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The Descendants (Film Review)

Oh yeah – I thought to myself twenty minutes into the film – this was the same guy that did Sideways. The idea that a cinematic celebration of the mundane is somehow more worthwhile than a great big Michael Bay explosion-fest is questionable.

About Schmidt was the first of this genre that I saw and along with Broken Flowers and that other Bill Murray one with Scarlet Johansson (you know – its set in Japan – that one!). They all make me think that I’m missing something, still am though, don’t get them, perhaps I don’t have enough pathos or feeling for my fellow man. Dunno. Didn’t get them.

Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine reeled me in a bit. Aha! if you replace woebegone Bill with someone you have a chance of caring about, then the film gets interesting. Thankfully, everyone likes George – he is very likeable… and watchable. In fact I could have just sat and watched him, the visual equivalent of a nice cup of tea (or whatever your poison is really). He doesn’t have to say anything, but if he does it will probably be nice… or funny… or cool. And it is. And he is. Well done George.

The rest of the cast were pretty cool – this is Hawaii after all. The wayward daughter undergoes a transformation from girl to woman. Her stoner friend Sid we realise already has. The extended family who stand to lose or gain millions on George’s say-so are pretty mellow about it. It is interesting that we are allowed, almost encouraged to dislike the wife in the coma. But she’s not really there is she? So everyone’s pretty cool and pretty mellow and everything will probably be okay (except for the bad wife in the coma). So thats okay and we feel okay. Not a feel-good movie, but a feel-okay movie – which in the current maelstrom of bad that is modern life, is something to aim for.


OK, a confession to start with… or is it to end with? I have discovered that the idle blogger can cheat (at least when using Blogger software) and set up posts on a certain day to be edited later. So smug have I been in this knowledge, that I have left the completion of this entry (started almost a month ago) until today. So what?

Somehow it seems an easy way to appear prolific and organised, as long as you have a thought for the day, you can go back to it later when you are less inspired by how shit your day has been and make it appear that you have a great idea every day of you waking life.

Anyway, the original purpose of this entry was to pick a few holes in the world of the blog. After all, I’m an expert. I had been blogging for a whole week before I took a month’s sabbatical.

I’m sure that there are many blogs that have started wih the best of intentions and then trailed off…

… this is not the first blog I have started and my good intentions have already waned, but there are a few things about blogging that are inherently annoying:

Blog Stardom:

There is a law which I am going to state, which I guess means that I can name it. Humphrey’s Law states that a blog becomes unreadbly obsessed with its own fame about two minutes after it has reached a readership beyond the immediate family of the blogger and more than two of their pets.

Belle du Jour and the one about cooking stuff are both cases in point. By the time they had come to the public eye their central theme had become being in the public eye. Sort of a Victoria Beckham effect – famous for being famous.

Reverse Entry:

There is probably a way of doing this, but I haven’t found it: the narrative in a blog is always reversed – the last thing to happen is the first thing you read. Being a bit of a meat and two veg kind of reader, I don’t appreciate being stranded at the end of a narrative and having to wade back to the begining to find out what the whole thing is about.


Cooking your way through a cook book is not exactly brain science or rocket surgery, but it does create a good blog. Have sales of Mastering the Art of French Cooking rocketed, or are we all living the vicarious pleasure of reading about someone who has? The idea of a serious theme which actually informs the public of serious issues is great, but it is rather worrying that people working in corporate and public sector jobs seem to be being discouraged from writing anything, and indeed their employers have the power to take sanctions against whistleblowers and those who care about their work with the ambulance service and the police force.

Anyway, I’m going to persevere with the form and see how we get on. Perhaps by the time you next read this I will be talking about my publishing deal.

I’ve just been up all night reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – which was actually an alright read, but I probably wouldn’t have stayed up all night if I wasn’t having a rare insomnia attack.

Anyhow, one of the things that struck me about it was that the setting is mildly ambiguous. It seemed to be contemporary at first, then my suspicions were aroused when the narrator refers to her husband’s ability to cook polenta.

