Thursday, 31 January 2013

What the slam dunk da funk was that about?


I guess, when done right, reunions can be a lucrative business. There's the ticket sales, repackaged greatest hits and merchandise to consider. Then, if you're lucky, a reality TV gig, as the camera crew waits patiently to discover which of you will be the first to pull a knife. We've seen it with Take That, the Spice Girls and Steps - all of whom reformed with varying degrees of success. The lads emerged as better band than they were first time round, the Spices proved that all that 'solidarity of sisterhood' stuff was just lazy sloganeering, and the Steps reunion was a masterclass in passive-aggressive recriminations.

So I guess we shouldn't blame ITV2 for trying to get in on the action, or for hedging their bets by reuniting six fractured groups in a single show. There's certainly an abundance of material to work with, as the six bands in question have got enough issues between them to sustain a couple of years of Jeremy Kyle.

What they don't seem to have, depressingly, is any kind of enthusiasm for music. Money, drugs and unscrupulous record producers are what we're really here to talk about. And it's a real shame, since it effortlessly validates all those people who turn their nose up at pop music as a cynical marketing exercise. By the time one of the girls from B*Witched admits "We were just a product," I'm slapping my forehead so hard I need to fashion a bandana out of a tea-towel in order to mask the bruising.

Despite all this, we've got Andi Peters to talk us through it, stumbling through a relentless barrage of laboured puns, as if he'd rather be back in the broom cupboard talking to a hand-puppet. Also, every tenth word is interrupted with a DRAMATIC THUNDERCLAP to subtly suggest that there may be trouble ahead. Five minutes in and already it's clear that this is going to be a mash-up of the Smash Hits Poll-Winners' Party and a depressingly melodramatic VH1 Behind The Music marathon.

So which "iconic music acts who once had the world at their feet" are we going to be rediscovering? Over the next few weeks we can look forward to being reacquainted with 5ive, Liberty X, Atomic Kitten, 911, B*Witched and The Honeyz. Andi tries to get us excited by reeling off some admittedly impressive sales statistics, but in spite of the numbers, this doesn't feel like a momentous pop happening. None of these were ever music groups in the conventional sense - it's almost as if they were formed simply to give Cat Deeley something to introduce on a Saturday Morning. And while there's never a shortage of 'I'll do anything in front of a camera' drama, whenever Kerry Katona's involved, it's hard to imagine that anyone's going to wear out the record button on the Sky remote when we get to The Honeyz' big night.

The format of the show is simple. Each week we'll catch up with a couple of the reformed groups, then we'll see them getting ready for a massive one-off concert at Hammersmith Apollo. Along the way, we're promised recriminations, shocking confessions and horse tranquilisers. Oh, and if you've ever looked in the mirror and pulled at the loose skin on your face in an attempt to look younger, this show will make you feel like Dorian Gray. Some of these guys are barely in their early thirties, and yet they look more like they're waiting for Michael Apted to pop round for the next episode of Seven Up.

The story of 5ive is a story of excess, tension and Simon Cowell's love of the audition process. Five young lads were recruited through the trade press, stuck in house that could have been on the Brookside estate, and encouraged to make as much trouble as possible. With a selection of Swedish power pop under their belts, the lads went from strength to strength, despite the fact that the group's token hard-case apparently wanted to knock their lights out. As it happens, J has decided he wants no part of the group anymore, leaving the rest of the lads to either recruit a new member or commission a designer to see if he can knock up a new logo for a group called 4our. The years haven't been kind to the group - cheeky chappy Abz has turned into the Childcatcher, and Richie moved down-under to perfect his wide-eyed Boy George impression. Cheeky Essex chappie Scott marvels at their early success: "Number one and number two - you do the math." Erm, three? Although they managed to knock up millions of sales and even opened the Brits alongside Queen, tensions within the band reached breaking point. Sean felt too sick to continue, so he was replaced with a cardboard cut-out for the next video. Maybe it says something about the boys' inherent star quality, but I swear it's the first time I actually noticed he only existed in two dimensions.

Liberty X's own story has a similar range of highs and lows. To be fair, they didn't get off to the best of starts, as the people who failed to make it into Hear'Say. Imagine taking that to your therapist. Weirdly, as we watch the highlights of their journey on the original Popstars, I find myself more interested in whatever happened to Nicki Chapman. After the initial disappointment of being labelled 'The Flopstars,' our plucky wannabes declared their intention to form a band on the Lorraine show, and were quickly snapped up by Richard Branson. Unfortunately, the songs were shit, Michelle got addicted to slimming pills, and Kevin was downing three double vodkas just to handle the rigours of CD:UK. The highpoint of their career was obviously their first number one, since Just A Little Bit was a bona fide pop classic. The problem is, it was hard to warm to them as a group. The boys couldn't have been more generic if they were made out of Lego, and the girls always had a slightly menacing edge to them - if they weren't on Top Of The Pops, they'd be in a shopping precinct somewhere, throwing chips at a PCSO. By the time their record sales dried up, they were like a Icelandic bank or a dog that keeps pissing itself. These are their analogies, by the way, I'm just paraphrasing. In the end, they called it a day at the Wiltshire Crime Stoppers concert. "We're just glad that our last performance was at such a great event" they lied through their veneers.

Since the heady days of pop stardom, both groups have gone their separate ways, and tensions are running high in both camps about how they'll get on when they finally reform. But let's face it - no-one's really tuning in to see if Kevin and Tony from Liberty X can still grin through their embarrassment. We want to see what happens when Kerry Katona has to pretend to do something for a living. As always with these acts, music is the last thing on anyone's mind.

