Eight Michelin stars in a small mountain resort and The Ablyazov Syndicate (film)


With a population of around 15,000, the small Black Forest town of Baiersbronn has two three-Michelin-starred restaurants and one two-starred.  I would like not to be unduly influenced by reviews and stars, but there is something hugely appealing about a small town in the midst of forest and mountains with so many supposedly exceptional places to eat and that it is in Germany, which is not a country I particularly  associate with  fantastic food.  The thought of a week in a mountain resort, ideally staying at the Bareiss hotel, with a meal at one of each of these places every two days … yes, I would rather like that.

Restaurant Bareiss (3*)

Schwarzwaldstube (3*)

Schlossberg (2*)

For probably all my court reporting colleagues, the name Ablyazov will incite a groan at the very least.  From our perspective, this is litigation that has gone on for years, it’s a challenging job to transcribe and it’s full of names not immediately obvious to us how to spell.

I had an interesting chat with a barrister who I recognised from that case.  He asked whether I had seen “The Ablyazov Sydincate”, which he said made for an interesting viewing.  Yes, a documentary film has been made about Ablyazov, billed as the “story of one of the biggest bank frauds in history and the man behind it”.

For anyone not familiar with Mukhtar Ablyazov, watch this or have a look on Wikipedia.  I have not yet watched the film but I do have some insights from the many court hearings I’ve listened to and the Wikipedia information is the kind of read you’d expect only to suspend belief over in a James Bond film.  Also of interest is the Blair brothers’ involvement in this seeming game of crime, violence, politics and staggering amounts of money.


Whenever I talk about the joys of living in London, I usually cite buying last minute theatre tickets as being a huge plus to living in London, that you can finish work and say, “Oh, I know, let’s go to Leicester Square and get half price tickets for a show tonight”.  Yeah, right, like I’ve ever done that!  I’m staying in London this week and last night I did just that after work.  My friend joined me and we got row seven tickets to see Uncle Vanya, the latest adaptation of Chekhov’s play, first published in 1897, starring Ken Stott, Anna Friel, Samuel West and Laura Carmichael.

I have always said that I enjoy theatre more after the event than during as I find it horrendously uncomfortable and a touch boring.  The latter I blame on film culture whereby there are effects and more emphasis on the changing scenes.  Last night, however, I was engaged throughout and only looked at my watch once.  I really enjoyed it and appreciated that we had good seats, in the middle, seven rows from the stage.

I know the first two actors but only vaguely Samuel West and I had never heard of Laura Carmichael.  Though I hasten to add that I did not want to see this play because of the cast.  Ken Stott was as brilliant as you’d hope and draws you into his character and not for a minute do you doubt he is Uncle Vanya.  I thought Anna Friel was pretty good, not exceptional but convincing.  I thought Samuel West was really good and delivered his lines naturally, like Ken Stott.  I found out Laura Carmichael played Lady Edith in Downton Abbey, which I have never seen.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t keen on her performance.  It was technically good, but I don’t like how she projected her voice, it was too stagey, not natural.  The supporting cast were also good, though for similar reasons to Laura Carmichael I didn’t enjoy the performance of the stand-in who played Nanny.  She was a great character, with some fun lines, but she merely delivered her lines and was more sit-com than stage.

As for the play itself, it’s Chekhov so it’s about people and is also about Russian life in the countryside.  Nothing in particular happens, it’s just a slice of life, but I loved the flawed characters and their complaining and misery and the fact it was witty.  The two male leads were brilliant, though aided by a fantastic script.  Anna Friel was also well cast as the unhappy beauty who messes with the hearts and minds of the main men in the film.  I read that Cate Blanchett had been in a production of Uncle Vanya playing the Anna Friel role, Yelena.  I would have loved to have seen her in that role.  Though I reiterate that Anna Friel was good.

The set deserves a paragraph of its own because it was amazing.  It was the interior and exterior of a large wooden house and was very atmospheric and beautifully crafted.

Overall, I hope that another day I will think to get last minute tickets because it was a really lovely evening and a great way to spend an evening.  I don’t like having things booked, particularly as my work finish times are so unpredictable, and this is a perfect way for me to see a play and have an enjoyable evening out.

{08/08/2012}   Remaking films

I struggled with the concept of Karate Kid being remade, I’m not sure why that bothered me as much as it did, but I have just read that Total Recall has been remade with Colin Farrell playing Arnie’s role and Kate Beckinsale trying to fill Sharon Stone’s shoes.  This bothers me greatly.

