Thursday, 18 December 2008

Word of the Week...


1. an object or its representation, symbolizing a quality, state, class of persons, etc.; symbol: The olive branch is an emblem of peace.
2. a sign, design, or figure that identifies or represents something: the emblem of a school.
3. an allegorical picture, often inscribed with a motto supplemental to the visual image with which it forms a single unit of meaning.
4. Obsolete. an inlaid or tessellated ornament.
–verb (used with object)
5. to represent with an emblem.

Monday, 15 December 2008

When Should a Celebration not be a Celebration?

Three events this year have forced me to worry about the state of the world. You may be thinking things like the credit crunch, or the terrorist attack in India, but you would be wrong. We will always have terror and we will always have economic slumps. These aren't news and so they don't make me worry.

No, instead, these are the three events:
  • Mamma Mia makes more money at the box office than The Dark Knight in the UK, and is probably going to beat it in DVD sales too.
  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the latest book that is mildly related to Harry Potter, sells a ridiculous amount in the week it is released.
  • I finish watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and am faced with the fact that another well-written, intelligent show has been cancelled WAY too soon.

Now let me state now that this isn't some hate rant on various media that I don't like. I didn't mind Mamma Mia and I have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books. So, this isn't a rant on the quality, it is a rant on the celebrated status they have achieved.

Why, oh world, must we celebrate mediocrity?!

Mamma Mia will never go down in the history books as an amazing film. It isn't even the best musical made. It is made up of crowbarred Abba songs on a loose plot. And yet, when asked to pick the year's best actress, the British public voted Meryl Streep and nominated Piece Brosnan.

You might like the cheese, or the songs. But there is no way any logical person could honestly tell me with a straight face that the film contained even the remotest trace of a good performance.

And here we are, giving out rewards to something that isn't smart, or well-made, but just fun.

Harry Potter seems to have been given some kind of special treatment too. First, the series has somehow managed to find its way onto the regular fiction shelf, as opposed to the Fantasy section it belongs in. Then, people seem to have ignored the fact that the last few books are extremely overwritten; The Goblet of Fire's first act lasts for 450-odd pages. Also, nothing even happens in the sixth book!

The series is formulaic and written in a very workman-like way. I can give her credit and say that she picked up on childhood dreams and created a fairly convincing world, but this does not entitle the books to be treated like the gold that they are.

And I can forgive people for this. The series ended (rather anti-climatically) a while ago, so I could just forget it all.

So why am I now selling hundreds of copies of a new Harry Potter based book!? The thing is tiny, yet is going for the same price as a normal book. People are paying too, and to read what? A collection of short stories, which are just retellings of older myths and legends!

It is nothing amazing and nothing new and yet, with the tag of Harry Potter stamped onto it, people flock.

These are two recent examples, but there are many more. People are gravitating towards the mindless entertainment. This, in itself, is fine, as long as people can acknowledge what they are consuming for what it is: Mindless!

Madness ensues when people reward the mindless and the banal.

And then a show comes along that challenges. The scripts are razor-sharp, and the plot balances humour and drama perfectly. It requires you to think, and doesn't hand you everything on a shiny, silver exposition plate.

And no-one watches it.

Come on people! Stop being happy with mediocrity and challenge yourselves once in a little while. Read something which won prizes or watch a raved-about indie! As a society, we can't numb our brains on the average. And we certainly shouldn't celebrate it.

That way, Armageddon lies.


Thursday, 11 December 2008

Word of the Week...


1. of or pertaining to the enteron; intestinal.
2. enterics, Bacteriology.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Overheard I

Customer (To her friend): How can John Lennon bring out a biography when he's dead?


Monday, 8 December 2008

Cense and Censorbility

I'm continually amazed by the sheer lunacy of the human race. We live in a fabulous planet; full of beauty and spectacle and life; and we spend so much of our time deciding what is allowed, what is normal and what age people should be to handle certain aspects.

The government is going to and/or has already started stickering books with age recommendations.

We have a long tradition of protecting children from the media, and I am all for it. You can argue where the lines are, but I believe it right that small children shouldn't be able to watch violence or sex on film, because it can seem like real life to them. They'd get scarred and we'd have one more slightly warped individual in the world.

But, and this is a capital-letter BUT, a book is a book is a book! Words are indistinguishable symbols to anyone who does know the semantics. We're talking science here. A child can read the word penis and would have no image to call to mind. And so, the world is blunt. Harmless. A word!

