Saturday, 30 April 2011

Sublimely ridiculous


"Didn't she look lovely?" "Makes you proud to be British." 'That mallard's choking on a clump of non-biodegradable confetti." The royal wedding certainly gave us a lot to talk about.

There was the incessant media coverage, which did a great job of showcasing how many Middle Englanders will happily poke fun at the inadequates on shows like Britain's Got Talent, only to camp outside Westminster Abbey for three nights, dressed like Kate Middleton's engagement ring. ITV went for a light and frothy tone, whereas the BBC seemed to given Huw Edwards the wrong brief, since he spent most of the broadcast talking as though he was covering a national disaster.

We also got a healthy eyeful of the celebrity guests who make an event like this seem just a little more accessible. Victoria Beckham struggled to raise a smile, possibly because her ridiculous heels were twisting her leg into the kind of shape that only a skilled contortionist or that lank-haired ghost in The Grudge could manage. And Tara Palmer-Tomkinson proudly showed off the results of a sixty-minute makeover on her nose, even going so far as to wear a dangerously pointed Philip Treacy number that that made it look like she'd GeoTagged her own shattered septum.

Suffice it to say, this wedding was all about the headgear. For instance, Zara Phillips turned up in a titfer that could have doubled for the SETI dish from Contact. When the sun finally shone as the happy couple emerged from the abbey, it wasn't a break in the clouds, Zara had simply stooped to adjust her heel.

But the prize for fashion statement of the decade has to go to Princess Beatrice. Like Rumer Willis, the poor girl is stuck with a disturbing mishmash of her parents' features, having inherited the worst of both. With eyes so large they'd send a manga illustrator back to the drawing board, she obviously felt as though she needed to draw attention up and away. And did so with a piece of millenary that has already inspired its own Facebook page.

When we first got a glimpse of it, from the back seat of the limo that ferried her and Eugenie to the abbey, it gave her the appearance of an errant child who'd got his head stuck in the back of an ornate dining chair. Then she stepped out and the world gasped. Part Snow White's magic mirror, part facehugger, it was the kind accessory that didn't just say "look at me", it screamed "I dare you to look away".

Of course, the live broadcast meant that the commentators had to maintain an air of professionalism. Instead of blurting out "What the hell, did she answer the Call of the Cthulhu?", they were left to impotently discuss her pinky-beige ensemble. However, the Twitterverse exploded in disbelief that anyone would want to attend a wedding looking as though they ought to be mounted on a wood-panelled wall over a gun cabinet.

Yesterday was a pointed reminder that we're subjects, as well as citizens, in our own country. But at least we have a voice. And despite Huw Edwards and Simon Schama repeatedly asserting that "a day like today undermines the theory that we've become a cynical society", social media's record of the event tells a very different story. And it's fucking hilarious.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cache and the addict

Last week, the Twitterverse was up in arms about the revelation that Apple had cunningly included a tracking device in its iPhones, enabling Steve Jobs and his volcano-dwelling army of faceless foot soldiers to monitor our every move. It didn't take too long for the voices who protested too much to reveal the true nature of their anxiety - an online database of people's movements would make it much harder for philanderers to keep their extracurricular activities under lock and keyword.

In a document published yesterday, the technology giant attempted to squash the rumours once and for all, stating "Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so." Instead, the data in question is used to manage a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and network towers "to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested".

So there you go. Big Brother is not watching you, and he doesn't care if you're working your way through the office interns in a Comfort Inn off the North Circular. But before you throw caution, and any 'Do Not Disturb' signs, to the wind, bear in mind that some of your other indulgences are being closely observed.

A new book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts attempts to piece together a comprehensive understanding of modern human sexuality. Using data provided by a number of search engines, including Google, Yahoo! and AOL, authors Ogi Agas and Sai Gaddam have written their definitive guide based on the proclivities of one-handed mouse clickers. If you've ever entered 'glass coffee table' into Bing, I'd like to thank you for your contribution to this epic body of work.

Although 'youth' is cited as the most popular search term when it comes to online onanism, it's interesting to note that MILFS and older women also score fairly highly. Giving new meaning to the term 'Silver Surfers', the "significant erotic interest in sixty- and seventy-year-olds" suggests that either Wayne Rooney has finally figured out how to use a laptop, or Helen Mirren's been talking dirty on BBC Breakfast again. Whatever the reason, you can bet that Katie Waissel's grandma is upping her hourly-rate.

Interestingly, transexuals also boast a particular allure for porn-seekers, possibly because they adhere to the old adage, 'something for everyone'. Quoted in a review on Jezebel.com, one eager fan of T-girl porn explains "I like her soft looks, sexy body. Very nice long legs. And then there's that added bonus ... I can't really explain why it affects me." It's not hard to understand - everyone likes a bonus, especially when it comes more than once at the end of the year.

Aside from the worrying degree to which our internet habits reveal our innermost thoughts, the book seems to offer a valuable insight into the shuftying sands of human sexuality. Not that everyone's in agreement with the authors' assertions. Evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons cautioned the New York Post that the survey doesn't prove that people are aroused by the sexual content they uncover when they go surfing: "Ogi is convinced that when people are searching for things, it’s primarily for sexual arousal. I’m not so sure about that. If there was a porn star with three breasts - I bet there would be a zillion hits. Would that be a sign men were suddenly aroused by that? I think not." Someone get the doctor a copy of Total Recall, stat.

Symons may not be a fan, but the majority of reviewers have given the book two tumescent thumbs up. It's been described as exhaustive (rather than exhausting), gripping and sometimes disturbing. Much like the online content it describes. But if there's anything we can learn, beyond the fact that many straight men enjoy sites such as PinkyDick, Little-Cock, and My Tiny Dick, it's that we really need to start deleting our browser history. Some things are simply better left unread.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Put a smile on her face


When The Big Bang Theory was first launched four years ago, it proved to be something of a surprise hit. Because although its creators came with a track record of successful comedies, there were doubts about whether or not science could actually be funny. After all, Stephen Hawking might win plaudits for his theories on quantum gravity, but no-one's ever asked him for his take on The Aristocrats.

The scientific community is more likely to study the effects of light particles travelling from A to B, rather than a nun and a rabbi entering a bar. Like those two old joke staples, I guess comedy and science aren't supposed to mix. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Lazar Greenfield, M.D. president-elect of the American College of Surgeons and inventor of the Greenfield Filter, has been pilloried for attempting to make light of a serious scientific subject.

Writing in Surgery News about the physiological symptoms of love, he began by discussing the mating habits of fruit flies, before moving onto the 'therapeutic effects of semen'. Citing research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, he asserted that studies had found a link between unprotected sex and lower incidences of depression. Basically, he was arguing that "human semen has the potential to produce profound effects on women", beyond just fucking up their hair.

Although no-one seemed to be in disagreement with his theories about the mood-altering potential of spaff, they took exception to his romantic conclusion that "there's a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there's a better gift for that day than chocolates." After the article was published, a number of women's groups threatened to protest. But it's not clear whether that's because they found his assertion to be sexist, or were simply suffering from a mass case of pink-eye.

Following the outcry, Dr Greenfield stood down from his role as the editor of the offending publication, and gave up his stewardship of the ACS. I just hope he's taking the opportunity to pitch his ideas to Nestle, just in case they ever want to shake-up their Quality Street line-up with a new soft centre.

But the fact remains that the study Greenfield was referring to, confirms that many women have indeed attested to "the anti-depressant effects of semen exposure". As Jennifer Aniston used to say, pay attention, here comes the science bit: "Only 5 percent of the ejaculate is sperm. What's left is seminal plasma, which is a rich concoction of chemicals, including many that have the potential to produce mood-altering effects derived from hormones, neurotransmitters, and endorphins. Within a hour or two after insemination, you can detect heightened levels of many of these seminal chemicals in a woman's bloodstream."

