Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Allocacoc PowerCube

This is an attractive and useful little extension lead and multi-power socket which I've been meaning to post up for some time. It's very simple in many ways but has been thought out well with useful design and features.

Firstly, it's got a good 3M cable, which is reassuringly thick and heavy-duty looking. You can get a 1.5M version too, but as usual with AmazonUK pricing, it's more expensive! It comes with a 'dock' which, if you want to, you can attach to a tabletop (or whatever you can screw/stick it to with the supplied double-sided pads or screws) though when in use, this takes up one of the cube's 4 x 3-Pin UK plug sockets around the four faces.

The four sockets are arranged usefully in an offset fashion to allow for stupidly-shaped plugs and their attached bulk, which we've covered in Whatever Works many times, assigning to Room 101! However, if we can't change the behaviour of Chinese manufacturers standardising on plug orientation, this is next best thing. They don't, however, swivel, like we have seen on some other units recently. The payoff for that though is that it's very sturdy and made of extremely solid plastic, if strangely light.

On the 5th side (opposite to the sixth, which has the incoming power cord) are two USB-A ports which are rated 2.1A, so absolutely fine for charging stuff overnight and more. As you can see, it's about 3 inches cubed and is very handy. Currently about £20 at AmazonUK so yes, you can certainly do cheaper, but it is very good unit.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Burn After Reading

This comedy crime drama was delivered in 2008 by the Coen Brothers and is great fun! They've gathered their usual suspects to play the lead roles and it puts me very much in mind of O Brother, Where Art Thou.

John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a CIA analyst who is hauled into his boss one day and told that because they consider that he has a drink problem, he's being demoted to a less responsible position. He tells them to shove it and resigns. He starts to write his memoirs. His wife Katie, played by Tilda Swinton is having an affair with George Clooney's Harry. Harry is also married to Sandy, but between them all, they really could be sleeping (or playing sex games) with pretty much anyone they know - or indeed just met!

Linda is played by Frances McDormand and she works in a gym with Chad, who's played by Brad Pitt. She is dissatisfied with her body and wants plastic surgery, but can't afford it. At this point, by chance, a CD falls out of the gym bag of an employee of a solicitor who's handling Katie's divorce on the hush. Linda and Chad look at the contents, make some assumptions about it being CIA information, rather than the memoirs of Osbourne and look to make a quick buck. Hope you're keeping up with this!

Before you know it, Linda's off to the Russian Embassy to try to sell what's on it, having failed, with Chad, to get money out of Osbourne - who's really confused as to who they are, what the CD is and how it's blackmail worthy anyway! He's also very, very angry and anyone who gets in his way usually gets a mouth full of abuse, deserved or not!

And so the farce goes on. It's beautifully stitched together and excellently delivered by the whole cast. McDormand steals the show with her amazing facial expressions, think Fargo, and naivety around the situation. Brad Pitt plays the half-brained half-interested buffoon perfectly, Tilda Swinton is excellent in her cold and clinical role, George Clooney creates characteristics for Harry which he can have great fun with, including a half-explored hypochondria and John Malkovich, as you'd expect, plays the irate Osbourne with gusto and relish! Everyone is clearly having great fun with the material and the story holds together nicely.

It's an absolute scream from start to finish, engaging and funny. It's quite dark in places but not grizzly. There's one scene where someone's having their head axed in, which should really have been a nasty head-turner, but the way it's delivered it just becomes comic, along with most of the rest of the film. The Coen Brothers really have turned out some fabulous films and this is up there with the best of the darkly comic ones. Don't miss it like I have for a decade!

Monday, 4 February 2019

AA Car Essentials Emergency Snow Shovel

Winter is generally short-lived here in the UK, but when it comes, we should all be prepared. Fortunately, most of us have space to spare in the boot of our cars to chuck stuff in which might only be needed once in a blue moon.

