Monday, 30 July 2012

When Snow White drifted

Poor old K-Stew is in a bit of a pickle this week, after it emerged that she’d been chewing on someone else’s bottom lip for a change, and it wasn’t the one belonging to her undead paramour R-Pattz. It turns out that, while filming Snow White and the Huntsman, she got a little too close to her director Rupert Sanders.

Ordinarily, stories of illicit extra-curricular liaisons are swiftly denied by the stars’ representatives, as everyone else strives to maintain a dignified silence. Not this time though. In a surprising move, Stewart went public with her apology to the walking hair-do she’d wronged, stating: "This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry," Rob responded by packing up his coffin full of shimmering cheekbone enhancer into a U-Haul van and moving out of their shared home. And you thought all the overwrought drama of Twilight was limited to what didn’t happen onscreen.

Unsurprisingly the Twihards have taken to Twitter en masse to label Kristen a home-wrecking whore, leaving Sanders to emerge relatively unscathed, despite the fact that he’s a 42 year-old married father of two. His wife Liberty Ross has also waded into the muddied waters around this whole mess, posting thinly-veiled insults about Stewart on everyone’s favourite online showcase for dirty-laundry airing, before promptly deleting her account. But no news, as yet, about whether she’s tried to cut off his cock with a pair of nail clippers.

So what are we to make of all this pent-up drama? It’s enough to make you crack open a My Little Pony diary and compose bad poetry. The cynical side of me wonders whether Summit entertainment, producers of the world’s most toothless vampire franchise, are rubbing their talons with glee at all the free publicity ahead of the series’ fifth and final installment. Since the fans who made the films a genuine phenomenon already know everything that happens in the second half of the last book, this real-life soap opera gives them the kind of cliff-hanger they need to ensure bums on seats on opening weekend. Will Bella and Edward kiss and make-up, or will they be cursed to wander the Earth for all eternity alone? Because at this stage in the proceedings, the actors and their paper-thin characters are almost indistinguishable.

In fact, the really odd thing about the whole affair (pun definitely intended) is how publicly it’s all been played out. Everyone’s said their piece, no-one’s denied anything, and, of course, the press have had a field day. But what about us? I mean, we’re discussing it. We’ve all got opinions about who did what to whom. It’s like Cluedo, with shagging – in the Drawing Room with a bottle of Rioja. Maybe the ceaseless parade of reality TV shows has left us incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction. When we see celebrities having a tough time, we assume we’re entitled to weigh-in on the matter. Perhaps there’ll be a phone vote to decide whether they get back together or not. Or maybe we can stage a Twitter campaign – hashtag #bellanedwardforeva if you want them to reunite.

In the end, it’s really none of our business. We’ve all fucked up and made mistakes. We’ve broken hearts or had ours broken. But at least most of us have had the good fortune to go through it in private. Is this the real life, is it just fantasy? Who knows? I say we should just look the other way and leave them to it. And if that means I have to stay away from Breaking Dawn part 2, so much the better.  

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Olympics 1, Sponsors 0

As I write this, the opening weekend of the London 2012 Olympics is drawing to a damp but optimistic close. And although there have been a few early disappointments in the cycling and swimming categories, the former did at least enable us to bag our first medal of the games. Looking back over the last 48 hours, it’d be hard to argue that the Olympics have been anything but a triumph. In spite of all the media fear-mongering, it all seems to have gone off without a hitch - even our creaking tube network has managed to hold itself together admirably.

And yet, despite enough sighs of relief to keep a squadron of Mary Poppinses airborne, I can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that something’s rotten in the state of the Olympic Park. Check out the pictures of this weekend’s sporting activity, and tell me if you’ve ever seen such a phenomenal showcase of tip-up seats. Row after row of glorious up-turned squabs in eye-watering high-def. Sturdy plastic back supports, so clear you could almost touch them. Or sit on them for that matter, since no-one else seems to be.

Welcome to London 2012, the most-watched sporting event in the world, unless you happen to be in one of our purpose built stadia.  In which case, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d got tickets to The Voice Live Tour. Of course, I’m being facetious. These untipped seats aren’t a sign of public disinterest in the games. Instead, they’re a mocking reminder of how LOCOG has dropped to its knees in front of its corporate sponsors, like one of Christian Grey’s BDSM subs.

We’d all listened to Lord Coe staunchly defend the sponsors’ heavy-handed activity as merely protecting their investment, even though his argument induced enough nationwide eye-rolling to send Moorfields into a panic. We laughed at the ridiculousness of McDonald’s banning the provision of chips within the Olympic village, as though they’d retroactively copyrighted the very concept of chopping and frying potatoes. We shook our heads in dismay at rumours that visitors wearing Nike sportswear might be turned away at the gate for fear of upsetting Adidas’ delicate sensibilities. And if the Thames seems darker than usual, it’s probably because millions of people have decided to tip out their Pepsi bottles, rather than incur the wrath of Coca-Cola if they were to be seen drinking the wrong carbonated syrup.

Those not fully indoctrinated in the terminology of sponsorship activation were given a swift education in the concept of ambush marketing – the idea of spontaneously promoting an authorised brand during a media-saturated activity. In the ongoing war for brand dominance, innocent members of the sport-watching public were being swiftly rebadged as potential enemy combatants. Fuck the terrorist threat – those surface-to-air missiles on top of the flats at the end of my street could take out a Reebok-wearing jogger with ruthless precision.

