Sunday, November 30, 2008


While I scoot off through the wind and driving rain to see Quantum of Solace – about which I’m sure we’ll be having words later – I leave you with the best visual match cut in cinema history for your viewing pleasure. (Yes, even better than the spinning bone). Enjoy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Lost Civilization

Not many posts of late because I’ve still been feeling under the weather. While I’ve been laid up a week of decent dramas has unfolded eating up my time in different ways. Oddly enough, faced with so much on offer, they ultimately turned out to be more than I could manage.

I suppose it’s typical human behaviour to moan when there’s very little to watch on television and then moan when there’s far too much. With something new almost every night the possibility of being quite blasé about what’s on offer arises. If they didn’t all turn out to be tip-top dramas I expected, most had some kind of perverse entertainment value to jolly along my addled brain.

I had really been looking forward to The Devil’s Whore, the English Civil War drama that began on Channel 4 a week last Wednesday, especially since that it was co-written by Peter Flannery. Various historians beforehand were afraid that the subject matter was going to be sexed up. Remembering how utterly dull history classes had been at school, which led to essential names, dates and places go in one ear and out the other, I didn’t think that was a particularly bad thing.

Roman History lessons once a week at Prep School had been entertaining because our Latin master made them entertaining. By the time I was at Grammar School the history teacher on staff virtually put everyone into a coma. The only time she actually livened up a lesson was when, taking a sixth form class, she sat on the desk instead of behind it, gradually teasing her thighs apart until the lad seated immediately in front of her waved a hand before his face and uttered, “Close your legs, miss. Your breath smells.”

Anyway, fifteen or twenty minutes into The Devil’s Whore I fell asleep. Maybe it was just a slow start and I was wearier than I thought. Or maybe it was because I was looking forward to Roundheads against Cavaliers, the battles of Edgehill and Naseby and the formation of the New Model Army, and instead got the devil up a tree, unfurling a remarkably long tongue, and John Simm with a pantomime scar stuck on his face.

Because of this I passed on the second part in which, from the look of it, the heroine went the way of The Wicked Lady and turned highwayman. Where’s James Mason when you need him? Before that I had planned to try again with the Saturday repeat of the first episode but instead that was time for the science lesson on the television timetable.

While I obviously knew about Albert Einstein, I hadn’t heard of the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, the pacifist Quaker who championed his fellow scientist’s new theories as The Great War was in full flow. BBC2’s Einstein and Eddington was certainly an interesting story but since it hung on the pair covertly exchanging complex equations by post there was always the danger of it becoming little more than a science version of 84 Charing Cross Road.

To plump up the narrative, the English scientists spent the time questioning their faith in God and science while their German counterparts got to work developing Mustard Gas. Still, once news that his theory of relativity had been proved, Andy Serkis as Einstein ruffled up his hair like he was about to audition for a Marx Brothers’ movie and got to stick his tongue out at the waiting photographers. Science was never my strongest subject at school. I wonder if I could have improved my performance if I had taken that approach in class.

Transmitted between the two dramas, the second part of Apparitions continued with its very unusual kind of Religious Education. To begin with it had a far better exorcism than in the previous episode, especially since there were a few odd moments when the music was dialled down enough so I could make out what people were saying. After last night’s episode, with even more copious amounts of bloodletting, beatings, attempted rapes and another impromptu exorcism that left everyone sprayed in claret, the drama got even better as it merrily ratcheted its way higher up the bonkers scale.

Even though I wasn’t at that stage, I suspect Apparitions is probably best viewed while running a high fever. That way, as the devil jumps from one body to another, spouting out his various threats in Ancient Aramaic (or whatever the language was), it all turns into some mad delusional fantasy. If it eventually comes out on DVD with a NO MUSIC facility, I’m buying it.

Now at the halfway stage, Apparitions has become even getting crazier than Spooks. Although with WWII: Behind Closed Doors on Monday nights, illustrating how Stalin was the sort of paranoid nutter that nobody should have been in the same room with let along forge alliance with, I’ve missed quite a few episodes of the MI5 drama, forgetting to watch the various repeats. Though I did catch one episode on iPlayer about dastardly shenanigans in The City. That was disappointing simply because nothing blew up.

With all those dramas out of the way, all that leaves is the BBC remake of Survivors. When it appeared the first time around in the mid-1970s, I must have watched an episode or two but didn’t stay the course. It may have been because when it started we were living on our first farm on the fringes of Dartmoor. In that situation, watching a bunch of middle-class townies struggling around in the mud, upset that the paper wasn’t being delivered anymore and their dinner party plans had gone up in smoke, was simply laughable.

Maybe deep down it was meant to be a social satire that didn’t quite work out as planned, because normally in a post-apocalyptic environment the initial event leads to a far greater threat. In John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, after the meteor shower renders the populace blind they then have to deal with the homicidal vegetation. In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the few people unaffected by the “rage virus” have to contend with running, jumping, very-rarely-standing-still zombies. Even in this remake of Survivors, once the pandemic has wiped out 99% of the population, there’s still a nagging feeling that the few people left are more annoyed they’re missing their daily Fairtrade Mocha with soy milk and an almond croissant more than anything else.

I suppose the drama/entertainment comes from watching this little collective make a complete cock-up of trying to survive. By the second episode they were certainly going about it the right way to getting it all wrong. I’m no survival expert, and certainly wouldn’t be of use to anyone parachuted onto the permafrost with just a pair of M&S Y-fronts, half a dozen lollipop sticks and a box of damp matches, but there are times when common sense should prevail.

