Posts from 16th July 2004

Jul 04

FT Top 100 Films 61: THE DARK CRYSTAL

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FT Top 100 Films

Its like The Muppet Movie without the laffs. Well it is The Muppet Movie without the laffs – at least it would be if The Great Muppet Caper had not already been The Muppet Movie without the laffs. But The Dark Crystal is The Muppet Movie without laffs and without the muppets.

For some strange reason (or probably due to the lack of success of The Great Muppet Caper)  Jim Henson decided to make a strange, sci-fi/fantasy puppet movie. He figured since he had been so successful making money out of cheap puppets and making people laugh, it should be a synch to make a serious adventure film with expensive puppets. To some degrees he succeeded – though one could also say the world was not ready for The Dark Crystal. 

The world is ready for The Dark Crystal now, because we have DVD players and love the making of documentaries. One of the best things about puppets is behind the scenes, trying to work out how they did it. I saw a documentary on the history of the Muppets a couple of years ago. I could have watched it for hours, the strange split personality of puppeteers knowing what can, and cannot be seen by the camera. Couple this with someone like Frank Oz who also did the voice, and my admiration overflows. Especially for the Muppets, they interviewed people, interacted and (key point) were also really funny. The Dark Crystal is not funny. Its daaaaark.

The quest plot is bog standard for this kind of fantasy, and the creatures “gelfings” are straight from creature design 101 (bit elf, a bit hobbit). But the world conjured up looks tremendous, even if the lead characters look more like deformed simpletons than mystical creatures. An oddity then, one which was twenty years ahead of the current fantasy obsession. Did it kill a genre dead at the time. Maybe, though it looks and feels a lot better than the current wave. Pity about the jokes though.

Science proved what I’ve always suspected

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Science proved what I’ve always suspected — that humans have been eating cereal since the beginning of time. Well, not the beginning of time, but 23,000 years ago, which is, um, within some orders of magnitude of the beginning of time. What kind of cereal were they eating? Well, judging by the picture, it looks like they were big fans of Kelloggs Honey Smacks.

Ad noted when flitting around The Onion

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Ad noted when flitting around The Onion (but is a real, actual serious ad). The majority of Budwiser drinkers think that Miller Genuine Draft has more flavour. Ditto Miller Lite has more flavour than Bud Lite. What do these statistics tell us?
a) Budwiser drinkers do not like beer with an excess of flavour. Maybe they think Miller is the MSG of the beer world.
b) Budwiser drinkers do not like the flavour of Miller. I would suggest that off milk has more flavour than fresh milk, its just not a very nice flavour.
c) Budwiser drinkers are stupid. Almost as stupid as this ad.

Why No-one Want Make Hulk 2?

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Why No-one Want Make Hulk 2?
This op/ed piece from The Onion makes a fair few good points, but the key point is, would you argue with its writer?

The Square Table 3/ Usher – “Burn”

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The Square Table 3/ Usher – “Burn”

Pop Factor: 442 Controversy Score: 240

The plot of “Burn” is simple. It’s not working, is it? – Damn, it was working. Having ‘been there’, it’s hard not to cheer the pivot-moment (“till you return”), especially when the tremulous voice and the heavy arrangement are playing nice-cop/nasty-cop on you. But not ‘being there’ now, my head is feeling this one more than my heart: there are lots of little touches I like (the quiet shuffle of electronics at the start, for instance) but that climax is the only point where the song stops being decent and grabs me. 7 (Tom)

The swain’s refrain fails mainly to explain, over four minutes and eighteen seconds, what’s left of him after fifty-‘leven days and umpteen hours. You get to the end of it to find that the music’s too cheerful and the man’s too evasive. The real story? She left him. “Burn”‘s the face-saving story you, the unlucky listener cornered and hemmed for a round of solitary sadness, get to hear. My advice? Tell him to sob off. 0 (George Kelly)

Usher: “I don’t understand why. See it’s burning me to hold onto this. I know this is something I gotta do. But that don’t mean I want to. What I’m trying to say is that I love you, I just I feel like this is coming to an end. And I don’t understand why…”

Stevie: “I don’t either, honey, but I know one thing: this song is really boring.” 0 (Stevie Nixed)

