Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Adventures in WTF?! - Casting Dr. Uwe Boll's Far Cry

Is there anyone working in movies today who inspires as much joy as Dr. Uwe Boll? I might be crazy about Michael Mann, I may think Brad Bird is a master who doesn't get enough praise, and I will happily rave about David Fincher until I pass out from lack of inhaling, but they themselves, though fine men, won't ever do anything as entertaining as this.

Though the Michael Bay comment makes me cry a bit, Dr. Boll delivers again. He needs to keep making movies just so he can keep getting pissed about the criticisms. Whenever he does he always reacts in the most entertaining ways. I'll even watch Postal, seeing as he thinks this is the movie he will be remembered for. I'm interested to see what he cooks up. Seriously! I'll give anyone a chance. Or five.

I'm particularly happy with his casting for his adaptation of Far Cry. The game was okay, a better than average FPS that got wildly overpraised on release (though I will grant that the PC version might be more fun than the Xbox transfer). Though I'm not totally crazy about it, it held my attention for a few hours, and can be adapted into a standard action plot very well. If you've not played it, it's best summed up as Commando meets The Island of Doctor Moreau, though sadly that doesn't mean it features cameos from Vernon Wells in chainmail or Val Kilmer impersonating Marlon Brando. You just run around with special powers, slashing bad guys up and driving jeeps over exploding bridges. As I say, fun, but nothing mindblowing.

Unlike Dr. Boll's new movie adaptation, I'm sure. The casting is mostly predictable; it features Boll regulars Michael Paré, Chris Coppola, Carrie Genzel, Ralf Moeller, and many other Canadian actors who, from a quick check of their IMDb pages, seem to appear in lots of the same stuff together. Nevertheless, it does seem that he has managed to create a little repertory of actors who are willing to appear in his movies, which, in a way, means he has a lot more in common with Preston Sturges than one might have believed possible (Dr. Boll, if you ever read this, you are free to quote me comparing you to Preston Sturges). That's all well and good, but the one bit of casting that amazed me the most was an appearance by famed cantankerous chef Anthony Bourdain as a scientist. I was so confuzzled by this, but thankfully this YouTube clip clears it all up.

Shades of Caruso approves! Bourdain has occasionally annoyed us in the past, but for his wonderfully entertaining book Kitchen Confidential, his highly recommended (by Canyon; I've yet to read it) Salon article about the bombing of Lebanon, and for the unbelievably great steak we ate at Les Halles last year, he has more than earned our admiration and overshadowed any minor doubts we have had about him. I mean it, that steak was magnificent. Even though that clip shows Bourdain's ultimate fate within the movie, I'm still weirdly psyched about it. That doesn't mean I'm ready to face Dr. Boll's fantasy epic In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale: Search For The Sword of Budnork: Adventures Into Adventure: DragonFable IV: Into The Dungeon Of Despair: ChivalryQuest Of Honour or whatever the hell the title is, though. Sorry, Doc.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Breakfast Of Champions It Ain't

Consider it flagellation, but we tend to watch BBC's Breakfast while preparing to head out in the morning. It's an infuriating show, but there isn't much else on at that time in the morning. This morning, after nearly bursting into angerflames while watching it, I ended up turning over and catching a customarily piss-poor episode of Smallville (guest-starring Ian Somerhalder), having missed the start of The Naked City on Sky Movies Classic and not feeling up to watching multiple installments of Takeshi's Castle or Ironside. Even though there is nothing else on, I still debate having it on at all, giving up only because it features London travel news, or as it should be called, "What Percentage Of Your Tube Journey Will Be Cancelled At The Last Minute, Stranding You Underground And Unable to Contact Your Boss To Beg Him Or Her Not To Fire Your Ass For Being Late Every Day?"

Why the hatred? It is just breakfast news, which is never going to be Newsnight, and I'd be a fool to expect anything more than fluffy nonsense and light chatter. What I would expect is at least a baseline level of competence, which we do not get. We only watch about twenty minutes of it on average, and in that small section of the show we always, always, get at least one mis-cued link, one sound error, or one wrong film clip. Oftentimes it's far worse than that.

I once mentioned this to a colleague of mine, and he immediately leapt to the defence of the show, saying it was no easy thing to make a live TV show, and yes, I'll grant that, but many live shows either come off without a hitch or with only the occasional error. In a small subsection of the show (which runs for 195 minutes) we get at least one screw up every day. Extrapolate that out to the full length of the show and we're talking about ten head-in-hands-level mistakes a day at the least. It's sad and hilarious viewing at the same time.

Those technical difficulties aren't the worst things about it, though. Not by a longshot. As I said before, I don't expect Newsnight or Channel Four News, and so it's churlish to complain about the presenters not being Paxman and Kearney or Snow and Hilsum, but my god, even by the usual standards of early morning TV presenters (in the UK and the US), regular hosts Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams are just appalling. Watching them struggle to comprehend even the most simple of subjects is hard on my teeth, as they tend to grind together every time Bill says something inane, or Sian misunderstands what their guests are trying to say. They're so bad they make me nostalgic for Dermot Murnagurnah and the fragrant yet icy Kate Silverton. Yes, that bad.

I've considered writing something about this godawful show for some time now, momentarily inspired by various car-crash interview gaffes, such as the morning Bill asked Simon Pegg about drinking eggs a grand total of four times, obviously because that was the only bit from the Run, Fatboy, Run trailer that penetrated his braincasing, or yesterday's debacle when Joanna Lumley tried to get up from her seat in the middle of a link to local news which panicked Bill so much he practically rugby tackled her back down. There are many more examples, but those are the ones that spring to mind.

However, my ire was finally raised to blogging point by a segment about the release of Grand Theft Auto IV which, as expected, was used to say nothing more than, "Video games are destroying civilisation by turning your children into murderers." I could tell because Bill and Sian's faces were set not to Puff Piece Perky, but to Serious Story Stern. After a quick nod to the success of the franchise, this little factoid was used as proof of the game's insidious hold over the nation's children, as various non-statistics about the violent nature of the game led us into an interview between Team BS and two gamers, one casual, one working for the BBC. Surprisingly the "debate" wasn't held between the gamers (which is the usual course when news items are discussed in the studio), but between them and Bill and Sian, who pointed out time and time again that games are for kids and are violent and therefore are bad for kids and hence everyone is doomed.

It was already heading downhill by the time the first question was asked, which followed on from an email sent in from someone who thinks GTA IV was "symptomatic of the degenerating society", and that it allows people to live out a "fantasy of evil," leading Bill to ask the gamer if he has a fantasy of evil of his own. Sadly the guy didn't tell him to shut up, instead arguing for the game by saying it allows people to get rid of their pent-up aggression, which led Sian to ask the BBC gamer if that was the same for him, and to add, "I'm not suggesting you're violent in any way or give in to violent urges." By then it was obvious the game has been framed as only appealing to people who are drawn to violent things exclusively. Later Bill asked if the game has any redeeming qualities, if the characters give to charity or help people. Seriously, if Bill and Sian were a TV show, they'd be Monarch of the Glen. If they were a book, they'd be The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Where their brain should be, there is merely a tombola, used to raffle off a set of china teapots commemorating the coronation of King George VI.

When it was pointed out by the BBC gamer that GTA IV isn't on sale to children, Sian batted that away with the argument that kids would want to play it anyway. Of course they do. They're curious. When I was young I wanted to watch anything that was forbidden, and not even the exciting stuff. I remember staying up to watch some of the Red Triangle films shown on C4 late at night, though sadly the one or two rather earnest European art movies I caught have faded from memory compared to the proper innocence-destroying stuff (early viewings of The Thing, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Videodrome). So what does she suggest? Infantilising ourselves and censoring all art and culture just in case some children stumble across something that might do some harm? (And I emphasise might as there are conflicting reports about the corrupting influence gaming has on young minds.) I say this all the time in real life, and I'm introducing it to the blog now; it's the 21st Century, you fuckers. KEEP UP!!!