By all means, try using this rationale next time you feel like being Banksy in the bedroom. Just remember that, although your pistol paste might momentarily elevate her mood, leaving her with the wet patch will get you dumped quicker than a Scottish fiver.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Long overdue


I'll be honest, the last time I willingly set foot in a library, the book I took out had a big ladybird on the front. So I'm pretty sure things have changed plenty since then.

For a start, libraries are a lot less busy than they used to be. Probably because reading isn't the popular pass-time it once was. The majority of people won't even pick up a book unless it's got Katie Price or one of the Loose Women on the dust jacket.

But one service libraries offer that keeps those swing doors flapping, is access to the internet. It's easy to forget that in this 3G world, many people don't even have dial-up. They also don't spend their time worrying that they're not getting the full download speed from their fiber-optic broadband.

When they need to set up a direct debit, order Christmas presents or catch up on You Tube footage of kittens falling asleep, they can head along to their local library, and for a small fee, enjoy all the wonders of Windows 98.

There is a catch though. Not all the things that people like to use the internet for are conducive to an open plan environment. For instance, it's tough to take matters into your own hands when you're three feet away from the woman who works in the dry cleaners, trying to pay her gas bill. Don't be judging - a recent study found that 25 per cent of all internet searches were for pornographic material.

If you're confident enough to go trawling for adult material in a public space, you might want to cross the Atlantic and get yourself a library card in Brooklyn. Because according to the protections of the First Amendment, New Yorkers are perfectly free to check out the latest bukkake compilations in the city's public libraries.

A report in the the New York Post explains "Under US law, all libraries that take federal funding only must install filters on publicly used computers to block content containing illegal obscenity and child pornography, and New York City officials say they comply to the letter."

Unsurprisingly, the self-appointed moral guardians aren't too happy about this, with Catholic League President Bill Donohue telling journalists "It's not like a Playboy centerfold anymore -- it's far worse." Likewise, some library-goers were turned off by the idea of people being able to access porn in public. One woman explained that she'd seen an elderly man watching footage of a threesome - he'd thoughtfully tried to block onlookers' views of the screen, "but I could still hear the voices" she said.

With government cutbacks threatening the future of our own library services, local authorities would do well to take a leaf out of Brooklyn's book. And as long as users remember to keep the noise down when they take something out, where's the harm?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Saving Ryan's privacy

Better brace yourself for some bad news. Ryan Phillippe has announced plans to end his acting career because he's tired of the paparazzi lifestyle in L.A. Sorry, what's that? Ryan Phillippe? You know, Ryan PHILLIPPE. Phil-leap-pay. He's been in all kinds of things - Crash, The Way Of The Gun, Amanda Seyfried.

Anyway, he's sick of the pressures of fame of has decided to put his house on the market, so he can move to New York and live off the radar. He told journalists from the New York Post "I'm ready to be behind the scenes. I'm 36, but I've been doing this for 20 years", presumably whilst holding up a black and white headshot, just so they didn't think they were scoring a scoop on Justin Timberlake.

Back in the late nineties, he and his then-wife Reese Witherspoon were Hollywood's hot new 'It' couple. They'd met on the set of 'Cruel Intentions' and their onscreen chemistry soon turned into the real thing. But whereas Reese made some smart choices and ended up bagging herself $15 million for the sequel to Legally Blonde, Ryan ended up taking smaller roles in ensemble pieces.

As much as he might have tried to convince himself he was doing it for the art, movie-goers were less convinced. In 2002, the pair turned up at the Oscars to present an award together, prompting Phillippe to hand the envelope to his wife and say "After you. You make more money than I do." Of course, the audiences laughed, but then they'd just sat through a couple of hours of Whoopi Goldberg playing host. After that, you'd laugh at an angry voicemail from Mel Gibson. 

By the time they divorced in 2007, Reese was an Oscar winner and Ryan was attempting to hold his own in 'Five Fingers'. In more ways than one, I'm sure. Who knows, maybe he'll be better suited to a life out of the limelight. At least then he can look back on his starring role in 'I Know What You Did Last Summer', and fondly recall a time when at least somebody did. 

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Stitches in time


We all make decisions that we live to regret. Mine was not taking the brief seriously, when instructed to select an appropriate fabric for my home economics class.

If I'm honest, I didn't take anything in home economics seriously. Given the emphasis my parents placed on 'academic' subjects, home-ec just seemed like a chance to fuck about with catering-sized tins of mixed fruit jam. Remember, 1988 was a simpler time - these days kids are learning how to make potato fondant and red wine jus. We considered ourselves lucky the week we got to bake brown bread.

So when the subject suddenly moved away from cookery in favour of a new focus on clothes-making, my thirteen year-old self became even less engaged. For our summer project, we were told we'd be making a shorts and t-shirt ensemble, which excited me even less than the prospect of two hours of geography in the classroom next door.

Sensing my indifference, my mum marched me into the haberdashery in town. I stood there like the petulant teen I was, refusing to engage with the saleswoman who rattled through a variety of garish fabrics. Realising that the longer this took, the less time I'd have to browse in Our Price, I chose the loudest one I could see. Black and purple, covered in neon watermelon slices and crudely illustrated palm trees. The kind of pattern that would make Ray Charles thankful for small mercies.

Over the next couple of months, I took my heinous cloth and half-heartedly fashioned a rudimentary two-piece out of it, foolishly assuming that it'd only ever be used for dusters. However, my frugal parents had other ideas, insisting that I wear my Bermudan folly on our holiday to Florida.

The photos that were taken that summer betray my shame and disappointment - onlookers would have been forgiven for assuming that I'd just received a stern 'no' from the Make-A-Wish foundation. It takes a special kind of effort to be singled out for poor fashion sense in Orlando, and yet somehow, even the schlubs dressed as Mickey and Goofy seemed to be looking at me with pitying despair.

But when you're a kid, appearance is everything. As you enter your teens, you become painfully aware of fashion and the role it plays in helping to form your fledging identity. So I can only wonder what the hell American senator Bruce Caswell was thinking, when he suggested that some children should be forced to dress exclusively in clothes from second-hand stores.

According to his proposal, children in the state's foster care system would be given special gift cards only redeemable in places like the Salvation Army and Goodwill. Asked to explain what made him the modern-day equivalent of Cinderella's lesser-known stepbrother, Caswell said that he'd grown up wearing clothes from the Salvation Army: "Once you’re out of the store and you walk down the street, nobody knows where you bought your clothes.” Although the flared collars and excess of paisley may give something away.

In theory, this was supposed to be a surefire way of helping the state of Michigan save some money. But really, isn't it just another example of Republicans looking to kick someone while they're down? Mummy and Daddy can't look after you anymore, so we think that you ought to spend the next few months wearing someone else's trainers. Then again, if you're having to make do with someone else's parents, why not take a similarly sanguine approach to your wardrobe?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Owner of a lonely heart


It's not so long ago that the worst thing about online dating was admitting out loud that you'd tried it. OK, maybe that's not strictly true. The worst thing was actually scanning a cafe menu for whatever would take the least amount of time to prepare and consume, once you'd realised that your perfect match had been as generous with the truth as they had with the trans-fats.

These days, no-one bats an eyelid at hooking up with someone who, several hours previously, only existed in binary. We've all been there, done that, and wiped it up with the T-shirt. What once seemed daring and exciting, is now about as edgy as doing a line of Coffee-Mate

That's why shows like Blind Date don't exist anymore. They're simply too archaic; representative of a simpler time. Well, that and the fact that Cilla Black is now too busy cursing the luckless adventurers who broke the seal on her sarcophagus.

With everyone now fully au fait with the intricacies of online dating, the phenomenon has evolved to incorporate a wider range of services. So we now have sites like 'My Single Friend' - Sarah Beeny's solution for introducing the outer rim of our social circle to anyone who'll tolerate their idiosyncrasies, if there's a chance they'll get laid at the end of the evening. Or there's Grindr, which lets gay men arrange a hook-up in the time it takes to walk home from the tube station.  

