ever seeming excessively slow. 9. THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE (2000) A new direction for Disney saw a new type of animated feature - a movie entirely driven by comedy. In a way, the film attempted to tap into the same vein as 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', incorporating both obvious slapstick humour and more intelligent, subtle references. This is a buddy movie, in the very traditional sense - two unlikely travelling companions
                              (Emperor Kuzco (David Spade), turned into a llama by his jealous ex-administrator, and simple farmer Pacha (John Goodman)) have to travel across country to the emperor's palace. The trademark attention to detail in the quality of the animation, and the strength of the story made for a brilliantly diverting and entertaining feature. Although there was a song, it was a relatively brief but largely amusing one, at the beginning of the movie, and the film made great use of its cast of excellent voice actors. This was a surprisingly enjoyable movie, which has probably been overlooked by all too many people as "just another Disney movie", due to the inept publicity campaign it received. The only flaw, as I see it, is that the film is a scant 78 minutes long. Certainly, 'The Emperor's New Groove' is a good deal better than Disney's other 2001 animated feature - the unevenly paced and uninspired 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' - another experimental feature for Disney, a more serious animation aimed at an older audience. 8. BEST IN SHOW (2001) After the superb 'This Is Spinal Tap', it seemed unlikely that Christopher Guest would ever manage to produce another such supremely entertaining mockumentary. Certainly, his 1996 film 'Waiting For Guffman' examining an amateur theatre production in small town America falls disappointingly short of the earlier film's brilliance. Nonetheless, 'Best In Show', following five dogs, and their owners, as they go to attend a major dog show is an extremely amusing and enjoyable movie. The majority of the dialogue in 'Best In Show' is improvised, and the movie has been cut from many hours of recorded footage, to incorporate the most entertaining lines. The result is a series of hilarious vignettes, as we follow the five sets of unlikely characters. Christopher Guest himself is absolutely superb as bloodhound-owning Harlan Pepper,
                              and Eugene Levy shines as terrier-owning Gerald Fleck. However, probably the film's most entertaining moments are provided by the dog show announcer Buck Laughlin, played by Fred Williard. It's refreshing to see a film that is capable of comedy without resorting to puerile crudity, as so many comedies seem to nowadays. This was probably the most amusing film at the cinema in 2001, for my money. 7. SAFAR E GHANDEHAR [KANDAHAR] (2001) There can be no doubting that the Western release of the Iranian film 'Kandahar' came at probably the most germane moment. Released shortly after the attacks on the United States in September, 'Kandahar' considers the state of Afghanistan under Taliban rule from the point of view of an outsider. In the film, we follow Nafas (Niloufar Pazira), an Afghan refugee who has been living as a reporter in Canada, as she battles to get back to the city of Kandahar in a race against time to prevent her sister committing suicide during the 1999 eclipse. In many ways, the film is flawed - the pacing is uneven, and the acting is variable. However, the film has three major strengths - the cinematography, the documentary aspect, and its topicality. Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's presentation is absolutely superb. I freely admit that I'm a sucker for sweeping shots of deserts, but 'Kandahar' presents some truly beautiful images - the scenes of the Red Cross parachute drops of artificial limbs on remote aid posts, for example, are stunning. The documentary aspect of the movie is also excellent - giving a real insight into what life was like in Afghanistan under the Taliban and the plight of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. So, although 'Kandahar' is in many ways not a great film, there is certainly enough that is memorable and compelling about it to qualify it for a position in my top ten of 2001. It's definitely a film that people should see, if onl
                              y to confirm why it was so important that the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan be overthrown. 6. BATTLE ROYALE (2000) A highly controversial movie from Japan, 'Battle Royale' is part black comedy, part horror movie, and part social satire. Set in the near future, the film follows a group of schoolchildren as they take part in that year's Battle Royale programme - a system designed to reduce civil disobedience and disrespect among the young people of Japan. The schoolchildren are transported to a remote island, and are pitted against each other for three days - either only one of them survives to win the programme, or they all die. It?s fascinating to watch, as we follow the relationships between the classmates - firm friends initially work together to survive, knowing full well that the game's rules will eventually force them to turn on each other. There are some terrific performances here from the young actors, and Takeshi Kitano is particularly good, as one of the class's old teachers, who explains the rules of the "game" to them, and monitors their progress. The film has its flaws, not least of which being that it is difficult to see how the Battle Royale programme actually serves to improve behaviour of the nation's students, but at the same time, it's a remarkably compelling film - at times claustrophobic, at times exhilarating, hilarious and tragic. The amount of violence in the film will mean that it's not likely to appeal to all, but it's certainly a film that merits watching. 