Once upon a time, sponsorship was a neat way of plastering your brand all over a sporting event, ensuring that your logo was always in shot. There was little strategy involved in selecting a platform, aside from asking the CEO about his favourite team. And then something changed. The brand and marketing teams got involved, and tried to ensure that sponsorship packages could be neatly aligned with the corporate goals and values. This meant that the way consumers perceived a brand’s involvement also changed. Brands were no longer sitting up in their VIP area, chucking back their Moet and waving at the plebs from behind the velvet rope. They were right there in the mosh pit, or standing on the kop. Shoulder to shoulder with the masses, and discovering a shared interest: “Hey, fancy meeting you here! What’s that, you love the Arctic Monkeys? How funny, we here at Admiral Insurance also enjoy their rough-edged rockiness. Now, can we interest you in a fully comprehensive policy?”

As ridiculous as that may sound, the strategy actually works. In principle, today’s definition of sponsorship is about engagement and empathy, rather than brand bukakke. Showing consumers that you’re interested in the same things as them, and building a long-term relationship based on mutual understanding. Or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Someone obviously forgot to point that out to the tier one sponsors at London 2012. Given how difficult most of us found it to get hold of tickets, not to mention the prohibitive pricing for many of the events, the sponsors might have wanted to show a little more enthusiasm for the games, rather than spending all their time eradicating any trace of the competition. According to the Guardian, the men’s basketball this weekend saw 70% of the lower tier seating – allocated to sponsors and officials – go unused. Likewise, the pictures from the gymnastics made the O2 look so unpopulated that it seemed those Mayan prophecies had come true after all. So much for ‘We’re as excited about the games as you are.’ This was more a case of ‘We’ve got so many tickets to get through, we just couldn’t be arsed to show up.’ Tweeting pictures of the half-empty stands inside the aquatics centre, even Louise Mensch was disgusted. And let’s face it – when you find yourself on the same page as Louise, something’s clearly gone very wrong.

No doubt the marketing strategy teams will be crunching numbers for the foreseeable future to determine the impact of sponsorship on their brand approval ratings. I just hope they’re not too disappointed if they see a sharp downturn in their fortunes, rather than the upswing they’re surely expecting. In the rush to leverage their investment, the top tier sponsors have forgotten why they got involved in the first place, and the meaning of the word ‘participate’. This isn’t sponsorship, it’s dictatorship. And like all totalitarian regimes, they’re heading for a bloody rebellion. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Rounding up the Usual Suspects

Not long ago, I wrote an article about a distinctive group of actors with the unique ability to singlehandedly ruin a promising film, on account of their jarringly awkward performances. Far from disagreeing with my point-of-view, the sheer number of responses suggested that I had merely scratched the surface of a much more bigger problem. And that, although my focus had been on performers with a painfully incongruous screen-presence, the opposite could be just as annoying.

These are the artistes who, for whatever reason, have managed to cultivate a lucrative career out of simply being themselves on film. We’ve all been guilty of cutting a few corners at work. Protesting that we really did send that email, it must have just got caught up in the spam blocker. Turning up late and blaming it on an activated passenger alarm on the Tube. Fixing interest rates and seeing thousands of people in danger of losing their homes. All victimless crimes, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, when an actor starts getting lazy, everybody suffers.

Because, for every young ingénue who talks about diversity and challenge in selecting their roles, there’s a generation of more established talent who are more than content to rock up and churn out the same old bullshit, bank a few million dollars, and retreat to a Cannes-bound yacht until the agents come calling again.

The worst of it, is that some of them have an abundance of ability, but seem perfectly happy to squander it on an easy gig. It doesn’t seem to matter who, or what, they’re supposed to be playing, because they’ve only got one setting. I’m sure there are hundreds of examples out there, but for now, let’s round up the Usual Suspects.

Ben Stiller

Back before he hit the big time, Ben popped up in episode of Friends, shortly after Ross and Rachel broke up. Turning up on the arm of the ex-Central Perk waitress, Stiller played a man with clear anger management issues. The joke, such as it was, was that only Ross could see the problem, while everyone else dismissed his concern as thinly-veiled jealousy. Over the course of twenty minutes, Ben Stiller shouted at a duck and a chicken and then yelled at some old people sitting in the wrong theatre seats. Real laugh-a-minute stuff. And yet, somehow, this shocking and almost surreally thin characterization effectively provided the template for the next fifteen years of Stiller’s career. Whether he’s playing Mr Furious in the woefully misjudged superhero comedy Mystery Men, or cameoing as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Extras, he’s always the same tightly-wound, short-tempered turd. To paraphrase an old saying; if it walks like a prick, and talks like a prick…

Jack Nicholson
Many will argue that an incredible artist of Nicholson’s calibre has no place on a list of one-note performers. It only takes a moment to consider his extraordinary career and the wildly varied roles he’s taken on. But there’s a catch. Many actors try to make themselves something of a blank slate, onto which they can draw all manner of characters. Jack, on the other hand, has the kind of magnetic presence that could suck the fillings right out of your mouth. That’s fine when he’s sitting on the front row of the Kodak theatre, for whoever’s hosting the Oscars to polish his helmet, but not when he’s supposed to be suspending our disbelief with a deftly drawn character. To put it simply, Jack’s a big red sock. Throw him in the wash, even at 30 degrees, and everything’s going to come out the same colour.

With those iconic eyebrows raised so high that they threaten to blend into his comb-over, Jack Nicholson is rarely anything but himself. Last week, I happened to catch half an hour of The Shining on TV, starting with the scene in the deserted bar where Jack is talking to the ghostly bartender and sinking an imaginary Scotch. Even though I must have watched that film ten times, I’d never noticed just how awful Nicholson’s performance was. The rolling eyes, the thin-lipped sneer, and the ODDLY shifting VOLUME of HIS speech – it’s like a masterclass in self-indulgent overacting. Jack doesn’t play characters, he just decides how much like himself he wants to be, and takes it from there. Even in critically acclaimed Oscar bait like The Pledge and About Schmidt, he’s still unmistakably Jack Nicholson; he’s just speaking more quietly and wearing cheaper shoes.

