Sunday, August 31, 2008

Strive For Five


Flushing, NY (Saturday, August 30, 2008) - Day six of the U.S. Open featured four Third Round matches in the bottom half the Men's Singles section one draw, and every single one of them went to five sets.

Murray Mans Up in Marathon Match

Britain's No. 6-ranked Andy Murray and Switzerland's No. 10-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka overcame two-sets-to-nil deficits to claim victory Saturday, Murray showing the stamina that comes with improved fitness in overpowering Austrian Juergen Melzer 6-7 (5-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, 6-3 on the Grandstand court, while Wawrinka - fresh off winning 2008 Olympic Gold in Doubles with fellow compatriot Roger Federer - outlasted Italian Flavio (what a great name!) Cipolla 5-7, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-0, 6-4 over on Court 11.

Stan the Man survives Flavio of the Month

Later, Argentine teen Juan Martin del Potro outlasted Frenchman Gilles Simon 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 on the Grandstand and the 126th-ranked Japanese juvie Kei Nishikori pulled off the upset of the tournament in beating world No. 4 David Ferrer - the Spanish reincarnation of indefatigable retriever Michael Chang - on Louis Armstrong court after almost blowing a two set lead (and a match point serving at 5-3 in the fifth set), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5.

Quite a lot of labor for Labor Day Weekend - no wonder the young guns are prevailing at this Open (Del Potro is 19 while 18-year-old Nishikori is the youngest player on the ATP tour; earlier, 19-year-old lefty Donald Young lost a 5-setter to fellow American James Blake in the first round). Now five setters take a lot of time - at least three hours and up to five (as anyone who caught the 2008 Wimbleton final between Nadal and Federer - hereafter known simply as "The Greatest Match Ever Played" - knows well). So I was only able to see two of them - the Del Potro-Simon and Ferrer-Nishikori matches.

The Streaker and the Squeaker

Goddamn the Pusher Man: Simon Says "Beat Me"

I had seen Simon, fresh off his Indianapolis Masters win over Dmitry Tursunov, upset Roger Federer in the first round of the Toronto Masters (inexplicably, as Federer seemed to have the match in hand when he was serving for the match at 6-2, 5-4 only to let it slip away 6-2, 5-7, 4-6) and knew this would be a good one. On paper, the opponents certainly looked close - Simon ranked No. 16 in the world and del Potro No. 17. But the slight, 5-10 and 143-pound Simon ultimately didn't have the strength of the 6-5 del Potro who, after Nadal, is the hottest player of the moment on the ATP tour.

Argenteen Del Potro is in the swing of things

Juan Martin del Potro has won 22 straight matches since June - the second longest streak on the ATP circuit behind Nadal's 35 - and four consecutive ATP titles. The most recent title was a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Serbia's Viktor Troicki in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington D.C.; previously, del Potro captured the Kitzbuhel, Stuttgart, and Los Angeles titles (beating Andy Roddick in the final) and reached the semifinals at Hertogenbosch (as well as the QFs in doubles there with fellow Argentine Canas) and the quarterfinals at Munich. Del Potro's streak is also the longest by a teenager since Nadal’s 24 successive victories in 2005 and the joint third longest in history from an Argentine (Vilas 44, Clerc 28, Vilas 19). Prior to del Potro's winning streak, only one player ranked outside the Top 10 in the last 20 years had won at least 15 consecutive matches - Karel Novacek (15) in 1992. Admittedly, he won two titles on hardcourts while most of the top players were in Beijing... but even a cynic would have to admit the kid's got some game, right?

But Frenchman Gilles had the guiles to match del Potro's athletic wiles on Saturday. Though both men looked winded, especially in the legs, ultimately it was del Potro's power that proved too much for the counterpunching Simon. Del Potro hit an insane number of forehand winners - something like 40 - to Simon's single-digit tally. (Surprisingly, though, Simon out-aced del Potro, like 16 to 9. Go figure.) The only way Simon was going to beat del Potro, as astute commentator Jim Courier pointed out, was by having del Potro beat himself. Sports handicapper Andres Gomez (who picked Simon to win because he thought del Potro was tired from a exhausting tournament schedule), observed:
Gilles Simon is the best “pusher” of the circuit, as he does nothing but return balls to the other side of the court, while expecting for errors from his opponents. Well, this clearly works and Federer, Tursunov, Querrey, Cilic, Soderling and Acasuso were some of his victims on this Summer. Simon is also in a great run, being 14-3 on the Summer hardcourt season, so he has nothing to fear in this match, not even Del Potro's winning streak of 21 matches.