However, let us imagine for a moment that a book isn't a collection of harmless symbols. Let us say, for example, that a book called Book X contains lexical choices that may scar poor little ten-year old Jimmy.

We'd also have to imagine that this book has been placed in the children's section of a bookstore and that Jimmy had parents stupid enough to not look at the dust cover before making their purchase. Let us imagine all this to be true.

So, now, what age does Jimmy have to be? Let's say it contains a character dying; how old does Jimmy have to be to truly understand that people sometimes die and sometimes it isn't fair. I'm 21, and I still haven't come to terms with this.

At the moment it is age guidelines, but we are steps away from books being restricted by laws. So now, we're banning The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because people die. We ban The Hobbit. People croak it in Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Goodnight Mister Tom is all about war. All classics, all found in the 8-11 section at Waterstones, and all under threat of having high age restrictions placed on them because children might be moved by them.

Since when has a book making someone sad been a bad thing? Since when have we tried to stop children learning more about the world?

A book provides a safe place for a child to explore the world. A fictional character dying, whilst sad, provides a nice starting place for discussion about the nature of death. I would rather that a child of mine was sad for a week than ignorant for a lifetime.

It is also quite intriguing to see that the chief things that any government tries to censor are the things most natural to human existence: sex and death. To hide any of this is to make it seem unnatural and wrong, and children grow up with a skewed perception.

And since when, as these guidelines seem to be suggesting, have all children been at the same stage of intelligence? It is false that there is a universal age in which to talk about some things and not others. One twelve-year-old might be able to grasp adult plots, whilst a second has trouble understanding the dilemmas of Billy Blue Hat.

To group them all pulls the bright children back and puts pressure on the ones with difficulties. The only children that become unaffected are the average ones, and why are we trying to build a society around being average?

But, you may cry, no-one cares about the restrictions on books. They're just guidelines. And with the latter point you are right.

But I work in a bookstore and I see that people DO care. They DO look at the age guidelines and make decisions based on them, as opposed to the more sensible option of asking any of the very knowledgeable staff members. Because, hey, we're just trying to sell them a book; what do we know?

We have had people who have complained that a book contains the word dead on the front cover in a children's section. This would be funny if it wasn't a daily occurrence.

These parents will choose not to buy a book two years above their child's reading age, and so that child suffers.

Reversely, an older child, or the parents of one, will decide that a book with a younger sticker is just too childish for them. This closes off more options to them, including some of the best books ever written. I am, of course, speaking of Winnie the Pooh. No-one grows out of that book.

I feel it is time to try and conclude this cluster of vaguely connected thoughts. Censorship is wrong. I guess that the point has been made, even if it isn't as eloquent as I would have liked. Children, nah, EVERYBODY should have the right to explore their world, and books are the easiest and safest way to do so.

The idea of cordoning off some words and some worlds until you reach a certain age is not only insane, it is regression. As a society, a country, and a human race, we should be providing access to the tools to learn, to explore and to grow and not hiding them in a cupboard marked "For 18 year olds only".

And it's good to know I'm not the only one who thinks so.


Sunday, 23 November 2008

Ghost Town

What's It All About?
Ricky Gervais is a dentist who hates people (like the Greg House for dental hygiene). When he dies briefly during an operation he finds that he can see ghosts. Oh, and they want his help.

To get rid of the nagging undead, Ricky makes a deal with Greg Kinear: if he can stop Greg's wife marrying a do-good fiancée, then the dead will leave him alone.

Cue romantic comedy sickliness.

The trailer did nothing for me. The idea was nice, but it seemed all cute and sickly and predictable. We knew how the story was going to play out by the end of the two minutes, and the jokes didn't look good enough to negate this fact.

Oh well, with Bond already out and seen, there wasn't much more choice. Beggars can't be choosers and all that.

Repeat after me: Ricky Gervais is not a romantic lead. Got it?

Because at least a dozen people in Hollywood never got this memo. No-one, from executive producer down to director, questioned the logic of putting a portly Brit in the main role in a rom-com. Not one of them sat down and really thought "David Brent? Really?!"

Don't get me wrong here, I like Ricky Gervais. He is quite the funny fellow, when writing his own part or in fitted roles. He has the bit-too-arrogant-but-sweet character down pat, but falls short here when playing disgruntled. His grumpiness never comes across as a real character trait, but more an illness that he will cure during the course of the film.

