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Member since: 18.04.2007

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    • Next (DVD) / DVD / 65 Readings / 65 Ratings
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      10.06.2007 04:06
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      flawed but diverting thriller

      96 mins

      Lee Tamahori — director

      Nicolas Cage — Cris Johnson
      Julianne Moore — Callie Ferris
      Jessica Biel — Liz
      Thomas Kretschmann — Mr. Smith
      Tory Kittles — Cavanaugh
      José Zúñiga — Security Chief Roybal
      Jim Beaver — JTTF Director Eric Wisdom
      Jason Butler Harner — Jeff Baines
      Michael Trucco — Kendal
      Enzo Cilenti — Mr. Jones
      Laetitia Danielle — Miss Brown
      Nicolas Pajon — Mr. Green
      Sergej Trifunovic — Mr. White
      Peter Falk — Irv



      Nicolas Cage plays Cris Johnson (similarly missing an h in his first name), a stage magician & blackjack player in Sin City, down at heel & down in the mouth. His low-key magic act is unappreciated by his small audiences; & he always wins at cards, but not large amounts. He is hoping to avoid attention.

      But he has attracted the interest of FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore). She has been watching Johnson’s stage show & his card-playing, &, when he foils an intended robbery by disarming the crook before he can even draw his gun, she is able to deduce his concealed gift: he can see 2 minutes into the future.

      This is quite an imaginative leap by Ferris, to put it mildly, & her boss is sceptical. All the same, she & a posse of agents proceed to pursue Johnson in order to enlist his aid in stopping some Euro terrorists from detonating a smuggled nuclear bomb in LA (for some reason). Johnson is reluctant to help (for some reason), & the FBI chase him from Vegas to the Grand Canyon. Along the way Johnson has hooked up with Liz (Jessica Biel), whose presence (for some reason) has the effect of magnifying his talent for prophesy, so that he can see further into the future.

      Like many another high-concept movie (‘Blade Runner’, ‘Minority Report’, ‘Total Recall’) ‘Next’ is adapted from a Philip K Dick short story. ‘The Golden Man’ is about a ruthless gilt-skinned pre-cog in a post-apocalyptic future where mutants are starting to supersede Homo Sapiens. Apart from the rather odd topaz hue of Cage’s skin — & I wasn’t sure whether this was its natural colour or cosmetically applied — very little survives the translation from page to screen except PKD’s description of our hero’s talent: he’s like a skilful chess-player, able to read the game 5 moves in advance.

      It is several weeks since I saw this film but the scenes where Johnson predicts possible outcomes, enabling him to modify his behaviour & stay ahead of everyone else, haven’t faded in my mind. Thus, in an amusing scene reminiscent of ‘Groundhog Day’, he evaluates possible pick-up lines to Liz by previewing her responses to them until he finds an approach that won’t lead to rejection. He evades capture by casino security guards & the FBI because he always knows what they’re going to do before they do it. And, taking on the bad guys, he avoids bullets by being elsewhere as they pass by.

      Johnson is a subdued, detached figure initially who becomes more engaged with life as he leads the FBI against the armed-to-the-teeth baddies. Cage, muting his customary mannered style, is excellent. I’d have been interested in finding out more about what it’s like to be someone for whom life holds few surprises, but this isn’t that sort of film. The sunny ethereality that served Biel well in ‘The Illusionist’ is fine here too. Moore, however, is wasted in her role. In movies like ‘The Hours’ & ‘Far From Heaven’ her performances are beautifully nuanced; she conveys complex emotions with flickering changes in her facial expression: less is Moore. Here, reprising Clarice Starling & playing a flak-jacketed fed & frowning non-stop, her economy of means achieves a matching economy of effect.

      Since his stunning debut ‘Once Were Warriors’, the output of Kiwi director Lee Tamahori has been uneven in quality. His last film was ‘xXx: State of the Union’, which so far I’ve managed to avoid. He handles the action sequences energetically in ‘Next’, but if you can’t switch off your brain you’ll find yourself distracted by a long list of questions that the plot signally fails to answer:

      -- How does Ferris fathom Johnson’s unique talent?
      -- Why does she assume that his ability to see 2 minutes ahead will stop the terrorists?
      -- Who are these incredibly well-armed terrorists with their generic Euro accents & ‘Reservoir Dogs’ style names anyway, & why do they want to nuke LA?
      -- How does proximity to Liz increase Johnson’s power?
      -- What the hell is the point of Peter Falk’s cameo as a character named Irv?

