jamie goode's wine blog

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Films and books and stuff

Just been on to amazon and ordered a book recommended to me by Ted Lemon, who was at Pinot Noir 2010. Ted's wines are fantastic, and so anything he wants to put on my reading list is fine by me. It's called 'Agroecology', by Miguel Altieri. Not cheap at £30, but I'm hoping it will be very good.

On the flight on the way back from Auckland I caught a few films. Here are my amateur reviews.

1. In The Loop (www.intheloopmovie.co.uk) is utterly brilliant. You must see it. I almost cried laughing at several places. Malcolm Tucker is an utter genius. This is one of those films you can watch several times and still find something fresh. But it's not for those who are sensitive to profanity.

2. Star Trek (uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_trek_11/) is a pile of poop. Sorry. It's Hollywoodized to oblivion. I can't believe I watched this. And I can't believe that it gets 94% on rotten tomatoes. The plot is ludicrously bad, with parallel realities and people coming back from the future. A bigger is better, and biggest of all is best mentality has totally ruined this film.

3. Bright Star (uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/bright_star/) isn't a pile of poop, but it's disappointing. A run of the mill period piece charting the failed love affair of John Keats and his neighbour Fanny. Lots of old costumes, unrequited love and early death by consumption.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A wine movie: bottle shock

Picked up a copy of Bottle Shock in Blockbusters the other day, and watched it over the space of two nights.

It's so good to see another film about wine. It's just a shame it wasn't better.

The film is (loosely) based on the celebrated 1976 tasting, organized by Stephen Spurrier, which pitted the best of France against the best of California, blind. Guess who won?

I enjoyed bits of it. I really liked the visual appeal of Napa as a wine region. Almost worth watching for this alone. The film makers really captured the essence of Napa wine country - it was less Highway 29, and more Silverado Trail. It can't have been easy filming and making it look like 1976, but they managed this bit well.

But the characterization was really poor. This was a mass-appeal Hollywood feel-good film, and I suspect they took a lot of liberties with the truth. There was a high corny quotient, and cheese to spare.

Despite all the problems, though, it's still quite an enjoyable watch by Hollywood standards. After a slow start, there's enough here to hold the attention, and while it could have been so much better, it's not a total disaster of a film. It's quite fun. If I was Stephen Spurrier, I'd be quite flattered that (a) someone had made a film about my tasting, and (b) Alan Rickman was playing me. [Even if I was involved in a competing film project on the same subject.]

Reference: There's a really good Wikipedia page on the Judgement of Paris. It gives all the judges' individual scores. I didn't realize that Aubert de Villaine was one of the judges, and it was interesting to see how they ranked the wines.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 23, 2009

More films

It's been a while since I did my amateur film reviewing. But having taken a number of long-haul flights recently, I've seen a few. [I would have seen more had not BA's 'high life' entertainment on demand system suffered a 50% failure rate, based on four journeys of c. 11 h duration each. Could do better.]

Dorian Gray is worth watching. It's a thoughtful interpretation of Oscar Wilde's book that resonates well with today's celebrity culture. A British film, it has that British feel, but it captures the attention and Ben Barnes puts in a good performance in the title role. I guess it's a sort of morality tale. My pick of the bunch.

500 days of summer is a romantic comedy. My least favourite category of film, usually, along with gory horror. But this is what is described as an 'offbeat' rom com, and, yes, it has a little more to it than most. So I quite liked it. But the first 10 minutes or so are really corny and make for uncomfortable viewing if you don't like corniness.

Coco before Chanel is worthy but dull. A nicely shot period piece, there's some good characterization, but not all that much happens. Sort of 'Coco before she did anything interesting'. [I have to confess to having fallen asleep for around 20 minutes about three-quarters through, and as the Highlife entertainment system was non operational, I couldn't rewind. So I might have missed the car chase, or the shoot out.] Still, miles better than some of the other options available on BA's limited roster of film choices.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the moderately good latest installment in the Potter series. My kids had seen it, so I felt I ought to keep up and watch it too. This is the stage in the books where they started getting really thick, and the plots really complex. The Death Eaters are doing bad things, Harry and his chums are in grave peril, and significant characters are dropping like flies. Alan Rickman as Snape is at his sneering best. But I still don't understand exactly how they fight each other with their wands (what are the rules here?), and why they can't magic people back to life again if they can do all that other stuff like heal their really sick or badly injured chums.

Land of the Lost stars Will Ferrell. Not a good start. And it is truly bad. One of the worst films I've ever seen. I got about 20 minutes into it and could go no further. Why did I even think it would be a good option?

Moon, however, is worth watching. A clever, low budget sci fi flick, it's well written, suspenseful and engaging. It also gets a little bit confusing about two thirds of the way through, when the main character sort of doubles up. It was at this stage the plane landed, and so I didn't see the ending. But I'd seen enough to realize that this is a serious film.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Film vs. TV: State of Play

As well as Julie and Julia, which I reported on here a couple of days ago, I've seen two enjoyable films recently.

The first was a fantastically creative childrens' film, Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, in 3D. If you have kids, go and see it. It's brilliant.

The second was State of Play, a hollywood adaptation of the excellent BBC series. I really liked the BBC series, one of the best political thrillers of recent years, and so was expecting to be disappointed by the film version. However, I was pleasantly surprised: the film is really good. Tense, engrossing, and not ruined by having seen the TV version first.

But the BBC version is even better, and if you haven't seen it, you should.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Julie and Julia

It has been a lovely day here in this part of west London. Unseasonably warm (24 C), and with no wind, it feels foreign. The air seems heavier and stiller than usual, and it cloaks and surrounds in a way that isn't usual here.