So, even with an interesting premise, the film can never reaches the heights it should. It tries. Heaven knows that it tries. It plays jokes left, right and centre; from slapstick to sophisticated. Some land, others are played wrongly and some just aren't funny. And in this hailstorm of jokes, the film forgets what it has going for it.

The film is sweet. Occasionally to the point of sickness, but predominantly just on the right side of the line. Watching the ghost's storylines get solved, or seeing the inevitable relationship form tugs on heartstrings. When the film gets melancholic, it gets good.

Greg Kinear plays the funny sidekick with skill and ease, slipping from jokey to serious within the blink of an eye. I would argue that his was the more interesting arch in the film.

Most other roles with so-so, with exceptions to a few cast members from Knocked Up.

But the script never rises above the premise. Everything unfolds like you expect it to, up to (and including) the horrid, happy ending that these type of films feel the need to nail on, despite the events previous to it.

An important plot point is wrong, which sort-of negates half the film; the main character is mostly insufferable; and the whole thing takes an age to start being anything.

So I hated it, right?


But it was sweet. Somehow, the sum was more than the parts and I walked out without feeling I'd wasted money. It was romantic trash, but it was romantic trash with heart. And ghosts!

And I'd already watched Bond. Beggars can't be choosers!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Little Girl in the Daisies

A while back now, I lost a close friend in a car accident. A lorry had pulled out at twice the speed limit, slammed into the side of her, killing her almost instantly. I didn't cry when I heard the news. I didn't cry at her funeral. It wasn't until two weeks later that I let her death affect me.

I was miles away from home, and alone, in the countryside. I had found a field of daisies and sat myself down in the middle of them. I began to think about the good times gone, and the ones never had. I picked at some of the flowers around me, bright white in the sunshine. I close my eyes and let the tears fall, and I forgot about everything else.

"Are you okay?" were the words that brought be back to the real world. I opened my eyes to find them looking at a young girl. She wore a pink dress, and her hazel hair fell long down her back. She held her hands behind her back like she held a secret I wasn't allowed to see.

"I'm not sure." I replied. It was a moment of honestly I would have usually hidden. It felt wrong.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

And I told her. And as I did, I discovered why I had been crying at the same time the little girl did.

I had her look at the huge field, filled with millions of daisies, and I told her to imagine that they were all people. I had lost a friend, and it should be a terrible loss. But if I removed one daisy from the field, it wouldn't change anything. The field would still be beautiful, and anyone coming tomorrow would have no idea that a flower was even missing.

The girl listened quietly as I explained this, nodding occasionally. When I finished, she took out a handkerchief and handed it to me.

"That's a sad way to look at life."

I wiped my eyes, before questioning her logic.

"All these daisies look the same to the sky.' she explained, 'but you are down amongst them. There are millions of them, but only a few count."

She pointed to one flower. "That one is missing half of its petals."

She pointed down to my leg. "And those ones are tickling the bottom of your leg."

She sniffed the air "And that sweet smell isn't coming from the flowers all the way over there. It is coming from here, the daisies around you."

"Those daisies are important to you. They are the ones that touch you, brighten your day, and make a difference to you. The only people that don't care about the daisies are the ones with none around them. And they are lonely people. Or, the sky."

She only said one more thing. She curtsied and said "You're allowed to cry."

Then she ran away before I could thank her or return her handkerchief.

I sat for a while and thought about the little girl's words. When the world started making sense again, I picked a handful of daisies and took them with me.

When I got home, I took a drive to the church and laid them on my friend's grave. I crouched down and closed my eyes, hoping that my words would mean something.

"You were my favourite daisy."


Monday, 17 November 2008

Burn After Reading

What's It All About?
John Malcovich quits (read: is fired) from the CIA and decides to write a memoir. His wife is cheating on him with George Clooney (Well, who wouldn't?).

He is also cheating on her with a woman who works in a gym with Brad Pitt. They find a CD in the locker room containing John's memoir and decide to blackmail him.

It gets hard to explain what happens after that.

It's the Cohan brothers back on comedy form after the good, but depressing, No Country For Old Men. My favourite film of theirs is the underated The Hudsucker Proxy, and this seems to follow suit. And with George Clooney and Brad Pitt no less!

Let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time, I was told that the film Magnolia was very good, and deserving of a watch. So, being the trusting type, I borrowed the DVD and sat myself down at midnight to watch it. Three hours later (It's a long bloody film!) I came away thinking "That was a waste of three hours of my life!"

