Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Size does matter


My niece and her husband have a large television screen. When I say large, I mean it’s like having cinemascope in the tv room. I don’t know exactly how large the screen is, but you certainly get a great picture, and watching movies on it is a vast improvement over smaller screens.
Apropos of this screen, we had it on one day when the tv in the kitchen was on as well - it was while we were babysitting the house for the family. Both tvs were tuned to the same channel, but the strange thing was that the kitchen one was a second - or perhaps less - ahead of the large screen. In other words, as words were spoken on the kitchen tv, they would be repeated on the big screen. I could dash from the kitchen to the other room in time to hear the same thing twice. I don’t know what would cause this phenomenon: whether it was that the two tvs were receiving their signals from different aerials, or whether they react at different speeds to the same signal is beyond my knowledge. It was just a strange effect.
When I say I don’t know what the size of the big screen was, it’s because I didn’t ask, or didn’t pay attention when I was told (technical things often miss my long-term memory). It’s possible it was as big as a samsung 61 inch LCD screen - I’d have to check with the owners. Suffice to say, it’s a great way for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t see movies well on a normal screen to watch them.

Bandidas

Bandidas, a movie about a couple of Mexican female bandits, one a spoilt rich girl and the other an uneducated peasant, is surprisingly lots of fun, completely over the top in places, and neatly amusing in others. There are few moments when the film seems to be heading towards a wet-t-shirt-contest type of humour, but it also has better humour in it, and that keeps it from being a waste of time. It’s had a bit of a bad press, and went straight to DVD, virtually, but that was probably unfair on the movie.
Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek comport themselves with plenty of enthusiasm, and Steve Zahn joins in the fun about halfway through. Sam Shepard fills up a cameo role with ease, and the rest of the cast contribute to the general good humour.
The two women in the story decide to join forces after both their fathers are killed by the villainous Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a baddie whose intentions are to swindle everyone in sight. He’s supposedly the agent for a banking group, so the girls begin systematically robbing those particular banks in order to support the peasants who have been robbed of their land. Zahn is the son-in-law (unbeknownst to the girls) of the bank’s chief manager and after being employed by the bank to use his detective skills to chase down the girls, he winds up joining them - after a scene in which he is tied naked to his bed and dealt to by the girls. It could have been a crude scene; somehow Zahn’s face keeps it in from being so.
Finally keep an eye out for the performances from the two horses: they’re a delight, and the scene in which one of them appears to climb a ladder onto a roof must have been done by a stunt horse - there’s no way they’d let the real horse star go through such a dangerous stunt.

Exercise videos

Back in the nineties my wife and I picked up on an exercise video called Oxycise! The cover of the video shows a svelte woman apparently leaping through the air as a result of the exercises. The reality was a bit different: the svelte woman went through 15 minutes of exercise with a disparate group of half a dozen bodies (her parents, husband and next door neighbours - at least that’s what they looked like) and the result should have been that they all improved their flexibility and their posture - as well as losing weight. I don’t know that the system did much for weight loss, but it certainly was good on flexibility and posture, and there are patches of time when I still work through many of the exercises.
So I interested to see a different kind of exercise video/DVD called Yoga Booty Ballet. I kid you not! The basic exercises include modern dance, ballet and yoga for strengthening and ab work. There’s a 60 minute stretch to burn calories - 60 minutes of anything will burn calories. There are hip hop dance steps, a cardio cabaret, a 7-day diet, and something called the Goddess guide (plainly this DVD isn’t geared towards men). Oh, and don’t forget the bonus squishy toning ball.
The focus of the system is that it’s fun. Oxycise couldn’t ever have been classed as fun, but it was good for you. Maybe, if I can get past the ‘Goddess Guide’ my wife and I could have a go at the yoga booty ballet. (Booty?)

Monday, November 26, 2007

TV in Korea

Korean tv isn’t any better than tv anywhere else. Ads are just as mad or bad, game shows are as awful or as good, and soaps are soaps. But there was one difference: last night we watched the latter part of The Lion in Winter, with Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart. (It’s very well done, by the way, and Close is brilliant in an excellent role.) At one point there was an ad break, an ad break to end all ad breaks. It took the form of an infomercial, but don’t ask me what they were selling. There were two utterly enthusiastic presenters, as well as other bodies, and occasional ‘dramatised’ scenes. There was a great deal of banging and crashing of numbers on the screen, and little bell noises as numbers came up. Apparently whatever they were selling was only going to cost 21,000 won.
All this would have been okay if it had been presented once, but it was presented for some eight minutes. It wasn’t just the same thing repeated exactly, but the same material was shuffled and reshuffled until it all became terribly familiar - and mind-bogglingly awful.
On the other hand, this afternoon there’s been a children’s language program on - teaching English to Koreans, and doing it very well.

Three in a row

I spent the night flight from Heathrow to Incheon (Seoul) watching movies, because I couldn’t get to sleep.
First up was the latest in the Oceans saga: yet another complicated piece in which George Clooney and Brad Pitt barely do anything except look pretty. There’s no woman in their team this time; instead the baddie has a chief executive who’s a woman (Ellen Barkin). She gets her comeuppance, of course, as does the baddie. It didn’t help that the engine noise from the plane was a constant background to the soundtrack of the movie, which is one where everybody mumbles a lot. I have no idea what most of the dialogue was about, and it probably didn’t matter. The heist was a typical convoluted affair full of improbabilities. And of course the eleven beat the baddie at his game without blinking an eyelid.
Bruce Willis barely blinks in Live Free or Die Hard either - he doesn’t have time. The body count is high, the stunts (particularly with cars and helicopters and an Air Force bomber) are over the top but magnificent, and the story of course follows the usual pattern. However, there’s a lot of humour (not too much of it directed at recently deceased baddies); a nasty character who manages to fall from a helicopter and survive; various computer hackers who talk in computerese and frequently leave Willis wishing he’d gone to computing school somewhere along the line; an extremely vicious young woman baddie (Maggie Q) who almost beats Willis by using karate against him; and a sidekick played by Justin Long. The sidekick is a computer whiz kid who finishes up being babysat by Willis for most of the film and who finally comes into his own in the last stages. Between babysitting he manages to provide a lot of the humour, a lot of (impossible) computer wizardry, and prove to be a likeable companion. As always all the computer whizzes type like there’s no tomorrow, and the insurance bill for what’s left in the wake of Willis’ doings rises into the billions. The Grapes of Wrath, as you’d expect, is as gloomy as it was when it was made in the late thirties. Henry Fonda gives a performance of considerable surliness, and a few tender moments with his ‘Ma,’ (played with great humanity by Jane Darwell.) John Ford directed it, and it’s wonderfully photographed in black and white. What makes the film still appealing are the performances: Fonda and Darwell are great, but the minor characters have a charm and even eccentricity that’s suitable to the story, and warm-hearted as well.
The distress felt by Oklahoma farmers who are pushed off their land after several years of drought is strongly conveyed, and the difficulty of getting work in California is equally well done. I suspect Steinbeck’s story has been altered somewhat for the movie version - the ‘Reds’ are seen as villains, and for once the Government is a benevolent provider (but only towards the end).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Diamond Anniversaries

