Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Jockey Club Chairman Promises Changes to Membership Structure

I was delighted to receive a message from Brian Stevenson, the chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. A chartered accountant by trade, the wee Scot, who is also president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, took over the reins on this very day last year.

A man noted for his acute sense of humour, Stevenson smoothed the succession from John Chan Cho Chak – the equally diminutive former boss of the region's largest mobile advertising platform, KMB – by quipping, "They are small shoes to fill, but if there's one man who's qualified to do so, it's Rita Fan. Sadly, Rita has set her heart on the territory's number two post, so that's left me free to assume the top job."

Anyway, enough of this badinage. Here's Brian's response to the recent membership scandals that have so sullied the club's reputation.

'As an accountant at Ernst & Young with an LLM from Hong Kong U who has dedicated his life to transparency, corporate governance, sustainability and other long, Latinate words with, in some cases, minimal meaning, and, in others, absolutely no meaning at all, I have been as disappointed as you, Ullie, and, I am sure, all your readers at the latest revelations of membership fraud at the Club.

So far, five out of our 200 Voting Members have been charged by the Independent Commission Against Corruption with abusing their positions by asking potential members to shell out a million Hong Kong dollars for the privilege of sticking a blue and yellow badge on the grille of their S-series Mercedes with the Guangzhou plates and the blacked-out windows and of playing our world-renowned orientation game, "Find Beas River".

Now, as we all know, this figure represents merely the tip of the iceberg of Voting Members who are actually making a little extra on the side by signing a letter saying that they've known "Pock Marked" Eddie Tu for 20 years, that he's a thoroughly decent chap who played rugger for Glenalmond, pays minimum wage at his factories on the Mainland and performs his civic duties in a wholehearted and generous spirit by offering financial assistance to lady folk in Macau without respect to creed, colour, ethnic origin or position on the rung.

So what are we do to do about this wee problem, I hear you ask? Well, that’s where my young granddaughter comes in. She's been over here staying with us for the summer hols and she's obviously inherited those Stevenson genes – the ones that helped me get my LLM from HKU!

You see, I caught her reading the Jockey Club's Memorandum & Articles of Association, which contain lots of guff about all our different kinds of membership categories.

"Grandpapa," she suddenly piped up, "I like your club."

"Why's that, poppet?" I replied, thinking she was referring to those lovely statues of horses we stuck up around town when we hosted the Olympic equestrian events at Beas River. (Yes, unfortunately quite a few of the competitors never found the venue!)

"Well, at my school, if we don't like someone, we pretend they are part of our group, so they give us sweets and mobile phones and things, but actually they're not. We'd never let them in – they're so smelly and boring!"

"There, there," I gently chided my six-year-old, "we must do our best to show tolerance and respect for everybody, even people without lots of money."

"At your club, grandpapa, you've got more than 13,000 people you can take goodies from, but only 200 people are important."

"Well, my wee bairn, I think you're taking a very simplistic view of things – you need to take a more global perspective, consider a wide raft of aspects, including, but not limited to – "

"You and your eleven friends on the board choose the other 188 voting members. And when you retire, they choose you. THAT IS SO COOL!"

"Ah, but you see, it's a lot more complex than that. When you're older, and dare I say a little wiser, you'll see that things are not always so black and white, but, rather, various shades of grey."

But my granddaughter had already picked up her free trade Sri Lankan soft toy and was trotting from the room. As she went she was telling it,

"When I make you a member, Tsunami, only you and I will be able to vote at meetings, so we can run things just the way we want to."

I don't know what my daughter Morag is putting in my granddaughter's organic porridge with pine nuts and toasted mixed seeds, but that little girl has a lot to learn before she can be mentioned in the same breath as a woman like Rita Fan.'

Monday, 29 August 2011

China Set to Intervene as Yet Another HKJC Voting Member Charged by ICAC

Apparently, Beijing's appalled by the very idea of holding elections for membership of an elite body

Friday, 26 August 2011

Two Special Awards

A while back I promised to present the coveted Rear Window and Manhattan Awards to wind up my Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger retrospective, but with one thing and another it slipped my mind. Thanks to Steve Crook, who does a sterling job running the Powell and Pressburger Pages, for jogging my memory about this in an email.