Now I hadn’t noticed this, but it seems that the Ruth Rogers-induced polenta craze has quietly died away. In more ways than one polenta has become to the nineties what white dog-poo was to the seventies. It wasn’t very nice, it was everywhere… and now it has gone. Anyway, good riddance to Italian peasant semolina!

The other thing I noticed about the book was that despite being published by Viking in 2005, it has already achieved translation into 27 (27!) languages. I thought that the worldwide market for comic fiction was about 27 people! But here we have a book that has been translated into 27 languages within a year of its publication in its original language. The anachronistic reference to polenta and the speed at which it has been translated into all these languages leads me to believe that this manuscript has been kicking around a while.

I have just picked my copy up again and I notice it has been shortlisted for The Booker, The Orange Prize and The SAGA award for Wit (!) as well as winning the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction (!!). It does lead one to wonder, in such lean times for literary fiction, why there are more prizes going than there are books fit to win them. John ‘Plotless’ Banville winning the Booker, this winsome, mumsy, middle-aged piece being put forward for four awards… what is going on?

Just saw a great / hilarious interview with Michael Caine on TCM. Great high-light was him admitting that The Quiet American was probably the last leading role that would get him out of retirement – it probably was / is his finest hour (although I’m yet to see The Cider House Rules). Interestingly he posited that ‘failed’ films should be remade on the basis that the original Quiet American was a flop, as was the original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (under another name) which starred David Niven and Marlon Brando! Hilarious moment was when he suggested that he changed his voice and character to suit the role. Michael Caine is the last person to do this, he is very talented at assuming the burden of the characters he plays, but he always has the same hair, the same voice and is essentially the same person, he is just superbly talented at sharing the agonies of his characters. Great reminiscences of John Houston and Lee Marvin too.

Time to do some writing again. Saw this for the first time last night.

You cannot not deny that this isn’t a great movie!

As a piece of filmmaking, it is an absolute cracker. Both Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were at the absolute peak of their powers, and their portrayal of the driven Washington Post investigative reporters –  Woodward and Bernstein – all corduroy suits, dishevelled hair, cigarettes and half-mast ties is superb. The old stagers of the newsroom are also great, particularly Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief. The cinematography is also superb, the aerial shot of the Library of Congress, and the shots of Woodward’s battered Volvo cruising the night-time streets of Washington DC give some clue as to Michael Mann’s formative influences. But there is art here too; the typewritten titles, and the Teletype machine accompanied by 21-gun salute narrating the denouement of the story are effective devices underscoring the words as weapons theme here.

The newspaper industry has changed a lot in the last thirty years, to the detriment of proper investigative reporting as is depicted here. A court piece about a break in at an office building could not possibly command the attention of two staff writers – particularly if the editor had some nice pictures of Madonna to put on the front page. The methodology of the editors fighting for the front page, and the journalists reaching for the phone book rather than referring to Google, shows what serious business journalism used to be. And the outcome of the story shows what power the press has and how it should wield it.

As a piece of historical drama it is incredibly informative. My knowledge of Watergate went something like: break in – blah blah blah – corruption – blah blah blah – Nixon resigns. Now I have well and truly filled in the blah blah blahs and the level of the corruption and double-dealing occurring in Washington and within the Republican Party is truly astonishing. It is a shame then that the film concludes with Nixon’s re-election before his resignation because there were doubtless more rotten links in the chain flushed out by Woodward and Bernstein. It is also, in a way, a pity that this corruption was exposed at all – for we all now expect our politicians to be corrupt. If it is their job to protect the best interests of the electorate should they not use every method at their disposal? If one side fights dirty, the only choice is for the other to fight dirtier.

While we’re doing films, I suppose I should get this off my chest: OK, it’s a good film in fact it is a great film. It’s just not a Bond film.

I’ve got some ranting to do here, so excuse the lack of narrative flow.

