Saturday, 25 August 2012

The less-than-magnificent seven

Apparently, the X-Factor lost two million viewers last week when the new series debuted. Maybe we're just getting a little tired of the over-familiar format, or perhaps we can't quite fathom how it can take an hour and a quarter to get through seven auditions. Either way, it's doubtful that tonight's show is going to do much to reverse the exodus, since all the old cliches are present and correct.

After Mel B's epic bitchery last week, it's disappointing that tonight's guest judge is Rita Ora - a woman who is currently less famous than half the people she's here to pass comment on. Shockingly, Rita's debut album is out on Monday; a fortuitous coincidence, I'm sure you'll agree. She may not have the extensive back catalogue of Tulisa, but at least she looks the part behind the judges' table. Or would if wasn't for the fact that her face and body seem to be completely mismatched - like she borrowed Worzel Gummidge's judging head for the day.

The show opens with a cacophony of noise, with back-to-back screaming high notes, shouty judges, that roaring voice-over and Carmina Burana. Two minutes in and I've already got a blinding headache - so the fact that Mel B is going to be making a repeat appearance means we could be looking at a full-blown aneurysm.

As many viewers noticed last week, including this one, it's all gone a bit TOWIE, with contestants taking part in pointless staged chatter. We go one further this week, prowling through people's gardens like some kind of night stalker, peering through their windows as they straighten their hair. We even get a bit of found footage, that seems to have been spliced in from a lost Blair Witch sequel.

It's morning now, and once again there are tens of thousands of hopefuls queuing up for their big moment. A member of the production crew tells them, "There's a lot of people here today, but please bear with us - you all will be seen." Just not by the judges.

The first part of the show is dedicated to Rylan. You may remember him from Signed by Katie Price, or would if anybody had actually watched it. Looking like a page three girl, but with a sculpted beard, it's a little like watching a 21st century version of Cupid Stunt. Rylan's worried he may have overdone the make-up, eyebrows and fake tan, telling us "I'm a borderline drag queen now." Trust me, we're so far over the borderline we need a passport to get back. Finally on stage, Rylan tells the judges that he's all about "eye-bee-fah", because he used to perform in a Take That/Westlife tribute act on the party island. I'm guessing he did the Lulu bits. Unfortunately, he chooses Des'ree's Kissing You, and it's a horrible mess. But that doesn't stop Dermot nodding along backstage saying "I'm loving it." The disingenuous fucker. The judges aren't overly enamoured with the performance, but Rylan promises "If I make it through to bootcamp, I'll bring something to the table." Best get your order for a deep pan with extra pepperoni in now.

Kye works as a chimney sweep, but I'm crossing my fingers that he won't be doing a selection from Mary Poppins. He moans that he's "played every single toilet club in the country - it's a hard pill to swallow." But this is a family show, so we won't dwell on what happens when you swallow pills in a club toilet. His chosen song is an acoustic mash-up that includes Rita Ora's RIP, which is a complete coincidence, since he had no idea she'd be here today. I just hope his singing is better than his lying. The voice is good, but his face is a bit too expressive, Anthony Hopkins' ventriloquist's dummy in Magic. He's also dull enough to be the next Matt Cardle, so he could go all the way - better start clearing out those bargain bins. The judges are blown away, with Louis remarking "You've been cleaning chimneys, with a voice like that?" No, he uses a brush for that. He continues, "We're looking for X-factor, and we've found the X-Factor." Great, job done - can we all go home then? Rita pipes up to say "You have actually touched me." But if he offers to clean out her flue, she might not press charges.

After the break we see Shannelle and Lucy attempting some partially scripted bonding. Shannelle says "I want to please all the judges, but they all want different things." Something tells me she may have trouble pleasing Louis. After a swift no from all four judges, it's Lucy's turn. She's singing her own composition about hangover remorse, called 'Last Night'. Not bad, but it's really just Amy MacDonald doing a Victoria Wood song. This could be the soundtrack for binge drink Britain, but throw in some slick Swedish production and it's not so far removed from Katy Perry's 'Last Friday Night'. Gary says it's just like a regular night out for Tulisa, but I must have missed the lyric about giving someone a lazy nosh. Backstage, Lucy gushes "I'm not sad, I'm happy, I just look sad." So we're running the gamut of complex emotions here on the X-Factor.

We're now in Newcastle, which means it's time for another regional montage, full of people who apply their make-up like they're drawing a face on a paper plate. Nicole's back now, and struggling with the accent. So it's the perfect time to introduce Billy, who'd have Jimmy Nail mashing the subtitle button on his remote. Even the audience seems to be struggling, and they're locals. Poor old Billy is trying to sing Don't Stop Believing, but he keeps looking down as if he's trying to find the karaoke monitor. Not that it would help, since most of his performance consists of him standing on stage, letting out short, pained moans, like a restless spirit with IBS. "Sorry about that, I'm absolutely murdering it," he apologises, but you don't get any points in this game for self-awareness.

Newcastle really isn't faring too well, typified by the sight of a man dressed as a tiger in high heels. We get lots of shots of our exasperated judges sighing, and saying things like "I just want one good person." But just when we're thinking that the show is more telegraphed than the fate of someone who goes for a shit in a Friday 13th movie, we get a genuine surprise. The next girl, Sophie, is awful too. While she's busy murdering a Jennifer Hudson song on stage, her Mum proudly tells Dermot "She can  do it even better," to which he replies "What, better than this?" with an impressively straight face.