The only character that had a proper plan – Paterson Joseph’s Greg Preston – has ended up being waylaid by the particularly clueless bunch. Wouldn’t the best bet be to find some reasonably remote small holding rather than what looks like a country manor? Somewhere more isolated is more likely to have a septic tank to deal with waste, a well or other fresh water source, and, more importantly, a generator run on diesel. Find somewhere like that and you’re on your way to having a basic existence. Once that’s established you source dried and tinned provisions, grab a couple of British Alpine goats and then have a blitz on a bookshop and DVD store to keep you occupied when you’re not working the land.

While I know there has to be some dramatic license, watching the first episode of Survivors, instead of worrying about the characters’ predicaments, I ended up wondering how long water pressure actually lasts in the pipes or how long electricity would be available if power plants went unattended. Actually what the hell happens to nuclear power stations if the last person alive forgets to switch it off? Still that’s more for nightmare-scenario documentaries like If... The Lights Go Out or The Day Britain Stopped. Instead Survivors seemed to have an altogether different influence.

As soon as the shotgun-toting proles turned up in the silver Range Rover, I instinctively thought, here come The Others. The lead characters may have survived a plague rather than a plane crash, and the United Kingdom is certainly a far bigger island, but I felt like I was watching a homegrown version of Lost. There’s certainly a Locke, Sawyer, Jack, Michael and Walt amongst the characters, which now has an added Shannon.

While they bumble around, the real interest is just what those scientists at the end of each episode are getting up to. Maybe we’ll discover the purpose of their machinations by the final episode. Whether the survivors discover a hatch or not is a different matter.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

People Of Distinction

Why do I hurt myself so? It’s a question I’m always asking. The week ended with an email alerting me to the fact that Empire magazine had polled their readership to compile a list of the “100 Greatest Movie Characters”. Really, I should have said, “Huzzah for them!” and gone on my merry way, or jabbed hot needles in my eyes and driven spikes into my head to have done with it. Instead of taking that easier option – fule that I am – I went and had a look.

Earlier this year Empire ran “The 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time!”, which seemed to be an utterly pointless exercise for a film magazine, and then only a couple of months back they treated everyone to a second poll listing “The 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time!” To put together a third in such a short space of time means it has either been a slow twelve months for the magazine, with the film world keeping its cards close to the chest, or the hacks have figured out it’s easier to let their readers to create content while they goof off.

While they may be piss-easy page-fillers, the end results of these polls only go to show just how pathetically narrow the film knowledge of the majority of their readership is. Which means that once again the numpty-headed Barry Shitpeas of this country illustrate that for them cinema began with Lucas and Spielberg with everything that came before being of no consequence and everything after hinging on that arch pilferer Tarantino. If only they would broaden their horizons once in a while they’d find out how much they were missing.

With their blinkers still on, the list of “100 Greatest Movie Characters” panned out as:

01. Tyler Durden – Fight Club
02. Darth Vader – Star Wars trilogy
03. The Joker – The Dark Knight
04. Han Solo – Star Wars trilogy
05. Dr. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence Of The Lambs
06. Indiana Jones – Raiders Of The Lost Ark
07. The Dude – The Big Lebowski
08. Captain Jack Sparrow – Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy
09. Ellen Ripley – Alien quartet
10. Vito Corleone – The Godfather
11. James Bond – Goldfinger
12. John McClane – Die Hard quartet
13. Gollum – The Lord of the Rings trilogy
14. The Terminator – Terminator trilogy
15. Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller's Day Off
16. Neo – The Matrix trilogy
17. Hans Gruber – Die Hard
18. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver
19. Jules Winnfield – Pulp Fiction
20. Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump

21. Michael Corleone – The Godfather Part II
22. Ellis “Red” Redding – The Shawshank Redemption
23. Harry Callahan – Dirty Harry
24. Ash – Evil Dead trilogy
25. Yoda – Star Wars trilogy
26. Ron Burgundy – Anchorman
27. Tony Montana – Scarface
28. Gandalf – The Lord of the Rings trilogy
29. Daniel Plainview – There Will Be Blood
30. Jigsaw – Saw
31. Aragorn – The Lord of the Rings trilogy
32. Jason Bourne – The Bourne Identity
33. Tequila – Hard Boiled
34. Rocky Balboa – Rocky
35. Maximus Decimus Meridius – Gladiator
36. Harry Potter – Harry Potter 1-6
37. Edward Scissorhands – Edward Scissorhands
38. Donnie Darko – Donnie Darko
39. Marty McFly – Back to The Future trilogy
40. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho

41. Mary Poppins – Mary Poppins
42. Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange
43. The Man With No Name – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
44. Peter Venkman – Ghostbusters
45. Amelie Poulain – Amelie
46. Anton Chigurh – No Country For Old Men
47. Blade – Blade
48. Tony Stark – Iron Man
49. Walter Sobchak – The Big Lebowski
50. Quint – Jaws
51. Mal Reynolds – Serenity
52. George Bailey – It's A Wonderful Life
53. Luke Jackson – Cool Hand Luke
54. Luke Skywalker – Star Wars trilogy
55. Lt. Frank Drebin – The Naked Gun trilogy
56. Juno MacGuff – Juno
57. Brick Tamland – Anchorman
58. Rick Blaine – Casablanca
59. Tommy Devito – Goodfellas
60. Ace Ventura – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