Ah, but sometimes tennis operates on the simplest rules of Darwinian logic: the big and strong guys tend to prevail over the slight finese guys on any given day, even when tired. Case in point today - though del Potro was pushed to the limits of that theory, over the course of three and a half hours, by Simon. A great, exciting, and entertaining match!

The Importance of Being Ernests

OK, after Friday night's impressive loss to the insufferably hyper Andy Roddick (Personal Pet Peeve Disclaimer: I can't stand Roddick's flippant ball toss before his big serves and his constant hat and shirt-tugging - not to mention the fact that he always has to wear his stupid baseball cap, like it's some sort of Linus security blanket!), Latvia's Ernests Gulbis was my favorite new player on the ATP tour. Another 19-year-old rising star, he stands 6-3 and looks like pop star Beck Hansen.

The Importance of Being Ernests: Gulbis and lookalike Beck Hansen

And the Riga Rocket actually outpowered Roddick with forehand winners clocking close to the MPH of Roddick's serves. But it didn't hold up after the first set, with Gulbis losing in four sets to the 2003 U.S. Open champion. Oh, by the time that night match ended, Gulbis and Roddick - both of whom were born on August 30 - turned a year older, so now Gulbis is a 20-year-old prodigy and Roddick an old man of 26. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about Gulbis' style of play:
Gulbis primarily employs an offensive baseline playing style, although is fairly comfortable playing from all court positions. Gulbis' most consistent shot is his forehand, which has been likened to that of American James Blake's for its rapid pace and relatively flat execution; his forehand is taken with a medium swing and with high levels of wrist action, which attributes to the explosive nature of the shot. His arsenal of forehand shots is nearly complete, and thus can be extremely disruptive and turn a defensive position into an offensive one. His running forehand has a slice action, but consistently lands extremely deep in the court, allowing for adequate recoil time to regain court position. Gulbis also has a particularly excellent array of finesse shots, including the high lob and drop shot, both of which he can strike from any position, including from deep in the court. Gulbis' primary weakness is his backhand, which while remaining adequately deep tends to lack variety, unless a particularly advantageous situation presents itself. Gulbis' foot speed is only moderate, although his return of serve is varied and dangerous, particularly on second serves and, due to his height, kick serves. In his televised matches in 2007 and early 2008 his serve would have been described as moderate, but has recently vastly improved in speed and variety, having served out several games with no returns against the incredible returners David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal. - "Ernests Gulbis" (Wikipedia)

So there you have it about my boy Gulbis, Yesterday's Hero.

Teen Titans

But now I must switch allegiance to Kei Nishikori (錦織 圭, Nishikori Kei), the 18-year-old phenom from Shimane, Japan who I saw blow James Blake off the court when he won his first ATP title at Delray Beach, Florida, back in February of this year.

Kei Nishikori after winning Delray Beach title

If Gulbis resembles pop star Beck, then Nishikori is a clone for Chinese action star Jet Li. Unbelievable resemblance.

Jet and Kei compare their crushing forehands

The classic underdog storyline has David slaying Goliath, but on this day, a giant killer slew David. By defeating Ferrer in five sets (6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5) over the course of 3 1/2 hours, Nishikori advanced to the Fourth Round, where he where he will face another teen phenom, Argentina's smoking-hot Juan Martin Del Potro. In doing so, Nishikori became the first Japanese man to advance to the fourth round of a Masters event, and the youngest to do so since Marat Safin in 1998. It was also the first time a teenager has beaten a top five player at the U.S. Open since Bjorn Borg defeated Arthur Ashe in 1973.

But Ferrer certainly didn't make it easy.

