Monday, 30 January 2012

Five chick flicks I just don't get

‘Chick Flick’. Like ‘compassionate conservatism’ or ‘from the studio that brought you Grown Ups’, it’s a phrase that’s guaranteed to chill the blood of any reasonable cinema-goer. It doesn’t matter who’s in the film, or what it’s about. Chances are, it’s going to star Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson. And they’ll spend two hours trying to prove that a woman can have it all - husband, kids, career and a pair of heels so high they’d give a window cleaner a nosebleed. Because Hollywood is convinced that women are all bitches anyway, they’ll also make sure that their photogenic stars repeatedly fall over, and have at least one scene where they look like Myra Hindley staging a dirty protest. Call it the Bridget Jones Factor – “I’m allowed to like her, because she’s just like me. Ha, she just fell in a puddle.”

Less a genre, more a collective noun for toxically inane effluvia, the chick flick machine has squeezed out more than its fair share of cinematic pipe-blockers. Thankfully, their interchangeable nature means that they seldom stick around in the public consciousness. Instead, they’re released intermittently as ‘counter-programming’ for sports widows. But every once in a while, we get a blockage. A particularly stubborn deposit that sticks to the sides because it somehow taps into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Sometimes, these might actually be acceptable films, such as Steel Magnolias, Notting Hill or Bridesmaids. But all too often, their popularity is as inexplicable as it is infuriating. So here, without any further ado, are the five most bafflingly popular chick flicks. To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.’

Dirty Dancing

Remember that trailer for The Shining that someone recut with jaunty music and quirky captions to turn Stanley Kubrick’s bone-chilling masterpiece into a romantic comedy? The same exercise could easily be deployed with Dirty Dancing, repurposing this frothy confection as the cautionary tale of a malevolent paedophile grooming the daughter of a hotel guest.

During the late eighties, my sister fell under this film’s insidious spell, watching it every opportunity she got, and lusting after Patrick Swayze’s hypnotic hips, despite that they were attached to six foot of petrified timber. Given the enthusiasm that many women have for this wretched mess of a movie, it’s weird to think what a negative view of women the film portrays. All the women in Dirty Dancing are either doormats, bimbos, predatory housewives, haughty dancers or thieving pensioners. And don’t get me started on the ‘memorable dialogue’ – “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” were never great lines. They were simply punchlines to jokes that nobody had told yet.

Other films set in the sixties usually make a cursory effort to incorporate themes of social upheaval, in an attempt to contextualize the drama. In Dirty Dancing, we’re told that Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman wants to join the Peace Corps, and that’s your lot. Even the abortion storyline is swept under the rug, once Dr Houseman has cleaned up Cynthia Rhodes mangled mimsy.

In spite of a litany of sins against taste and quality, my biggest problem with Dirty Dancing has to do with its soundtrack. Yes, it features a fantastic selection of classics from the likes of Solomon Burke and Otis Redding. But the film’s standout song (which accompanies the big dance scene at the end) is a couldn’t-be-more-eighties MOR mess by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Having spent the entire film trying to convince us that it’s the 1960s, the producers throw it all out of the window in favour of an anachronistic, over-produced ballad that has no business in a period piece. They might have had the time of their lives, but this is 100 minutes I won’t be getting back.

Mamma Mia

Let me state for the record that I love ABBA unreservedly. The melodies, the production, the voices, even the lyrics, have a timeless quality that refuses to diminish with each passing decade. I also enjoy musicals, because I’m able to suspend my disbelief when someone bursts into song. To my mind, it’s no less dramatically valid than a Shakespearean character breaking the fourth wall with a soliloquy.

So why is it that watching Mamma Mia was like being face-raped by a bull elephant with anger management issues? Maybe it was the fact that the entire plot had been lifted from a ropey 1980s Shirley Conran novel (ask your Mum). A young girl finds out her mother was a slut, so she invites three potential fathers to her wedding to find out who’s the daddy. Of course, she could have just taken a blood test, but ABBA never wrote a song about DNA matches.

Perhaps I just failed to get caught up in all that joyful exuberance, finding the sight of three middle aged women jumping on a bed to be almost offensive in its lazy light-heartedness. For a film that sold itself on being a great night out, it managed to make waterboarding feel like a more rewarding way to spend an evening.

The crew clearly spent lots of time in the Greek islands to score some great location footage, but most of the film is shot in a studio set less convincing than the Spanish resort in Duty Free. And then there’s Meryl Streep, a woman so used to acting her socks off that she’s forgotten how to come across like a regular human being. This gives the film a curiously unnerving tone, as she constantly looks as though she’s going to burst into tears, or laugh hysterically and start hacking at her hair with a steak knife. The only saving grace is that she can at least hold a note, which is more than can be said for Pierce Brosnan, who is to singing what Amy Childs is to comparative theology.

Love, Actually

What happens when you take the romantic comedy and British whimsy of Four Weddings, and blend it with a multi-strand, Altman-esque anthology of overlapping vignettes? If you’re anything like me, you get a splitting headache and an overwhelming desire to firebomb Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill townhouse. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to listen to people extolling the virtues of this aimless, self-indulgent mess. But it’s probably as many times as I’ve gone through my Facebook account and defriended people with extreme prejudice. There may be a link between the two.

In a film full of risible dialogue and unrealistic archetypes, I reserve particular scorn for 11 year-old Thomas Sangster. In arguably the worst scene of the entire film, the smug prepubescent attempts to motivate his father (played with somnambulant indifference by Liam Neeson) by saying “Let’s go get our asses kicked by love.” Tell you what, if love fails to show up, I’ve got some heavy boots to break in.

If the gossamer thin characterisations and contrived scenarios don’t irritate the piss out of you, watch it again and count how many ethnic minorities have been cast in incidental roles. Curtis got his knuckles wrapped for making the population of Notting Hill look like the EDL, so he made a concerted effort to portray a more diverse London in this follow up. The problem is, every single minority character is expected to stand in the background and be thankful for the visibility, because Curtis has no idea what else to do with them. I guess complaining that it’s all so white and middle class is ultimately an exercise in futility, since the only estates Curtis knows are the kind with stables and a boating pond.

Sex and the City

HBO’s groundbreaking comedy drama (the studio would probably like to call it a ‘dramedy’ but I can’t bring myself to use the word) was a pretty good show. Well cast, tightly written and occasionally hilarious, Sex and the City ran for six seasons and bowed out gracefully with a happy ending for its four main characters.

But what worked in slender, 30 minute installments took on a whole different tone when stretched over two and half hours. Suddenly, the four women who were the backbone of the show came across like grasping, venal, self-absorbed hags. Deliberately sabotaging their own happiness and sulking when they didn’t get their own way, these were not likable everywomen. They were the one-percent in fuck-me heels.

The first film was bad enough, but the sequel plumbed new depths of awfulness, with an extended jaunt to Abu Dhabi that showed Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte up for the culturally insensitive whores that they are. And what led our plucky heroine to the Middle East in the first place? She was running away from her awful husband, because he bought her a giant plasma TV. The thoughtless, insensitive cunt.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Produced by Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, MBFGW was a surprise sleeper hit in 2002, racking up quarter of a billion dollars in the US alone. But when a quirky title is the funniest thing about your film, there’s clearly something wrong. Writer and star Nia Vardalos was trumpeted as the next big thing, but as the three people who endured follow-up Connie and Carla can attest, the success of her debut was a momentary aberration.

The film seemed to take the view that stereotypes can’t be offensive if you belong to the community being satirised. But since it also misunderstood the definition of ‘comedy’, we can hardly hold it accountable for lacking nuance. The ad campaign for the film, which only seemed to get commissioned once word-of-mouth had already landed it in the black, had audiences flocking to cinemas expecting a laugh riot that would make Airplane! look like a Lars Von Trier film. Instead, they got an old woman who thought vegetarians could eat lamb. And I guess houmous is funny if you say it enough times.

But wait, there’s a real message in this film. It tells us that outdated perceptions of gender are a bit old-fashioned. And that plain women should pretty themselves up with a bit of make-up if they want to land a husband. Revelatory stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Ultimately though, we need to remember that this is more than just a movie – it’s also bequeathed us a rich cultural legacy of tawdry TV shows with ‘My Big Fat’ in the title. Thanks for that. Thanks a bunch. 

Saturday, 28 January 2012

You're going to Hollywood

These audition episodes are a gruelling business, especially when there’s three hours’ worth to wade through every week. And if you think watching them is tough, you should try writing about them. So rather than a blow-by-blow recap of every hopeless hopeful that queued up to appear on that glass lozenge that passes for a stage, here’s what I learned this week about how to secure those all important 15 minutes of notoriety.

