Monday, May 26, 2008

Where Reality Lies ... And Keeps on Lying

Enough teasing, here's the "Mad Men" review.

I watched the last episode of what I hope is the first of many series of "Mad Men" last night. It's one of those immersive experiences where it feels like you're coming out of a deep sleep when the credits roll. Think "Lost". Think "Deadwood". Think "The West Wing". Think "The Sopranos". My Sunday evenings won't be quite the same again.

The atmosphere of 1960 New York is immaculately done in outrageous multi-layers of reality, down to nicotine-stained fingers and vintage nightwear. Ignore the joyless pedants who point out that the typewriters featured are more 1980 than 1960.

The characters are complex and unlovable, the dialogue is as sharp as the suits and the plot is revealed at a leisurely pace and doesn't get in the way of superb character development.

A major feature is poking fun at the sexism, racism and basic nastiness of the period, but rather than feeling smug, you realise that it's not aliens being depicted here. These people are very much "us"; we are just as guilty but we're a lot more subtle about it these days. Do you think anyone writing in 2056 would be nice about the way we live today ?

Jon Hamm acts his socks off as Don Draper, the complex, cynical Artistic Director of the agency ("What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons")

The supporting cast is none too shabby and includes some excellent female roles :-
  • Elisabeth Moss who has matured as an actress considerably since her toe-curlingly rotten portrayal of Zoey Bartlett in "The West Wing".
  • The office Femme Fatale and Queen Bee, Joan (played by the jaw-droppingly beautiful Christina Hendricks)
  • Don Draper's childlike ex-model wife Betty (played by January Jones - what a name!)
  • (my favourite character) Rachel Menken - Draper's mistress (played by Maggie Siff) - a clever, witty, strong client of Draper's agency. Their relationship is complex and based on more than just lust. She's very much a match for him.
The other males tend to be of the jovial empty-suit variety, apart from the weaselish Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser) who you would just love to bash with a spade.

Even the theme tune is amazing - "A Beautiful Mine" by RJD2 - you can listen on YouTube.

DVD out on 30th June - buy it !

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Farmer Stan

An unexpected lay-off at work has meant that I've been in the unfamiliar environment of my own back garden. I am not a keen gardener, the whole subject bores me and at my age it's unlikely I'll ever reach even a basic level of knowledge.

Stan : "What shall I do with these ... er .. yellow guys ?"

Mrs. Stan (patiently) : "Buttercups"

Stan : "Right..."

My gardening experience tends to be somewhat unsubtle. My favourite tools are

(i) a crowbar - useful for dismembering old garden furniture and lifting paving slabs in a cathartic violent kind of way

(ii) a strimmer, as in the following example :-

Stan stands with a strimmer poised over a clump of something green in a flower bed.

Stan : "Weed or Flower ?"

Mrs. Stan : "Weed"

<Sound of Something Green being strimmed back to Ground Zero>

Strimmer moves on twelve inches.

Stan : "Weed or Flower ?"

Mrs. Stan : "Flower"

<Sound of a Flower being strimmed back to Ground Zero>

Stan : "Whoopsies!"

The penny has dropped recently however that gardening is not all poncy bushes with Latin names (I always thought Labia Majoris was something you'd see on "Gardeners' World").

No, the point I was missing was that you can eat some of this stuff ! Yummy potatoes and carrots for almost no money; no packaging, no V.A.T. The Research Labs at Stan Inc. are working through the night on ways to grow bacon, cheese and beer, but until those breakthroughs happen, I'm more than happy to settle for some root veg.


*****

Only one episode of "Mad Men" left - about time I did that review ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Can you class your iPod as a dependent for tax purposes?

Kenny here. Stan left the door a little ajar and I've been toying with breaking in for a while.

In keeping with the musical vibe that Stan has echoing around in a Portishead-esque manner, I thought I'd drop in and embarrass myself. I made the absolutely fatal mistake of buying an iPod Touch about 6 weeks ago and it is not an exaggeration to say that it really has changed the way I deal with music. Rather than having to remember what it was that I heard a few bars of and then spending hours in record stores, I just bob onto iTunes and voila, I can pick and choose.

The amount of money I have spent on digital music since the iPod acquisition far outstrips the amount I have spent over the previous two years. If record companies fear the digital age, they could do worse to secure their futures than to make sure that every 14 year-old in the world has an iPod for free. Seriously, that would be "job done". Sales of online music would go through the roof. The kids get to pick their music and carry it around, there are ways of getting around the DRM so they can swap tracks (much like we used to tape albums) and music industry margins will soar to preposterous percentages. Everyone wins. Except the parents, but they never did anyway.

