Monday, July 30, 2012

The wrong sort of build-up?

[Spoilers ahead]

I watched a film starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn a couple of nights ago.  It was called Lovely, Still.  Landau, who's still making movies at 83, made this movie back in 2008, and he looks very old in it even then.  Burstyn is about four years younger, but has aged rather better (or been helped to do so!)

The film, for almost 90% of the time, appears to be a love story between two elderly people who live across the road from each other.  There are one or two odd moments, but nothing to really get our suspicion levels up - or at least, they didn't get mine up, and I'm usually fairly well attuned to hints as to where a film might go.  It has some oddball comedy - nothing too outrageous - and seems as though it's all going to show just how good it is for old people to fall in love.

There are one or two questions, such as why this old man appears never to have been married before (the woman has been) and there's a scene at a Christmas party where the old man behaves more erratically than we might have expected up to that point, and doesn't know a child he obviously should know, but we're kept in the dark about these things.

Why we're fooled by what happens at the end is because the filmmakers have chosen to take an awful long time building up the romance (in fact I was beginning to think the film would have been better as a short), and more importantly, they keep letting us in on scenes that the old man shouldn't know about - in the light of what happens ultimately.   It turns out the old man has Alzheimer's and most of what we've seen during the course of the movie is nonsense.   He's been married to the woman for years; the younger couple aren't a couple but his children, a brother and sister, and presumably most of the rest of it is his imagination.   But looking back on it, this revelation in the last part of the movie is undermined for us because we've seen discussions between the wife and the daughter; we've seen an interview with the son and a prospective employee, and there are other minor things too.  Are we supposed to think that these were imagined by the old man?  If so, it doesn't quite work in the light of the whole movie, and for me this broke the 'pledge' the moviemaker has with his audience.

Some films get away with this: The Sixth Sense does it superbly; when we know the 'secret' we can look back over the movie and everything fits.  In this movie, things don't quite fit, and that's a pity.

Landau (who looks as times as though he's got a spray on tan even though it's winter) and Burstyn are great, and during the time when we're believing in their romance, they convince us entirely.   They hold us during the revelation at the end, too, but it's disappointing, somehow.

To show that I'm not alone in thinking this, here's Scott Foundas on the movie: ...don't even get me started about Lovely, Still—a first feature by 24-year-old directorNik Fackler screening in Toronto's dubiously named "Discovery" section—which can best be described as a very poor man's Away From Her as it might have been directed by a cut-rate M. Night Shyamalan. I realize the fact that this movie turns out to be about Alzheimer's disease is supposed to be a surprise, but any film grotesque enough to use Alzheimer's as a third-act, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you twist deserves to have its beans spilled.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Free movies

Thanks to Vodafone, we now have so much upload/download data available to use each month that we'd barely be able to use it in two months, let alone one.  We've gone from having only 5 gb a month (which we were running over regularly) with Orcon, to 20 gb with Vodafone, which we also began to run over slightly (!), to having 80 gb, which is just far too much.  We'd have to be online watching movies all day long to use it.

Anyway, I do watch the occasional movie online, if it's free.  There's a great site called Open Culture which lists hundreds of free feature-length movies, and shorts, as well as all sorts of other educational programmes.  Some of the older movies aren't much to write home about, to be honest, but there are several of Hitchcock's older movies available, which I've caught up on, such as Jamaica Inn (one of his worst) and Juno and the Paycock.

I discovered the other night that there was a TV feature-length film called Breaking the Code available.  It's about Alan Turing, the man who basically invented the computer, although he was also well-known as a brilliant mathematician, and code-breaker.  (He worked on breaking Hitler's Enigma Code, at Bletchley Park.)

Turing was also homosexual, and his admission of this (which seems rather ridiculously done in the film) brought him not only to court but to a 'punishment' of having to take oestrogen to reduce his male desires.   It didn't work, of course, and he died unexpectedly a few years later: it was officially listed as suicide for many years, but recent investigation considers it may be more likely that he accidentally killed himself by eating an apple that had cyanide on it.  He was an experimenter in all sorts of scientific fields.

Turing is played by Derek Jacobi in the film.  Jacobi is one of the best of British actors, and he does very well with his role as Turing.   However there is a major problem.  Turing is at most only in his thirties when the film takes place but at the time of filming, Jacobi was 58.  You're too often aware of his real age, even though he doesn't always look quite so old.  In some scenes it's irrelevant, but in the scenes with the young man with whom he has a brief affair, and the young woman who's fallen in love with him, his age is a barrier to real belief in the story.  (Incidentally, Prunella Scales plays his mother in the film: she was born in 1932.  Jacobi in 1938.)

