Monday, 29 August 2011

Death has a plan

Reviewing a Final Destination movie is an exercise in futility. Instead of watching closely and taking copious notes, a reviewer simply needs a handy checklist:
  1. Cursory character introductions, check. 
  2. Spectacular opening disaster to dispatch the entire cast in a variety of gruesome ways, check. 
  3. Panic-stricken realisation that the carnage was merely a premonition, followed by frantic escape, check. 
  4. Sombre funeral scene as survivors attempt to make sense of their inexplicable good fortune, check. 
  5. Series of grim vignettes as two-dimensional characters are offed in hilariously sticky accidents, check. 
  6. One final twist, just as the hero/heroine believes that they've escaped death's design, check. 
Now up to its fifth chapter, the Final Destination franchise has got the formula down to a fine art. Albeit the kind of art that's splattered like Pollock's parquet floor. On the surface, there's little reason to go see the latest instalment of the decade-old series - even the film's much publicised 3D enhancement is a second go-round, having already shot its load in the audience's Real-D glasses last time round.

However, the previous sequel might be considered something of a test run, since this time around the producers have clearly raised their game. Not only in terms of inventiveness, but also the quality of the effects and the 3D execution of the, well, executions. Heads are smashed, bodies eviscerated and eyeballs violated in glorious detail. If you despair for the youth of today, this could be the most fun you'll ever cram into ninety minutes.

Of all the films that have been released in James Cameron's favourite format, none lend themselves more immediately to the third dimension than this accident-prone series. Its makers don't need to contrive any reason to wave things in the viewer's face - that's the whole point of the films.

The film isn't without its faults, largely on account of the audience's overfamiliarity with the concept. When a character announces early on that he'll win a tricky colleague over "Even if it kills me", the irony is met with a groan of predictability. Similarly, the ominous harbingers of the early series entries have been replaced with less effective heralds of doom - hence the needless close-up on a sign on some bus steps that reads "Watch your step". That's not a premonition, it's just common sense.

Oh, and can someone please tell me why, in 2011, we're still seeing scenes that depict a short-sighted character losing their glasses and suddenly staggering blindly around, like Helen Keller in a hedge maze? It was stupid enough when Velma kept losing her specs in Scooby Doo, without needing to see the live-action equivalent.

Quibbles aside, the makers of Final Destination 5 deserve some credit for managing to reinvigorate a franchise that was dangerously close to encountering a fatal mishap of its own. For the first time since the original, the series has found a director who knows how to differentiate between gags and gag reflex, whereas his predecessors simply settled for stirring it all together and hoping for the best. This film also adds a few new wrinkles to the mythology, which give its ending a more palpable sense of jeopardy than the previous films' increasingly hysterical denouements. There's also a pretty laudable twist in this tale to reward long-term fans of the series.

Even the cast can hold their severed heads high for managing to rise above their stock characterisations. These films have never prioritised casting, seemingly settling for whoever happened to be in town when the cameras start rolling. But this rag-tag group of low-rent lookalikes (particularly Tom Cruise and Drew Barrymore) at least manage to hold our interest until we see their nubile bodies pierced like a goth's earlobe.

Ten years on, it's safe to say that the franchise is still in reasonable health. Not bad for a series that started out as a speculative script for an episode of the X-Files. Unlike other long running series, which rely on wise-cracking, mask-wearing killers for their thrills, this concept demands innovation and creativity for its kills. With each new entry attempting to up the stakes, writers are willing to throw the kitchen sink (as well as any other implement that comes to hand) at their easily disassembled characters.

For the record, it's also worth mentioning that the Final Destinations represent the closest that Hollywood has ever come to understanding the debilitating power of OCD. Forget about Jack Nicholson's Oscar-winning turn in 'As Good As It Gets' - anyone who's ever spent half an hour repeatedly checking the taps, sniffing the gas hob or moving glasses away from the edge of the table, will recognise the special insight that these film-makers bring to their subject.

The Inspector Gadget

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you're going to find yourself with a child on your knee (hopefully your own, otherwise questions will be asked) trying to explain why life before the invention of Sky+ might be worthy of the sobriquet 'The Good Old Days'. And you're going to struggle.

You'll wax lyrical about the joys of being forced to watch TV according to the whims of a group of anonymous scheduling executives. You'll speak evocatively about your commitment to catching something on its first airing, rather than waiting 18 months for it to be repeated. And you'll tell fantastic tales of a giant box in the corner of the room, which you fed with clunky black tapes that could magically store up to three hours of unwatchably grainy footage. Meanwhile, your child will have already programmed three HD series links from an app on their watch in the time it took for you to clear your throat.

Like it or not (and if you contemplated cancelling your subscription in the wake of the whole News International scandal - the 'not' is more than likely) Sky+ changed our lives for the better. The luddites will dig in their heels and claim that we've surrendered our freedom to our EPG displaying overlords. But be honest, when did you last waste a couple of hours flicking through the channels to find something to watch?

While you're busy doing something less boring instead, your loyal Sky+ box is thinking of ways to make your life easier. It's running through its own channel guides, carefully selecting things you'd want to watch based on your viewing habits, and offering them to you like a stalker with HDMI cable stuck up its arse.

On a recent edition of 8 Out Of 10 Cats (the one where Jimmy Carr was insufferably smug and looked to be having an allergic reaction to shellfish) it was revealed that the little box of delights is now the UK's favourite gadget. Hardly surprising, given that TV viewing couldn't be more pleasurable if Rupert Murdoch decided to release a limited edition Sky+ with a Fleshlight stuck on the side.

That's not to say that Sky+ is perfect - there's still no way of programming it to drop the ad breaks. And with so many channels to choose from, you're never too far away from a Jersey Shore marathon or the risk of falling into a K-Hole (that's K for Kardashian, not Ketamine - although the effect is the same). Thankfully, someone's already on the case, with an ingenious home-made invention which might ultimately save us all from the blight of reality TV.

A clever engineer called Matt Richardson has cobbled together a tiny little gadget that hooks up to his TV and automatically mutes the volume whenever a pointless Z-list celebrity is mentioned. That way, he never has to hear about who's doing the washing up in the Big Brother compound, or whether Paris Hilton will manage to score a new show after being starved of oxygen. Sorry, I meant cancelled by Oxygen.

Aptly named 'Enough Already', Richardson's gizmo uses the Arduino Board (which is a kind of microcontroller and not a Robert Ludlum novel), to decode the subtitling track on any live TV broadcast. The incoming text is then scanned for a set of keywords, such as 'Octomom' or 'Snooki', and each time one of the words is detected, his TV remote automatically mutes the broadcast for 30 seconds. After half a minute of blessed silence, the volume is restored, unless another keyword has been detected.

