Film Review: Skyfall

Bond is well and truly back. After the disappointment of Quantum of Solace, Bond needed to make an impressive comeback. As though the pressure wasn’t high enough, but Skyfall also comes when Bond is celebrating his fiftieth birthday. What 007 needed was a film that not only celebrated the last fifty years, but also brought something fresh to the table. Skyfall well and truly ticks both boxes, by taking Bond to places he’s never been before, and setting things up beautifully for the future.

The main problem with Quantum of Solace was that it took the pulsating action scenes of Casino Royale, but forgot to bring an interesting plot with it. In fact anyone who can remember or explain the plot of Quantum deserves a medal. A lot of people blamed the director Marc Foster, who up until that point had only had experience directing lower budget dramas. Skyfall director Sam Mendes hasn’t exactly had experience directing action movies, but you still felt that Bond would be safe in his hands. And that perhaps we would finally be able to get to the nitty gritty of Daniel Craig’s incarnation.

During a blistering pre-credits sequence, James Bond is killed. This is hardly a spoiler. He does of course survive in a very Bond-like way, washing up in a tropical climate where he can “enjoy death” with lots of alcohol and lots of sex. He decides to come back from the dead however when he hears that a group of MI6 officers have been killed after M (Judi Dench) lost a disk containing their secret identities. The disk has fallen into the hands of Silva (Javier Bardem), a man from M’s past. So it is up to Bond once again to stop a criminal mastermind, before the whole nation comes under threat.

There have been a lot of whispers and rumours that Daniel Craig could in fact be nominated in the Best Actor category at the upcoming Oscars. Given Craig’s performance it’s not surprising that people would consider a nomination likely. We see Bond in a way we never have before. He’s not just put under the microscope, but he’s also presented as a man in his twilight. His time away has obviously left him a little out of shape, but from what we see of his training he’s a man struggling to keep up.

Bond is not the only one who comes under severe scrutiny. We have been waiting a while for their to be a Bond film worthy of Dame Judi’s outstanding acting abilities, and at last we have one. She plays a considerably more central role here than ever before, struggling to hide her guilt over causing the death of some of her own officers. M is also entering her final years, with new government officer Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) trying to force her into retirement. And of course Javier Bardem is as superb as ever as Silva. A modern day creepy maniac with the look of an old fashioned villain, Bardem helps Skyfall succeed in an are where only films like The Dark Knight have previously: to have a convincing hero, and a memorable villain.

Given that 2012 marks Bond’s fiftieth anniversary, it would have been very easy for director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan to play to the gallery with a few nudges and winks towards the previous catalogue of films. Instead Mendes gives Logan plenty of room to explore the Bond psyche in ways we haven’t seen before. The final act of the film, which takes place in Scotland, contains more insightful information about Bond than all of the previous films put together.

Even though Mendes takes Bond into new territory, there are of course flourishes of traditional 007 style. There is one scene in particular when, while tracking down Silva, Bond and M decide to take a back-up mode of transport. This leads to the reveal of one of the franchise’s most famous gizmos. M brings a little comedy to the scene by mocking something that obviously means a lot to Bond, but in all honesty you should be smiling anyway. If your not, then simply don’t have a soul.

Another moment comes during the pulsating pre-credits sequence, where Bond tears apart Istanbul while tracking down a man thought to be in possession of the disk containing the identities of MI6 agents. Bond starts off in a jeep, then on a bike, then on the roof of a train, before finally tearing the roof off said train with a crane. He completes the melee by jumping from the crane into the now roofless compartment, and rearranges his cuffs before continuing. He destroys half of Turkey, but still takes a moment to make sure his suit still looks smart. Yes, Bond is well and truly back.

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Film Review: Pusher

It was 1996 when Nicolas Winding Refn made his directorial debut with Pusher, a film about a drug pusher with a debt that’s getting increasingly larger. It launched Refn’s career, and spawned two sequels, which he also directed. Now he’s turned his attention to remaking the series, serving as executive producer and moving the setting to London. The only problem is, like with many remakes, Pusher 2012 doesn’t really bring anything fresh to the table.

Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho suffered from the same problem. Even though Van Sant made it a shot-for-shot remake for the most part, he admits that his version of the Hitchcock classic lacks some of the dark undertones of the original. The Pusher remake is rather stylish, and is by no means a shot-for-shot remake, but it fails when given the chance to bring anything new to the story. The change in location to London merely makes it another in the long line of mundane gangster films. The drug pusher at the heart of the film is from the same species of previous big screen incarnations of drug pushers.

Frank (Richard Coyle) lives a life of flashy nightclubs and easy money. As we observe a week in his life, we see him interact with reptilian mob boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) who gives him a kilo of cocaine to sell. However, when the police catch Frank out, he’s forced to get rid of the cocaine by throwing it into a lake. This leaves Frank with a £45,000 debt, and the local enforcers are closing in, cracking their knuckles and threatening to cut bits of Frank’s anatomy off. They don’t beat around the bush these people.

While the majority of the film is a repeat of the usual London gangster film, Richard Coyle does a very good job with the material he’s given. He makes Frank much more sympathetic that he was in the original Danish film. Frank’s life before the foul up with the cocaine is an enviable one, essentially living life at an easy going pace. And while Coyle is also much more refined and upmarket than the original Frank, we do find ourselves emotionally connected with him. We don’t want to see him suffer at the hands of Milo’s goons. That in itself is a rather notable victory.

