Thursday, October 30, 2003

Observational 'Comedy'

(Form of humour)

JAMES says:

Have you ever noticed how most observational comedy is rubbish? Really, it’s just a case of having eyes and ears. People often answer their mobile phones by telling people where they are? Really? Aeroplane food isn’t very tasty? How fascinating. Truth may be Beauty, but it isn’t necessarily funny. Early episodes of Seinfeld were often blighted by his humourous observations about modern life, by far the weakest part of the show. It’s just lazy. No need to think of a punch-line, or a comedic anecdote, just think about what you did at breakfast. Even worse than observational comedians are those who laugh at them. What is wrong with you people? Would you laugh if I told you how stupid you are? That’s an observation. In any sane and just society, anyone found guilty of observational comedy would have their eyes gouged out. Have you ever noticed how painful it is to have red hot pokers rammed into your sockets and twisted around? Eh?


Harry Potter

(Global multimedia phemomenom)

NEILL says:

Yeah, so I finally read a Harry Potter book. I'm not proud of it, but I did. that's it for me, then. It's all over. I might as well buy a mobile phone, start wearing tucked-in shirts and listening to fucking Coldplay or something.

For fucks sake.


Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Comparitive Review: The Flintstones VS The Jetsons

(Hanna-Barbara Cartoon Families)


The Flintstones

Apparently, the stone age was just like a 1950s American Sitcom. Who would’ve thought it? The Flintstones contains so many factual inaccuracies it would take a whole review to list them. So I will. For a start, no matter what Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell might tell you, at no point in history did man and dinosaur coexist. In the era of the dinosaurs the only mammals were little furry mice. Even considering some kind of Lost World style enclave which survived extinction, the dinosaurs portrayed in The Flintstones (those that had any basis in reality) would not coexist. They’d eat each other, then Fred Flintstone. Plus, all the inhabitants of Bedrock are Caucasian, but it is implicit that the series is set in America, judging by the climate and fauna. Yet there were no Caucasians in America, save a few Vikings, until 1496. Even the indigenous population were fairly late arrivals archeologically speaking. And to hypothesise that, not only was there a society of white people and dinosaurs living together in harmony, but that this society had progressed to the stage of developing currency, buildings, even rudimentary transport, for goodness sake, it just stretches the imagination a little too much. The Flintstones makes Braveheart seem historically accurate.


The Jetsons

Now this is more like it. A worthy extrapolation of what the future will be like, and in the 21st century it’s uncanny just how much they’ve got right. Sure we don’t have robot maids or flying cars yet, but video phones, computers and short bad tempered bosses are all common place. But, the genius of the show is how it used the future as a mirror to satirise the society of the time. Kids unintelligible dances and fashions become even more unintelligible and alien. The increasing mechanisation of the workplace is represented by George’s job consisting of pressing one single button. By looking at the future the show forced Americans to look at themselves. But it was satire with a heart, and that heart was George and his family. They all loved each other, even the hired robot help, and it was reassuring that love and family would still be around, even though they looked in danger of collapsing at the time. The future’s bright, the future’s The Jetsons.


Monday, October 20, 2003

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires

Dir: Roy Ward Baker, Chang Cheh, 1974

NEILL says:

'Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires' (AKA '7 Brothers Versus Dracula', AKA '7 Brothers and a Sister Meet Dracula') is a 1974 Hammer/ Shaw Bros. co-production in which Peter Cushing as Profesor Van Helsing teams up with a plucky band of martial artists and a busty blonde scandinavian woman to fight evil vampires and kung-fu zombies in rural China.

Now, anyone in possession of all their faculties would read the above description and think 'By Christ, that sounds like the single greatest film ever made!' And yes, by Christ, it does. The fight scenes are energetically choregraphed, the special effects are an endearing blend of laughable cheap fakery and genuine gruesomeness, and there are not one but several scenes featuring a bevy of naked screaming chinese virgins. A BEVY, I tell you.

It is with a heavy heart then that I must inform you that it is not, in fact, the single greatest film ever made, by Christ. In fact, it's all a bit dull. There are several problems with the script, foremost amongst which is that no-one involved seems to have actually bothered to write one. It takes a rare blend of perseverance and determination to make a movie about kung-fu vampires and naked screaming chinese virgins and actually make it dull, and the writer here has pulled off the trick with applomb. The screenplay is credited to 'Don Houghton', but in fact this is merely a clever anagram for 'Don't Thug No Ho', a fact which I think speaks for itself.

To see the true entertainment possibilities inherent in kung-fu vampires, I would refer you to the 1985 Ching-Ying Lam / Ricky Lau classic, 'Mr Vampire', which may not boast Peter Cushing, but in its defence actually IS the single greatest film ever made. By Christ.