Nevertheless, this is an interesting film, and has an excellent cast.  The long explanation of some mathematical problem that takes place in the middle of the film will probably leave many viewers gasping for breath, but in general things are straightforward - mathematically.  The film leans a little heavily on the homosexual aspects, I think: Turing was a good deal more than a homosexual who happened to be a brilliant mathematician.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Advertising Ireland

Now this is the way to advertise your country...!  Although perhaps only the Irish could do it quite this way (with NZeders a close second)....

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Barely written about...

Sometimes people come across my blog by pursuing things or people I've barely written about.  Two recent examples were the poet, Robert Nye and the pseudonym, Felicia Marronnez.  The links will take you to each of the blog posts in which they appear on this blog.  And in neither case are they actually the subject of the obscurity reigns in this case.  

HitTail turned up two other phrases in its weekly report research question about Facebook and Ian and Chrissy Johnson.  The latter of these two relates to a post I wrote a long time ago which keeps resurfacing because of the second person in the couple.  I've since written about her - and her husband - several times, though it can hardly be said I've added anything new to the original post...

Why the other phrase should bring up my blog I have no idea.  It certainly doesn't when I put it in.  


Friday, July 20, 2012

Two movies

I've watched a couple of less well-known movies in the last couple of days.  One is an Australian comedy called Gettin' Square, which I'd never heard of, although it's got an excellent cast - it came out around 2003.  The other is a made-for-TV movie called Temple Grandin, and has a wonderful performance by Clare Danes.

Gettin' Square is a bit of an assault on the ears, since the F-word gets a thorough outing, but apart from that it has a delightfully daft performance from David Wenham, a chance for Timothy Spall to make the most of the Australian sunshine, Sam Worthington in pre-Avatar days, and a host of other well-known Aussie faces. The story, at the end, is a sting for both the audience and the bad guys (and a few of the good ones as well), but it also shows the difficulties ex-prisoners have in settling back into society without either being forced into doing more crooked stuff, or living on the dole, or being hassled by people who don't want them to 'get square.'  Wenham plays a heroin addict who's been released and just can't make it without getting himself into further disasters; Worthington is the hero, of course, (named Wirth) and does his best to keep Wenham on the straight and narrow - although Wenham can help himself if he wants to by playing the fool, as a hilarious courtroom scene shows.  (There are a couple of actors in tiny roles just before Wenham's court scenes; one is played by a guy with a face that looks as though it's going to fall apart at any minute, and the other mostly involves the actor eating the paper evidence before the manhandlers can get at him).   Spall plays a man who has a criminal past but is trying to go straight - in general.  He still has a bit of cash stowed away that he shouldn't have.  Spall's character is doing Weight Watchers too, and has some novel ways to approach the difficulties of taking weight off, not all of which WW might approve.

The other film could have been a typical biopic, if it wasn't for the outstanding performance by Danes, who manages to be hectic, funny, scary, intense and a host of other things by turns - and sometimes all of them at once.  (She also does a pretty good job of ageing from a secondary-schooler to a full adult.)  Grandin is fairly well-known as a person with autism who was saved from institutionalism by her mother and kept from retreating from society by her mother, aunt and various encouragers along the way.  She discovered that she could identify with animals, in particular cattle, and has changed the way cattle going to market are handled in a huge number of ranches around the US.  She's also redesigned slaughter houses.  She's not an animal rights person - she understands the need for beef - but her intent was to make the last stages of the cattle's lives less stressful by allowing them to do what comes naturally to them.  It also helped that she saved a lot of ranches a good deal of money in the process.

The film avoids a lot of clichés of the typical biopic as well, and while it sometimes seems things fall neatly into place for Grandin, there are also some very low patches, and a lot of people who just don't get her illness - or don't want to.  I think Danes probably shows how an actor can act the role of someone with a disability without making it all ticks and quirks (Sigourney Weaver does the ticks and quirks approach in Snow Cage).   She deservedly got awards for this performance.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Donated to Science

Just finished watching Paul Trotman’s Donated to Science, filmed at Otago Medical School. It’s a feature-length documentary about a bunch of medical students doing their two-year dissection course using human bodies that have been specifically donated to the School for this purpose.  

There are some familiar faces in the documentary, (one or two friends, in fact) but that wasn't what made it most interesting.  It includes sequences in which a number of the students involved talk to the camera about how they feel as the two years pass, and how they grow more or less detached, depending on who they are, in terms of the fact that these were real people they're cutting up.  At the end they 'meet' the people they've been dissecting via films that were made prior to those people's deaths.  The emotional impact on the students is wonderful, and it's great to see them so full of compassion for those whose bodies they've been working with. 