This snow shovel not only relies on snow, but also that you're out in it - and get stuck - and need to dig yourself out! A trail of conditions which might not often be met, over here anyway. But when and if it does, you'll remember having thrown it in the back all that time ago!

It takes up no space at all as it has a smart folding design which closes in on itself and fits inside the handy supplied 'shovel blade' sized and shaped pouch. The blade itself is made of heavy metal and fits into the central 'tube' which, in turn, heads off towards the folding-out handle.

The 'tube' and handle are also very sturdy and solid-feeling, made of heavy and thick plastic. The handle is big enough for the biggest hand to get a grip and the 'tube' in the middle has a locking 'collar'. So you fold out the handle and blade whilst the locking collar is loose, then re-tighten the collar, it all locks into place, ready for action.

Wouldn't believe that the very day it arrived all the snow had disappeared here for me to test, but it really does look like it'll do the job and certainly not fall apart anytime soon. So for a few quid, best grabbed and lobbed into the boot!

I got this on a flash sale when it was only £6.50, but I'm afraid it's now back up to 'normal' price of £14. To be honest, now having handled it, and although I probably wouldn't have paid £14, I would now if I'd had the opportunity prior. Recommended. AmazonUK

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Smilla's Sense of Snow

This English-language Danish 1997 Bille August film is a sci-fi thriller/drama, based on Peter Hoeg's bestseller about a woman trying to get to the bottom of the suspicious death of a small boy whom she'd befriended in her apartment block in Copenhagen.

The troubled Smilla Jasperson is played by Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall, First Knight) and she does so excellently, convincingly and with style. Smilla is one of a community of people who have ended up in Copenhagen and since as a child being removed from her home in Greenland, has been a square peg in a round hole. Always in trouble, not settled and pining for a climate where snow and ice envelops her. She can't do much about it though as rich daddy keeps her from having to work and with no means of her own, has to stay put.

Other exiles live in the same apartment block, one of which is a small boy who she comes home one day to find scattered over the pavement, 5 stories down. As so the thriller starts to unfold. The links between these people start to become clearer, what happened in Greenland so that they had to leave, how a mining company with pots of cash seem to have secrets and potentially reasons for covering up this, that and the other, a love-interest who lives on the ground floor and may be a little more than he appears and treks across snowy arctic regions to get to the bottom of what's going on! Yes, it's thrills and spills all the way, with a climax which James Bond would be proud of creating! But it's far from a mindless 007 outing. It's a good story, well delivered, with interesting characters and a plot that will keep the audience on the edge of their seat for at least some of the time.

Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Orca, Unforgiven) plays the boss of the mining company, mostly from a distance. He only has a handful of lines, but as usual, brings presence and class to proceedings. Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, The Crying Game, Stigmata) is the love interest with a twist and plays his role well, though you get the feeling that it's not really stretching him much. It's Ormond in the lead who really commands here and has by far the most of the screen time. She holds it together and depicts well the character that nobody wants to warm to, but most would respect.

The film is shot in 4:3 which is a bit of a shame on this occasion as so much more could have been made of the sweeping arctic scenery in the second half of the film. Instead of which, the edit is tight and focused. It's a good film which I'd recommend if you can get hold of it! I had to import a DVD from the Czech Republic and it took 3 weeks to arrive! It's a cracking little film which you'll sometimes catch in the middle of the night on Channel 4 or Film4. Look out for it.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski's 2018 film Cold War is a tribute in style to his parents, Wiktor and Zula, living in post WWII rural Poland under enforced Stalinism. The story, however, is not. It's a tale overlayed on their characters as he remembers them. A couple who fell madly for each other, became swept up in the entertainment industry, escaped and returned. With the interesting use of timeline here, much has been left to the viewer to work out and create whilst soaking up the expert filmmaking on display.

The story begins with Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot) and a colleague 'talent spotting' in the poverty-stricken villages of Poland, recording singing voices and assessing dancing ability in 1949. This leads to a 'school' where the youngsters picked to train for the stage are coached, with a view to making the grade to join the planned 'ensemble' on tour.

