reviews, links, comment, assorted ramblings

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's is for Lovecraft

On the day I learned that the Royal Festival Hall is staging a musical version of The Mountains of Madness...

I am the very model of a cultist of the Tentacles
My basement's decorated with a sacrificial pentacle
I have the steady hand required for puncturing your ventricles
My existence is suspected by the crazy and eccentrical

I have intimate knowledge of conjunctions astronomical
I am a freakish catalogue of oddness anatomical
I chant the Necronomicon in eery and exotic crypts
And follow with a reading from the Pnakotic Manuscripts

And follow with a reading from the Pnakotic Manuscripts
And follow with a reading from the Pnakotic Manuscripts
And follow with a reading from the Pnakotic Manumanuscripts

I teach a freshman class at Miskatonic University
I'm practiced in eleven kinds of bestial perversity
In short, in matters eldritch, squamous, blasphemous, heretical
I am the very model of a cultist of the Tentacles

In short, in matters eldritch, squamous, blasphemous, heretical
He is the very model of a cultist of the Tentacles

I have unlikely relatives with luminescent pseudopods
I know my Elder Races from my Old Ones and my Outer Gods
I am considered eminent by oracles and hierophants
I've got the Yellow Sign embroidered on my favourite underpants

I lurk in sunken citadels of basalt and obsidian
With architecture that's distinctly weird and non-Euclidian
I've freezer-fulls of nosey-parkers pickled in preservatives
I buy the Daily Mail and I donate to the Conservatives

I buy the Daily Mail and I donate to the Conservatives
I buy the Daily Mail and I donate to the Conservatives
I buy the Daily Mail and I donate to the Conservaservatives

(With apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan).

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Or you could just go and read "Foucault's Pendulum"

As you may know, it's now compulsory in the UK to carry a copy of The Da Vinci Code if you're going on public transport. If you're wondering what those armed police are there for in the Tube stations, they're there to shoot you repeatedly in the head if you don't have one, so don't say I didn't warn you.

I've really been trying to read the Code. Honestly. But Dan Brown doesn't make it easy for you. You open it up and on the very first page it says, "On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly." Dan, I can take Steven Seagal movies without breaking a sweat, but you just might have me beat.

So, I'm sitting there on the Northern Line, and every single person there is bolting this stuff down with rapt, hungry expressions on their faces. I bumped into Donald Sutherland the other day. "Hey Don," I said, "that Da Vinci Code is fucking terrible, isn't it?" And he pointed at me and did this awful bug-eyed shrieking thing, and I knew they'd got him too.

If you can't beat them, you might as well make a few quid off them. Here's the start of my new blockbuster novel.

In suite 419 of the Continental Radisson, Paris, a man lay sleeping. His name was Richard Congdon, investigative train-spotter. His monogram explaining the hidden significance behind the Richmond to North Woolwich Silverlink Metro timetable had set the world of locomotive horology on its ears.

Women adored his rather Tom Hanks-like good looks, and men envied the way he bestrode the world of train-spotting like a colossus, although without coming off like a know-it-all.

"Damn," thought Congdon, groggily, as a heavy fist knocked harshly on the door of his room, waking him up. "I have an early lecture tomorrow on the nine Secret Railway Bank Holidays. With my luck, this stranger will draw me in to a terrifying world of shadow conspiracies, much as in my recent outing Dark and Stormy (Corgi, £5.99) - and I'll never get any rest!"

Hesitantly, Congdon strode across the pale green Prunesquallor carpet, examining it with his sensitive feet. He opened the door a crack.

"Excusez-moi, M'sieu Congdon, but is it that you are - 'ow you say - sleepeeng?" a voice asked. Congdon's eyes travelled through the crack to meet the voice's owner. His face was as thin and hatchet-like as a small slim-bladed axe. "You will come avec moi, yes? I am Jean-Pierre Carton of the Gendarmerie."

Reeling, Congdon's mind hurled him back to the day before, when he had been giving a talk at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which was built in 1977 and is distinctive for having its pipes on the outside. The centre was named for Georges Pompidou, the president of France from 1969 to 1974 when he died.

"And now, the most handsome man you'll ever see in a Pacamac - Richard Congdon!" Congdon had shifted uneasily in his seat. When he had agreed to talk to the Locomotive Enthusiasts of Europe he hadn't known that it would be so embarrassing.

The stunning blonde moderator continued mercilessly. "Professor Congdon is so learned and fascinating, he has been voted as the most interesting, enigmatic and magnetic man in the world by Marie Sue magazine." I hate that magazine, thought Congdon angrily, as the audience, mostly women, laughed adoringly. "'Can it be long before the sexy Prof gets the Nobel prize he deserves?'", she quoted.

Congdon reached nervously into his pocket and fingered his secret Nobel medal. The Nobel Prize was set up by Alfred Nobel in 1895 and was first awarded in 1901. The irony that Nobel had been Swedish was not lost on Congdon, who had been given the medal by the Nobel committee in gratitude for a secret assignment he had taken on for them.

"Yes, yes!" said Congdon, suddenly interrupting. "Shut up! We all read the article! Now, shall we get on with the lecture?"