In the last week, the Queen has celebrated her Diamond Wedding Anniversary. It was fairly low key, in some respects. The days of huge pomp and ceremony almost seem to be fading.
My own diamond wedding is still a long way off; in fact, my wife and I are only just over halfway there. (Ours will be in 2034!)
The Queen's Anniversary brought out a number of news stories about other couples who were celebrating their Diamond. Two couples were even invited to the Queen's celebration.
One couple that didn't go, but who were written about were the Welsh pair, Gladys and Norman Mason, who met through their mutual love of music; though with her being a soprano and him a bass player, I don't suppose they found much music they could actually perform together.
Of course the writer of the article had to drag out the usual puns: their relationship was hitting the right notes and the rather curious sentence: Norman said their love of music had ensured they stayed in tune with. I don't know whether this is a way they write in Wales, but it seems a slightly shortened sentence to me.
Apparently the Masons got married on the cheap, so it's likely there were no diamond rings (especially any that looked like the one in the picture) on the day. But diamond rings don't a Diamond Anniversary make. Love, music and humour did the trick according to this couple.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Titfield Thunderbolt

My mother used to give me presents, when I was child, of film annuals. They were geared towards kids, and mentioned only movies that kids might likely go to. I used to read them and re-read them until I know most of the articles by heart. And the photographs have stayed with me to this day. (I still have most of the books.)

So it was pleasing the other day to see part of The Titfield Thunderbolt, a movie that was in one of the books from my childhood.

It’s one of Ealing’s lesser comedies, but is amusing all the same. I think the story is about a small railway line that’s under threat because the elderly train isn’t making good time on its trips. (I only saw the second half of the movie, so I have no idea why Stanley Holloway was handcuffed to someone else all the time).

Anyway, one of the real pleasures in seeing the movie was to see the shots from the movie that appeared in the book all those years ago, and to see all those familiar faces from the English movies of that period. The actors who appeared in English movies seemed to come from a fairly small pool: you could count on them appearing over and over again. (It's one of the few films I've seen Naunton Wayne appear in, apart from The Lady Vanishes.)

Long post on movies

Yesterday was a bitzer movie day. I managed to miss the beginning of a British wartime film that had everybody and his brother in it so that the second half seemed a bit odd; I missed bits and pieces (and the ending) of The Children’s Hour, that film about lesbians that isn’t a film about lesbians; and then I saw almost all of The Talented Mr Ripley, which seemed to be a film that wasn’t quite sure what it was saying: it was almost a film about gays that wasn’t about gays.

The British movies was The Way Ahead, originally made as a training film. In it, a bunch of ordinary blokes from various backgrounds are gradually given the chance to pull together as a unit. It has a very odd ending, in which the remaining members of the group walk through the smoke of battle into….? Well, we’re not quite sure. Are they about to be shot? Who knows. Anyway, the best bit of the movie was when the troop ship they were on was torpedoed. The fire on board and the hoisting over the side of army vehicles was very well done. (The only peculiar thing about it was that the captain of the ship that rescued them was presented as a bodiless voice, speaking in a way that sounded like he wasn’t actually watching the movie, but was sitting in a studio somewhere reading his lines on cue.)

David Niven played David Niven; Peter Ustinov played a strange innkeeper; everybody else who was available at the time (even Trevor Howard in a brief uncredited role that was his first in movies) appeared: Stanley Holloway, James Donald, John Laurie, Leslie Dwyer, Hugh Burden, William Hartnell, and so on. Carol Reed directed, and Eric Ambler and Ustinov apparently wrote the script.

Seemingly the film was still being used for training (in Australia) two or three decades later. Good grief.

The Children’s Hour had a talented cast: Audrey Hepburn (not being whimsical for the most part), Shirley MacLaine (not being in the least bit daffy), James Garner (being very earnest) and Fay Bainter. Miriam Hopkins, who played the MacLaine role in the earlier version of the movie, also appeared.

William Wyler directed it in an earnest fashion too. Because of the climate of the times, the subject matter was more obvious than it had even been allowed to be in the earlier version, but it was still skirted around a good deal. John Michael Hayes, who wrote some of Hitchcock’s great films, was the scriptwriter, but he seemed hampered somehow. The whole thing had an air of keeping-things-steady, as though no one quite wanted it to get too passionate.

Karen Balkin played the nasty little girl who causes most of the trouble. It would be interesting to know what happened to her. She made only three movies and then seems to have vanished. Even the IMDB.com site has no information. (There’s a Karen Balkin who’s edited or written a number of non-fiction titles listed on Amazon. Could it be the same person?)

And finally to Mr Ripley.

What is it about Matt Damon? I don’t much like him in the Bourne films, even though he’s regarded as highly bankable by the producers. He seems to have a dullness about him that allows no subtlety to come through. It’s the same in Ripley. Sure, the character is a mystery, and is a more interesting character than Bourne, but we’d like to know a bit more about why he does what he does, and to have some idea of what’s going on in his head. My suspicion is that neither the scriptwriter nor the director nor Damon himself knew. The result is a film with a bit mystery in the middle and it’s not related to a whodunit.

Personally I think he’s miscast. And would anybody mistake him for Jude Law? Yet we’re expected to believe this for much of the second half of the movie. Changing your fringe from one side of your forehead to the other doesn’t really do the trick.

Jude Law is excellent. His character is meant to be over the top, vicious, mean, sunny, optimistic, hedonistic and various other things, and Law shifts from one to the other without blinking an eye. He’s the best thing in the movie, and when he’s murdered, the film starts to slumber.

Gwyneth Paltrow gets another one of those odd roles that doesn’t really give her the chance to do anything. Certainly she has some emotional moments, but she never affects the course of the action. She’s just there. Equally Cate Blanchett seems wasted in a role that doesn’t make any sense. By the time Damon has explained that he’s not Law but himself, (or is it the other way around?), the audience has completely lost it. You begin to think: oh for goodness sake, give it up. Nope, the whole thing is dragged on for another sequence at the end which seems just an excuse for another murder, one which in this case seems pointless.

Lastly, Philip Seymour Hoffman breaks into the movie at odd points, like a fart in polite society. His demise is another loss to the film’s momentum.

And then there’s all the hedging around the homosexual stuff. Being a superstar, Matt Damon can’t be shown to be a homosexual, so it’s all hints, and hard work. Jack Davenport, who plays a gay character, has to circle around Damon over and over to show that there’s actually something going on.