Fiona and I went to the cinema, and then took RTL out to Virginia Water (pictured); by this stage the sky was cloudy, with a storm brewing.

We saw Julie and Julia, which is a film I'd wanted to see, and which Fiona had already seen and liked so much she wanted me to see it as well. If she's prepared to watch it twice in a week, that's quite an endorsement.

So Julie (and this is a true-life story) is a blogger who attempts to cook all the recipes in the classic cookbook part authored by Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Beck, Bertholle and Child). The film is part chronicle of this venture; part biography of Julia Child.

The latter part is more successful, and what really makes this film. Meryl Streep's portrayal of Child is engaging, funny and quite moving. Fairly late in life, while living as an American in Paris, Child falls in love with food, trains as a chef, and goes on to make a collaboration with Beck and Bertholle that results in an iconic cookbook.

The relationship with Julia and her husband Paul is beautifully played, and it's a shame that the same can't be said of the interaction between Julie and her rather wooden husband, which is over-sentimentally portrayed and consists of a series of smart one-liners and relationship cliches.

Overall, though, what comes through in this film is a celebration of the love of flavour, and for this reason, I thoroughly recommend it. [Wine interest? Well, there's quite a bit of wine poured, but nowhere do we see a label, although Julie's Boef Bourgignon is cooked with wine from a Bordeaux-shaped bottle.]

Here are the rather conflicting reviews from The Observer and The Guardian.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

NWR: Books and films

Some amateur film and book reviewing now follows. I've gone through a bit of a barren period of late with both genres, but long-haul travel usually helps here...

My favourite book of late has been Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief. I also loved Coupland's last book, J Pod. In some ways, these books are a bit of a guilty pleasure. They're funny and self-referential, but essentially trivial. They focus on the banality of modern life, but they work. There are good reviews here and here.

Now films. Benjamin Button is a rubbish film. I'm sorry, this seems a bit negative, but I tried watching it twice (once on a plane) and never managed to get to the end. It was a rip-off of Forest Gump, if you ask me, with a bizarre plot twist (guy gets younger rather than older) that isn't really explored properly or intelligently.

I did enjoy Revolutionary Road, despite the fact that both Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio take the starring roles. But it's a really good film. Set in the 1950s, it chronicles the breakdown of a marriage in all its dark complexity. There's a good review here.

Synecdoche New York is a film that annoyed me intensely, but which, on reflection, has some merit. It's massively self-indulgent and totally bizarre. Yet it has some powerful messages, if you can get past the delivery. Philip Seymour Hoffman - perhaps the best actor of his generation? - delivers a strong performance. For me, the key message delivered is quite a negative one: while the role we play in our daily lives seems so important to us, no one is actually watching, and it doesn't really matter. I don't agree with this premise, but I understand how people can feel like this.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


You know I haven't seen that many good films of late. I don't know whether that's because there aren't so many good ones coming out, or just that we've been really bad at selecting what to watch.

In the last week, though, I've seen two that were worth commenting on.

First, Brideshead Revisited. Why bother making a film when the 1981 TV series was just about perfect? I wasn't going to watch it as a point of principle, but curiosity got the better of me. And I'm delighted to report that this condensed version - which by necessity has to leave a lot out - is beautifully constructed and brilliantly acted. The story flows well, with the narrative theme coherent, and this makes the film work. Matthew Goode does a very Jeremy Irons-like performance as Charles, although in this film Charles comes across as more confident - his pursuit of Julia is moved to a more central position in the story - and Sebastian is a weaker, more vulnerable character here than he is the TV adaptation.

Then Australia. It's a funny old film. It begins like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and George of the Jungle, with Nicole Kidman as an unconvincingly prim English lady thrown into the sweaty surrounds of the Northern Territory. Then it turns into a good old-fashioned western, before morphing into a war story at the end. It's flawed, ponderous and clumsy, but there's something magical about the epic tale that it tells (think Nevil Shute) and the almost stylized, fantasy-like filming that captures the imagination enough to make this over-long film worth the effort.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Films and Friday night wine

It's been ages since I saw a decent film. In fact, the last really good film I remember seeing is Sidney Lumet's Before the devil knows you're dead, and that was in BA business class flying to Argentina a year ago. Shocking.

Last night we watched the latest Bond - Quantum of Solace - and it's a woeful effort. Lots of absurd action scenes, but so little character development and an empty headed plot. Bond takes his indescructability to new levels, but action scenes and stunts alone can't carry the film, which just isn't very well written. I'm not looking for too much from Bond, but Quantum just doesn't seem to work.

It's a bit like the wine I'm drinking now: Palmer's second wine, Alter Ego 2004 (Margaux, Bordeaux). There's the essence of a good Bordeaux here, but you can see why these lots were declassified to the second wine. Structured and firm, quite correct, but without any joy or real personality. It's not often I can't bring myself to have another glass of a £40 wine. That's Bordeaux for you, I'm afraid. Palmer is one of the best, but their second wine isn't (see my report on a vertical tasting of Palmer here - I think I was a little generous on my rating of this Alter Ego then by a point or two).

Other films of late? Well, I quite liked 88 minutes, an Al Pacino action film. And Juno was quirky, well acted and fun. The latest Indiana Jones was fun with the kids, including the totally absurd fridge/atom bomb scene. But I can't think of much else. Are films getting worse, or am I just watching the wrong ones?

Labels: ,

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday night thoughts

Had a day working from home today. A bit of a late start, but then some serious work on Brettanomyces, that most complex and interesting of wine 'faults'. Found out that the theme for my next Sunday Express column has been changed at short notice - this goes with the territory. Forgot to do some much-needed invoicing (I'm not the most financially motivated of writers). Walked the dog twice.

