Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just get out of my Facebook

Why, it only seems like last week when I was saying that The Apprentice is just Big Brother for middle-class folks. And that's probably because it was last week.

And in January or so, I was saying about how I didn't like Myspace (mainly because the pages are so ugly and slow to load, but also because the whole business seems oddly self-serving and pointless at the same time)… and lo and behold, the commuter-belt version of it seems to be impinging on my consciousness (and, of course, my Inbox).

Look, my darlings, I love you dearly, but I really don't want to be added to your list of Facebook friends. As far as I can tell, it's just a suburban version of myspace, with some 'networking' aspect thrown in, and I'm sure you can imagine how I feel about that.

I'm dead easy to track down on the interweb - just type my name in Google* and I'm usually on the front page - and you can e-mail either via this page or my web site (address to the right), or at .

I'd much rather you do that than make me have to sign up to some website-thingy. And, you know, in a way, I think you would too, rather than trying to make me join a strangely purposeless club...

*Other search engines are available. Though, in my experience, not necessarily as good.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A complicated approach to marketing, I have to say

I can only conclude that Woolworths have made this very specific reduction on the basis that if you think it's a notably good deal, you really need to buy the item in question.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Speak Your Brains*

Well, never let it be said that I don't listen to reader feedback. The general consensus on Review Week (May 8-11) was that people didn't like it. Fair enough, I’ll try to space out the reviews a bit more, and you'll be pleased to know that (as the government might say) there are no plans at present to repeat the all-Review format.

One comment was that the reviews tended to be of things people might not be familiar with, and I’d have to say this is deliberate; I do this because I want to point to things which people might otherwise overlook, and also because I tend to approach the media buffet with a broad plate*, so I like to think this blog is nicely varied in its reviews - books, films, comics, musicals etc Indeed, the observant amongst you will have spotted that I usually make it clear in the first paragraph (if not sentence) exactly what the item being reviewed is in terms of medium. You hadn't spotted that? Ah, all part of my aim to make things more accessible.

Oh, and one of the comments was that reviews of books would be nicer if they were accompanied by an image of the book cover. Good point, I'll do that in future.

I've upped the frequency of posting in the last month or so, and my general aim is to post five new items every week - generally one a day during the working week, but there's obviously some variation in that. This is because some people said they didn't think I posted often enough. You may consider me suitably chastised, if not necessarily chaste.

*Yes, there is a Day Today subtext to this post. Today's recommended viewing, if you will.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Source Of The Apprentice

At a meal the other day with some people I didn't know very well, they were talking about the TV show The Apprentice. I haven't watched the programme very much (I usually find myself catching bits of it and finding it difficult to understand why Alan Sugar's seen as this successful businessman - doesn't most of his money come from property now rather than active business?), but not necessarily knowing what I'm talking about doesn't usually bar me from passing comment, as this blog actively demonstrates.

Which is why I asked the following question: "Isn't The Apprentice just a middle-class version of Big Brother?"

That remark rather bought the conversation to a halt, I'm proud to report, but I rather suspected there it was more than just me being snide. And when I watched The Apprentice last night (for the first time - and it'll be the last), I couldn't help but think there was indeed many a true word spoken in my semi-jest.

Points of similarity being:
- The contestants live together
- They're set tasks which dictate whether they remain in the game or not
- Much of the show focuses on the personality clashes and 'characters' (as does the conversation about the show)
- They have to pack their bags when they're at risk of being kicked out
- The results are decided in a capricious, borderline cruel, way (one by a public vote, the other by Sugar and his two colleagues)
- The outcome is prefaced by a good deal of padding and reiteration, which I guess is meant to produce tension
- Let's face it, both programmes attract the kind of contestants you wouldn't really want to know in real life

So I won't be watching it again (same for Big Brother this year, I suspect). Interestingly enough, the original US version, featuring Daniel Clamp*, has been axed due to lack of interest, whilst the UK version rattles on, a bit like the way 'The Upper Hand' outlived its transatlantic parent.

And anyway, it featured loads of padding - oh, sorry, I mean panning - shots of Canary Wharf and Docklands, which I can see from the balcony of my penthouse flat any time I choose. Tch.

*Not seen Gremlins 2? You really should, John Glover is brilliant in it, as is the Fire Alarm. See it, and see what I mean.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Strange Bedfellows - Part 2 of 2

(In which we meet two men from different continents and generations, and speak of how both now say more by speaking less)

There was a time - probably about the time that he wrote and starred in LA Story - when I believed that Steve Martin might, conceivably, be the funniest man alive. He'd made some terrific comedy films (The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and of course The Man With Two Brains), rewritten my favourite play Cyrano de Bergerac for a modern audience and into a modern setting to considerable success (Roxanne), and had a history as a stand-up comedian which sounds unlikely to us now. Playing Madison Square Garden, and releasing an album half-comprised of banjo playing? Crikey. Colour me impressed. And I liked LA Story quite a bit too, so well done Steve.

