Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Are friends electric?

Just a couple of days to go now until Hollywood unleashes its latest vacuous time-waster on an unsuspecting public. The two years that have elapsed since Transformers 2 have not been kind to the franchise's first sequel. Those of us unlucky enough to have sat through the last installment will remember very little of what went on, aside from some gross racial stereotyping and a retired robot with a giant pair of clanging bollocks - an apt metaphor for the series to date, if ever there was one.

So what can we expect from the final part of Michael Bay's epic trilogy of grinding mechanical hardwear? Well, if you enjoyed the previous films' endless scenes of whirring widgets and spinning cogs, you're in luck. The newest installment promises to be as enjoyable as working your way through a cutlery canteen with an angle grinder. With two and half hours of cyborg-on-cyborg action, there's enough hardcore engineering on display to give Isambard Kingdom Brunel a doughy.

And if you're already starting to feel that the sight of two twenty-foot robots smashing seven bells (literally) out of each other, is all getting a bit samey, this one's in 3D. Imagine that - it's going to be almost as much fun as laser eye surgery performed by Edward Scissorhands.

When the studio originally announced its plans to bring the Automats and Decepticons into the third dimension, Michael Bay proudly declared: "You can’t just shit out a 3D movie". And he should know, having staked his claim as the cinematic equivalent of a coprophiliac. Why polish a turd, when you can just distract audiences by showing it in three dimensions instead?

After a summer of big-budget disappointments, the pressure's on for Bay to deliver a genuine blockbuster. The marketing teams have been out in force, making sure that the press are covering every angle of the film's imminent release. And so far it seems to be working, as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is rarely out of the papers.

It doesn't matter that her own parents would struggle to pick her out of a line-up, or that, by all accounts, she makes viewers long for the subtle nuances of Megan Fox - this generation's Katherine Hepburn. Fox has even popped up in the news coverage, despite having been dumped from the franchise, thanks to a timely leak that suggested Executive Producer Steven Spielberg had told Bay to fire the troublesome temptress. Career tip number one: don't compare your boss to Hitler if you want your contract to be renewed.

Hopefully, Paramount has learned its lesson after the marketing debacle that surrounded Revenge of the Fallen. Activating a bunch of fake Twitter accounts to talk up your movie is fine, but not if you're just going to cut and paste the same inane review. And someone should have pointed out to the new media intern given the thankless task, that Tweets only work if you have followers. Otherwise you're just wanking into the wind.

This time around, they're hoping to target the fanboys by announcing an official team-up with Chevrolet. If you've got 30 grand to spare, you can splash the cash on an exclusive 'Bumblebee' special edition of the Camaro. Available in two different models, the car features an authentic yellow paint job, with black stripes and a high-wing rear spoiler, plus Autobot logos throughout. Snazzy.

The radio won't select songs that articulate your interior monologues, and it's unlikely to be much use defending you against aerial attack. Even so, at least there's a chance that it might help you land yourself a hot girlfriend. But if you're spending 30k on a piece of movie memorabilia, you probably wouldn't know what to do with her, even if you were able to coerce her into the passenger seat. There are some things that even an extra-terrestrial intelligence can't fix.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Deep into the K-hole

Don't worry, this is scary for me too. I don't want to be doing this. I'd happily live my life in blessed ignorance. But I was asked to review a reality TV show, and I'm nothing if not a man of my word. Having written recently about the psychological dangers of reality TV, I'm concerned that these ridiculous, vapid excuses for entertainment are going to render me incapable of cogent thought. And yet here I am, ready to cast a critical eye over the newest season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

I've never watched the show before. But somehow, I know who they are. Maybe it's the fact that they're regularly featured in the tabloids and are all over the gossip sites. I know that Kim's currently showing off an engagement ring that makes Kate Middleton's look like a factory second from Ratners. And thanks to Mail Online, I know that Kourtney recently went out for lunch in some wedge shoes. This is some fascinating stuff. The title of the show is misleading - Keeping Up With The Kardashians has me imagining the raven-haired siblings being tracked by a slobbering pack of hunting dogs. Sadly, the reality is much more mundane. The best we can hope for is a peek into the crazy chaos of life on the A-list.

The Kardashians would be the first to admit that their notoriety has little to do with any discernible talent, beyond an alarming capability for self-promotion. They've become one of the most famous families in America thanks to the grasping ambition of monstrous matriarch Kris Jenner. As the head of a family of fame whores, she's less of a mother and more of a madam. She sets their hourly rates and tells them not to kiss on the mouth. Kris was already in talks back in 2007 to turn her family's day-to-day existence into a reality show, when suddenly Kim shot to fame thanks to the fortuitously timed release of a sex tape that showed her suppressing her gag reflex with R&B singer Ray J.

Thankfully, Kris is an optimist, as well as an opportunist, so she decided to make the most of the situation, "All I knew was that I had to make some lemonade out of these lemons fast. Real fast..." A more accurate aphorism might be "When God gives you a facial, make face cream". Anyway, she believes her "...job was trying to take my kids' 15 minutes and turn it into 30." And if you wanted to see the full thirty minutes, you had to pay Vivid Video for the privilege.

Coincidentally, Kim settled for a $5 million payout from the wily distributors, making her the highest paid actress in Hollywood, at least in terms of on-screen minutes. Meanwhile, 'Keeping Up...' was launched and became an instant smash, even notching up a number of spin offs. Along the way, the girls have also found time to open clothing boutiques in New York, Miami and California, written a biography called 'Kardashian Konfidential', and launched a gaudy range of homeware under the heading 'Kardashian Kollection'.

So here we are at the start of Season Six, and this is my first real brush with the Kardashian Klan, even though I've already used the 'K' key so much that my laptop thinks I'm a white supremacist. Seeing the sisters together is a slightly confusing experience. There's no denying that Kim is stunning, like a trampier version of Nicole Scherzinger. But the rest of the girls are a little, well, off. When they all sit around a dinner table for some 'family time', it's reminiscent of the scene in Alien Resurrection when Ripley is confronted with all the aborted experiments at cloning her from a DNA sample. Khloe, for instance, looks like a caricature of Kim, sketched onto a soup ladle.

I'd like to give you a blow-by-blow account of what transpired during the show's frenetic 22 minutes, but I'm utterly bewildered about what just happened. We saw Kim and her new boyfriend belch in each other's faces, Khloe defending the shortness of her dress by saying "But it's not like you can see my asshole", and the sisters arguing over how long it would take them to fill a salad bowl with piss. Between these highbrow moments, the family bickered over how little they see each other, only to spend any time they did get together as a family arguing or checking their Blackberries.

Despite their protests that she's all work and no play, Kris defends herself by saying "I'm working hard right now so that I can set them up for the rest of their lives. My business is their future." Even if 'business' amounts to little more than sitting in a lavishly furnished office watching YouTube, or hiring a woman called Palm to get her daughters' names wrong.

Khloe and Kim are also bickering, because the former hasn't embraced the latter's new boyfriend, complaining "I don't know how I'm supposed to invest emotionally in Kris." You and me both. At one point, Kim freaks out that Khloe still has pictures of Kim's previous boyfriends in her home, asking rhetorically "You think I want to come over and see pictures of my exes?" It's a silly question, when everyone knows she prefers videos.

By the time we get to the big family dinner, there's another three K-words sitting around the dining table. I'm not sure but I think their names are Kickbox, Krispykreme and Klamydia. Even though the show is barely twenty minutes long, I feel utterly exhausted. I don't know what just happened, but I know that I'm stupid for having sat through it. I think I've finally reached critical mass where reality TV is turned. Let's pray that somewhere out there is a King Canute figure, who will simply raise his hand and turn this tsunami of effluence in its tracks, before I start ruining my own salad bowls.