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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Big hair and bikinis - the women of 80s TV

In his excellent book The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall argues that the last fifteen years have seen a thrilling renaissance in TV drama. He makes a good point – citing the work of visionary writers like Matthew Weiner, David Chase, Joss Whedon and David Simon, in ushering in a new era of small screen artistry. The 1980s, on the other hand, told a very different story. Far from a golden age of TV, this was a time when shows were built around shallow characterizations and derivative concepts that could be recycled week in, week out.

Today’s shows offer fantastic actresses like Glenn Close, Laura Linney and Edie Falco rich, meaty and complex characters that root the drama in reality. But it’s not so long ago that women were relegated to the glamorous sidekick role, popping up week after week in yet another contrived cheesecake scenario. And yet, despite all efforts to render them entirely inconsequential, many of these women managed to leave an indelible impression on a generation of male viewers. They might not have made the grade as proto-feminist role models, but their sharp-witted, seductive and sassy performances ensured they’d be remembered long after their respective shows were forgotten. Here’s my tribute to ten of the very best.

April Curtis, played by Rebecca Holden in Knight Rider

Filling the shapely jump-suit vacated by Kirstie Alley-clone Bonnie Barstow, Rebecca Holden popped up in season 2 of Knight Rider to fiddle under Michael Knight’s bonnet. Usually, attractive women don’t fare too well when locked in the back of an articulated lorry, but April Curtis was a woman firmly in control.

With flaming locks of auburn hair (apologies to Dolly Parton) and glasses designed expressly for removing in moments of sexual tension, April knew how to rev an engine, and may have single-handedly encouraged a generation of women to consider a career in engineering. Most importantly, she could see right through Michael’s villainous twin Garthe, happily kicking him and his pointy beard into touch.

Diana Prince/Wonder Woman played by Lynda Carter

Let’s face it - the superhero game has always been one massive sausage fest. So in the late seventies, we were all thankful for strapping Amazonian Diana Prince and her lasso-wielding alter ego. In her calf-high boots and bedazzled granny pants, Lynda Carter was such an intoxicating heroine that we never even stopped to question the logic of her flying an invisible jet in which she remained steadfastly visible.

The Wonder Woman TV show tinkered with the comic format, changing Diana’s day job from nurse to Naval petty officer, for instance. They also added a small but potent explosion, every time she spun around and removed her clothes. But I’ll leave you to add your own punchline to that one.

Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show

When it came to 1980s prime-time TV, African- American women were pretty thin on the ground, apart from the occasional appearance as a take-no-bullshit judge on a legal drama. Thankfully, there was one notable exception, in the immaculately groomed form of Phylicia Rashad - for my money the quintessential TV MILF.

Smart, sophisticated and stern, she was the firm but fair mother of five, as well as a successful lawyer. Unfazed by her husband’s incessant gurning and chunky sweaters, she could get a conviction overturned in the time it took Cliff to tell another tiresome anecdote about pocket-money. At the time, I always marveled at how Clair’s useless son Theo managed to entice so many of his school friends to visit him at home. Now, I think I’m beginning to understand why they were lining up down the street.

Pamela Hensley as C.J. Parsons on Matt Houston.

Sensing that the power of Magnum P.I.’s appeal lay in Tom Selleck’s lustrous lip-warmer, the powers-that-be at ABC were quick to commission an homage of their own. Matt Houston told the tale of a mustachioed billionaire playboy who filled his empty days as a private investigator.

Aiding him in his louche lifestyle was his attorney C.J., with her open blouses, scalded red cheeks and enormous feathered hair that looked as if she rode to work on top of a runaway fire engine. The perfect combination of brains and beauty, C.J. possessed an early Apple computer that, despite having the memory of a pocket calculator, held a database with information on every person that ever lived. So not only was she a great crime-solver, she even invented Facebook.

Heather Thomas as Jody Banks on The Fall Guy

Few shows in the 1980s were as ruggedly, unapologetically masculine as The Fall Guy. Despite feeling like it was cobbled together from a bunch of outtakes from all those late ‘70s Hal Needham movies, The Fall Guy gave Lee Majors another massive TV hit. But while he and Douglas Barr were busy indulging in their May-to-December bromance, the camera was busy ogling fellow stunt pro Jody Banks.

Although she could roll a car or dive onto a pile of boxes with the best of them, Jody’s real skill was doing it all in a skimpy bikini. Hell, this is a woman who’d apply for a bank loan in a two-piece bathing suit. The formula obviously worked, since Heather went on to be the pin-up queen of the decade, appearing in more bikini scenes than any other prime time actress. Say what you like about feminism, but I bet Germaine Greer never rode a motorbike over five buses in her knickers.

Robey as Micki Foster in Friday The 13th The Series

In the late 80s, Paramount was keen to exploit its most lucrative franchise – the low budget slasher series Friday the 13th. Rejecting everything but the name, canny producers developed a threat-of-the-week concept involving the reclamation of cursed antiques by a couple of cousins who inherit an antique shop from their devil-dealing uncle. Although the show was a ratings hit at the time, it’s now best viewed as a camp curiosity – filled with odd exposition, inexplicable character motivations and terrible effects work.

For most fans of the show, the standout highlight was redheaded Robey – the mononymous former rockstar and future Countess of Burford. Sporting a breathtaking array of hairdos that would have required planning permission and some major structural underpinning, Robey brought an incongruous touch of big city glamour to a show about possessed scalpels and magical teacups. She was also a fan of gigantic ear-rings that, at times, looked more elaborate than the mystical trinkets that she and her cousin were attempting to reclaim.

