Sunday, November 23, 2008

The First Year of my Son’s Existence

(You'll miss it when he's all grown up)

JAMES says:

As pretty much all I do or think about or am forced to wipe these days revolves around my son, I thought I would do ten Freakonomics style unexpected (though eminently foreseeable) consequences/discoveries of having a child:

  1. You actually save money in the short term, as you can never ever go out anywhere, and any free time you have will involve people visiting you to see the baby (you gotta see the baby). This has the additional benefit of them bringing presents so you don’t have to buy anything yourself. Nice stuff too, not like the crap you end up getting for them. And, to be honest, it is great having an unarguable excuse to get you out of any and all social engagements.
  2. You, or your wife at least, will make lots of new breeding friends.
  3. You quickly give up on keeping your books in alphabetical order on the shelf after the 10th time he has happily pulled them all out. This is I think the worst consequence.
  4. He will train you up as efficiently as John Noakes would train a puppy. If anything makes him smile or laugh you will find yourself doing it again and again and again. I recently spent a whole day saluting my young nephew as he seemed to enjoy it. You give up on dignity pretty quickly as well.
  5. There is no more terrible sound in creation than the squawk of a baby at 2am when you thought he had finally gone to sleep.
  6. Conversely there is no more satisfying feeling that inserting a block into its right hole in a shape sorter.
  7. You spend all your time worrying why they’re not talking/crawling/walking yet, then you spend all your time reminiscing wistfully about the times when they’d stay still and shut up.
  8. On the rare and precious occasions when you are allowed out of the house to meet with normal people, you’ll find the only topic of conversation you have available to you is children’s television, about which the majority of people are indifferent to or HAVEN’T EVEN SEEN. This also applies to reviewing things (see last week).
  9. In addition, the theme tunes to said children’s television penetrates your subconscious to a pernicious degree. The ultimate deterrent in any disagreement between you and our co-parent is to hum the first few bars of ‘Charlie and Lola’, which will then be stuck in their head for the rest of the day. Of course, you will also be left humming away to yourself, but this is a small price to pay for the smiting of your enemy. They shouldn’t worry about using Eminem to torture people at Guantanamo Bay, the theme tune to ‘Higgledy House’ would be enough. In fact, force them to actually watch ‘Higgledy House’ and they’d crack in hours.
  10. No matter how much of a nuisance your offspring has been, no matter how much pickling they have got up to in the day, you only have to see them asleep and all is forgiven. Which I guess is how our species has managed to survive.
  11. Oh yeah, you lose a lot of your cynicism obviously.


That Time Me and Di Went To Japan


NEILL says:


Sunday, November 16, 2008


(Bodily Fluid)

JAMES says:

After last week’s looking at the stars, it’s time for a bit of quality gutter time. Now, in its right place phlegm is harmless, even beneficial. It lubricates your throat to allow things to pass down more easily, a sort of KY Jelly for the mouth (or if you’re on Brokeback Mountain a KY Jelly for the bottom). I have no issue with this type of phlegm. What I do object to is what happens after the two deadbeats from ‘Once Upon a Time... Life’ take over production and it become ‘Sick Phlegm’.

Sick Phlegm is far scarier than any serial killer or shark in Venice. It is the colour and consistency of pus and flows in a constant stream from your nose and mouth. It is unrelenting and yucky and lives in your head. If you’re lucky it restricts itself to the nose and you can manage the whole affair with a good stock of tissues. At present I am not lucky. At present I am coughing up great big globs of glistening jelly, and I’m unsure of the best way to deal with them.

Now, the most obvious way is to spit it into a tissue, assuming you have one to hand. This is generally successful but due to the higher moisture content of throat snot against its nasal brother you have no hope of reusing the now soggy tissue, whereas it could have probably withstood 3 or 4 blows of the nose. Thus you contribute directly to the destruction of the planet. Also, whilst you are fairly sure a sneeze is going to lead to product, the majority of coughing is harmless. This lulls you into a false sense of security until you end up with a dripping sticky hand. Any future action to locate a tissue in pockets/drawers leaves the place looking like the hotel in ‘Ghostbusters’.

