Monday, February 28, 2011

Loft (2008)

If you want to read a review of this film by someone who actually reviews films for a living, check out this great piece from Variety.

Loft is a 2008 Belgian film directed by Erik Van Looy, with a screenplay by Bart De Pauw.

Dutch tagline for Loft: "Five friends. One loft. One corpse."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Belgian of the week: King Albert II

Albert II, King of the Belgians. (Source)
Sorry about the late post. I had a conga line to lead.

Albert II (b. 1934) is the current King of the Belgians. He is the second son of King Leopold III (1901–1983). He ascended to the throne in 1993, upon the death of his older brother, Baudouin (Dutch: Boudewijn) I. He is the first cousin of King Harald V of Norway, Princess Astrid of Norway, and Princess Ragnhild of Norway. Like many royals he has many names: his full name is Albert Félix Humbert Théodore Christian Eugène Marie.

Prince Albert was only one year old when his mother, the 30-year-old Princess Astrid of Sweden, died tragically. She and her husband, Leopold III of Belgium, were driving on a road in Switzerland when Leopold lost control of the car and drove it into a ravine. Both Princess Astrid and her unborn child were killed in the crash.

In June 1944, King Leopold and his family were deported to eastern Germany by the German occupants. Later they were moved to Austria, where they were liberated by the American Army in May 1945. Because of the controversy regarding Leopold's conduct during the war, the royal family did not immediately return to their country but instead moved to Switzerland. They finally returned to Belgium in 1950, when Albert was 16 years old.

Queen Paola of the Belgians.
In 1959, he married Princess Donna Paola Margherita Maria Antonia Consiglia Ruffo di Calabria (b. 1937), now Queen Paola of the Belgians. They have three children:
  • Philippe (Dutch: Filip) Léopold Louis Marie, Duke of Brabant (b. 1960). He is the heir to the throne of Belgium.
  • Astrid Joséphine Charlotte Fabrizia Elisabeth Paola Marie (b. 1962).
  • Laurent Benoît Baudouin Marie (b. 1963).
Above: Filip, Astrid and Laurent, the children of King Albert.

Albert is known as a more jovial person than his more austere brother, the late King Baudouin. An example is his love for motorcycles, which has earned him a few bone fractures and bruises over the years.

The greatest controversy surrounding King Albert is due to his alleged affair with a Belgian baroness whose daughter, Delphine Boël (b. 1968), is said to be the King's illegitimate daughter. Albert, though not yet king, was already married at the time of Delphine Boël's birth. The alleged affair, which is said to have lasted between 1966 and 1982, supposedly put a great strain on the marriage between Albert and Paola. Although these claims have never been officially confirmed, the press often takes the fact for granted.

Today the king's most important task is appointing new negotiators in the cabinet negotiations following the 2010 Belgian general elections. That's not going so well, but at least the Belgians are taking it with a smile.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Penny Arcade smurfs it up

Penny Arcade, that excellent webcomic by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, just featured Belgium's biggest pop culture export: The Smurfs. Click here to read the strip.

According to the blog, the episode was inspired by a certain iProduct app. Those little blue vermin are everywhere!

Belgium, according to the internet

Click depressingly small images to embiggen!

Loft (2008) gets Hollywood remake

The thriller Loft became the highest-grossing Flemish-language film of all time when it was released back in 2008. A Dutch remake was released in 2010, and now it looks like Hollywood wants its own version. Erik Van Looy, who directed the original, is supposedly already in the States to begin work on the film.

The story centres around five married men who share ownership of an upmarket loft which they use to meet their respective mistresses. When the body of a murdered woman is found in the loft, the men begin to suspect each other.

Here's the trailer. There are no subtitles, but it looks pretty awesome, so I'm fairly confident that there will be a review in the near future.

Read more at Variety

Song of the week: Bobby Jaspar - Memory of Dick

Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone,
but never lived to see the invention of jazz.
The saxophone was invented in 1841 by Adolphe Sax from Dinant in Belgium. The greatest Belgian to master this instrument was arguably Bobby Jaspar (1926-1963).