The effect must be similar to watching TV in the late eighties with my Grandpa. Although he loved Saturday evening telly, accompanied by a plastic tub full of mint humbugs, he had a pathological distaste for light entertainers. He'd sit hunched forward in his arm chair, one crooked finger poised permanently over the mute button, ready to fire the moment Bob Monkhouse honed into view. Suddenly, the room would fall silent, only for Grandpa to fill the void by shouting "Oh bugger off you pointless little man" at the screen. It made me laugh every time. On second thoughts, maybe there are some things that technology will never be able to replace.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Going underground

In all my years of movie-going, I’ve only ever had an entire cinema to myself once. The year was 1990, and at the time I was a regular at our local picture house. It was a proper old-school cinema, with curved stalls, a balcony, and those little green tickets that were torn off a roll and slipped under the box office window. The Penistone Metro even made national news at one point, when distributors threatened to withhold new movies if the management insisted on keeping the half-time interval, so that audiences could slope off to the bar for a pint and a couple of cheeky Lambert & Butlers an hour into the show.

As I settled into my sagging and slightly sticky seat, I looked around and noticed that there was no-one else in the room. Even after the trailers for forthcoming attractions had played, as well as the ads for local businesses (double glazing, second-hand furniture and a sandwich shop on the corner – “Now there’s a meal for a man”), I was still all on my lonesome. But I didn’t care, this was a film I’d been itching to see since I’d read all about it in Fangoria, the horror fan’s Bible.

Despite solid reviews, celebrating its loving pastiche of 1950’s monster B-movies, Tremors failed to capture the public’s imagination. It had dropped off the radar pretty quickly in the States, and seemed doomed to a similarly ignominious fate in the UK. Nevertheless, as its opening scene unfolded on the time-worn screen, I couldn’t have been more hooked if a Graboid itself had wrapped around my ankle.

If you’ve never seen Tremors on one of its many TV airings, you’re now in a minority. Over the years it’s built up a loyal cult following, even spawning a franchise of direct-to-DVD sequels and a short-lived TV show. Unfortunately, much like The Shawshank Redemption a few years later, the studio managed to get everything right except the marketing. Apparently, ‘small desert town gets menaced by giant sandworms’ didn’t hold much appeal when compared with the racing adventures of Cole Trickle or John McClane facing another fucked up Christmas.

So why is Tremors held in such high regard by those who’ve experienced its low-fi wonders? For a start, it’s got an awesome script. The dialogue crackles, with jokes based on characterization rather than glib smart-arsery. Take the scene where our ‘better than nothing’ heroes prepare to ride to Bixby - store-owner Walter Chang shows his support by offering them “Swiss cheese and some bullets”. Just what you need when under attack from mysterious subterranean monsters - if the rounds don't get 'em, the Emmental will. 

The inhabitants of the ironically named Perfection are a rag-tag bunch of losers, loners and gun-toting conspiracy theorists. They’re joined by a seismology student from a nearby university who subverts genre convention by drawing a blank when repeatedly asked to explain the curious phenomena besieging the backwater hamlet. Rhonda may be the only person in town with a tertiary level education, but she’s as clueless as the rest of them when the worms begin to turn – “Why do you keep asking me?” she moans, as the creatures begin burrowing under Walter’s shop, much to the dismay of its occupants. 

Fizzy dialogue is one thing, but it dies a death if the roles are miscast. Thankfully, this is another area where Tremors comes up trumps. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are amazing as Val and Earl, a pair of work-shy handymen who are all set to leave Perfection forever, following one too many shitty jobs. In this case, literally. Their easy banter and genuine chemistry positions them as a curious fusion between Butch & Sundance, and Del & Rodney. 

The other key pairing is Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the Gummers, a survivalist couple who live in a fortified bunker on a nearby hillside. Throughout the film, much humour is poked at their paranoia and passion for military-grade hardware. But in the end, it’s Burt’s ability to quickly knock up a batch of homemade explosives that saves the day: 
Earl: What kind of fuse is that?
Burt: Cannon fuse
Earl: What the hell do you use it for?
Burt: My cannon.

Ultimately though, a monster movie lives and dies by the quality of its effects, and this is one area where Tremors didn’t scrimp. Despite a relatively low budget ($10m and change), the creatures are as good as anything that came from Hollywood in the early nineties. Designed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, who later established ADI, one of the industry’s leading effects houses, the Graboids are curiously believable. Having teased audiences with snake-like beasts throughout the film’s first act, director Ron Underwood delivers an awesome money shot that genuinely shocks, as the full scale of the creatures is finally revealed. It suddenly becomes clear that the serpentine creatures we'd seen earlier were simply the Graboids’ tongues, feeling out seismic vibrations and dragging unwilling victims into their prehistoric jaws.

In its brisk 96 minutes, Tremors packs in a handful of genuinely ingenious moments, some great jump scenes and a few splats of gore, but never loses sight of its own silliness. As Burt and Heather reluctantly surrender their ‘impenetrable’ fortress, you can't help but join in with Burt's bitter laugh as he laments the fact that you can never be too prepared: “Food for five years, a thousand gallons of gas, air filtration, water filtration, Geiger counter. Bomb shelter! Underground... God damn monsters.”

A couple of weeks ago, Tremors popped up on one of the Freeview channels (where it seems to be in regular syndication along with The Pelican Brief and The Chronicles of Riddick) and within twenty minutes it was trending on Twitter. Finally, after twenty years, the little film that could seemed to be getting the recognition it deserves. It may not break any new ground, but like the Graboids themselves, it has a way of pulling you in.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Revisionist Rogue's Gallery

With a £1m bounty on Gaddafi's head, it's likely that his snappily dressed all-female bodyguard squad will soon be looking for alternative employment. And although the people of Libya will rejoice at their liberation from his 41-year rule, the rest of the world loses yet another colourful villain. Here's hoping that Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and Sarah Palin are ready for the extra scrutiny.

The problem is, we all love a good villain. They're far more interesting than their staid, do-good counterparts. Just look at the movies - heroes are interchangeable, but it's always the bad guys that we remember. There's a reason why Channel 5 never made a 'Hundred Best Kind-Hearted Liberals' countdown show, and it's not because Fearne Cotton and Fizz off Coronation Street were busy. Remember back in 1989 when Tim Burton cast his big-screen adaptation of Batman? Jack Nicholson, a man who can chew scenery like Vanessa Feltz in an Outback steakhouse, landed the plum role of The Joker. Meanwhile, the caped crusader had to settle for the one-time Mr. Mom.

Check out any 'best bad guys' list, and you'll always see the same familiar faces - Hans Gruber, Freddy Krueger, Harry Powell. But there's a bunch of villains who get overlooked every time a bunch of TV interns are tasked with compiling another clip show. So here's a shout-out to five underdogs of screen villainy. Even without a cape and a twirly moustache, they deserve to be remembered.

Auric Goldfinger

Fair-weather Bond fans tend to cite Blofeld as 007's definitive nemesis. The bald head, white cat and hollowed out volcano make him the iconic arch villain of the series. But really, it's portly bullion-enthusiast Goldfinger who established the template for Bondian bad guys. He was witty, cordial and played a mean round of golf, even if he did have a tendency to cheat when the game wasn't going his way. Despite having almost every word of dialogue dubbed by Michael Collins, Gert Fröbe makes for a charming villain, managing to be subtly intimidating even whilst wearing a pair of trousers borrowed from Rupert the Bear.

