Thursday, 6 December 2012

Hammer Horror - Part 2

Watching these Hammer films from the sixties can be a rather surreal experience, especially if you've been raised on significantly higher-budgetted affairs. There's usually only a handful of sets, the coulours can seem slightly too bright (especially the blood) and the scripts usually have a sense of wry, understated humour.

They can also be very, very camp, which is what they are famous for I suppose, but generally not in a modern nudge-nudge-wink-wink look-how-silly-we're-being kind of way. These films, at the very least, and for all their faults, present their stories straight and straight-faced - there's no narrative flashbacks as such, few dream sequences (although there's a good one in The Plague of The Zombies). This can actually be quite refreshing, and bizarrely makes the films quite a bit less predictable. They are also very British.

The simple reason these come across sometimes jarringly to a modern audience is that they belong to a genre that doesn't really exist any more. They are serious horror films (No! Bad Andy! Don't start that debate!) They are mid-budget wide release horror and fantasy, which simply don't exist any more and died off in the early seventies. To say that they don't make 'em like they used to is literally true. 

Also, while I aim to provide a (semi-objective) overview, it is apparent by now that I have a huge affection for these films, in all their (sometimes debatable) glory. 


The Ultimate Guide to The Ultimate Hammer Collection!


Film #6: The Reptile


Summary and Review: I made the mistake of watching this one too soon afer The Plague Of The Zombies. It reuses a lot ofthe sets having been filmed back to back and undoubtedly the former is a much better film (or at least a scarier one). The plot revolves around an evil monster knocking off the locals which may have something to do with a sinister local Doctor, his Malay servant and his reclusive daughter (hint: it does). It also looks like it was shot through a yellow filter for some reason. A bit average, to be honest, but it has its creepy moments.

Best Moment:
The first appearance (well, second) of The Reptile.

Hammer Glamour:
Jennifer Daniel, looking a bit too much like Eleanor from The Haunting. Plus I had to google her as I couldn't remember, so not memorable.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: The friendly publican's easy acceptance of going grave robbing. I was reminded of Bender in Futurama - "I'll get my kit!"

Bonus cameo:
John Laurie, best known as Private Frazer (We're all DOOOOOMED) from Dad's Army rather wonderfully plays a character here called Mad Pete.

Film #7: The Witches


Summary and Review: Joan Fontaine gets menaced by a coven of witches in a small community that may or may not be in her head. Nice and understated for about 80% of its length, it goes absolutely batshit insane for the last ten minutes or so. Nothing to do with the Roald Dahl book or film, unfortunately, although reasonably good fun if not at all scary. Could have done with more of a sense of humour about itself.

Best Moment: A bit with a doll's disappearance and reappearance is suprisingly sinister.

Hammer Glamour:
This was the last film role for Joan Fontaine and she looks great. Also she's apparently still alive!

Unintentionally Funny Moment: The appearance of the coven's leader "Behold! My magnificent headgear!"

Bonus cameo: Leonard Rossiter of Rising Damp plays a not-very-sympathetic doctor.

Film #8: One Million Years BC

Summary and Review: A film whose poster is arguably better known than the film itself has the distinction of being nothing like I've ever seen before. There's only about a minute and a half's dialogue at the beginning in English and the rest of the film is in 'cave-speak'. It's utterly incomprehensible as far as the plot goes (something to do with a conflict between two tribes), but the real stars are the creature effects by Ray Harryhausen. It's also the longest film so far, coming in at 97 minutes.

Best Moment: The fight between a Triceratops and a T-Rex is in full glorious stop motion animation. Amazing.

Hammer Glamour:

Unintentionally Funny Moment: "Akita!" is the word for freaking everything.

Bonus cameo: Robert Brown, the man who played M after Bernard Lee in Bond. Not that you'd be able to tell.