Ferocious Fighter Ferrer flicking forehand forcefully

"He started playing great in the third and fourth set," said Nishikori afterwards. "I was tired and my legs were almost cramping, but I tried to think, 'I am playing David; he's No. 4 in the world, and playing five sets with him. I felt, like, kind of happy and [started to] think more positive. That's why I think I could fight through everything."

Tennis is far from popular in Japan, where it is more of a recreational sport. Japanese photographer Hiromasa Mano, covering the match, commented that " "For many people it's difficult to understand and also very long. People have no time to watch."

But a producer at WOWOW, the network with the exclusive rights to broadcast the U.S. Open tournament in Japan, said he was certain that when the ratings are released Nishikori's match against Ferrer would be the highest rated tennis-related program in Japan's history.

It's been quite a long time since Japan has had a talented tennis player to root for. Shuzo Matsuoka, currently a sports broadcaster in Japan, was the last Japanese-born player to win an ATP title (Seoul, 1992), reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbleton in 1995 (where he lost in four sets to Pete Sampras) and achieving the highest-ever ranking of world No. 46 in 1992. Matsuoka is most famous for effecting a rules change for injuries. At the 1995 U.S. Open, he was left writhing in pain on court after being stricken by cramps during his first round match against Petr Korda. From Wikpedia: "The rules at the time meant that Matsuoka would have forfeited the match if he had gotten medical attention, so he was left to suffer until he defaulted for delaying the match. The incident led to a change in the rules of professional tennis to allow players to receive medical treatment during matches."

Shuzo Matsuoka: Don't cramp his style

But Nishikori, who lives in Bradenton, Florida (where he trains at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and is known there as "Project 45") looks to be the rising star from the land of the Rising Sun.

"He's a very good player, no?" Ferrer told Newsday reporters afterwards. "He's a young player, plays very well and serves really well. [He plays at] a good level."

Lame Lasses

Yup, the Nishikori-Ferrer match was a dogfight, and easily the best match of the day - not to mention the best Japanese match the day (Serena Williams having easily dispatched Japan's Ai Sugiyama earlier in the day). But unfortunately, NBC (or was it USA Network?) saw fit to cut away to the listless, boring, error-prone match on Arthur Ashe court between Russia's world No. 6 Darina Safina and Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky, which the Swiss Miss blew, 6-3, 5-7, 2-6. USA Network was guilty of pushing the hype in the overrated women's tennis game, as Safina, a potential World No. 1 - following Justine Henin's retirement, injuries to Sharapova, lack of tour commitment (prior to Wimbleton and the Olympics) of the Williams sisters, and the frustratingly inconsistent play of the skittish Serbs, No. 1 Ana Ivanovic and No. 2 Jelena Jankovic - was playing the best tennis of her life coming into this match. But it was a no-brainer to leave this match and go for the big show between Nashikori and Ferrer over on Armstrong. Inexcusable!

Let me repeat: the women's game today sucks! The action and the storylines are all over on the men's side. The only reason why I rank Nishikori's win over No. 4 David Ferrer a bigger upset than 188th-ranked Julie Coin's defeat of world no. 1 Ana Ivanovic (6-3, 4-6, 6-3) is that Ivanovic was over-ranked to begin with. On any given day, anyone can beat her. She got her position by default, by a twist of fate and circumstances. Her game is still very immature, in inverse proportion to her gargantuan physical stature. She's still growing into both her body and her game and has worse nerves than chronic head case Amelie Mauresmo, who's mastered the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Ivanovic rightly scurried off the court in shame following her Second Round come-uppance.

A Final Note: Mulling Over Muller

Now when it comes to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, I'd be remiss not to mention Gilles Muller's strong early round performances in this post about five setters.