61. R.P. McMurphy – One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
62. Mathilda – Leon
63. Wall-E – Wall-E
64. Withnail – Withnail & I
65. White Goodman – Dodgeball
66. The Bride – Kill Bill
67. Frank Booth – Blue Velvet
68. Napolean Dynamite – Napoleon Dynamite
69. Keyser Soze – The Usual Suspects
70. Atticus Finch – To Kill A Mockingbird
71. Snake Plissken – Escape From New York
72. V – V for Vendetta
73. Jack Torrance – The Shining
74. E.T. – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
75. Marge Gunderson – Fargo
76. Dr. Emmett Brown – Back To The Future trilogy
77. Ed – Shaun Of The Dead
78. Axel Foley – Beverly Hills Cop trilogy
79. Boba Fett – The Empire Strikes Back
80. Norman Bates – Psycho

81. Wolverine – X-Men trilogy
82. Marv – Sin City
83. Mr Blonde – Reservoir Dogs
84. Agent Smith – The Matrix trilogy
85. Vincenzo Coccotti – True Romance
86. Roy Batty – Blade Runner
87. Dracula – Dracula
88. Jessica Rabbit – Who Framed Roger Rabbit
89. Princess Leia Organa – Star Wars trilogy
90. The Wicked Witch Of The West – The Wizard Of Oz
91. Scarlett O'Hara – Gone With The Wind
92. Randal Graves – Clerks
93. Martin Q. Blank – Grosse Pointe Blank
94. Buzz Lightyear – Toy Story
95. Freddy Krueger – A Nightmare On Elm Street
96. Ethan Edwards – The Searchers
97. Clarice Starling – The Silence Of The Lambs
98. Charles Foster Kane - Citizen Kane
99. HAL–9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
100. Martin Riggs – Lethal Weapon

Obviously thinking of characters is more difficult than simply coming up with film titles. It means calling to mind someone that memorably made an impact over the course of just a couple of hours. There are one or two great personalities on the list but for the most part it’s pretty dispiriting, isn’t it?

Top of the list for me would obviously be:

Clive Candy in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

And even with my lousy memory, a further twenty-odd off the top of my head would be:

J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success
Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.
J.J. Gittes and Noah Cross in Chinatown
Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Popeye Doyle in The French Connection
Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan in The Man Who Would Be King
Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes
Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey
Harry Lime in The Third Man
Eddie Felson in The Hustler/The Color of Money
Walker in Point Blank
Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West
‘Chuck’ Tatum in Ace in the Hole
Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist
Uncle Charlie Oakley in Shadow of a Doubt
Vicky Lester in A Star is Born (1954)
Count László Almásy in The English Patient

If you want to read the justifications/excuses for the characters to be on Empire’s list go here. Before you head over there, which other characters do you think should be on the list?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sound Judgement

There are many lessons to learn in life. Apparently one is: Never argue with a girlfriend because she’s always right. At least that’s what they told me. Although from experience my interpretation was: Don’t argue with a girlfriend because you won’t hear the last of it. (And, more importantly, if they weren’t in the habit of having hot make-up sex afterwards, there was really nothing to gain anyway).

That said, one thing I came to acknowledge over the past years was to never argue with a girlfriend who’s a lawyer whether they are right or wrong, simply because they would gleefully tangle me up in torturous and tiresome legalese in their effort to win. These “heated debates” of ours were few and far between, and since relationships are built on compromise as well as love, I’d ultimately suck it up, let them claim victory, and be rewarded later on between the sheets.

Where we did reach an impasse was in our television viewing. After a day compositing pet food commercials I wanted to watch something with intelligence. After a day in the legal trenches they wanted to escape into mindless entertainment. Obviously this meant an agreement would be reached in which I sat and watched the programmes they wanted to watch. Unfortunately that meant, depending on the time of year, Big Brother for one and The X Factor for the other. I had to keep reminding myself the energetic sex made up for it.

Who on earth thought it was a good idea to put the general public on the television? Obviously they’re a necessary ingredient for games shows and vox populi soundbites in news and current affairs programmes, but there has to be a limit somewhere. Over the years it seems like the bolt on the gate has come loose and the plebs have scarpered from their pen to ride roughshod across every television channel.

Frankly, I don’t always see the point of this. If I need the boiler fixing or the plumbing given the once over I’m not going to ask somebody on the street rather than phone a professional who knows what he’s doing. If I’m sitting in the living room and have a sudden, overwhelming (and probably irrational) urge to watch real people I’ll look out the window rather than flick on the TV.

Growing up I remember talk of Paul Watson’s The Family, which introduced the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary to British television in 1974 but didn’t see any of it. A couple of years later I did watch Sailor, the celebrated BBC documentary series showing the day-to-day life of the sailors working on board the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Apparently there was footage of naval fighter aircraft on test flights accompanied by Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, but all I remember of the music is that bloody Rod Stewart song Sailing, played over the titles.

Then in the 1980s came authored pieces like Canadian-born Molly Dineen’s Home from the Hill in the BBC2 documentary strand Forty Minutes, which documented the return to England of Colonel Hilary Hook, formerly of the Indian cavalry, from his home in the Kenya Hills and having to readjust to a completely different way of life. In the following years came the likes of Dineen’s The Ark, highlighting London Zoo’s struggle for survival after its government subsidies were cut, and The House, which can an eye over the rifts and acrimony behind the scenes at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House after a £55m grant had helped it through an earlier financial crisis.

These prestigious series, lifting the lid on British institutions, eventually began to peter out no doubt because, after the reaction to The House, people closed their doors to cameras in case they were portrayed as incompetent buffoons on screen as filmcrews peeked behind the curtain at the great and mighty Oz. To satiate the continuing public appetite of poking around in other people’s lives, along came what turned into the docusoap.