5. MONONOKE HIME [Princess Mononoke] (1997) Some four years after its release in Japan, and two years after its U.S. release, 'Princess Mononoke' finally received a spectacularly limited release in the United Kingdom, playing at just a handful of cinemas before receiving a quiet DVD release and disappearing. It's pretty typical of the UK reaction to Studio Ghibli animations - th
                              anks to Manga Entertainment's releases over the last few years, the public perception is that all Japanese animation is super-violent porn. This is far from the truth - in Japan, two out of every five books published is a comic book (manga), and the diversity of genres covered in these comic books is as broad as that of books printed over here. There's no stigma attached to manga there, as there is to comic books here, and an adult reading a comic book on the Tokyo subway won't attract the dismissive glances that one would on the London Underground. Animation in Japan has similarly wide appeal, and animations are watched by all demographics - not just families. 'Princess Mononoke' has a typically mature theme. Set in Japan's Muromachi era, Prince Ashitaka is cursed by a Boar God, who has been corrupted into a "Cursing God" or Tatari-Gami by his hatred of humans. Ashitaka travels west to find the Deer God who might be able to rid him of the curse, finding himself mixed up in a conflict between a village of iron smelters and the wolves of the neighbouring forest. It's a strong story, which is well told, whether you watch with the original Japanese dialogue or the English translation (produced by acclaimed Western comic book writer and author, Neil Gaiman). There is a strong ecological message, as there is in many of Studio Ghibli's titles. The animation is truly outstanding, far beyond the standards of much of Disney's recent work, making it easy to forget that you're watching an animation. While the story contains a fair degree of violence, certainly more than other Studio Ghibli releases, it is far from gratuitous. The movie is certainly not appropriate for very young children, but will be enjoyed by older children and adults alike. 4. WO HU CANG LONG [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] (2000) Ang Lee's first Chinese language movie since the Oscar-nominated '
                              ;Eat Drink Man Woman' is a radically different affair - a wistful Chinese folk tale, punctuated by balletic, beautifully choreographed sword fights. The film follows Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a warrior who feels he has reached a wall in his search for enlightenment at the Wudan temple, and gives up his sword, the Green Destiny. He asks Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to convey the weapon to Sir Te in Beijing. The sword's arrival at Te's house coincides with a visit by his neighbour, Governer Yu and his daughter, Jen (Ziyi Zhang). When a mysterious figure breaks into Te's house that evening and steals the Green Destiny, it's believed to be the work of Jade Fox... though it seems that Jade Fox is hiding out in Governer Yu's house... The real strengths of the movie are the stunning fight choreography, overseen by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo Ping, and the beautiful cinematography. The fights are pure acrobatic fantasy, with characters literally climbing walls in a single bound, before flying across rooftops. Peter Pau, another Hong Kong movie veteran, is responsible for the film's stunning cinematography - as the camera glides beautifully through the Chinese cities and countryside. Words of praise are particularly offered for the bamboo-based fight sequence, and the opening scenes of 19th century Beijing. Tan Dun's music is also beautifully evocative, combining well with Yo-Yo Ma's moving cello solos. 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is a superb martial arts film - the fight sequences are as beautifully presented as an audience could hope for, and while the story is slight compared to many Western movies, it is easily enough to keep the film moving. Beautiful. 3. GHOST WORLD (2001) Released the same day as 'Harry Potter', 'Ghost World' was destined for poor box office takings. Based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, 'Ghost World' is a paean for the alienated and the disaffec
