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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Christmas House

UPDATE CHRISTMAS DAY 2008: Regrettably, I've just read that this beautiful display will come to an end on New Year's. This is your very last year to catch this, so please do so whilst you can!

It's almost the New Year, having just waved goodbye to Christmas 2006.

But as Gretchen Wilson says in Redneck Woman, "I keep my Christmas Lights on my front porch all year long" -- Christmas ain't over, until you take your life-sized Frosty with timer-lights down!

(I usually disassemble my Christmas display on 6 January, Epiphany, having put them up around 6 December, AKA the Feast of Saint Nicholas. We just have a tree, a Christmassy sock outside the door, and of course, a manger. When I was growing up, trust me, my German mother went ALL out)

Christmas can mean many things to people, but in suburbia, it usually means competition.

Who has the best Christmas display on the block?
Who outdoes even the richies next door?
Who puts on a light show worthy of a Rolling Stones rock concert?

And most importantly, whose display is so massive, so awesome, so in-your-face expensive, that you actually have people coming from miles away, with cops helping corral these gawkers outside their home?

We all have one such home in our various cities around the world (although admittedly, us Euroweenies don't go whole-hog like Americans do -- as ever).

And here is the Miami Christmas House to end all Christmas Houses!

Come join me in my latest South Florida Travellogue, as I post the last time this year, sending it off in style.

THE CLOT FAMILY CHRISTMAS HOUSE

Who are the Clots, you say?

They are a family in Pinecrest, Florida (a ritzy neighbourhood in South Miami, long-time homestead of outgoing Governor Jeb Bush) who have had a Christmas Display on their properties, going back 30 years now.

The matriach of this family, Archy, died in 2000, but she was a local legend in the area, having been associated with the University of Miami, the local Mensa chapter, and as a breeder/judge of Afghan hounds, since her birth. Yes, a bona fide Miami-born native. Who knew they existed?

The Clots (I know, right, it sounds like The Claus) even have a website.

"Each year, the Clot family gives away over 60,000 candy canes to children who visit the site. The display consists of over 600,000 lights, over 100 custom made animated displays and takes approximately 15 days and 15 volunteers to assemble. The display draws in excess of 2,000 amps of current and consumes approximately $4,000.00 in electricity monthly."

An older reference perhaps because tonight, they had a scrolling electric sign which said it took 21 volunteers to put up this display, starting in July (!), bless them.

I don't know what you may think, you might even think this is craziness or worse, but I personally find this kind of dedication to making others happy, amazing.

The Clots are what make this world a charming playground of free fun, which you have only to open your eyes, to enjoy.

And today, you have me as your guide to this little corner of wonder.

The first time you approach the house, you'll see two police cars alongside 120th street deep inside Pinecrest. Their lights are flashing up a storm, and that starts your heart pumping (especially if you have expired tags like me).

Suddenly, you see the first peaks of lights in the distance, with a pile-up of cars parked willy-nilly, all around the side streets.

Lastly, you'll see kiddies of all sizes leading their parents, dragging them to go faster to see Frosty, Rudolph and Santa. Hurreeee!

Then you see this.





And I don't know one person in this world, no matter how jaded or how old, that doesn't remember what it was to be a child, at that very moment.





My mum, despite being the daughter of a soldier, and a wife of another who actually wore a red coat, remarked in all seriousness about this delightful display of toy soldiers,

"Look at the English bobbies, how cute". Allll-righty then.





Now, I know what you're thinking. "Vic, this Christmas House display is HUGE. Where does it end!?".

Relax, what's your hurry? Look at Santa and Mrs. Claus in their cosy cottage.

Though I'm not quite sure they actually have camels in the North Pole, but hey.





Father Claus? Sounds like they were aiming for a more international flavour, like Pére Noël meets Father Christmas, perhaps.





Here is South Florida's only known skating rink. You can tell the revellers are Miamians, because one has fallen over attempting to skate.

I told my mother she was out of practise, but would she listen? Would she, cocoa.

I had too much fun watching the train go 'round to laugh at her.





And like Rockefeller Centre with their rink, we also have a towering Christmas Tree to bedeck the scene.

Rather bad form to dress up the Three Wise Men as Rockettes, I thought, though.





But in all seriousness, these Christmas displays so far are delightful, but here is, as they say, the Reason For The Season.

I liked this Nativity scene, a lot. It was simple, in fact, rather plain.

And that's just as it should be.





Unless you move slightly to the right, and view it with tinsel and shepherds practically falling into Baby Jesus' face. Ah well.





Have you ever been to Disney World here in Florida?

Well, if you have, you'll join me in chorusing, "RIP OFF!" about this Singing Bear Jamboree scene.

There is a "ride" up in the Magic Kingdom, which is actually a sit-down restaurant, whose floorshow are these animatronic jamboree bears with banjoes, and what-not.

I swear they even play the same songs! Wait, what am I complaining about? This totally rocked.





The good thing about Christmas in this country, is that it's not just a religious holiday, oh no. Christmas evokes images from Americana -- a cross between Norman Rockwell and Charles Dickens, all in one hokey gift-wrapped package.

Here is this yesteryear scene of two Victorians selling apples for a nickle, and roasted chestnuts at virtually give-away prices. The woman is even wearing a bonnet!





...not to mention these kids on a sled. A sled!





...and carollers?? Begging for money for their Christmas goose, no doubt.

The secular-progressives have much to answer for. I'm emailing Bill O'Reilly.





The tour is almost over, but not without first taking a ride on the Ferris Wheel. Buy a ticket from the elves, leprechauns or whatever, and hop on...





Because your ride is over!

Yes, even the Clots couldn't afford more Christmas lights, geegaws, and displays after this scene. Cheapskates.

By the way, their front yard may be huge enough to handle this copious, and may I say in all honesty, absolutely dazzling Christmas scene, but their home (seen behind the Ferris Wheel), was surprisingly modest.

Just goes to show, even if you don't have the money of a Rockefeller, with a little Christmas spirit...

...the right connexions in City Hall

...lots of volunteer family members

...long-suffering neighbours

...and a strategically placed donation box...

...you too can put up a massive Christmas display like this, in your humble abode.

You wish.





The real long holiday that centres around Christmas Day is almost over, my friends.

On comes the New Year, this 2007 which ends with a lucky number. What will it bring? Will it bring Peace on Earth, and Glad Tidings To All?

That is surely the wish of everyone, in the spirit of the birth of Our Saviour, one of hope and mercy.

I will be away until Tuesday, 2 January, as I spend New Years at fancier digs in Palm Beach with my parents, but believe me when I tell you, I wish all of you the safest, most wonderful New Year's Celebrations, yet.

See you next year! God willing.

The Clots Home is Located At:

6840 SW 119 Street
Pinecrest, Florida 33156


OPEN UNTIL THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 1st ONLY!

(Take South Dixie all the way to Ludlam, turn and follow Ludlam to 120th Street. Turn into 68th court, and follow the cars and pedestrians. You can't miss it. Parking is Cuban-style, en la loma)

ADDENDUM: Oh, yeah. I took a fuzzy video to show you the display in real time. The girl laughing at the little Austrian (tourist?) boy saying "Der Rudolph, mit der roten Nase!", is me. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hero's Hero

"The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." - Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth


You've heard of the concept of "paying it forward", I'm sure. There was a film based on the idea, not so long ago.

Instead of doing something kind or generous back to the person who did so to you, you choose 3 other people, and return the favour in spirit, that was given to you.

Here is a related idea, albeit not nearly as altruistic (but perhaps, it may inspire people in some small way).

Everyone has an hero or heroine that they admire. Usually a famous person, but not always -- it could be a family member.

So try this.

Find a person you have always admired, and look up or divulge in the comments, who THEIR hero or heroine was.

I have many many heroes, not the least of which is because I am an Historian by education.

One very special hero of mine, however, is Dr. Wernher von Braun.

(Yes, I too wanted to be an astronaut, growing up. Didn't we all?)