The Rear Window Award for Most Critically Overrated P&P Film
Black Narcisssus
This comes right at the top of many critics' lists of the best Archers' films, but as far as I'm concerned it's a crashing bore. It also has the misfortune to star David Farrar as the male lead, possibly the Archers' least convincing leading man – although David Niven pushes him close (see below). Set in the Himalayan foothills, much has been made of the fact that the film was shot in the studio. This is apparently not obvious to some first time viewers, who obviously don't know their Darjeeling from their West Ealing.

A bunch of oestrogen-fuelled nuns try to set up shop on a windswept hill 8,000 feet above sea level, but are thwarted by a bare-chested British man and his pipe. Powell, inadvertently no doubt, put his finger on the film's main weakness when he said: "Sometimes in a film its theme or its colour are more important than the plot."

The Manhattan Award for Most Overvalued P&P Film
A Matter of Life and Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven)

I'm with Pressburger in preferring The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to this later effort starring the faintly annoying David Niven and his pencil moustache. (Powell – not the best judge of his own films – had them the other way round.) AMOLAD comes well below Blimp and A Canterbury Tale in the pecking order, the latter films actually dealing far more effectively with matters of life and death; more lyrically and wistfully too.

It is instructive that a parody of the famous opening scene of AMOLAD, which is set in a burning cockpit is actually very little different from the original, proving that you can't put more corn on an already crowded cob.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Confessions of an Air Hostess

There must be something in the air, and I'm not talking about the pollution that used to drift down from Guangzhou before the factories were moved to Thailand and India.

Returning from lunch not an hour ago, I saw a woman walking ahead of me with her umbrella up. Now, normally, there'd be nothing odd about such behaviour, given that it was pretty hot and the sun was shining. What made the conduct aberrant was the fact that she was walking along in a shopping mall.

When she suddenly put her brolly down, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, since who among us has not on occasion forgotten to take our umbrella down when walking in the shelter of overhanging buildings?

It was only after she had gone through the door leading to the car park that I realised what was going on. For, as soon as we were through, she opened up again, getting a funny look from the woman in the Wilson booth, who drew her colleague's attention to this strange phenomenon. She continued on like this until she got to a ramp, where the ceiling gets low, after which she shot her umbrella up again, even though we were still some 30 yards from the exit.

Shaking my head at this one – a first after nearly 25 years in Hong Kong, and restoring my faith in Chinese nature just when I thought I had seen everything – my thoughts turned back to yesterday, when my mole at the most Christianised company among Hong Kong's property cartel forwarded an email from his department head.

A little background about this woman. Local people have a word for someone like her, sing lui, which translates as "affluent, single, middle-aged woman with severe personality defects that guarantee she will remain on the shelf for ever".

She drives a Mercedes or a BMW, arrives at the office late, does no work, rejoices in giving people jobs to do when they’re about to leave the office, and is given to sending moral messages by email.

Sometimes their insanity can turn ugly, as happened yesterday.

My friend, together with eleven other workmates, received an invitation to borrow a book with a title that may be loosely translated as "The Diaries of a Flight Attendant", in which the author recounts various incidents that had happened on flights.

I know where your mind is going, and for once it's on absolutely the right track, as the synopsis refers to the case of a fat woman who sat on a passenger's "thingie" (AKA "dick" – Chinese has a lot of words for the instrument panel as well, you know).

So, perhaps all those stories about Cathay Pacific haguettes helping pilots get airborne in the cockpit are true after all, in spite of the nasty mental images they conjure up.

But I leave the best until last. The property company's HR Department having refused to take the book for their library (thanks to my mole for that gem), the sing lui was undaunted. She concluded her whacky email by telling her twelve disciples:

"The borrowing period is two weeks and may be extended only once"

thereby opening the world's first one-book lending library.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

One Day in September and Touching the Void

If documentaries are your thing and you're looking for an alternative to David Attenborough being winched 100 metres up into the canopy or crawling through the undergrowth ready to startle an unsuspecting animal with his taste in khaki clothing or thrill his adoring audience with a stage-whispered "HERE! ... In the taiga of Northern Siberia …", you could do a lot worse than watch two very different documentaries by Scottish film maker Kevin Macdonald.