      There are plenty more where these came from.

      The special effects are up to the job, & the film finishes with a twist that is audacious or silly or both.

      This isn’t a great film by a long chalk but it’s never boring. And it’s intermittently clever enough to make you realize how much better it could have been. 3 stars, just about.

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        30.05.2007 00:06
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        smart thriller that functions on many levels

        Cast your mind back. Do you remember when segments of the so-called ‘Skin Tapes’ — showing, in horrific detail, Dr Alex Seymour’s violent death in Sherry Thomas’s basement flat in London — found their way onto the internet 2 years ago? The resulting media attention & public outcry intensified our awareness of just how widespread covert surveillance has become nowadays. It is all around us. We are being watched.

        The flames of the controversy were fanned by the existence of the notorious ‘Seymour Tapes’. During the last few weeks of his life, Dr Seymour, using cameras & microphones concealed in smoke detectors throughout his suburban house, had been secretly videoing his family; & the tapes he recorded, the subject of endless conjecture & discussion but hitherto unseen, have now been made available to journalist Tim Lott.

        If you can’t recall any of this, don’t worry: it didn’t really happen. The premise of Tim Lott’s most recent novel is that he is telling a true story. Lott, or a version of Lott, is one of his own principal characters. Boundaries between reality & fiction are blurred when, at the start of the novel, the widowed Samantha Seymour asks him to write an unbiased account of the events that led up to her husband’s death — to set the record straight, she says. She has approached Lott, he surmises, because of the unwavering honesty he displayed in his first book, ‘The Scent of Dried Roses’, & in a piece about the break-up of his marriage that appeared in the literary magazine ‘Granta’. The autobiographical book (an acclaimed, heartbreaking elegy to his mother, who committed suicide) & the article exist in the real world, allowing the character Lott to exist in a strange no-man’s-land between fact & fiction.

        Its various conceits & contrivances enable this novel to examine the nature of truth & the effects of voyeurism on both observer & observed, while also succeeding as a compelling thriller. Structurally it consists of transcripts of Lott’s interviews with Samantha Seymour interspersed with descriptions of events as they unfold on her husband’s video diaries & tapes from other surveillance cameras. We know from the first sentence of the book that Gerald Seymour is dead, but we don’t find out why or how he died until near the end.

        A month before he dies he is quietly, corrosively unhappy. A lapsed catholic in his early 50s who misses the certainties of religious faith, he feels that his teenage son & daughter have no respect for him, & suspects his wife of having an affair with an unemployed actor who lives nearby. She has recently given birth to their third child & is not working, so money is tight. He is a GP, & any medical idealism he once had has long since been eroded by the day-to-day grind of working in an inner-city practice. He worries about the possible repercussions of a misunderstanding with a patient from Somali & an office-party dalliance with an embittered receptionist. When he meets Sherry Thomas, an American surveillance expert, she convinces him that secretly monitoring his family’s activities will make him happier. By installing cameras at home & at work he hopes to regain some control over his life. (His name, of course, is a pun: he wants to see more.)

        At first his campaign goes well. He feels less insecure at work. At home he skulks in the attic watching his family. Soon, although he realizes that he is betraying his wife & children, he gains confidence by knowing things about them that they don’t know he knows: he has them taped, in every sense. Or does he? Does the camera never lie? What would happen if the fly on the wall were noticed? In her interviews Samantha Seymour proves to be evasive & manipulative — as befits her background in PR, some might say. Her interviewer, Lott the unreliable narrator, is forced to reveal shameful secrets of his own as a quid pro quo for her cooperation. Are these revelations, we wonder, fictional or factual? And is she being honest in her turn?

        This novel, with its literary devices & intriguing, booby-trapped plot, marks a new departure for Tim Lott. His talent for investing domestic minutiae with significance is evident here & in his previous 3 novels, but their narratives are far more straightforward. He is at his best when portraying ordinary people like Alex Seymour struggling to make sense of their lives. Sherry Thomas is emphatically not ordinary, however, & more than once she makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. My other reservation about ‘The Seymour Tapes’ is that, at times, the prose has a dryness & drabness about it. This is intended to give it an objective, distancing quality suited to the transcriptive format of the book, & fair enough. But I have kept & reread Lott’s first & second novels — ‘White City Blues’ & ‘Rumours of a Hurricane’ — largely for the clarity & vitality of the writing. Many scenes from them have stayed with me because they are so lucidly described.