Then I took elder son to play golf at what turned out to be a really nice nine-hole course in Ascot called Lavender Park. Good greens, bunkers in good nick, thoughtful layout - ideal place to learn how to play. Finished off by watching a rather dud film, Charlie Wilson's War. There was just something deeply wrong with the idea of a comedy about such a serious subject as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath. And casting ultra-clean Tom Hanks as a playboy congressman was simply absurd. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a serious actor who was also incongruous in his role, although he pulled it off well. Then a chance to catch the latest episode of Peep Show, which is a fantastic comedy. One of the best.

So, wine? Yes. Bonterra Rose 2007 Mendocino, California is pretty good - savoury and bright, a fusion of cranberry juice and red cherries, with some grassiness, too. It's very hard for a rose to be serious or really exciting, but this is rather nice. But, at £9.99 from Waitrose, it isn't cheap: I wonder whether it's ever necessary to pay £10 for a rose. Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills Shiraz 2006 is pretty impressive. It has a fantastic peppery, cool-climate Syrah character, with some meatiness and raspberry fruit. There's also a darker blackberry fruit character, and some spicy oak in the background. At the moment this is quite tight-wound and tannic, but I'm very impressed by the freshness and definition. This is pretty serious, and I'd rate it at 93/100. But perhaps this should have been labelled 'Syrah', to better reflect its old-world leanings, rather than 'Shiraz'?

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some more films, and TV

It's been a while since I did any of my low-rent, amateur film and TV critic slots. Time to amend that, while tasting a full-throttle Chilean wine that has a whiff of petroleum products about it. Most odd.

No country for old men is the Coen brothers' celebrated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, and it's a gripping film, with a dollop of Ethan and Joel's quirkiness wrapped around a dominant core of ruthless violence. The secret of the film's success is an awesome performance by Javier Bardem as a menacing psychopathic hitman, who relentlessly pursues his targets with a complete lack of empathy and a scary singlemindedness. He's the sort of dude you really, really wouldn't want to have on your tail. Not a perfect film, but a very good one. Cast note: Kelly MacDonald, a Glasweigan, plays the wife of the main lead - she was really good in the excellent political drama series 'State of Play', a few years ago, and also Richard Curtis' 'Girl in the cafe'.

Killing time on a recent long-haul flight, I really enjoyed Before the devil knows you're dead. It's a brilliantly constructed film with a disjointed chronology, where part of the story is told backwards - we start two-thirds through, then track back to the build-up, and then look at the repercussions. It's hard to describe what happens without plot-busting, so I won't try, other than to say that the theme here is a severely dysfunctional family who end up comitting crimes against each other, on a number of levels. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars, from among a star-studded cast, with another brilliant performance. Notably directed by octagenarian Sidney Lumet.

Another film with a disjointed chronology that I also enjoyed quite a bit is Michael Clayton, a conspiracy thriller starring George Clooney as a legal fixer who runs into some trouble. Clooney is brilliant, but for me the most interesting performance is by Brit Tom Wilkinson as Arthur, a crazy lawyer who's flying solo and needs to be brought in. Tilda Swinton also puts in a strong performance in a film that keeps you gripped until the rather cheesily tidy (but still satisfying) ending.

What about TV? Well, I was pleased to see Gavin and Stacey do well in the BAFTAs, because it's brilliantly done and surprisingly addictive. Rob Brydon is a comic genius, too. And, rather guiltily, I confess that we've also been watching the BBC's Apprentice, which despite appearing horridly staged (they seemed to have recruited candidates solely on their ability to make good car-crash TV), is a bit addictive. When I can, I'm also trying to keep up with the brilliant Mad Men.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Very funny news piece on Decanter

Priceless post on Decanter.com. Stroke of genius for Adam to pick Javier Bardem, who was fantastically menacing in No Country for old men.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A lovely Spatlese, a good film, and a close shave

Tonight I'm drinking the remains of the Reihnold Haart Piesport Domherr Riesling Spatlese 2005. It's a remarkable sweet wine of real class, with bold apricot and honey fruit, together with a fat melony texture, and a citrussy freshness. As I mentioned in my earlier post, it's weighty enough to be an Auslese. I don't know how you'd use this wine: perhaps its best suited to casual sipping. I'd never put it with a dessert, and it would be wasted paired with spicy food. It would probably age well for 30 years or so? Hard to tell.

The film in the title is one we watched yesterday afternoon. Michael Clayton is one of the best films I've seen of late. Starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, it's a clever legal thriller that starts at the end and then fills all the gaps in later. You need to have your wits about you to keep track of what is going on. John Grisham-ish, but a bit smarter. The writing and acting are excellent, and the pace is just about perfect, building to a very smart, stylish ending. Highly recommended.

The close shave involved RTL and a busy dual carriageway. We were at the Wheatsheaf, Virginia Water, celebrating the engagement of Jeni and Johann. We'd taken RTL for a quick walk. Coming back, before we had a chance to get her on her lead, she darted off, through the pub car park, and onto the A30, where she proceeded to run more-or-less randomly across all four lanes, causing cars to swerve and then to stop, so that a large tailback was generated as we tried to catch her. Several motorists joined in the rounding-up excercise, which was very public spirited of them. Finally, she was caught, and we were embarassed and relieved. We are certainly bad dog owners.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 10, 2008

This is not a football blog, a cracking affordable aussie, and a film

This is not a football blog. Therefore I shall say very little about today's Manchester derby, except that City were good value for their win over United. I'm also thrilled that the City fans respected the minute's silence. Vassell, Benjani, you beauties.

