Thursday, 18 February 2010

Winter Olmpics

I love the Summer Olympics: the teams; the flags; the national anthems; the countries: the medal ceremonies; the athletics; the hype; the drugs… It’s really quite a spectacle. When we were kids we had our own version around the local green. We played sprinting, middle distance running (which was like sprinting but slower), long distance running (which was walking and lying about the number of laps you’d done), long jump, high jump, skipping and hopping. We also had goal shooting, because the only boy who ever actually wanted to be a goal-keeper lived on our street.

And then there are the Winter Olympics, full of games that people from cold places play. These are just mad! They play ‘team sports’ like ice hockey, which is legalised violence; rugby league with sticks. My aunt and uncle who lived in Canada moved their entire home several thousands of miles because their son showed more than a passing interest in the sport.

There’s also curling, where a group of people wearing tea cosies on their heads slide stones down the ice while some demented rink-proud lunatic sweeps it vigorously with a broom. Odd, to say the least. When they’re not tidying it up, they’re skating round it with thighs the size of their torsos squeezed into lycra suits. One memorable year, everyone leaned a little too far into the corner and they all fell over. Leapfrogging them all – no mean feat in ice skates – was some rank outsider who’d previously been lapped. Steve Bradbury skated to victory in a performance akin to Dobbin the Pantomime Horse winning the Melbourne Cup. (He's from Australia - they don't call it the Lucky Country for nothing.)

Staying on the ice, these Olympic heroes and heroines have devised all sorts of peculiar things to do on it. They slide down chutes of it at break-neck speed either feet or head first individually on tea trays or in teams in bath tubs. These events are called luge and bobsleigh and, ominously enough, skeleton.

One the most intriguing events, is the ice dancing. Somewhat like skating with the stars, except that these people are actually good. Most people claim it is the winter equivalent of synchronised swimming and that no one watches it. Is that so? In Britain, Ravel’s Bolero is known as ‘The Torville and Dean Music’, and that was even after Bo Derek took her clothes off to it, which I would imagine takes some topping!

The South Park characters have a prior skating celebrity as a mentor, and two female American competitors had a rather ugly and public spat involving a sledgehammer and a film contract, although admittedly it went straight to video release. Competitors spin and glide their way around the ice in ridiculous flimsy sequinned costumes and the audience waits with baited breath until some poor little Russian falls on her bum and gets a crap score from the judges. She gets the public vote though because she still manages to smile bravely through her atrocious make-up.

When they’re not doing foolish things on ice, they’re doing them on snow. Ski-jumping for example. Why would you slide down an enormous ramp of snow with no poles and fly through the air hoping to land in a pile of cold wet stuff? And where are the practice jumps? The training ramps? Britain had a bloke who sort of fell rather than jumped off the end. He was called, obviously ironically, Eddie the Eagle. Eddie the Emu more like. He became a national idol.

My favourite event is the biathlon in which participants X-Country ski until their limbs turn to jelly and then they shoot things. Perhaps not the most obvious combination unless you are a member of the Norwegian army, or James Bond. These competitors are so exhausted that they fall over the finish line in a heap of heaving sweating lycra. An enticing visual image perhaps, but would you trust them with a gun?

I would like to suggest that we no longer neglect the fine display of the winter Olympics and that we host our own, back yard version. I accept that ice-rinks that form are unlikely to be more than muddy puddles, and skiing down the slide in the children’s playground may be frowned upon. So I recommend we stick to more mundane and familiar pursuits.

Wrapping up warm would be first on my list. The winner would be the person who managed to wear the most layers of clothing and still move. This would cause a spin-off in merchandising and thermal underwear would become quite fashionable. Although the Michelin Man would become a role model (or is that a roll model?), the competitor, if so desirous, could still sport sequinned attire or something diaphanous in chiffon.

Walking down icy steps is another potential event. There are all manner of possible categories; speed, style, vocal expression… A panel of judges could grant points for interpretation which are subjective enough for Canada to get away with never awarding the USA top marks. There could be a tandem event, a pursuit, or even a relay of contestants grasping at handrails and slithering their way down to a small bundle at the bottom of a flight of steps.

Ingenious ways of starting a car, de-icing the windscreen with a credit card, putting on snow chains and lighting a fire would all be possibilities. Drinking mulled wine would be a clear favourite, with hot chocolate supping for those in training. Of course, I welcome your suggestions for this auspicious event and invite you to send them all to:

The Back Yard Winter Olympics
Cold Comfort Farm
New Zealand

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Death of an Innocent

Today I killed an innocent spider. I feel guilty because I like spiders; they eat flies and I don’t like flies. This is naturally wrong and selfish of me to slaughter species depending on my personal likes and dislikes, but that’s just the way I am.

But I have been seduced by the media hysteria about white-tailed spiders and their venomous bites. So when I saw this thing with its white spots I was alarmed and I sprayed it with the ‘Raid Multipurpose Fastkill’. It was a sprightly little blighter and I had to chase it around the kitchen waving my aerosol can screaming, ‘Die, die, die!’

Eventually it rolled over and curled each of its eight legs (the front four of which are red) around its delicate body to protect itself, but I was ruthless with my pesticide. I was so non-green, I was practically Agent Orange!

I then looked up images of spiders on the internet to justify my actions. A while later I was crawling with guilt (and psychosomatic itches) as I realised that ‘my’ spider looked nothing like the ones on the pages before me.

So in memorandum – here is a photo of the wee beastie I cruelly cut down in the prime of its life. Note the lack of resemblance to the much-maligned white-tail (listed on an Australian catalogue of spiders as 'low risk'). For shame.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Nine: Screen Test

To begin, let me say I quite liked Nine, although my friend the Bad Fairy didn’t. She is a fan of musicals, both theatrical and cinematic, and this has been from screen to stage and back again.