Heather Locklear as Stacy Sheridan in TJ Hooker

TV cop shows have always been rigidly formulaic. And there’s no greater certainty than the fact that the comely, attractive young trainee officer will, at some point, have to back-comb her hair, daub herself in garish makeup and patrol the streets as an undercover prostitute. But during the 80s, no-one did it better, or more often, than Stacy Sheridan on T.J. Hooker.

Despite being the daughter of the police chief, Stacy was itching to get out from behind the station desk, if only so she could show off her legs in a pair of hotpants. Heather Locklear has been a glamorous fixture on TV for three decades now, and has barely aged a day in all that time. Come to think of it, the hair hasn’t changed either.

Erin Gray as Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

In the post-Star Wars rush to commission new sci-fi properties, it was hardly surprising that studios would return to the serial cliffhangers that had inspired Lucas’ burgeoning franchise in the first place.

Equally unsurprising, was the fact that the tough, no-nonsense Colonel Wilma Deering would quickly soften into a sexy, flirtatious foil for our barrel-chested hero. Even so, it must have been hard for former model to convey her character’s military seniority, wearing a purple one-piece that Katie Price might reject as being a little too clingy.

Stefanie Powers as Jennifer Hart in Hart to Hart

There was a time when it seemed as though every other show on TV was about glamorous one-percenters solving crimes in their spare time, because they had fuck all else to do. And Hart to Hart was no exception.
When he and his fabulous wife weren’t busy clinking Champagne glasses on their private jet, Jonathan and Jennifer Hart amused themselves by getting involved in international espionage. Such larks – these days, they’d just head out under cover of darkness and shoot homeless people. Nonetheless, at the ripe old age of 37, Stefanie Powers had a kind of lived-in glamour, and kept herself looking effortlessly windswept by never putting up the roof on her Mercedes convertible.

Jane Badler as Diana in V

It may have started out as an exceptional sci-fi allegory about the insidious rise of Nazism, but V soon descended into a trashy spacey soap opera – imagine Alexis and Crystal throwing blue milk in each other’s faces. Chief culprit for the increasingly campy tone was Jane Badler, who played the visitors’ improbably glamorous Chief Science Officer with lip-smacking relish.

As the eye make-up and hair got ever more ridiculous, so too did the performance, until she was devouring the scenery as if it was just another guinea pig. At one point Diana was forced into an arranged marriage with Charles, the Leader of the Visitors, by which point the audience had stopped caring. According to Wikipedia, Diana was intended as an analogue of Josef Mengele, although I doubt he could have carried off a negligee with shoulder pads.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

My Speidi Sense Is Tingling

Every TV show needs a great villain. The Fugitive had the one-armed man. Twin Peaks had Bob. And Jim’ll Fix It had, well, you get the idea. Following this line of reasoning, the producers of Celebrity Big Brother have gone all-out this year, casting a pair of sociopaths so calculating that they make Nasty Nick seem like a Pride of Britain nominee.

From the moment they appeared next to Brian Dowling, and promptly got told they’d be taking up residence in the basement, Heidi and Spencer have made no attempt to appear likeable or empathetic. Spencer even declared in his VT that he intended to wind everyone up until he was the last man standing – opting for the ‘touch the truck’ strategy for winning. In retrospect, it was probably the only option available to him, since this toxic twosome couldn’t win a popularity contest at a Liberal Democrat fundraiser.

True to their word, they’ve managed to get right up Rylan’s velour onesie, and I don’t imagine Claire will be adding them to her round-robin mailer list next Christmas. But before you start lining up outside Elstree to pelt them with flaming bags of faeces when they finally get evicted, consider the fact that they’re not really villains at all. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that they could be the saviours of the increasingly stagnant reality TV format.

Bear with me. I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ve only scratched the surface of a couple who’ve built their entire career on façades. And having watched how they conduct themselves in the Big Brother house, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not actually a pair of no-hopers stuck in a publicity-seeking marriage of convenience. They’re a pair of audaciously talented performance artists. Like Andy Kaufman in his heyday, they’ve managed to create comedy personas that have fooled the world. And the subject of their satirical performance? George W Bush’s America.

Let’s consider the evidence:

Appearances
On launch night, when Brian introduced the pair, they came out in an incongruous mix of outfits. Heidi was predictably spilling out of a sparkly evening dress, her famously reconfigured figure representing the synthetic, cosmetic aesthetic that constitutes modern media-savvy glamour. In stark contrast, Spencer looked to be recruiting for some hopeless Midwestern militia, decked out in scruffy camouflage combats.

Here, in human form, was an eloquent articulation of the conflict at the heart of America’s self-identity. If Heidi represents bi-coastal blue-state liberalism, then Spencer is providing his own commentary on the reactionary right wing ideologies of the fly-over states. Two separate mismatched personalities, thrown together in a troubled on-again-off-again partnership.

Behaviour
What should we make of Heidi and Spencer’s unwillingness to fully engage with the other housemates? Are they genuinely unsociable, or are we actually witnessing an incisive pastiche of US foreign policy? On opening night, Heidi at least made a cursory attempt at civility, robotically parroting her standard “Hi, I’m Heidi, nice to meet you,” as she made her way around the basement. But it was clear from the get-go that neither of them were willing to make any effort to get to know their fellow guests, particularly Rylan and Frankie, who had arbitrarily relegated them to the under-stairs hovel. In a stark echo of George W Bush’s troubling “You’re either with us or against us” post-9/11 rhetoric, Spencer and Heidi made it instantly clear that it was up to the rest of the housemates to join in a coalition-of-the-willing with them, or else suffer the consequences.

