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LA Stories: Lance Armstrong on Film

"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg">Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002</a>" by <a href="//de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Hase" class="extiw" title="de:Benutzer:Hase">de:Benutzer:Hase</a> - Self-photographed. Licensed under <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Lance Armstrong hides those “lyin’ eyes” during the 2002 Grand Prix Midi Libre

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh.

In the week that the Tour de France brought a triumphant splash of yellow to Britain’s roads, the BBC and Channel 4 served up two films illustrating the darker side of cycling’s recent history.

The Armstrong Lie (Channel 4) and BBC Four’s Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing offered a fascinating compare and contrast experience for fans of movies, sport and conspiracies. As I’d recently read two books about the Lance Armstrong doping controversy (Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race and David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong), I didn’t need much persuasion to spend four hours mainlining Lance.

The Armstrong Lie was made by Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Taxi to the Dark Side), while Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing was directed by Alex Holmes, writer/director of the 2004 miniseries House of Saddam. Both films recount how cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories (1999-2005) were eventually revealed to be the work not of some two-wheeled messiah but of a power-crazed charlatan, boosted by EPO and blood transfusions. But though they often employ the same archive footage and interview the same people, the results feel very different.

Gibney’s film is the more “authored” piece, in which his own relationship with the Lance Armstrong Story takes centre stage. Gibney set out to make a movie about Lance’s comeback to cycling and his decision to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Astana. That project was derailed in the wake of Floyd Landis’s revelations about what really went on inside that all-conquering US Postal Service team. In October 2012 an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally led to Lance being stripped of his yellow jerseys and banned for life.

When Gibney returned to the project, his main question was why Lance ever risked coming back to the sport and exposing what had been a remarkably effective cover-up of doping activities. Was he really riding “clean” in that comeback Tour? Gibney cuts between archive footage, material shot in 2009 and new interviews with his subject, to bring the story up to date. We drop in on Lance at home with the doping inspectors and see clips from his tête-à-tête with an unforgiving Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. A supposedly chastened Lance tells Gibney, “I didn’t live a lot of lies but I lived one big one”, and speculates on whether his cycling feats will remain expunged from the record books in decades to come.

The price of Gibney’s access to his subject is that The Armstrong Lie feels like a wholly undeserved opportunity for Lance have the final word — yet again. There is some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage from the 2009 Tour de France, in which team director Johan Bruyneel fails to control Lance’s team-mate (and bitter rival) Alberto Contador. But can we expect any real insights or revelations when Armstrong himself keeps popping up every five minutes to offer his best impression of sincerity and contrition?

For me, Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is the far superior documentary because it allows Lance’s victims – and there are many – to have their say. The difference between the two films is best summed up with an incident from a 2009 press conference, in which Lance attacks Irish journalist and ex-cyclist Paul Kimmage for describing him as the “cancer” of the sport. “You’re not worth the chair that you’re sitting on,” he self-righteously declares, while more or less claiming to be the man who’s single-handedly ridding the world of that terrible disease. (It’s that messiah complex again.)

Gibney’s film then cuts to the grinning face of Lance’s former team-mate, George Hincapie, who was at that press conference and now seems to regard the hypocrisy as a bit of joke; Storyville shows us Kimmage’s angry riposte at the time. It’s significant because it emphasises that the BBC film is less concerned with myth-making and more focused on the voices of dissent that dogged this American “hero” throughout his glory years.

Lance’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his fearless and incorruptible wife Betsy (think Deputy Solverson from Fargo) are interviewed at length in both films. Frankie’s career was damaged and both suffered intimidation as a result of their refusal to adhere to the Armstrong “Omerta”. But in the Alex Holmes film we also hear from others who were traduced and thrown under the (team) bus, including former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the USADA’s Travis Tygart, who admits he received threats to his life. Tyler Hamilton gives us the lowdown on those blood transfusions, providing graphic detail that’s absent from the Gibney film.

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh. In Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing he highlights the stupidity of Armstrong not allowing the “ticking bomb” that was Floyd Landis back into his team, following Floyd’s two-year ban for doping in 2006. That decision pushed Landis towards his fateful decision to blow the whistle on Lance.

Walsh also points out that Lance’s demand that his accusers produce “extraordinary proof” of his doping reflected an unwavering belief that “different rules apply to the gods”.

As for why Lance Armstrong came back to the sport, Walsh calls it “the oldest theme in Hollywood”, comparing the cyclist’s high-octane career to that of a master jewel thief or an assassin, “They do their job brilliantly . . . someone says just one more job . . . they can’t resist”.