The doco's not for the squeamish: there are some close-ups of body parts being dissected, and discussed, but because there's no blood, it's often not as bad as some of the more detailed close-ups in some hospital dramas on TV.  The draining of the blood makes the bodies look shrivelled, too, which at first is a bit of a surprise.  

Excellent local production!  

A Cold, Whiskey and the Opera Quartet

I've got a cold.  Not so-called 'man-flu' - just a cold.  I thought I'd have a lie-in this morning, but my brain is fizzing so relaxing in bed doesn't seem possible, even though it was comfortable and warm.   And the dog came and joined me and lay in a place that kept part of me just that much warmer.  But I couldn't relax.  

I'd already been in bed all night, and had had a couple of sessions of being distinctly uncomfortable because of the nose playing up.  The first time was when my wife came to bed - I must have been asleep, woke up and shifted position and next thing I knew I couldn't breathe through my nose at all.  Suffocation must be a terrifying thing, and just having your nose blocked isn't comparable, really. It's mainly just irritating.  But it's still a very weird sensation: you have to focus on breathing, which for most of our lives we don't bother to do.  It just happens.  Have you thought about breathing lately?  

Anyway, I got up and thought I'd apply some Vicks - that eventually worked, and breathing returned to normal (at least as normal as it ever is when you've got a cold).  Woke again around five, and there was a lot of clogging going on in the nasal regions, though I was breathing pretty much.  (I've just noticed on the Vicks page that you're not suppose to apply it directly inside your nostrils - whoops!)

The thing is that on Saturday, in spite of having the first symptoms of the cold, I actually got a lot done.  And yesterday I was up most of the day, and though I didn’t go to church or Sunny Side Up, I took the dog for a walk and felt okay.  I’ve had whiskey in the evening the last couple of nights (some whiskey that someone gave me – it had already been opened at that point, but they never drank it apparently) – but I’m not sure that it’s made a lot of difference.  I remember when I was rehearsing for the Opera Quartet that I was at Raymond Opie’s house [see below] and had a shocking cold.  Don’t know why I was there particularly, but anyway, Ray, who was a bit of a drinker, insisted that I have some whiskey (and I think there was something with it – sugar?) and so I did.  I went to sleep not long afterwards in a chair, and woke up sweating but feeling fine.  But I’ve never been able to get this method to work since! Though another friend of mine recommended a bit of whiskey in a hot milk drink before bed.  That worked the first time, but after that the body obviously decided that it wasn't going to be fooled by that again.  

Just had a look at a page on the Net that supposedly answers the question of whether whiskey has any effect – the general response is that it doesn’t, though there are all sorts of variations in the answers.  Some say it’s worth having it with water and sugar, some with lemon juice, some suggest brandy instead, and so on.  And several insist there’s no cure for the common cold.  And then further down the page you get others who say it’s a great cure, particularly if you get under the covers and sweat it out.  Some say definitely not because it dehydrates you – they recommend lots of water instead.  Well, it just goes to show.  No one agrees on anything, except their own experience.  

There's another page headed Whisky Boys (which shows its bias). It recommends whiskey, honey, lemon, cloves, hot water, etc.   In spite of the detailed preparations it discusses it admits it's more of a pleasant drink than a curing one!

Apropos Raymond Opie.  He was a well-known New Zealand operatic tenor, who, by the time I met him was getting on in years, although he could still sing well.  Along with three other singers, Lucas Bunt, the baritone, and general organiser (and permanent driver), Kathleen Johnson, the soprano, and Corinne Bridge (all four of them mentioned here) and myself as pianist, we formed the Quartet, (yes, I know a quartet is four, but the pianist didn't count in the title) and toured secondary schools throughout New Zealand, in a fairly exhausting trip that took us from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South.  This was back in the mid-sixties before I went to England to study at the London Opera Centre.  

The five of us travelled in a station wagon with advertising for our sponsors, Rothmans, plastered all over it.  It was a bit ironic, since Rothmans was a big cigarette company; you can't imagine that happening now!  We presented a 45-minute recital of operatic songs, duets and quartets, and were generally well-received around the country.  We'd do two or three performances a day, and travelled as well.  Occasionally we did a full concert for adult audiences.  At the performance in Milton - about forty km from Dunedin - the lid over the keyboard fell down and hit my thumb.  I continued playing but by the time we'd finished I was in agony, with the bruising under the thumbnail swelling dramatically.  We must have been heading back to Dunedin, because we called in at my house and my mother dealt to it by putting a hole in the nail with a hot needle to relieve the pressure.  At least that 'cure' worked!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wagner & Fry

Watched a documentary called Wagner & Me by Stephen Fry yesterday in which he expounds his enthusiasm for Wagner's music.  Fry has loved Wagner since he was a child, and he was like a child in the way he reacted to coming for the first time to Bayreuth, and the theatre Wagner had built for his music-dramas.  His enthusiasm was certainly one of the high points of this otherwise rather sluggishly-put-together doco, in which the music is often heard but there is only a little sign of it being performed on stage.   (We see some rehearsals, but no actual performances, I don't think.)