Zula, played by Joanna Kulig (who also popped up as singer in Pawlikowski's excellent Ida), is one of the hopefuls and Wiktor falls for her at first sight. It turns out that she's knifed her father for 'mistaking her for her mother' and is on the run, pretty much. We then leap on a couple of years and the by-now created traditional folk choral/dance group is touring. At the post-performance party, there's a beautifully shot moment (with a nod to Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche in Damage) where the pair's eyes meet a long distance across a room and the camera lingers and 'the moment' when they both 'knew' was defined. And so begins the turbulent relationship which leads the film over another decade or more.

Amidst broken down buildings and crumbling walls, the political party then put pressure on the ensemble to introduce material promoting the ideals of Stalinism with veiled threats, but rewards of tours and expansion if they comply. As they become more famous and embark on the tour, the authorities want to check out Wiktor. When they are in Berlin, he and Zula decide to defect to the West. She changes her mind and misses the rendezvous, he goes, and we leap forward to Paris a couple of years on, where they meet up.

The leaps in timeline are often open and rely on the audience to fill in some of the gaps, Pawlikowski not spoon-feeding details that really don't need time wasting on film. Another leap, and she turns up again in Paris, married to an Italian, but their stop-start affair continues. They make a record together, but she's not happy and takes off, back to Poland. The to-and-fro continues across europe until we end up back in Poland, with much water under the bridge, in 1964.

The story here is, of course, a large part of the take-away, but much more so for me is the technically expert filmmaking, photography, music, sets and atmosphere. Like Ida before it, it's shot in black and white in 4:3 format, which closes in on composition, often leaving activity and action outside of the frame and to the viewer's imagination. Only in european cinema are we able to enjoy such delights of camerawork where directors, not under pressure to make commercially viable films, can explore freedom of experimentation, long-shots, close-focus, shallow depth of field. Lingering shots of people sitting, often turning moving pictures into still-shots and works of visual art. Shooting a scene from another room, as a voyeur, creating atmosphere by use of interesting lighting and shadow, often here near-noir. The music leaps between folk, classical, solo piano, jazz and rock'n'roll. All marking time and place. It's all so refreshing and wonderful to consume. The film is a delight and it's no wonder that it's won, and is up for, awards aplenty.

At its root, the film is a love story. A love story about two people mad for each other. Soul mates, but also, for whom, when they try to settle into a framework of ordinary relationships and living situations, it falls apart. The passion is fired by turbulence and the magic between the two leads has to have that for it to work. Ordinary is not good enough. It's therefore also a story about freedom and tethering, expectations of society and kicking against the pricks. It's also sad in places when we so want it to work for them, but it can't. It's about loss and purpose, fame and values. As with all good filmmaking, you will interpret what you see and hear and decide for yourself what your personal take-away is. Fabulous film and a delight to watch more than once.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

In Bruges

I'm not sure how I've failed to see this excellent film for over a decade, but I have! This 2008 creation by writer, producer, director Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) is an overlooked peach of a film.

Colin Farrell (The Lobster, Phone Booth, Minority Report) and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Mission: Impossible II, The Treaty) play two hitmen who, at the outset of the film arrive in Bruges. They have been sent there by their boss but are not really sure why, except to lie low and let the dust settle after a recent hit went wrong! Gleeson's character Ken is the more senior of the two and is happy to trust that they will be told all in good time and until then, to sit tight.

The younger character Ray, played by Farrell, is impatient and can't abide the thought of sitting there, for what turns out to be 2 weeks, for what appears to be, no reason. Ken tries to engage Ray in enjoying the historic sights and delights of the city, but Ray is not interested, more keen to pick up the local talent and get wasted.