A few years before this, various people I knew had been singing the praises of Ben Elton, though I didn't really know him; he was on Saturday Live, a TV show I didn't watch, though I saw it round at a friend's house and thought 'meh'. I did, however, hear him do 'The Train Set' routine as part of Comic Relief (the one that features the refrain 'double-seat, double-seat, gotta get a double-seat"), and thought it was very funny indeed, so I was more favourably inclined, and as the years went on and I enjoyed The Man From Auntie and Blackadder on TV, and even saw him live (with stomach-paining results), I came to feel that, much as one might find some of his verbal tics faintly irritating, Ben Elton might well be one of the finest comedians working in the UK.

If memory serves, Elton got into performing stand-up because he wanted the material he was writing to actually see some kind of outlet, and when he reached a certain point of exposure, he kind of turned back to that by moving into writing novels. His first, published in the late 1980s, was Stark, a pretty good ecologically-themed tale, even if some sections felt a bit like stand-up material shoehorned into prose form. Since then, he's followed that with a novel every year or so, the most recent of which is (as far as I know), Chart Throb, about TV singing talent contests. And on the basis of his most recent TV series, 'Get A Grip', though it was obviously a very poor format and the need for his co-presenter to be there was less than nil, I'm rather inclined to think that the novel is where Ben's skills probably lie nowadays (I'm deliberately ignoring his forays into the world of musicals, because I haven't seen any of them, and because I like to think they're just a stupid aberration in terms of his output; kind, perhaps, but they're so strangely off the map for his work that I can't even begin to understand what made him say yes, unless it was bucket loads of money).

Steve Martin, too, has published a number of books; his first, Cruel Shoes, was a very slight item published in the late 1970s when his stand-up was making him famous; it's funny, but reads very quickly. Strictly speaking, his next couple of books weren't novels as such, being collections of his plays ('Picasso at the Lapin Agile and other plays') and short comic writings ('Pure Drivel'), but his first proper novel, Shopgirl, struck me as very strong; short and to the point, it was quite sparse as well, and generally lacking in the fluffiness that Martin's recent films have all involved. His second novel 'The Pleasure of My Company', is just as good, and again very different in tone from his recent silver screen outings.

And this is the thing, really - since LA Story, I've found Steve Martin's films to be more mainstream ('Housesitter', for example) to the point of losing any interest for me, and the remakes of existing characters (Bilko and Clouseau) are as inexplicable to me as Ben Elton's decision to do musicals. Unless Steve Martin's writing it as well ('Bowfinger' being the most recent example I can think of), the idea of him being in a film now holds little draw for me. Whereas the news that he's got a new book out actively interests me. And the same is true for Ben Elton, whose books are generally very good indeed (the last line of 'Popcorn' is, I think, one of the best comments on the whole 'violence in films' debate I've ever heard).

So these two chaps are, to my mind, bedfellows in that their recent work is arguably a return to their starting positions (Martin started out writing material for The Smothers Brothers; not people I've actually seen, as - like Gilligan's Island - they don't seem to have made it across the pond) - that is, as writers. Specifically in the novel form, which is one of the more pure artforms there is, as (unlike with, say, films) the number of people involved in the process is minimal, and may indeed be one person operating alone in the case of total creative freedom.

Ironically - and interestingly - both Martin and Elton deal with some pretty weighty and uncomedic subjects in their novels (people with social deficiencies, reality TV, drugs, and the like), but manage to make them both gripping and amusing, and often provide insights into things which contemporary 'serious' and 'literary' novelists seem less willing to tackle - or at least to tackle as accessibly.

I've often maintained that the ability to make a joke at speed about something shows you've assimilated the incoming information and processed it and found the wrinkles and quirks in the situation and framed a response, which suggests a greater speed of mental processing. Which might be why those whose stock in trade is seen as the funny and amusing could be a useful source of solid and genuine insight. I could be wrong, but I think there's something to this, and I think it's why both Elton and Martin are better off - and so is the audience - utilising their obvious talents in this way. It's not an expected turn of events, or career path for either of them, to be sure, but I think it's ultimately for the best.

After all, as Neil Gaiman wrote in 'Sandman: A Midsummer Night's Dream', "It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no-one else will speak".

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Strange Bedfellows - Part 1 of 2

(In which we see how a muscular man and an often-pregnant-in-summer woman are more similar than one might immediately think)

It was announced recently that Davina McCall is intending to leave her job as host of the TV programme Big Brother. My interest in the programme has waned in recent years (mainly due to the escalating and ever-more transparent attempts by the production team to manufacture conflict and drama, and the increased number of 'outrageous' characters who seem all too willing to parade their insecurities and social ineptitudes onscreen, but I digress), but I think it's fair to say that even people who hate the programme would have to concede that McCall's presentation of it has been successful - ratings are good, and she seems more than capable of keeping the 'anything could happen' atmosphere going despite it all being orchestrated to fit around the advert break and the like. So, almost a model definition of the sort of work that's much admired by people who like that sort of thing.