Goodness me, isn’t Usher meant to be all SMOOVE? Instead of the coolest be-capped King o t’Dancefloor who sang to us YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! we now have a sniffly little sod wiping his nose on his sleeve before going to his mam’s house for some roast beef crisps. Quite frankly I couldn’t stand more than 2 minutes of this song, after being CONVINCED it had already lasted a Yes-style epic 8 minutes. Imagine being stuck in a conversation with him! Stop this Nu-Man nonsense right now! I blame “Mens Health” magazine. What a load of todgers! On the plus side, the beats remind me a bit of Ignition (Remix), but you know. 2 (Sarah C)

Usher is a SOMETIMES turn on for me; when he’s hot, he’s real hot. When he’s not, he’s tremendously disposable. This track falls into the weak category for me. Synth strings, predictable beats, lyrics that were old when Jodeci sang them. Usher’s a fine crooner, but after ten listens I think I still would have trouble picking this track out of a quietstorm lineup. “Burn” is an absolutely inoffensive wash of Urban elevator music, only about a tenth as compelling as “Feelin’ On Ya Booty”, which I just queued up to clear the palate. 3 (Forksclovetofu)

The only reason why people are taking this generic and souless piece of R & B seriously is that it is about two people who are famous and how one of them fucked around, right? There cannot be anything interesting in this maudlin dreck? 3 (Anthony Easton)

I suppose we should give Usher some credit, as he has managed to summarise most of his traits in the space of one single – drossy ballading, excessively high notes, shout out to the fell-uhs, attempt to coin new and rubbish catchphrase (see also ‘Pop Ya Collar’, ‘The U-Turn’), and dance moves of impressive dexterity but precisely bugger-all emotion or expressive purpose. Features neither Ludacris nor Li’l Jon. 3 (William B Swygart)

Sing along:

It’s the remix to Ignition
Hot and fresh out the kitchen
Usher’s pissed off with R Kelly
So it’s his tune he’s nicking.

I mean, by all means steal someone’s song, but don?t then call it something like the original as well. R Kelly started the fire, and Usher is happy to let it burn. 4 (Pete)

Heaven, Usher needs a hug. He wants to dump his shorty…and then get back with her…or get back with whomever he dumped to get at this current, soon-to-be-ex-shorty. The narrative confuses me. And “let it burn”?! This song couldn’t even singe a merengue. His vocals are, as always, impeccable. (No man this side of that McAlmont guy can soar into falsetto with such grace). And not a trace of melisma! The song skirts too close to “smooth jazz” territory, for my liking, though. I miss Lil Jon and his bag of “what!”s. 5 (Henry Scollard)

I had to look up one of those lyric sites with fifty popup windows just to make sure he actually did use the word ‘umpteen.’ And then I found he’d come up with ‘fifty-leven.’ Obviously after twenty-twelve months in Usher Time it’s been long enough to do something that sounds just like ‘You Got It Bad.’ I’m not saying it’s rubbish, it’s just nothing new. 5 (Bushra)

I want to know when ‘boo’ became the accepted hiphop term for Lady Friend, and whether it is as I suspect a bastardisation-cum-feminisation of ‘beau’. It’s a bit of a silly word, innit? Very hard to get the pathos when Usher wibbles ‘what’m I gonna doo-oooo! without mah booo-ooo!’ Other singers can pull it off: Usher, mediocre and anodyne, cannot.

The song is embarrassingly generic, the speechlike tumble of verse leavened only by a little internal rhyme and rhythmic emphases (just as in ‘you remind me’), his voice straining a little awkwardly as it passes into quiet falsetto range without any emotional effect. Everything in the arrangement, the production, is straight out of any given slow jam – I’m not into ballads, and I’m not into this. Points for using the word ‘umpteen’, but not many: 5 (Cis)

This sounds like a chilled-out r&b rip of Ignition (remix), but since I haven’t heard the original Ignition, maybe it’s just a straightforward copy. It’s smooth enough and works a lot better detached from the awful video, but it’s been a long time since Usher’s made me wanna… 6 (alext)

For four minutes he’s unsure about if he’s doing the right thing, so much that he has to ask his audience about it: “Ladies tell me do you understand? Now all my fellas do you feel my pain?” He’s more worried about having the nod of approval from his audience than about not hurting his girl, it seems. With a follow-up to “Yeah” as well crafted as this he doesn’t have to worry about the former. Yet I really can’t “feel him burning”. 6 (Diego Valladolid)