The biggest challenge with all of these sites, is that they're still dependent on the importance of chemistry. So I guess it was inevitable that someone would find a way of bridging the gap between the aspirational and the attractive - by boiling things down to what really counts. Cold, hard cash.

WhatsYourPrice.com takes the principle of the world's oldest profession, and applies it to those who have, until now, maintained their amateur status. It seems that everyone has a price, whether they're buying or selling, and this site simply acts as Cupid's Paypal. The website claims that its "patent pending dating system (US Patent Pending: Application No. 61407831) provides a platform where generous and attractive singles can negotiate and agree on a price for a first date." So it's a street corner with a modem attached.
If you're a wealthy benefactor, or just have a roll of twenties burning a conveniently-shaped hole in your pocket, you can pledge whatever amount you're prepared to pay for a date. Alternatively, if you think you're simply too hot to date for free, you can name your price and wait for the offers to come rolling in.

The site says "...dating doesn't have to be a waste of time. If you're beautiful, we are the only dating site that guarantees you will get paid while you spend time meeting fun and generous people." It couldn't be more pimpy if it was wearing a fur-trimmed zebra-skin hat.
Morality aside, there's something fundamentally distasteful about a site that's predicated on the same bag-a-bargain principle as Bid-Up TV. It's OK promising a range of "beautiful, gorgeous or sexy people", but would you really want to score with someone who's willing to settle for $20?

Everyone likes to be seen sporting a hot piece of arm candy. But there are few bragging rights to be enjoyed when the beauty in question can be scored for the price of a KFC bargain bucket. And I'd be willing to speculate that the similarities don't end there.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Everyone's a critic

I don't know how those women on 'How To Look Good Naked' do it. One minute they're bursting into tears when they see themselves in a cheval mirror, the next they're strutting down a runway in the middle of the Metro Centre, wearing less than Kim Kardashian in a home movie.

It takes an awful lot of guts (and in the case of Gok Wan's protégés, the ability to suck them in) to throw yourself open to the public. In a world where we're each given countless opportunities to expose ourselves, both literally and figuratively, we have to be prepared for the inevitable brickbats and bouquets that follow. And sometimes, even the bouquets come with nasty thorns.

I'm one of those people who takes every word of criticism personally. I burst into tears if a warden gives me a ticket for bad parking. So when I started this blog, I realised I needed to develop a thicker skin, otherwise I'd bleed like a haemophiliac in Fight Club every time someone posted a negative comment. By and large, I've escaped too much negativity, since the people who visit the site are a friendly, supportive bunch.

Of course, all that changed when I got the opportunity to share my blog with a wider audience. More readers means more opportunities to irritate or aggravate. And clearly, my recent post about Jodie Marsh and crew from The Only Way Is Essex managed to do just that.

When my BlackBerry alarm sounded its synthesised steel-drum alarm this morning, I noticed a new email had come in overnight. It was notifying me of a new comment added to the Marsh/TOWIE story, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was a "crushingly unfunny cunt". Hard as that may be to swallow, I guess it's still preferable to waking up to Sonny & Cher every morning.

Humour's a subjective business at the best of times. Some people are going to laugh, others are going to flinch like they just got a frosted margarita tipped down their back. That's OK - as long as the positives outweigh the negatives, I'll keep doing what I'm doing. The key is to not let the occasional voice of criticism distract you from what you're doing.

If only someone had directed similar advice to self-published author Jacqueline Howett, who achieved notoriety recently when she refused to let lie a less-than-glowing review of her book 'The Greek Seaman'. Taking objection to an Amazon customer's review, she decided to fight fire with ire, coming across like Glenn Close stood up on a blind date.

She tracked the reviewer down to his own blog and fired off a bunch of angry responses, citing the four and five-star reviews that her book had already achieved. That was bad enough, but when other visitors to the blog suggested that her defensive position wasn't winning her any fans, the gloves really came off. In a series of increasingly unhinged posts, she repeatedly argued "My writing is just fine!" only to continually disprove her own point. And when it all got too much, she resorted to that most witty of rejoinders - "Fuck off".

Ironically, the review itself was actually pretty even-handed, going so far as to compliment Howett's storytelling and characterisation. However, BigAl wasn't quite so enamoured with the writer's scattershot approach to grammar, punctuation and sentence construction. Reading through the incoherent excerpts that have popped up in light of his review, it does seem as though she dictated the book through a possessed medium with a stack of papers and a broken pencil.

Unfortunately for Howett, her war of poorly-arranged words went viral, sending her Amazon status sky-rocketing. But reviews don't necessarily translate into sales, even when your e-book is retailing for the grand total of $1.14. Like all the best stories, this one has a moral - don't feed the trolls. And under no circumstances should you stick your head through the bars to call them names.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Put your foot down


American comedienne Rita Rudner once questioned why women wear scents that smell like floral garlands if they want to attract a man. Surely, she reasoned, parfumiers were missing a trick by not marketing a fragrance called 'new car smell'.

I don't care about the fact that I lose three grand every time I drive a new car off the forecourt, nothing beats the feeling of being the one to break in a shiny new toy. It's the same as buying a new build property - what you lose in terms of character and heritage, you gain by enjoying a shower that no-one's ever pissed in. In spite of all the extra expense involved, I want a car that smells of freshly moulded rubber and uncracked leather upholstery, not James May's Scotch egg farts and a past-its-best Feu Orange.

Just like estate agents, divorce lawyers and bald referees, used car salesmen are held in universally low regard. And it's a shame, because there are countless friendly and trustworthy professionals out there who enjoy nothing more than pairing their customers with a low cost runaround. Sadly, it also seems to be a trade which attracts more than its fair share of disreputable shits - men who'd sell their own grandmother with the promise of a complimentary wax and free floor mats.

These are the guys who make buying a second-hand car such an unpleasant, joyless experience. It's like contracting Josef Fritzl to erect your new conservatory. Sure, he probably knows what he's doing when it comes to home renovations, but you don't really want to hear his ideas about extending the basement.

Given their less than progressive world-view, I'm not too surprised to see that one used car dealer in the US has started comparing his pre-owned stock with potential sexual partners. Dale Wurfel knows that when a model looks good enough, you don't really care if someone else might have already splashed their Red Bull all over her dashboard.

Perhaps concerned that a picture of a sexually alluring woman with the line "You know you're not the first. But do you really care?" might seem a little, well, sexist, Wurfel's dealership has also offered up a male alternative. What's a little harder to understand, is why they chose a picture of fashion designer Tom Ford for the new ad. Are they trying to appeal to gay car buyers, or lonely, overweight women who are still clinging onto an impossible dream?

As analogies go, comparing sexual prospect with used cars is an interesting one, and opens up a world of possibilities. When it comes to checking out Exchange & Mart, you want to know there's still some tread on the tyres and plenty of space in the boot. Equally, you might investigate whether the airbags are factory fitted, or have been recently replaced. And what about the odometer? Does it tell the truth, or have the numbers been rolled back by an unscrupulous dealer?

Whether or not you approve of the ads, this is one campaign that could run and run. Personally, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a picture of Madonna's boy-toy Jesus Luz, alongside that industry legend "One old lady owner."

But in the interests of safety, just bear in mind that you're not the only one getting comfortable in the driver's seat. You're also sharing it with everyone else who sat in it before you.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Seeing doubles

Everyone knows that the Oscar for Best Actress is a poisoned chalice. As Charlize Theron and Halle Berry soon found out, it's all downhill from there. Aeon Flux and Catwoman served as timely reminders that great actors are only as good as the material they're offered.

So far, Natalie Portman has managed to avoid making any horrible decisions about how to follow up her trophy-grabbing turn in Black Swan. And we'll have to wait and see whether Thor fulfills that particular brief. In the meantime, her post-win fall from grace is currently being managed by a bunch of disgruntled stand-ins instead.

It all started during the pre-Oscar campaign, as Natalie's breakout role was being talked up as the industry favourite. Critics unanimously agreed that Portman had given the performance of a lifetime as a troubled ingenue attempting to connect with her dark side of her id.