                              ted. In the film, we follow the lives of two friends; Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) as they graduate from high school, and try to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Enid befriends Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely guy with an obsessive interest in blues music, and begins to drift away from her friend. For me, 'Ghost World' was particularly enjoyable viewing because I could relate to the film's main characters - to Enid's smug sense of superiority, to Rebecca's lack of direction, and Seymour's obsessiveness. In a sense, this comprehension and understanding of the film's characters was quite unsettling, but it just goes to show how brilliantly observed and well portrayed the characters were. In addition to the superb characterisation and dialogue, the film takes savage satirical swipes at modern culture - "Give everybody a Big Mac and a pair of Nikes and they're happy," mutters Seymour derisively. The film's visual style is also superb, strongly reminiscent, in many scenes, of 'American Beauty'. If this weren't enough, there are so many neat little touches and quirks to the 'Ghost World' - from the nunchaku-weilding patron of the convenience store, to the morbid staff of the comic book store, via Norman, who waits for the bus that will never come... 2. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) We've probably all seen it by now. It was inevitable that a film adaptation of Tolkien's classic fantasy work was going to divide its critics - every reader will have formed their own impressions of the book's locations and characters, which may not agree with director Peter Jackson's vision. For me, however, this was a stunning realisation of a beautiful, deeply immersive fantasy world. If there is a problem with the film, it lies with the pacing - there's a lot of plot covered in the movie's thr
                              ee hours, inevitably meaning that the story moves at an extremely fast pace. Essentially, there's no break in the action for the full length of the movie, so make sure you've gone to the toilet before you go in - if you have to go during the movie, you'll probably miss an important plot point. But, this minor criticism aside, I was left with glowing praise for the film - from the sumptuous locations and the stunning presentation of the gorgeous New Zealand countryside, through the superb acting, to the (generally) good special effects. 'The Fellowship of the Ring' was an outstandingly good movie upon which to end the year - as Jonathan Ross didn't put it - "a wight-wollocking woller-coaster wide of a movie." 1. LE FABULEUX DESTIN D'AMÉLIE POULAIN [Amelie] (2001) And, my top movie for 2001 is the latest from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ('The City of Lost Children', 'Delicatessen' and ahem... 'Alien Resurrection'); the magical, touching, beautiful, moving 'Amélie'. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, negative to say about 'Amélie'. It's just a lovely, feelgood, charming film. Hmm... maybe I'd better describe it, rather than just list adjectives... Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) has an unconventional upbringing in a small village in France. Her parents have little physical contact with her, so when her father (a doctor) gives her a medical examination, the flurry this causes in her heart causes him to diagnose a weak heart. So, young Amélie is deprived of any real adventure, forcing her to create a fantasy world in her head. When Amélie grows up, she leaves home to become a waitress in the Montmartre region of Paris, attempting to seek out love and the meaning of life. As she hears of the news of Princess Diana's death, Amélie drops a bottle top, which rolls along the ground dislodging a tile on the skirting board. When she rem
                              oves the tile, she discovers a box filled with childhood treasures, and becomes determined to return it to its original owner. So begins Amélie's quest to bring joy to those around her. It's a beautifully shot film, with truly outstanding cinematography throughout. The acting is absolutely first-rate, with the impish Audrey Tautou producing a heart-meltingly wonderful performance as Amélie herself. The story twists and turns through all manner of touching, humorous scenes. Paris has never looked so beautiful... or so appealing. It's funny, it?s charming, it's... oh, look, just go see it, can't you? You'll notice I've not written an opinion on the film on dooyoo - I just don't think I can do it justice. CONCLUSIONS So there we have it... Probably some of my choices are surprising, some are probably not. I expect to take all sorts of abuse for not including the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' - which, while boasting what was probably 2001's best cinematography (in an admittedly good year for artistic composition in film), managed to disappoint me with a bland plot and a lacklustre conclusion... particularly by the Coen brothers' high standards. In general, I felt 2001 was a pretty good year for film... though that's mainly non-mainstream film, you understand. Apart from an upturn toward the end of the year with the two strong fantasy book adaptations, Hollywood managed to produce yet another year coloured by spectacularly uninspiring mediocrity. Still, with the two fantasy film series set to continue into 2002, at least I'll have two films from Hollywood to look forward to. Somehow I suspect 'Austin Powers: Goldmember' isn't going to inspire me... and 'Star Wars: Episode II - Send In The Ten Foot Mutant Killer Tomato Clones' looks more 'Phantom Menace' than 'New Hope'.

