Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Silver screen, golden moments

J.J. Abrams has a problem. His new movie Super 8, which opens next week in the US and over here in August, is something of a gamble. Despite being a big budget adventure movie, it’s not a sequel, there are no superheroes in it, and its biggest star is the little sister of Dakota Fanning. Not exactly an easy sell. However, Abrams does have one ace up his sleeve, in the form of executive producer Steven Spielberg.

The film is set in a small town, and follows the adventures of a group of tweenie would-be film-makers, who witness the crash of a train carrying a mysterious cargo from Area 51. Its late-seventies small-town location, combined with the pubescent world-view of its protagonists, have understandably drawn comparisons with Spielberg’s genre-defining output. And although Abrams claims that his film is not an homage to his producer’s back catalogue, the big guy’s DNA is all over the finished product, like presidential spunk on a cocktail dress.

When I look back on my own formative years as a movie-goer, Spielberg’s influence also looms large. Whether as a writer, director or producer, the bearded mogul’s distinctive viewpoint was responsible for many of the definitive scenes that fueled my love of film. Not least because he understood how to root the fantastical in the ordinariness of suburban adolescence. So in advance of Super 8’s imminent release, I wanted to take a look back at some of the moments that fostered a life-long belief in the power of movies.

Red lilo yellow lilo

First rule of making a family-friendly blockbuster – kids and dogs have to survive. Someone obviously forgot to point this out to Steven Spielberg, as he unleashed his mechanical monster shark on an 11 year-old boy. Even more shocking was the fact that the attack happened in broad daylight, under the watchful eye of aquaphobic police chief Martin Brody.

By the time I finally saw Alex Kintner turned into churning chum, I’d already made two aborted attempts to sit through Jaws. The first time, I got no further than the clanging buoy in the opening scene, before my parents switched off the TV and sent me to bed. On my second attempt, I made it as far as the autopsy – the severed arm turned my eight year-old stomach and once again I was packed off for another sleepless night.

The third time was clearly the charm, as I made it all the way through the film. There are countless classic scenes in Spielberg’s famously troubled adaptation, from the quiet mimicry of Brody and his son at the dinner table, to Quint’s unforgettable S.S. Indianapolis speech. But the one that stayed with me the longest, was young Alex’s ill-fated return to the water. Watching grown-ups being eviscerated by a raging mass of teeth was no big deal, but seeing a child my own age being hastily devoured was enough to instil a life-long fear of lilos.

Up, up and away

Close Encounters of the Third Kind shouldn’t have worked. Slow, ponderous and fragmented, it’s a film with a protagonist who chooses to leaves his wife and kids behind, in order to follow his dreams of intergalactic travel. Then again, having witnessed the chaos of his home life, you can hardly blame him. His wife is a nagging shrew who spends most of the movie in a shabby housecoat, and his children would have Jo Frost arrested on child abuse charges.

Looking back, it’s also amazing to think that this big-budget alien movie featured no explosions or aggressive invasions. Just a bunch of grey-faced extra-terrestrials who came to Earth in search of an impromptu jam session. A few years later and they’d have been booked to appear on Jules Holland alongside Alison Krauss and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Much is made of the spectacular climax, with its awesome light displays and Richard Edlund’s extraordinary effects work. But I've always felt that the film’s most magical moment is a throw-away gag. Would-be deadbeat dad Roy Neary stops at a level crossing to consult his map, and waves past a car waiting behind him. Moments later, another car appears to pull up in the background. Only this time, when Neary waves for the driver to go around him, the lights simply elevate and disappear into the night sky. Where he’s going, they don’t need roads. Simple, magical and quietly haunting, the scene’s greatest strength is its lack of reaction from our oblivious hero.

All white on the night

Steven Spielberg broke my seven year-old heart. E.T. is a desperately sad story, focusing on broken homes, the loneliness of childhood, and the grief of separation. By the time the wrinkly spaceman’s heartlight was finally extinguished in the quarantine tent, I was a helpless ball of snot and tears.

But the most disturbing image, the one that stayed with me long beyond the film’s temporarily uplifting dénouement, was the scene where E.T. was discovered lying unconscious in a woodland creek by Elliott’s brother Michael. White and desiccated, like the chalky dog shit of yesteryear, the intergalactic botanist looked as though he’d placed his last collect call.

Even as the kids were excitedly racing through a partially built housing development on their BMXs (Dear Santa…), I couldn’t shake the image of the sickly, inanimate alien on his back in the sludge. Spielberg always intended for his eponymous creation to be lovably ugly, but with a deathly pallor he was downright horrifying.

Keep on running
It’s almost thirty years since Poltergeist was first released, and even now debate still rages over who directed it. Spielberg may have written the story, co-authored the screenplay and played executive producer on the haunted house classic, but he hand-picked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper to direct, since he was tied up on E.T. Even so, Steven’s influence is clearly felt in every scene.

The film is a great showcase for much of Industrial Light and Magic’s early work, but the most impactful special effect was actually a practical camera trick. Following one of the greatest fake endings of all time (“This house is clean…”), the triumphantly reunited family settle in for one last night in their home. Unfortunately for the Freelings, their domestic bliss is short-lived as the malicious entities make one last grab for dimension-skipping moppet Carol-Anne.

After being thrown around the room in her Sigourney Weaver-patented hipster underpants, Diane races down the hallway to rescue her screaming children. But as she staggers towards the kids’ room, an audacious reverse zoom creates the illusion that the hall is increasing in length even as she picks up speed. For all the spider monsters, floor-rupturing corpses, and facial peels in the movie, this is the closest that Poltergeist comes to visualising a real nightmare.

Appetite for disgusting

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t really like Raiders of the Lost Ark when I first saw it. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate it at the time; I’ve certainly grown to love it in the intervening years. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on the other hand - now there was a movie I could get into.

Seeing it on the big screen in Filey’s only cinema, I was entranced by its relentless energy, and blind to its casual yet egregious racism. More importantly, I revelled in its disgusting detail. At the time, I was going through a phase where I was drawn to anything gruesome or gory. My parents had even been called into school to discuss a particularly graphic representation of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents that I’d produced. In retrospect, the teachers might have just been concerned that I’d worked my way through four expensive red marker pens in creating my masterpiece.

Either way, the banquet scene in Pankot Palace, was just what my nine year-old self wanted from an adventure movie. Snakes swallowed whole, eyeball soup, giant lickable beetles – I laughed hysterically through the entire segment, feeling Willie’s pain but kind of wishing even more indignities to be heaped upon her. By the time the monkey brains were served, I was convinced that I’d found the greatest film ever committed to celluloid. The fact that they were served chilled was just the icing on a particularly inedible cake. I may have devoured the movie but my popcorn went untouched.

Never say ‘die’

In 1985 Spielberg tried to make up for the darkness of Temple of Doom with a more kid-friendly adventure, set in the rundown dock area of Astoria in Oregon. He crafted a story about a mismatched bunch of adolescent outsiders who find a long-lost treasure map and embark on a health-and-safety worrying quest to locate a pirate ship buried in an underground cavern.

Looking back on it now, there’s still plenty in The Goonies to upset parents, from the mortal jeopardy that the kids constantly find themselves in, to the fact that one of the pre-teen heroes tells the maid (in fluent Spanish) “The marijuana goes in the top drawer. The cocaine and speed go in the second drawer. And the heroin goes in the bottom drawer. Always separate the drugs.” You won’t find that kind of dialogue in Alvin and the Chipmunks.

For me, the definitive moment in The Goonies came as the young explorers reached the end of their quest, throwing themselves into a conveniently placed waterslide that dumped them into a lagoon right next to the pirates’ galleon. Even at the time, I questioned the believability of a bunch of scurvy-addled pirates being able to construct a series of tricks and traps that would put The Crystal Maze to shame. But that waterslide looked like so much fun, there was no limit to the belief I was willing to suspend in the name of adventure.