But in a twist that could have fouettéd straight off the screen, ballet dancer Sarah Lane went public with claims that she'd performed most of the moves on Natalie's behalf. Taking a stiff metaphorical nail-file to Natalie's overworked ego, Sarah wanted the world to know that the film's producers "were trying to create this image, this facade, really, that Natalie had done something extraordinary. Something that is pretty much impossible... to become a professional ballerina in a year and half."

Sensing that these loose lips were in danger of sinking the good ship Oscar, Lane was pulled to one side and told to stop rocking the boat. In the meantime, director Darren Aronovsky and Benjamin Millepied (the film's choreographer and co-baker of the bun in Natalie's oven) fired back with a number of percentages and statistics about Natalie's contribution to the dancing scenes. Very quickly the debate became needlessly mathematical, like trying to follow the morning stock report on Bloomberg.

Natalie managed to maintain a dignified silence on the subject, initially refusing to be drawn into the discussion. In the end, she was put on the spot by an interviewer, and simply said "I had a chance to make something beautiful with this film, and I don't want to give in to the gossip." Which is a super polite way of telling the world that Sarah Lane is a bitter, pissy bitch.

Now another stand-in has come forward to claim her own part in Natalie's success, telling the press that she took the plunge into an icy Belfast lake for new movie 'Your Highness'. Although we're reassured that the shapely arse in a historically authentic g-string bikini is all Natalie's own work, the dive was performed by Caroline Davis, her film-student double.

All of this talk of taking false credit is as old as the movies themselves. Back in 1974, Mercedes McCambridge effective scuppered Linda Blair's chances of an Oscar by speaking out (in a throaty growl, presumably) about the fact that she'd performed the gravelly vocals for most of the possession scenes. Linda lost out, despite handling the rest of the role, as well as a sticky crucifix, herself.

As for Natalie, she does at least have previous form for getting other actors to replicate her form. In fact, it was a major plot device in the Star Wars prequels, as Keira Knightley and Rose Byrne both played her doppelgänger handmaidens. A quick switcheroo and Padmé Amidala was able to go frolicking with Anakin at the drop of an elaborate kabuki headpiece.

This realisation suggests that it may be time for a forensic reappraisal of her earlier roles. How often has the gamine beauty pulled the same trick? Watch her shaven headed role in V For Vendetta, and don’t be surprised if Al Murray pops up in certain scenes as freedom fighter Evie. Even more worryingly, what if underage pre-teen assassin Mathilda was actually played by Jeanette Krankie? Suddenly, those inappropriate thoughts about the bob-haired Lolita don't seem quite so fandabidozi.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Cries for help


Real life is boring. Growing up, I wanted a movie adolescence instead. I dreamed of finding a treasure map and a deformed man-mountain under a run-down cafe. Alternatively, I imagined setting off on a two day adventure to find a dead body and poke it with sticks. But reality had other ideas. Instead, my rites de passage involved downing my first bottle of Mad Dog in an adventure playground, and trying to keep down a spam fritter whilst watching the 'miracle of birth' video in social studies.

If you're of a similar age to me, you probably suffered through the same one. And let me tell you, seeing the gory details came as quite a shock. Especially after years of fictionalised birthing scenes, where the mother broke into a mild sweat for a few minutes, before being handed a spotless three-month old. Instead, we got to see a woman whose inner thighs looked like Noddy Holder, shitting out a blue scatter cushion covered in chicken madras.

These days, our teenage counterparts have far more explicit content streamed directly to their iPhones. So what's left for teachers to show that'll upset the desensitised little buggers? According to the horrified tabloids, it's a 'how to top yourself' video starring "notorious assisted suicide campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke". As soon as the cyber-bullying gets too much for them, troubled teens can simply take a few extra notes in their GCSE Philosophy class. And English Lit will help them compose a suitably poetic farewell note. Job's a good 'un.

Except, that's not really how it works at all. The film they're getting so upset about was actually prepared by a company called 'Classroom Video', which is responsible for many of the educational films currently in circulation. And rather than helping kids to decide whether plastic bags or carbon monoxide are the most effective way of checking out, it's been created to explore the medical ethics of euthanasia. Teachers who've used the resource claim that it handles both sides of the assisted suicide debate in an unbiased and constructive manner. But that doesn't really sell newspapers.

This is all big news at the moment, since the Commission on Assisted Dying is expected to make its recommendations to MPs this Autumn about whether the law should be changed. So it's hardly surprising that the news media is doing everything it can to derail the discussion, just in case someone's in danger of actually making a sensible decision.

The BBC doesn't emerge unscathed from this campaign of misinformation either. It's planning a documentary later this year following Sir Terry Pratchett's investigation into assisted suicide. Apparently, the programme will feature "footage of a man with motor neurone disease travelling to the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas and being shown dying on screen." That all sounds very distressing, but not something we should automatically shy away from, just because it's a little more challenging than Antiques Roadshow.

Even so, it's downright bizarre to see this described by one journalist as a "snuff movie". As if drunk teenagers are going to watch it in a double-bill with The Human Centipede, and cheer on the evil doctor as he loads his syringe. Complex issues like assisted suicide demand mature, reasonable debate, not name calling and 'la-la-la, I can't hear you' rhetoric.

Just like those formative rites of passage, death is nothing like it's portrayed in the movies. It's tough, painful and desperately sad for all concerned. And to demean it by comparing it to the worst kind of exploitation is the greatest crime of all.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Battle of the bulge

JeanPants Underwear

I can't hide my shame any longer. This is my confession - I once made a pair of cut-offs from an old pair of jeans. I'm not proud, and I've destroyed all photographic evidence confirming that the offending garment ever existed. Like the tie-dye Joe Bloggs sweaters I used to wear, they're simply fodder for a future therapy session.

As I hacked through the thighs with a pair of scissors usually used for cutting bacon rashers, I knew I was messing with the laws of nature. But I was nineteen, and far from worldly-wise. Besides, I thought if I left the legs long enough, they might not look too bad. The folly of youth.

When Levi Strauss first paired up with a tailor called Jacob Davis in 1873 to create a pair of durable 'waist overalls', he had no idea that he was changing the very future of fashion. Conscious that canvas tended to chafe its wearers, he looked for a softer cotton fabric that would be just as durable, and found 'serge de Nimes'. And so a riveted icon was born.

During the 1950s and 1960s, jeans became the unofficial uniform of teenage rebellion, eventually inspiring a variety of sub-trends. As tastes changed, so too did the styles - flares, drainpipes and baggies all came and went. The denim itself remained the only constant, as fashion designers found a variety of uses for the versatile blue fabric.

Jackets, shirts, skirts, dungarees, leggings - if it's wearable, chances are, someone's made it out of denim. But be warned, try to carry off too much of it at once and you'll be in danger of looking like you're serving a five-year stretch on Cell Block H.

Sadly, the denim cut-off refuses to die. It's the clothing equivalent of that lingering odour that a whole can of Febreze won't shift. Brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Levis have fought hard to make jeans shorts acceptable again, with Daisy Dukes for the girls, and mid-length versions for the guys. And I'm sorry to say, some of them look almost acceptable on the right pair of legs.

However, the same can't be said for the latest innovation to come from Japan - the junderpant. Created by popular clothes brand CUW, the JeanPants are described as "pert, durable and oozing zeitgeist appeal". Zeitgeist and oozing; two words I don't ever want to associate with underwear.

Fashion website Japan Trend Shop claims "You can say so much about yourself with your choice of underwear, plus give yourself more confidence and panache, knowing that what you are wearing underneath is also original and funky." And they've got a point. These monstrosities would certainly say a lot about anyone who dared to wear them. Although I doubt 'panache' would be front-of-mind for any unfortunate onlookers.

Surely, there's only one real standard where underwear is concerned. If a stripper would think twice about wearing them, they're probably not going to enhance your pulling skills. Then again, if you see Arrested Development's perpetually misunderstood Tobias Fünke as a fashion icon, these could be just what you need to overcome your 'never nude' issues.