Even for BBC Breakfast, the whole thing was offensively facile. The Beeb gamer tried to draw attention to the huge success of the franchise and how great it was that it was developed by Rockstar Edinburgh, but that was ignored by the presenters who were utterly incapable of seeing the release as anything other than another nail in the coffin of humanity. Another emailer, your archetypal concerned mother, accepted that the game wasn't for kids, but stated even eighteen year-olds don't have the emotional maturity to deal with the themes presented by the games (and then said why not celebrate the nice things in life, for crying out loud). Why stop there? Maybe eighteen year-olds don't have the emotional maturity to deal with anything. Let's take the vote away from them, stop them joining the army, stop them driving. And what age are you ready to handle any of this? Twenty? Thirty? Life begins at forty, so let's make that the default age.

It ended with Sian commenting that kids should be playing "that tennis on the computer that just went 'bip!' and 'bip!". Fine, Sian, if it makes you happy, we'll throw out years of programming progress just for you. Thanks for contributing nothing to the debate other than to continually turn it around so that game designers and gamers have to prove a negative instead of pundits and panicky parents having to prove games are corrupting on something a little stronger than conjecture and fear of the unknown. Now that you've done that, can the adults do what they want now? Please? The despicable Mail bitches that the BBC has a left-wing bias and rails against it every day, but this kind of insulting, alarmist, blinkered, ill-informed, paranoid, Luddite idiocy is just the sort of thing it loves. The Mail and Breakfast should get married and have stunted babies who can't feed themselves, are terrified of the modern world, and can only talk in racist, homophobic code phrases.

Wow. I feel like Will Graham up in this bitch. In the scheme of things, yes, the shoddiness of Breakfast is nothing to write home about, but this is a subject I get very annoyed about. I guess I should be grateful that they didn't trot out the "proof" so often used by lazy churnalists that another Rockstar game, Manhunt, warped one kid's mind so much he murdered his friend, even though he didn't own it, may have never played it, and any link between the murderer and the game was disputed by the police who investigated and the judge presiding over the case. Instead we got a lot of emotive nonsense about protecting kids from amoral culture intended solely for adult usage, none of which can be considered journalism or news. It's comment, and poorly thought through as well.

And what came up after that? Talking to Robert Webb and Ella Smith about the current West End run of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, which could have been the starting point for an interesting debate about size fascism and peer pressure, or even a discussion about what the fuck LaBute's problem with women is, but instead turned into Sian asking if the play was like Shallow Hal, Bill asking if they keep laughing at all of LaBute's high-larious jokes while performing, and whether Robert Webb was filming another series of That Mitchell and Webb Thing. I guess it's good to see their momentary contact with the depravity of gaming hasn't changed them, if you enjoy cringing, that is.

ETA: Just after I finished this post, I read this article in the Times, telling of a horrible knife attack in Croydon while waiting for the midnight opening of Gamestation. It's terrible that someone was assaulted in that manner, but the article continues to draw parallels between the game and violence that don't hold up. The perp obviously has rage issues, but is that because of playing the GTA games? Or was he already like that? There's no causal link established there, merely a confluence of events, unless the guy suddenly screams, "It was the games wot made me do it!".

Even more annoying is that some poor guy got mugged yesterday, and his copy of GTA IV was stolen, which is reported in that article as if it is further proof of the corrupting influence of the game. That's not the fault of the game. It's a desirable object. Tragically, people get mugged for their desirable objects all the time. Should we ban iPods and mobile phones? No matter how often bad journalists try to link gaming with crime, it just won't wash. I expect to read more of this nonsense over the next few months.

ETA again: According to Florida attorney Jack Thompson, "Grand Theft Auto IV is the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio." He also says, "indictments should be handed down against Wal-Mart, Best Buy, GameStop, and all other retailers distributing this game to minors at their retail stores, openly, to kids who are only seventeen." Of course. They would be breaking the law, after all. However, he also says, "indictment should also be against Sony and Microsoft which are making this pornographic game available to minors, and openly so, on their PS3 and Xbox systems." What, just for making the game and making machines to play the game on? This argument only works if you assume games consoles are exclusively used by kids who are not legally being sold the game. Gamers are not just kids, you cretin. Now go find something important to rail against instead of playing to the worst instincts of the voter. Oh God, I'm getting this annoyed about it all and I don't even like the GTA games. I realise that they're great, but I've never spent enough time with them to get as obsessed as millions of other people have. I need to move on before I really do burst into flame.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Welcome New Viewers

This blog covers the period January 1, 2007 to September 2007, during which time Sally and I visited 31 countries by plane, boat, train, bus, taxi and foot, and never once lost our baggage! The primary purpose of keeping the blog was to share our adventures with our children, other family, and close friends, while we were on the road. However, I would like to think that it contains some ideas that might be of interest to a broader public.

Unfortunately, to read it, you must go January and February to read about New Zealand and April to see some amazing places in Southeast May to see the pink city of Jaipur and the sandcastle like Jaiselmer in India. June will take you to Greece, Turkey, and then up the underrated Adriatic Coast. If you have time, do check out Albania, our first post in was one of the most surprising stops on the trip. July also found us at the Hotel Gellert in Budapest with its historic wave pool, and in Prague where we found one of Frank Gehry's best buildings...known locally as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

The architecture of Poland and Russia is described in some of the later July entries along with our experience being kicked off a train between Warsaw and Moscow. August finds us in South America. In addition to Rio and Buenos Aires, Parati in Brazil and Colonia in Uruguay were two relatively unknown gems that we were delighted to discover.

We hope that this blog will inspire you to now start thinking about leaving your jobs and comfortable lives for a while, and visit some places you have never seen before. Or even heard of! We are so very glad we did it and hope you will enjoy reading about some of our experiences.

ps: to read about some of the planning lessons that I picked up along the way, you might want to check out my Vancouver Sun Column 'Homes Away from Home' which can be found at

Friday, April 25, 2008

Things That Have Occurred To Us While Watching Season Five of 24 (5-7)

We've finished the season (a bit of a drop in tension by the end, but it was still a terrific run), and there are many more things that caught my attention in the middle of all the craziness.

5. A lot of the tension created on this show is awfully mechanical.

I know, this is hardly news. There are lots of examples of it, but the most common one is the satellite retasking conversation that keeps happening. Pretty much every episode, Jack loses whichever lower-level terroristic person he has been chasing (usually someone he found out about at the end of the previous hour), and after leaping into whichever Hummer he has at his disposal, will phone Chloe and bellow at her for a while. As Canyon pointed out midway through the season, the format for these conversations is always the same.

Jack: [out of breath even though he is driving and not running] Chloe! ::pant:: I lost DuPrez! ::pant:: He got into a car and headed south on I95. ::pant:: I need you to task a satellite to track him and download it to my PDA/supercomputer! ::pant::

Chloe: [rolls eyes] I can't do that, Jack. Miles Papazian is sitting opposite me, watching my every move. And Karen Hayes has got a spybot installed on my hard drive and if I do anything that she hasn't authorised my computer will shut down automatically. And Bill and Audrey have been locked in barrels and rolled out of the building. And an armoured robotic sentinel is guarding the server room. And I'm chained to my chair and can't move. And my arms have been amputated. And there are mines embedded in the floor around my chair. And I'm in a glass case. [pouts]

Jack: Dammit Chloe! ::pant:: If I don't find DuPrez in the next twenty minutes he'll rendezvous with Farquharson and my cover will be blown! ::pant:: And if that happens I'll never find the disc with the locations of the fifty nuclear bombs hidden in each of our United States! ::pants again::

Chloe: [rolls eyes] Okay fine, Jack, you don't need to shout. [begins sewing arms back on using teeth]

Ten minutes later, the satellite is retasked and Jack gets to stare at his PDA while driving, and doesn't even veer out of his lane once. Of course, this reliance on false conflict is the worst kind of lazy McKee-esque contrivance, but in season five it was a lot more entertaining than usual. In previous seasons there have been dreadful sub-plots used to keep characters occupied. I'm thinking of the famous cougar in season two and the baby-minding in season three (which was far worse and infinitely stupider). Season five had no boring plot threads (even the dead ends like actually-not-evil Vice President Hal Gardner were fun), and if that meant Chloe spent the entire season evading her bosses and retasking satellites (at least fifteen episodes featured her doing that impossible thing) instead of looking after a baby, then that's fine by me.