Courting controversy: Wimbledon’s all white obsession

Serena Williams, Wimbledon 2012 (pic Katherine Shann)

Serena Williams wasn’t in the pink at Wimbledon 2014
(pic Katherine Shann)

It’s not often I find myself in agreement with Roger Federer, but Wimbledon’s “all-white” rule is cretinous. Of course The Federator was far to polite to actually use that word, but he has spoken out against the All England Club’s decision to eliminate as much colour as possible from the players’ attire.

In recent years competitors have got away with jazzing up their pristine white attire with the odd splash of colour. So tennis queen Serena Williams was able to don a regal purple headband or highlight her posterior with an eye-catching pair of red shorts. Sadly, those hot pants failed to make the same impact as Venus’s infamous flesh-coloured drawers in 2010.

In 2013 Roger Federer was ticked off for taking to the court in a pair of Nikes with day-glo orange soles. They weren’t nearly as offensive to the eye as veteran Radek Stepanek’s banned red and blue footwear from 2012, but still unacceptable to those All England killjoys.

A few years ago I remember commentator Pat Cash saying he would eat his hat if Tim Henman managed to win Wimbledon. Given “Tiger” Tim’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I thought Cashie was on pretty safe ground with that boast. But the straight-talking Aussie did come unstuck with his footwear this year during a veterans’ event, after failing to observe Point 8 of Wimbledon’s revised Clothing and Equipment guidelines “Shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles.”

In a tradition that stretches back to Gussie Moran’s lace-trimmed knickers in the 1940s, there’s nothing the press loves more during Wimbledon fortnight than an opportunity to write about ladies’ underwear. It’s so much more rewarding (and photogenic) than speculating about Andy Murray’s latest cursing outburst.

So editors must have been cheering Wimbledon’s decision to make the ladies and their “unmentionables” even more high visibility this year. If anything is going to show up through that perspiration-soaked dress (or shirt) it “must also be completely white”.

Caroline Wozniacki was able to see right through the All England Club’s underwear fixation, declaring it “creepy”. But ceremonially setting fire to your (non-white) bra, as those pioneers of women’s tennis might have done in the early 70s, is not an option these days. Wimbledon decrees that “common standards of decency are required at all times”.

As you may have detected, I am a tennis fan but I am not an admirer of strict dress codes – either in sport or in any other walk of life. I do not respect institutions who cling on to their precious, and in this case utterly pointless, traditions at the expense of flexibility or common sense.

Has anyone ever felt tempted to walk off Centre Court because a player was wearing red knickers or had an excessive amount of colour trim on their shirt? I’d be much more irritated by the grunting, shrieking and excessive towelling-off that punctuates so many matches these days.

Many of the colour combinations at this year’s French Open ranged from the unflattering (Roger Federer’s grey top with red sleeves) to the downright hideous (Tomas Berdych’s floral ensemble). But at least it was easy to distinguish one badly dressed player from another.

Of course Wimbledon’s “all white” rule is just a dress code. For much of the 20th century a sign that said “Whites Only” had very different connotations if you lived in the US or in apartheid-era South Africa. Wimbledon isn’t being racist – it’s just being annoyingly petty, pointlessly traditional and utterly British. So let’s tear up the rule book and have more stripes, more colour and more fun.


Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2)

As the post-mortem on the BBC’s feeble W1A continues, a genuinely hilarious workplace comedy arrived on our screens last night. I’m talking about BBC2’s Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job, a six-part documentary series that promises to “lift the lid on the UK’s crazy property market”.

I’m not a fan of reality TV and I have been contemptuous about TV property shows and estate agents on this blog, but this hour-long programme was even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. With narration by Derek Jacobi and jaunty incidental music that could have come straight out of The Apprentice, this first instalment zig-zagged between London, Exeter, Birmingham and County Durham, to follow “the highs and lows of the people who broker the biggest purchases most of us will ever make”.

In the thriving property market of Exeter we met the ebullient 30-year-old Lewis Rossiter, manager of Bradleys estate agents, and about to become a father for the third time. Lewis wears those naff coloured shirts with white collars that Terry Wogan made famous in the 80s. He also turns out to have a comedic flair that his namesake Leonard Rossiter would have admired. That’s just as well, given that he has just 10 weeks to flog a house in Willeys Avenue – otherwise glamorous, blonde mother-of-two Sam will lose her deposit on the featureless Lego house she’s set her heart on.