        So: 4 stars for his fourth novel. It works on many levels; &, above all, it is a compulsively readable thriller.

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        • 11:14 (DVD) / DVD / 53 Readings / 52 Ratings
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          20.05.2007 06:09
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          short, sharp, shock-filled movie

          83 minutes

          Director — Greg Marcks

          Jack — Henry Thomas
          Aaron — Blake Heron
          Norma — Barbara Hershey
          Officer Hannagan — Clark Gregg
          Buzzy — Hilary Swank
          Duffy — Shawn Hatosy
          Tim — Stark Sands
          Mark — Colin Hanks
          Eddie — Ben Foster
          Frank — Patrick Swayze
          Cheri — Rachel Leigh Cook
          Leon — Jason Segel
          Kevin — Rick Gomez


          A man in his early 20s is driving in the dark. The bottle of spirits beside him indicates that he has been drinking. The dashboard clock shows 11:14. He passes a sign that reads ‘Middletown — A Happy Place To Live’. The road seems empty. He drives under a bridge. Without warning there is a windscreen-shattering impact. He brakes & gets out of the car, not knowing what he has hit. He finds the crumpled body of a young man, head smashed beyond recognition. He gets back into his car, intending to drive off, but another car approaches…

          This is how ‘11:14’ starts, with life suddenly getting very bad for one of its characters, & this is how it continues. We follow events in Middletown — a nondescript small town in the American midwest where usually nothing ever happens — between 10:54 & 11:34 one night. Officer Hannagan (Clark Gregg) is the single cop on duty, but enough accidents & crimes occur during that 40 minutes to keep the whole LAPD busy.

          This is a blackly funny, relentlessly pacy, plot-driven movie told from the viewpoints of 5 characters. Their lives unravel as they make poor decisions under pressure & suffer the consequences. There are jumps backwards & forwards in time as characters’ paths cross & we figure out the order of events. The plot is full of twists, reversals & shocks, & I would advise anyone intending to see this movie not to read reviews (except this one, naturally) beforehand, because they are likely to give the game away. And it is a sort of game, following the plot.

          Amazon can’t make up its mind whether this has a 15 or 18 rating, but whatever: be warned that there are several violent scenes. There isn’t much gore, as such; the violence is of the type that makes you jump when you don’t know it’s coming or wince as you wait for it to happen. There is one incident that will cause male viewers to cross their legs tightly.

          The percussive soundtrack maintains tension as the mainly young cast causes chaos around town. We don’t see that much of any of them because the vignettes are so brief, but there are standout performances from Hilary Swank as Buzzy, a nervous, Meccano-mouthed convenience store clerk, Shawn Hatosy as besotted petrolhead Duffy, & Rachel Leigh Cook as the trashy, manipulative Cheri. (Swank is also listed as one of the executive producers.)

          Kudos to writer & director Greg Marcks for such an excellent debut. Clearly he has been influenced by the non-sequential structure & sardonic tone of films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ & ‘Go’, but ‘11:14’ has a vitality, sharpness & tension that is all its own. It has a running time of less than an hour & a half, which is fine for a film like this — any longer & the pace would slacken. It could be argued that the story, when we’ve pieced it together, doesn’t really amount to a great deal. But so what? The film isn’t trying to say anything profound about the human condition. It’s a simple morality tale — behaving badly will bring bad results for you — but more importantly it’s highly entertaining.

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            15.05.2007 22:54
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            engrossing spy novel that might appeal even if you don't like spy novels

            In ‘Brazzaville Beach’ (1990) Boyd wrote a 1st-person narrative from a woman’s point of view, & the novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In ‘Restless’, his 9th & most recent novel, he employs a parallel narrative structure, & writes from 2 women’s viewpoints.