When I was a child, and somewhat sickly, necessitating long periods in bed (where I read, and read, and read...and watched films on the VCR -- now you know), I read his recollections about his youth, in one of those primers aimed to inspire schoolchildren in English-speaking lands, which you chose from a leaflet given out in school.

Well do I remember the "Meet..." series of books, such as "Meet John F. Kennedy", and "Meet Winston S. Churchill", which so marked my childhood imagination. They were a mere 25p each, and I used to use my tuck money not on sweets, which I hate anyway, but on books about these various men and women of happy memory.

The young German junker fell in love with the possibility of rocket flight when he was 12, after having read of Fritz von Opel's speed record setting adventures in Wilhelmine Germany.

Dr. von Braun -- urbane, charismatic, prodigiously intelligent -- had many heroes, including the unforgettable intellect that was American physicist, Dr. Robert Goddard of Clark University.

But he relates that he would deeply come to admire the courage of Woo Han, who has humourously been listed as the 'world's first astronaut', after his experiment around the year 1500.



This noble Chinese bureaucrat (not unlike Dr. von Braun in background, and certainly in intrepid curiosity) set about seeing if he could fly to the moon, and placing two sticks across a make-shift litter, he sat on his throne-like rocket, waiting for 47 "coolies" to light the fuses which were to propel him to that hunk o' cheese.

Wan Hoo was never seen or heard from again.

...what a magnificent person Wan Hoo must've been.

Now, it may be trite to say that one's heroes' heroes can become inspirational to you, providing a link to what makes your chosen object of admiration "tick", but equally, it is very true that we are deeply social animals, getting our cues from each other.

I know that story always fired my imagination, as it did generations of children around the world, dreaming of fantastical pioneers long dead, but not forgotten.

How about you? Who is your hero, and do you know who s/he admired?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

President Gerald Ford Has Died



Few men have been so unwanted, so ridiculed, so dismissed, as 38th US President Gerald Ford, whose death at the age of 93, has just been announced on 26 December 2006.

And so few men have lived such a charmed life, as this handsome, bluff, earnest gentleman from Michigan, the last surviving member of the equally ridiculed, Warren Commission.

He was the All-American Boy, if ever there was one.

Born to a humble, not to say poor background in Nebraska, but whose athletic skills and self-effacing personality won him the adulation of his school peers, male and female, the man whose birth name was Leslie Lynch King, Jr. soon left with his battered mother to start up life anew in Michigan, aged a mere 2 years.

Though he succeeded President Richard M. Nixon in the most trying hand-over of Executive power the United States had ever seen to date, and he served his country in the same way he lived it (without fanfare, in the good ole Midwestern manner), it's possible that becoming US President was not his finest hour.

That moment, he would one day relate to a presidential biographer, was when he was seated in a Grand Rapids movie theatre, when it was announced that he had been elected the Most Popular Student in his entire city.

Let's hope the echoes of those youthful cheers in that movie-theatre, sustained him during the SNL skits, the Watergate pardon hubbub, the sneers of Washingtonians more taken with style over character.

Life was not kind to Gerald Ford. But he made it despite everything ranged against him.

He was the American Dream. RIP.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Two Christmas Stories

Never let it be said that MySpace doesn't have some humdinger posts.

You know, there are people in this world who scoff at the LiveJournal and MyS crowd, as if being on Blogger or similar, is acknowledgement that they're not in on the whole friend-network (more dedicated to spewing self-involved "what I had for lunch" stories): the opposite of what we like to think serious blogs are -- a repository for social history and commentary, but one tinged with professionalism.

Not I. At least, not for a while, anyway.

Admittedly, I went to MySpace only after clicking on my hit counter link to see how a person arrived at a particular blogpost, curious to know what other posts similar to mine, are out there.

(Surely there is a term for this Technorati-inspired theme searching, like looking yourself up in Google is called, "egosurfing"?)

It is this way that I chanced on these two blogposts, via Technorati's Children of Men citations. I had of course, just blogged about the film Christmas Day.

The first post I read, at first blush, was one of those Christmas humbug stories which do nothing more to you, than make you hug your life in thankfulness that their story is as unlike yours as possible.

But keep reading.

This well of loneliness contains something deeper, a rare self-awareness, candour and very real yearning, whose voice is not a whiney screed of Christmas-hate the likes of which Maureen Dowd would fling out like so much tinsel, but a real cri de coeur.

It's hard to explain to another person just when a book, a film, a mere encounter grabs one by the heart and stirs one's soul, but actually, with this 26-year old man from Arizona, the moment was the very last paragraph.

I can't wait for this year to be over, for the celebrations to stop, so that I can stop thinking about the fact that I don't have any children to watch as they open their presents on Christmas morning; that I don't have a beautiful wife that I can cook breakfast for; that on New Years eve I'll most likely be sitting in my mothers front room listening to fireworks going off somewhere else as happy couples and parents cheer and enjoy their lives.

I just want the holidays to be over, so I can start over again too.

Maybe you find this off-putting during the high of Christmas, or it makes you uncomfortable because it hits too close to the knuckle? Perhaps you are aware that this is but one story in a billion similar tales, so why highlight it.

I don't rightly know what I should reply to that; just that I can feel this man's potential 6,000 miles away (which I suspect he knows he has too, making him doubly bitter), but in life, potential is perhaps the most oppressive thing a human can have.

I know.

Yet, I don't, because I never confuse or compare my potential to anyone else's life trajectory. This is my saving grace.

And his tragedy.

Next, is my fellow thirty-something lady blogger from California.

Her avatar of a Mexican Christmas sombrero, and those granola bar good-looks associated with California girls belie her grumbles about consumerism and the Judeo-Christian world (grad student thesis alert), so I kept reading.

And this is where she "got" me, well into her third paragraph:

"Still, there are certain things about Christmas that resurrect "the better angels of our nature" as Lincoln said."

As a reader, I was prepared for anything after that, but even I wasn't prepared for the shock of recognition after she mentioned Army Staff Sergeant Clint D. Ferrin, her "first-born cousin" on her father's side.

Not only did the phrase 'first-born cousin' grab my throat, for whatever reason considering it's a rather prosaic and common way of referring to a family member, but I wasn't prepared to see his photo, when she announced that he died in Iraq in 2004, a few lines further down.



You know, I come from a military family and there has scarcely been a war involving Britain where a family member of mine has not served.

But we're survivors. We cling to life, with the cynicism of the desperate.

And yet...whenever I take out old family photographs of these young men, I am struck by how fresh of cheek they are. They look so goshdarned WHOLESOME, you know?

Heroic. Self-sacrificing. Manly.

Do I romanticise their existence because of how they lived it? Maybe.

To people who dislike all things military, it's an impossible evocation, and one which they will never understand. People like that, will never know the reasons why I love the military, because they think I just look at their lives through the prism of this romanticism.

But I also have read some of their letters, and I know they were no saints -- so that admiration I have is tempered by the knowledge that they were scared, and hungry, and oft-times wanted to run away from the awful, cruel world around them.

But still they stayed, literally, soldiering on.

This is the wave of emotion that swept over me, when I saw this young man saluting so stoicly, so simply, at a fallen comrade's make-shift memorial (a salute some other soldier would repeat one day, for him...).

He's beautiful.

For all I know, he was a coward, a thief, an imbecile, but to me, he is ethereally beautiful in that one snapshot of his existence -- facing it one phantasmagoric and deadly dull day after the other.

Those are my two Christmas visions today.

Call them the stockingstuffers of reality. Tomorrow, we can laugh.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Children Of Men - Day Of Turkey

Merry Christmas, each and every reader of my humble blog™.

If I could give you a wish this day, it would be that each of you have health, wealth and serenity to last you out your lifetimes.

As for me, I will be doing the Family Thing this 25 December, as per usual, same as many of you shall be, too.

So whilst I am busy procuring our turkey from abler hands than mine, I offer unto you yet another movie-centric blogpost, which I posted earlier today on Yahoo! Movies.