Bobby Jaspar was a cool jazz and hard bop saxophonist, flautist and composer born in Liège. He learned to play piano and clarinet at a very young age. Later, he took up the tenor sax and flute. His first band was called the "Bop Shots". In 1950, he moved to Paris, playing and recording with some of the best musicians of the era. Here he met his future wife, American jazz singer Blossom Dearie (1924-2009).

In 1956, Jaspar relocated to the United States, where his reputation had preceded him. He played and recorded with the quintet of J. J. Johnson, with Kenny Burrell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Donald Byrd, and many others.

In 1961-62, Jaspar returned to Europe for a year of touring and recording. Together with René Thomas, a Belgian guitarist, he formed a successful quintet. In some sessions they were joined by American trumpeter Chet Baker.

Bobby Jaspar died suddenly from a heart attack in New York City in 1963. He was 37 years old.

Bobby Jaspar. (NME)

"Memory of Dick" is a tribute to Dick Twardzik (1931-1955), an American jazz pianist who died in Paris from a heroin overdose while on tour with Chet Baker. The song was recorded in France shortly before Jaspar moved to the United States, and was first released to the public in 1988.

Knowledge: Wikipedia

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Brussels, 1935: Horseless sulky runs on two wheels

This story appeared on page 19 of the June 1935 issue of Popular Science:

Who was this Italian engineer? Why did he go to Brussels to test his invention? And how the heck did he get that thing, built some time in the early 1930s, up to 116 mph? The ring around Brussels wasn't even built at the time. Furthermore, did any of the passengers survive the experiment? That man looks like he is either constipated or very, very afraid.

Whether this is a hoax or not, it's fun to imagine the roads around Brussels turned into a test track for the quirky ideas of foreign inventors. If anyone has any more information about this oddity, please let me know in the comments.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Naked" protest in Ghent (videos)

Update: I've added some more videos, one of which (if not more serious than the first) is more gender balanced and actually contains some attempts to explain the why and wherefore of the protest (albeit in Dutch).

Last week some students got together in Ghent and stripped down to their underwear to draw attention to the nation's serious political problems. They certainly drew a lot of attention, but I suspect that the political message got a bit scrambled through the filter of indecent exposure.

Which do you think is more effective: underwear protests, beard-growing, free fries, or a sex ban?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Belgian of the week: Frank Focketyn

Frank Focketyn (b. 1960) is an actor and comedian from Ekeren in Antwerp. He is most famous for his comedic roles in shows such as Man Bijt Hond, In De Gloria and Het Eiland, the latter of which inspired me to write this post.

Frank Focketyn. Photo: Canvas

I first discovered Frank Focketyn when he appeared as a recurring jury member on this year's De Allerslimste Mens Ter Wereld. I remember thinking to myself that no-one could be that hilarious and sober at the same time.

Here he is singing Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights":

Destroying the set together with Urbanus:

I've named him Belgian of the week for his performance in Het Eiland ("The Island", 2004-2005), a TV series I was recently introduced to. It's a bit like The Office, at least as funny but without the mockumentary element.

Focketyn as Guido Pallemans in Het Eiland.

I couldn't find any clips with English subtitles, but here's a neat slideshow featuring the series' wonderful theme song. Hope you're having a nice weekend!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Song of the week: Django Reinhardt - Daphne

WARNING: Some people might classify this as "old fart music". We are sorry for the inconvenience. 

Django Reinhardt. Source: All About Jazz
Jean "Django" Reinhardt was born into a family of Romani gypsies in Liberchies, Belgium in 1910. "Django" is Romani for "I awake".

Reinhardt was all but illiterate; from his early teens onwards he made a living playing the guitar. However, at the age of 18 his talent was threatened when he sustained first- and second-degree burns on 50% of his body from a fire in his caravan. The third and fourth fingers on his left hand were badly burned, and doctors told him he would never be able to play the guitar again.

