Wednesday 8 December 2010

Bah, Gremlins!

I've been busy writing in a few different venues lately and, as it's the Christmas season, I've written a couple reviews of my favourite festive films.

First is Scrooge (1970). It's usually the first movie I get around to when December hits, and I still feel rather warm and fuzzy when the titles begin and I remember my first glimpse of the movie, back when I was a wee lad of five or six. Read the review here: Scrooge (1970): Film Review. I also penned a related piece, Who Was the Best Scrooge?, in which I review a handful of different actors in the role, including Alastair Sim (of course), Michael Hordern and Seymour Hicks. And lovers of linguistic trivia may find this article interesting: What Does 'Bah, Humbug!' Mean?

The second seasonal film is Gremlins (1984), which has a fun mix of holiday nostalgia, dark comedy and monster mayhem. Read the review here: Gremlins (1984): Movie Review.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Will Love Never Dies Survive Surgery?

You'd never get away with all this in a play,
But if it's loudly sung and in a foreign tongue ...

So went the lyrics to Prima Donna, a song in the original musical The Phantom of the Opera, now almost in its 25th year in London's West End. Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to have taken this bit of advice literally for his sequel, Love Never Dies, which has just undergone some major revisions, less than nine months after its opening.

The story of Love Never Dies, much to the chagrin of several die-hard "Phans," is far-fetched and out-of-sync with both the Gaston Leroux novel and Lloyd Webber's first show. It turns out (spoilers ahead) the Phantom shared a night of passion with Christine before fleeing to New York, and the result was a child. Now married to Raoul, who, over the course of a decade, has become an embittered drunk, Christine runs back into the Phantom's arms, and 10-year-old Gustave's true paternity is revealed.

With a few show-stopping numbers and some big set pieces thrown in, Lloyd Webber thought he could get away with this improbable story. And he probably still thinks he can, because the revision of the show hasn't changed any of the major details (you can read about Love Never Dies changes here).

The new version has apparently changed some of the lyrics, however. How grateful I am for that, for Glenn Slater's original libretto ranged from adequate to terribly banal. Even the best-sounding lyrics were flawed. "All America was there/Beggar next to billionaire," sang Madame Giry in the prologue (which has now been removed) -- except no billionaire existed in the United States until after WWI.

Giry then sang, "Every fantasy set free/Sodom rising by the sea" -- sounded catchy, but what a clumsy and inappropriate metaphor. Nothing fantastic or mesmerizing about Sodom, no matter which way you interpret the Bible. There was rape and social injustice, perhaps, but nothing particularly fun or enchanting. Even in popular culture, Sodom tends to be used as a metaphor for squalor and degradation, as in the brutally disturbing Pasolini film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The metaphor is made all the sillier by the next number, which likens Coney Island not to Sodom but to a "little slice of heaven by the sea." Which is it? Ugh.

Other times, it is far too obvious that lyrics are being mangled to fit the tunes; unsurprisingly, since Lloyd Webber composed the melodies first and asked Slater to fit the lyrics around them. "Ten long years living a mere facade of life" -- "of life" simply fills space here. What else do you live but life? Here's another sample:
And the genius that designed it wears a mask!
A mask?
A mask!
But what's behind it?
What's behind it?
What's behind it?
What's behind it?
What's behind it?
Yes, the lines are so good they really deserve being repeated that many times. Oh dear. Later on in the same song we get this:
And a concert hall that's bigger than the Met!
What's inside it?
What's inside it?
What's inside it?
What's inside it?
Other songs, such as Look with Your Heart and the title song, Love Never Dies, are disappointing just in their banal sentimentality. It's not the simplicity that's the problem -- simplicity can work -- but that's it's so unbearably twee. Would it come as a surprise to know that before collaborating with Webber, the Slater was best-known for Disney films? Perhaps he excels at writing lyrics for children (I mean that sincerely), but I think it makes him a poor choice for this production.

I hope the new version has fixed some of the most noticeable problems with the lyrics. I admit, I'll still like the show, because, for all its faults, Lloyd Webber's score is stunning. He still has what it takes to write a hit musical. While Love Never Dies could never be a rival for The Phantom of the Opera, I predict it will survive, flaws aside.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Hammer horror star Ingrid Pitt dies at 73

Ingrid Pitt, the Polish-born actress best-known for a string of horror films in the early '70s, has passed away at the age of 73.

Pitt's earliest screen appearances were bit parts in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965, uncredited) and Where Eagles Dare (1968, as Heidi), but she was to find international stardom in the Hammer movies The Vampire Lovers (1970, as Sheridan Le Fanu's vampiress Carmilla) and Countess Dracula (1971, as Hungarian murderess Elisabeth Bathory). Although she only appeared in three films for the studio--one of which was the 2008 online video Beyond the Rave--her name became synonymous with Hammer horror.

She also starred as a vampire in the Amicus anthology The House That Dripped Blood (1970), had a cameo in the classic The Wicker Man (1973), alongside Christopher Lee, and appeared in several episodes of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Pitt was a fan favourite at horror conventions worldwide.

Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker, who directed Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, passed away earlier this year, aged 93.

Monday 25 October 2010

St Catharines Municipal Election: My First Canadian Voting Experience

Despite being a Canadian citizen, I haven't ever lived long enough in Canada as an adult to be able to vote in an election. Today, at the age of 32, I participated in the democratic process for the first time in my native country, voting in the St Catharines Municipal Election.

I probably wouldn't have voted at all if I hadn't run into St Patrick's Ward candidate John Bacher at the downtown Farmers' Market on the weekend. I thought I'd left it too late to register as a voter, but he advised me to go along to the polls with as much ID as I could gather and exercise my right as a citizen. So I did.