"Ha ha ha ha!" said all the women adoringly.


At exactly the same moment, an ominous figure lurked in the woodshed. Five feet tall, with a pronounced hunch-back, glass eye, hook-hand and third nipple, his name was Clive.

"Ah, that is good!" he rasped gutturally, pouring boiling-hot Bovril into the crotch of his corduroy trousers. Only by mortifying his flesh could his sins be purged. This morning he had shot a man in the guts; the irony was not lost on him.

He picked up his cellphone and dialled a number.

"Hello," came the menacing voice of his Master. "I trust you have sent our friend on ... heh heh heh ... a permanent vacation!"

"Yes," said Clive, "Just like Our Founder intended."

"Yes," said his Master. "As you know, Clive, our founder was Roger Cashman, the presenter of the BBC's Gearstick! since 1999."

"Yes," said Clive. "And we have been dedicated to destroying all forms of public transport ever since." He put the kettle on for more Bovril.

"But Congdon still lives!" said the Master.

"Not for long," said Clive. He ended the call. Then he picked up his ritual ping-pong paddle and began to beat himself about the face and neck with it.

"Vescere bracis meis," he intoned, tonelessly. "Sic faciunt omnes..."

I think I'm on to a winner here.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


In the week we learned that Sylvester Stallone is to make a
biopic of Edgar Allen Poe and Rambo IV...


Once upon a midday dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
O'er the many quaint and curious screenplays piled upon my floor,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my office door.
" 'Tis some screenwriter," I muttered, "tapping at my office door;
Only this, and nothing more."

Yet my business had been slacker since I hired Joel Schumacher
To direct our biggest summer movie of the year before;
And the studio bosses, after it had opened to disaster
Would surely hang me from the rafters if I could not square the score;
Would fire me from the studio if I could not square the score;
Find a hit, or work no more!

Open here I flung the shutter, and I cleared my throat to utter
Greetings to whomever waited in the hall beyond the door.
But my words turned to a groan; for I saw that Sly Stallone
Stood upon my office threshold with his agent, Ms. Lenore;
And he charged right past me followed by his agent, Ms. Lenore;
Like bulls past a matador.

Turning back, I saw them seated; feeling injured and defeated
I approached and wanly greeted them: "Sylvester! Ms. Lenore!
I sincerely hope you're thriving - had I known you were arriving
I'd have sent out for reviving frappuccinos from the store;
Frappuccinos, danish pastries, and spring water from the store -
Next time, why not call before?"

The actor sat there, massive, with his craggy face impassive,
And it seemed that I'd established neither good will nor rapport.
The signs were not propitious; I thought it certainly suspicious
That he came in train with vicious, feared and cynical Lenore -
Still I leaned across the table and began to speak - "Lenore-"
Quoth the agent: "Rambo IV!"

I staggered back, mind reeling, and with a sick and dizzy feeling
Pulled the bottle of Glentoran from its deep and secret drawer.
As I gulped the spirit gladly, I explained that business, sadly,
Was proceeding rather badly; I'd produce his films no more -
For a hit from Sly Stallone was guaranteed no more -
Quoth the agent: "Rambo IV!"

"Begone!" I cried, upstarting - "And let this word be our parting!
I saw Get Carter, Driven, Daylight - D-Tox!!! What a snore!
Your star has lost its lustre! You can't open a blockbuster!
Never will the public trust a Rambo movie - nevermore!"
And I hoped to see Stallone and his agent nevermore;
But quoth the agent: "Rambo IV!"

So the agent, never quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
In my office with a countenance that chills me to the core;
And her eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming
Of the green light for her project, scheming now and ever more!
And so although I know I'm dooming my career for ever more -
I'm producing... Rambo IV!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Torgo goes about clad in filthy, mouldering rags, but that doesn't mean you have to! Even the most loathsome of God's creatures, even Clarkson, may find his or her condition immeasurably improved by the purchase of several stylish t-shirts from; the brainchild of artist, polymath and sage Daniel Devlin. Command the respect - nay, awe - of your peers! F-ART.COM - ask for it by name.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Ask Torgo

Dear Torgo,
It's been two years or so now since my screenplay for The Punisher went into production, and now I can't seem to get started on another one. Any tips on how to beat the block?
Frustrated of San Bernardino

Dear Frustrated,
Don't despair! Chain yourself to that word processor! That done, heave it off a bridge.


Torgo dude,
Last week we like, got invited out to our boss' place? And we were smoking a little bud, and our boss goes and totally dies on us. So we, like, propped him up in his seat, and grabbed his arm and stuff, and he's like, waving, and we had to do fake voices? I don't know how much longer we can keep this up, dude.
His Excellency Cardinal Chad 'The Chadster' Zuwicki, Vatican City

Dear Chadster,
Stage a water-skiing accident, and prepare your souls for the Pit.


Dear Torgo,
Here I am with a hundred and fifty terrorist suspects crammed into the holding cells, and my granddaughter has run off with the Barney DVD! Can you recommend anything really excruciating that I could pick up from the video store, as I need to fill the interrogation quota for the week.

