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Brick by Brick.

“These days the holy grail is an octopus or a dragon. I only know of three octopuses being found, and one was by me, in a cave in Challaborough, Devon. It’s quite competitive. If you heard that your neighbour had found a green dragon, you’d want to go out and find one yourself.”

By way of Dangerous Meta, BBC briefly looks into the Lego infestation of Cornwall. “[On February 13th, 1997] 62 containers were lost overboard about 20 miles off Land’s End – and one of them was filled with nearly 4.8m pieces of Lego, bound for New York…shortly after that some of those Lego pieces began washing up in both the north and south coasts of Cornwall. They’re still coming in today.”

Keep Calm and…Oh, Never Mind.

“We all know that the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology. But whatever terrors lie in wait for us, all the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century will once more be our strength.”

Along the lines of Richard Nixon’s paean to the fallen Apollo 11 astronauts, a draft, circa 1983, is unearthed of Queen Elizabeth’s potential remarks on the start of World War III. “The moving words were written by an imaginative speech writer taking part in a disaster planning exercise.”

Potemkin Prosperity.

“What they’ve done is they have filled the shop front window with a picture of what was the business before it went bankrupt or closed. In other words, grocery shops, butcher shops, pharmacies, you name it, they have placed large photographs in the windows that if you were driving past and glanced out the window, it would look as if this was a thriving business. It’s an attempt really by the local authority to make the place look as positive as possible for the visiting G8 leaders and their entourages, and it’s really tried to put a mask on a recession that has really hit this part of Ireland really very badly indeed.”

Not from The Onion: The Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen preps for the G8 summit by constructing a Potemkin village untouched by Britain’s disastrous austerity measures. “This is one big initiative really stemming from the Foreign Office in London. This is David Cameron’s gig. It’s his invitation, it’s his decision to host the G8 in County Fermanagh, which is, don’t forget, part of the United Kingdom.”

Chained to Work.

“‘The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays,’ said John Schmitt, senior economist and co-author of the report. ‘Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked.'”

A new CEPR report finds — once againthat Americans are working inordinately hard. “Workers in the European Union are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Canada and Japan guarantee at least 10 days of paid vacation per year. U.S. workers have no statutory right to paid vacations.”

Series of Melancholy Tubes.

“It was thirty years ago that a band from Manchester released their first single ‘Hand In Glove’. For the next four years they released the songs that made me laugh, made me cry and definitely changed my life even if they maybe didn’t save it…This is my tribute.”

Panic in the Tubes of London: In the spirit of the recent Super-Morrissey, a fan recreates The Smiths’ discography as the Underground. Click through for prints or t-shirts.

London Falling.

“[M]aybe they’re all working off out-of-date history books, and think they’re invading the nerve centre of an empire covering a quarter of the globe. In the event that the nation’s favourite Time Lord ever fails to repel them, the Daleks are going to be deeply embarrassed to discover that all they’ve won possession of is a slightly rainy archipelago full of financial services professionals and sarcasm.”

With that Douglas Adams-y pronouncement, Londonist offers a handy Google Map of all the places in London where Doctor Who has saved the city. “We’ve also, because we’re nice like that, colour coded them by which Doctor it was that defeated them.”

Ruins of Babel. | Pompeii of the North.

“The mysterious structure is cone shaped, made of ‘unhewn basalt cobbles and boulders,’ and weighs an estimated 60,000 tons, the researchers said. That makes it heavier than most modern-day warships.” A sonar survey of the Sea of Galilee uncovers a large, ancient, and man-made cairn beneath the waves. “Underwater archaeological excavation is needed so scientists can find associated artifacts and determine the structure’s date and purpose, the researchers said.” Seems pretty clear it was built either to hide an ancient spaceship or hold in Cthulhu.

In similar news, and as seen in the comments of Charlie Pierce’s post on this subject, a dig in the center of London uncovers the ancient Roman city beneath. “The area has been dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the north’ due to the perfect preservation of organic artefacts such as leather and wood. One expert said: ‘This is the site that we have been dreaming of for 20 years.'”

Oh Maggie, what did we do?

“Well I hope I don’t die too soon, I pray the lord my soul to save. Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savor. That’s when they finally put you in the ground, Ill stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” The soundtrack for today was written decades ago: I went with Elvis (who talks about this song here), but could just as easily have gone with Morrissey or Pink Floyd or Sinead O’Connor or a whole host of others.