Casino Royale has just had its opening weekend here in the UK and it’s the HIGHEST GROSSING FIRST WEEKEND FOR ANY BOND FILM EVER!!!. That’s because cinema tickets are even more expensive than they were three years ago when Die Another Day came out. Also, since when has the weekend started on a Thursday? That’s when I watched it, along with a load of other mugs who netted the cinemas £1.7m on the first day / preview.

Daniel Craig is undoubtedly a fine actor. I was particularly impressed with him in the virtually unseen The Trench. He has also put in some time to go to the gym, which is something I certainly don’t have the discipline to do. He also looks bloody great in a suit while toting advanced automatic weaponry. I’m not so sure about the whole swimming trunk issue – if you want equality, fine, but that means some girls in bikinis too – that’s how equality works. The whole taciturn, monosyllabic persona is great for Jason Bourne – or possibly The Terminator, but this is Bond, with a cheesy quip for every situation: Sean Connery’s – “That’s quite a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing. I approve.” George Lazenby – “this never happened to the other guy” (perhaps Craig was thinking of that when he was putting on his trunks). Roger Moore – elevated eyebrow, Pierce Brosnan – “I thought Christmas only came once a year. It takes Craig the entire film to unfreeze his face for long enough to say “Bond, James Bond.”

Then the gadgets – oh well. James Bond is not a real person. He was never meant to be, he is a construct and a very important part of that construct is the gadgets. He is defined more by the car he drives and the clothes he wears than he is by his hair-colour or physique. To take this away from him is to empty him out rather than “strip him back” as everyone is so fond of saying of Craig-Bond. To be honest I’ve not been happy with the whole Aston Martin thing since Ford bought Aston Martin, the 1964 DB6 is a great hand-built bit of kit. The DBS is built in bulk for dull bankers who need something to blow their bonuses on. The whole travesty of the hire car at the airport is just completely beyond the pale. Okay Ford gave them £15m and a load of Jaguars and Astons, but Bond works for Queen and country, not for the highest bidder, and he is met the airport, not hanging about the Hertz desk while some fat tourists complain about their car not having a/c. So what have we got left? He has a defibrillator in the glove box of his car – old men with inappropriatly young wives have defibs in their glove boxes.

Eva Green is pretty easy on the eye, but her real name is better than her Bond name (Vesper Lind sounds like a limited edition chocolate moped (sorry Mr Fleming). Her accent was weird and all over the shop, and her motivation was pretty confused for one supposed to be so bright. And can we not have any more Bond falling in love? Please? Weirdly Lazenby and Rigg managed to pull it off, but really Bond is a swinger at heart and modern girls can get their kicks with them too. This debacle just makes the end of the film drag on and on.

Speaking of the ending, basically wtf! Bond films don’t end like that. They just don’t. I can’t believe I’m not allowed to spoil it for you, but I can take solace in the fact that it spoils itself.

Flags of Our Fathers


Aware of the fact that the “Our” of the title, does not apply to me because I am a limey, and the fact that this was another Spielberg-produced version of WWII, I was expecting the usual visceral action, combined with some rather sad flag waving (no pun intended) as the last victory that Hollywood can celebrate victory is indeed WWII, over 60 years ago. I was pleasantly surprised, Clint has managed to do a great job of retaining directorial integrity and Paul Haggis has managed to make the script reflect the fact that real heroes do not really accept that there is such a thing as a hero.

The film is beautifully shot; using the actual island of Iwo Jima as well as the volcanic backdrop of Iceland makes the battlefield seem of another world, particularly when contrasted with the stadiums that our heroes go on to tour. All of these Spielberg-produced war epics have this fantastic feel to them, with the colours appearing dull, but beautifully rich in the war footage, and with more saturated colour in the modern footage, this time contrasting the world of the past with the present. So the cinematography is not subtle, but it is incredibly effective, even if we are becoming numbed to these incredible action scenes debuted by Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

The cast lacks a particular star. These actors are really character actors, but I mean that very positively. The people involved in this whole story are fairly unremarkable individuals who happened to be in a remarkable place at a remarkable time, therefore the low-key casting is great. Ryan Phillippe continues to as an actor each time I see him onscreen, and Barry Pepper is just the sort of company sergeant that every company needs. All the actors are thoroughly believable and get the tone spot on, but the overall impression is that this is the work of an ensemble rather than a couple of actors dragging the rest of a company along behind them.

