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July 5th 2014
My parents are both people of principle. For example, Dad has strongly held views on the number of points that every team should achieve on a quiz, and while I'm not sure I've remembered them precisely I think it's an average of 7/10, with the winners getting 8/10 and the losers getting 6/10. So it was that, having done a quiz for Froudy's stag do, I did some detailed post-quiz analysis to see if my father would have approved. The stats don't lie, and an average of 6.9/10, winning score of 8.3/10 and losing score of 5.9/10 means I think I can cling onto my inheritance for a little while longer.
Another principle: you shouldn't phone someone after 10pm. That's stood me in good stead over the years.
Of course, even my parents don't get everything right. I count it as one of the great triumphs of my life that, with plenty of persuasive discourse and not a little civil disobedience, I think I have convinced Mum that her principle of not keeping a knife in the cake tin is flawed. Errant, even. A man of principle myself, I regard keeping a knife in the cake tin being every bit as sensible - nay, vital - as keeping parnsips out of the roast potato dish.
Anyhow, I know that my mother holds strong views on the right and wrong times to mow the lawn; on more than one occasion in my youth she has complained about neighbours cutting grass "at this time". So I am confident that: (i) there are times when mowing the lawn is a definite no-no; and (ii) my neighbours are likely to hold this view. Wishing to be a good neighbour to my fellow Brentrians, I am eager not to make any grass-cutting faux pas (mow pas?), but my problem is that I have no idea when the right and wrong times are. I mean, I'm pretty sure I shouldn't be out there with the mower when it's too dark to see, or when my neighbours are holding a long-advertised outdoor karaoke party, but I'm sure there are other rules at play here and I just can't work out what they are.
I know what you're thinking: I should ask my mother. Well, she reads this, so I kinda have. I'll keep you posted (I almost certainly won't).

July 17th 2014
I should start by saying that Harriet Harman is probably my least favourite person in British politics, so this is all a bit out of character for me. Deep breath, then: I am taking her side.
In PMQs yesterday, David Cameron triumphantly stated: “Labour announced – in an important announcement – that it is now their policy to put up taxes on middle income people”. In support of this claim, he quoted Harriet Harman, in an LBC radio phone-in from the day before, saying: "I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes". Open and shut case? Well, no.
As was immediately clear from anyone who listened to the programme, Harman was not suggesting that middle income folk should pay more than they do now: she was saying that they should pay more than people on lower incomes. In other words, she was defending the principle of progressive taxation (i.e. income tax rates go up as salaries go up), which was first used in this country over 600 years ago, is still in use, and can scarcely said to be controversial. Twisting her words by taking a sentence completely out of context was, I'm afraid, a shameful act by Cameron. Shameful and, in fact, rather stupid, because he must have known - assuming he or his advisers had done even a small amount of research into the comments - that the internet would get on the case sharpish and prove him wrong. In fact, in this case, the internet could sit back and relax, because Harman gave us the transcript herself, in the middle of this letter responding to the allegations from the Prime Minister.
As an aside, there are two things wrong with this letter (come on, you can't expect me to write a whole blog post about Harperson without sticking the boot in a little bit): firstly, it says "Dear Prime Minister" at the top, when anyone who has seen the photo Harman tweeted knows that she actually wrote "Dear David". What a strange thing to change. Secondly, she finds space to trot out the usual Labour complaint about Tories cutting the top rate of tax - at least she didn't call it a "millionaries' tax cut", as some are wont to do - despite evidence indicating that cutting it from 50% to 45% has actually increased tax revenue to HMRC.Cameron? Camewrong more like
Right, back to the issue at hand. Having genuinely lied to Parliament (something which, oddly enough, politicians still aren't allowed to accuse each other of, at least while they're in the House), and tweeted out the merry little graphic to your right, Cameron had rather painted himself into a corner. Having been comprehensively shown to be in the wrong, the only decent course of action at this stage would be to apologise, blame an adviser (OK, when I said 'decent' I meant 'decent-ish'), and hope that everyone forgot about it before the return of PMQs in September. But no: a Conservative spokesman laughably maintained the party line, claiming that Harman's comments hadn't in fact been misrepresented; Cameron has not taken down the tweeted graphic, and he has not made any public response to Harman's letter. As a Conservative voter and generally a fan of Cameron, I am deeply disappointed by such a transparently immoral bit of politicking. As Harman wrote: "Our politics, and the quality of public debate, requires that all participants, however much they may disagree, take part in good faith." No more Punch & Judy politics, remember, Dave? You're better than this.

July 23rd 2014
Usually when I write a film review here, it's about a film that I've recently seen in the cinema, or a new DVD release; today, by way of a change, I'm turning my attention to the film Her. It is relatively recent - it came out on DVD in May - but the reasons I want to write about it are that (i) it is, in my view, the best film of the year so far; and (ii) it wouldn't surprise me at all if you haven't seen it. Despite receiving 'widespread critical acclaim' - according to everyone's favourite reliable internet resource, Wikipedia - it did good business at the box office but was not a massive smash. It deserved to be.