Another option is to simply bite the bullet and swallow the phlegm. After all, that’s where it came from, right? No mess, no fuss. Unfortunately it doesn’t taste very nice, a kind of sweet yet salty mixture that would only appeal to connoisseurs of oysters. Also, seeing as how your body is going to all this trouble to get rid of the stuff, it doesn’t really feel like playing the game to just send it right back down there again.

Finally there is the classic if antisocial solution of spitting it out. This is ideal if you’re on your own, or in an open space, but people begin to look at you funnily in the office if you cover their monitors with germ ridden mouth juice. And it doesn’t merely disappear like a murdered video game character or semen. It stays there, silently accusing you until it retracts into a persistent stain.

Worst of all are the times, such as driving along the motorway or making love, when you feel a wet cough coming on but there is nothing to do about it. You are left with the Hobnob’s choice of letting it fly every which way, which at least spreads the problem around a bit, or coughing on your hands and then wiping it in the least noticeable place.

Now I realise I am arguing from a point of prejudice, and if anyone wishes to take up the case for phlegm feel free, but I hate the stuff. It reduces us to filthy diseased beasts. It is the X-Factor of the bodily fluids world.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Andromeda s1, ep 7: "The Ties That Blind"

(TV show)

NEILL says:

As part of our current week of space-themed reviews, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to watch and review a random episode of the science fiction TV series Andromeda. I have never seen Andromeda nor indeed do I have any idea what it is about. All I know is that it is a science fiction TV series starring Kevin "that guy who was in that thing that was like Xena but with a dude" Sorbo.1 I thought it would be fun to review something with absolutely no background or familiarity, to judge it solely on its effectiveness as a dramatic presentation, free of any pre-existing bias or preconception.

Here is the episode summary, which I read before proceeding:

Andromeda s1, ep7
"The Ties That Blind"

Beka is unexpectedly reunited with her con-artist brother when a Wayist courier ship asks Andromeda for help after being attacked. Rafe Valentine claims to be a devout Wayist, making the Andromeda a prime target for Restorian attack, but does the conman have a hidden agenda?
Here were my observations upon reading the above.
  • Oh God.
  • "The Ties That Blind"? Really?
  • One of the characters is called "Rafe Valentine".
  • Seriously, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
  • "Wayist"? "Restorian"? Suggests some kind of appallingly cackhanded religious allegory.
  • There's going to be lots and lots of talking, isn't there?
I even went so far as to jot down my predictions for what exactly would happen in the story, based on this description. These read:

Act 1) Brother introduced, seems charming. Kevin Sorbo is suspicious of him.
Act 2) Kevin Sorbo learns that Brother is a wrong 'un. Tries to tell 'Beka' (love interest?) - but she gets angry with him and tells him to GO TO HELL
Act 3) Faced with some incontrovertible proof of Brother's wrong-'un-ness, 'Beka' is given opportunity to turn him in / blow him up / similar (DRAMATIC CLIMAX), but lets him go. Promise of redemption for Brother? Ends on bittersweet rapprochement between 'Beka' and Kevin Sorbo.

Now, I'd like to be all smug and sit here and tell you that this cynical and sneering caricature of a plot was, in fact, exactly what did happen in the episode, but I can't honestly say that it did. What I can honestly say is that it would have been much better if it had.

As it turned out, events went like this:

Act 1) Brother introduced, seems charming. 'Beka' is suspicious of him. Kevin Sorbo smiles faintly smugly at everyone. Several of the worst actors ever to be paid money to act talk about religion extensively and excruciatingly.
Act 2) Neill turns off television, literally unable to bear it any longer.