Film #9: The Viking Queen

Summary and Review: A retelling of the Boudicca story with an added love story and all of the names changed (for some reason). The titular Queen is the one person without a British accent (Finn Carita Järvinen). It's all lavish but very, very silly and overwrought, but wins points back by having Andrew Kier in a villain role and a druid played by Donald Houston who doesn't so much chew scenery as tear and devour huge chunks of it. Also there aren't any Vikings in it.

Best Moment: The chariot racing looks fun. I want a go.

Hammer Glamour:
I suspect Carita was hired for her 'other assets' rather than her acting ability.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: "This isn't what we dreamed, is it?" is supposed to be the big emotional pay-off at the end but it's freaking hilarious.

Bonus cameo: Patrick Troughton, just before he was in Doctor Who.

Film #10: Frankenstein Created Woman

Summary and Review: Hooray! Peter Cushing's back! This is the fourth in the Frankenstein series which follow the exploits of everyone's favourite mad scientist. This time he's trying to trap people's souls after death in a series of evil experiments. His understated and calm amorality is always a joy to watch, and this is a fantastic return to the 'good stuff' after the past couple in the box - this eventually turns into a pretty straightforward and grisly revenge thriller. Lovely jubbly.

Best Moment: "Bodies are easy to come by, souls are not..." Mwa ha ha

Hammer Glamour:
Susan Denburg, although she's evil and a bit crazy.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: Frankenstein's response to being accused of witchcraft - although this was probably intentional.

Bonus cameo: Yes Minister's Derek Fowlds plays one of a trio of despicable cads. Nice.


That's Part 2 done, folks, so stay tuned for Part 3!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hammer Horror - Part 1

A few weeks ago while doing my Christmas Shopping on Amazon (it's not that I don't LIKE going shopping, it's just there's a lot of other people) and among all the things I bought for other people I bought this thing for me:

...because what's Christmas without a bit of low budget 60s and 70s film making, courtesy of Hammer?

The trouble was, before I bought it I had real trouble finding even a list of films included in the box, let alone a comprehensive review. I'll also try and include some bits and pieces about the studio itself, for those who are interested, although feel free to skip the intro each time. So here's my new series, including everything you wanted to know about the films in this box...


The Ultimate Guide to The Ultimate Hammer Collection!


Film #1: She


Summary and Review: A fun romp in which Peter Cushing and two friends go in search of a lost city in somewhere that is either Egypt or Palestine (it's not clear) after the First World War. This city may or may not also contain an immortal sorceress who's hell-bent on resurrecting her dead lover. Also features Christopher Lee as her High Priest. Overall it's very pretty to look at, and the costumes are amazing. Almost like a very high budget episode of classic Doctor Who and definitely worth a look. 

Best Moment:
The Village Elder has his daughter 'returned' to him. Mwa ha ha.

Hammer Glamour:
Ursula Andress, best known as Honey Ryder from Dr No. Yowza.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: Christopher Lee's collection of increasingly bizarre hats...

Bonus cameo:
Hey look! It's Bernard Cribbens!

Film #2: The Nanny


Summary and Review: Hammer's last film in black and white stars Bette Davis as a kindly old Nanny who is mistreated by an obnoxious brat. What is his problem? She hasn't done anything wrong...or has she? This is one of the best ones in the box so far, eschewing the lavish opulence, sexiness and gore in exchange for a tidy little psychological thriller. I dig that. This is probably the least Hammer-y Hammer film in the set (the booklet says it 'represented a bit of a departure') and probably worth watching even if you don't like the rest of these.

Best Moment: Can't put the main one without spoiling the film, so I'll just say any time Bette Davis is on screen.

Hammer Glamour:

Unintentionally Funny Moment: The kid's father goes so far beyond disinterested and stern he becomes hilarious after about two minutes.

Bonus cameo: Bit of an obscure one, but Bond fans will recognise Auntie Penelope as Jill Bennett, the skating instructor from For Your Eyes Only.