This afternoon, I phoned City Hall to confirm that I could just show up with proof of citizenship and residency. Some gremlins interfered with the line, and I got cut off before I could ask where to go to vote. Ah well, I figured the information would be readily available online. I checked out the City of St Catharines website, but found the interactive map rather unwieldy. Nevertheless, I decided the polling station was St Catharines Central Library, and set off on foot this evening.

An hour later I was still wandering around downtown trying to find the polling station. No one was around to ask--Niagara Police Headquarters was shut, City Hall was empty, and the only people in the street were pushing around shopping carts or scouring the sidewalks for cigarette butts. Oh dear.

I gave up and returned home to recheck the details, discovering that the library was in fact the advance polling station, open over a week ago, and the actual polling station was in the school directly behind my apartment building. I suppose I should be rather proud to have endured a two-hour merry chase, all told, to take advantage of my democratic rights.

I voted only for mayor and ward councillors. (The ballot also included regional councillors and school board trustees.) Even then, I had difficulty remembering who was who. In the UK, local councillors almost invariably represent a political party, so you know whose box to tick depending on whether you're a lefty, a righty or a moderate who can't make up his mind. Here, it depends on knowing each councillor and what they stand for.

The municipal website wasn't overly helpful in my decision. Most of the candidate descriptions were full of fluff that didn't tell me much. For example:
During the past term of Council we have put into place broad plans for economic, social and cultural renewal. Over the next 4 years the detail of these initiatives must be developed to build the foundation upon which our success can grow. I bring to the residents of St. Patrick's Ward 4 and the City at large, a commitment to address these challenges with a sound business sense, a creative approach, with openness and transparency, and most of all, a strong vision for the future!
Which tells me what, exactly? That there were plans, that the candidate is going to build on the plans, and that he thinks he's good and honest. Well, fine, but what is he actually going to do?

Another candidate wrote:
I want St. Catharines to be a place of opportunity for all of our children. Our city is at a crossroads and smart, well thought out growth has to be our priority. I want to help lead that growth.
Sure, but tell me something concrete that you're going to accomplish.

Still another:
Times are changing and we need fresh new ideas and outlooks. As well many serious issues are not being looked at with the importance they need to be, and I plan on addressing these issues.
Oh dear. All the right words, but what are these mysterious issues? (In fairness, he later mentions poverty, sustainable income and economic development, but these are vague, and I'm still left asking what, if any, policy is being suggested.)

Tonight, many people in St Catharines are bemoaning the low turnout at today's election--little more than 30 percent.

I suspect the voter apathy is partly the fault of a system that makes people really work. (Even harder than I did in my quest to find the polling station.) Of course, in an ideal society, everyone would take the initiative and go out and find out for themselves who's running and what they stand for. But most people just don't have that level of political interest. They want to be able to pick up a leaflet or log onto a website and see in black and white what the candidates stand for and what they plan to do for the city, and make a decision there and then who to choose.

If voters have to turn to a dozen different sources to cobble together information for themselves, they probably aren't going to make the effort. Perhaps that's sad, but it's the reality. Make the information relevant, useful and accessible, and maybe people will vote.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Prescot: A Study in Wasted Potential

As you drive away from Liverpool on the A57, just beyond Huyton, a church steeple atop a hill dominates the skyline. It has stood for almost 300 years; the church below it, St Mary's, has just seen its 400th birthday. The parish of Prescot itself dates to at least the 12th century.

The steeple looks over a town that has been home for centuries to the Earl of Derby. His sprawling estate now contains Knowsley Safari Park, the legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby, who kept a menagerie of animals on the land. He invited an artist to the estate to create paintings of the creatures for posterity; the artist was Edward Lear, the nonsense poet and limericist, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for Lord Derby's grandchildren.

In the late 16th century, the Prescot Playhouse was one of the most important free-standing theatres outside London. There is strong historical evidence to suggest Shakespeare himself stayed in the town and wrote or staged plays there. (This is not merely anecdotes and folklore kept alive by local armchair historians. Ongoing research by academics at John Moores University, Liverpool, supports the thesis, and historians Richard Wilson and David George are among those to have backed the theory.)

In 2007, the Shakespeare North Trust was established to advance its connection to the Bard and, backed by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, they launched a lottery bid to build an arts centre, to be housed in a replica Elizabethan cockpit theatre in the town.

Three years later, the project, having failed in its bid for funding, has dwindled to virtually nothing. Will anything be done to commemorate Prescot's Elizabethan heritage and its Shakespearean associations? It seems to be just one of many lost opportunities in Prescot.

Prescot has a museum, the only permanent visitor attraction apart from Knowsley Safari Park. While it has housed some excellent temporary exhibitions on non-local subjects, the only permanent display is dedicated almost exclusively to Prescot's historic clock- and watch-making industry. Where are Shakespeare, Edward Lear, Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton? Where is the history of one of Merseyside's most beautiful churches (and the borough's only Grade I listed building)? Where is the celebration of the town's vibrant Elizabethan past, some of which can still be glimpsed in the age-old timbers, shop-fronts and buildings of modern Prescot? Where are the boasts that Prescot is home to the narrowest street in Britain? (And a quaint, cobbled street it is, too.)

Those boasts just don't exist. We get clocks instead. And, puzzlingly, the museum closes its doors on bank holidays, when the most visitors are guaranteed to be passing through the town.

It's not just tourism that suffers. Who in a position of any political power is doing anything for business and trade in the town? Local authorities seem to have given every conceivable break to Tesco, resulting in a thriving retail park on the edge of the town centre, but small businesses and shops in the town centre lie forgotten. One by one, Eccleston Street shops have become vacant and been boarded up. A walk through the now-dreary town centre reveals few signs of life.