Friday, 24 June 2011

In praise of 1984

George Orwell got it wrong. Well, not wrong exactly, just a little premature. His vision of a future typified by perpetual war, pervasive surveillance and public mind control ended up coming true, just a couple of decades later than he'd originally predicted. In the meantime, Big Brother and Room 101 became self-fulfilling prophecies, managing to be even more nightmarish than in Orwell's dark imaginings. Half an hour of interrogation by Nick Hancock would have anyone begging for electroshock treatment.

In the end, 1984 came and went with little fanfare. But rather than a legacy of doublespeak and dystopia, it left behind a remarkable cache of movies. These weren't Palme d'Or gobbling classics, and their screenplays probably won't be appearing on the syllabus of any film studies courses, but they helped to define the viewing habits of a generation. They're films that me and my friends knew off by heart. Blockbusters from an age when films were designed to entertain, rather than generate diverse revenue streams.

In the days before DVD, it was unusual to own any films on VHS. Instead, we had to make do with films that we'd recorded off the TV, scribbling their names into whatever space was left on the sticky label after all the previous contents had been crudely crossed out. Occasionally, a film was a keeper. In which case, it would be extricated from its cardboard coffin, and given pride of place in a beautiful burgundy pleather case, designed to look like a Readers Digest hardback. When I think back on our pretend bookcase of movies, there's a clear bias towards the films of 1984. So much so, I'm prepared to argue that it's my favourite film year of all time. Time to pop open those moulded plastic boxes and see what wonders lurk inside:

The monster movie - Gremlins

For a few glorious months in the summer of 1984, I felt like the coolest kid in school. Of course, the reality is that I was anything but. However, I'd discovered a movie that none of my peers would be able to watch for another 12 months. In Canada, where we'd seen Gremlins on a big screen, the film was rated PG-13, which meant that children could see it as long as they were accompanied by their parents. Months later, when Gremlins opened in the UK, the absence of an equivalent rating meant the the film ended up being classified as a 15, excluding the majority of its target audience. Not that this should have come as much of a surprise.

Looking back now, it's easy to forget just what a dark proposition Gremlins was - vicious little buggers that cause car accidents, attack priests and fire old ladies out of upstairs windows. Consequently, they get stabbed, decapitated, liquidised and, in one gloriously sticky scene, roasted in a microwave. Thanks to the amazing puppetry effects of Chris Walas, the scaly critters were blessed with distinct personalities and managed to remain curiously endearing, thanks to their love of finger puppets, flashing and giant comedy mallets. Although Gremlins ultimately spawned a whole sub-genre of mini-monster movies, it shouldn't really have worked - it's too mean and malicious for the mainstream. Which is probably why it became an instant favourite of mine.

The romance - Splash

As a contemporary retelling of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, Splash was responsible for a number of breakthroughs. It gave Tom Hanks' exceptional comic timing a great showcase, it proved that Ron Howard could do more than just play a ginger kid with a crush on the lodger, and it gave the world its first Disney-approved nipple. Keen to distance itself from the film's adult content (John Candy's letter to Penthouse about the horny lesbians), the house of Mouse founded Touchstone Pictures as a way of releasing racier content without making Mickey's ears burn.

Most romantic comedies tend to insist on a fairly chaste relationship for their protagonists, ensuring that they don't sleep together until the end credits roll. But not Splash. Before Daryl Hannah can even speak, she's fucked the frown off Hanks' curiously brow-heavy face. The film also boasts a great early showing from Eugene Levy, long before his career resurgence as the father of a serial pudding abuser. Not everything in the film makes sense, particularly the tropical paradise that seems to exist at the bottom of the Hudson river. But it's hard to hate a film that compelled a generation of young boys to never leave the house without a trouser pocket full of loose change.

The SNL alumni movie - Ghostbusters

Inspired by earlier films like the Bowery Boys' Spook Busters and Bob Hope's The Ghost Breakers, Ghostbusters was originally written with Jon Belushi and Eddie Murphy in mind. When Belushi accidentally turned himself into a full torso flee-floating apparition, it fell to Bill Murray to bring his uniquely laconic improvisational skills to the ensemble. Scary when it needed to be, and funny throughout, it captured the public's imagination with its irreverent take on the afterlife.

Looking back now, the film has a curious right wing air about it, which is odd when you consider the anarchic comic minds that created it. Don't believe me? Listen to all the digs at public sector employees and academia. Or consider the fact that the film's real villain isn't the red-eyed Sheena Easton lookalike, but some bearded tit from the Environmental Protection Agency. In any other film, the well-meaning EPA inspector would be single-handedly responsible for saving the world - here he shuts down the containment system and unleashes hell on New York. I bet this movie gives Michele Bachmann a wettie.

The action movie - The Terminator

Between the two of them, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron barely had enough star wattage to power a Maglite. But the stars of Orion (the film's distributor) were clearly in alignment, as the output of Cameron's fever dream turned into a career-defining role for the monosyllabic man-mountain. With an iconic outfit and a role that played to his weaknesses, Schwarzenegger let his trigger finger do the walking, as he assassinated his way through every 'Connor, Sarah' in the Yellow Pages.

Stan Winston's mechanical and make-up effects are more jarringly dated than some of the early eighties fashions, but they were revolutionary in 1984. And even though the fundamental paradox at the heart of the time travel story is enough to make you want to remove your own eyes with a flick-knife, Cameron keeps the plot moving like a well oiled machine, albeit one coated in human flesh.

The horror movie - A Nightmare on Elm Street

Audiences were already getting bored with slashers by the time Freddy Krueger reared his ugly head in the Autumn of 1984. Unimaginative film-makers had explored every conceivable holiday and calendar occasion on which some disfigured villain could exact their bloody vengeance. And unless someone was willing to try and turn Secretary Day into 24 hours of dread, it looked as though the Hallmark horrors were finally over. Then along came Wes Craven and his concept of a killer who strikes when you're at your most defenceless, and suddenly it was game on again for the eighties' most enduring genre.

It wasn't just the high concept that marked Elm Street as a distinctive neighbourhood in the horror world, it was the flair with which Craven crafted his story. The kids were believable, even witty, and their fears felt palpable. At one point, the gutsy heroine Nancy realises that her brush with Satan's manicurist have left her with a noticeable grey streak in her hair, commenting "God, I look twenty years old." The film has its fair share of throwaway jump-gags, with enough loud noises and detachable faces to satisfy the party faithful. But there's also an unsettling atmosphere throughout the whole film, keeping the audience guessing whether they're in the real world or a dream. My advice - if there's an incongruous sheep in an industrial setting, chances are you're dreaming.

The star vehicle - Beverly Hills Cop

If you've ever suffered through Oscar, Rhinestone or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, you'll know that Sylvester Stallone is comic Kryptonite. So it's hard to imagine how Beverly Hills Cop would have turned out, had Stallone taken the lead role in a film that was written with him in mind. Instead, Eddie Murphy, hot off the one-two of 48 Hours and Trading Places, stepped into the role and a comedy classic was born.

Equal parts bullshit and braggadocio, Axel Foley breezed onto Rodeo Drive and gave millions of impressionable kids some dubious advice on what to do with a ripe banana. My first viewing of this film was marred by the fact that I watched it with my stony-faced grandparents. Dad had gone to the video shop to rent a Richard Pryor movie (this was the era of Brewster's Millions and The Toy) and unfortunately got his iconic African American comedians mixed up. As Murphy "fucked" his way through 60 or so F-bombs, my Grandma's lips got thinner and thinner, until I could actually see her gums. Although I was smart enough to know not to mimic the ripe language I'd been exposed to, it took me six months to shake Harold Faltermeyer's fucking theme tune.

The overlooked classic - Top Secret!

Why don't more people know about this film? Val Kilmer may have a reputation for being harder to work with than a discombobulated baboon, but back in 1984 he was clearly game for a laugh. Hot off the success of Airplane, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker applied their comic stylings to the cliches of WWII resistance movies, stirring in a healthy dose of Elvis and some inspired visual jokes that have to be seen to be believed.