Film #3: Dracula, Prince Of Darkness

Summary and Review: Now this is more like it. In full, glorious colour, mostly red, and featuring Christopher Lee as the iconic Count, you can't beat this. Those three things listed in The Nanny review above? Yes, yes and yes. On Van Helsing duty this time is Andrew Kier as Father Sandor, an awesome, booming presence who is a worthy opponent for the evil Count. This is actually the third in Hammer's Dracula series, but as he always dies at the end it doesn't really matter where you jump in. My only criticism (and it is a small one) is that Lee doesn't actually speak, but in many ways he doesn't need to.

Best Moment: Undoubtedly the first appearance of the resurrected Count. There's a reason he's so well known for this.

Hammer Glamour:
Barbara Shelley as a sultry vampire seductress. Awesome.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: This is played very straight so not many laughs, but Francis Matthews' "I'm sure this deserted castle with food laid out for us is perfectly safe" attitude is somewhere between grim and very, very silly.

Bonus cameo: Peter Cushing replays his role as Van Helsing for the first few minutes or so. always nice to see him and Lee together.

Film #4: The Plague Of The Zombies

Summary and Review: Ultralow budget yarn about bodies going missing from a graveyard after a mysterious illness. Kind of understated it manages to exude a low-level menace and creepiness throughout, and not just through the shambling undead. Containing virtually no known stars at ALL (seriously, you will not recognise these people) it spins, as they say, a good yarn. Not half bad. Shot as the B-Movie to Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Do NOT go into this expecting Night Of The Living Dead, yoiu will be disappointed.

Best Moment: The dead rise...

Hammer Glamour:
Diane Clare is chirpy and quite nice to look at, even with a wierd haircut and an odd relationship with her on-screen father.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: Not many, again, as it's played fairly well, but I like the way everyone says Haiti. Hay-eetee.

Bonus cameo: Like I said, there's no massive stars here, but classic Doctor Who fans might recognise the local constable as a doomed Kaled commander from Genesis of the Daleks (This is known as 'scraping the barrel').

Film #5: Rasputin, The Mad Monk

Summary and Review: For those of you (and me) that were disappointed that Lee didn't say anything in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, this is the antidote. Lee merrily eats his way through the scenery as the title character as he rises through the ranks of Russian Society after being kicked out of his monastery. It's all very camp and overwrought, but if you go with it, it's actually pretty effective, as Rasputin is Not A Nice Man. There's no one else who really stands out here, this is Lee's film, all the way, so if you're a fan then definitely see.

Best Moment: "Be careful little Peter, there are acids in here..."

Hammer Glamour:
Barbara Shelley's back as well, so...yes.

Unintentionally Funny Moment: Dark and charismatic he may be, but sexy he ain't. The looks of disappointment on his sexy fan's faces when he decides his 'appointments' are done for the day are priceless.

Bonus cameo:Is that Last Of The Summer Wine's Alan Tilvern I spotted as a bar patron?


That's all for now, folks, but stay tuned for the next five!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Andy's Adventures with Weirdly Specific Genres

As this week is Halloween and I am, well, me, I have been watching a lot of movies. As the weekend has become the week however, I have begun to realize that a lot of the films I have watched fall into specific genres. Some are VERY specific.

Spoilers, obviously


Zombie Films In Which The Undead Rely On Inclement Weather

The Fog, 1980

The Return Of The Living Dead, 1985


Horror Films That End With People Freezing To Death, But That Somehow Doesn't Provide Closure

The Thing, 1982
The Shining, 1980


Horror Films In Which Veronica Cartwright Ends Up A Blubbering Wreck And Endangers Those Around Her

The Birds, 1963
Alien, 1978


Horror Films In Which People Shoot At A Dog From A Helicopter, Which Then Explodes On The Ground

The Thing, 1982

The Beast Must Die, 1971


Horror Films With Hilarious Unintentional Lesbian Subtext, Made In 1963

The Haunting, 1963 

The Birds, 1963


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Prometheus and Ambiguity

Prometheus as a film was one I had largely forgotten about. In a summer that had some of the best blockbusters I can remember (Avengers Assemble, Dark Knight Rises, Pirates! etc. – people may disagree on the various merits of these films but they were all nothing less than extremely entertaining, ultimately popular cinema’s raison d’être) Prometheus ranked as probably the only truly disappointing film I saw.