Zlatko Buric essentially does what he does best; embodying a reptilian charm. You never know if he’s going to hug you and tell you you’re like a son to him, or threaten to remove limbs. He’s the only person who reprises his role from the original film, so for fans of the original trilogy it will bring a smile to their to see him here. Frank is also accompanied along the way by his mistress Flo (Agyness Deyn), who works as a pole dancer. Deyn is perhaps a little too clean cut and angelic to be a pole dancer, but given Coyle’s performance this could be an attempt to make her more emotionally engaging. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at some point realism has to take over.

It’s unknown how much involvement Nicolas Winding Refn had whilst serving as the executive producer. If he’s like a typical Hollywood producer, then his involvement will have been nothing more than his name on the posters and trailers to try and pull the audience in. It’s the screenwriter Matthew Read though who deserves at least a little credit. He writes quite a few genuinely heartbreaking moments in a film where you don’t generally find them. More effort is made to illustrate what Frank is like a person before he plunges himself into a nihilistic underworld.

At the heart of the film does lie a lesson that many gangster films have attempted to illustrate before. While Milo may seem a charming man to begin with, telling Frank’s he’s “like a son to me”, as soon as the drug deal goes awry he wouldn’t think twice about torturing and killing him. Loyalty will always take a back seat to money is this world, and that’s something that Frank finds difficult to comprehend.

Director Luis Prieto does bring a hefty amount of style to the film with some rather engaging cinematography, but you can’t help but feel that this could have been so much more. It is able to pack an emotional punch in a way most gangster movies fail to, but in the end it is all just a little too grim. It may get some fairly solid numbers from the box office (no doubt thanks to Refn’s name), but with a remake like this you expect to find something that advances on the original story. If anything, this is a bit of a step backwards.

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Film Review: Savages

Savages for me was a confusing mess of a movie. Don’t confuse it with the 2007 movie The Savages. Too many people in Savages and not enough meaty stories to make it interesting. Rather like a cheap sausage roll, where you only get a finger of pork and the rest is hard chewy pastry.

I think it’s always asking for trouble when you have too many things going on at once. The presence of John Travolta can’t save this howler. At no time were any of the characters warm or likeable. The dark tone of the movie was present in practically everything. Variety is the spice of life, and tossing all your eggs in one basket never works. The film needed something different.

Also I couldn’t really get behind the main trio, as they were growing drugs. Waging a war against a big cartel who wanted them in its ranks. Salma Hayek played the head of the cartel but wasn’t given any scope but to play it other than to standard format. Her brutal enforcer was never given an overview as to why he was like that. So it didn’t work.

So as they were both villains – who would you want to win? Would you watch a movie with The Joker and The Penguin just fighting it out with each other? No Batman to stop them, just all fighting??? Who would be right?

Now that may be black and white but movies involving drugs or crime should not be portraying them in a positive light, with a rampant Robin Hood theme as if independent operations are fine if you’re helping people and it’s the big cartels that are wrong.

I saw no real reason as to why they were growing marijuana, both had good jobs before. Ben (Aaron Taylor Johnson) was supposed to be a Buddhist I think? People who believe in God wouldn’t be growing drugs. They would be either racked with guilt, evil or plain mad if they were still actively religious because drugs are bad. You can’t have it both ways. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) was supposed to be an ex-SEAL navy guy so to me his going into a drug farm lacked any real originality. Kitsch was just happy showing off his muscles. Parade all you want son, I can still see you can’t act!

Also when he called his army buddies to help fight the cartel, it still left out how so many soldiers would be able to come over to fight. Also why they would they fight to supply drugs? Were they current or ex-members?

If they still in the army such a reason to risk vital soldiers lives would surely need the approval of a bigger boss? That operation would never be sanctioned. You wouldn’t just be able to call the army like you can call pest control to sort out a bug problem.
If they were ex-members, then its stereotyping that they would all be criminals who don’t give a damn. Not everyone is on the take, although the director seems to think so.

There was no dynamic to the background to the characters of how they came to run this drug farm. It lacked a history and maybe that would have explained things a bit. But it was presented as an up and running business. And when it went to ‘just to screw the cartel’ that was an invalid reason and then things went nonsense. (Even Robin Hood had a good reason for breaking the law. He didn’t do it just to ‘slap the Sheriff of Nottingham’.)

The main girl Ophelia (Gossip Girl Blake Lively) was just there as eye candy and wasn’t given anything major. It was a shame. In typical fashion she gets kidnapped. If I was Blake I’d have run a mile from this both hands waving in the air, screaming as loud as I could!

It was played as if it growing dope was a valid job career and the sole option. Although Ben wanted to use the money to get cleaner water, this wasn’t explored deeply so you didn’t see just how bad things were for the locals. Were they on borrowed time or something? In fact once they were fighting the cartel, this storyline fell right out of the loop. It was no longer the main reason and its importance was forgotten. How else could he have helped them? Surely Chon could’ve called his army buddies over to build a well to get clean water?

If they had to do something or were forced by circumstance, then this was omitted and this movie needed valid reasons to work. The violence was cruel and unnecessary, like shock tactics.

