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FESTIVAL BEHAVIOUR

It’s October and that means that it’s been the London Film Festival. I’ve been going to the LFF for a number of years and I have gotten to see some fairly impressive films (and some that have been eminently forgettable). In 2009 I have been a little more selective than in past years but here are my capsule reviews for the films I’ve seen in the last three weeks:
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a ‘reimagining’ of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant that starred Harvey Keitel as the drug snorting, nun raping cop. This time around it’s Nicolas Cage and it’s directed by Werner Herzog. If you were hoping that Cage might break his Eddie Murphy-like run of atrocious films, then I’m afraid you’ll be rather disappointed. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans plays like a bad pastiche of a terrible Eighties movie with a particularly poor script, a strange and incompetent turn from Cage (whose strange wig continues to sit on his head like a dark brown omelette) and a film that doesn’t really amount to anything at all…
Fantastic Mr Fox, adapted from the Roald Dahl childrens book, directed by Wes Anderson, is a stop motion animation film with the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman. Normally I find Anderson’s films twee, annoying and deliberately arch but his style suits Fantastic Mr Fox with its jerky style of animation refreshing after a diet of bland CGI. Clooney and Streep are good value and the story of Mr Fox, a reformed chicken house thief, who falls foul (if you’ll pardon the pun) of three evil farmers, is told likeably and in a visually engaging way. Anderson moved the action from England to a fictionalised US but it does work. My only criticism is that Fantastic Mr Fox may be too surreal and unsettling for children. But it uses the director’s quirks to unusual and memorable effect…
The Men Who Stare At Goats is yet another George Clooney film, but this time it’s a comedy loosely based on Jon Ronson’s book about a bizarre US army unit who believed they had special powers. Directed by Clooney’s friend Grant Heslov, The Men Who Stare at Goats also stars Ewan MacGregor as journalist Bob Wilton, Jeff Bridges in wonderful form as Bill Djanjo, the insane head of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion and Kevin Spacey, who plays Larry Hooper, the psychotic failed science fiction writer. Clooney is Lyn Cassady, the member of the battalion who draws Wilton into the web of strangeness, taking the journalist on a quest that doesn’t really have a point. Bridges is hysterical as the naive hippy head of the battalion who falls from grace and disappears for years. MacGregor as the straight man holds it all together on screen while Clooney displays his continuing adeptness for comedy. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a film that deserves to be seen and contains a number of laugh-out-loud moments including the scene where Cassaday and Wilton drive over a landmine, stranding themselves in the middle of the Iraqi desert. A rare treat…
The Informant!,
about corporate whistleblower and starring Matt Damon, is Steven Soderbergh trying to make a Coen Brothers film. The problem is that the execution isn’t very funny and there really is nothing here. Damon is horribly miscast, his character is a bumbling sociopath and the supporting cast like Scott Bakula couldn’t be more wooden if they tried. Add the annoying Marvin Hamlisch score to the mix and you have a comedy that just doesn’t work on any level with nothing to recommend it…
The Road, adapted from Cormac MacCarthy’s enervating novel about a world after a terrible disaster and the father and son who try to survive, is very well-made but staggeringly depressing. Director John Hillcoat, who helmed the brilliant western The Proposition, has created a world literally without colour: everything on screen is grey. Viggo Mortensen as the father of the boy does acquit himself well on screen but, apart from the very end, this is a place without any hope. There are some genuinely disturbing moments but you leave the cinema totally drained. Unlike something like Children of Men, where the viewer does get the odd break from the futility of it all, The Road is pure, undistilled misery…
Up In The Air, the third film with George Clooney here, is a light and fluffy comedy about Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a man who works for a company whose job it is to fly around the US and fire employees from other companies. But everything changes when Natalie (Anna Kendrick) is hired and the place he works for chooses to ground Bingham and force him to reassess his life and career. Clooney is enjoyable to watch on screen and his casual girlfriend Alex, played by Vera Farmiga, is gorgeous but there really isn’t a lot here. I will say that Up In The Air doesn’t have a pat happy ending…
I did go to the press conference for The Men Who Stare At Goats, where I got to see Clooney, Spacey, Ronson and director Heslov…