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                              • Along Came a Spider (DVD) / DVD / 2 Readings / 56 Ratings
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                                04.01.2002 00:27
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                                • "Lack of decent action
                                • Make Up
                                • Special effects generally"

                                Now see what's happened. After seeing two decent Hollywood releases at the cinema, which restored my faith in mainstream filmmaking, I decided to chance renting one on video. Having read stunning enthusiasm for James Patterson's book 'Along Came A Spider' on here, and knowing that the film followed a successful adaptation of another of Patterson's books, 'Kiss The Girls', I felt I'd be reasonably safe with this. I didn't expect too much, a reasonably involving story, some good acting from Morgan Freeman, a few twists, and a decent conclusion. What I didn't expect was the appalling mishmash of contrived plot turns, uninvolving and unconvincing characters and dialogue, and somnambulant acting that this film threw at me. This film is unrepentant garbage, spewing out ridiculous implausible twists, one after another - those plot diversions that the audience hasn't spotted before the film's main characters are so unlikely as to beggar belief. You see, what I didn't know was that James Patterson is, as Robert Wilonsky of the NYLA Times puts it, "to writing what Frank Sinatra was to feminism". This analogy makes a whole lot more sense when you've watched this shambolic mess of a movie, but hey, perhaps I should leave the criticism until I've told you about the plot... then I can dissect the movie in a more sustained way. THE PLOT (God help us all) As the film opens, we see detective Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) watch as his partner plunges to her doom over the edge of a dam, while working under cover. Cross blames himself, and is very upset (though you'd probably not get that impression from Freeman's acting in this movie - sorry, I'll leave off the criticism for now...). He takes to constructing little boats in bottles. Cross is pressed back into service when the daughter of a senator is kidnapped by a criminal, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who ha
                                s been posing as a teacher for... well, actually, we're not sure how long he's been posing as a teacher, the film never makes that clear - it could be that he's worn that obviously fake beard and moustache for the last few years, and yet no-one's noticed it. Anyway, Megan (Mika Boorem), the senator's daughter, is kidnapped while she is supposedly under the watchful gaze of Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who blames herself. We learn that Soneji is a lunatic who essentially just wants to make a name for himself in the history books - much like Mark David Chapman or Bruno Richard Hauptmann... you get the idea. However, surely merely kidnapping a senator's daughter isn't enough to get in the history books in this day and age - no, of course not, Soneji has his eye on a much larger prize... THE MOVIE It's difficult to know where to start in criticising the movie. Probably the most obvious target is the plot itself. I don't know about you, but with thrillers, I like to be able to guess the film's conclusion. I like it when all of the information is presented to the audience, and we can anticipate the conclusion from the clues we've been given. In 'Along Came A Spider' this is impossible - information is deliberately kept from the audience, and although the ultimate conclusion is guessable, it's only because the story is so astonishingly predictable and derivative. So essentially, the movie fails on two counts - it presents the audience with an unsolvable puzzle, but makes the solution easy to guess. Also, like many generic modern thrillers, the plot involves the internet at one point. As ever, the writers (whether it be Patterson or the film's scriptwriters) seem to have only the faintest of understandings about how the internet actually works. Someone has clearly mentioned to Patterson that it's possible to encode messages into graphic images, and t