It's a film review of Children of Men, which debuts in the US this Christmas Day. Enjoy!

The Nativity Story

Quick, how old will you be in the year 2027? Well, hurry and grow up because we humans, says Children of Men, have only 2 more years to churn out our younguns.

I've had four months to ponder this movie, since Alfonso Cuarón's film opened on the first day of Autumn in the UK and in Europe (it even debuted in Mexico a full month before its US debut on Christmas Day, since of course, Cuarón is Mexican).

Four months to ruminate, to re-evaluate, to philosophise the major premises of this film, and I can say, I may not be much the wiser about the underpinning motivations of this film, but it is certainly a movie which has that effect on one:

Its themes stay long with you. Its visuals are unforgettable.



This is the kind of film which you run to the IMDB messageboards to lurk for clarification, or to post about your feelings, to see if others shared your impressions of it.

In that sense, Children of Men is very special, and whatever its failings, like Brazil or Bladerunner (two films I love), its vision overcomes palpable weaknessses in plot, or ideology.

PLOT OUTLINE

The story is simple.

The world is in chaos -- no, no, more than usual.

For reasons never explained, humans are unable to go forth and multiply, with the last human child (an Argentinian lad going by the shockingly obvious name of Diego, aged a mere 18) ushering in the film by his untimely, violent, bitterly ironic death.

Since this calamitous series of events, the world seems to have turned in on itself, gobbling itself up, a social Hiroshima which only Britain was able to survive (again, unexplained as to why).

But alongside our tea, scones, and continued bloody weather, there has also survived a viciously post-Fascist government, which has given up all pretense to being the inspiration for the Mother of Parliaments, content now to shove the teeming refugees seeking asylum in Britain, into concentration camps which are only gateways to mass deportation.

But fear not -- there's a terrorist group known as the Fishes who mean to challenge the jackbooted status quo!

Yes, terrorists are the good guys, as can only be the case when the world has flushed itself down the commode.

Enter Theo Faron (in a beautifully judged performance by the perpetually unshaven, Clive Owen), sometime anarchist, full-time lush.

This middling bureaucrat at the Ministry of Energy has ties to the Fishes via his former lover (Julianne Moore, in a somewhat forgettable performance), an underground operative who enlists his services for a Very Special Task -- a young black woman has a secret, but it will only be revealed fully in 9 months. I'll give you three guesses what it is.

VISUALS

Most futurist sci-fi thrillers (or variants thereof) have a strange peculiarity about them:

Either the future is unaccountably grim because a cataclysmic event -- usually a consequence of very poor decisions on our part -- has jolted us from our cosy consumerist Utopias, or it is uncommonly perfect, in that overly sterile, neat way the future represents to some (a world where grime has been vanquished, one Lysol can at a time).



Dystopic, futurist films seem to evoke a perpetual Orwellian mood whereby all humans seem stuck with an ill-fitting, grey flannel 1930s wardrobe...or 2001: A Space Odyssey proto-space suits all in one colour, that always seem to zip up at the back.

(Is there something about the future which renders colour dyes obsolete? Have we learned nothing from Gianni Versace's short stay on earth?)

Children of Men firmly belongs into the former camp of "grey is beautiful", although you'll be happy to know that dog tracks and flat-screen TVs are not only still around and ubiquitous, but we can play Wii videogames at the dinner table.

Oh, and marijuana somehow survived too. Huzzah!

DIRECTION AND PERFORMANCES

Unlike DeNiro's Good Shepherd, which trades slickness for cleverness and lacks a heart, Children of Men is given its soul by the gorgeous hand-held cinematography and direction of Alfonso Cuarón, who single-handedly reinvigorated the Harry Potter series.

At times, the pull out shots, and long-takes reminds one of Orson Welles at his finest, and indeed, this film owes something to The Third Man, a world covered in rubble giving it the oft-mentioned adjective of "gritty"...as well as The Trial, where petty government stands for psychotic oppresiveness.

Unlike Anthony Perkins in The Trial, our bureaucrat seems to be made of sterner stuff, and good job too, since he is acting as humanity's midwife.



Or, and this goes to Clive Owen's doughty performance, is Theo perhaps even a stand-in Joseph for the newest miracle baby about to be born?

Claire-Hope Ashitey plays the would-be Mary with a refreshing lack of fragileness, and though Michael Caine steals every scene he is in (even the stork joke works), it is these three actors who make Children of Men click.

(Minor quibble about Michael Caine's spindly hippie wig. It makes him look for all the world, like Christopher Lloyd in Back To The Future. And his wife looks like a cataleptic Janis Joplin)



The film took a while to grab me, but for whatever reason, I was hooked by its vision after the Michaelangelo David scene, which is striking even if you've never seen the real or "Victoria and Albert" versions.

PHILOSOPHY AND IDEOLOGY

I suppose it's a truism that our obsessions of today, make for our obsessions of how we view tomorrow.

For all we know, in the year 2027 not only has infertility been conquered, but maybe even males of the species incubate babies just like us gals can.

Won't we all have a laugh at Children of Men then.

Similarly, the present world woes where Islamic terrorism does more than nip at our heels, could have been muted, or even eradicated, and therefore the fears of an all-encroaching Big Brother State might seem like so much paranoia.

It is true that Children of Men has these philosophical, even ideological underpinnings which cannot go unremarked -- it comes from a vision that the road we are on, for some, is not to their liking, and they believe that lack of empathy for foreigners/immigrants (or just the "other"), lack of regard for privacy concerns, lack of subtlety towards people who have revindications due to land disputes and lack of fairness towards them, will only lead to a worsening world.

But unlike the majority of doomsday films set sometime in the near future, Children of Men raises itself up from being a mere chase film, to being one with an express hope.

That humanity be better than what it has been, so that it may (be allowed to...?) survive.

For what it's worth, I liked this film and though I don't think it'll do nearly as well in the US as it did in the UK -- not the least of which because its release was awkward for so gritty a film -- Children of Men is a fine modern successor to the futurist genre, unlike the neurasthenic V For Vendetta.

Its second-best, is not good enough.

But when it's on, it's magnificent.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Borat Phenomenon



Did you click on the Youtube link, yet? I'll take that as a yes.

What you saw on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show is guaranteed to be shocking to the rank and file of the British public.

Why?

Because Sacha Baron Cohen talking out of character is a very rare thing -- in fact, he's purposely refused to be interviewed out of character in Britain, the better to be accepted IN character.

Not since another beloved Jewish comic, Adolph Arthur (Harpo) Marx, has there been such commitment, such perserverence, and yes, such chutzpah whilst in character than the various incarnations of Mr. Baron Cohen.

-- If only KISS had not scraped off their make-up. --

In fact, I'll not hear a word of disdain or hostility towards Sacha Baron Cohen, because such a commitment to his craft is so rare, at any time in history, but especially in the age of instant celebrity, that it beggars the mind.

How can he keep it up?

CAN he keep it up?

Doesn't he yearn to throw the shackles of Borat and Ali G and Bruno off, like so much snakeskin at the Serpentarium?

The answer is, of course he does, and to a large extent, he actually DOES...

...so did Harpo, after all -- you think he had sex in character? Wouldn't his horn get in the way?

Unlike comics in the past who used to get in character during their comedy routines, such as Lily Tomlin's Baby or Flip Wilson's Ernestine, they were temporary bits of whimsy, ready to be doffed off by the next ticklishly silly skit.

Enter stand-up, the point when comedians became personalities more important than their material.

Stand-up has killed comedy as we knew it, the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, of Gracie Fields, of Mark Twain, of Buster Keaton, of Lucy Ball, not to mention of Edna Ferber, making it inflexibly unidirectional and excrutiatingly reliant on repetition, rather than the inspired brio of repartée and physicality.

Whilst in vaudeville or in the music halls the audience could always interject its loud dominance over the proceedings, and become correspondents to mayhem, stand-up is determined by the pace of the comic, as he or she judges the flow of energy by the audience.