Fry also examined his Jewish background in relation to the way Hitler had 'taken over' Wagner, and smeared the huge colourful tapestry that Wagner created.  He sits on the steps where the Nuremberg rallies took place and feels uncomfortable about being there.  He can't bring himself to stand up on the platform where Hitler stood, even though it's a well-known tourist spot.  Towards the end of the doco he meets up with a women who survived Auschwitz - she was a young cellist and played in the orchestra that was produced from the prisoners.  Fry discusses his quandary with loving Wagner's music when Hitler had so besmirched it and left his historical stain on it.  The woman, in so many words, tells him to get over it.  At the end of the day, Wagner's genius is far more important than Hitler's attempt to use Wagner for his own ends.  (Though Fry also points out that Wagner wrote a particularly nasty anti-Semitic article at one point in his life, possibly because two Jewish composers, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer were much more popular than him at that point.)

There's one particularly delightful moment in the film.  A pianist whose name I didn't catch is playing and discussing the Tristan und Isolde 'chord' that only gets resolved at the very end of the opera.  (It's interrupted at one other point when resolution seems imminent.)  He's playing on Wagner's own piano, a Steinway that was presented to Wagner by that company.  It's a massive grand and still holding up well after more than a century of use.  Fry, who claims no great skills as a musician at an earlier point in the film, waits with enormous anticipation to play the very last note of the opera, when all has been brought to fruition.  And hits the wrong note!  His embarrassment and hilarity makes it worth watching the film.

The other interesting thing was seeing the inside of the Bayreuth theatre, which is an odd building.  It's design - inside and out - is fairly ugly, to be honest, and from the film it looks as though the stage is narrower than the audience area.  Yet every seat has a clear view of the stage, according to Fry.  The stage seems as deep as it's wide, which is an odd way to design a stage.  However, it obviously works, since it's been showing successful productions since it was first built.  We saw the stage machinery as well, both under the stage and high above it - very high, in fact.  And then there's the intriguing way in which the orchestra isn't in a pit at the front of the stage, but virtually underneath it.  Only the conductor is visible to the singers.  There are a few comments on it here in Wikipedia.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationships with Wagner's music myself.  Personally I think the music-dramas (he wouldn't call them operas) are excessively lengthy and exhausting for audiences.  They're self-indulgent in terms of how much Wagner thinks needs to be included.  And the best tunes, by far, are given to the orchestra.  In fact, it's the orchestral music that grabs me far more than the singing, which, while it might be dramatic in form, is often tuneless to the point of tedium.  The orchestral interludes in the operas make me wonder if perhaps Wagner mightn't have been a much better composer of symphonies, if he'd gone in that direction.  Though if he'd considered that those needed to be as long, comparatively, as his operas, I might struggle!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book to movie

A couple of days ago we watched the movie, The American, and I wrote some notes about it.  It was the most irritating movie I'd seen in a long time.  However, it prompted me to check out the book it was based on, A Very Private Gentleman (though if you search for that book now, you'll find it's been republished under the title The American, which is a bit daft, since the only Americans in the book are minor characters).  The book is by Martin Booth, who turns out to be an excellent writer - one I'd never come across before.  His style, at least in this book, is akin to that of Graham Greene.  Greene used his more serious books (and sometimes even his 'comedies', as he called them) to explore how men think about and deal with religion, women, life and violence.  In this book, Booth looks at all these issues too, while telling an intriguing story.   More of that in a minute.

We also watched The Prestige last night, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.  I read the book this film is based on back in 2008 (according to my records - my memory's not that good) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The intriguing thing is that Christopher Nolan, who made the film of The Prestige (and retained its title) has so thoroughly adapted it that, while it retains the integrity of the story and many elements of it, it's a quite different kettle of fish.  The American didn't retain the original book's title - which it should have - and it thoroughly altered the original, retaining only what it cared to retain, and adding in things that were irrelevant to the original story, and altering the climax so remarkably that you have to gasp at their audacity. Martin Booth had died by the time the movie was made, which is probably just as well: he might have had a heart attack when he saw what they'd done to it.  Christopher Priest, the author of The Prestige, would have been more happy with the adaptation of his book, I think, because it doesn't take a worthwhile piece of writing and turn it into nonsense.  It remakes it in an excellently dramatic way, and, if my memory serves me right, doesn't do injustice to the original. The American destroys the original, by changing practically everything in its focus, and thoroughly confusing the original story, even adding in detail that makes no sense - making the priest the father of the mechanic, for instance.