The wine tonight is one that surprised me. I don't expect a great deal for a sub-£6 Australian red, but this wine over-delivered. It was bright, fresh, a bit meaty, a bit peppery and very tasty.

Stamford Brook Shiraz Viognier 2006 South AustraliaMade for Sainsbury by Angoves. Lovely fresh sweet dark fruits nose with a bit of pepper and some meaty richness. Really focused and appealing. The palate is pure, peppery and bright with great balance. It’s not at all confected or soupy. For the price, this is really good: as well as sweet fruit, there’s a fantastic savouriness and a bit of old world peppery Syrah character that I really like. Delicious. 88/100 (£5.99 Sainsbury’s)

Finally, a film. We saw Atonement last night, after having read the book. The film was very true to Ian McEwan's novel, but the ending in the film is less ambiguous than that in the book. If anything, the film is clearer and better integrated, although you miss out on the delicious, rich, complex writing style of McEwan. It's really worth seeing - James McEvoy is simply fantastic, as he was in the Last King of Scotland.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, February 02, 2008

In Manchester with the mighty blues!

I'm in Manchester with my chum Rob. We've been to see City play Arsenal at the City of Manchester stadium, which is one of the most impressive football venues you can imagine [I am heavily biased, of course]. City played OK-ish; Arsenal played very well - the result, 3-1 to Arsenal, flattered them slightly - their first goal was soft, their third came when we were chasing hard in the final minutes. I have to admit that Arsenal are a great side, and City could really do with a striker like the awesome Adebayour.

It was an early start to get here, though, for a 1245 kick-off time. And that was after a heavy Friday night out with the school dads in Twickenham. We started out at the White Swan (three pints of Tribute), proceeded to the Barmy Arms (a Bombardier and a London Pride) before finishing off at the Eel Pie for a final pint. At this stage I had to bail out while the others went off for a curry. This is what happens when old blokes who don't get out very often are let out for the night.

So we got to Manchester in good time, went to the stadium and parked without any hassle. Because the COMS is located on an old brownfield industrial site, there's loads of parking. It's a really well thought out stadium and copes pretty painlessly with 48000 crowds.

Rob and I are staying over, making a bit of a weekend of it (indeed, this match was a present from our respective spouses, which was very kind of them). We're staying in the Radisson Edwardian, which used to be the Free Trade Hall. It's pretty central, and an excellent place to stay, with a great spa.

We decided to grab some food and watch a film. We ate at Wagamamas, and it was good food - simple and fresh and with plenty of flavour. Then we watched a remarkable, unusual film - Cloverfield. It's about huge, wantonly destructive aliens who invade Manhattan (why always Manhattan?), but it's entirely shot as faux camcorder footage later recovered from the scene. As a result, it's incredibly jerky (there were wet patches on the floor of the cinema where they'd cleared vomit up from people who'd experienced motion sickness), but it has a really greast sense of realism. I really enjoyed it - it was silly, a bit scary, and quite fun.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 28, 2008

Perfume: the film

Perfume is essentially a rather silly film, but, as someone fascinated by the sense of smell, I found it really interesting. Based on the best-selling novel by Patrick Süskind (which sold over 15 million copies), when it was released in 2006 it was hailed as Germany's most expensive ever film (see this report).

The setting is 18th century France, and the depictions of the grimy bits of Paris at the time are as visually stunning as they are shocking. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into poverty, but posesses a remarkable talent: he can smell better than anyone else. Much better.

After a chance encounter with a failing master perfumier, played by Dustin Hofmann, Grenouille finds his vocation, creating wonderful scents. But he knows he is missing a magic ingredient, and to find this he embarks on a grisly, murderous quest.
The film descends into a black comedy, which is a shame, because it explores some interesting issues. Chiefly, the idea that for most of us the sense of smell is imprecise and somehow incomplete. It's a sense that has the ability to communicate in a very direct and raw way with our emotions, but much of the time it is strangely muted. I know from walking my dog that there is a whole world of olfactory sensations out there, which, to us humans, is out of our reach. The idea that someone could inhabit that world is a really interesting one.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ramblings on books and films

As the Christmas break approaches I'm starting to feel un-work-like, so my mind is drifting towards other things. I realize it's been a while since I did any amateur NWR book or film reviews. So here goes.

First, three books. Ian McEwan's Atonement is a good story, well written. It's one of those books where the prose is so rich that you want it to last a long time, and feel sad as you draw towards the close. From the cover, which features Hollywood stars, I gather a movie has been made of this - haven't seen it, though.

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is a book of two havles. It starts brilliantly. You really get a feel for what it must have been like to grow up in Afghanistan. But then it gets a bit silly, and starts reading like a bad John Grisham novel, with the author allowing himself just too many coincidences, and the pace just getting far too rapid. This is another book that has spawned a film. Haven't seen it, though.

Finally, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which is funny, quite perceptive and brilliantly observed. The writing here is fantastic. The subject matter is original. It's a really good read.

Next, some movies.

The Painted Veil is a beautiful period piece -with teeth - set in China in the 1930s. It's based on the Somerset Maugham, and as well as being visually stunning, there are some strong acting performances. A hit.

Mitchell and Webb are comic geniuses, and their debut film Magicians is very,very funny. Another hit.

Finally, Die Hard 4.0 is a fun film if you are in the mood for it. Bruce Willis is very old now, but still indestructable. Fortunately, he manages to save the world (well, the USA, but isn't that the same thing?) from baddies. I enjoyed this.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

NZ (1) and some films

My first experience of New Zealand was not a good one. I arrived in Auckland airport around an hour ago (1pm local time), in persistent, heavy rain, temperatures of 12 C, and leaden grey skies.