When Jurassic Park opened in July of 1993, it marked the end of my adolescence - school was over, and I was getting ready for university. And yet here was a film that managed to reconnect me with the wonder of youth, as it showed dinosaurs in all their flocking, sneezing, shitting glory. Rejecting Phil Tippett’s innovative stop motion animation in favour of Stan Winston’s practical effects and ILM’s breakthrough CGI, Spielberg’s gamble turned into box office gold. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who went to see Jurassic Park five times that summer.

Much has been made of the terrifying T-Rex attack, heralded by those evocative concentric rings in a water glass. But that muddy showdown took place an hour into the film. For my money, the signature moment in a film full of breathtaking set-pieces came much earlier, as Doctors Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant first touched down on Isla Nublar.

As they speed through the jungle in gaudily branded jeeps, Ellie grabs a leaf and begins to wax lyrical about the fact that it’s from a plant that’s supposed to be extinct. If you want scintillating dialogue, make sure one of your characters is a paleobotanist. Thankfully, these prehistoric Percy-Throwerisms are shortlived, as the convoy speeds into a clearing, giving our heroes a close-up look at a Brachiosaurus chewing on a treetop. With John Williams’ melodic score reaching a triumphant crescendo, Grant stands and stutters “It’s…a…dinosaur”, as he turns Sattler’s head towards the gigantic herbivore. And it’s this inarticulate shock that instantly transforms the character from potentially aloof egghead, to another Spielbergian everyman. Suddenly, we actually care about whether he’ll live to dust another fossilised vertebrae.

Monday, 30 May 2011

He won't be back

If you're looking forward to another instalment in the Terminator saga, if only to wash away the acrid stench of Terminator:Salvation, don't hold your breath. Former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger has only gone and shot himself in the steel-capped motorcycle boot, with the recent revelation that he sired a bastard with the housekeeper. After a career of playing silent killers who shoot first and ask questions later, it's a shame he couldn't muster a quick "are you on the pill?" while he was taking aim.

Estranged wife Maria Shriver has been grimacing silently through her public embarrassment, at least I think that's why she looks like that, and Arnie's PR team are desperately trying to salvage some kind of post-political return to Hollywood. While they're at it, they might want to pitch Mel Gibson as the new spokesman for eHarmony.

The gossip mill is in full swing, with speculation rife that there'll be more saplings form the Austrian oak emerging in the coming weeks. Jane Seymour famously added her two-penneth, telling reporters “From what I gather, I think there will be lots of information coming people’s way. I heard about two more [out-of-wedlock kids] somebody else knows about. I even met someone who knows him well.” She now claims to have been misquoted, but if Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman is right, Arnie's mantlepiece is likely to be groaning under a bunch of extra cards on June 19. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that one of the kids will look like Danny DeVito. Forget about the time-travelling cyborg, I want a Twins reboot.

Once the biggest star in the world, in terms of box office and neck width, Arnold is now just another philandering fuck-up, headed for a divorce that's likely to see Shriver jingling all the way to the bank. She may now resemble an astronaut who accidentally spent three days in the training centrifuge, but was once quite the beauty. So commentators are befuddled as to why Arnold felt the need to stick his Junior into Consuela from Family Guy.

One theory currently doing the rounds is that Arnold had affairs with unattractive women because he had a complex about his own appearance. Anthony Pellicano, the shamed private detective who was arrested in 2006 on high-profile wiretapping and racketeering charges, claims that “He sees himself as the dominant, beautiful one. The physical is most important to him and he does not want to be upstaged or lose the spotlight in company of a strikingly beautiful women." It's an interesting concept, if not particularly robust. After all, the whole point about Schwarzenegger's affairs is that he kept them out of the spotlight for so long, so it wouldn't have mattered if they looked like Beth Ditto staging a dirty protest.

In any relationship, there's always a power struggle where looks are concerned. One half of the pairing is almost always more attractive than the other. You're either punching above your weight or settling for less. Channel 4 managed to create a whole TV show around the concept - Your Face Or Mine. Making you long for the effortless chemistry of Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood, the show's mismatched hosts Jimmy Carr and June Sarpong pitted couples against each other, in order to determine who was the more attractive.

As excruciating as it was to watch (and listen to, thanks to Sarpong's raspy, Zelda-off-Terrahawks voice), it did provide an interesting insight into the psychology of attraction. In particular, it was fascinating to see loved-up people trying to navigate the tricky admission that they thought they were more aesthetically desirable than their partners. Throw a few well placed exes into the mix, and you've got Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the E4 generation.

The media's horror at Schwarzenegger's supposedly low standards simply reflects its one-dimensional perception of attractiveness. Beauty's supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, not the telephoto lens of the paparazzi. If we all had the same taste, most of us would be spending the rest of our lives alone. When Mrs Merton famously asked Debbie McGee what first attracted her to "multimillionaire Paul Daniels", I wish the magician's assistant had said "I like short, bald tories, and he's hung like an agitated racehorse."

Arnie's career may be in tatters, but he can at least take pride in the fact that he's taught us a valuable lesson that beauty is a subjective construct. He knows, better than anyone, that looks don't really matter - it's what's inside the maid that counts.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Saddle sore-point

Anyone who holds the prejudiced view that Americans 'don't get irony' has obviously never heard of The Onion. Having already conquered the world of comedy via the written word, it now produces radio and video segments on its website, many of which must make Chris Morris kick himself for only running one series each of The Day Today and BrassEye.

Unfortunately for the more credulous amongst us, its straight-faced satire is sometimes so authentic that it can be hard to differentiate fact from funny-as-fuck fiction. There's even a new Tumblr called Literally Unbelievable, dedicated to the gullibility of Facebookers who don't know a good joke when they see one. It doesn't seem to matter how preposterous or surreal the humour is, there are people out there who'll believe every word of it, simply because it looks like news.

Not that Facebook users are alone in their naivete. Reputable news sources, politicians and activist groups have all been taken in by the website's uncanny knack for media mimicry, including MSNBC, Fox News and the New York Times. Then again, given the ridiculous nature of much of what passes for news, it's hardly surprising that their defences are down.

For instance, a recent headline from West Virginia read "Man high on bath salts arrested in bra, panties, accused of stabbing goat". Seriously, what the fuck? Read that again and imagine Trevor McDonald saying it. You can't because it's insane. But it's still news.

Similarly, a fresh story breaking yesterday ran with the headline "Horse herpes outbreak forces rodeo queens to ride stick ponies." There's so much wrong with that line, it's hard to know where to start. Apparently, a recent equine herpes outbreak in Utah has resulted in 13 suspected and seven confirmed cases of the virus. Although the disease poses no threat to humans, it's highly contagious and fatal to horses.

Rodeos are big business in the American heartland, so the state is trying to avoid cancelling any horse-related events. But with their animals stuck in quarantine trying to de-emphasise an embarrassing cold sore, the organisers of the Davis County Sheriff's Mounted Posse Junior Queen Contest had to come up with an alternative solution for its young competitors to show off their horsemanship. So they offered their budding young cowgirls a bucket full of hobby-horses and told them to saddle up.

I'm sure the girls gave it their all, but this gymslip gymkhana looked more like a Monty Python sketch, as the competitors trotted round the course straddling their makeshift mares. Winning an honorary rosette for stating the obvious, contestant Kylie Felter commented "With a stick horse it's a lot different because you have to do all the work, and I think it's going to be a lot more tiring than with a real horse."

Former Junior Queen Savanna Steed told the girls that they'd benefit from this improvised approach to their routines, "It will give you experience for if you happen to have a problem like this later in life. You already have the experience of riding a stick horse." There's something highly suspect about telling a bunch of teenage girls that they can always fall back on a broom handle when no other options present themselves. 

Just like the performers who complain that trashy docusoaps are killing scripted drama, it looks as though reality has also got it in for comedy. After all, when real news headlines are this weird, who needs The Onion?

Friday, 27 May 2011

Nap to it

Afternoons are the worst. There's a point, usually around 3.30, when my eyes are so tired that even Brad and Angelina riding unicycles naked through my office couldn't keep me awake. It doesn't help that I work in an agency with lots of handy little 'screening' rooms, with a comfy couch, lockable door and dimmer switches. The temptation to slope off and catch forty winks is almost unbearable at times, like waving a bacon sandwich at Paul McCartney.