Whereas a series like Sailor or Roger Graef’s Police had shown viewers something they would never ordinarily see in their day-to-day lives, docusoaps – obviously made on cheaper budgets – revolved around pretty much the everyday. Driving instructors, traffic wardens, vets, shopping mall staff, and, to a degree, airports and cruise ships were more familiar to the audience.

The key to getting the shows talked about was to have the researchers or whoever was sent out on the initial forays to see if the concept was feasible was to find larger than life personalities. This meant the kind of people that if you were seated opposite them at a dinner party would have you lunging across the table and burying the salad fork in their head before the end of the first course. Stuck in a lift for them for more than five minutes and any jury in the land would return a verdict of justifiable homicide. After all those shenanigans, the next step was “reality TV”.

Except, of course, reality had nothing to do with reality TV. Everything we see on television outside of scripted drama and comedy has been subject to editorial judgements that consciously or subconsciously manipulate the footage. Big Brother might have been an interesting social experiment to begin with, but God was it boring. The only time real life heats up is when personalities clash, so I suppose everyone was watching in the hope that it would turn into a housebound The Lord of the Flies. From what I saw of it, dutifully sat beside the first lawyer girlfriend, that didn’t happen.

By the time I was sitting on a different sofa, watching The X Factor years later, it was obvious that all the shows that had come between were dressed-up competitions, not far removed from the earlier game shows I watched in my youth. What would have been one round of The Generation Game was now the whole show. The opening auditions seemed not so much about discovering raw, untapped talent but in humiliating the poor souls either deluded about their lack of talent or appearing as if they are auditioning to be the fifth Yorkshireman. This was like the gladiatorial arena once Health and Safety got involved.

One show I wasn’t forced to watch was Strictly Come Dancing when it first appeared in 2004. Curiosity was the initial reason because it seemed to be such an anachronism in this day and age. Melding Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom with the skill and dexterity of the old Come Dancing (which is why we deserved the Falklands), it turned out to be fascinatingly entertaining. As guilty pleasures go, one season was enough for me, although strangely I came back to watch this current sixth season. Good job that I did.

The key to these kind of shows is not just having public or inexperienced public figures on the show but having the viewers at home have a say in the voting procedures. After all, you have to remember that in polls where the public are asked to vote for the best film ever they nominate crap like Star Wars. It helps to remember the line of dialogue from Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb.”

Things like this are primed to go wrong and subvert the true intentions of the show. Apparently in every season the judges, and most probably the other competitors, have been irked that someone clomping around the dance with two left feet, while celebrities with a spark of real talent have been given their marching orders. Obviously it’s all a bit of a lark at the beginning, making it a show of two halves as the real no-hopers try their best before the wheat is gradually separated from the chaff and the real work kicks in.

The whole hullabaloo sparked by poor old political correspondent John Sargeant being kept in the competition by a large portion of viewers, giving him their vote solely to further annoy the judges, has certainly added a new dimension in terms of entertainment. It shows how as a country we’re not only happy to celebrate the underdog but happily thumb our noses at authority figures.

Still, nine weeks in the joke did seem to be wearing thin. No wonder he walked, even though his decision then sparked a completely different outrage. But when politicians jump on the bandwagon, particularly a wanker like Peter Mandleson calling Sargeant “the people’s John Travolta,” it really is time to go. Amongst all the news reporting of the event yesterday, the best has to be the Newsnight segment, especially since Paxman gleefully embraces the whole absurdity of the situation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Count To Dumb

Personally, I blame it on the mangy-looking mother schlepping around the supermarket, routinely feeding her wailing brat Jaffa Cakes as she hacked some lethal strain of virus up and down the aisles. Of course she may have been perfectly blameless, but either way something had me shuffling around the apartment in my dressing gown, feeling utterly retched all weekend.

I should have repaired to bed with some hot lemon and a none-too-taxing book to read (or even colour in). Instead I slumped onto the sofa, hauled a duvet over me, and reached for the remote, deciding that a day or two of none-too-taxing television would suffice. Picking a DVD boxset off the shelf and utilizing the PLAY ALL button probably would have been the best bet in these circumstances. Instead, discovering Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers was on ITV I plumped for that instead, leading me down a path that would go from brilliant to bad to worse.

Come the evening, I had planned on watching Morgan Matthews’ documentary The Fallen, commemorating every British serviceman and woman who had died during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Given that it was three hours long and I’d already been zoning in and out during the day, I figured it would be best to catch it on iPlayer later in the week when all my synapses had at least some clue as to what they should be doing. Instead I watched The Transporter 2, which probably gives a fair indication of how unwell was feeling.

I’m sure there were a good many dumb movies released when I was a kid, but nowadays it seems to be a totally different kind of dumb, spurred on by wire work and computer generated imagery rather than a wobbly story and even wobblier special effects. Although I was an avid moviegoer in my teens, after we had moved from deep in the countryside to the south coast of Devon and the cinemas were easily accessible, I would still pick and choose as best I could rather than see any old twaddle. This was, after all, when stories were the key ingredient. Now that’s something of a novelty.

Back in the 1970s there was a great Walter Hill film called The Driver with Ryan O’Neal as a getaway driver, supposedly the best in the business, and Bruce Dern as the cop on his tail. It always stuck in my mind at the time, not only because it was one of the great modern day film noirs, but the characters were simply called The Driver and The Detective. It’s a shame Channel 4 hadn’t screened that instead because The Transporter 2 was complete nonsense.

Obviously I expected nothing less than nonsense, but this really went above and beyond the call. The whole thing was ludicrous, but then I suppose that was the point. Outrageous fight scenes, a hard-bitten bitch stripping down to her underwear before firing machine guns at everything in sight, mental car chases and a wafer thin plot that cobbled together sequences from earlier movies... I suppose this is what teenagers brought up on computer games rather than books want. Well before the credits rolled I felt old. Still, worse was to come.