You may think that hecklers overthrow this state-of-affairs, but in actuality, like a college professor who wants to be addressed by his first name but can assert his authority over his class at any time, the power dynamic is still controlled by whomever does the standing.

Here I must pause for a moment to say that the worst stand-up comics I've ever seen are British.

God, what on earth possesses us to think we can take the American habit of speaking one-liners and extend that to a monologue of gut-clenchingly funny observations (or tired, overdone schtick repeated endlessly until you've built a career on it, hello Alan King), trying to do the same?

Our humour, like our civilisation, is built on the wry, sarcastic, near mute enjoyment of the pain of others.

It's observational humour, whose bon mots are targeted towards eliciting a raised-eyebrow of recognition from the surrounding audience.

The point is NOT to laugh, since to do so breaks every code of British interaction known on that wretchedly rainy island.

Of course, we laugh like the dickens inside of us, or alone in our rooms listening to The Goons, or watching Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python, but to actually do so in public is a lesé-majesté as unthinkable as it is gauche. Well, it used to be, anyway...

British humour is the humour of subtleties, of passive/aggressive one-upmanship, of taking the sails out of the pompous or stuffy in an endless stream, the equivalent of standing around in a circle, waiting for headmaster to dole out his paddling.

A people that love to insult as creatively as possible, to circumvent the libel suit.

This is most unlike the lung-expanding pratfalls and unself-conscious goofiness beloved by Americans (a reason why Benny Hill was so loved in the States, perhaps, though he has dated horribly á la the Keystone Kops). American comedy is redolent of that snappy comebacks game played by black Americans, the Dozens, or the smart-alecky, yet loving Yiddish schtick.

This brings us back to Sacha Baron Cohen, that dazzlingly funny Jew.

See what I just did there? Chances are most people read that last line, and clenched their teeth in surprise.

It seems to suggest that I am hyper-aware of his religion or to some even, "race"; a man who says he tries to be "Talmudic" in the way he approaches his portrayal of others.

(This prompted one reply on a messageboard of,

"Funny, I'm Jewish, and I don't remember from Hebrew school where in the Talmud it condones the wholesale deception and exploitation of others for fame and fortune."

Textbook un-Borat reply, if ever there was one)

I'm not hyper-aware of Sacha's Jewishness. But he is.

In many ways, his need to dig under the surface of people who are not anti-Semitic at first blush, is almost as self-tortured as many black people's reactions to perceived racial insults, like compliments about their verbal skills or when you confuse one physically for the other in all innocence because you forgot your glasses that day (not that that ever happened to me, okay. Anyway, the charges were dropped).

This stems from the very real, and very prevalent racism they have experienced, and continue to experience, every day, and is not to be gainsayed by anyone who has not experienced it.

But when not present immediately, there are some groups of people who go in search of racism or bigotry, alert to the fact that it has only been covered like a festering pimple, but is ready to spew at the merest poke.

By injecting into the public discourse, visions of Jews as cockroaches, even to make a point about the stupidity of bigots -- some of the biggest laughs I heard in the cinemahouse, were at image of the two Jewish bed-and-breakfast owners being perceived by Borat and his mate, as having "transformed" themselves in the middle of the night, into big ole Southern Palmetto bugs, which made me instantly sad and disturbed.

In that one moment, Borat the film had truly tapped a well of deep anti-Semitism in its audience, and perhaps worse of all, re-introduced the rabid Medieaval/Hitlerian images of Jews as vermin.

That it was a Jewish man, and not Dr. Fritz Hippler (director of the skin-crawling "Der Ewige Jude", which I refuse to own in my private collection) who relaunched these themes into the public's mind, is why I think Sacha Baron Cohen is treading a very fine line between satire, and just plain irresponsibility.

How sad is it, when the images of Jews as rats, nearly gone and buried from Western society's conscious mind and completely discredited not the least because of the Holocaust, have been unearthed for a new generation as yet unschooled about this event? By a Jew...!

(Some of the biggest laughs from that scene were from young teenage boys who had somehow sneaked into the film, yeah, like that's so hard.

I cannot express to you, the feeling of depression that overcame me, at that moment.

It's all very well for 'sophisticates' who on paper know what Baron Cohen is doing, to laugh. But I overheard these kids file out, talking about Jews as roaches, in the most literal sense imaginable. What have you reaped, Sacha, what have you reaped?)

Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his American Vertigo book, wondered out loud after having attended a Nazi memoribilia convention, if indeed some of the collectors were attracted to Nazi geegaws because they secretly wanted to wear an SS uniform, or perhaps yell out a hearty Heil Hitler! when no one was looking?

(I remember thinking, "how self-tortured is that")

The key point is "secretly".

It is understood that no sane Westerner today could in a million years hope to be taken seriously, if he publicly espoused Nazi views.

Sure, some point to intellectual pygmies like Jörg Haider or David Duke, itself forced references since it belies the fact that these men are few in number, and yet, the fact that they exist at all, is still proof to some that palpable bigotry exists at the heighest levels.

But by and large, anti-Semitism is a social death-knell in milieus from Iowa to the Upper East Side, except when couched under geo-political terms about Israel (and even then, it's dicey because it's so easy to expose).

So what remains, for people who were the victims of millenia of hatred and suspicion, is that today in the West, they are faced with that most ghastly of situations:

Not really knowing who is a real bigot, or not.

How can one possibly protect oneself from these people, if they have gone under cover, or are protected by shibboleths known only to their fellow bigots?

One ferrets them out by pretending to be a bigot oneself, is what!

We'll get back to that, but let's pause for a moment and consider another aspect to the Borat Phenomenon.

Men love Borat, and women seem less impressed by the gloriously moustachioed one.

I myself have commented elsewhere that I thought Borat the film was bloody brilliant -- and very very unfunny.

Women are less conscious of the good opinion of other women, in relation to being found "cool" or "tough". Their femininity is not defined by how unmasculine they are, unlike men, whose masculinity is defined by how unfeminine they are.

A lot of the psychological traits men exhibit in groups, boil down to this one factor, and goes a long way to explaining why they want to be perceived as childish, that is, unreformed by the civilising world that women represent since childhood, and rebellious to laws and social niceties, to appear less soft.

UPDATE: I found this wonderful short essay by Isaac Asimov on the very topic of male and female humour. Although his personal faults are not lost on me, Isaac Asimov has long been my hero -- I read his little-known books on language as a child, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in linguists or English as a tongue. In this comic essay, he suggests that men's humour stems from the fact that they are fatalists who believe in exposing the euphemisms we use, especially regarding bodily functions. He infers ever so slightly that these were invented by women to control conversation and thereto, life itself. Thus when a man acts in a manner which can be seen as childish by his lewdness, he is subverting that woman-controlled process with barbed glee. He also suggests that males like to be with other males, because their courage fails them with women -- which they don't like other males to see. As mentioned, this group-pressure to appear tough, and untamed is a particular of the male psyche, almost exclusively. I'm glad Isaac agreed with me, before kicking the bucket.

Exceptions exist in droves, but almost $200 million dollars grabbed from its largest fanbase, the 15-34 male demographic, does not lie.

What is especially ironic, according to exit polls, is that the vast majority of people who said they LOVED the dusky Kazakh and his smarmy ways, were the very people he used his laser beam of wit on.

White males.

Jewish American males especially, I heard on NPR, were taken with the humour presented in the eponymous film.

One commenter, himself Jewish, said that they could take a joke like the best of 'em. Or at least, that was the impression they wanted to convey, he quipped.

One would think, if one were a little literal-minded, that perhaps black people would line up in droves to watch this movie, which portrays them sympathetically in relation to other "treatments" in the film -- the opposite, for example, to their historical bête-noires, white Southerners.

Such seems not to be the case, for whatever reasons perhaps too numerous to explore in this one sitting.



It IS interesting to note that Borat has tanked in France and Germany, and seems to be sluggish in other parts of the world, like East Asia, although with its heavy emphasis on physical humour, one surely cannot assign language as the primary reason.