Travolta as a crooked cop just added another unnecessary storyline. I just could not get my head round why they should be fighting the cartel, both were doing wrong.

1/10 from me. Two hours of absolute trite! I can only hope this doesn’t spawn a sequel!

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Portugal’s Algarve – More Than Just Sun, Sea & Sand

It may be known for its beautiful Blue Flag beaches and an incredible 300 days of sunshine per year, but there’s so much more to Portugal’s Algarve region than sun and sand. The southern coastline is a real haven for those of you who need to de-stress and unwind on holiday, whether that means hitting the greens with your golf clubs or discovering a natural spa in the countryside. Get ready to indulge in some serious me-time.

It’s got to be Golf

You’ll notice that many of the visitors to the area have a passion for golf and, when you see just how many courses there are to try out, you’ll understand why they make a beeline for the Algarve. The Masters takes place here every October (11th-14th for this year) and it’s held at the Oceanico Victoria course in Vilamoura. In 2011 we saw Britain’s own Tom Lewis crowned the victor, so there’s no better place to soak up the atmosphere. If your budget doesn’t stretch to premium fees then choose one of the 38 other locations to enjoy a bit of tee time, with most offering junior rates for young enthusiasts as well as lessons for any age group to brush up on their skills. The newest course, Espiche, is even eco-friendly.

A Bottle or Two

One of the most overlooked things to do on a holiday to the Algarve is to try its wines. Ask anyone you know about the famous wine regions of Portugal and, chances are, they won’t even consider the lowly south! However, you’re missing out if you don’t sample some of the excellent produce here, which is helped by the warm and dry climate and the sea breezes. Cliff Richard has his own vineyard near Guia, called Adega do Cantor, which translates as ‘the winery of the singer’ and produces signature two wines: Vida Nova and Vida Onda. You can take a guided tour of the vineyard and learn how viticulture works, as well as sampling the produce.

Hop on a Boat Tour

As the Algarve enjoys a beautiful coastline dotted with beaches, islands and sea caves, it would practically be a crime not to explore the region by boat. You may well spot dolphins on your travels, through an organised dolphin-watching tour with a marine biologist (run from several of the local harbours) which is designed to appreciate the animals but also let them enjoy their natural habitat. Alternatively you can enjoy reef fishing along the coastline from Albufeira, or visit the large array of sea caves around the dramatic Ponta da Piedade rock formations. For something really sedate then try a river cruise from Alvor village that visits sheltered spots like Silves, home to a stunning medieval castle.

Make time for a Spa Visit

You can either try out a day spa (there are many across the region) or go for the natural approach with a trip to the Caldas de Monchique, which are hot springs where the waters are said to have healing benefits. You can see the springs and buy bottled water to get a true taste of wellbeing. Wherever you choose to go, make sure you disconnect from all distractions and really let yourself unwind.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy this experience is to do so at your hotel, as many of them have dedicated facilities for guests to be pampered. The Agua Hotels Riverside Resort and Spa is just one example, boasting a wide range of options at the Agua Viva Spa including a massage for children, body wraps and a marine facial treatment. Once you’re relaxed, head out to the gardens that overlook the Arade River close to Portimao, or walk along to the village of Ferragudo and enjoy the tranquillity as you watch the sunset.

Step Back in Time

The Algarve has a rich history which is easy to explore, regardless of time constraints, as you’re never far away from an old fort (the coastline is littered with these ancient defences from marauding pirates) or a building decorated with beautiful blue illustrative tiles called azulejos, which have been a signature sight in the region for centuries. There are also plenty of affordable – or even free – museums where you can become absorbed in local culture, from the Portimao Museum that’s housed in an old sardine packing warehouse to the Costume Museum of Sao Bras de Alportel.

At the Vila Gale Albacora Hotel in Tavira you’ll even find a heritage museum inside the grounds, as the resort has been built in a former tuna fishing village where workers lived. Period details such as the chapel have been left intact and are fascinating to explore. There’s a frequent ferryboat crossing to the main areas of Tavira should you wish to explore the historical city and its Roman bridge.

Evidently you can enjoy the best of the Algarve without cramming it into a hectic schedule; there are plenty of sights to see at your leisure, allowing you to recharge your batteries on holiday.

Article written by Polly Allen of easyJet Holidays

Film Review: Liberal Arts

There haven’t been many good nostalgic films about university life over the past few years. The closest we’ve ever got is with High School Musical, where people are so happy and carefree it can’t possibly be a genuine high school. It’s quite surprising when you consider how easy it is evoke that sense of nostalgia in a university setting, considering that many graduates refer to it as “the best years of my life.”

Liberal Arts certainly knows how to play on that nostalgia. I evokes every possible romantic notion of university life, which is why it will resonate powerfully with many people. It’s a film that knows all too well that if we did return to university after graduating many years previous, we would yearn for the days we walked through the autumn leaves, carrying a coffee in one hand and a selection of books tucked under the other. Indeed just like university life, Liberal Arts is for the most part very light and easy going, but at the same time has interactions and relationships that make it rather consuming.

Jesse (Josh Radnor) is a 35-year-old college administrator, hanging onto his past academia by holding one of its least desirable jobs. He basically has to turn people away at the gate for a living. Then one of his undergraduate professors Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to a retirement party back at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. Jesse happily goes along, and when he gets there, desperately doesn’t want to leave again.