I have mellowed since, but the fact still remains that I didn't enjoy it. I should have. Tom Cruise acts his little button socks off, as do the rest of a surprising amazing cast. The reason I didn't like it was that throughout the whole three hour running time, there wasn't a point.

People did stuff and things happened it, but at no point did the sum of the parts become greater than the whole. It was meant to be about coincidence, but the only thing that connected everybody together was the fact that frogs rained down on them all!

But I'm not reviewing Magnolia here, as the title may have cleverly told you. I mention the story because Burn After Reading reminded me of Magnolia so much, it was creepy.

But whereas the latter was about things being connected, BFR is meant to be about nothing. It is basically a tale of much ado about nothing. That is the point. It is a film about nothing.

Did it work? No.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, et al deliver fine performances across the board, relishing characters that the wouldn't usually get to play. Pitt is specifically outstanding as the enthusatic, idiotic gym trainer. Most of the big laughs come from him, and his fate becomes even more heartbreaking because of this.

The scenes are fun too. There are nice subtle moments, including a running gag about running and little lines that reveal how little the characters really know.

But it goes nowhere. The film follows all six of the characters at various points and it works against it. No-one grows and there is no arc. Things happen, followed by other things, until we reach the credits. It is wanders aimlessly around when they should have chosen to stick with one character.

I'd go as far as saying that it was two drafts short of being a good film. Because the ingredients were there. They had some interesting characters and a nice plot hidden amongst the things that happened. It's just a shame that it was still buried with the film they released.

Lastly, the Cohen brothers seemed to have lost the ability to end a film. No Country's ending lost it a point when I saw it during a film festival, and this time round, they just shove a dialogue scene in to recap everything that has happened.

A well-acted, but shapeless mess.


Sunday, 16 November 2008

Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo

I am always amazed at the nature of words. Because in essence, all we are doing is combining 26 different symbols, and the end results are communication and emotion. Letters, that have no significance on their own, gain meaning when placed next to other letters.

Okay, now I sound like a simpleton, but really think about it. These very words you read on this page right now, they don't mean anything! They are squiggles, given definition by our schooling and our experiences in life.

Take, for a quick example, these two sentences: "I got wet running through the rain" and "I got soaked running through the rain". Both are saying the same thing, yet both contain different imagery. One word, with almost exactly the same meaning, makes it seem like it is raining heavier on our character.

And those random squiggles can change the world. America voted for the word 'change' (Okay, not solely, but it was damn important). The Harry Potter series affected childhoods all over the world.

Words have power. And...


I started this whole thing to argue the case of swearwords. I was going to say that people need to lighten up on swearing because, when it all comes down to it, a word is only a word. It seems that instead I've been building the case for my opposition.

So, let me pretend that what is written above is one argument. Let it end at 'Words have power.'

And now let me argue the opposite.!

Sure, I say words have power, but it is a fake power. Words are like the Wizard of Oz: all big and flashy on the outside, but the truth is that they are weedy old men (Who hates talking animals, for those who've read/seen Wicked) when the curtain is removed. It is our expectations that make a word, nothing in the word itself.

Take 'Fuck' for example. A word so foul that it has The Daily Express petitioning to remove it from our television screens. But all it is made up of is four symbols. That's it. Are you offended by Uckf, or Ckfu, or Kfuc, or Fkuc? Because they contain exactly the same letters. It's like being offended by pancakes, and not Yorkshire pudding!

The offence you feel is inside of you, or inside the sentence. It isn't in the word. You can say "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck" till the cows come home, the chickens roost, and other farmyard animals do what they do best, it will NOT be offensive. I would even argue, despite the fact that it plagiarises Stephen Fry a little, that fuck is one of the most curious words in the whole of the English language.

It has so many meanings, yet none that all. Alone, it means nothing. After "I want to...", it means 'to have sex' and before "...this", it means that you don't want to do 'this' anymore.

And we haven't even approached the ramifications of banning such words. Where do we stop? I know people who find the word 'moist' unnerving. Should we ban that? How many people need to find a word vulgar before we can't use it any more?

I'm taking back swear words. They aren't vulgar and they are not a sign of ignorance, nor a sign of a limited vocabulary. They are part of a rich selection of English words that can be used beautifully by anyone who gives a damn about what they are saying or writing.

Rise up with me brothers, and stick a big middle finger up to the world of prudes!


Thursday, 13 November 2008

Help a Virgin Out

Exactly what it says on the tin.

Go here, and be counted!

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