So why go back? Two reasons, really. Firstly, I saw it again, in the original theatrical cut*. The second was that during an online discussion about the film, after expressing my qualified disappointment**, this was the response:

”I suppose some people just don’t like ambiguity in their science fiction any more.”

Now, in one way, this was a last ditch response from someone telling me ‘I just didn’t get it’. In another, you could argue that maybe there was a point buried there. Many people I know were confused by Inception, for instance. So are we being spoon-fed, so to speak?

To answer that I will do something that I criticised reviewers for doing at the time – compare the film to Alien***. But this isn’t a review. So I’m not a hypocrite. Or much of one. Whatever.

Central to this is my hypothesis is that there are two different sorts of ambiguity – the kind that adds atmosphere (in Alien’s case, a layer of dread) and the kind that obfuscates the plot and makes the motivations of everyone involved muddy as hell.

Alien has its fair share of ambiguity. Watched in isolation, the presence of the space ship, the ‘jockey’, the eggs and even the motivations of the company remain utterly opaque. Sure, the characters pose various theories, particularly with regards to the company, but you’re left to fill in some very large blanks.

But (and this is an important but) at no point are any of the crews’ motives random or unexplained. All the reactions expressed are perfectly logical and natural – curiosity, horror, disgust and a sincere desire to kill It, whatever It is they are dealing with. In one early scene, the discovery of the diversion to investigate the derelict ship results in an argument about pay bonuses. This is the good sort of ambiguity – at no point does it detract from the plot, muddle motivations of the human characters (se what I did there, Alien fans?). Even the alien itself is pretty unambiguous, except in its origins. It is, after all, a pretty large, extremely dangerous animal.

Prometheus, on the other hand, has characters that do weird things constantly. There’s a dude who tries to tickle a completely new alien creature. There’s a robot that poisons one character for reasons that it’s possible to guess, but are left maddeningly unclear. Another character sacrifices himself with absolutely zero build-up.

Most irritatingly, the ‘Engineer’ when they find it and wake it up, attacks indiscriminately with what appears to be a sadistic glee. I usually refrain from swearing on here, but what the absolute fuck? The same race that seeds life on earth then turns out to be a race of assholes (actually, that would explain a lot). I’ve heard the theory put forward that it was ‘grumpy’ from having been woken up by some of its own creations, but why would it then pursue Noomi Rapace’s character? (Insert appeals to Blue and Orange Morality here.) If a character’s motivation needs explaining by debates on the internet, that is not good plotting. Sorry, gotta draw the line somewhere.

This is probably the best example in the film itself, but the fact that there is more than one suggests that the ambiguity in this film was caused by slapdash plotting. This is the ‘bad’ kind of ambiguity. It’s what makes Prometheus a badly written film, let alone a sci-fi film. No amount of ‘You don’t get it’ can salvage poor characterisation, ‘bad’ ambiguity, and a lack of coherence.

Rant ends.


* For all the claims that the DVD and Blu-Ray releases ‘answer questions’ the fact remains that they released the theatrical version as a Finished Product, so its problems are still up for debate. That and the fact that I believe Prometheus’ problems are so entrenched in the narrative that extra scenes won’t clean it up very much.

** Two things saved it from the scrapheap. Michael Fassbender’s performance was excellent, even though he falls victim to the same odd plotting as everyone else, and Noomi Rapace’s scene in the medical unit, which may be my scene of the year.

*** There is an argument to be made that Alien is actually a horror film rather than a sci-fi one, so comparisons between Prometheus and Alien are unfair. I have a certain sympathy with this view (demarking genres is a contentious issue, but compare Alien to Star Wars and Halloween and see which it most resembles) but the marketing clearly highlighted the link to Alien and shot itself in the foot by doing so.  

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Alien Cargo, and a trip down memory lane...

This is a bit more personal than the last couple, so bear with me. It has a Moral.