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PICTURE OF THE PAST
I’ve written about the Chris Beetles Gallery here before as they’ve shown some fantastic illustration work from the likes of Edmund DuLac, Mervyn Peake, Quentin Blake and many others. But they are becoming almost as well known for their photography so I thought I’d put a small plug up for them. Running until November 7th is their Duffy exhibition and Duffy was a fantastic London photographer and a contemporary of David Bailey and Norman Parkinson, shooting people like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Sammy Davis Jr and many more. It was thought that the negatives to much of his work were destroyed thirty years ago but they have been unearthed and you can see a selection of his magnificent work at the Chris Beetles Gallery on Ryder Street, just off St James’s Street in London. So if you’re passing, you should check it out…
www.chrisbeetles.com

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KEEPING AN OPEN MIND PART TWO
Sunday we decided to go further afield. I went through the booklet and then headed off in the morning with Andy Colman. There were two places in South London, Sundridge Park and the remains of a Roman Villa down in Orpington, and I thought that, since we have been doing Open House every year, we’ve seen most of what the City of London, Westminster and Camden have to offer, so this would be something different. We stopped off at Blackheath on the way down, which is an area I’ve only been to a couple of times in my life and only very briefly. Because of the North/ South divide in London, it is rare that I go to places like Blackheath and even rarer that I go to Kent, so this was really interesting. We had lunch in Blackheath from a cafe and then went for a wander. It’s a small place but really pretty with a fantastic church, All Saints, which is on the heath, and loads of nice-looking restaurants. It is like an oasis among the more urban parts of Southeast London that it is near. So once we left Blackheath, we made our way down to Sundridge Park, which looked impressive in the Open House booklet, like a South London equivalent of Highgate’s Kenwood House. Designed by John Nash (who was also responsible for the Outer Circle in Regents Park), it was quite a trek in the car as we headed into the edge of Kent and up this long drive that you couldn’t even see the end of, past a huge golf course until we reached the house. The problem with it was since it’s now a hotel, it’s lost some of its grandeur and become a little bit bland. The exterior of the house isn’t bad but its grounds are now the golf course and it made us wonder whether it had a formal garden in the past and what it looked like. So we wandered around it for a little bit and then left Sundridge Park on our way to Orpington and its ‘Roman villa.’ It was another 30 minutes until we reached Orpington where we parked the car in the station car park to be greeted by the Crofton Roman Villa which was situated in what looked like a Seventies prefab shed. So we went in, spent five minutes looking at the room-sized remains of the villa and left, feeling rather disappointed. We were on the outer edge of what is London, miles from home and all we had seen was a disappointing inferior Kenwood and a prefab Seventies shack with a tiny Roman site. So our last port of call was to Keston, which was nearby and its windmill. Its windmill is pretty small but the village was attractive. So we left Kent and headed back towards North London. So, all in all the Sunday was rather disappointing but that’s part of the fun with Open House. You use the booklet as a guide and sometimes what you pick really isn’t worth visiting. But we did get to see parts of London that we’d never been to in our lives. So here’s some photos from Blackheath, Sundridge Park and Keston…