I am not a sci-fi fan but I absolutely loved that film.  It came out in 1990 around the time I was obsessed with films and would watch everything I possibly could.  I had a dream/nightmare the night after watching that film and it was a sequel to Total Recall.  I remember my sequel being Oscar-worthy, though I doubt that was the case and anyway I missed the opportunity by not writing it down.

I don’t particularly like the concept of remaking films, particularly ones which were good in the first place.  I mean, what was the point remaking Footloose and Wall Street and a Robocop remake next year?  I suppose it is to generate a new audience.  But to me it’s like saying, “Let’s make it again, we can do things better nowadays”.  So, yes, technology/cinematography has advanced hugely since the 1980s but it just seems to be a cheap way of releasing a film.  I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of any of the remakes I’ve mentioned being big hits.

Who watches them?  I guess people who didn’t watch the originals as they were too young/not born then.  But times have changed so much that the concept of a bad boy shaking up the religious town he finds himself in is a little far-fetched in the days of mobile phones, the internet and greater social and cultural awareness; in other words, the premise isn’t as feasible to a modern audience.  So that’s probably why Footloose worked in 1984 but not in 2011.

As far as I know, books are not re-written.  There are books that mirror certain story lines, for example updated versions of Pride and Prejudice where only the basic story line remains, but the language and situation changes.  But it won’t be called “Pride and Prejudice”.  Why then should film scripts be allowed to be, in my mind, ruined by this increasing trend to remake?  I think it takes something away from the original.  It would be much more appropriate to have these films re-released, played in cinemas again.  I like the idea of cinemas playing new releases with, say, a classic 1980s or 1990s film played alongside at peak times.  My local cinema shows such films, though most within the past ten years, but on a Thursday morning.  I’d love the chance to go and see, for example, Top Gun at the cinema again.  I hardly ever went to the cinema as a child; most films I saw were on video or on TV.  I’d love to be able to spend a Saturday night at the cinema watching the films of my childhood.

Oh, I’m now thinking of all the films I fancy watching again.  It’s made me realise that I used to actually like (never fancy) Tom Cruise.  I also remember one of the few films I saw at the cinema was Crocodile Dundee because my dad loved those films!  I’d happily spend another Saturday night at the cinema watching Crocodile Dundee I, II … and I believe there was a III, but made much later so never watched.


I watched a 1955 Fellini last night, Il Bidone (The Swindle).  The film centres around a 48-year old conman who’s growing increasingly disillusioned with the way he “earns” his money, swindling peasants out of all the money they can cobble together.  Despite it being set in 1955 Italy, it struck a chord, humankind’s vulnerability when it comes to making easy money.

The reason the peasants in this film hand over their money is under the influence of religion (the conmen dress as priests) and that the cash is in exchange for a box of treasures they are convinced is worth way more than the cash they need to stump up to honour the last will and testament of the deceased who left the treasure with his murdered victim (some random bones are dug up with the treasure on the peasants’ land), saying it is to be kept by the owners of the land, and wants to repent (the money to be handed over to the priests is for masses).  With a degree of uncertainty, the peasants collect together their money and are left with fake treasure.

I guess “too good to be true” should have rung bells, but if someone you trust, or someone you want to trust, offers you the opportunity to break out of your cycle of poverty, wouldn’t you do it?  Nowadays there are loads of scams, emails from people claiming to need a bank transfer for a few thousand in return for a million (see, too good to be true!), people offering you services or products that are far cheaper than they should be.  It’s human nature to be wary, but it’s also human nature to want to try or do anything to get yourself out of, in this case, poverty.

I like to think I’m really sceptical and would never fall for anything like this but I did use Groupon for a while and there was a treatment offer, a really good offer, so I followed the link to the website of the Harley Street clinic and there in front of me was an amazing website littered with endorsements from just about every fashion magazine and celebrity I knew.  But it didn’t stop me buying the £49 voucher (in exchange for c£129 worth of treatments).  Long and short of it is that the company was a scam and it was only after months and months of chasing that finally Groupon refunded me.  I don’t use Groupon anymore, I know a lot of people do (and I did, successfully, before that).  I trusted Groupon and I trusted the clinic’s website.  But how far can we let niggles and “Oh, surely that’s too good to be true” affect our decisions?  Surely there is a chance, especially in a long spell of economic uncertainty and stress, that we will all become less trusting, more cynical … or is that just being smart with your money?

It was a great film, maybe you’ll be pleased to know that the lead conman died a slow and lonely death, but his cohorts were already off planning their next scam and no doubt easily finding another “priest” to take his place, and so the cycle carries on.