Josh Radnor (who writes and directs the film) is in his element as the jaded Jesse. Setting the story in his real life alma mater in Ohio, it is like he’s reminiscing about his younger life. He wonders around the campus filled with intellectual curiosity; it’s like he hasn’t changed a bit. It’s Elizabeth Olsen as the perky student Zibby who is the real winner here though. She’s wise and very believable. Throw that in with her rather subtle attractiveness, and she’s a bookish, shy guy’s dream girl.

It’s the central love story between Radnor and Olsen that makes the film sparkle. They are basically two old souls finding each other in one brief unlikely moment. Radnor also does a good job in casting the supporting roles with more experienced actors. Richard Jenkins is as always reliably good as Jesse’s old professor Peter Hoberg. Allison Janney also stars as a strong, highly sexed university professor, a role she clearly revels in. Zac Efron even makes a surprisingly funny cameo, no doubt playing on the irony of his High School Musical fame.

Even though Radnor does keep things feeling relatively fresh, he does keep the narrative and direction in check. Even though the indy romantic comedies are leaning further towards quirkier narratives, Radnor keeps the story in the mainstream. And even though this was perhaps an attempt to show his directing flare, he doesn’t really do anything particularly memorable. Liberal Arts does have one of the smallest production budgets out this year’s releases (just over $100,000), but it is perhaps a missed opportunity for Radnor to show what he’s made of. When it comes to the script however, Radnor rarely falters by keeping in smart even during the film’s more romantic moments.

In the end though Liberal Arts isn’t really about the story of 35-year-old Jesse falling in love with 19-year-old Zibby. It’s more about Jesse falling back in love with the idea of intellectual youth. Zibby likes to have idealistic conversation about ideas. For her this is common, while Jesse has been looking for it ever since he left Ohio. Even the retiring professor Peter doesn’t want to leave university life, after finding comfort in being seen as a mentor by his students.

Apart from making the audience reminisce about their more enjoyable youth, it also highlights a rather interesting irony. As adults we crave to go back to university when life was more idealised, while students like Zibby crave to be adult and go out into the real world. Radnor does well to strike a balance between Jesse’s trip back in time, and Zibby’s knowledge that the big wide world is waiting for her. While at times Liberal Arts does seem a little too self conscious, it makes up for it by having a big brain and a big heart.

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Film Review: Ruby Sparks

Zoe Kazan is just one of the few actors in recent years who have decided to write a screenplay with a central character made for themselves. In most cases these films are usually from actors struggling to find a breakout performance, so they decide to write their own. Kazan however, is a playwright slowly making a transition to the big screen. With Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan not only illustrates her ability as an actor, but also as a smart screenwriter.

It’s something that seems to run in the family. Zoe Kazan’s grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed On The Waterfront. Her mother, Robin Swicord, wrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And her father, Nicholas Kazan, wrote the screenplay for Reversal of Fortune. While these family members have all been blessed with career defining movies, you get the feeling that Zoe’s best is still ahead of her. Ruby Sparks is one of the smarter films of the year, but you get the feeling that Kazan is going to go from strength to strength after this.

Calvin (Paul Dano) is writer living of the success of his first novel, which he wrote when he was nineteen. Since then, he has struggled to find anything to top it. His therapist (Elliott Gould) tells Calvin to write about the girl that has been appearing in the novelist’s recent dreams. After a while, Calvin finds that he is falling in love with his fantasy woman, who he has named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Things however take a rather strange turn, when Calvin finds Ruby is now a living person, who thinks she’s his girlfriend, and is walking around his apartment wearing just his shirt.

Paul Dano (who is Zoe Kazan’s real life boyfriend) is surprisingly well cast as the struggling writer Calvin. Kazan could have easily fallen into the trap of making Calvin the stereotypical loner, but that’s far from the case. At one point we briefly meet one of Calvin’s ex-girlfriends Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). We find out she dumped him because he tried to put her up on a pedestal. Calvin is hauntingly similar to many young cerebral men – he wants to find the perfect woman, and feels he can change women into his idealised vision.

Even when it comes to the cast though, Zoe Kazan really does own the film. It certainly is a breakout performance, literally playing the girl of Calvin’s dreams. And just like with Calvin, Ruby is a character we recognise. She’s an amazing cook, with a love for zombie movies and video games. She is every brainy and shy guy’s perfect woman. It’s a shame then that the other characters aren’t so well planned out. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the literary agent Langdon Tharp feels rather out of place, with Coogan trying to provide his own brand of dry wit to a film that’s more about quirky humour.

For the most part Kazan does stick to the premise of her idea. The most enjoyable scene in the film is when Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) put Calvin’s ability to control Ruby to the test, and make her speak fluent French while looking puzzled as to why they can’t understand her. It’s a great light hearted moment, but when the film starts to head in a much darker direction, Kazan pulls her punches a little. Instead of making a larger issue out of Calvin’s ability to control her, the darker side to the premise is crammed into one scene.

That is an opportunity missed, but it’s true testament to Kazan’s writing ability that she is able to keep the film on a solid track, and stick to the central theme. Ruby Sparks is all about how people attempt to change the person they are in a relationship with into their ideal partner, and the dangers of attempting to do that.