However, Reinhardt was able to work around his handicap. He taught himself to play all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, using the two injured digits only for chord work. Even with his handicap he was still able to become one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century. Some of his most famous work was done as part of the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" (1934-48), which featured Reinhardt's close companion Stéphane Grappelli on the violin, Reinhardt's brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.

Reinhardt's life was abruptly ended by a brain hemorrage in 1953. He was 43 years old. We can count Django Reinhardt among the people who lived a relatively short life but still managed to have a huge impact on the world.

Reinhardt's influence can be heard in many places. The Allman Brothers Band instrumental "Jessica" is a tribute to Reinhardt, written in such a way that it can be played using only two fingers. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was inspired by Reinhardt to keep playing guitar after a factory accident cost him two fingertips. Lastly, if not for Django, Pixar movies would not have been the same. One member of a brickfilm forum explains it like this:
As animators, we should always be seeking to steal people's secrets. This one seems like a huge one.
I've been trying to figure out Pixar's secret for a while now, but Brad Bird himself told me my previous theory was wrong. (fan mail is NOT intravenously fed to the animators to absorb the glee, creating a self-fulfilling amount of awesome)
I think I may have now discovered it.
The gypsy jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt. I had never considered it before, but on a lazy thursday afternoon I was handed a few discs of his music that I was lacking, and it suddenly hit me. Now, sitting here typing while listening, I am almost having to hold myself back from creating some sort of witty and charming cartoon featuring colourful and lively characters.
Is it true or not? Better not take any chances. Here's Django playing "Daphne".


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Belgium catches up with Iraq

Today Belgium matches Iraq's record for longest period without a working government (249 days).

Elio Di Rupo and Bart De Wever congratulate each other
on the new world record. (Bart De Neve/De Standaard)

You would expect such a thing to happen in a third-world country plagued by unrest, war, hunger and inequality, as was (and is) the case with Iraq. But Belgium is the political capital of Europe, the seat of the European Union.

Is there such a thing as too much democracy?

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Belgian Valentine's Day

Personally I think you should strive to make every day feel like Valentine's Day. I suspect that most Belgians feel the same way, because today was much like any other day - with a few exceptions.

As I was on the platform waiting for the afternoon train at the Brussels South station, I noticed a fair number of men with roses in their hands and strange smiles on their faces. Although they were vastly outnumbered by the regular monotonous commuters, these happy romantics brought some extra cheer into the day with their perky flowers and gleeful smiles. There are some lucky girls out there.

The scene on the level below the platform was more entertaining than touching. Dozens of men were lined up in front of the chocolate shop to grab a last-minute present for their cherished sweethearts before the train came to carry them back home. Belgium is a land of chocolate, so Valentine's Day is a big deal... at least for the people selling the chocolate.

It may sound like I have little love for this day, but I do appreciate the message at its core. So I hope you're all loving a little bit extra today. Because you can't have too much of that stuff.

This is for my fiancé, the most amazing woman in the world.

I know you see enough foreign languages at your work, so I made this one easy: 
Ik hou van je - Jeg elsker deg - I love you 
See? It always translates into the same thing: Always and forever.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates, 2009)

Poster art for The Misfortunates. (Source)
De helaasheid der dingen (released internationally as The Misfortunates) is a Flemish film directed by Felix Van Groeningen. It is based on an autobiographical novel by poet and writer Dimitri Verhulst.

It tells the story of Gunther Strobbe, a writer who looks back on his teenage days in a bleak little town somewhere in East Flanders. 13-year-old Gunther lives in his grandmother's house with his alcoholic father and three uncles. The days consist mostly of drinking, smoking, fighting and the singing of rude songs. Gunther struggles to find happiness amidst this depravity.

The film takes you right into the world of the troubled Strobbes and their twisted antics. There is the annual naked bicycle race, the village's collective attempt to set a new world record of beer drinking, and a board game version of the Tour de France where drinking different alcoholic beverages lets you progress in the game.