Oh, and what happens with DuPrez? Jack catches him, tortures him using an ironing board, a bottle of Diet Coke, and a roll of wallpaper, and in agony and terror the weaselly DuPrez gives up his contact, Dash MacKenzie, the aerospace engineer who mysteriously spent four years living in Chechnya. Upon finding him, Jack is frustrated in his efforts when he is arrested by over-zealous police officers sent to his location by whichever short-sighted neckless pencil pushing loser is in charge of CTU at that time.

Dash speeds away as the clock ticks down, forcing Jack to make his angry face. Next episode, Jack is released without charge, and he calls Chloe about tasking a satellite to chase Dash. Jack Bauer, breathless Sisyphus for the 21st Century!

NB: The use of the words "Tasking" and "Retasking" drives Shades of Caruso into incandescent rage, just so you know. My repeated use of those words do not qualify as endorsement. We're not crazy.

6. Why is no one weeping for Carl Mossman?

The body count in 24 is incredibly high for a TV show, but then our hero Jack is perfectly willing to kill and maim and torture any number of people in order to save, "hundreds! ::pant:: Of thousands! ::pant:: Of lives!". This list of dead characters is filled with names I don't recall, though I think they're padding the list out a bit. Some of the names are from the 24: Declassified series of novels, but even taking that into account, there are a lot of redshirts and Terrorist Lackey #4's in that list. I didn't really care when they died, and I don't care now. However, I do care about poor, noble Carl Mossman, the bank manager kidnapped by Jack and Wayne Palmer at gun point, dragged to his workplace to open a vault, and then killed by Christopher Henderson's men during their escape.

During that time he put up with a bunch of shit, watched as his wife was pushed around by Jack, dragged across town in the middle of the night, bonded with Wayne Palmer, found out President Logan arranged to have David Palmer whacked, announced he was all Team Bauer and stuff, gained their trust, and then got killed with bullets until dead. Time elapsed between being kidnapped from his wife's side to being iced: 40 minutes.

Normally the gratuitous death of a minor character wouldn't bother me at all, but this time the guy was at home, probably watching Letterman, chillaxing after another day having to deal with grumpy Californians bitching about yet more armageddon being visited upon them, and then all of a sudden some out-of-breath dude storms in with the former President's brother in tow, and even before Letterman got around to doing that night's silly stunt (playing baseball with Johnny Damon), he's been shot by goons who manage to completely miss the two large guys standing on either side of him. That's some crappy luck.

For the first time ever, the death of a minor character really pissed me off. Oh sure, I was furious when Tony "died", and hated to see George Mason go out (even though he was both heroic and radioactive), but usually the chumps who get momentarily involved in Jack's life die and I don't care. This time, I got actively upset. In the next episode Wayne tells Jack of Carl's death, which, if I recall correctly, isn't even greeted with a "Dammit", let alone a "Son-of-a-bitch". They carry on driving, with a corpse in the back seat not caring about the increasingly ripe smell. By the end of the episode they have ditched the car and are running around trying to capture evil Christopher Henderson, and after that Wayne disappears into the night, not to be heard of again (at least until he improbably becomes President in season six). Meanwhile, Jack is too busy getting his on-off girlfriend almost killed and sneaking onto planes to care about anything as trivial as a dead guy. I hope that while that was happening Wayne at least made his way back to Carl's house to hand the corpse over to his wife, because otherwise there's just some dead guy stuck in a car on some industrial wasteland in LA. Man, this show can be cold sometimes.

7. Someone working in 24's casting department is a big fan of Robocop.

And so they should be, as that is a wonderfully sweet film, delightfully ribald, romantic, reminiscent of the classic MGM musicals of the early 50s with its innocent charm and endearing sentimentality. The casting for this season featured some surprises for fans of Paul Verhoeven's satirical classic, including Peter Weller, Ray Wise, and Paul McCrane.

Weller played one of this season's many bad guys, the monotone and eternally duplicitous Christopher Henderson (which is a disappointingly mundane moniker in the same vein as former antagonists Peter Kingsley and Stephen Saunders), and Ray Wise and his barely present grin played the red herring is-he-good-or-bad Vice President Hal Gardner (a name that makes me suspect there are also some Green Lantern fans working on the show). McCrane barely ever gets to play good guys, and here continues this trend by playing the vile and oddly spelled Graem Bauer (yes, I read a spoiler).

At the end of the season Henderson gets blasted to death by the righteous weaponry and rage of Jack Bauer, who has spent most of the day killing everyone responsible for the deaths of David Palmer, Michelle Dessler, and lovely Tony. Fair enough, but it amused me that every time he shoots one of the big bads he acts like they were the only ones involved, which I thought meant he would just keep on killing people with even a tangential involvement in the plan, all the time glowering at them and ominously reciting the list of friends he has lost, until he's the only person left on the planet, at which point he will realise that actually he is a shit magnet who gets everyone who knows him into terrible trouble, at which point he would shoot himself with enormous solemnity and humourless vengeance. Because that is the way of The Bauer (a Bauer being the Western equivalent of a Samurai, obviously).

As for Gardner and Graem, they live to fight another day, which is interestingly the opposite of Robocop, where Weller, as Robocop, lives on, Leon (Wise) gets blown to smithereens by Nancy Allen, and Emil (McCrane) gets melted by toxic waste and run over, in a scene which no one who has seen it will ever forget.

The only thing that could improve 24 (other than a musical episode) is to get Verhoeven on as a guest director. Imagine the carnage! Time to start a new futile internet campaign, methinks.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Can My Tindersticks Love Grow Any Further?

I'm currently reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which suggests that interaction with art is a gift exchange from the artist to the observer that exists in tandem with the commercial interaction that goes the other way, and that true spiritual satisfaction lies in that ephemeral transaction rather than in the monetary sense, which could (and often will) corrupt the nature of the relationship between the participants. There's much more to it than that, but right now it's making me wonder about how to discuss cultural experiences I've had, and what is the nature of my connection to the artists I respect and whose work has been important to me, particularly when I feel let down by them. Am I wrong to think like that? In reverse, what obligation do artists have to their fans, if any?

Tindersticks are one of my very favourite bands, responsible for a series of good-to-great albums that never set the world on fire, and probably never could. The parallel Earth in which they are the world's biggest band must be a peculiar place of eternal rainfall, darkened streets, murky bars and endless romantic strife for everyone living there. The French film industry would be the most popular artistic factory in the world, cigarettes would be smoked as an expression of inner torment, and all men must wear suits that have seen better days. This video for their song Rented Rooms, from their third album Curtains, sums up their philosophy brilliantly. The opening shows the public perception of their sound, and when it suddenly switches from the album version to their b-side swing band version, their hidden playfulness come out.

I guess they had to play with their public persona. That dour aspect and melancholic air is obviously ripe for parody. Melody Maker used to take the piss regularly, even though very few bands represented the more cerebral and fringe tastes of the Maker writers more perfectly than the 'Sticks. Whatever. Even though the band was obviously aware that the bleak nature of their songs was considered unfashionable or self-consciously depressing, their magisterial second album features a song, My Sister, that is so gratuitously miserabilist that I refuse to believe it is anything but a comment on their reputation as gloomy bastards. Here are the lyrics, spoken by Stuart Staples in his signature depressive, emotive drawl over a lolloping tune that even manages to be occasionally peppy, despite the subject matter.

That said, even knowing that the band are not just mechanically sourfaced, the relationships within the band seem to have been fraught with tension even at an early stage, something I had never noticed prior to tonight, while researching this post (in my traditionally half-hearted stylee). Even as early as Curtains, they were becoming unhappy with the demands of being in a touring band that had become their livelihood instead of an escape from the drudgery of the working life, as David Boulter explains here. One way to escape that tension was to change their approach to music. Their early albums were reiterations of the same sound, which I loved, but their first soul album, Simple Pleasures, left me completely cold. To this day I still dislike a lot of it. How could the band that had created something as perfect as that second album come up with something so peculiar? I reacted like a brat, and abandoned my previous adoration with much bitterness.

Of course, I was to be proved wrong. Their next album, Can Our Love..., was a masterpiece. Refining that new soul sound, they perfectly spliced their two approaches together, creating something new and wonderful, a hybrid that sounded like Serge Gainsbourg covering 70s soul tracks. I remember my first experience of it, being so astonished at its boldness and intellectual and emotional clarity that I could barely believe it existed. It remains one of my favourite ever records, even today. Here is the title track...