The Prescot Festival (disclaimer: this author was its assistant director from 2005 to 2009), an annual 10-day arts and music festival, has done sterling work to make use of the town's venues--mostly churches and their halls--but still the town lacks a single purpose-built venue for arts, entertainment and community functions. There is an outdated, dilapidated leisure centre with a moderate-size function room, but Knowsley Council is currently heavily pushing plans to close it and replace it with little more than a block of pitch-side changing rooms. In fact, it needs radical renovation or replacement with a far better community venue.

But there are signs of hope. It seems some Prescotians are finally at the end of their tether and are standing up to fight. In the past few months, several Facebook groups have sprung up to decry the situation. People are talking, and the talk is becoming action. Earlier this month, over 500 signatures were collected in a few hours to protest the planned closure of Prescot Leisure Centre. A handful of grassroots activists, supported by Lib Dem councillors, are starting to make noises and fight Prescot's corner against Knowsley Council. (This author is no partisan, but where are the local Labour councillors in this?)

It is grassroots activism that will save Prescot. Everyone knows there is little money to go round at the moment. But Prescot doesn't want special treatment. Prescotians just want what is due to them, and what has been given to other towns in Knowsley. Tesco and big developers have more than their fair share of the Prescot pie, leaving the town centre to die. Towns like Huyton and Kirkby have more than their fair share of the Knowsley pie, leaving Prescot to pick at the crumbs.

Their fair share is all Prescotians want and are entitled to. Otherwise, Prescot will continue to sink into a mire of wasted potential and squandered opportunity.

Floreat Prescotia--may Prescot flourish.

Saturday 16 October 2010

James Street Night of Art, St Catharines

Last night I watched a couple run over a reindeer in a shop window, sat in a high-end furniture store listening to a jazz trio and went down a dark alley to talk to British rock legend Keith Richards. Or someone very much like him.

The occasion was the James Street Night of Art, held in downtown St Catharines, Ontario. The idea was that artists and performers of every kind would take over the block from 6 to 9pm, singing, music-making, acting, dancing, painting and entertaining.

Keith Richards, famed as the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, had positioned himself on a velvet couch at the end of an alleyway. He kindly put down his Jack Daniels and his cigarette for a moment so I could photograph him. (I heard a rumour said rock star was actually actress Dee Jones, of the Niagara-based theatre group Suitcase in Point, promoting The Keith Richards One Woman Show, which runs from Thursday 4 to Sunday 7 November at The Mikado on Helliwell Lane. I prefer to believe it was Keith himself.)

In the adjacent building, a furniture store, The Scholarly Trio gathered round a grand piano to croon a few standards by Harold Arlen (Somewhere over the Rainbow) and Carlos Jobim (The Girl from Ipanema). A similarly classy furniture retailer at the other end of James Street hosted a quite different trio: brothers George and Gordon Cleland (St Catharines Chamber Music Society) on violin and cello, playing music to the words young narrator Davian Hart, in excerpts from the upcoming musical presentation Fabulous Aesop (19 March 2011, 1pm, St Catharines Centennial Library).

It was quite possible to wander around the area for a good three hours without hearing or watching the same performance twice. I spent a mere two hours flitting between storefronts and cafes, sampling Earthbeat's African drumming at Coffee Culture, joining in with barbershop quartet Audacity (albeit rather timidly from the back row) at the St Catharines Arts Council and chuckling at an absurd scene of a rather odd couple from Theatre Beyond Words reviving Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer after mowing him down in the Hoogasian Insurance storefront.

Compared to last night's block party of absurdist spectacle, today's Doors Open Niagara seemed quite sedate. I ventured to Queen Street Baptist Church, St Catharines, to hear the organ and view some rather lovely stained glass windows. The church, whose current building dates to 1891 (the 1833 original was destroyed by fire earlier that year) is also open tomorrow, Sunday 16 October, from 12 noon to 4pm.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Roy Ward Baker dies at 93

Roy Ward Baker, the British film director who sunk the Titanic and sent Quatermass down the pit, has died at the age of 93.

Baker, credited early on in his career simply as Roy Baker, counted The October Man (1947) and A Night to Remember (1958) among his first successes. Before that, he was second assistant director on the Will Hay comedy Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) and first on the Hitchcock thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Baker made a name for himself directed horror, fantasy and science-fiction, including the Hammer horrors Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Vampire Lovers (1970), The Scars of Dracula (1970), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and the entertaining kung-fu crossover The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). For Hammer's rival, Amicus, he shot And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), as well as the anthologies Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and The Monster Club (1980).

He was a talented director whose knack for suspense and horror technique could also be his downfall. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde has some truly memorable moments, but Baker's skill is almost too showy at times. Quatermass and the Pit stands out as one of Hammer's all-time most tense and riveting movies, however. The Scars of Dracula stands out as one of the studio's most embarrassingly bad pictures, while the same year's The Vampire Lovers pleasingly echoes Hammer's very best Gothic style.

Roy Ward Baker, who was born in 1916, in London, passed away on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

Friday 1 October 2010

St Catharines Movies

St Catharines, Ontario, of which I am proud to be a resident, has a classic line-up of Halloween films in store this year.

Starting on Thursday October 7, there will be free movies at Market Square (King St/Church St/James St), with a double bill of horror films
each week until Halloween:
October 7

7pm Halloweentown 1998 Disney film starring Debbie Reynolds
9pm: The Lost Boys 1987 vampire comedy starring the late Corey Haim, Keifer Sutherland, Jason Patric and Corey Feldman

October 14

7pm Bedknobs and Broomsticks 1971 Disney musical comedy starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson (irrestible family fun)
9pm The Evil Dead 1981 camp cult horror with Bruce Campbell

October 21

7pm Practical Magic 1998 family comedy horror starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman
9pm Halloween Seminal 1978 slasher directed by John Carpenter and starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance

October 28

7pm Monster Squad 1987 horror comedy featuring all the monster favourites, including Dracula and Frankenstein
9.30pm The Rocky Horror Picture Show Ultra-camp 1975 musical starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon

Entry to all movies is free--all you need to bring is something to sit on. More information here.