{16/04/2012}   Going to the theatre

I often proclaim how much I love going to the theatre.  But in truth I don’t go that often, I get a bit bored and I find it horribly uncomfortable.  Plus cheap tickets seem to elude me.  I find the, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen [current hyped show] and it was wonderful” type line more accurate days after the event than at the time of watching.

My theatre experiences have largely been marred by big heads or big hair bobbing about in front of me, annoyance at other people eating or drinking noisily and, worst of all, phone lights while people try to sneakily video the play/musical.  Unless you have a private box, such annoyances and seat discomfort almost outweigh the joy of seeing real actors really live and really acting.

The most recent play I saw was at a small local theatre and I enjoyed that, in part because we had a whole row to ourselves at the back of a small theatre.  But within the venue was a disco and it was very off-putting hearing the pumping bass and general thumping associated with discos on a floor above.

There is something truly delightful about seeing scenes unfold live on a stage, seeing actors in the flesh, knowing someone could slip up at any moment; anything could happen.  I prefer seeing people I don’t recognise from TV or film because I find celebrities a bit distracting, and not usually because their acting is mesmerising.  I did see Shadowlands with Charles Dance in it, though I didn’t see it because he was in it, but he, and indeed the play, was breathtakingly brilliant.  Likewise, seeing Sir Ian McKellan on stage, he too was too good to be watched merely as celebrity gawping.  Ethan Hawke in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, sadly, was watchable for his unconvincing acting coupled with celebrity “spotting” disappointment.

I am starting to get all misty eyed about some of the wonderful plays and even musicals I’ve seen, from War Horse to Rock of Ages.  This brings me back to my point that it’s only a few days after the event that there is any real chance of my waxing lyrical about a show.  Again, this is because I find the audience experience largely horrible.  At first it’s kind of exciting, especially in old and ornate theatres: the dimming of lights, the final shuffling to get comfortable and the quiet of anticipation before the show starts.  Then there’s the ice cream in the interval, the queues for the loos; it’s part of the theatre experience.  But I really do find the seats uncomfortable, other people largely annoying and I hate not being able to see everything.  And if I sit up so I can see everything, I then feel guilty about the people behind me who won’t be able to see and will be moaning about my big head, etc.

It’s a bit pathetic really because this is stopping me going to see Matilda, which I think will be a delightful, fun musical (I’m not a huge fan of musicals).  Mind you, now it’s just won a host of awards, I doubt there will be an affordable ticket available for quite some time!

12 years ago I visited a friend in Manila. I had an I’m-going-to-die moment there and I often think about it, not that my life flashed before me or anything, just that it was all very surreal.

It was a year after my dad had died and I was still living in Japan. I decided that I wanted to go away somewhere at this time, so I spoke to my friend in Manila and arranged to stay with her for the week. She had to work a few days so I easily entertained myself, aided by having her driver at times. I went to the cinema a few times. One film I saw around this emotionally charged time was a film with Julian Sands in it. It wasn’t a Hollywood happy ending type of film, actually it was quite a depressing film. Not ideal. Anyway, I watched it. I don’t remember much about it but I don’t want to look it up as I want this to be how I remember it, with all its possible inaccuracies.

Some Americans and Brits were in Africa somewhere. They had a 4×4. There were love interests and rivalries, I believe Kristin Scott Thomas was the main female lead. A few of them were driving in the desert in an area where the mysterious local tribes people wore bright blue head to toe cloaks. As the group of white people were driving on a sort of track through the sand, they somehow hit a blue-dressed person. They got out and either took the body to some blue people or other blue people appeared. The white people and the blue people could not communicate but the white people gestured that they would get help. The blue people gestured that someone should stay behind. They decided that Kristin’s character would stay, possibly because she had some limited medical training, but either way there was good reason why she decided to stay. The others turned round and drove off. Some time later one of the two men in love with her realised that they had probably left her to be killed as a life-for-life deal. They rushed back. She had been killed.