The grandson of actress Wendy Orme and script-writer Emeric Pressburger, the cinema is clearly in Macdonald's genes, and he snapped up the Oscar for Best Documentary with his compelling 1999 work One Day in September about the murder of 11 members of the Israeli delegation at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

One Day in September has quite a bit in common with the Brazilian 2002 documentary Bus 174, as both films rely heavily on contemporary television film footage. That they should be able to do this is in many ways the most salient aspect of both films for the modern viewer. Today, if such events were unfolding (unless it be in the Philippines), the authorities would have cordoned off the entire area and imposed no-fly zones so that such an intimate portrayal of the goings-on would simply not be possible.

But these events took place in West Germany a little more than a quarter of a century after the end of a conflict in which an estimated five million Jews had been murdered by a German regime. In a country that was not permitted to train or operate its own equivalent of the SAS or the Mossad to deal with such situations, the hapless attempts of the state and federal governments at management of the crisis, as matters spiral out of control, are almost comic in their ineptitude.

The scene in which armed policemen in tracksuits manoeuvre on the rooftops of the Olympic Village watched by hundreds of athletes and scores of television cameras, which beam the pictures simultaneously into the room occupied by the terrorists, vies for the title of ultimate absurdity with the scene in which police vehicles attempt to reach the airport where the terrorists have taken their hostages, only to be prevented from doing so by the thousands of gawkers who have taken to their cars on this balmy late summer evening to get a ringside view of the aerodromic action.

Macdonald's greatest coup was to obtain the involvement of the last known surviving terrorist, Jamal Al-Gashey – the Israelis saw to the others – who not only provides the Palestinian point of view but also offers some pithy anecdotes. Thus, when he and his seven colleagues, were clambering over the fence surrounding the village at quarter to four in the morning they bumped into drunk members of the American team returning from a night on the town and even stopped to give them a hand. Tellingly, Jamal makes the point that it was this terrorist action, however botched it may have been, that finally brought the plight of the Palestinians to a worldwide audience.

By contrast, Macdonald's 2003 picture, Touching the Void, is a paean to the majesty of the Peruvian Andes and testimony, if any were needed, to the nuttiness of mountaineers. Two English fellows decide to try and scale a 21,000-foot mountain by a route that no one has managed successfully before and end up very grateful to a compatriot they bumped into in Lima, who waits around for them at their desolate base-camp for days after they've passed their due-by date.

In an everyday story of blokes with seemingly endless supplies of narrow-gauge rope and lots of metaphorical bottle, but not enough literal bottles of the water and cooking gas variety, one of the climbers breaks his leg, the other one slices one of the ropes – rather an important one too, being the one supporting his mate dangling 80 feet above ice and rocks – but somehow they both make it back to civilisation, or in the case of one of the climbers, Leicester.

Touching the Void won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2003–04 BAFTAs.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Strauss-Khan Set to Waltz Free

There will be dancing in the streets of France – the country which is to political correctness what Simon Cowell is to good music – not to mention much shitting of poodles on the pavements, as sexual predator (AKA ordinary Frenchman) Dominique Strauss-Kahn will have rape and blowjob charges against him dropped later today in New York.

That's according to the lawyer for the plaintiff, one Nafissatou Diallo, the 32-year-old Guinean immigrant possessed of a well-lived-in face and a 15-year-old daughter.

The aforementioned legal practitioner, Kenneth Thompson, could hardly have been more pessimisitic about his client's chances if he had spoken in English, as he let the following words slide out of the corner of his mouth:

"If they were not going to dismiss the charges, there would be no need to meet with her."

Which, I believe, is legal speak for "We're going to have to help this bitch come up with a convincing story as to why she's been lying through her teeth up to now."

Friday, 19 August 2011

British Women Ponder Question of Why They Remain Single

I could fall for any bloke

Not as long as I'm 'oldin' yer, babes

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Is This the Way All Porn Films Will be Made?

I've got absolutely nothing to say about the making of porn films (oh, yes – I've got one thing to say, and that is that the Frenchies make them best; oh yes – and another … why do Japanese girls make that constant whimpering noise? and while we're about it, what are Chinese girls so angry about?); what I really wanted to talk about is this craze for giving blog posts these Sex and the City style headings.

Am I a tease or what?

There's another trend that irks me, and that's the way bloggers ask their readers questions. You know the sort of stuff:

Have you ever wanted to whack me on the head with your keyboard?

Do you ever feel that it's more trouble than it's worth reading my rubbish?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

CY Leung 99% Certain to be Next Chief Executive

Dinner with my mole in the civil service whose greatest claim to fame is to have sat on the Expert Group to Review the Operation of the Securities and Futures Market Regulatory Structure (in Hong Kong) proved more interesting than I was expecting as a result of a liquid lunch he'd recently had with a former member of the Executive Council.