Donald Rumsfeld, The Pentagon, Washington DC

Dear Rummy,
You could do worse than the Dominic Sena-directed double bill of Gone in Sixty Seconds and Swordfish. Two memorable villains: Chris Ecclestone plays a Liverpudlian LA crime boss obsessed with woodworking, and John Travolta plays a man paying his aviation fuel bill. The scene where Hugh Jackman tries to make writing assembly code look thrillingly sexy will have your detainees gnawing their own arms off (and you save on the dog handling bills.)
Yours in Christ,

PS Would it kill you to pick up Sena? Secret trial, is what I'm thinking, and invoice his widow for the bullet.

Dear Torgo,
What is the martial arts style favoured by Steven Seagal, and do you know of a reputable sensei?
The Late Orson Welles, Whispering Glades, LA

Dear Orson,
Simplicity itself! Seagal's Aikido has evolved over the years, and is now known as harite-waza, or 'Fat Man Slapping'. You will require the traditional martial uniform of a giant overcoat with corset-like properties. Stand upright, arching your back so as to present your paunch in the direction of your opponent, and raise both hands in front of your face, palms facing. Now chop the air alternately as fast as your bulk will allow. A minute to learn; a lifetime to master.
Get slapping!

Dear Torgo,
Why haven't you updated your blog for the last two months?
Bill Rebane, Circle Pines WI

Dear Bill,
For a variety of reasons, but mainly that the Master and I have been going through a rough patch. He's depressed, as the last time we had a vacationing couple through here they laughed at his cape and told him he had 'a Freddie Mercury thing going on'. Plus, Rex the devil dog has dysentery. The poor guy could barely muster the energy to induct the women into his diabolical service. I know it's a bad time for him, but meanwhile it's me who has to keep the place looking damp and oily, never mind the trouble I've been having with my knees, and is there ever a word of thanks? But I've said too much.


Dear Torgo,
In the run-up to the General Election, I've become really tired of the cheap jokes characterising me as a vampire, just because my ancestors came from Transylvania and I give everyone the creeps. What can I do to get this unfunny association out of people's minds and focus them on the task of electing a Tory government?

Nosferatu, Carfax Abbey

Dear Nosher,
Things are looking up! The British People are looking for fresh blood, and your nemesis Peter Cushing is no longer drawing his stake-holder pension. Go for the jugular! And so on.

Dear Torgo,
Ever since my boss saw the last Bond film, he's been on my case about how come we haven't built him an invisible car yet. An INVISIBLE FUCKING CAR? Does he have ANY FUCKING IDEA how FUCKING RIDICULOUS THAT IS?
'X', MI6, Vauxhall Cross

Dear 'X',
On the other hand, you could run over Jeremy Clarkson, and no-one would be the wiser. I say, go for it!
Yours in hope,


Dear Torgo,
Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?
Burt Bacharach, Kansas City MO

Dear Burt,
By an amazing fluke of genetics, I smell exactly like Tippi Hedren.

What The Hell Was I Thinking?

Get ready for action. Get ready for adventure. Get ready to be profoundly disappointed. Yes, it’s Steven Seagal’s latest opus, The Foreigner, and it manages to undershoot even our most undemanding expectations.

Steven Seagal plays puffy, bloated ex-secret agent 'John Cold', honestly, now for hire to criminals across Europe, as long as they’re in Poland, which displays tremendous versatility in standing in for Paris, Germany and Norway. When we first meet him he is sweaty, post-coital, and gets steadily less appealing as time goes by. He also never - I mean never - takes off his heavy, roomy leather overcoat, which he tugs at compulsively, in order to make it hang over his paunch in a more flattering manner.

This time the villain is a man with prominent eyebrows called something like Japhet or Jardel who is trying to intercept a mysterious package coming in from Russia. He hires a pair of fey Frenchmen: Marquet and Dunois. Both these fellows are played by tremendously available English actors with English and Scottish accents respectively; Dunois in particular comes on like a Z-list Robert Carlisle impersonator circa Trainspotting. He’s a shifty hitman who wears sunglasses on his forehead and smokes a lot. It’s a performance of only a little less dignity and competence than the gibbering monkey-boy from Versus. Marquet sends Dunois and Cold to get the package from a pair of Russians in a deserted French farmhouse (in Poland); the farmhouse is ambushed by various commandoes; Seagal shoots them all from his position hiding to one side of the fireplace. Suddenly we see a flashback of Seagal in a club, or it may be a fashion show (it’s a bit confusing; I thought I was tripping), spotting Dunois with one of the mystery assailants. On returning to Marquet ‘s chateau in Versailles (Poland) he tips him off to his colleague’s possible treachery, and leaves for Poland (Poland), where he is to take the package. Luckily he has an excuse to go there: it the funeral of his father, whom we are to assume was some sort of ambassador-cum-intelligence agent. Seagal’s brother has also joined the family business; he’s about 20, so judging by Seagal’s looks Dad must have still been pretty frisky at 70-odd. Dead Dad’s right hand man is also revealed to be - gasp! - the villainous Jehoshaphat. By this point - only about forty minutes in - we are simply pinned to our seats.

