Monday, February 28, 2011

A League Cup of their own

No shame

Insincere, dishonest, or just Nick Clegg?

Nick Clegg, in an article he wrote while in opposition to the then Labour government (Daily Mail, 4 Aug 2009):

"It appals me that, so far at least, no one in government seems prepared to lift a finger to help [Gary McKinnon]. But it is even more shocking that the Labour government has sat blithely by and watched it happen.

It is time for Gordon Brown and his Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, to step in and do the decent thing.
Yet this case is about more than legal technicalities and political treaties. It is about compassion, knowing the difference between right and wrong - and the sorry truth is that the Labour Party lost its moral compass long ago. But the clock is ticking. The Prime Minister just needs to pick up the phone to make this prosecution happen. I urge him to do so, before it is too late. ".

That was in 2009. What happened in the intervening 16 months is well known. A general election took place and Nick Clegg's party got into a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Yet, aside from the new government ordering a psychiatric reassessment (it would be the fifth) on Mr McKinnon, the situation hasn't changed one bit.

Apart from one thing. That is to say, of course, Nick Clegg's view.

Look at what the current Deputy Prime Minister (the same person who urged the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and his Attorney General "to step in and do the decent thing"), wrote in a letter to Gary McKinnon's mother the other day:

"As these are legal proceedings, I have been advised that it would be better for you and me not to meet and discuss the details of the case at present".

Then look at how the LibDem's own Pravda (LibDem Voice), engaged in crook-eyed logical somersaults to rush to their guru's aid.

"Let’s imagine if Nick had decided not to go with the advice that he’d been given and decided to meet with Janis Sharp. Could that have compromised the case? Could it have made things worse for Gary? Is it right that the Deputy Prime Minister in his official capacity should be perceived to take a public view about an ongoing Court case?"

Oh. Is that so now?

And how come you didn't think, say and write the very same thing 16 months ago?

Just be ashamed, LibDems, you bunch of opportunists with the memory-span of a mite.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The King's Speech

Will the story of King George VI make a clean sweep at the Oscars?

Today's headlines report that the forthcoming 2011 Academy Awards will mainly consist of a battle between The Social Network and The King's Speech.

Our money is on the latter.

And that's because, while most other films centred on royal families and nobility tend to be drowned in tweeness, romance and people prancing about while talking in riddles, The King's Speech covers totally different territory.

No doubt the film is also an interesting take on the historical events surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII and the dramatic run-up to World War II. But it is first and foremost a human drama about the scars brought about by the pressure and expectations of a repressive upbringing.

The story is centred around Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second son of King George V, a man whose severe stammer affected his public engagements and social interaction at various levels.

Spurred by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he decides to see Mr Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist and teacher of elocution. Not without hurdles, an unlikely friendship starts developing between them, as Mr Logue graduates slowly from inferior subject and subordinate to trusted confidant.

And so it emerges that Albert's speech problems stems from the typically dysfunctional and repressed childhood that generation after generation of royals have endured, a state of affairs brilliantly depicted by Johann Hari in his 2002 book God Save The Queen.

Bullied by his brother, repressed by his father and painfully corrected for his left-handedness and knock-knees, Albert grows up to believe that far from ever being good enough to lead, he will always be a source of embarrassment and scorn. Until, that is, Lionel Logue's intervention and a series of unprecedented historical events will help Albert (soon to become King George VI) overcome his stammer and deliver one of the most dramatic speeches in world history.

Ultimately, it is both David Seidler's powerful script (himself a stammer sufferer as a child) and Colin Firth's moving interpretation of Albert that make The King's Speech stand out. And yes, also hopefully mop the floor (twice over) with The Social Network.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"At least we removed a sanguinary dictator"

What the recent events in the Middle East show about Tony Blair's corrupt moral code.

Imagine if you had a quid each time you hear the dwindling band of blind supporters of the Iraq war reciting that sorry little line as the best justification for Britain's biggest foreign policy atrocity of the last forty years.

"At least we removed a sanguinary dictator" is a sentence that oozes hypocrisy from each and every pore, a phrase rendered even more vomitous and hollow when you look at the hateful game of "this dictator good, that dictator bad" that Tony Blair played so well during his reign. With other people's lives, of course.

And so consider what his good mate and Michael Jackson impersonator Colonel Gaddafi is currently doing to his own people in Libya. In the last few days we learnt that his troops are "firing on civilians" and that 104 people have been killed in last week's pro-democracy demonstrations.