Not every filmmaker wants to make Lawrence of Arabia or The English Patient, the same way that not everyone wants to see Lawrence of Arabia or The English Patient, or, for that matter, other movies that don’t involve a lot of sand. But there must be instances when, after the filming, editing and sound mixing, some directors look at the finished product and think: I spent all that time, money and effort on this? Then again, I spent the better part of a decade working on animated cat food, breakfast cereal and whatever else commercials, so I guess I’m not a fine one to talk.

Remember how if a kid fucked up somehow at school the teacher would say: “You’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down, you’ve let the school down!”? It came to mind when, come Sunday night and still slumped on the sofa, I watched AVP: Alien vs Predator for the first time. I said in the last post that numerous horror movie franchises have worn thin. AVP is the result of grabbing hold of a pretty well respected movie franchise and taking a massive shit in its mouth. It looked like it was based on a video game but apparently it was a comic book, not that it makes it any better.

If I start in on this film we’re going to be here all night, suffice it to say that AVP was obviously intended for an audience still recovering from a massive brain trauma. I don’t think it was the aliens or even the predators that the characters should have been fearful of but the effects of global warming. After all, there they were, down in the Antarctic, where one character wandered around the abandoned whaling station without gloves off. After everything was blown to shit, the one survivor was back on the surface in a tee-shirt and cardigan. And at no point did you see misted breath.

Obviously there was also no point with any kind of characterization because everyone was simply there to be monster fodder, but I did like how the script valiantly struggled and spectacularly failed to give them some kind of quirk or personality rather than a bulls-eye on the forehead and a number on their jacket. Then again, I suppose this film was made for an audience that would be rocking back in their seats squealing: “Aliens duffing up predators and predators duffing up aliens!” before soiling their underwear with a sticky emission.

I did like how the woman hired to guide the team down to the mysterious pyramid under the ice was shown to have some sort of digital compass on her wrist. Given how it was flashed at the camera, and with all the various levels of the pyramid, rearranging themselves as walls and floors opened and closed, I expected it to be vital for finding away out. No such luck. In fact it only highlighted what an idiot she was.

When the team are in the “sacrificial chamber”, well before they get split up and picked off, one of the characters cracks a green cyalume stick and drops it down the central grate to the floor below. The guide checks there position and then half the team head off to investigate. When they get down to the lower level and start poking around, she checks her compass again and declares that they are directly below the chamber. Of course having that cyalume stick on the ground directly in front of her might have been a clue. Silly woman.

I suppose I shouldn’t too critical of this nonsense. After all, things like AVP are just the science fiction B-movies I watched as a kid but for a very different, more idiot-filled, generation. Catching these films, as well as the monumentally pointless remake of The Omen scheduled late on Saturday night, can be seen as a learning experience at the very least. I certainly know now that the next time I’m feeling under the weather, I’m heading straight for bed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Something Unexpected

I know I’ve reiterated that I’m not a big fan of horror but I might as well get it in one more time, especially since the BBC has just unveiled its new supernatural Apparitions. It’s not because horror movies and TV dramas scare the living bejeezus out of me it’s because, for the last thirty years at least, most of them are just bad movies and TV dramas.

It wasn’t always that way. Before the body counts were ratcheted up and gore liberally hosed across the screen we had marvellous German Expressionist films like Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam and FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, the German Expressionist-influenced Universal horror movies of the 1930s, which included James Whale’s magnificent Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and the giddy and erotic horror of Britain’s Hammer Film Productions and the lesser production companies that worked in its shadow.

Obviously to some viewers time may have lessened some of these movies’ impact – although if you ever get the chance to see any of those great silent German movies with a live piano accompaniment they really are something to see. Even if the shocks may not be as shocking or the scares quite as scary, one thing those older films had going for them were solid narratives. Whereas from the advent of slasher movies in the late 1970s, all the way up to the current trend in torture porn, it just seems that the parameters of the horror genre have narrowed as the films work from the same playbook.

Obviously during the last thirty-odd years there have been a good number of horror movies that appeared quite inventive at the time. But because they magically drew an audience and made a whole pot of money, that first film evolved into a franchise which produced diminishing returns as the novelty wore thin. I first caught Hellraiser at a marathon all-day and all-night horror festival at the Scala in the late 1980s and was absolutely blown away by it. By the time the direct to DVD Hellraiser: Hellworld came around, you had to ask, what the fuck were they thinking?

It seems that the only horror movies that really work are the genre hybrids that can introduce the fundamental elements to new environs. At the very least that means they can work to a narrative that goes beyond stripped-down teens being butchered by knife wielding mentalists in a situation that only Haringey Children and Young People’s Service would find acceptable. The prime example of course is Alien, but the one film I really like is the Nicholas Kazan-scripted Fallen in which Denzel Washington’s homicide detective finds himself facing off against the cursed fallen angel Azazel.

That neatly brings us back to Appartitions starring Martin Shaw, who continues to have The Professionals expunged from his CV, as a Jesuit priest who discovers it’s the beginning of the End of Days, which has got to be a bit of a bummer. Still, as a member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, ostensibly investigating miraculous happenings and promoting candidates to sainthood, he’s dab hand at exorcisms, which he seems willing to do at the drop of a hat.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, and at it least means that the characters aren’t once again plodding around a hospital or police station in a typical by-the-numbers drama. Unless there’s a show I’ve forgotten, the last thing we had something like this come along the pike was Andrew Marshall’s 2003 series Strange with Richard Coyle as ex-priest John Strange hunting demons and crossing paths with the late Ian Richardson’s sinister Canon Adolphus Black. Hopefully Appartitions should be a lot better, which, come to think of it, shouldn’t be too difficult.