Cold decides to deliver the package, but he needs to be sneaky about it, because Jehangir is after it; and unbeknownst to him Dunois has decided to shoot Marquet, two cockney Frenchmen, and a French (Polish) maid, in order to join the hunt. I wasn’t quite sure who was working for who by this point but we know that whoever’s currently pointing a handgun at Seagal’s ample jowls is probably a bad guy. Seagal contacts the wife of Van Aiken, the man the package is addressed to, and sends a passer-by to a rendezvous with a fake package for no good reason. This fools nobody, and on returning to his apartment he is smashed on the head by a man who looks exactly like Ainsley Harriot, and is only ten or fifteen times more unbearable. Ainsley threatens Seagal until he takes him to the left-luggage locker where the real package is, although it turns out not to be the real package, but rather a bomb, which duly explodes killing Ainsley to the great relief of all concerned. Although the train station is flattened, Seagal, who was jumping in the air at the time, is unharmed by the blast. He takes umbrage at being kidnapped, however, shoots his way into Van Aiken’s wife’s bathroom, and stands there in his leather coat, hectoring her as she lies in the tub. After some pointless chat they go their separate ways.

Meanwhile Jamal, tiring of the admittedly very tiresome Dunois, has hired a new assassin to follow Seagal unobtrusively around Poland, and naturally selects a man who looks like Ray Charles wearing a leather coat. Ray Charles then books in to the Hotel Terminus, Warsaw (Poland), in the name of John Cold, perhaps reasoning that this will draw Seagal out of hiding, although I can’t see it myself. Dunois turns up looking for Cold, shoots the receptionist (he tends to shoot any character with less than three lines), goes upstairs, and is blasted out of the second-story window by a shotgun-wielding Charles, who is a bit miffed himself: he’s just spent ten minutes following a big fat mullety leather-overcoat-wearing man in a silver Merc; he has turned out to be a lookalike paid by Seagal; and this has obliged him to shoot the blameless Pole. Still, the violent undignified death of Dunois has proved a fillip for the audience, especially coming so soon after Ainsley’s fiery demise, and we’re all set up for the third act.

Cold decides that, notwithstanding his many pronouncements on the inadvisability of opening the package, he wants to know what’s in there, and it probably comes as a surprise to him to find that, after having spent the whole film tossing it from hand to hand like a box of Kleenex, it contains an aircraft black box and several reams of documents. These materials implicate Jermaine and Van Aiken in the ‘terrorist’ bombing of a Jumbo Jet, and Mrs Van Aiken confirms that it was bombed to kill her lover, who was making biological weapons for them and was going to Greece to blow the whistle, although it’s such a poor weak thin excuse for a motive I don’t know why I bother relating it. The incriminating papers are hidden in a farmhouse in Norway (Poland). Cold decides to see Van Aiken, but before he can get there he is waylaid by Ray Charles at his hotel. Seagal lures him to a deserted warehouse with the promise of a CD worth lots of money, disarms him, and, heaving his great bulk into action with the aid of what appears to be Harryhausen-style stop-motion photography, kicks his ass in a flabby, jaded manner. Naturally, he has booby-trapped the CD with plastique, but it is only when Ray cravenly pulls a derringer from his sock that Seagal gets around to throwing it at the poor man, exploding his bowels over a wide area.

Get ready for a sigh of exasperation, because here comes Dunois again, having survived his apparent death, and sneaking up on Seagal he gets him at gunpoint. But he is then distracted by Mrs Van Aiken who somehow knows where they are, and as he turns towards the doorway he is clonked on the head with a big metal pole, so you wonder why they bothered having him turn up at all. Everyone escapes, the warehouse is blown up by the CIA, and Seagal goes to beard Van Aiken in his lair. Loitering around by the gates he is again accosted by the eternally annoying Dunois, who tells him they don’t stand a chance of getting in unless they team up because there are six or seven guards. So Seagal wheezes over to a grassy knoll and shoots them one by one with a sniper rifle, and each one falls over a railing into a swimming pool. Then they go inside, and - no! - Dunois tries to double-cross our hero; but Seagal has been too clever: he’s unloaded Dunois’ gun. So he shoots Dunois and we exult once more.

Now John Cold comes face to puffy face with the dastardly Van Aiken, who turns out to be a camp, reedy Dane in a smoking jacket. A pointless chat ensues in which the director has had an excellent idea for framing the dialogue: the camera zooms in on Seagal’s great meaty expanse of face, and Van Aiken is visible as a tiny head reflected in the mirror over his shoulder. We focus alternately on each man so that as Van Aiken speaks Seagal is naught but a mottled blur covering half the screen. Seagal leaves, and it is with strange relief that we see Dunois reappear, having cheated death again, to riddle Van Aiken’s knees with machine-gun fire. (I had thought he was working for him, but there you go.)