Jennifer Aniston

Take a look at Jennifer Aniston’s page on IMDB. Go on, I dare you. There’s no denying that she’s been prolific in the years since Gunther last steamed her soy latte. However, look more closely at the films in question, and you’ll see that diversity isn’t exactly her strong-point. He’s Just Not That Into You, Rumor Has It, The Switch, The Bounty Hunter, Just Go With It, Please Make It Stop, Losing The Will. Alright, I may have imagined the last couple. Even so, her portfolio represents an endless procession of films based on the assumption that women will sit through anything, as long it features Jennifer playing some variation of her real-life lovelorn persona. Will she ever find the right man? Will she be able to juggle her career and her love-life? And how does she keep her hair so silky?

Last year she finally stretched herself and played an aggressively slutty employer in Horrible Bosses, so perhaps we might get to see her admittedly impressive comic timing put to better use in future. She’s currently filming We’re The Millers, which sees her tackling the role of a ‘dowdy prostitute’. So far, so promising - just don’t be too disappointed if a pair of Capri pants and a hair scrunchie are all that pass for characterisation.

Vinnie Jones
Back in 1976, uber-producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis promised that his forthcoming remake of King Kong would showcase a life-size animatronic version of the eponymous beast. And although there was no denying that Carlo Rambaldi’s mechanical marvel was indeed an imposing creation, the fucking thing didn’t actually work. Almost two million dollars had been spent on a 40-foot gorilla that was incapable of doing anything convincingly. So it just stood there in a handful of wide-shots, looking mildly aggressive but otherwise entirely useless. Let me know when the analogy begins to sink in.

Vinnie’s official website, which I’m charitably assuming is a sophisticated pastiche of web 1.0 design conventions, features the song lyrics “They're gonna put me in the movies, there gonna make a big star out of me, there gonna put me in the movies and all I have to do is act naturally." Fucking awful grammar aside, the fact that this is how Vinnie perceives his ‘acting’ career says a great deal about what to expect when the bullet-headed ball-twister lumbers onto the screen. There’s no denying Vinnie loves his Hollywood lifestyle, but to everyone else, it’s a bit of an insult. Reveling in his bewildering status as a ‘movie star’, Vinnie’s barely-concealed glee at his undeserved success is about as heartwarming as watching Michael Carroll spend £400k on a caravan full of blow and a dozen quad-bikes. Need a vaguely threatening thug to say nothing and carry a big weapon? Get Vinnie on the dog and bone; especially if you’re concerned that Jason Statham might bring too much nuanced sophistication to the part.

Adam Sandler
Need another reason to be depressed about the state of the world? Well, you’re in luck – Adam Sandler has starred in twelve films that have each made over $100 million at the US box office. Twelve. That’s over a billion dollars, for acting like an adenoidal man-child with a short fuse and a lop-sided face that could raise money for Bell’s Palsy research. Sandler’s shtick is so formulaic, it doesn’t even change when he plays a woman, as evidenced by the recent Jack & Jill – a film so bad that Skynet considered sending an assassin back in time to put a bullet in the Lumières.

For thousands of years, philosophers have speculated about the true nature of hell, and what punishment damned souls might be forced to endure for the rest of eternity. A wasted effort if you ask me, since it’s quite clear that hell is actually a multiplex with broken air-conditioning, that only shows Adam Sandler movies. I’m an avowed atheist, but I can promise you that I’ll be accepting Jesus as my lord and savior when the big day comes, just so I don’t wind up having to sit through a double-bill of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Little Nicky.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The farce is strong in this one

You have to feel for poor old Simon Pegg, who unwittingly wandered into a heated debate about gender equality this week. What started out as a fairly innocuous tweet about ‘cosplay girls’ at the San Diego Comic-Con, soon erupted into full-scale accusations of sexism and objectification.

To play Devil’s advocate for a moment, he probably didn’t help matters by following his tweet with a picture of 12 young women dressed in Princess Leia’s Jedi outfit, along with the caption “*makes noise like Homer Simpson thinking of donuts.*” Even so, the storm in a C-cup that followed, which kicked off when Courtney Stoker objected to his ‘gross’ comments, was surely a case of making a mountain out of some barely covered molehills.

Striking a tone that might kindly be described as apoplectic, furious feminists of all shapes and sizes (a diversity of body images I wholeheartedly celebrate), jumped on the bandwagon to label the hapless geek an offensive sexist.

Now, it could be argued that Pegg’s initial postings were misguided, and possibly even demeaning to women. Undoubtedly, he did himself no favours by initially dismissing the accusation as ‘boring’. So maybe some of the comments about his ‘objectification’ of women had some credibility. However, in the rush to attack his unreconstructed world-view, and subjectively interpret his comment as “conceiving of their fandom as existing solely for [his] fantasies”, the women disingenuously overlooked the fundamental hypocrisy of their own argument.

Aside from the fact that the line-up of 12 women featured not a single plus-size cosplayer, or any women of colour for that matter, they’d selected a minimalist ensemble that’s universally acknowledged as fuelling many a geek’s fantasy. There was a whole episode of Friends devoted to this very subject, and Pegg’s recent Paul featured the Leia costume as its final punchline. So for Stoker to argue that “Leia cosplayers, are a part of the geek community. NOT DECORATION” is a bit of a stretch, unless Comic-Con was also attended by equally well-documented clusters of women modelling Leia’s Endor camouflage or her Hoth thermals.