It all seems as though Anthony Minghella, who directed the movie, wanted to back off from anything that would involve his audience too deeply. I found The English Patient the same. And now I see he’s just directed The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I don’t think I’ll be going to see it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zathura: a Space Adventure

Based on the same pemise as Jumanji, this could have been merely a remake. Instead, Zathura is more focused, has far fewer characters, and adds a couple of twists that are reasonably pleasing in terms of plot.
The two boys play their parts effectively, overall. Jonah Bobo is a gift to a director who can get the right expressions at the right time, and for the most part that’s what happens. Twelve-year-old Josh Hutcherson shows his years of experience in tv and a few movies to give some depth to the older brother, a nasty sniping character who hates his little brother, supposedly because he broke up his parents.
There’s a third sibling, played by Kristen Stewart, but she spends a good deal of her time frozen, and doesn’t get much chance to add anything to the plot (except a rather nice line towards the end that most kids won’t pick up).
Tim Robbins appears briefly at the beginning as the father, a man who’s distracted by something whether it’s his work, or his failed marriage, or his inability to communicate satisfactorily with his children we never really discover. He’s gone within ten minutes, and it’s a bit of a surprise that someone of Robbins’ stature should play such a minimal part.
It’s left to Dax Shepard to add the only other adult voice of reason – and even he doesn’t appear until well into the movie. Shepard is touted as a comedian par excellence, but he plays this role fairly straight.
The CGI is top quality, and the visual effects splendid. They don’t dominate, however, which is a good thing. The story about people who’ve got themselves into a corner and have to dig their way out is kept to the fore.
And did I mention the almost total destruction of the house? It’s a bit of a surprise that there’s anything left by the end.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dealing with Dawkins

Logan Paul Gage, policy analyst, Discovery Institute writes in Books and Culture, in an article entitled Deconstructing Dawkins (relating to Alister McGrath's book, The Dawkins' Delusion, which in turn challenges Dawkin's The God Delusion.)

To see why Darwinism and theism are incompatible, consider random mutations and natural selection—the two elements of modern Darwinian theory. Random mutations are, well, random. By definition, random mutations are unguided. "Mutations are simply errors in DNA replication," according to University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. "The chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful." If a mutation is harmful, the organism with the mutation will leave fewer offspring; but if the mutation is beneficial for reproduction, the mutated gene will be passed to many offspring. This is the "natural" selection part. Theistic Darwinists claim that this process creates life's diversity and is also "used" by God.

While theists can have a variety of legitimate views on life's evolution, surely they must maintain that the process involves intelligence. So the question is: Can an intelligent being use random mutations and natural selection to create? No. This is not a theological problem; it is a logical one. The words random and natural are meant to exclude intelligence. If God guides which mutations happen, the mutations are not random; if God chooses which organisms survive so as to guide life's evolution, the selection is intelligent rather than natural.

Theistic Darwinists maintain that God was "intimately involved" in creation, to use Francis Collins's words. But they also think life developed via genuinely random mutations and genuinely natural selection. Yet they never explain what God is doing in this process. Perhaps there is still room for him to start the whole thing off, but this abandons theism for deism.

Non-invasive

One of breakthroughs in modern surgery has been the use of laparoscopic techniques. This is where one or more small incisions are made in the body and all the work is done through those incisions, whether it’s the use of a miniature camera or the insertion of an inflatable adjustable gastric band (as in houston lapband surgery).

My wife has had at least one bout of surgery done in this way, and it’s so much less invasive. The ‘secret,’ as it were, is in the plasticity of the skin, which stretches conveniently as required. Laparoscopy cuts down on damage to the surface of the skin, on healing times, and often allows patients to have what used to be major surgery done in one day. And you’re home in your own bed at night.

I’m not a great fan of surgery myself, and having over the years seen the huge scars left by major surgery (I went to visit a patient who was a relative stranger to me one day, after he’d had heart surgery, and he pulled open his pyjama top and showed me how one side of his front appeared to have been folded over the other, just like a coat) I’m not keen to have it either. But laparoscopy might be survivable.

For those who wonder what lapband (or lap-band) surgery is, it’s similar to stomach stapling, but again, it’s a lot less invasive. And apparently it’s reversible. Good news for those considering stomach-stapling but not keen on all the cutting and tying that’s usually needed.

Hamsters? Nah.

I wrote about the movie, Ratatouille, the other day, but it hasn’t endeared me to rats as pets I must say. (I originally mistyped ‘rats as poets’ – can’t say that would endear me to them either.)

Another rodent that frequently turns up as a pet is a hamster. I can never understand why people like hamsters as pets. They seem to do nothing but eat, and their response to the human beings around them seems to be nil. Hamsters live in a little hamster world that appears to me to be blinkered to other life forms.

The same goes for guinea pigs. What is their attraction? I need an animal that knows I exist, even if it can’t talk to me in English.

Being creative

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t tend to mention sport on this blog – much. (I’ve only written about basketball and rugby and possibly a few other suchlike.)

So writing about soccer on here is a bit of a surprise to me. Particularly as it isn’t likely to be related to opera or music, for instance, or to the arts in general. But it’s always a challenge to see if there is a connection, and the first connection I found was a bit of a cheat: it related to soccer and opera – but the opera browser, rather than opera with music.

Of course there’s this connection: soccer made Pavarotti a superstar. Yes, I can remember it doing exactly that when his version of Nessun Dorma was played over shots of the FIFA World Cup back in 1990. Honestly, who had heard of Pavarotti before that – except those opera buffs who would obviously know? Pavarotti went from soccer to the Three Tenors and never looked back.

And finally, (out of a surprising number of choices) there’s opera in a different sense again: David Beckham and soccer soap opera.

Don’t ya jus’ luv the Web? It’s so creative-making?!?!

Missing - oh, dear!

I see on the news that someone in Britain has lost two disks containing the details of 25 million persons’ private information, stuff that the Government has on storage. I presume that they’ve ‘only’ lost two disks, rather than having lost all the information, which is rather how the news likes to frame it. One assumes that no one would have such an amount of information solely on two disks.

Seemingly the disks were supposed to go somewhere in an internal post system, and managed to sail off into the wide blue yonder. Huge fears that cyber-hackers will get hold of it all and will start making horrendous use of all the info. More likely the disks will be sitting in the Post Office’s address unknown office (in Ireland, I think) and will be dealt with when all the other bits of lost postal items are dealt with. Or else they’ll be received by some decidedly non-hacking type of person - an old age pensioner, for instance – who will take one look at them, decide they’re junk mail, and toss them in the bin.

What reminded me of this news story was noticing that Martin Worldwide, the list brokers, have over 290 million consumers and 14 million U.S. businesses on their system. And that’s just so other people can send them direct marketing info. By contrast, the 25 million names lost in the post seem rather tame.

Treasure hunt

Having been using a GPS to get ourselves around the UK while we’re here, and having successfully negotiated all manner of routes without getting completely lost, and having gained confidence through having the GPS with us, I’m almost tempted to take up the challenge of doing a bit of geocaching. This is where you use GPS coordinates to find a ‘treasure’. It may not be a treasure in the sense of pirate treasure, or long lost treasure, but it will be something that’s worth chasing. Even if it’s only for the fun of doing it.