In a handy coincidence, the film Pitch Black was on TV on (I think) Saturday night. I don't know if you've seen it, but if not, and you don't mind science fiction (some people just have an aversion to the genre full stop, and this film's unlikely to convince them to change their mind), then it's worth a look. It’s got a fun story, some creepy nasty aliens, and Vin Diesel (whose name always makes me think of a very cheap wine, like the Austrian wine/anti-freeze scare of the 1980s) gives a suitably burly and growly performance in it. Following Pitch Black and xXx, I think it's fair to say that Diesel's career didn't quite work out - from the films he appeared in, it seems they were trying to position him as a Stallone or Schwarzenegger-style action hero (even down to the similarities between 'Kindergarten Cop' and 'The Pacifier', a point I'm far from the first person to make). It didn't really pan out, though, and I believe that this was for the same reason that Davina McCall's chat show got poor ratings and was swiftly cancelled in 2006.

Quite simply, I think it's due to an entirely erroneous conclusion being reached by the people behind the scenes (and probably the agents and other publicity people), which I'd guess is the result of a thought process that runs along the following lines:

"Well, it (Pitch Black / Big Brother) goes over well with the audience, and brings in money… and the main person in it is (Vin/Diesel)… so if we find a vehicle for (him/her), then the audiences will love it. If we show it, they will come."

You can spot the mistake in that (admittedly oversimplified) conclusion, I'm sure. And I'm oversimplifying for effect, but also because the analysis of a successful creative endeavour has to be careful (especially with things such as films and TV which are the work of many hands; less so with a novel, really).

People I know who've seen Pitch Black like it because it's a solid little SF film, with an interesting 'high concept', and some moments of tension and action, and more than adequate special effects. None of the people I've spoken to about it said they liked the character Diesel plays (he's a convicted murderer, if memory serves, though I understand that they tried to make him a straightforward good guy in the almost-universally-mocked sequel), or that he gave a standout performance, or anything like that.

Similarly, when discussing Big Brother with people, Davina McCall's role is often an afterthought; she is, after all, only the host for one, perhaps two, of the seven or more shows which are on when BB is running. People who talk about BB invariably discuss the behaviour of the 'housemates' (read: contestants), the bitching and backbiting and all that. Comments about McCall are invariably about how she's pregnant again, or the questions she asked in the post-eviction interview or whatever. In no way does anyone ever seem to think that Davina McCall is an integral part of the show (we'll see if this is the case when she does leave, of course).

In both instances, I think, the success of the item is a result of a number of factors, and looking at the most obvious elements of it seems to be a mistake - the ill-fated (and unfeted) TV series 'A Year in Provence' springs to mind. It may well be that you're talking about something which can't be duplicated (compare 'The Office' with 'Extras' to see how it was not all Gervais - indeed, many people I know talked about the finale in terms of Tim and Dawn, not Brent), like 'lightning in a bottle'. Or it may simply be that there are various ingredients which make something more than the sum of its parts (compare songs written by 'Lennon' and 'McCartney' with songs written by 'Lennon-McCartney'). Like eggs or sugar or flour in a cake.

I mean, I love cake, but I wouldn't want to eat a bowl of eggs or sugar or flour. Well, maybe I'd give the sugar a go, but it would run the risk of seeming like a not-bad idea which turns out to leave one feeling vaguely nauseous or ill.

Which, incidentally, pretty much summarises the way I felt after watching 'xXx' and 'Davina'.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Friday Night Blights

When I was growing up, my Friday Nights were blighted by the television programme 'Out of Town' hosted by Jack Hargreaves. The programme always seemed to last more than its actual 30 minutes, as he talked about horseshoes and crops and whatnot. I'm led to believe he may have been a director of the ITV franchise it was shown on, which might explain why the show seemed to be recommissioned indefinitely, but that might just be bitter TV insider gossip.
Also pictured here, the logo for a well-known chicken-based foodstuff emporium, recently redesigned, but I still think they look the same.
On the other hand, you might agree with Robin Williams that Colonel Sanders more closely resembles Ho Chi Minh.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Silver (haired) Screen

Just a quick post today, but it's a thought that's been on my mind for a while...

The David Lynch film 'Mulholland Drive' was very well received by film critics, unlike the director's earlier film 'Lost Highway', despite sharing many similarities in theme and tone. 'Mulholland Drive' features more female nudity and sexuality than 'Lost Highway'.

The film 'Lost in Translation' was very well received by critics. 'Lost in Translation' features a man of advanced years spending time with a much younger woman.

The film 'Sideways' was very well received by critics. 'Sideways' features two middle-aged men going on a road trip, and having relationships with attractive women.

Would it be reasonable for me to guess that the majority of film critics are male, and probably aged over 40?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's In A Name?

Well, quite a lot, if you ask me.

Surely I'm not alone in thinking that they really did not think this name through quite as well as they could have?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Blood and Sand

Okay, before I get into a long, involved, and pretty humiliating (but utterly true) tale, I want to talk about Inspector Sands. Inspector Sands, like his rank-equal colleagues Morse and Gadget, is a fictional character, but this chap appears in announcements made over the tannoys at train stations in London, basically notifying staff that a fire alarm has been set off at some location in the station. For example, 'Would Inspector Sands please report to the main ticket office, please' means that an alarm's been set off there. This, as far as I know, is a system that's only in use in London, and ironically the attempt to be covert is invariably utterly blown by the fact that the recorded voice of these announcements is really much posher than the vast majority of announcements which blare out of train station speakers, so the fact that something's up is readily apparent to anyone whose number of ears is greater than zero.