                                hen perpetuate them over the internet, but clearly the conversation was just a brief one, because he clearly has little understanding of how such encryption would actually be carried out. To an extent, the book might have been able to bluff its way through this, as it never had to actually present the images, but in the movie the images have to be shown onscreen, leading to a bizarrely implausible sequence. Similarly, it seems odd that the killer creates the peculiar Lindbergh website that Cross surfs at one point in the movie for clues, a website protected by a single easily-guessable password no less. Sigh. Oh, and what sort of criminal mastermind leaves his kidnappee's coat at the scene of a crime? Why not just tell the police where you are? Possibly the most hackneyed section of the film is when Soneji forces Cross to dash about around Washington playing phone tag, a la 'Die Hard With A Vengeance' (or 'Dirty Harry', if your tastes are a little more refined). There's no reason for this, it advances the plot little, if at all, and just serves to make the viewer realise what a generic and uninspired bore this film really is. In fact, if it weren't for the presence of Morgan Freeman, you'd think you were watching a tedious episode of a TV cop show - perhaps one in the middle of a season, when even loyal viewers have started to lose interest. I mean, how much more generic can you get than teaming up two police officers (Cross and Flannigan) who are both feeling guilt about failing in their duties? Hey, but enough about the plot. You get the idea - this is mindless, generic, uninspired, illogical and clumsy. I don't think there's any silver lining to the storyline. So, how's the acting? In a word, abysmal. With only the one main star, Morgan Freeman, involved, you'd think he'd shine. Pah, dream on! Freeman only seems to perk up towards the end of the film, presumably after his pay
                                cheque had cleared. For most of the film, he seems to be half-asleep, barely reacting to anything going on around him. Now, I've seen him in 'Se7en', so I know he's capable of playing a thoughtful, introspective, laid-back detective, without seeming indifferent to the events going on around him. However, his performance here was exceptionally lacklustre and indifferent for the most part, producing an unconvincing and hollow effect. His co-star, if she can be called such, since despite appearing on the posters and video cover isn't actually named on them, Monica Potter, is equally drab and uninvolving as ahem... Jezzie... Flannigan. She's a poor man's Julia Roberts, if that helps to give you an idea of what to expect. Michael Wincott has the look of a typecast bad guy, and snarls his way through the role, exactly as you'd expect. He's not too bad, to be fair, but let's face it, if your character description doesn't extend beyond "generic villain", then it's none too hard to produce a decent performance. No, surprisingly, the one ray of hope for the film's acting is the young Mika Boorem, who manages to convey all the emotions as kidnap victim Megan, all the way from surprise to terror, with aplomb. Again, it's not a phenomenally demanding role, but she does what's necessary, and that's really enough to stand out in a film like this. The film's script is incredibly insipid, and overladen with plot exposition. Now, generally, excessive plot exposition would annoy me, but here it proved invaluable as it tried to patch together how Detective Cross leapt to the all-too-implausible conclusions that he did, and tried to disguise quite how unrealistic the film's coincidences really were. So, yes, the continual plot exposition was essential, but only because the structure of the film was so inept. "I think he's trying to tell us something." "
                                ;He's playing some kind of game." Yawn. But what about the action? Surely if the acting, plot and script are all so bad, there must be some gun-totting, fast-paced action sequences to keep me on the edge of my seat? Um... well, don't hold your breath. The opening sequences are fast-paced and reasonably exciting, even if the actual effects are really that exciting by modern standards. Then there's a long wilderness period in the middle of the film where very little happens, and then at the end there's some chasing about. Overall, this isn't a white-knuckle zone. CONCLUSIONS If you have to see this film, my suggestion is to watch the first ten to fifteen minutes, then leave the room for about an hour, and come back for the last ten minutes. That way you get to avoid the ridiculous bolted-on subplots, the appallingly clumsy dialogue, and the hopelessly over-laboured investigation, jumping straight to the ultimate "surprising" revelation... which actually makes more sense if you haven't followed the film throughout. This truly is one of the most ineptly-made, tedious, hollow, uninspired and uninspiring films that I have sat through in months. Between the film's ridiculous and illogical plot, the actors' unenthusiastic performances, the dull pacing, and the insipid script, it's difficult to find anything to recommend about the film at all. Oh yes, I've thought of something, it's only 104 minutes long - relatively brief by current Hollywood trends. Mind you, it's still an hour and a half that you'll never get back. Read a book instead... just don't make it one of Patterson's.

