reviews, links, comment, assorted ramblings

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!

Click here for most recent posts.