Booth's book is a long narrative from an anonymous character who is insistently private, not because he's an introvert, but because his very specialised craft is likely to get him eliminated at any minute if he's not careful to keep his cover safe from those who'd destroy him.  He's nearly killed at the very end, in fact, because someone - an amateur, as it happens - has managed to track him down, much to the narrator's surprise.  He doesn't die - as Clooney does in the movie (for entirely the wrong reasons) - but his cover is so blown that he has to 'vanish' yet again.

In the book the anonymous narrator gradually reveals his secrets, but with considerable caution, as though at any minute what we learn is likely to make us discover more than he wants us to know.  He's cautious with everyone he meets and knows, even his mistress.  But those close to him, the priest and the mistress, are people who ask questions, and gradually manage to dig under his skin.  (Some snippets of his conversations with the priest survive into the movie.)  For the rest, he remains an elusive character revealing only what he wants to tell us; though Booth's craft is such that he allows us to learn more than his narrator thinks he's telling us.  The writing throughout is superb, full of interesting detail (about guns and the making of them, about butterflies, about the Italian countryside, about the contrasts between different nationalities - Booth is quite forthright on this) and full of suspense in spite of the fact that the book seems to move slowly. The difference is that in the book the slowness works; in the movie it's just plain annoying.

The movie of The Prestige is very well-handled, and of course is full of trickery, not just between the characters, but in fooling the audience as well.  The revealing of the trickery at the end only serves to make us wonder even more about what's actually happened (I seem to remember the book was even more ambiguous on this score than the film is) but it leaves the viewer satisfied, something The American certainly didn't do, in spite of its weak attempts to 'round off' the storyline.  

Bale and Jackman present two strong and interesting characters - though I think Bale walks off with the honours, even though he gets second billing.  Furthermore he manages a passable London accent, though I was puzzled as to why he never wore a hat, when it was the norm at that time.  Was that something related to the original character in the book?  I don't remember.  

The Prestige is the sort of film you could watch again straightaway and get more enjoyment out of, because you'd be looking for further understanding of the intricate plot.  The American you wouldn't want to watch again...ever.  But A Very Private Gentleman would be worth reading again, because it's just so well done.  At the very least it encourages me to search out more of Booth's books.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Not quite racking the brain

Just looking through my clippings and came across this interesting paragraph about computers and artificial intelligence:

Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?

This extract comes from a delightful article in The Atlantic, was written by Brian Christian, and mostly focuses on the Turing Test.  Mr Turing has been in the news a bit recently, because there's now some question as to whether he committed suicide, or died accidentally...or (shock, horror!) was murdered.  Always the conspiracy arises at some point.  

I started out checking the clippings for references to bikes, and was reminded that Turing was a cyclist: the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. 

And why was I looking for references to bikes?  Well, I was actually looking to see if I had anything about bike rack for cars - but I didn't.  Never mind, it led me back to a couple of interesting spots, and that's always following up on a Tuesday morning. 

Emperor's New Clothes?

[Lots of spoilers here] Sometimes a movie is so annoying you wonder whether it's the movie that's the problem or your understanding of it.  Such is the case with The American, a European movie starring George Clooney (he also co-produced it, along with three women and one other man).   Roger Ebert thought it was great, Sam Adams at is more pro than against, as is Michael Atkinson in Sight & Sound - though whether the following sentence actually makes sense I'm not sure:  it’s mature, fastidiously logical (and therefore skimpy) with exposition, and patient, and arguably this is what audiences have responded to.  

Okay, well this member of the 'audience' didn't respond to it.  Nor did my wife.   And both of us found the almost total lack of exposition and information irritating rather than 'fastidiously logical.'  In fact, logical is about the last thing this movie is.  Okay, in terms of the main character it's logical that his personality, from which the emotions have almost entirely left home, will eventually cause the hell he lives in (as the local priest notes) to consume him.  Unfortunately for Clooney's character, it consumes him just as he's possibly finding a kind of salvation, a way out to life again, and that's so typically European art house in its approach that it's utterly predictable. 