I wasn’t even meant to be in Auckland. The journey so far has been a disaster. My Singapore Air flight was supposed to bring me in to Christchurch, from where I had a six hour gap (which would have given me a chance to head into town) before an internal flight to Dunedin. However, a three hour delay leaving London meant that the 1 hour connection in Singapore was missed, hence the detour to Auckland.

But it’s not turned out too badly. Through a combination of internal flights I’m going to be able to get into Dunedin just an hour late, and with just one extra payment of NZ$65, which is much better than I’d expected when we were stuck on the runway at Heathrow. Still, by the time I get there, I’ll have been on four planes without so much as an hour’s gap between any of them.

As usual, I’ve watched my fair quota of rubbish films. No Reservations is a really limp rom-com starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a high-end chef. It’s got the sort of formulaic plot that’s typical of this genre, and I can’t believe I watched it till the end. (Why did I watch it in the first place? The food theme probably drew my attention.)

In a similar genre, but better because of some strong dialogue and sharp writing (although still flirting with the ‘why on earth did I watch that?’ category), was Knocked up. A high-flying girl has a bizarre one night stand with a total loser resulting in a child, and then, implausibly, they get together, work out their differences, and …you can guess what happens next.

Much more highly commended come another pair of films, neither of which have anything to do with Hollywood.

Eden is a German film (subtitled), again with a top chef as a theme. But where No Reservations is formulaic and shallow, Eden is clever, quirky and deep. Part drama, part black comedy, it tells the story of an elite chef and his platonic relationship with a sweet married woman, Eden, who finds his food utterly irresistible, even though she can resist his enormous, lardy body. The ending is a bit hollywoodish, I suppose, but I really enjoyed the central focus on food, and the way it is portrayed as having the potential to be a compelling force that binds two people together.

Moving continents, Brenda Blethyn delivers a really impressive, but painful-to-watch performance in Clubland. In this Australian film, she’s the source of much of the dysfunction in her family, where she just can’t seem to let her 21 year old son Tim live his own life.

Blethyn’s character is a hideous, pitiful individual, but she sort-of redeems herself in the film’s happy-ish ending. The happy ending in question does seem rather out of place, and smacks of amateurish, clumsy writing. Loose writing has been the bane of several of the Aussie films I’ve seen, just as it is with many British films. But I’d rather have averagely written interesting films than tight skilled writing applied to predictable Hollywood pap.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A day of family stuff

Took a day off today, to spend with the family. Fortuitously, it was one of the few rain-free days we've had over the last couple of months. It felt like summer.

We started off at Box Hill, near Dorking in Surrey. It's a beautiful spot, and one we return to frequently. A bit of gentle hill walking on a mostly-sunny English summer's day is hard to beat as an antidote to stress. From Boxhill you also get a great view of Denbies Wine Estate (below).

We then lunched at the Percy Arms in Chilworth, which has a nice garden. Greene King IPA and Ruddles Orchard were the accompaniment. This was followed by a visit to Mercedes Benz World at Brooklands, which the kids quite enjoyed. It's like a three-storey car showroom on a scale you've never seen before, with several attractions thrown in. It's free, and the kids really enjoyed sitting in some of the sports cars. You can spend a lot of money on a Mercedes. Me? I'm pretty happy with my Mazda 6 Diesel Estate, which has performed wonderfully over its first 14 months.

Then this evening it was off to Cineworld to see the latest Harry Potter film. It's good - as good as this sort of film can be. I'd rate this alongside number 3 (which incidentally had Michael Seresin, owner of Seresin winery in New Zealand's Marlborough region, as filmaker) as the best of the series. Imelda Staunton is a brilliant Dolores Umbridge, Filch is once again fantastic (especially when he's atop an implausibly high and shaky stepladder hammering Umbridge's edict no 113 to the wall), and there's a spooky, rather gritty edge to the whole film. But the problem is that by this stage in the series Rowling's books had become very fat indeed, and so compressing them into a single film means that there's not much time for character development or narrative - just action. It's hard to see how the next two films can develop the series, save for becoming 'darker', but then part of the appeal of Potter and his merry chums is magic and fun, and the lightness and childish delight is in danger of being squeezed out of this series.

Two wines. Calvet Reserve Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Bordeaux (£6.99 Sainsbury, Waitrose, Co-op) is quite dense, dark, spicy and tannic - it tastes a bit like a Madiran, with firm, dark structure, blackberry/raspberry fruit and good acidity. Not terribly refined, but a good food wine with lots of savoury stuffing, and better than you might expect from Bordeaux at this price. 84/100. The second is Graham Beck Brut Rose 2005 Methode Cap Classique. This South African fizz is a pale salmon colour with lovely delicacy and poise. There's a smooth texture here, along with freshness and brightness. This is a really well made fizz that is fine for drinking on its own, but which would do a good job at table, too. 86/100 (UK importer Bibendum Wine.)

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Semillon and more films

I have a cold. It's not horrendous, but it's mightily annoying, and tasting wine with a cold is like the equivalent of driving in rain with broken windscreen wipers - something I've done before, many years back when I was courting Fiona in a blue Vauxhall Astra 1.3 Estate with 140 000 miles or so on the clock. The windscreen wiper motor had failed, and it was summer, and in the interim period between the motor failure and getting a 'new' motor (from a breakers yard) I risked it, checking the weather forecast before driving. On the way back from Fiona's place in Cheam one day, it started raining. The remainder of the 5 mile drive back to Wallington was tricky, to say the least.