Buy on Amazon:
The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires [1974]

Friday, October 17, 2003



NEILL says:

There has always been a heated debate on the vexed question of what is, in fact, the best year. "When I was seventeen", sang Frank Sinatra, "it was a very good year". By my calculations, Frank Sinatra would have been seventeen roughly circa 1843, so we shall have to take his word that it was some pretty hot shit. The Wu-Tang Clan spoke out boldly against such reactionary attitudes on 'Can It Be All So Simple', where they invite us to:

"Remember back in the days when, shit, everything was all smooth and calm and shit was like, yo like back in seventy, fucking '79...?"
"Nah nah, '87, that was my favourite shit, everything was like, fuck, everything was lovely, man"

Clearly, if the usually united Wu cannot even agree amongst themselves, we are dealing with a question of the utmost seriousness. I have done some fairly extensive research into the subject myself, and am pleased to announce my findings here on URT. There were several strong contenders for the title of Best Year Ever, including old stand-bys such as 1945 (Hitler dies, Europe liberated) and mainstream classics like 1977 ('Star Wars' released, Neill Cameron born).

However, after much deliberation I've had to settle on 1996. It is of course unutterably pitiful to be the sort of wanker who spends the rest of their life looking back on their student days with smug nostalgia, and it is terrifying to consider the prospect of having 'peaked' at age 19, but it has to be said that all in all it was a pretty god damn good fucking year. There was laughter, there were tears, we all learned a lot about life... and each other.

1996: a rollercoaster ride of sex, drugs and Mario Kart addiction. Any way you look at it, that's got to beat working for a living.


JAMES says:

The darker side of 1996; TFI Friday, Oasis, The Lightning Seeds featuring Baddiel and Skinner with Three Lions, War in the Balkans, the Girlie Show, Northern Uproar, Neil Morrisey a sex symbol, A levels, Peter Andre, the internet nothing but a group of sad cases discussing Science Fiction, Tory Government, three day weeks, rubbish piling up in the streets.

In the words of the great ones, the best place to be is right here, the best time to be is right now.

And besides, 1995 was much better.


Little Nemo

By Windsor McKay
(Comic Strip)

NEILL says:

No-good Damn Punk Kid! For the love of god, would you just not eat before you go to bed!?!


JAMES says:

It’s all so beautiful! Little Nemo by Windsor McKay ran in the Sunday newspaper comic section from about 1905 to 1914, and tells the tale of a little kid who has some pretty freaky dreams. Obviously I wasn’t a fan at the time (being more of a Katzenjammer Kids man), but I’ve since got into in through a big shiny book reprinting a whole bunch of them. And how lovely they are. I was pretty much speechless when I first started turning the pages, they were that good. McKay can draw really outlandish things, like a camel-drawn carriage slipping on some fudge, and really make you think, yes, that is exactly how it would look. And that guy had some imagination, jeez, you have to wonder what he was eating before bed!

Seeing as it dates to the very birth of comics, unsurpiringly the narrative lets it down a bit. McKay was still finding his feet, as everyone was, when it came to narrative story-telling. To begin with he had sentences under his panels a la Rupert, but couldn’t quiet match them up so you were never sure which sentence matches which panel. Then he just put all the story at the start, so you knew what was going to happen through the pictures. He did finally get the hang of just letting the pictures and word bubbles tell the story. Also, the story itself isn’t terribly varied, consisting of Nemo trying to get to Slumberland to play with the princess (the title being a bit misleading as he doesn’t even get to Slumberland for the first year or so) before being woken up by something or other. But, like a PG Wodehouse story, it is the repetition that allows the master to ply his craft.

The only cartoonist I can think of that even comes close to McKay is Bill Waterson. Calvin and Hobbes is certainly funnier than Little Nemo (though the bit where little George Washington got Little Nemo in trouble for chopping down a cherry tree made me chuckle). But, for my money, there isn’t anyone who could draw as just plain good as McKay (apart from Neill, obviously).


Buy on Amazon: Little Nemo in Slumberland: v. 1

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The Pound

(Unit of Currency)

JAMES says:

Ah, the Great British Pound! An integral part of our culture, obviously, as it’s what we buy things with. If we were to lose the pound, it would be another part of our national identity chipped away. But would it? Would it really? Let’s think about what the pound really is. It’s a scale on which we can measure and compare the values of goods and services. It’s a unit, basically. It’s about as integral to our culture as inches or, dare I say it, pints. We survived the loss of the shilling with only minor national moral degradation, so I daresay we could survive the loss of the pound. Not that I’m saying we should run headlong into the euro. There are many economic reasons for not joining a single currency, not least of which is the fact that it would give some of the power over our country’s financial future to the French. But, to make a judgement on it for nationalistic or sentimental reasons makes as much sense as saying that Jesus wants us to keep the pound. Really, does it make that much difference having an E with some lines on in than an L with some lines on it? Unless you’re Bez (boom boom).


