8 things which tell you you are watching a Coen brothers’ film

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Thirty years ago, a small violent crime drama was released.
The film was Blood Simple and it was the first of the many twisted tales to come from the ingenious minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Thanks to the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski today virtually everyone seen at least one Coen brothers’ film. But just in case you’re in any doubt, watch out for the following…

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1. Crime
Almost every Coen brothers’ film involves crime of some sort usually interspersed with some dark humour. Kidnapping is a particular favourite as in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Raising Arizona.

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2. Frances McDormand is in it
Best known for her Oscar winning performance as the amiable pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo, McDormand has been in five other Coen brothers films including Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. She is married to Joel Coen.

Frances McDormand In 'Fargo'

3. Witty quotable dialogue
“What’s the rumpus?” (Miller’s Crossing). “You know: for kids!” (The Hudsucker Proxy). “You’re entering a world of pain!” or “The Dude abides” (The Big Lebowski). “He was kind of funny looking” (Fargo). Nearly every Coen-directed film has been entirely written by the duo and features corkers like this.

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4. Steve Buscemi is in it
The Boardwalk Empire star appeared in five Coen brothers’ films in the Nineties.Bizarrely, he not only dies but his character’s body is mutilated in every one of these films.In Lebowski, for example, his character is cremated after dying. In Fargo, his character’s body is memorably fed into a wood chipper.

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5. Roads
Yes, we are aware most films have roads in them. However, in Coen films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, roads play a major role in the story. There’s sometimes a fair bit of snow too. Watch out for it.

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6. John Goodman is in it
Goodman has first appeared as Hi’s convict friend in Raising Arizona but also cropped up as a horrendous old bore in Inside Llewyn Davis, as well as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Turturro has also appeared in four of their films (for example as pervert and bowler Jesus Quintana in Lebowski and earlier played Barton Fink himself).

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7. Usually set in the past
Barely any of their films are set when the film was actually released. Lebowski was set during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis, Fargo in the late eighties (who knows why?) True Grit is set in the 19th century, Barton Fink in the Forties and No Country For Old Men in 1980. You get the idea.

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8. They are weird
The most recurrent theme of the Coens’ films is their strangeness. Why is Fargo called Fargo when it is not even set there but in nearby Brainerd? Why did the Coens pretend it was based on a true story? Why is a batch of stolen money left undiscovered at the end? Why is the ending of No Country For Old Men so odd? Why did they base O Brother, Where Art Thou? on Homer’s Odyssey when neither Coen had apparently read it? Why is Lebowski set during the first Gulf War? Why is there a weird Roswell Incident bit in The Man Who Wasn’t There? Probably we will never know the answers. But the Coen brothers’ brilliance is not in question. Here’s to the next thirty years…

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Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you will doubtless have noticed a new character.
The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had been established for seven years already, featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Gibson had in fact drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.
Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true then, but he was hardly unknown either already penning V For Vendetta for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the light Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD as well as many Tharg’s Futureshocks, the Twilight Zone style one offs many 2000AD staff get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a leading girl character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of both in Volume 1. The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. There is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just one of the girls.
Volume 2 which appeared in 1985 is a hell of a lot better.
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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.
The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.
Volume 3, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.
Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.
Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, occasionally alluded to since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague only to react with total horror when she learns they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.
Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume 3 would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman comes close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.
The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image fist appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

What’s more, there was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. Yet NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project in retrospect seems hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and the show not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was of course at this stage not known to the general public.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

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This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Iain Bans’ controversial debut novel The Wasp Factory. It is a sad anniversary, in that for the first time Banks himself who died of cancer last year, will no longer be around to celebrate it.

In truth such was the tabloid furore surrounding the book in 1984 that Banks, then in his twenties, did well to ever escape the book’s long shadow. It remains perhaps his darkest book and one that I (perhaps wrongly) hesitate to recommend to readers who have never sampled Banks’ work before, even though it was the first one I actually ever read myself. That said, it is still quite mild next to some books which have appeared since (such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). It is also still, alongside The Crow Road, one of Banks’ best and most famous works.

Banks was undeniably right to describe the book as a “dark comedy” though even though parts of the book (such as the reasons for his older brother’s breakdown) are deeply unpleasant. The main character Frank is undeniably deeply disturbed enjoying an isolated life with his retired ex-hippy dad, playing in a world of fantasy or fighting a giant bunny (a scene which actually appears to be based in the real world when activities around a rabbit warren get out of hand). But the wasp factory of the title isn’t a metaphor: it is a physical structure which Frank has built himself. And he is a killer. Grim though they are, Frank’s accounts of his murders are among the most memorable bits in the novel.