There's only ten minutes to go, and we always end on an upbeat note, so we probably shouldn't be too surprised that James gets the full blown sob story slot. Coping mechanisms, off the rails, foster care - all the bases are covered in this one. His parents have come together for the first time in twenty years to support him, and they cry themselves dry behind the scenes as he nails Tulisa on stage. No, not like that. He's doing a deconstructed acoustic version of 'We Are Young' and it's pretty good, given the raw materials he's working with. Gary gets a little emotional, telling James that he mustn't let anyone change anything about him. But we'll see if he's still singing the same tune when someone comes at him with the teeth bleaching kit.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

X-Factor - So What!

At Costco this weekend, I noticed that they're already selling Christmas decorations. It's only mid-August and already we're thinking about the year's end. But if out-of-season reindeer aren't enough to get you wishing your life away, here's the X-Factor, back on our screens until Santa breaks in and nicks your mince pies.

It may be eight months since the gang were last on our screens, but very little has changed. The shouty, overdramatic voiceovers, Dermot's concerned backstage face and hashtags telling you what to Tweet about, are all present and correct. Louis is very happy to be back for his 'record ninth year', which is really just a nice way of saying no-one else will have him. In fact, the only thing that has changed, is in the judges line-up. Kelly Rowland is out, and Nicole Scherzinger is in, fresh from her sacking off the US version of the show. No worries, we'll take their sloppy seconds. No Tulisa, for once I'm not talking about you.

Nicole does some great slow-motion walking towards camera, and tells us "People may take me as the nice sweet judge, but underneath it all, I’m a scary bitch." And underneath that, she's a titanium cyborg, programmed to kill on sight. But we won't get to see that until bootcamp.

The other thing that's changed this season can be blamed on the continued success of TOWIE and Chelsea. The scripted reality (or 'screality') format has been crudely worked into the show, so now we get lots of awkward scenes of people trying to improvise conversations on cue. This starts with the judges catching up and saying  “Yeah, yeah, we’re looking for a star. Something different. Rhubard rhubarb, red lorry yellow lorry." It's insightful stuff.

With the judges happily settled behind their desk, it's time to meet our first contestant - 17 year-old Sheyi from Camden. Sheyi works in Nandos, which Dermot seems ridiculously excited about, telling him "working at Nando’s is like being a rockstar.” Just one more reason to studiously avoid any compilation album curated by him - unless you want to hear Elbow's rendition of 'Macho Macho Peas'.
As if the opening interview didn't give the chicken shop enough of a plug, Sheyi spends most of his audition promoting various items on the menu. You'd be forgiven if you'd tuned in and thought you'd caught the broadcast during the ad break. Despite all this, Sheyi came across as a likeable lad, with a nice turn in light-hearted banter - so much so, that Louis was probably kicking himself for using up his 'Young Lenny Henry' remark a few series too early. But the singing was where it all fell apart. He was trying to do an accurate impression of Louis Armstrong, but at times it sounded more like Rusty Lee.

Not to worry - the brand-heavy celebration of minimum wage bliss continued after the commercial break, ending with an introduction to the curiously named Fe Cockton Lecke, who sounded like one of the exotic menu items in her gourmet burger bar. She offered up a half-decent version of Think, only for Nicole to piss on her chips by doing her own version in lieu of actual feedback. Not only did this seem remarkably twatty of her, it made me wonder what special skills Tulisa might be keen to showcase. Microphone technique, perhaps?

Now, it wouldn't be a Simon Cowell production if there wasn't a Susan Boyle moment, and tonight's is provided courtesy of Jahmene Asda-Walmart. At least, I think it's his name, since it gets mentioned almost as much as Nandos. In a shiny grey suit that he could have borrowed from Gareth Gates, he's a nervous wreck, practicing his breathing exercises and worrying that he's going to wee himself. Maybe he should have plumped for a darker fabric. Not to worry though, he's actually really good, even if he is doing 'At Last' - a song so painfully over-used it should be retitled 'Not Again'. Nicole mentions to Gary that the hairs on her arms are raised. Louis' hair also appears to be standing to attention, but that could just be his odd new do. Obviously the judges all love Jahmene, and as the lilting piano music fires up, he gets his four yeses. Hang on a minute though, that's the score to Forrest Gump. It might be uplifting, but given the way Jahmene was introduced, this could be the editors' way of trying to tell us he's a bit Dolly Dimple. 

The next chapter is all about tribute acts and lookalikes. We get a piss-poor Prince, a rotten Rod Stewart, and a mini-Tulisa with Hello Kitty tattooed across her thigh. But the talk of tonight's show is Pink impersonator Zoe Alexander, who managed to make Katie Waissel and Kitty Brucknell look like a well-balanced pair. After talking about leaving the Pink tribute behind, she shouted her way through a rendition of 'So What' that left audiences thinking the exact same thing. Keen to hear what she sounded like as herself, the judges gave her a second chance, but she fucked that up too by being a bit rubbish. And then all hell broke loose. The microphone got thrown at the judges, the set got smashed up and the camera crews got punched. At one point, it looked as though her dad was going to march her back onstage to apologise. Instead, he stood idly by while Zoe called them all a bunch of "fucking cunts." "You told me to sing Pink, I didn't want to sing Pink" she argued. And it's likely that the producers had a hand in her crappy first performance. However, the second song was all her own doing. Nonetheless, it was all a bit over-egged, with apocalyptic music and special effects to make it look as though she'd punched right through the camera-man's head - picture Cloverfield, with the monster wearing bright red lipstick.