Anyway, that's all backgroundy stuff, which will come back later. I promise. Right, here we go.

For many years, I've felt that giving blood is a good thing to do. In fact, in my teen years I made plans to do it as soon as I was old enough, though that didn't actually pan out until I was at college, when I went along to a blood donor session being held at the Student Union. On arriving, I was amazed and appalled to see that the Nelson Mandela Bar had been transformed - people were lying on stretcher-type beds with tubes running out of their arms as medical-types tended to them. It looked like a set from M*A*S*H, though with solid walls. And posters for the GaySoc and forthcoming bands on the walls (remind me to tell you about the time I saw Blur for a quid). But you get what I mean.

I turned up, all ready to give the good red stuff, but it turned out I couldn't donate blood unless I'd registered, which I hadn't. Tch. So I went away, and didn't try to give blood until several years later, when I was living in Sheffield, my degree diploma in one hand and my UB40 in the other. Unlike in the USA, you don't get paid for giving blood in the UK, but I had time on my hands and AB Negative in my veins, so I thought 'why not?' and went along to a blood donor session.

I got past the registering hurdle this time, and after having my thumb pricked (insert your own Macbeth reference here) and my blood checked to ensure it was blood and not a combination of tea and liquid chocolate, and a dozen thoughts of Hancock as The Blood Donor later, I was lying down on a bed with a tube in my arm. After a few minutes, I started to feel a bit light-headed, but assumed that was inevitable, so I ignored it. A minute or so later, though, I started to feel that weird feeling in the gut you get when you're just about to throw up or pass out or both. So I let someone know and they stopped the process. Afterwards, they told me that I probably hadn't had enough to eat, and that next time I gave blood (or tried to) I should make sure I had a large meal first. Fair enough.

Some months later, I went along to try again, this time having had a good amount of food, and accompanied by an old friend (in fact, who I'm still in contact with now. Have I really known her for 25 years? Crikey). This time, in an attempt to keep myself distracted during the vampiric process, I bought along my Walkman, ready to play Bat Out Of Hell as the blood drained from my arm. I went through the same process, and laid down on the bed-thing, pressed PLAY on the Walkman, and after a few minutes, the music seemed to be getting rather distant. As long-time readers may well know, I'm a huge fan of the overblown musical work of songwriter Jim Steinman, and if any of his tunes (such as Bat Out Of Hell) starts to sound vague or quiet, you can be pretty certain it's not Jim's fault - chances are, something's up with your ears. And indeed there was with mine, as I started to feel the great grey weight of unconsciousness start to press down on me. I feebly raised an arm and said I felt unwell, and…

… well, I guess that the staff must have swarmed around me, doing their thing, because I reckon I passed out for a few seconds. When I came to, there was a cold wet cloth on my head, and the tube was out of my arm, and my friend was standing by the side of the bed-thing, looking concerned (it was only some time later that I realised she'd taken advantage of my out-of-it-ness to stick a 'Be Nice To Me - I Gave Blood Today!' sticker on my collar). After an appropriate time to recover, and a cup of tea and a biscuit, I was advised that I had low blood pressure, and that I really shouldn't try to give blood any more. Ah well.

Jump forward about fifteen years, to last night. It's been a while, I've gained weight - and, I reasoned, must have increased my blood pressure as a result - and as several people close to me have had serious (though successful) medical treatment in the last year or so, I wanted to try to donate blood by way of giving something back. So I went along, and after explaining that, yes, I had tried and failed twice before, they said I could have another go, but I was warned - a little over-sternly, I felt - that the bloodbags are quite expensive, and they just have to be thrown away after people like me fail to make a donation, this would be my last chance. Three strikes and you're out, it seems.

Time has passed and technology has developed, so this time I had an mp3 player with me (still the Walkman brand, I'm quite loyal when I find something that works) as I laid me down on the stretcher-bed. The needle went into my arm, I pressed PLAY, and as Tubular Bells (I'm not proud, it was on random) started to play, I concentrated on breathing deeply and clenching and relaxing a fist on the arm with the tube in. And everything went as it should.

For about three minutes. Then I started to feel a weird tingling in my gut, and my head started to feel a bit foggy. Now, I know that one of the reasons you faint is because of the blood rushing from your head to the other vital organs, so I guessed that my stomach felt almost like I had dysentery (unfortunately, something I've experienced) because something was wrong. So I guessed something was up, and said as much to the nearest attendant. And this is where things got really rather strange, and then awkward.

"Cold Square!" she shouted, and suddenly there were four of them all round me. One of them taking the tube out of my arm, another putting a cold flannel on my forehead, and one lifting my legs whilst another put a large wooden block under my feet. And I thought (here's where the foreshadowing pays off): What the hell does Cold Square mean? Must be code, like Inspector Sands or something.