What I didn’t know at the time, but do now, was that the original 1982 Broadway production of Nine was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five, including Best Musical. The writer (Maury Yeston) sought the permission of his inspiration – Frederico Fellini – to interpret (the original Fellini film based on the number of films Guido had directed to date) for stage – and has now given director Rob Marshall his blessing to make this film.

Knowing all that, I began to wonder whether if you already know the story/have read the book, you are less likely to enjoy the film. Incidentally, I saw Disgrace this weekend and although it faithfully followed the book, I wondered why anyone had bothered to make the film, unless it is just another chance to prove that John Malkovich is indeed, odd. Him Outdoors says it simply brings the story/concept/dilemma to a new audience through a different media. I do so hate it when he’s rational. (And right.)

But back to Nine. It is a male fantasy about the terminally self-obsessed writer/director Guido Contini, surrounded by glamorous women. The women have names, but these don’t matter as they are merely constructs to massage Guido’s ego and only exist in their relation to him. He is trying to write and direct the film Italia, which proves to be too big a job. Perhaps it is impossible to condense the spirit of a country into one film. A nice touch sees the lead actress, played by Nicole Kidman, adorning a billboard to promote the forthcoming film which never eventuates – in a less-than-subtle reference to the teeth-achingly dreadful Australia. I’m not surprised he has writer’s block with a plastic Madonna for a mother and a simpering ninny for a muse.

There are many elements of the film version of Chicago (which Rob Marshall also directed) such as mixing up black and white with colour shots, and interspersing a full set with a theatrical construct. Him Outdoors liked the cars and the intimation of La Dolce Vita.

I was disappointed by the lack of Italian scenery (although a few backdrops of the Coliseum and the Amalfi Coast were thrown in) and felt the script was weak considering it was penned by Michael Tolkin (who wrote the screenplay for The Player – one of my favourite films) and the late, great Anthony Minghella.

A lot of the numbers sounded as though they could have come from any other musical and only a couple stood out. This might be the fault of the ‘singers’ rather than the songs. Bad Fairy questions why they don’t get someone who can actually sing and use their voice instead; it’s not as though it’s ‘live’ so it is actually dubbed anyway. They did it to a cute kid in Berlin, while the ugly kid sang off-stage; that’s show business, folks! She reckons it lets down the integrity of the film when all the other production values are so slick. Fair point, albeit quite controversial.

And so to the cast...

The director: Daniel Day-Lewis – approaching fifty with a mid-life crisis looming (although I doubt he’ll live to 100 with his lifestyle), he assumes a role in which I would have expected to see Rupert Everett as a wonderfully burnt-out genius; he could have come straight from an Oscar Wilde play. His singing is Rex Harrison-esque and the interview scene where he fronts up to reporters with nothing yet ‘in the can’ is transplanted straight from Chicago.

The wife: Marion Cotillard – one of two people in the film who can sing. The song where she makes a dignified exit from the restaurant, insulted that the mistress has turned up (My Husband Makes Movies) is an understated delight. The one where she parodies a striptease, giving all the material trappings to the man who has already taken her soul (Take It All) was re-written for the film (originally it was a trio for her, the muse and the mistress) to showcase her wide acting and vocal range.

The mistress: Penelope Cruz – sexy but vulnerable; a good role for her, although the supposedly erotic scene (A Call From the Vatican) is like something out of one of the less ‘tasteful’ porno mags. She is used and discarded, although our sympathy is tempered when we see her husband whom she is betraying. Her brief is to be childlike and kittenish (all pouts and fluttering eyelashes) and attempt an overdose in melodramatic fashion.

The mother: Sophia Loren – she used to be beautiful when she could move her face. Now she looks like a blow-up doll and it’s hard to act when you can’t form an expression. Their scene of Italian son’s obsession with his mama and the lullaby Guarda La Luna is mawkish in the extreme. Apparently it is her spirit to whom he is appealing as she is actually dead, which would explain the death mask and the wooden acting.

The muse: Nicole Kidman – ditto. When she removes the wig and says, ‘This is me’ I wanted her to put it back on immediately. She looks like something from Mars Attacks! and with similarly out-of-this-world acting, as in completely alien. Rumour has it that Catherine Zeta-Jones was originally cast in the role but pulled out when Rob Marshall refused to expand the role for the film. She made a wise decision, although he did not. If this character were more motivational (not to mention the fact that she could actually sing and dance) it would have been easier to understand her allure over Guido and his need for her. As it is the song, Unusual Way, is weak and insipid; more tepid than Trevi.

The mentor: Judi Dench – a perennial favourite. I saw her in Merry Wives; the Musical and she has a beautiful catch in her throat which, although she is far from a ‘great singer’ makes everything she sings sound emotional. Her song, Folies Bergères (Razzle Dazzle by any other name) wasn’t great, although it was an excuse to swan around with a feather boa and who wouldn’t want that? Her relationship to Guido is similar to M’s affectionate tolerance for Bond’s roguish ways, but the costumes are better. She has a wonderful speech about the role of a director and how little they actually do in pulling together a film.

The prostitute: Fergie – the other one who can sing. Her song, Be Italian, is the one song I remember and can still hum weeks after seeing the film. I loved the staging of it, with handfuls of sand being raked through fingers and flung across the set to create powerful visual effects. I spent the rest of the film wondering how I could incorporate that into a play and who would do all the sweeping up afterwards.

The fashion journalist: Kate Hudson – still the bubbly beautiful girl reprising her role in Almost Famous. Her song (Cinema Italiano) was written specifically for the movie (and it is unashamedly a movie, rather than a film) and sounds exactly like Buenos Aires from Evita – this could have been another opportunity to showcase the glamour of Italy and yet it is set on a catwalk and in a bar.