Seagal and Mrs Van Aiken now travel to the more Polish parts of Norway to recover the documents; some bad guys turn up but Seagal disarms them, shoots them, and saves the Van Aiken child from a burning house and although said moppet is wearing a wide grin the whole time the director clearly just doesn’t care. In a shocking twist, Seagal has relinquished his huge black leather coat in favour of a huge suedy leather coat in a nasty shade of used-nappy tan. The three then flee to Paris (Poland with a two second archive clip of the Eiffel Tower) where they run into the incomparably tedious Dunois, and a battle royale ensues. I say a battle royale, it’s actually more like a battle Royale with Cheese: Seagal disarms his hapless enemy AGAIN, lurches out of the way of three or four haymakers, and fells him with an Aikido chop, not, you feel, the only kind of chop with which our hero is intimately acquainted. Then, sensibly, Mrs Van Aiken ditches Seagal in a café. Fade to black. Fade up on Seagal sitting on the prow of a motor launch in a dismal swamp somewhere, reading a letter. It says she is going away and will never see him again. Roll credits.

Now, you may be beset by questions. What happened to J. Jonah Jamieson? Is Dunois really dead? Why were there so many long scenes of cars parking, people getting out of cars, walking from cars to doors, walking out of doors to cars, getting into cars, and then driving away? “John Cold”’s kind of a loser, isn’t he? What the hell kind of ending was that, they run out of money? But it is the essential genius of The Foreigner - the title itself a reference to Camus’ classic, L’Etranger - that these questions, existential by their very nature, must be answered for each person in their own way. Think about it, won’t you? I thank you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Free Moby

Following the ecstatic reaction of Ursula Le Guin to the Wizard of Earthsea miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, its producers are branching out with an adaptation of Herman Melville's timeless classic in Free Moby; in which kindly-but-crusty Cap'n Ahab is taught the true meaning of friendship by the white whale he comes to love.

"We've been very, very honest to the book," explains director Rob Lieberman. "We've tried to capture all the levels of spiritualism, emotional content and metaphorical messages. Throughout the whole piece, I saw it as the story of a man who has forgotten what it means to be close to people. He's closed himself off, even to the beautiful and feisty First Mate Jessica Starbuck, whom he secretly loves. But in pursuing the white whale Moby Dick, he learns a new respect for the great beast, remembers his own humanity, and in the end turns on the evil harpoon crew. Those guys put in a great performance, by the way, especially Edward Fox as St John Fawkes-Queequeg and Tony Hopkins as Sir Benedict Fedallah-Smyth."

Lieberman defended himself from critics who charged the Sci-Fi channel with disregard for Melville's classic story.

"Hey, if Mel was alive today, I think he'd like what we did with his book. I bet if we showed him the new ending, where Moby saves Ahab from Fedallah by impaling him on the Captain's skeletal leg, he'd be out of his seat cheering with the rest of the preview audience."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Clarkson So Dismal, So Appalling?

It's nearly Christmas, which means that there's absolutely nothing on the telly. Why else was I reduced to watching Top Gear last night? It's the very first time I've ever sat through more Top Gear longer than it takes to locate any other random channel with the remote. On BBC 1 there was festive repeated stabbing in Hallowe'en, on Channel 4 they were droning on about Noah, and I didn't even bother to check ITV; so I was stuck with Jeremy Clarkson. Any milk of human kindness appropriate to the festive season instantly evaporated...

Clarkson's loathsomeness has been expounded upon the other day in the Observer magazine, where you can read all about him ramming elderly trees and churning up virgin hillsides as part of the Top Gear experience. But you really need to see him in action to get a flavour of how hateful he is.

In a cunning move, the producers of Top Gear have surrounded him with two strikingly similar toadies, in open-necked shirts tucked in to slacks, and dark jackets. Clarkson himself sports the dark jacket, a really horrid mossy-green polo shirt, and ball-crushingly tight blue jeans , for the complete mid-life crisis look. Here's a man both failing to look smart-but-casual, and trying not to look like he's trying, because he's so cool. If it's that hard to say just imagine what it looks like. He's so darn cool in fact that he wears exactly the same outfit every time you see him. He makes Simon Cowell look like Steve McQueen.

Worse, the toadies - a dwarf and a man with floppy hair - are trying to look like him. I can only assume they are hoping that one day they can host terrible programmes of their very own, buy their own sports cars, and career down the motorway at 130mph, stroking the gearstick rhythmically to the sounds of Phil Collins.

Much of Top Gear is taken up by seeing which of two cars can go faster around a track. "Let's pit a Mitsubishi Evo against an Audi Quattro!" Clarkson blathers, asking the studio audience which they think can go faster. Astoundingly, they are split 50-50, which is the distribution you'd expect if they neither knew nor cared. (I forgot who won.)

Next we had the second part of a race between the toadies and Jeremy to see who could get from London to Verbier quickest. The toadies would take the planes, trains, and buses, and Clarkson would be taking a Ferrari. We joined him in France, where he'd just got a speeding ticket. This didn't deter him at all, and I watched as he shot down the French motorways at some obscene speed, with one hand on the wheel, chatting to the camera in his passenger seat. Yes, this is what I pay my license fee for - stuff live cricket, let's have an overpaid tosser endanger the lives of Frenchmen!

Clarkson likes to paint himself as a sort of oppressed patron saint of the automobile, assailed on every side by the powerful and ruthless environmentalists who run our governments. (He's also one of those people who's always complaining about 'Political Correctness'. Funny, those guys who are always going on about how diabolical lefties are trying to muzzle them - they tend to get lucrative broadcasting contracts rather than getting chucked into the gulags.) So this whole reckless endeavour was, for him, a symbol of the struggle between the car and - shudder! - integrated transport systems.