Carrie Fisher herself has often spoken about the gradual sexualisation of her character in the original trilogy. During the filming of A New Hope, Lucas had insisted that her breasts be taped down, since “there are no bras in space.” Although she kindly ran a regular raffle, selecting a lucky crew member to remove the tape at the end of each day’s shooting. Over the intervening years, Lucas obviously mellowed, perhaps realising that his franchise was in danger of becoming a total sausage-fest. As a result, we saw a lot more of Leia in the final instalment of the trilogy, as her bounty hunter disguise was quickly discarded, in favour of a far more revealing two-piece.

I fully encourage feminists to tackle prejudice and discrimination wherever they encounter it. However, if they really want to claim the moral high-ground in this particular debate, perhaps they might like to reconsider which cosplay personae they leap to defend. After all, one of the most important features of Leia’s skimpiest outfit is the chain that kept her attached to her master. Remember, Leia’s metallic bikini was a slave outfit; not exactly the most progressive get-up for any woman keen to demonstrate her independence from the possessive gaze of men. In acknowledging their attractiveness, Pegg’s comments merely objectified women who’d deliberately chosen an outfit that explicitly represents female subjugation. That’s their choice, but no-one can blame him for simply playing along.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

How to fuck up a film

Some actors just have it. That indefinable ability to polish a grade-A turd of a movie, simply by appearing in it. Performers like Alison Janney, Philip Seymour Hoffman or JK Simmons, who can take a supporting role in an underwhelming film and somehow elevate the material to something worth watching.

Unfortunately, for every yin there’s a yang. Which means there’s a second group of performers, whose very presence can derail an otherwise promising film. Kind-hearted critics, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, might charitably chalk these appearances up to a bad case of miscasting. Nonetheless, these performers must accept some culpability for their woeful crimes against entertainment. I’m sure there are a million and one examples out there. But in order to get the ball rolling, let’s name and shame some of Hollywood’s serial offenders, and draw a chalk line around the scene of their most egregious crimes.

Andie MacDowell

When Four Weddings and a Funeral came out, it initiated something of a renaissance in British filmmaking. After decades of overwrought kitchen-sink dramas, finally here was proof that we were just as capable of producing a crowd-pleasing, romantic soufflé of a movie as our stateside equivalents. But even though the film boasted a break-out role for neophyte A-lister Hugh Grant, the studio still felt the need for an ‘American name’ to help the film play well overseas. Somehow, the powers-that-be decided that Andie MacDowell was up to the task, despite the fact that she was more wooden than a picnic bench, and just as uncomfortable. After an ignominious start to her acting career, which saw her redubbed by Glenn Close in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, she’d somehow notched up several successful roles, most of which used her staggering stiffness to their advantage. Not that any of this helped the makers of Four Weddings - a good romantic comedy demands a sparkling rapport between its star-crossed leads, and yet Hugh and Andie couldn’t achieve chemistry with a SodaStream full of nitroglycerin.

Thousands of paragraphs have already been dedicated to the scene at the end of the film, when Grant finds his declaration of love interrupted by a sudden downpour, only for a dripping wet MacDowell to remark, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.” Much of the criticism was leveled at Richard Curtis, for writing such a shamelessly sentimental line. And although he’s wracked up his own fair share of cinematic misfires, this isn’t one of them. The fault lies entirely with MacDowell, whose delivery borders on narcoleptic, delivering her big line with all the emotion of someone trying to assemble an IKEA wardrobe by reading out the instructions over the phone.

John Leguizamo

I’m not a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s OTT technique at the best of times. His films tend to be too loud (visually as well as sonically), valuing cacophony over clarity, noise over nuance. Often, this means that his talented cast can get lost in the mix, unless of course they’re willing to crank it up to eleven. That’s the option that John Leguizamo seemed to pick for his portrayal of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. The film itself was like being stuck in the lift of a psychiatric facility with cluster of bi-polar attention seekers, and yet Leguizamo still managed to distinguish himself as possibly the most annoying character ever committed to celluloid.  To portray the diminutive artist, Leguizamo spent most of the film shuffling around with his knees in a pair of slippers; the least convincing little person since Ray Alan introduced us to Lord Charles.

For two, painful hours, Leguizamo shrieks his lines in a French accent that would shame the cast of 'Allo 'Allo, with Luhrmann no doubt cheering on every irritating idiosyncracy. Don’t be surprised if this tin ear for characterisation sees Luhrmann recast Joe Pasquale in the role of Tom Buchanan in his forthcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby. As for Leguizamo, Toulouse-Lautrec is just one in a series of shockingly frustrating roles that the actor has essayed, from the obese blue clown in Spawn, to Sid the Sloth in Ice Age. It's less a career, more a one-man rogue’s gallery of awfulness; particularly when you consider that he once turned down Philadelphia in favour of Super Mario Brothers.

Chris Tucker

There was a time when I used to love any film with a sudden, shocking twist. One of those moments that takes you completely by surprise, and forces you to reevaluate everything you’ve seen up until that point. But that all changed the moment I experienced Chris Tucker’s incomprehensibly horrible appearance, midway through The Fifth Element. Unlike the vampires which cleverly heralded an impromptu genre switcheroo in From Dusk Till Dawn, Tucker's unexpected arrival stopped Besson’s film dead in its tracks so promptly that you could hear the brakes screeching. Although, in retrospect, that may have been Tucker's dialogue. This sudden, brutal redirection didn't just drag me out of the moment; it left me scrabbling around for something sharp that I could stab deep into my ear canal.