Last night, I watched a movie for the second time called Alien Cargo. It starred the cinematic giants of Jason London (of Dazed and Confused fame) and Missy Crider (who apparently was in Mulholland Drive, but I don't remember, mainly due to messily removing memories of that film with an ice pick). It has a 5.5 rating on IMDb, and is Unrated on Rotten Tomatoes. It also has a terrible, terrible title. So why did I watch this?

A little history. I have lived in the town where I currently live for virtually my entire life. Stuff's come and stuff's gone, and to be honest I've never been that attached to most of it, with two exceptions. One was a shop called 1st Compute, a brilliant emporium of all things game-related run by one of those omnipotent shop-holders who know all release dates ever, and if you're a regular will sell you stuff without asking your age. It disappeared one summer when I was at university. To pour hydrochloric acid into the wound it is now called LA Nails and stinks of nail varnish remover. This is what I think of when people online complain about remakes and reboots doing unspeakable things to their childhoods. This was much worse and much more personal than that.

The second was the video rental store, ChoicesUK. You may remember them as a competitor to Blockbuster that went into administration and all but vanished in 2007. The store that they occupied here is still empty five years later.

(I am getting to a point)

It's a little difficult to express how much I lived in this shop when it was open. I even went in there to buy sweets and crisps with spare money I had, just so I had an excuse to browse. Now, as I recall in around 1999, the actual video card was my Mum's (I got my own later) and with this I could get virtually anything I liked out, with some exceptions on the ratings of course - I was generally allowed to watch the 'next one up', so 15s when I was 12 (this was before the 12 rating even existed). My sister usually got Disney films and the like, as well as new releases (which were expensive), so I generally got out the stuff that was on the '£2.00 for a week' shelves. And as many comedies and certainly horror were out of reach, that left me with the science fiction shelf.

I must have seen everything on that shelf at least twice. It included things like Event Horizon (I covered up the rating), Mission To Mars, Red Planet, The Arrival, Deep Impact. It also included a lot of dreck, which thankfully has been lost to the mists of time. One film I saw when I was 11 though stayed with me. I had a faint memory of the plot and the setting, and I also remembered that it was quite creepy to the 10 year old me, but I had no idea who had been in it or what it was called. Here's what I had to go on:
"It was about a crew on a spaceship where all bar two of them were asleep for two months at a time to run the ship. Trouble was Shift 2 woke up and there was no sign of Shift 1 and it was 6 months later than when they were supposed to wake up."
 A couple of days ago, I was telling someone about this, and it suddenly occured to me that someone, somewhere online must have heard of it. So, armed with my vague description, I posted on PWOT, and someone told me the title. About 10 minutes later I was watching Alien Cargo on youtube.

(Honest to God, there is a point coming)

To call it a nostalgia trip was a bit of an understatement. This was something I had watched, and been creeped out by, over half my lifetime ago. I also went in fully expecting it to be awful. So what did I really think? First things first, classic this ain't. The script is dire, the CGI looks like it's made out of Lego and hilariously a man turns up at the beginning who may as well be wearing a t-shirt saying "Hi! I'm Mr Exposition! Please, explain things to me!"

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The set-design is excellent and claustrophobic, the sinister score hangs over the whole thing like a blanket, and the two leads are juuust good enough to be engaging and likeable. I wouldn't exactly recommend it unless you're a fan of "small crew stuck on big ship in space" movies (that seems a kinder name than "Alien rip-offs") as you're unlikely to get the same nostalgia trip out of it I did, but it is worth noting that it lacks an awful lot of the pointless jump-cut OOGA BOOGA stuff that dominates the horror and sci-fi genre nowadays. It's tense. It takes its time. I dig that.

So what's my point? (Hey! We made it!)  My point is, sometimes stuff you liked when you were a kid can surprise you when you're an adult, and that it's sometimes worth seeking out movies you saw once or twice, or music you used to listen to. It can invoke all sorts of nice memories of Times Gone By. And you never know, you might discover a new schlocky classic.

Peace out.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Pussy Riot

I am going to get hate mail for this.