            The book opens with Ruth Gilmartin, a single ESL teacher who lives in Oxford with her young son, visiting her retired widowed mother, Sally Gilmartin, during the long hot summer of 1976 (‘that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat’). Her mother lives in rural Oxfordshire & is acting strangely, nervously scanning the dense woods behind her remote cottage through binoculars, & feigning injury, it seems, in order to take to a wheelchair. As Ruth is leaving Sally hands her what proves to be the first instalment of a manuscript entitled ‘The Story of Eva Delectorskaya’. When she asks who Eva Delectorskaya is her mother replies: ‘I am.’

            Eva, we learn, was a beautiful Russian émigrée living in Paris who was recruited as a spy for the British by the dashing, mysterious Lucas Romer in 1939, when she was 29. In each chapter of ‘Restless’ Eva delivers a section of her autobiography to Ruth, so that her account of her career in espionage alternates with her daughter’s narrative, set in the novel’s present, until the 2 timelines converge towards the end. This is a rather clunky structural device — you wonder why Ruth & her mother don’t simply talk more between deliveries — but never mind.

            Writing about herself in the 3rd person, Eva tells a compelling tale of multiple identities, codes & passwords, secret assignations, violence, betrayal, pursuit. The covert British campaign of propaganda & misinformation set in America in 1941, intended to persuade them to enter the war, is informative as well as being exciting. In her world, concealment is everything, & nothing is as it seems: motives are veiled, events are difficult to interpret. It is a paradox that those involved with intelligence operations don’t have a good view of reality; as Eva says, ‘We were like miners chipping away at the coalface miles underground — we hadn't a clue about how the mining industry was run on the surface.’

            Once a spy, always a spy: you never stop hiding. As we learn the reasons for Eva’s present-day nervousness, Ruth’s side of the story generates further suspense & an atmosphere of menace. Are her uninvited German lodgers linked to the Baader-Meinhof gang? Are the activities of an Iranian student who has a crush on her being monitored by the Shah’s notorious secret police, Savak? Who can she trust? Boyd strews both narrative strands with plenty of red herrings to keep us guessing & maintain an atmosphere of paranoia.

            He is particularly adept at characterization, & Eva, Ruth, & many of the supporting cast are vividly brought to life. With Eva, he is interested in exploring the subterfuge-dominated life of someone without a fixed identity — someone who has personas rather than a personality. We deduce that Ruth’s rootlessness & wariness, her self-sufficiency, her inability to finish her PhD thesis & get on with her life, derive from the shifting sand of her mother’s existence. Both mother & daughter are restless.

            The book undoubtedly has its weaknesses. Credible ideological motivation is lacking completely, & the denouement isn’t entirely convincing, especially given the verisimilitude of what has gone before. As always with Boyd’s work, however, it is immensely entertaining & enjoyable. Although he is a ‘literary’ novelist he is mainly concerned with constructing a solid narrative & telling a good story. You want to know what happens next. (He also makes you smile occasionally; some of his early novels & screenplays — ‘A Good Man in Africa’, ‘Stars & Bars’, ‘Dutch Girls’ — were laugh-out-loud funny.) ‘Restless’, his first foray into the genre of the spy novel, doesn’t have the textural density of, say, a Greene or Le Carre novel, but Boyd’s lightness of touch, his skill at setting scenes, delineating character & describing action with a few deft sentences, lend his work a marvellous readability

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              12.05.2007 03:10
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              'ace'

              David Mitchell developed a stammer when he was growing up in rural Worcestershire. He wrote poetry using the name TS Bolivar & it was published in the parish magazine. The title of Mitchell’s fourth novel, ‘Black Swan Green’, is the name of the (fictitious) Worcestershire village where our stammering narrator, Jason Taylor, lives. Jason writes poetry for the parish magazine under the pseudonym TS (as in Eliot) Bolivar (as in Simon). Mitchell was born in 1969; the book’s 13 chapters, which consist of self-contained short stories, are set in successive months from January 1982 to January 1983. Jason turns 13 early in the book.