Well, he got there first. And he was very, very smug about it. Clarkson seemed to think that he'd proved some sort of point - that Greenpeace might as well pack up and go home. And it's true - he had shown that rather than take a plane, a train, and a bus journey to the ski slopes, it was in fact quicker to buy a £60,000 sports car and drive at top speed to Switzerland, breaking the law, risking life and limb on icy mountain passes, staying awake for 11 hours of continuous driving, and spending hundreds of pounds on petrol. Quicker by 300 seconds. Good for you, Jeremy. Next time, could we have less of the smugness and more of the losing control on hairpin Alpine bends? A bit more of the being scraped from your flaming, twisted metal coffin like so much raspberry conserve? That would be lovely.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Saints and Sinners

I bought a movie classic on DVD the other day. Now, many people misunderstand The Saint; but it is, undeniably, one of the towering absurdist masterpieces of modern cinema.

Consider if you will the movie's central premise: that Val Kilmer is a master of disguise and espionage. But it then cleverly undercuts this; Kilmer's increasingly ridiculous disguises a) are tremendously conspicuous b) look just like him and c) are instantly penetrated by the bad guys. As a result, Philip Noyce creates a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt - as an audience, we are forced to confront the artificiality of cinema itself. What is the artifice of Hollywood but a disguise of the truth - one which we allow to deceive us?

An example of the film's brilliantly twisted narrative logic: Kilmer must recover the formula for cold fusion from Elisabeth Shue's ditzy genius - she keeps it hidden in her bra. So, if you were a suave international man of mystery, how would you seduce her? Kilmer gives us a greasy-haired, buck-toothed character in a frilly shirt and leather trousers, with a very camp and lisping accent somewhere between German and South African. When she asks him who he is, Kilmer replies with one of the most enduring lines in the modern history of cinema: "Chust a twaveller, searching for pew-witty." Nevertheless, in The Saint's skewed universe, this ghastly creature is in bed with the demure and mousy professor at the drop of a hat. Again, Noyce is playing with our expectations, satirising the archetype of the gentleman spy, and offering a comment upon movie aesthetics. Everything in the script and direction, and the very grammar of the genre, is telling us that Kilmer is supposed to be attractive, but we cannot ignore the evidence of our own eyes: he is repulsive.

From then on, the film becomes a narrative of the hero's continual failure and humiliation - continually unmasked, his wiles and ruses thwarted at every turn. However, Noyce manages to keep twisting the plot in his favour with ever-more surreal devices - distortions of reality that serve to keep the audience off-balance, alienated, and aware of the manipulations of genre. The scene where Kilmer and Shue, fleeing from killers deep in the Russian sewers, open a door and find themselves in the Bond-style hideout of an arch art-thief, is a case in point. The thief's only function in the plot is to facilitate their escape; there is no mention of this character either before or after her appearance. Look, Noyce is saying, here is a character used in a completely arbitrary way to save our protagonist, for whose existence we had no evidence before, but who commands tremendous hidden resources; is it going too far to see it as a critique of an interventionist God? That a world with redemption, with a Saviour, may be as meaningless as one without? (Remember, Kilmer's Sainthood is a label without a referent - an empty tag.)

In fact, there is perhaps only one film of recent times that can stand comparison with Noyce's magnum opus: Rowdy Herrington's majestic study of neurotic machismo, Road House.

Friday, December 03, 2004

"A submarine could take this place out."

A heart-warming story from Sidney Blumenthal. With every word he says, George Bush just gets more and more cuddly, doesn't he?

This is fantastic

Flo Control.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Colin Farrell: Not Tall

It has been suggested, in certain quarters, that Colin Farrell is not the huge star that perhaps we expected to see since his breakthrough role in Joel Schumacher's Tigerland - this following the widespread panning and disappointing box-office takings of Oliver Stone's new epic, Alexander. The reviews got me thinking of the sainted Goran Visnjic is Spartacus, in fact (ha, Rolling Stone - you complain about a 'three-hour long buttnumbathon' - how little you know!)

Well, I haven't seen Alexander yet, so in search of that elusive star quality I rented Farrell's 2003 vehicle, S.W.A.T.

Colin Farrell plays a wee little man who works for LAPD S.W.A.T.. During an assault on some incompetent hostage-taking bank robbers, his wee little partner Gamble disobeys an order, and Farrell backs him up. The hostages are saved, but one of them incurs a flesh wound as a result of Gamble's impetuosity, and decides to sue the City. The audience doesn't care.

The chief of police, who is a pencil-pushing bureaucrat, one of those 'Not a real cop' roles, demotes Farrell and Gamble and attempts to get Farrell to rat his partner out in exchange for leniency. Farrell refuses and takes the demotion, while Gamble, who thinks his partner has betrayed him, flounces off in a huff. We care not a whit.

Months pass, and Farrell is still cleaning guns and pining for S.W.A.T. Meanwhile, a Frenchman, played by Kylie's boyfriend, arrives in town with nefarious deeds on his mind. It transpires he is one of those billionaire French crime lords we are always hearing about, and he stabs his uncle in a restaurant. Moments later, he is pulled over for a busted tail-light, and imprisoned. The audience remains resolutely unmoved.