In Germany, Borat was number 1 in the box office for a mere solitary week, before being overrun by the Blond Bond, and latterly, Eragon.

The French disdained Borat entirely, preferring Eric Lartigau's romantic farce, Prête-moi ta main, during Borat's debut, a Gallic slap to the derriere if ever there was one.

Sure, they're whiteys too, and those countries are no stranger to anti-Semitism, to say the least, but something about Borat didn't reach them enough to warrant more than passing curiosity.

It strikes me that this film for Americans is a release from the oppression of political correctness -- that need to repress, and censor behaviour in OTHERS around one, the better to adhere to so-called civilised behaviour.

In Western Europe, civility is traditionally emphasised as an internal expression of self-censorship, but still one controlled by perceptions of class and education.

Political correctness is in its infancy in many parts of Europe, a good 20 years behind where North Americans find themselves socially today, a fact not lost on anyone who has ever heard Luis Aragones (Spain's World Cup manager) speak.

When trying to motivate his player -- of Romany origin -- to outplay black Frenchman Thierry Henry, he told him that he was much better than that "negro de mierda" (crappy black boy), an expression still common in the Spanish language, and not nearly as strong as its English translation -- itself a telling statement.

This having leaked out, and a hubbub created by British tabloids about the patently racist remark, Aragones rather comically replied that though he has many black friends (bien sûr!),

"All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black."

Though many Spaniards were embarrassed and expected an apology, if it had been in the States, no manager would have survived the comment without being sacked immediately -- perhaps even losing his entire livelihood through lost sponsorships, as was in the case of Fuzzy Zoeller with his bitter anti-Tiger Woods remarks, or the infamous "monkey" quip about a black wide-receiver by Howard Cosell, back in the day.

This utter ruination based on unfortunate remarks is precisely the legacy of political correctness run amuk, which Sacha Baron Cohen tapped into, which is at the basis of his success.

People liked Borat, because Borat could say what no one in the US can say publicly anymore.

BUT HERE IS THE POINT: Americans liked Borat not because they agreed with his godawful boorish remarks, but rather admired the cojones of not caring what he was saying and how it was received.

In other words, Americans loved the bravery of it all.

This is the crucial point, which so many people around the world failed to grasp about Americans. They wilfully believe that he's exposing some grievous faults in the American psyche, when in fact, the audience just loves his daring.

Furthermore, though Sacha Baron Cohen plays it cool by only hinting that his Borat has SOME idea of his foulness (note the opening scene, when he shrugs knowingly at the camera, announcing the proclivities of the "town rapist), he invests enough wide-eyed innocence in him, that he becomes a walking Id -- the release of all our childish impulses, before civilisation went and civilised the hell out of us.

It is this behaviour which is subversive, and therefore deeply fascinating to anyone over the age of 12.

The best comedy has always been satire, which of course, the many characters of Sacha Baron Cohen represent.

They are not spoofs, in the now familiar Mel Brooks mode, which lovingly recreates personas or genres with hysterical glee.

They are not send-ups, which take into account well-known characteristics of speech or behaviour, such as Rich Little used to do in his many impersonations of the powerful or famous.

(By the way, who does impersonations anymore? Another casualty, in the long list of modern-day fatalities of the stand-up preoccupation. Or maybe celebrities today are just not that unique. I can do a Jimmy Cagney accent or a Cary Grant one, like THAT. Quick, do a Tom Cruise one without having to lug a sofa around with you)

They are certainly not satires in the vein of Molière or Rabelais, who sought to exaggerate the hypocrisies of society, by stretching characteristics such as piousness or moral dudgeon to highlight their inherent duplicitous nature.

No, Sacha Baron Cohen's incarnations perhaps are closest to Jonathan Swift and his rapier wit of disdain for the obsessions of his time.

Borat owes more than a little to Swift's A Modest Proposal, which enjoined his countrymen to feed its poor by carving up dead babies, thus killing two societal malaised birds with one rather nasty stone.

Jonathan Swift was able to follow his argument with single-minded logic, disregarding the obvious lack of humanity his thoughts would warrant, as well as considerations for good taste, decency, and self-control such a proposal would require.

He did so to prove a point, not just about the topics of hunger, overpopulation, and poverty, but to prove the larger point that lack of empathy for others' suffering, particularly that of the landowner's, not logic and reason, were at true fault in the situation.

Like Baron Cohen's film, his essay was supposed to be a mirror on the face of (his) society and its time.

The reflection may not be flattering, but it is truth, it suggests, all the same.

My objections to the film, and I have many as you can read, despite holding perhaps the opposing viewpoint that it is a work of comic genius, lie on the methods used to unmask these lurking hypocrisies, not what Borat represents à priori.

I find his premises unfocused, and selective, and his uses to bring about his greater points, mired down by self-indulgence, even a very real lack of humour in its most sophisticated sense -- the art of making a point through an humourous remark, situation, or anecdote through cleverness.

Whenever Borat is in a pickle, you'll notice that his character reverts to its most puerile remarks, with references to bodily functions, and cheap sight gags which don't enhance his points, whatsoever.

A true talented comic can weasel his way out of a sticky situation, by staying in character, but come out of it enough, so that there is a concession to the moment, if not to the subject itself.

This is what Lenny Bruce did so well (by portraying his bitterness as a kind of stepping out of character), and so far, what Sacha Baron Cohen has not mastered. Perhaps it's just not a part of his personal make-up, and therefore, won't ever be a factor in followup films.

Baron Cohen has also allowed his film to become mired in that age-old American habit of the lawsuit -- where disaffected parties can sue for monetary damages, more than the supposed restitution of honour that lawsuits were technically targeted as being.

Everyone is getting their's, or at least, trying to, by pointing out that his team of facilitators, directors, producers, assistants, were less than forthcoming about the film's purposes.

Whilst he luxuriated in the ex-Royal Palace of Sinaia in the Transylvanian Alps, gypsies were paid $4 per diem for their services, although it is true that the team apparently gave the village computers, and improved some of their lot whilst there.

(I can't help but to think of the Fair Trade label, and what outspoken anti-globalisation actors in Hollywood, say about paying locals a comparable fair wage. Since they often go on shoots in distant, much less expensive lands, I think the point is neatly made that for them, Fair Trade for acting is another hill of beans)

But the fact remains that the film crew exploited the villagers for all they were worth, and from time immemorial, taking advantage of the poor, the marginalised, perhaps even the blissfully ignorant, when you yourself are anything but, leaves people with a very sour taste in their mouth.

In that part of the world, there already is virulent anti-Semitism, and though anti-Semitism does not mean you have to pander to people's impressions, so that your hands are always squeaky clean the better to be able to rise above their irrational bigotry of you, it does mean that you are sensitive to the climate of the local, depressed culture.

Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen may not suffer by his actions, since he'll have moved on from the area, but there might be other Jewish Romanians, who may not be so fortunate.

Playing into the hands of those who believe that Jewish people are "exploiters" by underpaying people for their work, is neither good comedy, nor good thinking.

In a lateral sense, the loud-mouthed, genuinely gross fraternity brothers who later claimed they were duped by the Borat team, falls into this category.

Are you telling me that Team Borat had to tell these frat boys to "go for broke" during their scenes, as well as making sure they were well-liquored throughout?

Not that frat boys need to be horsewhipped to be socially lubricated, you understand.

But it seems to me that Veritas need not necessarily require Vino, to come out.

If lewd, sexist frat boys are what Team Borat wanted to expose, why not just show up at the doorstep of any US campus, point a camera, and start shooting?

That they exist, they do.

But by liquoring them up, Sacha Baron Cohen dilutes the scene by allowing his detractors to claim he exploited drunken young men to make a point.

Which is what he did, of course.

That isn't comedy genius. That's just Hell Week.

Let's not overstate this last topic, although it is worthy of comment all the same. But so is the fact that Borat is the outward expression of a very British man.