These days, movie spoofs show a complete dearth of inspiration, as an endless parade of cut-price lookalikes simply announce their character name and then fart or call someone a bitch. Top Secret is an Aladdin's cave of surreal sight gags, puerile humour and straight-faced performances. And to this day, I still can't eat a chocolate mousse without giggling like a child. Likewise, "Is this the potato farm?" "Yes, I am Albert Potato." Genius comes in many forms, this film demonstrates several of them.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

French farce

Well, we've already had the shopping list and the advertising tasks. So it must be time for the two-day trip to the continent, as we head across the channel for another episode that celebrates national stereotypes and makes us all slightly embarrassed to be British. Aside from a strangely arty opening shot of a spider hiding inside a lampshade (metaphor alert), it's pretend business as usual. Our would-be entrepreneurs are off to St Pancras International with their matching overnight bags. Hopefully these have actually got something in them, unlike the empty props that get carried into Lord Sugar's offices at the end of every episode.

As Tom, played this week by Michael Sheen, grudgingly accepts the Team Leader role, Melody regales the rest of the team with stories of her negotiations "at U.N. level". You see, Melody speaks six languages and sounds like she's been autotuned in all of them. Looking more and more like a used teabag with five o'clock shadow, Lord Sugar tells the teams "Your train leaves in twenty minutes so you'd better hurry up". They wouldn't need to if he didn't insist on these ridiculous Mexican stand-off briefings.

Over on Team Venture, Susan eagerly volunteers for the PM role, excitedly announcing "I know absolutely nothing about France, I've never been there, I don't even know any French people, I can't speak a word of French, apart from 'Bonjour', don't know French food. I know nothing." I've been shouting that at the TV for weeks.

As half the teams head off to Paris, the rest stay behind to hear the product pitches. Electric bikes, beanbag beds and a weird ball-on-a-string. Hard to tell whether that last one is a children's toy or a sex aid. Zoe says she's impressed by the beanbag bed, but her flat intonation makes it hard to tell. Tom expresses his enthusiasm for a light that looks like a teapot, saying it's very "Briddish". Not when you pronounce it like that.

Susan's ridiculously juvenile exclamations border on the surreal as she asks questions like "Do the French like their children? Do people drive in France." If we hadn't cut to one of Karren's disapproving looks, we'd probably have heard her telling everyone "I want to do a poo in Paul's bathroom."

One of the star products is clearly a booster seat that doubles as a backpack. Melody's unconvinced, asking, quite reasonably, "Why would someone carry a car-seat with them. Wouldn't you just leave it in the car?" Unfortunately, she uses 'market research' to fuel her preconceptions, rather than determining whether or not people like the idea. And since no-one else speaks French, she's able to reframe the feedback to suit her own agenda. Clearly smelling an immaculately dressed rat, Tom advises her to conduct the research "independent of her own thoughts". Perhaps "enculer vous" might have been clearer.

Leon, on the other hand, is in awe of his team-mate, as he marvels at the way she can say stuff to French people and understand what they say back. It's called communication, although that's obviously an unfamiliar concept to the majority of this year's bunch, since they spend most of their time saying "I hear what you're saying" despite all evidence to the contrary. Let's not forget that Jim also speaks French, although he takes every opportunity to avoid it, by asking "Parlez vous Anglais?" then proceeding to speak like he's auditioning for a reboot of Allo Allo. There's something strangely despairing about Jim - he may have a killer instinct, but he has the doleful expression of a caged beagle in an animal research centre. And is it just me, or are his eyes gradually getting further and further apart? In a couple of weeks he'll be able to see his own arse, just as Lord Sugar boots it out the door.

As the teams reunite in France, Melody expresses disappointment at the teapot lamp, complaining that it's a little tacky. I'm not sure what she had in mind, but it's a fuck of a sight better than the ridiculous sketch that Leon was using to canvass opinion. Despite her misgivings, she's decided to keep all the appointments she made to herself, leaving Tom and Natasha (yeah) to fend for themselves on the mean cobbled streets of Paris.

Sales are sluggish to begin with. Melody scores fifty units early on, followed by Natasha (yeah) who explains that bone china is traditionally used for tea and scones. I find Be-Ro works better, but who am I to judge? Tom had little to add to the pitch, instead claiming that "Natasha's done a brilliant job of presenting." Jury's out on that one. Yeah.

As Team Venture make their presentation to the French retail giant, Helen reminds us that she's just toying with the rest of them. She nails her pitch like a pro, whereas Susan simply demonstrates that she can fit in a child's booster seat. Shortly afterwards, she redeems herself by flogging 1,000 flexible phone stands - the perfect accessory if, like the contestants, you're incapable of holding a phone properly. Our final glimpse of the gang's French foray sees Melody happily proclaiming "I should move to Paris and do business here." I'll start the whip-round for the ferry ticket myself.

Back in the boardroom, and Lord Sugar's dropped the weak puns in favour of a comical mispronunciation to win this week's sycophantic laughter (drink). "Trompserleesers" seems to do the job. Muted lolz all round. He also points out "I set up a meeting with one of France's biggest retailers, where I used to do a lot of business." Somewhere in the South of France, there's a landfill site full of email phones. 

The results are in and Helen's amazing pitch has scored a record-breaking 214,000 Euro order. That's four weak teas in the Cafe of Crushed Dreams for Team Logic then. The winners are off for flying lessons, and we get to see Susan come down to Earth with a bang. But not quite the one I had in mind.

In the first round of 'It wasn't me's (drink), Tom blames Melody for not getting behind the rucksack booster seat, but she responds by handing him his balls on une assiette. Even though it's clear that Melody didn't do the research as instructed, overruled the team leader and seized control of the entire fail, she's not going anywhere. Nick complains that Tom and Leon need to be a bit more manly. Thankfully Leon's out of the room at this point - the last thing we need is an outbreak of gay panic in the boardroom.

Tom brings Leon and Melody back in, and Lord Sugar opens with a review of Melody's rezzyoomay. I guess C.V.s are so last century. After a tedious recap of Melody's accomplishments, it's Lord Sugar's turn as we get this week's "when I was 18 years-old" anecdote (drink). Since it's Tom's first time in the boardroom, he doesn't notice the trap set for him when conversation turns to the way he and Natasha decided who would lead the big retail pitch. Apparently, rock, paper, scissors plays less of a role in big business than you might imagine. As Tom confesses, Alan and Karren do their best incredulous face (drink).

After his customary pre-firing bluff (drink), Lord Sugar lets Melody off the hook, possibly because he saw the shiv she'd stuck up her sleeve. She's taking no prisoners this week. Instead, he's listening to his gut and getting rid of Leon. He departs with a genuine "thanks for the opportunity" (drink), and gets an over-the-shoulder duckface from Melody. Final words from Lord Sugar, "I like Melody because she eats them up and spits them out." Somewhere in Heaven, Sid James is smiling. 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Stupid is as stupid does

Well done everybody. If you’ve ever tuned into Geordie Shore, even if it was just morbid curiosity getting the better of you, give yourself a pat on the back. You helped make it one of MTV's biggest hits of the year. Building its scheduling around the age-old supply and demand model, the channel has decided that the inexplicable popularity of this Raiders of the Lost STD means there’s a hunger for more of the same. So they’re quickly lining up a new spin-off, called ‘Mersey Shore’ (*sigh), to prove that anything Newcastle can do, Scousers can do worse.

Following on from The Only Way Is Essex, Made in Chelsea and the like, these regionally-themed 'scripted reality' shows are now popping up all over the Sky+ EPG like a juicehead’s bacne. And with the US version, Jersey Shore, still going from strength to steroid-fuelled strength, there are no signs of the relentless production line slowing down any time soon. So what if the cast has all the intellectual heft of a barely sentient drip-tray? As long as we display an insatiable interest in their boozy misadventures, the cameras will continue to roll.