Courtesy, in no small part, of British military help agreed at the height of the Blair empire, the bitter irony being that while he was rinsing his gob with sermons on "exporting democracy to Iraq", Tony was shaking hands with Gaddafi and signing lucrative arms deals.

Our former Prime Minister, the same person who for years pontificated about the importance of removing Saddam the sanguinary, has been a staunch supporter of a selection of brutal Middle Eastern torturers and tyrants, Gaddafi and the "immensely corageous" Mubarak (see this for courage) to mention but two.

The recent events in the Middle East are the most painful reminder of Blair's corrupt morality.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Moralism...

...puritanism and illiberalism. Upside down.

It really makes you want to reach for a bucket, this spectacle of Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing hangers-on accusing their opponents of "puritanism" and "moralism".

For decades, the tycoon and its supporters built a whole political fortune on moralising, lecturing and pontificating about the dos and the donts of anything under the sun: same-sex couples, women's right to choose, stem cell research, euthanasia, sex education in schools and much more.

All of the above, apparently, wasn't bigoted moralism, puritanism or minding people's own business. Nah.

What is "puritan" and "neo-moralistic" as well as "snoopy and illiberal", instead, is people recoiling in horror at the prospect of a Prime Minister paying for orgies with under-age girls. That's according to one of his top supporters in government.

Right-wing logic: you've got to love it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Selective snow

Welcome to Osborneconomics, where the same snow can affect Britain's GDP but not that of other countries.

Isn't Chancellor Trustfund Osborne going to say anything about the terrible weather conditions of France and Germany over the last quarter of 2010?

Remember his comical claims that Britain's contraction of 0.5% was to be blamed on bad weather and everybody chuckled as they caught a whiff of BS?

Well, confirmation that Osborne was talking nonsense came out today in the form of comparative figures across various EU countries.

Guess what, the same big freeze, record temperatures, extensive snowfall and assorted disruption somehow failed to affect GDP figures in France and Germany. They may have slowed down a little, but still the former grew by 0.3% in Q4 of 2010 and the latter by 0.4%, a sharp contrast with Britain's output.

For the record, December 2010 was officially Germany's coldest in 41 years and the snowiest ever.

Something doesn't add up with Osborneconomics.

Daily Mail typo of the year

Look at the caption above. It was visible until earlier this morning on the Mail online (alas it was later amended).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Little Fockers

The successor to Meet the Parents.

Six years after Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro emerged as one of Hollywood's most unlikely comedy duos, the Meet the Parents franchise returns with male nurse Greg Focker and his wife Pam the proud parents of twins Henry and Samantha.

Greg's hard-earned family approval is destined to plunge to new lows as ever-suspicious control freak Jack Byrnes (De Niro) develops a new obsession: he is now on a mission to appoint his successor in charge of the whole family.

This will only mean more pressure on Greg, as his father-in-law can't help but stick his nose into his business - queue the familiar succession of misunderstandings and cringeworthy moments leading up to Jack trying to get his daughter back with her ex Kevin (Owen Wilson).

And while Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand's contributions are purely nominal, Wilson and new addition Jessica Alba are pivotal in adding extra spice to the whole story.

Yet it's not quite clear why the follow-up to the mega successful Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers was slated by critics. Perhaps the default cynicism that tends to surround sequels may have something to do with it.

No doubt none of Little Fockers is groundbreaking comedy and, yes, a lot of it relies on poop scenes and all-too-familiar slapstick, but so what?

Exactly like its predecessors, Little Fockers does what it says on the tin without any high-brow ambition or post-ironic pretension.

The film contains a selection of laugh-out-loud and crude moments: from the "Sustengo" bits (which carry tons of cringe factor -especially the scene of Ben Stiller administering De Niro an injection in his private bits) and the two protagonists' trip to the kids' new school, to the random references to Andy Garcia or the final youtube video complete with remix.

Little Fockers may not mark a watershed moment in the history of comedy but it'll make for ninety minutes of good entertainment.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Jamie's 30-Minute Meals

Far from lecturing and patronising, Jamie Oliver is actually suggesting that good and healthy food should be accessible to everybody.

I like Jamie Oliver.

Britain's most recognised chef has taken so much stick over the last few years amidst accusations that he is "lecturing people" (quote: Health Minister Andrew Lansley over Jamie's School Dinners) and meddling with their eating habits.