In the end it does all come together with perhaps an ending that’s a little too neat and tidy, but it sticks to its guns and doesn’t give up on its premise during the film’s shakier moments. It’s certainly an ambitious film for someone making their screenwriting debut, and it’s handled with an artful relish. It may drift into the more traditional idea of a rom-com at times, but this is still one of the funniest and smartest indy films of recent years.

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Epilepsy Drug Reduces Signs of Alzheimer’s in Mice

Research has found that an epilepsy drug – levetiracetam – can reduce some features of Alzheimer’s in mice. The study is published online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Changes in electrical activity in the brain have been reported in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Mice bred to develop signs of Alzheimer’s also show abnormal electrical activity in their brains, along with behavioural changes and cognitive problems. Drugs like levetiracetam are used to keep irregular electrical activity under control in epilepsy, and the study aimed to test the ability of the epilepsy drug to reduce features of the Alzheimer’s in mice.

The scientists used a mouse developed to show high levels of a protein called amyloid in the brain. Amyloid is known to build up in the brain in the disease in humans, but scientists are unsure of its exact role in the disease. The mice showed abnormal electrical activity in the brain, and the team tested a panel of seven anti-epilepsy drugs to see whether they could reduce this activity in the mice.

They found that a single injection of levetiracetam was able to calm the brain activity in the mice for several hours and chronic administration of the drug over 28 days could halve the abnormal brain activity. Treatment with the drug also appeared to reduce behavioural changes in the mice, and they performed better on learning and memory tasks. Within 35 days after stopping treatments, the abnormal behaviours began to show again.

While the team showed that levetiracetam was not able to reduce the amount of amyloid in the brains of the mice, the drug was able to improve communication between nerve cells.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This interesting study reports benefits of an epilepsy drug in mice with features of Alzheimer’s. While it is not clear exactly how this drug may be working, studies like this are important for helping us to understand features of the disease and suggest potential new approaches for treatment. We know that Alzheimer’s in humans is much more complex than in mice, and clinical trials with levetiracetam will be needed to show whether these benefits would hold true in people.

“With more than 25 million people in the UK touched by the effects of dementia, there is a desperate need for new and effective treatments. Understanding the diseases that cause dementia is vital for developing new treatments, but this is only possible through research. With research into dementia hugely underfunded compared to other diseases, sustained investment is crucial for driving progress forward.”

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Film Review: Perks Of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower struggles on many fronts. I seem to be the only one whose noticed Emma Watson’s strange accent. Was she trying to be American?

My biggest gripe is that the gap between teacher and student is stereotyped. New boy in school struggles to make friends. His Maths teacher is nice to him but the boy makes a quip that if the teacher is his only friend, that’s depressing! Boring!

The time scales are too short. You can’t just move somewhere and make instant friends. It’s not like ordering your groceries on-line. Milk, butter, friend with no issues or scabs. So the woes of being alone were weakened as a result.

The three characters who ended up being friends were too mismatched to be entertaining. For me it was like an extended version of Dawson’s Creek – The Next Generation.

Nearly everything they did I’d seen in other films or TV shows. Emma standing up through the limo sunroof howling at the night. (BIG did that). Moody teens griping at the world (Nearly every teen movie going!) The list goes on.

Logan Lerman is a dull lead. There’s no charisma. (Speaking of Dawson’s Creek, I never liked Dawson. But I would have kissed his feet he had turned up in this!) He should’ve gone for another role. This was going nowhere fast.

Erza Miller did nothing for me at all. I certainly won’t be keeping an eye for this ‘newbie’. If I want dull, I’ll watch paint dry!

In fact the trio were like a poor man’s Harry Potter. I really didn’t shake off the image of Hermione. That’s how I knew I didn’t like it. I wanted Emma to swallow a potion and turn back to normal bookish Hermione with her catchphrase ‘I read all about it’.

The message you have to be odd and have weird friends to get along in life, is so samey. It’s like being force-fed gruel. Yuck!

A charmless effort all round. 1/10 from me.

Wine of the Month – November (And a Wine to Drink Out)

This article also appears on CambridgeWineBlogger

On the cusp of autumn and winter, November is a month for warming spicy reds, maybe still with a bit of autumnal mellow fruitfulness.

Bright days after clear nights bring misty mornings with a watery sun hanging low in the sky, golden russet hues and the season for gamey dishes.

This month we have a good range of reds to cover all seasonal eventualities, plus a wine for drinking out with a brilliant food match.

Turi Pinot Noir, Chile, 2009, Bacchanalia (£7.99)

Originally from Burgundy, Pinot has made a second home for itself in Chile – this Turi Pinot Noir from the Central Valley which benefits from cooling sea breezes that favour the development of Pinot.

It is distinctly Burgundian on the nose with vegetal aromas, truffleyness and soft red fruits; there are more ripe juicy red fruits on the palate with savoury spiciness and mushroomy, farmyardy aromas.

The texture is soft and delicate – it feels elegant and pretty with a balanced, gentle finish.

Match with salmon, mushroomy pasta or lighter game dishes.

Rosso Del Palazzone VR, Cambridge Wine Merchants (£12.99)

From an estate in Montalcino, this non-vintage wine (a blend of several years) is made from the Sangiovese grape, known locally as Brunello.