Flouncing onto the screen, like the bastard fusion of Sisqo, Bet Gilroy, Hollywood Montrose and Alvin the Chipmunk, Tucker took an otherwise visionary piece of sci-fi fantasy and sodomised it with a golden microphone, until it passed out in a bloodied puddle of spit and glitter. Had he popped up in a different intergalactic space epic, I’d have kept the acid-blooded xenomorph and kicked this preening prick out of the airlock.  

Julian Sands

Look up the word ‘fey’ in a dictionary, and you’ll probably find a picture of Legolas the Elf calling Julian Sands a floaty, ethereal twat. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s playing a Victorian nob, a medieval warlock or a scheming international terrorist, he has all the presence and gravitas of an HR manager’s limp handshake. The moment he pops up in a film, all disbelief is promptly unsuspended. Hang on, he's posh but he's from Yorkshire. And is he supposed to be gay or not? None of it makes any sense, not least the decision to cast him in the first place. 

Don’t believe me? Give Arachnophobia a spin, and marvel at how he manages to mangle every single line. It's almost as if he’s learning his dialogue phonetically, using the Apple Mac speech function. Common sense would suggest that, when you’re effortlessly out-acted by an animatronic spider, it’s time to look for a new career - ideally cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches in a village tearoom. 

Nicolas Cage

According to Hollywood legend, Nic assumed his screen-name in order to avoid accusations of nepotism, since Nicolas Coppola would leave no-one in any doubt as to which film-making dynasty he sprang from. And yet, aside from a couple of notable exceptions, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was the other Coppolas who’d insisted on the rebranding, for fear of guilt by association.

Most of his roles involve some random combination of erratic, agitated and mildly confused behaviour, like a Red Setter that doesn’t quite understand its own reflection in the surface of a pond. The problem is, this is usually coupled with a character who's supposed to be some kind of under-appreciated genius, like Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock, or Professor John Koestler in Knowing. With a top lip constantly set on ‘sneer’ and a collection of wigs that would embarrass Dolly Parton, Cage's acting approach seems to operate on the same principle I applied whenever my parents insisted that I mow the lawn – do something badly enough and you won’t be expected to do it again. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Doing the splits

I always had an inkling that Peter Jackson was going to work wonders with The Lord of the Rings. As a book-loving nine year-old, I'd happily waded through Tolkein's weighty trilogy - a book so thick that it wouldn't fit in my school desk-drawer, and instead had to sit on the teacher's windowsill until reading hour. I also came to Jackson's own output pretty early, discovering his DIY debut Bad Taste in a dodgy video shop that specialised in ex-rentals. The film was shoddy and slapdash, but so full of ingenuity that I knew Jackson had won a fan for life. Over the years that followed, I eagerly lapped up his grisly outpourings, wincing my way through Meet The Feebles, and laughing like a drain at Braindead. But it wasn't until the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures that I, and presumably the rest of the world, realised that Jackson was a true artist rather than just a heavy-handed gore-slinger. So although I was shocked to discover that a man who once filmed a scene of a man drinking a bowl of alien vomit had been given $180million to attempt the most ambitious adaptation of all time, I had no doubt that the results would be memorable.

During the six-plus years Jackson spent making his magnum opus, he took a number of risks. From filming all three movies back-to-back and insisting that every frame be lensed in his home country of New Zealand, to firing his leading man and replacing him at the last minute with Viggo Mortensen, his bold decisions all paid off beautifully. And he was rewarded with the most successful, and critically lauded trilogy of all time. When it comes to the halflings of Middle Earth, Jackson knows what he's doing.

That's why we were all so delighted when he finally stopped protesting too much, and stepped into the breech to save the long-awaited and legally troubled adaptation of Tolkien’s prequel The Hobbit. Guillermo Del Toro may well have delivered a fantastic spin on Bilbo's original adventure, but there was always the risk that the resulting film might be too stylistically and tonally removed from Jackson's originals. When he departed the project, due to unworkable schedules, it was inevitable that the project's mastermind (and executive producer) would take the reigns.

Although the long-standing rights issues had been settled by the studios, the adaptation was destined to have its own 'unexpected journey' to the big screen. Firstly, there was the decision to split a seemingly simple 'there and back again' narrative into two films. Jackson claimed that there was simply too much material for one book and that, with the freedom to make two separate films, he could expand the filmed world using Tolkien’s extensive appendices. Then there was the release of preliminary footage, shot in ultra high-def 48 frames per second. Instead of being wowed by the pin sharp detail, audiences complained that the footage looked more like a mid-70s BBC shot-on-video TV show. Even Jackson himself admitted that "it actually takes your eyes a little bit of time to get used to 48 frames.”

In spite of these setbacks, anticipation is still high for the first instalment, due on December 14th. But that excitement may be muted, given the latest revelation emerging from Comic-Con over the weekend. In an interview with HitFix, Jackson hinted that discussions are underway to potentially split the second instalment into two films: "That's a discussion we're having, yeah. We have certainly been talking to the studio about some of the material we can't film, and we've been asking them so we can do a bit more filming next year. Which, I don't know what would come of that, whether it'd be extended editions or whatnot. But those discussions are ongoing." So, just to recap, that's an unnecessary second film, being split into two, effectively creating what could be the most tenuous trilogy since George Lucas had a cheese dream about a Rastafarian frog.

Sadly, this willingness to milk a franchise until the nipples squeak is becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood. First up was the Harry Potter series; its producers arguing that there was simply too much great material in J.K. Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows to fit into a single film. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite explain why the first half amounts to little more than two hours of our heroic trio wandering across hillsides and occasionally pitching tents, both literally and figuratively. But in the end money talks, and Warner Brothers were laughing all the way to Gringotts, with over $2bn in global takings from Harry’s swansong.