Everyone knows that The Wire is the best TV show ever made, but who wants to wade through 60 episodes of hard-hitting drama that feels like studying for a degree in social sciences? Geordie Shore and its ilk are entirely different beasts - even basic motor skills would render most viewers as over-qualified.

Critics have long argued against the dumbing down of our TV shows, making the nickname ‘the idiot box’ seem increasingly prescient. But according to a new study by Markus Appel, a psychologist at Austria's University of Linz, it’s not just the programmes that are getting stupider. The viewers aren’t too far behind. We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that every time we get drunk, we lose precious brain cells. Now, it seems that reality TV is having the same effect, dropping our IQ several points every time we switch on to switch off.

The process is called media priming, and relates to the notion that the things we watch, read and hear exert an influence over our emotions and behaviours. To demonstrate the effect, Appel’s gave one group of volunteers a fake screenplay about a stupid football hooligan. The lead character gets pissed, misunderstands things, starts a fight and sleeps through the following day (don’t be surprised if Danny Dyer’s agent has expressed an interest).

Meanwhile, a second, control group was given a similar script, only in this version, the protagonist does nothing stupid. Once they’d finished reading, the subjects were subjected to a multiple choice general knowledge quiz. The researchers weren’t entirely surprised to discover that "participants who read a narrative about a stupidly acting soccer hooligan performed worse in the knowledge test than participants who read a narrative about a character with no reference to his intellectual abilities.”

In light of these findings, Joanne Cantor, a member of the American Psychological Association, explained “what you’ve been thinking about recently or seeing recently (is) at a higher level in your consciousness, so your brain is kind of predisposed in that direction. So if you’ve just seen a movie about really altruistic people and you get an opportunity to behave altruistically, you’ll probably do it, rather than if you’ve just seen a movie about selfish people." The same fundamental principles apply for shows about people who could lose a battle of wits against a bucket of krill. And the more you watch, the more detrimental the effect.

Twenty five years ago, Stephen King published a short story called ‘The End of the Whole Mess’, about two brothers who attempt to find a cure for human aggression. Using a unique compound discovered in the water supply of a small town, the men engineer a volcanic blast to get their mysterious panacea airborne. The experiment initially proves successful, but with an unforeseen side-effect, as the entire world develops early-onset Alzheimer's.

Maybe there's a danger that the opiate of the masses is starting to have the same impact. These shows are easy to watch because they don't require us to think. And before too long, we won't be able to. So try the off-switch before it's too late. It might just save your life.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Shit in. Shit out.

Remember that urban legend about KFC? It did the rounds in the early days of the internet, and alleged that the Colonel's finger-lickin' favourite had been given a shorter, snappier name because its products were derived from something that no longer fitted the legal description of a chicken. Instead, this bogus email described a new species of beakless mutant, bred with extra legs and wings, so they could be divided into more portions. Although I never believed any of the claims in the email, I occasionally find myself trying to mentally piece together the various sections in a bargain bucket, like the world's greasiest jigsaw puzzle.

The fast food companies are so vast and powerful that it's easy to distrust them, no matter how much they spend trying to convince us that they're a bunch of huggable, benevolent animal lovers. While the PR companies spin yarns about animal welfare that suggest the cows live a life of blissful indulgence that would make the Sultan of Brunei jealous, we still lift the sesame-topped bun and peer suspiciously at the "all meat" patty.

If you subscribe to rat-faced turd fetishist Gillian McKeith's view that 'you are what you eat', it might be wise to give hamburgers a miss, should you ever visit Japan. Concerned about the world's rapidly growing population, as well as the effect of industrial food manufacture on natural resources, Japanese scientist Mitsuyuki Ikeda has been investigating alternative sources of protein, and come up with a less than palatable solution: sewage mud.

Based at the Environmental Assessment Center in Okayama, Ikeda's studies have found that human excrement is rich in protein and abundantly available. Ikeda's labour-intensive process involves extracting the proteins and lipids from the cack, then combining these elements with what he calls a 'reaction enhancer', before blending it with soya and steak sauce in an exploder.

The only drawback, besides the obvious, is the fact that Ikeda's burgers are about twenty times more expensive than their meatier counterparts. But that's because he includes the cost of research, testing and manufacture in his pricing plan. Obviously, if he can encourage the world to bite into a shit sandwich, the costs will drop like a log. He also understands that the biggest barrier he faces is the psychological aversion that most people have towards eating a burger made out of human waste. The fact they're low in fat seems to offer little consolation.

Who knows, maybe turning the food chain into a perpetual cycle will solve the problem of food shortages once and for all. And we can spend the rest of our lives feeling like the woman at the back end of the human centipede. They say that London's tap water has already passed through seven other bodies by the time it reaches your glass - so surely this is just the next logical step? But hold the pickles please, they're really disgusting.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Walk like a man

There's an ideological war brewing between the US and Iran, but it's not one you're likely to see covered on Newsnight. And chances are, there are no crack military teams being geared up to fight it out. Probably because it's not about oil or aggressive foreign policy, it's about masculinity.

Over in the States, manliness is coming under attack in the most insidious way, as cunning underwear manufacturers attempt to emasculate their customers with the alpha-male answers to Wonderbra and Spanx. Preying on men who're quietly concerned that their package is less impressive than a 'you may be a winner' envelope from Reader's Digest, they encourage consumers to invest in 2(x)ist's "men's shapewear", which is just as hideous as its name suggests.

Provided you've got the upper body strength to hoist your unexercised girth into the trunks' six-inch wide waistband, you'll benefit from a slimmer form and drastically reduced love handles. Plus, there's an additional benefit to these ungainly guy girdles (guydles?), beyond spare-tyre reduction and improved posture. The Maximise range also comes with a handy 'contour pouch' which lifts and separates, to make it look as though you're concealing the kind of trouser snake that could swallow a live pig.

Once you've sorted out your lower extremities, don't be surprised if you also find yourself eyeing up the square-cut tank top featuring a "hidden inner compression lining" for that super-tapered fit. The only downside is that you'll be putting your internal organs under so much psi pressure that the slightest cough could result in Scanners-style early bath.

Whereas our American cousins seem more than willing to surrender their manliness, in Iran they're getting strict instruction regarding 'acceptable' male dress codes. In an effort to clampdown on "un-Islamic" clothing and haircuts, they're making it clear that Iranian men need to be held to a higher masculine standard.

This week, special forces have been deployed in Tehran to clamp down on men wearing necklaces and "glamorous hairstyles". I don't know about the men, but Joan Collins must be sipping her Cinzano nervously. According to the Guardian, this obsession with men's hair is nothing new. Last year, the 'moral police' issued strict guidelines relating to hair-dos and don'ts. The approved styles were offered as alternatives to 'decadent' western cuts, which included such hair-do heresies as the ponytail and the mullet.

In retrospect, maybe the Coalition of the Willing got it all wrong. The 'axis of evil' didn't need us to export freedom and democracy, just a few TV shows that were recorded sometime in the last twenty years. I've got a sneaking suspicion that somewhere on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's hitlist you'll also find pastel suits and ice-wash denim. If you've ever rolled your sleeves up above the elbow, you'd better watch out. They're coming for you...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Love thy neighbour

Do you like your neighbours? Actually, scratch that. Do you even know your neighbours? We've all heard our parents talk about the good old days, when they could head off for a week at the seaside and leave the front door wide open, without a second thought. Back then, everybody knew everyone else's business and watched their comings and goings through a set of immaculately kept net curtains. How times have changed.