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OPEN HOUSE 2009
So as promised, here’s my post on this year’s Open House weekend. I have been going to it for about 10 or 11 years and have seen some incredible places over the years (St Pancras Chambers, Middle Temple Hall, Freemasons Temple, Charterhouse Square and many more), so each year I have to come up with new and interesting places to visit. So I got the booklet and went through what was on offer for 2009. I have visited most sites in the City of London, Camden and Westminster of note, so my choices were a little more eccentric for this year. On Saturday, I had to go on my tod but I still wanted to get as much as I could out of the weekend because I am working on a book on Open House, so I planned to see at least two places on the first day: Swakeleys House in Middlesex and The Hurlingham Club down in Fulham just near the river. So I made it to Swakeleys House in Ickenham, Middlesex just as it was opening. Built in the 16th century, the house is no longer a private residence but was recently owned by Proctor & Gamble and is now owned by another company. Much of the house is unchanged although it did have some restoration work carried out on it in the 20th century. We got to see the hall and staircase which was rather spectacular. When I got chatting to someone at Swakeleys, he told me that I should also check out Cranford Park, just round the back of Heathrow. So since Middlesex was just a little bit north of there, I thought ‘why not?’ It was a nice bright day and that’s part of the joy of Open House. So I finished at Swakeleys, jumped back in the car and then spent a little time battling the traffic to get from northwest to west London. I also got horribly lost trying to find Cranford Park and eventually someone told me that it was literally just off the M4 motorway and it was easy to miss. Heathrow Airport is surrounded by loads of little areas that are hinterlands on the very outskirts of London and they all look quite similar, so it is easy to get confused. But I did find Cranford Park and it was just about worth a visit. It was the site of a house at one point, which was levelled in the 1940s but the stable block is still there as is a 16th century church, St Dunstans, which is a very attractive church. It’s also set in grounds which you could walk in for miles, as it meets up with the Grand Union Canal. There was a bikers meeting on the day I went, so I got to see some nifty bikes when I was there. The church also had a small but atmospheric churchyard. So my second stop was somewhere I’ve never been to in London before so that was interesting and worthwhile even though the house is no longer there. My final port of call was the Hurlingham Club, down in Fulham and this was relatively easy to get to as I just got on the M4 and headed south towards the river. This is a fairly exclusive club with sports facilities founded in 1867, with a waiting list of 18 years to become a member, set in 42 acres of amazing grounds just off New Kings Road in Fulham. It is the kind of place that you wouldn’t find unless you knew it was there. It has tennis courts, a restaurant and it is also the place where the rules for Polo were invented. It is used for professional tennis tournaments as well throughout the year and it was a very impressive and imposing place, as its surroundings totally insulate it from the rest of London. So that was my first day at Open House 2009. I’ll be posting something on the Sunday in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, here’s a few photos taken at the three sites I went to on the Saturday…

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KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
For over a decade now, I’ve been going to Open House London, which is the weekend in September where hundreds of buildings are open around London, some of which you don’t normally get access to. Last year, I was lucky enough to write about it for Time Magazine and so this year I got to go to the press launch, which was held at the stunning Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street. I am running a few weeks behind on the blog because the event was held in the middle of September but because my West Country trip in the first half of September made for such amazing blog fodder, I am posting about something that happened almost a month ago. Also, apart from the West Country trip, I have been fairly busy juggling other stuff. The launch had BBC London presenter Robert Elms, a longtime cheerleader of London and its charms, Open House Chief Executive Victoria Thornton and former MP for London Nick Raynsford, all making brief speeches about Open House. As anyone who has read this blog for a long time knows, Open House continues to be one of my favourite weekends of the year. It continues to be an amazing way to connect with the city, its architecture and its history. I am planning a book relating to Open House but I am not going to say too much in case it doesn’t come off (as I’ve had similar projects that seemed a dead cert turn to dust in time) but here are a few photos that I took at the launch. I’ll be following up with a post on the weekend itself…

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN (PART FIVE)
Sunday was also very entertaining as we left Taunton in the morning and stopped off at a place called Barrow Mump, in the Somerset Levels. It was where Time Team excavated near a church on the top of a hill and we walked up the hill to take a closer look. The weather was a little bit grey but it made everything look quite gothic. took off towards Priddy, which is just North of Wells to track down a field with a series of Barrows. We found them and wandered around for a little while with me getting a series of midge or mosquito bites that I didn’t discover until I got back to London. Then we jumped back in the car and drove to Wells where we visited the Bishop’s Palace, a fantastic Medieval building and the Bishop of Bath and Wells was even there when we visited. It has a fabulous moat and is fairly intact architecturally. We could also see the Cathedral from the Palace gardens and we also found the springs that give Wells its name Then we had lunch in Wells and headed back to Taunton, making one small detour to Athel Ney near Barrow Mump to see the memorial to King Alfred, who spent some time in the Somerset Levels after he was driven out of Hampshire. The Levels include King Sedgemoor’s Drain, a huge piece of reclaimed land dating from Charles II’s time. On Monday, I left Taunton and drove back East to Bradford-on-Avon to see my friend Jaspre Bark and then tried in vain to find the country house Stourhead near Warminster. So I gave up and drove back towards London, stopping off to take a couple of shots of the Cherhill White Horse. Here’s a selection of photos including a couple from Porlock Weir, some from Wells, a few from Priddy and from Barrow Mump…