Red Alert: Muller twice rallies from two sets down

The 25-year-old 103rd-ranked Luxembourg native rallied from two sets down to defeat veteran Tommy Hass in the Second Round (2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-3), then repeated the trick on Sunday to move past No. 18 Nicolas Almagro into the Fourth Round by a score of 6-7 (3-7), 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6), 7-5. Like Nishikori, he's the first man or woman from his country to get that far at a Grand Slam event. But Muller remains most famous for his First Round upset of Andy Roddick in straight sets here back in 2005. That was also the year the 6-5 giant killer beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbleton. It's been hard times ever since for the lanky Luxembourg lefty, who despite being the 2001 junior U.S. Open Champion, has still never won an ATP title.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Graham & Joe & Trev & Carol

Trevor Howard's Brit Lit Films

No, it's not '60s sex comedy - I'm referring to the principles in Turner Classic Movies' recent programming salute to the films of British actor-par-excellence Trevor Howard, who starred in films directed by Carol Reed as well as ones written by or based on the writings of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. The films I watched this night included:

Outcast of the Islands (1952) ****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad

The Third Man (1949) *****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the story by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter (1953) ****
Directed by George More O'Ferall
Based on the novel by Graham Greene

Besides the value of the quartet of notable names mentioned above, there were a number of "two-fers" on offer in this evening's programming: two films directed by Carol Reed (Outcast of the Islands, The Third Man), two set in exotic colonial-era settings (Maylasia in Outcast of the Islands, Sierra Leone in The Heart of the Matter), two back-to-back films starring one-name only actresses (Kerima in Outcast of the Islands and Valli - the moniker Italian actress Alida Valli used in her Hollywood films - in The Third Man), and two written by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter). (For the record, Greene collaborated with Carol Reed on three classic films: besides 1949's The Third Man, they worked together on 1948's The Fallen Idol - also starring Trevor Howard - and 1960's Our Man in Havana).

What's in a (full) name?: Valli

Anyway, throughout the night I was struck by the consistent pedigree of Howard's filmography, as he seemingly always appeared in quality pictures, including a number of stellar adaptations of British literary classics (besides Greene and Conrad, let's not forget Trev's turn in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter).

Following are some thoughts on two of the three films that aired this night. I can add nothing about The Third Man that hasn't already been said, so why bother? Like The Maltese Falcon, it's an example of a perfect, flawless film. ('Nuff said!) Besides, I've always been a sucker for those British colonial empire pics - give me a pith helmet and an exotic locale, and I'm in hog heaven (especially if Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene are penning the tale) - so my main interest this night was on Trev's celluloid exploits in Africa and Southeast Asia. It's too bad that both films are currently unavailable domestically on either VHS or DVD.


Outcast of the Islands (1952)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Sir Ralph Richardson (Captain Lingard), Trevor Howard (Peter Willems), Robert Morley (Almayer), Wendy Hiller (Mrs. Almayer), Kerima (Aissa), Annabel Morley (Nina Almayer)

Missed the first half-hour of Outcast of the Islands, but caught the rest of this curio that screened as part of Turner Classic Movie's recent all-night tribute to British actor Trevor Howard. And, as usual, I was drawn into a movie by the compelling face of a beautiful starlet, in this case the mysterious Kerima. Ah, Kerima - a woman so mysterious, she warrants nary an mention in Danny Perry's Cult People. (Speculation: Had she been born in a different era, Kerima could have married Lew Alcindor and the couple could have had the divine-sounding name of Kareem and Kerima Abdul-Jabar. Alas, 'twas not to be.)

Kerima: One word, one love

Though born in Algeria, her exotic looks enabled her to play a number of different nationalities in her brief screen career, including an Egyptian in Land of the Pharoahs (1955), a Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American (1958) and even a "she-wolf" in the Italian horror film La Lupa (1953). Here she plays a mute Malayan "savage" girl, Aissa, the devoted daughter of a blind village chief.

Kerima's temptation eyes

Kerima's temptation eyes captivate Trevor Howard's scalawag colonial trader character Peter Willems to the point of obsession; and who can blame him - I likewise had to put the remote control down when I saw her. Unfortunately for Willems, the attraction soon becomes obsessive.

Savage Love: Trevor Howard goes native

Outcast of the Islands was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel; though partially filmed at Shepperton Studios in England, the novel was set in Southeast Asia and was partially filmed on location in the Malayas, Borneo and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - the latter being the birthplace of the film's star Trevor Howard. Conrad described Willems as a "worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that settlement in the heart of the forest-land."