Like most people, I've been following the Pussy Riot story with half-interest over the previous couple of months, and it now appears to have reached a conclusion. Trouble is, I have a feeling we are being told one side of the story, or at the very least one perspective. And that perspective is "Evil Russian State oppresses Innocent Protestors."

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not on the side of Putin and his cronies. Russia as a state is still mind-blowingly corrupt. Quotes from the website Freedom House ...

"Only a handful of radio stations and publications with limited audiences offer a wide range of viewpoints. At least 19 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, including three in 2009, and in no cases have the organizers of the murders been prosecuted. The authorities have further limited free expression by passing vague laws on extremism that make it possible to crack down on any speech, organization, or activity that lacks official support."

"The judiciary lacks independence from the executive branch, and career advancement is effectively tied to compliance with Kremlin preferences."

 ... tend to suggest that Russia is a bit authoritarian and oppresive, to put it mildly. To say that this is a step up from the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 90s seems a bit redundant.

In the media circus that has erupted around this, what the three members of Pussy Riot actually did has been a bit lost. In simple terms, they went into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (fun fact: tallest orthodox cathedral in the world) wearing home-made ski masks, crossed themselves, and then began an obscenity-laden song asking the Virgin Mary to 'become a feminist' and get rid of Putin. They also filmed part of it for use in the music video. They were later arrested, and tried for 'hooligansim'. The main thrust of the criticism is that the police and Kremlin response has been disproportionately severe. That is about as neutral account of it as you will read.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

At the risk of seeming pedantic, the most obvious thing is that they weren't accused of Punk Rock as an offence. The right to free speech and the right to perform your music wherever and whenever you want are two completely different things -  you can think of them as stuffy or old-fashioned, but members of the Russian Orthodox church do have a case for being legitimately offended. Propaganda aside, it is instructive to note that only 6% of the Russian population support their actions.

The second, and this is just my personal opinion, is that the whole thing comes across as marginally juvenile. I would be a lot more sympathetic if it had at least seemed more sincere - if you have a serious political point to get across, swearing is unnecessary.

The third is that two of the women, when arrested, denied that they had anything to do with it. Again, if you honestly believe in your 'cause', you stand up for it when the going gets tough. That's what Mandela did, and he was a lot more unfairly treated.

The final point, and one that has been glossed over slightly, is that if they had done what they did in St Pauls Cathedral in London, they would probably have been arrested as well - it's called 'Disturbing the Peace'. They would not have got anywhere near the response from the police or the government (Hooray for liberal democracy!) but I would put money on the public approval ratings being about the same.

There is a story here, and a very good one, about the nature of the Russian political and judicial systems, and how they are manipulated. Russia has a hell of a long way to go in terms of its freedom indices and its treatment of defendants in high profile cases. Unfortunatrly, it's being buried at the moment beneath a layer of partisan political protesting that oversimplifies the issue horrendously.

When Mythologising Goes Bad - SPOILERS WARNING

This is the point at which my blog makes an awkward tonal shift.

I had the dubious pleasure of watching The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas last night. I had read the book before as well, and unlike the apparent massive sales of the book and various accolades for the film, I was left feeling slightly uneasy about the whole thing. And apparently I'm not the only one. (1)

Spoilers ahoy, for those who have neither watched or read, but want to. Are those people gone? Good.

As you hold-outs probably know, the book concerns the friendship that develops between a young German boy and a Jewish boy who are either side of a barbed wire fence. The stinger is, of course, that the Jewish boy is in a concentration camp (both mix up the difference between a Work camp and an Extermination Camp) - referred to in the book as "Out With", which I'll come back to in a minute. The final twist (seriously, I did warn you, stop reading if you want to read or watch it) is that the German boy eventually sneaks into the camp under the fence and is killed, while the camp commander, who is also his Father, obliviously looks on. Roll credits. Pass the tissues.

On the surface, it's a good story. It also has a clear moral, I suppose (although I think anybody who needs to be told that wantonly exterminating minorities is an evil thing to do is probably pretty much past help anyway). Dig a little deeper though, and you run into some massive problems.