The rest of the show struggles to live up to such high drama, so it's probably just as well that they've drafted in Mel B as a guest judge. Much is made of Mel's take-no-shit attitude, as she crushes dreams left, right and centre. Maybe she's just in a bad mood because no-one read the rider for her dressing room. She expected "THIN sliced salmon sashimi and albacore tuna" and she got a cheese and onion Ginsters. Whatever the reason, she spends the next fifteen minutes giving feedback the way a school matron might remove a stubborn plaster. She even has a pop at a kindly old Grandad, but that could be forgiven - since she wasn't wearing her specs, she might have mistaken him for Geri. In case we weren't already seething at her brassy, northern cruelty, there's plenty of 'audience-gurn-cam' to remind us how to feel; the way John Williams' music works in a Spielberg film. Surely she was going to warm to quirky Curtis Golden and his guitar. He even had a cardboard life-size cutout of Mel when he was younger - best not to ask what he did with it. But no, she tells him he's boring and irritating. 

Just when all hope seems lost, along comes Ella Henderson, a sixteen year-old who's going to be singing a song she wrote herself. She's dedicating it to her dead Grandad, so we can sound the sob-story klaxon for season nine. It's nice enough, although it sounds so much like Someone Like You that Adele might want to have a word with her lawyers. Backstage, she tells Tulisa that her Grandad is still there with her, but she gestures to her shoulder as if it's an ex-parrot that she's talking about.

And that's your lot for this week. Coming up in the next episode, lots of "I can't believe you're only sixteen", plenty of tantrums, and more exaggerated facial expressions than Kenneth Williams getting a happy finish. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Unlucky thirteen

Since making the move to Channel 5, Big Brother has now become such a staple in the schedules, that it's hard to pinpoint any time during the year when it's not actually on. Weirdly, it doesn't seem to matter to the powers that be, that more people go into the house on launch night than actually watch the show. So here we are again, tuning in to see who's up for three weeks of torture on cheap furniture, before politely looking the other way for the rest of the run. 

After an opening dance routine packed with all the glamour and sophistication of a Thursday evening PA in a regional nightclub, we're introduced to our first celebrity. It's Julie Goodyear, who politely informs us that she's "probably best known as Bet Lynch". Points go to anyone who can think of anything else she's ever done, besides keeping the manufacturers of cheap animal print in business. She admits that once Bet's hair went up in a beehive, the character became like a second skin. And tonight, it looks as though she's wearing both of them. 

Cheryl Ferguson is in next. That's big Heather from EastEnders, who famously got taken out by a grumpy teenager with a picture frame. Look for a special edition of Cluedo, coming to a Toys R Us near you. With the best will in the world, she's never going to be a natural beauty, but it's nice to know that she left the nasty perm behind in Walford. She's come dressed in a flour-length shroud with a giant eye on it, making her look like the tower of Sauron in a school production of Lord of the Rings. Still, at least this is one time where two celebrity housemates have actually heard of each other. Julie laughs at Cheryl's joke about her shoes, and says "Don't make me wee." Somewhere, a TenaLady marketing assistant is thinking about sponsorship opportunities. They're both called to the diary room, where Big Brother gushes about having two such huge stars in the house. Probably unfortunate then, that this opening gambit came right after the two of them bickered over who had the fattest arse.

This must be the big US celebrity that the producers have been gushing about. It's Mike 'The Situation' Sorentino from Jersey Shore. He tells us that his special qualities include green eyes and a six-pack, but watching his vacant expression whenever anyone talks to him, I'd speculate that he's described as 'special' more often than he'd like. When he lifts up his shirt (which he does with the frequency that most people respire), his famous abs look more like an undercooked rib-roast. It'll be interesting to see whether he answers to Mike or The. Oh, and if you thought he was stupid before, wait till you see him trying to follow Cheryl and Julie's acting challenge, egged on by Big Brother's ear-piece direction. Obviously, Brian thinks we're as stupid as our latest housemate, since he laboriously explains what we've just watched. 

'Camp old turn and renowned homosexual' Julian Clary is the next housemate, so it'll be interesting to see what The will make of all the fisting jokes. Still, after a few years out of the limelight, it's nice that Julian can still get comic mileage out of the word 'sphincter'. Old jokes aside, he's already a dead cert to win, having greeted The Situation with, "Oh hello, and what's your function?" Unsurprisingly, the clueless American had to ask what that meant. 

Since it wouldn't be fair to exclude the criminally under-represented breast-baring community, here's Rhian Sugden. She tells us that she's quite intelligent, but not very domesticated. Then puzzles over whether that's a real word. Consider my preconceptions promptly shattered. The Situation becomes so priapic, it looks as though he's actually sweating semen. When he asks Rhian what she does, she explains that she takes her top off for a living. Needless to say, he doesn't need the concept explaining. In fact, the hem of his own t-shirt is twitching as they speak. 