These scenes could have been outright amusing in a different context, but against the background of Gunther's story they appear more tragic than funny. The comparison to Trainspotting in this article is relevant, but while that film at times manages to keep the darkness at bay, De helaasheid der dingen climbs into the toilet bowl and stays there for the full 108 minutes. Nothing is safe in this film, not even the innocence of a 12-year-old girl (don't miss her drunken rendition of "The Plum Song").

Gunter eventually beings to write, and his father goes into rehab. This should be a good thing, but I was only waiting for everything to go to hell again. This is the kind of film that takes happy endings and kicks them in the balls. As Gunther, 27, looks back on his earlier life, it is clear that his current happiness and success has come in the wake of a string of misfortune and loss for both him and his family.

De helaasheid der dingen is an extremely well-made film. It grabs you and makes you watch it all the way through. Whether this is because the subject matter has many of the qualities of a train wreck, I cannot say. But I can tell you this: I always enjoy a film that is more intelligent than its characters. And in this case that gap is about as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Belgian of the week: Jonas Geirnaert

Jonas Geirnaert (b. 1982) is an animator and comedian from Wachtebeke in East Flanders. In May 2004 he won the Short Film Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with this brilliant animated short: Flatlife.

While producing the expertly crafted, true-to-form Flatline, Geirnaert created a more free-flowing comic titled Kabouter Wesley ("Gnome Wesley"). Starting in 2008, it ran in the HUMO magazine for 27 episodes. In 2009 the furious gnome reappeared in a popular series of animated shorts featured on the Eén show Man Bijt Hond ("Man Bites Dog"). These shorts are arguably Geirnaert's most popular work within Belgium and the Netherlands.

Here's an episode of Wesley wanting to smack a mushroom in the face. (Subtitled in English)

Since 2002 Geirnaert has been a member of Neveneffecten ("Side Effects"), a comedy quartet which consists of Geirnaert, Jelle De Beule, Lieven Scheire, and Koen De Poorter. Their most recent effort is Basta (2011), a satirical show. (Picture Michael Moore's The Awful Truth presented by four young Belgian men.) The second episode of the series caused every Belgian TV network to immediately cancel their quiz channels after the quartet revealed their dubious practices.

Neveneffecten. Left to right: Jelle De Beule, Jonas Geirnaert,
Lieven Scheire, Koen De Poorter. (Source)

I'll send you off with a clip from Basta where the guys (illegally) leave a container on the parking lot belonging to the headquarters of Mobistar, one of Belgium's main phone operators. When a representative of the company calls them to have the container removed, they subject him to a "customer service hell" almost as bad as the one you get from Mobistar itself. A brilliant touch to the plan is the fact that the guys are, in fact, hidden inside the container the whole time. (No English subtitles, sorry.)

Finally: if you speak even a little bit of Dutch, I recommend you to try and catch the final episode of Basta on Eén at 9 o'clock on Monday evening.

Song of the week: Sœur Sourire - Dominique

Jeanine Deckers (1933-1985) AKA Sœur Sourire ("Sister Smile") AKA The Singing Nun was a Belgian nun and member of a Dominican convent in Waterloo, Belgium. In 1963 she recorded "Dominique", the only Belgian song ever to become a number one hit in the United States. She also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

Sœur Sourire. (Source)

Deckers left the monastery in 1967 to pursue her musical career, but was never able to repeat the success of "Dominique". In addition, all the money earned by the hit song had gone to the record company and the convent she had been a member of.

In the late 1970s the Belgian government laid down a claim for $63,000 USD in back taxes. Because she could not provide evidence that she had donated her earnings to the convent, she got into heavy financial problems. In 1985, at the age of 51, Jeanine Deckers committed suicide together with her companion of ten years, Anna Pécher.