Back in April, when Kate and William tied the knot, the papers did a great job of trying to convince us that the entire country was going to be hosting parties in every street. Trestle tables as far as the eye could see, laden with the finest party foods that twenty quid and ten minutes in Iceland could muster. The only flaw in their plan was the fact that these days, we know more about the Orange call centre employee who activated our new number, than we do about the people next door. For most of us, the neighbour's name is "that fucker who's taken my parking space again".

Barry Crocker used to sing that "everybody needs good neighbours". It's a sentiment that might have suited the temperate climate of Melbourne, where the biggest worry on anyone's mind was the occasional exploding caravan. Here in the real world, it takes more than the Ramsay Street Olympics to bring neighbours together. 

It probably doesn't help that, as our population continues to grow, we're finding ourselves living on top of one another, which makes comfortable cohabitation that much more tricky. Especially when we view the people next door with the same kind of distrust that a Daily Mail reader would reserve for a halfway house full of ḥijāb-wearing single mothers.

Strangely, the closer we find ourselves, the further apart we seem to be. If you've ever lived in a terraced house, you'll know what I'm talking about. When you're separated from the family next door by a wall that's thinner than the plot of Twilight, you find yourself kept awake by the sound of their sickly kids trying to gulp down their Benylin. 

God forbid you ever find yourself, as I did, sharing a party wall with a house-full of Afrikaans-speaking backpackers. I say speaking - in fact every mangled syllable was yelled at a volume that could drown out an air-force fly-by. And if that doesn't drive you mad, the twat who decides to show off his bongo-playing prowess at three in the morning just might.

And yet, despite having endured more than my fair share of problems, it still gives me no comfort to read that Which? has published a new report suggesting that five million other UK households are blighted by troublesome neighbours. Apparently, four in ten people have their sleep disturbed by inconsiderate shitheads, with many of them choosing to fight fire with Earth, Wind and Fire - attempting to drown out the din with their own music collection. 

Occasionally, the animosity even spills over into violence. One Swedish man decided 'if you can't beat them, stab them', and murdered his teenage neighbour. As Which? executive director Richard Lloyd observes, "Three in ten Brits get annoyed with their neighbours. That so many people are losing sleep, getting stressed and struggling at work because of noise from next-door shows the damage this does."

However, it doesn't have to end in bloodshed. If you want a peaceful life with the nobheads next door, you could always extend the olive branch. Or at least offer to cut it back if it's overhanging their pergola. Lloyd's advice is to work on a resolution face-to-face, but in order to do that, you probably need to be able to pick their face out of a line-up. 

If you're lucky enough to have a garden, try inviting the locals over for a barbecue. And keep an eye on what they bring to the party. If they rock up with a couple of cans of lager, then head straight for the nearest bottle of champagne, just don't invite them back. Either way, at least you'll know their name in case you ever need to scream it through their letterbox in the middle of the night. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Another one bites the dust

So farewell then to The Event. Another great US import that started out promisingly, only to disappear up its own convoluted backside before being ignominiously cancelled by ruthless network executives. In a few months' time you'll buy able to pick up the inevitable DVD boxset, but you'll still be left dangling by the cliffhanger ending.

But who's really to blame when these high profile shows bite the dust in their first year? Is it the fairweather fans, or the lack of a well-planned story? Personally, I blame Jack Bauer. CTU's favourite agent didn't just transform the way the world perceived torture, he also revolutionised the way we watch TV. Well, maybe not personally. He was always far too busy using jump-leads to restart his heart, or ramming a damp hand-towel down an Iraqi's throat to extract a confession. But the makers of 24 ushered in a new era of complex plotting and season-long story arcs that changed our viewing habits altogether.

Think back to the most popular shows of the eighties. Knightrider, The A-Team, CHiPs, Airwolf - the one element that characterised all those era-defining programmes was the formula. Morally upstanding heroes solving problems for the downtrodden and put-upon, usually in indecently tight trousers. It was all slickly produced and deliberately unchallenging, largely because of the way that American shows were always broadcast.

Traditionally, a season runs from September through to May. That's around 35 weeks, and with 22-24 episodes per season, it leaves a lot of dead time to fill while new episodes are being filmed and edited. Every few weeks the shows take a break, leaving network schedulers to dig out old episodes to air until the new shows are ready. Standalone episodes therefore work much more effectively, since they can be aired out of sequence without causing fans to wonder where they hell they are in the overall story. So it works fine for shows like Desperate Housewives, where fans can easily pick up the fact that this is the episode where they all act like venal, conniving harridans, before having a change of heart in the last five minutes. It's a lot harder when you actually need to pay attention to what's going on.

By the time 24 reached year four, its popularity was on the rise, but traditional scheduling was causing ratings to dip whenever the show took a break. So the producers took a big risk and held off the season premiere until January. That way, they had enough episodes in the can to run the whole series uninterrupted, as they finished off the outstanding chapters of the story. Not only did this mean that audiences were able to follow all the double-crossing and deceit, the writers were able to maintain their focus much more effectively, giving it a sense of momentum that had been lacking in previous years.

The showrunners over on Lost were clearly taking notes, since they took a similar decision in its fourth year. Although the ratings continued to decline on the island-set time hopper, they didn't completely drop off, since loyal viewers were at least able to follow the multi-dimensional adventures of our curiously well-groomed survivors.

With Lost and 24 now consigned to the groaning DVD shelf in the sky, executives have commissioned new shows like Flash Forward and The Event to offer viewers compelling new season-long narratives. Unfortunately, they seemed to have missed the importance of scheduling in mapping out their 17-hour epics. Flash Forward made an impressive debut, with an explosive, effects-filled premiere that made Lost's first episode look like a Dogme 95 outtake. But the regular breaks, and a three month hiatus half-way through the season saw viewers desert the show in droves. Attempts to rebuild the writing team and reboot the show failed miserably, leaving the show to limp across the finish line at the end of its first and only season.

This year, The Event made the exact same mistakes, leaving almost four months between the two halves of its inaugural outing. By the time it returned, fans hadn't just forgotten the most recent twists, they had trouble remembering the characters' names. The Event became a non-Event, even though formulaic police procedurals like the CSI franchise managed to breeze into yet another season of forensic tomfoolery without breaking a Botox-inhibited sweat.

As Ross and Rachel found out in Friends, the words "we need to take a break" invariably spell disaster for any relationship. It's just a shame that TV producers couldn't learn that simple lesson from one of the nineties' most successful shows.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Once upon a fucking time...

I know having kids is supposed to be some kind of amazing blessing. I've lost count of the number of friends who've waxed lyrical about how their entire world view changed the moment they picked up their flaky, red-faced, yellow-shitting bundle of joy. But no matter how much they might try to convince me that their lives began the day their little one was born, their eyes tell a different story. Especially when they're laden with bags that Ryanair would charge extra for carrying.

Whenever a new parent returns back to work after maternity/paternity leave, there's only one thing anyone wants to know "Are you getting much rest?" They're usually shaking so hard from sleep deprivation that they can barely hold a coffee cup, but those of us who've opted out of parenthood can't resist sticking the knife in and asking anyway. And they tell us in tedious detail, minute-by-minute, about all the interruptions through the night. The incessant crying, the random feeding patterns, taking it in turns to scream silently into a pillow out of pure exhaustion. It sounds amazing.

It's not as if things get easier once the teething's out of the way. Because that's when the bedtime stories kick in. Twee, turgid, and more repetitive than the Fast and the Furious franchise, they're designed purely to get you speaking in hushed tones until the little one nods off. Wouldn't life be easier if kids were as easy to fool as dogs? Just stick a ticking clock under their blanket and they're convinced it's a heartbeat.

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, once wrote a particularly insightful strip about the pain of bedtime stories. In it, six-year old Calvin told his Dad about the literary world's excitement over author Mabel Syrup's sequel to 'Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie', entitled 'Commander Coriander Salamander and 'er Singlehander Bellylander"'. Less than impressed by the prospect, Calvin's Dad argued that "architects should live in the buildings they design, and children's book authors should be forced to read their stories every single night of their rotten lives".