Clooney plays an assassin who also happens to be a top-notch assembler of made-to-order guns.  There's a lot of fiddling around with the making of a particular gun, which has been ordered by an unlikely female assassin who's working for somebody anonymous.  After a violent and surprising opening scene, the movie moves at a snail's pace.  Clooney, at the behest of his boss, goes and lives in a small Italian village (very picturesque, it must be admitted) where he refuses to be contactable, and only rings the boss when he wants.  He claims to know nothing of machinery, but it's so patent a lie that the parish priest, who keeps turning up whenever needed for the script, tells him so to his face.  He meets up with the female assassin in a ridiculously obvious way in an outdoor and very public cafe, gets his specific orders, presumably orders the basics of the gun somehow (he's obviously not into the Internet, which in this film might not exist), and finds the odds and ends to adapt it so that the gunshot sound is suppressed if not silenced.  In order to do the latter he visits a local mechanic (who happens to be the priest's son, though that has almost nothing to do with the story) and, for some reason when left alone in the mechanic's tumbledown workshop, goes round surreptitiously collecting a pile of odds and ends.  When the mechanic catches him at this, he offers to pay for them and the mechanic says he doesn't need to.  Okay....  This scene is done as though there was a Hitchcock element to it.  There isn't. 

Back home he makes up the suppresser out of all these bits, though why he's chosen to live in a place where there's so little access to the parts is a bit of a puzzle.  He takes the gun through its paces with the other assassin in a remote place by a river, and everyone's happy.  Except that the Swedes are still trying to kill him, as they were at the beginning.  Who knows why.   Very slowly, he falls in love with a local prostitute, who, in typical European movie-style, spends most of her on-screen time with the majority of her clothes off for no good reason except that she looks as good with them off as on.  He picnics with her in the same spot he showed off the gun, and it seems possible he might kill her too, but somehow he pulls himself back from the brink.  He's constantly suspicious of people sitting in cars outside cafes.  

Finally, he delivers the completed gun to the female assassin in an isolated cafe, where everything is made to seem more mysterious than it really is, and we gather that for some reason she's going to kill him.  She misses her chance, he drives off into the village again where they're holding some Marian feast-day.  She kills his landlady, (why wasn't she watching the procession?), hides on the roof, targets him and the girl as they're conveniently talking - and standing - in the crowd, and just as she's about to shoot, is shot herself - by the boss.  Huh?  All that time and energy getting a gun sorted out to kill Clooney and she gets killed by the one giving all the orders?  What has she done?  

Clooney prowls the streets (he does this a lot in this movie), which are suddenly surprisingly empty given that a procession was taking place a few moments before, and of course is followed by the boss.  There's a little shoot-out, the boss is killed and Clooney is wounded.  He drives back to the river place where he'd told the girl to meet him (she gets there on foot apparently, even though it's miles away, because there's no other car in sight), Clooney drives in dying, and dies.   

The thing is inexpressibly silly, as were so many movies of the period when telling the audience almost nothing was considered an arty approach.  Clooney is excellent, as always, and obviously felt there was something in the script to make it worth his while.  But the problem is, there isn't anything in the script.  Apart from the minimalist redemption of the main character, all the other Hitchcockian tricks are smoke and whatever-the-expression-is.  People die and are left behind without a single police presence throughout.  The news of the first three deaths is headlined in a newspaper days after the event (and by headlined I mean it takes up the entire page), though why three deaths in Scandinavia would be especially important to the Italians I'm not sure.  In another random headline, 'two more prostitutes are killed' - what prostitutes?  Certainly none in this story, and the only reason for this bit of nonsense is to make us think Clooney is going to kill the girl he's fallen for.  And again, the headline and story take up the whole front page. 

I could go on, but I won't, even though the movie continues to annoy me.   It obviously hasn't done Clooney's career any harm, and in fact it's actually done quite well in America where you'd hardly think it would get noticed.  But Clooney's made some much better low-key movies than this, and I think mentioning the Emperor's new clothes might be appropriate at this point....

Monday, July 09, 2012

Truncheons and stanchions

A search through my clippings, and on my computer, reveals that I don't have any reference whatsoever to the word stanchion, likeable enough as it is as a word.   Which means I won't have any reference to the phrase plastic stanchions either.  In fact, the word is so little visible in my vocabulary that I had to look it up on Google to remind myself what it meant.  It sounds a bit like truncheon but isn't related, as far as I'm aware.  Which led me to look and see what truncheon comes up with when you go off to Wikipedia.  They suggest the obvious: a policeman's baton, but there are three other references there as well.  A truncheon can be a stem cutting off a plant which is then used as a means of plant propagation used by gardeners.  Well, I guess gardeners would know that use of it, though I don't (I'm too amateur a gardener, obviously).  Truncheon is also the staff of a spear, but this is so obsolete a usage that only someone like Tolkien would know it well enough to use it in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

HMS Truncheon
The word was also used as the name of a Royal Navy submarine that was commissioned in the last few months of the Second World War.   It served with the Navy until 1968 when it was bought by the Israelis and renamed the INS Dolphin.  She was eventually scrapped nine years later, so I hope the Israelis got their money's worth. Well, there you go!  Your bit of trivia for the day.   (We went to a quiz night at a local pub recently; it's surprising what you know, what you're pretty sure you know and have to argue for, and what you have absolutely no idea about whatsoever - sport, mostly, for me, although even there I managed to suggest some possibilities.)