Lewis Rossiter

Meanwhile, in County Durham Lynne Blaney is breakfasting on Froot Loops and sighing over the fact that around one-third of her housing stock comes from repossessed homes. This is truly “heart-rendering” [sic], as is her failure to sell a four-bedroom detached house called The Chapelry, whose owner has foolishly fitted it out with an excess of Brazilian mahogany. Given that swathes of the North of England are Poundland territory in terms of property prices, Lynne has more chance of turning her Fruit Loops into 24-carat gold than finding a new owner for this £249,000 white elephant.

The Birmingham scenes with straight-talking Dave Simms were less engaging, though I had to agree with his withering assessment of property shows fronted by Sarah Beeny and Kirstie Allsopp. While Dave’s bungalow sale storyline had human interest (an elderly couple who were desperate to downsize), I suspect most viewers were more interested in smooth-talking veteran Gary Hersham, from Mayfair-based Beauchamp Estates.

Gary’s been wheeling and dealing among London’s super-rich since the late 70s. Operating solely in the Capital’s smarter postcodes – W1, SW1, SW3 – his impressive portfolio ranges from a paltry £2 million (that’s broom-cupboard territory) to £120 million mansions for the uber-wealthy.

Gary earns more from a single mega-bucks deal than poor Lynne will see in her lifetime and he clearly knows his target market: “The super-rich look for instant gratification.” But even at this rarefied end of the property market, someone still has to do the unglamorous job of humping boxes of leaflets around. That’s where Ernesto comes in handy.

The star of Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job turns out not to be cheeky chappie Lewis, but the podgy, sweaty and slightly camp Spanish gentleman who works for Gary. Judging by the carefully staged scenes we saw, their relationship is like a retread of Fawlty Towers, with Gary in the Basil role (“Bleedin’ Spanish twerp!”) and Ernesto as a supersized version of the cowering Manuel.

“My relationship – it’s a leetle beet of love/hate,” confides Ernesto. After watching this episode I’m starting to feel the same way about estate agents.


The Crimson Field

Hermione Norris in The Crimson Field (BBC1)

Hermione Norris is out to spook those new nurses in BBC1’s The Crimson Field

In a makeshift tent somewhere in France, three rookie nurses are set the exacting task of making up a hospital bed in just two minutes under the steely gaze of Matron. They’re cheered on by a motley band of supporters. Is this “The Great British Bed Off”, a new spin on the BBC’s hugely popular The Great British Bake Off? No, it was episode one of The Crimson Field, BBC1’s much-hyped First World War drama about VAD nurses.

In 1915 three young ladies arrive at “Hospital 25″, somewhere in northern France, to begin their baptism of fire at the hands of formidable Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and her sidekick Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox). A clumsy expositional scene reveals that Grace has recently (and unexpectedly) won promotion over Margaret, who brushes off the snub with a none-too-convincing “I couldn’t be more proud” speech. Fox, who’s been turned into a “Silver Fox” for this role, later enjoys a couple of moments of villainy, when she steals a cake and helps send a traumatised soldier back to the Front.

The Hour’s Oona Chaplin plays Kitty Trevelyan, the most insubordinate – and therefore most appealing – of the new arrivals. We know she has a romantic past because she’s first glimpsed tossing a ring off the prow of the Boulogne-bound ship, in a scene that might have come straight out of Titanic. With her smoking, blaspheming and answering back to Matron, Kitty was courting trouble even before she almost got herself killed by a distressed and dying patient.

Marianne Oldham’s priggish Rosalie Berwick – “The rules are there for a reason” – tries to lay down the law to the defiant Kitty and gets a tongue-lashing for her trouble. Dim-witted Flora Marshall (Alice St. Clair) provides most of the lighter moments in this episode, mainly thanks to her faltering attempts to deal with a large heap of bloodied bandages containing some putrefying body parts.

A soldier instructs floundering Flora to toss the severed digits (they look a bit like raw chipolatas) into something that resembles an outdoor pizza oven. “They’re rotten – neither use nor ornament,” he explains, thereby summing up the likely contribution of VAD nurses to the war effort.

The brilliant Blackadder Goes Forth showed how black humour can be an effective way to convey the horrors of mechanised slaughter. But I imagine the producers of The Crimson Field were also aiming to provoke sorrow at this endless parade of broken bodies and souls, and anger at the apparent callousness of some senior officers. As the head of the hospital, Lt-Col Roland Brett, Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle has a couple of good scenes in which he tries (and fails) to engineer a humane exit for a psychologically broken soldier.

Until the belated arrival of Suranne Jones as the motorcycle-riding civilian nurse Joan Livesey, the main reason to keep watching The Crimson Field was Hermione Norris. Admittedly, Matron Carter was saddled with a very predictable storyline here, as she alternated between tender concern for her moribund patients and barely disguised contempt for her new charges.