...and here is the Cosgrove-Hall-animated video for one of the other stand-out tracks, Dying Slowly. Again, the band is playing up to that depressive image brilliantly.

Their next album, Waiting For The Moon, was certainly no failure, but after the artistic success of Can Our Love... it had an uphill struggle to top it, which it couldn't do. And then, without realising there was anything wrong, and not long after I saw them play the first ever concert held at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, the band split up, and we were left with Stuart Staples releasing solo albums, the second of which, Leaving Songs, impressed me greatly. The other main artistic locus in the band, the absurdly talented multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, is now doing soundtracks for film and commercials, which is a natural extension of the work the 'Sticks did on Claire Denis' movies Nénette et Boni and low-key erotic vampire/cannibal movie Trouble Every Day (featuring Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle, both in full-on bonkers crazy-go-nuts effect). Here's an example of his new direction; an unusually aggressive Kashmir-esque piece for this very expensive looking Mercedes ad.

His film career appears to be doing well, and he has it in him to become the British Alexandre Desplat, which is a good place to be. However, I only realised that he was no longer a band member tonight, having stopped waiting for news of new projects. The last time I had a Tindersticks experience was when I saw their All Tomorrow's Parties concert at the Barbican, performing their second album in its entirety. It was a masterful performance (though some will wrongly argue it was boring and one-note), and led me to believe the band were getting along despite their decision to split. So you can imagine my surprise when I found a copy of their new album (which I didn't even know existed) sitting on my desk at work, staring up at me like an unloved teddy bear, waiting for me to hug it and squeeze it. They had reformed?!!? With joy I leapt up and hurled it into a CD player, and listened with much feverish anticipation.

It was three songs in before I realised there was a problem. Even though I should have known it already, it was obvious even on my first listen that Hinchliffe was definitely missing, and their sound has suffered for it. It's a cliche that art has to be forged by toil and anger and emotion, but the tensions between the band members have created some amazing records, and The Hungry Saw, though not a bad album by any stretch, is missing the spark they once had. This is where my original questions come in. Hinchliffe has moved on and has projects of his own to worry about. Staples and the other remaining band members are trying to forge a valid artistic future for themselves. I wish them all luck, and at the same time I just want them to forget about all that independence nonsense, get the whole gang back together, and create something as startling as Can Our Love... Hell, even Waiting For The Moon made more of an impression on me on first listen. Other than some fireworks towards the end of The Hungry Saw, this is the first time I've heard a Tindersticks album and not felt some stirrings of excitement at some point. Compare that to April, the new album by Sun Kil Moon, aka Mark "Red House Painters" Kozelek, which sounds exactly the same as his other albums and yet still hit me in my soul like an ICBM.

Repeated listens will, I'm sure, yield better results, and there are already songs I've pegged as being possible future favourites, but there is nothing that has shocked me the way Mistakes did the first time I heard it, or She's Gone, or Sweet Release, or Bathtime, or Running Wild, or any number of other songs from their previous albums. Even worse, some songs hint at greatness but are almost sabotaged midway through. The promising Boobar Come Back To Me is derailed by some misjudged backing vocals. All The Love has a lovely haunting female vocal, but Staples' refrain is too reminiscent of his work on the aforementioned Running Wild. Flicker of a Girl, which is the first song they revealed on their MySpace page, is pretty formulaic, and just to be a dick, I can't help but be annoyed by the clarinet part that parps in about a minute in. And yes, I'm the kind of jerk whose enjoyment of a song can be ruined by the smallest thing.

The purpose of this post isn't really to rag on the band. I'm glad they're still recording, and The Hungry Saw will be listened to many times more than other albums that don't set my hair on fire straight away (Spoon's highly lauded Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga got about six listens before it was deleted from the iPod. This will not happen to Hungry Saw). What struck me as I listened to it, though, was how annoyed I was that the band had dared to split up in the first place, as if I was personally insulted by their choice. A moment's reflection later, and I realised I was being really unrealistic and arrogant, but that reaction was a potent one. What the hell business is it of mine to be pissy about this? I don't own their work, and I have no say in what they do.

And that rang true especially after beginning The Gift, in which Hyde argues that the artist will be fulfilled by the giving of the gift of his uncompromised art to everyone else, and the audience is equally enriched upon receiving the gift, and that should be pretty much the perfect relationship between creator and consumer. Tindersticks are one of the most individual and uncompromising bands I listen to, and that commitment to their artistic vision is one of the reasons why I love them so much. And yet now I feel like a Beatles fan getting annoyed at Lennon for daring to fall in with some weird Japanese performance artist instead of hugging it out with his bitch Macca. It's like Eno leaving Roxy Music all over again, or The Pixies splitting up. Just as Last Splash by The Breeders and Teenager of the Year by Frank Black were okay albums that pale into insignificance when held next to Doolittle and Surfer Rosa, The Hungry Saw and some commercial soundtracks will always seem pitiful next to the mighty Can Our Love...

Why can't I just accept the gift Hyde talks about, instead of thinking there is some obligation to me to battle through discord simply to make me happy? Why am I still resisting the idea of a gift economy like the one Hyde posits? We're not even talking about the actual economic version of it, just the artistic version. I still feel like I'm owed something, that fans have a say in what their idols do, even though what I'm hoping for is for years of tension and friction to be waved away for my benefit. It's amazing how pompous I felt when I looked hard at my initial reaction. Consider the awful, chastening irony that I laugh at the fools who railed against Dylan or Miles Davis for going electric, or the jerks who hated Radiohead for taking their favourite Autechre albums too seriously and daring to create something like Kid A (which I still maintain is a classic). (That said, at least in those cases the controversial works proved to be significant in an artistic sense, whereas I remain to be convinced of the merit of The Hungry Saw.)

I should just be grateful Staples, Hinchliffe, and the rest of the band are still around. If I could eventually come to enjoy Frank Black's later work even though it was not as good as his Pixies stuff, I should just embrace this new direction, and be glad they're still out there, even if they might not be able to capture that incredible magic again. I'm just amazed at how easy it is for me to become a swivel-eyed maniac when someone dares to exercise their autonomy and do things their way, which makes me doubt either the truth of the artistic gift economy idea, or my ability to adapt myself to the concept. It makes a mockery of my recent ranting against the evils of The Market. Tell me about an alternative that has worked in the past, and even when watered down to a hypothetical concept about transferring what amounts to good will, let alone moving actual physical resources around, and I panic.

Okay, enough whining about this. Look! It's a trailer for Kung Fu Panda! And amazingly it looks great! Check out the face of Master Monkey as he passes through the obstacle course in slow motion. That's made me love the movie without even seeing it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Announcing The Official Torchwood Gupta

If my calculations are correct, season two of Torchwood has finished on BBC America, providing that channel's largest ever viewing figures, a statistic that made me pack up some supplies, put on my best hiking shoes, and embark on a quest from pole to pole to find a stairway to Heaven so I could meet God and ask him, "Why?!?!!!?" Screw the meaning of life, I want to know how and why this turgid clusterfuck of a show manages to draw in so many viewers. Of course, this is similar to the other pressing question in my life, i.e. why is CSI: Miami the most popular show in the world when it is ideologically repulsive, ineptly acted, abysmally written, and melodramatic to the point of parody. At least Torchwood's sexual politics are progressive, even though everything else about it is derivative and unadventurous.

Anyway, before we go any further, just to clarify, this was a poll to determine who was the most awful character in Torchwood (from the beginning of season one), which in Shades of Caruso terms means we were looking to come to a consensus on the show Gupta. Here is our definition of that term if you're new here. The results surprised me not a jot.