Throughout the series, they’ve displayed a consistent apathy towards getting fully involved in any of the tasks, preferring instead to sabotage any collective effort that didn’t specifically reward them. They also refused to be separated, even for the duration of a single task. Tellingly, this seemed less to do with their desperate need to be with each other, and more the fact that, shorn of their conjoined identity, they might simply cease to exist. Like the American tourists who visit Europe, but refuse to dine anywhere other than in familiar fast food restaurants, theirs is an insular take on the world. It’s one that expects everyone else to cater to their tastes, rather than branching out and embracing new experiences.

Morality
The last time Heidi and Spencer took part in a reality contest, they were dumped in the Australian jungle for the American edition of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objectionable pair didn’t fare too well, and were soon voicing the irony-free get-out clause that saw them swiftly evacuated from the camp. But before they departed, Spencer allowed himself to be baptized by Stephen Baldwin (himself a former CBB housemate). Unnecessary background detail, or proof of Speidi’s commitment to transforming their lives into a coruscating commentary on contemporary American ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ Christianity?

Last week, former Playboy model Heidi confronted Lacey for showering naked, telling her that such behaviour was ‘inappropriate’. Hypocritical outrage aside, Heidi’s reaction highlights the misplaced priorities of populist right wing America – an obsession with the sinful nature of the human body, and an impatience to cast the first stone. Conversely, the pair initiated yet another fight in the house yesterday by laughing when they prevented Claire from hearing a letter from her kids. They can’t possibly be that spiteful, so we must conclude that their performance is a critique of the modern Christian charity and the subjective nature of ‘family values.’

Language
It’s often been said of our ‘special’ relationship with our transatlantic cousins, that we’re two nations divided by a common language. Cleverly, Heidi and Spencer have offered their own perspective on the subject, with their esoteric take on communication. Spotting Spencer drinking wine straight from the bottle, Frankie Detorri asked whether he’d like a glass. “No, we’re American,” the pair retorted, offering justification, explanation and validation, all in one abstract declaration. Even their portmanteau tag feels like another quintessentially American noun – another consumer brand name to sit on a supermarket shelf alongside the Coca-Cola and Doritos. Like them, Speidi promises no natural ingredients and zero nutritional value.

So before you clench your fists and rail against the TV, exhorting the rest of the UK to vote them out, think about what they’re doing. As a reality TV entity, they’re greater than the sum of their parts. So much more than a failed pop tart and her conniving husband, they’re a knowing manifestation of contemporary America in all its tarnished glory. I’m just surprised that none of the countless magazine articles about their temporary separation used the headline ‘The State of Their Union’. So here’s to Spencer and Heidi, for bringing performance art to the masses. Forget about winning Celebrity Big Brother, I think they deserve the Turner Prize. Unless, of course, they really are just a massive pair of twats.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Five Films I Can live Without



A few years ago, buoyed by all the positive reviews, I finally got around to watching Atonement. Setting aside my aggressive antipathy towards its female star, you know – the one with a chin like a Seth MacFarlane doodle, I was fully prepared to give it a fair hearing. It was beautifully filmed, reasonably well acted, and managed to keep me engaged, right up until the ending. Now, maybe it was the fault of the critics. They were the ones who’d billed its rug-pulling dénouement as a jaw-dropper to rival the best of M Night Shyamalan, but to me, the whole thing just felt like obtuse narrative retconning. It took the concept of the unreliable narrator and violated it with a rolled up manuscript. In my red mist-addled mood, I made the fatal error of taking to the IMDB message boards to voice my indignation. I even outlined how I’d expected the film to end, being unfamiliar with its source novel by Ian McEwan.

Unsurprisingly, the backlash was swift, brutal and unfailingly condescending. I quickly discovered that Atonement is one of those special films that inspires a loyal, almost obsessive following. And to speak ill of the object of their affection is to invoke the ire of an entire army. They labelled me a troll, a hater and, most annoyingly, too stupid to understand the film’s poetic sophistication. Bollocks. I just didn’t like it. But that’s not enough for some people – they have a pathological need to defend their favourite films from attack, no matter how valid or even-handed the criticism might be.  

Nonetheless, this backlash has made me wary of speaking out against the majority opinion where films are concerned. But I’ve had enough. No longer will I be silenced by outspoken enthusiasts. It’s time to tip some cinematic sacred cows.

Drive

Let’s start with the most recent item on this list. In many ways I can understand why people fell for Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern masterpiece. After all, it certainly looks and sounds fantastic. Then again, so does Katherine Jenkins, but I could only stand about twenty minutes in her company before making a grab for the Hedex. Looking for a loving recreation of a 1980s aesthetic? You’d be better off playing Grand Theft Auto Vice City – at least that lets you change the radio station.

Drive was released at the perfect time to capitalise on Ryan Gosling’s man-of-the-hour ubiquity, inspiring a tsunami of breathless appreciations of his manly perfection. Unfortunately, I struggled to get past the ugly bomber jacket and the repartee of a trappist monk. He’s supposed to be the strong, silent type, but he makes Harold Lloyd look like Robert Downey Junior. It’s one thing to aim for quiet introspection, but without any dialogue, Gosling resorts to gurning like a spare Grumbleweed.