Anyway, I can still taste a bit, although not as well as normally, so I've opened another of the Bibendum sale wines (starts 3rd July, www.bibendum-wine.co.uk). It's the Glenguin Estate Old Broke Block Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley. An unoaked style, as is the norm in the Hunter with this variety, sealed with a tin-lined screwcap. It has a very attractive, bright personality with lots of vivid lemon and lime fruit and a savoury, acidic palate. There may also be just a hint of reduction here, of the flinty, minerally variety. Primary and intense, this is a boldly flavoured wine that I reckon is best in its first flush of youth. If it wasn't for the suspicion of reduction (which I can't be sure of because of the cold), I'd get some of this and lose it in the cellar for a few years to see if it underwent that Hunter Semillon sort of transformation. Good value at the sale price of just over £5.

Now a change of subject. Continuing my occasional commentary on films watched, I have three more for you, two very good and one a bit mixed.

The first is the mixed one. Babel, as the title suggests, is a film exploring the issue of communication difficulties, across cultures, languages and even the barrier of sensory impairment. There are three separate stories (although most reviews seem to pick out four); two connected quite strongly, with the third linked-in only tenuously. We begin in Morocco, with the shooting of an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) by two shepherd boys arsing around with a rifle. Didn't anyone tell them that guns are dangerous? The rest of this story centres on her husband's (Brad Pitt) attempts to summon medical help of a standard acceptable to Americans. The second story follows the plight of two kids being looked after in San Diego by a Mexican au pair who takes them with her to her son's wedding over the border because she can't get time off. The third story tracks the difficulties encountered by a hearing-impaired Japanese teenage girl in Tokyo, who finds that her emergent sexuality is the only way she can really connect with those around her. Overall, the film absorbs in places and shocks in others, but lacks any real coherent message, which is a drawback for a movie that otherwise feels like it's designed to convey a message. It's Hollywood trying to do an art house movie, but maybe that's a bit mean, because it is worth watching, all things considered.

The second film is altogether more inventive and clever, although you don't want to be taking it too seriously. Little Children is a wonderful black comedy exploring the hopes, aspirations and fears of affluent smalltown America. Kate Winslet is a bored housewife who finds (illicit) love and companionship by means of a trainee lawyer who can't quite bring himself to pass his final exams, and is acting as house husband to his pushy career wife. The occasional narration, which fades out as the film progresses, is very Desperate Housewives in feel. It's hard to describe much more without spoiling the plot, but there's just one scene, in which the local paedophile slips unnoticed into the crowded municipal swimming pool in flippers and a snorkel mask, and then is spotted causing a mass exodus reminiscent of Jaws, that is a work of comic genius. But this film is more than just a black comedy. There's some poignancy, too, and the characters are portrayed with sympathy and astute observation. Well worth watching.

Talking of comic genius, the third film in this selection, Hot Fuzz, is quite brilliant. Simon Pegg writes and stars in this buddy cop send-up. I really liked Pegg's previous effort, the fantastic Shaun of the dead, and Hot Fuzz is its equal. The story? Pegg is an ambitious and effective constable in the Met, who is transferred to a small country village because his high arrest rate is showing his colleagues up. Things are not as they seem though: Sandford is just too clean and crime-free to be believable. Brilliantly scripted, although perhaps just a little over-long, you gotta see it. Dude.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 03, 2007

On the river

Another warm, mostly sunny day here in London. We headed over to lunch with two couples who are good friends Karl and Kate, and Paul and Ros, over at 'The Land'.

'The Land' is a riverfront property newly acquired by Kate's parents, known as 'The Land' because that's all it consists of: a good size, prime frontage on the river Thames at Chertsey that's approximately 60 metres deep. There's a caravan on it, plus a few sheds, but no planning permission for a permanent residence - Kate's father, a vicar, has bought it as a retirement location.

It's a beautiful setting, and we dined well, with the food washed down with some nice wines, including an Ascheri Barbera and a voluptuous Primitivo from Puglia. Then we went for a spin on the Thames on Kate's father's boat. Very relaxing.

This evening we watched A good year - a film that actually has at its core the subject of wine. But don't waste your time on it: it's a limp lettuce of a film, based around a flimsy, predictable plot. The cast, led by Russell Crowe, give the impression that they can't really be arsed to act, so weak is the script, and with just the faintest hint of a twist, the story ambles on to an utterly predictable and cheesy conclusion. A bit like a branded wine, it's not objectionable or unpleasant, and slips down easy enough, but it's uninspiring and leaves you unsatisfied.

And then RTL ate my cheese. I'd taken a few slivers off a chunk of comte, and left the rest on the worktop. The dog snarfed the lot, and before I'd realized it was all gone. Now she's sleeping soundly, with a belly full of decent cheese. My cheese.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

More films

With all this long haul travel I've been doing, I've managed to catch quite a few films.

Top of the pile: The last king of Scotland tells the story of Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who becomes the personal physician of Idi Amin. It's fictional, but the character of Garrigan was inspired by Amin's 'white rat', Bob Astles. This is one of those films that just works. The pace and plot are right, the acting is good, there are enough twists and turns to hold the attention, and mercifully we are spared the graphic gore of some of the nastier events that take place.

Sticking with an African theme, Blood Diamond is an action movie with a conscience that fails to spare the gore. Set in the Sierra Leone civil war in 1999, it tackles the twin thorny issues of conflict diamonds and child soldiers. Leonardo DiCaprio puts in a really good performance as diamond-smuggling Danny Archer - his character is probably the strongpoint of the film. Otherwise, I found it a bit disturbing. The violence is unremitting and very graphic. The plot is hollywooded-up with numerous coincidences and the main characters seemingly protected by an invisible bullet shield. Yes, the film does have an important ethical dimension, but it verges on using the violence and death as a source of entertainment.