You can stick her in a WWI nurse’s outfit in a field in France (it’s actually Wiltshire), but Hermione Norris will always be Ros Myers, the ass-kicking, terrorist-chasing, leather-jacketed heroine of spy drama Spooks. Watching her castigate the hapless Flora for wearing scent (“just rosewater”) I found myself wondering how the take-no-prisoners Ros would have dealt with these simpering females.

My best guess is that Ros would have dunked Flora’s empty head in that bowl of water, washed out the impudent Kitty’s mouth with the bar of soap and then told Rosalie to stop being such a sycophant.


A Talent for Survival: The London Group Reception at Tate Britain

Dr Richard Cork, Susan Haire

Dr Richard Cork with London Group President Susan Haire (pic Tom Scase)

On 5 March 1914, The London Group held its inaugural exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London. You probably haven’t heard of the Goupil, which shifted between several central London locations before it was flattened by a German bomb in 1941. Despite a nomadic existence, The London Group has proved much more durable: it survived the Second World War, decades of changing tastes in the art world and a verbal carpet bombing by bilious art critic Brian Sewell. Dr Richard Cork, Sewell’s predecessor at the London Evening Standard, was much more complimentary when he spoke at a reception at Tate Britain on the 100th anniversary of that first exhibition.

An invitation to an after-hours event at a major London gallery is always exciting. With fewer people around it’s easier to absorb the impact of Caruso St John’s high-profile £45 million makeover of Tate Britain. Entering through the reopened “front door” on the Millbank side, I descended via the stunning new spiral staircase beneath the rotunda, to the pristine white surroundings of the cavern-like Djanogly café, where the reception was held.

Current members, their partners and invited guests heard Richard Cork reflect on The London Group’s early years. It was an era in which the art world was dominated by “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism), and the challenge of conveying wholesale slaughter on the battlefields was taken up by many painters and sculptors. They included David Bomberg, who was part of the Group’s first exhibition and whose painting, In The Hold, was a key work in last year’s A Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

London Group catalogues

A selection of catalogues from London Group exhibitions, held in the archives at
Tate Britain (pic Tom Scase).

As Cork touched on some of the controversies and described the brutal evolution of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture, I thought about a more recent attempt at emasculation. Brian Sewell’s withering assessment of the exhibition, Uproar! The First 50 Years of The London Group 1913-1963, included the assertion that the Group has been in “irreversible decline” since the end of the Second World War and “ought long ago to have been put down”. Strong stuff. I might be reading too much into the rantings of a grumpy old man, but it sounded as though Brian thought The London Group should have perished in a Luftwaffe bombing raid.

I’m not a professional artist or art critic; I was flattered to be invited to the Tate reception as a result of a blog I wrote last year. Brian Sewell is much better qualified than I am to compare the merit and the impact of The London Group’s second half century with its early years at the cutting edge of the art scene. The first London Group show featured more than 100 works by artists including Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson. It’s probably too early to say whether any of the current members will be as influential – though Dame Paula Rego’s international reputation precedes her.

But Sewell’s comment that The London Group in its later years “has meant very little to working artists and nothing at all to the wider public” is breathtakingly arrogant and ill-informed. Did he bother to interview any current members before reaching this conclusion? Speaking to them last night and at previous exhibitions, I know that what Sewell dismisses as a “pathetic” Collective is an integral part of their professional lives.

Fortunately, Brenda Emmanus took a more measured approach in this week’s BBC London piece about the The London Group On London exhibition, which continues at the Cello Factory until 12 March. Among the interviewees was 91-year-old Albert Irvin RA, a member since 1965, whose paintings and prints are most often characterised as “exuberant”. (That’s not a description that could ever be applied to Brian Sewell.)

Longevity is not always a reliable guide to the value of work, organisations or individuals. (A certain veteran art critic should have been put out to pasture some years ago.) But enduring links to a pivotal era in 20th-century British art are worth celebrating. Tate Britain holds a fascinating collection of London Group documents, catalogues and photos within its huge (entirely dust-free!) archives.

In the words of its current President, Susan Haire, “The London Group is thriving and we expect to be around for the next 100 years.”

http://www.thelondongroup.com


Estate Agents Have a Monopoly on Junk Mail

Kirstie_allsopp

The papers are full of hand-wringing editorials about the overheated property market in London and the South East. Who should we blame for this rocketing house price inflation – vote-chasing politicians or the invading hordes of cash-rich overseas investors, who could obviously give Croesus or Carlos Slim Helú a run for their money?