I swear to you, that's what I thought - though another thought quickly barged its way to the front of the consciousness queue, as the feeling continued to tingle in my stomach, and I thought: Oh my god. I really, really want to fart.

So I clenched my sphincter - not that easy to do when you're trying desperately to remain conscious - and gritted my teeth and promised myself that I would not, repeat not, fart when I was the surrounded by four medical professionals.

"He's all right," one of them said. "Just needs to rest a few minutes."
"He still looks quite tense," another noted, with some concern.
"Are you all right?" one asked, leaning into my field of vision.
"Yeah," I said, slightly breathlessly, "I'll be fine once I catch my breath." But if you hang round you won't like what you'll be breathing in, I thought. Please go away.

They left me for a few minutes, and the wooziness passed, and - more importantly, to be honest - so did the need to break wind. I laid there and breathed deeply, until I felt all right. After a bit longer, they sat me up and gave me some water and said that, for some reason, my body just reacted really badly to having blood removed, and that I really shouldn't try to give blood any more.

Fair enough, I said, and slowly made my way home, where my beloved asked me how it had gone.
"I had an issue," I said - our code for 'it all went catastrophically wrong' - and then I told her everything. She listened as I told her what had happened, nodding and hmming in all the right places, but then when I told her about straining to keep the fart in, she laughed, and then laughed some more, then tried to hide the fact that she was laughing by going into the kitchen, but I followed her and found her bent double by the sink, red with the effort of holding back the laughter, and looking like she might soon need medical attention herself.

Anyway, in conclusion, I can't give blood. But if you can, you really ought to.

Just make sure you eat a hearty meal before you go to a donor session. Sausage and chips or something. But skip the baked beans, just in case.

LINK: Wedding Album

I may have mentioned the name Alan Moore several times in the blog, and the reason for this is simple - he's an immensely talented writer, and (having met him on about half a dozen occasions, I can honestly say), a jolly nice chap too.

Last Saturday, Mr Moore married his long-time companion, the also very talented artist Melinda Gebbie, at a wedding, which, from the looks of these photos on the blog of the jolly-talented-too writer Neil Gaiman, was a lot of fun indeed. Yay!

Monday, May 14, 2007

See, I’m Not Just Making This Stuff Up

Just in case you thought I was being a bit trainspottery about this, the issue was raised by Charlie Brooker in a national newspaper over the weekend (and Brooker knows a great deal about TV).

In his article he provides this link to the BBC’s new standards on closing credits, which I have to say seem to completely embody everything I ranted about last week.

Your licence fee at work.

Friday, May 11, 2007

REVIEW: 'The Naked Jape' by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves

Say what you like about Jimmy Carr, co-writer of this book, he works hard; I don’t just mean that he appears to have cloned himself in order to present loads of panel shows and ‘Top 100’ shows on channel 4, but I know from personal experience that he works at it – I used to dabble with stand-up, and on almost every occasion I did a gig about six years ago, Carr was also there. I’ll freely admit that I don’t really care for much of his material (it’s all a bit calculated for my tastes), but I’ll cheerfully doff my cap to his work ethic.

Anyway, this book, co-written by Carr and long-time friend Lucy Greeves, sets about analysing jokes and how they work.. It’s a bold aim, and one that they pull off with a fair degree of success, to my mind.

They look at the actual nature of what physiologically causes laughter, how various jokes are constructed, what makes a person want to become a comedian, and the usual issue of whether comedy is invariably laughing at someone or something. I wasn’t entirely convinced by one of the chapters – on ‘ironically offensive jokes’ – as it felt like too much of a get-out for Carr’s material, really (as Stewart Lee pointed out, if you can legitimately claim that Jim Davidson’s nicked a joke of yours and used it in his act, and it doesn’t stand out a mile, you might want to reconsider your material).

Still, that’s a small-ish complaint, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this book (not least the fact that – for the first time in my reading about him – they as good as say that Peter Kay doesn’t do jokes so much as a kind of shared cheerful experience; something which I feel is very true indeed). Even if you’re not interested in the arguments and observations being put forward, the foot of each page has a joke on it, and the chapters are ‘followed ’ by examples of jokes of the style being discussed. Making it like an amalgam of a serious analysis and a joke book, as it were.

If you’re interested in comedy, either as a spectator or would-be practitioner, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book, and so I’d recommend it. Though the current hardback (yes, the form I read it in; I know, look at me with my posh books) and the forthcoming paperback both have a drawing of a nude Carr on the front cover, making it rather embarrassing to read in public.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

REVIEW: Hot Fuzz

I’m rather late in reviewing this film, I’ll cheerfully admit, but in my defence it vanished from my local fleapit after a surprisingly brief time, though thankfully it re-appeared over the Bank Holiday weekend, giving me a chance to see it on the big screen. Just in time for Review Week here on m’blog.

And I’m glad I did; as you may well know, this film is from the same team as the romantic zombie comedy (‘romzomcom’) Shaun of the Dead, but is their spin on the buddy cop film, with an English angle.