Harvey from So Solid wants us to believe that he's a musician, TV presenter and footballer. But most of his VT is about the semi-famous women he's fucked. In an attempt to change people's perception of him as a 'love-rat', he's come on in loafers and a cravat. Perhaps someone should tell him that Leslie Phillips and Hugh Hefner aren't the best fashion icons to follow, if you're wanting to convince people that you don't think with your cock. He says he's not looking for love in the house, but he's wary about people who are disloyal and two-faced. And so the nation's doctors begin administering their own medication. 

Oh for fuck's sake. It's the queen of the trolls, Samantha Brick. She tells us that she's a journalist and a writer, clearly understanding that, in her case, they're two very different things. So is she the most beautiful woman we've ever seen? Not unless you could still knock one out over Esther Rantzen. As a TV executive, she worked with "global names, including the Duchess of York, Katie Price and David Beckham." Global, by way of the UK then. 

They're really pushing the boat out now, as we get actual royalty. But don't get your hopes up - the Duke of Edinburgh's hospital dash today wasn't a cover story. Instead, we've got Prince Lorenzo from Italy. He's reasonably handsome, in that ten-a-penny-in-the-Holborn-Slug-And-Lettuce sort of way, and once appeared on The Bachelor in the US. So at least he's used to fame whores and show-mances. We're also treated to a lovely close-up on Julie copping an eye-full of the handsome prince, that made it look as though she was choking on a cocktail sausage. 

Time to update the euphemism database, as Danica describes pimping herself out on Sex, Lies and Rinsing Guys as 'providing interactive services' in exchange for expensive gifts. Presumably it costs extra if they want to 'download' on her face. Meanwhile, Germaine Greer is sitting at home, eating a bag of pork scratchings and wondering why she ever bothered. 

The Situation is in trouble now, as another six-pack is entering the house. It's Team GB extra-lightweight judo competitor Ashley McKenzie. There's not much to say about him, other than the fact that, if he hadn't been a sportsman, he could have filled the spare slot in any random boyband. At least he's self-aware enough to enter the house, explaining "You probably have no idea who I am." That doesn't just go for the housemates, Ashley. 

Coleen Nolan is our next contestant, and is dreading being stuck in a house with people who are famous for kiss-and-tells. Hasn't she ever watched this before? It might be thirty years since they had a hit single, but the Nolans have become regular staples on national TV, between them covering virtually every reality format ever invented. With every passing year, they're all becoming increasingly interchangeable, since they all resemble Marie Osmond with cut-price Botox and a Supercuts hairdo. 

Our final female into the house is Jasmine Leonard, who describes herself as an "actress, slash model, slash professional bad girl", when "Janice Dickinson lookalike, slash drag queen" would be just as apt. She hints at a relationship that she had with "someone in the entertainment industry" but doesn't name any names. Perhaps there wasn't time to run through them all. As she comes out to a chorus of boos, we get a shot of her ridiculously skinny legs that seem too far apart, as if she's spent the last three days straddling a pommel horse. She's the third generation in a family of models, so I'm wondering whether she's affected by the same inbred congenital deficiencies that tend to plague high pedigree dogs.   

Well, the rumours were true - Martin Kemp is our thirteenth and final housemate. Probably the only occupant who can convincingly use the phrase "people might also know me..." To be fair, he's done it all - popstar, actor, half of Pepsi and Shirlie. He must know that he's more famous than the rest of them put together, since he strolls into the house like the fashionably late guest of honour. Best of all, he's just in time for the showdown between Julie and Cheryl that will bring tonight's secret mission to a close. They've been briefed to have a screaming row and throw drinks at each other, but it lacks the necessary sparkle when the only beverage to hand is a tumbler of pineapple juice. Dynasty was never like this. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Death and Texas

Not too long ago, I happened to catch an old episode of L.A. Law. Like most installments of the long-running show, this particular edition had plucked a hot topic from the headlines and fashioned a compelling legal drama around it. Now, I feel that I know my own beliefs pretty well, and can usually determine pretty quickly how I feel about a certain subject. But this one threw me completely.

One of the lawyers was representing a cabal of doctors attempting to get a court order to terminate a woman’s life. The woman in question was in the very late stages of terminal cancer, with just weeks to live. She was also in the late stages of a pregnancy. The doctors were concerned that, if she attempted carried the baby to term, its chances of survival would be next-to-none, and she would likely die in childbirth, if not before. They knew that the only positive outcome of this horrifying scenario, would be to deliver the baby prematurely by cesarean section; an operation that would kill the mother. The woman was arguing that she could hold on long enough to deliver the child. And as an expectant mother, it was her right to see the baby she had carried inside her.

What was so interesting about this ethical conundrum, is how effectively it challenged my pre-existing opinions. I’m a staunch advocate of abortion rights for women, and just as strongly opposed to the death penalty. And yet, this scenario found me rooting for the doctors to get their court order – siding with the rights of the unborn child over the life of its mother.