Sacha Baron Cohen, as has been noted ad infinitum, is a Jewish man, whose religion means a lot to him, but not in any mawkish sense.

To anti-Semites, Sacha Baron Cohen gives them the inside joke of speaking in heavily-accented Hebrew throughout, as well, of course, of the reductionist joke of himself being Jewish.

A kind of Droste effect of the anti-Semite making fun of the Jew who is a Jew.

Retiring the real-life Baron Cohen may be, but with a touch of self-confidence about himself, that speaks to his upbringing, but also to his culture.

Rubbing people the wrong way is not necessarily seen as a negative in British society.

In fact, the polar opposite is seen in a much more ridiculing light -- that horrible idea of being "nice".

We in Britain are not nice. Americans are nice.

WE are polite and both of us place a high premium on being upbeat.

What Borat the film was able to bring out in technicolour clarity, is that Americans are nice in the long-suffering, kind, and accomodating sense, almost to an unbelievable extent.

Though Christopher Hitchens doesn't think much of female comedy, he does think much of American patience towards crazy foreigners.

After quoting the indictment towards Americans by New Statement regular, Ryan Gilbey:

And it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople.


Hitch fumes in return.

Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass").

Obviously, this film brings out a special kind of jab to the rib by people who love trying to find the very worst in Americans, and indeed, about United States in general.

What Hitchens is able to see, which other people do too, even if they will not admit it publicly (a secrecy which we've noted already has always being the mark of the bigot, with virtual X Marks The Spot on the forehead) is that Borat's ultimate joke is played not on his hosts, the Americans who invited him to their homeland, but on the audience, and its prejudices.

Many years ago, we had a "Britcom" called 'Til Death Do Us Part, which later became the inspiration for a little American sitcom called, All In The Family.

Both these programmes changed the way their fellow citizens looked at themselves, because they dealt with satire.

They were shocks to the senses because of the rampant bigotry and prejudices allowed to be mouthed by its protagonists, Alf Garnett and later, Archie Bunker.

These characters were unrepentant racists, but who were both so convincing as actors, that many members of the public were either incensed or overjoyed that someone had finally said what they did, out loud without censure.

Johnny Speight wrote odious Alf Garnett's character to the hilt, and yet, not without controversy. To some in British society, his racial epithets of "wog", "coon", and latterly the almost innocuous-sounding, "mick", were a bit of satire too far.

As the BBC says,

Sadly, the weight of protests over Speight's employment of such vocabulary - honed and shaped by producer Dennis Main Wilson - often obscured the qualities of the episodes, some of which were quite magnificent, like brilliant, compelling half-hour stage dramas. Unlike other sitcoms, Till Death Us Do Part gave the viewers cause to think; its arguments were never ratified but both sides of an issue were presented - usually in an intentionally simplistic and heavy-handed way.

The Financial Times called the series 'The rampaging, howling embodiment of all the most vulgar and odious prejudices that slop about in the bilges of the national mind.'

The difference is that Johnny Speight was British, making a pointed commentary about the racism of his fellow countrymen, still so common, at the time.

Sacha Baron Cohen has the unenviable task of posing as hick, a foreigner, and an anti-Semite, the better to expose foreigners, hicks, and anti-Semites' disgusting views.

It is almost as if an Hollywood studio pounced on the brilliant idea of sending Jon Stewart or Steve Colbert to the UK, posing as say, a cowboy from Texas, to make fun of Brits' with their bad teeth, their hooliganism at football matches, their bad food, their bad weather, and their cruel ways, which places a premium on winding up people, the better to irritate them and see what they do then.

Not only would this never happen, despite the fact that neither Stewart nor Colbert are very much known in Britain, and thus no ex-Soviet Republic would need to be pilloried, and also because neither Stewart nor Colbert are representative of that kind of comedy, but because there's no interest in doing so.

Americans have no interest in pointing truths about Britons, in any malicious or if you will, insightful way.

On the contrary, they are amused by Britain, and love to point out the many positives they perceive about it, which of course, we British love to hear about ourselves.

Instead of Notes from a Small Island, this would be like imagining Bill Bryson donning a costume, cannily taking pot-shots at Brits, instead of the love letters his books about Britain, so lovingly are.

Americans are not interested, repulsed, fascinated, repelled by Britons, unless they are like precisely like Bill Bryson, an Englishman manqué.

At most, they are curious about certain things to do with Britain, like its musicians or Royal Family, so different in tone from their own experiences.

Sacha Baron Cohen, like so many people in Britain, cannot leave the topic of America alone.

He seems convinced and perhaps sets out to prove that these Masters of the Current Universe, are at heart, easy to be duped and their superiority is therefore, suspect.

Does he succeed in doing so?

The only thing Borat does with true originality, is to expose the anti-American sentiments of people (including certain Americans themselves) who are by default eager to see the worst in Americans.

With such a premise, the comedy need not be terribly insightful.

It just needs to be memorable.

Remember that next time you hear the word satire.

I Borat. I like Sex. Is Nice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Movie Guide

(Welcome Terra Nova readers!)



So there you are, as Christmas Day approaches, cooped up in your home with mountains of presents still to wrap, unruly kids to control, and an overworked spouse who is on their third martini.

There is only one solution, and you know it -- let's go catch a movie!

But which one?

Well, say no more. Here I am with a timely post about what Christmas films are out there for all to view, and what might be coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

Get out a pencil, paper, or PDA, pour out another vodka martini, as I divulge your...


CHRISTMAS MOVIE GUIDE 2006


My guide is particular to me, and to my tastes, but cinephile though I am, 1920s-1930s quasi-expert I may fancy myself to be, Third Reich film buff extraordinaire that I indulge myself thinking that I am, I have never snubbed my nose at popular fare.

You are looking at perhaps the only Alain Resnais fan in all the world, who enjoyed the heck out of the Wayans' Brothers "White Chicks", so there.

So let's start by concentrating on what people saw last weekend, in order of Box Office weekend finish, shall we? Vox Populi knows best.


The Pursuit of Happyness


Some people think it's too grim to watch during the festive season, this story of a near homeless man, who risks everything on a hunch about his talents, but I can tell you that there can be no better film at the moment (save The Nativity Story), which is most evocative of Christmas.

- The humble beginnings which seem to entrap, more than to liberate.

- The hardships one must undergo, when everything seems ranged against us.

- The people poised to take advantage of one, but also unexpected benefactors bearing the gift of opportunity.

All of this, and Will Smith acting better than he's ever done since Six Degrees of Separation. Pack up your troubles in your kit bag, and go see this movie.

GRADE: A


Eragon


I don't understand why Eragon got trashed by the critics and fans. I enjoyed myself tremendously watching this film, which however, I realise is no Peter Jackson fantasy special. In fact, the critic who called it Lord of the Wings, had a comical point.

But, if like me, you've never read the book and therefore come with a tabula rasa of expectations, you'll like this old-fashioned adventure with Jeremy Irons, and fresh-cheeked Edward Speleers sharing a sinewy Arthurian chemistry between them.

GRADE: B


Happy Feet


Despite somewhat ham-handed attempts at being environmentally-correct, and with subtexts that hit all the socially-correct notes (it's okay to be different, society must accept you, you don't need to change, the marginalised need to be accepted), this is a fun film, and as they say, for all the family.

Robin Williams voices two penguinos (try to see if you can pick out which ones!) and does his level best to over-actor his characters to push the story along, but it's young Elijah Wood who, as ever, gives a subtle, yet never feeble performance.

And who knew Clueless ugly duckling Brittany Murphy could sing so well?

GRADE: B-


Apocalypto


I have NEVER seen a movie like Apocalypto, and chances are that you haven't either.

If Mel Gibson had mixed The Mission, John Boorman's Emerald Forest, and Fitzcarraldo/Aguirre together in a cauldron, the stew that is Apocalypto would still not come out.

Whatever else are his failings (and they were enough, that I had almost written him off as a producer/director/human being), it's evident that Gibson has a directorial VISION these days, that cannot be ignored.