And yet, in a media world where celebrities, chefs included, seem to be earning fame and plaudits by virtue of shouting the F-word (literally) or the C-word louder than the next person, Jamie Oliver deserves praise for keeping away from cheap shots and loud-mouthed gimmicks.

More than anything, however, Oliver deserves credit for dishing out tons of advice on how to make your own food without ever coming across as inaccessible or over-complicated. Which is no easy feat.

At first glance, some of the dishes included in his latest series Jamie's 30-Minute Meals may look extremely elaborate and offputting. And yet they're not. It's amazing how much you can do in less than thirty minutes and with the simplest of ingredients.

More, Oliver's programme is based on extreme realism.

Pre-packed artificial microwaveable ready meals have become such a tempting option for most (this blog included) because, after a long day at work, the last thing most people fancy is a gruelling cooking session or a supermarket quest for exotic ingredients.

Which is why, far from lecturing and patronising, Jamie Oliver is actually on a mission to make simple yet good and healthy food accessible to everybody and not just the wealthy.

Most importantly, he doesn't think -shock horror- that everything has to be made from scratch. What matters, like Oliver himself writes: "this kind of cooking is all about using every minute wisely, having fun and reclaiming your kitchen for the job it was meant for".

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Tourist

Winning hands down the Oscar for undeserved nominations.

Too many genres applied to a film can be a clue to its muddled nature.

For evidence, look no further than star-studded mega-budget movie The Tourist.

Described as, in succession, action, thriller, comedy, drama and romantic, The Tourist was designed to cash in on the pre-Christmas season and capitalise on big names like Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp as well as on tons of glamour and beautiful scenery. It's not for nothing that it was described as "two of the world’s most beautiful people in one of the world’s most beautiful cities".

Nothing, however, can save a flimsy story and a weak plot, and The Tourist is no exception.

The initial intrigue withers within fifteen minutes when the story sags and it becomes apparently that this is a thriller with no thrills and nowhere to go but opulence, chocolate boxes and Angelina Jolie's lips.

Incidentally, her preening persona grates after a while and Johnny Depp looks like he hasn't really grasped what the directors have asked him to do. That is, of course, supposing that they knew themselves which, judging by the whole thing, is quite unlikely.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Cliches of 2011 #4

"Use the off switch or change channel".

The recent controversy triggered by the TopGear trio of Disco Vicars (Clarkson, Hammond, May) and their round of offensive comments dressed up as just-a-bit-of-fun prompted the usual charge of lame justifications.

From "no-one cares" (read "I don't, meeeeee, therefore it follows that the whole world doesn't either") and "haven't the Mexicans more important things to think about", to "this country is losing its sense of humour", the defenders of casual bullying and casual racism have been out in force to stick up for the three white upper class broadcasters.

The lamest defence, however, comes in the guise of the trite "You don't need to watch TopGear. Use the off switch or change channel".

Which really says a lot about some people's sapped power of observation. Because:

a) TopGear is paid for by the taxpayer - that is you and me and the bloke over there. You may change channel (and rest assured Clarkson's is the last TV programme this blog would want to watch), but still you won't be able do jack to stop your own money from being used to fund Clarkson and his side-splitting remarks about the disabled, the blind and various vulnerable people.

b) This is no page-32 article written in dubious taste and published by some local paper we're talking about. Alas, TopGear is the most popular BBC programme worldwide. Me and you may switch off the telly, but in the meantime tens of millions of people abroad will have found more reasons to believe the Brits' growing reputation as a nation of small-minded xenophobic little islanders.

c) Like Steve Coogan wrote in his Observer piece this morning, "tolerance of casual racism [is] arguably the most sinister kind [as] [i]t's easy to spot the ones with the burning crosses".

So here's a question for the "I'm-Not-Racist" Brigade: what's more dangerous and more hateful, a twat dressed up in ku klux klan robes that everyone can see, or a (not so) subtle and growing set of xenophobic remarks thrown left right and centre and dressed up as "just-a-bit-of-fun"?

If no-one ever stood up to bullies and racists in the name of "getting-a-sense-of-humour" and "relaxing", telly would still be packed with stuff like The Black and White Minstrel Show and Curry and Chips.

You may be content enough to switch channels, but I don't want to be forced to spend £145.50 a year to reinforce the notion that the British constantly look down on everything foreign, thank you very much.

Jeremy Clarkson and his sidekicks can play the bully if they want, but not with the taxpayer's money.