If you’re going to build a film around the powerful connection between two mismatched characters, they have to have some kind of rapport. I’m no relationship expert, but it takes more than a few coy smiles over a bowl of Cheerios to see into someone’s soul. When Drive was released two years ago, one litigious movie-goer tried to take the studio to court for misrepresenting the film. She claimed that she’d gone in expecting a Fast & Furious knock-off, so she attempted to sue for emotional distress. Maybe she’d have stood more of a chance if she’d blamed it for triggering involuntary narcolepsy – I’d have happily stepped in with some supportive testimony.

Blade Runner

Remember all the buzz last year about Prometheus, before the world discovered it was derivative pile of pretentious horseshit? Much of the pre-release excitement trumpeted Ridley Scott’s long awaited return to science-fiction after a thirty-year absence. As the rest of the world worked itself into a state of lightsaber-like tumescence, I was busy preparing for the worst. You see, I’d never fallen for Scott’s style-over-substance approach to futurism. It may cast me firmly in the minority, but I found his adaptation of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? to be an overblown masturbatory tribute to the conceptual designer’s art. As cold, emotionless and synthetic as the androids that Decker is tracking, the Blade Runner dresses itself in spectacular sci-fi drag, but nothing can disguise its utter lack of narrative momentum.

The big concepts around mortality, identity and sense-of-self could have been portrayed just as effectively in a minimalist film noir milieu, and made for a far more compelling experience. Instead, it’s almost as if Ridley was contractually obliged to spend a shitload of cash on building the world outside, when what was going on internally was far more interesting. While Harrison Ford was struggling to locate the man behind the emotionless façade, Ridley’s camera kept rushing to the window to point out another flying car.

When it comes to style over substance, this film wrote the stunningly typeset, immaculately laid-out, limited edition, leather-bound coffee-table book on it. Its fans love the fact that Ridley’s first cut (there have now been 117 different versions released on various home entertainment formats) left the question of Decker’s true nature unanswered; leaving audiences to guess whether he was actually a replicant, like the androids he was hunting down. But surely that’s the whole point of the story? In which case, it’s like The Usual Suspects ending the moment Verbal leaves the detective’s office.

Top Gun

There’s no greater example of the gender divide than the films that each sex takes to its collective heart. For those of us who grew up in the VHS era, there were only ever two contenders – Dirty Dancing and Top Gun. While the fairer sex was busy wearing down the heads in the toploader with scenes of Patrick Swayze molesting a school-girl, the boys were expected to fantasise about buying a pair of Ray-Bans and getting it on with the teacher. Thanks for that, Top Gun.

Tom Cruise had been toying with leading man status for a couple of years, but it was the role of Maverick that cemented his place as the ever-grinning crown prince of Hollywood. With a killer soundtrack, a tried and tested concept (this was An Officer and a Gentleman Part 2 in all but name), and the full support of the US Navy, the film had success written all over it. And it bored me fucking stupid.

As jingoistic military recruitment propaganda goes, Top Gun is a stone-cold classic. As entertainment, not so much. It just doesn’t really work as a film – the characters are as complex as the nicknames they’re all assigned, and the plot is similarly vacant. And yet, despite its egregious simplicity, I always struggled to follow what was going on. There’s never had any real sense of whether the aerial acrobatics taking place are part of a training exercise, or an actual conflict. So the viewer is unsure when they’re supposed to be feeling the adrenalin rush. Stunning aerial photography aside, watching someone else learn to fly a plane is about as compelling as watching Maureen struggle with an Austin Maxi in Driving School. It didn’t help matters that the only fatality took place during a bungled routine - something about jet wash and premature ejections. Is it any wonder that the film’s homoerotic undercurrent has taken on legendary status?

Highlander

No-one’s ever going to argue that this was a classic film by any conventional critical standards, but I know a lot of people who’ve showered an improbable amount of love on this baffling mess of a movie. It could be that my distaste for Highlander has simply been compounded by the number of times I had to sit through it as a student. My housemates only had one video – this one. And they insisted that we watch it with a torturous regularity.

Over the next couple of years I was able to identify my main problems with Highlander, besides its utterly bewildering plot. For a start, there’s the soundtrack – which turns the film into a musical where no-one sings. Given the cast’s inadequacy at expressing basic human emotions, we have Freddie Mercury to take us through it instead. “Who wants to live forever?” he sings, as Christophe Lambert sets up home with his flaxen-haired beloved, only to watch her age and die. By the time she checks out, we too have felt the crushing ennui of immortality.

The second problem I have is with the casting. Everyone knows that accents are the toughest part of an actor’s gig. So who the merry fuck decided to cast a Frenchman as a Scot, a Scot as an Egyptian, and an ironing board as the love interest? Sean Connery only ever sounds like himself, and Lambert would have been better channelling his grunting ape-man from Greystoke.  

And finally, we have Highlander to thank for ushering in a new cinematic phenomenon – the music video director turned film-maker. Mulcahy’s background couldn’t be more obvious if the artist and album details appeared in the bottom left of the screen every three and half minutes. Everything about this film feels like it was lifted from the derivative video of some generic mid-eighties power ballad – all flashing neon, billowing curtains and venetian blinds. So next time you’re suffering through another Michael Bay or McG monstrosity, just remember who blazed this particular trail for them.