It is reddish in the glass showing signs of age. On the nose there is red fruit and woodsy undergrowth.

The palate shows good ripe cherry and red fruit, aromas of undergrowth and some liquorice and spice; the acidity feels juicy and mouthwatering, soft, harmonious tannins and a savoury, persistent finish.

It feels very accomplished and well-made indeed, with the mellowness of a few years’ age.

Jancis Robinson also rates this wine and made an earlier version her wine of the week, describing it as a baby Brunello di Montalcino at a fraction of the price … with a hint of the warmth of this corner of south-eastern Tuscany – much lusher than the average Chianti – but without any excesses of oak or alcohol.

Chateaux Ollieux Romanis, ‘Lo Petit Fantet d’Hyppolite’ 2011, Joseph Barnes Wines (£10)

In France, Carignan is traditionally a southern workhorse grape, but old-vine examples can produce great results.

From Corbieres, this Carignan (mixed with a splash of Grenache and Syrah) is a deep cherry red in the glass. On the nose, there are aromas of cherry fruit and hints of green herbs, muskiness and spice.

The palate is warming and spicy with ripe, slightly cooked, damson and red and black cherry fruit, some aromatic notes, savouriness and a softly mouthfilling texture.

The acidity is juicy yet rounded and there is some gentle grip on the finish.

A very enjoyable easy-drinker with good acidity, match with hearty spiced dishes, such as darker game, salamis and herby sausages

Legaris Ribera del Duero ‘Roble’, Noel Young Wines (£9.99)

From Spain’s Ribera del Duero, this young crianza (just three months in oak) is made from 100% tempranillo; dark inky purple in the glass, on the nose there is lots of dark berry fruit and oaky spice.

The palate is ripe with brambly fruit, sweet vanilla, full with soft tannins and juicy acidity with a peppery grippiness developing.

It feels quite up-front and youthful, but with air, some more secondary, truffley aromas develop.

Match with roast lamb or a beef stew.

Marichal Reserve Collection Tannat Canelones, 2011, Uruguay – Hotel du Vin (£6 / 125ml, £7.95 / 175ml)

This unusual Uruguayan red is made by boutique winery Marichal from hand-harvested Tannat; originally from France, Tannat is now Uruguay’s most prominent grape.

A deep cherry red in the glass, there are aromas of dark berry fruit and spice on the nose.

The palate is soft-yet-full with ripe dark fruit, gentle tannins and good acidity; there is some complex dark chocolateyness, hints of liquorice and Christmassy spice with a persistent, savoury finish.

An elegant food wine, the hotel recommends matching this with their Monkfish Grand-mere, garnished with pearl onions, pancetta and wild mushrooms.

Recommended Wine

These are, as ever, all very good wines.

The most unusual is the Uruguayan Tannat from Hotel du Vin which is definitely worth trying for the dinner-party bragging rights alone.

But my recommended wine this month is the Turi Pinot Noir – a well-made, New World Burgundian-style Pinot with good balance and a soft texture for well under a tenner is quite special indeed.

Links

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.co.uk/

Joseph Barnes Wines – http://www.josephbarneswines.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Hotel du Vin – http://www.hotelduvin.com/

Main image credit: http://thepetersoncollector.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/jims-notesmusings-from-pete-bog-1.html

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Rooibos Tea: From Cape to Cup

According to legend, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung accidentally discovered tea over 4,700 years ago when a few leaves blew off a nearby shrub and landed in some water his servant was boiling. Shen Nung drank the resulting infusion and liked it so much that he called it “C’ha”. This appealing story is often told about the discovery of tea but the truth is that no-one knows exactly who first drank tea. It was only thousands of years later that the first record of tea cultivation was documented in 350 AD.

Fast forward to the early 20th century and we find ourselves in South Africa. This is where the red bush plant grows – known more commonly by its Afrikaans name, rooibos. The rooibos plant only grows in the Cedarberg Mountains, a small area of the Western Cape of South Africa. The history of rooibos tea is practically foetal compared to Chinese legend – but it is an interesting one all the same and shares some similarities to the Shen Nung story.

In 1903 Benjamin Ginsberg, the founder of rooibos tea, rode into the remote Cedarberg mountains in South Africa and came across local farmers making a rough brew from a wild plant. Ginsberg became fascinated with this drink and used traditional tea curing techniques to create the delicious rooibos tea which is now enjoyed around the world. Today his family continues their unbroken tradition of rooibos tea production in the Cape.

Tick Tock tea is still made according to Ginsberg’s original specifications and is the most popular redbush tea sold in the UK. To this day, rooibos tea is still lovingly harvested by hand and cured naturally in the clear Cedarberg mountain air. Tick Tock rooibos tea is available from selected stores in Cambridge including Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys and Waitrose. Recently other versions of rooibos tea have started to appear on the shelves – most notably versions by Tetley – but in my opinion, Tick Tock remains the original and best.

Rooibos tea is gentle and soothing. It has been shown to have many health properties as it is rich in antioxidants which may support the immune system against free radical damage. It is also naturally caffeine free so it can be enjoyed at any time of the day and it’s the ideal bedtime drink as it allows for restful sleep.