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SCIENCE FICTION AND HARD FACT
I haven’t been to see many films at press screenings recently but there were two I saw in the last couple of weeks and so here are my reviews of them.
First up is The Soloist, a drama directed by Brit Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx. This is a film that is already on DVD in the US and they have been waiting for a slot to release it in the UK. Based on a book by Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, The Soloist is about that journalist, played here by Downey Jr, who befriends a homeless man Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) with a secret past. Ayers was a Julliard student who dropped up and now lives on the streets of Los Angeles. Wright is a very accomplished director, considering that this is only his third feature as director, Downey Jr is likeable on screen while Foxx brings real power to his performance but The Soloist feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be important and relevant. It’s not a bad film but it lacks real impact for the viewer and it makes you think that perhaps it would work better in its original written word form and something has been lost in its translation to the big screen. The script can’t help but portray journalist Lopez as the cliched well-meaning but flawed character, complete with estranged ex-wife. So it’s a film that does keep your attention but nothing would be lost if it was seen on DVD rather than the big screen…
Surrogates is based on a Top Shelf graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Wiedele and I’ll be posting a full review of it up on the TRIPWIRE website. But I’ll give you a little mini-review here. Starring Bruce Willis, Surrogates posits a world where everybody has an artificial avatar or surrogate made of metal and plastic and most of society live their lives through these surrogates. Willis is decent value on screen as ever but it feels like a pilot for a TV series that will never be made…

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN (PART FOUR)
So the second half of Saturday was just as pleasant as the first. After leaving Tarr, we drove north up through the wilds of Exmoor up to Lynton and Lynmouth in North Devon. The scenery changed and became a lot more dramatic and rockier as we reached the coast. Lynton and Lynmouth are basically the same place but separated by the cliffs. We went to a place called The Valley of The Rocks first in Lynton which is this incredible series of rock castles right on the coast, some of which are 400 million years old. The weather was perfect (blue sky with the odd cloud) and we wandered around there for a little while and even walked a small stretch of the coast path, where you can almost look out to Cardiff and South Wales across the water. It was the sort of scenery that you almost don’t expect to see in England and there was something ancient about the landscape which made for fantastic walking. We had an ice cream at the Valley of The Rocks and then headed into Lynton where we had a little wander around and then got the fanicular which links Lynton with Lynmouth. Lynmouth is a very pretty small English seaside town, situated just below Lynton and what makes it unusual is that the river Lyn runs all the way from Exmoor to the sea where it comes out at Lynmouth. So we had lunch in Lynmouth, had a wander around there and then left, taking the road back into Somerset to Porlock. We took a small walk from Porlock Weir to the little village of Culbone, where there is a small parish church set by a river, which looked suitably gothic and creepy as it is surrounded by trees. So here are some photos from Valley of The Rocks and Lynmouth…

HIT THE WEST MIDLANDS
Today I am off to Birmingham for the Birmingham International Comic Show. We’ll be set up there so if anyone’s at the show, feel free to pop by our table and say hello. We’ll be stopping off at some interesting places on the way up and back, so lots more photos for the blog. I may even get around to finishing off putting up all of my West Country pics by the middle of this month plus putting a post up about Open House, which was two weeks ago, and sticking up reviews of Surrogates and The Soloist

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN (PART THREE)
So after we left the Tarr Steps, we drove north through Exmoor. It’s such a stunning place and one of the wildest places in England so I stopped to take a lot of photos. My next post will cover the magnificent Valley of The Rocks in Lynton, Devon. But here’s a few of my Exmoor photos…