But I'm a professional. So I gulp down a coffee that's as bitter than David Miliband, and try to focus on my work, rather than what the insides of my eyelids might look like. Then again, not everyone's as diligent as me. I used to manage a team of writers, one of whom would regularly disappear to an uninhabited part of our building, kick off his espadrilles and snooze through most of the afternoon. He always argued that it improved his productivity. But the clients who were stuck listening to hold music on a conference call may well have disagreed.

Some cultures firmly believe in the value of a mid-day nap, believing that a well-rested workforce is an effective one. But unless your workplace has an abundance of sofas and quiet spaces, it's tough to find the right place to get a little shut-eye. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just curl up at your desk and kick back? 

That's the thinking that led architecture and design company kawamura-ganjavian to develop the prototype of a new product called The Ostrich Pillow. Vaguely reminiscent of a giant grey scrotum filled with foam, the Ostrich is "a micro environment in which to take a warm and comfortable power nap at ease. It is neither a pillow nor a cushion, nor a bed, nor a garment, but a bit of each at the same time." If you don't mind your colleagues worrying that you're being slowly ingested by a hippo's clopper, this could be the answer to your prayers.

Not recommended for anyone suffering from claustrophobia, the curiously comfortable sleeping device offers users "soothing cave-like interior" that isolates your head and hands. And presumably, its soft fabric lining is ultra absorbent, to soak up any involuntary drooling that may occur whilst you're off in the land of nod.

At present, The Ostrich only exists in prototype form. But given the right level of consumer support, there's no reason why we shouldn't all be able rock up to work someday with one of these babies tossed over our shoulder. Wake me up when they're available in IKEA.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Blow-up man

We all know the stories. Anyone with a friend who works in Casualty has heard tell of luckless members of the public admitted to hospital with a curious internal complaint. Over the years, it seems that giggling doctors have been asked to extract all manner of domestic apparatus from the nether regions of the sexually adventurous.

The legend of a Hollywood star offering his gerbil a temporary home while its Habitrail was being rinsed may be apocryphal, but there are countless other well-documented examples of people sticking household items where they don't belong. To hear our scrubs-wearing friends tell it, the emergency room is full of careless unfortunates with half a table lamp sticking out of their clacker, protesting to anyone who'll listen: "I was just dusting the pelmets and slipped off the window sill." Still doesn't explain why the other half of the lamp was smeared in enough lube to help a killer whale slip effortlessly through a porthole.

However, a recent case in New Zealand comfirms that, every once in a while, someone is telling the truth about their anal mishap. Truck driver Steven McCormack was standing on the plate between his cab and the semi-trailer when he slipped and fell. Unfortunately, he landed on the brass nipple attached to the compressed air reservoir that powers his truck's brakes.

As the nipple pierced his arse cheek, it released a sudden burst of air, compressed to 100 pounds per square inch. That's enough to inflate an airbed in a couple of seconds, and it rushed straight into the unlucky driver's body.

Remember that scene at the end of Live And Let Die, when Roger Moore fired a shark gun pellet into Yaphet Kotto? Villainous Dr Kananga filled with air and floated to the ceiling of his underground lair before popping like a gobful of Bazooka Joe. Even as a child I laughed at the ridiculousness of the scene, but it turns out that maybe Mr Big's demise wasn't quite so preposterous.

Smiling, despite the painful after-effects of his experience, McCormack told reporters "I felt the air rush into my body and I felt like it was going to explode from my foot. I was blowing up like a football... it felt like I had the bends - like in diving. I had no choice but just to lay there, blowing up like a balloon."

Rather than tying a brightly-coloured ribbon around his ankle, Steven's quick-thinking colleagues released the pressurised container's safety valve to stop the flow of air. Although the brass nipple was still embedded in the poor guy's buttock, his co-workers were able to lift his expanded mass back onto the truck's plate. They placed him in the recovery position and found ice in a water cooler to relieve the swelling. Although their intervention saved his life, it still took a doctor to extract the nipple so that he could be rushed to hospital.

According to the reports, Steven "said his skin felt "like a pork roast" - crackling on the outside but soft underneath". All these years, I've been scoring, drying and salting my pork to get the right degree of crackle. Turns out, I just needed a bicycle pump.

The good news is that, several days after his ordeal, Steven has almost returned to his normal shape. And apart from the occasional child trying to rub him on a sweater to make their hair stand on end, he's made a full recovery: "The only way for the air to escape was the usual way gas passed from the body." So next time you let one slip in the office, just tell people you're deflating. It's a scientific fact.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

H8 is a very strong word

Something changed midway through Big Brother's ten-year run. Five years in and suddenly the mood of the audience had changed. On launch night, the fans' excitement about meeting the new housemates had transmogrified into a hunger for fresh meat.

Now the characters were being booed before they'd even entered the house. It's one thing to irritate the nation over the course of six weeks, but to ignite a crowd's hatred in the space of a 50-second VT takes considerable skill. Even if that means we have to grudgingly acknowledge that these contestants do actually have a discernible talent, after all.

The same goes for The Apprentice. I have to be honest - I'm just not that gripped by this year's rabble of jargon-spouting tosspots. Sure, I'll keep watching, because it's always good for a laugh. But I've really got no interest in who stays or goes any more, because it's no longer a competition. It's just a well-cast improvised comedy show.

Just look at the dialogue: "Is this an orange?" "I don't know." "Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there's footprints on the moon." The situations are contrived, the cast are briefed and the cameras roll. It's not a reality show, it's Curb Your Enthusiasm for cunts.

Never has the old cliche "people we love to hate" been more apropos. Fifteen minutes in their company and any sane person would have ground their teeth down to the jawbone. We no longer have favourites, just the ones we'd consider allowing to die quickly. In fact, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that in the next show, Lord Sugar will announce that the winners' treat is a long weekend in Eden Lake with no mobile phone signal.

Unlike other entries in the genre, The Apprentice does have one key benefit - the whole series is recorded ahead of time. So at least we never have to suffer the curse of the self-aware contestant.

There's nothing more disturbing than a reality TV star who's been afforded a brief glimpse into how they're perceived by the public. Mistakenly assuming that bigger is better, they crank everything up to such a hysterical degree that any glimmer of humour disappears in an instant.

So how are we supposed to feel about the fact that TV producers have turned our LCD screens into the HD version of village stocks? The stars might claim to know what they're getting themselves into, but they can't possibly be prepared for all the hatred that the audience is about to fling at them, like bitter handfuls of monkey feces. Maybe it's time for us to take a step back and think about why we've developed a taste for vitriol.

Don't worry if you're not comfortable with all that soul-searching - there's another reality show heading down the pipeline to do it for you. Developed for the CW network, H8R gives celebrities the opportunity to talk back to their most vocal and venomous critics. But instead of going after the TV critics and social commentators, they'll be tackling ordinary members of the audience.

Unwitting participants are invited to slate their least favourite TV stars, only for the subject of their ire to burst in and confront them on camera. #awkward. The pilot episode is already in the can and, according to the New York Post, features Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi (the tangerine rhomboid from Jersey Shore) raging into a bar to tackle a guy who'd just told a film crew that her "birth was a hate-crime to Italians." 

Thankfully, the incendiary moments were short-lived, as Snooki won over her critics by making them a home-cooked Italian meal. Sadly, Kim Kardashian didn't fare quite as well. By the end of the show, her 'hater' Deena confessed that she still doesn't have much time for the reality star, although she admitted that Kim does has a "few points" in her favour. But if you've seen her sex tape, you already have a working knowledge of them. 

Show insiders have revealed that the rest of the season will also feature politicians and athletes attempting to rehabilitate their public image on a one-to-one basis. So if it's a hit, we can expect a UK version to follow. I'm placing bets on Imogen Thomas, Ryan Giggs and Nick Clegg for the premiere.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wotcha got cooking?