              So: smart readers will have spotted that there is a great deal of autobiographical material in this novel. You might expect this in a first or second novel (Edinburgh smackheads, musical taste in North London). Previously, though, in his first 3 novels, Mitchell revealed almost nothing of himself. He wanted, he says, ‘to write the world, underlined three times, three exclamation marks’. And he did just that. In his first novel, ‘Ghostwritten’, published to great acclaim in 1999, Mitchell adopts a huge array of voices & jumps from country to country & genre to genre in 10 linked chapters. We have, among others, the internal monologues of a corrupt Brit lawyer in Hong Kong, a self-deluding gangster’s girlfriend in Petersburg, a soul migrating from body to body in Mongolia. His second novel, ‘number9dream’ (2001), is a kaleidoscopic exploration of Tokyo, where reality & virtual reality are indistinguishable in the mind of the young, impressionable Japanese narrator. Mitchell extended his range still further in his third book, ‘Cloud Atlas’ (2004). Again there are linked chapters, a mixture of genres, a range of voices, a variety of tones & textures. Our 6 narrators include an ineffectual American lawyer aboard a ship in the South Pacific in the late 19th century, an unscrupulous publisher in England round about now, & a 'soap'-eating clone who works 19-hour days in an underground fast-food restaurant in a future ‘corpocracy’ where brand names have subverted generic nouns (shoes are ‘nikes’ & films are ‘disneys’).

              These brief summaries can’t do other than fail to give a true impression of Mitchell’s extraordinary talent. If anything, trying to summarize his work in a few sentences has the effect of making it sound daunting & tricksy. But it isn’t at all. It’s challenging, sure enough: it demands -- & rewards -- readers’ concentration. He is, however, a wonderfully compelling storyteller. He writes with warmth, humour, & absolute conviction; he has an astonishing gift for ventriloquism, as it’s called nowadays; & his exotic worlds are intricately constructed & marvellously believable.

              Not that a village in Worcestershire 2 decades ago could be regarded as exotic. And yet…

              And yet: the transforming power of imagination -- its ability to transcend reality -- is a key theme of ‘Black Swan Green’. Jason is a sensitive, imaginative boy on the brink of adolescence, growing up in a dull, often brutal backwater. Predation is a motif in all Mitchell’s novels, & Jason’s stammer (he carefully differentiates between stammering & stuttering) makes him the natural victim of bullies. Composing poetry would be seen as ‘gay’ if it were found out. He keeps his interior life secret in order to survive.

              We see everything through his eyes. His speech is peppered with here-today-gone-tomorrow slang (good things are ‘ace’ or ‘epic’, for instance). The hierarchy among young boys is brilliantly conveyed: everyone knows exactly where they are, & where everyone else is, in the pecking order. Many references to the music of the time, TV programmes, popular games, fashion trends, &c, ensure that the early 80s are evocatively presented. The Falklands War is mirrored locally when the presence of group of gypsies triggers xenophobia among the villagers. And as Jason gains some political awareness from these conflicts, so his interest in girls increases. His initial childlike credulity fades as the year passes & life teaches him some hard lessons.

              ‘BSG’ is by turns hilarious & moving. Like all his books it inhabits my mind, & I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of those rare books that I hated having to put aside when time ran out, & then resented finishing because it was so utterly engrossing.

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              • Spider-Man 3 (2 DVDs) / DVD / 37 Readings / 33 Ratings
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                06.05.2007 22:22
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                tangled web, well worth a watch

                156 minutes

                Director –- Sam Raimi

                Spider-Man / Peter Parker –- Tobey Maguire
                Mary Jane Watson –- Kirsten Dunst
                New Goblin / Harry Osborn –- James Franco
                Sandman / Flint Marco -– Thomas Hayden Church
                Venom / Eddie Brock –- Topher Grace
                Gwen Stacey –- Bryce Dallas Howard
                May Parker –- Rosemary Harris
                J K Simmons –- J Jonah Jameson (JJJ)


                Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is feeling somewhat complacent at the start of this movie: for once, his life is going smoothly. Having defeated Dr Octopus last time round, & in spite of JJJ’s campaign of vilification in the ‘Daily Bugle’, he has won the admiration of New Yorkers; & he is preparing to propose to girlfriend Mary Jane, star of a new Broadway musical. But clearly this can’t last, & numerous subplots are set into motion to ensure it doesn’t:

                — Mary Jane’s performance is panned by critics & Peter’s casual reaction affects their relationship.
                — Green with jealousy over his relationship with Mary Jane, Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn transforms himself into a Goblin, like his dead father, & zooms off on his flying skateboard to attack Spider-Man.
                — Escaping convict Flint Marco, who it turns out killed Peter’s uncle in the first film, gains super powers when, in a typical Marvel accident, his molecular structure merges with that of the sand he is lying on in the course of a ‘particle physics experiment’.
                — Unscrupulous wannabe paparazzo Eddie Brock sets out to usurp Peter’s position as specialist Spidey-snapper at the ‘Daily Bugle’.
                — Some squiggly, meteorite-borne black gloop attaches itself symbiotically to one of Spidey’s costumes, turning it black & bringing out our hero’s darker side whenever he dons it.

