Monday, February 25, 2008

Hot Guy Monday: Javier Bardem

After his much deserved victory last night for his frankly terrifying turn in No Country For Old Men, what better time to celebrate the hotness of Javier? There's just something about him that makes me go all weak in the knees and even though he's not classically good looking or anything, he's so rugged and masculine and indeed hot, that I would touch my toes for him pretty much at the drop of a hat. Even in his Oscar winning role, saddled with a haircut from hell and a personality to match, there was one scene where he had just got out the bath after washing his wounds clean and I still would have totally gone there.

Marion Cotillard won!

And so did Tilda Swinton! And Javier Bardem! It was a good night all round, it could only have been improved if Juno had gone home empty handed and either The Savages or Lars & The Real Girl has won Best Original Screenplay instead.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Simultaneously over AND under the weather

I have grown to really hate UK weather of late. We don't seem to have seasons any longer, I haven't seen snow since 2005 and generally I am just over it. We have had another warm winter with occasional cold snaps (thank God there's no such thing as global warming, right Mr Bush?) rather than the long stretch of germ killing cold we so desperately need. And the past couple of weeks has been bright sunny sunshine during the day and then the second the sun goes, the temperature has dropped through the floor. This makes the fact I am walking to work in the sun and home in the dark something of a clothing headache.

And of course, the erratic changes in temperature have wreaked havoc on my immune system and I have come down with a cold. Not sick enough to stay home from work on a justifiable level, I have been feeling rubbish all week. Just how rubbish and tired and blah was underlined for me last night when I went to watch this week's Reaper that I had recorded, only to discover instead of taping an hour and two minutes of television, I had taped four minutes. Bitter.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blood, Sweat & Tears

I saw There Will Be Blood on Saturday night. I was sort of intrigued to see it, but never what you might call excited. I run very hot and cold where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned and I flat out fucking hated Punch Drunk Love. But this film is a rare beast indeed and one that should be seen.

At its centre, the film has what would, for any other actor, be a career defining, revelatory performance. But it's Daniel Day-Lewis and therefore it's business as usual. There's something about Lewis I just can't take to. He's such a cold fish. He's a phenomenal actor, but he's serious and humourless about his "craft" to the point of mind numbing tedium, and so painfully Method about everything, I often just want to shake him and say "oh for heavens sake would you lighten up?". He can be unforgiving to work with too, as the unnamed actor originally cast in the role of Eli Sunday will attest. Let go from the film midway through the shoot because, to quote Day-Lewis "we just weren't coping". With all that being said, his performance as Daniel Plainview is pretty astonishing.

There Will Be Blood is Plainview's story, foloowing him from humble solo beginnings, until he is a oil baron, commanding hundreds of men. During the story's wordless opening (it is a full eleven and a half minutes before any dialogue appears) Plainview adopts a fallen colleague's child for what might initially be seen as compassionate reasons. But in this film, nothing is really what it seems. Plainview is a man with no morals, no scruples, no nothing. Apparently. And yet, there are some moments that could be construed as genuinely tender. What struck me is that Plainview is a man constantly at war with himself, strangling any compassionate feelings because he knows he has to in order to survive rather than actually being an out an out calculating sociopath. Paul Dano is the constant thorn in Plainview's side, preaching religion and not hesitating in blackmailing people to act out his revenge. There are some truly thrilling moments in these scenes where he and Plainview clash against each other. Unfortunately, Dano was cast with just four days to prepare and consequently, while he's very good considering, he struggles with some of the less subtle sermons the fervent Eli delivers. Performance-wise though, the real revelation is Dillon Freasier as the young HR Plainview, Daniel's adopted son and, in just one heartbreaking scene, Russell Harvard as the grown up HR.

And so it goes, for 150 character driven, perfectly paced, exquisitely directed, always engrossing minutes. And then, some people say, Anderson spends 8 minutes completely upsetting the apple cart, pushing Day Lewis' performance so far over the top it comes down the other side, and taking Plainview to a conclusion that is anything but logical. Well to those people, I say this; poppycock. The final scene of the movie is pitch perfect and, if you read Plainview in the way I did, makes entirely logical sense. It doesn't make for comfortable easy viewing, but it makes sense. A film to be admired and respected rather than loved, There Will Be Blood is challenging viewing, but a challenge that is infinitely rewarding.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hot Guy Monday*: Bret Harrison

*Yes, I know it's Sunday but my internet connection has been off and on all week (more off than on) and driving me insane. It's back at the moment so I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

Anyway, I have started watching and am thoroughly enjoying Reaper. I am heartened that, now the writer's strike is over, it's one of the freshman shows gearing back up for more episodes (which is more than can be said for the likes of Bionic Woman). Anyway, as much as I am enjoying how funny and dark the show is, my enjoyment is undeniably enhanced by the incredibly easy on the eye Bret Harrison in the title role.