Clarence Boddicker

Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic Robocop boasts a broad spectrum of bad guys, from Miguel Ferrer's avaricious junior executive to Ronny Cox's corrupt patrician. But when it comes to muscle, Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker is your guy. He's a drug-trafficking, cop-shooting, bank-robbing all-purpose shit, who thinks nothing of spitting blood on a police ledger book before barking "Just gimme my fucking phone call". He can also clear out a coke and hookers party with just two words: "Bitches, leave."

Peyton Flanders

The early 1990s saw cinemas beseiged with a glut of 'bitch from hell' movies, inspired by the success of Glenn Close's knife-wielding harridan in Fatal Attraction. We were treated to an endless parade of slutty authors, flatmates and secretaries, all happy to confirm that the female of the species was indeed deadlier than the male. But none were more treachorous than the former Mrs Mott - the widow of a gynaecologist with a nasty habit of slipping off the rubber glove before doing an pelvic exam. Reinventing herself with the preposterous monicker of Peyton Flanders, the vengeful villain in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle sets out to punish the woman she blames for her husband's suicide. Dressed in an endless parade of chenille sweaters and pleated skirts, the kindly nanny manages to fool everyone around her, as she drops earrings into a baby's crib, threatens to break another child's arm and warns the handyman "Don't fuck with me, retard." When she's not cutting Julianne Moore to ribbons with an elaborate greenhouse deathtrap that would make Jigsaw jealous, she's breast-feeding her target's baby. And if you're still in any doubt, check out the scene where she goes apeshit with a plunger in a toilet cubicle. It's the most shocking outburst of bathroom violence since Cheryl Cole tried helping herself to the free smellies.

Biff Tannen

The archetypal school bully (so much so, he manifests himself in several generations of Hill Valley history), Biff makes up in brawn, for what he lacks in brains. A running joke through the Back To The Future trilogy has Biff repeatedly screwing up his verbal putdowns, leaving him to speak with his ham-sized fists instead. Committed to tormenting the McFly boys for all eternity, this giant lunk never really gets the upper hand. Instead, he's destined to spend the rest of his days smashing into a manure truck, cursing his luck through a mouthful of animal waste. If only he'd make like a tree and get out of here.

Grand Moff Tarkin

With a tight budget and a disbelieving studio threatening to undermine his grand vision, George Lucas knew that casting a legendary actor would give his space saga some much-needed credibility. Whilst most of the attention was focused on Alec Guinness (who gritted his teeth and thought of the percentage points), it was Hammer legend Peter Cushing who really brought a touch of class to the original Star Wars. Although the Emperor gets a name check in the first film, villain duties are handled deftly by Cushing's sunken cheeks and clipped old-school delivery. Not only does he give the orders to blast Alderaan to smithereens, he's the one who (according to Princess Leia) is "holding Vader's leash." The guy in the bucket helmet might have captured the imagination of a generation, but it was Tarkin who made them shiver in their seats.

So who would you add to Hollywood's Most Wanted list?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Parking mad

The worst thing about families, aside from the acrimonious games of Trivial Pursuit on Boxing Day, is the constant threat of hereditary inheritance. But I'm not talking about cystic fibrosis or haemophilia, I mean the obsessions and hang-ups that get handed down from generation to generation, like an ugly bone china soup tureen. This is about nurture, not nature.

In my family, it's an obsession with parking. More specifically, the cost and availability of it. Growing up in the countryside outside of Sheffield, I was raised with a fearful distaste for the local metropolis, viewing it the same way that Hobbits looked at Mount Doom, purely on account of a few tricky one-way systems and some expensive multi-storeys.

By the time I moved to London, I'd forgotten about my family's fixation with the cost of leaving the car unattended for a couple of hours. Until one day, a couple of months before my civil ceremony, I called my Dad to tell him that we'd secured hotel rooms just a stone's throw from our wedding venue. Expecting him to be excited about the prospect of staying in a brand new designer hotel with views of Tower Bridge and the Lord Mayor's building, instead I got: “Well how are we going to get there? ‘Cos I’m not paying bloody London parking prices.”

Suddenly, it all came flooding back to me. A lifetime of oral travelogues punctuated by an encyclopedic recollection of how much it cost to park the car. When my sister went off travelling for a year, we all made the pilgrimage to Heathrow in order to wave her off. But as we approached the barrier to the short term parking zone and the price board honed into view, I swear my Dad toyed with the idea of telling her to hop out and make her own way to the terminal, in order to save himself a few quid.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, nurture trumped nature and I found myself exhibiting symptoms of park-anoia. I used to have one of those UGC cards, that gave you unlimited access to the cinema for £9.99 a month. The problem was, our nearest multiplex had no car park, leaving us with no choice but to use the NCP next door. Realising that the £5 surcharge to park made the unlimited card something of a false economy, I started working out the exact running time of the films (excluding previews, ads and end credits) to see if a film could be crammed into a two-hour, rather than a three-hour slot. Sometimes, if enough minutes were left over, I’d even race through the neighbouring mall looking for an excuse to spend a tenner, so that I’d get a token for two hours’ free parking. In the end, it made cinema-going so stressful I had to cancel the card and start buying DVDs instead.

But there's hope for me. Because it turns out that this obsession with meters and single yellow lines isn't unique to my family. In fact, parking seems to be something of a national obsession, and could soon replace the weather as our default conversational setting. In a news story that appeared in the papers today, a new survey conducted by insurance company Churchill, has found that we Brits are very protective of our parking spaces, whether we own them or not. Almost fifty percent of people believe that they own the space immediately outside their home, with five percent even pulling a 'Boswell' and using traffic cones to preserve it.

This follows on from a similar survey in March that found we take out our frustrations on motorists who don't observe parking etiquette, with a quarter of respondents admitting that they've "verbally attacked" car owners who flaunt the rules. One of the most common irritants appears to be drivers who park in disabled bays without any visible impediments to mobility. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's sat in a Tesco car-park, loudly berating an able-bodied shopper for using one of those much coveted extra-wide bays right next to the store's entrance.

The good news is that even the most deeply ingrained behaviours can be changed over time. As with the majority of phobias, aversion therapy is the best course of action. So I faced my fears and drove into the west end recently, happily swiping my card to the tune of £12.50 for a couple of hours just off Brewer Street. Best of all, it's given my parents a new anecdote that I'm sure they'll get plenty of mileage from.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

All eyes on FIVE

I don't mind admitting that, back in the early days, I was a proper Big Brother fan. I can still remember my devastation at having to head to the airport for a holiday in Greece the day Nasty Nick was unveiled as a duplicitous manipulator. In retrospect, the outcry over his machinations was a little overblown. He'd been caught scribbling housemates' names on a scrap of contraband paper, and yet the public reacted as though he was Myra Hyndley's hair stylist.

In year two, Channel 4 and Endemol turned the screws even tighter, treating us to round-the-clock footage on the newly created E4. Work colleagues were arriving in the office bleary-eyed, having turned on the TV at three in the morning because "I find it soothing to watch them sleep". Then came the add-ons and celebrity editions, until it seemed as though Big Brother was responsible for 80 per cent of Channel 4's entire output. 