                And this is just basic scene-setting stuff. The plot, when it really gets going, is tangled, & many critics have complained — justifiably, I think — that the emotional depth of the 2 previous films has been lost amid the multiple storylines. Something similar happened with the ‘X-Men’ franchise, with the plethora of mutants in the third film being rather too much of a good thing. Here, Spidey takes on 3 superbaddies. Personality changes abound as he finds himself alternately confronting & comforting Harry, vying for Mary Jane’s affections, competing for his job, fighting his own darker side & of course listening to Aunt May’s tedious homilies. Undeniably, this movie is soapier than its predecessors, with poor Kirsten Dunst ushering in a daytime-TV-style longueur every time she appears. Also, at over 2 & a half hours, it's overlong.

                But there are plenty of compensations. The cast is spot-on, as ever. At 31, Tobey Maguire is getting a bit long in the mandible to play a bedsit-dwelling student, I’d have thought, but actually he pulls it off again. Thomas Hayden Church makes a good soulful Sandman, & Topher Grace is appropriately slimy as Eddie Brock &, later, appropriately snarly as Venom. The Jekyll-&-Hyde stuff is well handled, with Peter becoming addicted to wearing his aggression-enhancing black costume underneath his everyday clothes. One amusing scene features the onetime nerd obnoxiously pimp-rolling along the sidewalk, checking out the chicks, heyyy. (There is more humour generally than in the previous films.)

                Above all, the numerous fights are terrific, with CGI now definitely capable of convincingly portraying the howling, fast-moving Venom & the endlessly morphing Sandman. And really, if you go to see a movie like this you want to watch the action scenes far more than you want to watch the bits that connect them. Worth 7 out of 10, anyway — but perhaps not quite 4 out of 5.

                This is probably the penultimate film in the money-generating series. I look forward to the next. And I hope it isn’t the last.

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                  26.04.2007 04:56
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                  addictively readable, lightweight satire of corporate life

                  The format of Lucy Kellaway’s ‘Who Moved My Blackberry’ is, in a way, very traditional. The first epistolary novel — that is, novel written in the form of letters sent & received by characters — was Tobias Smollett’s ‘The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker’, published in 1771. But who writes letters nowadays? We send emails instead. Like Matt Beaumont’s successful & amusing ‘e’ (2000), ‘Who Moved my Blackberry?’ consists entirely of emails.

                  Nearly all of the emails are written by marketing director Martin Lukes (& not always sent to their intended recipients), but a few jokes depend on us being shown emails he has received as well — a slight structural weakness, perhaps. Moreover, although the stream of emails lends the book an addictive readability, after a while it gets somewhat repetitive. The book is full of good stuff though, & for the most part works very effectively as a satire on marketing jargon, bland Americanisms & new age banalities.

                  Kellaway developed the character of Lukes in her weekly column in the ‘Financial Times’, & here he is given a novel in which to display his colossal but brittle ego. We follow him in the course of a year at a-b glöbal (motto: ‘Phenomenal Performance — Permanently’), a multinational corporation that is less concerned with manufacturing a product — & we never find out what it produces anyway — than it is with squandering millions on futile marketing manoeuvres & internal reorganization as its stock plummets. Lukes is a very horrible man: self-infatuated, vain, lazy, opportunistic, status-obsessed & dishonest, patronizing to women, ill tempered with his subordinates, ingratiating with his superiors. He treats his wife, who is far more capable than he is, dismissively, is unable to communicate with either of his sons (one is an underachiever, the other is an overachiever), constantly promises to visit his mother but only actually shows up when he needs a favour. His ability to delude himself is infinite, & it is this lack of self-knowledge that makes him laughable.