As a fan of the old classics, I am excited about Chorus Niagara's special screening of the Lon Chaney/Universal horror The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) on Friday and Saturday November 5 and 6 (7.30pm, St Thomas's Anglican Church, 99 Ontario St). Tickets are a steep $35, but the film will be accompanied by a live choral soundtrack. More info here.

Friday 10 September 2010

Derren Brown: Hero a Fake?

To cut to the chase, the answer is no.

Hero at 30,000 Feet is the latest TV special by mental illusionist Derren Brown. In the show, Derren took Matt, a fed-up Leeds man lacking in confidence, and
transformed him through a series of set-ups into a courageous, outgoing, risk-taker--the hero of the title. Matt had applied for the programme believing it was a new quiz show, but was unaware that Derren was behind the strange, life-changing series of events he was experiencing.

The events included a fake armed robbery, a night-time encounter with a crocodile and being put in a straitjacket and tied to a railway line as a train approached. The finale was a plane journey where--and this could never happen in real life, due to regulations--a pilot fell ill on a plane, and it was up to Matt to volunteer to land it. Through "hypnosis," Matt was taken from the real plane into a flight simulator, where he successfully overcame his fear of flying and landed the plane. Up to this point, Matt had been the archetypal passive bystander. Earlier, for example, we had watched him sit by saying nothing as smoke started billowing out from under a door, all because he did not want to be the first to take action. But now, Matt the Unconfident was Matt the Hero, Matt the Brave.

For me, it was a strangely intense and emotional experience, perhaps because I identified with Matt's fears and anxieties about taking risks and stepping out in life.

For others, Derren Brown's Hero at 30,000 Feet was just a hoax.

The belief that Hero--and the entire Derren Brown phenomenon--is fake rests on two flawed ideas. The first is that what Derren does is truly "extraordinary." In one sense it is; in another sense, Derren uses psychology that is in fact quite ordinary. We are simply unaware of it. Derren Brown forces us to think about the incredible powers of the human mind that we take for granted every day.

Second, there's the idea that the theatricality of Derren's stunts invalidates them. Actually, Derren has consistently prefaced his shows with the disclaimer that what he does is "a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship." Derren is a mentalist, a magician.

So, what was it about the show that made people cry "Hoax!"? One was the suggestion that in Derren Brown's Hero at 30,000 Feet, Matt was an actor. I'm not sure of the basis for this, other than that people just can't believe it was all real. Again, it all seems extraordinary, but in fact, Derren is relying on established principles used by hypnotists and mentalists. In general, it is easier than most people think to convince the mind it is in a different reality, and it is possible to convince a suggestible person that anything is true, given the right conditions. Yes, Matt could be an actor, but why would he need to be? There is nothing Derren does in the program that couldn't have been done with a real person.

It's necessary to appreciate that with any reality or documentary show, a lot more goes into production and post-production, including editing, than most viewers realize. Certainly there are huge parts of what Derren accomplished and how he engineered it that are never seen on the screen. Some armchair critics see this as evidence of deception and fakery, but this is just TV production.

Derren explains a lot of it in this article, in which he answers fans' questions about Hero.

Aside from questions of fakery and such, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the show. The thing I have always appreciated about Derren Brown is that he adds some new dimension to what he does every time he presents a new show or stunt. In The System, for example, he pressed mental illusionism into the service of critical thinking and skepticism. Now, in Hero at 30,000 Feet, Derren applies his psychological techniques to personal development and mental well-being. Derren Brown is an astounding showman, but he strikes me as a man with a mission, too.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Did Jesus exist?

A group of self-described "Jesus mythicists" have announced a $1,000 prize for anyone who can write an essay proving the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The 2011 Historicist Prize will be awarded to the author of any essay demonstrating that Jesus lived--in the opinion of the judges. Who are those judges? Members of the Mythicists' Forum, the creators of the prize: Earl Doherty, Robert M Price, René Salm, Frank R Zindler.

The caveat is that you must pay $50 to enter the competition. "If no submission demonstrates the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, then there will be no Real Jesus Challenge Award (Historicist Prize)."

This is bizarre. Who would want to pay to have their essay judged by an institution whose existence depends on disagreeing with the conclusions of the essay?

The obvious-but-flawed comparison would be with the JREF, the skeptical institute headed by James Randi, which offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can show evidence of a "paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event." In their case, however, participants agree to the conditions of the test and its outcomes in advance, and the claims are tested according to scientific principles and judged by independent scientists.

The Mythicists' Forum, on the other hand, will judge the winner itself and on its own principles. The prize stems from a corresponding Mythicist Prize, which awards $1,000 to the winner of an essay that "sheds light on the origins of Christianity and, at the same, time, supports the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist." The first such competition was held in 2010, and no one won, although two participants were given honourable mentions.

I propose another challenge. Pay $50 and demonstrate to a panel consisting of Lee Strobel, Dinesh D'Souza and Ravi Zacharias that God does not exist. If they agree, you get the prize. If they disagree, they keep the money. Deal?

Saturday 14 August 2010

2010 film journal

This is a regularly updated list of films I have watched in 2010.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959). One of Sirk's most in-your-face films, packed with emotion, but very effective and with moving performances by Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.