The Twilight franchise swiftly followed suit, presumably comfortable in the fact that its fans had already shown an unprecedented tolerance for bad storytelling. Keen to stretch out the series’ profitability for as long as possible, they hacked Breaking Dawn in two, like Edward Cullen performing an emergency C-section with his teeth. And just last week Lionsgate announced similar plans for their burgeoning Hunger Games franchise, giving them three tentpole releases for the price of two, and lining up sure-fire box-office winners right through to November 2015. The fans may celebrate that they get to enjoy a couple of extra hours in the company of their favourite characters, but this desire to generate extra revenue comes at the expense of the story itself, which surely undermines the point of a faithful adaptation in the first place.

Die-hard Tolkein enthusiasts will no doubt balk at these rumours of yet another unnecessary instalment in an otherwise simple narrative. So we should keep our fingers crossed that common sense will prevail, and Jackson will instead use that extra footage to supplement his creative vision for its DVD and Blu-Ray release. Anyone who owns the extended editions of his original trilogy knows that they are the definitive versions; the extra running time affording the film-maker a more expansive and immersive canvas on which to tell his tale. We can keep our fingers crossed that artistic vision will win out over more venal studio interests, but given that The Hobbit tells the tale of a foolheardy quest for untold riches, I'm not entirely hopeful.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Immeasurably superior - and that's just the music

For a genre that’s all about fresh ideas, science fiction has seen more than its fair share of lazy reboots, remakes and reimaginings (and you can thank Tim Burton for that particular piece of word-fuckery).  Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic triptych of RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are all in various states of reinterpretation, Star Trek 2.0 is getting its own sequel, and there’s already talk of turning the underwhelming Prometheus into a stand-alone trilogy.

But none of these would-be franchises can hold a ray-gun to H.G. Wells’ classic story of Martian invaders, The War of the Worlds. In the 115 years since it was first published, this interplanetary variation on the ‘neighbours from hell’ theme has been through more incarnations than Madonna, although on recent evidence, it’s holding up a lot better than she is.

As well as the official adaptations, including two movies, one infamous radio play and an aborted TV show, its simple but compelling plot has inspired a whole alien invasion sub-genre. V, Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Falling Skies, Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles all owe Wells’ masterpiece a considerable debt. And in some cases, a grovelling apology. Skyline, I'm looking at you. 

In the 52 years that elapsed between George Pal’s original big-screen interpretation, and Steven Spielberg’s re-do, special effects technology evolved beyond all recognition. And it’s fair to say that both films have their respective merits. So why is it that the most evocative, haunting and consistently compelling adaptation of this enduring tale has no effects at all? In fact, it’s not even a film.

To give it its full, unwieldy title, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is something of a curiosity. Equal parts audiobook, musical and concept album, it's 100 minutes of dialogue, duets and disco. So it's no wonder that the shelf-fillers at HMV have no clue where to stock it, usually lumping it in with the 'soundtracks' and hoping for the best. 

Now, purists might argue that I should actually be doffing my cap at Orson Welles’ notorious radio broadcast – the one that drove a nation of panicked listeners into the streets in abject terror, as if they'd been forced to listen to Katie Price reading excerpts from Angel Uncovered. But I’ve listened to the radio play and, pop cultural anecdotes aside, it’s a rather dated product of its time. Jeff Wayne’s tuneful retelling, on the other hand, is a stone-cold classic.

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to touch my dad’s record player. It was an enormous beast, with sliding equalisers and a cassette deck with gigantic buttons that took two fingers to press. I used to spend hours in front of that massive hi-fi, transfixed by the metronomic needles that danced in time to whatever music was playing. However, the songs themselves were entirely incidental, until the day he finally agreed to let me listen to War of the Worlds.

The album had sat for a while on the shelves, tantalising me with its lurid sleeve that depicted a vast battleship being melted by a towering fighting machine. At that age I knew little about music. But since the rest of his record collection favoured whiskery folk singers, with just a splash of Boney M, I was certain that this mysterious album would be a far cry from the one with four Afro-Carribean gymnasts dangling from a sparkly rope.

He carefully lowered the needle onto the vinyl, and the album crackled into life; Richard Burton’s booming but tender voice instantly drawing me into an epic tale of invasion and destruction. The voices were chanting about the million-to-one chance of anything coming from Mars, but I was already lost in the colour booklet of gruesome artwork that had been tucked inside one of the sleeves. A glowing disc embedded in the misty English countryside. A towering machine, mercilessly blasting the terrified civilians who ran for their lives. And that final, haunting image of a bird pecking the still-moist flesh from a fallen tripod’s bulging green eye.

By the time the needle automatically lifted from the end of the first side, I realised that I’d barely heard a word, and demanded that we go back to the beginning. Thankfully, my Dad was already caught in the album's spell, and was more than happy to hear the opening twenty minutes all over again. Before too long, I’d lost count of how many times I’d pored over Mike Trim, Geoff Taylor and Peter Goodfellow’s illustrations. Or marvelled at the haunting sound of the missiles whistling through the timeless worlds of space. Ultimately, the songs and sounds of that album formed the unofficial soundtrack of my youth; from the aliens’ unworldly “ulla-ulla” cry, to The Spirit of Man – perhaps the catchiest song ever written about the annihilation of the human race.

At the time, I neither knew nor cared that it was the most expensive album ever recorded, or that Burton managed to record his unforgettable narration in a single day. I had no idea that it had spent almost six years in the UK album charts, or that Forever Autumn originally started life as the jingle for a Lego ad. And it probably would have spoiled my enjoyment to know that the sound of the lid slowly unscrewing from that silver craft embedded in Horsell Common, was created by grinding a saucepan against the inside of a toilet bowl. The fact is, none of these things ever occurred to me because I was too lost in the music.