The faux sophistication of plucked guitars usually indicates a frigidity in ballads – it’s only when Usher hits the high notes that the tune feels momentarily sensuous. We’ve been here before with the “my new boo ain’t as good as you” lyrics, although when he sings about his party not jumpin’ anymore it’s certainly touching in a naive way. It’s an engagingly, almost sublimely soporific ballad with a feeling of late period genre-maturity. And yet it’s a bit indulgent to get my party jumping, really. 6 (Derek Walmsley)

I really like the style of R&B ballad that has appeared in the wake of Ignition (Remix). At its best there is a restrained tension, a power replacing the sometimes wet limpness that the form has always been prone to, even in what I see as the golden era of soul ballads, three-to-four decades ago. This does lean that way here and there, but the almost-rapped choral lines give it an insistence that easily balances the occasionally slightly thin vocal (at its worst halfway through with a very unconfident ‘ooh ooh ooh ooh’). It’s reported that it is about TLC’s Chilli; I don’t know if that’s true or even interesting (much as I adore her), but talking about apparently real past relationships does seem to be 2004’s big theme. 7 (Martin Skidmore)

Usher’s still a teenybopper at heart. It’s not the supremely unconvincing stab at a Barry White-ish opening monologue that makes “Burn” sound so good; it’s the weepy, sugary synth line and that there thing that sounds suspiciously like a Spanish guitar (but it can’t be, ’cause everyone knows you can’t make a good Anglo-American Pop record with a Spanish guitar.) This ain’t no “Love TKO”, this is “Autumn Goodbye”. On a related note: some people can pull off using terms like “boo” in a serious break-up song; Usher is not one of these people, which is why my initial 8 has been downgraded to a 7. (Daniel Riefferscheid)

E-mailing me the MP3 turns out to be unnecessary to the quadzillionth degree, since the only song from the past 6 months I’ve heard more than “Burn” is Mr. Raymond’s “Yeah”. Sometimes I wish the track featured “legitimate” instrumentation (violins, cellos, other music boxes made from wood and catgut), but then the sincerity of the music would undoubtedly step on the toes of the lyrical sincerities, and then we’d be on some “All Cried Out” tip, which is not where anyone wants to be. Anyway, “Burn” is a great song (though the grandeur of the “break down and cry” bridge gets pissed on by the half-ass return to the chorus following all those sexy & lonely “hoo-hoo”s), and (it’s a fact!) is the lesser of The Three Usher Singles, which is why the grade is “only” a 7. (For the record – “Yeah” gets an 8.5, and “Confessions (Part II)” gets a 396.) Regardless, the Usher corporation can take solace in my gratitude for their avoidance of the goddamn “fire / desire” rhyme. Thunderclap! 7 (David Raposa)

Usher is okay, I like him, he seems like an affable chap. Much more likeable than that creepy JT. This song is nice, it sounds like a lot of care was taken when making it. The backing is simple, and I like all the changes in vocal style, and the way the vocals float and intercept each other. 8 (jel)

Growing a Language

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Growing a Language

A comment from a colleague reminded me of this classic paper on programming language design. If you are not interested in programming just take a look at the first 4 or 5 pages and the last page.

Is there a word for making a point through the fabric of the text as well as its meaning?

It rained yesterday.

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It rained yesterday. 
“St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair”
A former teacher introduced me to the story of St Swithin. He was an unwavering believer in archaic legends and St Swithin was his obsession. 
I recently discovered some reflections on him from Friends Reunited. One pupil used to deliver his morning tabloid and claimed the house was wallpapered in newsprint. Another maintained he had installed a cat-flap in the door but had no pets. The polite way to explain him would be ‘eccentric’. In truth, he was a strange and somewhat frightening man.
He spoke the rhyme above as a kind of mantra, theatrically rrrrolling his rrrrrrs on the final syllable.
Years later, I came across the legacy of St Swithin on a visit to Winchester. I could still recall the rhyme from schooldays, so deep had he engraved it in our tender minds. The cathedral guide wasn’t fond of “old wives’ tales” (as he called them) and reeled off some statistics from the Met Office that disproved the legacy of St Swithin. “Superstition is the baseless fear of the Gods!” he shouted, his words bouncing around the nave. As if that was the point.