Shoot 'Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007). Entertaining and absurdly over-the-top pastiche of the action genre, with wall-to-wall gun fights and lots of humour.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers/The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2002, 2003). The second two films in the trilogy are better-paced and more exciting than the first film, with quite the best effects I've seen in a feature film.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Terence Fisher, 1959). Not terrible, but certainly one of Fisher's most under-realized efforts for Hammer, filmed rather conventionally.

Juggernaut (Richard Lester, 1974). Disaster thriller with an array of intriguingly sketched minor characters and a keen sense glimpse of the '70s British social context, alongside a suspenseful plot.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001). Lush-looking fantasy adventure based on Tolkein, but I must admit I still don't get the hype.

Baisers volés, aka Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968). Parisian anti-hero Antoine Doinel is now in his twenties and still running from life in this erratic comedy-drama.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, aka Never Take Candy from a Stranger (Cyril Frankel, 1959). Gritty Hammer thriller about child molestation, fairly straightforwardly done for the most part, but with one of the studio's most memorably sinister monsters in Felix Aylmer's Clarence Olderberry.

Antoine et Colette (Francois Truffaut, 1960). Charming short film continuing the exploits of Antoine Doinel from the director's earlier Les 400 coups.

Tombstone (George P Cosmatos, 1993). Generally very good reworking of the Earp-Holliday story, although the ending is anticlimactic and unnecessarily sentimental.

The Reptile (John Gilling, 1966). Sharp, atmospheric Hammer horror based on an original story, and containing all the cherished Hammer ingredients.

The Full Treatment, aka Stop Me Before I Kill! (Val Guest, 1960). Psychological thriller that has some effective moments, but is generally too talky and 25 minutes too long.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (Terence Fisher, 1959). Hammer's take on the Jekyll-Hyde story; imperfect, but intelligently scripted, and intriguingly visualized.

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009). Highly dumb, but also very funny comedy about a stag trip to Vegas that goes horribly wrong.

House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959). Ridiculous, yet entertaining horror, but well done for what it is.

The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955). Wonderfully ironic, almost whimsically executed black comedy, filmed beautifully in autumnal Vermont and with one of Bernard Herrmann's greatest scores.

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). No less perfect than one expects from the Master of Suspense.

To the Devil a Daughter (Peter Sykes, 1976). Rather plodding horror spectacle, but with a few points of interest, including highly original scoring by Paul Glass. Until recently, this was the last horror film to be made by Hammer.

The Karate Kid (John G Avildsen, 1984). Eighties hit that still holds up surprisingly well.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (Jack Sher, 1960). Though lagging at times, this fantasy holds a lot of charm, and is supported by a particularly strong, witty Bernard Herrmann score.

The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965). Subversive drama helped by strong characterization and an excellent ensemble cast.

Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002). Essentially a variation on Fahrenheit 451. Despite the plot lacking consistency, and the action being silly and out-of-place, overall this emerges as a moving, involving futuristic drama.

The Omen (Clive Donner, 1976). Supernatural chiller that ranks among the scariest films of all time.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Tightly crafted comic drama filmed with poignancy.

The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966). Atmospheric Hammer horror with a particularly fine cast headed by Andre Morell and John Carson.

Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978). The best of Romero's zombie films, and one of the most memorable in the genre.

Carry on up the Khyber (Gerald Thomas, 1968). A rare Carry On film that takes the series to an entirely different level of wit and hilarity.

Carry on Behind (Gerald Thomas, 1974). Amusing entry in the Carry On series, and certainly one of the better of the later films.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk (Don Sharp, 1965). Christopher Lee delivers one of his most memorable performances in this enjoyable piece of pseudo-historical hokum from Hammer.

Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009). Smart, hilarious spoof of the '70s blaxploitation genre, looking impressively authentic.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1997). A pleasing mixture of gentle, quirky comedy and warm humanity that quickly became the director's brand following this solid debut.

The Far Country (Anthony Mann, 1954). Another compelling psychological western from director Mann and star James Stewart, excellently handled and stunningly shot as expected from their collaborations.

Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957). Elegant retelling of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday story (second only to My Darling Clementine), with a firm emphasis on the friendship, nicely portrayed by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003). Disturbing, complex documentary about the family of a Long Island teacher accused of sexual abuse.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaran, 2007). Absorbing, brilliantly designed apocalyptic drama with a sterling cast in Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and Pam Ferris.

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958). Psychologically compelling western, despite Gary Cooper and Lee J Cobb being too old and too young for their roles, respectively.

The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994). Fair revenge, comic-book style action, occasionally too sentimental.

The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963). Gritty Hammer sci-fi with good location shooting, a mostly strong cast and an intelligent script.

The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955). Engaging psychological western with strong performances from James Stewart and Donald Crisp.

Kill Bill: Volume I (Quentin Tarantino, 2003). Fabulously executed action movie with brilliantly stylized violence and a darkly comic tone.

The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002). Well-made and fairly spooky supernatural chiller.

Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006). Banal horror film, all style and little substance.

Maniac (Michael Carreras, 1963). Disappointing thriller from a brilliant producer who never quite got the hang of direction.

The Snorkel (Guy Green, 1958). Hammer suspense film that has some very effective moments, although a few opportunities are missed.

Cash on Demand (Quentin Lawrence, 1961). Tense, small-scale Hammer thriller with good characterization and excellent performances from Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Richard Vernon.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968). Reasonable addition to Hammer's Dracula series that looks fantastic, even if it lacks the sophistication Terence Fisher brought to the subject.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1965). A fine piece from Hammer Films, with a particularly haunting and atmospheric first half.

Les quatre cents coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959). Involving drama of a delinquent's stifled upbringing in Paris. It captures its location and era memorably.