Note, this film is a bloodbath. Remember that scene in Carrie? Well, quadruple the blood in metric tonnes. But as I overheard a lady filing out of the theatre say, "It's gratuitous violence that I can't stand. This was history." Indeed.

Of all the films this Christmas holiday, this is the one you can't miss. Mind you go to a packed theatre though! The sound of awe from the audience will overwhelm you.

GRADE: A-


Blood Diamond


You've heard it said before: Leo Di Caprio is having a career year. And I'm here to tell you -- it's about time.

Though he petered out after Titanic (which I actually enjoyed, though it was sublimely ridiculous all the same), he seems to have recaptured the earlier goods he showed in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy's Life.

He easily could have become another Keanu Reeves, by taking on popular vehicles, or cashed in on his Mongolian good-looks like toothy Cameron Diaz, but unlike them, he actually has talent, and it's starting to show again.

Di Caprio takes a minor film like Blood Diamonds, and infuses his own peculiar blend of Gary Cooper manliness, into a story which is easy to dismiss otherwise. Djimon Hounsou, the stalwart African slave from "Amistad", shows the same quiet dignity and integrity he did there, providing the perfect foil to the ruthlessness of Di Caprio's nature. Plus, it shares the same basic themes, without the preachiness of Rwanda Hotel.

This one is the one you see, if there are teens in the family.

GRADE: B


Casino Royale


By now, the phrase "reboot of the series" has been done to death, but it really is a new vision that we are given.

The Blond Bond does not show the temptuousness of Timothy Dalton, or the suave Eurotrashiness of Pierce Brosnan, nor is he the cheeky rogue that was Roger Moore.

He's closest to the working-class enigma that was Sean Connery, who played his Bond close to his vest -- a perfect analogy for this card-shark James Bond.

If such a thing could exist, I would say this is lo-fi 007.

Don't miss the first 20 minutes -- best chase scene I've seen this season, and done almost without doubles.

GRADE: A-


The Nativity Story


The reason for the season.

I think the scriptwriter must have been St. Teresa d'Avila because Joseph is the hero of this tale, not Mary -- this is a bit of a shock, and can explain why this movie didn't do so well.

For all its faults, and despite the unfortunate soundtrack, which is too Hallmark Cards for words (check out the Carol of the Bells during the find-the-manger scene, oy), I liked it.

But then I would -- I'm an unrepentant, happy Roman Catholic.

Still the best story ever told, though.

GRADE: B-


QUICK HITS


Some other films which might still be tooling around, which you might want an opinion on, include:

Borat: It's a brilliant film. And very very unfunny. A French friend described it best by saying it's "l'humeur pipi-caca". Quite. I challenge anyone to find this film funny, in the first 20 minutes. Seriously.

GRADE: C-


The Queen: It grows on you. It's an excellent film, full of nuances of character by the inestimable Helen Mirren. And 2006 has been a very quiet year, quality-wise, so I am revising my earlier grade. Read my full review here.

GRADE: A


Stranger Than Fiction: I enjoyed it a lot, actually, being a bit of a surprise because I dislike Will Ferrell's film roles, to say the least. It's one of the few films this Christmas, which I wouldn't mind watching again since it flirts with smart. Oh, one thing. Maggie Gyllenhaal may be great in Sherrybaby, but in every film I've seen her, she grates on your nerves. She's the Joan Cusack of our generation, down to the better actor brother. And like Cusack, Gyllenhaal will one day win a Best Supporting Actress statuette. Mark me.

GRADE: A-


Babel: If only for the Japanese girl and her story. And maybe the maid. The otherwise reliable Cate Blanchett just fades away under the planetary orbit of Brad Pitt's bad acting skills.

GRADE: C+


NEW REVIEW: The Painted Veil: Slow, meandering but not unworthy, this is a remake of the classic Greta Garbo film (1934), which Merchant/Ivory SHOULD'VE made, instead of the insipid The White Countess. Somerset Maugham's book is unusually slow-paced, so to translate this to film, director John Curran had to bookend two almost distinct storylines, into one film. The first part, I'll be honest, is too uncharismatic for words. The movie doesn't hit paydirt until Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (both excellent, despite their on-again, off-again "English" accents) move to the cholera outpost. Even Diana Riggs puts in a brief appearance as a French Mother Superior, which delights for its surprise. This story is as unlike The Holiday as is possible, but The Painted Veil is 10x more romantic, than that slightly dim chick flick (unfair comparison, I know, but there it is). This story is not about the coup de foudre you're supposed get when you fall in love, especially the love of today, but rather the slow awakening to love's possibilities, something quite lost to the modern world.

GRADE: A


NEW REVIEW: Notes on a Scandal: Judi, Judi, Judi. Read my full review here.

GRADE: B+


NEW REVIEW: The Good Shepherd: At a hefty 2:40 minutes, this seemed like a promising, adult film. The buzz was already tremendous regarding DeNiro's chances to outduel his mentor, Scorcese, for a Best Director statuette. So I went, and was bored to bits. Yes, it's a tale about WASPs, their implied work ethic, and dourness, but good Lord, the best thing I can say about it, was that it was a polished-looking work, to the point of slickness. Oh, and don't miss the best line of the film around the 2 hour mark. Joe Pesci is racistly telling Matt Damon's character about each of the immigrant groups, and their "thing". The Irish with their Church; the Italians, their family; black people (not the word he used) their "music". So what is "your people's thing, Mr. Wilson?". "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting." I howled in laughter. Embarrassing situation, since I was the only one in the theatre laughing. Watch the DVD.

GRADE: C+


NEW REVIEW: Dreamgirls: Okay, here's the deal. It's a happy romp of a movie, with a tour-de-force performance by ex-American Idol hopeful, Jennifer Hudson -- with her booming, courageous voice. But I walked out 10 minutes before the end (yes!), because I had a splitting headache. Never much into musicals, I had no idea this was best characterised as such. For whatever reason, I thought it was a couple of numbers, here and there, interspersed with a solid storyline, allegedly about Diana Ross and the Supremes. Uh, no. That was Ray and Walk the Line, but definitely not Dreamgirls. And for what it's worth, the other acting performances, particularly by Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx (who will struggle in future films, since he doesn't nearly have the range of Will Smith), were very discrete. Eddie Murphy's performance was not, and that's fantastic, but his character was a caricature, and therefore difficult to enjoy his demise.

GRADE: B-


NEW REVIEW: Night at the Museum: Sehr Cute. And so utterly vindicates the horrible reviews levelled at it by the bah-humbug film critics, who must remember, family holiday movies can't be judged with the same steely eye that one would, for say, a Robert DeNiro film (cough). I loved Dick Van Dyke, and for once, I understood his English! Mickey Rooney was a rapscallion, but actually, his role was rather a minor one. Still, good to see him fussin' up a storm, this veteran who debuted in film waaay back in 1926. Incredible really.

GRADE: B+


NEW REVIEW: The Holiday: Seriously? I didn't like it. Or rather, I liked EXACTLY half the film -- the bits with that benzedrine puff-adder (pace Sybil Fawlty), Kate Winslet, and a rather surprisingly effective romantic foil, Jack Black. I wish they had done more with the Ode to Old Hollywood storyline, though, as well as castrating Jude Law, and eviscerating Cameron Diaz. CRIKEY. She's so DAMN PERKY, in that horrible modern American girl way, that screams "bare midriff mallrat". Ick. With the best will in the world, considering it came highly recommended by Sundries readers, I can only give this syrupy, illogical pic, a...

GRADE: C



COMING SOON:

Volver: Has arrived in many areas, like in South Florida, but still a limited release film most places. I despised Bad Education, and indeed, anything with Gael Garcia-Bernal, so I was pleasantly surprised to watch this involved hommage on the women of Almodovar's life -- las mujeres del barrio. Just watch it, so you can remember what a good little actress Penelope Cruz is...in Spanish.