Play to J-Lo’s ego

One of the first contestants this week was a pretty young single mother, who practices by singing to her daughter. When asked what songs she likes, she tells them that ‘On The Floor’ is her five year old’s favourite. These are the hidden costs of parenting. When she sings, Jennifer complements her on her “natural voice”, because in her mind, singers are supposed to sound like an android with throat polyps. Jayrah Gibson also knows how to woo Jenny From The Block, by performing a song he wrote for her. It’s complete shit, so we shouldn’t be surprised that she attempts to raise an approving eyebrow.

Thank the Lord

It’s not unusual for American contestants to proclaim divine intervention when it comes to their time on a talent show. But we should give a special shout-out to Ramiro Garcia, who tells us the tragic story of how he was born without ears – a scenario that seemed almost appealing after three hours of melisma. Despite his tough start in life, he now heads up a local church. And he credits his faith for giving him a voice and the ability to hear, which somewhat undermines the role of the surgeons who worked the actual miracles. After telling his inspirational story, Steven tells him “I like your insides”, so Ramiro can at least take pride in the fact that he’s the first male contestant to get that particular complement from the Aerosmith screamer.

Try to fuck Steven Tyler

If you really want to make sure that your try-out for Idol gets seen by 20 million viewers, just pretend that you’re turned on by leathery skin and a mouth that could sub-let space to Big Yellow. On the first of this week’s shows, the auditions took place on USS Midway, so Steven showed up in a flying hat and goggles. Even though this made him look like Sebulba, the villainous podracer from The Phantom Menace, the girls were still throwing themselves at him. Maybe they just like the attention, something Steven’s never been shy of giving. He even tells one girl “I love your high wobble, when you go upstairs.” We just have to hope that he was talking about her voice.

Confirm Ryan’s heterosexuality

Forget about all the rumours, conjecture and dubious pictures of him on a Mexican beach with Simon Cowell, Ryan is as straight as an A-list Scientologist. So if you want to get noticed, give him a chance to assert his alpha male status. First up was Wolf, who got a lot of coverage, much of which will probably be aired again when he makes his inevitable appearance on America’s Most Wanted. Apropos of nothing, he admits that all the women who knew he was auditioning wanted him to kiss Ryan, who expresses relief that it’s not going to happen. Maybe he doesn’t like beards, unless they’re the ones who’ll walk the red carpet with him. Haley told us about the three jobs she holds down as a cleaner, restaurant worker and meat packer in a sausage factory. Curiously, it’s the last one that piques his interest, but only because he’s a fan of a chunky Cumberland. Special points go to this week’s first contestant, who showed up in a patriotic biki top and hot-pants combo, and gamely played along as Ryan repeatedly ask her to walk up the stairs. Don’t know about you, but I’m certainly convinced.

If all else fails, be utterly deluded

Whether it was Aubrey, who wanted to be on America’s Top Model despite looking like Rumer Willis with lockjaw, or the girl who told us “I want to be the new Lady Gaga. There’s no-one like me”, this was a great week to be lacking in self-awareness.

In Texas, where everything is bigger – especially the arseholes - we got to see a parade of would-be country singers who all sounded like lowing cattle, convinced that they stood a chance because of last year’s Grand Ole Opry-styled final. We also met Phong Vu, who got excited about the fact that he was able to name the judges. Unfortunately, he had a little more trouble with his favourite singer Selina Dion. The highpoint of his audition was his “iconic dance move”, which involved jumping on the spot with one arm out.

Alejandro managed to score plenty of screen-time, by announcing that the revolution has started. He asked the judges to “Grant me the power to bring revolution to the world. Where Lady Gaga can become a pop star, or Barack Obama can become the President.” The judges helpfully pointed out that he might be a little late to that particular party. At the end of his awful audition, he groveled for another chance, prompting Jennifer to tell him “Please don’t beg, you have too much dignity for that.” Maybe she was watching a different show on the monitor.

Finally, if these tactics don’t work, you could always consider a move into food services. Alanna Snare got her own segment, thanks to her chat about Rocky Mountain Oysters. Given the amount of people who talk bollocks on this show, its hardly surprising that some people have developed a taste for them. And don’t forget Skylar, who works in a rundown family restaurant. They’ve had a tough couple of years, which her mother doesn’t like to talk about. Unless there’s a camera crew on hand. She describes the restaurant as a “hole in the wall”, but having watched the footage, even that description seems overly complimentary. Still, that got her on the show, so consider it a job well done.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

An open and shut case

We’ve all heard the joke about 5,000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean. It’s as old as the one about jaywalking poultry, but it still gets repeated because there are few careers as universally reviled as the legal profession. So when Stephen Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher came up with the idea of a new drama series set in a Los Angeles law firm, it must have been a pretty tough pitch, like trying to sell in a slapstick sitcom about Natasha Kampusch. 

And yet, somehow, they managed to convince NBC to take a punt on their idea, turning LA Law into a ratings winner that ran for eight years. Making its debut at the peak of eighties consumerism, it would have been easy for the show to disappear up its own Hugo Boss-clad arsehole, reveling in the rampant capitalism that epitomised the decade of grasping self-interest. Instead, Bochco and Fisher used the premise to explore a previously unseen side of the legal system, focusing on what happened after Cagney & Lacey or TJ Hooker rolled up their crime scene tape and headed out in search of donuts.

For the first time, audiences were invited into the luxuriously appointed boardrooms (with carpeted walls, no less), and introduced to a bewildering new lexicon of continuances, objections and depositions. The partners and clerks at McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak didn’t just concentrate on flashy, high-profile murder cases either. Sleazy, womanising opportunist Arnie Becker exposed the intricacies of California divorce law, whilst Stuart Markowitz attempted to make tax consultancy sound exciting. And somehow, it all coalesced into a satisfying and surprising whole.

Back in the mid-eighties, the main difference between soaps and long-running dramas, was that the former focused on continuing story arcs, whereas the latter had a more episodic, issue-of-the-week structure. LA Law represented a sophisticated merging of the two, balancing ongoing character development,with individual cases that were often plucked straight from the news headlines. This was based on a model that Bochco had originated with his previous hit Hill Street Blues, another complex multi-strand drama with an extensive cast of regular characters.

The topicality of the stories meant that, even in the pilot, LA Law was willing to tackle the kind of challenging topics that usually only ever featured on the nightly news. The first episode featured the improbably handsome hero Michael Kuzak defending three young men accused of gang-raping a woman dying of leukaemia. After years of watching Joan Collins and Linda Evans tearing off each other’s clip-on earrings, such harsh realities must have been quite a bitter pill for unsuspecting viewers. Similarly, the revelation that one of the women in the typing pool was a pre-operative transsexual, in a secret affair with the senior partner whose death kicked off the series, introduced a discussion of homophobia in the workplace that was years ahead of its time. 

Over the years, the show managed to tackle pretty much every major societal issue and taboo, from incest and child abuse to abortion and the LA race riots. Interestingly, the show only found itself in hot water once, when conservative critics got upset about a 'lesbian kiss' between bland divorcee Abby Perkins, and the free-spirited bisexual CJ Lamb. Although chaste and innocent by today's standards, at the time Amanda Donahoe's same-sex smooch was the first ever kiss between two women on network TV. Despite the short-lived outrage, the show inadvertently kicked off a new TV trend, as opportunistic show runners threw in a girl-on-girl snog to bump up the ratings, with the New York Times concluding that "kisses between women are perfect sweeps stunts". 

The legacy of LA Law can also be seen in other aspects of modern TV, not least in Aaron Sorkin's patented 'walk and talk' scenes, where two characters cover 800 yards and about 15 pages of dialogue in a single take. Speaking of The West Wing, it's worth remembering that the impeccable liberal credentials of President Jed Bartlet can be traced directly back to the informed benevolence of pater familias Leland McKenzie.

For a drama that confidently tackled every thorny subject imaginable, the writers never lost sight of the need to entertain, even managing to build half a season of plotting around an elaborate inside joke. The writers had joshed each other for a while that, in soap operas, the easiest way to write out a character was to drop them down a lift shaft. So when they decided that passive-aggressive villainess Rosalind Shays (imagine Nurse Ratched in an $800 suit) had outlived her usefulness, they simply opened the elevator doors and let her plunge to her death. The character's shocking exit saw that installment voted into the top 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time in TV Guide. 

The show also achieved notoriety by inventing the Venus Butterfly - an imaginary sex act that was referenced in an early episode, but never explicitly explained. In the years that followed, the studio was inundated with letters and calls from fans who were determined to find out about the mysterious technique that helped a short, fat, balding tax lawyer land himself such a hot wife. Playboy even ran a special feature speculating what the act entailed, and the Venus Butterfly has subsequently appeared in everything from TV show Rescue Me, to issue 298 of The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Parker, you dirty little fucker. 