Farrell is recruited by grizzled veteran Samuel L Jackson ("He was the best!") to be part of a new elite S.W.A.T. unit, although we don't really know why, and it's unclear why Pencil-Neck Boss lets Jackson pick all his least favourite people to be in the squad. These comprise a man with a moustache, a preppy-looking bloke out of Dead Poets' Society, LL Cool J, and the good-looking Michelle Rodriguez, who handily ticks those 'Hispanic' and 'Babe' boxes on the demographics chart. Let's call them Hairy, Preppy, Rappy, Spicy, and Mini. They train, bond, and defeat every effort of the Pencil-Neck Boss to sabotage them. The audience wonders why he wants them to fail given that he has invested much time and money in them, but perhaps it is due to the fact that he inexplicably gave the go-ahead in the first place, and feels that he should thwart those of his own decisions for which there is no clear rationale. The audience then checks its watch and is startled to discover that an hour and a quarter has gone by. It felt rather like five and a quarter.

Kylie's beau, meanwhile, has been discovered to be an International Crime Lord and promptly offers $100M to anyone who busts him out of jail. A montage follows in which we see this reported on news networks worldwide; many central-casting gang members, looking like the Kids from Fame gone to seed, say things like 'Madre de Dios!' and exchange leathery but meaningful looks. It is plain that they are going to take the job on! Jings! Crivens! But no. We just don't care.

The movie now centres on the efforts of seven people - the S.W.A.T. team, Jackson, and The Other Black S.W.A.T. Boss, to move Mr Kylie to some prison somewhere. An attempt to move him via helicopter is fails, as they are attacked by a sniper, so they set up a huge ostentatious motorcade. This is promptly attacked by machine-gunners in a painfully boring series of hackneyed pyrotechnics. We are not surprised, no, not at all, when at the end of this sequence it transpires - gasp! - that the French Guy, or "Frog" as every character calls him 100 times each, wasn't in any of the big cars, but is being moved by Mini Farrell's team in discreet little cars. So just a bunch of dead cops then, that's OK. Jesus Christ it's been going on for almost two hours, is there no end?

This plan goes awry when it turns out that Preppy S.W.A.T. has been in league with the embittered mercenary Gamble, who holds up the car with the French Guy in it and liberates him. In the struggle, Hairy is shot, but we don't care because he is just a blue combat suit with a tache on. The team give chase and find themselves in a long, winding, endless scene, I mean tunnel. Gamble and Co. escape for a bit. Then Farrell finds them landing a jet on a bridge to make their getaway. A pallid gun battle ensues. The French Guy is captured; Spicy is shot harmlessly in the vest; Preppy is cornered and shoots himself; and Farrell pursues Gamble into a dark train yard. We begin to wonder about our top ten snooker players of all time. Where to put Terry Griffiths?

In the thrilling climax of the movie, two miniature and near-identical men dressed exactly alike are engaged in a life-or-death struggle in the dark. One of them is decapitated by a train. Our spirits lift when, deceived by the inky gloom, we think for a second that Mini Farrell is the Headless Wonder, but it is not to be. It is Gamble. The fact that Hairy, who was shot in the throat, also pulls through, is the final insult.

So, S.W.A.T. sucks so hard it is amazing that it's even visible, but what of Farrell? Well, he's a complete nonentity. He lights up the screen not at all. The moustache upstages him. Why Oliver Stone feels that he can embody Alexander the Great is a mystery... did he even consider Goran Visnjic?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Welcome... my blog.

It's just a place where I'm going to post, occasionally, reviews, thoughts, links to things and anything else which looks even vaguely interesting (well, if you're reading this, you must have some time on your hands...)

I'm going to kick off with a review of the comedy hit of the year.

Now read on...

Spartacus (Goran Visnjic is Spartacus, as the DVD box has it) is the epic mini-series telling the story of one slave who brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

Once upon a time, there were two successful and well-regarded swords-and-sandals movies: Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, and Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. And lo, the success of the latter begat a TV remake of the former. From the opening shot, where the camera zooms in over a CGI Rome so full of flickery textures it appears to have been rendered on a Commodore 64, the dangers of inbreeding have never been so evident.

We start with a good hefty slab of exposition. With much history to lay out, Spartacus opts for the method that dumps the most information with the least talent or technique required on the screenwriter's part - narration. Varinia tells us what's going on even when we can see perfectly well, for example, that her village in Gaul is being attacked and its inhabitants killed or sold into slavery. (The Romans obviously find them desirable slaves, as they appear to have just stepped out of Hollywood hair and beauty salons.) She does a LOT of narration throughout this film, which suggests to me they tacked it on Blade Runner style to try to make it make sense.