That's right. Reader, I gave up. I made it through approximately 22 minutes before I abandoned my sacred reviewer's duties, thought to myself "seriously, I'm not getting paid for this" and threw in the towel. I think that we've established on this blog that I have a pretty high tolerance for crap, so believe me when I say that this was something special. Suffice to say it displayed every cliche of bad science fiction, which would have been forgivable were it not for the fact that those cliches were literally all it was. I'm not even going to talk about it any more, as it would only depress me and annoy you. Let's all go and have a nice cup of tea and try and forget it ever happened. Does that sound nice? A nice cup of tea?


1 I'm just kidding. I know exactly who he is, he's Kevin "Hercules" Sorbo.

Buy Andromeda - Season 1 on Amazon now!, hang on, DON'T.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Space Pirates

(Children’s TV Show)

JAMES says:

Space, a hackneyed setting for children’s television. These are the voyages of the starship Gusto, it’s 22 episode mission to present a selection of music interspersed with general comedy “business” as a means of distracting children and possibly, hopefully, providing parents with a few precious fleeting moments of peace. In what must be the least prolific pirate radio station in space, three songs are played each week, a video, a live performance and an interpretation by the puppet-rat Jingles. Proceedings are managed by the fortuitously christened Captain DJ (played by Marcus Brigstoke, despite what Debbie and the end credits say), assisted by a crew including a robot parrot microphone and a sentient fungi living on the hull of the ship who provides travel and weather.

Despite the stratospherically high concept of a pirate radio station run by actual pirates in space, it maintains interest through that rarity in children’s TV, actually quite funny comedy. This is provided by the captain, a slightly pathetic specimen beaten down by his overbearing mother and his failed dreams of becoming a Blues musician. He’s a bit like Harold Steptoe. In space. With an oversized comedy moustache. Also the music is incredibly catchy, and I often find myself humming the theme to the Zorst Report to myself in my idle moments.

It’s not all good news. For pirates there’s little in the way of drunken debauchery (I think there was a bottle of cough syrup in one episode), and it’s always slightly embarrassing when an actual live human who made the effort to come into the studio is beaten in the best song contest by a bunch of muppets singing ‘Sexual Healing’ or an old Spice Girls video. Worst by far, however, is the usual Achilles Heel of children’s TV, children. In this case it is a couple of urchins called Honk and Tonk who mooch around the place overacting and generally irritating me.

And yet, for all this, Space Pirates has become something of a beacon of hope to me. As someone who is not afraid to use CBeebies as a momentary distraction on the unstoppable parasitic momentum of a one-year-old it stands as a shining example of quality amidst the black ocean of poorly animated blobs with cynically youthful trappings and jovially grating Scotsmen that threaten to corrode my very soul.


The Silver Surfer

(Former Herald of Galactus)

JAMES says:

The Silver Surfer is basically a silver guy who files around in space on a surfboard, essentially in the nude, looking for planets for his boss to eat. Now you’d think this would be the coolest job in the universe, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to the guy. Since he was made redundant he spends his time sitting around on mountains moping about something or other in a tediously overwrought fashion. You really just want to slap the guy. Unfortunately this would do you no good because, as he is constantly reminding everyone, his skin can withstand comets/suns/the endless black cold lonely depths of space that stretch in front of you to eternity like the darkness in the heart of mankind. Actually, if Stan Lee wrote all my dialogue I’d probably be a bit bummed out.

The Silver Surfer was merely the most successful of a number of “sports in space” characters, including the skiing Black Racer (like death, but with fondue afterwards), Gaard (an alternate version of the Human Torch who protected a portal in space by playing hockey) and Kur-Lin (a symbiotic binary being, compose of a giant rock creature who spits asteroids at his foes and a feathered alien that flies in front of the asteroid whilst cleaning space with his tail so that it travels more smoothly, and who surprisingly is the only one of these I made up). So it could have been worse I suppose.

Also, Silver Surfer: Parable (by Moebius) rocks.