Admittedly, the show has aged badly in some areas, particularly in the fashion and styling of its well-heeled cast. The outfits might have been sourced on Rodeo Drive, but the hairdos owed more to Blue Circle. And since everyone wore such huge shoulder-pads, the seduction scenes often looked more like two linebackers clashing at an NFL game. These romantic clinches, which occurred frequently during the show’s run, convinced a generation that a kiss was meaningless unless it took place next to a venetian blind, accompanied by the intermittent shrieks of a saxophone solo. 

This week, LA Law's debut season finally made it to DVD, after over a decade of passionate lobbying from fans. Best of all, it's currently only available in the UK. As distributors Revelation Films have already lined up seasons two and three for later in the year, now's the perfect time to catch up on one of the best loved TV shows of all time. And if you don't like it, sue me. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Going weak at Denise

Although the producers of Celebrity Big Brother like to fill the house with attractive young hardbodies, it's actually the middle-aged contestants who give the show its curious car-crash appeal. We all remember Vanessa Feltz's descent into madness, scrawling on the shopping list board like a demented medium. Likewise, Les Dennis decided that a 24-7 reality show was the best place to have a nervous breakdown in the wake of his failed marriage. And we all tuned in to see how far he'd fall.

So we probably shouldn't be surprised that this year's real star has been Denise Welch, a woman who seems to have spent most of her career living it large, like a Priory outpatient. Since she's been in the house she's provided more entertainment than the rest of the girls put together, largely by acting like the overly refreshed mother-in-law at a Geordie hen night.

Along the way, all this self-consciously extroverted "I'm mad, me" behaviour has begun to grate on the other housemates, not least Michael Madsen. After two weeks of being stuck in the middle with her, he looked as though he was ready to tie her to a chair and cut her ears off. I wonder if Ladbrokes are offering odds on that being the next secret task.

Despite regular work in shows like Soldier Soldier and Coronation Street, Denise is most famous for her larger-than-life persona - a role she's managed to cement by painting herself as the slackest of all the Loose Women. She might like to think of herself as a carefree hell-raiser, but her fragile ego suggests that maybe Michael had a point when he labelled her "emotionally disturbed."

It's likely that Denise might even have mistaken their early bickering as mildly flirtatious, but by now, it's clear that there'll be precious few Christmas cards winging their way across the Atlantic come December. And after a drunken attempt to draw the twins into her "Wahey, look at my tits" world, a major barney erupted that'll probably result in a few other housemates jostling with Michael for a go with his straight razor.

The seeds were sown earlier in the day, when Frankie Cocozza took part in a spelling contest. To be honest, he was an unfortunate choice for this task, given that he'd struggle with STD. At one point, he tried to spell 'hierarchy' as Hiararki', presumably because he thought it was just up the coast from where he used to work as a holiday rep. Fair play though, he spelled 'reproduction' correctly, so at least all that practice paid off in the end. Sadly, every time he got a word wrong, the housemates got a shock. Once the task was complete, Nicola accused Denise of lying about her buzzer working, on account of the fact that she wasn't screaming like the others. Denise responded by saying she's learned to enjoy the sensation of electric shocks, because she's had Slendertone on her belly and thighs. It's a miracle she doesn't have hair like Elsa Lanchester.

Later on, as the housemates celebrated with alcohol, Big Brother tried to liven things up by piping Girls Just Wanna Have Fun into the house. Several bottles of wine into the evening, it didn't take long for Denise's top to get lifted - but she made the mistake of trying to whip down Karissa's pajama bottoms. And that's when all hell broke loose. Karissa stormed off to the diary room and threatened to sue Big Brother, Nicola attempted to play peacemaker by attacking everyone, and Frankie actually seemed like the most reasonable person in the house. Fuck the four horsemen, that's a true sign of the apocalypse. Feeling attacked from all sides, Denise turned on Nicola and brought up their previous dispute.

There's no point rehashing all the accusations that were made, because it was all as predictably incoherent as a bunch of drunk 15 year-old girls crying on the swings outside a youth centre. Interestingly, Karissa did repeatedly make the point that she's a really reserved person and "doesn't walk around flashing her tits". Despite how it's portrayed in films, the Playboy Mansion is more like an orphanage for pneumatic blondes in their early twenties. And Hugh Hefner is just a benevolent modern-day Daddy Warbucks, rather than a permanently priapic pensioner in a dog-eared dressing gown.

Denise tried to point out their double standards about nudity, to which the girls responded by saying that they don't make their living getting naked, they just did the one photoshoot. Of course, this is all moral relativism - the real issue was simply that Denise shouldn't have whipped Karissa's pants down. But by the time Nicola weighed in, telling Big Brother "I'm a secret feminist. I might have got my boobs out, but that's my choice," Germaine Greer must have been kicking herself for choosing the wrong year to take part.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Blade running, Hollywood style

We've arrived at the absolute zero of tackiness, as our stars with a little 's' are seen climbing out of a limo for 'Dancing On Ice - The Movie'. Charlene Tilton tells us it's the role of a lifetime, but since she's barely worked in the last twenty years, she's hardly an authority on the matter. Christopher Dean says "the competition starts tonight", which leaves me wondering why I bothered sitting through the last two episodes.

Phil and Christine are doing their best to look as though they're number one on each other's speed dial, but their performances are less than convincing. Their onscreen chemistry might be as comfortable as a leotard full of nettles, but it hardly warrants the death threats she's been getting from the hardcore DOI fans on Twitter. It must catch in her throat to tell viewers about all the ways they can interact with the show online - that 'block' button is going to be working overtime tonight.

Chico is opening tonight's show, and he's keen to show us that "there's more to Chico than Chico Time." The mind boggles. To be fair to him, he's quite confident on the ice and the performance was competent, but I've got a horrible feeling that if he stays in the show, we're going to hear him sing at some point, and life is too short. His partner gives him the ultimate backhanded compliment by commending him for "giving a 100 percent", when everyone knows that on shows like this, it's 110 percent or nothing. Philip reminds us to keep the discussion going on Twitter, and even points out how to hashtag the show. But then he tells us to keep it PG, so let's hope that the fans tell him to go fuck himself.

Rosemary Conley is dancing to Wind Beneath My Wings, but since she starts her performance sitting on the ice, its the chill beneath her gusset I'd be more concerned with. I have to applaud her bravery though - most pensioners set one foot on ice and end up having a hip transplant, whereas she's being waved through the air with a young man's hand stuck up her chuff. She's very thankful for her partner who's doing a great job of holding her together, but a length of butcher's string would probably be just as effective.

In a recap of last week's comments, we see Louis tell Sam "I think you could really go somewhere." Like back to Barnsley, for instance. Whoever came up with the idea of asking a stocky lad to try kung fu kicks in ice skates either deserves an award or electroshock therapy. By the end of the performance, everyone's just relieved that he didn't screw up the backflip lift and put Alexandra Schauman in traction. He even manages to smile graciously when Katarina Witt compares him to a cuddly panda - not everyone would be so happy to be called a salad dodger in front of 10 million people.

Chemmy is performing to Fontella Bass' Rescue Me from Sister Act, which is why her routine opens with her dressed in a full habit and wimple. She gave a good effort, but her partner struggled with the big lift, demonstrating all the grace of a man lugging a corpse wrapped in a blood-stained carpet. Katarina helpfully points out that she's "a big woman". I guess she's not planning on making any friends tonight. Well, apart from Rosemary, who's busy making a list of all the people she can sign up for her slimming classes.

"I think as a dancer, I'm one of the best there is." That's Corey Feldman's entirely objective self-assessment, based on all the time he spent with Michael Jackson. As an utterly unrelated aside, Corey is planning to use his time on the show to publicise his forthcoming autobiography about his abuse at the hands of Hollywood's paedophiles. Happy to exploit any misfortune to further his celebrity, Corey is performing to Stand By Me, and will be dedicating his routine to River Phoenix, his co-star in that movie. Weirdly, he's decided to incorporate some of Jackson's moves into the performance, but it ends up looking as though he's having a bad reaction to his medication. The judges don't like it, so Corey folds his arms in angry defiance. But at least he's finally reminded the viewers at home of all those petulant brats he played as a child.

Poor Jennifer Ellison is suffering from rib damage from all the lifts in her routine. Lying on a physio table, she tells us "I'm not in a very good place." I've been to Elstree, so I know she's not lying. By the end of the performance, her face is stuck in a rictus grin from the pain, but somehow, that just makes her look more like a professional skater. Robin applauds her for "acting through every movement" as though she's just won an Olivier for taking a shit on stage.