In any case, Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013. As I said when Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms passed, I’m of the Hunter Thompson on Nixon school when it comes to political obits. Let’s not diminish what Thatcher passionately stood for throughout her life by engaging in ridiculous happy talk at the moment of her death.

This Prime Minister has lot to answer for, from bringing free market absolutism and trickle-down voodoo economics to England, with all the readily preventable inequality it generated, to supporting dictators and tyrants around the world — Pinochet, Botha, the Khmer Rouge — to, of course, the Falklands War.

Much as with Reagan here in America, England still lives under Thatcher’s shadow. To quote today’s Guardian, “her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.” But to her credit, at least Thatcher (a chemist by training) was very vocal about the threat of climate change in the last years of her life.

Update: Salon‘s Alex Pareene has more evidence for the prosecution, including graphs of the rise of inequality and poverty on Thatcher’s watch:

“Britain no longer ‘makes’ much of anything, and when those lost jobs were replaced, they were replaced with low-wage, no-security service industry work…Really, it’s hard to argue with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who remembered Thatcher on Sky News yesterday: ‘She created today’s housing crisis. She created the banking crisis. And she created the benefits crisis…In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact that she was fundamentally wrong.'” (Last quote also birddogged by Dangerous Meta.)

Werewolves of Scarfolk.

“Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. ‘Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.'” Lots of strange, Wicker Man-ish postings at Scarfolk Council, one of the more strange-creepy-cool sites I’ve stumbled on of late.

Mrs. Peel, We are Needed.

“Granted, The Avengers’ vision of Britishness, while rooted in some truths about the national character, was pure fantasy. But it’s an attractive fantasy: this land where the heroes are tasteful yet fashionable, reserved yet lascivious, demure yet effective.”

Before Mulder and Scully, there was Steed and Peel: In the AV Club, Noel Murray sings the praises of “The Avengers’ stylish, lascivious vision of Britishness. I’ll confess that Mrs. Peel remains one of my earliest and enduring fanboy crushes. “[T]he secret to The Avengers’ ribaldry was that it isn’t just about sex: It’s also about power. Gale and Peel didn’t just flummox men with their beauty; they also had brilliant minds, and they kicked gents’ posteriors, routinely.” (Images via Heather McLendon.)

Sixty hours, and what do you get?

Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course–worldwide, almost everyone except us has…a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. (The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland. U-S…A?)

It used to be a central tenet of progressivism was working to shorten the work week. Now, even unemployment-soothing innovations like workshare go nowhere, and, as Mother Jones‘s Monika Bauerlein and Claira Jeffrey explain (with handy graphs), we are all victims of the Great Speedup…but not the beneficiaries. “For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they’ve ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top…In other words, all that extra work you’ve taken on — the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games — paid off. For them.

What the Words Obscured.

There is nothing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves more than movies about people with physical or mental disabilities (or addictions)…If the afflicted protagonist also happens to be royal — as in The Madness of King George (1994) — so much the better, for a suffering crowned head bestows an extra touch of class on Hollywood’s uplifting formula of brave triumph over cruel adversity.

So, apparently, a stammer was the least of King George VI’s worries. As the Oscar field is announced with The King’s Speech at the head of the pack, Martin Filler muckrakes the rest of the King George story in The New York Review of Books, and Christopher Hitchens piles on over at Slate: “The King’s Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer and the latent Anglophile. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history.

Talking Monarch Blues.

Part monarchical bromance, part speech impediment Rocky, Tom Hooper’s impressive if Oscar Bait-y The King’s Speech — about King George VI of England’s attempts to overcome his debilitating stammer — is, in its own way, as edutaining and well-made a recent royal micro-history as the film concerning his daughter, Stephen Frear’s The Queen. The acting is on point, the writing is keenly-observed, the direction is crisp and well-paced, and if Colin Firth gets a Best Actor Oscar for this to make up for his A Single Man loss (much like Jim Broadbent won for Iris after being overlooked for Moulin Rouge), well, no harm, no foul.

The point being, if in doubt, go see this film. You probably know if this sort of thing — a BBC-ish historical production with a feel-good, sports-movie narrative arc — is your cup of tea, and if it is, have at it, good fellow. Still, chalk it up to haters gonna hate, but I left the theater feeling a little underwhelmed by The King’s Speech. Yes, it is well-made. But it also didn’t do anything that surprised me — wait, so Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist is both wacky AND wise? Irreverent AND endearing? What a delightful combination! — and I ultimately found the stakes to be rather small.