From Dusk Till Dawn

Perhaps the most frustrating film on this list, From Dusk Till Dawn should have shoulder-barged its way straight into my top ten of all-time favourites. Tarantino and Rodriguez were a match made in heaven, Clooney was all set to channel his potent charisma onto the big screen, plus it had vampires and a supporting role for the incomparable Tom Savini. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything, as it happens. Starting with Quentin’s decision to take on one of the lead roles, despite an acting career that had peaked with an appearance as an Elvis impersonator in an episode of The Golden Girls.

Tarantino’s self-indulgent performance is just one of many aggravating elements in this shrilly objectionable film. Aside from the “Fuck it, that’ll do” approach to plotting, pacing and characterisation, my real issue was with the ugly seam of misogyny running through it, like ‘Cunt’ through a particularly offensive stick of Blackpool rock. And before you start, I know that this was a film about vampire strippers. Character names like Chet Pussy and Sex Machine didn’t exactly promise an intellectual dissection of the male gaze. But the film lost me early on, with a scene where Richie Gecko gets bored and accidentally rapes and mutilates the woman that he and his brother had kidnapped. The bloody aftermath is bad enough, but the fact that the recriminations between the two siblings are played like an astonishingly dark episode of the Chuckle Brothers, was what really bothered me.

One of the most meaningless phrases in film criticism has to be “It looked like everyone had a blast making it,” largely because watching other people enjoying themselves is no guarantee of fun for the observer. That’s why tramps always look so miserable when they stare through restaurant windows. So Tarantino’s grin as he gets to drink the whisky trickling down Salma Hayek’s thigh is effectively a ‘fuck you’ to everyone in the audience: “I’m having a ball here, and you idiots have paid to watch me do it.”

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Saturday TV achieves new depths, with a 1.5 rotation



When you write about TV, the law of averages dictates that you’ll have to sift through a fair amount of shit to uncover the occasional gem. But nothing could have prepared me for the staggering, stultifying and downright surreal sensation of sitting through Splash! By the way, that exclamation is part of the show’s title, and not my attempt to adopt a breezy, suitable-for-light-entertainment tone. Let’s be clear here, the last ninety minutes were about as much fun as invasive surgery with a balloon whisk. Less a TV show, more of an extended audition reel engineered by Tom Daley’s media agent, this actually made me long for the heady intellectual heights of Hole In The Wall.

The concept itself is ridiculously simple – it’s Dancing On Melted Ice, with Tom Daley attempting to fill a Torville and Dean shaped hole, by gamely posing in a tiny pair of budgie smugglers. Each week, five celebrities deemed too anonymous even for Big Brother, throw themselves into the water, hoping to win a place in the semi-final. Britain’s favourite set of obliques is on hand, to offer a few “great rotations” platitudes and smile at the crowds of teenage girls who’ve been bussed in from Dunstable for the evening.

The show doesn’t get off to the best of starts, as we discover that it’s sponsored by Dominos. Given the dangers of swimming on a full stomach that we had drummed into us as children, a carb-loaded pizza doesn’t really scream ‘competitive diving.’ Vernon Kaye and Gabby Logan are our hosts, and if I tell you that even they’re slumming it, that should give you some idea of just how bad this is. Tonight, Omid Djalili, Jade Ewen, Jake Canuso, Helen Lederer and Jenni Falconer “will be facing the most terrifying experience of their lives”. Fuck the ten metre board, it’s going to be more frightening trying to get an agent to take their calls tomorrow morning.

Vernon’s come straight from a Primark shop window, and Gabby appears to be channelling Penelope Keith, as they introduce Tom Daley for the third time in eight minutes. Tom enters by doing a quick dive off the highest platform, and instantly points out what’s wrong with the concept.
In a classic episode of 30 Rock, naïve redneck Kenneth invents a great new gameshow, that’s a twist on Deal Or No Deal, but with a suitcase of gold bullion. The producers are thrilled with Gold Case, and rush it into production. It’s only when they film the pilot episode, that they realise there’s a fundamental flaw in the premise, as contestant after contestant successfully guesses which model is holding a briefcase containing a million dollars in solid gold. “Right,” says Kenneth as the reality slowly dawns, “because gold is heavy.” And that’s what we have here – a ninety-minute show based around five minor celebrities plunging into water. That’s maybe 12 seconds of ‘entertainment’ in an hour and a half. Gabby breathlessly announces that “The atmosphere here in Luton is electric,” and I can’t help wondering if she’s planning on throwing a live hair-dryer into the diving pool.

In standard reality show fashion, we’ve even got a panel of judges, comprised of Team GB coach Andy Banks, Olympic diver Leon Taylor, and Jo Brand, who is to diving what Ann Widdecombe is to nipple clamps. She knows nothing about the sport, so she’s here for the entertainment. Based on the showing so far, she’s going to be shit out of luck.

Before we get onto the diving portion of tonight’s programme, we need to be re-re-re-introduced to Tom Daley and his furry thighs. Someone’s helpfully written him a speech about the pressures of diving, which he delivers with all the heady emotion of the Shipping Forecast. The producers also helpfully throw in some Olympics footage of Tom in action, along with a cheaply fabricated bit of commentary to pretend that the UK was delighted to settle for a bronze. As the VT ends, Gabby’s on hand to tell Tom “On behalf of everyone in the UK, thank you for everything you did for us.” To be fair, he did pop round and re-grout our bathroom after the Closing Ceremony.