The real power of iTunes, when unleashed on a thirty-something geek, is that as well as sitting in really boring technical meetings and downloading cheesy "those were the days" CDs or individual tracks (to alleviate the ennui), they can pretend that they're hip by having a quick preview of the latest [insert famous person here] CD.

For example, I've downloaded Lou Reed while discussing MySQL clusters. I kid ye not. I've pulled down random tracks that I like by forgotten one-hit wonders such as Lisa Loeb, Edie Brickell, etc. while designing networks. On the other side, I've been pulling down videos (that I would never have got my hands on in the UK) by Fiona Apple, Barenaked Ladies, etc.. The other evening I was surfing the music channels -- I had heard of Shakira in passing but had no idea whether I liked her or not. From the TV video I thought I might (strange as most her catalogue appears to be happy little dance numbers and I'm more prone to psychotic pianists). I downloaded the whole video and then test-drove a few other tracks. I now have the whole CD. This evening, I've done pretty much the same thing with Gabriella Cilmi.

Two months ago both Shakira and Gabriella Cilmi would have long have escaped my mind by the time I found myself in a record shop. And if I had remembered, chances are I'd have weighed up the one track I had heard and passed because I couldn't guarantee I would like the rest.

I insist that all Stan's disciples and constituents (remember, vote Stan) equip themselves with an iPod Touch. Not only will your music habits change forever, but come the revolution you'll be able to download Stan's coded podcasts giving you instructions on which public figure to assassinate next.

--

I had meant to review Gabriella Cilmi, rave about Shakira's dancing and predictably reinforce the rumour that I'm absolutely in love with Fiona Apple's voice. Maybe if Stan ever gets around to the "Mad Men" post, I'll oblige.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Difficult Third Album

If you listen to Portishead's latest album "Third" enough times it stops being annoying and starts haunting your dreams and taking up residence in your head. "8" was the number of repetitions I needed. I really, really didn't like it first time through.

Portishead produced what I believe is a perfect album, "Dummy", in 1994. It sold in the millions, was hugely influential and won a Mercury Prize. The tracks from this album are everywhere even today - you will know the songs even if you never bought the album. As an example, the trailers for the Radio 4 afternoon play this week used the gorgeous, bittersweet "Roads".

So, not bad for a first album. Where do you go from there ?

Well, you keep the magical voice of Beth Gibbbons and you keep and intensify the eclectic sonic experimentation.

If I were to write my own track in their new style, I'd need :-

* A peacock
* A 1980s computer game
* A sample of a New Order bass figure
* A String Quartet playing slow arpeggios with lots of diminished and augmented fifths and cadences that never resolve.

Then I'd need a sadistic Sound Engineer to mix in chalk-on-blackboard and crying babies noises.

It's never less than interesting and is often quite brilliant, but I really don't see it as an achievement on the scale of their first album. Maybe I just need to listen to it another eight times.

Warning : It is also VERY bleak and dark, so if you're working 12 hour days on a difficult thankless project that you really can't see the end of, you should have plenty of perky music by the Scissor Sisters and E.L.O on stand-by. Although there is pleasure to be had in listening to melancholy music when you're down - Mahler would never have made a living otherwise.

Check out Bill Bailey's pastiche version of "Zippedy Doo Dah" in the style of Portishead and tell me whether he's a fan or a critic.

******************************************************************************

Yeah, yeah, I really need to get round to this "Mad Men" review I keep promising.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Mixed Marriage

Somehow the Stan Household manages to survive being composed of an Atheist Dad, a Christian Mum and a Christian Daughter.

To listen to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, you'd think this was a rare, nay freak state of affairs. So much so, that he has felt the need to remind Christians to respect Atheists. Was the previous policy to hunt them with dogs ?

It was interesting to listen to him on Radio 4 this morning, well after Richard Dawkins did his piece. The Cardinal is not the greatest of speakers and he uses the lamest sound bites and clich├ęs ... er ... "at the drop of a hat".

I have a few questions :-
  1. What is this "deep esteem" he mentions that I should start to expect to receive from Catholics, and could I have the cash instead ?
  2. What are the chances that the UK could become a "God-free zone" ? A few big-mouthed bolshie atheists against the Creator of All sounds like a mis-match to me.
  3. Why does he always describe Atheists as "non-believers" ? Atheists believe - just not in the same thing as the Cardinal.
  4. Exactly which "people are afraid to express their religious beliefs in the UK" ?
  5. Exactly which "many people" are suffering from "a sense of being in a sort of exile from faith-guided experience." ? And what in the name of Baal is he talking about ?
I can only think he point-blank refused to go head-to-head on the radio with Richard Dawkins, who has a once-in-a-lifetime mind and a considerable talent for aggressive iconoclasm. Or maybe he just didn't want to stay in the room with someone who would compare his God to an "Imaginary Friend". I can't help thinking he's a bit short on "Deep Esteem" for Atheists if he won't debate with them. Check out Rabbi Shmuley Boteach versus Christopher Hitchens on YouTube - I'm sure the Cardinal could pick up some pointers.