Truncheon, as you might expect, is a word with some French history.  It first appeared in our language, as far as we know, around the 14th century, when it went under the Middle English umbrella as tronchoun.  Its parentage was the Anglo-French word, trunchun, and that in turn goes way back to the Vulgar Latin word truncion/truncio, which comes from the 'proper' Latin word, truncus, which means a trunk.  I suppose there's a connection between a trunk (the trunk of an elephant?) and the baton we know today, but it seems a bit of a distance.

Stanchion (to go back to where we started in this post) initially has a similar history: Middle English stanchon, Anglo-French stanchun or stançun.  These words, however, were alterations of an Old French word, estançon, which is apparently a diminutive of estance, meaning a stay or a prop.  At least stanchion starts where it ends, you might say.  [Thanks, Merrian-Webster, by the way.]  Estance is a fancier ancestor to have than truncio, I think, even if it's not quite a old.

It just occurs to me that in our usual English spelling fashion we have managed to make one of these words end in 'ion' and the other in 'eon'.  Ain't English fun?

Perhaps because stanchion has retained its original meaning rather more, it tends mostly to relate to things that stand upright and hold something else. Those little things you see in restaurants where they hold the number of your order are a form of stanchion, I suspect, though I don't know if they're actually called that.  Stanchions appear in restaurants more as a form of crowd control: they'll often have a rope dangling between them to stop unworthy patrons from joining worthy ones.  [See the fancy model to the right.]  I notice them mostly in banks where they force people to form queues, and where children delight in dropping the connecting 'rope' (of whatever form) off one stanchion, find they've just received a disapproving look from a parent, and then have to figure out how to put it back again.  

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Two comedies

I thought Weleda was the name of a flower, but it turns out to be a brand name for a line of health products.  These products are sold worldwide, even in New Zealand, but I've never heard of them.  Plainly all that advertising has been wasted on me, guys!

Equally, in the last two days I've watched a couple of movies that were also completely unfamiliar to me.  One is Italian, the other French (though most of the cast is Russian, and the first half of the film takes place in Moscow).

The Italian one would have to be the most lightweight movie I've seen in a long time.  It's called Pranzo di Ferragosto, has its director (Gianni di Gregorio) in the leading role as Gianni, a fifty-something bachelor who lives at home with his mum, drinks a lot of wine, seldom pays his bills and in general seems a bit of a waster.   Ferragosto is a major Italian holiday, and dates back two millennia.  Pranzo is merely a word for dinner, or lunch.   Because Gianni is in debt he finds himself having to look after three old ladies for the holiday as a kind of barter system for not paying his bills to his landlord and his doctor.   Along with the mother, the women take over, in the nicest quietest gentlest way, and if Gianni thought he had enough to do with placating his mother, he soon finds four women are more than quadruple the problem.   There's almost no story apart from that: the old women discover each other as friends and confidantes, Gianni runs round feeding them a lot and trying to get them off to bed (rather like adolescents) and in the end everyone comes out happy - or at least a little happier.

The four women in the cast are all non-professionals, and do a lovely job of conveying the four very different women in the story.  Not that 'lovely' is the word to apply to the actress, Valeria di Franciscis, who plays Gianni's Mum.  With a hideous wig that barely balances on her head, and a face covered in enormous dark spots, and strongly indented wrinkles and lines, and scarlet lipstick across thin lips, she must be one of the ugliest actresses ever to be seen in the movies.  But that's what old age does to people: makes them a lot less pleasant to look at than they were when young.  The other three women are a good deal less ugly, though they have almost as many lines and wrinkles.  

Mélanie Laurent
There are a lot of older people in the French film too - The Concert.  Because it concerns people who are no longer in the prime of life, age is something of a factor, though not quite to the extent it is in the Italian movie.  The Concert is about a once-famous Russian conductor now reduced to working as a cleaner in the Bolshoi Theatre.  This was the result of him having a number of Jews in his former orchestra and not being willing to give them up in order to further his own career.  As a result of a fax slip-up, he decides to persuade the former members of his orchestra to reform and take a trip to Paris where (supposedly) they've been invited to perform in lieu of the LA Orchestra, who've had to drop out.  With some difficulty he collects together the musicians from all sorts of reduced circumstances, as well as taking on as manager the very man who interrupted his last concert all those years ago, and made a laughing stock of him. 