There's apparently some contractual clause whereby he has to take his shirt off every week. Fine by me.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A turn up for the books

Technically, it's a turn up for the movies but that is not the saying now, is it? Anyway, two movies recently opened in the UK, arriving from the US on tidal waves of hype and hysteria (and in one film's case, many award nominations). I have now seen both and had my expectations confounded in both instances. Allow me to elaborate further.

Cloverfield's hype machine started about twenty minutes after the teaser trailer debuted, out of nowhere, in front of the US release of Transformers. It all kicked off so quickly that I was instantly suspicious of it all. It seemed so very planned. And of course it was, as JJ Abrams, the film's producer and publicity mastermind, has now admitted. The teaser trailer was specially shot and was in theatres a week before principal photography on the picture started rolling. As the film's US release neared, and new trailers demonstrated that the film was nothing more than a mash up of Blair Witch Project and any number of monster movies, what little interest I may have had in it quickly evaporated. The precipitously steep second weekend drop off in the US confirmed what I had come to believe before seeing it: the film was no good and word of mouth was killing it dead.

But I still went to see it, mainly because I wanted to be able to sneer about it from a more informed perspective (the same reason that I continue to watch Prison Break, even though it jumped the shark about 8 episodes ago). And I'll be damned, but I actually really enjoyed it. Not buying into hype, it seems, is a good thing. While the film is not perfect, it is still hugely enjoyable. I liked that you never found out anything about where the monster was from, why it had appeared, nothing. It was just there and there was something fantastically unsettling about not having an overly intrusive musical score or editing style to dictate when to jump, when to be scared, when to hide behind your hands, etc.

It wasn't perfect, of course. A couple of obvious blue screen moments and some nagging questions that pull you out of the reality of the situation (would one character really walk three miles through subway tunnels in strappy high heels without taking them off or complaining about how much her feet are hurting?) but for a film that you know the outcome of from the very beginning (we're told that the film was recovered at the site formerly known as Central Park, so you know going on that nobody is going to make it out alive), it is still pretty riveting to watch. There is already talk of a sequel though, which would be a terrible idea. Book Of Shadows, anyone?

And then there's Juno. Originally this entry was going to be titled "what not to expect when you watch a movie about someone who's expecting" but that was too cumbersome. Anyway, it is opening here having gone from being "little seen indie film" to "rave reviewed, Oscar nominated, huge box office smash hit movie" seemingly overnight. I have been seeing trailers for it since October and thought it looked like it could be cute and funny as well as insightful and honest. Well, how wrong I was.

The performances are the only good thing the movie had to offer. Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Alison Janney, JK Simmons, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, all great. But the dialogue, oh sweet Jesus, the dialogue. Nobody talks the way these people do. People like Juno simply do not exist and so making an oh so real film with that character as your centrepiece? I was never going to buy it. It's telling that the film only works when it drops its "I'm so smart and clever, LOOK AT ME AND NOTICE how smart and clever I am" schtick that made me want to track writer Diablo Cody down and punch her in the face. Even more telling, the only moment that really feels genuine and true is entirely devoid of speech, as Juno and Bleecker embrace after she has given birth. I keep reading reviews that say how one of the reasons Juno is such a success is because it is a lot smarter than you think it is going to be. I could not agree less and I have to say the biggest reason that I fundamentally don't think it's a good film is because it isn't anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Books of 2008

aka if Limecrete is doing it then I can too. So here it is, my 2008 reading list so far and I will update with every finished book. Feel free to comment, disagree, suggest, criticise, snipe, whatever :-).

The Gathering - Anne Enright

I hated Enright's style of writing so intensely I gave up after fifty tedious pages.

We Disappear - Scott Heim

I had a brief email friendship with Scott Heim in the lead up to the release of Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki's top notch adaptation of Heim's debut novel. It started when I attended a festival screening of the movie and Heim was there for a post screening Q & A. On the way out, I found myself behind him and so I tapped him on the shoulder and politely enquired when we could expect to see his third book.