Monday, May 05, 2008

I say No to drugs, but the drugs don't listen...

We should find some sort of award for Nicky Taylor who, in making the programme "Should I Smoke Dope ?" (shown on BBC3 recently), made it a part of her job to go to Amsterdam and hang around smoking dope and eating cake.

You may remember she is also the person who made it a part of her job on previous occasions to go binge-drinking, have a tummy-tuck and fail to wash for a month. Not typical behaviour for a 40-something single mum from Kidderminster but hardly cutting-edge journalism. Managed to upset the Daily Mail though, which is usually a good sign.

If there's anyone reading this who has influence in commissioning programmes for digital TV, I urgently need to talk to you about developing some ideas where I investigate the effects of living in a big house, driving a selection of big cars and eating in fancy restaurants every night. My working title is "Could I have more money than sense (please) ?"

I'm just hellish jealous - firstly that she thought of it first, but also because she is rather good at it. She's a real character - scatty, flirtatious, clever and very funny. Can't wait to see what she does next.

Oh, and the shock answer to the question "Should I Smoke Dope?" turned out be to "Heck, No !". Even if it were legal (and it isn't) you should especially not do it regularly or you'll perforate your lungs and melt your brain. The stuff on sale in the UK is particularly not recommended because of quality issues and the fact that you're probably bankrolling organised criminals.

Stan says "Just Say No, Kids"

*****

Another excellent episode of "Mad Men" last night - but, alas, no time to do it justice here. Maybe next time.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Don't mention the "R" word

I'm not certain whether I pity or envy the fans of highly successful football clubs. There's something about the end-of-season relegation battle that makes your blood pump, your mind race and your bottom-hole flutter. Very stimulating.

With their deep squads of top players, the big teams never have worry about getting relegated, falling into a death-spiral into the lower leagues and liquidation. Their fans never need worry that they'll have to find their way to Gillingham and Yeovil on a Saturday afternoon. I mention Gillingham and Yeovil because these were Leeds United's most recent opponents, only seven years after they were playing Valencia in the Champions League semi-finals.

Football under the circumstances Bolton find themselves in is much less about about skill and a lot more about nerve, heart, and not too put too fine a point on it ... "balls".

The finest exponent of these qualities in today's Do-Or-Die game against Sunderland was El Hadji Diouf, who I have described before as the strongest man in British football. He's had to be - he grew up in a small village in Senegal, western Africa where he lived with his grandmother who had to sell bags of peanuts at the roadside to make ends meet.

Today he played with enormous heart and lack of nerve and he's going to be missed, because he's moving on. The phenomenon of your club's best players wanting to move on is also something the superpower-club fans don't need to worry about.

But anyway, enough of that : today was a total joy - the fans from both sides sang themselves hoarse in the sunshine and as a result of Diouf's goal and a bizarre Sunderland own-goal, it's 99% certain I'll be able watch Bolton play Manchester United and Chelsea next season rather than Blackpool and Swansea.

And I'm not in danger of needing to know my way to Gillingham or Yeovil any time soon.

....

No time for the promised write-up on "Mad Men" again, but do watch it - it is very good indeed.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Still Busy, But Go On Then - Part Two

This has been another day during which I drove 400 miles down to London and back, so it's just possible I will slump forward over the keyboard before I finish slamming out this posting.

Humphrey Lyttleton was once described as "that cat in England who swings his ass off". By Louis Armstrong, no less. If you do nothing else this week, listen to "Bad Penny Blues" on YouTube. If you do so, you'll hear him saying that the piece did not exactly set the hit parade on fire in 1955. What he is (so typically) too modest to mention is that it was the first jazz music ever to appear in the UK Top 20. And could you name any that has made the Top 20 since 1955 ? Plus listen carefully to the piano part and hum "Lady Madonna" by The Beatles (written over a decade later).

He was arguably better known as a gifted comedian, who could deliver a line like he could blow a horn. No-one ever got so many laughs from the word "Hmmm?".

England is poorer country for his passing : I hope they put up a plaque in Mornington Crescent tube station.

OK - I'm tired now. "Mad Men" will have to wait for another time.