I blame estate agents. Tennyson once wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But it’s greed, not romance, that sends London’s army of estate agents into a feeding frenzy at the first sign of springlike weather. With their clipboards, shiny shoes and gigantic bunches of keys, they’re out to seduce you – into a quickie sale.

In the past week, my letter-box has been rattling like a badly installed sash window, as unsolicited mail from local estate agents drops onto my doormat. “I know you are not currently on the market and I’m sure you must be receiving a lot of unwanted correspondence from estate agents in the area,” began once such missive. You’ve got that right. Sadly, after that rare moment of insight, the letter degenerated into the usual mixture of excited claims about double-digit price increases and chain-free buyers who can “move as quick or as slow as is needed”.

I am excited that estate agents now have access to a supply of dual-speed, chain-free purchasers, but it seems to have come at the cost of employing adverbs. This letter did come from Dexters – the apostrophe-free estate agent – so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that grammar isn’t a strong point.

It’s greed, not romance, that sends London’s army of estate agents into a feeding frenzy at the first sign of springlike weather.

When they’re not writing letters, estate agents are penning columns and posing for photos in glossy magazines like Absolutely West, one of a raft of publications from Zest Media. According to its website, Zest “produces luxury lifestyle magazines for the ultra high net worth residents of London”. This is property porn: pages of “magnificent, one-of-a-kind” residences to salivate over, just bursting with desirable period features, well-appointed wet rooms and “mature” gardens.

Television has got a lot to answer for too: property gurus like Kirstie Allsopp, Phil Spencer, Sarah Beeny and the unctuous Kevin McCloud have been trampling all over the schedules for the past decade. Watching people buy, sell and attempt to renovate their homes has become one of the nation’s most popular spectator sports. How many times can you watch some dreary couple walk into a master bedroom and say “This is so big!” without feeling the urge to defenestrate them? Rather than knock down any more stud walls, I think someone should take a sledge-hammer to Kirstie Allsopp.

So be warned: if you live in one of London’s property hotspots, you will be bombarded with carelessly drafted mailshots until you give in and agree to a “FREE VALUATION”. From there it will be a rollercoaster ride of open-house viewings, leading to feverish negotiations, sealed bids and possibly a spot of gazumpering or gazundering. Your friendly estate agent collects his commission for doing bugger all. Game over.

To borrow a phrase from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “A House Is Not a Home” in 21st-century London and it’s certainly not a humble abode in which to relax at the end of a long working day. I’d just like all the estate agents to leave me in peace, so that I don’t feel as though I’m trapped in a reality TV version of the board game Monopoly.


Lego: Building the Future

Giraffe_LegoDiscoveryCenter_Werhahnhmühle

Endangered species? A Lego giraffe (pic NatiSythen)

Last night’s Culture Show on BBC2, Lego – The Building Block of Architecture, turned out to be the televisual equivalent of Doctor Who’s Tardis. From the outside (my onscreen programme guide), this promised to be a nostalgic half hour in the company of twinkly Tom Dyckhoff, exploring the enduring appeal of one of the world’s most popular toys. To my surprise, this programme stretched the boundaries of its all-too-brief running time with a magical mystery tour through post-modernism, Meccano and even Minecraft!

The story began in Denmark, a country usually viewed by envious foreigners as a Northern European utopia – though not if you happen to be a cute giraffe named Marius. In the 1930s, an enterprising carpenter from Billund called Ole Kirk Kristiansen decided to switch from building barns to making toys.

It was the era of the Great Depression, and the recently widowed Ole needed to keep his young family afloat. In 1934 his company was named Lego, which is a contraction of the Danish Leg Godt (play well). Things really took off in the 40s, when the firm started experimenting with a plastic injection-moulding machine, and the studded Lego binding brick was born.

Now Lego and its sub-brands – Lego Star Wars, Lego Ninjago, Lego Chima – are so ubiquitous that there are 86 pieces of Lego for every person on the planet. But the essence of Lego is that it’s supposed to be fun and an outlet for creativity, rather than just the three-dimensional equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle. As one of the contributors here said, it’s all about diving into a “big bucket of mess” and seeing what you can create from the myriad of red, yellow, blue, black and white bricks.

Lego had a major rival in Meccano, which originated in Britain in the 1890s. The nuts and bolts Meccano aesthetic gave rise to hi-tech architecture like the Lloyd’s building in London. The “simpler, safer” Lego is said to have inspired post-modernists to get creative with colourful combinations of “circles, cylinders, squares and triangles”, as in James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry. Now Lego fan and star architect Bjarke Ingels is building the company’s new HQ in Billund, in the playful and unmistakable style of its own product.