Three years later and here it is. It was worth the wait. A highly personal story inspired by caring for his mother as she succumbed to cancer, that is the book's central narrative (with characters named Scott and Donna, his mother's name) with some decidedly dark twists. His mother has been obsessed with missing kids the whole time he's known her and they bonded in his teens over the death of one of Scott's classmates. In her final months, he returns home, battling a crushing meth addiction and his mother reveals an awful secret to him that sends his world into disarray. Dark, depressing, beautiful and oddly uplifting, this book is all the stronger for leaving a lot of loose ends rather than going for neat resolutions.

The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory

I toyed with reading this book several times and never did, as my track record with historical fiction is not what you would call stellar. I saw the movie with one of my best friends (and ex-flatmate). Neither of us particularly enjoyed it, but she's a HUGE fan of the novel and implored me to read it, assuring me it bore no resemblance to the film.

She was not wrong. Gregory knows her stuff and has researched to within an inch of her life, keeping as much historical accuracy as dramatically possible. Her descriptions are rich and vivid and the obvious knowledge Gregory has of her subject means that she can weave the fiction around the fact and make for a pretty seamless blend. Managing to succeed as a character study (of both the Boleyn girls) as well as a fascinating narrative in its own right, Gregory's fluid storytelling won me over and I will be seeking out her other books for sure.

- Sarah Dunant

A nasty and gripping thriller from an author whose later novels have been historical romances. Go figure. I was intrigued by the description of a woman living alone following an ugly break up who begins to think either her house is haunted or that her twisted ex is messing with her after an unexplained series of events. That is until one night she wakes in the middle of the night to find out what is really going on. Who wouldn't be sucked in with a jacket description like that? The revelations about "what is really going on" are ever so slightly terrifying and turn what had been mildly interesting into a real page turner. Not one to read if you live alone though.

Blind Fall
- Christopher Rice

Sigh. I loved the first two books from Rice. I finished The Snow Garden in a day and a half when I was home sick from work in fact. His third novel was a long time coming and when it arrived, it was an over plotted mish mash that didn't really come together. It's disheartening to note that his latest suffers from the same faults. Characters never really make it beyond the two dimensional and the plot is too far fetched and not well enough constructed to pull the reader in. Here's hoping the losing streak does not continue.

No Time For Goodbye - Linwood Barclay

Another book I picked up purely because of the jacket description. A drunken teenager has a fight with her family one night. The next morning, she wakes up with a bad hangover and the dread of having to face up to her parents over her antics the night before. Only her family are gone. Vanished without a trace, a note, nothing. She's all alone. Quite the jumping off point, no? Picking up twenty five years after that fateful night as Cynthia, the girl left behind, turns to a tv show to publicise her story again, in the hope of stirring up some answers. Once the cranks and the charlatans are out of the way, just as she's about to give up hope, a letter arrives and its contents send her world spinning of its axis. It's an utterly fascinating read and I loved that I had NO idea exactly what had happened until Barclay reveals it to the reader. And while you could argue that by the novel's end, all the loose ends are cleaned up a little too neatly, the final pages still packs a hefty emotional punch. Recommended.

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

Following up her universally adored fiction debut, Sebold gives her readers something altogether less easy to love. The story of a middle aged woman who kills her ailing mother, the book is populated by spiky and not altogether likeable characters. It is very tangential in its telling, giving it a somewhat ramshackle feel and it is also quite elliptical, which makes the reader do the dot joining in places, which I am all for. Utterly devoid of sentimentality, Sebold proves herself to be an incisive and intelligent wordsmith.

Duma Key - Stephen King

Ah, Mr King. We've had a stormy time of it lately, but I've been reading your novels for 20 years now (a thought more terrifying than any of his output, thank you kindly). While I have not loved every one of his novels, nor have I fanatically read every single one, when King hits the bullseye, it's gripping stuff that generally exceeds his "horror novelist" limitations.

Since being mown down and almost killed 9 years ago (9 years! Jesus I feel so old), King's output has been, well, I'll be kind and say erratic. Dreamcatcher was one of his worst books, bordering on unreadable. Cell was no-nonsense delight. And so we come to Duma Key, which falls somewhere in the middle. Telling the story of Edgar Freemantle, who almost dies in an industrial accident (can't imagine what inspired him) and moves to the titular Key, minus an arm, to recuperate from his almost fatal injuries. Here he meets Jerome Wireman, an ex-lawyer with wounds of his own, and the aging Elizabeth Eastlake, who owns most of the Key. When Edgar suddenly finds a talent for painting he never had before, slowly the horrific past of the Key and the Eastlake family comes to light, reaching into Edgar's life and altering it forever.