I note on the official geocaching site that there’s even a cache in Mosgiel, the smallish town near the city I live in, in New Zealand. They say that the treasure in this case is as follows: This is the original cache type consisting, at a bare minimum, a container and a log book. Normally you'll find a Tupperware container, ammo box, or bucket filled with goodies, or smaller container ("micro cache") too small to contain items except for a log book.

Tupperware and treasure in the same paragraph? (Though apparently the Queen even uses Tupperware at the royal breakfast table…!)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Pianist

I meant to mention that I watched The Pianist on DVD the other night. What a `grim piece, and how draining it was to watch.
It concerns a Jewish family in Poland who, along with thousands of other Jews are rounded up and sent off to the death camps. The pianist only escapes because he is hauled out of the crowd by a soldier who has become a policeman in order to escape death himself. After that he is on the run, gets caught up in a gang of Jewish prisoners who are made to build for the Germans, escapes again and is helped by an artistic couple, and finally is left to his own devices when his helpers are arrested, or vanish. In his last desperate days he is briefly befriended by a German officer, who, in return for hearing him play (on a grand piano that happens very conveniently to be in the house the pianist has hidden in) brings him some food, and stops him from being discovered by the other officers.
The film is full of brutal moments, sudden and unexpected deaths, dreadful beatings, utter cruelty on behalf of the Germans, corpses and the awfulness of starvation. At times it’s barely watchable. It’s beautifully photographed (by Pawel Edelman), and superbly directed. The cast, a real mix of nationalities, is uniformly good. Adrien Brophy may play on his skinny face a little too much, but he conveys well the despair of an artist, a man who would much sooner get on an play the piano than anything else.
It seems an odd choice for Roman Polanski to direct, though his own background is reflected in some of the events in the movie. I can’t say it’s a movie I’d like to see again: it’s too long, and in that curious way that audiences have of losing empathy with screen characters, we get a little tired of the lengthy stretch of time after Brody is forced to live on his own.
One curious thing about the movie is why an actor, Thomas Kretschmann, who doesn’t appear until something like the last quarter an hour of a 150 minute movie, gets second billing.

Rare coins

One of my brothers-in-law is a collector, even more so now that he’s less mobile. He has DVDs, CDs, miniature clocks, cameras, various other things - and the cutest little dog on the earth. (He acts like a fur collar when he lies on the windowsill behind your head - the dog, I mean, not my brother-in-law.)
Collecting must be a kind of natural facet of our natures: the number of human beings who collect things must be well into the millions, if not billions. I’ve had the collecting bug myself at times, from that old standby, stamp collecting, to the books of various authors (we have all the Dick Francis books, for instance). I find that after a while I get a bit obsessive about collecting, and have to pull back from it before I go crazy - or other members of my family do!
There was a bit of a crazy moment in New Zealand a while ago when it was discovered that a particular coin that might be in the possession of any and every member of the public was actually quite rare. Of course when I looked I didn’t have any of the coins, but I’ve often passed shops that advertise themselves as coin dealers and wondered about what coins are worth collecting and what are not. Like the stamp dealer, a coin dealer has to have a world of information at his fingertips. He can’t just focus on particular areas of coin collecting: he has to be a jack of all trades.
A true coin collector should focus on quality, not quantity. Chasing the elusive rare coin, and being patient until you can acquire it, is better than collecting everything in sight. Having a bit of money up your sleeve in the first place helps too!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chicago

Chicago the movie disappointed me on a number of counts. Never having seen the musical on stage I don’t have any idea how it’s performed there (though I believe the original version was quite different in approach to the later revival in the 90s) so I can’t tell whether it’s the film’s tone or what that didn’t appeal.

The characters are very hard to warm to. Even the cuckolded husband, living as he does in the middle of a bunch of rogues and self-seekers, doesn’t quite call for our empathy, although he’s the only who might. Renee Zellweger loses our sympathy from round about her third scene, and never regains it; Catherine Zeta-Jones doesn’t fare much better, and Richard Gere’s character never comes close to getting it.

And the story seems something of a mish-mash, at least in this version. I’m told that younger cinemagoers don’t like people suddenly bursting into song. I find this hard to believe. Even if The Sound of Music wasn’t still one of the most popular movies in the world, Grease must still be counted amongst younger people as a movie they love. In both of these people burst into song without so much as a by-your-leave, and no one flees the theatre. And MTV is so popular it has its own channel.

Supposedly Moulin Rouge revived audience’s interest in film musicals. If it did, I’d be surprised: I still find it one of the most annoying movies ever made. The constant cutting from shot to shot as though the editor (or the director) was on speed, becomes so irritating that the film is almost impossible to watch.

Chicago, at least in that respect, is better. The fast cutting is there, but not quite on the same manic level as Moulin Rouge. Here at least you can usually get an idea of what the choreography is about; in Moulin Rouge you had no means of doing so.

But to get back to the story: to me there didn’t seem to be a connection between the songs and the story, except insofar as the songs merely restated what the story had already told us, or only added another dimension. They never carried the thing forward in any way.

Some reviewers suggest that the musical side is seen through Zellweger’s eyes, with her imagining her life as a stage presentation. But if that’s the case, how is it that Zeta-Jones begins the film with All That Jazz, a song that has nothing to do with anything else? Furthermore, at that point, Zeta-Jones is supposed to be in jail for having murdered her sister and husband. Why would she be doing a song in a nightclub?

The opening scenes (apart from All That Jazz itself) have a realistic element to them. But after Zellweger has shot her boyfriend, they go off into this half-story, half-musical hybrid that to me never coalesces. Certainly in movie terms the two intertwine very nicely, but it’s a kind of so what?

Zellweger (apart from her perennial pout) is great in the movie, and does the singing and dancing with great skill. Likewise Zeta-Jones. Gere never seems quite as much at home here as he is in Shall We Dance? where his dancing works. He’s no singer, and sounds thin, and the tapdancing scene is dire. (And again, means nothing.)

The costumes go from skimpy to less-than-skimpy. Maybe that’s meant to distract us from the fact that the rest of it is pretty skimpy too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Quoting The Times

Married six times (it never fails to amaze me how many women are happy to shack up with women-hating men) to the ‘low, sloppy beasts’ – his description of the gender to Orson Welles – he stabbed the second, Adeles Morales, at a party, nearly fatally. ‘A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul,’ he announced in a 1972 speech to the University of California. Like many significant male creative figures of the past century – Picasso, D H Lawrence, Jean-Luc Godard, Eugene O’Neill, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, etc, etc – his work, and his life, were fuelled by an anger towards (and its usual corollary, fascinated mythologizing of) women. For Mailer, as for a lot of these men, authenticity was about masculinity – to be an artist meant to be a rebel, to be difficult and raging and driven, and that energy, although often directed at class, or convention, or artistic orthodoxy, always, via an association of marriage and monogamy and imprisonment, ended up also directed at women.