Although this was just a random hour of glossy televised drama, the questions it posed stayed with me, long after the end credits rolled. In this hypothetical scenario, I felt that the baby’s rights trumped those of the mother, since her death was both imminent and inevitable. In fact, the only outcome yet to be determined was whether or not the baby would survive. And to be clear, at eight-months, the infant was developed enough to be successfully delivered.

This wasn’t an easy show to watch. But I was thankful to have had the opportunity to challenge my own belief systems, since in the end, it left me more resolute in my opinions than ever. I was reminded that, sometimes, black and white can just leave you with a shitload of grey.

That’s the thing with matters of life and death; there are no easy answers. Knee-jerk reactions simply don’t cut it when human lives are on the line. Taking another person’s life is a lot more complicated than putting a quarter into one of Futurama’s Suicide Booths. Instead, we have to weigh the consequences of our actions, as well as those of the people around us. And consider what our beliefs say about us a society.

This week, I was alarmed to see a number of postings on my facebook timeline, arguing for the reinstatement of the death penalty in light of the Tia Sharp case. If you’ve always chanted ‘bring back hanging’ whenever you’ve seen a picture of Ian Huntley or Myra Hindley, chances are, your voice has only grown louder this week. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you may well be wondering where to start with all the friends in your social circle who eagerly ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ the picture of Stuart Hazell, alongside a call for his death.

Interestingly, many of the people who used social media to advocate for a return of the death penalty, were the same ones that shared Jason Manford’s eloquent and comprehensive take-down of the trolls who attacked a grieving Gary Barlow for his part in the Closing Ceremony. The most powerful part of Manford’s essay refers to the moral relativism relating to the way we perceive death and age. He referred to one particular comment, which suggested that losing a newborn was somehow less painful than losing a child that had lived for a few years. But this argument runs both ways – child murder may be more emotive than the murder of an adult, but it’s no greater or lesser a crime. It’s still murder. So the argument that pedophiles and child killers deserve the death penalty, while others don’t, is both offensive and illogical.

And what of the death penalty itself? Those in favour of it usually argue that there is no greater crime than to take a human life. So it’s a fitting punishment in accordance with the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ model of Biblical morality. Of course, in doing so, they’re willing to perpetuate the exact same sin. “Oh, but they deserve it,” is the predictably weak defence that usually follows, when this is pointed out. Try telling that to the family of Marvin Wilson, who was executed in the state of Texas last week, for his part in the murder of a drug informant. With an IQ of just 61, Wilson didn’t know how to use a phone book or a ladder, and there were serious doubts about the reliability of eyewitness testimony involved in his prosecution. Did he deserve twenty years of a custodial sentence, followed by death by lethal injection? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’m sure you can guess my answer.

“Well, you have to be absolutely certain,” say the apologists for capital punishment. So consider the fact that, in the last 42 years, 140 convicted death row inmates in the U.S. alone have been exonerated. They were the lucky ones. Another 39 executions are believed to have been carried out “in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.” So much for ‘certainty’.

The death of a child must be incomprehensibly difficult for any family to endure. The rest of us, however, have a choice as to how we react. We can weigh in with our own furious indignation, baying for blood and articulating our disgust at something that is none of our business. Or we can choose to focus on the things that do concern us. Protecting and supporting the people around us; our friends, families and communities. In the long run, it’s a far more positive response than some kind of crowd-sourced bloodlust.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to confuse justice with revenge. In reality, the two couldn’t be more different. To quote Francis Bacon, “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”

Monday, 13 August 2012

Farewell to the puppet master

When I was fourteen years old, I started making a monthly pilgrimage into Sheffield. There was only one bus that passed through our village, and a return trip into town took the best part of two hours. From the bus terminal, it was another twenty-minute walk to a dusty little comic shop that was the sole reason for my journey. In the late eighties, this was the only place where I could buy the latest edition of Fangoria – the horror movie bible.

Whereas other film publications were happy to run PR-approved puff pieces about the stars whose names appeared above the film’s title, Fangoria had a different view of what constituted A-list talent. For film fans like me, the names that got us excited weren’t to be seen on the red carpet at premieres. Instead, they toiled away in sweaty workshops, working around the clock in unwashed Iron Maiden wife-beaters, attempting to perfect the perfect exploding head.

We were the ones who went to see Total Recall, not for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but for Rob Bottin. And the promise of ‘Screaming Mad’ George was far more likely to entice us to see the next Elm Street sequel, rather than another anonymous parade of photogenic finger-blade fodder.

As we pored over page after page of details about how these illusionists learned and perfected their craft, the same three names cropped up again and again. These were the legends of the industry, whose art and innovation inspired future generations of effects genius. If you wanted convincing make-up effects, Dick Smith was the master. For gore, you looked to Tom Savini. But if you wanted a fantastical creature, whether it was a terrifying monster or a benevolent interplanetary visitor, there was only one name in the Rolodex - Carlo Rambaldi.

The iconic Italian first came to prominence working on the early Giallo films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, at one point even helping to spare the latter from a two-year prison sentence. The props used in 1971’s A Lizard in a Woman's Skin were so believable that Fulci was prosecuted for animal cruelty, prompting Carlo to bring his creations into the courtroom to prove that no dogs had actually been vivisected for the film. The case, as well as several stomachs, was promptly overturned.