To make the perfect cup of rooibos tea – add freshly boiled water and allow to brew for up to 4 minutes. Sugar or honey can be added but this refreshing tea is not bitter at all. Milk is optional as the low tannin content means the tea is delicious without milk. A slice of lemon can be added for flavour or try making an iced tea with mint during the warmer months.

Rooibos is also known to intensify the natural flavours of food when it is used as a meat tenderizer and as a base for meat and chicken marinades. A cookbook has been produced in association with Rooibos Ltd of South Africa which showcases the vast cooking versatility of rooibos. 14 of South Africa’s top chefs have contributed to the book which shows that rooibos is not only a healthy beverage but can also be used as a diverse ingredient in the kitchen. This truly South African cookbook containing over 100 delicious recipes is now available in an English language version from Amazon.

Image reproduced from ticktocktea.co.uk

Film Review: Johnny English Reborn

Johnny English Reborn is a nice movie. Easy on the eye. Rowan Atkinson is the main attraction here. His secret agent is more Clouseau than Bond. I would change the advert slogan, ‘Licensed to make you laugh’ to ‘Licensed to amuse’. Rowan is amusing but I never laughed out loud once.

Gillian Anderson wasn’t great. Her English accent along with her portrayal was flat. There was no oomph to her character. Even when she was in peril, it was all rather stiff lipped (Perhaps played with intent) but it was not engaging. I expected a lot from her and she fell considerably short! She was equally drab when English was picking on her mother.

Dominic West was better as the ‘typical Bond spy’ Ambrose. The new kid, played by Daniel Kaluuya, reminded me more of Inspector Gadget’s niece Penny, in that he covered for his boss and was smarter.

Kate Sumner played by Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day) was passable but lacked passion. She played the counsellor of the bureau. Also the baddie who fancies her, knew she was helping English but let her go and then put an assassin on English, in the counsellor’s own bedroom??? Why not kill them both???

But still there were moments of comic genius. The golf club was the best, the use of a helicopter has never been so funny. Also the hit man, is actually a ‘hit granny’, a crafty old girl with several disguises so English gets her mixed up with someone else with more hilarious results. Her last one is the best.

Mistaking a youthful Prime Minister as a fibber was very funny, ‘I’m the Prime Minister.’ ‘You wish.’ Brilliant. Losing his boss’ cat was genius but the execution lacked enthusiasm. The toilet scene in the men’s toilet was a chuckle fest.

The car, Tim McInnerny’s spoof of Q and gadgets were not used enough. There were some clever toys.

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough moments to satisfy, as if the writers developed a block about what to do in between the comic episodes. There was a roughness to the script as if was being done on the go.

The Tibetan monk beginning was completely unnecessary and filled with nonsense. Nothing to do with the film or espionage at all. I didn’t see the point of seeing him on ‘holiday’ first. I would’ve preferred a shorter overview.

I think there should have been more ‘Naked Gun’ moments, where English is causing more havoc. It seemed a bit tame. As if the producer was frightened of being sued or something. The mind control drug was under used and so much humour was missed.

I would watch it again on TV or rent the DVD. Not buy it though. It wasn’t amazing but a good film with some highlights worth remembering. 6/10 from me.

Image reproduced from Wikipedia Commons
Video reproduced from YouTube /  ClevverMovies

Classic Hitchcock: Psycho

Universal Studios, 1959. The production crew of a TV show are gathering at the back of the Universal lot to make a film. They have only a small budget, and only thirty days scheduled to get filming finished. You’d think the water would be over their heads, but the director has pointed out that the film will be very cheap and cheerful. He’s only just come off a massive hit the year before, so for the executives at Universal this is a bit of a surprise. But they have gone along with the directors vision. A director who just happens to be on of the most famous in the world. And during that November of 1959, at the back of Universal Studios, a crew is building the Bates motel.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had all the characteristics of a cheap exploitation movie. It had a budget of $800,000 which even in the 1960s was considered low budget. Instead of seeing the minimalism as a weakness, Hitchcock decided to embrace it. He decided to film it in on cheaper black & white film. He used the same cost effective crew that made his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, as appose to the more extravagant team that had made North by Northwest the year before. It’s almost like Hitchcock was feeling a little tired with all the big budget work and wanted to do something smaller and more intimate.

Psycho marked the first time Hitchcock moved away from his traditional taut thrillers and shifted into full on horror. He crafted a tale that plays on the audience’s fears with great effect. The fear of being forced into a corner where murder is the only way out. The fear of law enforcement watching your every move. The fear of a madman deciding you will be his next victim just because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And of course, the fear of disappointing your mother. The main reason why this is so effective though is that Hitchcock successfully convinces us that the film is about Marion (Janet Leigh), and then leads us up the garden path.

It certainly broke more than it’s fair share of taboos in its time. Even the opening scene when Marion walks around her divorced lover Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) bedroom in her bra was considered controversial. Even Marian flushing a torn-up note down the toilet was considered risky; at this point a toilet had never been heard flushing in mainstream cinema let alone seen. It was one of the most shocking films the audience had ever seen, but not because of its content. It was the way the director manipulated it and the viewer. The shock that occurs around a third of the way into the film is one of the most memorable moments in cinema history, because Hitchcock convinced us that Marion is our heroine. Then he delivers a shower-based shock.