If that's a sentiment you can empathise with, you might want to pre-order a new book that's published this week, called 'Go The Fuck To Sleep'. Described by its publishers as 'profane, affectionate and radically honest', Adam Mansbach's little book of poetry attempts to capture the indescribable magic of a child that just won't go down for the night.

Sample verse:
The eagles who soar through the sky are at rest
And the creatures who crawl, run and creep.
I know you're not thirsty. That's bullshit. Stop lying.
Lies the fuck down, my darling, and sleep.

Adam was inspired to write his splenetic lullabies after one-too-many sleepless nights, courtesy of his two-year-old daughter who often took over two hours to settle. After some encouraging words from friends on Facebook, he put pen to paper and channeled his inner tourettes-sufferer. And although some may blanch at the language, it's really just a passive aggressive spin on children's classic 'Peace at Last'.

Months before its release date, the book made number one on Amazon's pre-orders list, thanks to a bootleged PDF which went viral. The publishers might have initially been concerned that this act of piracy would harm the book's sales, but in fact, the opposite seemed to be true. Asked in May about the impact of illegal sharing on potential sales, editor Ibrahim Ahmad commented that the as-yet unpublished title was already clocking up orders at a rate that made hotcakes seem sluggish, despite the fact that "...up until this week, we have done nothing to promote this book." Maybe the anti-piracy record labels should take note.

It's also worth noting that a film adaptation of the soon-to-be bestseller is already in the works, with Fox 2000 snapping up the rights. It might not be destined for a double-bill with The Smurfs, but if they can make a movie out of Monopoly and Battleship, I guess anything's possible.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Your card's marked

Every February, millions of people quietly curse Hallmark. Those of us fortunate enough to be in a relationship resent the fact that we feel obligated to go out for dinner and pay over the odds to sit in a crowded restaurant full of desultory diners. 

We sit there, pushing carrot batons around a plate and making polite conversation with the people we see day-in, day-out, all because a publishing company contrived a clever way of flogging a bunch of extra greetings cards. And if you're not in a relationship? Well, it's another evening at home, wondering how high the pastry on a Fray Bentos pie will rise if you leave it in the oven long enough, all the while lamenting your crippling loneliness.

Our calendars are now littered with 'Hallmark Holidays', those uneventful events that we only acknowledge because someone in Kansas City managed to pair a cute poem with a picture of a rabbit in a plant pot. Inspired by the success of Valentine's Day, card manufacturers developed products to mark Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparent's Day, Boss' Day and Secretary's Day. Hallmark denies that it's behind the creation of these pointless occasions, arguing "while we're honored that people so closely link the Hallmark name with celebrations and special occasions, we can't take credit for creating holidays."

Instead, they pride themselves in providing "consumers with the products they need to express themselves and enhance their relationships with family, friends and other important people in their lives." As their slogan says, "When you care enough to send the very best", carefully omitting the original pay-off: "...but can't be arsed saying it to their face."

It doesn't matter what you want to say, it seems there's a card that'll do the job for you. There's even a whole category devoted to what Hallmark calls 'Troubled relationships'. If you don't have the balls to say the four words no-one ever wants to hear (besides "Is it in yet?"), these cards will tell your oblivious other-half that "we need to talk".

Only, instead of calmly debating the issues and working towards a resolution, you can just spend a couple of quid and tuck a card that reads "I wish I could go back in time..." between the salt and pepper pots. By the time you get back from the pub, your significant other will either have packed up and left or thrown down a handful of pills. No mess no fuss, and all for the price of scratchcard.

Don't worry, Hallmark understands that modern relationships are complicated. So they've got Suzanne Berry, their senior lead writer, on the case. Her profile on the company's website says that she has a "keen interest in what makes relationships work even in difficult situations."

If she prides herself on authenticity, I look forward to the day when the range expands to include "Well I thought the Dutch oven was funny", "You and your sister look identical from behind" and "If you don't like it, I promise I'll stop". As Suzanne helpfully points out, “The best part of my job is knowing I have a chance to provide the right words at the right time to someone who needs them.” If she could just find a word that rhymes with 'threeway'.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The good old days

Oh dear. The silent majority is getting its granny pants in a twist again, this time for something that didn't even happen. They're upset about Sandi Toksvig's cunt, which made an under-the-radar appearance on Radio 4's The News Quiz six months ago. Before you start thinking that everyone's favourite knitted lesbian is trying to give Howard Stern a run for his money, it's worth pointing out that this is one cunt that never actually passed her lips. First time for everything.

Anyway, the extent of Sandy's vagina monologue was a pretty feeble attempt at political humour, as she commented that 'It's the Tories who have put the "n" into cuts'. It's doubtful that Frankie Boyle will be scribbling that one down for future reference. And yet, despite the fact that she never actually said anything rude, there's been a belated outcry about the fact that the BBC thought it was acceptable to broadcast "the most offensive word in English language on the radio at 6.30pm." Even though they didn't. It's like me getting upset about Bill Turnbull asking Kate Silverton if she's ever tried DVDA on this morning's Breakfast, just because I imagine the thought might once have crossed his mind.

But according to the self-appointed moral guardians, this expletive-ridden culture is just another sign of how we've lost our collective innocence. What's needed is a return to the good old days, when men wore hats and women kept the drinks topped up (if they knew what was good for them). Back when people needed instructional videos that explained how to conduct themselves in potentially dicey social situations.

Take 'Dating Do's and Don'ts' for example. Originally released in 1949, it gave horny American teenagers a step-by-step account of how to go on a date without coming across like a lifer getting a conjugal visit. Our hero is the appropriately named 'Woody', who receives a free ticket to the local fair, courtesy of an injured friend. Problem is, the ticket admits "one couple", which gets Woody thinking. Given his third-year reading level, the thinking takes quite a while, but he eventually comes to the conclusion that he's ready to start dating.

Inspired by his super-cool brother Ed (leather bomber jacket and a breezy phone manner), Woody asks his mother for permission to go on a date. She's not too keen on the idea, probably because she's harbouring the dark secret that, like Don Draper in Mad Men, Woody's a 'whore child', taken in at birth by his bitter grandmother. Nonetheless, she acquiesces and allows her naive ward to go out on Saturday, warning "If you don't overdo on dating. Ed knows what I mean." I guess cock-rot was rife in post-war America.

The film also offers some helpful tips on selecting the right girl for a date. Interestingly, it advises against going out with anyone too hot, because she'll only act superior. Likewise, quiet girls make for boring company. Best to go for someone who laughs a lot and can cram half a roll of candy floss in her mouth without missing a breath. Clearly, Woody's not as stupid as he looks.

After crashing and burning with a couple of ill-advised opening lines, our plucky hero finally lands a date with Ann who, well, let's just say I don't imagine she was inundated with offers. We even get to see inside Ann's bedroom as she preps for her big date, dancing around with a dress that the women of Westboro Baptist Church might dismiss as being a little too plain. Meanwhile, Woody panics that he hasn't picked up any flowers and asks Ed whether he needs to grab a bunch. Getting ready for his own big date, Ed explains "I'm taking these to Mary because it's a special occasion". Yeah, someone's getting anal tonight.

Thankfully, our happy couple finally make it to the fair, and the air is crackling with sexual tension. Or that might just be the degraded sixty-year old audio. Either way, it's clear that sex is on both their minds, since every square inch of the set is festooned with sausage-shaped balloons. After speaking to a man with the world's least convincing moustache Ann and Woody grab a bite to eat. Clearly knowing more than he's letting on, Woody gives his date a delicious hotdog, then looks crestfallen as she gingerly nibbles the end of it, like she's trying not to pinch the frenulum.