By the time Pete and Nicky arrived in the house, the nation was finally beginning to wean itself off its addiction. We'd been through the early experimental phase, and had collectively endured several years of fame-hungry extroverts. Now we were stuck with the worst kind of housemates. Self-aware and media savvy, they actually talked about showmances and the lucrative nature of post-eviction magazine deals. Pop culture hadn't just eaten itself, it had thrown it back up again and was sniffing at it hungrily like a guilty spaniel.

So now here we are. Having finally said our tearful goodbyes to Davina's wardrobe full of black dresses and Marcus Bentley's dry commentary, Big Brother is back again. But this time, it's on Channel 5. If you thought it was a tacky freakshow before, this is going to be like a summer of back-to-back Sheila's Wheels ads. 

They're easing us into it with a few weeks of Celebrity Big Brother, although I expect that the definition of 'celebrity' is going to be applied creatively. Mindful that we need some familiarity to distract us from the fact that it's on a different channel, Five has retained the music and the set. They've even cast Brian Dowling as our emcee, having being crowned Ultimate Big Brother Champion at the end of last summer. They've even found a Geordie voice-over artist to add an extra wrinkle of familiarity. But the effect is not unlike buying one of those triple disc soul compilations in ASDA, only to find that it's all cheap re-recordings performed by "several of the original artists".

The first two into the house are Kerry Katona and Tara Reid. Both have had pretty public struggles with drugs and alcohol, and are slurring their words like Ozzy Osbourne with a migraine. Tara Reid hasn't really done anything of note since her early appearances in the first couple of American Pie movies. Since then, she's spent the best part of a decade having cheap plastic surgery and falling out of parties with one of her odd-shaped tits poking out her dress. And if you need an introduction to Kerry Katona, well, I envy your ignorance. 

Hopefully, Five haven't spanked all their money on the extensively refurbished house, because they're going to need a bunch of subtitle writers working around the clock. As if the blonde Bill & Ben aren't bad enough, now we've got bare-knuckle fighting traveller Paddy Doherty - think Brad Pitt's dialogue in Snatch, delivered by a sculpture of Mickey Rourke made out of Parma ham.

Hoping to raise the conversational tone, they've also thrown in Amy Childs, a woman most famous for having sparkles all over her lady-pelmet. She's still over the moon about winning a BAFTA against a bunch of dead clever shows: "They was really educational. Is it fictional or educational?" she asks a cameraman who's probably choking on his own tongue. Send in Dimbleby and we can do the next Question Time live from Elstree.

"I am everything that is celebrity", says an Australian twat who looks like he skinned Perez Hilton and fashioned a cheap suit out of the off-cuts. Darren Lyons is a paparazzi photographer, which means he's usually stuck behind a lens. Sadly, that's all about to change for the next few weeks. The audience are booing, but that might just be because they've realised it's another hour until they'll be let out of the enclosure.

Sally Bercow is up next, still getting some mileage out of the fact that she once wrapped herself in a bedsheet and looked out of a window. She comes across as pretty intelligent - it's almost a shame that she's going to be locked in a monkey house for the next few weeks. Three days and she'll be frantically writing conspiracy theories on the breakfast table in coloured chalk.

The housemates have been joined by Lucien Laviscount from Coronation Street and Waterloo Road, apparently. He seems like a nice enough young lad, even if he does sound like a secondary character from an Anne Rice novel.

As if the house wasn't already full of leathery orange skin and bleached hair extensions, here's David Hasselhoff's ex-wife. I don't know much about her, but the fact that David got custody of the kids, despite drunkenly eating burgers off the kitchen floor, tells me that she may have more than a passing familiarity with the vodka bottle.

Brian is promising two more housemates, which means that Jedward are about to be dumped into the house, like an envelope full of anthrax tipped into the air-con. In the meantime, there's a male model called Bobby Sabel. Me neither. He reckons he's not your average model, since he's not arrogant or vain. But he is desperately dull, which means he's at least living up to part of the stereotype.

And finally, here's Jedward to remind us of what happens when Louis Walsh is given a say in anything. They've come out dressed as a cross between Riff Raff and Tony the Tiger. As with all the other housemates, their arrival theme is punctuated with what sounds like a double gunshot. If only.

Now for the twist. I guess it's too much to hope for a giant concrete mixer quietly positioning its funnel over the bedroom. Kerry's been given a secret mission - she has to throw a 'diva strop' so that the other housemates select her as the most irritating contestant. Unfortunately, she's up against some stiff competition. I don't imagine that I'll be tuning in tomorrow to see how she fares...

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I'm your number one fan

Batten down the hatches folks, the X-Factor's coming back and it's going to be dominating the TV schedules and red tops from now until Christmas. Gary Barlow's going to try and be more interesting than a water-damaged pack of cream crackers, Tulisa's going to show that Cheryl doesn't own the patent on 'bad girl done good', and Kelly Rowland will be explaining how she managed to grow to 5' 7" despite spending her entire adult life in Beyonce's shadow. As for Louis, he's going to stay exactly the same, blinking his watery eyes at a never-ending parade of blind, fat and Afro-Caribbean kids, wondering how best to patronise them.

Meanwhile, the contestants will be split into two neatly defined categories - talented and deluded. The first half of the series will undoubtedly fixate on the latter group, as we're treated to their inspirational stories, have-a-go attitudes and unflinchingly devoted families. The capable singers will just have to keep their heads down until the live finals, when they'll invariably float to the top like inexplicably unflushable turds.

The X-Factor's relentless conquering of the zeitgeist comes down to its schizophrenic approach - part comedy, part talent show. Something for everybody. Those that don't have the vocal chops for the competition can be easily spotted; they're the ones who talk about how they've always wanted to be famous. For them, it's all about the celebrity rather than the music. It's just a shame that we have to sit through all the off-key ballads and teary rejection to get to the actual talent part - surely the show could be whittled down to six weeks, sparing us the indignities of other people's lack of dignity in the process?

If these people are motivated purely by the illusion of celebrity, we could just give them each an iTunes voucher for 69p to cover the cost of the new Fan Mail app. Designed to appeal to anyone whose ego feels a little under-fluffed, the app promises to turn "anyone into an instant celebrity!" In a description that boasts more exclamation points than a Shania Twain set-list, Fan Mail sets out its stall as the unlimited source of letters from "adoring fans". Of course, the fans are as non-existent as the talent that supposedly sustains them. But let's face it, if you're the kind of person to sign up for fawning love letters generated by an algorithm, you're not going to be too worried about the veracity of the adoration cluttering your inbox.

The instructions are simple - enter your name, your job and a preferred email address, and let the app do the rest. Almost instantly you'll start receiving messages that read "I am your BIGGEST fan!" and "Just want to send you a note to you know that YOU ROCK! I hope one day I can be as cool as you are."