Joaquin Phoenix

Her is set in the near future, and the postage-stamp plot summary is that it is about a man who falls in love with his computer's operating system. It is perhaps this plot summary - which sounds like a Big Bang Theory joke expanded into a two hour movie - that put a lot of cinemagoers off, and certainly my experience when trying to raise interest in the film was that most people thought it sounded weird, and passed. That is unfortunate, because the resultant film is not only an incredibly subtle and intelligent look at the interaction between humans and technology, it is also one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time.
The movie opens with Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix (of whom, more later), reciting a love letter that he has written to a man named Chris, on behalf of a woman called Loretta. This is his job: as an employee of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com he composes deeply personal letters in the voices of his clients, sometimes writing both sides of the relationship, and his computer then automatically transcribes them into, well, beautiful handwritten letters. There is no suggestion of deceit in what he is doing: it certainly appears that both sides of the couple know that a third party is writing their relationship, but they are apparently perfectly happy with this arrangement. This introduces two key motifs of the movie: firstly, that it takes place in a future society where standard reactions are not necessarily what we'd expect them to be; and secondly, that a relationship can be entirely loving despite contradicting the traditional assumptions of what that might mean. If a couple can sustain years of marriage on the basis of messages composed by a stranger, then how is that relationship any truer than the one that the film is about, between a man and an OS?
Most of the audience going into the film will already know the basic premise, so might well expect Theodore to be, well, a bit of a loser. After all, cool guys don't fall in love with computers. And they wouldn't exactly be wrong, but whereas 'losers' in movies tend either to be (i) friendless, pathetic caricatures of social awkwardness or (ii) somehow married to a beautiful woman and working at a high-paying job in a corner office, Theodore is actually a realistic creation. He's friendly with his colleagues - including Paul, played by Chris Pratt, who turns up in most films these days - and has one good friend in Amy (played by Amy Adams), but spends a lot of his time alone, going for walks or playing computer games. Rather than being a social pariah, he's just a pleasant chap who's a bit lonely. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another film based on a person like that.

Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams

It is into this slightly lonely life that the character of Samantha appears, an upgrade to his OS that takes on a female voice at Theodore's request and has a consciousness 'individualised' to best suit him. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson (replacing the original actress, Samantha Morton), immediately comes across as more than just a machine, choosing her name because she likes the sound of it, laughing at Theodore's jokes, and assuming a mocking robotic voice when he commands her to read him an email. Before I saw the film, I had wondered if having such a famous voice for the OS would distract from the character, but in fact I think it was an excellent decision, helping to bring Samantha to life for the viewer and making it believable that Theodore would fall in love with her.
The unexpected thing is that most of the characters in the movie do not judge Theodore for falling in love with a machine, nor do they question the reality of the relationship he has with Samantha: instead, Amy tells him about her friendship with her own OS, and Paul very happily goes double-dating with the two of them. It is only Theodore's ex-wife who questions the relationship, telling him: "You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real, I'm glad that you found someone... perfect." What is even more unexpected is that the film does not direct its audience to pity or scorn Theodore, but actually plays out as a genuine love story between two people, with Samantha's emotional arc given as much prominence as Theodore's. When she is stung by him pointing out that she doesn't need to breathe, or when she tells him that she longs for a human body, those feelings are genuinely moving: the audience accepts that she is more than just a set electronic responses; or, if she isn't, then neither are we anyway. I won't spoil the ending of the movie, but I will say that it is true to this view, and that it contains the two most heart-breaking numbers I've ever heard in film.
Much of the brilliance of this film is down to Spike Jonze, the writer and director, who richly deserved his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and whose few other films I shall be seeking out. Also worthy of a mention is Steven Soderbergh, who apparently came in to help Jonze with the edit when Jonze's original cut ran to more than 150 minutes: perhaps they have come across my long-standing rule that no film ever needs to be more than two and a half hours. With assistance from Soderbergh, Jonze decided to cut one strand of the story and eventually ended up with a 121 minute movie that never feels over-long or rushed. Particularly in light of Boyhood, a film I saw this week that was great but could have been outstanding if its 166 minute running time had been cut to a similar length to Her, this ruthlessness and vision is to be applauded.

Joaquin Phoenix

Turning from the writer/director to the cast, the performance from Joaquin Phoenix was absolutely outstanding; subtle and poignant throughout. The Academy has made a few errors in its time, notably failing even to nominate Ben Affleck for a Best Director Oscar for Argo last year, but the most jarring in recent memory is excluding Phoenix from its nominations for Best Actor. Of the five actors who were nominated, I've seen four of them in action (Michael McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, and Christian Bale in American Hustle) and while they were all good, Phoenix was better than any of them. Whether it's a delayed reaction to his shenanigans in I'm Still Here, or they couldn't look past the Oscar-bait of weight loss (McConaughey) or weight gain (Bale), it was an astonishing oversight, made all the stranger by the fact that Phoenix was nominated a year earlier for his one-note grotesque in the (in my view, awful) film The Master.
Of the rest of the cast, Johansson was also fantastic, putting a greater depth into this voice performance than I've seen from her in any of her other films, and in an understated role Amy Adams was perfect as Theodore's best friend, the other side of the coin from her more flamboyant (and Oscar-nominated) performance in American Hustle. To my mind, she was better here.
I really can't recommend Her highly enough, and when the Coddies come round in January you can expect to see it featuring strongly across acting, directing and writing categories. If you haven't already seen it - particularly if you were put off when you heard about the underlying premise - then I urge you to put any prejudices aside and give it a chance. You won't be disappointed.

what was I listening to?
And the Glass Handed Kites - Mew
what was I reading?
The Death Cure - James Dashner
what was I watching?
Drop Dead Gorgeous
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