The screenplay was originally supposed to be written by James Cavanaugh, who had previously written a few episodes of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Upon reading Cavanaugh’s screenplay, Hitchcock rejected it saying that it was too dull. With no writer left to take over, Hitchcock reluctantly turned to Joseph Stefano, who had only made his movie début a couple of years previous with The Black Orchid starring Sophia Loren. However, Hitchcock liked Stefano’s approach to the story and hired him. It’s during the scene when Marion sits down to talk to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) that Stefano reaches his peak. We see how the two connect, and how Marion feels sorry for the innocent and wounded-looking Norman.

Psycho is probably the most audacious film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Regardless of the taboo-breaking scenes or the shock twists, Hitchcock was on his own admission playing a game with the audience. It was a risk that could have so easily backfired. Hitchcock wouldn’t allow Janet Leigh or Anthony Perkins to attend any press events for the film, and it wasn’t even screened in advance for the press. The posters in the cinema lobbies showed Hitchcock himself, pointing to his watch like an angry boarding school teacher. “No one… BUT NO ONE… Will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho” it read alongside the director. This was quite a bold move, but still a necessary one. Hitchcock didn’t want word to get out, nor people to miss what would happen a third of the way into the film.

The shower sequence took seven of the thirty filming days to complete, and yet it only takes up around three minutes of the film. It’s still held up to this day as an example of artistry defeating graphic violence. One of the main reasons Hitchcock chose to film in black and white was because he didn’t the audience would be able to deal with all the blood that is spilt when Marion is attacked in the shower. If only he knew the slasher films of the future would consider bloodshed a quality. The sequence was filmed from seventy seven different angles, and with fifty cuts. Only one split second shot actually shows a knife penetrating Janet Leigh’s skin. So if you think we weren’t going to include the clip below then you’re out of your mind.

There are many myths about the shower scene. That Hitchcock used freezing cold water to make Janet Leigh scream louder. That she didn’t even know her character would be killed off to make her reaction when the shower curtain flies open more authentic. That for the majority of the time Leigh’s body double was used. That if you slow the film down enough, you’ll see a shot of Leigh’s nipple. All except the latter are false (if you’re curious, it’s when Marion pulls the curtain down). Just like the chest-burster scene in Alien, the scene had such an effect that people believed something more must have been going on in order to make it so memorable. It’s hard for us to believe that it was just another week at the office for these people.

Janet Leigh’s Marion occupies a role that we see regularly in Hitchcock’s work. She’s an innocent person caught up in a criminal’s world. Although she’s not strictly innocent, as an audience we think of her that way. She’s in love with a divorced man and steals $40,000 in order to be with him. But she ends up crippled with guilt, and whilst staying at the Bates Motel because of a rain storm, she decides to take the money back, and takes a shower to wash away the guilt.

Because of Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation, he was able to cast his first choice to play Marion, Janet Leigh, for just a quarter of her usual salary. Leigh had apparently read the novel by Robert Bloch on which the movie is based, and instantly signed up before even reading the script. Leigh initially didn’t even ask what her salary would be when she agreed to the role. Anthony Perkins proved an interesting casting choice, considering that in the novel Norman Bates is middle-aged, overweight and enjoys pornography. The scriptwriter Stefano liked the idea of changing the dynamic of the character to match Perkins’ style.

At the time of the release of Psycho, Hitchcock was at the height of his career. He was thought of as the most famous director in the world, and people were going to see his films just because his name was on the marquee. It’s very unlikely that an audience will gravitate to a director like that today. Perhaps it is because the audience was following him religiously that Hitchcock thought he could get away with emotionally manipulating them throughout the film. The death of Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and the revelation about Norman’s mother provide shocks later in the film.

Hitchcock opted to film Psycho with 50mm lenses, which gave the effect of human vision. This made the darker scenes in the film all the more unnerving. Especially during the sequence when Norman is watching Marion undress through a tiny peephole. Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates certainly has to be classed as a landmark performance. He makes Norman a likeable character – an innocent person who is having to cover-up his mother’s mistakes. Even when he’s removing Marion’s body and pushing her car into the swamp we’re on his side. In a strange way we want him to succeed, which is by far the most audacious aspect of the film.

Psycho is considered to be the first ever slasher film, and when you think about it nothing has ever really compared. Modern-day slasher films tend to drive towards gore and exploitation, rather than trying find something new and invigorating. The same can be said of blockbuster movies. Perhaps the big earners will never be as good as Jaws, the first film ever to break the $100 million mark. One thing is for sure, a legacy of horror movies exist today because of Hitchcock’s flare and creativity. Psycho is about an artist tackling movie convention and cliche – and winning.

Perhaps we will hear more stories about what happened on the set of Psycho yet. February 2013 will see the release of Hitchcock, a film based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It stars Anthony Hopkins in what certainly will be an Oscar nominated role as Alfred Hitchcock, with Helen Mirren playing the director’s wife Alma, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. The trailer for the film shows us a Hitchcock willing to do anything to make his film the best one yet, and that is something that we have no difficulty believing. Yes, he was an arrogant control freak, but he also made some of the most influential movies of all time, and out of all of them, Psycho will probably remain the most memorable.

Psycho is part of the Alfred Hitchcock Collection, available to buy on Blu-Ray now.

Image reproduced from en.wikipedia.org
Videos reproduced from YouTube / newcarscent7 and YouTube / Randyx27