Howard as the worn-out Willems, with Carol Reed

Worn-out? All Movie Guide's Hal Erickson described Howard's Willems character more graphically as "a degenerate British expatriate who wanders aimlessly around a Malayan island" and added that the supporting cast of characters wasn't much better. "None of the characters is particularly likable; even Howard loses audience sympathy for his plight by betraying one of his closest friends (Ralph Richardson), a ship's captain who'd raised Howard from boyhood. The unrelenting pessimism of Outcast of the Islands was such that the American distributors felt the need to ease the characters' pain by editing the picture down from 102 minutes to 94."

But for the definitive analysis of this neglected Carol Reed gem, one must turn to the write-up at
The success of The Third Man propelled Carol Reed to the peak of his career, making him a director of international importance whose movies accomplished the rare merger of commerce and art; they earned praise from the reviewers and sold plenty of tickets as well. His decision to strike off in a new artistic direction rather than cautiously husbanding the profitable aptitude for thrillers he had displayed was courageous. Weighing up a number of different potential film assignments, he settled on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), a work which Korda - a Conrad enthusiast - had been urging him to film. The endeavour would require a large and convincing cast and a Far Eastern locale, most of the movie was shot on location in the region where the story was actually set: Ceylon, Borneo and the Malayas.

Kerima signs on for the cast of OUTCAST

The plot of Outcast is soundly constructed, yet the story is largely psychological in emphasis, and it is the passions of the characters which determine the events rather than the other way around. The boredom and restlessness from which Willems suffers in Sambir leaves him vulnerable to temptation and, since there is no money to steal, lust replaces greed, insatiable lust for Aissa (Kerima), the beautiful daughter of the blind chieftain Badavi (A. V. Bramble). The girl's tribesmen, allies of Lingard's rival Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), are thus able to blackmail Willems into revealing the treacherous route into Sambir, which the old captain has incautiously shown his young protégé.

Willems: On the Route To Mandalay

From Willems' first sight of the hypnotic Aissa to his final realisation that she is his doom, Reed's camera follows the course of his swelling passion with silent eloquence. Although Kerima has no dialogue, she is all that one could hope for in an Aissa - a dark-eyed beauty who moves about with regal but savage pride and communicates great emotional intensity. As the agent of Willems' downfall, she is completely persuasive. In the case of Almayer, Reed is entirely faithful to Conrad's depiction of the trader as a self-important prig. The epitome of a respectable burgher, Almayer has felt compelled to transport his stuffy bourgeois life all the way to Malaya, with every bit of pietism, hypocrisy and smugness intact. His cosy domestic environment is made to seem airless and numbing, a miniature Kensington inhabited by his well-corseted, tea-bearing wife and his shrill daughter Nina (Annabel Morley, Robert Morley's daughter). The scapegrace Willems is repelled by the pompous proprieties of Almayer's home -having abandoned his own in Singapore - and the rancorous scenes between the two men, which are among the strongest in the movie, leave the audience more sympathetic to the sneering Willems.

Robert Morley as the priggish Almayer

Reed follows Conrad in establishing Almayer's stance towards Willems as one of outraged respectability throughout and in unmasking Almayer as the embodiment of self-interest and heartlessness. His loathing for Willems is fuelled more by anxious fears that Willems may supplant him with Lingard and become a partner than by disgust over Willems' deterioration. Our loyalties gravitate decisively towards Willems when the latter comes to Almayer to beg for a chance to set up his own trading post (presumably as an alternative to betraying Lingard). His physical and emotional condition is pitiable, but Almayer turns him away ruthlessly. When the vengeful Willems returns at the head of the Badavi tribe - following the safe passage into the lagoon - we are not unhappy to see Almayer sewn up in his hammock and swung to and fro over a fire by the sadistic natives.