David Baddiel in The Times, Nov 17, 2007, in an article on Norman Mailer.

[Noel Coward] lived in an age when fame fell like a warm cloak on to the shoulders of those who had dazzled theatre audiences, or readers of fiction, or cinemagoers, or art lovers. It was a time before celebrity had become a commodity that you settle for when you don’t have enough talent for success.


Joe Joseph in The Times, Nov 17, 2007, in a review of Coward’s Letters.

Lapping up luxury

I’m not one for thinking that there’s something great about luxury homes. They always seem to me to require an awful lot of work to keep them looking brand spanking. It’s the same with those houses in Home and Garden type magazines. They never looked lived in. You try and match up the happy couple standing smiling in the photo with the home that’s splashed across the pages, and you think: who does all the work? Who wipes all these glass surfaces and keeps them shiny? Where are the books these people read? Where are the children’s toys, or the grandchildren’s toys? Everything seems hidden away as though any minute someone from Location, Location was going to appear and film the whole thing.

I don’t mind living in a luxury home for a week or so. That’s about as long as I can stand in terms of tripping carefully around the various ornaments that we know are next to priceless, or avoiding soiling the rugs, or sitting too hard on a chair, or scratching the glass tabletop, or knocking one of the valuable pictures off the wall.

I’m sure real people live in luxury homes. And no doubt they have several servants running after them cleaning up. But keeping a luxury home luxurious seems to me to be a task beyond the necessary.

Winning and losing

There’s a television game over here in the UK that’s very popular apparently (one of the many). It’s called Deal or No Deal and involves someone out of a group coming up to the presenter with their numbered box and then trying to guess which of the other boxes holds the big prize. Gradually the boxes are whittled away and often so is the prize money.

There was an elderly guy on it the other night, and his wife was in the audience. She made the mistake at one point of saying, It’s just a game,’ and the presenter picked up on this, and had her on for the rest of the night. The trouble was, she obviously didn’t believe what she said: the worse her husband did, the more her face fell, and when he lost out badly in the end, in spite of repeating her mantra, she was obviously unhappy with his choices.

I’m told that the daughter of a friend of my in-laws has recently been on it too, and when she was offered £20,000 by the Banker (a mysterious personality who never appears, but rings up every so often) she turned it down, hoping for some bigger prize. In the end she wound up with one penny.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Just a smidgen

I’d never thought of the word, smidgen, as being anything but genuine, but another blogger found out only recently that it was in the dictionaries, and even acceptable by spellcheckers. (Incidentally, blogger itself isn’t acceptable according to the program I’m using here, and spellcheckers isn't accepted by Blogger.)

This blogger uses it in the cooking sense: putting in a smidgen of flour, or salt, or whatever. I’ve probably used it more in the expression: Just a smidgen, as when someone asks me how much sugar I want in my tea, or do I want some more hair cut off, or whether something is too long.

Having discussed smidgen, we now discover that there is a word, smidge, as well. Both may derive from the Scots word, smitch, which means a very small amount, or an insignificant person.

Well, next time I’m feeling particularly abashed, I may describe myself as a smitch.

Various holidays

In NZ we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, not because we have nothing to be thankful about, but because it isn’t one of our history.

Quite apart from that the date is too close to Christmas, and because Christmas and the annual summer holidays all tend to run together in NZ, that time of year is already a big one in terms of ‘celebration.’

As it happens we don’t have any public holidays between Labour Day on the 22nd of October and Christmas. So by the time Christmas comes we’re really ready for days off.

I see that the US, however, has Veterans’ Day on the 12th November, and then Thanksgiving only ten days later. A bit of a clutter in that month.

In Spain they have yet another holiday in that period: 1st November is All Saints’ Day, 6th December is Constitution Day and 8th December is Immaculate Conception Day. Three holidays in December. That’s a bit over the top.

Of course in NZ we have Christmas Day and Boxing Day as statutory holidays, and then a week later New Year’s Day and the Day-After-New-Year’s Day, which apparently doesn’t have a name even though it’s a public holiday. These four make up for our lack of holidays in the previous couple of months, and also ensure that we get over the Christmas rush.

The choice of coffee

For a number of years I would regularly visit the coffee bar next to my shop and have an espresso. And then one day, I went in and asked for one, and the girl (a new girl, who didn’t have any history of the shop and customers behind her) told me that they didn’t do espressos anymore as I was the only person who ever drank them!

I couldn’t believe it, but had no choice but to accept it.

Since then I’ve tended to drink cappuccinos, although I expect there are still espresso machines around – if I wanted to find them.

A friend and I would get together at 11 am every Friday for quite a long time (until my job situation changed) and we always went to a particular café where, he claimed, the best cappuccinos and the best-priced cappuccinos were served. And certainly they were good – though whether it was because we often had one of their baked-on-the-premises cakes or biscuits as well that made a difference, I don’t know.

Anyway, while on my Continental touring, with my wife, I tended to stick to cappuccinos. My taste for espressos is now a thing of the past.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Money In, Money Out

I’m looking forward to getting back to NZ and having some regular income again. Not that we’ve been exactly short of money (although our English bank account is at its all-time low) but you get to the point where you think it’s better to have money coming in rather than having it all going out. I think our holiday over here has cost us rather more than we intended, so I’ll have a couple of bills to pay when I get home. But at least we haven’t had to borrow to keep ourselves afloat – we didn’t even have to do that when I was out of work (though of course we were having to use some of our savings, which was a nuisance).

I see that you can get what they call payday loans now. These are supposed to be loans that tide you over from one payday to the next; they’re intended to be paid back as soon as possible. But the trouble with such loans is that they have a tendency, once they’re in your financial ‘system’ to linger longer than you’d like. I know this from past experience; loans are always a nuisance in the long run, unless you’re a very organised budget person!

Ratatouille


Finally caught up with the movie, Ratatouille, at the cinema. We’d been going to see it in London, but missed the showing. However, it was on in Northampton, when we got there, so along with twenty other people we went to see it.

I think my only criticism of it is that it isn’t particularly funny – certainly not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s entertaining, and the storyline is fine, and there’s quite a bit of subtle humour, but you never kind of get caught up in a great laugh at any time.

That aside, the animation is brilliant, and the story takes a rather strange idea and manages to deal with its problems successfully. A rat who’s a self-taught cook? And who’s ability in the kitchen surpasses most other cooks? Okay. It’s totally improbable, but you manage to suspend belief and let it happen.

Overall, though, the thing that impressed was the technical excellence of the movie. The characters are wonderfully drawn, even those who exist primarily as caricatures. The backgrounds have a depth and warmth not always seen in modern animation, and the cast voicing the characters are top notch too.