  • Gwen "Welsh Rarebit" Cooper - 6 (40%)
  • Owen "Dead Asshole" Harper - 3 (20%)
  • Captain Jack "Sex" Harkness - 2 (13%)
  • Toshiko "..." Sato - 1 (6%)
  • Ianto "Suddenly Snarky" Jones - 1 (6%)
  • MARTHA "Awesome" JONES - 1 (6%)
  • The Pterodactyl - 1 (6%)
  • Rhys "Mundane" Williams - 0 (0%)
  • Spacey the Space Whale - 0 (0%)
  • The Weevil of Zenda - 0 (0%)
  • Suzie "Rogue Corpse" Costello - 0 (0%)

  • There was no way Gwen couldn't have won this poll. In the first season, acting as audience surrogate in this new world of ill-thought out alien species, lost-in-time losers, and rampant opportunistic shagging, she was soon unmoored by the wackiness around her and proceeded to cuckold her husband with her colleague Owen, leading to some ill-advised sexxy dialogue and mouth grapplings. Rhys, for all his faults (i.e. being utterly prosaic) didn't deserve the treatment he got, and we strongly disliked the character of Gwen even then. However, at that point, we hated Owen with such sanity-threatening vehemence that Gwen could have strangled puppies and we would have still hated him more. He was once our only choice as show Gupta (scroll down).

    The decision to introduce a dark, miserabilist character was a sound one, but instead of a Mal Reynolds-style loner with anti-social tendencies and animal magnetism, Owen was pitched so far to the obnoxious end of the spectrum that it amazed us anyone would employ him, let alone a team of fuck-knuckles like Torchwood Cymru. Sour, mean, unhinged, addicted to sex and averse to relationships (unless in the presence of flying ladies from the 40s), he was unbearable. And then, season two rolled along, and the writers had obviously realised the character was not working, at which point he became no more grumpy than my old maths teacher. It meant he was less likely to do anything snide or unpleasant, providing Gwen with an open pitch to go crazy on, smashing balls of purified Gupta-essence into the back of the net over and over and over again with astonishing accuracy and speed.

    Throughout season two her stupidity, bitchiness, thoughtlessness, over-zealous emoting, and blinkered attention to her own needs and whims turned an unlikeable character into an unbearable one. Why oh why oh why the writers thought this was a good choice is beyond me. At the same time, Owen's death and peculiar immortality opened up many new and interesting avenues for the character, and by the last episode we had really warmed to him, as well as thrown out our previous objections to Burn Gorman, who was the acme of unlikeability in the first season, only to become quite charming once he was playing a walking corpse. Of course, this meant the showrunner Chris Chibnall chose that moment to kill him for good. Thanks a lot, Chibbers.

    Coming just below Owen (steady on etc.!) we got a couple of votes for Captain Jack, and yes, the character is stupid and nowhere near as likeable as he is on Doctor Who, and John Barrowman seems to have broken the lever that activates his overacting module, and his endless angst is terribly boring to watch, but look at that smile! Phwoarrrr! He can time my agent any day! And I'm straight! Perhaps we just like him because he is often so endearingly silly, but who else could provide a moment as moving as this, after trying and failing to save Spacey the Space Whale from being tragically turned into tasty Spacey Burgers.

    Heart-wrenching stuff.

    On Warren Ellis' Whitechapel forums I note that Tosh has incensed Torchwood viewers to the point of rage many times over. That's their business, not mine. Myself, I can't get worked up about her. As I've said many times over, she's a human-shaped hole on screen, waiting to be filled with whatever personality construct best suits the scene she is in. When her death occurred in the season finale, I was moved not a jot. Of course, once Owen died she had to go too, because without her desperate and pathetic infatuation with him to hold onto, there was nothing else to do.

    I guess this is one of those rare instances where an established character is written out simply because the showrunners had nothing else for her to do, especially as they would have been chased out of TV screenwriting is they had given more scenes of a character grieving for a loved one after trying our patience with Ianto's grief over Liiiiiiiisaaaaa the Cyber-Hottie, which lasted until Jack gave him a good seeing too, and yet seemed to last a lot longer than that. Jesus, at least Cyrano De Bergerac had a big nose (and bigger intellect) to fall back on. This was like watching a shy teenage girl pining for the school bad boy and dropping her text books every time she sees him by her locker. Pffft. Seeya, Tosh. You won't be missed, because you will be forgotten, almost as soon as I click Publish Post.

    Also getting single votes were Ianto and the pterodactyl (yeah, suck on that, you prehistoric asshole), but the single vote for MARTHA JONES leads me to suspect someone accidentally clicked the wrong button on the poll thingy. How else to explain this bizarre vote? The character of MARTHA is, of course, awesomeness personified, a tough and intelligent independent woman with a no-nonsense sense of humour, style, class, and world-saving courage whose name should be a legend from one side of the galaxy to the other, with planets named after her (in Caps Lock, of course). And she's back this weekend in Doctor Who, which is having a better than expected fourth season (though so far not up to the standard of season three). I'm not the only one excited about her return. Best. Companion. Ever. I'm totally serious.

    Thanks to everyone for voting! It was gratifying to see that our opinion of Gwen is shared by a large proportion of our readers. Another poll is coming soon (and Lost viewers, there is still time to vote for your favourite new characters), but until then, as a thank you, here is the worst moment of Torchwood's entire run from the shockingly poor Countrycide, featuring season one Gupta Owen and season two Gupta Gwen locking lips, saying dirty things about orgasms, and bouncing around with their toy guns like extras from Plan 9 From Outer Space 2: Sex Zombies From Space Station 7. Enjoy!

    Tuesday, April 22, 2008

    Battlestar Galactica Puts $57 In The Futureswears Box

    Battlestar Galactica has returned with a mixture of very good drama, dreary character soliloquies, and appalling dialogue, most of which is delivered by Dean Stockwell's Cylon character Cavil, not to mention introducing the most interesting sub-plot yet (a Cylon civil war involving mass robo-genocide), and practically ignoring it in favour of lots of scenes of Cally shouting at Tyrol and Starbuck being super-grumpy. Not the most appealing of televisual prospects (though thank God she's separated from Apollo so we don't get week after week of them bickering).

    Still, so far it's been better than season three, though not as good as the earlier seasons. Canyon has pretty much given up on it, and I don't blame her really, though I find myself in the odd position of giving a lot of its weaknesses a break now that I know there is an end in sight, hoping that what seems to be boring time-wasting is actually pertinent, in much the same way that a lot of Lost doubters have started to give the show a chance to prove itself. More on all of that later (again, if I can find the time and energy), but first, this week's episode (which ended very strongly and ruthlessly) featured a very dull moment between boring Starbuck and her boring husband/ex-husband, Lee Anders the Cylon, which involved The Hott Angry Sexx. We didn't see that, of course, but we got some futuristic potty-mouth from Starbuck that totally wrecked the scene.

    I'm not fan of space-swears in sci-fi, though I totally understand why it is there. I don't expect BSG (or any other show) to turn into Deadwood-On-Mars, but inventing new swearwords often falls flat. I was fond of the authorised profanity in Judge Dredd (the comics), but hearing Sylvester Stallone say "Drokk!" in the movie brought home how stupid the idea is. Red Dwarf may fit on my list of Least Favourite Shows for lots of different reasons, but high up is the attempt to make, "Smeg" work as an obscenity. The only thing obscene about Smeg is that their pretty fridges are way too expensive for me to buy. Other than that, it sounds stupid. Perhaps not as bad as that, BSG famously features the fake swear, "Frak!", standing in for fuck.

    To be honest the only show I can think of that got around the problem was Firefly with its Cantonese exclamations, though they often translated into words and phrases as innocuous as, "bullcrap," "You fink," and "The explosive diarrhea of an elephant." The difference is that in Cantonese it sounded cool. Frak does not sound anything like as cool. It's more like the fake swears you used to get on TV in profanity-thons like Midnight Run or Goodfellas, all "Melonfarmer" and "Freaking". In fact it makes me cringe just thinking about frak, except when Dwight Schrute says it on The Office. Then it's perfect.

    Until now the word has only appeared sporadically; the odd "frakking" or "frak me" popping up here or there, but this week Starbuck popped out a rare (and regrettable) "You dumb motherfrakker", which wrecked the scene, before grabbing Anders, pressing him against a wall, and then giving into her urges (as many characters appeared to this week). Very sexxy. And how did she seduce her secretly-Cylon hubbie? By breathlessly saying:

    I don't wanna fight, Sam. I wanna frak. You don't get it, do you? I'm not the same girl you married. All I wanna do right now is frak, really frak like it's the end of the world and nothing else matters. So come on, Sam. Make me feel something. I dare you.