After a few glasses of Château Latour (if you've ever wondered why swanky restaurants in Hong Kong always have this and Château Lafite on the wine list, the answer is really quite simple – they are the only two hideously expensive French reds that locals can actually pronounce), the Exco man leant conspiratorially over to my friend and whispered in his ear, "You hate Leung Chun Ying like everyone else, don't you?"

Without waiting for an answer, he went on, "He's a dead cert to replace Donald Tsang when his term expires next year."

The former Exco man then went on to explain why the current convenor of that august body was "99.9% certain" to take the baton from Sir Don, if, that is, he can stoop low enough to make the exchange without dropping the thing.

First, Leung has a very strong pro-Beijing pedigree, making him, in the former Exco member’s words, a "professional red". His current status as a member of the National Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Chairman of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute is well known, but what is in danger of being forgotten is that while he was in his early forties he was appointed secretary-general (go to p. 6) of the influential Basic Law Consultative Committee, a sure sign of Beijing's blessing upon a rising star.

Secondly, and most unusually for a Hong Kong politico (or indeed a politican anywhere), his fervour for the Motherland and his hostility to those who believe in an open society built on democratic institutions are qualities he developed as a student in the 1970s and which he has never wavered from, even as he was taking advantage of Deng Xiao Ping's guff about "socialism with Chinese characteristics" to make himself rich. As a young man, indeed, he would travel by rail to China to provide training free of charge to Mainland professionals.

In this regard, he stands in stark contrast to one of his competitors for the post, Rita Fan Hsu Lai Tai, who is considered suspect by the Communists on account of her close ties with former British Hong Kong Governor Sir David Wilson. The indecent haste with which this Commander of the Order of the British Empire made the switch to PRC lackey when cast aside by Chris Patten in 1992 also means that Fan is considered a chameleon by many in Hong Kong, not that I think Beijing will be too bothered by that. In fact, for those of a tyrannical bent, such flexibility is invariably considered more of a qualification for a top post rather than a disqualification.

Fan's CV is notable for its thinness. After a stint, according to the former Exco man, as director of student services at CY Leung's alma mater, the Hong Kong Polytechnic, Fan cut her political teeth in Wilson's Exco before abruptly announcing her retirement from politics when snubbed by Patten and joining Albert Yeung's Emperor Group. The handover gave her a new lease of life as she took on possibly the least onerous job in world politics, President (AKA Speaker) of the Legislative Council, a post she clung onto for ten years.

Fan's most recent sinecure is as a steward for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a position that demands the office-holder be a racing "aficianado". In a recent interview in which she tried to repair the damage inflicted in 2004 when she described Leung as being unsuitable for Hong Kong's top job, Fan drew on her wide-ranging knowledge of horse-racing to make a stultifyingly uninteresting comparison between her two rivals for the post, Leung and Henry Tang Ying Yen.

"One is in an upbeat mood for a battle, working hard and is performing quite well in morning exercise. Another one, working in the government, appears easy and relaxed but may have high potential."

What she didn't mention is that Tang has the obvious advantage of looking like a horse.

But the last word should go to the ex-Exco man, not least because it sums up what's wrong with Hong Kong.

"You know," he said, "there's another reason why CY Leung is hated by Legislative Councillors. He's too smart – a real stickler for details; a hard worker. I should know; I worked with him for nearly ten years. If he gets the job, the circus will have much less to criticise the government for, and will have to find something useful to do to justify their existence."


Monday, 15 August 2011

Amazon Founder Has Answer for Anyone Who's Ever Wanted to Chuck It In

You got to love these nerdy millionaire types. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has come up with the idea to equip your mobile phone with airbags – a parachute being deemed to be infeasible, as it would come with strings attached.

The patent application includes the following words (rumoured to be in English):

The application describes a method for "determining if a risk of damage to the portable device from the impact exceeds a damage threshold; when the risk of damage to the portable device exceeds the damage threshold: altering the orientation of the portable device such that the air bag first impacts the surface; and deploying the airbag prior to impact with the surface."