I missed seeing most of the actors’ names when the credits were rolling, and didn’t realise Peter O’Toole had played the nasty food critic, Anton Ego. Janeane Garofalo, an actress I enjoy seeing in movies (but haven’t very often) played the only female cook in the kitchen, and someone called Patton Oswalt was the main character, Remy. I don’t know Oswalt’s name but he’s obviously done a lot of voicing for tv. Lou Romano, who plays the boy who pretends he’s a cook, is another actor who’s known more as a vocal artist than one who’s ‘seen.’ The gyrations his character goes through in the movie probably provide the biggest laughs.

I’d like to get a copy of the movie on DVD in due course: it’s one that would repay watching again, I think, to catch up with the details.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

In the eye of the beholder

While we were on the Continent, we had the experience of seeing many luxury homes; mostly from the outside. On the bus tour we took in Hamburg, we went around streets where the homes had once had gardens rolling down to the water. In Barcelona we stayed in what was basically a luxury apartment – we were scared to touch anything much in case we broke something.

And in Luxembourg we stayed in what I would class as a luxury home – except that the people living there don’t see it as such.

Up to a point, luxury is in the eye of the beholder. The homes that the National Trust now administer in England are certainly luxurious, but where’s the luxury in having to have dozens of servants to keep the place clean? Even if you do pay them a pittance.

It’s the same with the house in Luxembourg: it’s so large it’s too much for the owners, and they have to get someone in to clean.

It rather takes the edge off the luxury, to my way of thinking, if you have to employ someone to clean up after you. Think I’ll stick with the home I’ve got - which we can manage to keep up by ourselves.

Extend your range by an OCTAVE!

Clicking on one of those little Google ads today – it claimed to be able to add an octave to a singer’s vocal range – I came across Brett Manning’s site, and his ad for helping young singers.

The ad is written in that typical direct marketing style – the same sort of style that once ‘helped’ thousands of men to respond to the ad for becoming a man with muscles, instead of being the bloke who had sand kicked in his face.

You read through the ad and think: there’s no way anyone can ad an octave to their voice, especially not after a couple of lessons. But Manning is talking primarily to singers in the pop world rather than the operatic one. He talks about overcoming the singer’s ‘break’ – that point in the voice when you seem to have to switch from one kind of tone to another – and he says he’s not interested in helping classical singers. That isn’t his kettle of fish. He teaches people how to avoid fatigue with singing, amongst other things.

So you get the feeling that maybe this is all a bit of a have, and that the ad isn’t really going to change anyone’s singing career all that much. That’s if you only read the ad.

If you go to Brett’s site, or check out his name on the Web, you’ll find that there are plenty of people out there claiming he can do exactly what he says, and that he has done, for hundreds of recording artists.

It’ll cost you US$199 to find out whether what he claims is true. (Though he does offer a six-month money back guarantee.) He says he spent thousands learning all the ‘secrets’ from some old guru of a singing teacher. Why are there always ‘secrets’ in these ads? They seldom turn out to be secrets at all. It’s just that ‘secrets’ is a kind of magic word in direct marketing.

Could be interesting to try, nevertheless, when I’ve got a spare $199.

The thing that intrigues me about the site, however, is the picture of Brett Manning. He looks like a 24-year-old, yet he’s supposed to have been teaching for a decade – and was learning for years before that. Maybe the photos haven’t quite been updated?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Exclusive Malls

When we were in London the other night we came across two long malls - of the old-fashioned kind, where there are little shops along both sides of a long covered alleyway. These malls have probably been there since the days when they weren’t covered in and there were hawkers working down both sides. These days, of course, they have nothing but exclusive shops, the sorts of places where only those with plenty of moolah go. There were even commissionaires (black gentlemen, in this instance) dressed up in uniforms with top hats.
The shops sell all sorts of luxury items: expensive ties, waistcoats, cufflinks (starting at £100 a pair), things like a pearl necklace with dozens of pearls, the sort that hangs so long the wearer has to tie it up in a knot. The longer the better, no doubt. There was a shop just focusing on clothes for playing polo (with a marvellous statuette of a horse and rider), there were shops with jewellery that you knew contained several dozen diamonds and probably a variety of other lesser jewels.
I kept expecting to see some famous movie star wandering down there, but was disappointed. Maybe it was the wrong time of day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jephtha by Handel

I think I may have spelt the name of this oratorio wrongly in a recent post on my other blog. One of the difficulties of travelling and typing: you don’t always get a chance to check the details.
Anyway, as I mentioned elsewhere it was being rehearsed when we came across it. The group performing it were the Orlando Choir, a group which specialises in baroque music. The only soloist we heard rehearse was a youngish man called Alexander Ashworth, a bass-baritone. He has a fine and fluid voice, and sang in a remarkably relaxed style.
The choir was also dealing with Handel’s constant runs and scales with ease, and also with the fugues that permeate his works. This is another amateur choir - amateur here in London doesn’t mean that the work will be done in a slapdash fashion, or done without professionalism and skill. The Orlando, the BBC, the Philharmonia, the Crouch End and the Trinity boys’ choirs were all remarkable in their professionalism, even though, as far as I can tell, these people don’t actually sing for a living. (Though the boys’ choir has done so many concerts and tours that they might as well - can’t imagine when they get their schoolwork done.)
The conductor - a very relaxed fellow, too - was James Weeks. I don’t know how old he is, but he didn’t seem to be more than in his early thirties. Hang on, he was born in 1978, so that makes only 29. Apparently he has at least thirty hours in the day, because apart from conducting the Orlando, he conducts another choir - the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble; he freelances with other choirs, he plays the organ, he writes on organists and contemporary music - and he composes. Crikey.