Fanny Craddock had the right idea. Despite her imperious tone and supercilious air, the ball-gowned battle-axe just wanted to make us better cooks. Her delusions of sophistication came from her presentation technique, rather than the raw materials she used.

Always reminding audiences that "this is perfectly economical" and "this won't stretch your purse", she proved that giving your dish a French name and knowing your way around a piping bag, was all you needed to dine like your maiden-name was Middleton.

These days, the world of the TV chef is a million miles away from Fanny's formica fortress. Sure, there's an enjoyably aspirational air to the dishes created by Heston, Nigella and Hugh, but how realistic are they really?

For a generation weaned on Mini-Kievs and Findus Crispy Pancakes, a larder stuffed with cooking essentials like cubed pancetta and dried porcini mushrooms is about as likely as Katie Price ever suffering from writer's cramp. As a consequence, finding the necessary ingredients for half their recipes becomes an epic odyssey that would have Jason turning the Argo round and heading for the nearest Wetherspoons.

It's easy to blame the inexorable rise of fast food restaurants for our lack of ambition when it comes to the culinary arts. When you can pick up two thirds of your daily calorific intake in under a minute and still have change out of a fiver, who wants to piss about rinsing the grit off the spinach? It's not just the effort involved either - over the years we've developed a taste for garbage that's pretty hard to shift.

Maybe that's what led The Grid to brief four of Toronto's top chefs to create a five-star dish using only the ingredients of a Big Mac meal. That's a burger, fries, Coca-Cola and as many pots of condiment as they could carry - the only other permissible ingredients were oil and water. The results were, as you might imagine, unconventional.

If you like Italian, you might be interested in a smoked mortadella made from congealed hamburger patties, served with crostini, mostarda and french-fry nodini. Or how about potato-starch spaghetti with a burger and ketchup bolognese? You could even have it with authentic poor-man's parmesan, as Chef Craig Harding explains, “In Italy, when you can’t afford cheese, you would actually use bread instead.”

The dishes certainly look the part, although I'm not convinced that they'd be much fun to eat. Even with his cast-iron constitution, the burger and barbeque samosa, slathered in a cheese-slice sauce, could make Bear Grylls shit himself in the woods.

If you're going to apply your love of junk food to a fledgeling interest in home cooking, it's probably best to start simple. So thank heavens for the genius who invented the 'Four Cheese McCasserole' - the most fun you can have with forty Chicken McNuggets, honey, bacon, cheese and a beer-based pancake batter. It's so easy, even a child can make it. Assuming they don't plan to live beyond puberty.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

T.S. Eliot once wrote that the world would end not with a bang, but with a whimper. However, this weekend, the only person whimpering was Harold Camping. He's the 89-year-old radio broadcaster who's spent years pumping millions of dollars into an advertising campaign to convince the easily manipulated that armageddon was due on May 21st, 2011.

It's easy for a secular nation like ours to scoff at the idiocy of people who walk the streets with a sandwich board proclaiming that 'the end of the world is nigh'. But in the U.S., Camping had developed a considerable following who genuinely believed that their time was almost up. They didn't even seem to care that he'd already announced the world's end in 1994, although he was at least smart enough to caveat his declaration with a question mark.

This time around, Camping was taking no chances. Despite predicting a happy finish for 200 million people, his vision of the rapture held less promising outcomes for the rest of the world's seven billion-strong population. Those that didn't enjoy a triumphant ascension to the kingdom of heaven would be left behind to endure 153 days of torture and torment. Like being stuck in a lift with Edna from The Apprentice.

The threats were sufficiently compelling to drive one woman in California to slit her daughters' throats and attempt suicide, in the hope that she might prevent them suffering through the world's end. Thankfully, the children survived their injuries and have been released to the custody of the Department of Children's Services.

Poor old Harold is now facing double disappointment. Not only was he not called to greatness, his once-prospering radio business is likely to meet its maker quicker than he will. The International Business Times speculates that its $72 million value is going to be decimated: "In all likelihood, his ministry will be destroyed...there is no escaping his failed 2011 'Doomsday' prediction. He painted himself into a corner by using words like 'guaranteed' and 'without any shadow of doubt.' His massive publicity campaign just made it worse." If only he'd taken a tip from Carlsberg and hedged his bets. He's probably kicking himself right now.

Even so, it's interesting that the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new survival guide recently, to teach Americans about how to cope in an armageddon scenario. Titled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse, the guide presents all the usual advice - bottled water, food, sanitation and hygiene clothing and bedding, important documents - but in the context of a societal breakdown that would give George Romero a shit-fit.

Rather than just shouting "Shoot 'em in the head" or hiding out in a shopping mall until the bikers attack, the guide recommends more practical solutions. With tongue poking through a gruesome hole torn in its cheek, it reads "There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency."

It's actually a pretty smart way of encouraging people to read useful information about how to prepare for an emergency, especially in a country that's recently endured more than its fair share of natural disasters. But as the rapture debacle clearly illustrated, some people will believe anything they read. Look out Barbara, maybe they're coming to get you after all...

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A bird in the hand

When it comes to the complex world of human sexual expression I'm no Alfred Kinsey. But even I understand that one of the fundamental differences between men and women lies in their approach to maturbation. Whereas many men are so comfortable with their one-handed habit that they're happy to knock one out on the early bus to work, it seems that women attribute much more significance to the act. Some still take classes in it, squatting over hand mirrors to explore their inner-sanctum. OK, we can laugh at the earnestness of it all, but at least the homework's fun.

For some inexplicable reason, women who wank are still seen as taboo-worthy, at least where movies are concerned. Remember the great shuffle kerfuffle when Natalie Portman let her fingers do the walking in Black Swan? There was an awkward silence in the cinema where I saw Darren Aronofsky's ballet drama, not least in the seat next to me. Note to self - think twice before taking your mum to the pictures.

So here's hoping that Ana Catarian Bezerra becomes something of a folk-hero, for standing up her (self) love rights. The 36-year-old Brazilian suffers from a chemical imbalance that can trigger severe anxiety and hyper sexuality. As an OCD sufferer, I can fully empathise. But when my chemical imbalance kicks in, I spend twenty minutes making sure that the gas hob is switched off. Ana's manifests itself in frantic bouts of fingering.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Ana's accountancy firm was comfortable with her sticking her hand up her skirt every few minutes to relieve her anxiety. She told the press "I got so bad I would masturbate up to forty seven-times a day. That's when I asked for help, I knew it wasn't normal." Well, maybe if she was a fourteen-year-old boy.

As a result of her debilitating dexterity, Ana ended up in a legal battle and even had to go to court. I'm guessing no-one badgered the witness, since she was probably busy doing that herself. Now she's receiving professional medical help and has been prescribed with a 'cocktail' of tranquillisers. The good news is that she's now down to eighteen wanks a day, and has full legal protection every time she gets the tingle in the office. She's also allowed to watch porn on her work computer to help her along.

It'll be interesting to see whether the plight of this modern-day suffragette inspires a bunch of copycat cases. If so, we're looking at the biggest threat to workplace productivity since Facebook. And if someone in the cubicle next to you develops a similar condition that requires regular release, just remember Ana's struggles and try not to point the finger. Unless she asks nicely.

Friday, 13 May 2011

What a way to make a living

With just over a week to go until its release, Lady Gaga is pulling out all the stops to ensure that everyone knows that her new album is almost here. Given the speed at which she attained world-wide fame, there's a considerable weight of expectation resting on her curiously attired shoulders. Since she's been talking it up for the last 12 months, anything less than the musical equivalent of Christ's second coming will be considered a disappointment.

Meanwhile, the obsessive Madonna fans who continually accuse Gaga of ripping off their icon, will be sharpening their bras ready for all-out war. But in this game of pointy tit-for-tat, one key fact has been overlooked. Gaga may well owe Madonna a considerable debt, but there's another blonde music legend who can surely take some of the credit for influencing the self-proclaimed Mother Monster's career. Dolly Parton, take a bow - just remember to bend with the knees.