Kerema and Willems Under the Boardwalk, Native Style

Outcast is easily the least appreciated of Reed's major movies. Yet the Far Eastern milieu is as lush and reverberant as we could possibly have hoped it would be, and the story is almost never vitiated or debased by commercialism. Other than the softening of Lingard, there is not a single artistic compromise of significance in the movie. Beyond its other laudable attributes, it stands as one of the most powerful evocations of human degradation ever to reach an audience through a commercial medium like film. Its moods are all potent because Reed's direction and Wilcox's camerawork are supplemented by Conrad's dialogue, which Fairchild sensibly and skilfully interpolated into his script. By transcribing Conrad's dialogue so faithfully, Reed and Fairchild have also preserved the distinctive rhythms and intonations of each player in the drama.


The Heart of the Matter (1953)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cast: Trevor Howard (Harry Scobie), Elizabeth Allan (Louise Scobie), Maria Schell (Helen Rolt), Denholm Elliott (Wilson), Gérard Oury (Yusef), Peter Finch (Father Rank)

Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter deals with Catholicism, guilt and moral change in its main character, Scobie, a British police officer stationed in Freetown, Sierra Leone who realizes he has more in common with the locals than he has with his boorish fellow ex-pats. It also deals with an extra-marital love affair but, Scobie being a devout Catholic, you know how that will end. Globe trotter Greene - whose penchant for situating his stories in exotic Third World locales led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe them - drew on his real-life experiences as a British intelligence officer stationed in Sierra Leone during World War II for his novel, which won 1948's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and was later included in Time Magazine's lists of the "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

While his nagging wife Elizabeth (Louise Allan) is away in South Africa, Scobie falls in love with widow Helen Rolt (Maria Schell, sister of Austrian actor Maximilian Schell), a sensitive survivor of a U-boat sinking who collects stamps and dons a Jean Seberg haircut decades before A Bout de Souffle.

Maria Schell

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, Scobie's "belief" leaves him in a moral no man's land; he can't leave his wife and he can't continue to see the woman he loves and still go to confession as a good Catholic. Hence, Scobie chooses the typically Catholic response of masochistic self-denial. Though it's a sin, Scobie decides to kill himself, risking eternal damnation for himself while "freeing" the women in his life to not be tied down to him. Of course, the "human" response to his moral dilemma - be honest and be with the one you truly love instead of living a lie and honoring God by your loyalty to the marriage oath (one that does not acknowledge that people change and the person you marry is not necessarily the same person later in life), doesn't appeal to the pious penis-punishing policeman. Scobie reluctantly breaks secular law when he accepts a loan from Arab smuggler Yusef (Gerard Oury), but he will not take the bigger risk of breaking spiritual law. It is here that Scobie is meant to come across as a noble martyr, but to me it merely pointed out the smallness of the man in ways all the brow-beating by his status-conscious wife and the constant indignities of his job (in which he is passed-over for advancement by younger and lesser men) never could.

I haven't read nearly enough Greene novels as I should have, but of the ones I've read I've noticed two things:
1) Greene understood love and intimacy as well as any author I've ever read (especially in his brilliant The End of the Affair, a novel that I think I marked up every other page with underlines and highlighting and spoke volumes to me about the failings of my romantic relationships). Some of his observations about love are as eloquent and cogent as anything written by Shakespeare - or Dylan or Hal Hartley, for that matter!


2) Greene was obsessed with Christian - and specifically Catholic - values and the struggle to avoid sin. This is most unfortunate. Perhaps it's related to Greene's alleged bipolar disorder. For he was a renowned womanizer who couldn't enjoy his vices. Strike up another one for the masochistic Church!

While Greene's religious convictions ensure the inevitable outcome of his novel and this faithful film adaptation, it doesn't mean that this isn't a totally enjoyable film. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was shot on location in Sierra Leone. According to TCM film expert Robert Osborne, the film's producer originally wanted to shoot the entire film at England's Shepperton Studios, but Trevor Howard insisted on location shooting. Go Trev!