Mark is still struggling to make an impression, and he's bringing his natural sense of comedy to tonight's routine. But there's a big difference between laughing at and laughing with someone. He's moving so slow on the ice that, at one point, I was going to complement his confidence skating backwards. Katarina says "Of course we love Mark" as though it was governmentally mandated. I'm afraid I'm going to be listed as a conscientious objector.

Jorgie's VT is all about her bum cheeks, because she's practicing a difficult lift with her partner Matt. Once their excellent performance is over, her arse is still on everyone's lips. Not like that, it's a family show, remember. Phillip Schofield tries to get in on the act, helpfully pointing out her wedgie situation, and Robin comments that a high speed routine like that means she needs to "be right on the button". I think Matt's hand is still on her button.

For Matthew's rehearsal footage, we get to see him dropping Nina and then falling on her, again and again. Maybe the producers are trying to win over the Jackass crowd. Matt's in his element this week, since he's dancing to Night Fever, the title song from the musical he starred in for over a year. Christopher points out that it's important to look after your partner, which must be a conversation he and Karen Barber have had on more than one occasion.

Charlene will be performing to Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend which, she tells us, is a dream come true. She needs to stop eating cheese before she goes to bed. They've tried to make her look like Marilyn Monroe, but Baby Jane Hudson would be closer. I'd have paid good money to see her dance to I've Written A Letter To Daddy instead. Her partner Matthew gushes about "working with a piece of Hollywood", like she's something he found in skip outside the Chateau Marmont.

Sebastien is slowing things down this week with Gary Jules' Mad World, and the Donnie Darko influence is felt in the slightly surreal choreography. Their goal this week was to concentrate on the partnership, and although they might have solved it on the ice, their interview skills need some work. It's like watching a couple meet for the first time after a particularly acrimonious divorce. Katarina doesn't get to add her two-penneth, because Philip needs to get in one of his painful puns. Don't worry though, she'll get her revenge during the break when she sidles up to him and tells him he looks fat in his glittery suit.

We all know the phrase 'polishing a turd'. Well, tonight the Dancing On Ice stylist has devised a new concept - smashing a shit. That's when you take something bad and make it look even worse. To wit - Andy Whyment wearing a T-birds ducktail quiff. It's a valiant effort, but he's got about as much natural cool as a Scotch bonnet chili pepper. Once off the ice, he tries his best to be funny but Jayne Torville's grinning at him like she's trying to humour a racist uncle.

Heidi is practicing hard, so her bandmate Amelle is here to lend some moral support, and to remind the audiences at home that The Sugababes are still a thing. Tonight, she's dancing to Goldfinger and she's come out looking like Shirley Eaton's death scene. Shirley Bassey's song has been given a bit of a contemporary overhaul and it all comes together quite well. Her Scouse accent is pretty think, and at one point I swear she says "I'm quite a shite person." No arguments here. The rest of the show fades out in a flurry of tedious innuendo, which leaves Louie in his element, but it's not one that you'll find on the periodic table.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Worshiping false idols

The poor stage managers have barely finished sweeping up the glittery confetti from the X-Factor USA's inauspicious debut, and yet here we are again, ready to be thrust back into another maelstrom of tears, key changes and incomprehensible feedback. It's time for the granddaddy of them all, American Idol, to return for its eleventh season. And if I'm going to sit through it, you're coming with me.

There were doubts that Idol would ever make it this far, after it was announced that Simon was upping sticks to focus on his other shows. But against all the odds, the show flourished in season ten. Audiences responded well to the new judging line-up of Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson, and all was right with the world. Well, apart from last year's grand finale, which was like being stuck at a hoedown in the seventh circle of hell. 

Tonight's show opens with "Where were you when it all started?" and I can't help feeling that there's a none-too-subtle reference to the Kennedy assassination in there. Do you remember what you were doing when Simon Cowell first put a bullet in modern music? We're also treated to the usual crowd scenes, as well as close-ups of people driving and, weirdly, an aircraft carrier. For some reason, the camera crews have all been tasked with capturing as many rising crane shots as they can. But played back to back, I find that five minutes in and I'm already reaching for the Benadryl. And let's not forget lovely Jennifer Lopez, who tells us that she's delighted to be back with Randy and Steven, saying "They're like my family now." Marc Anthony is laughing bitterly at the irony in that. The big twist this year is that, instead of sending professional film crews to capture the back-stories of the favourites, they've just briefed all contestants to film their own experiences on their smartphones. It's all a bit Cloverfield, just without the hideous lizard monster. Oh, sorry, there he is in a giant pink pimp's hat.

First contestant of the night is an obnoxiously overconfident young boy called David. He says he's seventeen, but his admittedly impressive singing voice doesn't appear to have broken yet. He might want to be the new Michael Jackson, but he's got a better chance of being the new Garry Coleman. "Are we having fun yet?" asks Randy. No, not particularly. Sixteen year-old Gaby is a tap dancer and really wants to meet host Ryan Seacrest. I can't blame her, I'd also like to get up close and personal with the man who's responsible for giving the world Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Ten minutes and a shovel should do it.

There's a great moment where one girl does a pretty good Whitney Houston, and we see Jennifer Lopez miming the words. But, it's not as if anyone really expected her to be able to sing along, did we? Meanwhile, in the background, the waves are getting decidedly choppy and are in danger of sending a moored yacht straight through the picture window. It would be such a shame if Randy's time on the show was to end suddenly, with him being pierced by prow of a boat, like Ming the Merciless without the green blood.

After an unsuccessful audition from Ryan Seacrest's double (that's right, imagine a world where there's more than one of him) we get to see Shannon, a gorgeous six-foot fifteen year-old. It's all going so well until Steven leers that the city of Savannah is "hot, humid and happening, just like your daughter." In retrospect, that's a remark that might have been better received had her entire extended family not been in the room at the time. Of course she gets through and Randy yells "You're coming to Hollywood!" Sadly the audio cuts out before we get to hear him follow it with "Bring a rape alarm."

Amy, our next contestant, lives in a tent in the woods because she can't afford a "$100 a week hotel room" which tells me it's been a while since I checked the prices on Expedia. Apparently, she'd rather be outdoors and happy than indoors and miserable. Ryan listens patiently, trying not to point out that it's also possible to be indoors and happy. She gets three thumbs up, and asks if she can pitch a tent in Hollywood. I think Steven's already one step ahead of her.

Despite his bravado, Joshua will not be going to Hollywood, which is a shame because the world was crying out for a gay redneck Andy Roddick impersonator. However, things are looking slightly better for fifteen year-old Stephanie, who wants to be the next Carrie Underwood. She's full of 'yes ma'am's and 'bless you's which win over two of the three judges. As Randy and J-Lo debate Stephanie's abilities, Steven seems more interested in looking for something inside his hat. That must be where he keeps the roofies.

So far it's all been a little talent heavy, so thank goodness for Mawuena Kodjo from West Africa, who's here to give us a guilty chuckle at those funny foreigners and their comedy accents. Despite the fact that it's perfectly clear what he's saying, we get karaoke subtitles throughout his VT. Sitcoms have canned laughter, talent shows have transcripts for foreigners.

Promising a combination of "funk, energy and confidence", Ashlee has invented a dance called the joy-hop, which looks like someone accidentally shitting their pants on an escalator. It's going to be huge, so remember you saw it here first. Another featured contestant is W.T. Thompson, who's decided that the best way of supporting his six-month-pregnant wife is to give up his job in the prison service and take a punt on a ticket to Hollywood. This couldn't possibly end badly for all concerned.

It's been a while since the producers pandered to the judges, so it's time for a tribute to Steven Tyler. Crowds of attractive young women enthuse about how attractive he is "for an older man". Perhaps, if you're turned on by a portrait of Lily Tomlin, carved into a Stilton rind. This section ends with a tangerine travesty called Erica, who hilariously describes Steven as "my future ex-husband." It's bad enough that she has a crush on a cross-dressing scarecrow, but then she sings an awful Joss Stone song, and I start wondering whether those kidnappers had the right idea after all.

Tonight's final contestant is the imaginatively named Philip Phillips, who works in his dad's pawn shop selling stuffed animals that Norman Bates would dismiss as "a bit creepy". He growls and snarls his way through Superstition, and I'm sure the judges don't know whether to clap or throw holy water at him. Ah, but it's all a prank, because he's actually here to do an interesting guitar-based version of Thriller. Jennifer's excited because Philip has something that "makes people stop and stare." But running through the streets in an outfit made from human skin will do that.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Masterchef gets panned

If I had my way, I'd ban cookery shows once and for all. Too many celebrity chefs giving the viewers at home delusions of grandeur. Now every boozer with a set of matching placemats can rebrand itself a 'gastropub', because the bloke in the kitchen spent one lonely evening learning to make spun sugar.