                  He expresses himself in marketing clichés familiar to anyone who has worked in the corporate world, tricked out with new age clichés he picks up from his life coach Pandora, who emails him at the start of every month, setting him ludicrous tasks in order to help him achieve his aim of being ‘better than his best’. Lukes goes on about blue-sky thinking, pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, & suchlike, at every opportunity, & he is so proud of inventing the word ‘creovation’ — a combination of ‘creation’ & ‘innovation’ — that he trademarks it. When a-b glöbal (that meaningless umlaut cost a lot of money) needs to make some of its staff redundant the euphemisms come thick & fast. The process is called ‘off-boarding 15 to 20 percent of our family’; ‘Project Uplift’ is set up to decide who gets the boot; & a ‘behaviour matrix’ is used to ‘raise the talent bar’ so that the cull is justified.

                  And so on. If you’re like me & you enjoy seeing this sort of jargon ridiculed, you will enjoy this book. It makes a serious point about the misuse of English but at the same time its touch is light, & it’s funny enough to make you laugh aloud occasionally.

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                    24.04.2007 03:05
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                    watch something funny instead

                    This film is (very) loosely based on the 1960 British film of the same name, starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas & Alastair Sim. Both films are inspired by Stephen Potter’s series of books on lifemanship. There are numerous differences between the two films but the most important one is that the original is sharp & amusing & the remake isn’t. At all.

                    The set-up is that NYC parking attendant Roger’s lack of assertiveness brings rejection and humiliation at every turn. He is made a fool of at work; he is too shy to pursue desirable neighbour Amanda; & he is fired by three of the youngsters he is trying to mentor as a ‘big brother’ in succession. Self-help books have failed to help, so in desperation he pays $5K & enrolls in Dr P’s clandestine classes in manliness. The mysterious Dr P teaches his geeky pupils how to succeed by lying, manipulating & cheating.

                    Dr P is played by Billy Bob Thornton in blank-faced ‘Bad Santa’ mode. He gets the movie's few good lines near the beginning. Jacinda Barrett plays Amanda, the love interest; she is required to smile a lot. Ben Stiller contributes a deeply unfunny cameo towards the end, as an embittered ex-pupil. As the central character Roger, Jon Heder reprises his slack-jawed dweeb from ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. Or he does most of the time — some of the time Roger, for no reason other than to further the plot, becomes a much tougher, smarter, more resourceful person altogether, as though he mastered Dr P’s precepts instantly.

                    And this inconsistency illustrates the film’s main problem. Whatever humour could be wrung from the premise of a school for losers run by a bully is dissipated by the ill-conceived script & the formless characters of the male leads. Dr P’s motives in particular & the plot generally simply don’t make any sense. The film drifts illogically from one dull set piece to another, culminating in an elaborate routine involving kidnapping, before winding up after 100 tedious minutes.

                    Directed by Todd Phillips (‘Road Trip’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’), ‘School for Scoundrels’ is a mess. Avoid.

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                    • Notes on a Scandal (DVD) / DVD / 27 Readings / 23 Ratings
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                      21.04.2007 02:04
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                      an emotionally charged film, sad & witty

                      This is British film-making at its best. Scripted by Patrick Marber (from a novel by Zoe Heller), directed by Richard Eyre, scored by Philip Glass, & with a cast that includes Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett & Bill Nighy, it is compelling stuff from start to finish.

                      Barbara Covett (Dench) is a lonely, repressed schoolmistress, nearing retirement, a battleaxe in both the classroom & the staffroom. When Sheba Hart (Blanchett) arrives at the school to teach art, radiating neediness & vulnerability, Covett –- the women’s surnames have symbolic significance –- sees a chance to befriend her. Or so it seems. Hart’s husband Richard (Nighy) is many years her senior. When she starts having an affair with one of her pupils, many years her junior, Covett finds out; & as she uses her knowledge to gain emotional leverage the plot gathers momentum until it reaches its inevitable tragic conclusion.

                      Enough about the plot; watching it unfold is one of the many pleasures of watching this movie. Others include Covett’s snobbish, spiteful journal entries, read by her in voiceover. Using a voiceover can be a lazy linking device for directors, but here it works superbly as Covett’s personality & circumstances are gradually revealed. Her ability to delude herself & her eagerness to manipulate Hart are driven by her pathetic loneliness.

                      I was rapt for the full hour & a half. Dench & Blanchett bring the central characters to life, portraying their flaws without forfeiting our sympathy for them. Nighy is excellent too, as ever. This is a marvellously engaging, complex film. It was nominated for 4 Oscars & has justly won numerous awards. If you want to watch something with real emotional depth: watch this.