The film opens in October of 1925, as the shy, discomfited Duke of York, Prince Albert (Firth), waits within the bowels of Wembley Stadium with his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Third in line to the throne behind his father the King (Michael Gambon) and his rapscallion brother David (Guy Pearce), the Duke is about to deliver an address — to be broadcast worldwide — at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition. This, alas, he bombs painfully: Albert’s pitiful, strangulated attempts to overcome his stammer make the speech a chore for speaker and millions of listeners alike.

Cut to a decade later, and the poor prince is still prisoner to his unruly glottis. And so, with the Duke at the end of his rope, Elizabeth (who we know better as the beloved “Queen Mum.”) seeks out some aid from a commoner who’s ostensibly trained in the arts of speech therapy, one Lionel Logue (Rush). An Australian transplant to the isles, Lionel is a congenial family man far removed from the etiquette and ostentation of the Crown: The closest he’s ever gotten to royalty is his well-reviewed portrayal of Richard III — another “rudely-stamped” Duke of York, as it happens — back in Perth. But is it possible this scampish, egalitarian therapist has the wisdom and the potential to break through to the future king where others have failed? Gee, you think?

I don’t want to make light of Prince Albert’s stammer, because it seems like a cruel fate indeed for a man born into a family business of speechifying to be afflicted with such a curse. (And Firth does a great job of conveying the sheer horror of it all. At any moment, you can see his fear that he might once again be betrayed by his tongue.) Still, perhaps it speaks to a failure of empathy on my part — I usually do well on the Voight-Kampff, I swear — but the question of whether or not an extraordinarily wealthy and catered-for man can manage to overcome his embarrassing speech impediment was not one I found all that engaging in the end. (This is sorta the same problem I have with Sofia Coppola films, and I fear Somewhere will be no exception.)

It seems the writers recognize the problem here, so to square that circle they invoke the encroaching thunder of World War II. Albert (later George, of course) is more and more explicitly contrasted with that eloquent demon on the Continent, Adolf Hitler, who is mustering a frightful army by virtue of his silver tongue. How will England’s monarch be able to stand against the wrath of Nazi Germany, if he too is not possessed of royal gravitas and a kingly p-p-p-p-poker face? Well, ok, that does raise the stakes some, and, yes, from his decision to stay in London during the Blitz to his 1939 Christmas speech (not featured in the film), the dignity and fortitude of King George VI was indeed a rallying point for his people during the Second Great War.

Still, from watching this movie you’d never get the sense that John Bull already has a great orator in his pocket, in Winston Churchill. (Here, Timothy Spall, who sadly comes off like a guy in a Halloween costume.) At the end of the day, it’s Churchill’s speeches — “their finest hour, “blood, toil, tears, ands sweat,” “we shall fight on the beaches” — that stand the test of time, which, for all its good intentions and attention to craft, makes the central tale in The King’s Speech feel like even more of an historical footnote. (And, as Dangerous Meta points out, Churchil himself was a stammerer. That’s mentioned briefly in the movie, but perhaps not given as much due as it could’ve been.)

In the end, though, the question of stakes is less important than the nagging suspicion throughout The King’s Speech that it was basically just a sports movie for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. There may be a Big Speech at the end instead of a Big Game, but we’re still playing in the same old ballpark. We even have a training montage at one point.

Speech is very well put together to be sure, and if this genre speaks to you then do go see it. Still, I left the theater feeling like I’d seen this exact same sort of tale — adversity overcome with determination and the aid of a kooky-but-wise mentor — way too many times before. Adding British accents, and a stammering one at that, doesn’t really change the tried-and-true Rocky/Remember the Titans/Great Debaters equation at work here in the end.

Resigned to Their Fates.

I know it’s becoming a habit ’round here to kick off movie reviews by apologizing for their lateness. But — sorry, y’all — this one’s running a few weeks behind also. (Suffice to say, work’s been busy of late, and will likely remain so until election day.) Nonetheless, since I’ve now got five recently-seen movies kicking around in the to-be-reviewed hopper…

I haven’t read the original novel — which was chosen as one of TIME’s top 100 books of (most of) the 20th century — but I’m guessing that Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishigoro’s Never Let Me Go is probably pretty faithful to its source material. A sparing, muted, and low-key affair throughout, this is basically a Merchant Ivory science-fiction film, and, much like the butler in Ishigoro’s The Remains of the Day, the movie is a model of delicate — some might even say pained — restraint. That, ultimately, is its strength and its weakness.