The evening ends with a chaste goodnight on Ann's doorstep, so the final piece of advice covers how to end a date with the right bon mot. "Thanks, I had a real swell time" is spot on. "Tits or face?" - not so much. Still, looking back at these quaint guidance films, it's hard to believe that anyone got to second base, never mind plucking up the courage to procreate.

This week David Cameron backed a report recommending a new code for clothes retailers, developed in conjunction with the British Retail Consortium. Its aim is to steer retailers away from selling sexually suggestive clothes and swimwear to children, because the campaigners behind the report are concerned about the premature sexualisation of children. Apparently, some people don't like the idea of a six year-old wearing a T-shirt that says "So many boys, so little time". What's wrong with teaching kids about the importance of prioritisation?  The upside of all this, is that if we keep our fingers crossed, we might yet get to see what Woody and Ann did next. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Cut to the chase

The receipts are in and, despite a $56,000,000 haul, 20th Century Fox has to be a little underwhelmed by the performance of X-Men: First Class. Speculation is rife about why the film had the weakest opening of the franchise to date. They might blame the largely unknown cast, director Matthew Vaughn's relative inexperience, or just general audience mistrust towards prequels (that slapping sound is George Lucas giving it some heavy facepalm). But the most likely explanation is that we're just getting a bit sick of comic book movies.

After the first X-Men movie confounded everyone by being a decent film that treated viewers like grownups, the studios set their x-ray vision on any character with a cape and an alliterative alter-ego. They may not have killed the golden goose, but they certainly rammed a funnel down its oesophagus and started pumping. As a result, the market's been saturated and filmmakers are running out of recognisable properties to adapt.

If, like us, they're growing bored of the conventional underdog-turned-vigilante story, they might be interested in an all-new superhero currently flying off the shelves in San Francisco. Foreskin Man may share a costume colour scheme with Wolverine, but he's vehemently opposed to sharp blades, especially the ones used to "cut into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy." Well, who wouldn't be?

OK, so it's unlikely that this particular hero is going to be featuring on a Happy Meal box anytime soon. Instead, he's here to rid the world (or at least Northern California) of the scourge of circumcision, and it seems like he's got a battle on his hands. In the US, 80% of American men are snipped as children, so much so that the uncircumcised minority are treated as quirky novelties, like gingers or Sarah Palin.

For years, debate has raged about whether or not it's acceptable to 'mutilate' a child's genitals. Advocates of the practice argue that it’s a relatively painless procedure with myriad health and hygiene benefits. Alternatively, opponents believe that maybe kids should be entitled to decide for themselves whether they want part of their cock cutting off, rather than having it done arbitrarily before they’ve even grown out of their first pair of bootees.

The political debate has come to a shiny purple head in the Bay Area, where a concerned public interest group of 'intactivists' has lobbied to have a new proposal added to the November ballot. This means that voters get to decide whether theirs will be the first US city to outlaw child circumcision.

In many ways, it makes sense that the battle lines over this issue would be drawn in San Francisco. After all, this is a city with cock on the brain. As well as being home to the ultra-desirable neighbourhood of Nob Hill, the city is watched over by Coit Tower, a 210ft phallus that was erected in 1933 in honour the city's firefighters. Then, of course, there’s The Castro – a whole district dedicated to wang worship, where the only toys displayed in shop windows come with a realistic vibrating action. If you see the word 'uncut' on a DVD in this part of town, it's probably not referring to a previously unseen Director’s edit.

If the measure passes, circumcision on the under-18s will become a misdemeanour offence punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail, with no religious exemptions. The Jewish community is understandably upset about this threat to their religious freedoms, with Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds claiming "For a city that's renowned for being progressive and open-minded, to even have to consider such an intolerant proposition ... it sets a dangerous precedent for all cities and states." They've also accused the creator of Foreskin Man of being anti-Semitic, given the fact that the comic's chief villain is called 'Monster Mohel'. Matthew Hess defended himself, saying "A lot of people have said that, but we're not trying to be anti-Semitic. We're trying to be pro-human rights."

The argument of religious freedom is a tricky one, especially since the children involved have no say in the matter. As with all forms of freedom, limitations come into effect as soon as the freedom of a third party is affected. Surely, kids would be better off growing into their own bodies before they have bits of them hacked off, in the same way that no-one would condone giving a three-year old a nosejob. By the time they reach the age of consent, they can decide for themselves whether they want their cock remodelled - hell, they can hammer a nail through it if they like. Each to their own.

In the meantime, we can all sleep soundly in our beds, safe in the knowledge that the ever-vigilant Miles Hastwick is defending our dicks through his research at the Museum of Genital Integrity. When this Dark Knight Rises, it's hard to miss - in fact you can see it through his tights. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The hard cell

Let's get this out of the way first. The Shawshank Redemption is a stone cold classic. Even though it barely made back its production budget when released in cinemas, it didn't take too long to become a universally loved favourite. But even classics can be prone to cliché, and Shawshank is no exception.

There's the wrongly convicted man, psychopathic guards, strip-search induction, weepy new fish, a corrupt warden, maggoty food and a kindly old-timer. It's like a lag's greatest hits compilation. Plus, of course, there's all the touching scenes of male bonding, as well as plenty more scenes of male touching. If you believe the movies, there are two guarantees when it comes to prison life - manicure kits covered in cake frosting, and more aggressive man-on-man action than one of Michael Barrymore's pool parties.

So far, so predictable. Surely there's another side to life in the lock-up, besides the rapey inmates and socks full of snooker balls? For an alternative view of prison life, try picking up the DVD boxsets of Prison Break. Admittedly, its over-reliance on 'deus ex machina' plotting made it about as believable as Ryan Giggs' marriage vows, but even so, there were moments of surprising authenticity in amongst the tattooed blueprints and hot prison doctors.

Sensing that the man-on-the-run plotting of season two was in danger of losing the show's core concept, the writers decided to send their heavily-inked hero back to the clink in his third outing. Only this time, he was going to be slopping out in Panama. Rather than dealing with corrupt staff, genius engineer Michael Scofield found himself at the mercy of the inmates who had taken over the prison during a recent riot. In Sona, the only armed guards were the ones who patrolled the perimeter, with everything else falling under the jurisdiction of Lechero, a Panamanian drug kingpin. Sounds ridiculous, but it turns out, the writing team was bang on the money.

According to a new report in the New York Times, in Latin America at least, penal reform means leaving the lunatics to run the asylum. San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in Venezuela might be surrounded with sharpshooters in watchtowers, but inside it's more like Club 18-30, just with fewer tattoos.

Outdoor pools, conjugal visits, Playboy murals and even a cockfighting arena - it's no wonder the island's many holiday makers are sure to include a day-trip to San Antonio as part of their itinerary. The one-way security checks are a big bonus: walk in empty-handed, and waltz out a few hours later laden with enough crack to keep Whitney Houston hitting the high-notes for a fortnight.

Under the benevolent leadership of Teófilo Rodríguez, inmates and their guests enjoy barbecues and whisky by the pool, plus cable TV and air-conditioning in their cells. Kids are welcome too, and there's an onsite photographer who can Photoshop you and your family into a variety of backgrounds. OK, so most of the prisoners are armed, either with AK-47s and M-16s, or BlackBerries for scheduling those all-important drug deals, kidnappings and murders. But at least you don't have to put up with a Thomas Cook rep trying to sell you eight hours on a catamaran, with a complimentary pork chop at lunchtime.

Forget about rehabilitation and reform, this is just a package holiday where the package happens to be wrapped in clingfilm and muled through the security checkpoint. And even if you do have to dodge the occasional grenade attack whilst visiting the infirmary, it still beats the shit out of Magaluf.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Britain's Got Shafted

Poor old Simon Cowell's having a bad week. When he jetted into the UK to sit at the end of the judges' table and stop David Hasselhoff from falling over, he was probably expecting a hero's welcome. Local boy done good and all that. Instead he had to endure a cacophony of boos, not to mention a ribbing from Geordie's answer to Hale & Pace. Ever the professional, he tried to turn a blind eye to the criticism. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more of a droopy eye, since his botched botox job made it look as though one of the floor managers had just opened the Ark of the Covenant.