Jade Ewen is the first of tonight’s contestants, and you may recognise her from the latest incarnation of Sugababes. She can’t swim and she’s terrified of water, so I imagine she’s only here because the group change members whenever one of them stops moving. She whips off her dressing gown and hands it to the hunky coat-rack standing by the pool side, revealing an impressive gold bikini that looks more like C3PO’s underwear than anything Princess Leia would be caught dead in. After all the VT drama, it’s a little disappointing to see her just topple into the water. If I really wanted to watch a bunch of people I’ve never heard of falling into water, I could just pop Titanic on. The judges are suitably condescending, and Vernon asks Tom whether he’s proud of his “first client.” I guess when you’ve got abs like that, you can charge people for it.

Our illustrious hosts keep trying to sell the concept of the show, telling us that this is the “show that takes celebrities to the edge, then pushes them off.” To be fair, it’s doing the same to the audience.
Jake Canuso plays a sleazy player in Benidorm, and is one of the few celebrities they’ve lined up for this debacle who looks good in a pair of trunks. He gets emotional when he remembers how he “nearly drowned in the Toon Army.” Turns out he meant the South Asian tsunami, but for a while he had me picturing him stuck at the wrong end of a Newcastle match. To help stretch out the running time, he disrobes at the far end of the pool and does an extended parade around the perimeter, high-fiving the bored-looking fans. At this rate, they’re going to have Omid Djalili disrobing in the car park. Up on the platform, he indulges in a few stretching exercises, but it’s not enough to perfect his dive. According to the judges, he “overcooked his rotation and entered a banana.” Not to worry, I know a few clubs where people would pay good money to watch him do that, as long as he’s happy to swap roles with the banana.

In the last twenty minutes, Helen Lederer has come on leaps and bounds. They’re now referring to her as a comedienne, rather than a ‘comedy actress’, and she no longer needs Tom to tip her off a mat into the pool, like he’s scraping diced chicken breast into a hot pan. She needs all the help she can get, since she’s terrified of heights, and it’s making her famously wide eyes bulge like a short-circuiting Furbee. In the end, she just plops into the water as if she fell out of a loose bowel, but even that’s enough to impress our soft-hearted judges. Leon tell her he’s in tears, but I think he’s just read the small print in his contract.

Can’t think of anything else to do, to use up your over-generous time slot? Try shouting out the name of some random props – “TEN METRE BOARD!” booms voice-over man, accommodatingly. Even Vernon seems embarrassed by this, and he’s spent the last decade on Family Fortunes.

Jenni Falconer has “amazing leg lines” and loves sport. She’s also a little bit pointy, so should cut through the water like a butter knife. After a bit of shoulder injury drama, that saw her wrapped in Bacofoil like a partly cooked jacket potato, she’s finally ready to take the plunge. She, too, takes her time getting round the pool, and for some insane reason, the producers decide to run this in slow motion, as it’s the opening titles of Lawrence of Arabia. Finally, she gets to the three-metre board and executes a lacklustre 1.5 rotation dive. Leon’s not impressed, and tells her “The springboard can be your friend, or it can be your enemy.” Jo tells him to be more positive, so he says “I love your costume.” Wow, dig deep. Andy says that the springboard “takes an absolute lot of bottle,” which may have been one of Fay Weldon’s rejected lines for the Milk Marketing Board.

Another ad break sees the Dominos bumpers point out “I think we’re witnessing something pretty special here folks.” It’s true – the only way this could be more staggering would be if the contestants were diving off the roof of an NCP.

With all the shoulder injuries, broken noses, vertigo and tsunami flashbacks we’ve had so far, Omid Djalili is going to have to fake a fatal allergy to water if he’s going to make any kind of sympathetic impression. He knows he’s not the classic diver’s shape, but he’s not too fussed, proudly explaining “I’m not a chiselled, high cheek-boned ponce,” just as the camera cuts to Tom Daley. That’s awkward. Tonight, Omid has decided to do a swan dive from the TEN METRE BOARD, and he’s surprisingly graceful, if lacking a little finesse on his entry. Gabby is breathless with enthusiasm, squealing “That may be one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. And I can look back and say I was there when it happened.” Funnily enough, Twitter is currently awash with similar comments, although motivated by a slightly different sentiment. Jo says that it was so majestic, it brought tears to her eyes, but that could just as easily be down to the slapping sound as the back of his legs hit the water.

After yet another break, Gabby tells us the phone-lines are now closed, but it’s not clear whether she means the voting numbers, or Ofcom’s switchboard. Promising “diving as you’ve never seen it before” our hosts introduce a weird variety act, combining dance and diving in a poorly choreographed James Bond pastiche. Think The Brian Rogers Connection, but wetter. One girl in the audience is covering her mouth in shock, and I’m making a very similar gesture.

With the votes in, Jenni and Jake have to dive again for a place in the semi-final. Both perform worse second time around, but Jake has done enough to go through to the next round. As everyone congratulates themselves on a job well done, Gabby closes the show with a lengthy catchphrase that involves dive-bombing and heavy petting, and manages to talk right over Vernon’s sign-off. Still, we can’t hold that against her. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Oh Brother


Once upon a time, the identity of the Celebrity Big Brother housemates was a closely guarded secret. The press would create a grid of silhouettes that looked like generic Facebook avatars, and speculate at length about who might be going in. All they had to go on was a sheet of clues from Endemol that was so cryptic it would have given Dusty Bin a nosebleed. Then again, those were the days when Big Brother was 'water-cooler' TV - so named for the fact that people would gather around it to discuss the previous night's action. Now, most of us would rather just watch the cooler than suffer through the show. And the mystery reveals are long gone, as the names and faces have been in the paper all week. Like a filmed adaptation of the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame, it's a predictable line-up of faces from soaps, reality TV, and a Bella article about plastic surgery fails.