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Eurovision Impaired

Democracy is dead. How else would you explain the fact that the BBC has unilaterally decided on the song and the performer to represent the UK in Dusseldorf next month? They could have just used that mysterious blank box on the census - prime real estate for canvassing public opinion on the matter.

Scoff all you like. Despite its cheesy reputation, Eurovision is still a big deal on the continent. This year 43 countries will be battling it out to win the hearts of that 125 million-strong audience, even if half of those viewers actually spend most of the broadcast saying “Are you sure there’s nothing else on?”

Whatever the reasons for the BBC’s change of format, at least we’ve been spared the indignities of a weekly phone vote to select how best to embarrass ourselves on an international stage. Instead, we get four hour-long instalments following Blue’s preparations for the big day when they take to the Eurovision stage.

Along the way, we’re treated to a bunch of interview snippets with people who seem to have been selected purely according to their availability on the day. OK, Lulu and Cliff Richard have some Eurovision relevance (as much as Lulu could ever be considered 'relevant') having both performed for the UK, but Kara Tointon and Sheridan Smith? Was Vanessa Feltz busy?

Guiding us through a potted history of everyone’s favourite music contest is Graham Norton, who inherited Sir Terry’s role as ‘voice of the nation’ when the elder statesman of jaded commentaries resigned in protest at the politicisation of Eurovision. The students of Tiananmen Square have nothing on Wogan.

As much as the programme might feign interest in the boys from Blue, as they attempt to resurrect their collective career from cryogenic suspension, it was really just a chance to wallow in some nostalgic memories of Eurovisions gone by. All the usual suspects were present and correct – the Bucks Fizz striptease, Brotherhood of Man’s chirpy ode to paedophilia, and mad old Sonia, acting like she’d been hiding her medication in the pillowcase. 

But strangely, for a show like this, there was actually some detail in amongst the fluff. Even the occasional glimmer of insight, courtesy of Scott Mills, who rightly took the UK to task for underestimating the tastes of European voters. In fact, our misperceptions of what a ‘good’ Eurovision song sounds like are largely as a consequence of clip shows like this. Lazy compilations designed to encourage us to laugh at our funny continental cousins and their hurdy gurdy languages. So we vote for any old shit, figuring if it’s bad enough, the Europeans will lap it up.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s enough surrealism in recent Eurovision history to give Dali a nosebleed. In a section called ‘make it memorable’, we were reminded of past performances that included a guest appearance from Dita Von Teese, zombie bass players, giant wheels, gladiators, contortionists and pantomime pirates. Not forgetting Ukraine’s Ani Lorak, performing Shady Lady in front of four vertical tanning booths, one of which she may well have fallen asleep in. It’s enough to make you long for the pared-down simplicity of Lady Gaga.

However, the main focus of ‘Your Country Needs Blue’ was the boys’ attempts to rekindle their long-dormant spark. Not easy when they can’t even remember the words to their biggest hits. We also got to see them swotting up on previous Eurovision triumphs, helpfully regaling each other with a Wikipedia page full of statistics for each performance, like QVC presenters demonstrating their knowledge of how a trouser press works.

The boys spent half the show’s running time waxing lyrical about the epic chorus and ‘big sound’ that Blue was known for, but we just kept hearing Lee randomly chirping “Get back up again”, like a Tourettes sufferer stuck in falsetto. There were also plenty of shots of them striking the standard boyband in-studio pose. You know the one - left hand cupped over the ear, right hand used to point out the note in mid-air. 

So what of the song itself? Well, imagine cramming Westlife, Boyzone and The Wanted into a blender. Not because that’s what it sounds like, just because it’s a nice image. 'I Can' is actually a distinctly unmemorable R&B-lite ballad, with a chorus that ends with the refrain "I can, I will, get back up again." Just give me ten minutes for the pill to kick in. 

It could be a lot worse. After their big joke backfired when they picked a rubber turkey with a fist up its arse in 2008, the people of Ireland are taking a different tack this year. They’ve decided to send the two psychos from Michael Haneke's Funny Games (AKA Jedward) to Dusseldorf. It’s probably a wise move – their economy's in enough trouble as it is, without the added financial burden of hosting the competition in 2012.

Whether this will be the year we turn our fortunes around is anyone’s guess. But it’s odd that the show seemed so confident in declaring the six simple steps for Eurovision domination. If it was that easy, wouldn’t we have done it already?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Funny, how?


Comedy is a tricky business. As the career of Jim Davidson has effectively proved, there's no rhyme or reason to the things that some people will find amusing.

Even so, Evan Emory must be kicking himself for trying to share his own unique take on musical comedy with the world. He's now facing 60 days in jail and 200 hours of community service, plus fines and court costs. Originally charged with manufacturing child pornography, Emory ended up pleading guilty to the lesser charge of “unlawful posting of an Internet message with aggravating circumstances.”

His crime, if you can call it that, was to create a video of himself performing a sexually explicit song to a classroom full of elementary school kids. In fact, the video was carefully spliced together from two separate performances, so the children never actually heard him singing "C’mon, girl…See how long it takes to make your panties mine…I’ll add some foreplay in just to make it fun. I want to stick my index finger in your anus.” If the kids want to listen to that kind of filth, they'll just have to tune into one of the many music video channels.

The video has been taken down, with the judge presiding over the case labeling it 'contraband', so it's hard to judge exactly what Emory's intentions were. Though it's not too hard to imagine that he was poking a satirical finger at the sexual content of modern music and the fact that children have unlimited access to it. It's just a shame that the lawmakers didn't see the funny side. I guess, if you have to explain a joke, it wasn't that great to begin with.

It's also a joke that Friends tried years ago, back when the writers were still getting plenty of mileage out of Phoebe's endearingly awful coffee shop singing. Hoping to score a date with handsome classroom entertainer Chris Isaak, Phoebe brought her idiosyncratic song-writing to a group of kindergarteners. The kids seemed to enjoy the chirpy tunes about dying grandparents and sexual bargaining, but the grown-ups were less than impressed.

And that's exactly what played out with Evan, as the parents of the students at Beechnau Elementary claimed “An innocence was taken, something we as parents try very hard to keep, something we hold sacred and dear was taken from the kids.” But was it really? The entire project was predicated on the seamless merging of two unconnected events, thereby ensuring that the children were never exposed to any unsuitable content. 

Chalk this one up as another victimless crime. In which case, the sentencing seems unnecessarily harsh. With 60 days in the slammer ahead of him, Evan may find himself on the receiving end of more than just an index finger.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Dull and void

There are certain things that no-one ever wants to hear from a celebrity:
Jeremy Clarkson giving you fashion advice.
Joan Rivers' recommendations for aging gracefully.
Paris Hilton offering her career progression tips.
Lindsay Lohan making detox suggestions.

But the ultimate case of 'pot calling kettle an orange whore' came this week, when Jodie Marsh accused the carotene crew of The Only Way Is Essex of giving her fair county a bad name.

Talking to the press about the latest reality TV phenomenon, the walking stretchmark complained "I think the people are just making us look stupid. It is embarrassing and the people on that show are probably the worst possible examples of people from Essex." 

Actually, they're not the worst, that particular honour falls a little closer to home. And let's be honest, any woman who appears in a TV show to find a husband and then marries him in The Sugar Hut nightclub, doesn't need any help in looking like a grade-A fuckwit.

Thankfully, Jodie's harsh words are likely to fall on deaf ears, as the characters of TOWIE are clearly enjoying their time in the spotlight's ultraviolet glow. They're busy launching books, bars and all manner of merchandise to supplement their meagre appearance fee (£50 per day) for starring in the show. Given that their Stateside counterparts have just signed a new $100,000 deal for each episode of Jersey Shore, it's hardly surprising that they're keen to leverage their newfound celebrity status.