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                                • More +
                                  20.12.2001 19:58
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                                  I've become so cynical about movies nowadays, it's shocking. It really is. At one time, I used to get excited about new releases, but my fingers have been burnt too many times, and even when I feel I should get excited about a new Hollywood release now, I find it hard to actually do so. In its favour, the hype for the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies has been relatively minor, mainly due to director Peter Jackson's determination that the public shouldn't be exposed to a six-month media circus leading up to the film's release. In the event the release of the Harry Potter movie probably did a great deal to deflect the media's attention for much of the run-up to the 'Lord of the Rings' release... even if it did lead to the inevitable endless series of comparisons between the two. So, I can't say I was overly excited about going to see the first Lord of the Rings film, but even in my jaundiced state, I managed to muster some degree of enthusiasm, and a fervent hope that what little faith I had left in film-making wouldn't be killed off. In the event, I needn't have been so pessimistic, the Lord of the Rings movie is truly astonishing. I finally felt that buzz of excitement that 1977 audiences must have felt when they went to see 'Star Wars'. The spectacular scenery, the characters, the pace, the special effects all kept my attention for the full three hours, and genuinely left me feeling exhilarated. Just to give you an idea of my Tolkein Quotient, I've never read the book, but I have heard the BBC radio dramatisation, so I at least had a vague idea of the plot before going to see it... and I did read 'The Hobbit' a few years back which has to be worth partial credit... THE PLOT Oh, you must know this, surely. Alright then, but I'm going to keep it brief. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is celebrating his 111th birthday in the small village of Hobbiton in
                                  the Shire. Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), arrives for the celebration and to ensure that Bilbo makes good on his promise to pass all of his possessions on to young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Amongst these possessions is a ring... but no ordinary ring... this is the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron - a ring with the power to destroy the world, and a ring which slowly perverts its owner. As long as the ring remains in existence, the Dark Lord has the power to return to the world, and a team of nine dark riders - the Nazgul - are trying to return the ring to him. So, Frodo sets off on a perilous quest to destroy the ring by tossing it into the Cracks of Doom in faraway Mordor, accompanied by three other hobbits (Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) and Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd)). En route, the hobbits are joined by Gandalf, humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). THE FILM Well, as you might have gathered from my introduction, I was genuinely bowled over by 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. This was a genuinely stunning film. In fact, I'm at a loss to know where to start in my review, because I don't this opinion just to consist of a list of reasons why the film was so fantastic... So, I guess I'd better start with the only thing I found to complain about - the pacing. To be honest, this isn't really a negative criticism, so much as a problem with the intensity of the film. Watching 'The Fellowship of the Ring' takes a lot out of the viewer - there's a lot of plot to cover in the book, even for a three-hour-long film, and inevitably this means that the story moves at an extremely fast pace. Essentially, there's no break in the action for the full length of the movie, so make sure you've gone to the toilet before you go in - if you have to go during the mo
                                  vie, you'll probably miss an important plot point! But, it has to be said, paying that much attention to a movie for a full three hours takes a lot out of the viewer. When the DVD is eventually released, I'll probably watch it with a self-imposed intermission about 90 minutes in. Of course, the cynic in me says that the film was deliberately released in such an intense intermission-less format on its theatrical release to make viewers go back to the cinema to see it again, and make sure they've not missed anything... but quite apart from this, this is a film you'll want to see again at the cinema anyway! So, having got that out of the way, I'm afraid we're just left with the glowing praise. First recipient has to be the stunning scenery throughout the film. From the rolling hills of the Shire, through the craggy Misty Mountains, via the woods of Lorien and the rocky plains of Mordor, New Zealand has provided an outstanding range of stunningly beautiful geography, which has been filmed to superb effect by native director Peter Jackson. Where computer effects have had to be used to insert giant statues, or buildings, they have been introduced seamlessly to create an astonishingly believable series of locations. Yes, the locations might not be quite as you imagined them, but in my case, it's generally because my imagination didn't quite go as far as the film-makers' in creating Tolkein's fantasy world. In my imagination, Saruman's tower didn't tower so high over Isengard, Rivendell wasn't so beautiful, and Galadriel's Lothlorien wasn't so elegant. Admittedly the film collects only a few people's impressions of what the book's locations should look like, and inevitably this will jar with some viewers' imaginations, but for me, the film presents an entirely believable fantasy world creating plausible visions of locations which manage to evoke the spirit of the story. <