Buy Silver Surfer: Parable on Amazon now! Although apparently it's out-of-print and is just ludicrously expensive, so y'know. You'd have to really want it.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

That's Not My Dinosaur

by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells

NEILL says:

That's Not My Dinosaur is an early result of the creative partnership between Watt and Wells that would produce such seminal collaborations as That's Not My Digger and That's Not My Bear, and which many critics feel reached its zenith with 2007's Richard & Judy Galaxy British Book Award-winning masterpiece, That's Not My Penguin.

From the very first page, the reader's expectations are wrong-footed as an unnamed first-person narrator guides us through a delirious, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride of Dinosaurs That Are Not My Dinosaur. We are kept guessing right up to the very last page, where events reach a satisfying if slightly predictable conclusion as we meet (SPOILER warning) a Dinosaur That IS my Dinosaur. (It's Spines are So Soft.)

That's Not My Dinosaur is the work of two authors still finding their voices, testing the limits of the form of which they would in time become the undisputed masters. The storyline and cast of characters feel slightly bland when compared to some of their later works; who could forget the ambiguous sexuality and roguish charisma of That's Not My Pirate's Pirate who is Not My Pirate, His Cutlass Is Too Glittery? Or the sheer emotional sucker-punch of the ending of That's Not My Robot? ("It's Antennae Are So Sparkly" will surely be remembered as one of the most haunting closing lines in modern British literature.)

Furthermore, That's Not My Dinosaur flirts with some radical and highly unconventional scientific theories of which some may question the appropriateness in a book intended for children. Admittedly the fossil record from the Cretaceous is highly incomplete and scattered, and due to the processes of taphonomy and fossilization questions such as dinosaur skin colouration and texture will always involve a high degree of speculation. However, to postulate the existence of what is apparently an ankylosaurid whose "Tail is Too Fuzzy" strays so far from palaeontological orthodoxy as to undermine the credibility of the work as a whole.


Buy That's Not My Dinosaur on Amazon!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Shark in Venice

Dir. Danny Lerner, 2008

NEILL says:

There are doubtless people in this world who, upon stumbling across the existence of a film titled Shark in Venice could simply smile wryly, shrug their shoulders and walk away. I am, regrettably, not one of those people. Before we go any further, I am aware that coming so soon after some of my recent posts, what follows may seem like I am recounting some strange fever dream experienced after eating too many anchovies late at night. I wish to assure you, this film is entirely real. Look, here's the poster and everything.

Admittedly, that looks like I could have knocked together in Photoshop in about twelve bored seconds, so does not really help my case. Let me just repeat: this is a real film. Real people spent substantial amounts of real time and real money making this film. Just hold on to that thought.

Shark in Venice opens with a team of divers in Venice's canals being attacked by a shark. Or rather, a team of divers in a swimming pool somewhere in Bulgaria going "Aargh", intercut choppily with stock footage of a shark swimming around the ocean somewhere. This horror is witnessed by a team of observers on a nearby boat, who helpfully remind us that we are supposed to be in Italy by uttering lines of dialogue like "Dio Mio! Grazie! Marco Polo!". (That is, almost unbelieveably, a direct quote. I spent the rest of the film waiting for someone to start shouting "Carbonara! Bambino! Gino Ginelli!!!").

We cut to San Francisco, where we meet nature's least-loved Baldwin, Steven Baldwin, cast in the not-entirely-suitable role of a university lecturer. A kindly dean informs Baldwin that his father has disappeared mysteriously while searching for a treasure hidden beneath Venice during the crusades by three knightly brothers. Hang on, what? No, he really did just say that. If the scenario sounds oddly familiar, that's because it is at this point that Shark In Venice boldly throws off expectations and turns out not, in fact, to be an incredibly low-rent rip-off of Jaws. No, it is actually an incredibly low-rent and frankly quite demented rip-off of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. But with sharks.