As more of the background opens up, it's clear that all is not what it seems, the boss does indeed have a specific purpose for the two employees, but that it might not be quite what is expected. Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, Schindler's List, The English Patient) plays the cockney-confident boss initially from his home in London with mad menace. He portrays the principled but uncontrolled man who tears his hair out at the expense of all around him in order to manage the situation in Bruges and eventually ends up there too, trying to sort out the mess created by the two hitmen.

As you'd expect, Fiennes excels in the role, convincing and demonic in many ways, as always playing the bad guy with expert ease. But this film is much more about the two hitmen reaching crossroads' in their lives, taking stock, working out values and what's important in the scheme of things. As Ray is haunted by the outcome of the hit that went wrong, he takes centre stage at the expense of all around him. He's falling apart bit by bit, hating himself. The two actors play off each other beautifully, with genius timing, dialogue, juxtaposition and humour. Ken is portrayed as a thinking father-figure to Ray, which changes his world view, and he really wasn't expecting that when he arrived in the city.

The supporting actors around the main leads are interesting and well developed in their short screen time, especially the French actress Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel, Harry Potter) who plays the one-night-stand with a twist! The setting is mostly out in the medieval streets of Bruges (where there is also a film crew shooting, weaved into our tale) which forms a delightful backdrop to this story which leaps between comedy and character-study to gore and thriller. There are twists and turns as we go and the director keeps us on our toes as it unfolds.

It's an excellent film which you must see, if for nothing else, the central two roles as they delightfully command the screen and keep the viewer captivated. The coarse language is not for the lily-livered. Highly recommended.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

This Martin Koolhoven creation is a Dutch film based on the book of the same name by Jan Terlouw and true story of a group of people in a small town in Holland at the tail end of WWII, being occupied by Germany and surrounded by the snows of winter. It depicts the dreadful suffering that the local people endured at the hands of the occupying forces and how one family and teenage boy tried to make a stand.

Michiel was 14 and lived in a (relatively) privileged family in a small town in which his dad was the mayor. He was constantly irritated by his father's attitude towards the Germans in the town, his approach being passive, keeping as much peace as he could, pretending to get along with the Germans with rank, with a view to sitting out the war with as little pain for his townsfolk as possible. Michiel wanted to stand up against them, considering his dad a collaborator, and eventually got involved in a pocket of resistance activity, taking risks but feeling like he was doing something positive.

As the story unfolds, we discover that people are not all they seem, there are many divided loyalties apparent along with different views of how best to muddle through and make the best of the situation. An RAF pilot crash lands in the local woods and Michiel, through a series of cruel events, ends up having to manage the situation, using resourcefulness, tact and diplomacy, cunning and stealth, weaving in and out of the Germans on his bicycle, using his young age as a cloak. As he manages the situation he visibly grows from a boy into adulthood as responsibility for real people's lives lays heavy on his shoulders.

Martijn Lakemeier plays the lad in the film and does it excellently, portraying the dilemma facing everyone in the town and reflecting the angst and emotions involved as he worked out his own place in the proceedings. It has been made in Dutch, German and English so subtitles all round, most of the time. It's shot in a bleak manner reflecting the winter weather which almost feels like black and white, but making for an atmosphere which depicts the harrowing situation.

The cruelty of the invading forces is on show here which can sometimes make for difficult viewing, the film trying its best to appear realistic and factual rather than hiding the stark truth of what was going on and what the people had to deal with on an hourly basis. Like many WWII films, it's sobering and allows most of us who are too young to remember, to reflect on the difficulties and horror which was faced by those born at the wrong time.

The whole cast perform admirably, some of the photography depicting the landscape in the snow is quite beautifully executed (with minimal hand-held going on), the music supporting the film is well constructed and appropriate to the scenes and there is much attention to detail in the sets reflecting the time and place. It's not an easy watch, but a rewarding one. Well made, with a serious reflection of the history of Europe, ordinary people's roles, anger, courage and character. Do see it.

Allocacoc PowerCube

This is an attractive and useful little extension lead and multi-power socket which I've been meaning to post up for some time. It'...