This would be all well and good if there weren’t the two drawbacks that are inflicting some BBC dramas. First, there were instances where the pace should have really picked up and it didn’t. I don’t know why they do this but there’s a current crop of television directors, Joe Ahearne included, that pick a rowing stroke and then stick to it. Whether the scenes involve an exposition-heavy exchange of dialogue or some actual dramatic events taking place, they always seem to share the same level of pace, which is ultimately what made Ahearne’s vampire tale Ultraviolet so fucking dull.

Secondly, which is why I had to wait and try and watch the episode again on iPlayer the night after the initial broadcast, what the fuck is up with sound editors these days? Does the BBC get a reduced rate by hiring people who had a screwdriver driven through their eardrums as a kiddie? Or do the composers sneak into the dubbing studios during the final mix and slip them a couple of quid?

Doctor Who is bad enough as it stands, but when Murray Gold’s bashing and crashing gets dialled up beyond eleven it renders the episodes unwatchable. Apparations isn’t helped by the almost deafening plinky-plonky stylings of ex–Dire Straits guitarist Hal Lindes, especially since the one time leper and now homosexual priest in training was a low talker. Having the demon spectres subtitled as they spew out Latin from the shadows is one thing but if the damn music gets louder the whole programme is going to need subtitles.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloody Kids!

Watching University Challenge this evening, when it came to the first picture round the teams were simply asked to name this actor

After a pause one student from Selwyn College, Cambridge asked: “Is it Robert Redford?”

“No, it isn’t,” Paxman replied, trying to disguise his scorn.

“Cary Grant?” a student from the London School of Economics eventually offered.

Oh, come on! Instances like this that can make you feel very old. Then again, in the final picture round they were asked to identify the Hubble Space Telescope and the first student to buzz actually said, “Sputnik!?” So maybe it’s not exactly an age thing.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Unluckily today I missed the tiny window of opportunity between when it was raining and when it was raining again to step out and grab the newspaper. What had kept me indoors during those few precious moments when I should have been out was flicking through tabloid and broadsheet websites, chuckling at the hollow rhetoric used to get the proles in a real lather.

Though I had already clicked through The Times’ site, I needed that weekly Samurai Su Doku fix, and a fresh pack of smokes, and the few bits and pieces I forgot to pick up bumbling around the supermarket aisles, and a birthday card for my uncle. So with all that piling up and the rain chucking it down, I tramped home sodden, grumbling and growling under my breath.

I was all ready to sound off about something that probably didn’t deserve it when I noticed that I’d reached my 500th post. Have I been blathering on for so long? I have to say that this all started off pretty much because of a random suggestion. Although, looking back, it might have been a carefully orchestrated plan by Mister Mark so I’d have somewhere to sound off rather than barracking about some issue or other when we should have our heads down working.

So for almost the past thirty months I’ve done that. Sometimes the posts have been jovial and sometimes they’ve been spawned from indignant rage. Other times they’ve been stitched together by the mischievous imp inside me that just wants to see how many people it can wind up. Every time I’ve spanked the PUBLISH POST button, whether it’s been to deliver fun or fury, hopefully there have been informed opinions involved rather than simply adding to the rank, mindless drivel sloshing around the internet.

Anyway, there we go. I only mention all this because there have been times during the last few months when I’ve felt like jacking it in, where my mind has been blank or I haven’t simply felt like writing anything. Then again, a lot of that may be down to side effects from the tablets the GP has currently got me taking. Whether it means that when I come off them words will just spew out, we’ll see.

In the meantime I guess there are still a few things to discuss, like how much I don’t give a shit who the new Doctor Who will be or... well, other things that are of equal unimportance. I guess we’ll have to see.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Hero Worseshit

Like a complete numpty I’ve still been struggling to try and make sense of what the hell is going on with Heroes. The easy option would be to simply jack it all in and get on with my life, but the way this show is spiralling out of control it’s like having a niggling itch you actually want to scratch.

Unless they’re really good most television dramas start to unravel in their later years. It’s usually because they’ve far outstayed their welcome, the original producers have moved on to pastures new, and the new guys coming in turn everything around trying to make their mark. But I can’t remember anything that has spiralled out of control as swiftly as Heroes.

Even with the fantastical subject matter involved, seven episodes in this third season stopped making any real sense a long time ago. Sure the characters are different from normal people but why the hell are they behaving so strangely? It’s a given that Hiro has turned into a dick, but even he was beaten into second place by Sylar, being put forward as a reformed Susie Homemaker in another of the obligatory alternate future episodes that are turning into the default stories when they appear unsure of where to take the story.

There are some interesting sequences, like the whole Puppet Master interlude, tormenting the one-time cheerleader and her two moms. But if you’re a guy that can go around manipulating people like that, wouldn’t you be out making serious mischief and raising your lifestyle? Maybe he’s just a slacker who simply doesn’t give a damn, but ultimately the character just comes across as one of the many new and instantly disposable mutant brought in service the story mechanics that are blindly firing off in all directions.

Claire Bennet becoming one of the agents tracking down dangerous mutants alongside her father actually works quite well as an ongoing storyline. Shame then that it’s virtually swamped by all the other frankly bonkers machinations. If you were actor David Anders wouldn’t you be pissed that, having been bigged up as this evil character Adam Monroe the previous year, this go around, after only a few relatively brief appearances, your character is reduced to dust? What was all that about?