Okay, Jeff, but what about the risk of damage to the poor bugger the thing lands on from a great height? I only hope it's another poser with an iPhone.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Revolutionary iPhone 3G with Optional Telephone Function

It's not coming out of the bag, man.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Off-target Archers' Efforts

My look at the work of English director Michael Powell and his Hungarian partner, the writer Emeric Pressburger, together known as the Archers, comes to an end with a survey of some of their – or, in some cases, Powell's – less known work. In each case, it is fair to say that it is less known because it deserves to be.

Michael Powell was a great lover of the outdoors, possessed in full of that British passion for walking around in all kinds of weather. Many of his best films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going! evince a great love for and understanding of the countryside.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one of the Archers' weakest films, Gone to Earth (1950), is based on a book that presents a romanticised view of country living, in which the plot, such as it is, revolves around a simple Shropshire lass, played by Jennifer Jones from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is the subject of a love triangle involving the local squire-cum-hunk David Farrar and the wetter-than-a-Tory-cabinet-minister Baptist minister Cyril Cusack. It's a tug of love that neither are fated to win, since, as the audience (those that are still awake) knows all along, this weird girl who runs around barefoot and was a dead cert for Worst English Accent until Dick van Dyke came along in Mary Poppins, is actually in love with a fox.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the film that according to Wikipedia the original book, published during the Great War, "was all but ignored when it first appeared" and only became more widely known after a parody of it, Cold Comfort Farm, was published, in 1932. (John Schlesinger made a much better fist of turning the latter into a film starring Kate Beckinsale, Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry.)

If Powell has the odd bomb on land, it is when he leaves terra firma that he is at his least convincing. The first hour of The Battle of the River Plate (1956) – surely one of the most uneven and tedious war films ever made – is given over to sea chases. Given the enormous distances between battleships and the almost total absence of suspense – you'll either be hit amidships and sink or you won't – films that focus on sea battles, rather than films that use a boat as the point from which to go off and do other things (Battleship Potemkin, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Navigator come to mind) must be up there with chess matches for encounters that don't translate to film. Powell was proud of the fact that he used real ships and not models, but loses sight of the fact that what you film must be interesting and engaging in the first place. One only has to think of the beach scenes in Jaws, which were filmed in the Universal Studios lot.

In The Small Back Room (1949), Powell and Pressburger once again prove Hitchcock's adage that it's hard to make a good film from a book, falling between two stools in the process. Like New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis, this film is neither one thing nor the other. Part Lost Weekend-style "I need to get off the booze" melodrama, part bomb disposal thriller (and how does one make a compelling film about that? Kathryn Bigelow couldn't manage it with the vastly overrated Hurt Locker), The Small Back Room ends up being considerably less than the sum of its parts, culminating in an 18-minute sequence on Chesil Bank which you know will end in a successful de-fusion, since the first bloke to have a go got blown to smithereens and the second bloke is our hero and he's got to get back to the gal that never, ever, gave up on him – no, not even when he was going through his … (ZZzzz)

Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), a third post-war film set during the Second World War, is my favourite of the bunch, 'though still no great shakes. It's a Boys' Own romp describing the kidnapping and spiriting away of a German general from Crete in 1944. The star of the film, Dirk Bogarde, plays Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British army officer whose 1977 book about his travels through Europe in the 1930s, A Time of Gifts, is something of a classic of its kind and will be the subject of a later review. Watching this film, I couldn't help wondering what sort of revenge the Germans extracted against Cretan villagers on account of British derring-do that verges on foolhardiness.

No list of Michael Powell's "other" films is complete without mention of 1960's Peeping Tom, which was released around the same time as Hitchcock's Psycho and deals with similar themes. Perhaps because Hitchcock's film was more stylised and stylish, perhaps because the violence in Powell's film came literally out of the end of a camera, perhaps because the opening shot has us sharing the picture the murderer has through his viewfinder, perhaps because the character playing the perp was a German actor who spoke English with a strong accent and yet somehow managed to fool his host family into thinking he was a well brought up, if rather diffident, Englishman, perhaps, indeed, because Pyscho is a superior film, this film effectively ended Powell's career. The writing, though, had been on the wall for nearly ten years.

To wind up my Powell retrospective, here's the truly awful "Why I should shout?" scene from the Powell-helmed contribution to Australian race relations They're a Weird Mob (1966), the only film in movie history to feature a 15-minutes shot of two men digging a trench – yes, it's that bad:

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Riots Latest

Cameron visits worst affected areas

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Top Five Films of Powell and Pressburger

Following my piece on the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as promised, I now bring you my list of their top five films.