Critics rightly consider this to be arguably the finest screen performance by Trevor Howard, with some suggesting that no other actor could have come close to portraying the role of Scobie. The Heart of the Matter was nominated for four British Academy Awards (BAFTAS) - including best film and best actor for Howard - and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and boasted a stellar supporting cast that included Denholm Elliott as the snivelingly suave home office spy Wilson and a young Peter Finch as the spiritually disillusioned (but beer-loving!) Father Rank.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beijing Bloopers

All that glitters isn't necessarily gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


Chinese Gymnasts: Too Cool for Pre-School

As controversy swirls around the age of the Chinese "women"'s gymnastics team at the Beijing 2008 Olympics - their average height is 4-9 and their average weight is 77 pounds - pundits have commented that the Chinese look so young they may still watch Dora the Explorer and believe in Santa Claus. But my girlfriend put it best when she saw the diminutive Yang Yilin (pictured below) and said "That girl looks like a fetus!"

It's a Gymnast, Not a Choice!: Yang Yilin

She's right, of course. In fact, it's not a stretch to say the whole Chinese women's gymnastics team look young enough to necessitate having their coaches pack diapers for the meets. Especially Ms. Yang, whose face looks to be still developing. Whenever she works up a sweat, it looks like she's awash in fresh afterbirth.

Placenta prodigy Yang Yilin holds up her bronze medal


In the wake of the opening ceremonies "lip-sync" singing controversy at the Olympic Games, I came across this hilarious music video on the Sundance Channel's website and had to repost it here.

Beijing Olympics Theme Song: "Please Ignore the Communism!"


Move over Ugly Americans, there's a new kid in town. The Unbearable Iberians. From the land that brought you the ultimate in inhumanity to animals (bullfighting) and inhumanity to humans (The Spanish Inquisition), comes this attempt at original humor. The Spanish basketball team making slant eyes in Beijing!

Que? No comprende!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


If You Are But a Dream, I Hope I Never Wake Up

No one reads my other blog, Media Maxi-Pad, so I'm reposting this here...

Smart (1995)
Arista Records

The It Girl (1996)
Arista Records

Pleased To Meet You (1997)
BMG Records

I'm late to the party, not discovering Sleeper until I picked up a sampler CD for Rhino's 4-CD Brit Box compilation of late '80s to '90s Britpop indie shoegazer bands at a neighborhood yard sale around the corner. One of my favorite tracks on it was "Sale of the Century" by the hitherto unknown Sleeper. Investigating further, I learned that they had eight UK Top 40 hit singles and three UK Top 10 hit albums but only made a blip on the stateside music radar when they covered Blondies' "Atomic" on the Trainspotting soundtrack (after Blondie refused to allow their version to be used). I saw that movie, but still no recognition, so I found their first two albums on eBAY and picked them up for the ridiculously low price of no more than $2 or $3 each - including postage! (They also recorded a third LP, 1997's Please To Meet You, but I haven't picked that up yet.)

I'm here to report that if you liked Elastica, you'll love Sleeper. In fact, you won't be blamed if you listen to "Inbetweener" and swear it's an Elastica tune. Elastica was three girls and a guy, while Sleeper was three guys and a girl (a polarity kind of like, locally, Baltimore's Thee Katatonix and D.C.'s The Pin-Ups - but with talent!). But both bands were fronted by talented femme chanteuses. Everyone knows Elastica's Justine Frischmann, who was not only the front femme for Elastica but also famously dated both Suede's Brett Anderson and Blur's Damon Alburn. But you've probably never heard of Sleeper's Louise Wener, who these days makes her living as a (quite popular) novelist.

Louise Wener: A Stunner and a Strummer

But if you like the '90s Britpop sound of Blur, Oasis, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Pulp, Echobelly, et al, you should really like Sleeper. (BTW, Sleeper opened for Blur during the 1995 Parklife tour.)