Then again, maybe you’d just be glad to be extricated from all this nonsense, pay cheque be damned. With the arrival of Claire’s biological mother, Sylar revealed to be part of the Petrelli clan, and the return of evil Pa Patrelli, presumably back from the dead and not exactly a happy camper, Heroes seems have swerved away from plundering Marvel Comic’s back catalogue of deranged super villains and ploughed straight into the madcap soap opera antics of a Dallas or Dynasty. And that’s just plain nasty.

As everything goes straight to hell on screen, what’s making the drama more compelling than ever is what’s going on behind the scenes right now. A couple of issues back, Entertainment Weekly ran the cover story Fallen Heroes. In a five-page article pointing out why this third volume of the drama was in crisis, the magazine highlighted the five main problems and followed that up with suggested solutions. Though fair in its criticism, the article obviously rattled cages at NBC.

Over the seven episodes of this season Heroes has shed 21% of its audience since the abbreviated second season. Even though it remains the network’s highest performing drama, with budget overruns pushing costs north of $4 million per episode, NBC finally put its foot down. On Monday it was widely announced that the network had fired Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb, the two co-executive producers overseeing the writing and story development.

Prior to Heroes, Alexander had been a writer/producer on JJ Abram’s spy drama Alias, which had two brilliant seasons before completely losing the plot. Loeb had worked on Smallville but is better known in comic book circles as the writer of DC’s Batman: The Long Halloween, sequel Batman: Dark Victory, and Superman For All Seasons in collaboration with artist Tim Sale as well as some incredibly tangled plots for rival Marvel. Somehow Heroes has brought out the worst aspects of their writing.

With them out of the door, the current rumour that writer/producer Bryan Fuller, who was involved in the first season, may return as a consultant to help out Heroes creator Tim Kring if ABC puts the kibosh on his saccharine-overloaded Pushing Daisies, which seems more than likely. Since Fuller’s work can be quite eccentric when he’s let loose, especially his previously created Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, wouldn’t it be a better idea for NBC to look further afield?

If they’re seriously looking to get Heroes back on track, wouldn’t it be better to staff it with writer/producers of long-running genre dramas that worked over the long haul with hardly a misstep like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica? Which probably means that the network should have snapped up someone like Jane Espenson before she started working on Joss Whedon’s mid-season drama Dollhouse.

In it’s first year Heroes’ mantra was “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” Two years on it has simply morphed into “Save the show.” If you still care about it, what should they do to get the drama back on track before it heads for a complete meltdown? Or is it a case of packing up the play box and calling it a night?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"What Do We Do Now?"

The last couple of days I’ve been conversing with the Delightful LA Actress, getting her thoughts on the forthcoming US Election. Neither a confirmed Republican nor Democrat, she is simply one of the many citizens who feel deeply concerned for her country, whether it was the failings in health care and the education system, the need to better the environment and find an alternative to relying so heavily on fossil fuels, and the strong desire to bring the troops home.

A strong believer in Capitalism, based on incentives and regulations and less government control not more, her main concern was that if the Democrats won and started raising taxes as their answer to getting America back on its feet, the economy wouldn’t suffer. When Martin Luther King stood in front the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and said he dreamt of a nation where black people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. With Obama relatively new to the political arena, she wasn’t sure yet if he was a man of character.

I echoed her sentiment. Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes, we can”, but yes we can what? Vote a black man into the most powerful office in the world? Then what? Back when I was working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when it came to a serious crunch time we were all handed badges that said, “We can do it!” After knuckling down and getting the work completed on time, the next round of badges stated, “We did it!” In the end it’s just words.

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Evening Standard by Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of The New Criterion magazine, in which he writes:

“Who is Barack Obama?” That is the biggest unanswered question of the 2008 Presidential campaign. Even now, on the day of the election, the electorate doesn’t know the answer.

Obama's original birth certificate has not been released. His records at Occidental College, where he started college, are not available. His records from Columbia University, where he was a student in the 1980s, are sealed. His Selective Service Registration? Not released.

If he wrote anything when head of the Harvard Law Review, it has yet to turn up. During his 12-year stint teaching law at the University of Chicago, he published no scholarly work. His list of law clients? Not released.

When he was a state senator in Illinois, he voted “present” 130 times instead of casting a vote. As a first-term US Senator, he has sponsored almost no legislation. The Los Angeles Times possesses, but refuses to release, a 2003 video tape of banquet at which Obama dilated on his friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a radical PLO sympathiser.

Is it surprising that some commentators have compared Obama to Jay Gatsby, the charismatic anti-hero of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novella?

The election of Obama should certainly help change the perception of America on the world stage after the catastrophic damage done by the Bush administration, but what issues will he make a stand on? I hate to rain on anyone’s parade right now, but here in the UK didn’t we all get caught up in the moment and vote for a young, relatively unknown party leader back in 1997? How did that turn out for us again?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Flipping Heck!

What happens when a radio DJ starts to go off the rails? While we’ve seen that answered over the past weeks, the question was posed over forty years ago in The Flip Side. Written by Charles M. Cohen, the episode of the BBC’s anthology drama series Thirty Minute Theatre, transmitted in January 1966, is the centrepiece of the first of the two programmes in the annual Missing, Believed Wiped event at the BFI Southbank.

Since its inception in 1993, the Missing, Believed Wiped initiative has tenaciously unearthed and restored numerous television shows previously wiped by UK broadcasters in an effort to save on the high cost of videotape during the 1950s and 60s. This year the BFI unveils the first fruits of their acquisition of titles from the collection of the late Bob Monkhouse.