GRADE: A-


Little Children: No, just no. Another lame-o anti-suburbia Hollywood treatment, that even sonourous Frontline narrator, Will Lyman, can't save from being a mess.

GRADE: D


The Fountain: And speaking of messes...listen, I liked it, but I recognise that it's convoluted, and somewhat pointless as a film. Basically, a doctor whose wife is dying of cancer is shown through 5 centuries trying to find a cure, and thereto a reason for their joint suffering. It feels like a Buddhist take on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heh.

GRADE: C


The History Boys: Alan Bennett's play was transposed to cinema, and its talkativeness betrays its origins. For all that, it's a rifle-shot of intelligence this Christmas, and I challenge you to find a better hommage scene on celluloid, than the Brief Encounter take by these History Boys. Not for the kiddies, though, and possibly, not one you take your parents to, either.

GRADE: B+


Children of Men: I was prepared to hate it, because of its hysterical modern-day undertones, but I'm a sucker for any historical-futurism like Brazil or Bladerunner, so I loved it. Already opened in the director's native Mexico, I was told, but you have only two weeks to wait, to see it. Read my full review here.

GRADE: A-


Perfume - The Story of a Murder: I read Patrick Süsskind's book under the covers in my boarding school, way back in 1989 when it was the Da Vinci Code sensation of its time. I couldn't wait to see what Twykwer had done with the story of a despised, malformed orphan boy, which mixes many storylines, such as the perfumiers trade in Grasse, with pre-Revolutionary France mayhem. It was interesting...but as they say, the book is much better.

GRADE: B-


Pan's Labyrinth: Best Movie I've Seen This Year...save Half-Nelson and Children of Men. NOT TO BE MISSED. 'Nuff said.

GRADE: A+


There.

I'll add further thoughts if you have any questions, or if I see more films as the weeks go by.

I can't wait for Rocky XXIII, which I'm watching tonight!

Save me the aisle seat in the balcony.



MORE WINTER 2006 MOVIES

"3 Needles"
"The Good German" (Must-See For Me)

"Breaking and Entering"
"Off the Black"
"Unaccompanied Minors"

"Venus" (Must-See For Me)
"Brooklyn Rules"
"Home of the Brave"
"Arthur and the Invisibles" (About to watch, Stay Tuned)

"Charlotte's Web"
"We Are Marshall"

"Rocky Balboa" (Must-See For Me)
"Curse of the Golden Flower"

"Black Christmas"
"Factory Girl"

"Miss Potter"
"The Dead Girl"

VICTORIA'S TOP 10 2006 FILMS (SO FAR)

1. Pan's Labyrinth
2. Children of Men
3. Half-Nelson
4. The Queen
5. The Lives of Others
6. The King of Scotland
7. L'Enfant
8. 49 Up
9. United 93
10. Shortbus

Note: I haven't, as yet, seen Letters from Iwo Jima (I didn't like Flags of Our Fathers), or David Lynch's Inland Empire.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Daisy Hates Fags

The multi-talented Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II -- who, you'll recall, is one of my Heroine Chic awardees -- has long been a HEAVY smoker, nigh on more years than Hans Christian Andersen has fairy tales.

I mean, her nic-habit is bad, people.

She recently made US' People Magazine because she had the cojones to light up during a royal visit to a cancer ward!

(I just laugh my fool head off thinking about that. Can you imagine press reaction in the cigarette-abhorring USA, if Laura Bush, a sometime smoker, had the audacity to do the same?)

It's to the point that even during the most official functions, she just doesn't care WHO she bums a cigarette from.



Like the Bishop of Aarhus above.

It's like Elizabeth II asking for the Bishop of Nottingham for a light.

And he, obliging!

(A modern-day Raleigh doffing his cape to come to his lady sovereign's rescue, perhaps...)

Daisy, as Queen Margrethe is known to her intimates, doesn't go in for that wimpy Marlboro Lights either, like the Queen of Spain -- she smokes the hard stuff, Greek filterless Karelia brands.

Whereas the Dutch tease their Queen about her silly hats, but in that affectionate way family members have, when you just can't change a person, so why not join in the fun instead, the Danes look at their gi-normous 6'2 monarch, and say, eh.

Cigarettes are not as bad as her decoupage habit, which bores even her husband.

By the way, here is Prince Henrik holding his eldest son in the 1970s, giving the tyke a drag of his 'rette.



Didn't Van Halen rip this image off for one of their covers?

Here I must say that in many parts of Europe, smoking is still not seen as a social debility, on par with public relief of bowels, like it is in America.

I once remember attending the Rhodes Scholars' Ball in Oxford, and even if you didn't see their enormous, Farah Fawcett-Donny-Osmond perfect, pearly whites which seem to grace every American, you still could tell the Americans in the room, because they would be huddled to one side, not smoking and coughing their lungs out towards those who were.

Me, I have a dirty secret which this blogpost will pry open.

Yes, I used to smoke.

But like Mr. Clinton, I didn't inhale. Although I totally tapped Monica Lewinsky. True story.

See, I never smoked nicotine ciggies, but rather those clove ones from Indonesia, which I specially had sent to me from a tobacconist's in London.

The firm had long furnished my father's family with their smoking paraphenalia since the 1890s. My grandfather had such a long-standing order, that he didn't even have to request refills. They were sent via courier in a white van, every week.

And yes, my 2-pack-a-dayer grandpa died of lung cancer. Like that's a shock.

Today, like a reformed rake preaching the merits of monogamy, I am a feral anti-smoker.

I am not at the level of the Prince of Wales, who refuses to allow ashtrays anywhere in his various homes, but I will let people know in no uncertain terms that I don't appreciate smoking within a city-block radius of me.

Okay, maybe not that viciously, but I really cannot stand smoking near me.

(Ever the illogical one, though, I am very much against outlawing public smoking. I feel some of the newer laws against smoking in open spaces here in the US, overstep that ticklish line between common sense and outright draconian iron-fistedness. Since I'm no Losertarian, me, I can only point to the fact that I always prefer balance in life, and find these laws too extreme for words)

I once saw a delicious video on Youtube of a young Brooke Shields, back in the 80s. The anti-smoking campaign, Smoking Stinks, was at its height then in the States, and she was seen lying on her belly in bed, saying:

"I hate smoking. Smoke gets in my hair, on my clothes and it smells awful. Ugh. I'd rather my hair smelled of shampoo."

She then capped off those words of wisdom, with this:

"Smoking kills."

"And if you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life."


Ludwig Wittgenstein, eat your heart out.

Apparently, she's now a smoker, but that's Hollywood for you -- saying one thing, and doing the diametrically-opposed thing, later that same day.

But this brings us back to the Towering Inferno that is the Queen of Denmark.

It was revealed by her Court Chamberlain, that something shocking, almost unthinkable has transpired, with regards to H.M.'s smoking.

No, she's not quitting -- YET.

But the Queen will stop her cancer sticks habit, in public.

From Agence Presse France:

"Denmark's chain-smoking Queen Margrethe II has quit smoking cigarettes in public and has drastically cut down on the habit in private ahead of a Danish ban on smoking in public buildings, media have reported.

"You will never see the queen smoking in public any more," Danish court spokeswoman Lis Frederiksen was quoted as saying in the tabloid Ekstra Bladet on Thursday.

The monarch had cut down in private but did not intend to give up cigarettes entirely, Frederiksen added, according to report."

Wow. Greater love hath no woman, for her country.

If you had paid the late Princess Margaret cold-hard cash, and offered her two more islands in Mustique, she would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested she quit smoking in public.

And yes, she died of complications due to her chain-smoking, too. A total shock, I'm sure.

So, let's give Daisy her due.

She's gone one step closer to actually quitting that nasty, filthy, disgusting, vile, loathesome habit that is cigarette smoking.

Maybe, who knows, if the generous and liberal Danish welfare dental system ponies up some bleaching for her, she could even begin to look a little less like she just swallowed Secretariat's teeth.



Stop. You know it's true.


 




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