The two stars actually crossed paths back in February at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, where Dolly was finally receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her five decade-long career as a singer, songwriter, actress, author, philanthropist and wig seller. Of course, Gaga managed to steal all the limelight by turning up in a giant yellow plastic egg, like the world's most self-involved Kinder Surprise.

Since releasing her first single back in 1965, Dolly has steadily grown into one of the world's most recognisable recording artists - the country singer it's OK to like. It helps that she's got a back catalogue of mucic that's testament to her incredible talent, not to mention a self-deprecating wit and larger-than-life persona that invites audiences to laugh with, rather than at her.

And then there's that image of hers. Like a Rubenesque beauty sculpted in Anchor squirty cream. She's always been unflinchingly honest about her tacky glamour (inspired as a child by the local hooker in her hometown of Sevierville) and her enthusiasm for plastic surgery. As she sings in her recent autobiographical song 'Backwoods Barbie', "I might look artificial, but where it counts I'm real." She's been through more faces than Lon Chaney, and at times her eyebrows almost appear to levitate above her head, like Penfold getting a nasty surprise. But she's always unmistakably Dolly, slathered in more make-up than Ronald McDonald's pillow case.

Gaga, on the other hand, has to resort to increasingly outlandish displays - not everyone can carry off an outfit inspired by Jim Henson's recurring nightmares of a muppet mass grave. However, one thing both artists share is a belief in the importance of appearances. You'll never see either of them getting papped putting out the bins in a pair of pizza-stained sweatpants.

Lady Gaga gets a lot of credit for being an accomplished pianist, but her musicality has nothing on Dolly who plays guitar, banjo, autoharp, piano, dulcimer and drums. In fact, if it weren't for a couple of prominent obstructions, she could probably take to the stage as a one-woman band. And despite never learning to read or write music, she's composed over 5,000 songs, many of which are considered classics in both the country and pop genres.

Everyone knows her most successful song is 'I Will Always Love You' - butchered in the early nineties by Whitney Houston, who wouldn't know subtlety if it surreptitiously tapped her on the shoulder. Not only did Whitney over sing the life out of the song, she also completely missed its meaning. If you've never heard Dolly's original, give it a listen and marvel at the definitive passive-aggressive love song - "If I should stay, I would only be in your way... so goodbye, Oh please, don't cry, we both know I'm not what you need." Now that's a bad romance.

There's no denying that Lady Gaga is happy to use her international celebrity as a platform to advocate for gay rights, an issue she clearly feels passionate about. Again, the critics who argue that Madonna did it first overlook the fact that Dolly has long been an outspoken enthusiast for equality. Asked about how she reconciles her devout religious faith with her healthy gay fan base, Dolly once said "God and I have a great relationship, but we both see other people." Sometimes, a little wit is more powerful than political grandstanding.

And several years before Gaga's 'gay anthem' was released, Dolly wrote and recorded 'Travelin' Thru', the Oscar-nominated theme song from TransAmerica. Coming from a sector of the music industry not known for its progressive world-view, it took incredible courage on Dolly's part to sing from the perspective of a pre-operative transsexual: "I'm out here on my journey, trying to make the most of it. I'm a puzzle, I must figure out where all my pieces fit..." Likewise, consider the line "God made me for a reason, and nothing is in vain". What she's saying is, "I was Born This Way baby, but what's a little remodelling between friends?"

Dolly's list of accomplishments is too long to list here. But it's worth also mentioning her Dixie Stampede restaurant chain and the Imagination Library - a book donation fund established in 1996. The scheme has now grown into one of the world's largest book gifting programmes, distributing over 30 million books worldwide since its inception. Plus, of course, there's Dollywood, the theme park in her home county which provides employment for over 3,000 people. As well as countless folksy diversions, the park also has a credible range of thrill rides. Although as yet, there are no plans for an Appalachian log flume that culminates in a brutal gang rape at the hands of a bunch of inbred locals.

At the grand old age of 65, Dolly is showing no signs of slowing down, with a European tour and a new album in the works. If Gaga wants longevity from her career, she could do far worse than modelling her approach on the country grand-dame. When I first met Dolly eight years ago, I'm afraid I got a little gushy, admitting that I'd loved her since I was a child. Grasping my hand in hers, she looked up and in that distinctive southern trill, said "Oh honey, don't stop now." I hope Gaga takes the same advice.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Play nicely

Last Christmas, my office ran a charity programme to buy gifts for the children at a local women's refuge. All we knew about the kids we were buying for was their age and gender - so it was up to us to find something appropriate. Browsing the toy aisle for the first time in several decades, I was reminded of how many hours I used to spend gazing at the colourful packaging, and imagining the hours of fun that could be had with their intricate plastic contents.

If I'm completely honest, they were never actually that much fun once the initial novelty had worn off. There's only so much enjoyment that could be derived from piling items of luggage on a skittish mule, or attempting a gall bladder removal without activating the patient's buzzing nose. But the TV ads which cluttered the Saturday morning schedules managed to make them seem like the most exciting toys in the world, thanks to their shouty voice-overs, overacting kids and spinning captions.

Flogging toys to kids must be one of the easiest jobs in the world. As long as the ad is loud enough, fast enough and broadcast every 12 minutes, your toys will be flying off the shelves quicker than your Chinese factory with dubious safety practices can crank them out. So it's nice to see that even toy manufacturers can sometimes get it horribly wrong. And thank goodness for the internet, which enables us to endlessly revisit their errors whenever we need a good laugh. Here's my pick of the three weirdest toys, and the marketing campaigns which failed to rocket them to number one on every child's Christmas list.

Baby Laugh-A-Lot

In the world of toys, dolls are a no-brainer. There are dolls that sleep, cry, feed, crawl and even piss themselves, so a doll that giggles should have been an easy sell. So why does the ad for Baby Laugh-A-Lot seem like a portal to hell has opened in your web browser? Maybe it's the terrifying kids, who give the kind of shocked reaction that suggests they've just found John Wayne Gacy standing in the corner of their bedroom, wearing a blood-stained clown suit.

Then again, I'd be pretty fucking frightened too if I heard the blood curdling noise that emanates from this grinning demon. The sound of children's laughter is supposed to be intoxicating - this is like a tortured soul edging ever closer to insanity. By the time the kids start laughing along with the doll, and the voice-over is screaming with hysteria, you're convinced that their maniacal grins are the last thing you'll ever see.

Milky, The Marvellous Milking Cow

The fun never starts when Milky is around. Because it's a plastic cow that drinks water and expresses milk. I know kids are supposed to have a boundless imagination, but I just don't understand how a lactating bovine could be incorporated into any kind of play activity. If it was supposed to educate children about where milk comes from, Milky should also have come with a range of different sized udder attachments. "Mummy, why is Milky groaning in pain and leaking puss into my toy box?" Even more worrying is the fact that the cow has an enormous pair of Brigitte Bardot lips - is it supposed to be sexually alluring?

The Oozinator

Water pistols aren't just great summer fun, they're also an effective way of disciplining unruly dogs. But today's water pistols bear little resemblance to the pocket-sized shooters we used to brandish as kids. Now they come with pump-action, dual tanks and plastic mouldings, so your pre-teens are packing enough firepower to clear-cut a rainforest.

The Oozinator adds an innovative new wrinkle to the concept, as its curious alien head hides a tank full of white slime. Now you can 'gunge' your friends with a viscous fluid that resembles something you'll be shooting plenty of when you get a little older. As for the ad, well, someone clearly thought it was a good idea showing a ethnically diverse cast of kids getting an enthusiastic splattering. It's hard to believe that no-one piped up on set and said "Hang on a minute, isn't there a danger that this might look a bit suspect?" as another kid took a double load right in the kisser. Hopefully, some of these juvenile performers grew up to parlay their skills in similar specialist film work.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Brats all folks

In just a couple of years, Justin Bieber has rocketed to global superstardom, thanks to a mop of immovable hair and Usher's benevolent grooming. In scenes reminiscent of the great BeatleMania outbreak of 1964, every public appearance is punctuated with mass outbreaks of screaming, fainting and general pubescent pandemonium. As with most of these crazes, the appeal is entirely inexplicable to anyone with fully functioning genitals, so Bieber is doing what he can to broaden his range and reach a wider audience.