Top policeman Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) is transferred from London to the sleepy West Country village of Sandford. However – and as you’d hope unless the film was going to feature 90 minutes of adrenaline-fuelled grass-keeping-off-reminder action – things are not what they seem.

Comparisons with the team’s previous film are inevitable, but I have to say that I think that Hot Fuzz is the better film; the plot’s stronger – and impressively twisty – and whilst there aren’t as many straight-out jokes (though there are a lot of good gags), the overall look of the film is more confident (check out those scene transitions – racing through events in a kind of visual bullet-point effect, for want of a better phrase), and the action sequences are very good, not least for being in such an unlikely setting.

Pegg carries the film very well, and his friend Nick Frost does well as the inevitable ill-matched partner, though the eye’s inevitably drawn to the rest of the cast, featuring as it does a host of well-known British actors: Timothy Dalton all but twirls his moustache, whilst Jim Broadbent, Edward Woodward, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Olivia Colman are just a few of the ‘ooh, look, it’s them’ moments in the film. Oh, and Bill Bailey. Twice. With a very silly way of telling him apart (oh, watch the film, you’ll see what I mean).

Overall, then, a very good film indeed, and whilst it veers into action territory towards the end, it’s got enough human interest and jokes (not to mention in-jokes) in it to stop it being a ‘boy film’, despite it paying homage to such classics as Point Break and Bad Boys 2. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen, and more than likely worth watching repeatedly at home, as I’m fairly sure there’ll be extra jokes to spot on re-viewing. Very much recommended.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

REVIEW: 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' by John Buchan

Welcome to Day Two of Review Week, where I’ll be upfront with an issue of ignorance before getting into my review of this book. This slender tome came recommended by a friend, who said it was a classic ‘Boy’s Own’-style romp. And I kind of knew, but I don’t really know, what he meant by this.

A quick Google turns up this, which suggests that my interpretation of it was about right. But it’s odd that it’s still being used four decades after the paper itself has ceased publication; I suspect that the use of the phrase is something that will, like the readers of Boy’s Own, die out in time. If not, it’ll be intriguing, as it’ll suggest that people are happy to use a phrase which derives from something they know little about. It would be like me using the word Proustian, when my only concept of Proust comes from that Monty Python sketch. Oh, hang on, I do that, don’t I ? Damn.

Anyway, lest I turn this into a big ramble about me, like a proper reviewer, let’s talk about Buchan’s book, featuring the recurring character of Richard Hannay. There are spoilers ahead, so don’t say I haven’t warned you.

If your expectation of The Thirty-Nine Steps comes from the film versions with people hanging off the hands of Big Ben (or St Stephen’s Tower, if you prefer), well, be prepared to be disappointed. The plot involves Hannay, an everyman sort of chap, getting embroiled in an espionage situation, and then legging it from London to Scotland.

Maybe I’m too keen on the city where I live, but I have to admit that the middle section of the book didn’t really hold my interest very much – Hannay spends most of his time hiding in the wilds of Scotland, adopting a variety of suitably rural disguises to evade the people chasing him (fisherman one chapter, gamekeeper the next, that sort of thing). I found this a bit dull, really, and certainly didn’t get much sense of his pursuers being close at hand. In the final section of the book, Hannay returns to the city, and the nature of the spies’ plot is revealed, but by then I was suffering from a bit of a case of not-really-bothered-itis, to be honest.

I don’t know if the other books involving Hannay are less repetitive, and a bit more spy-centric and less bucolic, but I must admit that I don’t really feel any inclination to find out. The narrative’s quite likeable in a way, and the book’s really very short, but overall it felt more like a historical item than a book which spoke to me as a present-day reader.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Through a happy coincidence, the final issue of this comic shipped in the USA last Wednesday. Or, as they call it over there, 5/2. Coincidence, or something more sinister? No. It is a coincidence.

Anyway, 52 was, for US-based DC Comics, something of an experiment; instead of one issue shipping once a month, 52 was a year-long weekly comic, with the same writers and breakdown artist, as well as a variety of recurring pencillers and inkers. Given that a large number of comics from DC (and, to a worse extent, their market rivals Marvel) have been shipping at a less-than-monthly rate in recent years, there was inevitably a fair amount of scepticism amongst comic retailers and readers alike as to whether the weekly frequency would be maintained. And if it was, what kind of quality would we be looking at?

Overall, though, 52 was pretty good. Set in a world where the three main heroes (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) are absent, the story - notionally told in real time, like the TV series ‘24’ - showed the DC universe from the perspective of a cast of less-well-known characters, though of course some of the villains remain the same - Lex Luthor, for example, tries his best to exploit the absence of Superman. The story had a broad canvas, veering from the alleys of Gotham to the far reaches of outer space, and as such did a pretty good job of keeping my interest, though some weeks were inevitably better than others.

There were quite a few mysteries that ran through the series - the identity of new character Supernova (I guessed that one), the Elongated Man's search for his dead wife (I did not see the twists there coming, and liked the revelations), and overarching it all, though only really apparent in the last six weeks or so, the mystery of which DC villain was trying to manipulate events to their own benefit.