And then there's the chefs themselves. During my formative years I spent many a school holiday working as a waiter in a bunch of different restaurants. And although the star ratings may have varied, there was always one constant - obnoxious chefs who had such anger management issues that they'd make Naomi Campbell seem like a reasonable employer. Somehow, the ones on TV manage to come across even worse. Even Jamie Oliver, who normally acts as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth (probably because there's no room in there), shouts and swears like the police chief in an eighties mis-matched cop thriller.

When they're not driving their kitchen porters to self-harm with a butter curler, they're trying to convince us that all that fussy perfectionism is just a ruse. In reality, they'd rather be pinching down the crust of a game pie before dishing it up for the cast of Straw Dogs. Yeah, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, I mean you. Those bucolic bezzies of yours piss in your tankard whenever you leave the room to pan-sear some venison.

As if the schedules weren't already overrun by egotistical pan-flingers, Masterchef returns to our screens tonight for its eighth series. Once again John and Gregg, looking like Great Yarmouth waxworks of Richard Littlejohn and Al Murray, are on the lookout for a new telegenic dictator, willing to torture the kitchen staff with a crème brûlée blowtorch. Having sifted through thousands of applicants, there are 24 finalists left to compete for 12 'Masterchef' aprons. Seems like a lot of fuss for something you could pick up for a fiver in Lakeland.

First off, tonight's eight contestants have ten minutes to pick a selection of ingredients from a neat little larder that's been set up at the front of the room. It's a tiny little Waitrose, but without the hand-held scanners. "You know the rules", says John Torrode, before explaining them anyway. Well, there's an hour of airtime to fill.

Then it's time for a quick introduction to the amateur cooks. Shelina tells us that she's given up her job to focus on Masterchef, so I guess we'll have to wait and see whether she's counting her chickens before they've been spatchcocked. Speaking of poultry, Tom scored early points with a 'three-way chicken'. If that's his thing there are a few bars I could refer him to. Christine has a "slight obsession" with food, but undermines her point by mistaking a Dover sole for plaice.

Aki is a quantum physicist who wowed the lads with her bento box. That's not a euphemism, by the way. Oblivious to how her offer comes across, Aki invites Gregg and John to visit her bedroom, in order to see how messy she can be. Better to save those shenanigans for the after-party. And finally, we have Ross, who's drawn to the "showy-offy" side of cooking. He says 'ta-da' with a straight face, and 'rocks on' to ACDC when he makes food. I think I'd have trouble keeping anything down if he was cooking for me. By the end of this introductory round the music has swelled to such dramatic levels that I keep expecting Tom Cruise to lower himself into the studio on a fishing line.

As the hopeful contestants present their dishes, the lads ask Eamonn where he was hiding last year. Sadly, he's too choked up to reply, but it's hard to tell whether he's getting emotional or trying to swallow one of his own clams. The show takes a turn towards the creepy as John and Gregg start salivating at the prospect of Tom, the young plasterer. It gets even worse when Gregg gives us a burst of Hannibal Lecter's lip-smacking when critiquing a lemon tartlet. Christine presents her plate of notplaice to the guys, but as well as misidentifying it, she's also overseasoned and overcooked it. As the boys cogitate, she looks as though she's trying to eat her own face from the inside. Maybe she should have served that instead.

As is customary for the first episode of any talent contest, we get a reprise of the old "if this is the standard, we're in for a great series" cliche. But don't worry if you missed it first time around, they'll say it again in a couple of minutes' time. They also describe Tom's cooking as "heart-stopping stuff"which could either be a complement, or a suggestion that he lay off the Lurpak. Shelina tells us that she hopes to stay keen to her roots, which is great in theory, but could become repetitive and samey over the coming weeks. Let's call it the Janet Devlin factor.

With two contestants already ditched, John tells the remaining hopefuls: "You thought that was tough, now it's going to get a lot tougher." Sadly, he neglects to follow this up with "We're going to release you in Windsor safari park with a spork and a pack of firelighters in order to catch, kill and cook dinner." Instead, they're off to two of London's most respected restaurants to put their skills to the ultimate test. Although The Living Room seems like a nice enough place to work, Gilgamesh head chef Ian Pengelley manages to come across like a titanic cock, full of 'my way or the highway' sub-Ramsay bullshit. He comments that Eamonn seems a little nervous, which is understandable given the unnecessary way he's yelling at everyone. In contrast, the boss at The Living Room tries to be more agreeable, encouraging and helpful, rather than threatening to sever a finger every time someone falls short with the drizzle bottle.

As the challenge draws to a close, the action movie music starts up again. There's a big bloke at the bar asking one of the waitresses if she's Sarah Connor. Meanwhile, Ross is complaining that he's ripped his hands to shreds. Then again, he's a recruitment consultant, so a hard day's work might well be a shock to the system.
Before we've had chance to digest the drama, it's back into the studio to cook again, as our judges crank up the over-expressive homoeroticism to a laughable degree. After a tough time in the Gilgamesh kitchen, Eammon tells us that he wants to get his emotion out on the plate. Just tell them it's crème anglaise and it can be our little secret. Aki has prepared a selection of Japanese dishes that Gregg says he could sleep in. So there you go, he'd rather wrap himself in udon noodles than set foot inside your bedroom.

To be fair to the contestants, their final dishes all look incredible, but there's an alarming amount of froth and foam on display. Eating one of these meals would be like plucking leftovers from Cujo's muzzle. Time for the results, and Aki, Shelina, Tom, Eamonn and Emma are all through. So much for four finalists being selected - that exasperated sigh is coming from the luckless chippie who's just been told he needs to knock up another cooking station by the end of the week. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The greatest sandwich on earth

Pretty much everywhere in the world has a signature dish - some item of culinary alchemy that everyone who visits the area feels compelled to sample. Cornwall has its pasties, Bakewell has its tarts. And Sheffield has arguably the greatest sandwich on Earth - perhaps a little ironic given the city's cutlery-based heritage.

If you've ever lived in, or even briefly visited Sheffield, you may well have heard of Mr Béres. Kentucky had an honorary Colonel to thank for putting it on the foodie map, we have a Hungarian refugee who moved to the UK in 1956. Five years after setting up home in steel-town, Sandor Béres and his wife Eileen opened their first butcher's shop, specialising in pork and beef. Quickly recognising the city's seemingly insatiable appetite for hot meat sandwiches, Béres focused on that part of the business, and before too long had a thriving chain of shops across the city.

When I was a boy, I used to spend several days a week with my grandparents, while my dad was studying and my mum was attempting to support the family on a supply teacher's wage. The days were filled with walks along the river, watching one of the three TV channels that were available at the time, or staring in bewilderment as my grandpa pushed a heavy concrete roller over his small but impeccable lawn. And then once a week, he'd drive us into Hillsborough to visit one of Mr Béres' pork sandwich shops.

To the untrained eye, the shops were nothing special - the kind of place that would make Roy's Rolls look like The Ivy. The only clue to the wonders within was the constant queue of people lining up to get inside. Years later, when my dad and I would make our fortnightly pilgrimage to see Sheffield Wednesday play, we'd diligently join the line to grab a sandwich to take into the match. All to be washed down with a flask of hot Oxo. Given the high meat content of this Saturday afternoon ritual, I was certain that if I'd had a nosebleed, it would have been Bovril dripping down my shirt-front.

Thirty years later and nothing much has changed. The sandwiches still come in three sizes, and for me, graduating from one size to the next was like a rite of passage. As a child, I started out with half a standard (split with my sister), until I was considered mature enough to handle a whole one to myself. As my appetite grew, I moved onto the King Size - which used the same sized bun but was more generously stuffed with fillings. By the time I was in my teens, I was ready for the Jumbo, an almost grotesque sandwich that had to be held with both hands, even when it was cut in half.

The sandwich itself is deceptively simple. First, there's the fresh white bap from Béres own bakery, which gets dunked into a tray of 'dip' (really just the juices from the straight-out-of-the-oven pork joints). Since the dip swiftly soaks into the bread, it can make eating the sandwich something of a race against time, as you attempt to finish it before the bread completely dissolves into a porky primordial gloop.

If you ask for the 'works' you'll get a huge pile of freshly cut pork that's pink, rather than white. This gives it a softer texture than the sometimes dry, mealy meat that you get when you cook a pork joint at home. Béres' joints are traditionally cured and cooked in gas-fired ovens, which makes the meat fantastically succulent. It also means that the crackling that crowns the sandwich is crunchy and crisp, but won't leave you requiring emergency bridgework. In contrast, you'll also discover a thick smear of soft sage and onion stuffing, plus a huge dollop of homemade apple sauce. It's this rich combination of flavours and textures that make this more than just another meat sandwich. Each one comes wrapped in a simple paper bag, usually festooned with sticky pork-fat fingerprints, as much a symbol of the sandwich-maker's art as the unique impressions that Nick Park's hands leave on Wallace and Gromit.