In spite of that outline of the story, this is actually (for most of the film) a comedy - in fact it verges on farce at times.  The characters are all larger than life and some are drawn with very broad strokes.  The only truly serious character in the film is the young violin soloist (played by the gorgeous Mélanie Laurent) - her past and the loss of her parents haunts her somewhat, and she turns out to be part of the reason behind the mad trip to Paris.  Laurent has the unenviable task of 'playing' the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (in a reduced version) at the end of the movie: this would have to be one of the best simulations of violin playing I've seen in a movie.  

There's a large cast that works well together, wonderful music and the most interesting subtitles I've ever seen.  Several of the Russians have to speak French during the movie, but their French is obviously a bit less than perfect, and this is reflected hilariously in the subtitles.  

Of the two movies, I wouldn't greatly recommend the Italian one, unless you're content just to take it as it is: a piece of fluff with a minimal message about old age.  The French one won't be to everyone's taste either - it doesn't entirely seem to know whether it's a comedy or a farce or even a drama, but still manages to pull itself off.  Nevertheless, as an evening's entertainment, it has a number of good points, not least the wide-ranging music.  

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Interviewing yourself

Jeremiah McDonald filmed himself as a twelve-year-old as though he was talking to himself in the future.  His 32-year-old (and rather more cynical) self responds to the questions - or does he?  Who's interviewing who here, and how was this done exactly?  Some smart editing and some clever shifting of viewpoint make this a delightful video to check out.  

And if that doesn't impress you, how about being amused by Mitchell and Webb's take on a homoeopathic Emergency Department? 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


We went to see Brave today with three of our grandchildren, one daughter and one daughter-in-law.  What a wonderful film, though not entirely for children, who might find it quite scary in places.  The five-year-old grandson assured me he was okay while at the same time telling me it was a bit scary.  And it was: the scene in which the ferocious bear appears, and especially the big battle between the male and female bear at the end, are very frightening.  If you're five.

But frightening bits apart, this is a delight.  The characters have originality about them, the story isn't as straightforward as it might first appear, and the detail in every scene insists that we come back for a second or third look at the movie.

The wonderful thing about animated movies in particular is the artwork that's involved. It's in a league of its own, but more importantly it invariably celebrates the beauty of the world.  Brave is no exception (and the short Pixar movie that accompanied it, in which three generations of starkeepers deal with the latest influx of stars, is just a wonder from beginning to end).   The Scottish wilds are wonderfully portrayed, and the animals in the film (in particular the heroine's horse, and her father's dogs) have their own personalities, but are also animated wonderfully as animals.

Brave's big plus, in terms of animated movies, is that it concerns a young girl who knows her own mind, and who's finally allowed to follow it.  While females have often been the subject of cartoons, from Snow White onwards, they've seldom been as adventurous or forthright as Merida, the heroine of this movie.  Merida has to battle with her mother at all points, but she manages to win through at the end still on the same side.  Both characters have matured by the time we're finished.

The vocal work is delightful too - the script includes a number of less commonly used words that fit well with the Scottish accents.  Kelly MacDonald plays Merida, Emma Thompson her mother, and Billy Connelly her father.  I wasn't sure that Connelly was going to work at first, even though he seems an obvious choice for the role: he's larger than life and the character he plays is larger than life both personality-wise and physically.  But Connelly has a way of reading his lines in movies that doesn't always ring true.  Fortunately for Brave this style is soon left behind, partly because he gets fewer and fewer lines to say as the movie goes on.

Julie Walters appears as the wood-carving witch, and is quite unrecognisable.  There are a number of other reasonably well-known actors in the smaller roles including an actor named Patrick Doyle. This is the same Patrick Doyle who composed the score, and his score is a delight from beginning to end; even the bagpipes come across effectively.   Doyle the actor has appeared in other movies he's composed the score for, including two of the Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare adaptations.

At the opposite end of movie-making, as it were, we watched the second in the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy; The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Like its predecessor, it's violent in the extreme, though there are thankfully no sexually abusive scenes.  (There is one what-seemed-to-me-to-be unnecessary lesbian sex scene, however.)  Unlike its predecessor, it relies on a lot of coincidence, and there's much less actual mystery to it. The heroine manages to find out things fairly easily, and Blomqvist finds her even more easily at the end, by which time she's been beaten, shot and buried alive.  She's one tough cookie.  The story is left hanging (unlike the first film) and it's presumably necessary to see the last movie to get some of the unfinished business dealt with.  The revelation about her father in this one seems a bit far-fetched, especially as the first time we saw him he was drastically on fire to the extent that you wouldn't have thought he'd have survived.  Seemingly he's as tough as his daughter.  (And let's not mention his even tougher son, who's very unpleasant.)