There have been several films based on the story of The Singing Nun, the most recent in 2009. This was a Franco-Belgian biopic titled Soeur Sourire. Joski has a great post about the film and some more details of the back story at his blog (only in Dutch). You can watch the trailer for the film below.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Plan #69 for a new Belgian government: The Strike of Crossed Legs

UPDATE: Marleen Temmerman now says she was just making a joke, and is surprised that people would actually take it seriously. She obviously doesn't know how the media works.

In Aristophanes' comedic play Lysistrata, the women of Greece attempt to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers.

In 2006 the women of Pereira, Colombia organised a "strike of crossed legs" to force the city's gangsters to give up their guns.

In 2009 it was Kenya's turn. One week after a sex ban was imposed, a new government was formed.

Beware! Belgium is about to become the new Kenya. The problems surrounding the forming of a new government have prompted senator Marleen Temmerman to think creatively. She is now urging the wives and girlfriends of the negotiators to cross their legs for a new Belgian government.

Ah, just another day of being happy that I'm not a politician.

Stefaan Engels runs 365 marathons in 365 days

A Belgian man just set a Guinness World Record by running 365 marathons on three different continents in 365 days. Read the crazy story here.

Still think your daily morning run is something to brag about?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Weather update (photos)

It's starting to look as if the lente, or spring, has finally begun to stir beneath its chilly blanket of winter. Temperatures are rising and the sun... well, it shines for once. I took my bike for a spin and got some snaps of the sweet afternoon around Halle.

(Click pictures to embiggen)

Halle's fancy-looking railway station.

The Basilica of Saint Martin looms over the rooftops of downtown Halle.

Two railway bridges cross the canal at the south edge of town.

Ducks sleeping on the Brussels-Charleroi Canal leading south from Halle.

Seagulls being seagulls on a bridge over the canal.

The Brussels-Charleroi Canal.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) for dummies

One of the biggest tumors in Belgium's political intestines is the electoral district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). It is the most recent example of the language conflicts that haunt the country. It is also the first thing people ask me about when I tell them that I live in Halle. Now I've finally sponged up the knowledge needed to give you a short explanation.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Belgian of the week: Elio Di Rupo

Elio Di Rupo. (Source)

After giving you Bart De Wever, it's time to introduce you to the other major candidate for prime minister of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Belgium reaches for world record of longest period without a working government

This article at the Daily Mail has a nice summary of Belgium's political crisis, along with an interesting fact:
Apart from Somalia, only Iraq has hitherto surpassed Belgium in not forming a government following democratic elections - 249 days until it saw a working administration emerge late last year.
Come 17 February, Belgium will overtake that milestone. All attempts at reaching a solution have foundered between the seven political parties that won seats in the last general election.
Will this be the end of Belgium's beloved mussels and fries? (Source)

As the political center of the European Union, Belgium should set a better example. I might join a demonstration on 17 February... If I can only write a picket sign that's funny enough.

Read the Daily Mail article here

Song of the week: Urbanus - Bakske vol met stro (1979)

By popular request. This song might not be appropriate to play outside Christmas... But then again it's probably even less appropriate to play at Christmas.

Urbanus' "Bakske vol met stro" ("Little box full of straw") is perhaps the most controversial Flemish Christmas song ever released. I'm eager to know what you think about it. Here's a clip of Studio Brussel playing the song in December 2010. The song starts approx. 1:50 into the clip. Thanks to Bika for the suggestion!