By the mid-seventies, Rambaldi had followed his fellow countryman, and uber-mogul, Dino De Laurentiis to Hollywood. His life-size animatronic King Kong demonstrated the scale of his ambition, limited only by the available technology at the time. Although the full-scale ape was something of a cinematic banana skin, the fully articulated head and hands he created for close-ups with Jessica Lange remain convincing, even today. Over the years, Rambaldi continued to work with De Laurentiis, providing the giant sandworms for David Lynch’s big-budget adaptation of Dune, plus a monstrous menagerie for the various Stephen King adaptations that proliferated during the early eighties.

Often the unsung hero, one of Rambaldi’s most memorable creations was the eponymous xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Not that you’d realise it, since H.R.Giger received most of the credit, for his monstrously phallic design. But it was Rambaldi who developed and built the creature formerly known as ‘Star Beast,’ delivering a terrifying monster that was so much more than just a tall bloke in a suit.

However, Rambaldi’s greatest contributions to cinema came about as a result of a short but effective collaboration with Steven Spielberg. On Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Spielberg was struggling to give his interplanetary ambassadors a suitably other-worldly presence, at one point strapping orang-utans onto roller-skates and pushing them down the ramp of the mothership. You don’t need to be an effects genius to figure out how that experiment ended up. Instead, Rambaldi developed a complex puppet for the lead alien, which boasted a complex range of facial features, and the ability to communicate using a sequence of hand signals. At times, the polyurethane skin on Puck’s arm looks as though it’s wrapped in a rubber leg-warmer, but the effect is no less magical for it.

Five years later, when Spielberg once again began watching the skies, Carlo found himself responsible for the star of the show, rather than the special cameo appearances. With no clear description in the script to work from, Rambaldi drew inspiration from a number of sources, famously combining the nose and mouth of a baby, with the eyes and forehead of Albert Einstein – in order to evoke innocence as well as a benign intelligence. Spielberg was insistent that the extra-terrestrial be both frightening and appealing, giving the plucky Italian effects maestro the kind of contradictory brief that would have lesser creatives pulling out their hair in frustration. Using a combination of body suits, puppets and complex animatronics, Rambaldi’s masterpiece was able to capture the imagination of an entire generation. Watch the remastered and reswizzled version of Spielberg’s classic, and look out for the noticeable CGI enhancements. The newly animated version may be more expressive than Rambaldi’s pile of servos and rubber, but it has none of the authenticity.

On hearing of Rambaldi’s death over the weekend, Spielberg commented "Carlo Rambaldi was E.T.'s Geppetto." But he was more than that. Geppetto may have crafted the puppet boy, but it took the Blue Fairy’s magic to make him real. Rambaldi did both.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Rethink or reload?

On the way to work a few weeks ago, I called into one of the three Starbucks conveniently located between Kingston train station and my office. It was five to nine, so I figured the one just inside the shopping centre would be the emptiest. As I waited for my drink, and tried to avoid the banal barista chatter by turning up my music, I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. A couple of muffled bangs led me to whip off my headphones. In a matter of seconds, everyone in the shop had leaped to their feet. Drinks were spilled, bags were dropped, and the Starbucks crew converged to form an impromptu evacuation team, ushering customers to the back-of-house area. This all happened so quickly, I had no time to register what was going on. All I heard was a couple of panicky middle-aged women scream “Oh God, they’re shooting, they’ve got guns.”

Still oblivious to what was going on, I followed the crowd past the store-room, through the back door and into the service corridors of the mall. As several people burst into tears, I found myself shifting from a purposeful walk to a light jog. We passed through several sets of double doors, and found ourselves at an emergency exit. Some of the women were so terrified that they struggled to keep hold of their purses and phones, scrabbling around to pick them up off the floor, only to promptly drop them again. We waited by the exit, and heard further bangs, followed by screaming police sirens. I looked back the way we’d come, and wondered how long it would take someone with an automatic weapon and a lack of impulse control to find us.

The whole experience, from start to finish, can’t have been more than a minute. But in those sixty seconds I’d experienced the improbable but entirely genuine fear of being caught up in the kind of violent attack we see all too often on the news. Having been momentarily silenced by my pulsing adrenal gland, the logic centre of my brain was now busy playing catch-up. In the words of the Pet Shop Boys, “It couldn’t happen here.” And, as it happens, it hadn’t. It emerged later that several armed robbers had raced into the centre on motorbikes, and attempted to loot the jewelers next door to the coffee shop.  Those bangs we’d heard? Just sledgehammers hitting the toughened glass. And not the sounds of an aggrieved nutcase armed to the teeth with automatic weaponry, determined to take out as many strangers as possible.

There’s a reason why the names Dunblane and Hungerford can still invoke an involuntary shudder – it’s because those atrocities are rare enough for us to remember every harrowing detail. Furthermore, both of those tragic events led to the tightening of our already restrictive gun laws. If such an outrage can have any kind of positive legacy, let that be it.