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939). Warm, but down-to-earth drama, well written and directed, with the various elements of humour, melodrama and romance finely tuned.

Land of the Dead (George A Romero, 2005). One of the weaker and sillier entries in Romero's zombie series, but it's fun for what it is.

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995). Dark, noirish thriller that really comes into its own in the last half hour, thanks in no small part to its trio of stars.

The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960). Despite the convoluted story, this is deservedly loved of Hammer films for its impressively lavish production values. Camper than usual for the studio.

Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). The definitive adaptation of Stoker's novel, with pretty much every element judged perfectly.

Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985). Comedy about a teenage werewolf, generally unremarkable, but a nostalgia trip for children of the '80s like this writer.

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956). Poignant drama, handled with customary style and substance by Sirk.

Night of the Living Dead (Tom Savini, 1990). Pointless remake spoiled by overacting and unsuccessful attempts to invest the plot with social meaning.

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). Supremely sinister, finely tuned and justly celebrated horror from Val Lewton at RKO.

The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson, 1943). Taut thriller with Skelton Knaggs particularly effective in an uncredited role.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969). The most polished of the Hammer Frankensteins, with an exceptionally sharp script and a very sympathetic creature in Freddie Jones.

Frankenstein Created Woman (Terence Fisher, 1967). Wry, thoughtful entry in the Hammer Frankenstein series, intelligently scripted and with Peter Cushing at his best in a well-written part.

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004). Distinctly British, very funny mixture of comedy and horror.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). Exhilarating drama paced so well that three hours passes by like less than two. A true ensemble piece, boasting remarkable performances from the likes of Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Jason Robards.

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932). One of Karloff's finest turns, in a classy and supremely creepy horror movie that has aged much better than the studio's Dracula (1931).

About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2003). Comedy-drama crafted with superior storytelling ability by a very talented director. Cynical in the right way.

Murder at the Gallop (George Pollock, 1963). The second in Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple series. The chief delights here are the scenes Rutherford shares with husband Stringer Davis - a brilliant comedy pairing.

Murder She Said (George Pollock, 1961). Agatha Christie mystery with emphasis on the comedy. Margaret Rutherford is delightful as Miss Marple, and James Robertson Justice is particularly funny.

The Last Man on Earth
(Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow, 1964). Apocalyptic horror from the intelligent mind of sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Good, despite the poor dubbing in places.

The Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher, 1961). Classic Hammer horror featuring a seminal werewolf makeup, genuine scares and excellent production values.

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977). Witty, engaging, well-directed romantic comedy; Diane Keaton steals the show in the title role.

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). Interesting and involving quasi-Hitchcockian thriller with surreal, Lynchian elements.

The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958). This is where Hammer's Frankenstein series really came into its own, with a heavy dose of black humour and pathos added to the Gothic horror mix.

The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957). Pioneering in terms of colour Gothic horror, if fairly conventional in other respects.

The Crazies (George Romero, 1973). Pseudo-zombie horror, generally well done, with disturbing undertones.

The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952). Sharp, witty drama, deftly and stylishly executed by director Minnelli with a pitch-perfect cast.

The Terror of the Tongs (Anthony Bushell, 1961). Visually wonderful Hammer thriller that unfortunately suffers from a slow pace and clumsy direction.

Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). Andrew Keir makes a fine Quatermass in a suspenseful adaptation of the '50s sci-fi serial that remains gripping from beginning to end.

Quatermass 2 (Val Guest, 1957). Again, intelligently scripted by Kneale. A tight thriller, despite (once again) Donlevy's lacklustre performance.

The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955). Richard Wordsworth steals the show in this well-directed sci-fi, scripted intelligently by Nigel Kneale. Brian Donlevy is stiff as Professor Quatermass.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974). Hammer sequel constrained by a low budget, but a sophisticated end to a sophisticated series.

From Hell (Albert & Allen Hughes, 2001). Stylish fictionalization of the Jack the Ripper case, with impressive turns from Johnny Depp and Ian Holm.

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). The first of Mann's westerns with James Stewart, this has all the elements that made their collaborations a success, including involving characterization and psychological drama.

The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010). Slow in places, with some daft story elements, but overall good, old-fashioned horror fun of which 1940s' Universal would not have been ashamed.

Captain Clegg (Peter Graham Scott, 1962). Underrated Hammer adventure, boasting a strong story, a witty script, tight direction and an ensemble of excellent performances helmed by Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen and Michael Ripper (in his finest hour).

The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960). The hammy title role fits the often-hammy Laurence Olivier like a glove. This absorbing drama benefits from an excellent sense of time and place, thanks to the extensive location filming in the Lancashire seaside town of Morecambe.

The Pirates of Blood River (John Gilling, 1961). Smart-looking pirate adventure that makes the most out of Hammer's tight budget.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (Don Sharp, 1963). Entertaining Hammer swashbuckler with a strong performance by Christopher Lee.

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998). Quirky comedy-drama that expertly balances the absurd and the believable in a story with genuine warmth.

In the Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, 2000). Intensely moving and sensual love story set in 1960s Hong Kong. A beautiful film with a beautiful, stunningly costumed, totally entrancing star in Maggie Cheung.

Mr Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961). Gothic horror, mostly silly, but as entertaining as you would expect from Castle.

Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 2004). Macabre vampire yarn with an enjoyable black comedy element, based on the book by Anne Rice.

The Mummy's Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944). Mediocre entry in Universal's rather dull Mummy series, but not the worst, and it has a few sinister moments.

(William Castle, 1964). Slightly silly psycho-thriller, tailor-made for star Joan Crawford. The director pushes the limits as usual, and it has great camp value.

(Ruben Fleischer, 2009). Very funny zombie comedy whose highlight is a hilariously and brilliantly absurd cameo appearance from a movie legend.