Lyrics (Dutch):

Heel lang geleden voor de allereerste keer

Dat had ge moeten zien, het was vreselijk slecht weer
Lag hij daar te bibberen in een koude koeiestal
In een kribje met een os en een ezel, dat was al
Maar boven in de lucht kon je een sterretje zien staan
Dat alsmaar zat te fonkelen, d'r hing een wegwijzertje aan
En het duurde niet lang of het was daar volle bak
Het krioelde van de herders met een stuk in hunne frak

Jezuske is geboren, haleluja hajo

Jezuske is geboren in een bakske vol met stro

Toen kwamen er drie koningen, een zwarte en een witte

Die vroegen of ze mochten komen babysitten
Ze schonken een rol pepermunt en een grote pot vernis
Een salami met look en een aquarium met een vis
De zwarte gaf aan Josef een paar vijlen en een boor
En aan Jezus een paar sjaaltjes en een broekje van ivoor
Maria kreeg een zak cement met een grote roze strik
En een potlood met een gummetje om te gummem kreeg ik

Jezuske is geboren, haleluja hajo

Jezuske is geboren in een bakske vol met stro

De heilige geest die hing daar te schijnen aan 't plafond

In zijn blauw trainingspak en zijne purperen plastrond
Op dat moment zei Jozef: "Kijk dat hier is mijn kleine"
Kijk maar naar zijn neus, 't is helemaal de mijne
De heilige geest moest lachen : Och arme sukkelaar
Die kleine is van mij, want ik was de ooievaar
Jozef gaf de geest een mot op zunne theater
Toen zaten ze meteen zonder gas en zonder water

Jezuske is geboren, haleluja hajo

Jezuske is geboren in een bakske vol met stro

Jezus nam zijn fles met pap en havervlokken

En heeft nog rap 'ne verse pisdoek aangetrokken
En zei : Vrede op aarde aan iedereen die dat wil
Toen werd alles kalm en alles werd weer stil
Hij had er daar genoeg van en ging er maar vandoor
En trok zijn aureooltje schuin over zijn oor
Hij is gelijk 'ne grote in zijn sportwagen gekropen
"Al die dan mij volgen wil zal wreed hard moeten lopen"

Jezuske is geboren, haleluja hajo

Jezuske is geboren in een bakske vol met stro

Lyrics (translated):

A long time ago for the very first time
You should have seen it, the weather was awful
He lay shivering in a cold barn
In a manger with an ox and a donkey, that's all
But up in the sky you could see a little star
That ever twinkled, with a signpost attached
It was not long before the house was full
Swarming with shepherds in their cloaks.

Little Jesus was born, hallelujah hajo
Little Jesus was born in a little box full of straw

Then came three kings, one black and one white 

Who asked if they could come babysit 
They gave a roll of peppermint and a big pot of varnish
A salami with garlic and an aquarium with a fish 
The black gave Josef a few files and a drill 
And to Jesus a few scarves and ivory trousers
Mary got a bag of cement with a large pink bow 
And I got a pencil with an eraser to erase with.

Little Jesus was born, hallelujah hajo
Little Jesus was born in a little box full of straw

The holy spirit that hung shining in the ceiling
In his blue tracksuit and his purple tie
Then Joseph said: "Look, here is my little one" 
Just look at his nose, it's exactly like mine 
The holy spirit was laughing: Oh poor poor man 
The little one is mine because I was the stork 
Joseph gave the spirit a punch in the face
And suddenly they were without gas and water.

Little Jesus was born, hallelujah hajo
Little Jesus was born in a little box full of straw

Jesus took his bottle with porridge and oats 
And quickly put on a fresh diaper
And said: Peace on earth to anyone who wants it
Then all was calm and quiet once more.
He had had enough and left
He pulled his halo down over his ears
Like a big guy he climbed into his sports car:
"Anyone who wants to follow me will have to run mighty fast!"

Little Jesus was born, hallelujah hajo
Little Jesus was born in a little box full of straw

The Catholics were not pleased.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Belgium for dummies

One of the people from my Dutch class showed me this. It's a short introduction to Belgium, with a brief explanation of its very confusing administrative structure. Check it out!

Budgie-ZILLA: Belgium

This was inspired by an awesome post over at my beloved Bika's blog, Budgies Are Awesome. She wrote about Steven Hanov's fake movie Budgie-ZILLA. The photo-shopped "screenshots" of budgies destroying the world's cities inspired me. What would it look like if giant budgerigars suddenly showed up in Belgium?