The first, and most obvious, is that it reduces the largest mass extermination of ethnic minorities in history into a tragedy about a boy who is not a member of any of those minorites. The second is that it inaccurately displays history, mostly in some very minor ways (that fence would probably have been electrified) right up to horrifically distorting it. The "Out With" reference I mentioned earlier is clearly a play on Auschwitz. Apart from the obvious geographical fact that Auschwitz was in Poland, not Germany, there is also the fact that if you were unable to work (ie: a child or elderly) you simply would not have survived long enough to strike up a friendship with anyone, let alone someone on the other side of a very heavily supervised fence. These are a couple of examples. There are many more -  I won't iterate them here, and there are a couple of justifications for a couple of them (dramatic license is ABSOLUTELY NOT a justification).

These facts may seem distasteful to some, and I may be accused of being flippant. I am absolutely not. Stories and movies inform the way we view the world, especially history. If you don't believe me, try the following experiment. Picture William Wallace. If you claim you didn't immediately picture Mel Gibson, or even just someone in a kilt, rather than this, you are either a medieval history student or a liar. In most cases, it doesn't matter, but it it is very important to remember that within living memory, between 11 and 17 million people (including 6 million Jews) were killed on the mandate of a state and the silent assent of its people. Nothing less than the absolute truth is what the victims of this, almost certainly the greatest atrocity ever committed, deserve - not only for the victim's sakes, but to make sure it never even approaches happening again.

Posterity deserves better than a Grimm's Fairy Tale.

(1) This gives a more detailed criticism of the film from a Rabbi's perspective. It is far more powerful than what I have written here, and I have tried not to simply reword it. This post is more about how the book and the film made me personally uncomfortable, and why it's probably not a good idea to trumpet either the book of the film as a 'classic' or a 'tragedy'. For those who don't want to click the link, the tl:dr version is this: "No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives."

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Why I take the train

So, rail prices have gone up again. Angry commuters have been interviewed on the BBC (well, one) and there have been dark mutterings about "poor service" and "rip-off". Again.

Apart from the well-entrenched position that the service is unreliable (when in fact it's more reliable than ever) one of the main arguments I have heard for owning a car as opposed to getting the train is that it's cheaper. The conversation usually runs along the lines that the cost in petrol is less than the cost of a train ticket.

Obviously this is true. The trouble is, petrol isn't the only cost associated with a car. And I began to wonder, starting from scratch, how far would I have to travel in order to make a car worth my while?

Let's start with a typical journey, one that I make reasonably often. St Neots (where I live) to Southampton (where I party). Let's also assume a few other things. I own a new, reasonably priced, small car. A Fiesta say. That way I don't have to factor in things like 'reliability' because hopefully it won't break down. Let's also assume I drive the average mileage - roughly 13000 miles a year. Assuming I'm using my car for nothing else, this equals (rather conveniently for my maths) about 50 round trips to Southampton a year - about once a week.

From a train fare point of view, if I'm buying my tickets the day before or on the day, the fare is equal to £52.40 if I'm not returning the same day. This means that I am potentially spending £2620 per year on rail fares. This number, of course, goes down considerably if I'm buying my tickets in advance. Easy peasy.

My brand-spanking new Fiesta does an average of 34 MPG, according to Ford's website. A gallon is fairly roughly 3.8 litres, so my Fiesta does 8.95 Miles per litre of fuel I put in it. This is all petrol, by the way. The lowest petrol price near me is 134.9p, so it costs me about 15p per mile I travel in my lovely Fiesta. This means it costs me £1950 in petrol per year to drive it the 13000 miles to and from Southampton repeatedly. At this point, in my car, I'm pretty happy that I have come out nearly £700 ahead of my train taking alter ego. And that's if I'm travelling alone - stick someone willing to pay half the petrol cost and you're really in the money.