Cheery stuff. The next day, I wanted to visit a particular place in Manila so the driver dropped me off and we agreed where he would pick me up at an agreed time. To get to this place, I had to cross a free-for-all maybe 12 lane width road, no traffic lights, no pedestrian lights and just a vague nod at being a direction divider in the middle of the lanes of traffic. I use the word “lanes” very loosely, there were no road markings. The driving was chaotic, unpredictable, relentless and all imaginable modes of road transport were noisily whizzing by. I genuinely thought I’d never get across the road. But as it was near a crossroads of sorts, sometimes the stream of traffic would be stopped by traffic from another direction trying to turn. I figured that such an occasion would be my window of opportunity. The moment came, I knew I’d have to run, but I froze by the side of the road when I saw the leader of a new chunk of traffic seemingly riding his moped straight at me as he turned towards me. He was wearing the same blue as the blue people. As far as I could tell, he locked eyes with me, reached into his blue cloak and pulled a gun … I de-paused and ran very close in front of him to the middle of the road and, miraculously, took the opportunity at a break in traffic on the other side to get across. I actually remember patting my chest to check I hadn’t been shot. By this time, the traffic was in full flow, the blue moped gun man had gone and I was unharmed. I didn’t see a gun, but that’s exactly what I thought was about to happen. Maybe it was. But the combination of it being an emotional time, having just seen that disturbing film and seeing someone in that distinctive blue pelting towards me on a clapped out moped was just too much for me. Now I think about it, I suppose this is why I have a strong aversion to that kind of almost peacock blue!

{06/03/2012}   Going to the cinema

The pictures, flicks, cinema, movie theatre … whatever you want to call it, I love it. It’s escapism, a time free of your mobile phone and a chance to watch a film the whole way through without disturbances or a perceived pressing need for a mug of tea/beer/a wee/to answer a phone call. It is a bubble of real-life-removal.

Last night I went to see The Artist. I was one of maybe five people in the cinema. As ever, I got completely absorbed in the film. I even enjoy cinema adverts and trailers (I always mute the volume when TV adverts come on). I cried at a trailer for Titanic in 3D (I know, I know. I was in quite an emotional mood), and managed to squeeze out some salted water during The Artist (it’s not a sad film).

As soon as I walked into the already dark cinema, I felt the buzz that I always get when I go to the cinema. No TV home entertainment system could ever be as good as a trip to the cinema.

While at university, I went to see Natural Born Killers at the cinema on my own. It was a daytime showing. When I went into the cinema it was quite a sunny but chilly afternoon. The film left me reeling. I always have a kind of enjoyable come down after being in a cinema, it feels like it takes a while for me to readjust to my normal world. I got out of the cinema later that afternoon, in a film-induced fug. It had been snowing and everything was white. It compounded my belief that in every day life you can remove yourself from normality if you want to. For me, the cinema works every time.

This is probably why I cannot and will not watch horror, scary, thriller or gruesome films in the cinema (Natural Born Killers was watched in a Tarantino phase, ie blood and gore ok, ok-ish). I like my escape world to be nicer than that and I get so absorbed in films that a horror, for example, would scare me way too much! I do watch the odd thriller or miserable film but only on DVD. I did slip up with Sleepy Hollow though because I hadn’t read about it, I thought it was a fairy tale type story. That was altogether too much for me at the cinema! As was Seven. That film still haunts me today. I watched that in America and I would estimate that two thirds of the audience left as the film progressed, ugh so disturbing.

I once watched a film in the coolest, quirkiest cinema imaginable in Oxford, Mississippi. The cinema was a corrugated tin roofed glorified barn with old armchairs to sit on. Whatever film it was we watched – it’s on the tip of my – Ooo, I got it, I got it, death row, Sandra whatshername … Dead Man Walking. I definitely saw that there and I think that was the film I’m thinking of (I know, not a cheery one). Anyway, in the film it was chucking it down with rain. It was also raining outside the cinema and the sound of the rain on the tin roof brought that scene to a life in an almost surreal way. Incredibly powerful.

I once watched a film during the day as the only person in the cinema. Just me, sitting in the middle of the cinema watching a film, as I recall a chick flick I hadn’t wanted to share my interest in seeing with anyone else due to the cheese factor. First of all it was a bit scary being on my own, then I felt really special, then I deliberately rustled in my bag safe in the knowledge no one was there to care about the noise I was making. Then I sprawled out a bit and enjoyed it.

Whenever I go to the cinema, I always want to write a screenplay and sit in a cinema watching it brought to life. Then I wonder if being a director might be better. I just love films at the cinema. I don’t even go to the cinema very often.

As for The Artist, I loved it. It made me want to go and watch old movies (for they were movies rather than films in that era, the golden era of Hollywood), not necessarily silent ones, but ones that seem so basic now but … well, there were fewer films made and Hollywood then wasn’t prone to churning out schmultz like it does now. I feel a need for a Some Like it Hot evening … if only I could find a cinema showing that, I’d be properly made up then!

et cetera