Initially, I thought this would be a difficult task, and that I would need to do a top ten, but in the event just five films stood out, although there are a further two that are rated highly by most other Archer aficionados and will be honoured in a further post.

Powell cut his teeth in the 1930s with quota quickies for the big American studios and the first of his films he had any time for was The Edge of the World (1937), inspired by the evacuation of an island in the Western Isles. Filmed not on that island, but further north in Foula – the westernmost island in Shetland – Edge of the World serves as a decent enough introduction to the director's work, with his penchant for dramatic landscapes, location shooting, vernacular dialects and melodramatic story lines.

The first big hit with which Powell is associated is Alexander Korda's Thief of Bagdad (sic) (1940), on which he served as one of a trio of directors, filming shots on the south Devon coast. (He later returned to Devon – north Devon this time – to film the opening shots of A Matter of Life and Death (1946).) The Thief of Bagdad has been compared with The Wizard of Oz, but it's simply not possible to mention the two films in the same breath. One is a magical and moving fantasy, while Thief is little more than a Douglas Fairbanks style swashbuckler.

Powell's first collaboration with Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger was the propaganda picture 49th Parallel (1941) (known as The Invaders in the US), well worth a viewing if only for the Canadian scenery and Laurence Olivier's hammy French accent (Larry may be heard in all his bearded gloire at 1: 30 here).

Between 1943 and 1951, the Archers, as they were known, made a string of memorable films – and it is from these years that my top five are taken. Significantly, none of these films is an adaptation from a book. As Alfred Hitchcock said in his conversations with Francois Truffaut, it is very difficult to make a successful film version of a book, as so much has to be left out. (The Soviet production of War and Peace, which was made for patriotic purposes on an almost limitless budget in the 1960s and comes in at over seven hours, is an exception that proves the rule.)

5. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) – Powell returns to the Scottish isles (this time to Mull) to make a corny but strangely emotional love story starring one of his most reliable actors, Roger Livesey, and Wendy Hiller. The most famous scene, the recreation in the studio of the Vorryvreckan whirlpool, is also the weakest in my opinion, but it is the fulcrum on which the action turns, standing as it does as a metaphor for how the hero saves the heroine not just from a watery grave but also from herself.

4. The Red Shoes (1948) – the characterisation might be thin, and the love affair between Moira Shearer and Marius Goring unconvincing, but this is more than made up for by the stunning design and by the dancing of Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine. Although it stands on its own and is the most enduringly popular work of the Archers in Britain itself, this film may be seen as a dress rehearsal for Powell’s most ambitious and most personal project, The Tales of Hoffmann.

The top three are difficult to separate and the order depends on what mood I'm in; but they all pass the repeated viewing test.

3. A Canterbury Tale (1944) – dismissed by Roger Ebert as a strange work "about a pervert who takes advantage of wartime blackouts to pour glue into women's hair" (another of those instances of two countries divided by a common language? Brits say "eccentric", Yanks say "pervert"), A Canterbury Tale is the most wistful and compelling of all of the Archers' productions. Far from being a pervert, the central character of the film, played by Eric Portman, is a sage, an angel even, who brings healing to the lives of three people who cross his path. The film contains one of the most beautiful and evocative scenes in movie history, where an American soldier and a wizened English blacksmith discuss the weathering of different types of timber (2:20) – a glorious illustration of C.S. Lewis's dictum that "friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one'."

2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) – if any other filmmaker had been asked in 1942, at the height of the war, by Churchill and his Ministry of Propaganda to produce a film to bolster the bulldog spirit, then he would have come up with nothing like this. Everything about this film seems to be subversive, from the title – invoking a pompous and jingoistic cartoon character – to the fact that the wisest person in the film is in fact a German ex-military man. And yet, by combining a kaleidoscopic story line with top-notch performances from Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr, Blimp stands as one of the finest British films of all time, and, what is more, a very effective call to arms.

1. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – Ebert may have found this a "mannered operatic production" and his students may have found it "unbearable", but for me this is the crowning achievement of Powell's career. Gifted a magnificent musical score by Jacques Offenbach, freed from the shackles of having to bother with a script and given full rein to develop gorgeous costumes and sets, the 45-year-old Powell peaked with this three-part fantasy which moves from light to dark by way of weird. This is the film, if I remember right, that Scorsese saw as a young man and made up his mind to be a movie maker. Sublime.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Heather Mills Latest Phonehacking Victim

What can ever compensate for having one's loved one's precious words recorded and bandied about a horrid newsroom? About 10 million quid, I reckon.