Throughout the book there are also subtle indications that something more is wrong with Frank. Unlike most teenage boys, he seems oddly repelled by women.

Thirty years on, The Wasp Factory remains hugely compelling from its odd unworldly opening to its very final line.

Red Dawn (1984): The stupidest film ever made?

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Could Red Dawn actually be the stupidest film ever made?

It seems possible. This is, after all, a movie made in 1984 which depicts the United States succumbing to a land invasion by the Soviet Union. That’s right. You read it correctly. A Russian land invasion of the USA. At the height of age of nuclear super power confrontation. The opening scenes see a high school teacher being distracted from his teaching by the sudden arrival of an army of Russian parachutists, suddenly descending on the ground outside. When he goes to investigate, he is promptly machine gunned to death.

A high school massacre ensues. Not the traditional sort of US high school massacre with Americans shooting each other which we are so used to either. The director John Milius would presumably defend every American’s right to do that, after all. No, this is a nasty Russian inspired massacre.

The heroes, played by an assortment of Eighties stars and future stars (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Swayze’s future Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey and Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson) then go to ground and wage a form of guerrilla warfare against their Soviet occupiers for the rest of the film.

So begins Red Dawn, a film so alarmist it might as well have been called Reds Under The Bed and featured a sequence in which Soviets emerged from that very bad to kidnap sleeping American children.

It is a film in which the Russians speak as if they have stepped out of an edition of the British Battle Action Force comic from the same period. “Arraggh! Help me comrades!” says one, who has been shot by an arrow in his back. “I am dying!”

It is quite a violent film and actually has a reasonable cast – the late Patrick Swayze was never a great actor but Harry Dean Stanton is in it (and who would have guessed then that he would outlive Swayze?). Charlie Sheen was still two years away from his role in Platoon and a good decade away from Hot Shots. It is hard to imagine his father Martin was a big fan of this one though.

And nor should he have been. The film is surprisingly boring to watch despite its unintentionally hilarious premise.

Some of you might be scornful at this point. “It’s all very dismissing the Soviet threat in 2013,” you might say. “We all know in reality Gorbachev and Glasnost were just around the corner to save the day. The Berlin Wall would actually fall just five years after the film was released. But it didn’t seem like that in 1984! The Cold War was very cold indeed. There seemed like there was no end in sight. It wasn’t quite like the book 1984 but it wasn’t far off. The threat of World War III was very real indeed.”

Agreed! You’ve made a fair point. Yet it was very much a NUCLEAR threat which the world faced during the Cold                 War. Red Dawn never adequately explains why the nuclear deterrent isn’t used. The parachuting from disguised commercial planes plot device is unconvincing. It’s easy to see why no scenes featuring the president or any top level military decision making feature at all. If they did, they would expose the plot as a load of hooey.

Indeed, Red Dawn’s world view on virtually every issue totally stinks.

We are told NATO has dissolved, basically because Europe is reluctant to help the US because it feels “twice in one century is enough”. This seems a bit rich bearing in mind the Thatcher Government’s fanatical devotion to the US at the time and the continuance of NATO to this day. All the evidence suggests that unlike the US itself who has only ever entered World Wars belatedly and when it has come under attack itself, Europe would step in were the US to be invaded. Not that this disclaimer is really needed as the premise is so utterly absurd anyway.

The women lose their rag in the film at one point over Charlie Sheen’s expectation that they cook. This seems to be John “Conan the Barbarian” Milius’s half hearted attempt to show how unlike the rapey Russians, the west tolerates its women, however uppity they may be. Hurrah for the West! We even put up with our grumpy women when they demand crazy things like the right to be treated equally.

Worst of all, is the film’s immature attitude to guns. The closing titles which feature Wild West type images of all the young characters armed, look like an advert for the National Rifle Association.

There is, bizarrely, a remake of this in existence made as recently as 2010. I’ve not yet seen it but can’t imagine it’s any more farfetched than this one.

Absurd, reactionary, boring and ridiculous, Red Dawn left me wishing the Soviet Union would re-emerge so I could defect to it.

If this is the America that ultimately won the Cold War, I’m almost sorry the Eastern Bloc didn’t triumph.

Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to the extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long running Seventies US comedy show All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies. But even these have tended not to be very similar to each other.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER star Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body) improves on its source material in depicting four boys on a camping expedition into the woods to find the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes involving slugs and a rail track, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

“You can’t handle the truth!” Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The late critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful/
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has.

But credit where credit’s due Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.

13 books that would make the BBC’s Big Read list were it held in 2013

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Ten years have passed since the BBC launched its “Big Read” with the aim of finding the nation’s best loved novel.

The results, drawn from three quarter of million votes, are repeated below. Voters could initially vote for any novel they wanted although the top 21 were then voted for again, on condition that one book per author was permitted for the top 21.