Impeccably cast, perfectly paced and boasting some of the most ingenious sound design of the last forty years, it still holds up perfectly well today. Sure, the pace flags a little in the second half, and I doubt whether The Red Weed features on too many iPod playlists. But when it comes to demonstrating the power of great music to fire the imagination, little else comes close.

Even now, the orchestral burst that punctuates Burton’s narrated introduction has the power to transport me back in time. And my six-year old self is still sitting on a worn brown sofa, trying to take in every minute detail of those glorious images, even as those melodic, malevolent Martians slowly draw their plans against us.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Jonny’s too bright for Menshn?

Special guest stars. Dramatic showdowns. Breath-taking cliff-hangers. There are all sorts of great tricks that TV producers can pull to get the viewers tuning in for the final episode of a long-running series. However, with the recent shake-up of the BBC, it seems as though some of those rules that usually govern the drama department have been applied to the factual team, as Question Time ended its summer run with the promise of an explosive finale.

Poor old Ed Davey, Dominic Lawson and Alan Johnson were pretty much relegated to supporting roles, as the stars of the show were clearly John Lydon and Louise Mensch. But anyone expecting a knock-down, drag-out battle to the death will have been sorely disappointed. Maybe the announcer raised our expectations unreasonably by gravely intoning that “tonight’s programme features some strong language.” As it was, all we got was one twat. Saying the word ‘twat’.

As much as I wanted to cheer on John Lydon, bringing his anarchic idiosyncrasies to panel of stuffed shirts, the reality was somewhat anticlimactic. When he wasn’t putting the world to rights with all the wit and insight of a five-pint philosopher, he was pausing to say ‘right?’ after every five words. As though the astonishing clarity of his wisdom was in danger of losing us, unless he constantly checked that we were able to keep up. The one stand-out moment of his appearance, was referring to the Barclays rate-fixing as “shenanigans” – as though cheating the country was akin to a pair of hapless removalists trying to get a piano up a flight of stairs.

Like a cross between the haughty Pandora Braithwaite, and Sylvestra Le Touzel in that classic Heineken ‘elocution’ ad, Mensch sighed, rolled her eyes, and flicked her hair melodramatically throughout the hour, as though she was in the early stages of demonic possession. To be honest, I was surprised that she managed to last the full sixty minutes, since a hearty exchange of views isn’t really her bag. I half expected her to secede from the panel half-way through and announce that she was setting up an alternative debate in the broom cupboard, where she’d be submitting the questions, deciding on the answers, and moderating the exchange. Oh, and vetting the audience to decide who gets to watch. I don’t know why, but I imagine she spent most of her childhood birthday parties staring out of the window wondering if anyone was going to turn up.

Equally surprising, was her swift admission that “crimes have clearly been committed”, when discussing the Diamond debacle. Alan Johnson, meanwhile, cautioned against referring to the incidents as ‘crimes’, preferring the term “serious unlawful conduct” – an obfuscation which marked him out as a “comprehensive lady part”.

With one of those magnetic arthritis bracelets wrapped around his neck, and a unisex blouse that was open to the waist, Lydon spent most of the show growling his disdain for the other panelists. The initial novelty of his presence on the show soon waned, once the audience members had to tell him to shut up. In the end, only Dimbleby had the right blend of patience and gravitas to control his random outbursts, carefully explaining the format as though he was addressing a child with ADHD.

As for the rest of the show, it was very much business as usual. There were the curiously agitated audience members, who started off well once they’d earned the right to speak, but seemed to lose their point halfway through. And plenty of awkward silences, as they waited to see if their observation would be met with a smattering of approving applause. Most of the comments were anodyne variations on a classic Onion op-ed piece, entitled “Someone should do something about all the problems,” save for one confused old man who predictably got immigrants and asylum-seekers all mixed up.

The real highlight came in the final section, when a question was asked about the ‘war on drugs’. As the audience held its breath, waiting for Lydon to explode, Dimbleby gamely tried to pretend that the strongest thing to pass the former Pistol’s lips was an unfiltered Capstan. Instead, it was Mensch who decided to talk about her own experiences with Class A drugs, although she pointedly refused to name which ones she’d used for fear of ‘glorifying them and making them more popular’. Bless her – the only thing she’s ever made cool is baseless misogyny. And even that was short-lived.

After much talk of how drugs “messed with [her] head” Louise argued against their legalisation; the implication being that she’s smart and mature enough to use them, but the same rules shouldn’t apply for the rest of the population.

The final line of the show went, unsurprisingly, to Lydon, who shut down a comment about Ian Brady wanting the right to starve himself, by saying “We don’t do things to be wicked.” Except E’s, maybe.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Holly Goes Lightly

It’s always a worry when Liz Jones attempts to strike a blow for womankind. After all, she is to feminism what Bob Diamond is to ethical banking. Even so, it didn’t stop her from sharpening her pen and plunging it into the shapely heart of Holly Willoughby this week, when she branded the blonde TV presenter an ‘anti-feminist’ for daring to Tweet a picture of herself without any make-up on.

Obviously, no-one should be particularly surprised that the wicked witch of the south-west had managed to scribble down another poorly-constructed screed in between attempts to siphon 5mls of sperm out of some poor unsuspecting farm labourer. But even by Liz’s own pitiful standards, this was an appalling hack job.

The article itself was illustrated with a picture of Holly, all pink-faced and pert, alongside an image of Liz in all her own untreated morning glory. Sadly, the latter was enough to curdle a carton of powdered milk.