This latter point led to the re-establishing in DC Comics of the 'multiverse' - a series of 52 alternate Earths existing in parallel with each other. I don't pretend to understand the way it's all meant to work - I'm not that bothered as long as there's consistency, and not slavish adherence to continuity - but I have to admit I don't truly understand what DC see as the benefit here, both in storytelling terms and in terms of luring new readers. Unless, of course, they're going to make it simple for newcomers to know that on (say) Earth-10, there's no Superman, or there is but he’s made of Fuzzy Felt, or whatever.

You either have to make the stories very easy to understand (often not the case at the moment, unfortunately), or ensure new readers are so very keen to know more that they're happy to go to the effort of figuring out the multiverse thing (not really something DC should rely on, to my mind). Maybe DC will publish some cheap, or even free, primer on their universe, I don't know. It would certainly be a good idea, as the comic-buying market is increasingly limited already, and this restricted marketplace could just be amplified by the fact that the comic stories now take place in one of 52 alternate universes, and you need to be able to figure out which.

Still, it did pretty well for them in terms of sales and interest, which was a good thing in the short-term. Especially as sales on some new titles have been near-disastrous (the Flash relaunch, for example), and the aforementioned scheduling problems have plagued the whole DC line, with fill-in issues aplenty and even creators dropped mid-storyline to take on a new team in the hopes of getting things back on a monthly basis (I'm looking at you, Wonder Woman).

52, then. A pretty good read, but in my humble opinion, far from a good thing in terms of attracting new readers.

Welcome, Willkommen, Bienvenue, iHola!

…Which is to say, welcome to Review Week. Yes, faithful readers, every day this week I'll be posting a review, as my desk and notebook are frankly clogged with notes to self, exhorting me to share my thoughts on various media with the eagerly-awaiting internet.

Do bear in mind, though, that here in Blighty this week began with a Bank Holiday, so today is the first working day of the week, and thus the first blogging day of the week. Oh, don't look at me like that, you know you're as amazed as I am about how regularly I've been posting, one day fewer isn't much...

Anyway, what are you lingering here for? Cast your eyes upwards to see my ill-informed opinions on something I obviously couldn't do one-zillionth as well!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Loser Guys*

A wee while ago (February 20th, if you want to check the archives) I ranted about a woman who claimed she wanted to become a Footballer's Wife or Girlfriend. I said then - as I still feel now - that this is a pretty appalling approach to living, as it'a almost like chickening out of working for a living and expecting to be supported by someone else.

Now, it might be argued that my derision partly stems from the fact that - by virtue of my gender I'm less likely to be supported in this way. And I'd agree you might have a point, if it wasn't for the fact that I increasingly hear tales from my female friends of men who are just as bad.

In recent months, I've heard some frankly appalling tales of men. So appalling that I think bullet points are appropriate lest I get lost inside some multi-claused and triple-parenthetical sentence and lose the sense of what I'm saying.

I have, then, been told about men who:
-Have not washed for a fortnight
-Have stayed at home and expected their partners to support them
-Have refused to even discuss the possibility that contraception might be their responsibility
-Have taken out loans against shared property, or taken sums from an offset mortgage account, without informing their partner (who has been co-owner in all these circumstances)
-Have peered over their beer belly at their partner and berated them for 'putting on a few pounds'
-Have complained so much about their partner being away at work that their partner has given up the job, or (in the case of work which took them away from home during the week) changed jobs to be able to get home to him quicker
-Have decided that cooking, washing and tidying are all the woman's responsibility
-Have blinked in ignorance at the idea that they might occasionally carry shopping bags or luggage for their partner
-Have worn the same clothes for a week
-Have not bought presents for birthday or Christmas or other occasions over a period of years

… amongst other things. Now, you might argue that this sort of thing is partly the woman's fault for tolerating that kind of behaviour - and there might indeed be a scintilla of truth to the song 'Chicks Dig Jerks' by Bill Hicks - but it often rears its head after the relationship's up and running, with the chap dropping the pretences (and perhaps even pretensions) that he put on as part of his 'courting behaviour', which is sneaky as well as pathetic, to my mind.

So, lest you think I'm some kind of sexist who thinks only women are capable of idiotic behaviour, or of thinking that the world owes them a living, I assure you I'm not; men can be just as pathetic - in fact, arguably more so, as they often try to mix this kind of loser behaviour with a weird kind of macho bluster. I'm actually very free of prejudice - I don't care if you're gay or straight, male or female, black or white, able-bodied or not, atheist or Shinto, whatever; if you act like a moron, I'll say as much.

Though in a way, the existence of these loser guys gives chaps like me, who want to be decent, a bit of a clue; all you have to do is see what they do, and do the exact opposite, and you should find your relationships go along all right.

*To be sung to the tune of the chorus of 'Stupid Girls' by Pink.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Look Away NOW, For Pity's Sake, LOOK AWAY...

...well, don't say I didn't warn you.

So, Scooch and Blair there.