Next we meet our hero - Spartacus! Or, Goran Visnjic off E.R. Sorry, everyone. He first appears breaking rocks in a labour camp, glowering from beneath a shaggy nylon wig and glued-on whiskers, but by the time he's been dragged off to become a gladiator he has settled in to his look for the rest of the film. His hair is perfectly-styled, his stubble never grows any thicker, and his nails are impeccable - manicured, buffed and shining a healthy pink. We soon learn that he's a bit handy with his fists, and he even teaches Ross Kemp, as his trainer Cinna, a thing or two. (Ross Kemp, the pop-eyed heavy on the UK soap opera 'Eastenders' for many years, mainly shouts and hits people, so no change there.)

Meanwhile, in Rome, the Senate is meeting. The Senate is ALWAYS meeting. Whenever the camera tires of gazing into Goran's deep, blank eyes, it is whisked away to Rome for ten minutes of jollity with 71BC's version of C-SPAN. Gasp as Alan Bates, as Agrippa, scores waspish debating points against Angus MacFadyen's Crassus! The bickering sizzles across the screen. To cool down, why not accompany these waddling fatsoes to the Baths as well? How does ten minutes grab you?

Boy those Romans are evil. You can tell they're evil because they are paunchy, they all have British accents, and the more evil they are the more upper-class they sound. Crassus, in particular, who looks like a cross between Russell Crowe and Herbert Lom, speaks in a whiny drawl so high up the social spectrum it shades into some sort of incomprehensible ultraviolet of evil poshness. Ian McNiece's Incredulus Battiatus (I think that was what he said his name was) is just a purely loathsome slave-driver straight from Central Casting. Occasionally, there's a Roman woman who pops up, wearing a ludicrous wig and laughing cruelly, but it's not very often, because the decadent Romans are depicted as either being gay, in comparison to our strapping, red-blooded gladiators, or only interested in raping the slaves. We get to see all of them have loooong evil conversations with each other about nothing very interesting. Sometimes they meet at the Senate. Sometimes they meet at the Baths. Hey, did I mention they like to talk at the Senate a lot?

When we go back to Goran again, he and his hair are falling in love with slave girl Varinia (Rhona Mitra - she's mainly a slave to Pantene, it seems.) They spend the night together and in the morning Goran gets up with exactly the same amount of beard as he went to bed with. Gladiator training is hard; you have to learn to avoid being poked with a stick, and there's lots of practise at slight ducking. But it pays off, because Goran is a demon in the arena. We see a montage of his bloody victories. They trouble him; we can tell because his stubble gets very slightly thicker.

There are really very few other clues to know how he's feeling. If he's being earnest he tends to tilt his chin up a bit; if he's brooding, he tilts it down and probably leans his head against a wall. This is because Visnjic has the emotional range of an anglepoise desk lamp, not to mention the charisma of Cliff Richard. When Visnjic wants to depict raging, unstoppable battle-frenzy, his chiselled features become a chilling mask of peevishness.

After a while, the slaves revolt, under the leadership of the log-like Goran, some assorted muscle Maries, and James Frain, who is apparently playing Lumpy the Elf. The mighty Roman Army is despatched to deal with them. This elite fighting force consists of about twelve panicky men, and they are quickly routed (the battle scenes are apparently filmed under the constraint that there be no more than twelve people in the shot at any time. It does, it has to be said, pose problems; Spartacus' army is supposed to be 70,000 strong, but the battles look like skirmishes at a Renaissance Festival. I kept expecting Hercules and Xena to scamper into view).

The action now shifts into top gear, as Spartacus on the one side, and various Battiatus types on the other, make long speeches. We get to see one speech, followed by another speech. Probably we'll drop in on the baths for some talking, then go see what Spartacus is discussing with his oily, bare-chested generals (something for the ladies!), then swing by the Senate again and catch a debate, I hear the speeches are great this time of year. When there's a fight scene next you can cut the anticipation with a knife !

Yes, Goran's a hell of a general, too, and we get to see him prove it, about sixteen hours in. He develops a strategy by which his rag-tag bunch of freed slaves defeats a Roman legion by luring two or three of their infantry into some trees, and then charging out at them. Flushed with success, Goran broods a bit, then makes an earnest speech.

The film is the approximate length of the Mesozoic Era, so you may decide to skip to the end. Through the machinations of a Sicilian pirate (you Lando, you!) it seems Spartacus' army is doomed. His big-nosed Gaulish friend deserts him and is killed, and his escape route, presumably back to E.R., is cut off. The final battle scene is ominously prefigured; Crassus, commanding the might of Rome, is having strange visions. Now and then, the camera zooms in as he gets a squinty, furtive look, and we cut to - Goran, standing in a cloud of backlit dry ice, like a leather-fetish Bryan Ferry, while haunting Enya music plays. Could it be that he is having premonitions of his own death??!? At the hands of Spartacus???! D'ye think?!?!

Er, no. In the battle, Spartacus gets repeatedly stabbed without coming anywhere near Crassus, who seems quite peeved, and then all the slaves are crucified, ending with Lumpy. But there is at least a happy ending - the evil institution of slavery, which the film rightly rails against, only endured in the West for about another 2000 years, and the evil British, er, Roman Empire fell a mere 400 years later.

I wish I could say this film had a single redeeming feature, but all I can think of is that it has made me laugh more than almost any other film I have ever seen, and I'm not sure they intended that... but, Goran, if you did... the House of Battiatus salutes you!

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