Those cinema-goers in Aurora, on the other hand, weren’t so lucky. And as yesterday’s news revealed, neither were the worshippers at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. That’s two horrific shootings in less than three weeks. And yet, the NRA and its many supporters are still loudly trumpeting their Second Amendment rights, and trotting out those depressing clichés like “Guns don’t kill people…”

Everyone rushes to wring their hands, and speculate over what could drive someone to commit such an outrageous act, but at the same time, they argue against any kind of gun control – stating that ordinary people need guns in order to fend off the maniacs. Because that couldn't possibly end badly. 

One particularly depressing sign of the times, is the City of Houston’s response to the Colorado shooting. Using a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Initiative has produced a five-minute video entitled ‘How to survive an active shooter event’. Even the title seems grimly euphemistic, as though we’re talking about some kind of online RPG, rather than an unprovoked mass-murder involving military-grade weaponry.

Narrated by someone who narrowly missed out on a career voicing movie trailers, the clip starts: “It may seem like just another day in the office, but occasionally, life feels more like an action movie than reality.”  The film then proceeds to present a fictionalized account of a mass shooting, featuring plenty of PG-13 brutality, as several generic employees are shotgunned in the lobby of their offices by a Vin Diesel lookalike. As voiceover man explains condescendingly, “sometimes, bad people do bad things”, we see a parade of depressing casualty statistics, such as ‘21 killed, 19 wounded eating at a fast food restaurant’ and ‘32 killed, 25 wounded while attending classes.’

Against a backdrop of frightened office workers fleeing for their lives, we’re told  “If you are ever to find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event, your survival may depend on whether or not you have a plan. The plan doesn’t have to be complicated. There are three things you could do that can make a difference. Run. Hide. Fight.” Over the next four minutes, we see each of those options explored in some detail, along with helpful tips like “Encourage others to leave with you, but don’t let them slow you down with indecision” and “Silence your ringer and vibration mode on your cellphone.”

Shortly after the Aurora shooting, I saw a Tweet that read: “In school there are fire drills & earthquake drills. Does anyone know what to do if someone opens fire in public?” As though the best that anyone can do, is be prepared for the next time it happens. But like the duck and cover advice that was drilled into kids throughout the Cold War, it’s putting a sticking plaster on a gushing head-wound. Rather than asking what to do when a shooter attacks, surely people should be asking when these events became so normalised that people need to learn some kind of standard evacuation drill. Will the U.S. reach a point where every six months, school kids will hear the bell ringing, and be expected to file out of their school neatly, in preparation for the possibility that some lunatic, with enough firepower to clear-cut a rainforest, decides to murder a crowd of pre-teens?

The last part of the video tells viewers “Your actions can make a difference for your safety and survival. Be aware and be prepared.” However, there is another way to ensure their survival. But it’s going to take a lot more than hiding in a stationery closet with the lights out, to make it a reality. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Let's hear it for the girls

It was the glorious summer of 1995. OJ was on the stand, Bill Gates officially became the richest man in the world, and my friend and I were moments away from having our pictures taken with Pamela Anderson for Loaded magazine. Giggling like two six year-olds who’d discovered how to write ‘boobies’ on a calculator, our moment of glory was cut short when the guy in front of us tried a little grab-ass with the talent. Pam stormed off in her ridiculous boots, yelling that she refused to be treated as a sexual object, despite the fact that I swear I saw an inflation nozzle on the back of her neck. The Loaded photographer was even more depressed, wearing an expression like life had just served him a shit sandwich, and forgot to hold the pickles.

Of course, the whole thing was just a jape for me. Aged 19 and still fresh out of the closet, I loved the idea of getting to pose with the world’s biggest sex symbol, and making all my straight friends jealous. As we sat in the bar with the journalists that evening (we were on a week-long PR jaunt, courtesy of Pepsi), one of them asked me for my opinion on the whole Baywatch phenomenon: “As a gay man, do you understand the appeal of Pammy?” 

It was the first time I’d ever been asked that kind of question. But over the intervening years, the issue of my alternative perspective has come up time and time again. Usually though, it’s not someone asking my opinion – instead, they’re usually dismissing it out-of-hand, as if I’m unqualified to comment on a someone’s attractiveness unless they look like they’re smuggling a brisket down the front of their Levi’s. The implication here, is that my sexuality invalidates my opinion on the attractiveness of women, presumably because the only time I undress them with my eyes is if I'm trying to picture them in something far more flattering.

I'd like to set the record straight (*coughs) once and for all, so that I'll be able to join in a round of hot-or-not without having my opinion rejected with a "What would you know?" Here's what passes for sexy in my eyes, even if they're more platonic tonics than trouser-arousers. 

Kelly Brook

When it comes to over-filling an itsy-bitsy bikini, Kelly's done more spilling than a barmaid with Parkinsons. She's come a long way from those awkward early days on the Big Breakfast, when the camera crews used to cut-away to Zig and Zag for an injection of slick professionalism. We all figured that she'd disappear into a world of low-rent PR appearances and fleeting relationships with low ranking Hollywood beefcake, and we were half right. But Kelly surprised all of us by branching out into acting and not being entirely awful at it. In fact, she's more convincing as other people than she ever was as herself. Even more impressively, she mastered the tricky art of nude underwater ballet in Piranha 3D’s now legendary soft-core lesbian scene, prior to being eaten by a school of angry prehistoric fish. Now there's a sentence you only write once in a lifetime. 