John Foulds' A World Requiem


Last night we went to hear A World Requiem, by John Foulds. This hasn’t been performed since 1926 and the revival of it for Remembrance Day was very apt. It was first performed back in 1923, with Foulds himself conducting and his wife leading the orchestra (plus a choir of 1250 people) and it became a feature of Remembrance Day ‘celebrations’ for the next four years. And then it was dropped and vanished from sight. Foulds himself has virtually vanished as a composer, although he was prolific and popular in his day. I suspect his time has come again.
Anyway, the piece was presented at the Albert Hall with the BBC Orchestra and three adult choirs - totalling some 350 people - and a boys’ choir: the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus, and the Trinity Boys’Choir. Alongside these there were three groups of trumpeters and drummers playing at the back and sides of the hall at one point, and four soloists (the soprano, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, the mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the tenor, Stuart Skelton and the baritone Gerald Finley).
Unfortunately, from where we were, we couldn’t hear the soloists (especially the tenor and soprano) so well, and they sounded as though they were being swamped by the orchestra. I think it was just our situation in the hall that caused this effect. However we were in the right place to hear the boys’ choir, which started off in the top level of the hall (along with the soprano, a celesta player, two harpists and some strings). They were right opposite our seat. The trumpets and drummers were likewise just on the level above us and visible to us. Many of the people in the hall would have had quite a different experience of their sound.
I don’t think I’ve come across a piece of music that uses a celesta so often - it always accompanies the boys’ choir in the first half of the music, and then, when that choir, along with its accompanying instruments (and the soprano) all come down onto the stage for the second half, it plays in almost every section that follows. The two harps get a fair amount of work as well.
The piece is by degrees slow and funereal, frantic and overwhelming, subtle and sweet. An organ often adds a huge depth to what goes on in the orchestra as well. It’s not easy to pinpoint Foulds’ approach: the program talks about minimalism and the use of quarter-tones. In neither of these areas can he be regarded as anything too way out: there are quarter-tones audible at times, but they’re fairly scattered in a long score. And minimalism comes in the sense that Foulds uses musical phrases almost in an ostinato approach, building up across the orchestra. Equally, some of the singers’ music revolves around short repeated phrases, but there isn’t that sense of ‘I’m trying to drive you mad’ that you get with later minimalists. Foulds might more be said to be being economic with his material. Furthermore, it means that the listener can grasp things reasonably readily, because certain phrases become indented in the listener’s mind through the repetition.
The libretto is a collage of Biblical texts and peace-focused writing (even a bit of Hindu Sanskrit, apparently - Foulds had a great interest in Indian music), and comes across as the work of a believer. Seemingly he was seriously into Theosophy (his wife had introduced him to it) and the ‘occult’. In his case, however, ‘occult’ meant more that he felt there was a true spiritual element to music, and that it could affect people in ways that the other arts couldn’t.
Anyway, it was an experience to be at the presentation of a piece that hasn’t been heard for so long - and even better, it was being recorded for posterity. The CD(s) come out next year.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Making money?


The first piece I ever wrote and had published (and got paid for) was on casinos and the effects they have on a city. At that time our city didn’t have a casino and one was being planned. I wrote, using some information from the Australian experience of casinos, that I didn’t think it was a good idea for the town. While my piece was lauded it made no difference to the casinos, nor to those who gave them their licence. Casinos are a drawcard for tourists, we’re told, and every city should have one.
Well, tourists may well go to casinos, but the people who inhabit them mostly are locals, and a good number of those are people who can ill afford to lose their money day after day. Certainly there are big spenders in town, particularly people from the Asian community, people who have plenty of money and for whom losses at the casinos are no big deal.
One of my daughters worked for the casino for some time. The interesting thing is how much the staff were scrutinised. It wasn’t the customers - some of whom got themselves into considerable strife - but the staff who were made to feel like suspects at all times.
Maybe I’m biased about casinos. Certainly there’s a huge number of people out there who find gambling and gaming a fascinating thing to be involved in. On a typical site that’s primarily for online poker you can also check out some of the best gambling sites in the States, rather than just surfing for whatever turns up. It tells you about the bonuses you can pick up by joining the various sites, what the player ratings are, and it adds a short review of each site to give you an idea of its potential.
Check the site out if you’re into gambling. But you have been warned!

Friday, November 09, 2007

My office(s)

Sometimes readers like to know a bit more about the people who are writing to them, for example, what their office furniture is like.
At present I’m typing this at a kitchen breakfast bar, because I need the laptop to be close to a plug to keep it charging. But otherwise, while I’m in this house in the UK, I tend to work in someone else’s office, where there’s a proper computer desk, a proper swivel chair, and a fridge for the drinks.
Normally, back home in NZ, my office is a little different. The desk the computer sits on is an old office desk whose origins are unknown. Suffice to say it’s scratched and well used, and the drawers have sticky bits on the bottom. The drawers are full of everything that doesn’t fit elsewhere, and is small enough not to make the drawers unopenable.
The chair will be one of two sets of chairs we have around the house; it may depend on how recently we’ve had a load of family in as to whether it’s one of the regular chairs or one of the tall chairs (I prefer the former).
There’s a table for all the accumulated junk: mail, notes, books, bills, statements - you name it. There are at least two bookshelves on the floor, plus another one hanging on the wall. There are plenty of books.
On the desk are the computer, (a PC), two printers (one has been superseded by the other), various wires and cords, bits of paper, dust, and coffee cup stains.
Hanging on the window is one of my wife’s stained-glass decorations.
In the corner is a CD player, and there are two lots of CD shelving. But because I’m lazy, the same three CDs may play indefinitely. Or else I’ll listen to streaming radio, or the concert program.
There, does that suffice?

Australian music?


I thought I’d check up on what Australian music was, as far as BBM.net’s site is concerned. Here’s what they say (I’ve corrected the spelling mistakes, the double use of the word ‘and’ in one place, and use of fullstops instead of commas (!):
Australian Music is more than just the first season of Survivor. It’s more than just a hot blazing sun and kangaroos. Traditional Australian music is excellent for getting serious with your message, conveying a global way of thinking,. and not taking crap from anybody. Nothing says these 3 things better than the Australian Didgeridoo, a long wooden tube where you purse your lip, blow a raspberry and move your lips around like you’re gargling mouthwash. Regrettably, no composer has yet taken up on an attempt to write serious music that conveys a global way of thinking while not taking crap, as this message appears below the previous one: There are no available products under this category.
BBM.net does provide a wide range of other material, though, and you can even get music for your podcasts, for corporate projects, for powerpoint presentations, and that old favourite: on hold music. Under this category you can currently buy a track called: That Tissue Will Cost You. This is in the genre of country/new age; is slow in tempo, dreamy/inspiring/romantic in mood, and is presented by strings, piano, acoustic guitar. The composer is Mike Bielenberg. [That's him in the photo.] Never heard of him? Well, he’s won Telly Awards, New York Festival Awards. He’s out there, man.

Music for Real Estate

The rather curiously-titled Music for Real Estate is part of BBM.net’s site. It’s a business that provides what might be called musak, though I suspect they’d put themselves at a level above that.
Apropos of that, the worst piece of musak I’ve heard recently was in the Valencia Aquarium grounds in Spain. Actually, the three worst pieces of musak. One was a dreary Celtic style tune played by a wailing violin over piano and guitar, another wandered around in a way that made you wonder if the composer had left his music program to do the work, and the third was so awful I can’t now remember any details. All were maddening.
HSBC Bank also has a piece of piano and orchestra musak it plays if you happen to get stuck waiting on their line. It apparently has only one piece of musak, in fact. We heard it several times through when we rang them from New Zealand before we came to the UK and again the other day when I was inquiring about something.
Anyway, back to Music for Real Estate. I’m not sure how they come by the odd title, but the meaning of it, I think, is to convey that they can provide music suitable to any location you care to name.
This kind of music is also known as needle-drop, stock music or library music. (A friend of mine has composed a couple of CDs of such tracks, and some of them were used in the production of The Magician‘s Nephew that I acted in.) The advantage of this kind of music is that you can literally purchase it, a track at a time, to use in whatever situation you want. Once you’ve paid the fee there are no further ongoing royalties to deal with. Presumably it’s possible you’ll come across ’your’ piece of music elsewhere sometime, but I wouldn’t have thought that was a major issue. The prices seem a bit steep - anything from $29.99 to $59.99 per track - but I guess if you’ve got permanent access to it, that’s not so bad. And if you feel it’s the right piece for your ’real estate’ you can’t really complain.
They have thousands of tracks available, and include one category called Australian. Whatever kind of music can that be? LOL.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Learning Spanish

My brother-in-law has been learning Spanish for some time. He’s been to Spain on several occasions and loves the country. In fact, he and his wife were away in Spain the same time we were there.