He's currently in talks with Mark Wahlberg's 'people' about a role in a new film project, following on from a successful appearance in CSI last year. However, although his performance was reviewed favourably, his on-set behaviour didn't win him any new fans among the cast.

The two episodes in question, saw the pop-moppet being brutally gunned down, screen-shots of which temporarily raised the spirits of a generation immune to Bieber-fever. But it's what happened on-set that seemed to rankle his more experienced co-stars.

According to Marg Helgenberger, who recently spoke to French Magazine Le Grand Direct des Medias, "...he was kind of a brat. He was very nice to me, but he locked one of the producers in a closet... and put his fist through a cake that was on the craft service table."

This isn't the first time that Bieber's 'youthful exuberance' has hit the headlines - just a couple of weeks ago, he was labeled a security risk by a Qantas flight attendant after ignoring the warnings to stay in his seat. To be fair, maybe he just wanted to visit the pilot up-front and learn about Turkish prisons.

He also made the papers back in December when he insisted on flying a remote-controlled helicopter in Mayfair restaurant La Porte Des Indes. He even thoughtfully flew the gadget straight into his bodyguard's head. After that, I can't imagine that the big guy would be in any rush to take a bullet for his teenage charge.

Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills
is no fan either, telling Metro last year, "Seriously, someone needs to have a word with him. He’s a precocious little brat." And an Australian TV host also spoke out, having experienced an up-past-his-bedtime Bieber kicking off at the show's crew. In characteristically blunt Australian style, he described Justin's tantrum where he told one of the staff "never ever fucking touch me again", then suggested that “someone needs to drag [Justin] aside and give him a bit of a slap.” Fuck the Olympics, that's something I'd enter a ticket lottery for.

Of course, it's hardly surprising that Justin's adolescent temperament occasionally gets the better of him. Unfortunately, every time he shows off or plays up, there's a camera crew on hand to capture it. Still, if he gets hammered every time he throws a strop or starts a food fight, he could probably murder a hooker when he gets older and no-one would bat an eyelid.

In the meantime, he's always got his acting skills to fall back on, just in case the hits dry up. Even Marg managed to give him props for his efforts, showing a glimmer of kindness that her overstretched face is no longer able to register: "He's actually better than you'd think." File that one under 'damned with faint praise'.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

You have been watching...

Maybe we've been spoiled by the movies. For decades, we've been treated to endless scenes of witty, urbane villains who assassinate their underlings with ruthless efficiency, and live in well-appointed modern properties with every technological convenience at their disposal. No wonder the villains are usually the most interesting characters - they've certainly made the right decisions in terms of consumer durables and real estate. Snappy dressers too.

So seeing the footage of Osama Bin Laden, released by the Pentagon following his recent death, I can't help but feel a little disappointed. For the last ten years he's been portrayed by the media as an all-powerful bogeyman, controlling an invisible network of operatives across the globe from his secret hideout. Blofeld and Hannibal Lecter weren't fit to buff this guy's sandals. Or that's what I thought, until I saw his underwhelming home movies.

Sitting in a hovel that looks like a lazy EastEnders set, Phil Mitchell's crack pipe just out-of-shot, he watches a 14-inch portable TV that wouldn't get him a fiver in Cash Converters. To make matters worse, he seems to be struggling with the EPG for his satellite. He wants to watch Al Jazeera, but I get the feeling he's just accidentally Sky-Plussed a series link for Larkrise To Candleford.

Of course, this is all pure speculation, since the intelligence officials who issued the clips to the news networks have removed all the sound. They say they don't want to help "spread the word of a terrorist", but as Gawker has pointed out, this just makes it easier for anyone with a YouTube account to help create a hilarious new meme using some shareware dubbing software.

I understand that the administration is in a no-win situation. If they don't release information and video footage, they're accused of being secretive and untrustworthy. And by issuing these clips, they've inadvertently humanised a near-mythological figure. Watching outtakes of Osama's propaganda broadcasts, we're reminded of the extended Family Guy skit that turned into a pretty sharp pastiche of Naked Gun. Hardly what we expect from our super villains.

This is not to diminish the very real threat of terrorism and extremism - but it does shed an interesting new light on the media's depiction of our enemies. Even as we label Bin Laden's films as 'propaganda', we have to mindful that we're occasionally guilty of instilling a similar bias in our own broadcasts.

Irrespective of the detail, this is still a fascinating insight into the realities of a world we know so little about. And I'm sure this isn't the last we've seen of Osama flubbing his lines or looking into the wrong camera. How long before Harry Hill gets his hands on enough material for a special edition of You've Been Framed, Assassinated and Buried At Sea? There must be loads of clips - Osama on a dicey-looking rope swing, sitting on a rotten beer garden bench, or getting whacked in the nuts by a dizzy toddler with a rounders bat.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Man's best friend-with-benefits

Change. That was Obama's election mantra, as he attempted to reawaken the U.S. from eight years of Bush-fuelled apathy and ignorance. It's fair to say that the great non-white hope has proven something of a damp squib since he was sworn in, but finally we're starting to see hints of the kind of progression he promised on the campaign trail.

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', a divisive legacy of the Clinton administration, has been repealed at long last, and 95% of Americans will now have medical insurance coverage thanks to healthcare reform. In the quest for a more equitable society, it's not just humans who are set to reap the rewards - there's also change afoot for the animal kingdom, in Florida at least.

After two unsuccessful attempts, the Sunshine State's legislature has finally succeeded in passing an anti-bestiality bill, banning sexual activity between humans and animals. Incensed by a number of cases involving the violation of farm animals, Senator Nan Rich has been pushing for a change to the state's laws for two years.

Now, anyone who tries to get a little over-familiar with a four-legged friend will be charged with a first-degree misdemeanour. Unless, of course, the livestock was really asking for it, in which case they'll probably be let off with a caution.

Given the enthusiasm that the southern states have shown for drafting bills to outlaw gay marriage, it's curious to see Florida dragging its flip-flops for so long over an act which many bigots happily conflate with homosexuality. Many people have expressed surprise that bestiality wasn't already a crime in the state, wondering how people managed to turn a deaf ear to all that distressed bleating for so long.

Maybe the answer lies in Orlando, home to the world's densest concentration of anthropomorphised animals. Donald Duck has appeared in court for getting a little too frisky with one Magic Kingdom visitor, and don't even get me started on Minnie's short skirt and fuck-me heels. With such a sexualised animal population, it's hardly surprising that the lawmakers were willing to look the other way while Goofy got his freak on. Just think of how many Disney Dollars the state would lose if that special brand of animal husbandry was banned?

It remains to be seen whether the new bill's protections will exclude animals that drive cars or participate in laboured slapstick routines. For now, it's Florida's goats and horses who can breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that neigh means neigh. 

Friday, 6 May 2011

Oral fixation

No-one likes going to the dentist. On a list of fun things to do, it's up there with masturbating caged animals for artificial insemination or styling hair in the Westboro Baptist Church compound. I haven't had a mouthful of cotton-wool swabs in a decade - although maybe that's because I spent the best part of 18 months visiting an orthodontist every four weeks. The way I see it, I put the hours in up-front.

Unlike many people, I don't actually have a phobia of dentists. Ot at least, I didn't until I heard about Karen Butler from Oregon. Having flicked through a stack of three-year old magazines, she clambered into the chair for some routine dental work. It was only when she came round from the anaesthetic that she realised something had gone horribly wrong. 

When she opened her mouth to speak, she was shocked to find that her accent was a million miles away from the one she had when she'd drifted off to sleep. OK, maybe a million miles is an exaggeration - five thousand is probably more accurate.

Medical experts have diagnosed her with a rare neurological condition called foreign accent syndrome, since her Northwestern accent has been replaced with a curious hybrid of European sounds. Imagine Lloyd Grossman and Zsa Zsa Gabor arguing over the role of Inspector Clouseau.