I expect he’s now retired from teaching (and maybe from life itself), but there’s a generation of school kids from my hometown who, come July 15th, shudder and remember that peculiar old man.

Those Big Russian Novels

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Those Big Russian Novels
I’ve had both of Tolstoys big novels on my bookshelves for some years. I’ve used them as bookends, doorstops and once threw War & Peace at an ex-girlfriend. The only thing I haven’t done is read them.
I grabbed Anna Karenin a month ago to hurry time on a long flight and I kept going. Through all 851 pages of dense type. I left the introduction to the end (rightly) as despite running to just two pages, it summarises the plot, discusses the characters and gives away the ending.
I was surprised how readable it was. The prime difficulty lies in learning character names. Every Russian has a selection of three or four names dependent on intimacy of relationships with one-another. The Penguin edition tidies this a little, but I still had to draw a family tree for reference. Why don’t all big, multi-generational novels have family trees printed in the front?
I finished Anna (as I’ve come to know it) last night. Trouble is, I don’t know anyone else who has read it, so I end up comparing my reflections with online study guides.  I guess it looks better back home on the bookshelf with its creased spine and coffee-splashed cover, but I could have bought a second hand copy for the same effect.

The one plus: it was hugely enjoyable, but I think one big Russian novel, per lifetime, is enough.


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The new pop revival – ITS REAL! (via Popjustice)

Music for the impatient (via Wisdom Goof) – reminds me of Marc Gascoigne’s classic “90 Songs In 90 Minutes” tape, though with more Blink 182 and less Zoviet France.

I’m rather pleased Smash Hits radio respects its elders and still plays the odd Take That song (“Pray”). I’d forgotten how strained Howard (I think it’s Howard) sounds, though – it’s like he was made to do his dance routine in the studio at the same time as his vocal take.

Comments boxes everywhere are reprieved – ILXOR is apparently back. I’m thinking about what to do with comments boxes generally, and indeed how best to use ILX for this site’s benefit. A board for the Red Or Dead appeal, perhaps? Also! Now ILX is back I’m going to moderate the comments boxes fairly strictly vis a vis personal attacks on people: please don’t, or take it to The Other Place.

The fashionable thing to say about The Ladykillers is that the Ealing version isn’t that funny either. 

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The fashionable thing to say about The Ladykillers is that the Ealing version isn’t that funny either.  (The either is optional depending on whether you found the Coen’s version funny. I’m leaving the either in.) I think that kind of misses the point of The Ladykillers which is in many ways more a thriller than a comedy. Oh, its a thriller about incompetent thieves. But the narrative drive is solely based on whether the heist will be pulled off, and then if they will escape.
The heist gone wrong movie is a sub-genre with very little to recommend it, (Dog Day Afternoon being probably the best exponent). The heist gone right, the escape gone wrong movie is much more fertile. It can be played for horrific purposes, in a film like Resevoir Dogs. For pathos, in Rififi. For exasperated comedy in Quick Change. The Ladykillers sits nervously between all of these, whilst eeking out an essay on class relations or more properly anti-intellectualism. The Professor, in both versions, is presented as the worst kind of intelligensia. Talks too much, prone to hubris and utterly without morality. Both films present themselves as the mastermind meeting their match in the old lady. This is not strictly true. In both versions she never really actively outwits the thieves, they are unlucky, destroyed by themselves.
The Coens realise that the films is about this battle between down-home simplicity and morality versus the perversion of over-education. It is a pity they do, because it is a pretty unpleasant message to have at the heart of their film. They stress it by having the money finally donated to Bob Jones University, a real Christian university which “stands without apology for the old-time religion and the absolute authority of the Bible”. This is contrasted with the Professor’s education, stressed to be in the Sorbonne – a heathen European institution.
There is much to admire in both versions of The Ladykillers, this theme is not one. The final downfall of both Professor’s come ou of a battle with the intellectually derided characters (One Round in Mackendrick’s, Lump in the coarser in every way Coen’s version). Again we contrast the good heart of the simple folk, with the evil of the intelligensia. The 1955 version may have been contrasting the working class with those which were slowly being pumped out of the enlarged University system. The Coen’s take their contrast from the black south. Perhaps the real difference between the films, which perhaps allows the Coen’s to slightly get away with this is that their film, unlike Mackendrick’s, is not aimed at the group it champions.