I enjoyed Notes on a scandal. Cate Blanchett is a young teacher starting at a new school. She strikes up a friendship with older teacher and control-freak spinster Judi Dench. Dench proves to be a manipulative, possessive cow and she gains the leverage she seeks in her relationship with Blanchett when she finds out that her younger colleague, who is married to Bill Nighy, is knocking off a 15 year old pupil. Much relational pain and conflict ensues. A clever film, only slightly spoiled by the fact that the relationship between Blanchett and her pupil just doesn't seem plausible.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Non-wine related: some brief film reviews.

First the good. Children of men is a science fiction thriller with a difference, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the best of the Harry Potter films. It’s set in England, 2027, as society is close to collapse. A fertility crisis has meant that no children have been born for 18 years, and the government is clamping down on a tide of illegal immigrants. Cuaron has injected a wonderfully gritty realism which brings a credibility that films of this genre often lack. From the dramatic beginning to the ambiguous ending, Children of Men will probably hold your attention.

Next the average. The Queen is a film I was looking forward to seeing: would there be any substance behind the hype? Of course, the events portrayed—Diana’s death, the response of the British public and the (eventual) reaction of the royal family—are fascinating in themselves, and it’s these that really carry the film. I thought the writing was effective, the pace just about right and the treatment of the main subjects, our Tony and Liz, reassuringly sympathetic without ducking the difficult bits. But with actors taking on the roles of such well known figures, it was a bit like watching Alaistair McGowan, Rory Bremner and Mike Yarwood (remember him?) rolled into one. Impressionists united. Overall verdict? Good without being terribly stimulating.

Now the poor. I mentioned a while back that you can filter out a good portion of rubbish films simply by learning the names of a few actors you must always avoid. If a film has among it’s cast members the likes of Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston (or anyone else from Friends), Will Ferrell or Sarah Jessica Parker, then it should be shunned. Add to this list Owen Wilson. For some bizarre reason, Fiona hired out You, me and Dupre, an Owen Wilson vehicle. Utter rubbish. But she was on a losing streak, and later that week hired out Click, an Adam Sandler vehicle. It was a genuine mistake, she reassured me—she picked up the wrong box. Still, we tried watching it, and lasted approximately six minutes before we had to press eject, fast.

Also in the poor category is Sixty six. It’s one of those British films where the plot sounds imaginative n’all, but the writing and execution let it down badly. It’s 1966, and a football-hating Jewish boy’s Bar Mitzvah is scheduled for the same day as the world cup final. Lots of potential there, but it turns out stale, formulaic and, in the end, utterly predictable. Actually, it reminded me a bit of East is East. I find this with a lot of British films: the writing lets the whole thing down.

And I almost forgot - Borat. Side-splittingly funny in places; appallingly crude and vulgar in others; pretty racist and negative throughout. We didn’t finish this one either.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Erasing memories, selectively

A news story in leading scientific journal Nature caught my eye today. Those clever people in white coats have managed to erase a specific memory in lab rats in a selective fashion. Of course, it's a long way from rat brains to the jelly-like substance sloshing around in our skulls, but it's an interesting finding nonetheless.

It reminds me of the wonderful recent film Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, where Lacuna Inc. offered to remove all the memories relating to a particular person you wanted out of your life - a rather more challenging task.

One of the frustrating things about our memories of specific wines, is that they don't seem to be coded in a particularly accessible address in the brain. It would be wonderful if we could relive 1970 Latour in much the same way that we can hum our favourite tune, or recreate in our mind's eye that view from the top of a mountain we enjoyed on our last skiing trip.

It seems, though, that our memories for smell are only reawakened when we revisit a similar smell in the present, and then they tend to be tied to emotions - one sniff, and the memories all come flooding back. It's quite a powerful experience, but at least for me a relatively rare one.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

pets and films

As well as continuing to suffer from some vile viral infection, to add insult to injury last night I incurred a mauled hand, courtesy of elder cat Oswald (previous owner Eric Clapton). It was my fault, I suppose. Rosie the labradoodle still regards our cats as fair game. We’ve tried to introduce them to achieve some feline–canine entente cordiale, but without success. So the cats have taken to living alternately upstairs and outside. They avoid Rosie’s patch, which is downstairs. But in order to bridge the gap between upstairs and outside, the cats need to pass through downstairs.

Most of the time they wait until the dog is asleep, and wander past in silent slow motion. Sometimes she spots them, in which case there is a bark, the sound of skidding paws, and the slamming shut of the cat flap – so far the cats have always been faster. At other times, though, the cats want to come in while Rosie is awake. Then they wait at the door; one of us holds the dog, muzzling her snout; the other carries the cat through. Last night I tried a variation on the theme where I carried the cat through without the dog being held. Result: dog sees cat in my arms, leaps up to get a mouthful, cat is transformed into a whirling ball of fur and claws, my hand gets shredded. Bad idea. Won’t try it again.

While I’m on a non-wine theme, time for some more movie notes. Little Miss Sunshine comes highly recommended. Plot: little girl from dysfunctional family enters a beauty contest, necessitating a long drive to California in a VW camper van without a clutch with entire said dysfunctional family on board. It achieves a difficult goal: it’s a genuinely funny black comedy as well as a road movie as well as a biting social commentary all at the same time. The climax—the performance at the pageant itself—will leave you weeping with laughter.

The Butterfly Effect is an altogether different genre—the DVD box said it was Drama/Horror (I think this is the only time my wife has ever rented a DVD from the Horror category)—but it is cleverly done, and manages to deal with that old chestnut of the knock on effects of even small events (from chaos theory) pretty well. There are some disturbing scenes and the film deals with some harrowing events along the way, but it’s not too gratuitous, and the writing is tight enough that it all hangs together well, keeping you guessing till the end.