Baldwin shuffles through the film doughy-faced and glassy-eyed, delivering his lines in a disconnected mumble that was possibly intended as a shot at 'brooding' but mostly just gives the almost-certainly-correct impression that he is on some really quite substantial medication. At one point about halfway through the film he actually comes close to emoting for a few seconds (well, he shouts a bit, anyway) and then - and I remind you yet again that I am not making this up - has to sit down, apparently exhausted. Despite his figure-hugging 'sexy' t-shirt, Baldwin largely fails to convince as an action hero. This is not least because of his peculiarly uncomfortable-looking walk, the unmistakeable sign of a man whose girdle is done up slightly too tight. Baldwin's character is accompanied to Venice by his fiancee, who is described as "an expert." (Long pause.) "In medieval literature." She fulfils the odd role of having heated conversations with all the other characters on Baldwin's behalf while he sits there staring into the middle distance. The curious result is that she seems less like a girlfriend and more like some kind of psychiatric care assistant.

The plot proceeds to go off the rails in the most fantastically bizarre and spectacular ways. The villain of the piece is a mafia boss who, it turns out (SPOILERS) unleashed a swarm of man-eating great white sharks into Venice's canals to prevent anyone finding the treasure, and then becomes increasingly frustrated as everyone he sends to retrieve the treasure is killed by man-eating great white sharks. He tries to strongarm Baldwin, kidnapping his girlfriend to force him into finding the treasure again. About halfway through the film he apparently decides this plan is not exciting enough, and sends a squad of uzi-wielding motorcycle ninjas to assassinate Baldwin for no clearly definable reason. I tried to put down in an ordered, logical way the villain's stated motivations, but only managed to give myself a tremendous tension headache. Often in recent years I have had the impression when watching a film that the screenplay has been generated by some kind of computer program, the producers having merely selected character names, setting and genre from a series of drop-down menus. This is the first time it has felt like that program has thrown some kind of fatal Logical Exception Error and crashed.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to make a film about killer sharks using only stock footage and occasional bursts of CGI so spectacularly bad that they are actually preceded by the screen becoming all grainy and pixelated like a YouTube clip watched over an old person's dodgy dial-up internet connection. But that kind of chutzpah is evidently to be found in abundance in Bulgaria, where the end credits reveal this film to have been produced, funded and directed. Somehow that seemed to explain a lot.


Buy Shark In Venice [2008] on Amazon! If for some reason you think that is a good idea.

Still don't believe me? Look!


Saturday, November 01, 2008

La Ronde

by Arthur Schnitzler

JAMES says:

This fin de siecle comedy of sexual manners follows a very strict formula. X meets Y, they chat, Y says it’s too bright/dark to have sex, and besides they need to get home. Then X has sex with Y anyway, they chat a bit and the scene ends. In the next scene Y goes through the motions with Z, and so on, and on the whole the characters are about as well rounded as the letters of the alphabet here representing them. In the production by Love and Madness that was my exposure to this play the sex was replaced by a highly charged Tango which was quite impressive to begin with but when I tell you there were 10 of these encounters you may understand that the novelty soon wore off. In fact, like sex itself, the whole thing quickly became tedious and repetitive.

Part of the problem is the play itself, which gives you little reason to maintain an interest. There was no sense of ‘Will they/won’t they?’ as you knew that they definitely would, within a matter of minutes. But the production didn’t help matters, changing the gender of some the characters to create an edginess but instead leading to absurdity. Would a 19 year old bloke really be worried that his mother didn’t know where he was? Also the neat circular nature of the play was ruined by the fact that a character who was male in the first scene had become female by the last. The acting was generally of a high standard, though the old bloke with the beard was a bit rubbish (and the section where he was sucking someone’s toes was just yuck). Most unforgivably the advertised ‘moments of nudity’ never appeared. There were bras and pants, which were alright I suppose, but don’t put it on the posters if you’re not going to go through with it.

As it is, this is a play that would only appeal to erotic group theorists, if such a thing exists.