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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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".

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


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.