Even now, the very sight of Mr Béres' shopfront is enough to trigger a Pavlovian response. And no trip to visit my family is complete without a round-trip into town to score a bagful. My only regret is that my Jewish and vegetarian friends will never know the wonder of Mr Béres. Even if trying to convince them would be as futile as telling a lesbian that she just hasn't met the right bloke yet. You can keep your fancy gourmet sandwiches, made with artisan granary bread, sprigs of rocket and a drizzle of unicorn spunk. I'll have a Jumbo pork sandwich with the works. And I'll see you in the cardiology ward.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friday 13th and Jason Lives. Again

Maybe Crazy Ralph was right all along. With liquor on his breath, the eccentric bumpkin tried to warn those kids about the fate that was about to befall them: “You're doomed! You're all doomed!” OK, so he was actually referring to the gruesome curse of ‘Camp Blood’, but in light of what happened to the careers of most of the young stars of Friday 13th, his prophetic words take on a newfound prescience.

In a way, they were doomed from the start. Plucked from obscurity, to star in a high profile film series bankrolled by a major studio, it makes sense that these young performers would think that this was to be their big break. Unfortunately, for most of them, appearing in the long running hack-and-slash franchise meant instant death for their ambitions of a life in the performing arts.

In the same way that each successive sequel continually repeated the same tired format, young actors kept ignoring the fates that befell their predecessors. Incredulously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they turned up to scream their lungs out, only to end up in a pile of blood-slathered bodies, their dreams punctured by a piece of rusty farm equipment.

At the height of the slasher boom, Friday 13th ruled the horror box office. Each year a new instalment would pop up, offering fans a familiar dose of hokey dialogue, cheap shocks and dismemberment. They didn’t seem to care that the films had all the richness and layered complexity of youth hostel toilet paper – for them, the formula was king.

In spite of its ability to turn a healthy profit, Paramount always seemed a little ashamed of its malformed child. They might never have turned their back and let it drown (like those careless camp counsellors), but they certainly never bestowed much love or attention on it. As a consequence, fans of the genre’s most prolific killer have repeatedly been short-changed when it comes to behind-the-scenes material. The likely rationale is that, since so little creativity was expended in making the films, there were precious few stories to tell about the process.

Or so we thought, until author Peter Bracke decided to write the definitive history of the much-maligned franchise. Undaunted by the fact that some of the series’ alumni made Bin Laden seem comparatively easy to track down, Bracke spent three years locating and interviewing over 200 people involved in the films. He then began the process of fastidiously weaving together the complete story, from Sean Cunningham’s original right through to the franchise mash-up Freddy Vs Jason, using the transcripts from these interviews.

The result is ‘Crystal Lake Memories’, an astonishingly exhaustive history of a seemingly underserving subject. After all, it’s easy to understand how a film series like Star Wars or Godfather might warrants a no-stone-unturned approach. But Friday 13th?

To be clear, Bracke is under no illusions about the quality of the films themselves. But he understands their significance in the broader context of film history, as well as the hunger of the fans for an unexpurgated insight into how they were made. This combination of nostalgic affection and clear-mined objectivity ensures that the book remains honest and focused throughout its 320 pages.

By allowing the actors, film-makers and technicians to tell the story in their own words, Bracke neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of pretention that often come with writing a retrospective history. This is no revisionist attempt to position these films as art, merely a warts-and-all insight into the 1980s horror scene.

Along the way, a number of interesting stories and anecdotes come to life. We get to hear about the less-than inspired origins of the first film – Cunningham came up with the title, and ran a full-page ad in Variety to secure funding, without a script or much of an idea of what the finished film would be about. We also discover that the set of Part V was liberally dusted with white powder, as an incentive to keep performers on their toes during the long night shoots. Plus, it’s fascinating to learn that, despite the series’ reputation for depicting attractive young couples in the throes of passion, the young male stars of Part VII were all acting their socks off in order to convince audiences that they were heterosexual. Running concurrently throughout the narrative is the story of the MPAA and its desire to eviscerate the series itself. Wielding a blade even sharper than Jason could lay his hands on, the censors stripped back the gruesome effects to such a degree that some of the later instalments were about as bloody as an episode of Murder, She Wrote. And just as preposterous.

When Crystal Lake Memories was originally released six years ago, it became an instant bestseller and received glowing reviews. The only drawback, in fact, was its ungainly size – this is not a book you can read in the bath. Well, that and the costs associated with buying a coffee table book larger than the item of furniture it was intended for. With this in mind, Bracke has returned to the scene of the crime and forensically reconstructed the original volume with a host of new content. In the new eBook edition, available for iBook and Kindle on 13th February, readers will find storyboards, concept art and promotional materials, as well as a bunch of new interviews with stars of the franchise who opted not to participate last time around.

Sadly, there’s still no sign of Crispin Glover or Kevin Bacon, the two actors who managed to build respectable careers off the back of their appearances in the series. Like many of the performers who appeared in the Friday films, they’d probably rather forget the fact that they were ever involved, in the same way that I overlook the 12 months I spent working in McDonalds as a student. Thankfully, the passage of time has loosened up the majority of performers, who can now reflect on their experiences with a degree of good humour and pragmatism. Having said that, it still makes for amusing reading to hear some of these thespians talking about their method approach and commitment to the role. Especially since the majority of their performances involved little more than a couple of lines of dialogue, before being skewered like a chunk of mutton in a Turkish grill.

Suffice it to say, an eBook about Friday 13th will probably have limited appeal outside of the die-hard fan community. But anyone with an interest in the horror genre, low budget film-making, or the harsh realities of Hollywood’s exploitative underbelly, will find plenty to keep them occupied in this meticulously compiled history. As Martin the gravedigger famously deadpanned in Part VI: "Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment."

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Silver Screen loses its lustre

In his 1982 anthology Skeleton Crew, Stephen King published a grisly short story called ‘Survivor Type’. This epistolary tale takes the form of a series of diary entries made by a heroin smuggler who find himself stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific. With nothing but a dull blade and a sack-full of smack to his name, Richard Pine goes to extreme lengths to prolong his survival.

Having broken his ankle trying to signal for help, Richard is left with no choice but to amputate his foot, so he uses the drugs as an anaesthetic and swiftly removes it before infection sets in. But his problems aren’t over, since there’s no viable food source on the island. So he eats the severed appendage. As the story progresses, Richard keeps dipping into his stash to dull the pain, and removing other limbs which he then consumes. Bear Grylls, I hope you’re taking notes. By the end of the story, he’s removed and eaten everything below the waist, as well as both of his ears.

I mention this, not only because this short story features more invention than most of Hollywood’s recent output, but because it’s a pretty effective metaphor of what the film industry has been doing to itself for the last few years.

Although some might argue that the dream factory is in rude health, thanks to a handful of imaginative independent titles, the reality is much more depressing. Constantly unleashing an endless tide of remakes, sequels, comic book adaptations, the dearth of creative thinking in Tinseltown has never been more apparent. I can only imagine how much Guy Ritchie must be kicking himself that, for all his efforts, his latest Sherlock Holmes adventure is once again doing battle with an Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel for box office supremacy.

In 2011, eight out of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide were sequels. Of the two remaining films, one was the big screen debut of The Smurfs. If that isn’t an effective summary of what’s wrong with Hollywood, I’ll eat a clapperboard.

The depressing truth is that, these days, an original idea is considered to be a risky proposition. When Christopher Nolan spanked almost $200m on Inception, the entire industry watched for the inevitable fallout. Plot driven, eclectically cast, and not based on an existing property or franchise, Nolan’s mind-bending thriller had the odds stacked against it from day one. Of course, he did have two aces up his sleeve – a major star in Leonardo DiCaprio, and some of the most spectacular effects audiences had seen in a long time. But let’s not forget that Inception is the exception, rather than the rule.

And don’t even get me started on 3D. James Cameron may have resurrected the long-defunct format with his breath-taking vision of a world populated by nine-foot blue giants, but the film studios just saw another opportunity to milk consumers for even more cash. Cameron spoke about immersion, using the technique to add texture and depth to his story. Every other film-maker (even the usually dependable Pixar) saw it as an opportunity to poke shit in people’s faces. Let’s all be grateful that Tom Six didn’t apply the technology to Human Centipede 2, otherwise that could have become a literal proposition.