First there was Cherylgate, a story which managed to make front page news right across the US, despite the fact that all anyone had been talking about in the preceding weeks was the fact that no-one in the States knew who she was. In the absence of any genuine insider insight, the news media resurrected all their previous speculation about why she was never going to land the US X-Factor gig in the first place. They just changed the tense and simply re-appropriated it as a hot-off-the-presses exclusive.

Was it the impenetrable accent, a lack of chemistry with the queen of self-medication, or that pesky assault conviction? No-one knows and, despite the paper's best efforts to convince us otherwise, no-one really cares. So Simon loses his luxuriously-maned pet rock, and everyone moves down a seat. Over in the Middle East, the war still rages on. Interestingly, Cheryl's managed to maintain a dignified silence over the whole farce, leaving the rest of us to wish that she'd remained similarly tight-lipped last time she visited a recording studio.

Simon's return to Britain's Got Talent, accompanied by John William's triumphant Superman march, was supposed to reassure the great viewing public that our favourite shows were safely nuzzled between his hairy tit-sacks. And that was probably the case until a former colleague decided to pull a Wikileaks and expose the talent factory for the dubious scam that it is.

The contents of the anonymous whistleblower's blog were only online for a short time, but were quickly cut-and-pasted into a bunch of other sites. Many of those sites were forced to quickly remove the article, replacing it with a notice that read "moved due to a claim from Simco Limited ('Syco') and Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited ('Sony')."

The veracity of the writer's claims are yet to be established, but it makes for interesting reading nonetheless. Although I could do without all the cloak-and-dagger subterfuge; he's talking about a reality TV show, not the fucking Enigma machine. If you didn't get to see the original post, allow me to paraphrase it for you: Britain's Got Talent preselects its preferred acts and manipulates the audience vote. Anyone with half a brain, which admittedly excludes about 75 percent of the show's viewers, already knew that.

Much of the post focuses on 12 year-old Ronan Parke, who's a dead-cert for victory on Saturday night according to our anonymous informant. Try telling that to Susan Boyle, assuming she stops yelling at pigeons in the precinct long enough to listen. If the article is to be believed, acts are allegedly hand-picked for stardom well in advance of the show being filmed, then groomed, coached and re-invented, ready for their TV debut. There's also a bizarre focus on Parke's indeterminate sexuality, suggesting that Cowell's team decided to 'play up' the gay angle, without the author ever explaining how he thought that might enhance the kid's Stateside appeal.

Whether or not these claims are true is really of little consequence. But Cowell's foolish overreaction does suggest that there's something in the article that he didn't want the public to know about. Many people have labelled Simon a genius for his ability to gift-wrap a dogshit and make us say "thank you" for it. And although I'd grudgingly agree that he displays moments of cunning brilliance, let's not forget that this is also a man who goes to Sinitta for advice, but only because Debbie Gibson's line is always engaged.

Who knows, maybe Ronan will win tomorrow's BGT final. And maybe he even had it in the bag months before the cameras started rolling. But does it doesn't really matter? Those who enjoy watching the show do so because it attempts to recapture the spirit of all those 70s talent shows that used to clog up the airways - admit it, there are few things more fun than watching Nina Myskow make a teenage magician cry.

Anyway, the point is, this might look like a talent contest. And we may even get the chance to vote. But the audience-participation element is just a novelty addition to the format, like the bedsit they stuck on the side of the Big Brother house. Cast your mind back to the origins of the Idol/X-Factor format and you'll recall that Popstars made no attempt to involve the audience. In fact, the outcome was a fait accompli before the first show even aired. The genius of the concept, was in lifting the lid on the cruel and fickle nature of the record label's A&R process. Shows like the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent may give us the illusion of control, but ultimately, we're just fifteen million unpaid participants in an extended focus group for next year's slate of new artists.

Simon's troops are rallying around him in his hour of need, with one underling telling the press "There's no way this person will get away with this." Comforting words, even if they imply that the villainous blogger is actually a disgruntled caretaker who dresses as a luminous zombie. Forget Scotland Yard, Simon needs to get Scooby and the gang on the case. In the meantime, the police believe they're closing in on their prime suspect. Let's just hope that Joe McElderry, Shayne Ward and Leon Jackson have all got a fucking good alibi.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

No need for alarm

I don't care if they're more of a seventies relic than one of Margo Leadbetter's kaftans, I want a teasmaid. In fact, I can even turn a blind eye to the fact that it'll feel like I'm waking up in the Swindon Holiday Inn. I just want to wake up without suffering the invasively shrill shriek of a regular alarm clock. Having been dragged from REM sleep by more beeps, gurgles and electronic whines than R2D2 getting a blowjob, I've decided there must be a more civilised way to be woken up in a morning.

I've always been a sucker for any kind of gadgetry, so I once spent £30 of my hard-won pocket money on a spherical alarm clock that responded to sounds. According to the packaging, a short, sharp whistle could disable the aggressively atonal siren. Sadly, I can whistle about as well as Jamie Oliver, and so had to resort to other sounds in an attempt to switch off my relentless alarm. Living in halls of residence at the time, I'd regularly wake up and try to turn it off with a sudden clap of my hands, only to find that the less-than-sensitive receiver would only respond to a very specific pitch. So I'd lay there for several minutes, clapping until my palms were red and sore. The guy in the next room thought I'd found Jesus.

Over the years, a number of other novelty alarms have failed me. I bought one of those projection clocks, which promised to subtly cast the time of day onto the bedroom wall. It was like trying to sleep through the New Year fireworks on the south bank. One Christmas, I received a spongy baseball alarm, which invited me to throw it at the wall in order to deactivate the ringer. That ended up costing me an expensive stereo speaker. In the end, we gave up on the gizmos and went retro, picking out a proper wind-up clock with an old-fashioned bell. The ringer was so loud it gave one of our dogs a heart murmur.

So what's a borderline narcoleptic supposed to do if they want to wake up without having a panic attack? Soft, subtle ringtones are all well and good, but they're easier to ignore than the shipping forecast. Radio alarm clocks are a nice idea, but all that early morning chatter soon lulls you back to sleep before you've even registered that daylight is poking through the curtain. 

And don't get me started on the snooze button. Who came up with the idea of a manual override system for a machine with only one function? It's the worst invention since Clive Sinclair looked at a tricycle and thought "what if..." It only takes a couple of days for your body to learn the alarm's pattern, and before you know it, your right arm is taking matters into its own hand - hitting 'snooze' without letting the rest of your body know what it's up to. You lie there, resting your eyes, and suddenly it's fucking Wednesday.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So I'll be investing in the exciting new concept in automated wakification (I know, but there should be a word for it) currently being touted on AcidCow. This ingenious device looks like a standard glass-fronted alarm, except for the fact that it has a built-in shredder. Simply place a valuable banknote in the slot before you start tallying your ruminants, and in the morning you'll have the perfect incentive to spring quickly from your pit. Because if you don't, that banknote will be little more than a pile of Donald Trump's party streamers all over your carpet. 

In these austere times, it seems more than a little cavalier to gamble a fifty-pound note on the chance of an extra five minutes in bed. Then again, since shopkeepers treat you like Ronnie Biggs whenever you try to spend one, maybe it's not that much of a loss. I guess it doesn't have to be money - any other precious paperwork will do: marriage certificate, counterpart driver's licence, Olympic tickets.

Since this clock is currently only a concept, you may have to find another way of blowing a bunch of money every morning. In which case I recommend a speaker dock for your iPhone. In the time it takes for you to programme the alarm, your technology will have been rendered obsolete by yet another Steve Jobs keynote announcement. Works like a charm.