Appearing on MSNBC's Today Show, Butler put a positive spin on her vowel-mangling cadences, claiming that she's quite happy with her curious speech patterns. Well, I think that's what she said, it's hard to tell. She could have been reciting a recipe for lemon chicken.

According to Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, medical director of Providence Stroke Center, "What happens with foreign accent syndrome to the best of our understanding is that a very, very small part of the speech area is affected so that the normal intonation of speech gets altered." It's often linked to stroke, head injuries and migraines - although it's hard to be conclusive since there have only been 60 recorded cases in the last 70 years.

Nonetheless, Butler managed to struggle gamely through the interview with Meredith Vieira, switching accents every time she opened her mouth. At various times, the host and the caption writers labelled her accent as 'British', 'English' and 'Irish', but at no point did she ever sound like one of those. Unless your experience of UK accents is based solely on a drunken screening of 'William & Kate: The Movie'. 

Maybe Karen's condition has nothing to do with the anaesthetic or the dental work. This could just be a previously unrecognised side-effect of tartar build-up or hypersensitivity. So here's hoping that toothpaste brands are taking notes - instead of photogenic women eating ice-cream and flinching, they could just highlight the dangers by running clips of Tom Cruise in Far & Away.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Brand. James Brand.

It's forty nine years since Her Majesty's finest agent first showed up on screen, chugging martinis and slapping tarts, like Chris Brown on a Noel Coward apprenticeship. Since then, he's been through more faces than Jocelyn Wildenstein, and saved the world countless times without ever rumpling his dinner jacket.

When Daniel Craig was cast as 007's latest incarnation, not everyone was pleased about it. He may have had the body of an adonis, but he also boasted a face like a blacksmith's knuckles. And yet, despite the outcry from the hardcore fanbase, Craig's gentleman thug was just what the franchise needed to drag it back from Brosnan's brink. Anyone who sat through Die Another Day's arctic windsurfing scene knew that a healthy dose of gritty realism was the only way the series could ever return to form.

Just as Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace proved that Bond could make Jason Bourne his bitch, the wheels suddenly came off the invisible Jaguar. MGM fell into financial difficulties, and with it, hopes for Bond 23 went up in a puff of Montecristo smoke. Thankfully, the legal wrangles are now done and dusted, and James' newest adventure is being fast-tracked for a 2012 release.

But before you throw on that safari suit and drive a 2CV through a vineyard in celebration, you might want to exercise a little caution. It seems that the next installment will see our hero tackling a modern-world threat more insidious than any organised crime syndicate with a spooky acronym, as he goes head-to-head with product placement.

The principle of prominent branding is nothing new to the Bond franchise. Whether he's synchronising a detonator with his Omega watch, speeding away from an explosion in a remote-controlled BMW, or putting a Band-Aid on Mary Goodnight's split lip as he explains that she made him do it, James has always been comfortable sharing the spotlight with logos. This time, however, he may finally have met his match.

Early reports are suggesting that MGM and Sony are planning to procure $45 million in product placement deals to help fund the next film. Given that Quantum cost an incomprehensible $230 million, I guess they're going to need every penny. To put things into perspective, consider the fact that Minority Report held the previous record, with $20 million worth of in-movie advertising. At least in that film, Spielberg had the excuse that the brands helped to add verisimilitude to the near-future setting.

So what next for Bond? Well, those premium brands will only bring home a percentage of that lofty target. In which case, producers EON may need to lower their expectations if they're going to raise the whole amount. Need an ex-KGB insider? Simples, just cast a monocle-wearing meerkat. Judi Dench's stern matriarch could be renamed Mmmm Mattessons. And when it comes to finding a larger-than-life villain, why not go for a tubby opera singer responsible for a global car insurance conspiracy? The script practically writes itself. A process which helps to explain how Moonraker ever came into being.

Best of all, they could drag Dionne Warwick away from the Psychic Friends Network long enough to re-record her 'alternative' Bond theme from Thunderball. Mr. Kiss Kiss Cillit Bang anyone?

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Undressed for success

Admit it. We Brits are useless at nudity. Raised on an unhealthy diet of Robin Askwith's unruly pubic thatch and Barbara Windsor's ribcage-enhanced cleavage, we can't help but titter every time someone even says the word 'titter'. See? We associate nakedness with bawdy seaside comedy, to the point that whenever we see someone undress, we hear the distinctive sound of a slide whistle.

About eight years ago, I visited Kefalonia shortly after Nicolas Cage's risible Captain Corelli film was released. At that time, the island was something of a tourist hotspot, so the beaches were overflowing with people who'd borrowed a copy of Louis de Bernières' bestseller and had travelled to Greece in search of a timeless romance of their own.

Put off by the prospect of Brighton on a bank holiday Monday, we set off in search of quieter shores, eventually finding the unofficial nudist beach. Aged 27, it was the first time I'd ever been publicly naked, and it took me a couple of days to get used to the idea. It didn't help that the abundant fish swimming in the crystal clear water seemed particularly nibbly.

But any fears I had that the nudist area would be a haven of wanton sexual activity, were dispelled the moment I caught sight of an overweight septuagenarian attempting to put up a windbreaker. Although they clearly felt a sense of liberation by being a few layers closer to nature, no-one seemed particularly happy to be there. In fact, the only smiles I saw were the little arcs of white skin under each buttock, every time one of them bent down to sweep the sand off their beach towels.

It didn't take too long for me to realise that nudist beaches are, by and large, retirement homes with a clothing-optional dress code. And that seems to be the consensus around the world, as nudist resorts claim that they're in danger of dying out. Numbers have been dropping quicker than a pair of unsupported breasts, forcing groups to actively recruit younger generations by staging activities like volleyball tournaments  5k races and music festivals with names like Nudepalooza and Nudestock. Some have even held reverse-strip-poker nights. Maybe I'm missing the point, but playing cards until everyone's fully dressed sounds like a waste of everybody's time.

Nicky Hoffman, head of the Naturist Society, one of the largest nudist organisations in the U.S., warned the Wall Street Journal: "The whole lifestyle will just disappear unless we attract a younger crowd. The problem is, most of these resorts aren't geared to young people." It doesn't help matters that the rules are geared in favour of the older residents. Body piercings are forbidden, as is late night cavorting. And let me tell you, nothing kills youthful joie-de-vivre like seeing someone your grandparents' age, frowning disapprovingly at both ends.

Thankfully, social media has come to the rescue, enabling young skin enthusiasts to reach out and connect with their friends - albeit strictly above the waist. Now there's a thriving Facebook community of  nudists who meet up for a Spring Break Bash at Sunsport Gardens in Florida. Activities include a 'midnight skinny dip', which kind of loses its appeal when you've already spent the best part of the day copping an eyeful of sun-damaged genitals.

Although the young folk are carefully segregated from the older residents for most of the weekend, it's nice that they're all able to come together for that age-old nudist staple - volleyball. As for me, if I want to touch base with a bunch of seniors, I think I'll stick with boiled sweets and strained conversations about the war. I've seen enough generation gaps to last me a lifetime.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Roastin' toastin'

You've got to hand it to President Obama - the man knows how to make a point. With his approval rating shrinking faster than Jennifer Hudson, he needed to pull something out of the bag to reignite the enthusiasm of his base. In the space of one long weekend, he vanquished two formidable foes without breaking a sweat. And he did it with impeccable timing.

On the eighth anniversary of Bush's premature propagandist 'Mission Accomplished' speech, Obama revealed that the world's most wanted man had been terminated by a crack team operating under the Commander-in-Chief's direct orders. If this was the movies, rather than real life, Obama would probably have ended up on the Pakistan borders due to some technical malfunction aboard Air Force One. With a hunting knife clenched between his teeth, he could have taken out Osama himself, slitting his throat and whispering one last bon mot, as he dispatched the terrorist mastermind to the great hereafter.