Tom Dyckhoff

Tom Dyckhoff explores the world of Lego.


I’m not sure whether the look of any of these buildings will stand the test of time, but they are a welcome departure from modernism’s obsession with glass curtain walls and dispiriting slabs of grey concrete. These days, budding architects have moved from experimenting with little plastic bricks to the digital playground and unlimited possibilities of Minecraft.

“There are no limits to what you can do,” explained one of Minecraft’s young proselytes, who is just one of 42 million users worldwide. It’s even more collaborative than Lego, because your fellow enthusiasts don’t have to be in the same country, let alone the same room.

Tom (a Minecraft virgin) explained that it’s not just a tool for creating fantasy worlds; architects, town planners and citizens can interact and experiment with ways to improve our built environment. The UN has harnessed the crowdsourcing potential of Minecraft to work with young people in Kenya on urban regeneration projects.

Watching Tom plant some flaming torches under a dark bridge in a simulated version of his East London neighbourhood, I was reminded that the virtual world isn’t immune from fire hazards. Last summer my six-year nephew was reduced to tears after his Minecraft hotel with wooden fittings burned to the ground. Unfortunately he had built it in the path of an active volcano.


Philip Seymour Hoffman: an A-Z

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, aged just 46, and all some people seem concerned about is the future of The Hunger Games franchise. This is both crass and cruelly ironic, given that Hoffman’s filmography was notable more for quality art house hits than cinematic blockbusters.

The first Philip Seymour Hoffman film I ever saw was 1992’s Scent of a Woman, and the last was The Master. Of course, Hoffman was not the star or even the juvenile lead in Scent of a Woman. Martin Brest’s syrupy, overlong drama was a vehicle for Al Pacino, who won an Oscar for his shouty performance as the blind Lt. Col. Frank Slade; the charisma-free Chris O’Donnell played his young “aide” and minder. It’s 20 years since I last saw the film, but was Hoffman’s presence, personality and rather shambolic appearance as the obnoxious student George Willis, Jr. that I remember.

By the time he played cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, Hoffman himself merited that description as an actor with versatility, courage and great sensitivity. To be honest, it was a film that bored and infuriated me in equal measure, though that was largely down to the mumbling Joaquin Phoenix. But Hoffman was menacing and magnificent, and I’m glad that the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie has provided headline writers with a neat way to memorialise one of the greatest screen actors of the last 20 years.

The Guardian has got in ahead of me with its Philip Seymour Hoffman greatest hits package, so here’s my own tribute.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in five films – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master (2012). Speaking of their final collaboration, Anderson said that as an actor Hoffman had “gotten older and more confident”. He also acknowledged the fragile nature of that craft, “Because you can have it one day, and it’s not there the next . . . “

Boogie Nights saw Hoffman cast as the lovesick Scotty J, one of the large and dysfunctional “family” irresistibly drawn to studly 70s porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg).

Cooper’s Town was the actor’s film and TV production company, which he founded with Emily Ziff. The company’s productions included Capote, The Savages and Jack Goes Boating.

Death of a Salesman – the 2012 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s play earned Hoffman a Tony award nomination for his performance as Willy Loman.

Film critic Roger Ebert memorably described the actor as having “a gift for playing quickly embarrassed men who fear rejection”.

Flawless gave Hoffman one of his most flamboyant roles as Rusty, a New York drag queen, pre-op transsexual and mistress of the one-liner.

God’s Pocket, a black comedy drama directed by Mad Men star John Slattery, screened at Sundance last month and was one of Hoffman’s final movies.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was born on 23 July 1967 and died on 2 February 2014. The cause of death was reported as a heroin overdose.

I liked it all. Yeah.” In a 2006 60 Minutes interview the actor gave a candid assessment of his past relationship with drugs and alcohol.

Jack Goes Boating was Hoffman’s 2010 directorial debut. He also reprised his role from Bob Glaudini’s play as the socially awkward limo driver Jack, who dates Connie (Amy Ryan).

“A truly kind, wonderful man and one of our greatest actors – ever.” A heartfelt Twitter tribute from Mia Farrow.

Lester Bangs, the rock journalist in Almost Famous, was one of several real-life roles played to great acclaim by Hoffman. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

Mimi O’Donnell was Hoffman’s long-term partner and mother of his children, Cooper, Tallulah and Willa. O’Donnell was the costume designer on Jack Goes Boating.