PS: Incidentally- Three Brits pouring scorn on Mexican food saying that it's like "sick with cheese on top"? Brits laughing at other people's food???? Now what did you say about sense of humour?

Click here to access the full list of cliches (2010-11):
"Young female TV presenters are a response to market demand".
"You've GOT to own your own home";
"
Society benefits from extreme wealth at the top";
"There are jobs out there if you really want one";
"The Royal Family brings in tourism revenue".

Steve Coogan 5 Jeremy Clarkstwit 0

Britain's top comedian slams Top Gear bullies.

You may have heard about the recent (minor) stir caused by Jeremy Clarkson the school bully and his two sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May with their latest round of embarrassingly lazy, xenophobic and unfunny comments.

After preying on the disabled and the blind (ha ha bet your sides are splitting), homosexuals and prostitutes, sweatshop workers and various nationalities that aren't the B-R-I-T-I-S-H (to be uttered in a proud, low-pitched tone), this time the three idiots decided to pick on the Mexicans.

However, the best answer to the current wave of testosterone-fuelled Clarksonite brand of bullying dressed up as "the-right-to-a-bit-of-fun" came from legendary comedian and Alan Partridge-creator Steve Coogan.

His article for today's Observer is just spot-on. Especially when he refers to "the regular defence you tend to hear – the tired line that it's 'just a laugh', a bit of 'harmless fun'" and to "the current "'postmodern' reaction to overzealous political correctness, [...] a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they'd been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour was taken off the air".

Berlusconi opens government to fascist party

How the Italian far-right went from God, Nation and Family to actively supporting an orgy host.

His conduct in government and a series of unfortunate remarks may have suggested otherwise but, until yesterday, Italian PM Berlusconi was at least able to reject accusations of flirting with fascism on the grounds that his allies were either former or reformed fascists who more or less turned their back on Mussolini.

Well, not anymore.

With his never ending scandals denting his popular support and the Italian right looking increasingly divided, Berlusconi is desperate for any vote he can grab.

This is why he announced yesterday that the unashamedly far-right party La Destra (The Right) have now joined his coalition and that one of their top dogs will soon be offered a ministerial post.

La Destra is Italy's direct equivalent of the BNP, except even more fascist. Though no doubt a very small party, tallying just over 680,000 votes (2,2%) at the 2009 European Parliament election, the group are the country's most outspoken apologists for the country's fascist past.

And indeed theirs is vintage stuff: from fascist-era typeface adorning their literature to their continuous references to christianity, "action" and "traditional values", all the way to their ├╝berfascist official slogan of "Dio, Patria e Famiglia" ("God, Nation and Family"), one thing you can't accuse La Destra of is lack of coherence.

However, how the "god" and "family" bits are going to sit next to a Prime Minister known for his penchant for orgies, libertine parties and underage prostitutes, no-one has yet managed to explain.

You bet that's going to be the most entertaining bit.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera

A series on contemporary European cinema.

3) Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera
(Spain, 2007)


The Noughties went down in history as the golden age of Spanish cinema.

From internationally acclaimed horrors like REC and The Orphanage to amazing dramas like Volver or Julia's Eyes, Spain spawned one gem after the other.

Outside Spanish-speaking countries, however, most releases remain best-kept secrets and the excellent black comedy Un buen dia lo tiene cualquiera (rough equivalent "Everyone's gotta have a good day") is a case in point.

Based on genius social observation, Santiago Lorenzo's satire is a take on the plight of today's thirtysomethings and the extent people may go to escape incertitude and general skintness.

With his dot-com company gone bust, Arturo has lost literally everything. His only hope lays in a local-authority project that offers young people and students a place as live-in carers for frail and ill OAPs. And while Arturo may be a bit long in the tooth to qualify, with the help of a couple of kickbacks and dodgy documents, he manages to land a room at Onofre's, a pensioner known to social workers and nurses as charming, quiet and docile.

No doubt things seem to be looking up. In order to keep his rent-free status, all Arturo has to do is administer the old man his medication and keep him some company.

Little does he know, however, that behind the poor OAP there's a rabid Mr Hyde setting out to make Arturo's life a mysery.

Manipulative and vindictive, Onofre is a true force to be reckoned with. The result is an escalating war between the two featuring a series of comical moments that will both baffle and entertain the viewer until the end.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Welcome

A series on contemporary European cinema.