Yesterday, Mark Wright turned up to promote the show's latest high-quality brand extension - the official TOWIE 'Vajazzle Kit'. Because nothing screams quality like a gusset full of cheap stick-on crystals. The perfect gift for anyone who fancies a little sparkle on their twinkle, it'll leave you looking as though you've just been violated by Edward Cullen.

Hamstrung by some fairly stringent indecency laws, Mark and his glamorous assistants were unable to demonstrate the true wonders of a groin that sparkles like a petrol station whisky tumbler. Instead, Mark had to make do with demonstrating the easily-applicable bedazzlements on the assorted models' legs and stomachs.

Cue flashback music... I once went out clubbing with a girl called Gemma, who'd decided to embellish her not inconsiderable decolletage with a squirt of glitter gel. At the start of the evening, she was shimmering like Shirley Eaton in her big death scene. But by midnight, the heat from the disco lights had taken its toll, and the gel had begun to peel. At this point, one of Mansfield's most eligible bachelors sidled up to my friend, looked her up and down, and asked "Is that tit-wank?"

Needless to say, a similarly post-coital effect can be achieved by wearing a clump of assorted vajazzlements at the top of the thigh. Come on, who doesn't love a woman who appears to be too busy partying to wipe herself down with a damp flannel?

If their vajazzling empire doesn't take off, at least the cast of TOWIE have a number of other business ventures to explore. For instance, the girls seem to be lining up to appear on Peter Andre's arm, helping him to fill the void left by Katie Price. Although I'm not sure how one void can fill another - isn't that how anti-matter is created?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Shyamalan ding-dong


It all started out so well. After a couple of low budget misfires, M. Night Shyamalan finally exploded into moviegoers' consciousness with his audacious not-quite-debut film The Sixth Sense. Back in 1999, expectations were pretty low for a film whose only marketable commodity was a man who'd managed to parlay an expression of smug self-satisfaction into a Hollywood career.

But despite all the odds, Shyamalan's ghostly tale ended up winning the summer box office battle alongside an even lower-budget horror movie about three student film-makers with a hysterical aversion to foliage. As well as an incredible performance by a pre-teen actor with eyes so large he could have been animated by Studio Ghibli, the film boasted a genuinely surprising twist ending that blindsided its audiences.

Admittedly, the denouement was a little disappointing for me, having diligently avoided any spoilery reviews, only to pick up the soundtrack CD and see that the final track was called 'Malcolm is Dead'. Imagine if, instead of covering 'The Crying Game', Boy George had presented Neil Jordan with a song called "My Girlfriend's Got a Cock". Nonetheless, the careful plotting, interesting dialogue and exceptional performances were a million miles away from horror convention. Shyamalan was able to evoke a sense of fear from a handprint on a table, rather than cramming an agitated cat into every available closet.

His follow-up, Unbreakable, attempted a similarly melancholy approach to the superhero movie, with Bruce Willis once again mooching around in a long coat, like a man who'd forgotten to submit his tax return. Signs was no happier, this time applying the director's now patented downbeat technique to the alien invasion genre. Audiences were keen to get a glimpse of the little green men, only to be treated to innumerable scenes of ex-priest Mel Gibson asking people to stop calling him 'Father'. Would he have preferred 'Sugar Tits'?

Put it down to the law of diminishing returns, or the perils of increased expectation, but each successive film seemed to score a little bit lower with the critics. They accused him of being a one-note egotist, which might be OK if it weren't such a low, bassy rumble of a note.

By the time The Village came along, audiences were losing their patience. This time, the set-up was contrived, the performances over-the-top (don't bother taking a bow, Adrien Brody), and the twist as ridiculous as sending a blind girl into the forest to get help. It seemed as though Shyamalan's Midas touch was turning everything into pyrite. Then came the double whammy of Lady In The Water and The Happening. Take your pick - do you want to see Paul Giamatti cleaning a pool, or Mark Wahlberg trying to outwit a plant? It's like some kind of twisted Sophie's Choice, where Meryl takes the bullet herself, rather than suffer the lesser of two evils.

After a decade of perpetual disappointment, it looks as though the fans have had enough. A new website has been set up by a bunch of disgruntled movie-goers asking for donations, in the hope that enough money can be raised to send M. Night back to film school. The site explains: "Certainly, there must be 150,000 of us film lovers out there who are tired of his schlocky plot twists, canned dialogue, and over commercialized image as an 'auteur'. If we all donate just one dollar, we can send M. Night back to NYU so he gets the help we all so desperately need." Given his reputation for surprise endings, it's likely that the sting in this particular tale will involve him turning down the generous gesture. So the site's organisers are also prepared to take whatever money is raised and set up a scholarship in Shyamalan's name for budding film-makers.

Crowdsourcing money to finance M. Knight's re-education is all well and good, but the problem is, he already knows how to make films. And truth be told, he's actually pretty good at it. It's just that he peaked so early, it could only go downhill from there. When The Sixth Sense first opened, critics heralded him as the second coming of Spielberg. Unfortunately, he's following in the footsteps of the director of Hook and 1941, rather than the visionary who gave us Jaws and E.T.

Instead of going back to school, Shyamalan should simply learn to embrace his status as the filmic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. Which isn't to say that his follow ups weren't money-makers - even last year's The Last Airbender managed to turn a considerable profit, despite being about as coherent as Serene Branson's report from the Grammys. He should simply bear in mind that one awesome film is still more than many directors manage in a lifetime. Just ask Michael Bay.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

NSFW


About this time last year, the whole world was laughing at David Kiely, the unfortunate employee of Macquarie Bank who was threatened with the sack for looking at nude pictures of supermodel Miranda Kerr. His momentary lapse of judgement probably would have gone unnoticed, were it not for the fact that his colleague was giving an interview to Australia's Channel 7 news team just over his shoulder.

Eagle-eyed viewers, no doubt bored by incessant coverage of the financial crisis, were quick to pick up on Kiely's firewall-troubling browsing habits, and he became something of a folk hero. Kerr even came forward during the fall-out to defend her number one fan, telling newspapers "I am told there is a petition to save his job and of course I would sign it."

Fast forward 12 months, and Indonesian politician Arifinto is probably wishing he had a few shapely stars rushing to his defence, since he's been shamed into stepping down from his role as a member of parliament.  He was forced to resign after a photographer caught him catching a sneaky eyeful whilst he was on the job. Don't be disgusting, I mean he was checking out some red band content during a debate.

The problem is, Arifinto isn't exactly a fan of the women he was watching in the workplace. Since he was one of the lead proponents of Indonesia's tough anti-pornography laws, this is a clear example of that age-old political adage 'do as I say, not as I do'.

Look, we've all found ourselves clicking on a dubious link at work, only to be faced with a body parts stretched beyond recognition, as though they were made of silly putty. And that was Arifinto's excuse too. According to The Daily What, he claimed that he'd "accidentally opened a random e-mail link", which might even be believable had he not spent several minutes checking out the footage in question. Maybe he just wanted to be really sure that he was offended.

Sadly, the mono-monikered politico may end up falling foul of his own legislation, in which case he could face several years in prison. Alanis Morissette might mistakenly label that irony. I call it poetic justice.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Aisle be there



Oh deary me. It looks like there's a crisis in the church, and it's got nothing to do with a crumbling steeple or woodworm in the trestle tables. Attendance at services is dwindling to such a degree that, in Britain, only 15 per cent of the population go to church once a month.

According to a study conducted by economists at the universities of St Andrews and East Anglia, young people begrudge spending a large amount of their time in church, given that death is still a long way off. Conversely, it's pensioners who make up the majority of congregations, since they're keen to secure their ticket to the impending afterlife. Turn up once a week for guaranteed access to the kingdom of heaven and 500 Tesco Clubcard points.

Although this phenomenon has been observed in the majority of wealthy western nations, it's particularly prevalent in the UK, which has seen the Church of England adopting all manner of 'trendy vicar' techniques to try and engage the young folk. Researcher Dr Elissaios Papyrakis reckons that "religious organisations should be prepared to accept and attract a 'greying church', with membership skewed towards the older generation, particularly in countries which have high life expectancy."