    Cue vigorous offscreen frakking. I already had trouble handling that stupid fake word, and this sent me over the edge. Instead of making BSG seem edgy by slipping semi-profanities past the censors, it makes this sophisticated and intelligent show sound like a comedy. It doesn't even have any consistency. Is this the only profanity of the future? Apparently not. They say crap pretty often. So why haven't they gone all out and futurised all of the swears? As the dialogue in that scene got more and more ridiculous, I imagined Starbuck demanding buttsecks with the order, "Frak me in my promper with your big hott shmazzmer." It would have been no more ridiculous than what we actually got.

    Don't believe me? Consider this memorable scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, written by former liberal David Mamet, directed for the screen by James Foley, and performed by Al Pacino (with an assist from Canyon's acting hero, Jude Ciccolella).

    Now here's the BSG version.

    You stupid frakking cump. Williamson! I'm talking to you snathead! You just cost me 6,000 cubits. 6,000 cubits, and one Viper. That's right. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it...promperhole? You frakking snat! Where did you learn your trade, you stupid frakking cump?! You idiot! Whoever told you that you could work with men?! Oh, I'm gonna have your job, snathead. I'm going to Admiral Adama. I'm going to Roslin! I don't care whose nephew you are...who you know...whose shmazzmer you're sucking on, you're going out! I'll tell you something else, I hope it was you who ripped off the joint, maybe I can tell our friends something that will help them to prove you're a skinjob. Any man who works here lives by his wits... What you are hired to do, is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To HELP us. Not to FRAK US UP! To help men who are going out there to earn a living, you fairy. You company man. You want to know the first rule you'd learn if you'd ever spent a day in your life? You never open your mouth until you know what the shot is. You frakking child.

    I don't know. Perhaps in the final episode the use of the made-up word will be justified. Upon finding Earth, the final Cylon (who will obviously be Zach Adama, we have decided), might say "fuck", and the humans will immediately adopt it. After he's shown off his signed copy of John Wesley Harding, of course.

    Monday, April 21, 2008

    Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week: "Drink Deep" by Laura Veirs

    Since these posts have become a bit of a sausage fest, time for a recommendation for a female singer-songwriter. Most of my music collection is full of men (not actual little men skittering around with miniature violins and guitars, though that would be way cooler than what I have, which is a bunch of broken, empty CD cases and stacks of random, sticky CDs that never seem to match together), and I'm not sure why. It's just happenstance, I guess, since hipsterism is just as much a female affliction, but it's probably time to give in and finally listen to Lucinda Williams and Sleater-Kinney. (But not New Young Pony Club. They know why.)

    So here's Laura Veirs, a wonderful musician I heard on BBC Radio Six, which is an equally wonderful radio station that I don't listen to nearly enough. I got in the habit when I was doing freelance work at home for a couple of months, and nearly every hour I'd hear an amazing song that got me into a new band, especially since they play so much music uninterrupted -- a very rare feat nowadays. Most of their DJs are good, though ("Smerch" is one of them now, as are Adam and Joe), and it's no hardship to listen to people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music. Plus, the station streams online, which would be great if people at my job would leave me alone long enough so I could wear headphones. ::mutters, shakes cane::

    One day while I was listening, Laura Veirs' album Saltbreakers was the album of the day (week? Something like that), and they played the eponymous single from it, which was enough to convince me to buy the album -- something I hardly ever do anymore now that I have the much more tempting option of stealing. It was worth it, though; the album is full of gems. But the best song by far is "Drink Deep," which Admiral Neck has kindly provided another video for. Watch! And Be Amazed!

    If the little piano riff doesn't hook you a few seconds in, soon there's the pipe (or keyboard that sounds like a pipe?), and then the gradual flooding of sound that, yes, does sound like waves of water rushing over you as you listen, a theme that runs through the album. It's a quiet song but it's full of power -- restrained in its sound but urgent in its lyrics. And I love the lyrics: they are somewhat opaque -- which, as I said a few weeks ago, is sometimes a cover for faux-profundity -- but Veirs has a way with allusive metaphors that inspire thought instead of dampening it. I especially love the chorus, with the repeated lyric "Drink deep, my love, for the water is gasping for your mouth," which turns an accepted idiom on its head. And the vision of the natural world the song presents -- a place full of danger and passion and beauty -- is deeply alluring but frightening as well. It's a masterful song.

    Apparently, however, even hipster douchebags can't agree on Laura Veirs. That nexus of douchebags itself, Pitchfork, dismissed Veirs' albums as a mediocre imitation of Sufjan Stevens and Colin Meloy. First of all, Pitchfork, Colin Meloy is a pretentious wanker whose pseudointellectualism matches your own, so I suppose I can see where you get your affinity for him. Secondly, he could be accused of just as much imitation as you see in Veirs -- but at least Veirs knows her way around a melody. Thirdly, "To The Country" is awesome, and I have no idea why you think it's even trying to imitate, as you call him, Sufjan Stevebs, but whatever it's trying for, it succeeds admirably. We are so over, Pitchfork. At least until you praise something I like.

    At any rate, there's the song (I would put up "To The Country" as well so anyone who reads this could sadly shake their head at the Pitchfork reviewer's tin ears, but we've been having continuing computer problems and I don't have the patience or the ability to not throw the computer at the wall in anger). Oh, and before I go, I keep forgetting to mention: we got our own T-shirt! Display your douchebaggery with pride.

    Friday, April 18, 2008

    The World Has Had Enough (Of Me)

    Guess how mad I am, and whether or not I'm going to take it anymore. Go on, guess.

    I've had an annoying week. Let me caveat that immediately by saying it wasn't totally horrible. Season five of 24 continues to delight, Canyon and I ate lots and lots of Chicken Francese (the recipe she found is like the Food of the Gods, and not the kind that makes rats go nuts), I bought a bunch of great comics, and I broke world land speed records criss-crossing the cold and forbidding wastelands of central London to finally get to see Michel Gondry's misunderstood inspirational fable Be Kind Rewind (more on that, and the allure of swedeing, in future posts, hopefully, though I often say these things and never get around to them).

    So why the Howard-Beale-esque rage? Because I get very annoyed, in a futile stylee, over things that mean nothing. Seriously, I do not think these moans can be considered worthy of any attention or pity. You can randomly pick any other person on the planet and they will be having a worse time than me. I'm about 99% certain that statement is correct. However, these things are on my mind, and some of these statements might count as advice for living. Firstly, and leastly, I'm annoyed that ITV are still run by a collection of inept dicks.

    In their finite wisdom, they have dropped the second episode of the nine episode long first season because they only had room for eight. Why the second episode, I hear you ask?

    "Episode two was the only show we could drop without spoiling the storyline," an ITV spokesman said.

    Sky and More4 and E4 and C4 have been doing their best to make sure that US shows are being aired on UK TV very close to the US air date to try to stop illegal downloading from happening, and that's great and commendable. Thumbs up to them all for doing it. Sadly, with the major terrestrial broadcaster treating its viewers as if they're just gawping advert absorption units and its product like nothing more than a wooden block to slot into a random schedule hole, there has been no better argument for downloading as the future of TV than this insulting decision.

    I railed against The Market the other day, but soon we're going to be able to watch what we want when we want and not have to listen to whiny ass ISP jerkoffs bitching at the BBC for coming up with something that people want because it's making life difficult for them ("Customers who are paying for unlimited downloads actually want unlimited downloads?!?! We never saw that coming!"). This is The Consumer talking, The Market. We want something. Provide it. Prove your worth. Or fuck off. Next annoyance!!!

    Remember when I got all excited about buying a TyTn II phone? The one with a lovely keypad? Forget I ever said anything. It won't switch on. Until I want it to switch off, at which point it will switch on. Then I will try to access messages, and it will ignore me. And freeze. So I will try to switch it off again. And it will, after three minutes. Of course, messages will appear one femtosecond before it closes down. Then Windows will crash. When it's not inoperable due to bugs. And the power button is unresponsive. And it overheats. And I have to keep opening the back and yanking the battery out to deal with the multiple crashes. And typing anything takes forever as there is a 40 second lag between me inputting things and it appearing on the screen. When it goes wrong I feel like Quicksilver the grumpy speedster mutant.