With film quality at its lowest ebb in history, the commerciality of film has never been more important. And cinema chains are lining up to fill their own pockets too. On a recent trip to my local Vue multiplex, I found that the ticket sales office has been rendered obsolete – now you have to queue at the concession stand to even buy your entry into the film. And then you’re faced with a bewildering array of options that determine the actual ticket price. Having avoided any 3D screenings (and their £3 mark-up, plus glasses) I was asked whether I wanted regular or deluxe seating – to my knowledge, the biggest difference between the two seems to be the size of the cup-holder. Then I was told that the screening I wanted to attend was in the Vue Extreme screen. I asked the cashier to explain the distinction, and she told me that the screen was a bit bigger. Since there was no other option (other than leaving and coming back for an alternative showing), I still ended up having to pay a surcharge, for a regular seat to see a regular 2D movie. And it was still shit.

Blockbuster apologists might argue that one positive change in recent film-making has been the end of the old megastar era. Indeed, there are few film stars working today who can still guarantee a big opening. Which should, in theory, mean that we get more interesting casting choices. Unfortunately, studios have made up for this shortcoming by bringing back the ‘all-star cast’. This used to be a sure-fire way of guaranteeing bums on seats, as canny producers like Irwin Allen filled their disaster movies with A-list names, based on the assumption that audiences would happily sit through any old tut if it meant they got to see Ava Gardner crushed under a piece of falling masonry. Sadly, the all-star film is alive and well, only now they tend to come in the form of multi-strand romances, like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and the truly appalling He’s Just Not That Into You. Of course, we also still have plenty of disaster epics to wade through, but the stakes have been raised to such a preposterous degree that even a film like ‘Knowing’, which destroyed the entire planet in an apocalyptic fireball, managed to raise little more than an eyebrow.

The problem is that directors now have an extraordinary box of digital tricks at their disposal. But (to paraphrase Jurassic Park) they spend so long working out what they could do, they neglect to consider whether they should. This horrendous state of affairs reached its apotheosis last summer with Michael Bay’s mind-bogglingly incomprehensible Transformers threequel. I can’t deny that the effects were impressive, but the film held all the appeal of watching three blenders gang rape a George Forman grill. Occasionally, a film remembers to get the balance right, using digital effects to support the telling of a story, rather then other way around. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a great example, but once again loses originality points for being both a prequel and franchise reboot.

Ah, the reboot. Hollywood’s way of throwing out the bathwater, and hanging onto the baby just in case. Alongside Joss Whedon’s all-star superhero mash-up The Avengers, and Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises, this year will also offer up two new superhero reboots, featuring Superman and Spider-Man. The latter promises to retell an origin story that was last filmed just 11 years ago. Elsewhere, the horror remake train also continues its drawn-out derailment, taking out such well-loved classics as Evil Dead, Poltergeist, Carrie, Child’s Play and The Birds in the process.

But don’t despair, there is a glimmer of hope. A couple of days before Christmas, it was announced that one impending remake had been indefinitely shelved. Citing irreconcilable issues with the script quality, Warner Bros grudgingly confirmed that they’d put a stake in the much-feared re-do of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. For once the fans were delighted, having argued all along that Buffy without creator Joss Whedon, would be like Julia Roberts without a shit-eating grin.

Finally, here was proof that someone in Hollywood understood what audiences have been trying to tell them for years. When it comes to complex narrative arcs, compelling characterisation and engaging story-telling, the movie business simply can’t compete with the quality of modern TV shows. In the land of TV, the writer is king. They create the concepts, select the cast, and in many cases, craft all the scripts. If Hollywood wants to experience a new golden age, maybe it needs to start looking for the new Joseph Mankiewicz, rather than the next Brett Ratner.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Frosty reception

Forget about eating kangaroo bollocks or crawling through a cave full of reptiles, if you want to see celebrities in mortal jeopardy, Dancing On Ice is where it's at. In the Big Brother house, the biggest danger any of the celebrities face is picking up a waterborne disease from sharing a hot-tub with Frankie Cocozza, but our skating stars are constantly at risk of being cut to ribbons. Which, of course, makes for a curiously watchable show.

The concept of celebrities on ice has me conjuring up images of Walt Disney's head in a bell jar. But there are no cryogenic shenanigans here, just a bunch of low rent names who think that a near-death experience is the best way to rejuvenate their careers.

As usual the show opens with a routine from its royal couple-in-residence, Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean. In the seven years that they've been doing Dancing On Ice, Jayne has really slimmed down, but she still has a decidedly hefty air. So spare a thought for Chris, who's still able to smile despite having flung her around for the last three decades. He must have arms like a Pickfords driver.

In light of Holly Willoughby's departure, Philip Schofield has been paired with Christine Bleakely, who's a dead ringer for Dannii Minogue after a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. Our hosts call out all fifteen stars, giving us a chance to instantly work out who's going to blow us away, and who's got the emergency services on speed dial. As with most of these celebrity shows, there's an odd mix of 'where are they now' actors, TV presenters and someone from Hollyoaks. They've also drafted Chico to replace Chesney Hawkes, who came a cropper last week and had to drop out. Unfortunately, this means that Pip Schofield won't be able to use any of those 'The one and only' jokes he's been feverishly jotting down since the original line-up was announced. 

According to Torville and Dean, they also 'broke' Keith Chegwin, but I thought Maggie Philbin had already taken care of that. To be honest, I'm quite relieved Cheggers won't be taking part, since there's always the danger he'd get confused and think he was back on The Naked Jungle.

It's all change this year, with a new 'Ice Panel' of judges to critique the performances. Karen Barber's passive aggressive temper tantrums last year obviously had the desired effect, since Jason Gardiner's been dumped and replaced with Louie Spence. As he lisps "I am daaaaaaance" into the camera, Panadol experiences a sudden spike in sales that's likely to last for the next 12 weeks. Christine introduces Robin Cousins and the rest of the judges, and Louie gushes "You're looking absolutely sensational." Credit where it's due - she managed to smile through a faceful of spit.

Tonight's first skater is Heidi Range, who you may recognise from the current line-up of Sugababes. After overcoming her fear of lifts, it looks as though they might have overdone the training, because her partner Sylvain has ruptured a bicep. I bet Laila Morse's partner is shitting himself. Heidi and her replacement pro perform to Katy Perry's ET, and the best thing that can be said about it is that at least we were spared a house-band cover version, which is what we'd be getting if this was on the Beeb. I know she said she's comfortable with the lifts now, but her hair-do looks like it could be concealing a crash-helmet.

Following Heidi's unspectacular opening, we've got one half of 'TV's Sam and Mark'. You know who they are - the poor man's Ant & Dec. So you can imagine what an embarrassment of riches that promises. Mark's pretty hopeless on the ice, managing to make me long for the grace and musicality of Todd Carty. When I was a teenager I once spent a very long evening at a Young Farmer's Disco in Huddersfield. The dancing there was about on a par with Mark's performance. His partner Frankie tells Philip that Mark started out "as an absolute zero" and, let's be honest, he's not come that far. After a harsh critique from Louie, Mark offers to snog him for more votes. That's what we want from our Sunday tea-time viewing, gay-for-pay prostitution.
Charlene Tilton tells us that "viewers in the UK would probably know me best as Lucy Ewing from Dallas." Presumably, she's earned some alternative notoriety in the States, but let's not dwell on that. She's actually a pretty good skater, starting off with a solo display that would have most of the other contestants shitting sequins. But it's not all good - watching her creakily raise her leg in the air for a spiral, I was reminded of trying to lift up a soup tin lid that hasn't been opened properly. Robin Cousins makes a weak pun using Charlene's song title, and a brief flash of panic appears on Philip's face. I do hope he wasn't planning on using the same gag when he reads out the phone vote number later.

After the break, Christine tells us "It's been a great night so far", and Phil enthusiastically agrees. The audience remain curiously silent though. Next up is Jorgie Porter from Hollyoaks, who's described by her partner Matt Evers as "an absolute sponge". Which'll come in handy when the bleeding starts. Once the performance begins she looks gorgeous, and she's very confident on the ice. She's been telling the tabloids that she can crack nuts with her arse, thanks to the training for this show. We'll I've got a bag of Brazils here, that she's welcome to.

Since we only get to see half the celebrities skating tonight, it's time to check in with the other eight to see how they've been getting on. Sam (of 'and Mark' sort-of fame) tells us that he wants to win, "just to stick it in Mark's face." Isn't that just another Saturday morning for him? We also get a glimpse of Laila Morse and Rosemary Conley, proving that advanced osteoporosis is no obstacle to taking up new hobbies. I'm not entirely sure why Laila's on here, except that I once compared this show to Nil By Mouth. Maybe someone on the production crew read that and got the wrong idea. Christine's so happy schmoozing with the contestants, she says that doesn't want to move. But her dress is so tight I figure she'd need a forklift to get anywhere.