According to an article on Gawker, the app's inventor is a Jacksonville radio host called Mark Kaye, who explained in a press release that "A twelve-year old boy sent an email telling me how much he enjoyed my morning radio show. It made me realize how lucky I am to be in a position to receive encouragement from people who appreciate what I do... Wouldn't it be great if teachers, doctors, volunteers, and everyone else got fan mail too?"

The thing is, if you're a teacher or doctor, you don't need "new messages of encouragement and adoration from all of the people who are inspired and awestruck by you". When you have a meaningful career, the work you do is its own reward. You're certainly not dependent on an influx of randomly generated id-fellation.

As for the people who do sign up for regular affirmations of their own brilliance, the appeal will soon lose its lustre. So then it'll be a race against time for an industrious app developer to build an update that breaks into your house and wanks on your bedsheets. Or hides in your wardrobe in a pair of night vision goggles. That's when you know you've really made it. 

The only other option is to develop a talent for singing and actually compete in the X-Factor. In which case, you'll ultimately have to endure weeks of being interviewed by Olly Murs for ITV2. I think I'd prefer the linen-spoiling stalker.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

"They're us, that's all"

Of all the film genres out there, horror is perhaps the most transient. Rom-coms will always work with a variant on the 'meet-cute' formula, in the same way that most thrillers focus on the 'wrong man' scenario. By contrast, horror has to remain contemporary in order to maintain its edge. To be truly effective, it needs to visualise the terrors of modern society, and reflect the issues that keep us awake at night.

The genre itself might have been through more phases than David Bowie, but every once in a while a film comes along which transcends its 'of the moment' setting and resonates for subsequent generations. The fashions may date, and the effects may start to wrinkle around the edges, but the subtext remains as relevant as the day it was filmed. And in light of the events of last week, I can't think of a more compelling example than George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

Horror is no stranger to dreck. Its annals are littered with chancers, losers and bullshit artists, convinced that a handful of topless screamers and a bucketload of offal would be enough to secure their place in the horror hall of fame. Which makes Romero's unflinching social commentary and rich subtext all the more unique. This was a man who invented the modern concept of the living dead (shuffling and shambolic, with a taste for human flesh) in 1968, whilst also adding a groaning voice to the discussion around the civil rights movement. The critics may have balked at the indecorous ghouls chomping on grue, but it was Romero's harrowing portrayal of man's inhumanity to man that really horrified his audiences.

At the end of Night of the Living Dead, it seemed as though we were winning the battle against the undead hordes, as the military were deployed, alongside a redneck militia, to clean up the country. Ten years later, and Romero checked in with his pasty-faced progeny to find that they had claimed the upper hand. And were busy chewing on its fingers.

Dawn of the Dead opens in a TV news studio that's struggling to stay on the air. Amidst the hysteria, a lone voice of reason is being rudely shouted down for attempting to understand the issue. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in the poverty-stricken projects, where the African-American underclass have effectively been barricaded into their homes. As the military attempts to enforce marshall law, many of the soldiers seem incapable of differentiating between the living and the dead residents.

The rest of the film follows our four main protagonists as they attempt to flee the city in a helicopter, eventually taking refuge in the Monroeville mall, east of Pittsburgh. They set up camp in some disused office space, and eventually clear the mall of its shuffling inhabitants. At one point, news producer Francine and her boyfriend Stephen look down at the undead crowds, drifting aimlessly towards the mecca of consumption. "Why do they come here?" she asks incredulously. " Stephen replies "Memory, a kind of instinct. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

From that point onwards, Romero's film undergoes a subtle shift in tone. Suddenly, it's clear that we're watching a pitch black parody, rather than a straight-forward horror piece. Bright colours, jaunty music, and a bunch of slapstick that manages to culminate in a custard pie fight. There's still plenty of gruesome limb severing and disembowelments. But there's also a scene where someone gets separated from their arm, leaving the bloodied limb stuck in a 'check your blood pressure' machine. I didn't say any of it was in good taste. But at the heart of it all, is the lament that the afterlife promises no peace or serenity, just an eternity of shuffling from store to store, thumping impotently at the windows.

However, it's not just the zombie underclass who waste their days decaying in the aisles. Our four heroes soon feel the need to cosy up their domestic environment and start browsing for home comforts. We're treated to countless scenes of Frannie and her cohorts rifling through the stores' stock, trying on fur coats, and pushing a shopping cart round the delicatessen. By the time a bunch of greasy bikers attempt to lay claim to the shopping mall, the gang's makeshift pad looks like the inside of a show-home, albeit one that could easily play host to Abigail's Party. And yet their conspicuous consumption does nothing to kill the ennui from which they're all suffering. They're just going though the motions, waiting for real life to intrude - to the point that they're almost glad to re-engage their survival instinct once their inner-sanctum is penetrated by the bikers.

So what's Romero's point? Well, for a start, he knows that when civilisation breaks down, a mindless society pre-conditioned to consume, will instinctively head for the shops. But consumerism isn't limited to the lower classes - it infects all of us. And those who look down on the uncivilised masses as a mindless rabble aren't immune to the need to accumulate possessions. They just exhibit slightly better taste when the ransacking starts.

Looking at the recent spate of civil unrest, it's tempting to suggest that Romero saw it all coming. Lawlessness, violence, judgement and looting, perpetrated by an underclass that was just doing as it had been told for several generations. Not to mention a news media that was devoid of answers, and unwilling to address the root causes. To paraphrase Peter, the closest thing Dawn has to a hero, "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk to Carphone Warehouse."

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Breast is best

We can all breathe a sigh of relief. After a hectic schedule of posing for awkward photos with underpaid waitresses to laugh off the tip-troversy in Tuscany, David Cameron is back to restore law and order to our crime-ravaged streets.

Having initially dismissed the situation as a storm in a cappuccino cup, he soon realised that this was his Hurricane Katrina moment. And he had no intention of rocking up in Tottenham to smile and commend everyone for a job well done. Inspired by the reactionary rantings of an increasingly right-wing populace, Cameron got his game-face on and declared that "There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick."

Clearly relishing the chance to dish out the tough talk from a safe distance, like a gobby punter screaming at ice hockey players from behind the plexiglass, Cameron set out his hardline approach to quelling civil unrest. In his new arsenal - rubber bullets, a rejection of "phony human rights", and "contingency plans for water cannon to be available at 24 hours' notice." In spite of Cameron's Charles Bronson-esque tough talk, the police are maintaining a more cautious perspective. Probably on account of the fact that they're the ones on the front line, rather than our blotchy-faced premier.

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, claimed that water cannons are an unnecessary measure, stating "The evidence from your camera people shows that these are fast-moving crowds where water canon would not be appropriate. I don't see it as necessary, and nor do the 43 chiefs I spoke to this morning."

Even so, Dave's rolled up his corduroys and is hoping for a proper rumble. As he told the press, "We needed a fightback, and a fightback is under way. Whatever resources the police need, they will get. We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order on our streets. Every contingency is being looked at. Nothing is off the table." So how about a compromise?