                                  br><br><br>Where the film has had illustrations by Tolkein to work from, such as the sketches of Bilbo's home - Bag End - in Hobbiton, it has stuck to them slavishly, producing an accurate and impressive realisation of the sketches, right down to the chandeliers! This brings me onto my next point... hobbits. They're little people, don't you know. The humans in the film are normal height humans, and the film's elves are human height too... but, the dwarves and the hobbits are considerably shorter - about two thirds the height of the men and elves. This isn't exactly crucial to the plot, but for the film to accurately portray one of the world's favourite fantasy worlds, the dwarves and hobbits have to look shorter. So, how do the filmmakers achieve this? Well, rumours abounded during the film's production that it would involve an intense amount of post-production computer generated tinkering, but in actuality far more old-school techniques seem to have been used. At the beginning of the film, I found myself searching for them, and noticed occasional clever use of perspective - such as an early scene where Bilbo and Gandalf talk in the kitchen of Bag End; Bilbo stands far from the camera, while Gandalf sits near the camera. However, I've got to be honest, once you've mentally accepted that dwarves and hobbits are shorter than humans, the whole magic of the film is enough to draw you in, and forget that you're watching human actors portraying fantastic characters. For me, it only took about ten minutes before I stopped trying to see how scenes were constructed, and started to just relax and enjoy it. I think this is testament to two of the film's strengths - firstly, the presentation is so immersive and compelling that you actually find yourself drawn into it, and secondly, the special effects and computer generated scenes are so well realised that they never seem artificial. Now onto the casti
                                  ng. There's an interesting mix of top-flight, first-rate actors here acting alongside several "Now where have I seen them before?"s. In general though, it's got to be said that the casting is superb. Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey is extremely good... and probably the most difficult of the film's roles to cast. McKellen pulls off the imperious gravel voice that he attaches to Gandalf with consummate ease, soon making you wonder how you ever imagined the character any other way. He believably mixes the character's occasional bumbling charm with the seriousness that the role demands. Similarly, bug-eyed Elijah Wood never struck me as an obvious choice for the role of Frodo, but manages to produce a believable performance as the awestruck hobbit forced to undertake the perilous quest. Ian Holm manages to convey Bilbo's lust for Sauron's ring believably, and manages to bring the lovable hobbit to the big screen very well. The film's human characters; Aragorn and Boromir are well realised by Viggo Mortensen (um... 'A Perfect Murder' or 'G. I. Jane' anyone?) and Sean Bean (probably best known as television's Sharpe) respectively. However, for my money, the casting of the elves probably represents some of the movie's best casting decisions. Cate Blanchett ('The Gift', 'Elizabeth') plays the beautiful Galadriel, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in 'The Matrix') plays the severe Elven king Elrond, and young Orlando Bloom (was in one episode of 'Midsomer Murders') makes an extremely good Legolas Greenleaf. Most intriguingly, bulky Jonathan Rhys-Davies (Sallah from 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark') is shrunk down to play Gimli the dwarf. Peter Jackson's direction is extremely good. The relentless pacing and his incredible vision keep the film fairly motoring and work to really involve the audience in his mo
                                  vie. The action sequences, such as the fellowship's battle with orcs in a dwarven mine, aren't as jawdropping as many recent movie battle sequences. However, the huge opening prologue battle between Sauron's forces and an army of elves and men gives an impression of the true potential of the series... and, of course, 'The Two Towers' is full of big battles! The music is sumptuous, and while not as instantly memorable as recent films' themes (yes, that's right, I'm referring to 'Gladiator'), fits extremely well with the film's mood. I was also glad to note that the Enya track was confined to the film's end credits. CONCLUSIONS I don't think I've ever been so struck by the presentation of a movie as I was by 'The Lord of the Rings', and I don't think I've ever been so stuck for something negative to say about a film that I've been reduced to criticising it for being "too intense"! Admittedly, although I've always been aware of the story, I've never been a major fan of 'Lord of the Rings', so I didn't have the same preconceptions about the locations that many Tolkein enthusiasts had... and consequently, the film's realisation of the places and characters were never going to be an affront to my imaginings. Even if you go along to 'Lord of the Rings' with the highest of expectations, I'd be surprised if you were unimpressed - it is truly a masterpiece of visualisation, and an extremely promising start to the trilogy. Mr Jackson, we salute you... and nary a Sumatran rat monkey in sight...

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