I came back from Spain having picked up only a minimal amount of Spanish (hola, mostly), but he’s actually learned quite a bit. He says he doesn’t pick it up quickly because he never learned much about his own language at school, and certainly it helps to have learned other languages if you want to learn a new one.

Amongst the many books he’s got on the subject of Spanish, he has one that takes an approach I think is excellent: it starts off with the words that are the same in both languages – on the page. Then it moves on through a series of lists to show the words that are similar, but have perhaps an E added in Spanish, or some other addition. By the time you’ve gone through several chapters like this, and learned a few additional words that don’t fit into this approach, you’re well on your way to feeling comfortable with the language.

Years ago I had a German course that took the same approach, but unfortunately I lent it to someone and haven’t seen it since. It wasn’t in book form, otherwise I might be able to pick up a secondhand copy. Rather it came to me as a photocopied typescript: I’d read about the author in a newspaper and he sent me a copy himself.

I met up with the person who’d borrowed it a couple of months ago, for the first time in thirty odd years. He says it’s in his garage, but when I was visiting him, his garage was in minor chaos because he was doing some redecorating. Hopefully he’ll find it and let me know, and I might catch up with it again – after all these years.

The Spanish book, by the way, for anyone who’s interested is Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish, by Margarita Madrigal. It has drawings by one Andy Warhol, believe it or not, and was first published back in 1951. It’s still in print, however.

Dreams of being a stuntman

When I was a kid, we used to go to Saturday morning movies. These were specially run for kids, and used to show ancient serials, films made on the cheap. They were great fodder for kids who loved to see what would happen next, and who enoyed plenty of knockabout action.

The boy who lived a couple of houses away from me had a big back yard (he lived in a house built onto the corner shop). One of our kids' games was to make up stagecoaches from the boxes lying around the yard, and copy the cowboy stories, or the cops and robber serials. We’d pretend we were stunt men and would fall off these ‘stagecoaches’ and roll around the ground. In fact, one of my dreams in those days was to be a stuntman. Having seen what they have to put up with since, the dream has faded. Plus I don’t enjoy hurting myself!

I once watched a group of filmmakers shooting a scene for a short film. It was the bit where the main character was supposed to fall headlong down a manhole. The street had been built up, so that instead of sloping, it was flat. A pretend manhole had been built into this ‘street’ and the poor old stuntman spent the afternoon being dropped headfirst down this hole.

I was in a play last year, and actually had my own ‘stuntman’ for one short scene. I was supposed to be dropped into a hole, headfirst, and then had to stand on my head while the animals who’d put me there debated as to what I was. We managed to fool most of the audience most of the time. I’d rush off, chased by the animals, and my stuntman would reappear, still chased. He would be caught and dropped in the hole, and then, when they let him out again, he’d rush back off and I’d rush back on.

In spite of the fact that he’s a couple of inches shorter than me, and has a completely different body build, we got away with this trick night after night. People believe what they to believe.

In the short film, when I eventually saw it, the main character ran down some stairs, out the door and fell headlong into the hole. There was no doubt in the viewer’s mind that he’d fallen into the hole and not someone else.

Good old anonymous stuntmen.

Opera holding hands with Rugby Players?

It isn’t often I’d think of the world of rugby at the same time as the world of opera, but in one area there are distinct similarities.

In the past those playing rugby at the top of their careers were still performing at a relatively low level of stress, on their bodies, on their emotional lives, on their ‘real’ jobs and on the families.

Equally, opera singers tended to live at a much slower pace, many of them living out their working lives in one or two theatres and seldom having to travel.

No more. Both rugby players and opera singers are expected to ‘play’ for longer and longer seasons, and there are penalties on both if they don’t show up for work. Opera singers in particular are expected to travel constantly in order to perform all over the world, and often don’t get the rest that’s needed after long flights. (Even as long ago as the 60s I can remember one jet-lagged opera singer arriving for rehearsal and getting into a real tantrum that was mostly the result of tiredness.)

So it’s probably not surprising that both opera singers and rugby players are turning more and more to drugs in order to maintain their high profiles. Expect to see an increasing number of opera stars requiring drug treatment over the next few years; already it’s becoming a cause of concern. I don’t think rugby players aren’t yet known for drug problems, but it can’t be far away.

Perhaps it’ll be a good thing if the world, because of an oil crisis, has to slow down on flying players – of both sorts – hither, thither and yon. Then we might find these talented people being able to work under less pressure, without having to resort to drugs - and alcohol – to keep them at the top.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

We watched the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape again while we were in Valencia, courtesy of our host’s DVD collection. I hadn’t seen it for some time – think I caught up with in on television once – and was keen to see it again, having had fond memories of its quirky approach and intriguing characters.

Furthermore I remembered that Leonardo di Caprio was very impressive in it. He still is. I don’t know that he’s ever done anything better. Di Caprio, who was only 19 at the time the movie was made, plays a mentally handicapped 18-year-old, and conveys the behaviour of such a person with such ease and assurance that the first time around I thought the actor must have been handicapped himself (not having realized it was di Caprio). Before this, he’d hardly been in movies at all; his acting life was in television in such programmes as Parenthood, Santa Barbara, Growing Pains, and even one episode of Roseanne. After Gilbert Grape he barely looked back, and was a super star within half a decade.

Johnny Depp was thirty when he made the movie, but plays someone who’s presumably in his early twenties. Before this he’d made a number of movies, but apart from one they were nothing to write home about, and he’d had appeared for some time in a tv series called 21 Jump St. The one memorable movie prior to Gilbert Grape was the strange Edward Scissorhands, his first collaboration with Tim Burton. A cartoon story performed by real life actors, it’s an extraordinary piece.

Gilbert Grape is full of scenes that stick in the memory: the husband drowning in a foot-deep paddle pool; di Caprio climbing the water tower; the mother climbing the stairs at the end or coming to rescue her ‘baby’. But a scene I’d forgotten was when the husband, an insurance salesman, tries to sell life insurance to Gilbert, who has just been with his wife, with whom he’s been having a rather one-sided affair. On the whole life insurance, for most of us, doesn’t rank highly on our priorities in life, and it’s the same with Gilbert, who actually thinks he’s seeing the man because the latter knows about the affair. It turns out altogether differently for Gilbert and the audience; like so many scenes in the film things aren’t quite what they seem and take different directions to what we expect.

Lasse Hallström as a director doesn’t usually grab me – his version of The Shipping News was a disaster from my point of view – but in this film he has everything in place. I don’t think he’s ever made another film to equal it.