The Church of England was quick to respond to the academics' findings, claiming that the study "made a number of assumptions about why Christians want to share their faith. Age really isn’t the important thing. It is the duty of every Christian to share the good news of the gospel with those who haven’t heard it, irrespective of age."

That may be their 'duty' but I'm not sure it's the reason why many people bother to go to church. Call me a hell-bound cynic, but I have a feeling that half the regular attendees only show up to get their hands on the keys to the church hall for a few rounds of knockout whist.

But that's the nature of the Church of England. It's not so much a religion, more a social network for the over-seventies. Plus, I guess when your days are numbered, you want the time to drag by, like you're stuck in the fourth dream layer of Inception.

I remember, years ago, having a meeting with the marketing director of Brewers Fayre - the popular family pub brand. She told me that they faced an unusual paradox, in that they were the nation's favourite family restaurant, but their customers didn't really enjoy food. So it was a restaurant for people who weren't fussed about eating. I'll pause for a moment to let the analogy sink in...

And we're back in the room.

The Catholics have their guilt, the Baptists have their zeal, and the Salvation Army have their brass instruments. The Church of England has a bunch of anxious looking brides, biting their lip through the service just so they can get some half-decent wedding photos.

Whether you like it or not, there's something quintessentially English about a religion that's more interested in bake sales than salvation. Having said that, the next time you see me I might well be pinned to the ground by a lightning rod, like Patrick Troughton in The Omen. In which case, I take it all back...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The food's so bright, you gotta wear shades


Anyone who's ever read Eric Schlosser's extraordinary 'Fast Food Nation' is more than aware of the tricks that manufacturers will pull to get us to eat their nutritionally void products. Workers are exploited, safety laws are flouted, and child-focused marketing campaigns are managed with military precision. Food has become a scary business.

When the book was first released back in 2001, it was the exploits of the meat-packing industry that garnered all the headlines. But just as scary, if not quite so feces-focused, was the expose about the practices of the chemical companies responsible for colourings and flavourings. You might like to think that you have a cultured, sophisticated palate, but actually it's easier to fool than a sheep with learning difficulties.

Just recently, the American FDA ruled that artificial food colorants pose no real threat to consumers, despite concerns that they may be linked to hyperactivity in children. But not everyone's convinced by the ruling, maintaining that we might be better off with a diet that doesn't include a regular intake of FD&C Yellow Number 6.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as just switching to more natural colouring solutions. In an attempt to understand the role that these chemicals play in the way we select and consume our food, test subjects at Cornell University were asked to try a variety of colourless samples of popular snacks.

Although the ingredients were exactly the same, the taste tests confirmed that people found the products bland and lacking in 'fun'. According to the study, eating a bag of Cheetos is a decidedly underwhelming experience if it doesn't leave you with the yellowed fingers of a life-long chain smoker.

It seems that our brains connect the colour of the foods we consume with our perceptions of their flavour. And since most comestibles are as grey as a wet weekend in Bradford, it's hardly surprising that the big food companies prefer their products to come with an instantly recognisable Pantone reference.

Talking to the New York Times, food chemist and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, Kantha Shelke explained “Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life. Would we really want to ban everything when only a small percentage of us are sensitive?” Hear that sound? That's the kerching of corporate logic.

Since the addition of yellow colouring to vanilla pudding can convince consumers that it tastes of banana or lemon, she's right when she says that "Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience." The problem is, another crucial part of the 'eating experience' is flavour. Shelke's view seems to be: "When life gives you lemons, drop yellow colouring into water and call it lemonade."

Some manufacturers are bucking the trend, and turning to natural colourings instead. But as the NYT warns, "They are generally not as bright, cheap or stable as artificial colorings, which can remain vibrant for years. Natural colorings often fade within days." Weirdly, I'm OK with that - after all, we're talking about food, not furniture. It's supposed to have an expiration date, so I'd like to think that I'm going to eat it long before I need to worry that it's losing its lustrous hue.

I guess that, for some foods, appearance matters more than flavour. Take Coco Pops, for example, which used to promise that they were "so chocolatey, they even turn the milk brown". Interestingly, Kellogg's have just announced plans to replace their long-standing box mascot Coco the monkey with Irish bad seeds Jedward. At first the pairing seemed a little incongruous. Then again, since the cereal looks like a bowl full of little shits, maybe this is a match made in heaven.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Slice of life


One of the weirdest inventions in the history of modern civilisation is the Salad Shooter. Rather than shredding your cold vegetables by hand and then moving them to the plate, the Salad Shooter enabled you to propel your chopped food items directly into a bowl. Well, you didn't think it was military might that helped make the US the greatest country on Earth did you?

Now, someone has taken that same kind of innovative thinking and applied it to everyone's favourite baked treat. So if you've ever found your enjoyment of a Victoria Sponge curtailed by the mundanities of having to physically place it in your mouth, you'll be delighted to learn about PushCake.

It's based on the principle of the Push Pop - those sugary lollies encased in a plastic sheath. Simply apply pressure to the base of the unit, and force one of four delicious cakes out of the top straight into your gaping maw. All you have to do is remember to chew and swallow at regular intervals.

According to CakeSpy, although "the push pop mechanism doesn't change the taste of cake at all, it does make it fun to eat". But only if you've always dreamed of deep-throating a Black Forest gateau. Personally, I've always objected to the use of the word 'fun' when describing treats - there's nothing 'fun' about getting a smaller than average chocolate bar. I think the word that Mars was looking for is 'cheap'.

Anyway, I know that I have food issues. I can't stand items touching on my plate, and I hate sauces drizzled on things - I need a dipping bowl on the side. But I can't be the only one disturbed by the idea of eating a cake vertically. The whole point of it is that you experience all the different layers at once. By using a contraption that excretes them one-by-one into your mouth, you miss out on all that.

And yet, despite my reservations, I'm not entirely against the idea. If nothing else, PushCake could make for some fantastic wedding photos. Just try not to be too heavy-handed when feeding the blushing bride.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Royals, with cheese


With just over three weeks to go until the big day, Kate Middleton has probably got a lot on her mind. But unlike most brides, she’s likely to be focusing on what her married life will involve, rather than worrying about where to seat her alcoholic uncle or trying to neutralize the best man’s embarrassing speech.

Lots of little girls grow up wanting to be a princess, but for the majority, that dream begins and ends in the costumes aisle of Toys R Us. A cheap polyester Cinderella gown is all most kids need to indulge in their juvenile royal fantasies. 

In lieu of an actual fairy godmother, parents with plenty of disposable income and a serious interest in their daughters’ marriage potential, are taking matters into their own hands.  They’re happily spending over £2,500 on a new prep school experience that teaches their little bundles of high-maintenance joy how to be a real princess.

The Kensington-based summer camp shows kids from eight to 11 the ‘art’ of being a royal. Instead of focusing on managing infidelity, hiding an eating disorder and smiling beneficently at tramps, the course offers lessons in good manners, horse riding and the perfect curtsey. And they get to drink a lot of tea.

The founder of ‘Princess Prep’, American Jerramy Fine, has developed a curriculum based on her own life-long desire to become a princess. Her book ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ describes her journey from the U.S. to Chiswick, in search of an enchanted lifestyle. She explains “'Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a princess and I never grew out of it. I just wanted to create something that I would have liked as a girl.”

But even the royal family has to adapt, so some traditional aspects of monarchical living have been replaced with more contemporary scenarios. In addition to lessons in royal history and philanthropy, the girls will be educated in “phone and iPod etiquette”. That means no ‘God Save the Queen’ ringtones or asking Her Majesty if you can borrow her USB charger.

If you’re not creeped out by the idea of an eight year-old girl practising how to deal with boredom, awkward moments and coughing fits, consider the fact that they have to do it in front of 33 year-old Sloaney wearing a paper plate with the Queen’s head printed on it.