Instead, he was stuck in Washington D.C, at the White House Correspondents' dinner, where he delivered his own killshot by way of a twenty-minute monologue. For a man often criticised for over-reliance on autocue, Obama came across as a Comedy Store natural - all that was missing was the brick wall backdrop. His target was Donald Trump, who's been using America's hunger for ignorance and misinformation to promote his own electoral agenda.

He'd seized on a ridiculous conspiracy theory around Obama's citizenship, and spread it as thinly as his own Shredded Wheat barnet. When Obama finally relented and made his Hawaii-issued birth certificate public, Trump managed to turn it into a self-congratulatory acknowledgment of his own awesomeness. So it was great to see Obama take of the gloves and give him the verbal bitch-slap he so richly deserved.

Of course, Obama's Rodney Dangerfield schtick was really just the warm-up. Today we got the headline act, as it was announced that the world's second most wanted man (after Tom Hardy) had been taken out. As the public danced in the street yelling "USA, USA", Fox News kept accidentally writing 'Obama Bin Laden is dead'. This may have raised the eyebrows of a few conspiracy theorists, but it's worth noting that the BBC also made the same mistake.

I guess, when the pressure's on, typos and other simple errors can occur. After all, today can reasonably be considered a 'big news' day. Which is probably why even the celebrity tattle websites tried to get in on the act, by reporting the reactions of our favourite tweeters to the fast-breaking story. Who cares about Rupert Murdoch's spin on Bin Laden's death when you can read Khloe Kardashian's thoughts on the matter: "Wow!!! "@CNN: Congressional and administration officials tell CNN Osama bin Laden is dead. He was reportedly killed in Afghanistan."

Also weighing in on the big news were Phillip Schofield, Rebecca Black, Katy Perry and Nancy Sinatra. It's like I'm A Celebrity... taking over Question Time. There are two schools of thought here - either this weakens journalism by giving airtime to uninformed celebrity opinion, or it encourages people who only ever read People and E! to take an interest in current affairs. Either way, I think we can all be thankful for Rochelle from The Saturdays' insight into international diplomacy: "This Bank Holiday weekend has been a very historic one to say the least... It's like a Disney film...The Prince marries the Princess and the villain dies #justice". Amen to that Rochelle.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Me and my shadows

If you've ever laid in bed and listened to the disquieting creak of a relaxing floorboard, or questioned why you hadn't previously noticed that the wardrobe door was ajar, you'll understand why the haunted house movie continues to be the sub-genre that refuses to die. Unlike torture porn, slashers or monster movies, these films don't necessarily require any special effects. Just a handful of believable actors and a production crew willing to double as the Pickfords men, whenever the camera looks away.

Last week saw the release of Insidious, which brought together the underwear-soiling maestros responsible for the Paranormal Activity and Saw franchises. More like the former, this is a low-key, low-budget spooker that manages to unsettle and upset, without looking like a butcher's apron.

Like the vengeful spectres synonymous with the genre, Insidious is happy to revisit its own history, piecing together the best bits from a host of unnerving classics. So rather than writing a conventional review, here's a countdown of the best haunted house movies ever made, and the scenes that Insidious has cleverly repurposed for its own demonic ends.

The Amityville Horror (1978)

Supposedly based on a true story, this tale of luckless real-estate chancers could act as a post-meltdown cautionary tale for the mortgage-impaired. Overstretch yourself on your dream property and you'll be harassed by floating pigs, booming voices and Lois Lane's tits. The walls drip blood, doors get ripped off their hinges and every conceivable surface is covered in garish floral prints. This is what nightmares look like. The Lutz family were famously discredited for having participated in one of the most notorious supernatural hoaxes of all-time, and yet Rod Steiger walked away relatively scott-free, despite committing his own scandalous crimes against subtlety.

Insidious theft: A cautionary tale about the perils of moving house, and a troubled wife who calls in the god-botherers to cleanse their troubled new home.

The trailer can't be embedded, so here's the link instead.

The Changeling (1980)

Perhaps the least known of Insidious' influences, this slow-burning and relentless creepy ghost story has Oscar-rejecting George C Scott as a grief-stricken composer moving into a vast mansion. Is he imagining the paranormal incidents, or is he going mad following the needlessly spectacular death of his wife and child? Instilling a life-long fear of bathtubs, wheelchairs and tennis balls in anyone who sees it, this film also boasts the definitive 'medium channels spirits with a pencil and stack of A3 notepaper' scene in cinema history.

Insidious theft: The creepy seance and a lead character who makes music. Although it didn't sound like George's compositions were destined to end up as Miley Cyrus album tracks.

The Haunting (1963)

Based on Shirley Jackson's bestseller The Haunting of Hill House (not to be confused with similarly titled The House On Haunted Hill or The Legend of Hell House) Robert Wise's black and white classic proved once-and-for-all that the imagination is the greatest tool in the film-maker's kitbag. Whereas Jan DeBont proved, with his effect-heavy remake in 1999, that he was simply the greatest tool. In The Haunting, nothing is more powerful than some compelling sound design and the power of suggestion.

For most people, one scene lives on as the most terrifying ever filmed. Eleanor and Theo, two women taking part in a paranormal experiment in this most haunted of houses, are disturbed in the night by terrifying banging and disembodied voices. Tremulous Eleanor asks Theo to take her hand in the dark, only to complain "Theo, you're breaking my hand!" as the grip grows tighter. It's only when we hear Theo stir and wake up across the room that we, and Eleanor, realise that something else was holding her in bed. Trust me, it works better than a Senokot sandwich.

Insidious theft: Disembodied voices, mysterious back-stories and the threat of inexplicable footsteps in the hallway.

The Shining (1980)

Stephen King always hated Stanley Kubrick's take on his third novel, possibly since the notoriously finicky film-maker changed most of the source material in order to fashion a fairy tale out of the material. It also didn't help that he cast Jack Nicholson in the lead - it's hard to portray a descent into madness when 'batshit crazy' is your default setting. Nonetheless, the rivers of blood, the perma-grinning twins and Shelly Duvall's teeth are all enough to keep audiences peering nervously from behind the couch.

Insidious theft: A gifted child who knows more than he lets on, and a pair of twins more terrifying than Jedward.

Poltergeist (1982)

For most people my age, Poltergeist is the definitive haunted house movie, gradually building from wonder to terror without missing a beat. The kids are cute, the parents are realistic and the tone successfully balances humour with horror to create a genuine ghost train experience. Despite rumours of directorial wrangles between Tobe Hooper and his all-powerful writer-producer Steven Spielberg, the film manages to entertain, scare and surprise throughout its 114 minute runtime. Rather than trying to educate kids about the dangers of Ronald McDonald's artery-clogging offerings, they should simply be made to sit through this film - they'll never look at a clown in the same way again.

Insidious theft: Pretty much everything - family in jeopardy, disbelieving dad, paranormal investigators, a journey into the unknown and a quirky expert with all the answers.

The Entity (1982)

Another story rumoured to be based on actual events, this one features Barbara Hershey as Carla Moran, a woman who is regularly grabbed and molested by an aggressive but invisible force. So it's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding meets Most Haunted. Aside from the curiously novelty of seeing breasts manipulated by non-existent hands, and a pounding, dissonant soundtrack, the film also has some strong performances and a constant feeling of unease. It's an uncomfortable watch, made that much more unbearable by an ending where the experts effectively shrug and say "Oh well, we had a go."

Insidious theft: Barbera Hershey shows up as the kind but troubled mother-in-law, and the sound mixer has clearly been paying attention - the opening titles are almost unbearably loud.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

The most recent addition to this list, but in many ways the most relevant. Oren Peli's low-fi home movie was a genuine phenomenon. Shot in his own home, using static security cameras, Paranormal Activity encourages its audience to hungrily devour every inch of every frame looking for something out of the ordinary. Primed for shocks, we end up jumping out of our seats every time a door opens of its own accord or a faulty light flickers. The effect is diminished somewhat for anyone who's ever spent time in a Wimpey new build.

Insidious theft: The dispassionate camera-work and a family going through the motions, until inanimate objects start displaying motions of their own.