To be honest, I found Never Let Me Go rather slow-moving for its first two-thirds, and I have some issues with the basic storytelling here — Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I suspect the book may just be “top-shelf” sci-fi for artsy lit-crit types who think regular genre sci-fi is for dweebs. (I could very well be wrong, of course — Like I said, I haven’t read it.) Still, I wouldn’t go far as to call it haunting, but Romanek’s film has burbled back into mind several times in the weeks since I saw it (and not just because I’ve already seen Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in separate outings since.)

Set in an alternate England not too dissimilar in dystopic drabness from the one in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, Never Let Me Go begins amid the halls and fields of Hailsham, a country boarding school headed by the always-striking presence of Charlotte Rampling (recently of Life during Wartime.) The name of the school, like Rampling’s character, is reminiscent of Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, and there’s certainly a Dickensian feel to this first third of the story, where events are set in motion that will redound over the course of our protagonists’ lifetimes. (I’m probably overthinking things, tho’. Hailsham is also just the name of the town.)

In any case, although possessing none of the colorful antics or magickal je-ne-sais-quoi of Hogwarts, Hailsham too is a school for very special children. Here, a young girl named Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), her friend and rival Ruth (Ella Purnell), and Tommy (Charlie Rowe), the strange, vaguely feral lad they both take a shining to, come of age. Wearing wrist monitors wherever they go and deeply fearful of leaving the school grounds, the children are nonetheless heavily trained in the etiquette of the outside world. They are also encouraged to create art — art which is closely monitored by the powers-that-be. But for what, exactly? What is going on with these kids? Only when one of the younger teachers (Sally Hawkins) experiences a twinge of conscience over her students are we clued in to the real goings-on.

Cut to several years later, and our trio — now fully cognizant of their special purpose –has grown into Carey Mulligan (good, but, as in An Education and Wall Street 2, doing the world-weary-with-dimples thing that’s fast becoming her trademark), Keira Knightley (actually kinda terrible — as in The Jacket, she just twitches and twitters to signify emotion — it’s very possible she just can’t act), and Andrew Garfield (with Parnassus, Red Riding, and The Social Network, having a breakout year, but the part is unfortunately a bit Rain Man-y. He does have one amazing scene with Rampling late in the film, tho.)

I can’t say anymore really without giving away the game, other than that the earlier-established love triangle dominates the second part of Never Let Me Go, and the inevitable implications of this trio’s special-ness comes to the fore in the third and most satisfying section of the film. But this final forty minutes or so, while no doubt the best part of the flick, poses problems for the movie as a whole.

The minor, more quibble-ly concern, and one I’m willing to concede for the sake of the overarching theme — we are mortal, and death ineluctable, so use your time well — is that the characters all seem rather resigned to their fates here. Granted this is a civilization accustomed to queueing, that some here do attempt one gambit to buy some time, and that we don’t really need an Americanized action movie version of this story anyway — Bayhem already made it. Still, the fact that a Logan’s Run-type alternative isn’t even suggested at any point highlights some of the overall story flaws here. (In fact, the whole idea of the school doesn’t really make sense, when you get down to it.)

But, you know, in any sci-fi story, you have to take certain basic premises for granted, so I can run with that. The bigger problem here is that a full two-thirds of the movie are spent tracing out a love triangle that barely reaches soap opera levels of sophistication, and one that only holds together at all because two of the parties are as passive as Stevens the Butler about the way they feel. Yes, the ending is haunting in its own way (if a bit overwritten; The final monologue pretty much tries to punch you in the face with the subtext, just in case you missed it.) But why did we have to sit through an hour of Knightley biting her lip or Mulligan third-wheeling it to get to this point?

I don’t want to sound too harsh about this movie, because, overall, I’d say it’s worth seeing, and it has some moments of quiet power. (Like I said, there’s a scene with Rampling, Garfield, and Mulligan over tea near the end that’s a showstopper.) But, partly because the characters in this world are so clipped and distant, and mainly because the love story here is never as interesting as the world it takes place in, I didn’t find Never Let Me Go as gripping in the end as either the hype or the title would imply.

The Bill Paid at Last.

The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable — abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe…[N]ations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.” — John Maynard Keynes

Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.

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