Trouble is, that's not the only cost associated with owning a car, and nobody else (except perhaps your parents) is going to help you pay these bits. First off, I can't drive. The average cost of learning to drive in the UK is about £1200, depending on if you pass first time. That gets added on. The cost of actually buying the car (the brand new Fiesta, remember) is £9790 and up. I'm a cheapskate, so I'm going with the basic model with no features. It's essentially bodywork, seats and an engine. Road tax and carbon tax adds on £235. My insurance premium as a new driver on this car is £2220.13 (on the cheapest deal, keeping it in a locked garage, me the only driver etc. on Go Compare). This is below average, I would point out.

This adds up to a whopping £13445.13. Clearly, over the course of a year, I should get the train. So, how long do I have to drive before this becomes worth my while? A few things will happen Firstly, I don't have to repurchase the car. The second is that I won't have to learn to drive again. The third is that my insurance will go down. So, essentially, the only figure that remains the same (assuming it hasn't been changed) is the tax. Let's just pretend for a moment that that's the only thing I have to pay (my insurance is now free - this simplifies things considerably, and it biases the following claculation in the car's favour).

So, in order for my car to be better value than the train, assuming things like rail fares and petrol remain roughly the same, it has to have cost me on average less than £2620 a year. I'm already paying £1950 in fuel and £235 in road tax each year, so that leaves £435. Unfortunately for 'cars are cheaper' advocates, this means I have to drive my car for nearly 31 YEARS for me to go into the black. Assuming that my not-new-car-any-more doesn't break down or require repairing and that I don't pay insurance after the first year. EVEN IF I am taking two other people each time, paying their share of the petrol, it's still around 13 years.

This is for a car costing under £10000. It goes up quite a lot if you start looking into Land Rovers.

From a purely financial point of view, I think I'll stick to the train for now.



Saturday, 11 August 2012

Bestsellers and The End of Civilisation.

So apparently, 50 Shades Of Grey is the best-selling book of all time in the UK.


This was being posted on various blogs and forums and walls with the standard "What is the world coming to?" response, a response I have indulged in occassionally. (It feels good to rail against the artless masses from your Island of Good Taste, even if the island itself consists of Bernard Cornwell novels and an Xbox Live account).

But what troubled me this time was the following - "What on earth does 'best-seller' actually mean?". It's a more difficult question to answer than I thought, especially when you realise that the Telegraph article linked to above essentially qualifies and slightly contradicts itself in the sub-header. "Of all time" is not quite the same as "since records began". Also, I'd imagine in an "Of all time" contest there would be a clear winner. You can guess. It begins with a 'B'.

The trouble is, when it comes to book sales, the data is apparently extremely difficult to collate across everything. The number that has been quoted for sales of 50 Shades, 5.3 million, is a number released by the Publisher, Random House. I'm not implying it's unreliable, it's just useful to know where data has come from.

In response to this, The Guardian produced this list. It ostensibly shows that 50 Shades Of Gray is still behind Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and three of the Harry Potter books. "There's hope for humanity!" I hear you cry. Until you read a bit deeper, and realise these numbers are apparently from sales of the actual physical books, not e-books. If you added on e-book sales, or at the very least adjusted for the sales lost to ebook sales, it would almost certainly be higher up the list, perhaps even top. The e-book industry has taken such a massive bite out of the industry that not including at the very least some kind of + 25 to 33% 'extra' sales on their data make it pretty worthless.

The two other things to note about these data is that firstly the oldest book is from 1989 (To Kill A Mockingbird). If this is the "records" that the Telegraph mentioned beginning, 23 years does not strike me as a long time. The other is that all of the top twenty books have been published since 1997, with all bar three published since 2003. Surely this might mean that more people are reading overall. In amongst all of the hysteria about taste and decency going down the pan, this strikes me as a Good Thing.

So what we go from is "50 Shades Of Grey is best-selling book of all time" to "50 Shades Of Grey may be best-selling book since 1989, during a period of increasing readership in general, but it's almost impossible to tell." Less catchy, I suppose.

As for the actual book, I leave it to Gilbert Gottfreid.