Tight writing could have really helped the final film in my write-up, Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest. Not even the wonderful Johnny Depp as the camp pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, nor the unrecognizable Bill Nighy as the squid-stubbled Davy Jones, can save this film from its contrived and over-complicated plot. It reminded me a bit of some episodes of Morse—you had to be careful not to drink too many glasses of wine or take too many loo breaks, or the program would finish and you’d be left clueless about what had just happened. Like so many films these days, as long as it has the special effects, the stars, the media exposure and the product tie-ins, it succeeds in spite of its intrinsic merit.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 15, 2007

Michael Seresin

Was at the New Zealand annual tasting at Lord's this afternoon, where among other things I spent some time chatting with famous cinemato-
grapher and wine producer Michael Seresin.

Seresin first left New Zealand in the late 1960s for Italy, and it was a real culture shock. 'How people lived was opposite to how I'd lived in New Zealand', he recalls. After a spell in the UK, he moved back to Italy once more, and clearly was captured by the culture of food and wine he experienced there. 'I like what wine embraces', he says, and when he decided to turn his hand to making the stuff, his first thought was to do it in Italy, before settling on his home country as the destination. 'I didn't think I'd be smart enough to do business in Italy', says Seresin. 'Besides, you are free to do a lot more in the New World than the Old'.

As befits a filmmaker whose attention is frequently on the quality of the light, as much as what is in the shot, the Seresin wines have a transparency to them. There's almost a quality of lightness that brings a sharp focus on what is present in the wine (does this sort of synaesthetic description work, or does it just sound pseudy?).

Of the wines, for me the standouts are the focused, precise Sauvignon Blanc and the two wonderful, complex, balanced Pinot Noirs. Perhaps it's the influence of organics and biodynamics that Seresin practices, or the fact that everything is done by hand, but this is an impressive set of wines. And the cinematographer influence came out when I asked Michael if I could take his picture. 'Don't use the flash,' he advised. 'The natural light is good in here.'

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Super Sauvignon, and some films

Just to prove I'm still enjoying wine, here's a super Sauvignon Blanc from Chile (which I'm having a lot of luck with for whites of late). It's the Cono Sur Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Casablanca Valley, which is powerful, intense an fruity with focused grapefruit and lemon fruit. Some weight and richness on the palate adds balance. Great value at £6.99 from Morrisons.

As I write it's the tail end of Sunday evening. Watched Nacho Libre with one of my kids this afternoon, which reminds me it's about time I did some amateur film reviewing. Nacho Libre is a silly film, redeemed (in part) by Jack Black, who's turning into a bit of a Robin Williams or Steve Martin, who were both comics who could carry rubbish scripts by virtue of being talented funny men. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments in this film; they serve to paper over the cracks of a very ropy script indeed.

Other films recently seen (many on planes...so some of the effect may have been lost):

Little Fish is a gutsy, caring, gritty sort of film where an ex-drug addict played by Cate Blanchett re-encouters the world she'd been trying to leave behind. Set in Sydney, this is a film that really draws you in, mainly through some really strong characterization. Aside: Sam Neill makes a good baddy - a role he's not often cast in.

Sometimes you know you aren't going to like a film because of the cast list. For example, I know that any film with Adam Sandler is going to be a pile of poop. As is any film with an ex-member of Friends (Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer come to mind). When I found out that the lead part in Find me Guilty is played by Vin Diesel, I was tempted to dismiss this film without watching it. But I was surprised: it's actually very good. Based on real life events, it tells the story of mobster Jack DiNorscio, who chose to defend himself in the longest mafia trial in US history.

Alpha Male is a British film that focuses on family relationships. It has all the hallmarks of a British film: it's perhaps a little slow paced, the script isn't that tight, but it's thoughtful and honest. I quite enjoyed it.

Finally, some entertaining Hollywood nonsense. The Devil Wears Prada leads us into the world of high fashion. Meryl Streep is the boss from hell; Anne Hathaway is the wide-eyed country girl who attracts Streep's derision but finally wins her respect. Streep is great: really evil. Hathaway is dreadful: she hams everything up as if she were acting in a Disney Film - someone should tell her that she's no longer in the Princess Diaries. Ultimately she has to choose between a successful career as Streep's number two, or going back to the struggling boyfriend in the 'real' world. Let's just say, the script has no surprises in store.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Two recent-ish films. First, Man on Fire, a gutsy film set in Mexico City, in which bodyguard Denzel Washington exacts gruesome revenge on the nasty people who kidnap the little girl in his care. The steering wheel/gaffa tape/fingers/sharp knife scene will have you squirming in your seat, but it's all OK because it's bad guys are getting what they deserve. Worth watching: it has a bit more going for it than the average action thriller. Second, Crash - a thoughtful, well written film that interleaves a day in the lives of several rather different (and in most cases, rather unhappy) characters in LA, with - you've guessed it - a 'collision' of sorts between them. A portrait of a rather dysfunctional city; the American dream in tatters.

Football was cancelled last night so I consoled myself with a glass of Touchstone Merlot 2004 from Vintage Roots. It's an organic Chilean Merlot made by Alvaro Espinoza of VOE, and it has a bit more spicy structure to it than many Chilean reds, alongside the trademark sweet, pure blackcurrant and plum fruit. Good value for £5.75. I have a question, though: why is it that Chilean wines taste so Chilean? Much more so than Australian wines taste Australian (although some Aussie wines are instantly recognizable when tasted blind as Australian, some aren't. Almost all Chilean red wines are instantly recognizable as Chilean). Does this make sense?