To my bitter and jaded mind, the captions featuring phrases like 'never popular','vacuous and obviously manufactured',and 'cynically targetted to appeal to the widest audience' just write themselves.

Picture from the ever-readable Popjustice. Used without permission, but I like to think they'd understand.

Credit Where It's Due

As you've no doubt noticed, there's a tendency on TV nowadays to talk over the closing credits, or distract from it in other ways.

I know this has been going on the USA for some time (I saw an episode of Seinfeld where the closing action was reduced to about 2/3 of the screen whilst some other gubbins scrolled along the bottom of the screen - even as the closing credits for Seinfeld were running on the 'inset', thus forcing the viewer to look at one or the other), but this sort of thing's moderately new to the UK.

It's used to varying degrees - BBC1, ITV and Five are pretty happy to do it, cheerfully talking over the closing titles of almost any programme with closing credits, though BBC2 and Channel 4 seem a tad more hesitant, especially with films. Equity kicked up a fuss about the 'squashing' of credits a few years ago (2003, I think it was), on the grounds that the small type made it impossible for actors and other cast and crew members to be identified, and that they were thus losing out on work. Not entirely sure that this argument holds up on a practical level in these internet days, but I can see what they're driving at.

The argument that TV channels make about trimming, slicing, squashing or otherwise diminishing the closing credits, as I understand it, goes something like this: in tests, an overwhelming majority of people polled (something like 60% or more) were found to start turning over once the credits started rolling. The argument thus goes that the channel needs to act to capture the audience's attention and keep them watching - hence the inserted clips from the programme coming next, or a voice-over to tell you what's following, or even a clip from the following episode of the show you've just watched to remind you when next it's on.

Now, at the risk of creating a straw man in terms of this subject, I have to say that I've never found any of the arguments at all compelling; in these Sky and Digital days (with the latter set to become mandatory over the next decade or so*), it's never been easier to find out what's on and coming next on any given channel (with an onscreen guide at the flick of a button), or to find out when the next episode of a programme is. So I don't buy that argument.

Nor am I convinced by the need to show me a clip from the following week's programme - in fact, I find it dispels any sense of drama. If I see that Doctor Gregory House has tripped over his cane at home and cracked his head on the lino and has passed out with nobody to help him, that's a cliffhanger that'll draw me back. I don't want to then be given a forty-second edit of the next episode in which House is clearly up and about and doing fine. It defeats the purpose of having such an element to the script, and as one who dabbles with words myself, I can only imagine how annoying it must be for the writers involved to find that someone at the TV channel feels that they have better instincts about drama than they do.

Okay, so I've loaded that example rather by referring to a US show (bear in mind my comments about this being more prevalent in the USA), but it still holds true for Casualty, The Bill, and many other drama series on UK TV. In fact, on Tuesday night, at the end of EastEnders on BBC1, unless I'm very much mistaken, they showed a clip from Thursday's episode of the series, and reminded the viewer that it was on again on Thursday night.

Now, to me, this seems to be extracting the urine at a very high level. EastEnders has - with very few exceptions - been on Tuesday and Thursday since its inception a couple of decades ago, so it's not going to be a surprise to anyone watching it on Tuesday that it'll be on Thursday as well. The trailer did nothing to let the viewer know what was on next on BBC1, and as well as ignoring the work put into the episode (that is, in trying to draw back the viewer with a wish to know more) by the crew, it effectively patronised the viewer by telling them something they almost certainly knew already.

I have to say that I don't care for the whole 'squeezing' of credits and the like, mainly because it just looks tacky and rating-grabbing, but also because it seems to be symptomatic of the whole 'building a brand' nonsense which means that programmes on the BBC have their logo stamped on the titles at some point. The thing that gets me about all this is - and I've said it before and will no doubt say it again - 'building a brand' is not simply flogging stuff. To be truly involved in building a brand, you have to do the legwork, and actually create stuff from scratch. Just slapping logos (oh, sorry, I mean 'Digital Onscreen Graphics') and trailers and voice-overs and other attempts to keep my attention is not 'building' anything, it's just selling something that already exists.

And perhaps it's my contrary way, but the more someone tries to sell something to me, the more I feel the urge to take my time, attention and money elsewhere. The solution, to my mind, would be to make the viewing available so absolutely riveting that I simply wouldn’t want to turn over. But that take a bit more effort and creative endeavour, doesn’t it ?

*Not because digital will give you a better picture, of course, but because the government has decided to sell off the frequencies. Which is interesting, as it suggests they in some way own them, as opposed to being charged with a duty to look after them. Legally I'd be interested to know what the position is on this sale (as with all the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s). It has an unsavoury feel of gamekeeper turned poacher about it to me.

Advertising is, of course, an art form in its own right

Is it just my imagination, or..?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

(No) Good Advice

I saw this poster outside a running-related exhibition.

Now, I know it's talking about long-distance running, but let's face it, we all know this advice could be applied to most situations in life.

LINK: New and Improved

Well, as promised, I've updated my London Marathon sponsor page, to reflect the fact I've actually done it.

Please go here to sponsor me - it's not too late...