The Evil of Frankenstein (Freddie Francis, 1964). The weakest in Hammer's Frankenstein series. Patterned after the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and '40s, it lacks the sophistication associated with this era in Hammer's history, and Terence Fisher's absence as director is sorely felt.

The Gorgon
(Terence Fisher, 1964). Gorgeously shot Gothic horror-fantasy from Hammer's finest director.

The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1958). Sterling melodrama with the strong direction we expect from Sirk.

Night Passage (James Neilson, 1957). Handsomely mounted western. Enjoyable, but it nevertheless pales next to James Stewart's western collaborations with director Anthony Mann in the same era.

Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985). Visually charming fairy-tale fantasy that should be seen with the Jerry Goldsmith score to be appreciated. Tim Curry gives a scary performance in an impressive makeup.

Terminator: Salvation (McG, 2009). Passable action sequel that takes itself a bit too seriously compared to the earlier films in the series.

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). Very witty and very, very queer. A masterpiece of pathos, black comedy and horror, pulled off brilliantly by a talented cast (Karloff, Lanchester and Thesiger standing out), fantastical design by Charles D Hall, sharp script and direction, and a pioneering musical score by Franz Waxman.

(James Whale, 1931). Definitive adaptation of Shelley's novel, with Boris Karloff evoking terror and sympathy in equal amounts.

The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944). Another outing for Universal's Mummy, again fairly plodding, with occasional creepiness from John Carradine.

The Mummy's Tomb (Harold Young, 1942). Lon Chaney, Jr, lumbers around as clumsily as the script in a part that could just as easily have been played by a stuntman. At least the emphasis is firmly on the Mummy's antics, rather than comic relief, as in The Mummy's Hand, which preceded it.

21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003). Involving, expertly handled drama with a concept and structure that could easily have become convoluted and pretentious in other hands. Excellent performances from its quartet of stars.

The Mummy's Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940). Rather flat by Universal's high standards, with far too much comic frippery and very little horror.

Cat People
(Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Noirish horror with the atmosphere and creepiness expected of director Tourneur and producer Val Lewton.

Dance of the Vampires, aka The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967). Parody of the Hammer horror, with a dry, cynical sense of humour, and looking particularly lush.

(Rob Reiner, 1990). Capable adaptation of the Stephen King novel, thanks in large part to its small-but-strong cast, headed by Kathy Bates as the psychotic Annie Wilkes.

(Zack Snyder, 2009). Pleasingly original take on the cult of the comic book superhero, with a striking film noir style and fun action, but its length and pretensions work against it.

Phantom of the Opera
(Terence Fisher, 1962). Despite flashes of brilliance, this Hammer version of the famous horror tale never quite takes off, mainly due to the characters' weak motivations and the rather contrived subplot.

Sherlock Holmes
(Guy Ritchie, 2009). Splendid-looking, superbly paced detective mystery that is both freshly original and true to Conan Doyle's creation.

(Marc Forster, 2005). Surreal drama that held my interest, but was way too stylized.

In the Mouth of Madness
(John Carpenter, 1994). Apocalyptic horror in the vein of HP Lovecraft, well-crafted and suitably scary.

Event Horizon
(Paul WS Anderson, 1997). Sci-fi horror that boasts impressive effects, but feels a bit empty.

Taste of Fear
, aka Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961). Highly suspenseful Hammer thriller, handsomely mounted by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Style and atmosphere more than make up for the plot holes.

The Body Snatcher
(Robert Wise, 1945). Impressively creepy horror with a wonderfully semi-comic turn by Boris Karloff in the title role.

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945). Proving that while Universal reigned in the monster genre, producer Val Lewton's films for RKO were superior for genuine terror, suspense and atmosphere.

Stranglers of Bombay (Terence Fisher, 1959). Grisly Hammer thriller based on the Indian 'Thuggee' cult of the 19th century. Tightly directed by Fisher, as you would expect.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003). Enjoyable action movie, inferior to the first two in the Terminator series, but still fun.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Stunningly designed futuristic film noir.

Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987) Dumb, juvenile fun. This has a lot of nostalgic value for me.

Friday 13 August 2010

Nailing another evangelical myth

A few months ago I began addressing "myths about leaving fundamentalism." I'm laying off the "fundamentalist" word here, because it can be more trouble than it's worth, but I'll say that the myth I'm about to address here is characteristic of a certain type of evangelical Christian--certainly in the charismatic and Pentecostal churches I once belonged to.

This is the myth: Non-believers know deep down they're being drawn towards (the evangelical) God; witness to them and pray for them enough, and eventually they will be born again. For the believer, even showing a hint of interest in Christianity is evidence of this almost irresistible urge to convert.

I had this notion once, too. My attitude toward non-believers was: How could they not know how much they need this? In my mind, "unsaved" family and friends were empty, and they knew it. If they were honest with themselves, they knew the gospel was true, or at least they felt a strange compulsion to find out more. For this reason, I lived most of my born-again Christian life thinking that the conversion of others was not only possible but likely.

This conception leads to awkward conversations like the one I had yesterday with an old college friend. Said friend knows that I am now openly gay, theologically and socially liberal, and about as far from evangelical as you can get. The occasion was my mention that I had read a sermon by a mutual college friend online. He replied that he was glad I was "getting back into it," and I quickly clarified that by no means was this a sign I was returning to anything--or even thinking about it. I was just reading a sermon by someone I knew because it piqued my interest.

"LIAR." (The block capitals were his. This was an internet messenger conversation. He was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, sure, but his point was serious.)

I could hear the cogs whirring as we continued the conversation. Praise God. The Holy Spirit is working on Dave. He won't admit it, but he's being drawn back into the fold.