THE ORIGINAL BIG READ TOP 100 (2003)

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  26. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  29. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  39. Dune by Frank Herbert
  40. Emma by Jane Austen
  41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  48. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand by Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG by Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  61. Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  65. Mort by Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus by John Fowles
  68. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  69. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses by James Joyce
  79. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits by Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  83. Holes by Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  85. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician by Raymond E. Feist
  90. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  93. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine by Anya Seton
  96. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

 

 

It’s hardly for me to pass judgement on the biggest survey of public reading thus held. However, I do feel the list holds up pretty well in the age of the e-reader. The top 21 seems pretty solid. Some might question the presence of so many children’s books but these are often the “best loved” books after all. I would be more inclined to question the decision to include the Narnia and His Dark Materials books as one book apiece while each of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books are included as separate entities.

Would the likes of The Thorn Birds and Goodnight Mr Tom have made the list today? It is not clear.

However, had the Big Read been conducted in 2013, I’m sure the following novels would have found a place somewhere:

1, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling.

2. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by JK Rowling.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and possibly Bringing Up The Bodies)

6. One Day by David Nicholls

7. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James (and sequels?

8. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. (and sequels?)

9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and sequels?)

10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (and sequels?

11. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

12. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

13. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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The Mormon conquest?

“The history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

So sang Abba in their 1974 hit Waterloo. And they were right. 1907, for example, was virtually the same as 1894.

So what’s it to be then?

Which election of the past is this year’s presidential election most likely to echo?

Here are the main scenarios:

1948: The Truman Show: Shock result! Electoral upset!

The precedent: Every underdog in every election prays for a repeat of the 1948 result. President Truman was universally expected to lose to his Republican opponent, the ultra-bland moustached weirdo Governor Thomas Dewey throughout the campaign. One newspaper even reported “Dewey defeats Truman” on its front page. Yet the polls were staggeringly wrong. Truman was, in fact, returned comfortably. He even gleefully held up a copy of the inaccurate newspaper for the cameras.

Is it likely?: Actually with the election so close, neither a Romney or an Obama win would exactly constitute an electoral upset. So assuming neither candidate wins by a huge margin or something insane happens, this wouldn’t be possible. Especially as neither Truman nor Dewey are alive.

1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984: President re-elected in a landslide.

All of these elections saw the incumbents (Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon and Reagan) winning by huge margins. Nixon and Reagan both won 49 out of 50 states. Could Obama do the same?

Likely? This may have been possible when Romney was in a flap over his moronic 47% comments. But unless something dramatic happens between now and polling day (perhaps Romney will be revealed to have sold one of his elderly relatives to a powerful conglomerate) this now seems very unlikely.

1996: President re-elected comfortably but not by a landslide.

1996 saw President Clinton comfortably quashing Senator Bob Dole’s leadership bid by a 7% poll margin.

Likely?: Not too farfetched actually and probably the best result Obama can realistically hope for. Had the result gone the other way…Monica Lewinsky? And the 73 year old President Dole? Let’s not think about it.

2004: A narrow-ish win for the president.

Nobody likes being compared to George W Bush. But in 2004, he did beat Senator John Kerry by a three percent margin. And get this: he didn’t have to cheat this time!

Likely?: A narrow Obama win is currently the most likely result.

1976: A narrow win for the challenger.

After Watergate, the fuel crisis and the Nixon pardon, ex-peanut farmer Jimmy Carter achieved a very narrow win over the maladroit President Gerald Ford.

Likely: Horribly plausible. Romney could scrape home narrowly. And remember: Ford was also undone by a poor TV debate performance!

1980: A big win for the challenger.

The 1980 victory of Reagan over incumbent President Carter was decisive and seems inevitable in retrospect. In fact, it seemed much closer at the time. Carter’s diaries reveal he felt he had a good chance at winning almost to the end.

The result famously forced loon John Hinckley Junior to reconsider his plan to shoot President Carter and shoot the new president Reagan instead. All to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Who apparently wasn’t even very impressed anyway! Tsk! Women eh? Next time just try sending a bunch of flowers. Or stalking someone who isn’t a

Likely?:A Mitt Romney landslide? If you believe in a God, pray to him or her that this doesn’t happen.

Whatever happened to the end of Communism?

We all remember the fall of Communism don’t we? Certainly, anyone who is over twenty five will.

Who could, after all, forget the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role following the coup two years later? Or the final collapse of the USSR?

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to signal an ideological victory for capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history”. Many argued that the end of the USSR proved that Communism and Marxist-Leninism, like fascism before it, simply could not work. It was contrary to human nature, they said. Reagan, Bush and Thatcher claimed the war had been won
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