The course seems to be a big hit with tiara-loving tweens - two of the three week-long sessions are already fully booked - so Jerramy is now working on expanding her empire. For an authentic royal experience, she may want to cover off seat-belt safety, tipping protocol at The Box, and how to spot a tabloid sting

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Scream if you wanna go faster

Ten years is a long time in the movies. Tastes change, audiences grow up, genres evolve. So there must be some anxious people at Dimension waiting to see how the movie-going world will respond to its newest tentpole release. After an 11 year hiatus, Ghostface is back, and he's got a fresh new crop of familiar faces to introduce to his hunting knife.

In the intervening decade since we last checked in with series regulars Gail, Dewey and Sydney, the horror genre has changed more times than a Decepticon with multiple personality disorder. The Scream-inspired retro slashers soon gave way to moody ghost stories, then J-horror, followed by 80s remakes and torture porn. But with the Saw franchise finally eviscerating its last morally dubious victim, it's time to welcome everyone's favourite murderous franchise back to the big screen.

Scream 4 opens in just over a week's time. So to help you get up-to-speed, here's the lowdown on how to survive a painfully ironic postmodern horror movie...

Big stars, small roles

Much of the original Scream's success can be attributed to Drew Barrymore. Supposedly picked for one of the lead roles, Drew was the biggest name in a cast that proudly counted the Fonz amongst its glittering ensemble. However, Drew speculated that if she was murdered in the opening act, audiences would be wrong-footed for the rest of the movie. Once you've seen the most famous actress in the film gutted and hanged from a tree, all bets are off. The downside is that you're left rooting for David Arquette to make it to the end credits.

Throughout the trilogy, producers made sure that the most recognisable faces on the poster were stabbed, sliced and thrown off balconies, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jenny McCarthy all taking an early bath. But not together, that would be unseemly.

Just like in the movies

As the creator of the series, Kevin Williamson seized on a simple but compelling insight - kids love horror movies. So it made sense for his characters to reference the conventions of the genre as a survival technique. In the sleepy Californian town of Woodsboro, those ubiquitous WWJD bracelets stand for 'What Would Jamie Lee Curtis Do'.

Although this gimmick was initially something of a novelty, it did start to become irritating by the third installment. After all, it's hard to maintain suspense when a character in mortal jeopardy fights back using ironic pop culture references, rather than a big stick.

Let's get loud

OK, true story. My parents went to see The Exorcist back in 1974, in a packed Sheffield cinema. As the film wore on, my Mum's nerves were jangled by William Friedkin's tendency to shift jarringly between relentlessly loud noises and sudden silence. With the tension building to intolerable levels, Mum dug her nails deep into my Dad's arm, prompting him to shout over the soundtrack, "Well, you stupid bitch, I told you we shouldn't have come." Just as Friedkin cut away to another quiet scene of Ellyn Burstyn sucking on a cigarette in a hospital corridor.

For my parents, this became an amusing, if slightly misogynistic, anecdote to tell their friends. For every other horror director in the world, it became a how-to guide for building tension by indiscriminately turning the volume knob from zero to eleven. Ever since then, sound mixers have spent their days making sure that all scary movies have a soundtrack like Björk's It's Oh So Quiet.

Show your face

One of the things that Scream managed to resurrect, along with director Wes Craven's career, was the tradition of the mask-wearing murderer. During the slasher boom, every self-respecting mass murderer had a disguise to hide behind - Jason Voorhees had his hockey mask, Leatherface had a patchwork visage made of human skin, and Michael Myers had an inside-out William Shatner face. Film experts argue that the trope gave these implacable monsters a creepy anonymity. But it also helped to hide the fact that, in most cases, it was easier to get a stuntman to play the role, rather than pay a theatrically trained actor to leap through a sugar glass window.

The killers in Scream favour an over-the-head number styled after Munch's similarly titled painting, even though it actually looks more like Sarah Jessica Parker browsing the racks in Primark. At least in this series, the mask enhanced the mystery element by keeping the killers' identity a secret until the inevitable Scooby Doo-style ending - "I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for this pesky assortment of medium-profile TV stars".

The plot thickened

Despite its slavish adherence to the rules of the slasher movie, the Scream series was happy to break with convention in one key area - it actually had a plot. Characters came with a backstory, the trilogy had a narrative arc, and there were plenty of twists and turns along the way. For a generation raised on films whose entire story could be told in a 30-second teaser, this came as something of a revelation. 

Scream 4 brings back the three surviving members of the original cast, and promises to take the mythology in a new direction. So it might not be on a par with The Wire, but it still wouldn't hurt to pay attention in-between all the stalk-and-slash. That two-hour running time is going to include a lot of exposition. 

So there you have it. Now, when someone calls to ask about your favourite scary movie, you've got a slim chance of survival. You can thank me when part 5 comes out.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Baby got back (and front)


When dancer and actress Claudia Aderotimi died two months ago, she inadvertently reignited the debate about the portrayal of women in R&B and hip hop videos. She'd travelled to the US in search of bargain basement plastic surgery and ultimately got her wish. Not to mention an arse full of the kind of industrial grade silicon a window fitter might use to seal around a set of patio doors.

The tabloid response was predictably apoplectic. But they seemed less concerned with the tragic death of a 22 year-old, than they were with pinning the blame on an increasingly sexualised music genre. In covering the story, they quoted Claudia's associates verbatim, printing comments like "The problem was she didn't have no butt, and she wanted a butt. She went to audition for one video shoot wearing fake booty pants and she got all the attention. But when they found out it was fake she didn't get asked back." I don't know about you, but seeing words like 'booty' in the Daily Mail is a little like hearing your Grandma talk about felching. Much like the act itself, it just leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

Concerns about the sexualisation of popular music are as old as the music itself. It's just that in the 1950s people were getting all worked up about the man from Memphis and his over-expressive pelvis. These days, they're more concerned with the endless parade of barely dressed women in urban music videos, strutting around in heels so sharp they should be surrendered in the next weapons amnesty. The girls in question aren't so much treated as sex objects, as items of occasional furniture - "Don't bother with a bra, just grab a couple of coasters so I've got somewhere to set down my bottle of Hennessy."

According to the foaming-at-the-mouth columnists, our kiddies are now foaming-at-the-crotch, thanks to the music videos that occasionally squeeze into the TV schedule, in-between back-to-back screenings of Jersey Shore or My Super Sweet 16. But although these commentators purport to be condemning the objectification of women, it's still the girls who bear the brunt. Sadly, there's still a gender double standard at play, one that apes the old sluts vs studs paradox that has dogged sexually independent women for decades.

It's bad enough that some women allow themselves to be exploited in order to showcase the extraordinary virility of male hip hop stars. But the real crime is committed by the female music artists who express themselves in similar terms. In the last twelve months, everyone from Shakira and Beyonce to Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj have been attacked for their overt sexuality and suggestive iconography - even though they're fully in control of their own image.

Unfortunately, all those arguments about post-feminism, gender identity and self-expression fly out of the window like a philandering boyfriend's wardrobe, when applied to the new video by rising star Lady. Displaying more arse cheeks than a proctology convention, this three and half minute masterpiece shows off a bevy of curvalicious hotties, all fresh from the midweek lunchtime line-up of your local strip club. They try on shoes, they drink blue pop from champagne flutes, and show off g-strings pulled high enough to give them a centre-parting.

And in the eye of this perfect storm, our magnificent heroine - a woman so confident in the potency of her own libido, that she feels compelled to warn the world that "this pussy be yankin'". Thankfully, we have Urban Dictionary on hand to explain that this means she's experiencing an "exceptional level of excitement and enjoyment." But then, why wouldn't she be excited? Especially since it looks as though her mates have splashed out on four bags of Cheetos for their big girls' night in. 

If you've ever watched an old Jerry Springer episode and wished one of those screeching women would put down a chair and pick up a lyric sheet, you're in luck. To paraphrase the jewel of Rochdale, Lisa Stansfield, Lady may not be a lady, but she's all woman. And that's enough to make anyone start yankin'.