NEILL says:

“There are many economic reasons for not joining a single currency, not least of which is the fact that it would give some of the power over our country's financial future to the French. But, to make a judgement on it for nationalistic or sentimental reasons....”

…is the glaring paradox created by the juxtaposition of these 2 sentences comedy-intentional?

JAMES says:

That's not nationalistic, that's just good common sense.

Alfred Hitchcock


JAMES says:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The man Hitch. What a guy. No other fat guy in history commands as much respect as old Alfie, and he deserves it. A sort of Anti-Father Christmas, a kindly old man who instead of toys distributes incredibly disturbing films. Hitchcock treads the line between artistic vision and commercial success in a way not often seen. He was a master of imagery, of the mis-en-scene, and a major inspiration to the French New-wavers of the sixties. He was also one of the most visually innovative directors of his time. Witness the dream sequences in Vertigo and Spellbound (directed by Salvador Dali).

When you sit down to a Hitchcock film, you pretty much know it’s going to be a good’un. While he has admittedly done a couple of duff ones (Topaz and Jamaica Inn don’t really bear repeated viewing) considering the number of films he churned out the quality levels are usually set surprisingly high. And that’s not including the classics, such as Psycho or Rear Window. And in Vertigo, which I consider the pinnacle of his career, we have one of the all time greatest films of all time ever. There are better directed films than Vertigo, and other directors with good track records, but I honestly cannot think of a director as consistently good as Hitchcock.

You might claim a limited range, but he could do it all, from psychological thrillers to psychologically thrilling black comedies. But his strength was in his ability to unsettle. He could do it with something as simple as a striped cushion in Spellbound, or as explicit as the rape scene in Frenzy, filmed in unflinching long shots and as a result a lot more uncomfortable than the jump cuts of the infamous shower scene. Apparently all Hitchcock’s fears derived from a time when he was locked in a prison as a child, to teach him ‘what happens to naughty boys.’ His greatest gift is the ability to recreate this childhood sense of fear and helplessness.

He is helped in this by usually having a fantastic cast. There could not be a more icily beautiful leading lady than Grace Kelly, nor a more effortlessly likable and charming leading man than Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart (though slightly miscast as a Nietzschean in Rope). He even got Richard from Keeping Up Appearances for Frenzy. But the biggest star was always Hitch himself. He created a cult of personality around himself, unusual for a director. He made sure he made an appearance in each of his films, though usually near the start so people didn’t spend the whole film looking for him. He even managed to make a cameo in a film set entirely in a life boat with two men in it. And he had a very distinctive silhouette. Imagine how good 24 could have been if Hitchcock had been around to direct it.


NEILL says:

My brother mentions the fact, familiar to all self-respecting cinephiles, that Hitchcock made a point of appearing in cameo roles in all his own films. What is equally fascinating but less well-known is that he also appears in each of the movies of Molly Ringwald. Adopting a series of ingenious disguises, the corpulent presumed-dead auteur can be seen in such fleeting but memorable roles as 'Geeks father' in The Breakfast Club, and 'Prom Bitch no. 2' in Pretty in Pink. Hitch would keep his identity secret from everyone else on the set, only revealing himself when principal photography was completed by posting to Ms. Ringwald a set of photographs of herself he would take over the course of the shoot using his trusty telefocus night-vision camera. It is widely rumoured that the strain precipitated by this behaviour caused Ringwald to suffer a massive nervous breakdown, resulting in her otherwise thoroughly inexplicable expulsion from the upper echelons of cinematic stardom.

Of course, these days it is generally accepted that Hitchcock is indeed dead, but still across the land there are those who keep the faith; whispered rumours wherever brave men dare to gather that he did not die, but went into hiding; standing vigilant against the dark day that Molly Ringwald's career should rise again. Waiting, forever waiting...