Along with his appearance as Jerry Janus in The Flip Side, Programme 01: Monkhouse and More includes a classic, typically risqué episode of the comedian’s 1957 situation comedy My Pal Bob together with newly recovered performances from Top of the Pops and rare footage of celebrated playwright John Osborne from Granada Television’s Chelsea at Eight.

Newly recovered treats from the BBC form Programme 02: BBC Recoveries. These include trailers for much loved shows from the 1960s, including Detective, the long running series of plays featuring the great sleuths of crime fiction, and Michael Bentine and John Law’s comical It's a Square World.

There will also be a presentation of the BBC’s new initiative to recover colour information from B&W tele-recordings, including a programme that has gone through the process. Rounding off the event is an important new find of an episode from a classic adaptation from the 1950s that the BFI Southbank website assures us is “the blueprint for modern-day period dramas like Cranford and Jane Eyre”.

Both Missing Believed Wiped programmes take place at the BFI Southbank’s NFT 1 on Sunday 14 December with Monkhouse and More kicking off the proceedings at 4:00pm in NFT1, followed by BBC Recoveries at 6:30pm. Further details can be found here. See you in the bar beforehand.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


It’s always a problem with the fourth estate that once a story has broken and there’s blood in the water the sharks start thrashing around, desperately trying to take that extra bite. If there’s nothing left to take a snap at they’ll go looking for it in other places, at this point the news – supposedly in the public interest – turns out to have the ripe smell of personal vendettas being played out.

This past week, with the whole Radio 2 debacle over Russell Brand’s pre-recorded show allowed to be broadcast containing the provocative material concerning Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter, the knives were certainly out, ready to cut and thrust. Wading through all the column inches, it was interesting to see how both sides of the argument squared off.

Were the answerphone messages left for the veteran actor just another extreme form of “cutting edge” comedy or childish behaviour that veered beyond verbal abuse? Certainly it highlighted the generation gap as the public and public figures took sides, especially since their comments showed either a lack of respect, no understanding of when funny stops being funny, or just outright arrogance. No wonder the newspapers had an absolute field day.

As the story remained on the front pages and as first item in news broadcasts, focus shifted to the failure of control in the BBC hierarchy, all of whom were already being lined up as potential scapegoats by the newspapers out to stifle creativity in the name of Middle England. By the end of the week, criticism from within BBC Radio showed that it was all about power. If their actions meant Ross and Brand weren’t popular with the public they seemed to be even less so amongst their fellow employees.

When seasoned broadcasters finally spoke to reporters it was obvious that they were annoyed the pair of overpaid, arrogant imbeciles had brought their profession into disrepute. Soon after came word of Brand’s behaviour the general public hadn’t been privy to. On Five Live, veteran presenter Paul Gambaccini confirmed that Brand had gone through a half dozen producers, going over their heads to station controller Lesley Douglas whenever they stood up to him and getting them fired. Without any supervision, no wonder his ego was allowed to go unchecked.

The same could be said for Jonathan Ross. When he began his chat show in 2001, two years after his appointment at Radio 2 saved him from the ignominy of hawking for Pizza Hut, the format was quite funny. As the years went on, and especially of late, it’s fair to say he became boorish and overtly lecherous: being laddish with the male guests and making it quite clear that he wanted to get into the knickers of any women that sat on the sofa.

There’s always comes a point when talk show hosts reach a point where they appear to tire of the job. David Letterman, back in the late 1990s, before his a quintuple bypass operation, became ever more grouchy than usual and uncomfortable to watch. Over here Michael Parkinson lost the enthusiasm for the job long before he finally called it quits, especially since guests were there to flog their latest product rather than tell interesting stories. In Ross’ case the weary banter appeared to illuminate a mid-life sexual crisis unfolding before the audience’s eyes.

Ross’ tiresome obsession with sex certainly made for increasingly uncomfortable viewing especially when it came to him asking Conservative party leader David Cameron if he used to think about Margaret Thatcher when he had a wank. That may have raised a titter from those still smoking behind the school bike sheds but made viewers who had actually grown up blanch. Still, at least it made a change from the continued boasts about his inflated salary.

Getting paid a shitload of money to be a complete asshole is probably a good job if you can get it, but it certainly doesn’t win friends and influence people, especially when they’re paying the wages. Cutting short his holiday, BBC Director General Mark Thompson blinked like a rabbit in the headlights as inquisitors asked if Ross was worth the money. If he wasn’t available, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons to task for being too slow to act, especially by John Humphyrs on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Once it was announced that Brand had quit, Douglas had tendered her resignation and Ross was suspended without pay, the end of the story was in sight, which meant that some of the newspapers started looking for a way to keep the story going in the vacuum between now and the Ofcom findings. It just happened that on Wednesday night, during the middle of this media shitstorm, the BBC happened to repeat an edition of Mock the Week.

On a list of “edgy” comedy that, apparently, Middle England despises, the topical panel show must certainly be up there, especially with Frankie Boyle as one of the regulars. His final suggestion to “What the Queen Didn’t Say in her Christmas Message” was just what the newspapers were looking for. Much to their consternation it turned out to be a damp squib that sputtered and died on the page.

Still, when Mark Thompson appeared on Newsnight the next night, dodging questions like whether Ross was worth the £18 million the BBC is paying him, Boyle’s joke was brought up. Unfortunately neither Jeremy Paxman nor Gavin Esler was behind the desk that night. So it was left to Emily Maitlis to suggest Boyle’s joke was offensive. When he didn’t respond immediately she was left to repeat the line: “I’m now so old my pussy is haunted”. In poor taste, possibly, but in that context, unintentionally, it was absolutely hilarious.