    What's worse is I got it via Orange, and I can't get a signal at home. And what's even worse than that is that my £35 a month tariff with unlimited thingies is costing me £55 a month for no apparent reason (I wanted itemised billing but am not getting it), and when I handed in my old phone to get £100 back, it was five months before I found out I'm getting that money back £4.72 a month for 18 months. It's turned out to be one of the worst purchasing decisions I've made. Compare that to Canyon's iPhone, which she is using right now. It is a sheer marvel, totally indispensible, and gorgeous to boot. Even better, it's dropping in price because that high price appears to be the thing that stops people from accepting its brilliance. Embrace the brilliance! You won't regret it. Next grievance!!!

    Dell computers do not like when you trip on the power cable. They really don't. Take it from me. The wonderful McC (not the yet-to-prove-his-worth film director McG) recently exhorted us to buy an iMac, and I'm still wary (even though the iPhone is making me love Apple despite the evil that is iTunes blighting our lives), but when our Dell laptop broke down again this morning, I really pined for the magnetic power cable connection on the iMac, and would happily buy one just for that feature. We kicked the cable on this laptop (which was a lovely gift from some lovely people and we both appreciate it more than you can ever know) about a year ago, and since then we have to wrestle with a loose connection for about an hour a day, just to charge the battery. This morning it looked like I'd wiped the hard drive for the second time this year, but thankfully I haven't. Nevertheless, we're not impressed with Dell. (This whine is not directed at the lovely lovely people who bought the laptop for us. It has been incredibly useful. To be honest it's me I'm mad at, not the computer. Please ignore this rant.)

    New rant! I bought The Mist from Play USA for many more pounds than I would have paid via, and thought I might have made a mistake, but it turned up in four days. Four days from America! And I didn't have to pay postage! At the same time I did that, I bought I Am Legend, Zodiac (Director's Cut), and DC's The New Frontier, all from, all very cheap. They showed up a fortnight after The Mist, and postage cost a bit, but my beef isn't with Amazon. It's with customs, and Royal Mail. £15 customs fees, with £8 of that paid to Royal Mail for handling the package while they wait for me to pay the fee. I'm pissed that we still have to pay for things like that, though I will confess to not understanding the system and perhaps there is a reason for us consumers to have to pay charges (will The Market cry if we don't feed it some pounds?), but £8 to Royal Mail?

    For what? Storing the damn thing on a shelf at the sorting office for a couple of days? Is it to pay for the electricity that powers the barcode reader that scanned it a couple of days ago? Is it because the grey card telling me of the charge is more expensive than the red cards we get posted through the door when the postman can't deliver an item? Or is it, as I suspect, an enormous money making con job by a bunch of crooked money-hungry assholes who are shutting down our local post office, inconveniencing hundreds of people just to increase profits? You decide. I'm busy sitting in a studio in a wet raincoat shouting at the camera while my best friend William Holden gets drunk and shags Fay Dunaway.

    That said, Royal Mail are the Justice League of America compared to Transport for London, who provide a shitty, expensive service for Londoners that increases the stress levels and unhappiness quotient of an entire city, and just to pick on me, have coerced millions of people to take on Oyster cards which can horribly fail for no real reason. This week I bought a £41 week season ticket, and the ticket machine I used to charge up my card took the money from my debit card, and then told me the transfer of ticket had failed prior to suddenly shutting down, leaving me with nothing on my Oyster card but £41 taken from my bank account. The ticket office guy (who was very helpful and apologetic, in direct contrast with the jerkstain executives running the company) had no proof I'd tried to buy the ticket, and had to charge me again. £82 for a week's travel! I have been advised to reclaim it, but I'm concerned that even with a bank statement showing both purchases they might not believe me.

    I might have to glue my card and phone to this laptop and throw them all out of a window at this rate. Of course, anyone reading this will be able to point out that there are many worse things in the world, and they are right. It's just silly stuff that means nothing in the scheme of things, and I'm blessed compared to the vast majority of the world. However, all of these irritations and annoyances pale into insignificance when we come to the thing that has caused me the most psychic pain this week.

    Two days ago my brain radio was invaded by repeated playings of Matthew and Son by my least favourite recording artist ever, Cat Stevens. It was like the world handed the pain-baton over to an imp in my head, and he went nuts punishing the shit out of me. Does Cthulhu hate me? Did I irk Zeus?

    ETA: I'm now pissed at customs as well. My DVDs arrived and the crumpled box had been pulled open, inspected, and then haphazardly resealed with a bit of sellotape with hardly any glue left on it. And Paramount skimped on the box for Zodiac, meaning the disc got loose and rattled around inside, scratching it up. What's the betting if it's unplayable and I send it back to the replacement will get hit with more customs charges? Everything everywhere sucks. ::sulks pathetically just because he hasn't had his coffee yet::

    Thursday, April 17, 2008

    The Wahlberg Awards - Dune

    With the recent news that Shades-Of-Caruso-favourite Peter Berg is going to direct another version of Frank Herbert's OPEC-in-Space epic Dune, I realised that the David Lynch version, as well as being unfairly criticised, features one of the great OH SHIT moments of our time. And so, Everett McGill, you win the Wahlberg Award for Best Response To A Murderous Messiah Going Loco On Sting's Ass:

    Actually, Everett McGill's real response in that scene is perfect as it is. After Paul "Usul" Atreides unleashes his awesome voice power on Feyd's corpse, McGill says, "Muad'Dib!" like he just smelled a really noxious fart and was laying the blame at his messiahs feet. Which is surely a) rude enough to be really strongly advised against, and b) silly, as it's got to be impossible to guff while wearing a stillsuit.

    I love Dune.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Action Jackson And Tron: Best Of Both Worlds

    Across the blue-black sky of the computer world, a Recogniser buzzed, powered by nothing more than pure binary energy, its sheer surface hiding a crew intent on hunting down a tenacious foe, an errant program that had invaded their world. As they looked down, the program looked up, through the translucent visor of his lightcycle, his ears tuned to the electric hum of the vehicle as it blasted across the virtual landscape. In the distance the program knew a swarm of grid-bugs skittered and bobbed from node to node on the ground, and he contemplated aiming for them, their erratic movement a perfect cover for his progress, but that was giving the crew of the Recogniser too much credit. Their searches were directed too far away to pose a problem for him, and even though he had come to expect more powerful defenses in this particular world, they had turned out to be nothing more than basic security programs, nothing like the powerhouses he thought would be chasing him. Why worry about potentially dangerous evasive manouevres when up against basic programs like that? He was too quick for any of them. After all, he was the program that vanquished the mighty CPU and its puppet program Sark. He was Tron.

    As his hermetically sealed computer world had transformed into a universe filled with other worlds accessible via blink-of-the-eye leaps via internet sockets, so had Tron's legend grown exponentially. From CPU to CPU, his name had passed, a mythical being of power and integrity that had captured the imagination of his digital brethren. If Tron knew of laziness he might have rested on his laurels, but his user, Alan, would never let him rest. That was fine by him. The world had become a cosmos, and leaping from computer to computer in an attempt to right wrongs was satisfaction enough. Let the denizens of these worlds idly chatter his name. Celebrity was no reward. Knowing his user was satisfied was all that mattered.

    Which is how Tron found himself inside an IBM Roadrunner supercomputer in Colorado, on a mission to collect data proving the existence of the world he was in, and then beam it back to Alan from an I/O Tower, after which point he would find an Internet Socket and zap himself out of there. Though the motives of most users were as alien to programs as all of the actions of a deity are to its followers, Alan had gifted his program with the knowledge that there was only supposed to be one Roadrunner computer in existence, in a laboratory in New Mexico. Rumours of a second one had reached Alan via his WormBot spy programme, Dorz, and knowing that this was a potentially dangerous anomaly, he sent Tron in to check it out. The IP address Dorz had found was the last thing he had sent out before communications ceased. Tron knew Dorz, which had manifested as a coil of glowing protomatter that could camouflage itself as any digital artifact within a computer world. Even the noble Tron was not going to miss the chameleonic program. The shapechanger had made his virtual stomach feel oogy.