An enterprising rabble-rouser in the States found an unusual way of controlling the crowds, even if they were sheriff's deputies attempting to break up a domestic dispute she was involved in. Stephanie Robinette from Ohio got into a fight with her husband and took refuge in their car. When police arrived on the scene and attempted to pull her out of the car, she whipped out her right tit and hosed down the officers with her breast milk. Forget about police reinforcements and special dispensation for water cannons - all we need is a line of sturdy wet nurses, willing to flop one out and express some calcium-rich justice at the unruly mob.

If the force of the jets doesn't stop them in their tracks, maybe their queasiness about lactation will. Remember back in February, when Icecreamists offered up Baby Gaga ice-cream made from lady milk? It may have only been 15 women squeezing their norks into a butter churn full of Madagascan vanilla pods, but the press reaction made it sound like entrepreneur Matt O'Connor was selling soap harvested from human fat.

Proponents of suckling have been arguing the point for years, but now it seems we might finally have proof that breast is indeed best. When it comes to a showdown between the activists and the lactivists, I know which group my money's on. And it'll make Newsnight a lot more watchable.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Setting things straight

I'll never forget my first Pride. Cut adrift from the rest of my group, who'd travelled from York to London in a rented coach that stank of Gaultier Le Male and lemon-flavoured Hooch, I found myself wandering around one of the capital's bewilderingly massive parks, with no idea of where to go or what to do. Bright eyed, but decidedly flaccid of tail, I was a nineteen year-old virgin surrounded by debauchery, leather and water-based lubricant - like Shirley Temple trying to find her way out of an abattoir.

In the years that followed, I soon learned what to expect from my annual pilgrimage to the biggest day in the gay calendar. I also realised that, for all its attempts to make a political statement about equal rights, it was really just an excuse for people to get off their tits and cop a feel in the bushes (the bears in these woods weren't remotely interested in picnics), as enterprising businesses milked the 'community' like a three-handed dairy farmer.

Much has changed since those early amyl-scented days. It was a big surprise in the summer of 1997, for example, to march past Downing Street with a rousing cheer, rather than the customary boos that used to announce our arrival at the home of the Prime Minister.

But as the laws have relaxed, and rights have gradually been granted to afford the LGBT community almost equal status, a small but vocal group of opponents have continued to raise objections. Perhaps put off by the sight of one too many pairs of exposed buttocks waving from a slow-moving float, these critics have managed to convince themselves that those troublesome gays have been granted too many rights, at the expense of regular heterosexuals.

Having fixated about having an unfamiliar lifestyle rammed (repeatedly) down their throats, their over-stretched gag reflex has resulted in the erroneous opinion that they are the new underdogs. Occasionally, one of them pipes up to say "What about Straight Pride?" And although such outbursts are usually met with little more than a derisory snort, in São Paulo, they may just be getting their wish.

Despite arguing that it was not an anti-gay gesture, Councilperson Carlos Apolinario explained that the proposal for 'Straight Pride Day' was his way of speaking out at the "excesses and privileges" enjoyed by Brazil's gay population, not least the LGBT parade that takes place in the city's Paulista Avenue. If it gets ratified by Gilberto Kassab, the city's mayor, Straight Pride will be held on the third Sunday of every December and added to the city's municipal calendar.

No doubt Richard Littlejohn is already packing his jorts for a week in sunny Brazil. But if the event is a big success, he could soon be lugging his 'Adam and Eve Not Adam and Steve' banner all the way from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square.

The thing is, I'm not entirely sure what a Straight Pride event would entail. Since gay pride has always offered up a multicoloured celebration of all the kinks and permutations that define the lifestyle, it's hard to see how that might translate into an extravagant display of conformity and convention. After all, "We're here, we're not queer, and the wife's going shopping while we stand outside Curry's and watch the football scores" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Pride traditionally offers up themed spaces for various subcategories - leather, sleaze, transgender etc - so presumably they'll need to work on a similar principle. Maybe they can turn the car park into a dogging area, with a specially cordoned off zone for seagulling enthusiasts sponsored by Autoglass. The main tent will need to be a monogamy space, full of couples staring fixedly at the floor to avoid getting into trouble for a spot of eye-wandering. And the kids can join in on all the fun, with specially printed T-shirts that read "Mummy and Daddy may hate each other, but they're staying together for me".

Someone will also need to think about booking some headline music acts too. And since we usually get stuck with a piss-poor line-up of clichés and stereotypes, that template will need to be followed in order to create an authentic Pride experience. If we're going to treated to Lisa Scott-Lee and whatever passes for the current line-up of Bucks Fizz, you can have a Genesis tribute act and someone who used to play bass in Status Quo. But don't worry, you'll be so pissed on over-priced, lukewarm beer, you won't be able to hear them anyway. 

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Stalingrad?

Children’s TV might be more annoying than being stuck in an Austin Maxi full of howler monkeys, but it’s fairly innocuous stuff. Simple tunes, bright colours and lots of repetition – all designed to amuse the toddlers long enough for you to come to your senses and put that cap back on the bottle of sleeping pills.

Although most parents I know are on first name terms with the whole of Rastamouse’s Easy Crew, they don’t actually watch any of these shows – they just turn up the volume so the kids won’t hear them screaming into a balled up tea towel. But maybe if the creators of this multi-coloured mogadon put a little more effort into their output, parents would be happy to set aside some time for ‘watch with mother’, without it sounding like quite such a threat.

For some reason, the UK has never been able to replicate the success of Sesame Street, in terms of producing toddler-focused programming that doesn’t make grown-ups feel like they’ve been given a frontal lobotomy with a wooden spoon. Even now, Jim Henson’s brainchild manages to entertain several generations at once, as his ping-pong eyed characters riff on contemporary shows like Mad Men and True Blood.

Despite a forty-year history of teaching kids about letters, numbers and sponsorship deals, not everyone wants to go to where the air is sweet. A new book by conservative writer Ben Shapiro peels back the façade to reveal a sinister liberal conspiracy lurking inside the Children’s Television Workshop. ‘Primetime Propaganda’ details the insidious way that TV producers have attempted to “shape America in their own leftist image", and it seems that Mr Hooper’s store sits at ground zero. According to Shapiro, Henson’s army of antron-fleeced comrades are attempting to brainwash pre-schoolers into accepting such pinko concepts as tolerance, healthy eating and ‘peaceful conflict resolution’. The evil fuckers.

So is there any truth to Shapiro’s claim, or is he just suffering from that quintessentially American affliction – Conspiracy Theory Syndrome? let's examine the evidence...

Bert and Ernie

Two of Sesame Street’s longest serving residents, Bert and Ernie are supposedly platonic room-mates. They may sleep in separate beds, but their interactions have always been fraught with latent sexual tension. Last year, Bert (the butch one with a unibrow) even Tweeted a reference to being a ‘mo’, which many people interpreted as a coming out declaration. With New York recently legalizing gay marriage, it won’t be too long before Bert and Ernie stop arguing about rubber duckies and misplaced bananas, and come to blows over who’s going to cater their big day.