Jennifer Lopez

Dancer, actress, singer, talent show judge, model, parfumier and serial divorcee, Jennifer Lopez has tried her hand in so many different professions, she had to print her business cards with a concertina fold. And although we may scoff at some of her professional endeavours, there's no denying that she usually looks spectacular, whatever she's doing. Her breakthrough role came in Out of Sight, when she was famously tied to George Clooney in the boot of her car. Although Clooney never really did much for me, I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d like to be squeezed in there with all the junk in Jen's trunk. Boasting the most famous pair of cheeks since Louis Armstrong, Jennifer's arse is a triumph of modern engineering, so monumental that she can't walk backwards without emitting a beeping sound. Best of all, Lopez has built a career out of keeping it real, and reminding us all that she's still Jenny From The Block. Even now, on occasion, her neutral speaking tone slips and those Bronx origins become apparent. And that’s why I love J-Lo. She looks a millions dollars, but sounds more like a twenty.

Cindy Crawford

The nineties will always be remembered as the era of the supermodel. There was Linda Evangelista, who looked like a refugee from Thundera, and Claudia Schiffer who always seemed like a lazy Brigitte Bardot impersonator. And then there was Cindy Crawford, a woman so breathtaking that Prince even wrote a song about her, and I don't mean Sexy MF. On that same holiday where I narrowly missed out on meeting Pamela Anderson, I was lucky enough to observe Cindy Crawford up-close and impersonal. Even though Cindy was dressed as though she’d come straight from buying bulk quantities of kitchen roll at Costco, in black leggings and a flimsy white vest, she was a vision of almost supernatural beauty. With only the lightest dusting of powder, her skin was flawless, except for the tiny beads of sweat which gathered on her upper lip. Every couple of minutes, and seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of cameras trained on her every movement, she ran an index finger across her lip, then flicked it away, all in one breathlessly elegant movement. Half an hour later, when she and Luke Perry (I'm not even joking) set off across the Everglades on a tandem jet-ski, I wandered onto the freshly whitewashed bandstand where the Goddess had been sitting just moments before. And there it was, an unmistakable spattering of blotches on the sun-bleached wood- an abstract, orange Shroud of Turin.

Rachel Friend

It’s a rite of passage as universal as drinking your first pint, or discovering your first pube - the Neighbours crush. My golden years were in the late eighties, but whereas my schoolmates either lusted after Kylie’s diamond-in-the-rough Charlene, or the original 'extreme makeover' Plain Jane Superbrain, I only had eyes for Bronwyn. Maybe it’s because she seemed more accessible, and less showy than her more glamorous co-stars. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a less threatening sex symbol. Wearing so much knitwear than even her underwear came from Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Bronwyn was a pearl in an ocean of bad perms. Seldom seen in anything but a sensible pony-tail, she even looked fantastic chasing a runaway pram through a supermarket car-park. Bronwyn’s sister Sharon, on the other hand, is probably 70% responsible for me turning gay in the first place.

Sherilyn Fenn

Attractiveness is one thing, but when it comes to raw sexuality, Sherilyn Fenn will always be the reigning champ. With her perfectly sculpted eyebrows hinting at a young Elizabeth Taylor, and her ability to tie a knot in a cherry stalk with her tongue, the character of Audrey Horne more than lived up to her name. So powerful was her magnetism that, stuck in a wooden box playing a quadruple amputee, Sherilyn still managed to give the old ‘come hither’, even if she followed it up with '...and change my dressing’. 

Natalie Portman

Brainy and beautiful in equal measure, Natalie Portman has been bewitching audiences for almost twenty years since her phenomenal debut in Leon. Like many other men my age, I was entranced by this beautiful ingénue, although at least I didn’t have to scrub myself down with steel wool for thinking impure thoughts, once I was reminded that she was only twelve at the time. Over the years, she’s grown into an extraordinary talent, as evidenced by her Oscar-winning, bean-flicking turn in Black Swan. Hell, she was even stunning in the Star Wars prequels, despite being styled like a kabuki table lamp.

Julia Ormond

Combining the porcelain beauty of Juliette Binoche, with the refined elegance of Kristin Scott Thomas, Julia regularly portrayed beautiful women torn between two lovers, spending more time stuck in a thankless triangle than Kate O’Mara. There was Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear in Sabrina. Sean Connery and Richard Gere in First Knight. By the time she appeared in Legends of the Fall, she'd got a whole family coming to blows over her. In fact, if I remember correctly, even the horses looked worried at one point. Although much less prolific than in the nineties, Julia does still pop up from time to time, most recently in season five of Mad Men as Don Draper’s new mother in law. Thankfully, she’s resisted the urge to stretch her face like Meg Ryan on a rollercoaster, and looks as stunning as ever.

Joanna Pacula

Polish actress Joanna Pacula first found fame in the 1980s when she starred in Gorky Park, which she followed up with the TV Holocaust drama Escape From Sobibor. Since her career peaked during the height of the Cold War, she was usually cast in fairly dour roles, rarely appearing in anything more flattering than a moth-eaten grey cardigan. But even in the drabbest of outfits, those piercing eyes and cheekbones that could double as a set square, still marked her out as a remarkable beauty.

Jodie Marsh

No, I’m just fucking with you.