The anti-war and heroism motifs are represented with the ever-so-slightly heavy-handed brilliance that has won Clint his directorial Oscars. The film certainly makes a point of questioning exactly why nations go to war and why men do such extraordinary things both for and to their fellow man. And these are worthy, weighty themes that should be explored. But they are also worthy weighty themes to which we need some answers. Yes, indeed, you could say that propaganda wins and loses wars, and we should be aware of the difference between what we should believe and what we are being persuaded to believe, but I think, as we enter this new year, we should be presenting a new honesty to believe in rather than treading the old path that tells us not to believe anything we are told, particularly by politicians or the media. We know that, we know what not to believe, but can’t we have something to believe in instead?

This is a great war movie, as are all the best anti-war movies, and it is superbly executed, but perhaps directors as experienced as Clint Eastwood, writers as talented as Paul Haggis and producers as powerful as Spielberg should be providing us with inspiration to improve the world rather than more reasons to be sceptical and world-weary.

While the cinema is full of familiar stories and studios won’t make a film unless the book has sold a gazillion copies, going to see a Spanish fairytale movie is quite a refreshing change.

Of course fairytales are the oldest stories of the lot, and they are actually jam-packed with clichés, but what people seem to forget is that they can be incredibly dark too. Thankfully the makers of Pan’s Labyrinth have not forgotten this. Within the labyrinth are woodlice the size of my fist and a fairy disguised as praying mantis; even in the real world post Spanish Civil War setting there is a fair bit of gore and wince-making surgery. So this is very much a fairytale for adults and as adults we will have seen the themes (your basic good versus evil) a million times. But it is so refreshing to see this retrodden material handled like this, although there is a slight whiff of the awful Jim Henson Labyrinth; this version is lots darker as well as being more uplifting.

The acting is top-drawer; Sergi Lopez is a stunningly proud and evil Fascist captain while the lowly and invisible Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdu is easily his equal as an actor and in terms of her quietly powerful portrayal of the housekeeper. The only slight disappointment, and it is only a slight disappointment, is the performance of Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, the heroine. In any other film she would have been fine, but this film is so strong on so many levels that her slightly lacking performance does stand out more than it would in a less perfect film.

I don’t really like fantasy – Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter left me cold – but this form of fantasy and the way it mixes insidiously with the real life experiences of the small girl is intriguing and beguiling. And you can bet there isn’t going to be a prequel or a Pan’s Labyrinth II, because this was a film made by filmmakers not moneymakers.

I noticed about a year ago, that there are a whole bunch of phrases that I return to in my head.

“Tony Zammit’s pro-street Sierra”
Caption for a hot-rod model in Street Machine magazine.

“Uncle Buckle-Up”
Road safety promoting cuddly toy adopted as a disguise by “Hannibal” Smith in The A-Team

I’ve just picked up a book which, on the second page, refers to cracking off the chocolate to expose the marshmallow and jam in a teacake. There is no jam in a teacake. Never has been, never will be. This book is a Sunday Times best-seller! You would have thought someone would have pointed out this despicable factual error.

I also seem to remember an error right at the start of J G Farrell’s Singapore Grip and my creative writing tutor starting her novel “I was heading north with the already-hot African sun rising over to my left” (it wasn’t a sci-fi / alternative universe thing either).

Returning to the book of teacake infamy, I now find our heroine “peaking” through a gap in the curtains. COME ON! Even mountaineers don’t “peak” any more – they “summit”. Perhaps she means “peek”…