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                      • 300 (2 DVDs) / DVD / 20 Readings / 19 Ratings
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                        20.04.2007 17:20
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                        entertaining & brainless

                        Abs, pecs, delts, lats, traps, bi’s, tri’s, &c: these are the film’s real stars.

                        King Leonidas (Butler) leads 300 thong-clad Spartans, ripped as hell, & they hold off the vast Persian army led by Xerxes (Santoro) at the narrow Pass of Thermopylae for 3 days in 480 BC. In the meantime, some political chicanery occurs back in Sparta. End of plot summary.

                        I am exaggerating the plot’s simplicity, but only slightly. After the first half hour or so, when the battle is being set up (we are given some insight into how rough, tough & buff the Spartans are; then they march to the pass with some comparatively undisciplined, weedy Athenians in tow), the film consists of fighting, and very little else. It’s as violent a film as you’ll ever see. But the violence is as stylized, as in (say) ‘The Matrix’: the Spartans’ movements are balletic, and there are lots of both speeded-up & slowed-down sequences, with hardly any blood being spilled, as they slaughter wave after wave of Persians.

                        The movie, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, is highly stylized generally. Most of the backgrounds are computer-generated & a dark, restricted palette is used, with greys & browns predominating. How historically accurate is it? I doubt that ‘very’ would be the answer, but I also doubt that the question matters.

                        The acting is all on the physical level, really. Ken Butler is required to wear a strange beard & shout lots of inspirational slogans to his troops. Rodrigo Santoro portrays Xerxes as an effete bondage fetishist.

                        The film runs for just under 2 hours. I enjoyed the originality of its style & found it entertaining throughout (although not always, I imagine, for the reasons director Zack Snyder intended). It is not in the least emotionally engaging. But if you enjoy well-staged & virtually non-stop action, you’ll enjoy this.

                        BTW, this is one blockbuster that Hollywood surely won’t be able to devise a sequel to…

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                      • Shooter (DVD) / DVD / 22 Readings / 19 Ratings
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                        20.04.2007 00:35
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                        enjoyable, undemanding action movie

                        If you enjoyed watching Matt Damon battling impossible odds as Jason Bourne, and Harrison Ford eluding Tommy Lee Jones in ‘The Fugitive’, this film will be right up your street. Here we have another resourceful-loner-on-the-run movie. Don’t expect ‘Shooter’ to supply any real evidence for the conspiracy theory that drives its fast-paced plot: just sit back and be entertained for two hours by the well-choreographed action sequences.

                        The film opens as it continues, with lots of gunfire. A black op in Ethiopia is going awry, and Marine Corps sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Wahlberg) is abandoned as expendable. We next encounter him three years later, disillusioned and reclusive, living in a remote log cabin on a mountain in Montana. Then, Colonel Johnson (Glover, playing against type) turns up. Evidently there is to be an attempt to assassinate the president by way of a long-distance rifle shot, and Swagger is needed by Johnson’s covert government agency to foil the unknown sniper by using his specialist knowledge to predict where he will shoot from.

                        Johnson craftily appeals to Swagger’s sense of duty. And Swagger agrees to help, of course; and, of course, he finds himself framed. Wounded, he goes on the run, pursued by the police, the FBI, and even the army. Aided by a rookie FBI agent (Pena), with love interest provided by Kate Mara, Swagger must fight against impossible odds to discover how and why he was stitched up and clear his name.

                        Will he do it?

                        Well, this isn’t a film that’s going to score highly for the unpredictability, or indeed the plausibility, of its plot. And despite its considerable cynicism about American foreign policy, it doesn’t really have a clear political perspective. Whenever director Antoine Fuqua gets too serious, the pace flags until characters start firing their guns again. Luckily for us, however, they fire their guns a lot, especially Swagger, and as he makes his way from state to state, he clocks up a satisfactorily huge body count. His powers seem nearly superhuman, and the bad guys are really very very bad (Ned Beatty in particular camps it up as a corrupt senator), but that’s what we expect from and enjoy about films like this.

                        This is a lads’ film primarily but women won’t be put off, I’m sure, by Wahlberg’s buff body. He does well as the impassive, implacable hero. Kate Mara’s role consists mainly of being captured and tortured, and she looks gorgeous.

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