2) Welcome (France, 2009)

Bilal has an impossible plan.

Having reached Calais after a 3-month journey from war-torn Northern Iraq, the Man Utd-obessed refugee is desperate to cross the Channel and make it to London where his beloved girlfriend Mina has recently emigrated with her family.

After an aborted early attempt that was thwarted by the police, Bilal conjures up a strategy to defy the freezing waters and swim all the way to England.

Not being a fine swimmer, however, he realises that he's in need of some intensive training.

This is how he meets local swimming instructor Simon, (Vincent Lindon) a surly, middle-aged French geezer who's in the throes of divorce papers and major changes in his life.

As the training sessions continue and the two develop an unlikely bond, the story meets a major turning point when Bilal finds out that Mina is suddenly being forced to marry one of her cousins in London.

With the boy getting increasingly impatient and unsettled, Simon learns first-hand the intense prejudices and restrictions that illegal immigrants and asylum seekers endure, cue his hostile neighbour (whose doormat sports the word WELCOME in capital letters - oh the irony) grassing him up to he police for "aiding and abetting" illegal immigrants.

Directed and written by Philip Lioret, Welcome's intensity is not always easy to digest and the drama and anguish of its final moments may prove too much for some people to take.

Yet, the film's gentle and minimalistic script and its touching tale of determination and humanity will make you feel grateful for allowing you into its world - a world that too many people refuse to acknowledge, blinded as they are by xenophobia and the convenient refusal to accept that some people are desperate and will do anything to escape war, poverty and devastation.

An extraordinary story that will stay with you for days.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Das Leben der Anderen

A series on contemporary European cinema.

1) The Lives of Others
(Germany, 2006)


More often than not the most effective or tensest moments in a film are delivered through subtle details. A single nod, a close-up, or even silence can prove more crucial in building-up a story than a million gimmicks.

The Lives of Others (original title: Das Leben der Anderen) is possibly the best film I've ever watched in terms of how subtlety is at the core of a powerful story.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a drama set at the peak of East German communism. It's 1984 and no-one suspects that one of the most stifling and controlling political regimes of the twentieth century is actually a few years away from dissolving.

East Germany was home to one of the most powerful secret police forces known to man. Making sure that nothing could ever change, loyal and devoted Stasi informers were there to obediently enforce submission. Threats, arrests, carrots and sticks were dished out with varying degrees of brutality by an army of zealots competing for who could gain the prize for the most righteous servant of "the state" and make a career out of it.

Except that, when your entire concept of power is based on grassing people up, it's only a matter of time before the entire edifice crumbles.

A state like the former DDR was bound to be consumed from within. Everyone was a potential suspect. You were monitored if you dissented and you were monitored if you didn't - the idea being that you've got to have something to hide if you're toeing the party line so religiously.

These are the premises behind The Lives of Others.

Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is one of the few artists the regime hasn't managed to alienate or force into exile.

His loyal and inoffensive work, with the added bonus of being one of the very few DDR writers still read in the West, grants him a fairly privileged life and access to powerful friends.

His life, however, is about to be turned upside down as powerful Stasi officers start suspecting that not even he is above suspicion.

Determined to dig up dirt, they decide to put him under strict surveillance, bugging his flat and monitoring everything 24/7. The task is assigned to officer Wiesler, ruthless, dedicated and robotic as well as a firm believer in the East German state and therefore a rising star within the secret police.

Trouble is, Wiesler will soon realise that behind Dreyman's surveillance there is a gruesome abuse of power. A mighty Minister has cast his eyes on the playwright's actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria - blackmailing her into an affair.

What makes the story particularly fascinating is the way it unravels. Each of the characters maintains an aura of mystery about them until the end, almost in line with the general state of mistrust that reigned supreme in the former DDR.

And so the viewer is not quite sure whether Dreyman has indeed something to hide, nor is it obviously clear that Christa-Maria is not involved in something shady. Wiesler himself - is he truly warming up to the people he is monitoring or will he put his loyalty to "the state" before basic issues of humanity?

Also masterful is the meticulous reconstruction and depiction of East German landscapes. Minimalistic designs, modernist offices and barren interiors add up to perma-grey skies and a rarefied atmosphere to portray a sense of general sallowness and fear.

Intense, claustrophobic and suspenseful, The Lives of Others is a gripping tale of humanity before it's a drama or a thriller.

Awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, it is definitely one of the best productions to have hailed from continental Europe over the last few decades.