There's always a sporting star taking part in Dancing on Ice, but this year they've actually found someone who's used to winter sports - skier Chemmy Alcott. She smashed her leg to bits last year, so although she's comfortable with the cold, she's not fully recovered from her injuries. Unlike the other male skaters, who all look like interchangeable Ken dolls, Chemmy's partner is more like Al Murray, complete with a beer gut. Tony Gubba's been retained to provide commentary for the show, so by the end of the series we'll all be talking about how easily spirals transition into a fish lift. Oh, just me then.

Our next contestant is Andy Akinwolere, a Blue Peter presenter who has obviously undergone extensive courses in how to be annoyingly over-eager. He's been paired with Maria Filippov, who's a tiny little pocket rocket, and tonight they're dancing to Moves Like Jagger. If nothing else, I think we can all be grateful that they didn't take the song's title literally - no-one needs to see funky chicken on ice.

Tonight's final skater is Andy Whyment from Coronation Street, who looks like a Chad graffiti come to life. Male soap stars don't tend to fare very well on this show, so expectations are duly lowered. Tony Gubba thinks that Andy's a 'natural comedian', suggesting that one of us needs to update our dictionary. Christopher Dean describes Andy as having experienced "the greatest journey so far" which is a bit of an overstatement. He stomped around the ice dressed like a magician at a kid's party, hardly on a par with Hannibal's march across the Pyrenees.

Next week, more talk of sequins, lines and toe-picks. And if we're lucky, a flesh wound or two.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

There may be trouble ahead...

Ever since Charlie Brooker unleashed the undead hordes on the Big Brother compound in Dead Set, it's been hard to take the concept seriously. Especially since Charlie's zom-com finally managed to visualise most people's desire that the set be locked down and all the cameras switched off, leaving the housemates to get on with it.

And yet here we go again, as another minibus full of minor celebrities pulls onto the lot at Borehamwood and vomits its contents into the house. This year, keen to maximise the value of their white elephant investment, Channel 5 has apparently pulled out all the stops in an attempt to attract the highest calibre of famous names. Even the TV ads, which feel like they've been running since my Christmas tree went up, make a point of certifying the housemates as 'proper celebrities'. Although given that Amy Childs and Kerry Katona are portrayed as arbiters of what constitutes a proper celebrity, I'll take that promise with a pinch of salt.

With so many celebreality formats clogging up the networks, sourcing the necessary 'talent' must be a thankless task. I imagine that there's a whole subspecies of barely recognisable names held in some sort of holding pen, like beagles in an animal testing lab. Every time a new show is lined up, the runners are sent into the cages to round up a dozen test subjects, throwing them back once they've been voted off.

It's nice that they opened up with a pause before announcing Brian Dowling as the host, as though that was supposed to be some sort of surprise. Brian's still trying to portray the inmates as jetsetting A-listers, in spite of the fact that most of their "designer bags" will have been picked up on Romford market for twenty quid.

Gettng things off to an epic start is Natalie Cassidy, best known as Sonia from EastEnders. But I'll always remember her as someone who naively opted for a boob job, when there were clearly more pressing matters for her surgeon to focus on. According to Marcus Bentley, Natalie also has a successful theatrical career, having tackled Chekhov and the Vagina Monologues. She's going to experience a whole different kind of talking cunt on this show. She's barely had time to look around the faux-Alpine chalet before Big Brother invites her into the diary room for a secret mission. She'll be taking regular instructions from the big guy in her earpiece, issuing her with regular tasks. And each time she fails, one of the housemates will lose their luggage.

If you're a Hollywood producer and you need an erratic lunatic, but don't fancy haggling with the insurance company over Gary Busey or Tom Sizemore, you could always ask Michael Madsen to get involved. Most people know him as Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs, which explains why he's decided to bleach his hair for the occasion. He makes a duff joke about blondes being stupid, which Brian fails to comprehend. Maybe that old cliche needs updating to reference Irish ex-trolley dollies instead. There was a time when Michael was considered a bit of Hollywood rough, now he's just plain rough. Picture Johnny Vegas doing a piss-poor impression of Clint Eastwood. Under Big Brother's instruction, Natalie tells him she loved him in Free Willy. Please God don't let him take that as a come-on. There's a really awkward bit where Madsen asks her "how'd you get this gig?" Fuck Big Brother's secret mission, Natalie knows that the real challenge here is to avoid revealing how the 'stars' get roped into this car crash.

Star number three has sung with Tina Turner and danced with Britney Spears. But since we're talking about Andrew Stone from Pineapple Studios, this could just be his way of telling us that he got Just Dance for the Wii at Christmas. He's died his hair, put on a load of makeup, and turned up looking like all three members of Human League fell into Seth Brundle's matter transporter. He says "cream rises to the top". So do turds. My favourite moment is as he reaches the top of the stairs and screams "I love you" to the crowd, as three hundred people collectively check their watches.

It's always good to have some pneumatic blonde starlets in the house, and here we get two for one. It's like the January sales here on Big Brother. Kristina and Karissa Shannon were both Hugh Hefner's girlfriends, which means they got to live in the Playboy Mansion and take it in turns to change his bag. They tell us that when they got to the mansion it was "like a breath of fresh air." But I don't suppose Heff opens the windows very open. Kristina and Karissa are identical twins (an observation made by our helpful host), and it's true - they're impossible to tell apart, right down to their horrendous nose jobs. Genetics are a wonderful thing.

Frankie Cocozza is the next housemate, who manages to just recycle the same "shag birds" bullshit he trotted out for his VTs every week on X-Factor. Grinning from ear to ear, he tells us "I've been a bit naughty, drug wise", which I guess means he started cutting it with detergent before handing it around. He's still wearing those filthy drainpipe jeans and rocking a hairdo that, in a certain light, gives him a look of Rita Fairclough. Not sure that's what he was going for. Meanwhile, in the house, Natalie is scoring an early victory by breezing through her task. And for all their talk of bringing a breath of fresh air into a house, Kristina and Karissa are pulling a face that suggests that their immediate vicinity smells more like burnt nylon.

At last, someone who's famous for actually being good at something - it's gay rugby player Gareth Thomas. His introduction is very matter-of-fact, and he doesn't exactly seem like a barrel of laughs. Equally dull is Nicola McLean, a glamour model and the sixth runner-up on series eight of I'm A Celebrity... I know, heady heights. We already have two topless blondes in the house, so a third is hardly going to win this series any diversity awards. Apparently she once had a spat with Natalie Cassidy, so that's going to be fun. Big Brother wastes no time stirring the pot, encouraging Natalie to repeatedly tell Nicola "I'm totally cool with you being in the house." She's won a few soap awards, so we shouldn't be surprised that she can sell a lie. But if you ever find yourself playing poker with her, listen out for when she calls you "babes". That's her tell, right there.

Kirk Norcross is our next housemate, and describes himself as "a bit of a donut", so don't be surprised if Krispy Kreme sue for defamation of character. His goals are to party and have a laugh, and his expression is similar to that of a Red Setter trying to solve the Times cryptic crossword. His ex-girlfriend, and former contestant, Amy Childs gave him the sound advice that he should "live each day like you don't know what's going to happen." As opposed to real life, where everything comes with call sheets and production notes.

In a dramatic change from the previous housemates, we're now introduced to Georgia Salpa, a glamour and lingerie model. Well, she is brunette after all. She's got a cracking rack and would look like Kim Kardashian if the latter hadn't been constructed in a laboratory. As she descends the staircase into the house, Kirk and Frankie have an unspoken moment, like one of them just called shotgun telepathically.

Natasha Giggs says "You may know me best for having an affair with my brother-in-law Ryan Giggs." What the fuck else would we know her for? Her album of acoustic guitar solos? Selling Tupperware door-to-door? It's not as though she comes to us with a string of accomplishments to her name. She's going to miss her kids while she's in the house, but it might be good practice for the inevitable custody settlement after that acrimonious divorce.

Marvin Dawkins is our next former celebrity to be thrust back into the limelight. Don't worry if the name means nothing to you, it's Romeo from So Solid Crew. He tells us he had "a few solo top ten hits." He actually only had two, but I'll forgive him for fudging the specifics. I mean, it's not like music stars have ever given a shit about chart placings. Natalie's still gamely playing along with Big Brother's excruciating task, almost drawing the line when he instructs her to tell the Playboy twins that she also modeled for the UK edition of the magazine. They might be as thick as a pillow sandwich, but even they struggle with their 'convinced' face.

And now it's time for our final housemate - Denise Welch. She tells us in all seriousness that "after Coronation Street, there's no higher pinnacle for an actor". Which must come as a crushing blow to the likes of Ben Kingsley and Ian McKellen who've presumably squandered the rest of their careers. Denise has a well documented history with drugs, so expect Frankie to stick to her like a damp Rizla.