Monday, October 06, 2003

My Visit to the Doctor

(Encounter with the health-care sector)

Guest-reviewer-of-the-week DEBBIE says:

I was hoping when James and I moved to a slightly nicer area of West London that a new doctor's surgery would provide better service - pretty, cheerful receptionists, free tea and coffee, their own blood testing facilities (because we all know how depressing it is to be sent to Wembley Community Hospital waiting in a long smelly queue of people) and dare I say it doctors. Curses! I have been cheated. There is but one doctor at our new surgery and despite his appointment schedule starting at 9.30 this morning and the waiting room filling with curiously decaying people that I have never seen in our local area (strangely considering the size of some of them), the doctor didn't arrive until after 10 o clock. During this time, we were subjected to listening to the receptionists curse every time the phone rings (always nice to know that your calls are met with a smile) and complain with glottal stops about how they aren't married yet. I felt like telling them that this fact, albeit unsurprising was not one that should be boasted about in the presence of the ugly, mentally unbalanced men in the waiting room. What is more, they could promote themselves more effectively by speaking prettily.

Anyway, Doc arrived, half an hour late and sped through the waiting room dodging rotten tomatoes from the patients and evil eyes from the unmarried receptionists, oh sorry "Practice Managers". I was lucky enough to be the first one in. I say lucky but judging from the reaction of the other in-mates, I wouldn't want to meet any of them again. It seemed that it was unfair for a young, beautiful and healthy specimen of the human race such as I to be seen before them. But of course, I am not entirely healthy, I have been suffering from heartburn for 2 years and I wanted 1 - to know why 2 - to find out what I can do to stop it 3 - if necessary get some damned drugs. In addition to this, and apologies to male readers but I needed to change the brand of secret woman's pill that I am on.

Doc, obviously not immune to the glances of his patients on the way in, was eager to get me out of the room as soon as possible. Therefore he conducted the entire appointment standing up. I found this unnerving and worried for the mental people in the waiting room. I explained why I wanted to change the secret woman's pill, he asked me why, I explained for a second time why and this time he seemed to understand why. He asked if I smoke, I replied (truthfully) "no". Without looking at my previous notes (always comforting) he randomly chose an alternative brand. I told him I had been on that before and had to come off it but my opinion, blood pressure, weight or indeed my medical history were unimportant and we progressed swiftly to the heartburn.

"Do you smoke" - he must be trying to catch me out, emphatically "No". You are too young to have heartburn. "Well I have got it". "I don't think so" he said and began to prod my stomach. "It seems that you have heartburn" he said. "Why?" said I "You are producing too much acid" - did he think I was completely stupid "No, I mean why am I producing too much acid". He shrugged. "I've had it before" I began "if you look in my notes you-" Once again the notes were cast aside as he randomly picked another drug from the BMF handbook in his brain. After battling with his computerised prescription system for longer than my actual consultation, he sent me packing with this one, small oval tablets saying that if it didn't work, I should come back. I left, making small noises about how it might be a good idea to keep a food diary and thinking that if I did ever come back, he would be lucky as he has probably prescribed me something I am allergic to and I will die before the end of the day. I have taken one small oval tablet and still appear to be at work.

I am afraid that there is no amusing conclusion to this story. We all know that doctors hate patients like me who try to understand their medical problems rather than take the pills and get the hell out of the room. They want to continue being the only people that know the secrets of the human body - it gives them delusions of grandeur. All I can say is that I may only be able to hold up a quivering MA to his Docotrate but at least I can work a computer and manage to get to work at 8 o clock in the morning!


Wednesday, October 01, 2003

The Athenian Murders

by José Carlos Somoza

NEILL says:

The Athenian Murders appears at first sight to be nothing more than a crappily predictable historical whodunnit; the sort of thing that might be adapted for ITV and shown on ITV on Sundays at 9pm, sponsored by 'Past Times' or Old Speckled Hen or somesuch. It concerns a series of mysterious deaths in Athens during the time of Plato's Academy, which are investigated by the ingenious Decipherer of Enigmas, Heracles Pontor, and his pompous bumbling sidekick the philosopher Diagoras (they're basically Poirot and Hastings in togas; I can see them being played by David Jason and Clement Freud in our envisioned adaptation-from-hell). However, fairly quickly the book begins to intrigue; firstly through a noticeable bizarreness of style, secondly through a series of weirdly obtrusive footnotes commenting on precisely this bizarreness, and thirdly through a second story that starts to develop in these footnotes, regarding the book's translator and some quite substantially strange things that start to happen to him.

Before I plough in with my own two cents, I'd like to bring in my learned brother for his initial thoughts...

JAMES says:

Well, yes, it doesn't have the most auspicious of starts. I think my main problem from the outset was the style of the book. Having been forced to read many translations of Greek works at University this failed to convince for a second that it was one. It was just a modern novel with a few footnotes added as a pretence at pastiche. This would not be a problem if it was going for straight forward John Nettlesness, but as my brother indicated, style is an important element of the plot. And the style struck me as so clumsy that I was put off from the very start. Plus, Heracles Pontor, really.