Leaving aside the clunky character names, the main problem I had with the book is Wireman. He's really fucking irritating. Told in the first person by Edgar, the opening pages of the book are all written after the main events, being all reflective. Every other paragraph, it seems, contains some ghastly homespun philosophy, followed by "that's what Wireman says". Several chapters before his arrival, I'm already over him. So when he insists on overusing the word "muchacho" along with the philosophies, well, it's the final nail in his coffin for me.

This meant I persevered with this book through gritted teeth as the main story was intriguing. And so when that went a little off the rails in the final pages, it was a little irritating to say the least. Duma Key tries to tell a big story on a grand scale and ends up falling short. So while it's not unreadable, it's not one of King's best either, not by a long shot.

The Eyre Affair
- Jasper Fforde
Lost In A Good Book - Jasper Fforde
The Well Of Lost Plots - Jasper Forde
Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde
First Among Sequels - Jasper Fforde

A dear friend recommended Jasper Fforde to me and I shall be eternally grateful that she did. His novels are absolutely genius. Set in an alternate version of the real world, it is a place where you can travel through time, step inside novels, croquet is a contact sport, Shakespeare plays are audience participation affairs and cheese is an illegal substance. With The Eyre Affair, Fforde introduces us to the fabulous Thursday Next, a literary detective with SpecOps, who dedicates her professional life to such matters as stolen original manuscripts, unearthing forgeries, etc. Her demented uncle invents a way to step inside fiction, literally by entering the book and when it falls into the wrong hands, Jane Eyre ends up being kidnapped and it is Thursday's mission to return her safe and well.

Describing them here really doesn't do Fforde's fabulously loopy ideas and fluid story telling justice. When Thursday discovers that there is a real fictional world, where characters live and books are created (the ideas fed to the author by the characters), she becomes a member of Jurisfiction, dedicating to stopping crime in the fiction world (eliminating grammasites, tracking down page runners and so on) as well as maintaining her SpecOps role in the real world.

In addition to being cleverly plotted crime novels, the Thursday Next series are also consistently laugh out loud funny, packed full of literary jokes and a fantastically colourful supporting cast make them a joy to read. With the latest of the series, the wormhole does threaten to collapse in on itself, but somehow Fforde manages to pull off having not one but three Thursdays in the same book. I have unfortunately read all five in the space of two weeks and now have to wait until 2009 for the next installment, currently going under the working title of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

The Big Over Easy
- Jasper Fforde
The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde

Not content with having one series, Fforde wrote himself a spin off. In The Well Of Lost Plots, Thursday takes refuge in the fictional world for reasons it would take too long to explain here. The titular well is where unpublished manuscripts and half formed ideas reside. Thursday is living in one of these, a hackneyed crime novel that is possibly beyond salvage. A subplot of Well sees Thursday trying to resolve a dispute and threatened strike by nursery rhyme characters and other people who inhabit what he calls the Oral Tradition. Her eventual resolution is to house them all in the hackneyed novel, thereby saving it from deletion. And lo, The Big Over Easy is born. A whodunnit with the victim is Humpty Dumpty and the investigating officers are Jack Sprat and Mary Mary (she's quite contrary). Somehow, Fforde makes this work on as many levels as the Next novels and not only did I laugh out loud pretty consistently I also had NO idea where he was going with it. Brilliant.

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

I finally caved and read The Kite Runner late last year. I don't know why I had avoided it for so long, but I pretty much devoured it whole once I started it. It has its detractors for being too heavily reliant on coincidences but I'll take coincidences when they are this poetically written and when the author resists from the cliche happy sappy ending with the easy answers. Suns is not as easy to love nor as easy to read. It is slower going but once it hits its stride then it's very engaging, occasionally jaw dropping and ultimately heartbreaking as it tells the story of two women, the man who marries them both and the toll he, the Soviets and the Taliban take on their lives.

Friday, February 01, 2008

February's Farmer

Here is the naked farmer for the month. To accompany him, here's another crazy, unfortunate but verified as true name:

Zenier Snowball Snowball.