Mike Nichols directed the actor on screen in Charlie Wilson’s War and in the stage productions of Death of a Salesman and The Seagull.

His Oscar win was for his role as author Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 biopic, Capote. He was also nominated three times in the best supporting actor category (Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt and The Master).

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

As Plutarch Heavensbee, Head Gamemaker in the Hunger Games series, Hoffman had one of his highest profile roles. Parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay are still scheduled for release in 2014 and 2015. In a 2013 interview he declared himself a fan of author Suzanne Collins and her books.

Quality directors – Mike Nichols, Paul Thomas, Bennett Miller, Spike Lee and David Mamet – are conspicuous on Hoffman’s lengthy filmography.

Rumpled was the word most often used to describe the actor’s off-screen appearance.

Synecdoche, New York saw Hoffman cast as theatre director Caden Cotard, who’s beset by personal problems and obsessed with a painstaking production that recreates his own life inside a huge New York warehouse. Rolling Stone called it a “mind-bender”.

Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole – Hoffman’s intriguingly titled but little-seen 1991 film debut.

Unfinished projects at the time of Hoffman’s death included the TV comedy, Happyish, in which he was due to star as the creative director of a New York-based advertising agency. Only the pilot episode of the Showtime series had been shot.

Vancouver Film Critics Circle was particularly generous to Hoffman, handing out best actor awards for Capote and 2003’s Owning Mahowny and a best supporting actor prize for The Master.

Worst film? The Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams earned some terrible reviews, but my least favourite Hoffman movie is Along Came Polly, the scatological “comedy” starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston and a ferret.

X-rated – the graphic bedroom scene with Hoffman and his on-screen wife Marisa Tomei that opens Sidney Lumet’s 2007 thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

The Yearling, a 1994 TV movie, was a rare family-friendly entry on Hoffman’s CV.

Paul Zara (Hoffman) was the old-school campaign manager outmanoeuvred by his protégé Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) in the 2011 political thriller, The Ides of March.


American Hustle

David_O_Russell_(pic David Shankbone)

American Hustle writer/director David O Russell


Either David O Russell is the hottest Hollywood director on the planet, or those myopic voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really need to get out a bit more.

If I was an actor I would be desperate to get cast in David O Russell’s next film. How desperate? Well, I wouldn’t think twice about turning myself into a walking skeleton or running around in a plastic bin liner in the name of art. That’s because Russell is becoming almost as prolific at piling up Academy Award nominations as the great Meryl Streep.

Russell’s latest movie, the crime drama American Hustle, is loosely based (“Some of this actually happened”) on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 70s and early 80s. But the real story is that it has 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and a clean sweep in the acting categories. That’s on top of last year’s eight Oscar nominations for Russell’s “bipolar romantic comedySilver Linings Playbook and seven for his 2010 boxing biopic The Fighter.

All of this might lead you think that either David O Russell is the hottest Hollywood director on the planet, or those myopic voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really need to get out a bit more.

In American Hustle it’s the ever-adaptable Christian Bale who looks twice the man he was in The Fighter. He’s piled on 43 pounds and sports an embarrassing comb-over to play New Jersey dry cleaner-turned-con man Irving Rosenfeld. Look out for the can of Elnett hairspray enjoying a brief cameo in the opening scenes, as Bale shows off his newly acquired paunch, while assiduously covering his balding pate.

Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been doing quite nicely with a loan scam in which she poses as an English aristocrat to reel in gullible investors. But then Bradley Cooper’s cocky FBI agent Richie DiMaso catches up with the pair and forces them into an elaborate con, involving a fake Arab sheikh and a scheme to build casinos in Atlantic City. Irving and Sydney are just the bait to catch some much bigger fish, including a New Jersey Mayor played by Jeremy Renner.

I’d never heard anything about Abscam before I saw this movie, but at times it seems like a mere backdrop for other distracting subplots involving sexual jealousy and overweening ambition. Cooper’s coke-snorting DiMaso is a vain, corkscrew-permed ball of energy who alternates between sparring with his mild-mannered boss (played by Louis CK) and putting the moves on Sydney. Equally unstable is Irving’s young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who almost betrays him to her Mafia lover and has a nice sideline in blowing up kitchen appliances.

As a cinemagoer, I’ve rarely been impressed by movies that come garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations. James Cameron’s Titanic boasted 14 nominations (it won in 11 categories), but I still regard it as a titanic, iceberg-shaped cinematic turd. If American Hustle was a less high-profile production I’d be more inclined to downplay its flaws and simply enjoy the fact that it is a lip-glossed, star-studded slice of largely undemanding entertainment, showcasing some great 70s tunes. Plot-wise it’s not in the same league as The Sting, but it is less narcissistic than the tiresome Ocean’s Trilogy.