Cookie Monster

Although he was originally created for an IBM training film, and later a series of ads for Munchos crisps, we know him best as Cookie Monster. For the last four decades he’s been battling a serious dependency problem, regularly losing all control and smashing baked goods into his mouth, despite the fact that he was tragically born without an esophagus, or the ability to swallow. It might be unsettling to watch, but children of substance abusers will no doubt recognise the telltale signs, particularly the unkempt appearance, unintelligible speech patterns and constant rolling of his eyes. Sadly, since cookies are legally available, it seems unlikely that the fuzzy blue addict will ever get the help he needs, at least until he’s ready to admit there’s a problem.

The Count

Like Edward Cullen, Bill Compton and Louis de Pointe du Lac, Count Von Count has managed to suppress his natural bloodlust and find a way to coexist peacefully alongside the living. The downside of suppressing his natural instincts, is that his habitual behaviours have manifested themselves in an extreme form of autism. Thanks to an understanding network of social workers and the occasional visit to an outpatients centre, Count hasn’t hypnotised anyone since the mid-seventies and poses no immediate threat to himself or others. However, due to his high-risk lifestyle, he’s legally prohibited from donating blood.

Oscar The Grouch

Crabby, irascible, and usually found inside a ‘trash can’ which he calls home, Oscar is most likely a Vietnam war veteran who was callously neglected by mental health services. Like many of his street-dwelling peers, Oscar has taken to compulsively hoarding useless items discarded by the rest of society, and has grown increasingly misanthropic over the years. Although he won’t admit it, Oscar occasionally sets pride aside and allows some of the Sesame Street residents to hose him down and cut the dried feces out of his matted fur.

Aside from street’s fuzzy-skinned denizens, the liberal bias of the show could also be detected in some of the interstitial films that regularly broke up the searing social insight.

For instance, the communist principle of collectivism was evidenced time and time again in a popular series of clips, as children were singled out for refusing to conform to majority behaviour. The song’s lyrics were “One of these kids is doing his own thing” - the inference being that viewers needed to finger the perpetrators, so they could be bundled off to a Siberian gulag.

Likewise, Karl Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was given contemporary relevance through the inspiring story of how many peanuts it took to make a jar of peanut butter.

Finally, when all else failed, Sesame Street had one more ace up a sleeve that looked suspiciously like Kermit’s torso. On the surface, it was a perfectly innocent counting song accompanied by an animated pinball machine. But the intermittent psychedelic flashes were actually psychotropic triggers designed to activate sleeper agents. On the fateful day when the show is brought to you by the letters K, G and B, the revolution will begin. And it will be televised.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Come fly with me

After a spate of bankruptcies two years ago, it looked as though the travel industry had finally weathered the economic turbulence and made a safe landing. But today's news that Holidays 4 UK had gone bust, stranding 12,000 holiday makers in Turkey, shows that they're not out of the woods just yet. Industry experts have blamed the company's failure on unsustainable pricing, as travel companies slash prices to entice recession-hit tourists back into the extra-legroom seating.

Many of them must be viewing brands like EasyJet and RyanAir with envious eyes, as the two companies have managed to build successful business models by cutting the cost of air travel. Of course, as most of us have realised from painful first-hand experience, traveling with a budget airline is something of a false economy. Once all the additional charges have been added on, it'd be cheaper to go halfsies with Kanye West and just charter a Gulfstream. Probably less irritating too. 

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary has proved especially cunning when it comes to itemising the in-flight experience and billing separately for every component. First it was charging people to check in their luggage, then he announced that passengers would be expected to pay to use the toilets on-board. I'm not sure what the alternative would be if you found yourself short of change - but now I understand why the low-cost airlines insist on wipe-clean upholstery.

Last year, he took things even further when he took people's description of his airline as 'cattle class' literally. "Let's rip out the seats and have standing room only!" he announced, leaving nervous passengers to contemplate the hideous reality of being stuck in an airborne version of the tube, pressed into the armpit of someone flying home from a stag weekend in Riga. Putting the comfort factor aside for a moment, there are also serious safety concerns about a standing-only flight - it's tough enough staying upright on bendy-bus, never mind a 737 that's touching down. I guess in O'Leary's world, safety is an optional extra. Why else would he have also proposed doing away with the co-pilots in order to cut costs even further?

If you've ever watched one of the Airport movies, you'll know that pilots have the second most dangerous job in the world, after Naomi Campbell's PA. When they're not having heart attacks or getting food poisoning mid-flight, they're being hit in the face with a microlite. Thankfully, whenever the pilot gets dispatched, there's a plucky stewardess on-hand, willing to take the controls and bring the plane down safely, with nuns, invalids and aging movie stars safely intact. 

But this is real life, not the movies. With no George Kennedy or Charlton Heston in the control tower, the stewardesses will need to swot up beforehand, so they're ready in case of a crisis. Just don't be surprised if the training for an emergency landing is covered in less time than it takes to microwave an all-day breakfast panini.

The in-flight announcement may tell you that your safety and wellbeing is their top priority, but that's not strictly true. It comes a close second to squeezing you for every penny. This week it was reported that Ryanair crew were "hopelessly ill-equipped" to deal with a passenger who went into cardiac arrest on a flight to Sweden. Once the man's stepdaughter had helped him to regain consciousness, the quick-thinking staff suggested that he was probably suffering from low blood pressure and should have something to eat. They even brought him a sandwich and a drink. Problem is, they came back once his condition had stabilised, to charge him for the snack. 

In pursuit of the ultimate 'no-frills' travel offer, it can't be too long before O'Leary looks at his fleet and decides that the wing flaps look a little frilly.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

It's a man's world

No-one really knows what they want to be when they grow up. I'm sure at some point I wanted to be a pterodactyl. And besides, some of us never really grow up anyway, so where's the harm in having a dream? Unless you happen to live on Elm Street.

So I don't put too much stock in the fact that many of today's teenaged girls aspire to be like Cheryl Cole or Colleen Rooney. At least it's a step up from wanting to be Kerry Katona or Rebecca Loos. But apparently, this aspiration to be a WAG or a reality TV star is a symptom of a much bigger problem in society - a whole generation of young women is growing up without any worthwhile role models.

It's an issue that weighs heavily on the mind of Dr Linda Papadopoulos PhD, who's spent the last few years working with young girls and encouraging them to broaden their horizons. She laments the fact that Cheryl, Colleen and Katie Price are all cited by the teenagers she meets as 'inspirational'. In particular, she's troubled by the fact that, when asked about men that they admire, the same girls listed Barack Obama, David Beckham and Nelson Mandela.

Rather predictably, Papadopoulos is quick to blame celebrity culture for the fact that today's young women are willing to aim so low when asked to dream high. Writing on Huffington Post, she cites a six-year-old survey of a 1000 girls between 15 and 19, which found that "63 per cent considered 'glamour model' and 25 per cent 'lap dancer' their ideal profession from a list of choices including teacher and doctor." At first glance those seem like shocking statistics, but maybe the girls who were polled had an idea of how much they could earn as a lap-dancer, compare with an NQT's salary. We might thumb our noses at the idea of someone wanting to make their fortune in a strip club, but at least the only glass ceilings they're likely to encounter will be the mirrored kind.