I explained it as best I could like this: You suggesting there's a realistic chance I'll return to evangelical Christianity is like me suggesting you're going to become a Muslim or start a new career as an accountant. The thought is alien to me.

You may as well tell the average Joe they're going to move to Africa and live with lions for the rest of their lives. Keep giving them the safari pamphlets, but unless they already have Mowgliesque inclinations toward chumminess with feral cats, they're probably going to stick with their day job and their reasonably priced semi-detached house in Manchester.

Some people do have that feeling of something missing and get that irresistible urge to convert to evangelical Christianity, no doubt. Most people, however, don't.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Benefits of working for a content mill

The world of freelance writing is changing fast, and the emergence of the so-called "content mill" is a major feature of that change.

TW Anderson has written rather glowingly about working for Demand Studios, an online media outfit that provides content for websites such as eHow, Answerbag and LiveStrong. DS populates the sites by hiring freelance writers to churn out regular articles following a rigorous style and format. Writers can pick and choose from thousands of titles; they write up the article, submit it, and they're paid a flat fee when it's accepted.

The DS set-up is a typical content mill model. But this style of creating content has its critics. The main criticism is that it is low-paid. To give you an idea, a standard-length eHow article (300-400 words) pays $15.

Anderson errs on the side of unabashed optimism with his assessment of working for Demand Studios, but he makes some salient points.

First, it should be said that although DS's fees are on the cusp of what's acceptable for a professional freelance copywriter, they are generally a few notches above the competition. Break Studios, for example, pays as little as $8 for 700 words. That makes DS fees two to four times as high as BS (no pun intended).

The big factor to consider is how much time and effort is saved writing for a content mill like DS. Suppose I charge a client $40 for an hour's work. At first glance, that seems a much better prospect than making $15 to $30 in an hour with DS.

But what about the savings? With a private client, I spend twice the amount of time unpaid. There's the time I spend searching for leads. When I find a lead, there's the time I spend emailing back and forth to get the job. Once I've secured the job, there's the time I spend on the phone to discuss the requirements. Even after the job, you still have to deal with invoices and the regular annoyance of chasing up unpaid bills. So a $40-an-hour job ends up being a $20-an-hour (or less) job when all the extra work is figured in.

With Demand Studios, there's none of that. You just log in, and the only unpaid time is what you spend searching the database for titles. Once you've found a title, you research, write, edit and submit. Once you're used to the style and format, you can manage at least a title or two in an hour. Payment is automatic once an assignment has been accepted.

Is the system perfect? No, and few freelancers want to stay with a client like Demand Studios forever. But is it unreasonable? All things considered, it's a fair deal.

Saturday 17 July 2010

How to Become a Writer

A guide to the basics of being a published writer.

Do you write, even if just for your own pleasure? Congratulations: You are already a writer. But perhaps you are thinking about taking it a step further, sharing your work with others, getting published and establishing yourself as a professional writer. This short guide will take you through the essential steps towards fulfilling your writing goals.

Step One: Write

It sounds obvious, but always dreaming and never accomplishing is easily done. The editor and best-selling novelist Sol Stein said that a writer is "someone who cannot not write." Write regularly, setting aside ... Read more at Suite101: How to Become a Writer

Billy Liar filming locations

Billy Liar's Bradford

Billy Liar was the film that made Julie Christie a household name, but the Yorkshire town of Bradford was equally a star of this swinging sixties classic.

The 1963 British film Billy Liar memorably captured the beauty and charm of Julie Christie, then a youthful 22. But dazzling and delightful as Christie's portrayal of the spontaneous and carefree Liz was, this comic drama also put its main filming location on the screen for posterity.

While some scenes were shot in nearby Leeds and Manchester, as well as London, the movie's fictional setting of Stradhoughton was chiefly the real-life West Yorkshire industrial ... Read more at Suite101: Billy Liar's Bradford

Monday 24 May 2010

Why I loved the Lost finale

[Spoilers herein.]

For a good explanation why I loved the finale of Lost, I refer you to this blog:
Should anyone ever decide to write the history of the red herring, Lost should get a couple of chapters all to itself. You see, the mysteries didn't matter. They never really mattered. It was always about the people.
Yep. A bit like the Dharma Initiative and that infamous button, all the crap that happened on the island was just one massive red herring, ultimately irrelevant. It really happened, but it wasn't what the story was about. The story was really about the relationships, the coming-together.

All through Season Six, I had lost interest in what happened on the island. What really captivated me was the alternate timeline. What was going on there? What was its relationship to reality? It was this that intrigued me, and this that I most looked forward to seeing resolved. After all, this storyline wasn't about getting your head round facts and figures and weird science-fiction concepts. It was about the characters, and it was they who had captivated my imagination since the very beginning of the series.

Yes, it turns out this alternate timeline was purgatory. I know everyone was saying five or six years ago that they were all dead, and the island was purgatory, but this is of quite a different order. Everything that happened on the island was real (it was never purgatory). Jack and several others died on the island, just like we saw; several escaped in the plane, and presumably went on with their lives somewhere else; Hurley and Ben stayed on the island as its protectors, and they presumably died there eventually. What we were watching in the alternate timeline was the way, way distant future, when each character created their own fiction by which to find their friends again.

What I liked about this ending was that there were just enough ends tied up to be satisfying, and (more than) enough questions still rolling round free waiting to be answered with a million different theories.

One last thing in this rather rambling post: I really liked the Ben/Hurley thing. It was sad that Ben didn't feel able to join the reunion, but I liked that he was redeemed in some way. He's always been an ambiguous character, but he's been such a bastard this season, he had been unseated from his lofty status as my all-time favourite
Lost character. He was reinstated last night.