Always a slave to her own self-image, Liz has been nipped, tucked, tattooed and tanned. And yet she still looks like a ready meal that was reheated without first piercing the film. So we can hardly blame her for taking one look at Holly’s dewy freshness, and being consumed with the kind of jealousy that saw Snow White carted off to the forest with a burly woodsman.

The problem is, Liz doesn’t want to admit to such a basic human emotion, since they’re presumably as alien to her as writing an article with a point. So, instead, she’s conjured up a rambling diatribe that accuses Holly of being disingenuous for not admitting all the work required to maintain that ‘effortless’ beauty.

To be honest, I don’t care if Holly Willoughby sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, or is visited by an army of elves who spend the night lovingly tousling her hair with a box full of heated benders. If she looks great first thing in the morning, that’s her good fortune. It certainly doesn’t make her an enemy to the feminist cause.

What’s less excusable is Liz’s own lack of sisterhood. When Holly does wear make-up, Liz labels her a drag queen, and when she doesn’t, she’s clearly lying about how little effort it takes to look that good. Damned if she does, and damned if she claims she doesn’t.

Given Liz’s own well-documented (I’m referring to the number of articles, rather than their alleged quality) battles with anorexia and bulimia, I’m genuinely shocked to see her attacking another woman’s appearance with such ill-concealed glee.  Maybe she’s just trying to have her cake and purge it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A very modern hero

In Adrian Mole’s own words, “I am over the moon with joy and rapture.” After years of waiting, the Secret Diary and Growing Pains of everyone’s favourite teenaged intellectual are being released on DVD. Now, it’s a good 25 years since I last watched them, so I’m not expecting to be blown away by Hollywood-quality production values or BAFTA-worthy performances. For me, it’s enough to have one of the defining shows of my youth available for reappraisal.

Years may have passed since we saw Gian Sammarco struggling with his sebaceous glands, but the books on which the TV series was based have never been too far from my hands. Over the last thirty years, Sue Townsend has published eight books featuring the eponymous diarist, using the epistolary format to skewer the foibles of contemporary society. And I’ve devoured every one of them.

Unlike, say, The Simpsons, which uses a family frozen in time to satirise the world around it, Sue Townsend’s decidedly un-heroic hero has aged along with his audience. In the same way that J.K. Rowling planned the Harry Potter series to mature with its readership, Townsend has spent the last 30 years using Adrian as a one-man Greek chorus to reflect on the changing times. Readers like me, who first discovered Adrian as adolescents, have grown up with him, so his forty-something disillusion is a fair match for our own.

Thankfully, although the world has changed immeasurably in the three decades since he first put pen to diary paper, Adrian is still as frustratingly naïve as ever. He may be the father of three children, by three different women, but he’s no more self-aware than he ever was. We’re all familiar with the  concept of the ‘unfamiliar narrator’, and Adrian is an exceptional example of this, particularly the Naif – described by William Riggan as someone “whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view.” As a teenager, he was unaware that his mother was being hammered like a chippie’s thumb by Mr Lucas from next door, instead happily accepting their excuse that the two were attempting to fix the washing machine. Fast forward twenty-odd years and he’s just as incredulous about the fact that his wife Daisy is having an affair with her boss.

Adrian’s always been unlucky where romance is concerned, having spent most of his life mooning after the deeply unlikeable overachiever Pandora Braithwaite. As a consequence, all his other relationships seemed doomed to failure, no matter how effectively he might have papered over the cracks. It would be easy to mischaracterize him as a loveable loser, but to do so would be wrong on two counts. Selfish, immature and tactless, Adrian is a cold fish. For instance, it’s pretty hard to love a character that haughtily dismisses popular books by saying “Myself, I never read best-sellers on principle. It's a good rule of thumb. If the masses like it then I'm sure that I won't.

At best, we empathise with him, because his foibles are entirely believable. It also helps that, even in the depths of despair, he still manages to make us laugh: “I went back to Soho and paid two pounds to watch a fat girl with spots remove her bra and knickers through a peephole. I watched her through a peephole. She didn’t remove her underclothes through a peephole.  Query: Are there night classes in syntax?

Similarly, he’s not actually a loser. But in a world where whole generations are aspiring to X-Factor-style fame or a life of mindless WAG-ery, Adrian is struggling to reconcile himself to his own crushing ordinariness. By way of contrast, the success of his rich, handsome half-brother Brett drives him apoplectic with envy - as Morrissey once sang, We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful. It remains to be seen whether Adrian will ever find peace with his run-of-the-mill existence, especially when it’s easier to blame his academic shortcomings on his mother’s refusal to buy him the complete Encyclopedia Britannica.

So what’s the secret of Adrian’s enduring appeal? In spite of the exaggerated misfortune he’s endured over the years, his world is close enough to our own for us to remain engaged. After all, everyone knew a girl in school like Sharon Bott, who was prepared to  “show everything for 50p and a pound of grapes.” 

Conversely, even Townsend’s occasional indulgence in meta-storytelling, such as the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel of Sparg From Kronk’s ‘book without words’, or Barry Kent’s best-selling ‘Dork’s Diary,’ always came second to her primary goal. Which was simply to make us laugh: “Went to the Job Centre, but the queue was too long, so returned to find Cassandra in the kitchen, examining the children’s books, pen in hand. She picked one up and changed Winnie the Pooh to Winnie the Shit. “I hate ambiguity,” she explained, as she snapped the cap back on her magic marker.

Thatcherism, broken homes, New Labour, reality TV and the war in Iraq. Modern Britain has given her plenty of issues to throw at her pretentious protagonist. And with the promise of one more novel still to come, it’s safe to assume that the recession and Cameron’s coalition will likely be featured heavily. But we can at least take comfort in the fact that, the more things change, the more Adrian stays the same.