An Appreciation of the Archers

While English film director Michael Powell might be very much an acquired taste as a human being – in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, he comes across at times as conceited beyond measure and devoid of humour – he was undoubtedly a great talent.

Any latent tendency to think of himself as a misunderstood genius was intensified after 1960, when, at the age of 54, he found himself out of favour after the release of Peeping Tom, his film about a man who murders women with a knife attached to the tripod of his camera. Considering himself without honour in his own country, the man of Kent revelled in his seventies in the adulation he received in the United States, where his work was rediscovered by the new wave of American directors, Coppola, Spielberg and, especially, Scorsese.

Roger Ebert rates A Life in Movies (1986) and its sequel, Million Dollar Movie (1990), as the best of all cinematic autobiographies and it's not hard to see why, at least in the case of the former. Written over a period of ten years, it is a painstaking and detailed account of his time in films, from the early years in the South of France with his hero Rex Ingram, through his period working with Hitchcock, when the master was still making silent movies, on to his halcyon years in the forties and very early fifties, when he produced a string of fine films with his partner, the writer Emeric Pressburger, under the name the Archers.

The book's great strength lies in the behind-the-scenes glimpses it gives into the movie-making business. When Powell talks about his creations (he veers between regarding himself as an artist and a craftsman, with the latter generally winning out – he likes to call himself a technician), he does so in a way that revivifies films you have already seen and projects onto your mental silver screen pictures not yet viewed. Films were truly the love of his life.

Powell is at his most irritating when he goes on about all the women he was in love with, and who, according to him, were in love with him too, Deborah Kerr prima inter pares. I defy any reader worth his or her salt not to end up feeling sorry for the woman he was actually married to for the bulk of his working life, Frankie Reidy.

Powell was very much a visual director – he laments more than once the arrival of sound in 1927 – and much of the appeal of his films may be found in their camerawork. He was also a man who, even if he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly – perhaps because of it – set great store by making the right decisions regarding those he worked with.

His ability to get mortal artistic and personal enemies Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine to work together on two of his best films, The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), paid the richest dividends in terms of performances, while his ability to see the potential in up and coming editors, cameramen and art directors helped ensure he achieved the kind of visual impact that he constantly sought.

But the most important of his professional decisions was to go into partnership with the émigré Hungarian writer. Oddly enough, and in spite of Pressburger's 1941 Academy Award for Best Story for the early wartime romp 49th Parallel (known as The Invaders in the US and most memorable for Laurence Olivier hamming it up as a French-Canadian trapper), it might be argued that the importance of this decision lay not so much in the quality of the writing as in the other qualities that Pressburger brought to the most enduring of Powell's four "marriages": loyal support that won Powell's trust, and a quiet yet steely nature that was never afraid to say what it thought. Having survived the Nazis, this Hungarian Jew was not the type to be bullied by an Englishman.

Two of the hallmarks of an Archers screenplay in fact owe as much to Powell as to Pressburger, as, naturally enough, the non-native speaker's scripts needed some fairly heavy editing to achieve the required fluency. They are the extensive use of poetry, including quoations from Shakespeare (scenes in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale come to mind), and the use of stagey-vernacular dialogue, especially at the beginning of films (Blimp and The Red Shoes are two examples from the pair's golden period). The latter trait reaches a nadir in one of their last collaborations, the dire They're a Weird Mob – right down there with Love Actually as a candidate for the worst film ever made.

Given the limpness in places of some of the dialogue, together with what amounts to almost an aversion on Powell’s part to in-depth characterisation, it is no surprise that their cinematic opera The Tales of Hoffmann, featuring lots of dancing and a sung screenplay that came ready made, should be arguably their greatest film. For it is as visual feasts spiced with quirkiness that the best Archers' films communicate their typically simple, yet eternal messages of loss and longing.

Come back tomorrow for my choice of Powell and Pressburger's Top Five Films, plus two special awards, the "Rear Window" and the "Manhattan".

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Engelbrecht-Bresges Response to Endemic Jockey Club Membership Fraud in Full

It's all about will, and that's why we've ordered an enormous Wilton carpet to sweep these problems under

Tuesday, 2 August 2011