There's a big twist this time, with the house divided, Downton Abbey-style. Half the housemates will live in luxury in the main part of the compound, with the rest in a shabby below-the-stairs basement. Brian's down there right now, threatening to unleash some 'true horror,' like a little gay Josef Fritzl. He promises two hours of drama and excitement, and I'm looking at my watch wondering whatever happened to sixty-minute shows.

Housemate number one is Frankie Dettori, who's talks about his successful horse-racing career and dismisses his drugs scandal as a 'moment of madness.' The audience look pretty miserable through all this. They're supposed to be having fun, but it's like watching out-takes from the new Les Mis adaptation. Five more minutes and it could all kick off over a damp baguette. Frankie's still on the carpet, waiting through the ad-break for his first housemate. And here I am, three days into 2013 and already writing about Rylan Clark again. He babbles and makes noises with his curiously stretched mouth, and I'm left to marvel at how someone can fail on a modeling show and a music show, only to qualify as a celebrity and clear favourite to win this series of BB. As the pair with the most ridiculous teeth, Rylan and Frankie will be deciding who'll be living in which part of the house. Rylan keeps squealing "drop me out," and I'm wondering just how clever my voice-activated Smart TV is. The boys are in the diary room ready to judge the housemates in pairs, but their curiously mismatched sizes make Frankie look like a ventriloquist's dummy.

Brian introduces our next housemate - it's the 'original supermodel' Paula Hamilton. She tells us that she can handle a chainsaw, and by the looks of her, so can her surgeon. Paula reckons she used to get picked up in a Lear Jet to go to work, but since she looks as though she spent last night in a shopping trolley, we can forgive her the occasional lapse into fantasy. She also describes herself as an eccentric, which probably means that she's so dull that I'd be excusing myself with tales of a bladder infection if I ever met her at a party. Tricia Penrose sounds like Lulu and dresses like she's trying out for the Priscilla musical. She's been in loads of TV shows, none of which I've ever seen her in. Rylan and Frankie have to decide which of them is going to the basement - Rylan apologises by explaining: "We have got a job to do." There's a first time for everything, I suppose.

While Brian busies himself by making weak jokes, laughing at them, then excusing himself, we're off to meet Toadfish from Neighbours. He joined the show just as I stopped watching it, and over the years seems to have grown from a lumpy awkward teenager into someone who might supervise a bin-round. Brian asks him if he knows Kylie. Because she's Australian, you see. He says he doesn't know her personally, but he knows who she is. I have a feeling that's the last time we'll be hearing those words tonight. Joining Toadie on stage is Gillian Taylforth, who's here so that we can all make blowjob jokes on Twitter. Brian wastes no time in getting one in about 'Gillian going down' - so the bar's been set pretty low. To be fair to Gillian, she's six years older than Paula Hamilton and could teach the model a thing or two about aging gracefully.

Speaking of Paula, there's an awkward moment as Ryan joins her in the basement and she thinks he's part of the crew. I guess even the name badges aren't helping with guest anonymity this year. Upstairs, Tricia's thrilled by how many crisps there are in the store room. And that just makes me a little sad about the standard of crew catering on Heartbeat. At this point in proceedings, Twitter is erupting in accusations of a conspiracy, as it's alleged that all the people going to the basement have come out dressed in their warmest winter clothes. This is shocking - I expect a higher standard of broadcasting integrity from my Channel 5 reality shows.

Sam Robertson is apparently an actor from Beaver Falls and Coronation Street. I just hope that Wikipedia doesn't crash under the weight of all the extra traffic it's going to be getting tonight. Oblivious to today's Yewtree excitement, he tells the crew he's got "three girls waiting in bed," and proceeds to jitter and twitch like Colin Farrell on a three-day bender. Somewhere in heaven, Kenneth Williams is pulling his best Maggie-Smith-face, as he hears that the next housemate is a busty glamour model called Lucy Banghard. The poor girl reckons that people think she's stupid because she's a page 3 model, and not because of the inane bullshit dribbling from her mouth.

Next in the firing line is Claire Richards, who describes herself as one fifth of Steps, when thirty percent might have been more accurate. She tries to pretend that it's other people who perceived her as the lead singer, whereas I think it's probably the fact that she did all of the singing. Claire's joined on the red carpet by Razor Ruddock, who's something of a regular on reality shows. He's talking about his wife in a derogatory way that suggests he might have been the last minute replacement for Jim Davidson. One from their 'loathsome misogynist' folder. Brian helps out with "Claire, Razor, Claire, Razor," but it's not clear whether he's making introductions or inciting her to self-harm. Claire gets to join the main house, as her fellow housemates bring out the food, but someone in the catering team appears to have got sushi rolls mixed up with tortilla wraps. Meanwhile, in the basement, Big Brother has to put 50p in the electricity meter. With David Cameron's notorious "We're all in this together" graffitied onto the double doors, I guess this is the closest we'll ever come to political satire on Big Brother.

I'd heard there was a massive pair of tits in this year's line-up and simply assumed they were talking about Lacey. Turns out, they were talking about our last two housemates, Spencer and Heidi from The Hills. That's the original scripted reality show that begat Real Housewives, TOWIE, Chelsea, Scousewives, Geordie Shore and the rest. For that alone they deserve to be locked in the basement and burned alive. Spencer's strategy for winning the show is to wind up the other housemates and make them quit the show. So, based on his previous form, he could have this in the bag within an hour.