In Linda's opinion, the media's obsession with appearance means that a woman's attractiveness (or lack thereof) supersedes any mention of their skills or accomplishments. As a consequence, we're telling young people that "if you want to succeed, bank on your looks and not your brain- be a WAG not a PhD'". But it's a little rich coming from a woman who's already earned her PhD, and has now pursued a second career on TV thanks to her photogenic appearance.

Equally, there's a bitter irony in the fact that she's willing to take pot shots at the same reality TV machine that put her on the box in the first place. Remember, young Linda was a regular feature on the weekly 'psychological insights' edition of Big Brother, back when people still thought it was a viable social experiment and not just a 24/7 screensaver full of attention-seeking misfits. I guess this is a case of having your cake, eating it, and then blaming the media for the fact that you're still counting the WeightWatchers points.

If today's schoolgirls are looking to emulate Cheryl and Colleen, maybe it's not such a bad thing. After all, the advent of university fees has made further education even less likely than the prospect of landing a drunk footballer for the majority of 16 year-olds. And Faces is a lot easier to get into than Oxbridge. It's also worth bearing in mind that not everyone has the desire, or the intellect, to pursue academic advancement - some people simply want a better lot in life. 

Of course, the media could still be doing more to publicise the great achievements that women are making in science, business and sport. Although I'd maybe exercise a little caution when it comes to the "young female activists" that Linda wants to see celebrated. Last time the press found such a cause célèbre, the 'activist' in question turned out to be a male, middle-aged post-graduate with a thing for Syrian lesbians.

I've always thought that feminism was a principle founded on the concept of freedom and equality for women. And that means affording them the opportunity to make their own choices about their future. Lecturing them from an ivory tower that they're too ignorant to even dream properly does no-one any favours. And it comes across as more than a little sexist. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

The big idea

If you want to pitch a movie to a Hollywood studio, there are two principles to keep in mind - keep the costs as low as you can, and the concept as high as you can. Studio executives love a movie that can be explained in the time it takes to roll up a twenty dollar bill, even more so if the prospective film's budget calls for little more than the other notes in their wallet. The thriller and horror genres have always suited the high concept - since they encourage film makers to find creative ways to shock and surprise, without resorting to splashing millions on flashy CGI and big-name stars. And there are few concepts higher than The Silent House, which is released on DVD this week.

Ostensibly another haunted house movie about a father and daughter hired to renovate a run-down house, the Uruguayan film is notable for being shot in a single 79 minute take. Filmed using a hand-held camera and lit with a combination of candles and lanterns, The Silent House makes great use of the gloomy space around the screen in order to frame its scares. Critics have complained that there are moments of absolute darkness that could have been used to hide the joins between different takes, but even so, there's an abundance of creativity on display here that puts standard Hollywood fare to shame. 

So in honour of The Silent House's release, here are five other recent thrillers that have relied on ingenuity and imagination in order to shock their audiences.


Having won the hearts of horror fans with his retro-slasher tribute Hatchet, Adam Green surprised everyone with his 2010 thriller Frozen, which replaced splashy gore with slow burning tension and a nasty case of frostbite. Three obnoxious students try to cheat their way onto a ski-lift for one last run before the resort closes for the weekend, only find themselves stuck halfway up the mountainside. Green piles on the danger, torturing his cast with extreme cold, vertigo-inducing heights and a ravenous pack of wolves. The vast majority of the film's running time takes place on the rickety chair lift, as the gravity of the situation kicks in, and the gravity of the mountainside threatens to hurriedly reunite our protagonists with the ground.


Ryan Reynolds is much more than the guy with a Green Lantern and a little black book that boasts Scarlett Johansson and Alanis Morissette amongst its crossed out names. He's also a guy who likes to take risks, as he proved when he signed up to appear in Buried, a Spanish thriller by director Rodrigo Cortés. Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working in Iraq, who wakes after an ambush to find he's stuck in a dark space with only a mobile phone, some glowsticks and a cigarette lighter. Weirdly, he's not at an illegal rave, he's actually been buried alive and has to race against the clock to try and negotiate his own release. With time, oxygen and battery life running out, the film charts Conroy's increasingly hysterical attempts to save himself - not made any easier by the mindless bureaucracy of the people on the other end of his phone line. Despite the fact that the entire film is shot inside a box no bigger than an IKEA wardrobe, Cortés manages to concoct a dynamic and visually arresting film. Not one for claustrophobics though.

Open Water

Coming four years after Renny Harlin's CGI-splattered attempt to resurrect the 'killer shark' sub-genre, Open Water took a far more low-fi approach. Supposedly based on a true story, Chris Kentis' fishy shocker follows a luckless couple who get accidentally left behind on a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. When the hapless twosome resurface to find themselves stuck in the middle of the sea, with no boats or land in sight, they begin treading water in hope that someone will be back to get them. Unfortunately, it's not a boat that finds them, but a shiver of sharks, and all that splashing is making them hungry. To be honest, the couple spend so long bickering that you're ready to throw a bucket of chum in the water by the time the first dorsal fin breaks the waves. However, the strength of the concept lies in the reality of its depiction, rather than the likeability of its protagonists. The camera is stuck in the water alongside the hapless couple, leaving the audience with no choice but to empathise with their salty predicament. Don't be surprised to find that you've involuntarily tucked your knees under your chin to prevent your toes from being bitten off.

Phone Booth

Larry Cohen is the king of high concept, spending the last forty years churning out compelling curios that could be explained on the back of a McDonald's napkin. Having introduced unsuspecting audiences to mutant babies, killer yoghurt and a murderous ambulance that abducted diabetics, his finest hour is probably movie set in a phone booth - an idea he originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960s. A big fan of gimmicks, Hitchcock loved the idea but couldn't figure out how to keep the film's lead character stuck in a phone box, so the idea was put on hold. In the 90s, Cohen found himself revisiting his original treatment, and finally seized on the idea of a man being threatened by a sniper. For a while, this was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, with Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Mel Gibson (no stranger to high-stress phone calls) attached at various stages during its development, but it took Colin Farrell's rapidly rising star to get the film into production. Ironically, having taken over thirty years to make it to the big screen, Phone Booth finally opened within months of another film with the exact same concept - Liberty Stands Still, featuring Linda Fiorentino.

Nick of Time

Long before Johnny Depp discovered untold riches, thanks to a matted weave and a treasure chest full of eyeliner, he was a decidedly uncommercial prospect for most film studios. His love of offbeat, indie films meant he was always a bit of a gamble in the leading man stakes. Interestingly, the one time he tried to play the handsome hero, he came off as bland and unconvincing, and Nick of Time sank without a trace. Despite these shortcomings, the film is actually an efficient little real-time waster, telling the story of a Hitchcockian everyman who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Returning to LA following his ex-wife's funeral, Gene Watson is intercepted by two fake police officers who kidnap his daughter and tell him he has an hour to assassinate the female senator staying in a nearby hotel. Six years before Jack Bauer found himself in a similar predicament, racing against a persistently ticking clock, John Badham utilised the real-time concept to give his film an economical efficiency, that elevated it above the standard conspiracy thriller cliches.