But with Lawrence and Cooper getting Oscar nominations for their wildly over-the-top roles here, you have to wonder what Russell was thinking when he cast them. I did enjoy their sparky, old-fashioned romantic partnership Silver Linings Playbook, though it was no masterpiece. In American Hustle it’s as though they’ve been ordered to “turn it up to eleven” in every scene. The result is a mood of sustained hysteria that unbalances the film and detracts from an affecting performance by Amy Adams. I think the voters at AMPAS have been conned.


The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan_Belfort_(pic Ralph Zuranski)

The real “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort (pic Ralph Zuranski)

“There nothing noble about poverty,” declares Jordan Belfort during one of his rabble-rousing speeches in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated biopic, The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course there’s not a hint of penury or nobility here – just three hours of excessive profanity and boundless greed, interspersed with gratuitous nudity and drug-taking. It’s quite a ride.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the 2007 autobiography by superstar stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played here by the perennially youthful Leonardo DiCaprio. An ambitious 22-year-old, Jordan makes his Wall Street debut as a lowly “connector” at Rothschild. The catastrophe of Black Monday (19 October 1987) later puts him out of a job, but soon he shows his mettle flogging penny stocks to gullible punters in a crummy “boiler room” on Long Island.

Jordan teams his dazzling sales patter with the equally dazzling dental work of portly sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together with some pals they found the Long Island brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, earning zillions of dollars trading worthless stock. Behind the august name is a company built on fraud, but no one cares when there are yachts, mansions, drugs and parties galore, topped off with dwarf-throwing and fish-swallowing shenanigans in the office.

The ultra-macho, high-energy world of brokerage depicted here is a perfect match for a film-maker with Scorsese’s pedigree. If anyone can convey the sheer adrenaline rush of men behaving very badly, it is the man who directed Goodfellas. The intensity of DiCaprio’s performance as the supercharged hustler is quite literally eye-popping. Schmoozing, scheming and shrieking, he moves from triumphs on the sales floor to a bedroom bust-up with his second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), often looking as though he’s about to burst a blood vessel.

Scorsese also uses DiCaprio’s voiceover to provide a glib and wholly unapologetic commentary on Jordan’s antics. There’s no hint of regret when Wife No. 1 catches him snorting coke off the breasts of (soon-to-be) Wife No. 2 in the back of a limo. Even when the SEC and dogged FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are closing in on him for fraud and money laundering, this Master of the Universe coolly holds court on his yacht.

The Wolf of Wall Street features some memorable cameos, notably from a shockingly gaunt Matthew McConaughey as Jordan’s first mentor, Mark Hanna. His yodelling, chest-beating, coke-snorting pep talk over a liquid lunch makes quite an impression on the wide-eyed young Jordan. As the surprisingly broad-minded Aunt Emma, the always decorous Joanna Lumley brings an unexpected frisson to a park bench scene with Jordan.

The most jaw-dropping scenes here follow an unwise decision to experiment with some out-of-date Quaaludes, which (according to Jordan) appear to mimic the effects of cerebral palsy. Our drooling and incoherent hero ends up exiting a country club on his stomach and almost totalling his car. Yet he’s still able to revive a similarly stricken Donnie, who’s about to choke to death on the kitchen floor.

Over the course of three hours The Wolf of Wall Street delivers slick entertainment and the vicarious thrill of watching people cocking a snook at authority. What it lacks, though, is much in the way of character development or tension. Unlike other Scorsese films, there’s no bloodshed or imminent threat of violence. There’s not much drama either in the way Jordan is finally forced to do a deal with the Feds and accept a short jail sentence. The lawyers and law enforcers remain largely peripheral.

It goes without saying that the women characters get very short shrift in this male-dominated world. Some will revel in the amount of naked female flesh on display here, but I would have liked to see some emotional depth in a film that lasts as long as this one. The one exception is Margot Robbie’s powerful scene with DiCaprio, as their marriage finally breaks down and he faces the prospect of losing his kids. This is raw, ugly and, unlike much of this film, it is not played just for cheap laughs.

The Wolf of Wall Street is stylishly directed and well-acted, but when you strip away the glamour and the thrill of getting away with it for so long, the story of Jordan Belfort didn’t seem that interesting or important to me. This is a minor work in the Scorsese canon, and I wish that he and Belfort had put their undoubted talents to better use.


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