    However, he did miss Yori, his mate. She made his stomach feel oogy in a good way! She was waiting for him back home in Alan's computer, in a way that suggested that her user, Laura, was using that computer as well. Did that mean both users lived together? Could users love? Tron pondered this question for a picosecond, before almost crashing into a wall of data. That had never happened before. Was it a consequence of getting old? His programming was constantly on the verge of becoming obsolete, and though it was not like him to worry or doubt Alan, Tron had begun to feel like his proudest days were behind him. Maybe it was time for him to settle down with Yori, have some programs of their own, perhaps get a job working for a charity of some kind. He knew of a Old Programs Home situated not far from his domicile, and had considered helping out there when not being sent out on reconnaissance. Well, Yori had thought about it. He had doubts. After all, everyone there spoke nothing but Fortran.

    That feeling of doubt remained as Tron shot his lightcycle towards the pulsing red light of a nearby I/O Tower, the landscape surrounding it covered with blocky buildings teeming with programs, most of which would be hostile to him, if what Alan had said was anything to go by. Knowing stealth would be the best option, Tron came to a stop, and with a Vrrrt! of impossibly speedy movement, the lightcycle de-rezzed, exposing him to scrutiny. It could be said that his primitive blue-hued form was one of his best weapons; though he often looked more primitive than the programs that had popped up over the past few years, he had been modded time and again until he could hold his own, which gave him an edge in combat. That modding alone should make Tron feel better about himself, but still he fretted. Would his time soon be up?

    Certainly being sent to a Roadrunner supercomputer was enough to increase those doubts. Programs there would surely be lightyears ahead of him in complexity and ruthlessness, devious and powerful and made of pure binary machismo, but then that Recogniser had looked unpredictably feeble. No matter. It was to Tron's advantage, and as he walked through the digital plazas of this circuit-city, he kept an eye out for opposition, pushing his doubts to the back of his mind.

    "There!" bellowed the voice from behind, and in a moment Tron had whipped around, pulled his identity disc from his back, and in the same movement hurled it with astonishing accuracy into the guard who had spotted him. The word had barely passed his lips as the disc shot through his chest, de-rezzing him with a sickening "Bloopedy bloopedy bloop!" Tron had heard this many times, the tragic, chilling sound of a program dying. Too bad. He had work to do.

    Out of the corner of his eye he saw three more security programs heading towards him, one of them pointing and yelling at him to stop. With a wry smile, Tron shouted back, "No! I will not stop! I dare you to try to make me stop!" It was a dare they took. Discs flew across the space between them, innocent programs ducking for cover as the deadly battle raged before them. Tron handily dispatched two of the programs with a flick of his wrist, but the last was more tenacious. Four times, five times, Tron batted his attacks back, waiting for the right moment to strike. Hurling himself towards his attacker, Tron ducked and threw his disc at the same time. It arced upwards, its path twisting like a corkscrew, before slicing through the final program from behind. It was over. And yet, Tron's doubts grew. These programs were absurdly basic. If this were indeed a Roadrunner supercomputer, he would have been in serious trouble there. These guards were barely more powerful than his unmodded original form. Could Alan have made a mistake?

    No, do not go there, Tron thought to himself as he rushed past goggle-eyed programs arrayed along the boulevards of the digital metropolis. Alan does not ever make mistakes. Users were infallible, their orders occasionally confusing or arcane but always to be followed to the letter. Doubting their integrity, perfection, and benevolence was tantamount to treason. Tron could no more doubt the orders of his User than a Bit could doubt that there only existed a Yes state and a No state. There was nothing else. Tron was saying yes to his user, as he always did.

    His "YES!" was powerful enough to overcome the suspicions raised by the lack of further interference as he penetrated further into the city, powerful enough to circumvent the worry he felt upon reaching the defenseless tower, powerful enough to motivate him to kick down the main entrance, which shattered into bits with too much ease. But it was not enough to overcome the shock upon meeting the Keeper of the Tower, an ancient program embedded into the floor, decrepit and doddering, barely aware of Tron's presence.

    With his sudden lack of confidence evident in his voice, Tron said, "Keeper of this tower! I am Tron, and I require access to this I/O Tower so that I might communicate with my user Alan."

    "What? Pr0n? You look like a frat boy dipped in glow-paint."

    Tron was horrified. A senile Keeper! In a Roadrunner? "Keeper, tell me your name, and give me information about this CPU. I demand it, in the name of Alan!"

    "What? Screw you, punchy! If I wasn't stuck in the floor I'd slap the shit out of you. I am Zomg, keeper of this tower, holder of the IP address, guardian of the secrets held within."

    "I need that IP address, Zomg. It is more important than you can possibly imagine."

    Zomg considered this for a moment, then, coughing, answered, "And I need a TeraFlop of power to give me the strength to get the hell out of this tower and move somewhere more exciting, but you don't see me bitching about it. Did you say your name was Flarn?"

    Having prepared only for battle, Tron was at a loss. "No! Tron! Vanquisher of the Master Control Program! Have you not heard of my exploits?"

    "Damn! Quite the opinion of yourself you've got there. Why are you standing like that, with your hands on your hips? Are you farting? Don't stink up my tower with your butt-gas, Poindexter."

    What was this? Tron was a fearsome warrior, the scourge of dictator programs and hero of the oppressed masses, not the subject of mockery from a dilapidated Keeper! "I will not be stopped, Zomg! Now, give me that IP address."

    "Whatever. If it gets you out of my face, you skinny jock asshole." Zomg belched out a stream of information, which embedded itself within Tron's identity disc.

    Tron was elated, forgetting the Keeper's impertinence immediately. "Thank you, Old Program. And now I must transmit to my User!"

    "Yeah yeah, don't let the portal hit you in the ass on the way out. It's nap time for Zomg, you glowing bitch."

    Tron sped past the slumbering program, gripping onto the identity disc for dear life. It was solid, dependable, whereas his faith in his User was fading fast. Ahead he could see the stream of information pouring out of the computer, and instead of the transcendant glowing beacon he expected, the stream was dull and intermittent. How could this be?

    His digital soul shaken by this new worry, Tron stepped into it and held up the disc, which rose upwards, slowly at first and then shooting out across the computerverse to find Alan. Tron waited. What was minutes for him were picoseconds in User Time, but even so, the sudden return of the disc was shocking. Alan had responded without disguising his signal, caring not if he was detected. Tron leapt upwards to grab the disc before it had fully descended through the light, and instantly a message burst from Alan set him moving.

    "It's not a supercomputer in Colorado! The IP address was wrong! You're inside a knackered old IBM sitting in a police station in Detroit, registered to someone called Jericho Jackson! Get out, Tron! Head to the nearest socket and get out!!!"

    Tron ran, but even as he did the lights of this world flickered, blinked out once, twice, dimmed for three picoseconds. Something had gone wrong. It wasn't a security system inside the machine; it was something external, something happening in the world of the Users. Panicking, Tron activated his light cycle and raced towards the nearest socket.

    Four hundred picoseconds later, the lights went out for good.

    The crashing sound drew Captain Armbruster from his office for the tenth time that day. The man never let on how annoyed he was that his precinct was regularly trashed not just by the lowlives brought there, but also by the cops who worked under him. He knew exactly where the sound had come from without even looking, but as he rounded a corner he saw the laughing crowd gathered, the perp spread out on the floor, lying next to a knife that looked as if it had been concealed in his belt buckle. The source of the crashing noise appeared to have been a shattered hard drive that had obviously just bounced off the man's head. Sitting behind his desk was the man who had knocked out the criminal, Detroit's finest, Jericho "Action" Jackson. Armbruster sighed. "Sergeant Jackson, could you please explain to me why this man had to be incapacitated via contact with our last computer hard drive?"

    Jackson smirked. "Punk tried to jack me, so I had to log him out."

    Next: Did Tron escape? Will Alan find the Roadrunner? What about Jeff Bridges? Is he going to appear in the Tron sequel? And why isn't Action Jackson on DVD? Predator gets reissued everytime Fox scrapes the bottom of the sequel barrel with Alien Vs. Predator movies, but this classic remains lost in time? "How do you like your ribs?" That's the stuff.

    Yes, Action Jackson triumphs over Tron, just as it should be. Three votes to two might not seem like a conclusive or important victory, but to me it proves the enduring appeal of 90s era Joel Silver movies over ambitious but muddled Disney movies starring David Warner. I can sleep soundly tonight.