NEILL says:

Fair enough, but I actually found myself being transfixed by it; the combination of cheesy formulaic thriller with bizarre and arbitrary prose stylings, and some really quite commendably far-reaching philosophical ambitions. There are several layers to ‘The Athenian Murders’, as it is always the first to point out, and I found myself engaged in a really quite compelling and eventful game of 'who's smarter - me or this book?'. I think in the end it worked out at about a draw, but was certainly fun to play. There are several games being played in the novel, one of the biggest of which concerns its own status as fiction. Without a giving too much away by way of spoilers, there is a massive structural confidence trick at the heart of it all, which is only revealed at the very end. It is a very risky trick for the author to play, given that it could be taken (equally validly, I think) either as perfectly executed and dazzlingly audacious or utterly stupid, unbelievable and insulting to the reader. I was having a ball, so I'm going with the former. James?

JAMES says:

No, you're wrong. This book annoyed me, especially when it tried to be clever. I think maybe I should give the plot away to spare anyone else having to read it. Anyway, it is basically running the whole idea of literature becoming self aware, like John Byrne's She-Hulk only less subtle. It never really rises above the '’Hmmm... I think I'm in a book' said John' level of sophistication. It certainly had a point to make, but it would've taken a better writer than Jose Carlos to do it. I'm surprised my brother likes it so much, I usually respect his opinion. But if he felt anything other than disappointment and annoyance at the ending, which just plain doesn't work, then either I just missed something, or Neill was drunk at the time. I suppose if the story had been better written then I might've agreed with some of the positive points made, but it wasn't. It might be that the translation was just really bad, ironic considering the role of the translator in the story, but if it hadn't have been for the fact that I must finish any whodunit, no matter what the level of quality, then I would've dropped this book quite quickly. And, having read it, I wish I had. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it, you.

NEILL says:

You'll have to forgive my brother, he's clearly stoned. And at work, too. The characters-in-a-book-realising-they're-in-a-book thing is only one aspect of it, and one that is raised quite early on; far more interesting is the way the author uses that slightly hackneyed trick to examine Plato's theory of Ideal Forms in a genuinely novel way. Admittedly, taking pot-shots at Platonic metaphysics is not perhaps the most daring or cutting-edge stance to take in this day and age, but it is done with admirably black-hearted savagery and moments of what seemed to me genuine insight. The book closes with a massive, joyous paradox; it argues that there are no eternal Truths independent of ourselves and that all human reasoning is subjective, flawed, and a matter of imperfect projection. And it argues this exceptionally well, using a sleight-of-hand device that will make you go back through the entire book realising how you have been duped into filling in an entire aspect to the story that does not actually exist. And yet this hilariously inventive argument against values, God, truth and meaning is knowingly presented from within the context of a novel; where in a very real sense there ARE external values, there IS a God, and there IS truth and meaning. The one thing that does strike me as a genuine shame about the whole thing is the terrible, cheesy title. In the original Spanish, apparently the book was named La caverna de las ideas, which would seem much more appropriate.

I think it's a real shame James didn't enjoy this much as I did or, apparently, at all. But then he is a mook. Make no mistake about it, it is a strange, uneven, pretentious and frequently irritating book. But it is also about as much fun as I've had with a novel in I don't know how long. And the David Jason-starring adaptation promises to be a stunna.


JAMES says:

No, you're still wrong. I don't know much about Platonic Metaphysics, but I know what I don't like. So many bits of this book for me just didn't work. The arguments seemed to be built up to be knocked down, the characters were wafer thin, and the murder story was dull. And there was too much man love and not enough woman love, but then it is Greek I suppose. And it's quite obviously a Tom Bosley vehicle.



As the person responsible on many levels for the great Athenian Argument, -responsible for buying the book in the first place (it has a very
attractive cover, was only 50p in the charity shop, and contrary to some, I do not find the title offensive), for leaving it on James's sofa by
mistake, and then for suggesting Neill read it, because I thought it was intriguing, and then of course at least partly responsible for the authors of the argument - I feel beholden to cast the final vote. And you'll have guessed which way, by the above. This is a book which messes with your mind on at least three levels, and in the process makes you aware of things books still might do but as yet don't. It may be a crap translation, or the style may well be part of the creation of this weird space into which you are taken - who knows. But all I can say is that James is missing - out/something/the point/whatever.... Or I think so. If I'm allowed to disagree with those far more culturally aware than myself.


NEILL says:
There's nothing like your Mum agreeing with you to make you question your own judgement, is there?

Buy on Amazon: The Athenian Murders