Though 1995's Smart sold over 100,000 copies and included the early indie singles "Delicious" and "Swallow" - and the later high-placing "Inbetweener" (#16 UK Charts) and "Vegas" (#33, featuring Blur's Graham Coxhon on saxophone - and a personal fave with its line about "he lives in a flat, islands of crap" that reminds me of my own dense domicile) and the early Nirvana/grunge-influenced "Alice In Vain" - the next year's platinum-selling sophomore effort The It Girl represents the band's best work, with their guitar-driven sound augmented by tastefully restrained synth and keyboard accents. Produced by Stephen Street (famous for his work with The Smiths, Morrissey and Blur) it included the standout "Sale of the Century" (which was their biggest single success at #10 on the UK charts) as well as "Nice Guy Eddie" (also #10 UK Charts), "What Do I Do Now?", the snarky "Lie Detector" (from whence comes the Clara Bow "It Girl" reference that the album takes it title from), "Statuesque" (another Trainspotting soundtrack song; it's included on the Trainspotting #2 CD) - and the wonderful "Stop Your Crying." The difference between Smart and The It Girl is comparable to the change between Oasis' Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? A clear jump.

According to Wikipedia, singer/guitarist Louise Wener, like Justine Frischmann, was one of Britpop's biggest female stars, placing highly in Melody Maker's and NME's "Sexiest Woman" polls several years running. The other band members - the so-called "Sleeperblokes" - were guitarist/keyboardist Jon Stewart, bassist Diid Osman and drummer Andy Maclure. Sideman John Green also played keys/synth for the band live and in studio. Wener and Stewart met in while living in Manchester, adding the rhythm section when Sleeper relocated to London in the early '90s.

Louise and the Sleeperblokes

By the way, Wener was born in Ilford, East London, and thus is a fan of the football team West Ham United.

Sleeper released its third album, the string- and horn-laden over-production Pleased To Meet You in September 1997, but the album's first single "She's a Good Girl" tanked on the charts and the end was nigh. In his definitive chronicle Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (2004), author John Harris quotes Wener's reaction to the single's failure: "I knew we were as good as done for. I can remember walking down Oxford Street, looking at everyone, thinking, 'I'm back in the throng.' I had no illusions that anything else was going to happen. We did TFI Friday that week, when we knew for sure, and I was drinking from midday onwards...I was in the men's loo of this curry house, just lying down, puking. There I was, knowing my whole career was over."

A novel approach to post-rock stardom

Sleeper split up in 1998, right around the time Britpop waned as a musical genre ("It happened to us and we thought we'd be the only ones," Wener recalled, "But then everyone started to go, so that was kind of satisfying."). Wener then began her 'second act' in showbiz, re-inventing herself as a novelist. Wener has written four novels: Goodnight Steve McQueen, The Big Blind (retitled The Perfect Play), The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures In Love. According to Wikipedia, she also teaches poker courses(!) and is in a new band called Huge Advance with partner Andy Maclure.

Wener can also be seen as an interviewee in the 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever though, regretably, her own band isn't covered (while, aggravatingly, the decidely non-Britpop Massive Attack is! I mean, Britpop was about guitars and Massive Attack is not about guitars! Ack!)

Louise Wener in LIVE FOREVER

Sleeper is a band that more than lived up to its name, flying well under the radar and being criminally neglected despite its solid contribution to a defining British musical genre of the early to mid-'90s. So wake up Britpop fans and seek these albums out!

Sleeper Singles & EPs:

There's a lot of them. To purchase, see Matt's CD Singles.

Alice In Vain EP, November 1993

Swallow, February 1994

Delicious, May 1994

Inbetweener, January 1995

Vegas, March 1995

What Do I Do Now, September 1995

Sale of the Century, April 1996

Nice Guy Eddie, July 1996

Statuesque, September 1996

She's a Good Girl, December 1996

Watch Sleeper:

"Inbetweener" and "What Do I Do Now" live:

"Nice Guy Eddie" video:

"Sale of the Century" Video:

"What Do I Do Now" music video:

"Delicious" and "Little Annie" from Glastonbury 95:

Louise Wener Sings Marc Bolan's "Life's A Gas" on TFI Friday:

Related links:
Sleeper (Wikipedia)
Sleeper Bio (All Music Guide)
Sleeper Timeline
Sleeper post - "Because Midway Still Aren't Coming Back" blog
Louise Wener (Wikpedia)
"My Life As a Pop Star" by Louis Wener
Louis Wener's Novels -Fantastic Fiction
"Delicious" music video
"Inbetweener" music video
"Nice Guy Eddie" music video
"Sale of the Century" music video

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